Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Majesty and Mess

On Sunday morning, just after shaking hands and kissing cheeks in the narthex following the service, I walked back down the center aisle of the sanctuary toward the pulpit to gather my things. As I did, I passed one group of three, standing in a circle and talking about this or that, and another group of four, likewise engaged. There were singletons, too, and couplets, lingering, retrieving their stuff, smiling, the most of them. Casually, I glanced down into the pews and saw that on the cushions here and there were bulletins, hymnals, attendance slips and a candy-wrapper or two. Someone had left an umbrella.

I looked up again and saw in the sanctuary all the colors and signs of the Advent season: greens and reds, blues and violets. There was the beautiful tree and the more beautiful chrismons; there was the Advent wreath, hanging from the ceiling; there was a slight aroma of oil—and suddenly in my mind the vivid recollection of a young family of three (about to be four!) reading ancient scriptures of God’s promises and, then, kindling a new flame of our abiding hopes and expectations—God’s Word enfleshed before our very eyes.

I had mentioned in my sermon that as a season Advent is, as it were, two-eyed. There are mixed messages here: hope and fear, praise and lament, testimony and confession. God does his best work in a barn, where amidst fodder and ordure the sweet Savior is born.

Our church itself proclaims the mystery of the season! Look up, and you will see how beautifully decorated our church is season by season. Look down, and you will see plenty of evidence as to how thoroughly used our church is week by week. Our facility offers us (and the community) both beauty and utility, both majesty and mess, both loveliness and life. That, my friends, is precisely as it should be.

I am so very thankful that our church gives evidence of traffic, of use, of busyness and activity. I am just as thankful that our church is lovely, worshipful, and awe-inspiring. All that to say, I hope we never feel the need to choose, either in this building or the next, for one characteristic over against the other, for a building both beautiful and used is blessing to all who enter it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

On the Sacraments

“A Service of Word and Table”: look at the first few pages of the United Methodist Hymnal and you will see that “Word and Table” is the basic “shape” of our worship. We see this shape most clearly on first Sundays when in a single morning we both hear a sermon and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Still, that two-fold designation describes more than our liturgy; indeed, it is the very “rhythm” of our life together as Christians. That to say, we gather ourselves around the Word of God in preaching and teaching, there to learn of our duty in the world; and we come to the Table (and Font) to receive the grace God dispenses there to strengthen us in doing that duty.

In some other traditions, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are considered gestures of the faithful toward God. That is, one is baptized and receives the bread and juice as voluntary acts of obedience and remembrance. When new believers profess their faith, they signify their new commitment to God through baptism; the baptized gather together on occasion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and eat the memorial Meal. In our United Methodist tradition, however (and indeed in most major branches of the Church), Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are deemed Sacraments: gestures of God toward us. The water of Baptism conveys God’s commitment to us, to make us holy. In the Meal, God gives us spiritual food, strength to do our holy work in the world.

In the Bible, “holy” means set apart. Nothing more and, by grace, nothing less. “Holy” does not mean faultless or perfect. No, to be holy is to be commissioned, marked, designated. God’s grace in Baptism sets apart to be Christ’s ambassadors in a pagan and idolatrous world. We receive the Body and Blood of Jesus to strengthen us for selfless service in a self-seeking and manipulative society. In each Sacrament we take what God gives us so that we might give ourselves to others. In sum, the Sacraments are channels of God’s grace to us to make us channels of God’s grace to the world.

Stanley Hauerwas, an ethicist at Duke, suggests that the Church does its most distinctive and “radical” work when it does those things which, really, are the most “normal” and routine things we do: when we preach Christ crucified (a stumbling block to those who imagine life only in terms of acquisition and success); and when we dispense and receive the Sacraments (eat Holy Food and take Holy Baths) and thereby accept that we are set apart and strengthened, come what may, to be ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.

False Alternatives

I am perplexed by the fact that we United Methodists seem unable to “hold the bridge” between the various diads of our tradition. In both cathedral and campmeeting our faithfulness was once characterized by rationality and piety, the Sacraments and preaching, liturgy and revival (by heart-religion and works, too). John Wesley himself both preached and incarnated these multiple dimensions of the catholic, orthodox, and reformed faith to which he was heir. Somehow, though, his spiritual descendants have, in a word, bisected that comprehensive message. These days we seem to strive to be rational or pious, sacramental or evangelical, revivalistic or liturgical (even lay-led or sacerdotal).
In sum, I fear that on the one hand we are more Anglican than Wesleyan, and on the other more “baptist” than Methodist. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with either Anglicans or Baptists; only that our tradition is distinctive. Moreover, there seems to exist on the part of some of our preachers (and members and teachers, too) a willingness to embrace and advance a particular aspect of our catholic heritage at the expense of the other(s), and in a way which Mr. Wesley himself would have been unwilling to do.
That to say, when in the crossfire of competing allegiances congregations have felt forced to “market” themselves to consumerist seekers, in many cases they have done so by means of a partitive representation of our tradition. The net result is the emergence of incomplete images, false alternatives, of what it means to be United Methodist.
Still there must be a way to reclaim the synthesis advocated by the early Methodist movement and in doing-so reinvigorate our congregations and denomination, and at the same time also lead unchurched seekers to the abundant life of faith in Jesus Christ in its communal fullness. Qualified observers tell us that postmoderns eagerly seek historic spiritual traditions while at the same time rejecting merely denominational paradigms. It would seem to me that an authentic Wesleyan model of corporate life and ministry might be just the kind of balanced diet this starving generation needs. That is, our historic emphasis on both faith and works, prayer and study, Sacrament and sermon, the form of religion and its power—as well as our emphasis on the worth of laity and clergy—might prove most fulfilling.
Relatedly, there is emerging in our day a new model of ministry, cooperative and complementary, which honors both the priesthood (or ministry) of all Christians as well as the particular representative ministries of Word, Sacrament and Order. This model is called “equipping ministries” and its goal is to help the laity discover and put to powerful use their Spirit-giftedness. At base this new paradigm is merely the reclaiming of the New Testament pattern of pneumatic rather than institutional credentialing and suggests the kind of “interactive” ministry which would be attractive to postmodern sensibilities. “Equipping ministries is an exciting form of evangelism and discipling which both reclaims the Wesleyan synthesis and at the same time rejects, or at least corrects, the popular and false alternatives.