The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke 14:16-24
Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us a parable today. We are told about a man who gave a great banquet and invited many people. Now traditionally this parable is meant to symbolize the kingdom of heaven but as I read and reread this passage I felt compelled to share another less apparent portion of the story with you. The great banquet of course brings our attention to the kingdom of heaven but it also brings us to the Divine Liturgy. After all, don’t we start every liturgy with the words “blessed is the Kingdom”? With these words we show that the Liturgy is not just an act on earth but an act connected with Heaven itself. This liturgy is itself an extension of the heavenly kingdom and through it we are given the heavenly food. So if the parable is about the liturgy why are we speaking about it now? After all, what lesson could we learn, we aren’t like the people in this parable who didn’t come when invited, we are here at the banquet….so what can we possibly speak about?
St. John Chrysostom told his own people some 1400 years ago that the single most important, most beneficial activity in the life of a Christian was the participation in the Divine Liturgy. This is logical if we admit that Jesus Christ is fully present at the altar table because naturally being with our Lord is the greatest of all experiences. So we are speaking about it because of it’s importance to our lives but also for a few other reasons.
First, because not all of those who have been invited (not all the Christians we know) are attending liturgy. Second, because some of us who attend the Liturgy every week aren’t fully present for it. The first scenario is one that we can’t help much, all we can do is pray for those who don’t attend and maybe invite them every so often. But the second case is the one we can control. Sometimes we are physically present at the Liturgy but not fully awake and alive to what is happening here. Sometimes we are bored or our minds are wandering or sometimes we even wish we were somewhere else. What should we do to be fully present, fully awake at the Divine Liturgy? We prepare.
It is a well known fact among athletes that Michael Jordan wasn’t simply gifted. He also worked harder than anyone else by far. He was in the gym lifting weights and shooting the ball for hours before or after many games and most practices. He didn’t simply say “well at least I woke up this morning and at least I’m here.” He didn’t simply roll out of bed and win championships. He used the time before each game as if it were his last game ever. He prepared himself. Imagine how much better our prayers would be with this kind of work ethic, and with this kind of mentality?! He did all of this for earthly glory, for a game where we put a leather ball into a hoop. Instead of thinking about the Liturgy as one more thing on our plate what would happen if we thought of it as the only thing that mattered? What would happen if we imagined that each Liturgy might be the last chance we would ever have to draw near to God? For a certain number of people all over the world, this is the last Sunday they will ever pray in a church. For a certain number of people this is the last time they will ever receive communion or skip it.
I know that it may sound like I’m overemphasizing the importance of the matter but either Jesus Christ is present at every Liturgy or He is not. Either we are encountering God and preparing for our ultimate encounter with Him or we are just “playing church”.
If we are convinced that we meet God on Sunday, then of course we will direct our whole week and our whole life to reflect that reality. We will spend much of the week preparing for the next meeting with Our Lord. We can’t come to worship without having done some preparation, without having exercised our hearts a bit. This is one of the benefits of attending Orthros or Matins on Sunday morning. Without a warm heart we won’t be ready to accept the prayers and the readings that are being said in this place. Just like farming in winter, if the ground is cold there is no use throwing seed. I’m offering these words as a challenge to each of us including myself. As St. Paul says “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” So we can be awake and yet be dead according to Christian understanding…..but we are not meant to “sleep” through life but be fully awake!
If we come to the Liturgy and aren’t fully focused on it then we are a bit like the people who turned down the invitations. None of them said “I don’t want to come because I don’t love you God.” They had other reasons, other distractions. We might be staring into space and thinking about the football games of the day, we might be thinking about the upcoming week and all the work that we have ahead of us. Or we might be thinking judgmental thoughts about people sitting around us at church. Any number of things can distract us from being fully present here. But the good news is that God is patient with us and by His grace, practice makes perfect.
The best way to practice prayer is to be prayerful as often as possible. How do we become full of prayer? Take time out of each day to pray for 5 or 10 minutes as a start. We can recite the Trisagion prayers. We can also make sure that we don’t rush through our prayers. We should think about and feel each word that we say when we address God. If we have trouble with prayer, we should open our Bibles to the book of psalms and simply read slowly and meditatively. It isn’t always easy to pray, we can often be impatient or distracted but the fruit is worth all the effort because it will bless you and heal you. God will bind your heart and remove the pain and anxiety and despair. And more than all of those benefits, you will be prepared to meet God and to partake of communion with Him.
At Christmas we prepare for the coming of Christ and today we remember that He comes to our banquet each and every week. And Glory be to God forever. AMEN.
(adopted from Dec. 12, 2012 sermon)