Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How do we keep God from disrupting our worship?

Sermon preached at St. Christopher's on August 22, 2010

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

Mrs. Jones attended Mass every day, and afterward, she always prayed the Rosary. One day, God decided to reward her steadfastness, her faithfulness, by sending Jesus to visit with her. Jesus appeared after Mass, just as Mrs. Jones was praying. "Mrs. Jones...Mrs. Jones..." Jesus called. But Mrs. Jones paid no attention, and continued praying with each bead. Jesus called out louder, "Mrs. Jones! Mrs. Jones!" Still she continued to pray. At this point, Jesus figured she must have been deaf or something, so he shouted, "MRS. JONES!! MRS. JONES!!" At which point she turned around, rolled her eyes, and said, "Quiet, boy! I'm talking to your mom!”

The Pharisees also are praying in the gospel this morning: the liturgy is all planned out, the service prepared. Someone even got up early, ran down to the synagogue before worship to brew up the requisite pots of coffee, check the lights. The service had been fine-tuned, well-rehearsed. One-hour-five-minutes. The goal, at the start, was one hour exactly, but everybody knew how long-winded rabbis could be. But one-hour-five minutes would work: worship, breakfast, maybe brunch at the local dive mid-morning. All was good to go.

And then HE happened. He had the nerve to show up.

The gospel’s headline this morning reads something like this: Jesus heals a crippled woman; leaders outraged by the timing.

The fine print tells how, at some point on that Sabbath, Jesus saw a woman, unidentified, evidently crippled. He called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” We’re told that then he laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day."

Jesus did it wrong. Jesus should have known better. After all, what kind of place is worship for healing?

And truthfully, it’s a problem the church has struggled with ever sense:

How do you keep God from disrupting the worship?

I mean, have you heard how long those Pentecostal services go? The God for whom a thousand years are like a day is a dangerous God to lead your worship. But just when we get nervous about God and what He would do if He ever got loose, I wonder what it is we imagine ourselves doing here, in this place, instead. Paying our weekly holiness dues, I suppose.

But listen to me, I’m projecting. I don’t know for a fact that you get nervous about God messing things up, either here or in your life at home; I don’t know that you’re overly guarded or worried about going too far with God. I only know for sure about the Pharisees in the gospel that we just heard - and on my more honest days about myself.

The cranky friar Martin Luther was all too aware of the Pharisee’s danger - the danger of idolatry, worshiping something other than God, even and especially the worship of our worship. He once said that, “If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works - i.e., things we do for God apart from God - then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]....”

How do you keep God from disrupting the worship?

How do I keep God from disrupting my life?

A priest friend of mine recently shared a theory of hers with me. Her theory is that congregations can only be welcoming to others when they’re not afraid that the others that they’re welcoming have opinions; that is, when the people aren’t worried that the new folks might change things up.

Is it the same with God? I wonder. And do newcomers give us opportunities to test our flexibility with God? So many times, I’m not even sure which of the old ways I’m holding on to in my life are closing my soul to my Lord until someone gently pulls from the other end. When was the last time God surprised you from an unlikely person - an unlikely source? Has worship become so familiar to you that it has long stopped being a place of surprises?

Going back to the Pharisees in the gospel, I wonder: When God gets in the way of our religion, what does that tell us about our religion? What if the God we come here to drown out with our words has a Word He wants us to hear? And on the upside: what does it mean that He is here?

Too many questions, I know. So I’ll just hit the last one: what does it mean that He is here?

For starters, I think it means joy.

One of the highlights of our recent vacation to North Carolina was the meals we shared with dear friends we had longed to see. We really looked forward to these meals, and they didn’t disappoint. It had been years since we’d seen most of our friends. Friends with whom we had served as youth ministers and around the altar; friends with whom we’d met weekly for meals and prayer; praying as one lost her mother, as another struggled with illness, as another shared with us about their challenges as a newly married couple. To revisit those friends and those friendships, around a meal and in prayer, brought the sweetest flavor to the food. Our meals together were balm for the soul. So it is with this table, this meal that joins me to the Holy One, whom my whole being longs to see - body and soul. If He is here, my perfect joy is also here. If Christ is here, my joy is made complete. Here, I can rest; here, I can soak in this joy. And because you also meet Christ here, we share the joy of God.

I wonder: what else does it mean that God interrupts His own service?

I think it means that we are right to keep our times of silence. To listen as if the silence is God’s to break. That means that I pray to hear and receive; and to be obedient to what I hear. If God is speaking, what is the Word meant for me? The Word by which God come and would shake me out of myself this time on this morning.

I’ve come to notice this about myself: that when in a Bible Study or dinner conversation or sidewalk chatter, for that matter, I listen, talk about the pertinent issues, join the banter, engage the repartee, without asking the question, “How do I hear God calling me to respond?” the conversation almost always ends with idle grumbling about others. Barbershop politics. Glorified gossip. That’s as far as it goes. As far as it can go. But if the Word of God is a living Word and if He speaks that Word to you and to me daily, I do well to ask myself, no better, I do well to ask God: Lord, what are you showing me here? Lord, what can I do? How must I change?

So if God is here, it means joy; if God is here it means listening and obedience; and finally, if God is here, it’s because He loves you, loves me, as much as anything else in this world, and He means to remind you of His love with His Word and with His touch. I don’t know about you, but I need this reminding. I love this reminding. Like I tell my confirmation classes, when I go off to work in the morning, I know in my head that Rebekah loves me, but when I come home, her kiss, her touch, is like gold.

Worship is our coming home.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says the psalmist.

For those just tuning in, here’s the cliff-note ending: joy, listening, obedience, and love. Joy, listening, obedience, and love. These mark our time - mark our days - in the presence of the God who shows up.

Mrs. Jones and the Pharisees both came to church, but not looking for God. On some days, you might be like them. But make no mistake, He’s looking for you. This table is His - and He’s calling your name.

Be glad! And listen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153 AD

The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
Psalm 19:8

Rebekah likes to tell me about times as a toddler when she'd find her daddy praying his morning devotions, early in the morning, and alone in the dark. She'd watch from a distance. Once he realized he had a stalker, he'd frequently motion for her to come near, sit on his lap, and they'd continue together in silence. These are some of Rebekah's fondest memories from her childhood.

This week has been my first attempt at being a morning person, which is to say that my morning devotions have seldom occurred in the dark. But I'm trying to become a cyclist, and God bless the poor soul who waits until light in Corpus Christi to get the exercise in. So it's up at 5:30 a.m., with rides on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; lighter exercise on other days. And morning devotions afterwards, still in the dark. Rebekah and I have a prayer candle we use when we pray together in the evening; I use it now as the sky turns from star-specked black to still-dark blue.

Discipline in action is never quite as sexy as it sounds. Bek and I hit simultaneous walls these days, somewhere around 2 p.m., as we adjust to this new daily rhythm. Last night we hit the sack at 9:30 p.m., and gladly. The last two mornings, Annie has been howling during prayer time, somewhere around 6:30 a.m. - up a full hour early. When I find her, the sweet and prayerful child of Rebekah's memory is for me a tearful, tired mess smelling strongly of pee - still glad to see her daddy. And as I return to the prayer candle and still-dark skies, with Annie nuzzled on my shoulder, I laugh at the glamorless-ness of it all; the scandal of the cross still true. And as we sing our alleluias, I thank God for life, and light, and joy.

O God, by whose grace your servant Bernard of Clairvaux, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.Amen.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vestments, Judas, and Joy

A parishioner recently ordered a new vestment for the church in memory of her late husband. The chasuble arrived while I was on vacation, and so we opened it today. Beautiful. And confusing. For many folks, worship is a beautiful but dubious priority. Remember Judas thinking that the oil might be sold for the good of the poor rather than "wasted" at the feet of Jesus. But few things are sadder than stingy Christians, and the arrival of this beautiful vestment recalled me to these words from Alexander Schmemann about the beauty and extravagance of worship. (As an added bonus, here are the vesting prayers traditionally used by clergy in preparation for worship.)

"...from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth...It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy."

"And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. " (Lk 2:10)

"Enter thou into the joy of the Lord" (Mt 25:21). And we have no other means of entering into that joy, no way of understanding it, except through the one action which from the beginning has been for the Church both the source and the fulfillment of joy, the very sacrament of joy, the Eucharist."

"...the Eucharist is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord."

"...when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy."

From Roman Guardini, quoted by Schmemann:
"[The life of the liturgy] is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life....It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody, and song. Such is the wonderful fact which the liturgy demonstrates: it unites act and reality in a supernatural childhood before God."

more on the consuming fire

Interesting to compare MacDonald's sermon in yesterday's post with Edwards' classic, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Both make the case for holiness and the consuming character of God, albeit in different ways. For Edwards, fire is the end of hope. For MacDonald, fire holds the hope of nothing less than resurrection:

The wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being, and bringing with them all that made the blessedness of the life the men tried to lead without God. They will know that now first are they fully themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain-- remain glorified in repentant hope. For that which cannot be shaken shall remain. That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The death that is in them shall be consumed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

office space

Back in the office today for the first time after our family vacation. Grateful to be home and for fresh eyes, new perspective. Enjoyed catching up with folks this morning (Tina, our former Family Minister, is back in town for the week and dropped by). Junior Warden Earlene also stopped by with stories, adventures, and her contagious smile. I spent the afternoon wrestling with Hebrews, the Consuming Fire, and remembering George MacDonald. Also walked the grounds today, wondering what God would call us to do with the stretch of our property that we share with our neighbors. A community garden?? Lemonade on the lawn after service?? Ice cream socials in the evening?? Picnic tables?? Weekly evening prayer around a fire pit?? It's a wonderful thing to look up and discover an abundance of gifts.

And seriously - especially to my St. C sisters and brothers - let me know what you think: how might God be calling us to use the gift of this land?

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