Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Maintenance of Divine Worship

1 Corinthians 14: 22-33a page 814

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he or she will be convinced by all that he or she is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his or her heart will be laid bare.
So he or she will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to him or herself and God.
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of the prophets. For God is not a God if disorder but of peace.
Paul writes this letter to a pre-denominational Church; a church where slave and slave owner, Pentecostal and Presbyterian, young and old all worshiped together in one place. There was no bulletin, no set order for worship, and no hymnal as know it. There was singing, and people spoke, but with so many different kinds of people celebrating God all at once without much organization, Paul, out of obligation and in light of his reading of Genesis, calls this Church to order. With the words, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace,” he calls the Corinthian Church back to the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth when God called order out of chaos.
With creation on his mind, Paul offers rules for worship as though he was a 3rd grade teacher calling order to a classroom: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to him or herself and God,” and so on. These words are challenging in that we know that Churches don’t like change, that we like to think that the way we have been doing is the way it has always been, just as God created it to be. We forget that worship, like creation, is not something God made and then left to its own devices, as God continues to work change all around us.
But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
I don’t know how the Corinthian congregation reacted, but I am thankful I was not the one who, after giving the benediction, had to wait at the door to hear from every disgruntled parishioner as they left the service.
As a seminary student, that time at the door became one of my favorite parts of the service. I was encouraged to think of myself as a good preacher so I had compliments to look forward to. In fact, the seminary thought I was good enough for them to send me to different churches around the South East to promote the seminary while I was still a student, and on a trip to Jacksonville FL I was given the opportunity to preach at a church I had never been to before. I preached a theologically sound sermon, one based on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, centering on the Liturgical Season of Lent. I did well in the sense that I was preaching a sermon any lifetime Presbyterian would have been proud to hear, inspiring a sense of pride and confidence in the kind of students being produced by Columbia Theological Seminary.
After giving the benediction I walked to the door as the congregation left and as folks left the sanctuary I got handshakes and encouraging words making my ego just a little bit bigger. Finally the last to exit approached me, a man in a suit that looked like it had been slept in who had walked into the sanctuary half way through the service. He walked up to me and asked me a question: “son, what year are you in seminary?”
“I’m in my third year sir.”
“Three years of school then.”“Yes sir.”
He took a long look at me in the eye and said, “Well, they should have taught you something better than that by now. Non-believers would have walked out this morning just the same as they walked in.”
He wasn’t the first person to question my homiletical greatness, but no one had ever been quite so blunt before. I was also taken off guard as this man wasn’t a member of the session, wasn’t a founding member of the church, in fact, I later learned that this man had never attended that church before, so it was hard to see what obligated him to let me know his dissatisfaction.
He walked in late, dressed wrong, and spoke bluntly.
I wasn’t speaking in tongues, but this man who walked in the church service reacted just as Paul expected the unbeliever who entered the church in Corinth to react. What I said didn’t make any sense to him. It was inaccessible, and so meaningless.
We are short sighted if we read this passage from 1st Corinthians and think that Paul calls for orderly worship for the sake of those men and women who had already seen and heard the good news. Paul calls for orderly worship for the sake of those who are just now walking in, as well as those who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way.
For the Corinthian Church and for all churches, Paul claims that we must not speak in tongues if they cannot be interpreted, prophecy all at once so that no one can be heard clearly, houghty-toughty seminary jargon if it can’t be understood, or in symbolic code words if they only make sense to us, but to use language that is accessible, to worship in a way that makes room for the people who aren’t here yet but who are on their way.
The Great End of the Church that we are concerned with in the sermon for this week is the Maintenance of Divine Worship – maintenance, and not an ownership of worship. There is importance in that choice of words. If we have been given the responsibility of maintaining worship today we are obligated to remember that we only hold this honorable responsibility for a brief time, until the maintenance of worship passes to those who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way.
In some ways it would have been easier to get acclimated to that Corinthian Church. There was no Apostle’s Creed to remember, no Lord’s Prayer to recite with your eyes closed, no foundation of faith you’d be embarrassed not to have. Not only was it a time before the words, “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,” but it would have been a time when we could have admitted we don’t know what those words really mean.
Like many Christians who have been in our shoes before, we have reached a challenging time in history, a time when the words we speak seem like another language to those just outside our door. It is a time when we must be bold to hold onto those tenants of belief that matter, but Paul reminds us that now we must be about teaching those tenants in a way that makes the truth they hold accessible.
Like the great Reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli, three men who did for the 16th Century what Paul did for the 1st, we have reached a point in time where we are called to reexamine tradition; asking if our traditions are accessible, or are we like the Corinthian Church, a litany of voices all at once in tongues that aren’t understood.
Just as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli called the 16th Century Church’s Latin mass to question – demanding that the words spoke in worship be spoken not in an ancient language but in the language the congregation actually spoke, so we are called to examine what we believe and how we articulate that belief.
We fight about what kind of church we will become – a Purpose Driven Church a Discipleship Church; a church with a mission and a mission statement.
Our struggles seem worth fighting for, as we know what they are about and what is at stake. But what does a struggle within the session mean to those who do not know what a session is?
In a denomination that argues over homosexuality, abortion, or translating the Bible, it is time to ask if these issues really matter to a society of people who struggle with home foreclosure, diversity, gas prices, or putting food on the table.
We are called to the maintenance of this divine worship – a responsibility that we will have to pass on as worship in this church will last far beyond our short time on this earth. Worship will go on in this place without us, assuming that we make room for the people who aren’t here yet, but who are on their way. Making room for the questions that need to be asked. Making room by speaking words that matter in a way that can be understood. Making room by bringing order to what a nonbeliever would see as chaos. Making room by remembering that we are not the owners of this church and her worship, and that the church’s future does not rest solely on our shoulders. Making room for those who aren’t here yet but who are on their way, that they might look at us and exclaim: “God is really among you!”

Monday, August 4, 2008

What Kind of Miracle?

Matthew 14: 13-21, page 692
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I saw a Haitian painting this last week, published in “The Wilson Quarterly,” a journal published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I’m not really a scholar, but one in our congregation bought me a subscription recently and I’ve at least been able to enjoy the pictures.
The painting, titled, “Paradise on Earth,” features Adam and Eve lounging under a tree, seemingly without a care in the world surrounded by animals and fruits to eat. Wilson Bigaud, the artist, looks on this scene with nostalgia it would seem. Looking back at the moment when Eve, seduced by the snake to eat from that one tree off-limits in a forest of plenty, reaches for the apple. Genesis tells it as though it were the decision that exiled human kind from a life that was easy, where there was plenty for everyone.[1]
It’s significant that the painting is from a Haitian painter, considering how far the Haitian people have come from a land of plenty. As rice prices climb, this country, close to the hearts of many in this congregation, is more in need than ever. Their situation is not unique, and according to the United Nations World Food Program, today hungry people riot in the streets of the world out of desperation with high food prices that threaten to plunge more than 100 million people into hunger.[2]
In one sense, it is in this context that Jesus responds, providing food to people who do not have enough, to people hungry, struggling to eek out a living.
But we know that considering the limitations of medicine in the ancient world, it was not only the poor who sought Jesus out, but also the wealthy. In need of a miracle, people who no doubt had plenty, if not more than enough to eat, also sought Jesus out.
Of course, they would have been amazed by this man who, “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to haven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves,” then fed 5,000 men, not even counting the women and children and managed to have 12 baskets full left over.
But this kind of miracle wouldn’t have given them anything they didn’t already have. We know that the wealthy in Roman society often gave banquets celebrating with friends who would eat and eat to the point of explosion, often forcing themselves to vomit in the alley so they could return to the feast and do it all over again.
It’s true that prices have been rising in our grocery stores, causing us all to tighten our belts during an economic crunch, but I can relate better, even to this picture of the Roman elite than the poor in the ancient or modern world.
Like an Ancient Roman Banquet, my first trip to an all-you-can eat buffalo wing restaurant was not an exercise in restraint but excess, and it didn’t take me long before my pants felt too right, my skin felt clammy, and I was making my own trip to the bathroom, though I didn’t return to the feast so I might do it all over again.
I recognize then, that what I need is not a miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, but something else.
Like Adam and Eve, tempted by the snake from the Garden of Eden to go for more, it is not want that I suffer from.
So it strikes me as miraculous, not only that Jesus fed these 5,000 men, in addition to all the women and children, but also, that the wealthy in the crowd “ate and were satisfied.”
While we do live in a society where our most essential needs are met, ironically, we don’t often experience true satisfaction. So for us, Jesus provides a different kind of miracle.
A journalist specializing in consumerism named Rob Walker recently wrote a book titled: Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. In this book he analyzes a study that polled middle class families, asking them: Which products could they simply not live without. They were asked about their dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, home computer, microwave oven, high-speed Internet service, air-conditioning, and especially their cell phone.
Their answers: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.[3]
Products like the cell phone, once considered a luxury item of “high-class extravagance” had become a tool Americans can’t imagine life without.[4]
But how has it happened? In a relatively short time, our lives have changed and adapted to new products, new ways of living, and once we have evolved to incorporate these new tools into our lives it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine ever going back.
We were once a country of one car, one-income households. We lived on less; we had more time for each other.
But today we are a country where many families own multiple cars, often duel incomes, and though we live on more, have more, we also work more to get things that we want – which, according to the findings of that recent research project, in a short time will become things that we can’t imagine life without.
According to journalists and sociologists, consumerism has convinced us that we need more, and commercials, like the snake from the Garden of Eden, meet us in our living rooms to tempt us away from satisfaction to pursue goods and services that we never even knew we wanted.
Convinced then, we work and work, buy and buy, drink and drink, shop and shop, eat and eat, as though we have lost the ability to say “enough.”
To save us from this cycle, that truly does enslave, God calls us to Haiti, into the presence of those who truly do not have enough, to realize the difference between what we want and what we need. There is a saying there, that God has provided plenty. However, God left it in our hands to share.
In our passage from Matthew we see that God does indeed provide, but the miracle Christ brings to the 21st Century American Church is that all, rich and poor, walked away from this great feast satisfied.
This miracle is significant, as we are not satisfied; but our dis-satisfaction doesn’t come from a state of hunger, as we have plenty to eat; a lack of shelter, as most have homes; but from a constant message telling us to buy more than we need, want more than we can afford, to never be satisfied with what we have. This message, one that is seemingly inescapable, is one we must learn to fight against.
We are all the victims of an unquenchable thirst for more, more, more. Today a feast is provided. This table is set for rich and poor, strong and weak, for the hungry and the full. Invited by Jesus Christ we are called here together, so that the hungry might be filled, and that we all would be satisfied.

[1] Daniel Akst, Cheap Eats, Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2003. 31.
[2] Sue Kirchhoff, Poll: Food costs a major worry for consumers, USA Today, 4/25/08.
[3] Farhad Manjoo, Branded, New York Times, July 27, 2008.
[4] Ibid.