Thursday, March 1, 2007

How do We Worship in an Age of Amusement?

Here is Bob Herbert, writing in The New York Times:

“The nation may be at war, and al-Qaida may be gearing up for a rematch. But that’s no fun, not when Britney is shaving off her hair and Jennifer Aniston is reported to have a new nose and the thrill-a-minute watch over Anna Nicole’s remains is still the hottest thing on TV.
“It was Neil Postman who warned in 1985 that we were amusing ourselves to death. I’m not sure anyone knew how literally to take him.
“More than 20 years later, the masses have nearly succeeded in drawing the curtains on anything that’s not entertaining. No one can figure out what to do about Iraq or al-Qaida. A great American cultural center like New Orleans was all but washed away, and no one knows how to put it back together. The ice caps are melting and Al Gore is traveling the land like the town crier, raising the alarm about global warming.
“But none of that has really gotten the public’s attention. None of it is amusing enough. As a nation of spectators, we seem content to sit with a pizza and a brew in front of the high-def flat-screen TV, obsessing over Anna Nicole et al., and giving no thought to the possibility that the calamitous events unfolding in the world may someday reach our doorstep.”

In a culture in which we’re amusing ourselves to death, how do we worship?

We worship at the doorstep of one world: that is, we bring the world with us, and in worship we aren’t surprised to hear about the world. Worship itself helps us understand that there’s a place for discovery and disturbance in a religion whose Christ came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

But that’s not the whole answer, is it? The world is not what shapes and enlightens our worship. That would be the kingdom of Christ, his way of justice and right relationship, lovingkindness and peace. Which returns us to the question: In a culture that is amusing itself to death, how do we worship?

That’s a timely question because today our Lenten lunch discussions begin, and the first topic will be worship. The others, in order, will be Sabbath time, study, prayer, and giving. At 11:30 a.m. in the lower room, Jimmy Bergin and Sam Coughlin will be ready to lead our conversation, once we’ve enjoyed some soup and bread together. You don’t have to have signed up for this—just come. Soup stretches, and that’s a principle that goes back to a hillside in Galilee…

While we won’t expect five thousand people today, that miracle is a story shaped by the earliest Christians’ experience of worship. Simple verbs tell that story, for Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave those few loaves and fish which, by the multiplication table of God, became enough. You’ll notice that those same four verbs describe what Jesus did in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, where he took, blessed, broke, and gave bread to his twelve chief disciples. Ever since, his people have kept these actions at the heart of worship, celebrating the holy eucharist as “a perpetual memory of… his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” “Do this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.”

We do those four actions with more than bread. Consider the word “liturgy”, Greek in its origin, where the verb leitourgeo means “to perform a public service”, whether ritually in a temple or actually in society. Leitourgia could be ceremonial (as we heard in Deuteronomy today, the people bringing their first-fruits to the priest to lay before the altar) and it could be public office, public service, public ministry. The basic concept is “work of the people”, what it takes to hold the community together and help it move forward. And not only in worship: think of the Book of Acts reporting one of the young Church’s earliest decisions, to appoint deacons to see that the community’s widows and poor were fed.

On Tuesday, Bishop Scruton will gather the clergy of the Diocese, as he does twice a year, for a day of reflection and reporting. It’s a command performance. We’ll meet in the parish hall of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, a block away from our own Cathedral and Diocesan House, where the accommodations are much more appealing and effective than any we own. Plus, it’s cool to be ecumenical.

Sometimes at a day like this, the entire time will be set in the context of the holy eucharist. First will be hearing the Bible and, in table conversation, unpacking what we find in what we’ve heard. This may then lead into guided discussion of some practical question that’s apt to be a burning one for most of the clergy, and we’ll work at that for a while. Perhaps a presentation will follow, hearing from someone among us who has done his or her homework on that same burning question. Then at noon will come the Prayers of the People, and lunch. An hour or so of open mic time with the Bishop will then be followed by the Great Thanksgiving and Communion before we’re sent home with his blessing. (A vestry day away might be organized like this. It’s a miniature version of the monastic daily round of ora et labora, prayer and work.)

Let’s review that in terms of loaves and fishes. The Bishop takes authority and calls us together, gets us to sit down in one place for a day of gathering our sorry wits and sharing how our chalices are half full and half empty. That’s takes. Blesses would be our intentional lifting of our lives and challenges and gratitudes to God. Breaks might be all that opens us to one another and gets us sharing, including breaking silence, breaking isolation, breaking barriers between ourselves. Gives may include giving news, giving opportunities to strangers to become friends, giving up a day to do this, and being given a lot to think about. In Springfield, it could even include being given a parking ticket.

So what are you noticing? Yes, it sounds like church, doesn’t it? Catch that point: worship constitutes us, forms among us and within us a sense of being church, not so much here but in the world. I mean, this pattern of taking-blessing-breaking-giving can happen, as you know and probably have experienced, in a school gymnasium, in a field, in someone’s living room. Being church is not meant to be about being in church. Being in church IS meant to deepen, intensify, clarify our work in the world as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.

Which takes me one last time to the dictionary, where as a noun worship is defined as “worth, dignity, holding someone or something esteemed and worthy.” Acknowledging worth. Worth-ship. That’s how the word comes to us from the Old English.

In a culture that is amusing itself to death, how do we worship? We’ve been identifying the key components of worship: God who is esteemed and loved; the kingdom of Christ, which we find worthy of our allegiance; the world from which we have come and to which we return and so we keep with us; and… us, the component of community, the people whose work in ceremony shapes their expectation of themselves in actuality. Us, the two or three it takes (notice that familiar verb) to create community around a table wherever that table may be. Us, the critical mass it takes to support and realize our own expectations of worship.

At Annual Meeting, we noted that our numbers in worship on Sundays appear to be dropping. In the language of expectation, are fewer people expecting to worship on Sundays, or worship here on Sundays? We suspect that’s being observed in more churches than just St. John’s, though, happily, it’s just the opposite in some churches. What all this means is a subject worth our best attention. Since worship constitutes us, we need to take this subject, bless it, break it open, and give it our best. I expect that leitourgia will take us right out into our world to understand our culture. It could bless us by requiring us to talk to people, even people we don’t know! Our inquiry may need to break open some of our patterns that are cherished by some, confounding to others. And what will this give us? Opportunity to cooperate with God at-work in the world, the evolving of this church to better serve the communities among which we’re settled. Perhaps too settled.

Consider Jesus. Straight from his baptism, he is taken by the Spirit out into the desert for forty days of orienteering to prepare him for his public ministry, his leitourgia, shaping in him steadfast dependence upon his Father in heaven, sharpening his resistance to falsehood and his commitment to truth, honing his will to choose always what honors God by esteeming the poor and the vulnerable, as faithfully as a mother gathering her young.

Straight from his baptism. There is the unsettling power of worship. We may need repair at the end of a long week, but the Lord’s Day is the first in a week of new life, and this is not a chapel of ease. If worship trains us well, really gains our attention, we move straight from it to a renewal of fellowship, yes, but also to a practice of daily renewals—prayer, study, service—that do not wait for Sunday’s worship to revive the soul, and do not need Sunday’s worship to entertain.

What we will always need, and want, and rightly expect, is that in worship we communicate effectively, that the Word of God should be taken, blessed, broken open with such clarity and imagination as to cause the hearers to give God the best praise there is, being doers of the Word in daily life. We expect that music should call us to feel, and dance, and go deep with God. And that people should give to one another, one by one, some sense of their great worth and so become the us it takes to bless each other, to break our various bondages, and to give Good News freely to people with whom we live and move and work and play and have our being.

Three years ago, we put a lot of effort into experimentation with how we communicate during the parish eucharist. Over the past year and a half, a children’s sermon has become part of our pattern on second and fourth Sundays, and on first and third, this school year, Worship Outside the Box has been building a new setting and a new 9:00 hour for worship that is informal, enjoyable, brief, simple, imaginative. Those same adjectives are intended to describe a new midweek coffee-house chapel for teenagers, to start soon.

So one last thing we can say about how we worship is that we do it in a variety of ways, in a number of places: in the library for Worship Outside the Box and to end each Foundations class, in the upper room midweek, in classrooms during Sunday School, in homegrown times together perhaps around kitchen tables in our homes, at Sweetwood, in nursing homes, and during hikes on Mount Greylock, once even at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Always and everywhere…” we sing, “…it is right and a good and joyful thing…”