If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, September 17, 2012

Taming the Tongue: James 3:1-12; 4:11-12

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sticks and stones may break my bones...You know the ending to that playground taunt, don't you? But, you never believed a word of it. When other children stabbed you with their sharp tongues, it hurt deeply. Many of us who were skinny or overweight or too tall or too short or had big ears or funny nose or darker shade of skin, may have even have used that come back about sticks and stones, but we knew it was not the truth. Words hurt. Most of us have felt the sting of a slanderous or lying tongue. Words are powerful. They have the power to hurt or heal, to build up or tear down. The apostle James wouldn’t have believed that old saying about sticks and stones and words. He knew that our tongues are instruments of incredible power.

The tongue is a powerful thing. It represents the words we speak and the communication that comes forth from our mouths. Unlike those who say "Don't be concerned. It's just a bunch of words," James wants us to take seriously the impact of the tongue's power. Though a small organ in the body, don’t let its size fool you. The tongue has the power to effect things larger than itself. James gives us three illustrations of the power of the tongue.

First, the tongue is like the bit in a horse's mouth. A small bit of metal in a horse's mouth can turn the whole horse in whatever direction you wish it to go. One of the largest horses on record was a purebred Belgian stallion named Brooklyn Supreme. The horse weighed 3200 pounds and stood approximately 8 feet tall. And yet, this huge horse was controlled by a tiny bit in its mouth. If you can control a horse's mouth, you can control the entire horse. In like manner, James argues, to control one's own tongue will mean the control of one's whole body, or person. 

Second, the tongue is like the rudder on a ship. This small moving part can change the direction of a large ship on the sea. Though unmoved by the strongest of winds a ship can be controlled by a tiny rudder. And we know of instances when the rudder of the ship was not guided in the right direction an oil tanker ended up creating a horrendous spill or an iceberg was not avoided bringing great disaster.

Third, the tongue is like a small fire. It only takes a spark to get a forest fire going. The destructive power of a small fire has been observed many times in places like the hills of Southern California during the dry seasons. Human lives, thousands of homes, and vast acreage of country have been destroyed by the tiny ember of a tossed cigarette.

As a nine year old one Summer day I thought I would start a tiny flame in the grass and brush in my backyard, which led into the lemon orchards. I imagined a small fire that I could quickly put out. The uncut brush was dry and yellow. I lit the tiny match and stuck the small flame to the brush. In seconds my backyard was in tall, uncontrolled flames and I was running in a panic. I imagined our house burning down. I told my mom and she called the fire department. A fire engine came to put out the flames, but my heart was still burning with guilt and fear of what my Dad would do to me when he got home. I spent all afternoon with a shovel trying to turn over the charred brush somehow hoping my father wouldn’t ever notice I had incinerated our back yard. A small flame can create a big fire!

Such is the power of the tongue, says James. Though the tongue has power for good or ill, James seems to focus on its destructive power. We are aware of the tongue's destructive power. Words thrown around carelessly can topple a person's reputation. A sharp tongue can tear the fabric of a friendship.  Babbling speech can confuse and divide nations. Words can change the course of history. Adolph Hitler recorded his Nazi philosophy in the book Mein Kampf. Someone figured out that for every word in that book more than a hundred lives were lost in World War II. Words can enormously affect the course of our lives and our world. The tongue is a powerful thing.

That is why teachers have such an important responsibility. Their words are powerful.  A teacher's role is to be held in high esteem. They have a lot of power and influence upon their pupils. Who of us does not have a special memory tucked away in the corner of our hearts of a beloved teacher whose encouraging words and enthusiasm for her task made a deep impression upon our lives? I remember a fourth grade teacher who had words of praise for my budding drawings of human organs in her Science class. Her gracious words were the initial cause of my wanting to become an artist.

I believe teachers play an extremely powerful and influential role in our society, but one that is most often not recognized or duly appreciated. In our culture, at least in recent decades, teachers have not been given the honor fitting the power and influence of their vocation. In Jewish culture the rabbi or teacher held a position of great honor and power. The young men were expected to count it their glory to carry the Rabbi's burdens, to bring his water, and to load his donkey. Many Israelites wanted to be rabbis. It’s not difficult to understand why in that environment a lot of people might want to be a teacher, often with less than noble motives. Teachers bear a great weight of responsibility for what they say and teach their students. So, James warns: "Not many of you should become teachers."

Not many of you should become teachers? This is not a message we like to hear proclaimed around the time we recruit Sunday School teachers. We'll take anyone who has the patience to sit down in a confined space with a group of tightly wound children, or who can read the lesson directly from the adult quarterly without stumbling over words like Mephibosheth. Not many of you should become teachers? The only time we might want to speak those words of James is after a teacher has driven most of the students away or has ended up giving children coloring pages from Mother Goose every week just to kill time.

One reason that James tells us that not many should be teachers is because he knows the power and influence of our words. A teacher's words can hurt or heal, lift up or tear down. I had an Old Testament teacher in Bible college, whom I greatly admired.  I took his words to heart. One day in class while discussing ministry he told the class, in a rather blunt tone, that he would never lay his hands on a divorced person to ordain them. My world came caving in. You see, I had been married at a very young age. I had only lived with my first wife one year before I was drafted into the Army 43 years ago. We didn’t even live together the whole two years I was in the Army due to where I was located.

I didn’t want the divorce to happen. I believed in “until death do us part.”  At the same time I came to believe that I was justified, even biblically speaking, in my divorce. Still, I was crushed, devastated, and felt like a failure knowing I had not lived up to my vows, even though much of the relationship was out of my control. Again I struggled with the fact that I had been divorced when several years later I sensed a call to enter Christian ministry, while Iris and I were dating. I read every biblical text and book I could find on divorce. Should I even be a Christian minister having been divorced? I knew my Bible well. A bishop shall be the husband of one wife. But, reassuring words of God’s forgiveness and a different viewpoint from fellow Christians and church leaders freed me to pursue ministry. I entered Bible school to prepare for ministry. Then, the words of my admired professor in the Bible school class that day fell on me like a huge rock. His harsh words cut to my heart, devastated. But, it was the kind and healing words of another pastor, teacher, and friend where I was a youth minister that restored my hope and the possibility of a future as a minister. I still treasure his kind and forgiving words, as if they were God’s words to me. Words have the power to wound or to heal.

Listen to the power in the words of the teacher in this story. Little Johnny was trying for a part in the school play. His mother knew he had his heart set on being part of the play, but she feared that he would not be chosen. On the day that the drama teacher gave out the parts after school Johnny rushed into his mother's arms, bursting with pride and excitement. "Mother," he shouted, "guess what! I've been chosen to clap and cheer!" Another teacher wrote on the child's report card, "Samuel participates very nicely in the group singing by helpful listening." These teachers know the power of their words. Their words can create or destroy, encourage or discourage. Teachers have a serious responsibility tied to their words.

There is a great responsibility that goes with teaching. That is why James says that many should not be teachers of the gospel. Teaching the gospel is a weighty responsibility. Teachers need to avoid using words that make God out to be a big, unforgiving Drill Sergeant in the Sky. They need to speak in language that doesn’t turn God into some glorified White American Male that diminishes a young Hispanic girl's self-esteem. Or they may need to restrain the tongue, which should have been practiced this past week by an unnamed teacher and televangelist (Pat Robertson) who didn‘t advice a Christian caller to divorce his “uncontrollable spouse,” which would be unChristian, but rather to become a Muslim so he could beat her! A teacher needs to be able to communicate God's love to those who feel unloved and unwanted or failures or wounded beyond healing.  That’s just part of the awesome responsibility a teacher has with their words. How we teach God's character and redemptive story can affect the kind of Christianity a person practices or rejects.

Granted, as James says, we all make mistakes in speaking. I have taught some things that I do not now believe or that have diminished the personhood of someone. There is room for change, growth, and error in our teaching. And yet, the teacher's words in the church are like the rudder that steers the church's direction. In some ways teachers are the tongues of the body of Christ. That is why teachers have such a tremendous responsibility.

At the same time, we all can harness the wild power of our tongues. In many ways our tongues, our words and communication, are a power that needs to be controlled. By that I mean, used for uplifting, challenging, encouraging, healing, and saving purposes. James speaks of every kind species of wild animal being tamed by humans. Iris and I once had a cockatiel bird that we have taught to say "Hello" and could bark like our dog. To that extent, we had controlled his tongue. But, who can tame the human tongue?  According to James, the untamed tongue is like the desert rattlesnake, full of poison. A bite from a poisonous tongue can do deadly damage. The poison of the tongue comes in many deadly forms--- cursing, lies, half-truths, slander, angry and bitter speech, destructive criticism, rumors, and gossip. The destructive power of the tongue, with lies, half-truths, and slander, has been on full display with the many political speeches during this campaign season. Having worked in many church settings and having heard the sad stories of many pastors and church members soured by a bitter tongue. I have seen how the poisonous talk of church members has choked the life out of a church.

I have seen how sharp words of disgruntled members can deeply wound persons, including their pastor, who become the object of gossip or criticism. I have observed how a forked tongue has caused divisions in churches and how wagging tongues have turned good people away from the church and Christianity altogether. Though we may have only spoken in a moment of anger or out of frustration with another member, a teacher, or the pastor; once we have spoken hurtful or rash words they are not easily retrieved. Once the arrows of our words are shot from the bows of our mouths at the heart of another person, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop their sharp, painful flight and inevitable wounds. Words can be deadly.

An old tale relates how a young boy who had spoken harshly of others and spread rumors in his village was being disciplined by his pastor. "Take this pillow and place a feather from it in front of each house in the village." The young boy did it and returned with a sense of accomplishment on his face. "Now go back and pick up each feather and put it back in the pillow," said the pastor. "But, they will all have blown away!" exclaimed the boy. "So it is with the words we say," chided the pastor. "Our words, once spoken, can never be retrieved again." Or as the Chinese proverb says, "A word rashly spoken cannot be brought back by a chariot and four horses."

Taming the tongue involves not only controlling the evil and hurtful things that we might say, but speaking words of hope and healing. How can the same tongue speak words of praise to God and curse those who are in the image of God? Can a spring bring forth both bitter and sweet water? Instead of bitter words upon our tongues, we can speak the sweet words of prayer and praise, kindness and compassion, encouragement and affirmation. I appreciate it when church members share words of affirmation for each other or send notes of encouragement and appreciation to one another. Most of us can't imagine how powerful those words are. I know that some who receive such gracious, affirming words have been lifted up out of the pits of despair. Such words give evidence of redeemed tongues, touched by the Spirit of Christ. We can harness the wild power of the tongue and tame it for speaking words of hope and healing and praise to God.

Our tongues were meant to praise God. That is the tongue's true power and glory. We can do without another sharp tongue, another wagging tongue, another critical tongue, or one more bitter tongue. We can use more tongues of prayer, praise, affirmation, healing, and hope. If we practice using our tongues in daily praise to God, hopefully, we can tame our tongues and use them for edifying others. How can a tongue that praises God, curse another human being? In the words of songwriter Charles Wesley our mouths can be filled with perpetual praise: O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hospitable Worship: Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:2

*This sermon is the last in a series on Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life

We have all probably had the experience of visiting a new church at one time or another where we were not welcomed. There were no signs to direct you to the sanctuary, the restrooms, or anywhere. If you had a crying child, you wouldn’t know where to go. You found your way to the sanctuary by following everyone else.  A greeter handed you a bulletin while talking to a friend. It was assumed that you could easily follow the order of worship, understand when to stand and sit without a verbal cue, and all the cryptic denominational acronyms that were freely flung about. Following the service everyone was talking to one another, but no one greeted you as you headed for your car. It was like you had just entered an exclusive club where you were not a member and in subtle and unintentional ways they let you know it.
I would probably not be as deeply involved or not involved at all in church without the welcome I received from some youth and college age young people in my home congregation. I had just gotten out of the army and went back to my home congregation, where I hadn’t attended for years and knew no one, except the pastor. It was 1971 and I was the only person in that Baptist worship service with long hair and beard; a shy, introverted, Rock drummer. I sat alone in the back pews and spoke to no one.  My wife, Iris, and her friend, Kathy, were among the first people to warmly welcome me into the congregation (although she may have had ulterior motives!). I was invited to college gatherings, where I was welcomed and met new friends. I was invited to play drums in the combined youth/college age band formed to play for several church musicals. Eventually I was invited to teach a youth Sunday school class and to preach my first sermon. It didn’t matter that I was an introvert, looked different, or that I was a newcomer. The welcome and invitations just kept coming. It was within that welcoming congregation that I encountered God’s call to Christian ministry. From my personal experience, I’m convinced that welcoming the stranger into our congregations, and particularly our worship space, can be one of the most important acts of worship we perform.

Biblical Hospitality. Hospitality was a significant practice in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. In arid lands with sparse water, food, and shelter, hospitality was often a life or death issue. Hospitality is still a most important practice in many countries throughout the world. People in some countries will bend over backwards, give up their own food, and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Hospitality is the norm. And a breach of hospitality is a serious matter.
Hospitality was a practice through which one could encounter the divine. The story of Abraham, Sarah, and three visitors is a model story of hospitality, but also reminds us that in welcoming the stranger, we may be welcoming God. As a nomadic people, Abraham and Sarah pitched their tents by the oaks of Mamre, where a Canaanite cultic shrine was located. Abraham spotted three travelers nearby and ran from his tent to meet them. In respect for the strangers he bowed to the ground and said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves.” All this for strangers! Abraham goes out of his way to share hospitality with wayfaring strangers. The hearers of the story are privy to the fact that the Lord is present in cognito in the three visitors or angels. In showing hospitality to strangers Abraham and Sarah welcomed God.

The hospitality story of Abraham is immediately followed by a contrast story of the inhospitality of the people of Sodom. We have often interpreted the story of Sodom as God’s judgment upon homosexuality. Rather, it is a story that stands in contrast to Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to the strangers and thus to God. Instead of welcoming the strangers, the three angels, the males of Sodom seek to gang rape them. These types of acts are similar to when enemies are raped in war or prisoners rape one another. They are acts of domination and humiliation and not loving acts from same-sex attraction. The prophet Ezekiel names the sins of Sodom and homosexuality is not one of them. Pride, excess of food, prosperous ease, not aiding the poor and needy are named. Jesus himself identifies the sin of Sodom with inhospitality when he said that the judgment on those who do not show hospitality toward his missionary disciples will be greater than that of Sodom (Luke 10:12) The sin of Sodom was not homosexuality, but rather inhospitality. Abraham and Sarah expressed hospitality. Sodom expressed inhospitality.

A breach of hospitality was serious business. The Torah contained laws not only to protect, but to prosper the stranger, alien, and traveler. Hospitality was not just a quaint custom for the people of Israel, it was a divine mandate. You shall not oppress a resident alien (Exodus 23:9) Yes, Lord, but what about an “illegal alien”?  When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of America….I mean, Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  Yes, I heard you Lord, but maybe you didn’t hear me. I said, “What if he or she is an “illegal alien” Lord, don’t you get it? Can you spell “un-doc-u-mented”? They are breaking the law!! You shall have one law for the alien and the citizen: For I am the Lord your God (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22)  Come on, Lord, “treat them like citizens,” “love the alien,” what’s next? When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien (Leviticus 23:22). Gheeez, Lord, your only encouraging them to remain in our land! What’s next, offer them licenses? If aliens among you prosper…or your kin…sell themselves to an alien…as a laborer hired by the year they shall be under the alien’s authority (Leviticus 25:53) Whoa, whoa…Lord, Lord, wait a minute….not only are you offering them jobs, allowing them to prosper, but making aliens our bosses? That’s reverse discrimination! I think I’m gonna go back to Egypt, where I was the alien! Bye! Enjoy the leeks and onions! I am the Lord your God.       

If you want to extend this conversation, I recommend you read Iris and my friend, Ched Myer’s book, Our God is Undocumented.

Remember the Emmaus Road story from my sermon a couple of week’s ago? Not only do we see the importance of Communion and Scripture in that story, but also hospitality. The Emmaus story is like an everyday illustration of Jesus parable of the sheep and goats and the final judgment, where Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The Final Judgment is not based upon our beliefs, but whether or not we were hospitable toward the stranger. For Jesus is present in the stranger, as God was present in the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus see that it will soon be turning dark, so they invite the travelling stranger to their home for food and lodging. They practice hospitality. It is in their sharing hospitality around the table that their eyes are opened and they see the Lord. As with Abraham and Sarah and the three strangers, Jesus parable about sheep and goats, and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, hospitality becomes a means of encountering God.

The ethic of hospitality is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus told parables of a Good Samaritan who showed hospitality to a stranger (Luke 10) and a great banquet to which are to invited the stranger and vulnerable; the poor, lame, and blind (Luke 14:15-24). He made the welcome of children a matter of welcoming him unaware (Matthew 18:1-5). Jesus, his disciples, and Paul depended on the hospitality of strangers in their missionary travels. Paul said to the Romans, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13).  1 Peter said to the Christian exiles, “Be hospitable to one another without complaining” (4:9). The author of Hebrews applies the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to the early church. Hospitality is an ethical mandate with fringe benefits: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” What a wondrous thought. Showing hospitality may turn out to be entertaining angels, dining with the divine, supping with the Savior.

Not only was hospitality and ethical mandate, it was a necessity for the early house churches. The early church met in wealthier believers’ houses, usually those with larger homes, like the earliest surviving Christian meeting place at Dura-Europas from the 3rd century. Worship, breaking the bread with a meal, preaching, baptism all occurred in a home. The worship, nurturing, survival, and growth of the early church depended upon Christian hospitality. Church leaders needed to be hospitable, a requirement that shows up in list of qualifications of a bishop in 1 Timothy. And hospitality extended beyond their worship spaces to include caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger wherever they were encountered.

Hospitality is the Church’s Wide Welcome. So, as we see, hospitality permeated the whole life of the church. Hospitality is about the wide welcome of the church. I’ve seen a lot signs outside church buildings that read Everyone is Welcome. When I read those signs I wonder to myself, “Do they really mean it?” Or is it just a nice gesture to their neighbors. Or does it really mean People like us are welcome.

I was pastor of a congregation that had on its sign Everyone welcome. I took that sign literally and presented to our church leaders with the possibility of sharing our building, our worship space, with another Christian church, a United Church of Christ congregation. I was good friends with their female pastor. They would worship at another time on Sunday, clean up after themselves, and pay a rental fee. We didn’t even have to interact with the other congregation, although I would have liked to share some ministry projects together. All the proposal meant was that we would share the same building. There was just one problem. It was not that they were UCC or had a woman pastor. They were a welcoming congregation, if you know what I mean. The Church Council was brave enough to present the proposal of sharing our building with a welcoming congregation at a church business meeting. The majority vote was…. not to welcome the welcoming congregation. Everyone welcome? A lot of congregations need to tear that sign down!

I appreciate it when congregations extend their welcome to strangers, newcomers and the community. Hospitality can be shown through directional signs in the church, handicap accessibility, greeting and following-up on visitors, audio aids for the elderly, and any number of ways of expressing care for members and visitors.   I think Zion does a pretty good job of extending our welcome. I have seen friends of members and people from the foundry next door at Soup’s On sharing a meal. Our Quilting workshop brings in hundreds from the community. This summer VBS welcomed a hundred children from our community. Bridging Cultures recently had a beach trip of around 200 people sharing hospitality with one another. We welcome people into new homes and the community through Habitat for Humanity. Participation in the Canby Center provides for the needs of strangers and the poor. And I am aware of numerous extensions of hospitality members have personally shown toward friends and strangers in the community.

Of course, we can always improve on invitations to new people to participate in the life of our congregation. And someday the extent of our hospitality may be tested by someone different who shows up at our doors or who wants to share our building, but hospitality is one of Zion’s strengths. The many ways we welcome the stranger, the newcomer, and people from our communities is practicing hospitality. Remember, we could be entertaining angels unaware.

Hospitality in worship. If we understand the prophetic tradition, which emphasizes the need to make our ethics or life styles fit with our worship life, then all I have said about practicing hospitality relates to worship. According to the prophets, our worship is worthless if we don’t practice mercy and justice. The same could be said of hospitality to the stranger. Our worship loses its meaning if we are not practicing hospitality. In welcoming the stranger we are welcoming God, which is our primary act of worship.

Hospitality in worship is more than a smile and handshake before, during, or after the worship service.  It involves the whole atmosphere of our worship. Henri Nouwen describes hospitality in a way that it applies to worship:

Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.... The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

Applied to worship this means creating the space in our worship where the visitor and newcomer feels welcome and can become a friend. In worship they can join together with us and not feel alienated, pressured to conform to a particular life style, or appreciate only one form of worship music, but can find their own unique place amid the diversity of our people and feel at home.

When it comes to hospitality in worship, I like to think about it in terms of whether we practice private or public worship? I was invited to write an article on public preaching for the Clergy Journal, which got me to thinking about how our worship can be either private or public. Private worship focuses upon making the elements of the worship experience communicate to our people. A Wal-Mart greeting may or may not be extended to visitors. Members speak in their own in group Mennonite language with its AMBS, MCC, MMN, EMS, or throw around personal and family names as if everyone in worship knows who we are talking about. Worship leaders assume everyone knows what to do at every moment of the service. Song leaders expect everyone to be familiar with our music. The prayers don’t make it beyond family and those who have their names on the church membership roll. According to the God language used, God is a male who relates to only half the congregation. The preacher speaks in “churcheze” just oozing with obscure theological language he learned in seminary. The service feels like entering a time warp that transports worshippers a hundred years into the past. Members connect with their small circle of friends following the service. In private worship it takes a concerted effort on the part of the visitor or newcomer to get to know the people. So, it may not happen at all. Private worship feels like family….an exclusive family.

Public worship creates an atmosphere of inclusion and welcome to those who are new. People are not scrutinized because of the personal grooming or habits of dress. People can come as they are. Mothers with small children have all the assistance they need. The elderly don’t feel left out. The mentally and physically challenged are a welcome part of the community. Everyone is a greeter, not just the official greeters. Visitors can easily find their way around or are graciously directed through the building. They are delighted to get a letter thanking them for their visit and in invitation to return. There is a rainbow of colors in the pews. The preaching offers welcome and grace and good news to everyone. The sanctuary is filled with joyful song and everyone feels like they can join in. Invitations to the potluck or church meal following the service are warmly extended to one and all.

Public worship feels like family….an inclusive family.

There was once a church not unlike Zion Mennonite church and its people. A stranger came to visit the worship service one Sunday. He had dark black disheveled hair and bristly chin hair. His hands were leathery and he was missing one tooth. He looked like he came to worship in his work clothes. He was greeted warmly at the door of the sanctuary and more times before he left. As the quiet stranger sat in the pew his head hung down as if he was in constant prayer or bore an unseen burden. The elderly couple next to him in the pew helped guide him through the worship service. The song leader led a familiar hymn that made the stranger fold his hands. The preacher spoke of welcoming the stranger and being an inclusive fellowship that welcomes everyone. The worship leader prayed for the sick and the poor and churches around the world and immigrants and gays and straights and enemies and opposing political leaders and new mothers and the elderly. Tears ran down the stranger’s cheeks. A young woman next to him handed him a tissue and patted his shoulder. She stood next to him as they received communion. The young woman invited the stranger to a potluck meal after the service. They talked as they waited in the potluck line.

When the stranger finally walked out of the church building into the warmth of the afternoon sun and off to who knows where, he felt like he was a stranger no more, but part of a new family, part of one humanity. He turned to those at his dining table and said something so soft most didn’t hear. Everyone at his table asked the young woman, “What did he say?” She choked on the words: “I was a stranger….and you welcomed me.”          



















Monday, September 3, 2012

Blended Worship: Psalm 150; Ephesians 5:15-20; Matthew 13:51-52

*This is the third sermon in a series on Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life on Sunday, September 2, 2012.

Worship wars. What an odd name to label the conflicts that churches have over worship styles. And the so-called “peace churches” have not been AWOL from these battles! I recently came across an article on the worship wars entitled: Who is worship for? Dispatches from the War Zone. War zone? You would think church members were wearing camouflage outfits and carrying M15s into the sanctuary! Shouldn’t we find it a bit odd and ironic that the church would be “at war” over the worship of God?

“Worship wars” appear to be about the conflict over different worship styles. Imagine this scene. The worship leaders of a traditional mainline church with stained glass windows, pipe organ, grand piano and set liturgy, begin to notice that the young people are becoming more disillusioned with their old style of worship. So, they decide to change things up a bit. The young pastor is all for it. So, on a Sunday morning they introduce the congregation to some new, unfamiliar, but lively songs with the words projected on a screen. They are backed up with electric guitars, drums, and a tambourine. A liturgical dancer interprets a song about creation.

Some older members joyfully join in the invitation to clap their hands, while most have their arms folded tightly around their chests. The tension in the congregation is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Following the service a good number of older members of the congregation approach the young pastor and chew his ear right off the side of his head! Of course, the pastor calls a special meeting to discuss the conflict with church members.

If we were a fly on the wall at this church meeting, we might be able hear snippets of the heated debate:

“We need to keep our sacred traditions and be serious about our worship!”

“No. We need to be more creative, informal, joyful in our worship!”

“I don’t care one bit for those songs we “throw up” on the wall. Huaaah! They make me sick!”

“Oh yeah, we’re tired of those irrelevant, cobwebbed hymns from a hundred years ago!”

“Those drums are still pounding in my head!”

“Well, that organ makes me feel like I’m at a funeral!”

“All I heard was ‘I worship’ my Savior and my God.’ It all about me, me, me. Where is the church in this sappy singing?”

“Whatever. I don’t understand all the archaic King James language of “thee, ye, thou, thine, wouldest, and couldest. If we don’t make our music and worship style more up-to-date, we are going to lose our young people.”

“Well, if they don’t turn down that racket, we’re going to lose our hearing! And what was that monkey doing jumping around in her leotards?”

It’s not hard to understand that deep passions are attached to music and worship. We often get in conflict when people on both sides of the “battle line” feel like we are losing something dear to us, something that was a part of our formative spiritual experiences. Whenever you sing those wonderful traditional songs from the old Mennonite hymnal, you remember when mom and dad brought you to church and you felt secure in God’s arms. And singing the choruses from the 60’s and 70’s evokes warm feelings of the time when you accepted Christ around the campfire at the youth retreat. Music and other forms of worship touch us deeply because they were part of our formative spiritual experiences. They are our language of worship. And let’s all remember, they are part of how we encounter God.

Then, when we are faced with the possibility of change in our worship or we constantly face the reality that worship seems to leave out my music or worship forms that are meaningful to my spiritual life, we feel conflicted, ill at ease, and even ready to fight for what is significant for my worship experience. Worship and preaching professor Thomas Long put it well when he said:

As in any war, the sad part is the casualties. Faithful people in many congregations have been hurt, angered, and alienated. Keep the pipe organ, the old hymnal, the formality, and the thick silence, and young people stay away in droves, leaving sanctuaries hollow and lonely. Bring in the praise band, the Garth Brooks-style microphones, and the soloist singing, "You can't imagine how much I love Jesus," and the grays feel confused and betrayed. Worship changes touch us at our deepest level, and the worship committee in many congregations is now the church's version of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The deep passions about our preferred musical styles and worship forms can blow rational thought out of the water. One side of the aisle says: If we bring in contemporary music, we will lose forever our traditional way of singing. The other side of the aisle fires back: But…if we don’t, we will lose our young people.

A word of commonsense to those on both sides of the Maginot line in the so-called “worship wars”:

To those on one side: Adding a smidgeon of contemporary music to our worship services will not mean, God forbid, the ultimate and tragic demise of our traditional, acapella, four part harmony and of our beloved Mennonite faith itself! No one is suggesting scrapping old 606 for all eternity!

To those on the other side: adding contemporary music, that is, soft, folk-rock music from a time before most youth in the church were ever born, will not cause restless, postmodern young people to stay in the church, let alone flock to it in droves!Playing “Now is the Time to Worship” with an amplified guitar will not pull in the purple-haired, pierced and tattooed agnostic into the church. The problem is more complex than that.

We all have our deep passions about music and forms of worship associated with our generations and formative spiritual experiences, but some of us just need to take a chill pill!

There are a number of problems with the so-called “worship wars.”

· The purpose of worship gets distorted. As was emphasized in the first in this series of sermons, worship is primarily a response to God. It is not so much about the worshippers as it is about the one worshipped. So, to be at odds over forms of worship or styles of music is to become sidetracked from the primary purpose of worship.

· Personal aesthetics gets confused with common theology. It is only natural for the church to have different tastes in music styles and prefer certain forms of worship, whether that is visual imagery or verbal language, silence or spontaneous prayer, ancient or modern liturgy. The problem is when our personal tastes are confused with our common theology. What we commonly believe about God, the church, and worship are not the same as my preferred taste in music or forms of worship. I cannot impose my own aesthetics on the church as if this is what we are all have to believe about worship.

· The conflict usually gets focused on differences in music styles. Renewal of the church’s worship life is no simply about bringing new music into worship. It is a much broader issue. Worship is more than music, and even more than preaching. Worship is the sacred drama of the whole of the liturgy through which we encounter God.

· There are no winners in this “war.” Conflicts over differences in our personal aesthetics concerning worship produce no winners. How could any person or group be considered a winner when the purpose of worship is to give glory to God? For the sake of the worship of God, we must find ways to make peace concerning these so-called “worship wars.”

Blended worship is one approach to calling an armistice on the “worship wars.” Other“peacemaking” approaches have been tried. Congregations have tried the let’s-just-go-our-separate-ways approach by creating alternative worship services for discriminating worshippers; a traditional service and a contemporary service. The traditional service has organs and piano, traditional hymns and liturgy, and an older crowd. The contemporary service has guitars and drums, amplifiers, more technology, overhead projection, informality, contemporary music, and a younger crowd. Often this approach just produces two different congregations gathering in the same building at different times to engage in their own forms of preferred worship styles.

Another peacemaking approach has been to alternate styles of worship throughout the month, usually with a less frequent contemporary service led by youth or young adults. Everyone has to tolerate each other’s styles, to some degree, but at least each side gets something of their own style, at least part of the time.

Another approach is blended worship. This descriptive term is drawn from the work of theology professor Robert Webber, a leader in the worship renewal movement. Blended worship is more than simply the inclusion of both traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs in worship. Blended worship is a convergence in one service of worship diverse musical styles and forms of worship, traditional and contemporary, old and new, liturgical and charismatic, local and global, incorporating drama and the arts, in such a way that respects the diversity within the body of Christ and is centered in giving glory to God.

We might describe blended worship as “united in purpose, diverse in style” or “worshipping one God in many forms.” Psalm 150, which we read earlier, reflects diversity in worship. One God, many instruments of praise. Praise God in the temple. Praise God under the sky. Praise God with trumpet and harp. Praise God with drums and dance. Praise God with a diversity of instruments, forms, and styles.

Israel’s instruments were borrowed from the Egyptian and Canaanite orchestras, Israel’s contemporaries. No notation exists to reproduce the sounds of ancient Israelite music, but we can assuredly conjecture that their music styles reflected the music of other nearby cultures of the day. They worshipped God with contemporary music, that is, music of their contemporaries, which over time became “traditional worship music.” May I suggest that a lot of what we call “contemporary music,” music of our contemporaries, some going as early as the 60s, should now be considered“traditional music.” The diversity of instruments of Psalm 150 are symbolic of the diversity of styles and forms that people blend together into an orchestra of worship in praise to our one God.

I like to think of the blended worship in terms of Jesus’ parable about the scribe of the kingdom. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of the household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. To teach of the reign of God requires drawing from the treasures of the old traditions of the Torah and the prophets, but also from the riches of fresh new interpretations of teachings such as Jesus offered in the Sermon on the Mount. In the same way, worship calls us to draw both from the well of old liturgies, ancient prayers, and traditional hymns and from the fresh springs of liturgical dance, spontaneous prayers, global and contemporary music. We can appreciate and maintain the old traditions and celebrate the creative worship expressions of a new age.

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The writer of Ephesians invites worshippers to be filled with the Spirit and to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another, which some of you might be delighted to know was most likely acapella singing. Instruments were used in ancient Israelite worship, but did not re-emerge in the Christian church until the 10th to the 12 century. These acapella hymns were probably traditional hymns from the psalms known by heart and spontaneously composed songs, as Paul says, “Everyone has a hymn” (1 Cor. 14:26). The writer of Ephesians blends together these musical forms as a way of “making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” These three descriptions of music are not separate and distinct, like the traditional and contemporary worship services in some congregations. These three musical descriptions reflect common worship music and so have something of a synonymous meaning.

There is a real sense in which contemporary praise songs, traditional hymns, African-American spirituals are synonymous. They are all musical forms for giving praise to God and edifying one another! New Testament scholar Markus Barth, commenting on this text in Ephesians, says, “Not only does (singing) have a special place in common worship”….but “it is part of the mutual edification of the saints.” “The singer’s private pleasure alone, not to speak of ancient or modern exhibits, cannot be its primary purpose.” Again, worship is not about my preferred style of music or worship forms, ancient or modern, but it is primarily about giving glory to God and edifying or building up the church.”

“That all sounds nice and good in theory, but…” says the contrarian. Blended worship may sound good on paper, but it something altogether different in practice. I can understand the words of a pessimistic internet blogger: “I mean let’s be honest; a Blended Worship Service is really just a pacifier service. It’s got just enough of a music style to tick people off rather than allow them to drop their guard.” Another young pastor on the internet wrote about blended worship, “I saw a documentary on the show ‘Saturday Night Live’ one time and when one of the skits got rewritten, comedian Colin Quinn said something like, “Yeah, let’s compromise, that way, we’ll both lose.”Sometimes that’s how blended worship feels, like we are losers in a game of compromise. If all blended worship means is engaging in the children’s game of “I’ll give you yours, if you give me mine,”then we might as well forget turning on the blender and keep the ingredients separate.

We can all be peacemakers in the“worship wars,” if we make God the primary subject of worship and focus on edifying one another. Worship is not about pleasing ourselves. It is about pleasing God. And God is pleased when each of us, with our own formative worship experiences, our own musical styles, our own preferred worship forms, old and new, our own psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, come together as the body of Christ and with one voice speak and sing and perform our praise to God!

Now is not the time to focus upon ourselves and our preferred musical styles. Now is not the time to assert our differences within the body.

Now is not the time to hold tightly to my wants, my needs, my opinions.

Now is the time to share our commonalities as one body in Christ.

Now is the time to come together with one voice in praise to God.

Now is the time to worship!

Come, now is the time to worship

Now is the time to give your heart to God and to one another

Now is the time to set aside your differences and to be one in Christ

Come, just as you are, to worship

not feeling like you have to force your feet into someone else’s worship shoes

not feeling like you have leave your real self, with all your preferences, peculiarities, and picadillos, outside the doors of this sanctuary

Come, leaving behind the sword of divisiveness

leaving behind the ax to grind

Come, now is the time to worship