Tradition (May 8, 2012)

…Opening To…

The purpose of the worship of God is to help us see our dependence on God and the vast resources that God wants to lavish on our lives. (Ian S. Markham)

…Listening In…

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. (An excerpt from The Nicene Creed)

…Filling Up…

Our fifth moment in our worship service links us to all of the followers of Jesus Christ that have gone before us. We speak the words of the Creed (usually the “Nicene” Creed), thus setting ourselves in the tradition of our forebears who transmitted the faith to us. The church has survived for as long as it has because of this transmission of tradition. The church has gone through its difficult periods, its divisions, its dark times, but it has persisted, flourished even.

The Nicene Creed was compiled through the work of the First Ecumenical Council held in the year 325 at Nicaea in modern day Turkey. A main topic of discussion at the meeting had to do with exactly who Jesus was. Was he, as the Second Person of the Trinity, of one being with the Father, who is the First Person of the Trinity? Or was he just a really swell guy, the best person ever, but still a being created by God and thus not one with God? The latter view was pretty popular, but there was a big problem with it: if Jesus were just the best person ever, then worshiping him was idolatry.

So the Council promulgated the former view – that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was of one being with the Father, who with the Holy Spirit was one God in a Trinity of persons. It wasn’t as cut and dried as these two paragraphs make it out to be, but that’s the gist of what happened.

The important thing to remember for our discussion is that we are inheritors of this tradition. We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, and so on and so forth. Whenever we say these words, we echo the billions of people who have said them before, thus linking us with the great cloud of witnesses that supports us during our worship.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for guiding your Church through all the changes and chances of this life, even as we are imperfect in our devotion and our action. Help me to pass on the faith to my descendants as it was passed on to me. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to have the opportunity to worship you freely and to bring my weekend worship into my weekday life.

Live the Good News (May 7, 2012)

…Opening To…

The purpose of the worship of God is to help us see our dependence on God and the vast resources that God wants to lavish on our lives. (Ian S. Markham)

…Listening In…

Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written. (John 20:25; context)

…Filling Up…

Our fourth moment of our typical worship service is really several moments stitched together. In a standard service, we read several items from the Bible, and then a preacher delivers a sermon inspired by something in one of the readings. Rather than giving the sermon its own moment, we weave it together with the readings because the two shouldn’t be separated. We call the readings “The Word of the Lord,” and we hope to hear a message that is a word from the Lord. Faithful preaching is a mysterious mixture of study, prayer, listening, and proclaiming, all wrapped in trust that the Holy Spirit is present in the spoken word so that the lowly words of the preacher might be elevated into lofty inspiration from God.

But let’s back up a step and look at the readings. In a typical service, we read a lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (often called the “Old” Testament), a portion of one of 150 psalms (which were basically the hymnal to the ancient Hebrews), a lesson from the New Testament (usually part of a letter written to a church or a person), and a lesson from one of the four accounts of the Gospel. We bring the Gospel into the midst of the people as an example for what the Gospel calls us to do; that is, to bring the Good News (which is what “Gospel” means) out into the world through our proclamation, our service, and our love.

The sermon follows the readings not only because its purpose is to elucidate them, but also because the sermon shows that the Word of God is still alive. The sermon takes the passages from the Bible, which have been set for nearly 2,000 years, and shows what happens when the Holy Spirit encounters us through the text. In each sermon, the Holy Spirit breathes new life, new interpretation, new interactions between us and the Word. Every sermon, therefore, is a life-giving engagement with God’s Word, with God’s Good News.

Thus, our fourth moment is about meeting God in the ancient text, which is just as alive now as it was 2,000 years ago. Because it is alive, it can seep into our beings and dwell within us, animating us to be God’s messengers to a world sorely in need of good news.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son Jesus continues to move in our lives and continues to write his good news on the vellum of our hearts; help me to be one of the scrolls that he is writing, that the world may be filled with your message of love and hope. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, glad to have the opportunity to worship you freely and to bring my weekend worship into my weekday life.

Rejoice Always (May 4, 2012)

…Opening To…

Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

…Listening In…

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer. For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen. (The Gloria)

…Filling Up…

Our third moment in our 12 part series follows directly after the second moment. For most of the church year (excluding Advent and Lent), the familiar words above follow the Collect for Purity. They make up what is known as the “Gloria” (short for “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” which is just the first line in Latin). For much of the church’s history the Gloria actually came near the end of the service, rather than near the beginning. The Gloria does good work in either place – either as a culmination of our praise or an introduction to it. But the current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer puts it at the beginning, so it is in that location that we’ll discuss it.

At the beginning of the service, the Gloria helps us to remember the first reason why we worship. We worship because God’s very being draws praise from us. Our fundamental nature as children of God includes the instinct to worship, and when we come together on Sunday mornings, that instinct plays out – not because God needs to be flattered or appeased, but because God’s love causes us to desire to praise.

But this praise doesn’t end at the conclusion of the Gloria or at the conclusion of the service. By praising God with these words week in and week out, we exercise our praising muscles, which helps us to live by Paul’s instruction to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5). We say the Gloria each Sunday whether or not we feel much like praising God, whether or not there is much to rejoice about. When we praise even if we don’t feel much life praising, we are not being hypocrites. Rather, we are acknowledging a truth about life – that even in our darkest days, there is always a glimmer of light; that even when we are being crushed by the weight of dire circumstances, there is always some small reason for joy. Sometimes just a sliver, but that sliver is a tether to the God who never abandons us and will patiently wait until we are ready to praise again.

…Praying For…

Dear God, because of who you are you cause praise to spring to my lips. Help me to notice your presence in my life so that I can be reminded to rejoice always in every situation, even when the joy is so hard to find. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, ready to order my life around your movement in it and hopeful that you will continue to show me the way.

Invitation (May 3, 2012)

…Opening To…

Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

…Listening In…

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

…Filling Up…

The prayer above in the “Listening In” section is called the “Collect for Purity,” and at a typical Episcopal worship service this is the first prayer of the day, following an opening greeting that varies with the season. A “collect” (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable) does just what you think it does. It collects (emphasis on the second syllable) the themes of the day into one prayer that acts as something of a thesis statement for that particular day’s worship. There is a “Collect of the Day” that changes every week, which comes a minute or two later in the service.

But this “Collect for Purity” doesn’t change. It is the same week in and week out. The Collect for Purity, then, is less about collecting the themes of the day and more about collecting ourselves to be ready to worship. With this collect, we open ourselves up to God’s action in our lives. We invite God into the space that God already inhabits, thus giving ourselves a better chance at noticing God’s presence.

The first line of the collect says three true things about God. By addressing God as the one to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, we ready ourselves to open our hearts. The beginning of this prayer helps us take our masks off, helps us take our guard down so that we can let God in.

The second part of the prayer asks God to send the Holy Spirit to inspire our worship so that we can love more perfectly, thereby “magnifying” God’s holy name. When you magnify, you makes something bigger and thus clearer. That’s what our worship does. When God opens our hearts, we can discover just how big and how close God is to us.

That’s the Collect for Purity, our second moment of worship. So with that, let’s pray it again.

…Praying For…

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, ready to order my life around your movement in it and hopeful that you will continue to show me the way.

Transformation (May 2, 2012)

…Opening To…

Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

…Listening In…

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “ All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. (Matthew 16:24-25; context)

…Filling Up…

Today, we begin our worship series with the first of twelve “moments” that happen during a standard Episcopal communion service. We’ll look at them in order, and although we won’t have the space to hit every piece of the service, the twelve we will look at will help us order our lives. So without further ado, the first “moment” is pretty much the first thing we do when we enter the church.

At the head of the procession an acolyte carries the cross. Have you ever wondered why we do that? There are a couple of reasons and the most obvious one can keep us from seeing the less obvious one. The obvious one is that the cross is the most recognizable Christian symbol of all – and Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him. What better way to remember that command than to carry one during our church services?

But the less obvious reason for carrying the cross into and out of the service has to do with what the cross represents. The cross is a made specifically to kill someone in a very painful, very public way. The Romans would line the main streets leading to cities with crosses to remind those they had conquered about the consequences of going against Rome. Thus the cross was a means to induce fear, which led to domination and control.

But Jesus changed all that. While the Romans continued to put people to death using crosses after Jesus rose from the dead, the trajectory of the cross as a symbol has arced toward freedom, love, hope, salvation and the constancy of relationship. These are the utter opposites of the Roman definition of the cross. The keyword here is “transformation.” Jesus transformed the cross from an instrument of death into an instrument of life.

We carry the cross into and out of church services to remind ourselves that when we are in worship, we too are participating in a transformative action. Worshiping God changes us, transforms us into better lovers, better servants, better people. And the cross is a symbol of that transformation.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son died on the cross, but through his rising again he took the symbol of death and changed it into a symbol of life. Help me, in my walk with him, always to choose life, that I may live a full and abundant life in you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, ready to order my life around your movement in it and hopeful that you will continue to show me the way.

Three Functions of Worship (May 1, 2012)

…Opening To…

Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

…Listening In…

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. (Acts 2:42-44; context)

…Filling Up…

For the next two and a half weeks, we are going to look at what happens during a standard church service – well, at least a standard one in the Episcopal tradition, the one to which I belong. We are going to look at some of the whys behind our actions and our words. I think this is important because of the third function of our Sunday worship.

Wait. The “third” function, you say. Oh, right, now I have to tell you numbers One and Two. Well, the first function of our worship is to give glory to God. The actual act of worshiping our creator is central to our…well…worship. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my favorite Greek words is the word for “worship.” It literally translates as “to bend toward.” When we worship God, we are like trees that bend toward the light in order more fully to drink in their nourishment. We praise God because God draws praise out of us, not because God needs the adoration. We praise because God’s very presence causes us to bend towards God.

The second function is the gathering of the community for support and building up of one another in the power of the Spirit. Again, I know you’ve heard this before, but it always bears repeating. “Church” is not a building. It’s a gathering of people who come together to worship God.

These first two functions of weekly worship are wonderful, but this third function of our liturgy is quite important, too. The third function is that the week in week out service gives us something around which to structure our lives. Each moment in the Eucharistic liturgy points to a way in which can live out each day. Over the next twelve days, we’ll look at these moments and see how they inform our daily walks with Christ.

…Praying For…

Dear God, we are unworthy to praise you, but, even as our praise falls short, you lift it up and sanctify by your grace. Help me to continue to worship you all the days of my life, in both my words and deeds. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, ready to order my life around your movement in it and hopeful that you will continue to show me the way.

 

*I have integrated into my ministry much of the content of the following three weeks from a wonderful little book by my seminary dean, the Rev. Ian S. Markham, called Liturgical Life Principles, which I recommend to you.

A Fragile euXarist

He wore a grey t-shirt sporting the American flag, shorts, and velcro sandals. When we entered the apartment, he was sitting on one of those big exercise balls and staring through the blinds into the yards beyond the fence. His supervisor greeted us at the door and called out to him to welcome us visitors. The young man at the door — bleached-blond, tattoed, pierced — looked more like a roadie for Alice Cooper than a 24-hour supervisor for a man with Fragile X syndrome.*

My friend had asked me to accompany her to visit her brother and bring him communion. He is not able to get to church much, she had explained, because of his condition, but the Eucharist means a lot to him. She had also explained that Fragile X is a genetic mental impairment that, in her brother’s case, manifested in cognitive disabilities and, on occasion, uncontrolled violent behavior. He will repeat the same phrases over and over again, she had said, and he’ll probably ignore you this visit — he usually ignores strangers.

She and I sat on the futon in the small living room, and she attempted to engage her brother in conversation. I kept my communion kit (which looks like a camera bag) slung across my back, and I leaned forward to catch what they were saying. Instead of talking with his sister, he continued to stare out the window and converse with his supervisor about the comings and goings of various neighbors. After a few minutes, he stood up and I realized how big he is — he could have played power forward at Duke, I’m sure. He went over to the dining table and sat down again, musing about his dinner options. He wanted french fries with ketchup. My friend was patient, and every time she tried to engage him, he responded a bit more. After a while, I could tell that the two siblings had started playing an old game — she knew he was listening and now he was just pretending to ignore her. His responses to her queries, randomly nonsensical moments ago, were now humorously nonsensical. We all laughed about french fries and ketchup and about the lady in the apartment upstairs.

After a few minutes at the dining table, he wandered back to the exercise ball, produced a pack of bent playing cards, and began to shuffle them. My friend asked him if wanted communion. He started staring out the window again. She turned to me and suggested I start unpacking my kit. I unzipped the bag and took out the corporal — sort of a liturgical placemat. On the corporal, I placed the paten (plate) and chalice (cup). As I set out the vessels and tipped some wine into the chalice, he stopped shuffling and started watching. He picked up the Bible and leafed through it while I turned the pages in my prayer book. As I prayed the prayer of consecration, I found myself unconciously emphasizing the simple words in the prayer — words such as food and drink and life. I finished the prayer, my friend and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her brother, still holding my Bible, looking on, and then I broke the Bread. I brushed his hand as I gave him the Body of Christ, and, in that touch, I could feel the presence of Christ in our midst. He was there, as he had been our whole visit, and he made himself known in the sharing of his Body and Blood.

After sipping from the cup, I cleaned up the kit and repacked it. I found myself wondering how much my friend’s brother had understood of what we had just done. Then I stopped short. How much had I understood? I said the prayers. I laid my hands on the bread and wine. I asked the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts. But even with all my schooling and all my study, I still don’t know exactly what happens in those holy moments of sharing in Christ’s Body and Blood. I don’t know how Jesus indwells those elements with his Spirit. I don’t know how ordinary bread and wine are changed to something that connects us bodily with the grace of our Lord Jesus. But I know that connection exists, that relationship is real. I felt it when my friend, her brother, and I shared that Holy Eucharist.

We do not have to understand fully to participate in the life of Christ. In fact, living a life in Christ is not about understanding at all. It’s about following, about having faith that Christ is one step ahead of you, guiding you. As Paul says, right now I know only in part, but I will know fully, even as I am fully known. God is the one who understands. God is the one who, indeed, stands under and holds up everything that we hold true and good. Living a life in Christ cultivates that deep relationship with God that both brings some understanding, but also (and happily) removes the need to understand.

There’s a phrase in one of the postcommunion prayers in the Episcopal prayerbook: “Almighty and everliving God, we thank you…for assuring us in these holy mysteries…” I’ve asked myself many times how a mystery can be assuring. Mysteries usually thrive by keeping you wondering. But I think that’s the very point. If we understood everything about God there is to understand, God wouldn’t be God, and we’d be deluding ourselves. That was the problem with carved gods and graven images that were both worshiped and controlled. God reveals God’s very majesty and glory in the fact that the mystery abides. And the assurance comes when we cross that fine line between wondering and being lost in wonder.

I still wonder how much my friend’s brother understood about what we were doing. But I know now that understanding is a distant second to sharing — the sharing of the presence of Christ in our midst. My friend’s brother hugged her when we got up to leave. We said goodbye to the roadie-supervisor. As I left the room, I glanced back, and for a split-second, I saw Jesus balancing on that exercise ball.

Footnotes

*For more information about Fragile X syndrome, click here.

Eucharistic tachycardia

I woke up this morning with my heart racing. I clutched my pillow (which sports faded images of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C3PO, R2D2, and Darth Vader), took several ragged breaths, and waited for my heart to slow down. I had been sleeping. I wasn’t active at all. I don’t remember dreaming. I don’t have a heart condition. So why was my heart racing?

I had words going through my mind as I awoke: “On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said: ‘Take, eat: this is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’ ”

These aren’t just any words. In the Episcopal Church, these are some of the “words of institution,” which are part of the Eucharistic prayer. This is the prayer we pray to remember our place in God’s story of salvation and grace, to fulfill Jesus’ wish at the Last Supper, and to ask Christ to indwell the bread and wine with his presence so that they become to us his Body and Blood. “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving”; therefore, when we participate in the Eucharistic prayer, we corporately thank God for all the gifts God has given us, most especially the gift of Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s no coincidence that the word “corporate” comes from the Latin word for “body.” We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ (Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians). This sharing of Christ opens our eyes and hearts to the presence of Christ already around and within us. We are nourished to renew our commitment to our Lord, to proclaim the love of God, and to do the work God has given us to do.

In the final chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, Cleopas and his companion meet a wayfarer on the road. They are leaving Jerusalem, defeated and despairing. But the wayfarer sees their predicament from another perspective. They have the story all wrong, he says. And he reframes the story they know into a new story in which violence doesn’t overcome peace, hate  can’t snuff out love, and life kicks death in the teeth. They reach their destination and ask the wayfarer to eat with them. When he breaks the bread, they realize Jesus has been with them all this time. They remember feeling like their hearts were on fire when he was speaking to them on the road. And they race back to Jerusalem to proclaim that they have seen the Lord!

Maybe that’s what happened to me this morning when I awoke with Jesus’ words in my head. My racing heart was burning within me as I thought about what I will do for the first time this Sunday. I am being ordained to the priesthood tomorrow, and I am overjoyed to be celebrating the Eucharist for the first time this weekend. If idly thinking the words of institution gets my heart racing, how will I feel in two days time? Nervous, I have no doubt (in all the gesturing, I’m convinced I’m going to knock over a chalice). Nervous, yes, but my joy is overriding my nerves. This joy springs from deep within me, from the place where Christ dwells, speaking words of love and grace into the very core of my being. Now I have the opportunity to preside at a celebration of this joy with other people. This fills me with awe–awe that God would use me to make known God’s love in the world, would ask me to serve God’s people as a priest.

One of the Eucharistic prayers prays these words: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

Lord Jesus, please dwell in us so we can share your love in the world. Let us dwell in your presence, which infuses life with your nourishing grace and sets our racing hearts on fire.