Thursday, September 23, 2010

[worship] the macaroni metaphor

I'm working on a new project to be posted at this blog, and I suspect I will refer to this image a lot, so I wanted to give it a special post. I also, of course, hope that everyone in the field will adopt this model for theologies of liturgy, but that's a different issue.

The Kingdom of God is like this: in Sunday school, when I was young, we made Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day presents for our parents. For our mothers, we made jewelry boxes, for our fathers, paperweights. The medium was the same, though. We took an object (jewelry box, rock), glued macaroni to it, and spray-painted the whole project gold. Our parents (I imagine and can only hope) loved those projects, not because our parents lacked any basic aesthetic sense, but because we were our parents' children, and they loved us, and they knew we had spent time and love to make this gift that was, therefore, infinitely precious.

Our worship is like that. And it is exceedingly pleasing to our Divine Parent.

[all are welcome] let us/let us build a house/a house where love can dwell

The gathering hymn this morning is "All Are Welcome." It is #641 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (c)2006. It can be found in the section of hymns categorized as being about "Community in Christ." It was written and scored by Marty Haugen. Words and music are (c) 1994. Here are the lyrics if you want to follow along at home.

So, a couple of words about this hymn. One, it was cited at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [ELCA]'s Churchwide Assembly in 2009 as an argument in favor of the pro-lgb* resolutions (the issues on the table were ordination and marriage), and two, we sang it at my home church to celebrate the passage of those resolutions and three, we sing it at my home church as often as we can get away with it. It's a pretty great hymn.

*t intentionally left off; trans issues weren't addressed at Churchwide

It starts like this:

Let us build a house where love can dwell

The hymn is in the imperative voice. But it's a special kind of imperative. It's the kind of imperative with which people say, "Let's be friends." "Let's get married." "Let's start trying for a baby."

It's the kind of imperative to which the implicit answer is, "Yes. Let's." Let us do that thing that sounds so good when you put it like that. In fact, it reminds me a bit of this image from Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life written and illustrated by Daniel Erlander:

[image shows a priest in chasuble and alb and a nun in habit and wimple. She wears a cross necklace and a rosary dangles from her waist. The priest's hand is open and reaches to the nun. The nuns hands aren't visible. He says, "Would you help me set up a Lutheran parsonage?" She says, "I thought you'd never ask."]

The priest is, in fact, saying, "Let us build a house where love can dwell," and the nun answers, "Yes. Let's."

When we sing "All Are Welcome," we are the singers and the sung-to. We are the speakers and the one addressed. This hymn, like many in the section of the hymnal labeled "Community in Christ," takes advantage of the core reality of the genre hymn -- a hymn is meant to be sung by a congregation of the faithful. When we sing we sing each one to each other, reminding ourselves of our stories, our beliefs, our call, our relationship with each other. All hymns do this; hymns like this one do so textually. The primary meanings in this hymn can be found by understanding the words as being sung by and to members of a Christian community. The hymn is, in fact, very like a vision statement for a church -- we will do this thing (we will build a house where love can dwell; this is what it will look like). The imperative tone offers a gentle, ready challenge -- Let us. Yes, let's.

Because this is a sacred text, though, both speaker and hearer may also be understood as God. In some hymns (e.g., "I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry,") the image of the Divine Speaker and the human speaker are deliberately confused, tangled, become metaphors for each other. Nothing so complicated happens here, and yet -- this hymn is meant to be sung in a worship service in which the Holy Spirit has been invoked, and She is, in fact, the Master Builder. Any Christian project has implicit in its conception the participation of the Holy Spirit; without Her guidance we and all our projects are doomed to futility.

And just so, the words of this hymn are a gentle challenge not just from our fellow worshipers but from God. God is building a house where love can dwell, you see, and we are invited, asked, and encouraged to build that house with Him.

Let us build a house.

The house is, clearly, a church. It is also The Church. It is also the coming Kingdom of God. These meanings cannot be divorced from each other; Christian grammar demands that each layer implies the next. When we build our house, we are, in fact, building one room in a House of many rooms. But it is not an isolated building block, our house. Its relationship with the rest of the House is like the relationship of the various organs to a body, the relationship of all our worshipers to our church. Each different, each vital. When we build a house, we are building part of God's House, and the kitchen doesn't say, "I wish I were a roof," and the billiard room doesn't say, "I wish I were connected to the lounge via a secret passage!" All the rooms are essential and they are all connected, and in building our house, we build up the House.

Let us build a house where love can dwell.

"Love" here is not capitalized. That doesn't mean it's not a metaphor for God, though. God is love. When we build a house where love can dwell, we build a place where God can dwell. But this is a dwelling-place for God conceptualized differently from the Holy of Holies or any cathedral you have seen. The important thing about this house is not how much gilt adorns its pillars. This will only be a house where God can dwell inasmuch as it is a house where love, plain, uncapitalized, everyday love, can also dwell.

Yeah, uncapitalized love is really a sacrament of capitalized Love. It is one of the ways God chooses to make Godself known to us. When we build a house where love can dwell, the Love of God will be present there too.

The rest of the hymn will elaborate on what it means to build a house where love can dwell, and we'll look at it together. Most of the hymn is future and/or imperative. The refrain, "All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place," is present tense declarative, and I'll talk more about what that means (as a declaration, a prophetic word, a moment of eschatological immanence) when we come around to the first refrain. I'd also like to use the five refrains to discuss concrete issues of welcome that contemporary churches face, what it takes to bring that promise into reality.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

[sermon] the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)

[Sermon for the people of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church, preached 2010-07-25. Colossians 2: 6-19. Parts of this sermon have been (re)written and expanded and differ from the original proclaimed sermon.]

I don't usually use anecdotes about members of the congregation as sermon illustrations, because I was a preacher's kid and it didn't take me long to get royally tired of hearing stories about my bad behavior from the pulpit. But I am going to talk about a member of our congregation today.

Annie's not worshiping with us today, this precious little red dog, because she had this growth on her ear that turned out to be cancerous. She had surgery to remove the growth and the ear flap too, and now she's not doing so well, and her mother keeps freaking out when she sees little fatty growths on her dog's body because, let's face it --

-- growth is scary.

Paul tells the Colossians that the Body of Christ, the Church, "Grows with a growth that is from God," and that's Good News. But how do you distinguish it from the other kind of growth, the scary, creepy, insidious growth that is cancer?

That's the fear, right? If we grow, if we change, if the church shifts, maybe we won't be the Body of Christ anymore. Maybe we'll be a tumor.

Cancer is mutation. The DNA in cells mutates, and the mutated cells reproduce, and the cancer spreads and crowds out the Gospel cells.

The Body of Christ is doing its job (our job) when we're replicating the Gospel DNA at our core, spreading the Good News. There is one Gospel, but many ways to name it -- "God became flesh and dwelt among us," "In Christ we are forgiven," "Love your neighbor as yourself, and everyone is your neighbor," - and there are other articulations in word and song and art and dance and most importantly in these sacraments [touch water, bread] -- so this morning we're going to use Paul's articulation of the Gospel and remember that it points to the rest. Paul says that we died with Christ through baptism and are raised with Christ through faith in God. We are dead to sin and evil, we are not subject to death -- we are part of Christ, part of Christ's very Body. Good News. Good News indeed.

We share one Gospel the way every cell in your body shares DNA, but like DNA the Gospel is an amazing set of instructions. Each part of the Body of Christ serves the Gospel -- but we it in so many diverse ways.

So what is cancer? Cancer is anything that thwarts the Gospel, that holds at its core not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but some other message.

There are parts of the church that do not directly serve the Gospel, of course. The church is a millennia-old institution, and there is plenty of graft. If we were to go through our church we'd find plenty of paper and words and liturgy that aren't essential to the Gospel. They are beautiful and even useful, but they are not the core of our faith. We could lose the hymnal and still be Christians.

But that's fine. Or at least, that's inevitable. There are benign growths in the church, things that have been added on to the core of the Gospel that don't detract from the real work of living that Gospel. A budget, for example, is not essential. It doesn't, in itself, proclaim the Good News of our death and resurrection with Christ. But it is darned useful.

The worry comes when the mutant cells spread, when their importance overpowers the Gospel, replaces the Gospel. Paul gives us examples of cancers that threatened the church in his time --

like secular philosophy. That's something that comes into the church easily, and sometimes it's helpful. Secular feminism provided and continues to provide a powerful critique of the patriarchal institutions that inhabit Christianity -- a patriarchy that is itself cancerous, a patriarchy that seemed to be essential to the church but in fact masked the Gospel, which is a liberating word to all people.

I am a feminist. I am a big fan of secular feminism; it is one of my favorite secular philosophies. Feminism has a place in the church. But if feminism overpowers the Gospel, if the church starts spreading feminism and advocating for women's issues at the expense of being a Gospel church - then feminism has turned cancerous. It has distorted the original message of the Gospel.

Paul also gives the example of angel worship. "Angels", in Greek, are "messengers" - the same root as "evangelist," a Good-News-Bringer. There is certainly a cult of angel worship in our country, a belief in guardian angels and a delight in angel kitsch -- but there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

So, how do we tell the difference? When our church grows -- and let me give you a hint; this period of discernment that we're in is about growth -- how do we tell?

It is important that we know what the Gospel is, and judge all things against it. If we know who we are and what we believe, then the growth that comes will be Gospel growth.

But we must be prepared to fight cancer. The treatments for cancer are painful and hurt the whole Body -- chemotherapy is poison -- and it is difficult to eradicate deep-rooted growths. We must be prepared for surgery, prepared to remove parts of the Body -- keeping in mind that these parts may be structures or institutions but never people -- people are creatures, and sinners, and redeemable, and can never be entirely cancerous.

And we must be prepared, as we examine our growths, to be surprised. Those lumps on the back of the Body of Christ? Just may be wings. Amen.

[A week after I preached this, Annie, precious little red dog, went to be with God. I assume she has both ears now, and also wings.]