Pentecost 15 C: Ceremonies for Transcendence

The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Jeremiah 8:18–9:1

Psalm                    Psalm 79:1–9


Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Amos 8:4–7

Psalm                    Psalm 113

New Testament     1 Timothy 2:1–7

Gospel                   Luke 16:1–13

Well, we are right in the middle of a HUGE lesson about majesty. The death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of King Charles III continues to be a global event.

If you are like me, and I think most Americans, what has transpired since Queen Elizabeth’s death, has been truly amazing. In America we don’t have a hereditary monarch as head of state. We don’t have the pageantry of bugles and bells, troops of men in huge hats, crowns and golden thrones. We don’t have the endless ceremony. We don’t have the royal beekeeper passing on the news of the Queen’s passing to the royal beehives.

But the British do. And it seems to work miracles. You have past prime ministers and members of parliament who are quite used to accusing each other of terrible things, and yelling at each other—standing shoulder to shoulder. You have millions of battling conservatives and liberals, not only in Britain, but in New Zealand and Australia and Canada and Jamaica man—laying down their arms and waving the same flag and shedding the same kinds of tears. And all of this is so irresistible, that we might think this woman was America’s Queen as well.

Tradition. Ceremony. Continuity. Unity. All because of the majesty of a Queen the world seems to agree has been the best Queen ever.

We might think the whole idea of a King or Queen as head of state is an anachronism and…well something peculiar. But the noted British classics scholar and popular theologian, C. S. Lewis, once wrote this about it:

“Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

            In my humble opinion Lewis was half right. People hunger for majesty. But I’m sure even Lewis himself, in his more sober moments, would agree that our most essential spiritual need is not to honor a king or queen, but to honor God.

            This brings us to Psalm113 that we just prayed. The first six verses are all about praise, which is our practiced acclamation of the majesty of God. It goes like this:

1           Praise the Lord!

Praise, O servants of the Lord;

praise the name of the Lord.

2           Blessed be the name of the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

3           From the rising of the sun to its setting

the name of the Lord is to be praised.

4           The Lord is high above all nations,

and his glory above the heavens.

5           Who is like the Lord our God,

who is seated on high,

6           who looks far down

on the heavens and the earth?

            Now, the Psalms are the worship book of the Old Testament, the prayer book of Jesus, which he even recited from the cross, and it’s the worship book of the church through the ages—monks chant them, pastors read them to the dying, people memorize their beautiful poetry.

            But what this psalm says should have more impact with us after watching what the pomp and circumstance of the Elizabeth’s funeral, and Charles’ accession and speeches have done to the world.

We need praise. We need traditions. We need worship. We humans do have a spiritual need rituals and traditions of ceremonies to remind us of the Transcendent.

We need to be reminded that the differences between Trump and Biden supporters are not ultimate. The things we fight over today, where will they be in a thousand years—or in just a few years or moments when you and I are on our death beds?

We need to be reminded that there are things to live for more important than money. Sure, it’s convenient, it’s nice not to fear your retirement will dry up and you will wind up eating cat food or crammed in an understaffed nursing home because it’s the only one that will take Medicare. But haven’t we all had times when we had little to live on, but we had loved ones surrounding us, and it was not only good enough, it was great? They keep telling me this stock market slump or this recession was the worst in years—in decades. But I think back about those awful years in the 90s or the 70s and I can’t remember what the stocks or economy was doing. I think of family and love and whether I was any good at sharing God’s love. Those are the things that really matter. We need majesty and ceremony—we need good hymns and liturgy and people praising God in the way they live God’s love. We need these things to remind us that God is more important than money.

And we need majesty and awe to remind us that the things we worry about don’t amount to a drop in a bucket. Martin Luther once told his friends around the dinner table that when the Devil came ‘round to frighten him he would just cut a fart to chase him away. His potty mouth aside, he wanted to make the point that one single word from God is all it took to defeat the Devil, because that Word was Jesus Christ.

 It is important to know that CS Lewis here was only half right—and so he was completely wrong. He was right that we have a spiritual hunger for majesty—but not just any majesty. We have a need for faith, but not faith in just anyone. Not even good Queen Elizabeth.

And that’s where the last few verses of Psalm 113 come in:

                  Praise the Lord because…

7           He raises the poor from the dust,

and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

8           to make them sit with princes,

with the princes of his people.

9           He gives the barren woman a home,

making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord!

And remember what 1 Timothy says: Don’t worship, but pray for kings and all in high positions. But when it comes to worship and praise, save it for the one who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of truth…the one who sent his Son to be a mediator between God and humankind, and to give his life as a ransom for all.

What we do here in worship is something like the pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s procession, lying in state, and funeral. It’s like the trumpet blasts for King Charles. But it’s much, much more. We come here every Sunday, light the candles, put on special clothhing, sing songs, bow our heads, make the sign of the cross, even kneel sometimes. Why? To practice doing things our grandparents did ages ago. To protest against petty things. To remind ourselves, week after week, that God is more important than the nitpicking we fight over at school board meetings and in elections. To remember God is much more powerful than anything that we are losing sleep over.

      We affirm proudly that this God, who is sovereign and in charge, loves us and the whole world so much that God sent his Son to die and rise and live for us forevermore.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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1 Response to Pentecost 15 C: Ceremonies for Transcendence

  1. Caroline Leean says:

    Thank you, John, for this moving blog. Yes, I felt dearly loved when my brother came to my bedside when I was a small child, with a cloth doll he made with his own hands! I will never forget that, and now plan on using my sewing machine to make cloth dolls and donating them for Toys for Tots or any other charitable organization, to offer them to underprivileged children for them to discover on Christmas Morning. Those items… tangible items made with love, for these young ones… I can see their eyes glow brightly when they unwrap those gifts on Christmas morning.

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