Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

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Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

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We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)

What’s Right With The Church? – Sermon on Philippians 4.1-9

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

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What’s right with the church? Easy sermon topic… I thought. I was having lunch with a some friends a few days ago when I casually mentioned the theme for our worship service this week, and shared with them my desire to accentuate the positive aspects of communal Christianity. I realized that this sermon was going to be very difficult to write when I asked them to share their ideas about what the church is doing right, and the table remained silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. What’s right with the church?

Two weeks ago Sue Volskis walked into my office before our lectionary bible study and in addition to the crossword puzzles that she so graciously gives to me, she handed over a manuscript. The title read: “What’s Right With The Church; a sermon by Zig Volskis; May 17, 1987.” She had been going through some of Zig’s things and found a sermon about the state of the church that he had preached the year before I was born. Whatever I had planned to do for the rest of the afternoon was placed on the back burner and I dove straight into his writing.

It is a beautiful sermon, and I wish that I could have been there to hear it in person. Instead of focusing on all the negative elements of church life, of which there are plenty, Zig dedicated the sermon to looking at the positive and life-giving elements of the body of Christ that is the church.

Zig proclaimed that as a child he would have responded to his question with the church bells and music. They both represented the energy and depth of the worshipping community through sounds and music. The music of church reassured the people that God was the one in control, even if the world claimed the contrary.

As an adult, Zig claimed that his answer had changed over a career of serving the church for thirty years. The first and foremost thing that is right about the church is that it endures! Empires come and go, churches are destroyed by war and exodus, yet the body of Christ endures.  With all its blindness, and plundering, for all its refusal to use its enormous resources, the church, nevertheless, has sought to minister to human need in a thousand different ways. And for untold numbers of persons the helping hand of the church has been a life-saver.

Zig ended the sermon with a call to those who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. And to those who are not sure about the church: you will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway. Amen.

On Monday morning I read through our scripture lesson for today, part of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and I kept hearing Zig’s words in my mind. Paul, like Zig, could have listed all of the things wrong with the church and then implore the people to be better. He could’ve listed their sins and talked about the importance of temperance and self-control. But he didn’t. Like Zig, Paul instead calls the people to focus on the goodness in their church lives. Let your gentleness be known through your living. Remember that the Lord is near, and don’t worry about the trivial moments of life but instead go to the Lord in prayer and the peace of God will guard your minds and souls. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

This is not a call to ignore the negative, nor is it a command to turn a blind eye to the problems of church. Paul is instead offering the church a way of understanding the world through the beauty and joy of what church can be.

Take it from a young pastor – there are plenty of problems in the church; from here at St. John’s to the global church. Churches are broken because they are filled with broken people. I could stand up here this morning and outline the depth of our depravity, I could talk to you about the problems facing the Middle East, we could talk about the Ebola Crisis, I could share with you the remarkably inappropriate comments I heard other clergy make this week about homosexuality. We could spend our church service focusing on all the negative but we already do enough of that.

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It is nearly impossible to turn on the television, open a newspaper, or get online without being bombarded with the problems of the world. And if the media is so inclined to mention something about the church is it almost always a controversy or a reminder of our brokenness.

So today, I want us to be different from the world. I want to follow Zig’s example, which is to say I want to follow Paul’s example, and talk about what’s right with the church.

I never had a choice about being a Christian. There was a never a time in my life where my family was not part of the church. Some of my earliest memories are of Church services, living nativities, and sitting at the altar during children’s messages.

As a kid I would have answered the question by saying the church is fun! Where else do we get to spend time on a weekly basis hearing about the incredible stories of God with God’s people? Where else will adults make fools of themselves for the sake of sharing the Good News with young people? For me the church has always been fun and I therefore had no reason to choose something else to do. The continued presence of the church in my life, and its influence over my actions and decisions, is a reminder that (unlike the popular American perspective) the choices made for us and in spite of us are often of more lasting consequences than the choices made by us (Willimon, What’s Right With The Church, 35-36). We like to think that we choose God, when in fact God is the one who chooses us.

What’s right with the church? The church is the place where people discover and live-into the reality that God has gone looking for them. I might experience God in the middle of the woods, or in the loving embrace of a friend, but church is the place where I learn the language to articulate those experiences. My eyes are opened by the church regarding how to experience God in this place, and in the world. The community of faith proclaims the Word so that we can absorb it, and live it out in the world. The people who gather as Christ’s body reach out to us in love through God’s will to call us in.

As I got older I might’ve answered the question by saying that the church’s music is awesome! Whether singing the incredible hymns from the hymnal, or wailing on the drums during a contemporary worship service, I have always loved church music. The words and tunes that we rely on every week articulate the faith of scripture and the value it plays in our lives.

I love those moments when I find myself whistling a tune, or mumbling through the lyrics of a song only to realize that it fits perfectly with my present moment. Sometimes the music of church gets the better of me and my emotions runneth over. Some of you might not realize it, but I stand behind this pulpit when I sing the hymns, so that, just in case I start crying, none of you will see it.

The music of our church is awesome because it can bring us to tears, bring smiles to our faces, reignite the flame of faith, and give us goosebumps. I love the music of church because it is so unlike the music we hear Monday through Saturday; it encourages us in our faith.

While in seminary I might’ve answered the question by saying the church is a radically alternative community. This place in unlike anything else you can experience. The church at its best is a place where everyone can belong regardless of anything else in your life.

Paul calls the church “a colony of heaven.” We are like an island of one kingdom in the midst of another. We exist communally because we could not survive on our own, we need others to help us stay accountable to the grace that God has poured on our lives. We work through our faith and live together in harmony as an alternative community where the world, for us, has been turned upside down.

We are a strange group of people who are more focused on others than ourselves, we believe the first will be last and the last will be first. In this alternative community we are habituated by love for love. In baptism we take vows to raise children in love and faith, in marriage we take public vows to help the new couple remain accountable to God and one another, in funerals we offer honest and truthful words about someone’s life, death, and promised resurrection.

But if you asked me today, right now, “What’s right with the church?” My answer would be: it’s incarnational. In the incarnation God took on our human flesh in Jesus Christ to be both fully God and fully human. Our church is incarnational. We gather together to hear the Word of the Lord and let it become flesh in the ways we live our lives.

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The church is the fundamental location for discovering and receiving the peace of God. This peace is something that is beyond my ability to describe with words, but it is a peace that the world cannot give; money cannot by it, nor can we earn it through social positioning. The peace of God comes from God as a gift, peace which surpasses all understanding. It is a comfort that soothes every fiber of our being, while at the same time electrifies our existence into something new, bold, and incredible. In church we confront the living God who first breathed life into us, who walks along the paths of understanding with us side-by-side, and will stay with us no matter what.

The incarnational church refuses to be moved by the expectations of the world, and instead remains committed to the love of God in our daily lives. We who have been Christians for any reasonable amount of time can remember others who have lived before us a life that was full of incarnational joy, people who heard the Word and let it become flesh in their lives. We are better, stronger, and fuller Christians for having known and watched such fellow disciples. And now we have the same opportunity to be a source of incarnational joy and life to others with whom we come in contact.

What’s right with the church?

In spite of its obvious corruptions and imperfections, it is the church that reminds us about the love of God that will not let us go, as it points us toward the true home of our souls.

So, let me say to you who love the church: make more room for it, bring to it your best and highest devotion. Pray fervently for its renewal and commitment toward being Christ’s body in the world.

And let me say to you who are not so sure about the church: You will not find perfection here, but come in anyway, and help us make it better. Help us open our eyes to the way the living God is moving and speaking in the world so that we can continue to be the body of Christ for the world.

There are so many things right about the church that the things that are wrong don’t really matter that much anyway.

Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 133.1

Devotional:

Psalm 133.1

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

Weekly Devotional Image

I prayed all week for the weather to cooperate. We had been planning the Community Cook-Out for weeks and the weather forecast kept pointing toward tremendous amounts of rain to fall during the scheduled event. As a church we had already procured a considerable amount of food, dedicated volunteers, and three bouncy houses. Yet, as the days passed and we came closer to the celebration, I became worried that it would not take place at all.

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After many prayers, Saturday came and the weather wound up being perfect for the Cook-Out! The clouds provided a cool atmosphere for the children to play on the bouncy houses and allowed for us to celebrate on the lawn without having to worry about too much sunshine or rain. When people began to arrive for the event I prayed and thanked God for providing such a wonderful day for our community and was thrilled for our church to serve the folk of our neighborhood.

I spent most of the afternoon grilling more hamburgers and hot-dogs than I could possibly count. Every time I thought I could take a break, more people arrived and lined up for food! From my vantage point I was given a clear line of sight of everyone and all of the activities that were taking place: children (and adults) playing on the bouncy houses, families sitting at tables while enjoying food and fellowship, young people lining up to have their faces painted, frisbees and footballs being thrown through the air, and conversations taking place between people who had never met. While standing behind the grill I was overcome with a sense of wonder at how our church was living out its call to participate in God’s kingdom by being the body of Christ for the world.

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The psalmist wrote “how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” During our Cook-Out we had different people from all over the community present to join together in fellowship: parents and families from the pre-school, neighbors who attend different church, friends who do not attend church at all, and people from St. John’s. As we enjoyed the afternoon together I was given a glimpse of how wonderful and joyous it can be when a neighborhood lives in unity; I experienced Christ’s presence through the conversations and outpouring of love between strangers.

This week let us all seek opportunities to live together in unity. Let us look for those around us who are still strangers and do whatever we can to foster new friendships.

How can you live out Psalm 133 this week?