Putting Everything on the Table, In Faith – Acts 15

I haven’t been posting sermons here recently … but this one on Acts 15, and the bold faith of those first believers to trust in and be moved by the Spirit to do a new thing, is one I wanted to share. I believe that the church today is in an Acts 15 moment.

Preached on Sunday, April 28

Grace to you and peace, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.

“If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

This is sometimes true.
Leaders often take a pulse, barometer of people,
read what the people are already doing, and only then make decisions.

In the Early Church, the leaders of those first Church Councils decided
upon the Books of the Bible in large part simply by seeing and accepting
what the local churches, what the people, were already reading.
In American history, the constitutional amendment repealing prohibition
was less a bold act of leadership than it was an acknowledgement
of what people were already doing.

Sometimes, often, the people lead, and the leaders simply follow.

In today’s reading from Acts 15, the leaders made a profound decision.
Huge decision. Paradigm-shifting decision.
But, they were merely following what the people – and God’s Spirit – were already doing.
What the people were doing, what God’s Spirit was doing, was profound,
huge, paradigm-shifting.
The Council only recognized it and went along with it.

So what, exactly, were some of those first Christians doing?
They were doing a new thing in faith, in stark contrast to the tradition they received,
in stark contrast to the familiar ways of doing things,
and indeed, in stark contrast to God’s Word itself.
Indeed, on the surface, what they were doing was heresy – Spirit-filled, Spirit-led heresy.

You see, Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the first followers of his were Jews, too,
as were the broader group of Jews who followed his work closely,
including the Pharisees.
Devout Jews observed the Law as a sign of the promises God made to them.
Following the Law – including circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws,
and other such laws – was a way to live faithfully as God’s people,
to follow God’s command, to be a sign and a witness to the world of who you are
and whose you are.
These laws were a big deal. BIG deal. HUGE deal.
Even re-interpreted, so much of Jesus’ work has to do with the law,
and how it is to be followed.
Let’s think of groups today and their distinctive practices.
The Amish reject most forms of modern technology.
Devout Muslims stop everything and pray five times a day, and fast during Ramadan.
Vegetarians do not eat meat.
Vegans do not eat anything derived from animals.
These are distinctive practices that define a group.
Take away these distinctive practice, and the group might not exist,
or at least, might not have as strong an identity and be recognizable.

First century Jews had their distinctive practices. To be a Jew meant to follow the law.
Circumcision. Dietary laws. Sabbath. And more. That is what Jews did.
There was no other way to be a Jew, to be part of God’s chosen people.

And yet, the early Christians – who were Jewish –
had this crazy experience of God’s Spirit moving among them.
Jews from all over the world were coming to faith in Christ,
and Peter and the early Christians were proclaiming the Good News faithfully.
Last week we heard about an Ethiopian – a non-Jew, perhaps – who came to faith.
Philip baptized him.
Then, a few chapters later in Acts, Cornelius, a God-believing Gentile, a Roman Centurion,
is brought to faith and is baptized.
Two non-Jews, brought to faith.
Then, just a little later in Acts, a large number of people were brought to faith in Antioch,
and also these were non-Jews.
And these are only the ones we know about. Surely there were more.

God’s Spirit was moving in ways that were unknown, that were unsettling to the faithful,
ways that were considered heretical because God’s Spirit hadn’t done this before,
moving among the Gentiles in such a way.
God’s law clearly seemed to outline a different experience and life of faith.
Indeed, what was happening was contrary
to much of what they had learned and known about God.
Unsettling, disturbing, baffling … indeed!

But of course, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus
was also contrary to much of what they had learned and known
about faith and life and death and the way God works.
Indeed, a new thing was underfoot,
and it was unsettling and baffling to those committed
to the established ways of doing things, the God-given ways.
Yet, this new thing was an exciting, uncontainable opening to a whole new population,
a whole new segment of believers previously not considered part of God’s people.
Seeing this new thing at work,
the Council at Jerusalem decided to welcome the Gentiles into the church
without burdening them first with the requirements of the law.
No circumcision. No dietary laws. Just faith and baptism.
And in doing so, the leaders were simply affirming what had already happened,
what the people and the Spirit had already done,
with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Cornelius the Centurion, and the Gentiles in Antioch.
No circumcision. No detailed commitment to the distinctive laws of the covenant.
Just faith and baptism, and the life that flows from that.

I wonder what the Spirit might be up to in the church today,
nearly 2000 years after these events.
What is God doing among Lutherans, nearly 500 years after Luther
nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, starting the Reformation?
What is God up to here on the East Side, and here at Grace,
96 years after starting a new thing through those first saints
who established Grace English Evangelical Lutheran Church,
leaving behind the language and customs of their parents’ and grandparents’ faith?

What is that experience of the Spirit here that we,
established in our patterns and practices of faith for many years –
decades, and centuries –
patterns and practices that are legitimate and wonderful and life-giving,
as were the laws of Moses that fed those first Jewish Christians …
What is the experience of the Spirit
that we might need to work hard to grasp, see, and comprehend?
How might God’s Spirit be moving, how might God be at work in ways earth-shatteringly new,
unsettling, and perhaps even heretical and yet, simultaneously, powerful?

I ask a lot of questions here. I’m not entirely sure how to answer them.
But, let me say this. We have to ask the questions.
We have to put everything on the table.
Sacraments. Sunday worship. Music styles. Worship times.
How we spend our money.
What we expect of our members.
How we speak of God.
What and how we teach and live the faith – among children, and adults.
How we serve our community.
How we act toward one another, how we act toward others,
and how we respond to the real hurts and challenges in our world.
Even, what we eat and drink at Coffee Hour.
Everything on the table and up for negotiation with the movement of God’s Spirit.
Hold nothing back. Put everything on the table. Crazy, huh?

Those first Jewish Christians did just that –
they put their valued and beloved traditions – traditions and laws given by God! –
on the table for the sake of sharing the Gospel with those different from them.
These people were willing to mess with the very Word of God, the command of God,
for the sake of sharing this God with others.
Do you see that? Do you see what they did?
They took something they cherished, something they believed given by God Himself,
and they were able to set it aside for the sake of the outsider.
Rather than make the Gentiles become Jews, that is,
rather than make the outsiders become one of them,
they said “let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.”
Let’s make the church look more like the outsiders.

And you know how they did this, how they could make such a huge leap?
They knew the love and power and comfort of our Lord.
They knew that they could let go of something they cherished and enter into a bold –
and frightening – new future because Jesus was with them,
the one who died and rose again would not abandon them.
And so they let something go, they let something die,
knowing that a new life would blow through them in a new way.

They did this not out of any strategy for survival, self-preservation, or institutional renewal.
They did this in faith in the One who promised to always be with them, unto the end of the age,
the One who comes among them, and us, as an outsider.

Dear friends, our Lord is with us, here and now.
Our traditions and practices, handed down to us over 96 years in this place,
500 years in the Lutheran tradition, and 2000 years of Christianity,
our traditions and distinctive practices of faith have told us this –
God is with us. God is faithful to us. God is not going to leave us. God is with us.
With this comforting knowledge, now what?
Are we at another Acts 15 time in history, at least of some degree?
I think we are.
Where is the Spirit of our God blowing now? Let’s look outside and see.
And, wherever the Spirit is blowing, whoever is caught up in that Spirit,
however the church looks kicked up and remade in the Spirit’s movement,
we know this – Christ is with us.
Christ has been faithful to his church since Day One,
and He promises to be faithful until the Time to Come.
And that, dear friends, is good news.

Amen.

Do Worship Leaders Hide in Worship?

It is an odd proposition – do worship leaders hide in worship? Even though they’re standing up front, in the most visible part of the worship space, leading the congregation in prayer and praise and acts of worship, are they hiding in plain sight?

Maybe.

Capture - Bob Merrit lectern

Grainy screen-capture image from video of sermon by Pastor Bob Merritt of Eagle Brook Church, showing minimalist lectern.

I’m struck after visiting two larger churches on Sunday – an evangelical megachurch, and a large Lutheran church. At neither service did any worship leaders wear robes. Use of a pulpit, lectern, or altar was minimal, and when a lectern was used it was an attractive but slim, minimalist stand. Much of the service took place with nothing standing between the worship leader and the congregation – no bulky altar, no robe, no imposing pulpit.

I saw the worship leaders’ bodies. Their movements and gestures. Their flesh and blood. There were no physical barriers separating them and us. They were open to us and to God. Nothing separated us.

DSC_1123

Presiding at the Eucharist, behind the large altar.

When a worship leader wears a robe, their body is somewhat hidden, their legs are not even visible. Standing behind a solid altar and pulpit, half of their body is obscured. There is something vaguely decarnating (rather than incarnating) about the use of altars, pulpits, and robes; that is, there is something about this experience that minimizes (or reduces) the humanity of the worship leader rather than embracing or accepting of the flawed yet real flesh and blood of the leader. When a worship leader wears a robe, the only thing that is not covered up is the head – prioritizing thought and speech over other aspects of their carnality. I wonder if we like robes precisely because of this decarnating, flesh-minimizing – even neutering – effect. That might be the case, but I think it could be to our detriment, and to the detriment of our mission.

DSC_0975

Preaching in/behind a wonderful, yet massive, pulpit.

When we minimize the real flesh and human body of the worship leader, we do something to the worship leader that we don’t do to the rest of the congregation. The leader is covered, robed, and somewhat beyond flesh. Yet the congregation is very fleshy, very carnal, very real. No robes for them. Nothing hiding them and their imperfections. The congregation comes before God and each other as they are. The worship leader doesn’t, but instead wears a covering.

The altar, pulpit, and robe are literally physical barriers that hide the worship leader from the congregation and which create a distance between the worship leader and the people with whom they are worshiping. Furthermore, in many of our churches, to use the altar the worship leaders often have to stand about as far from the congregation as they can while still being in the building, in order to get behind the altar that is against a far wall.

I understand that the altar, pulpit and robe all have their purpose and powerful symbolic meaning – drawing attention to the ritual act and the Word proclaimed rather than to the person leading that ritual act or proclaiming that Word. Nonetheless, I wonder if in our care to draw attention to the Word and Sacrament in such ways we don’t unintentionally create barriers and lose out on the chance to be a bit more honest about our carnality, our fallen flesh and blood, through which God promises to proclaim Good News and do great things. I wonder if we don’t miss out on the chance to cultivate a more personable, relatable experience of worshiping the God who comes to us in the flesh and blood of the person of Jesus Christ.

You’re not going to see me leading worship in jeans and a flannel shirt any time soon. But I am wrestling with this issue of how the way we worship shapes our messages, intentionally and unintentionally, for longstanding members and visitors alike. The way we use furnishings and liturgical garb in worship deserves scrutiny, particularly as cultural norms change over the years and the ways in which received patterns of worship may or may not carry with them the same meaning as they did in previous generations, particularly for those not raised within our church traditions.

Pastor’s Approach: Funerals

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. A few months ago I wrote about funerals, but hadn’t yet posted the article online. To see other articles in this Pastor’s Approach series, click on the Church Newsletter category tab.

When someone dies, loved ones – family and friends, neighbors and church members – need space to grieve, to remember the deceased, and to give thanks to God for their loved one’s life. A church funeral service is an important part of the grieving process that may also include a visitation at a funeral home, family’s home, or at church; a reception where friends and family gather to tell stories through laughter and tears; a public act of memorial, such as planting a tree or donating a park bench in memory of the deceased; and any one of many other possible acts of grieving and remembering the deceased.

The Funeral Service
The Christian funeral service is a chance to come together to hear God’s promises for the deceased and to take comfort that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). In the Christian funeral service we remember the baptism of the deceased by draping the remains of the deceased in white, the color of baptism and resurrection, and splashing the casket or urn with baptismal water. We hear from Holy Scripture words of God’s comfort and promise – comfort for those who grieve, and promise that the deceased is in God’s everlasting care. We sing such promises in hymns and/or hear them sung in a solo music.

Holy Communion is celebrated, as we believe this sacred meal to be a mystical gathering of God’s people – from the past, present, and future – around our Lord’s table of grace, mercy, and life. The deceased, and all those who have gone before us in faith, are truly in communion with us as we share in this sacred meal. Only in cases where significant portions of the funeral gathering would not receive – ie, if a large portion of the family is not Christian or cannot receive Holy Communion in a Lutheran Church because of the teachings of their faith – would we consider not celebrating the sacrament.

At funeral services we give thanks to God for the deceased and commend the deceased’s remains to God’s care. One or two remembrances (eulogies) are shared in the service, about 3-5 minutes each. If additional people would like to speak about the deceased, the reception is a very appropriate time to do this. In the sermon I strive to weave stories of the deceased into the story of God’s saving and gracious work in the world, and so in this way to tell the story of God by, with, and through the story of the deceased. A prayer near the end of the service, said with a gesture blessing the deceased’s remains, asks God to gracious receive the deceased into everlasting care.

Funeral Service, or Memorial Service?
A funeral service is one at which the remains of the deceased are present, and is often held within four to eight days of death. A memorial service is very similar to a funeral service, though the remains of the deceased are not present. Though there is no religious teaching in our faith that requires funerals to be held within a certain timeframe (as our Jewish sisters and brothers traditionally have the funeral within a day or two of death), funerals taking place within a week of death give family and friends a meaningful and timely opportunity for grief, prayer, and mutual comfort. Memorial services are held at a later date, when funeral services are not being held closer to the date of death, or when the funeral is held in one location and a memorial service is desired in a different location.

Services need to be scheduled with the church. Though the church and the pastors have schedules that are generally flexible, there will be times when other church events, pastors’ vacation time, or other extraordinary circumstances would prevent the church or pastors from being available at particular dates and times. In these rare circumstances, we should work to find another date for the service, or seek out another location and/or another clergyperson for the service.

Full Body Burial, or Cremation?
The Lutheran church teaches that cremation is a perfectly appropriate way to care for the deceased’s remains. Remains are appropriately buried at sea or in the earth, giving a dignified final resting spot to the deceased. Burial of remains – cremated or not – often takes place immediately following the funeral service, but may also take place at a later date.

Make Some Plans
I encourage everyone to consider making preparations for their death – medical plans, financial plans, legal plans, and yes, funeral plans. If there are hymns or readings that are your favorite, or that you believe would give comfort to your family members upon your death, write those ideas down. Come and meet with me to talk about your funeral, or that of a loved one. I work with surviving family members to make appropriate selections of Scripture and hymns for a funeral, whether or not the deceased has given us any indication of their preferences for a service. Nonetheless, your notes – given to the church office, or left at home in an accessible place – will bring comfort to your family and help us honor you in an appropriate way upon your death.

Looking ahead: At some time in the fall, I will offer a workshop on funeral planning.

Pastor’s Approach: Praising God, Honoring Country

I’ve been writing monthly newsletter articles about my approach to various aspects of congregational ministry – worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, and so forth. This month, I wrote about the intersection of patriotism and Christian worship. It is a variant on pieces I’ve written on this blog in the past. Below is what appeared in my congregation’s July newsletter.

The 4th of July is a wonderful holiday, celebrating our nation’s independence and calling all who live in this land to reflect on the freedoms we are privileged to enjoy in this land. There will be flags waving outside of houses – including my house – and parades with red, white, and blue processions, and store aisles filled with patriotic products. Yet at church we don’t make patriotic celebrations a centerpiece of our worship or fellowship. This is intentional.

When Christians gather for worship on Sunday mornings, we gather around the Risen Christ, the Living Word of God. Worship is a time to give praise to the God of our ancestors for the grace and mercy He has shown to us, most clearly through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hymns and songs are part of the proclamation of the Word of God. Hymns allow us to simultaneously proclaim and hear God’s Word through the gift of music. Yet if a hymn’s theme is secular, and cannot be reasonably understood as giving praise to God, it is not appropriate for Christian Worship.

Our worship services include – and our tradition demands – that we pray for our government and nation, and especially for those in positions of leadership. This we do every Sunday, and on occasions of national holidays those prayers are carefully crafted.

And at times the church even hosts special times of prayer and worship on occasions of national significance. But even when we gather to pray for our country, the prayer and liturgy remain Christian in character, and are not patriotic ceremonies. In these gatherings national concerns guide the selection of readings, hymns, and prayers, but such worship services remain Christian worship services in which the faithful gather around God’s Word.

Outside of those times that are set aside for worship, Christians are called to active engagement in the civic life of our country and our community. Christians should enthusiastically and patriotically attend civic celebrations, memorials and ceremonies. Though waving the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance is not appropriate for Christian worship, let us wave the flag in the local parade and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the town square. “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” is a beautiful anthem, and appropriately sung underneath the beautiful sun-lit or firework-streaked sky at a civic gathering.

There is a time and a place for everything – and though we pray for our nation in church, worship is not the time or place to celebrate our patriotism. As Christians, our central celebration is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Hope of all nations and all peoples. We don’t cease being Americans when we come to worship, but neither do we come to worship to celebrate our American heritage. We come to worship to sit at the foot of the cross, to gaze into the empty tomb, to hear the Good News for us and for all people, and to receive the grace and blessings that can come only from God.

May you have a safe and wonderful Independence Day holiday.

—–
Our worship book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes several prayers appropriate for national holidays in a section called Civil Life, Government, Nations (pages 76-78). Below are two prayers you might consider using at a time of family prayer on July 4th or on any other national holiday.

Holy Trinity, one God, you show us the splendor of diversity and the beauty of unity in your own divine life. Make us, who came from many nations with many languages, a united people that delights in our different gifts. Defend our liberties, and give those whom we have entrusted with authority the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our sovereign and Savior. Amen.

Almighty god, our heavenly Father, bless the public servants in the government of this country/state/county/town, especially (insert name of elected leaders), that they may do their work in a spirit of wisdom, charity, and justice. Help them use their authority to serve faithfully and to promote our common life; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“That was fun. Are we doing it again next week?”

This past Sunday the children of our congregation gathered toward the end of the worship service to bless the Sunday School teachers, who were being installed as part of our Rally Day celebrations. After the blessing, we gave the kids tambourines, shakers, and maracas, and they led us out of the church as the whole congregation sang, "We Are Marching in the Light of God." It was very nice way to start the Sunday School year, and a great way to celebrate the ministry of children in our congregation.

Later that evening, my 5 year-old daughter said to me, "Daddy, that was fun, playing with the maracas in church. Are we doing it again next week?" We were not planning on doing it again, of course, but her question got me thinking about consistency in worship. Kids get routine. In fact, they need routine. Preschool and elementary school teachers know that routine is essential in creating a learning and nurturing environment for children.

Many years ago I wrote about the importance of routine in worship, with a blogpost entited "Variable (or Vagarious?) Liturgical Texts." I do believe that we are formed in life and faith through repeated action. This is especially true for children. How can we offer a consistent, patterned, and participatory environment for children in worship? Children's sermons are good, but are often a passive experience for children. Assisting with communion might be appropriate for one or two children, as would be serving as a lay reader, but these are not ways to include most of the kids most of the time.

However it is done, I believe that weekly worship should include a regular element that actively includes children in doing something they are capable of doing, and which engages them in some sort of repeated, ritual action. It might be a song that is sung weekly, becoming familiar and allowing even non-reading children to fully participate. It might be a liturgical gesture or action, such as the procession we did this past Sunday, that kids can perform week after week. Whatever it is, a repeated action gives our kids something familiar to do, a chance to develop comfort and even expertise at performing an act of worship, and thus allows them to feel more "at home" and at ease with the worship life of the church.

Questioning My Commitments to “The System”

I'll admit that this post is driven more by emotion than by careful thought … you've been warned!

I spent this past weekend immersed in worship and fellowship and games and Bible study and fun with about 250 Lutheran youth and adults from around the DC area. About halfway through worship on Sunday morning, in a room filled with adolescents singing and praying and listening in to the preacher, I leaned over to a pastor friend of mine and whispered,

"It's events such as this that make me question my commitment to traditional forms of worship and ministry."

In church it's as if we have this system that regulates and/or structures and/or guides our relationship with God and our experience of faith. It's a good system. I buy into the system. But at what point does the system take over? At what point does the church become an exercise of fitting people into a system rather than of being a place of holy encounter with God? And moreover, how do we define this system?

Sidebar: Yes, I recognize that I'm setting up a dichotomy that, in theory, is false. Surely "the system," well-executed, creates a place holy encounter. But I don't live or work or conduct ministry in theory. In practice, "the system" can and often does become a stumbling block to faith for many individuals and communities.

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The Gift of Worshiping with my Family

I'm a pastor.  I wear the funny shirt, the robe, the stoles.  I say the P parts of the liturgy.  I sit up front.  And I love it.

But one thing I don't love so much is that I no longer sit alongside my wife and children in worship.  Before I was ordained, I loved worshiping with my children. Yet I no longer worship alongside them, hold worship books for them, whisper instructions to them, or help them with their Bible story coloring sheet.  I do enjoy seeing their faces as they worship from my seat up front, and I cherish the opportunity to declare the forgiveness of their sins, and to place the sacrament in their hands.  But still … I'm no longer there, by their side, holding them, whispering to them, coloring with them.

Tonight I received a special gift as I attended my wife's cousin's wedding (yes, a wedding scheduled on the Monday after Christmas!).  There we were, Mommy, Daddy, and our two daughters sitting in the pew together (Naaman, our two year-old son, was more than glad to romp around in the nursery.  We were more than glad to let him!).  I held my 3 year-old up high so she could see the pastor's gestures as he said the Words of Institution.  I took her to the bathroom during the Prayers of the Church.  I struggled to hold a hymnal as I held her in my arms.  Yes, by doing these things, I wasn't tuned into every moment of the liturgy.  But I was participating and praying with my children, gathering with them around the table and at the foot of the cross, held with them within the Body of Christ and surrounded by the sights and sounds of God's people at worship.  It was a beautiful thing.

And so tonight I am grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift – the gift to worship as a family. I wouldn't give up my job for anything.  I love what I do.  But I also love when I get the chance to worship alongside my wife and children.  Thank you, Ben and Marissa, for getting married this evening.  You've given me a wonderful gift!

Blessings to Ben and Marissa, and to all in this Christmas season.