My prior post was the letter I published online for my congregation addressing our acts of worship and communion during the current pandemic. This current post is an addendum responding to discussions being held online among clergy colleagues and leaders of the church.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has said that this pandemic might be a time for fasting from the sacrament. And, the worship resources posted on ELCA.org/publichealth recommend that congregations do not administer Holy Communion during online worship gatherings.
The Use of the Means of Grace, Principle 39, states that “the gathered people of God celebrate the sacrament. Holy Communion, usually celebrated within a congregation, also may be celebrated in synodical, churchwide, and other settings where the baptized gather.” Furthermore, Application 39A: “Authorization for all celebrations of Communion in a parish setting where there is a called and ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is the responsibility of the pastor in consultation with the Congregational Council.”
Parishes around the country are currently “gathering” as an “assembled” people of God across the pixels and network cables. Our extraordinary gatherings in this time recall the great canticle, “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread; so may all your people from all the ends of earth be gathered into one in you. Let this be a foretaste of all that is to come when all creation shares this feast with you” (As the Grains of Wheat, ELW 465). By God’s grace we continue to gather as the scattered grains of wheat. These virtual assemblies of the scattered are no less legitimate than in-person gatherings.
Many of our parishes are assembling at an appointed time via livestream or Zoom videoconference. Worshiping at the same time and in the same way reinforces the unity of their assembly despite the physical distance.
Certainly gathering in this manner is not ideal, and in contagion-free times virtual assembly certainly would not be the preferred method of coming together as God’s people. The normative practice of the living Body of Christ is and always will be to gather together in person. Yet a “normative” or “preferred” practice need not be the exclusive practice of the church. Exceptions prove and are derivative of the rule.
Our church teaches that “Holy Communion is celebrated weekly” (UMG Principle 35). We celebrate communion frequently “because the Church needs the sacrament, the means by which the Church’s fellowship is established and its mission as the baptized people of God is nourished and sustained” (Background, 35A). As we meet through digital means, parishes can continue the church’s practice of gathering weekly at the Lord’s Table in response to “Christ’s command, his promise, and our deep need” (Background, 35A).
Even as we gather online, “Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and Prayer” (UMG Principle 43), and “a pastor presides at the Holy Communion” (UMG Principle 40). Authentic gatherings of God’s people through digital means provide for a pastor’s leadership, the proclamation of God’s Word, and the elevation of our prayers.
I respect the preference spoken by our Presiding Bishop, some of our church’s theologians, and many of my peers. Refraining from administering the sacrament during these times is a faithful means of waiting with hope-filled anticipation for that day when parishes can gather again, in person, as the Body of Christ. It is a waiting that reflects our faithful waiting for the promised Day of the Lord when the world will be set to rights.
And perhaps the wisdom of Ecclesiastes applies here, that there is “a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces” (3:5b). Certainly we are avoiding our in-person embraces during this pandemic. Maybe the same goes for our sacramental embrace.
Ultimately I have made a different pastoral decision, one that seeks to continue our parishes’ need to hear those most important words of the sacrament: that Jesus is given “for you” (Small Catechism). I think there’s room in our church for different and faithful responses rooted in pastoral care for our congregations and trust in the living, sacramental Word which dares to come to us in our fear, nourish us, forgive us our sin, and make of us a body gathered together not in any given location but “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
May the God who is Spirit and Truth continue to bless and keep our church in these days.
The coronavirus has ushered us into a time of disruption. Our home lives are disrupted. Schools are disrupted. Business and the economy are disrupted. And most certainly, the medical community is disrupted.
The church, too, is disrupted. We’re scattered in our homes, unable to come together each Sunday “at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave.” We are missing out on greeting one another with God’s peace, singing and praying together, sharing our Lord’s supper of grace and mercy, studying Scripture together, and enjoying fellowship around coffee and conversation.
Ours is a Social and Physical Faith
It’s not just a human need for companionship that is met when we come together, but also a spiritual need. Christianity is inherently a social faith and a physical faith. We were made in God’s image for relationship, just as the Holy Trinity itself is a divine relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Saint Paul describes the Christian community as a body of believers of many interdependent spiritual gifts – we need each other to be the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). In Genesis 1 God declares that it is not good for us to be alone.
Ours is also a physical faith. Jesus didn’t come to this world as a disembodied spirit but as a man in flesh and blood. God made the world and saw that it was “good;” when God made humanity, he declared it “very good” (Genesis 1). The created world gives praise to God in the psalms (Psalm 148), Saint Paul writes of the resurrection of the body (Romans 6:5; 1 Corinthians 15; etc), and Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth joined as a physical, tangible new creation (Revelation 21). Jesus calls us to care for the bodily needs of our neighbors (Matthew 25). And, on the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and wine and bid us to receive it as his body and his blood. Our central rituals as Christians – baptism and holy communion – are inherently tactile, physical experiences through which our Lord promises to bless and hold us.
In Lutheran churches this tangible meal of God’s grace and mercy – Holy Communion – is administered within the body of believers by an ordained minister. In obedience to our Lord’s command the church gathers for the Eucharistic Meal, the pastor retells the story of our Lord’s Passion, the congregation lifts up its prayers, and God’s people share in the promised presence of our Lord in the bread and cup – the body and blood – of his holy meal. This has been the practice of the Lutheran church for 500 years, and for our Catholic predecessors for more than a millennium before that.
Worship Disrupted by COVID-19
Out of concern for the health of our neighbors, the public at large, and ourselves, and in observance of the Governor’s stay at home order, we cannot gather together to partake in the banquet feast of our Lord’s grace and mercy. Fundamental to the character of holy communion are the prayers and gestures we share, the proximity we keep while receiving the sacrament, the Word proclaimed and present, and the common bread and cup we share in this sacred meal. At the beginning of this crisis we extended the communion table from New Joy into our homes by delivering bread and wine from our altar to many of our New Joy households, striving to faithfully adapt the Christian church’s longstanding practice to these unique circumstances. Under the current public health protocols, we are unable to do so again.
Prevented from gathering as Christians normally do for communion, do we suspend partaking in the sacrament? During Lent do we now add Holy Communion to our list of Lenten fasts? This is the decision some of the historic Christian churches are making. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Churches, and many Episcopalians are refraining from communion during this crisis. Our church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is not of one mind on whether or how we should continue sharing Holy Communion as a church that gathers online rather than in person.
Keeping Communion While Keeping Distance
During these extraordinary days New Joy will continue to share in the communion feast together from our homes, joined together “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) as we worship together. Now, more than ever, we need to hear and receive the promise that Jesus Christ is given “for you.”
Over the coming weeks as we continue to gather together in our homes for worship I invite you to use bread and wine (or grape juice) from your pantry to celebrate holy communion in your homes in concert with your dispersed sisters and brothers at New Joy. This is certainly not the norm of Lutheran practice, nor of the Christian tradition. But these are not normal times. With reverence, grace, and promise, we will continue to share in our Lord’s Supper even as we keep our necessary social distance.
To maintain the unity of our Lord’s table and to nurture your own preparation for worship, I urge you to continue observing, as much as practicable, our shared worship time of 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Wake up, get dressed as you might for church, and prepare as if you were heading out to church. But rather than get into the car, I invite you to set up your computer or smart television or mobile device. Prepare bread and wine (or juice) for our communion meal. Print out the bulletin posted on the website, or view it on another screen in tandem with the livestream. If you can’t join in the livestream, use the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing in your household.
Setting up Holy Communion at Home
It might feel odd to celebrate communion at home, but don’t let that get in your way. Your home is a sacred space where God is pleased to dwell! Set aside a special place as your home altar. Place a linen cloth on a coffee table or your kitchen table as a corporal, the cloth on the altar on which we set the bread and cup for communion. Spread another cloth overtop the bread and cup as a veil. Paper napkins can work just as well if linens are not available. Mark this space as sacred by setting up a small cross, lighting a candle, or placing a bowl of water to recall your baptism. Purple fabric is appropriate for our current season of Lent. When it’s time for Easter, bring out some white or gold fabric to make it festive with a celebration of resurrection life.
Any plain bread will do for Holy Communion. There’s no need to keep it small, however. The small portions we share at church are largely a practical concern of how to serve so many people at once in our ritual meal. In the intimate gathering at home let the communion meal more resemble the extraordinary heavenly banquet feast that is to come! On a grocery run before Sunday purchase a French or Italian loaf from the bakery section at the grocery store, or share home-baked bread still warm from the oven. Break off a piece, share it as the body of Christ, and allow the sensory experience to complement the spiritual promise of this meal. Familiar sandwich bread or crackers can be used, too.
Open a bottle of red wine and pour into glasses for those sharing. Grape juice may be used as well. You may share the cup by intinction – dipping the bread in the cup – or by drinking. Again, enjoy a robust glass of this drink of promise. No need to keep the amounts small.
The communion we share together while dispersed in our homes is the same promised presence of our Lord Jesus that we receive at church. Jesus promised that the bread and cup of this holy meal were his body and blood. Martin Luther wrote that the most important words of holy communion are, “for you” (Small Catechism, Explanation of Holy Communion). The body and blood of Jesus is given for you, especially in these times of social distancing and public concern.
The bread and cup of communion bring God’s promised presence to us. Handle these elements not superstitiously but reverently and with thanksgiving. At the conclusion of the service eat and drink any remaining bread and wine. You may also return the bread and wine to the earth, preferably not down the drain or in the trash can but outside to be received by God’s good creation.
Avoid sharing holy communion apart from participating in the livestream (live on Sunday mornings, or replayed later), or apart from using the attached Brief Order For Sharing Holy Communion During Social Distancing. Communion is the highpoint of a worship that includes confession and absolution, hearing God’s Word, singing God’s praise, offering our prayers, and sharing and receiving Christ’s peace.
God’s richest blessings to you as we continue to be God’s people gathered not together in person but together in spirit and truth. Please do not hesitate to contact me or the church office via email, social media, Zoom, or phone. Let me know how I can support you during these challenging days.
For many Christians, the word “sanctuary” refers to the space in which they gather for worship. It’s a holy space, set apart for the radical, intimate encounter we have with our Lord when his Word is proclaimed and his Sacraments are shared with God’s people.
A sanctuary is where God’s promise is revealed to us most clearly. A sanctuary can be a centuries-old Gothic cathedral, a simple church building built ten years ago, a living room, or the hood of a humvee for Soldiers deployed overseas. If God’s promises are proclaimed there, that space becomes a sanctuary – a place of holy encounter with God.
Some Christians, citing 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasize that our bodies and our lives are a sanctuary. A popular praise song intones, “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I first sang these words at a church camp I attended as a young adult. Perhaps you’ve sung this tune at camp or at worship. “With thanksgiving I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”
What does it mean to be a living sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true? We often connect these ideas to worship, devotion, and prayer; and, often, to how one behaves in their interpersonal relationships. If we listen to the prophets, we hear in their cry that worship and sacrifice is nothing but vacant, blathering words without actions that honor God by caring for people who suffer.
In Isaiah 5 we hear the prophet sing a love song about God’s tender care for his people. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a vineyard for God’s chosen people, and describes how God tilled the ground, built the watchtower, and cared for the vineyard that is his people.
Yet despite all of the care that God has given the vineyard, it yielded rotten grapes rather than an abundant harvest of good grapes. The prophet laments that God’s possession had failed, and thus speaks God’s promises to destroy the vineyard. But just a verse later the voice shifts from judgment back to lament. You can hear the prophet’s sorrow and weary disappointment in these words:
“The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!”
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed.
Earlier in Isaiah (chapter 1, verses 10-17), the prophet puts an even finer point on it:
Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah! What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly— I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
The prophet here quite literally calls out the prayers and sacrifices that take place in the temple – in the sanctuary – as inadequate without the accompanying works of justice. That work is clearly defined as helping the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow (vs 17).
It is not enough to pray when your hands are stained with blood and your lives betray the grace that has been given to you.
Words are not enough in the face of human suffering. Saint James tells us that words of faith aren’t worth a hill of beans without faithful action (James 2). Christians are called to action that flows from faith in the One who defied how things are done in this world, and calls us to follow him in a life of faithful defiance.
Our Lord defied death and rose from the grave. He defied illness by healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus defied hunger and oppression by filling the famished with good things, and by including those whom society excluded. Our Savior’s words were defiant against those in authority, and generous for those who suffered. As followers of this defiant Prince, we are called to lives that reflect the values not of this kingdom but of the coming Kingdom of God. As citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), our priorities come not from man but from God (Acts 5:59).
Perhaps this is what sanctuary looks like. Pure and holy, tried and true, any who seek to be a living sanctuary for our Lord do so by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outsider, healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, and defying the forces that degrade human dignity. That’s sanctuary.
My church – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – recently declared itself to be a sanctuary church at its triennial Churchwide Assembly. In this case, the term refers to the historic practice of churches being places where fugitives could find safe haven from apprehension. Offering “sanctuary” has been a ministry of the church since medieval days. In our own country churches have extended sanctuary as part of the Underground Railroad sheltering African Americans fleeing (legal) slavery, and defying northern laws requiring the capture and return of escaped slaves. More recently, congregations opened their doors to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars and political persecution in the 1980s.
This calling to be a place for fugitives – from the Latin fugitīvus, fleeing – places the church in a unique position in society. Called neither to be beholden to the shifting opinion polls of society, nor to be a tool of governing authorities, the church fixes its gaze on the vulnerable who flee unfathomable horrors and it seeks to offer its balm in obedience to God’s command to care for people who suffer.
More than many churches, the Lutheran Church in the United States has a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. As an immigrant church whose faith and practice came to this land from Northern and Western Europe, North American Lutherans had for generations reached across the Atlantic to help their families and coreligionists make their own journey of faith to a new land.
After World War I, Lutherans began organizing to support refugees fleeing war in their ancestral homelands. Their work expanded with the massive refugee crisis spurred by World War II. Throughout the 20th century – from Cuba to Vietnam, Hungary to Uganda, Central America to the Balkans – Lutherans partnered with the federal government to resettle refugees and help them find a welcome home in the United States of America.
Care for the immigrant is, at its core, a practice of faith. Besides all of the examples of Jesus calling us to care for “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46, among others), the Hebrew Bible is filled with exhortations by God to his chosen people Israel to honor immigrants and strangers, “because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:34
This construction – “because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” – shows up at least five times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, extolling the Israelites to treat the immigrants as one of their own. Leviticus 17:8 and 10 call for the equal punishment of Jew and immigrant if they bring the sacrifice before the Lord in an unworthy or unholy manner. Deuteronomy 10:18 tells us that the Lord “loves immigrants,” and Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18 call for the Israelites to protect fair pay and legal rights for immigrants. In Leviticus 25:23, the LORD even tells the Israelites that they, too, are immigrants. “You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”
What does it mean that the ELCA has declared itself a “sanctuary church”? The details are still being worked out, but at its core the declaration by the Churchwide Assembly is an affirmation of our church’s longstanding commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee as an expression of our faith in Jesus Christ.
More, it is an affirmation of our church’s 2016 AMMPARO mission strategy of accompanying and supporting migrant children and their families with legal, humanitarian, and advocacy support; and, of working with partners in the United States and in Central America to understand and advocate for resolutions to the systemic violence and poverty that prompts so many families to risk everything to leave their homes in the first place.
Does “sanctuary church” = “sanctuary city”?
The sanctuary that our church offers is not the same kind of sanctuary that some “sanctuary cities” are offering – namely, a refusal by local and/or state law enforcement agencies to partner with federal agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Making the comparison between “sanctuary cities” and our “sanctuary church” is nonsensical – the church in this country never has been, and never will be, a governing body nor a law enforcement agency. Our church simply does not interface with the federal government in the same way that cities and states do.
The call by our Churchwide Assembly declaring the ELCA a sanctuary church is not a call to break laws, but instead is an invitation for agencies, congregations, and members of the church to care for the immigrant with steadfast faith, love, and sacrifice. It is true that some congregations might welcome undocumented immigrants, house them in church buildings, and provide legal aid. Others will provide financial and in-kind support to relief efforts along both sides of the US-Mexican border. Others will advocate for changes in immigration policy or funding for refugee resettlement. And yet others will commit themselves to prayer for families fleeing violence and poverty, and for leaders in the United States and in Central America whose words and deeds will have significant impact on the welfare of millions of people for years to come.
The Lutheran Church’s commitment to welcoming the immigrant and refugee predates the current global migrant crisis. Our commitment to the immigrant and the refugee is born out of our own experience as an immigrant church, and is rooted in the command of God and example of our Lord Jesus Christ to care for the outsider and seek the welfare of our neighbor in need.
It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.
Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.
When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.
On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.
There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.
The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.
You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God.Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.
I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.
I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.
Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.
Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.
On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.
I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.
The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.
After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.
At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.
After the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.
It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.
The Revised Common Lectionary, as it appears in the front of the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
On many occasions I have been asked by friends and colleagues why I do not use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) in my congregation. Often these questions come from a place of honest curiosity. Sometimes they come from a place of liturgical condescension. Either way, my answer is rather simple – it’s mostly because of how the RCL treats the Old Testament. But there’s more.
So, here are the reasons why I left the RCL behind.
1. The RCL presents Old Testament texts only in relation to the Gospel text. This is pretty bad.
“[T]he Old Testament reading is closely related to the gospel reading for the day” (Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary, 11). This is problematic in that Old Testament texts are chosen only in relation to a gospel counterpart. The result of this pairing is that the story of God’s grace and promise in the Old Testament is told in no sequence or narrative but only as it relates to, or previews, a gospel parallel. Whereas the gospel moves sequentially each week, chapter by chapter through the story of the life of Jesus, the Old Testament reading jumps around to provide no sequence or cohesive story of God’s work among the people Israel.
For example, for the six weeks from the Third Sunday after Epiphany through to the Eight Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, we read from parts of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of the Gospel of Matthew. For the first reading, we read from Isaiah 9, Micah 6, Isaiah 58, Deuteronomy 30, Leviticus 19, and Isaiah 49. While these pairings are appropriate and shed light on the context of the Gospel, as a unit these selections do not tell a coherent story of God’s movement among God’s chosen people.
The RCL identifies the “problem” of how to read and use the Old Testament in Christian worship (Introduction, 40-44). Bafflingly, it paints extremes of excluding the Old Testament altogether from Christian worship (on one hand), or of reading it only as Scripture and prophesies that have been fulfilled by the New Testament writings (on the other hand). It rightly recognizes that the Old Testament is Scripture that can be read and exegeted in its own right. Yet, it oddly suggests that attempts to do so would result in reading Old Testament texts “at eucharistic worship, or Christian worship in general, as though there were no linkage with Christian belief and prayer” (Introduction, 42). “No linkage”? This is laughable. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary seem here to forget that Scripture is read in worship surrounded by Christian hymns, prayers, preaching, and sacraments.
For about half of the year the RCL offers an alternate cycle of “semi-continuous” Old Testament readings. In Year A this cycle begins in Genesis; in Year B in 1 Samuel; and, in Year C in 1 Kings. This semi-continuous cycle corrects some of what I find problematic in the RCL, if only for half of the year … much of which falls during the summer months (see #4, below).
2. The RCL is too focused on the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
There’s lots of Good News throughout Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament. And though the RCL covers lots of Scripture in its three year cycle, it does so with an unnecessarily limiting orientation to the first four books of the New Testament. Christian preachers are more than capable of proclaiming, and Christian congregations are capable of hearing, the wonder of God’s saving work without a requisite weekly reading from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. This is especially true in liturgical and sacramental traditions, whose liturgies and hymns are filled with imagery from the Gospels.
3. The RCL skips the Old Testament during the most important season of the church year.
The RCL replaces the Old Testament reading with passages from the Acts of the Apostles during Easter. Acts is fantastic. This is true. But that it supersedes the Old Testament reading during the Easter season does a disservice to the relationship we claim exists between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament’s witness to the resurrection.
4. The year is all off.
I know. The church year begins in Advent, and the RCL has a beautiful internal integrity that flows throughout the cycle of the church year. Yet, most of our congregations follow a program year calendar that closely tracks the school year. Sunday School, youth group, men’s or women’s groups, and other ministries often meet during the school year, and often take the summer off. Attendance dips during the summer, and in August or September the programming kicks up – and so does the attendance. September is the start to a new year. Many of our congregations fit into the RCL’s December-November cycle awkwardly, at best. Meanwhile, the internal integrity of the RCL is lost as major portions of the life and ministry of Jesus are proclaimed during the summer months of low attendance and suspended Christian education.
5. The unity achieved by the RCL is overstated.
When I share that I set aside the Revised Common Lectionary, I am often asked about the unity that the RCL fosters.
The unity of the church is found in Christ, in the proclamation of the Word and the sharing of the sacraments, and in our shared witness to the resurrection. It is too easy to overstate the significance of a shared cycle of readings – as if the unity of the church depended on the selection of readings for worship! Most of the “unity” fostered by the RCL’s cross-denominational use is experienced by clergy in text studies, online clergy groups, worship planning resources, and so forth. Very few and very far between are stories of Lutheran and Presbyterian laity gathering for lunch after worship to talk about their pastor’s sermons on the same texts. And while common practices across church bodies are perhaps desirable, the churches that use the RCL inhabit a shared theological space and heritage such that any variation in their Sunday reading schedules would hardly inhibit the unity they already have in liturgical practice or public witness.
“But you’re tearing the church apart by abandoning the RCL!” Congregations that set the RCL aside are hardly abandoning the unity of the church. A Christian community that selects an alternate lectionary or develops its own is more than capable of teaching and preaching and carrying out acts of service and care. Such congregations continue to proclaim Christ within and beyond their walls. Such congregations continue to follow the ebb and flow of the church’s principal festivals. Most continue to gather around Word and Sacrament. Setting aside the 1992 RCL is hardly a crushing blow to church unity. Claiming the lectionary is a linchpin to church unity does a disservice to the unity we share with Christian churches that do not use the RCL.
I didn’t depart from the Revised Common Lectionary lightly. I take seriously its wisdom and beauty and yes, its shared use. I’ve written prayers for Bread for the Day, a Revised Common Lectionary daily devotional. And, I have at times in my life committed to daily prayer rooted in the movement of the RCL’s daily lectionary.
Nonetheless, as noted above, I find the RCL lacking mostly for its treatment of the Old Testament, but also its calendar orientation that doesn’t fit well with the life cycle of my (and many other) congregations. When I began looking for alternatives to the RCL over three years ago, I considered the Narrative Lectionary; a year-long program such as The Story; or a series of shorter-term thematic series. I ultimately landed on the Narrative Lectionary, and have found it to be a wonderful guide for using Scripture in worship, and I have found its online community to be faithful, diverse, and creative.
Originally published in August 2015. Lighted edited December 2017
“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23
This week The Current in Westfield and The Current in Carmel included a 12-page “advertising supplement” entitled “Non-Mormon Temple Visitors Guide.” In this “guide” provided by Tri-Grace Ministries of Ephraim, Utah, you’ll read all kinds of claims about the Mormon faith written by non-Mormons and by people who claim to be former Mormons.
Twice on the first page this “guide” refers to Mormon teaching as “deception.” I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this is not an entirely fair “guide.” This guide may be sincerely written by people of faith, but it is harmful to our community and particularly to our Mormon friends and neighbors.
“‘All things are lawful,'” but not all things are beneficial.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” – 1 Corinthians 10:23
It is entirely lawful for The Current to run this “advertising supplement.” The First Amendment protects and guarantees their free speech and that of the authors of this “advertising supplement.” But this massive “advertising supplement” is not beneficial. It does not build up our community.
It is not beneficial for a newspaper that arrives at every single house in our ZIP Code to distribute such a “guide” that dismisses as “deceptive” the teachings, practices, and faith of the Mormon Church. This “advertising supplement” is a form of public bullying, disparaging the faith and church of many of our neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Mormonism is a minority religion whose adherents have, for much of their history, been bullied, harassed, persecuted, and chased out of town. That ugly tradition continues with this “advertising supplement.”
Next week will The Current run a 12-page screed against Jews? Roman Catholics? Muslims? Lutherans? Homosexuals?
No matter what theological qualms some may have about the Mormon Church (or the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, or Lutheranism, or whatever), it does not build up our community when a public asset such as The Current distributes divisive and biased literature to every single household in our community. Rather than spread divisive and biased literature, The Current should seek mutual understanding, interpret the words, faith, and actions of our neighbors in the best possible light, and celebrate when members of our community celebrate (such as our Mormon friends are doing this week with the opening of their new Temple).
Martin Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”), says:
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.
I am attending an Open House at the new Mormon Temple in Carmel next week. I am doing so to learn more about the Mormon faith so that I can “come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” I am also attending the Open House so that I can stand with my friends and neighbors against the unfair attacks and slander they experience all too often.
Theological differences between the Mormon Church and the Lutheran Church are real. But so too is the unfair treatment our neighbors, friends, and fellow children of God of the Mormon Church receive to this day. My friends and neighbors don’t deserve to receive, on their doorstep, such a publication. I cannot remain silent. I have to speak out.
For me, living a life of faith is not about projecting my faith into the public square to the detriment of others, or seeking public assets – be they government or business – to enshrine and propagate my faith through their power and reach. Instead, living a life of faith is about coming to the defense of my neighbors, seeking the good of the community – particularly the most vulnerable and “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – living into the promises of the coming Kingdom of God, and having the opportunity to worship and live according to the dictates of faith.
I pray for mutual understanding among the faith communities of Westfield and Carmel.
I pray for a renewed commitment by our communities to seek the common good.
I pray for God’s grace to strengthen us, and especially those oppressed by bigotry and prejudice of any kind.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
UPDATE – Saturday, July 11
After three days I have turned off comments on this post, as the conversation in the comment thread was no longer constructive. We all seem to be talking past each other. Thank you for the conversation and for sharing your different points of view on this matter.
Membership is down in many congregations. Average weekly attendance is down, too. They are down as compared to 1965. They are down as compared to 1985. They are down, in many places, as compared even to 2005. There has been a general decline in the church.
And it’s not just people. There’s not enough money. Ministries – campus ministries, urban ministries, youth ministries – are being closed down or cut back due to lack of funding. And the buildings. They are crumbling. Literally, crumbling.
The church is in decline.
Sure, I guess. But, what do you mean by that?
[Confused that I asked the question again]
No, not what do you mean by decline. You already covered that. This time I’m asking about what you mean by church. What is this “church” that is in decline?
The church on the corner. It has beautiful stained glass windows, dark wood pews, and a fellowship hall. Two worship services. Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible School. A seniors group and, sometimes, a youth group. It’s a place where people come to learn and grow and be together and worship and serve. That’s the church that’s in decline.
OK. Glad we got that cleared up. The institution that we’ve come to know and love, the institution that we have called “church” all these years, is in decline. Yes. But, I’m unwilling to say that “the church” is in decline. You see, it all depends on what you mean by “church.”
churchn a big building on a corner lot with one (or more) full-time pastor(s) and other staff members, where people of a common faith gather for weekly worship and Bible study, a variety of fellowship, program, and service ministries, youth programs, education, etc.
churchn the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.
Increasingly we are unable to sustain the first definition of church. That first definition represents a model of being church that was born in an era that has come and gone, an era in which church was seen as a prestigious community institution to stand alongside government and civic institutions. It is a way to do church that thrived on historically high rates of church participation, a culture that embraced (certain forms of) religion, and a post-war economic boom. It is a way to do church that was funded by an unusually high volume of offerings given faithfully by the unusually high numbers of people who attended church. Lots of good and faithful ministry happened in this model of being the church, but it is a model that does not thrive in today’s cultural and economic climate as much as it did in the past.
Today, church participation rates are leveling out in relation to historical trends. Today, the church does not have as vaunted a privileged place in society as it once did. Today, household discretionary income is at historic lows, debt levels are skyrocketing, and good paying jobs for young and middle aged people are harder to find. Today’s culture and economy simply do not support the model of church that thrived in the mid 20th century.
Too often when we speak of “church decline” we speak of the inability to maintain the buildings and staffing and programming of the 20th century church. We speak of an inability to pay the bills. Fair enough. But buildings and staffing and programming (and money to fund these) are not the church. A lack of funds represents a decline in how we do church, but not in church itself.
People, gathering at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave to give God their praise and receive God’s many blessings – that is church. Or, to use traditionally Lutheran lingo, the church is “the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly” (the second definition, above, from the Augsburg Confession VII). Or, to quote Professors Wengert and Lathrop, “Church is not a noun; it is a verb, an event, or, to use the language of the sixties, a happening” (Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age, pg 27). Church is that encounter with God’s Word that puts sin to death and gives rise to a new creation. Such an understanding of church doesn’t require dedicated buildings, staff, or programs.
In some places the received model of church – building, program ministries, staff – is working well. Thanks be to God! Let us pray for the church to thrive in such a way! Yet in a growing number of communities this model of being the church is struggling.
Many of our attempts to renew the church today are aimed at renewing the 20th century model of church, at renewing the received model 0f church supported by a building, pastor, and programs. I hope and pray that such renewal efforts bear fruit, and indeed it seems that some such efforts are bearing fruit. Praise be to God!
Nonetheless, I think we need the creative and faithful imagination to conceive of, and the courage to be, church in drastically new ways, as well. Alongside familiar and renewed models of church, let us also live into new ways of being the church. Such new ways might look like extremely old ways (see Acts and the early church), ways that may have fewer of the trappings of the (beloved) institutional church. Such new/old ways of being church might have a different kind of intimacy, meeting in living rooms and coffee shops rather than in grand sanctuaries. Such new/old ways of being church may have less reliance on professional clergy and more reliance on the shared wisdom and faith of the community. Such new/old ways of being church might find an essential connectivity in social media, just as Saint Paul used social media (letters that were passed around among early Christians) to connect with and encourage the earliest Gentile churches.
Particularly in those areas where the received model of being the church is not thriving, but also alongside established congregations, such new/old ways of being church can renew our experience of a Christian community that gathers at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave. Such new/old ways of being church can faithfully gather God’s people around Word and Sacrament and be that community of sinners redeemed and saints sent into the world to love and serve.
The church church is not in decline as much as the way we do church is in decline. Let us nurture established congregations into ever more faithfulness and vitality, and let us also give birth to new/old communities that live into the promises of God in new ways for this new day.
You’d think it wouldn’t take much to learn how to give. Just reach into your pocket and give, right?
Of course, if you’ve ever spent time in a preschool, you know that there is often a reluctance in giving and sharing. Sharing toys doesn’t come naturally. Giving that toy to Bobby is even harder.
I was raised by parents who, each in their own way, were generous with their time and treasure. They modeled giving. As a young adult I strived to follow their model, often volunteering for and giving financial gifts to those organizations that were important to me, particularly the church.
But I didn’t start giving in a more significant, sacrificial way, until I met Larry. Larry hired me to work in the development office at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I was young, about to get married, and this was my first job where I was expected to wear a tie to work every day. I was working in fundraising, and after a few weeks on the job Larry asked me for my pledge.
Are all invited to receive the sacrament? All baptized Christians? Or, all baptized Christians who believe that Christ is truly present in the sacrament? Variations on these three invitations can be found printed in worship bulletins across our church.