Summary: (Various objects on the altar). Our church altar is dirty with unresolved anger, put-downs, and prejudicial outreach. These things must be cleaned away before God accepts what we bring here.
Who says there’s nothing new under the sun? The pastor not accepting the offering! Lots of folks think that raising money is about all we ever do in church. Wish they could have seen that!
But, you see, the problem is there isn’t any room up here on the altar. We have a dirty altar today. It’s absolutely cluttered up with all this stuff. No room for the offering.
Now how did our altar get to be such a mess? I can’t understand it. Garbage on the altar!
I could understand a mess in the offices. Somebody asked me the other day if we had some scrap paper she could use. I told her it was just about all scrap. The offices, with all the construction work, are chaotic. I could understand a dirty office. But a dirty altar?
I could understand a mess in the basement. Ever since the workmen came in several months ago, we’ve hardly been able to walk down there. The dust is thick, the odds and ends of pipe are everywhere, and the whole room is a dismal sight. I could understand a dirty basement. But how did we get a dirty altar?
I could understand a mess in the kitchen, where yours truly has been known to leave food scraps lying around until they grew beards. I could understand garbage on the social hall stage, where we seem to hide everything we really need. I could understand clutter on my desk, where there are always a baker’s dozen unfinished projects. But how did we get a dirty altar?
Maybe we’d better take a look at what’s up here and see if we can’t clean it up.
This looks like a good place to start. Here is an old-fashioned frying pan. You know what these are used for, don’t you?
A frying pan is used to sizzle steaks and fix gospel birds for the preacher. It cooks all sorts of unhealthy but delicious foods. The frying pan is used to prepare the kind of food we like to taste, but we know it’s bad for us. Fatty and fried, loaded with cholesterol. That’s what comes out of the old-fashioned frying pan.
And what else does this frying pan remind you of? Well, every old movie you ever watched, every old cartoon you ever saw, used a frying pan as kind of a symbol of domestic friction. When the old lady had had all she could take off the old man, she would get out the frying pan and chase him out of the house with it, planting lumps the size of oranges on his cranium. The frying pan reminds me not only of unhealthy food but also of unhealthy families.
Why is the frying pan on the altar? Because there is something terribly unhealthy but wonderful tasty that a lot of us bring to church. There is something corrosive, destructive, devastating that we keep on bringing to church. It’s anger. It’s anger.
Anger is not just the momentary flare-up, not just the quick quip that slashes and burns. Anger is the teeming, seething, slow-burning hostility that eats away our humanity. And the trouble is, we enjoy it. We nurse our anger.
You see, when we are spiritually sick, we are hardest on those closest to us. When we are spiritually unhealthy, rather than take responsibility for our own illness, rather than get the help we need, we turn on those who love us. The frying pan is the symbol of all the pent-up anger, the sometimes violent hostility we hold against those we live with.
Anger is the secret with which some people have lived for a long time. Wives who are battered routinely by husbands who then apologize tearfully and ask for forgiveness. Children who are abused both physically and emotionally and who do not know what to make of it except to suppose that they have done something to deserve it. Even men whose professional and personal lives are destroyed by hostility. Anger is the frying pan whose fatal products we love too much.
And sometimes anger comes to church. I know very well that often desperate people come to church with their secrets, hoping to hear a word from the Lord. I know that hurting people as well as people who do the hurting come to worship, trying to find a way through. And I know that when that happens it is all too possible that they go from the frying pan right into the fire.
The Lord Jesus has a word for us. He says, "If you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment ... so when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or your sister [and may I add, your wife or your husband, your parent or your child] has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled ... and then come and offer your gift.” Do you see why when anger occupies a dirty altar there is no room for anything else?