Monday, June 14, 2010

A Sermon Church?

Yesterday our worship at Central Woodward Christian Church included both Word and Sacrament.  There was music (the choir finished out the year with style and verve) and there was prayer, but standing at the center was Word and Sacrament -- a sharing in the reading of Scripture, a sermon, and the Lord's Supper.  The Disciples are a Table-Centered church.  But we are also a Word-Centered church.  Even if there isn't a sermon per se, there will be something that brings the Word to the community.  It might be simply the reading of Scripture with a few comments.  It might be a sharing of testimony, or the sharing of the word through song.  But in some way or form the Word is presented, for without the Word the Table loses context and meaning.  You see, we Disciples have a rationalist streak in us so we want to understand what we're doing.  We're okay with a bit of mystery, but within "reason."

I offer this up as a way of introducing a posting by my friend Keith Watkins.  Keith has been biking (human-powered version) his way up the East Coast, and shares observations that emerged from a conversation with a woman who is Presbyterian and experience at a Disciples Church where he worshiped while on his journey. 

Keith notes that while this woman's Presbyterian church is a sermon church, the same can be said for the Disciples tradition.  Note Keith's observation:

To my surprise, I heard the kind of sermon my cycling companion from the big city may have had in mind. It was grounded in an important text from the Sermon on the Mount–Matthew 5:21-43–and was imaginatively adapted to contemporary times. Instead of being an exhortation telling people that their church had to change, this sermon was in the indicative mood. It included a careful explanation of what it means for all of us to live in a post-modern, post-Christendom period of time.

It was refreshing to hear such a constructive set of important ideas in an ordinary sermon, on an ordinary Sunday, in an ordinary church. It was twenty-one minutes long, delivered with animation from a manuscript, a little rough around the edges, but for me, at least, a compelling message.

Especially interesting is the fact that this preacher was also a young woman who obviously believes that serious preaching about important ideas still has a place in churches that want to appeal to a post-modern generation living in a post-Christendom world.

Keith concludes by saying that while the congregation might not see itself as a "sermon church," that is what it was for him that day. 

With Keith's comments as context I'd like to raise the question of the role of the sermon in worship.  Should we be a "sermon church"?  Some would say that the monologue that is a sermon is a dying art form, and thus ought to be abandoned in favor of other forms.  Indeed, many "contemporary" churches have taken the lead of Letterman or the latest motivational speaker, and have abandoned the traditional sermon.  

As we consider the role of the sermon, who does it relate to worship and to the Sacrament of Communion?

2 comments:

Sandhya said...

I totally agree we're a word church, Bob! But one of the really exciting things about the whole movement towards "postmodernity" is that it's allowing us to get back to being who we really are as a movement.

As my Disciples history prof tells it, prooftexting ran rampant in the Protestant church in the early 1800s--a preacher would take half of a verse and expound on it for 20-30 minutes in a worship service, the sole expert, the only person who could interpret the text.

In the early days of the Disciples movement, some of the preachers liberated the bible and gave the gift of interpretation back to laypeople--a preacher might show up in town and simply tell the entire story of the book of Genesis and invite those gathered to DISCUSS TOGETHER what it meant. The preacher had a distinct role and voice, but not the ONLY role and voice.

What happens if, even in worship, we foster that same attitude of creating space for the voices of all? I wonder if at some point we got coopted by mainstream Christianity and forgot the gifts of the priesthood of all believers. As a result, we've discouraged laypeople from taking ownership of deep reflection on and wrestling with the scripture. Is there a way worship can allow for multiple words from multiple sources, at least in the Disciples?

Thanks for raising a GREAT topic!

John said...

I suppose the first question should be addressed to the issue of what exactly is worship.

I have thought that worship was about sacrificing to God. That is what the Hebrews did at the Temple and that is what my Catholic teachers taught me was what Jesus' death on the cross accomplished, once, and for all - the preeminent sacrifice, which we re-celebrate each time we participate in Eucharist.

But lately I have come to think there is a broader range of worship practices, starting with the teaching from Acts, that is: devoting ourselves to the Apostle's teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. All of these practices form parts of a more complete worship experience, one in which the congregants are not mere spectators, but vital participants.

It's not just about the Word/Sermon (the Apostle's teaching), and not just about the Table/Eucharist (the breaking of bread) but also about prayers and fellowship. I have heard some churches disparaged as country clubs, and others as too inwardly focused. But Acts seems to say that fellowshipping is an integral part of the worship experience, and not just folks socializing. Fellowshipping builds community, builds bonds, builds caring networks, and it is one way we live out the command to love one another. And Acts teaches that prayer is worship, whether it is sung, spoken, unspoken, and whether it is said individually or in community.

So are we a sermon people or a people of the table? Yes. And a people of prayer and and a people of fellowship as well.

At least I hope so.

John