Saturday, May 24, 2014

What We Do Here, Easter 6A

There he is, Paul standing on the steps of the Areopagis--a place that served administrative, religious and educational function for the Greeks--addressing an extremely well educated group of Greek Gentiles.  

Using philosophical terms that his hearers would have understood, Paul praises the Athenians piety and shows respect for their customs.  He references famous Greek writers in his explication of the nature of our relationship with God. He does all this because he is introducing a new vocabulary to a new congregation.  He takes a language with which they are familiar--that of the Greek writers and philosophers--and uses it to bring the good news of God in Christ.  He identifies a spiritual desire in the Athenians and using the kind of words and language with which they were most comfortable, sought to give them something tangible as “they searched and groped for God”.  

Searched and groped for God--what a wonderful phrase.  Isn’t much of what we do here in this community meant to help us see God made manifest in the midst of our searching and groping.  A God who is not far off, but near.  A God in whom we live and move and have our being?

Which causes me to wonder--does what we do here accomplish this goal?

A couple of weeks ago Sally, who teaches and conducts our children’s choirs, e-mailed me some questions that the children had about the music they were studying.  

“In hymn #518 (which they think is really cool that we’re singing it on 5/18), they wonder why is the church a “she”? And why is Church capitalized? And what or who is Zion?

In hymn #525 (the final hymn for that day), what is this “holy bride” stuff? And what about “with his own blood he bought her”?

I wonder how many of us, when confronted with these questions out of the blue, would be able to give an answer.  And, not just any answer, but one that a child of 10 or so could understand and relate to.

Now, I don’t ask this to put anyone on the spot, but because much of the religious vocabulary with which we are familiar (IF we have been raised in the church or pursued faith formation as an adult) is so utterly foreign to the language that is spoken in the day to day lives most of us lead.

I was an English Major (and I’m sure there is some Garrison Keiler joke about English Majors becoming priests, I think it’s right after the joke about English Majors becoming baristas) and one of the lamentations of my professors in undergrad was that many of their students were simply incapable of understanding the religious and metaphoric symbolism in the texts we read.  The truth of the matter is, that we do not live in a society that is biblically literate.  And, one of our challenges as a church is how to introduce an entirely new language to newcomers.  

The language of scripture, a language we take for granted.  But, not just the language of scripture, but the language of our liturgy and the language of our hymns.  

Verger, sursum coda, acolyte, creed, cassock alb, crescendo...

What does it mean when auto-correct does not recognize our vocabulary of faith?

How many of you have been in a country where you did not speak the language or at the most had a rudimentary understanding of the language?  Just enough to inquire about the location of the “facilities” and order a coffee.

For many visitors, we are that country.  A foreign land with unusual customs where the native inhabitants speak too quickly for ears that are just beginning to learn the rudimentary vocabulary of the place...

Some visitors will be enchanted by the sheer strangeness of the language we speak.  They will be open to the stumblings and misunderstandings of the learning process--and eventually will find themselves comfortable in the pews as they gaze at the rood screen and watch the verger pass by with the virges.  

Other visitors will feel awkward and uncomfortable.  The pew will feel hard and they will feel self conscious as they attempt to navigate their way up to the communion rail.  I have seen those faces--anxious lines drawn across foreheads as I administer the bread and whisper quick instruction.  People whose only experience of community singing was the last birthday party they attended.  People who are far more familiar with the media’s presentation of the Christian Right than with the actions of love we derive from our life of faith.    

Those are usually folk, who if by some miracle have made it through our doors, don’t come back.  They made the trip, they had an uncomfortable experience and the next time they take a vacation they’ll pick Disneyland over Paris.   

I am currently wrestling with how we might better prepare and welcome newcomers to our services and our tradition.  This question is important to me because our tradition is important to me.  I love our Prayer Book, the sacred rituals which frame our worship and the poetry of our prayer.  But, part of what I love is the comfort I find in the familiar.  I find it hard to worship when I don’t know what I’m doing.  But, is the most important thing in this space my own comfort with what we do?  

As the season of the church year change, we make changes to the liturgy.  We try on different “languages” in order to try and create a space that is accessible to everyone. Sometimes, this means that I find myself longing for the beauty and familiarity of the Prayer Book.  But, I work hard to set aside my personal preference for what “sounds right” in order to be open to the encounter with God in a new language (and sometimes that just means we’ve gone from Prayer B to Prayer C in our prayer book!).     

Attempts to make the language of “church” accessible are not new to our time or this place.  When I was researching the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”, written by Samuel John Stone in 1860, I was surprised to learn that it was written to explain the ninth article of the Apostle’s Creed--”The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints.”  The author used imagery he thought people could more easily “blood he bought her” and “holy bride”

I guess that in the 1860’s people would have heard the hymn and thought, oh, holy Bride, I get it now!  But, in today’s world, this hymn ends up needing a fairly thorough explication of the symbols used in order for the richness of its meaning to come through.  

So, in answer to the very specific questions posed by our young people:

one way we try to understand our relationship with God is through our own human experiences and relationships.  Thus, when texts refer to the Church as a bride or wife it is to invoke the sense of the deep commitment we seek to uphold in marriage and apply that same deep sense of commitment to our relationship with God--this metaphor of wife runs fairly consistently through much of scripture.  Church is capitalized because it operates as a singular, proper noun.  It is the collective body of the people that is the Church, the body of Christ.  Zion refers to both Israel as it exists in scripture, the temple mount, and the kind of city on a hill which we hear described as God’s kingdom.  The phrase “his own blood he bought her” emerges out of the sense that Christ’s death on the cross in some way redeemed us all (“her” the church) from sin.  

Just as Paul used language that would have been familiar to the Athenians, we too are called to speak in words that promote an understanding of God in a world searching and groping for God.  

So, here we are sitting in the pews of St. Clement’s--a place that serves administrative, religious and educational function for the Clemites--addressing an extremely well educated group of Minnesotans of diverse and interesting backgrounds.  Using cultural references that our hearers will understood, we praise the gathered people for their piety and show respect for their customs...

A respect that reveals the love of God to all of God’s children.  A respect that makes manifest the Spirit of Truth that Jesus promises will remain in a world that neither sees or knows God.

God’s spirit of truth lives within us.

How then will we show that truth to the world?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Because We Gather, A Sermon for Easter 4A

One of the gifts this congregation brings to the table is a passion and concern for liturgy.    People have spoken to me about their interest in creating and participating in liturgy which reflects our Anglican heritage, liturgy which emerges from our traditions as Episcopalians, liturgy with beauty equal to the beauty of this building, liturgy which emerges out of the specific context of this place and these people, liturgy which reflects our communities creativity and diversity.  

Exhaustive and thorough conversations mark every liturgical decision.  There have been at least three rounds of what were essentially Holy Week play by plays as various members of our community have discussed what they have felt worked and did not within those liturgies.  Yesterday, the liturgy and music committee met to engage in discussion about both our Holy Week and Easter liturgies thus far.  

We spoke about our mutual desire to craft worship that meets the needs of the gathered community.  We spoke of liturgy as the “work of the people” and discussed how the congregation’s participation is part of our liturgical expression.  We also continued conversation about adding to our liturgical offerings with worship services intended to meet, as yet, unmet needs in our community.  

Now, I tell all of you this because I want you each to know, that what we do here together emerges out of conversation, out of conviction, out of care, out of love.  I also tell you this because when I speak of liturgy as the work of the people I am attempting to make it clear that it is a work every single person in this room shares.  This is why I choose to begin my sermons with the prayer “May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight, oh Christ my strength and my redeemer”.  Yes, I am speaking but just as important as my words--and arguably more so--are the meditations of your hearts.  

How you hear and understand, how you encounter what we do here--is as important for creating meaning in our worship as any book, any prayer, any sermon, any litany.  In many ways, our individual encounter with the liturgy is the place in which we worship God.  

So, when I hear the words of the passage from Acts today, I am struck that what we do here emerges so clearly out of the traditions of the ancient church.

They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.

And so we do.  We gather to learn and we gather for community, we gather to break bread together and pray together.  

And, I truly believe that gathering together and participating in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship and the breaking of the bread and the prayers (what we refer to as going to church at St. Clement’s) transforms who we are, both singularly and in community.  

For the early church, participating in liturgy and the community that gathered around that liturgy led to a shared concern for those in need.  The ministry of worship created an environment in which the ministry for mission happened.  

To get less obtuse, or perhaps more (depending on how you hear metaphor!)--our worship is like a rock dropped into a pond--everything we do ripples outward from that central act.  

Without the rock, there would be no ripples...

Faith in Action, our involvement in Haiti and with Plant for a Purpose, Food Shelf, Men’s Group, Adult Education, Christian Formation, Pilgrimage, rummage sale, the choir’s trip to Durham Cathedral, coffee hour...and dare I say it, this building--would not exist without worship of God, in the context of community, at the center.  

What we do here is just the beginning...when I close the service using the words “our service here has ended, now our service to the world begins”, I do so with intention--wishing to remind us all that our worship matters to the world. 

What we do here matters “out there”.  

And, today I want to draw our attention to one of the ripples that emerged from this place this week.  This past week one of your fellow congregants, Elizabeth McGeveran, issued an invitation to gather in our chapel to pray aloud the names of the kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls--and with less than 24 hour’s notice, people came.  With a nearly full chapel, with prayer and candlelight, with love and care, these girls--beloved children of God, girls whose parents are frantic with worry, girls who are truly and most horrifyingly in the valley of the shadow of death--were remembered by name.

Because we gather for the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers--we are able to gather to lift up in prayer girls and women exploited and victimized half a world away.  Because we gather...

Because we gather we are reminded that our worship is one in which we proclaim resurrection and seek reconciliation for broken relationships.  And, our baptismal liturgy is clear--we must honor the dignity of EVERY human being.

Is it any wonder that we pray today for reconciliation and restoration, for the return of Nigeria’s abducted daughters?  They are girls who we will never meet but who we remember are children of God, just as we are children of God.  When we break and share the bread, we are reminded that we are intimately joined to all of God’s children--and therefore accountable to the wholeness of God’s creation, a creation that includes “all manner of men and women”.  

In an essay entitled “The Christ for African Women”, Elizabeth Amoah and Mercy Amba Oduyoye of Ghana write “The Christ whom African women worship, honor, and depend on is the victorious Christ, knowing that evil is a reality.  Death and life-denying forces are the experience of women, and so Christ, who countered these forces and who gave back her child to the widow of Nain, is the African Woman’s Christ.”

Imagine a context in which one can so easily write that death and life-denying forces are  the experience of women.  A context in which the thief comes to steal and kill and destroy.  This is a world deeply in need of healing.  And, we are a resurrection people called to the work of reconciliation.  The story of salvation has not ended...

We hear it within these walls and we carry it into the world.  

Because we gather.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A prayer for the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls #bringbackourgirls

Tonight, May 7th at 6:30pm CST, people are invited to pray aloud the names of Nigeria's kidnapped girls. Pray these names tonight wherever you are and feel free to share this invitation to prayer with others.  Feel free to use and adapt the following prayer, one I wrote for our congregation, as you pray.  
The list of names includes both Christian and Muslim students and was sourced from 
A Prayer for the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls
O God of Mercy, you who call us to release the captives and comfort the afflicted, we pray for the Nigerian Schoolgirls who were abducted.  May they find light in the darkness and compassion in unexpected places.  May they be a comfort and strength to each other and in this time of fear may they be emboldened by hope and strengthened by your presence.  
We pray for the searchers, that they may have the resources necessary to enable the safe return of these children.  We pray for their parents--sick with worry, grief, frustration and anger.  We pray for their captors, that they may find it within themselves to allow for the safe return of these girls to their homes and families.  
And, in the midst of these prayers, for these girls--we pray for change in a world in which women and girls are all too often treated as objects and commodities, in which there is a "market" for the sale and trade of women and children.  We pray for a world in which acts of violence against women and children are all too frequently met with complacency and silence.   
May we as a community of faith shine light into these places of darkness.  May we as a community of faith raise up all of our children to advocate for the marginalized.  May we as a community of faith stand against the powers that seek to destroy the bodies and minds of women and girls.  May we as a community of faith give witness to the truth that each child born on this earth is a beloved child of God.  
And, tonight we lift up by name the missing daughters as we too cry out #bringbackourgirls 
Deborah Abge Christian, Awa Abge, Hauwa Yirma, Asabe Manu, Mwa Malam Pogu, Patiance Dzakwa, Saraya Mal. Stover, Mary Dauda, Gloria Mainta, Hanatu Ishaku, Gloria Dama and Tabitha Pogu, Maifa Dama, Ruth Kollo, Esther Usman, Awa James, Anthonia Yahonna, Kume Mutah, Aisha Ezekial, Nguba Buba, Kwanta Simon, Kummai Aboku, Esther Markus, Hana Stephen, Rifkatu Amos, Rebecca Mallum, Blessing Abana, Ladi Wadai, Tabitha Hyelampa and Ruth Ngladar, Safiya Abdu, Naomi Yahonna, Solomi Titus, Rhoda John, Rebecca Kabu, Christy Yahi, Rebecca Luka, Laraba John, Saratu Markus, Mary Usman, Debora Yahonna, Naomi Zakaria, Hanatu Musa, Hauwa Tella, Juliana Yakubu, Suzana Yakubu, Saraya Paul, Jummai Paul, Mary Sule and Jummai John, Yanke Shittima, Muli Waligam, Fatima Tabji, Eli Joseph, Saratu Emmanuel, Deborah Peter, Rahila Bitrus, Luggwa Sanda, Kauna Lalai, Lydia Emmar, Laraba Maman, Hauwa Isuwa, Comfort Habila, Hauwa Abdu, Hauwa Balti, Yana Joshua, Laraba Paul, Saraya Amos, Glory Yaga and Naomi Bitrus, Godiya Bitrus, Awa Bitrus, Naomi Luka, Maryamu Lawan, Tabitha Silas, Mary Yahona, Ladi Joel, Rejoice Sanki, Luggwa Samuel, Comfort Amos, Saraya Samuel, Sicker Abdul, Talata Daniel, Rejoice Musa, Deborah Abari, Salomi Pogu, Mary Amor, Ruth Joshua, Esther John, Esther Ayuba, Maryamu Yakubu, Zara Ishaku, Maryamu Wavi, Lydia Habila, Laraba Yahonna, Naomi Bitrus, Rahila Yahanna, Ruth Lawan, Ladi Paul and Mary Paul, Esther Joshua, Helen Musa, Margret Watsai, Deborah Jafaru, Filo Dauda, Febi Haruna, Ruth Ishaku, Racheal Nkeki, Rifkatu Soloman, Mairama Yahaya, Saratu Dauda, Jinkai Yama, Margret Shettima, Yana Yidau, Grace Paul, Amina Ali, Palmata Musa, Awagana Musa, Pindar Nuhu and Yana Pogu, Saraya Musa, Hauwa Joseph, Hauwa Kwakwi, Hauwa Musa, Maryamu Musa, Maimuna Usman, Rebeca Joseph, Liyatu Habitu, Rifkatu Yakubu, Naomi Philimon, Deborah Abbas, Ladi Ibrahim, Asabe Ali, Maryamu Bulama, Ruth Amos, Mary Ali and Abigail Bukar, Deborah Amos, Saraya Yanga, Kauna Luka, Christiana Bitrus, Yana Bukar, Hauwa Peter, Hadiza Yakubu, Lydia Simon, Ruth Bitrus, Mary Yakubu, Lugwa Mutah, Muwa Daniel, Hanatu Nuhu, Monica Enoch, Margret Yama, Docas Yakubu, Rhoda Peter, Rifkatu Galang, Saratu Ayuba, Naomi Adamu, Hauwa Ishaya, Rahap Ibrahim, Deborah Soloman, Hauwa Mutah, Hauwa Takai and Serah Samuel, Aishatu Musa, Aishatu Grema, Hauwa Nkeki, Hamsatu Abubakar, Mairama Abubakar, Hauwa Wule, Ihyi Abdu, Hasana Adamu, Rakiya Kwamtah, Halima Gamba, Aisha Lawan, Kabu Malla, Yayi Abana, Falta Lawan and Kwadugu Manu
And, in silence we pray for those girls whose names are not yet known