Here’s the last in the sermon series Historic, Sacramental Worship. As with all sermons, the homily as proclaimed was different than the one written here. In this sermon, the ending proclaimed was much stronger, tying up the incarnation and resurrection with our own lives and promises in Christ.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You sit on the examining room table, the paper covering crinkling and sounding 50db louder than it is. The foot rest is always too low for your feet, and lying back on the table is uncomfortable, so you sit with your legs hanging and feel like you are in second grade again.
Finally the doctor enters and begins a monologue and you tell him your ears hurt and your throat is sore and before you know it he’s sticking sterlized plastic into those orifices, and it makes it hurt worse and you gag, but you do it because you know it will make you feel better.
What would you do if he stuck his fingers in your ears? What would you do if he spit on his fingers and stuck those in your mouth?
So we hear our Gospel reading and this inner dialogue begins: “Wow. That’s kind of gross. But it’s Jesus. Yes…but it’s still gross. He died for your sins, you know. Yes, but spitting? You drink his blood. I know. He’s the Lord. But couldn’t he use, I don’t know, plastic gloves or something?”
It’s kind of hands-on for Jesus, isn’t it? Spitting and ear wax and sighing to heaven. Hands-on. Kind of like nails in the hands and feet and slow asphyxiation on the cross. Kind of like nursing and having diapers changed. Kind of like us.
We don’t like to think about these things though. We’re antiseptic, private people. We avoid personal space and cover our odors and smells. We don’t do bathroom talk. And we even like our religion to be antiseptic and “spiritual.” How many churches have blank walls and furnishing and simple crosses and look like schools on the outside? Not us, but far too many. How many of you are offended by Jesus’ body hanging there on that cross? How many of us would rather say a prayer than kneel, or think about Jesus far away in heaven rather than help a homeless man?
But Jesus won’t let us keep our religion away from our bodies and from our world. He became a man for human kind, for men and women. He was born in blood and tears and died in blood and tears. And just as Jesus became a man with flesh and blood and hair and reason and senses, He died for our flesh and blood and reason and for our senses too.
Let’s look at how those senses receive God and worship Him:
First, our ears, where the Word of God enters and converts us and convicts us and comforts us. With our ears we hear God speak through His Word. With our ears we hear the Word set to music, we hear the bells which draw us to the words of institution and the bread made body and the wine made blood.
And our tongues, which praise God, which respond in faith, which confess, which sing and which receives the Word of God too. The funny thing about our text: Jesus touches our tongues every Sunday too. Not with his spit, but with His blood. We taste and see the Lord is Good here at communion, in eating and drinking.
And our eyes see the elevation of His Body and Blood. They see the vestments, which cover me and show the office I have. Which cover the personality and convey the Office of the Holy Ministry. Our eyes see the cross and images of His death and resurrection for us. They show us the cloud of witnesses, the saint and martyrs depicted in glass literally surrounding us as Hebrews 12 describes.
And our bodies feel the one another in handshakes and hugs. They stand in honor of the Gospel and kneel in repentance and faith. We use our hands to make the sign of the cross over ourselves, to remind us of the cross for us and the cross we bear, to bless ourselves with the presence and forgivness of Christ on the cross.
And smelling, when we use incense. Using incense in worship connects our sense of smell to worship. Now, I know it’s a little more touchy than the rest of the senses, because we are not as used to it. But it is Biblical too. Incense was commanded by God in the Old Testament to burn from sunrise to sunset in His temple. Jesus worshiped smelling incense when He went to the Temple and taught the Word of God with it burning all around Him. Incense is a sacrifice, literally burning something of value for God. Incense is a smell and sight to remind us of our prayers ascending to heaven, as it says in Psalm 141: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” Incense is mentioned in Revelation when St. John sees a vision of heaven: And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Incense is our prayers, Scripture says.
Now, to be pastoral about using this sense of smell in worship, here is what I will do. I will mostly use incense in the 8:00 worship service as we do now. On occasion, we will use it in the late service. But here’s what we will do: whenever incense is used, it will be publicized in the bulletin & e-blast and on Facebook, and there will be one service where it is not used, so if it really bothers you, you can still attend worship and not be bothered by it. I am also exploring some alternative charcoal, lighting techniques and incense blends that are less prone to aggravate sinuses. This is really important to me because I’ve got seriously terrible nasal allergies too.
While it irritates even me sometimes, I think it is important to use incense. And it’s not just a “catholic thing.” Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans in America (a few), but many in Scandinavia and Germany use incense all the time, as did Christians going back to the earliest days of our faith and Israel even before that. It’s biblical and godly and historic and traditional and adds to our bodily worship of God.