Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Means or an End?

What are the adjectives we put in front of specific religious traditions to indicate a person’s dedication to it?  We speak of being a “practicing Jew”, or a “devout Roman Catholic.”  We describe a person as being a “good Baptist” or an “active Presbyterian.”  I have heard more than one person identified as being a “staunch Episcopalian.”  Some of these modifiers are interchangeable, others not so much.  We might describe someone as being a “good Episcopalian,” but probably not a “practicing Episcopalian.”
All of these terms hint at a high level of involvement; at being deeply engaged with the particular customs and dictates of a specific faith tradition.  Each speaks of a distinctive way to worship, to draw from the bible, to be in a community of believers, and to participate or not participate in a society and the culture as a whole.

The Christian writer Philip Yancey describes the do’s and don’ts – well, mostly the don’ts – associated with his upbringing in a fundamentalist church in the late 50’s and early 60’s:

At the top [of the list of don’ts] were smoking and drinking… Movies ranked just below these vices, with many church members refusing even to attend The Sound of Music.  Rock music, then in its infancy, was likewise regarded as an abomination, quite possibly demonic in origin.  Other proscriptions – wearing makeup and jewelry, reading the Sunday paper, playing or watching sports on Sunday, mixed swimming (curiously termed ‘mixed bathing’), skirt length for girls, hair length for boys – were heeded or not heeded depending on a person’s level of spirituality.”

Does any of that mirror your own upbringing?

Every religious movement has a core tenant accompanied by surrounding practices aimed at helping a follower move toward that core.  For those of us in the Christian tradition, the core is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Practices like regular worship and turning the other cheek are just two of the ways we live into what is most central about our tradition.

The practices are a means to the end of loving God and loving our neighbor, but it does not take much for the means to become an end unto themselves.  Isn’t that what Philip Yancey was describing about his childhood?  Somewhere along the way, whatever it was about skirt length and hair length that directed a person toward loving God and loving your neighbor became obscured by the notions that good Christian boys keep their hair above the ears and girls keep their skirts below the knees.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is confronted by a group of religious leaders attacking him around this very same phenomena.  A particular practice of ritual hand washing meant to remind a person of the need for and value of inner holiness over time had become an end unto itself.  The religious leaders became fixated on the practice, but indifferent to its intended end.  It appears Jesus practiced the ritual, but his disciples did not.  The religious leaders chide him for not forcing his followers to observe this custom.

Jesus responds by quoting the sacred Hebrew Scriptures:

“This people honors me with their lips,   but their hearts are far from me.”

They had become what Mark Twain once described as “good in the worst sense of the word.”  It is not the practice that Jesus criticizes, but rather using the practice as an end unto itself.  He would not stand for an exterior manifestation of religion that did not emanate from an interior place in the soul.

We need specific practices, rituals, and customs in order to have an identity as a people of faith. Interestingly, mainline congregations that work hard at developing these things are beginning to flourish.  Joseph Stewart-Sicking is a member of a team of sociologists headquartered at Virginia Seminary who are studying churches all across the country.  Here is what he reports of their findings:

“In our research we saw intentional practice.  Churches worked hard at developing certain disciplines and making them the core of their life together.  We saw engagement with tradition, not as the tyranny of the dead but as a living body of wisdom.”
In other words, a hand washing ritual used as a means to move closer to loving God and loving your neighbor aids personal faith and adds to congregational vitality.  Of course, the meaning and purpose of the hand washing ritual is lost on us today.  There is no point to try to recreate it if it becomes an end to itself.  But we do have our own practices that are worth embracing.

Let me help you understand what I mean by telling you of one person’s experience with a church very similar to ours.  Nora Gallagher writes about walking into a parish as a visitor and then becoming a pilgrim as she walked through the seasons of the congregation’s life by celebrating its festivals, living through its ordinary times, and suffering in its dark moments.  It dawned on her she could never really understand Christianity unless she lived it by participating in the practices, customs, and rituals of a specific Christian community.

Stewart-Sicking’s fellow researcher Diana Butler Bass writes that “People are finding their lives transformed by joining a faith community – not by taking a membership class or signing a pledge card – but through participating in a congregation’s story, language, actions, and rhythms.”  The dynamic congregations they studied have created “a vision of Christian discipleship that fits their own cultural and historical locations.”

Pairing their research with today’s Gospel reading, we might want to ask ourselves this: what do I do to live out my faith that moves me closer to loving God and loving my neighbor and what do I do that has morphed into an end unto itself.  What do we do as a congregation that moves us closer to God and our neighbor?  And what in our common life invites visitors to become fellow pilgrims?

Here are a few of the practices I see at St. Paul’s that are doing this:

·  Like other Episcopal congregations, we observe the Christian calendar as a means to walk through the story of Jesus on a yearly basis.  Following the lectionary, living into the church seasons, and observing significant celebrations of Jesus’ life helps us to do this.

·  Our Sunday worship follows a pattern of gathering in God’s Name, praising God, listening attentively to Holy Scripture first as it is read and then as it is understood through preaching, aligning ourselves with Christians of all times and all places by confessing the faith through the words a historic creed, praying for our own needs and the needs or others, confessing our sins and receiving absolution, extending God’s peace to those who gather with us, remembering Christ’s great gift to the world through the words of the Great Thanksgiving, being nourished and strengthened through taking communion, and finally offering thanks for all that we have received in worship and expressing the belief that it has prepared us to reenter life as God’s servants.

·  Here at St. Paul’s we have various ways we practice service through self-giving.  It begins with our elected lay leaders – the Vestry – who commit to being here each Sunday to open and close the building, to greet us, and to ensure that coffee and treats - basic signs of hospitality – are available.  It begins before that though on Saturday morning when members of the Altar Guild give their time so that the church is prepared for worship.  It begins even before that when members of the choir gather for practice to ensure that music, beauty, and praise will be a part of our common worship.

·  Our service through self-giving is expressed on Monday evenings when people from the community come to our church to receive food items to help them make it through the week.  It is also expressed when we take a meal to a person recovering from illness.

·  It is expressed every Friday night when we open the doors of our church to AA meetings, on Thursdays when BARKs offers its services in our Parish Hall, and at various other times throughout the month and year when we make our facilities available to groups that make Suffolk a better place for everyone.

·  It is one of my greatest joys as your Rector to offer our practice of service through self-giving to whomever God brings to our doors.  That is why with confidence I told an Episcopalian from another part of the country that I would be the celebrant at a memorial Eucharist for our spouse and that we would provide a reception after the service for her family and friends.

These are just a few of our practices.  None is an end unto itself.  Each is a means to help us love God and love our neighbor.  Based on his observations of other congregations, Joseph Stewart-Sicking says this:

“There are no shortcuts.  It is something that develops over time, learning as you do, becoming a community dedicated to a way of life that can’t be purchased.”

Does that sound like us?  Or do the words of Jesus ring in our ears, “You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me”?  I know how I answer this question.  How do you answer it?