Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Sense of Reverence

A Sense of Reverence
Psalm 96
            I read an article recently about a man who had grown up in a conservative religious denomination, one that is quite prevalent here in the south.  The article documented his transition from that beginning to the Greek Orthodox Church, where he will soon become a priest.  His journey involved college and law school, nine years as a practicing attorney, and a slow, somewhat meandering change in his religious outlook.
            How does this happen?  Those of us who find ourselves in full-time ministry understand those first halting steps, then more and more assurance that we are being called as the train leaves the station and picks up speed.  We’re aware of the doubts that continue even after we’ve made the decision, which often continue through the sometimes tortuous seminary experience.  All the time we become more and more sure that this is the right path, that this is what we’re supposed to be doing.
            Some of us fight it.  “No, God, you can’t mean me.  You don’t want me to be a pastor (preacher/minister/priest).  You must mean the other guy.  He’s much more holy than I am.  Or maybe you’ve mistaken me for that woman over there whose name is somewhat like mine.  She’s a much better speaker.”  And we fight it, and fight it, and fight it until we give in, exhausted, finally realizing we can’t win this battle.
            Most times our call involves staying in the denomination we’ve grown up in.  That makes sense.  The indoctrination process begins early, as we are taken to church each Sunday (or most Sundays, or some Sundays).  We hear words that become familiar to us.  We fall into patterns of worship that are comforting and comfortable.  We sing hymns that become part of our musical subconscious.  All of this is good and right and to be expected.
            Sometimes, as with the man in this article, there’s a denominational shift.  The shift can lead us left or right on the conservative/liberal scale, up or down on the liturgical scale, or in some direction on some scale I haven’t thought of.  At some point there is a sea change.  It may be quick and violent like a tidal wave, or slow and steady like a tidal pull, but we find ourselves adrift, then snug and safe in a new harbor, wondering what happened, but knowing we’re home.
            What made this man change denominations?  I should add that his sea change was huge.  In this country only a small fraction of the population identifies itself as Orthodox Christians.  What was it he found in Orthodox worship that made him feel at home?
            About his first visit as a nineteen year-old college student he said, “I was really blown away.  I didn’t understand a lot of things going on,” (the liturgy would have been far removed from what he had known growing up) “but what really struck me was the sense of reverence.”
            A sense of reverence.  The feeling that you are in a sacred place doing holy things.  The experience of wonder in worship. 
            I’m afraid we’ve lost that feeling in many of our churches.  I believe there should be a wide variety of worship styles so each of us can find God through the things that make spiritual sense to us.  Still, I worry that our worship—like our dress code and our manners—has become too casual.  It doesn’t seem to matter if we feel a sense of reverence, or that we are on holy ground.  We’re satisfied that we’re in church, and whatever we do is OK as long as we worship somehow. 

            Perhaps that’s enough:  but I can’t help wondering if God might appreciate it if we worshipped the Lord in the splendor of holiness, and trembled before God in God’s holy temple.  Perhaps we need more often to experience our own sense of reverence.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Costly Grace

Costly Grace
Luke 19:1-9
One problem faced by preachers is how to keep the old material fresh.  How do you take a Scripture passage that you’ve preached many times (and/or one that everyone has preached many times) and say something new about it?  You can’t keep saying the same thing over and over, nor can you completely ignore those passages.  They’re staples.  Besides, if you use the lectionary, they keep surfacing every three years.  What’s the solution?
One method is to buy new books that comment on the old passages.  A friend recently lent me a couple of books by an author with whom I was not familiar.  His writings have given me new insights into many of Jesus’ parables that are recorded in Luke’s gospel.
Another way is to be open to new leadings of the Holy Spirit, and to recognize the relevance of familiar Scriptures to modern life.  Human nature hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years or so.  We still face the same problems biblical people faced.  We just experience them with new technology.
I should add that the above solutions are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, it is necessary to apply all three—and perhaps others that I haven’t thought of—to the problem of finding new meaning in familiar Scriptures.
One of the staple passages from the gospels is the story of Zacchaeus.  I remember hearing it in Sunday school as a kid, where the emphasis was on Zacchaeus’ size—or lack of it.  The teacher tried to make it relevant to boys who shared Zacchaeus’ height differential problem.  We were small; so was he.  We climbed trees to see the world; so did he.  Of course, that’s where the parallels ended.  We weren’t rich tax collectors, nor did we give banquets.  Still, the lesson was absorbed, and we were able to identify with Zacchaeus and hope that Jesus would come to us in the same way.  We even had a song we sang about the story.
As an adult, and one of slightly above average height, I look at the story from a different angle.  I try to find something that speaks to me and draws me in.  I also have to find something that will attract those people to whom I minister on Sunday mornings.
The word that moves me now is grace.  Grace is a universal concern.  We all need it.  We all want it.  We all worry that we aren’t worthy of it (we’re not, of course).  We all want to be sure there’s enough to go around.
Even if he didn’t know it, Zacchaeus needed grace.  He may have climbed that tree just to see what all the excitement was about—as well as to escape the jabs and pushes of his unfriendly neighbors—but he needed grace.  Jesus knew that, and offered it to him.  Jesus should have eaten at the home of one of the leading citizens of Jericho.  Instead, he chose to go home with the most hated man in town.  That’s a huge offering of grace.
At the dinner table Zacchaeus offered grace in return.  You remember:  he promised to give half of his goods to the poor. He also said he would return four times any amount he had taken unjustly.  That’s another a huge offering of grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that grace isn’t cheap.  It costs—and the cost of grace is high.  Moreover, grace costs both the giver and receiver.  Grace cost Jesus, because his reputation among the good people of Jericho hit rock bottom.  How could he associate with such a rotten person as Zacchaeus?  Grace cost Zacchaeus.  Once he had given away so much of his worldly goods he would have to seriously change his lifestyle.

Was it worth it?  What do you think?