Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost; the Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 12: 1 – 14, Romans 13: 8 – 14, and Matthew 18: 15 – 20 (following Cycle A of the Revised Common Lectionary).
There is the story of the young wife who was preparing a ham for dinner. As she was doing so, she cut off the last two inches of the ham. When her husband asked why she was doing that, she replied that was the way that she was taught and she didn’t know why it was done that way. But perhaps her mother, who had taught how to cook, could tell them.
After dinner, they called her mother and asked her why the last two inches of the ham were cut off before putting it in the roasting plan to bake in the oven. Her mother replied that was the way that she was taught and she didn’t know why it was done that way. But perhaps her mother, who fortunately for this story was still alive, could tell them.
So they called the young wife’s grandmother and asked why she had taught her mother to cut off the two inches of the ham before cooking it. And her grandmother replied that the first pan she used to cook a ham was too small and they had to cut off two inches of the ham in order to get it to fit.
We do so many things in our lives that they become so routine that we don’t know why it is that we do them. We have said the Apostle’s Creed so many times that we need not look it up in the hymnal, though we would be hard pressed to say it if asked to do so outside the normalcy of church. We may sing the “Gloria Patri” but only if we hear the tune (I have been advised to put the hymnal reference in the order of worship that I prepare when I am lay speaking since many people, including visitors, don’t know the tune that we often sing). Our worships services follow a routine and heaven forbid that we should ever change the order of worship.
But as one of the members of my church once pointed out, we may say the words of the Apostle’s Creed but we don’t necessarily know what the words mean. This parishioner felt that I should address this particular issue. I chose not to do so, not because I disagreed with him but because I was scheduled to take that particular Sunday as vacation, so I had him prepare the message and focus on that topic. (If you are going to come from a lay speaking background, then you had better foster lay speaker development in your congregation!) Since that Sunday, I have rotated through the creeds that are in the hymnal, so that we focus on the words and what the words mean rather than simply going through the motions of saying the creed every Sunday.
When I first started doing the level of lay speaking that I do (after this summer, I have averaged 20 sermons/messages a year since I began lay speaking), the three churches that I covered had the offering at the end of the service. The lay leaders told me that I could leave when the offering was taken so that I could get to the next service on time. Now, I will be honest; I was taught to do the job that I was asked to do, so I did the whole service. Besides, no matter how long it took the previous pastor to drive the 15 miles between each church, the thirty minutes between the end of one service and the beginning of the next service should be enough to get me to the church without hassle. (I made each service on time and with enough time to meet all the members.)
I see this in the music that we sing as well. There is, in some churches, a perceptible opposition to a change in the music of the church (and that includes opposition to the change in the hymnal from a number of years ago). This isn’t about the “new” music, which by now everyone knows that I am not crazy about. It is about singing old songs because we are comfortable singing them, even when we can’t sing them correctly. It is about not remembering what the songs mean and what they stand for. For me, the music in a worship service is as much a part of the worship as it is anything else. But a lot of people only want to sing songs they remember because they don’t remember what the music means to a worship service. I think that is part of the reason why there is so much opposition to praise music as well; in many cases and unless it is done properly, it doesn’t seem to fit within the scheme of worship; but we will save that discussion for another day.
My views on music may be because I was born in the south and music is as much of the service as anything else. And because I tried to learn music when I was younger, I perhaps have a better appreciation for music (the other day I heard “Deck the Halls” sung to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”; now that was interesting!)
Coming from the south, the sermon was always the closer so that the pastor could make the altar call if he felt moved to do so. That’s the way that I learned the service and it is the way that I prefer to do it (along with three Scripture readings and three hymns, plus the benediction response). But, in one of my lay speaking classes I learned that we in the United Methodist Church put the offering after the sermon as an expression of our response to the hearing of the Word.
It stands to reason that your response to the Word has to be in the form of your prayers, your presence, your gifts, and your service. I just wonder how many people understand the meaning of the offering as the response to hearing God’s Word.
And our lack of understanding of the presence of God in our life extends to our daily lives as well. We, as a society and as a nation, routinely express the view that this is a Christian nation; yet, there are homeless in our cities, hunger and poverty throughout the country (with the gap between the rich and poor growing every day). The passage of Hurricane Gustav through Louisiana and Texas this past week reminded us of the work that we have been doing and the work that still has to be done. We hear ministers proclaim the need for this to be a Christian nation guided by Biblical laws, yet we forget that people came to this country in order to worship God as they desired, free from the dictates of government. And the only politicians who can truthfully call for the enforcement of immigration policies are representatives of the Iroquois, Sioux, Pueblo, Nez Pierce, and other tribes whose land we so graciously took when we got here (often times, in God’s name). (For my thoughts on our lack of knowledge about history, see “Don’t Know Much History”.)
The Old Testament reading today is in the Bible for a reason, to remind the people of the night of the First Passover. The directions for the cooking of the lamb were to evoke the memories of that night when the Israelites gained their freedom. For many of us, this first Sunday of the month is communion Sunday are we are reminded of the night that Jesus gathered with His disciples and friends and partook of that very meal outlined in the Old Testament reading. But like so many things that we do in work, in play, in thought and deed, we trivialize the communion into a small piece of bread and a small gulp of juice.
When there are disagreements in our churches today, we are more apt to jump right to the third part of the Gospel reading (cast the person out of the church) than to work through the first two parts. We forget the words of Paul to view life through the eyes of love, not hatred or greed, not with eyes looking inward but outward.
Paul is correct when he wrote that the time is near. And as Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel, what we have done on earth is what we will find in heaven. We have transformed the church for what it was meant to be into what we want it to be. We have forgotten our roots, our heritage, and our purpose as Christians and as a church. And in doing so, we have ordained the future to be the end of the church.
But it need not be so. We need not continue walking the path that will lead to the church’s death (be it an individual church or a denomination). The one thing that Christ’s death does for us is give us an option, if we are willing to take it. There are those who proclaim the need for an emerging church when in reality what they want is the old church revived. We, as Methodists, are the inheritors of a vision of men and women who heard the call of God to change the world and bring the church back to what it is meant to be.
So let us remember why it is we are called Christians and let us not forget what it means to lead a life in Christ.