Epiphany 2C. 20 January 2013.
Over the last several years I have occasionally reflected on this whole thing of coming to church. Our timeless liturgy of the Holy Eucharist is a "no brainer"—Jesus said, "Do this." And we do. Even on Morning Prayer Sundays, there is an obvious and inherent good in coming together, reading the Scripture and praying. Even if the Sacraments are not celebrated that day, there is something sacramental in coming together.
The purpose of the sermon is to help us understand and appreciate the meaning of our faith and the Bible. There are many levels. You've got the most basic meaning on the face of it, and you've got the tradition that goes back with its dimensions of symbolism and prophecy and so forth.
And though the sermon is intended to make familiar and new what at first seems foreign and ancient, there are times when I wonder, if you knew ahead of time the themes that would be coming up in the readings and in the sermon, would you show up to listen and engage it with me?
Christmas, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost have set themes, which always come up. You and I know that when we come to Palm Sunday, we'll be talking about the crucifixion. Easter—resurrection, new life, joy, celebration. Christmas—the poor and neglected, Christ coming in the messiness of human life. You know what is coming.
But now, let's take the Second Sunday of Epiphany, or the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, and it could be any number of things. We could be reading a parable, or a story of healing, or an account of frustration between the Pharisees and Jesus. And even though there are timeless themes of wisdom and courage that are waiting to thrill and delight and convert and strengthen, it's still nothing like…say, tuning in to something you know you will want to see and enjoy.
The way we do things here is very different, because this isn't entertainment, it's worship. It is a sacred encounter between us and God, meeting together by the grace and protection of the Holy Spirit, so that we may better serve the world in Christ's Name.
Still… I have wondered what our worship would look like if we could all press our own little "church" button and get the exact theme we want for whatever is going on with us on that particular Sunday. As it is, more often than not, we sort of expect that the readings and sermon may hit or miss us—we don't know.
Sometimes we come hoping to hear something that addresses us where we are, and sometimes we come hoping to hear something that will lift us out of where we are, and give us something else to think about. Or maybe we sort of sift the ideas though the filters of our "here and now," and self-apply them wherever it makes sense.
Or…well. There is, of course, another option that I don't really like to talk about, because it's embarrassing to all of us. And that's the option of coming without any expectation of hearing anything useful.
I remember coming to chapel at high school, and college, and seminary, and even church on Sunday and thinking: There is no way that the Rev. So-and-So has anything to say that can touch my circumstances.
I had yet to hear anyone talk about the inner conflict that can mess with your head when you are a teenager, and you've got a mad, passionate crush on a girl you don't even know. None of it makes any sense. She's not pretty; she's not funny; she has none of your interests, and yet you can't take your eyes off of her. And what kind of sermon did I hear? Stewardship. Reconcilation. What is a 15 to 20 year old boy or girl going to do with that?
Maybe you come not really wanting to hear anything at all. There is a value to just being present as the scripture is read and sermon preached, but not really listening to it…just being here for it. I know what that's like. And it doesn't offend me at all, if that's how you feel.
I would say that most of the time I came to chapel at seminary with my brain completely off. I was happy to sing the hymns and see the vestments and watch the chapel team change the hymn boards. I used to run my eyes over the Altar and the flowers and the silver, and just delight that God had placed me in this place at this moment with these people. I didn't listen to the readings or the sermons…well, sometimes…but not often. When you're swimming in the pool, you are wet all the time. Another sermon wasn't going help.
But this brings up an interesting idea. There is a form of worship that is—I believe—a very deep movement of the Holy Spirit. A movement that defies explanation or understanding…and that is simply to be with God and the Church. It takes place deep below the consciousness of an individual. Down deep in a place beyond words or concepts—where it's just the Holy Spirit moving and us moving—at times—
imperceptibly with it.
I have a good friend who told me that his father served in World War II, never drank or smoked, never went to church, but every Sunday he would listen to the Billy Graham preach on the radio. What was going on inside him? Well, that's his business.
There is a devotion that has nothing to do with words or music, or concepts or theology, but just simply is. Like a river that flows below the surface of your life that you don't see, but you know it's there. Sometimes it nourishes, and sometimes you don't even want to drink from it, you just want to know it's there.
In every church I have served there have been people who love the church who don't come. And I mean, LOVE the church, but don't come. One man I knew would come an sit on a bench outside the church and just be there. You wouldn't see hide or hair of him on a Sunday morning, but during the week, here and there, on the bench…staring at the bricks and mortar and just there.
"Do you want to talk?" I'd ask, at first. "No, no…" And after awhile, I didn't ask, I'd just wave and he'd wave back. I'd go get the church's mail from the post office and there would be an envelope addressed to the treasurer and his name and address up in the corner. He cared deeply for the church, but the building was like the Vietnam Wall in Washington, where you watch veterans standing at a distance, unable to go over and look at it too closely.
There is a seminary professor I heard about whose wife died and after that he came to chapel every morning for Morning Prayer. At Virginia Seminary, Morning Prayer is like our fifth Sunday service. Organ, vestments, everything. And the whole community is expected to be there, so he came everyday, because it's what he was supposed to do. And I heard that he stood for the hymns, sat for the readings, knelt for the prayers, but he didn't sing, listen, or pray. The community was sensitive to him. They didn't ask him to preach or celebrate the Holy Eucharist—unless he wanted to, and he didn't.
He taught his classes, graded papers, ate with the community, even managed a smile here and there, and in time—maybe a year and half—he picked up the Prayer Book and followed along. And then the Hymnal, and sang a verse. And little by little, he came back. But it was slow.
And when enough time had passed to where he could talk about where he had been, he said, "In those days, the seminary community was praying for me. Not "praying for me," as in offering prayers that I'd get over it, although they were doing that, too. They were praying when I could not pray. They were praying for me. And that's what got me through."
There are reasons to come to church and not listen, or think, or even pray, but just be here: to be surrounded by memories; to see light through the stained glass; to hear words that have been spoken for many thousands of years. And to draw…what? Strength? Courage? Maybe… But maybe sometimes we draw something beyond any of those concepts. Maybe sometimes we just want to be.
But what would the pulpit say if you could make it say whatever you wanted? What sort of benediction would you like to give to the world as you know it; or what sort of story would you tell? How would you frame the Gospel of Christ such that anyone could walk into this church and know what you know about the goodness of God?
Would you even talk about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Would you speak of prophecy or praise from the Babylonian exile, Israelites in their bondage in Egypt, or maybe a garden and a snake and an apple?
In my last church there is a woman who served as the Altar Guild coordinator. She was wonderful. At one point I noticed that there was a little tear in the hanging on the pulpit, and between the services, she got her needle and thread and stood there in the pulpit sewing.
I wasn't used to anyone being in the pulpit but me, so I said, "Claudia, you look like you are about to preach!"
She said, "Oh? No! You wouldn't want me to preach."
I said, "Sure, I would."
She said, "You wouldn't want to hear what I would say."
I asked her, "What would you say?"
She said, "I'd tell them to behave themselves and mind their own business."
I said, "Claudia, that's a good sermon."
Maybe you have something you'd like to say, but maybe you don't. Maybe you'd like the pulpit to fall silent from time to time and just let the Holy Spirit rest among us.
One of the most holy moments in our liturgy is after we've all received the Sacrament of the Holy Communion and are back in our pews kneeling, just before the prayer after Communion. We've all shared the sacred meal, and sung a hymn or two, or simply waited. Maybe your mind is already turning to the week ahead, but it can be a very sweet space of time to reflect on the Lord and his death and resurrection. The church is the church, in that moment. No one is talking; no one is doing anything, except maybe praying, or Wilson/Mildred playing the organ.
We move on to the prayer after Communion, because, you know, we can't sit here all day. But sometimes I wish the Holy Spirit would just immobilize us all, like Gabriel appearing to Zechariah in the Temple and striking him dumb. Or the Holy Spirit descending at Pentecost and interrupting all our plans.
But, because we are a people of the book, and a people of the Word, something must be said. What would you have the pulpit say, if it could say nothing else?
Well, there are many excellent options, but I think I know what I would choose. I would choose the portion of the Psalter appointed for today. Psalm 36.5-10. It is a thanksgiving, a prayer, a teaching, an encouragement and a benediction, all rolled into one.
Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, *
and your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
How priceless is your love, O God! *
your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the well of life, *
and in your light we see light.
Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, *
and your favor to those who are true of heart.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.