Thursday, April 28, 2016

Worship's Narrative Arc -- Christian Formation

I believe that worship stands at the center of the Christian faith. During this Easter season I have been preaching from the lectionary texts drawn from the Book of Revelation. This very apocalyptic book is also a book of worship. It reveals to us the importance of being engaged in fellowship with the Creator by offering songs of praise and thanksgiving. 

Worship is one of my passions. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and that liturgical tradition helped form me as a Christian in ways I didn't understand at the time. Though I left the Episcopal Church during high school and settled within a Pentecostal Community (with it leaving its deposit in my understanding of worship), for most of my adult life I have been part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Disciples are a Free Church tradition that doesn't have a prescribed liturgy, though a liturgy of sorts emerged over time. Central to Disciples worship, as is true for the Episcopal Church, is the Table. Each week we gather at the Table to celebrate the Eucharist. That very decision helps form us as Christians, even if we don't always consciously understand how it is forming us.

With these introductory words I'd like to share a word from a new book by James K. A. Smith.  Central to Smith's book is the premise that Christian worship, indeed, Christian discipleship is less about information (intellectual) and more about habit. Sometimes we think that habits are bad things, but perhaps not. So with this in mind I share this word about how historic liturgy helps form us:

Worship that restores our loves will be worship that restor(i)es our imagination.  Historic Christian worship has a narrative arc that rehearses the story of redemption in the very form of worship--enacting the "true story of the whole world." And it does so in a way that speaks in the language of imagination, the part of us that understands in story. Intentional, historic liturgy restores our imagination because it sanctifies our perception -- it implants the biblical story so deeply in to our preconscious that the gospel becomes the "background" against and through which we perceive the world, even without "thinking" about it. Only when you are formed this deeply can you say as C.S. Lewis did, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." This is a "belief" that you carry in your bones. [You Are What You Love, p. 94].
When we share the Lord's Prayer each week, it can be, and often is, something we say by rote. But then at points in our lives it connects with God in a way that we had thought about. It was simply there to remind us to whom we owe allegiance. When we gather at the Table and share the words of institution we're drawn back to a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember, and as we remember, we participate in that meal with Jesus. For some of us, we do this each week. And often we do so by rote. It's simply something we do, but then at certain moments we recognize that God is forming us by this narrative arc.  We discern God's act of redemption. 

Worship is not simply singing a bunch of songs followed by a speech. It is a lot more than that. It is a connector to a long line of Christian experiences, that help form us as Christians.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Lord's Prayer and Allegiance -- A word for our times

As I watch the political drama unfolding in our land, I do so with a mixture of emotions. While I believe strongly in the importance of being involved in public life, especially when matters of social justice are involved. However, as a Christian, I must affirm the premise that my ultimate loyalties belong God and not to nation. For those of us who recite the Lord's Prayer each week, we're reminded of that loyalty. Several years ago I preached a series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer, which became the foundation of a book titled Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer, which explores the relevance of the prayer for our times. I believe that a close study of the prayer (hopefully guided by my book) can be of help as we navigate the political waters. Whether Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Green, or simply Independent, our ultimate allegiance is to God.  Below are a few paragraphs extracted from the book's preface, which gives a flavor of the message of the prayer (and my interpretation of it).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Time to Get Going - Lectionary Reflection for Easter 6C

John 5:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. 
Now that day was a sabbath.

                A man had been ill for thirty-eight years. During all this time he’d been sitting by a pool located in the Temple Precincts. It was known in Hebrew as Beth-zatha, but is better known to many of us as the Pool of Bethesda.  This passage is part of a larger conversation that focuses on Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbath, and not only heal on the Sabbath, but make a claim to have done son on the authority if his Father.  To many who heard Jesus’ claims, this sounded as if he was equating himself with God. For good monotheists this was a problem. This fuller story, however, is not included in this lectionary reading chosen for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (this is one of two choices, with the other being John 14:23-29).

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden (Addison Hodges Hart) -- Review

THE WOMAN, THE HOUR, AND THE GARDEN: A Study of the Imagery of the Gospel of John. By Addison Hodges Hart. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. X + 113 pages.

                Among progressive/liberal Christians there is strong preference for the Synoptic Gospels. John is often set aside because it seems more other-worldly than the Synoptics. Of course, the Synoptics have parables, while John has speeches. The Synoptics have miracles, John has Signs (even if they’re miraculous events they seem to give off a different sensibility. Because John seems rather mystical in orientation, it doesn’t lend itself to quests for the historical Jesus. Nonetheless, John offers us great riches if we're willing to engage the Gospel on John’s own terms.

                One who embraces John’s mystical side is Addison Hodges Hart. Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain. This is the third book by Hart that I’ve read, and from these books I have gleaned a sense of Hart’s interest in the mystical side of things. At the same time, he wants to be grounded in scripture and tradition, including Origen!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

God’s Home Is with Us - Sermon for Easter 5C

Revelation 21:1-6

One of the consistent messages of the Book of Revelation is that God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. To borrow from Aristotle, God is the first cause. Or, as the Prologue to the Gospel of John puts it:  “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And, everything that exists was created through and by this  Word. Finally, a few verses later we learn that this “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:1-18). Not only is God the beginning of all things, but according to the Book of Revelation God is also the completion of all things.   

If God is the beginning and the end of all things, should we not also say that God is also present in all things at all times? As Rick Lowery reminded us yesterday in his sermon at the Festival of Faith, in a moment of theological crisis, the people of Israel learned that God is not limited to a piece of land, but that God is the God of all places and all peoples. No matter where you go, God is there with you. You may not always fell like God is with you, but that doesn’t mean that God is not there.