Friday, January 22, 2010

A thought or two about this Sunday's first lesson (but don't scrap your sermons)

If your church uses the Revised Common Lectionary, you'll probably read from Nehemiah for your first lesson.

It is one of the many re-dedication ceremonies in the Old Testament. Constant covenant-breaking = constant "we'll get it right this time" liturgies.

As at other Old Testament turning points, the scrolls of God's word are opened, read and preached to the assembled people. What is striking in this case is how the leaders intentionally displace the expected wailing and breast-beating with joy:

"Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

The reading and preaching of God's word cuts to the heart, yet the heart is transformed for joy.

Anglicans are noted for fear of "enthusiasm." We are the "frozen chosen," even in our own church jokes. Our worship is known to be dignified if done well; deadly dull if sloppy.

But in the Preface to our first Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Reformers chose anything but cold language:

"...the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion."

Such was the passion of the Anglican Reformers that "inflamed" signified the death several would suffer, as the stake became the cross they shared with Christ.

If we are staring out at a congregation of yawns, wristwatch glances and leaflet rustling, it is likely that we've ignored the Reformers. For them, the preacher's passion for the Word was a precondition for stirring the hearts of the people:

...the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God's word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others...

Too often, Anglican clergy are either bloodless on the one hand or passionate about things other than the Word on the other. I am not talking about passion as a style or personality type, but as a life-guiding conviction of the heart. Any ass can bray, and still waters are sometimes just a trivial puddle. The church, in the vision of the Anglican Reformers, needs clergy "stirred up to godliness" in order to "inflame hearts with love." And God's way to this passion is first and foremost Jesus Christ, as prophesied, revealed and exposited in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. This is what informs the vow all clergy make at ordination:

"...I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation..."

In too many cases, this is a lie spoken with pretensions of passion.

3 comments:

The Underground Pewster said...

Of all our sins, the one most difficult to me is the sin of forgetting my first love. To love God with all my heart, mind, and soul, and to know that I am loved is a wonderful experience that all too often burns passionately hot at first and then fades. Ideally, it should burn hot forever. I am less than ideal, and thus the flame fades. Fortunately, the remaining glowing embers can be easily rekindled. Never let it go out of your heart or your congregation!

Keith said...

I feel that we as Anglicans/ Episcopalians have gotten ourselves wrapped up in the idea of "we don't check our brains at the door" that we don't fully open our hearts to God. To ask the congregation to open their hearts to God, the leader must prove that they do that as well. The leader must have the courage to show that love for God and people and have the courage to show the scars of such a love and the willingness to follow God again because of that love.

TLF+ said...

It would be one thing if we really were more thoughtful, but as with "inclusion" = monochrome membership, so "thinking people" = ideological slogans, appeals to ignorance, stereotyping...

Many TEC members remind me of the atheists I've known - there just seemed to be something missing. Pewster & Keith, you both mentioned "heart." Most of us struggle to have hearts turned from "stone to flesh," as God said through Ezekiel. But some just seem hardened - almost enough to make me sad for them except for all the harm they do to others.

Gregory the Great said that Jesus continues to weep over fallen people just as he wept over Jerusalem, with the full knowledge that for some, the future holds only destruction.

May we all be attentive to that possibility and let our stoney hearts be broken and replaced with love.