Monday, September 17, 2007

From the Associate Pastor...

From the Associate Pastor…

Most Sundays at the conclusion of our worship service, you will find me near the door of the sanctuary greeting people as they leave the church for the day. Often as I talk with people at that moment, I will hear comments like “good sermon” or “I really enjoyed the service today.”

Now, on one hand, it is good to receive direct feedback. Our congregation is working on overcoming a long-standing “problem” of people not directing their feedback to the people actually responsible for something, instead just talking (complaining, usually) within a circle of friends—so that maybe the feedback reaches the person responsible third- or fourth-hand, giving that person no good way of actually responding or dialoging about the issue.

On the other hand, though, as a pastor these “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service” comments sometimes make me cringe a little bit. Part of this is for some reasons of principle: as a preacher, I don’t hope for a sermon to be “good” so much as I hope that the sermon conveys God’s goodness. I don’t hope for you to “like” the sermon so much as I hope the sermon moves you to faith, or to re-affirmation of your faith, so that you are driven to respond in some way. As a worship planner and leader, I don’t care as much about whether you “enjoy” a service as I do about whether the service enabled your prayer and praise to God. Worship is not like a concert or a lecture or a sporting event that you go to watch and then decide whether it was “enjoyable”; rather, it is something you participate in, something you receive signs of God’s grace through, and something that ultimately is directed toward God, not us.

Perhaps in our tradition within Christianity we have lost the ability to think and speak about worship and preaching in this way. By the 1950s, we had reached such a great misunderstanding of our tradition that worship had become simply about “going to hear the preacher”, an understanding of worship from which we are (slowly) working ourselves away. We lost the sense that people needed to be “formed” as Christians, which is one of the things worship helps do, because society simply assumed that people already were Christians and already knew what that mean (which, it turns out, was a very misguided assumption). Or, on another thought, perhaps our worship still is not participatory enough for us to be able think about worship as the worshipper’s actions and as receiving from and giving back to God. (As a side note, though, to those of you who too readily agree with the idea that our worship is not participatory enough, it seems that as soon as we do try something in worship that involves more active participation, that is when we get accused of doing things that are “too Catholic”.) Or perhaps Mike and I need to do more to ask you about why you liked a sermon or a worship service.

But anyway, aside from these issues of principle, there is another reason I am sometimes disheartened by the “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service” comments: quite frankly, I am not the one you should be telling that to. If you think a sermon, or preaching at Second Congregational in general, is good, you need to be telling that to all the people who aren’t in worship here. If you found a worship service “enjoyable”, there is someone who wasn’t here that needs to hear that. We need to generate excitement about what goes on in worship among the 300 to 400 of our members that aren’t in worship on any given Sunday—give them the sense that they’re missing out on something. Many of these people are people you already know and talk to: tell them about the “good” sermon or how “enjoyable” the service was. And, not only do our own members need to hear this, to be reminded that they’re missing something really fabulous whenever they’re not in worship, but we need to be spreading this word to others who aren’t yet part of our church community. You think Mike or I give “good sermons”? Great, now tell that to someone you know who’s never been here to hear them. You think our worship services are “enjoyable”? Great, I’m sure one of your friends or coworkers or relatives or teammates would find them enjoyable too. Really, it’s no different than telling them how “good” the food is at your favorite restaurant or how much you “enjoyed” the concert you went to last week.

So, by all means I do not want to say that you shouldn’t give Mike and I feedback, even if it is just “good sermon” or “enjoyed the service”. But, for every time you say that to us, I challenge you to say it to at least one other person who wasn’t here to experience it.

Peace, Pastor Matt

This is an article I've written for this week's church newsletter.

"'I may be the most famous deity you don't really know.' --God" -- A Sermon for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“‘I may be the most famous deity you really don’t know’ —God”
A Sermon for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
September 16, 2007

Have you ever wondered why certain things are so popular and well-loved? Like, a particular food or soft drink. Or, maybe a certain baseball team even though they haven’t been to the World Series in 62 years (that's a reference to the Chicago Cubs). Well, this week I’ve been wondering about a hymn—yes, a hymn… don’t worry, I do have a life—namely the hymn “Amazing Grace”. “Amazing Grace” is probably the most widely-known hymn in the English-speaking world—mainline Protestants like us sing it, conservative evangelicals sing it, Roman Catholics sing it (this I know first hand, having been at a Roman Catholic mass where it was sung). Certainly even some people who are not Christians find the song compelling. But why is it that people love “Amazing Grace” so much?

Now, for me, I am someone who usually says I like a song more often because of the music than the words. There are plenty of songs on pop and rock radio stations that I like even though I never paid attention to the words. With “Amazing Grace”, though, I’m inclined to think that it’s more than just the music. I mean, the tune is lovely enough, but from a musical standpoint, it really isn’t all that interesting.

Besides that, you can take the tune and put it with any number of other lyrics, but the results just aren’t quite as compelling. For instance, you can sing our opening hymn this morning, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” to the same tune we use for “Amazing Grace”: [here I sang to demonstrate this] Now, that’s perfectly nice, but at least I don’t think it’s quite the same.

So, anyway, what that gets us around to is that there must be something about the words themselves. The message or story that the words to “Amazing Grace” convey connects with people at a very deep level. No matter what mask we try to wear or what airs we try to put on, I think most all of us have some experience feeling lost or abandoned, some ‘dangers, toils, [or] snares’ that we know or fear. When we are willing to let our guard down just a little, we see brokenness inside us or brokenness around us that we cannot help but participate in or brokenness that we have been the victim of. As much as we sometimes don’t like the word ‘sin’, and as much as we try to pretend that we aren’t guilty of sin—and even as much as we know that there are some Christians who use the language of sin to wrongly assault and victimize people—even with all that, when we are willing to look at the truth of our experience, we know what it means to be lost, to be less than what we were created to be, to be a “wretch”.

Of course, if “Amazing Grace” were all about being lost, I’m sure it wouldn’t have nearly the popularity it does. “Amazing Grace” is also the story of being found—in fact, it is first and foremost about being found. As much as I believe that most or all of us have some experience will feeling lost and broken, it is my hope that we also know what it is to be found. Somewhere along the way, we have felt a warm embrace, an set of open arms, a light amidst the shadows, a word spoken at just the right moment in our lives—the grace of God. Even for those of us who have grown up amidst caring communities and the life of the church, I suspect there has been an experience when this grace became more real, more tangible—even if it was only someone handing you a piece of bread and saying “the body of Christ, given for you.”

So, if our attachment to “Amazing Grace” is because it tells a story of being lost and being found that we know ourselves, I would think it should be easy for us to identify with the two parables Jesus tells in this reading from Luke this morning. The sheep is missing. The coin is no where to be found. And—just like how in “Amazing Grace” the words never speak of searching out God’s grace, but rather simply of being found—the sheep and the coin don’t do anything. Rather, the shepherd and the woman go looking for them. The shepherd even leaves his other sheep at risk in order to restore the lost one to the whole. And the point is fairly clear: God is that shepherd; God is that woman. God lights a lamp and searches her house to restore us into her treasury. God risks danger and offense to one part of the flock in order to find us, so that the flock may be whole again.

But, even though it would seem that we have an easy time hearing and identifying with these stories, it was not so with the Pharisees who first heard them. They didn’t want to hear about restoring the whole, bringing the outcast into the community, welcoming the sinners. It’s not that the Pharisees were evil, heartless, legalistic men, as sometimes Christians have claimed out of the evils of anti-Judaism. Rather, in the midst of the compromises that had been made under the thumb of the Roman authorities, the Pharisees needed to be clear about how the Jewish community was defined. If they let just anyone in, like Jesus was doing, it threatened the whole system that ensured some illusion of ‘security’ and that kept the Pharisees in power. And so, for the Pharisees, their religion and, as a result, their image of God was about law and purity and boundaries and respectability, at least as Luke pictures it (see note at end). The God they knew was solely interested in the righteous.

You know, though, I can’t help but thinking that we get caught there ourselves sometimes. For many decades, churches like ours all across this country got caught up in being ‘respectable’, in trying to maintain their place in American society. Even today, there are too many of us who worry about speaking up about the controversial issues of the day because someone might get offended. We can’t stand up against the evils of war, we can’t welcome into our midst the illegal immigrants or the gay people or the single mothers on welfare because what would people think of us then? For too long, the God we seemed to know was mostly concerned with making us “nice” and forming us into good citizens and giving us some pointers on how to live a good life.

But, like a certain presidential candidate complaining about her impersonal image recently, God has come to us saying something like “I may be the most famous deity you really don’t know.” If the God we think we know is about rationality and rules and respectability, then I think we don’t really know God very well after all. That’s certainly not the God we see in today’s parables from Luke. Just the images alone begin to shatter that picture: God as a shepherd in a culture that saw shepherds as poor, shifty, and unclean; God as a woman in a time when women had almost no status in society. But even more than that, we have God taking the initiative to find the lost, to restore every last part of the community to wholeness, even putting the many at risk to save the one. It’s that same irrational God that hear about in 1st Timothy, the God that would choose the foremost sinner to become the most famous apostle. It’s that same irrational God that we sing about in the words of “Amazing Grace”, a God that would save a wretch like me … and that same God that would choose ordinary things like spoken words and water and bread to be the instruments of divine power among God’s people. And of course, it’s the same God that did that most irrational and un-God-like act of all: to become human, one of us, and even to die for the life of the world.

The challenge is before us: We can get caught in that image of God to which God says “you don’t really know me”, or we can live in the knowledge of the God who seeks us out, the One who finds us even when we aren’t looking to be found. And likewise, we can grumble like the Pharisees when we see that same God seeking and finding others, even at our risk, or, remembering the joy at our own finding, we can join in the party God is throwing. And as we join the party, we can take on our calling to join with God in sheep and coin finding ourselves, that there might be even more rejoicing.


Note on my disclaimer "at least as Luke pictures it": I include the “at least as Luke pictures it” disclaimer in recognition of the fact that some scholars believe that the picture of 1st century Judaism in the New Testament is skewed to serve the interests of early Christian communities in conflict with their non-Christian Jewish contemporaries (the roots of what we know now as rabbinic Judaism). It is important to acknowledge that Luke’s picture of the Pharisees may not be accurate, and that some of the images of Judaism (or at least the Jewish leaders) given in New Testament texts like this one have contributed to centuries of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and their resulting atrocities.