Monday, November 19, 2007

Thoughts on Advent Music

As the Advent season approaches, there's a debate going on in my congregation about what the appropriate hymns to sing are during these four weeks leading up to Christmas. Really, this is not a new debate: my congregation has had some of it before, and many congregations face a similar dilemma.

The struggle, as it were, is basically this: the pastors (myself and my senior pastor colleague), the music staff, and a portion of the congregation want Advent to be Advent, holding off on Christmas carols/hymns until the Christmas Eve services and for the Sunday(s) following that are the actual Christmas season. Another section of the congregation, though, doesn't seem to have much connection with the Advent season or its hymnody, and feels that we should be singing the Christmas carols in those Sundays leading up to Christmas. And, of course, there's probably the silent 'broad middle' of the congregation that doesn't have particularly strong feelings one way or the other on the matter.

In the debate going on in my congregation, I think there are actually a number of realities and issues playing into the dynamics of the debate--issues not directly connected to the debate at hand--and so I'm not sure it's helpful or appropriate to go into great detail about the specifics of how this debate is playing out in this place.

What I want to do instead, though, is give some of the reasons why I feel Advent is important, why I feel we need to let Advent be Advent.

1. -- There's a fairly basic issue about the integrity, harmony, and wholeness of the liturgy itself. Our congregation uses the lectionary to determine the scripture readings for each Sunday. As a preacher and worship planner, I find that worship services are much more powerful and meaningful when all of the elements fit with one another. Specifically, I try very hard whenever I am planning worship to see that the hymns and other music we sing fits well with the scripture readings, the sermon, and any other themes for that day (special celebrations, liturgical season, etc.). Sometimes this "fit" is more direct (a hymn whose text quotes or tells the story of one or more of the readings, for instance) and sometimes this "fit" is more of a 'coordinated' or 'complementary' relationship (a hymn that expresses the same or similar themes, for instance). During the 'festival seasons' (that is, the part of the church year that is not simply Ordinary Time), often choosing most of the hymns out of the repertoire for that season is a sufficient level of 'fit' to bring the sort of harmony I look for. The hymn that follows the sermon, though, (the "Hymn of the Day" as it is referred to in the Lutheran tradition) definitely needs to 'fit' the readings and sermon, for me--little is more jarring than a post-sermon hymn that deflates, contradicts, or is simply unrelated to the sermon and scripture that precedes it (unless for some well-thought out reason a contradictory message is planned intentionally).

So, during the season of Advent, it makes little sense to me to completely ignore the whole nature of what the scripture readings are during this season. For instance, the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday of Advent this coming year is from an apocalyptic discourse of Jesus, Matthew 24:36-44: "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." For that kind of text, something like the well-known "Sleepers Wake! A Voice Astound Us" (a.k.a. "Wake, awake, for night is flying") to the also-well-known tune WACHET AUF is something that fits well. Or, while not being quite so direct a fit, Marty Haugen's "Awake! Awake, and greet the new morn" would fit in a complementary way. Or even "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" complements this text--Jesus is saying "you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" and in response the church prays for him to come. Flipping through one of the hymnals I have at home right now, though, I cannot find a Christmas carol that fits at all with this kind of text.

The situation is the same with many of the Sundays of Advent in all three years of the lectionary cycle. We hear beautiful and powerful prophetic visions from Isaiah about the wolf lying down with the lamb and God saying 'peace' to those under oppression. We hear Jesus speaking of his second coming, not his first. We hear John the Baptist crying out to prepare and repent. How many Christmas carols speak of repentance?

2. -- The church does not need to play into and support the over-commercialization of Christmas and our society's addiction to immediate gratification. As this debate plays out in many churches, there are always folk who say "well, they're playing Christmas carols everywhere else, why can't we sing them in church?" Well, part of the vocation of Christianity and the church is to invite people into "the way", a different way of seeing themselves and the world and a different set of practices. Recently there has been a lot written about the recovery of "Christian practices" in mainline Protestant churches. The way we mark time, as Christians, is part of the different sort of practices we engage in as the church. We set aside one day each week for 'sabbath': worship, rest, and service to others. And we observe a liturgical cycle that deeply connects us with the life of Jesus: his coming, his birth, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his presence by the Holy Spirit, and his coming again. It is not that we don't celebrate Christmas or sing Christmas carols, but we do so in their own time and place. Advent gives us the opportunity to be immersed in Jesus' "coming"s: his first coming and his coming again.

The demand that we sing Christmas carols during Advent stems from at least two phenomena in American society and American Christianity. One of these I have already named: the combination of commercialization with our American addiction to instant gratification. Why should I have to wait when I can have it now? A second piece, though, has to do with the phenomenon of the American civic religion and the loss of Christian distinctiveness in America. Many in our congregations do not connect with Advent, or with much of the liturgical/lectionary year, because in the so-called glory days of American Protestantism, most Protestants had little to do with such things. Observance of the church year and use of the lectionary is something that most mainline Protestants (the Episcopalians and some Lutherans excepted) only began reclaiming in the late 1960s. It was probably not until the 1980s that you could say it had caught on to a large degree in a majority of the churches. (And, I will add, my particular congregation was especially late in this, as regular use of the lectionary didn't start until around the year 2000.) The idea that the distinctive, historic practices of the larger Christian tradition could have important formational function went largely unrecognized, or thought unimportant, by mid-20th century civic faith Protestantism. It was simply assumed that everyone was Christian and that everyone knew what it meant to be Christian. The idea that Christianity was about inviting people into an alternative way of life, faith, and practice would have been thought odd at best (and perhaps 'ludicrous').

Well, folks, this isn't the 1950s any more. Most mainline Protestants have been engaged in the liturgical renewal movement for at least 30 years. Marking the liturgical seasons, using the lectionary, reclaiming the sacraments, all this is not new. Secondly, we do need to be formed in the faith, to be drink deeply at the well that is the life-death-and-resurrection of Jesus, to be invited into a distinctive community called the church.

3. -- This final piece is connected to the second one, but from a different angle. I'll say it this way: We need Advent. I think the root feeling/theme at the heart of Advent is longing. Simply as humans, we have longing. We long for comfort, for peace, for an end to warfare and hunger, for love. The haunting melody of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is a wonderful musical embodiment of that longing. As Christians, though, we are especially a people of longing. We are the ones who "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes"--the focus of which should be at least as much on the "until he comes" part as on the "Lord's death" part. Our basic faith affirmations include "Christ will come again" and "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." Our basic prayer is "Our Father in heaven ... your kingdom come." Quite frankly, if we are not a people of longing, then we have definitely lost our way as Christians. If we are not a people of longing, then we have lost sight of all those in this world who are hungry, dispossessed, and enslaved. If we are not a people of longing, then the gospel itself is nothing to us, for we apparently have all we need and all we hope for within our reach. (This is part of the connection to the commercialization of American society theme, because in America we do have everything within our reach, or at least so it seems.) If we are not a people of longing, then we have no use for God at all. "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God," saith Augustine.

We need Advent. We need it in order to reconnect with the longing that haunts inside us, to give voice to our hope for ourselves and the world, to empower us to authentically cry out "Come, Lord Jesus!"

"How the Pilgrims Were Wrong" - A Sermon for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

A Sermon for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Pilgrim Sunday / Stewardship Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
November 18, 2007

(It must be noted that in my congregation, the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving is observed as "Pilgrim Sunday", a remembrance of the 'Pilgrim heritage' of the Congregationalist tradition.)

A few years ago, May of 2000 to be exact, I had the opportunity to stand where the Pilgrims once had—literally. I was on a European concert tour with the Men’s Glee Club from Michigan State University, a tour that began with a week in the Netherlands. On our very first day, we were driven to Leiden, a university city not very far from Amsterdam. In Leiden, there still stands Pieterskirk, St. Peter’s Church. Stepping inside, you can see the beauty of the gothic architecture, take in the noble vastness of the space, and perhaps even hear some melodies from one of Pieterskirk’s two pipe organs. What you can’t do, though, is actually attend church there, as the building was deconsecrated as a church some years ago. But, as you continue your walk around this grand building, you’re likely to happen upon the reminders of some of the people who once did attend church there. You might see a plaque with a hauntingly familiar-looking boat on it, memorializing one John Robinson. Intrigued, you take a closer look and read the plaque:

In Memory of
Rev. John Robinson, M. A.
Pastor of the English Church Worshipping Over Against
This Spot, A. D. 1609 - 1625, Whence at his Prompting
Went Forth
To Settle New England
in 1620
- - - - - - - - -
Buried under this house of worship, 4 March, 1625
[At the age of] [49] Years.
In Memoria Aeterna Erit Justus.
Erected by the National Council of the Congregational
Churches of the United States of America
A. D. 1891”

Indeed, this John Robinson was the pastor of the congregation of Puritans that left England for Holland in 1609 to worship without persecution, the same congregation from which some 35 people (which was actually only a minority of the congregation) set sail for the new world on the Mayflower in 1620. And this Pieterskirk where we find this plaque is the church in which that congregation worshipped.

Knowing what I know now, that I would find myself standing in a Congregationalist pulpit, I am honored that I had the opportunity to place my feet in the very church where the Pilgrim’s feet had trod, to reflect on the Pilgrim pastor—the one who told them as they left that there was “yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s word”—glad to imagine that faithful community at worship in those walls, to glimpse a little piece of their story. And, had I known what I know now, I probably would have taken better pictures.

It is a right and good thing to remember and celebrate the heritage from which we come, whatever that may be. But in honoring our heritage and reflecting on our tradition, we only do so faithfully when we remember with a critical mind, a willingness to recognize that what our forebears did may not have been right, or at least not be the best thing for us to do today. It’s the difference between tradition and traditionalism.

The reason I bring this critical memory thing up today is this: as I’ve been thinking about the Pilgrims alongside the two scripture readings for this morning, the topic—the sermon title, if you will—that keeps popping up in my head is “How the Pilgrims were Wrong.”

I think the Pilgrims may have been wrong because they didn’t quite dream big enough. Now, yes, yes, I understand that understand that leaving everything behind to set sail for a relatively unknown land thousands of miles across the ocean is rather a big thing. So I do not mean to imply that they did not risk a lot—in fact, the Pilgrims risked far more for their faith than most of us here today have had to risk, quite possibly more than many of us might be willing to risk. But my question is not about what they risked, but what did they dream? What was their vision?

In this piece from the last section of Isaiah, God offers a vision, and not just some small vision, but a pretty darn big one. The Israelites have come back from exile in Babylon, and they’ve found out that life is not the rosy walk in the garden that they thought it would be. The city of Jerusalem was still in ruins, they weren’t a self-sufficient kingdom led by someone from the line of David, and even the temple itself was still a wrecked mess. They still vividly remembered their people being plucked from the land they toiled over, driven out of the houses they labored to build. But even as the people despaired and began loosing their vision, God was not done. God had a new vision for them, actually a new vision for the whole creation. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things”—that is, the despair, the humiliation, the exile—“shall not be remembered or come to mind.” God is going to create a new Jerusalem, a new city on the hill that would be a light to the nations.

When we hear these promises, this vision, I think it’s hard for us today to really have a sense of how big this is. Sometimes I think it’s maybe easier to think about some heavenly paradise. Ah, yes, in some far away place in some far away time, there’s this place of wonder and peace. I can limit God to heaven and believe that God has some pie in the sky awaiting us. That’s easy. But it’s that ‘new earth’ part of the vision that makes it big, I think. This is a vision about real infants that die too young and real labor that seems in vain. If I were to imagine this vision in today’s terms, it would have something to do a new creation for the very real children we know who grow up in dangerous neighborhoods or maybe the mentally-ill woman I see a few times a week walking down the middle of the street past my apartment, yelling at the traffic that goes by her. Dreaming God’s big dream about this real world is not easy. I mean, come on, that whole wolf and lamb thing—we all know that wolves and lambs don’t go together, and when they do only one of them is get out of it alive… and usually it’s the wolf.

For the Pilgrims, though, in the midst of their struggles with fellow Puritans and the Anglicans and the Catholics, they seemed to have trouble too. They set off to the Americas to create their own city on a hill, their own New Jerusalem. It is as though they lost sight of God’s vision and promise that the New Jerusalem was God’s work, work they were invited and called to be a part of, but still God’s creation in the end. It doesn’t seem as though they had a sense of God’s vision encompassing everyone, all creation and all peoples. And like I’ve said, I think the hard part about this vision is that it is a vision about this world, a promise from God that the very people and land and cities we know will be transformed. And yet, for the Pilgrims, they decided that they had to separate from the church and the world that they knew—they were even called Separatists by other Puritan groups, even by the Puritans that would join them in Massachusetts only 10 years later. From all across the witness of the Bible, we see again and again the promise that God is not done with this world—even to the very end in the book of Revelation, where in the second to last chapter, the loud voice from the throne proclaims “See, the home of God is among mortals. [God] will dwell with them, and they will be [God’s] peoples.” So, looking back at the Pilgrims I think it is fair to question their decision to separate themselves from the rest of the church and from their society.

On the other hand, it is only fair to look back with the critical eye on the Pilgrims if we are willing to turn that critical eye on ourselves as well. Are we too guilty of not dreaming big enough? Often I think yes. When most of us hear the kind of big vision that God has through Isaiah’s words, well… we have trouble dreaming that that kind of radical transformation is possible in our world… and, even if we thought it were, for many of us we have too much at stake with the way the world is now that we don’t want to dream that. We don’t want to be too intentional about engaging with the real practices of Christianity and the church, because then we might just start seeing the world differently. We might start having big dreams. And besides that, if we started being intentional and committed about church and discipleship and Christian practices, then we’d be different—we’d be weird.

Well, friends, the gospel is weird. The gospel says that the world doesn’t belong to those who have money or power, rather it belongs to God. Pretty weird. God not as some hard-nosed distant despot, but rather the gospel speaks of the God loved all of us and all the world enough to come as one of us to be a part of it. Pretty weird. Death as not the final word. Pretty weird. A God who still comes to us through real, concrete, this-worldly things like spoken words, water, bread and wine, communities of real, less-than-perfect people. Pretty weird. God invites us to dream big and then to live as though those dreams were already happening. Pretty weird.

You know, that’s actually one of the good things about the Pilgrims, one of the things they did right that we can learn from: the Pilgrims were pretty weird, too. They weren’t afraid to be known for their faith. They weren’t afraid to let their faith—to let God, even—affect every part of their day-to-day life. They weren’t afraid to engage in practices of faith that made them distinctive as Christians. They weren’t afraid to give everything—their money, their talents, their lives—in response to God, to give thanks for all God’s work. (There, for those of you who were expecting a stewardship sermon today, that sentence was for you.)

What can we do in response to all God has done for us? What’s the biggest, craziest, most lavish vision we can dream of what God is doing in the world? And what’s the weirdest thing we can do, the weirdest people we can be, living out that dream?

Amen, weird dreamers, Amen.

"Have we failed the Reformation? Thoughts on Bread and Forgiveness" -- A Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2007

“Have we failed the Reformation? Thoughts on Bread and Forgiveness”
A Sermon for Reformation Sunday 2007
Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
October 28, 2007

Reformation Sunday is probably one of my favorite days on the church calendar each year. Now, this may seem like a strange thing—Reformation Day doesn’t have the pizzazz of Easter Sunday or any special sentimental feelings like Christmas can have. It’s not even a day that everyone in our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, would be very familiar with—even though it is listed on the official UCC calendar book every year. I suspect that many of you probably don’t know much about Reformation Sunday, either, this day that commemorates the very beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, when people like Martin Luther and John Calvin back in the 1500s started trying to reform the church, but instead created one of the biggest divides among Christians ever, the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics.

So why is this somewhat obscure day one of my favorites? Well, let me first say that it is not because I think it should be an easy opportunity to bash the Roman Catholic Church. Now, while there is much that I do not agree with, there are certainly things about the Roman Catholic tradition that are good. I know this might be scandalous to say here, but there are even things that they do better than us Protestants, and we might just have something to learn from them. So anyway, for me, Reformation Sunday is not about anti-Catholic feelings.

Some of my friends from seminary and others who know me well might say that my fondness for Reformation Sunday is about my fondness for things Lutheran. Indeed, this day is one that is most commonly associated with Lutherans and, even though I have never been a Lutheran, it is true that I do like many things from the Lutheran tradition—their more liturgical worship and greater focus on the sacraments, and their rich heritage of music and hymns, including our closing hymn today. Of course there’s also that great Lutheran tradition of beer-drinking, but that’s another matter.

But anyway, all of that said, the real reason I like Reformation Sunday so much is because the Reformation was all about reclaiming the central things—identifying again the real, core, central good news of Christianity and focusing in on the practices that proclaim and make real that good news—and then making sure that those central matters are actually what’s at the center of our life together as a church. This is a question that I try to keep in front of me all the time. It’s very easy for us to let matters that are really secondary overshadow what should be at the core of our mission and purpose—and certainly I can be as guilty of that as anyone else. But that’s the gift of Reformation Sunday, to let the question of the central things to challenge us once again into faithfulness.

So, what are the central things? How do we discern what should be at the core of our life together? We could try to talk about the central concerns of the Bible, which in fact we do do fairly often. We could try to look at the creeds and confessions of faith. But I want to propose another way, something perhaps more accessible, certainly something closer to our hearts. In fact, something most of us know by heart, and something we find on our lips every Sunday: the Lord’s Prayer. What can the Lord’s Prayer show us about the central things? **

First, I want to be clear that I’m not simply being arbitrary by focusing in on the Lord’s Prayer. It has been so central to Christian practice throughout history that it’s connected to all our praying, all of the church’s worship and liturgy. It’s connected to baptism, as a “gift” people are taught as they are preparing for baptism or as they affirm their baptisms though confirmation. It’s also connected to Holy Communion, as the final table prayer we pray at the end of all our great thanksgiving-and-praying in preparation for the feast. And it’s something we find amongst our prayers in the morning, in the evening, in Sunday services even when we’re not celebrating a Baptism or Communion. If there is one thing that Christians do together, one thing the Church does, it is pray and worship, and the Lord’s Prayer has such a common and important place that it could in a sense be a symbol to stand for all of our worship and prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost a communal prayer. “Our Father”, “give us”, “deliver us”. And, not only is it the prayer of a community and not just an individual, it is a prayer that expresses the deep longings and hopes of all humanity. It speaks with honesty of the human condition we all face: “longing for God, in need of mercy, justice, and life, hopeful, fearful, likely to fail.” O God, your reign come. Your will of justice and mercy and peace be done. Do not bring us to the test, for we fear we will fail. We pray these things looking to the future, waiting for the day of the Lord that we both hope for and fear. And we pray it along with all humanity—us as priests, praying on behalf of all the people. So this is one thing central to the Prayer, our calling to pray and cry out for others and all people.

But along side everything in the Prayer that pleads the hopes and fears of all humanity, there are two things that stand out as different, that set us apart as Christians from others. Two signs that the “expected, longed-for Day [of the Lord] has already dawned in the life of the [Christian] community itself.” Standing right at the center of the Prayer are two central things that mark us as Christians, as the Church: bread and forgiveness.

“Give us today our daily bread.” Or, maybe it should be “Give us daily the bread for the journey, the bread that sustains”. In visions of the end-of-times, of the coming reign of God, whether in our the book of Revelation or even in the Jewish writings that were around in Jesus’ time, one of the images of God’s reign is a rich banquet table where the great multitudes freely eat of the feast of new, rich, everlasting, abundant life—the bread that sustains. This vision is transformed, though, when we as Christians dare to pray to God to give us that bread, that feast, today, now. We dare to believe that the great, life-giving feast is already breaking forth here, in this place. We are the people who hold a meal together that we believe is already God’s meal—that’s what Christianity has been from the earliest times, a meal fellowship. We receive what God is giving us in the resurrection feast, and then we are sent out to share food with the hungry, to fill the actual needy with actual good things.

The other thing that stands at the center of the prayer—forgiveness—is also about God already doing what we expect in the end-times. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ Or perhaps better, “Forgive us now with your final forgiveness, just as we are turning to each other, ministering forgiveness to those who sin against us.” This is the place where Sunday after Sunday we hear the presence now of God’s promised forgiveness. “Friends, believe the good news of the Gospel: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.” Not, ‘we will be forgiven’, but ‘we are forgiven’. That’s who we are as Christians, the people who believe that God already started God’s reign in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. But more, we’re the ones who turn to each other, full of that already breaking-forth power, and minister forgiveness to each other. “The peace of Christ be with you all.” And, of course, we are called to carry that forgiveness out into the world, that others may experience what we know of God already at work.

Of course, forgiveness was one of the central themes for the Reformers, folk like Martin Luther and John Calvin. “Salvation by God’s grace” is the big deal that most people associate with the Reformation, and especially with Luther. Convinced of his own unworthiness, Luther finally came to understand God’s love for him and all people in reading the writings of the apostle Paul. The message we heard this morning in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, that all of us have fallen short, and yet we are justified by God’s grace as a gift—this was the key to all that Luther and his fellow Reformers stood for, all that the good news of the gospel still means for us today. And, I think it is no small matter that we as Christians are the people who pray and speak and act out of the conviction that God is already working such grace and forgiveness among us.

Bread and forgiveness, that’s what stands at the center of who we are, if the Lord’s Prayer is any clue. If the concern of the Reformation was about renewing our focus on the central things, then to ask if we are living into the spirit of the Reformers is to ask ourselves about our bread and our forgiveness. Does “bread and forgiveness” really describe who we are at the core?

Sometimes I worry that it doesn’t. Or at least that it doesn’t seem clear to the rest of the world that bread and forgiveness is what we’re all about. In a new book titled unChristian, David Kinnaman shares the results of some recent studies of young adult non-Christians, 16 to 29 year olds who do not consider themselves Christian. The results are rather sobering: 87% of young adult non-Christians believe that Christianity is “judgmental” and 85% say it’s “hypocritical”. Somehow these aren’t words I’d use to describe something that’s supposed to be about forgiveness. And even more, 91% of them, along with 80% of church-going young adults think that Christianity today is “anti-gay”. Clearly they don’t see the rich, open, hospitable banquet table spread with a life-sustaining feast given for all, the bread that the Lord’s Prayer points us to. Instead, we’re apparently a closed-off, rule-oriented, un-reconciling, judgmental, hypocritical group that “no longer looks like Jesus.”

Are they right? Have we become like the religious leaders that Jesus is talking to in this morning’s reading from John? They had forgotten where they had come from. “We are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” You almost want to say “Hellllloooooo, remember that whole Exodus thing? Pharaoh, Moses, the plagues, the Passover? Was that just some nice vacation in Egypt?” And more than that, Jesus seems to be saying, we all become slaves to our brokenness, our sin, to the facades we try to put up and the appearances we try to keep up. But there is hope, because in the Son, “we will be free indeed”, as John’s Jesus says. In fact, free we are, already, in the Son, Jesus Christ, the one who taught us the prayer with bread and forgiveness at the center, the one who is the bread of life we receive at the table, the one whose peace we pass on to others in forgiveness.

Inspired by our Reformation heritage, that is the freedom we are called to live in to, the freedom we have in Christ. It is the freedom to lay aside in God’s grace all that enslaves us, all the secondary things that keep us from the central things. The freedom to pray for God’s forgiveness already at work and for the bread of life to be broken in our midst. Indeed, here in this place a word and a feast are set out for us, and here in this place are empowered to be bread and forgiveness for the world—light to the whole human race.


** This exploration of central things is deeply indebted to “The Pastor in Preparing to Preside: The Lord’s Prayer” in Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor: A Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).