Monday, May 5, 2014

Known in Word & Sacrament

Sometimes I feel a little bit like the minister who stood before a congregation on Easter Sunday and said, “My friends, I have in my possession three colorful eggs.  If you buy the first egg it will cost you $100, but the sermon will only be 10 minutes long.  If you buy the second egg, it will cost you $50, but the sermon will last 25 minutes.  The third egg only costs $20, but comes with a 45-minute sermon.  We are going to take an offering now so I can see which egg you want me to deliver.”  Well, I don’t know if I’ll lay an egg this morning or not, but I can promise you two things: first, you don’t have to pay for it and second, it will be over in about 10 minutes.  During this time I want to describe my personal history with today’s gospel reading.  I encountered it one way growing up in the Presbyterian Church and another here in the Episcopal Church. 

I have said before that I learned my bible in the Presbyterian Church.  Every Sunday we children had a memory verse to learn and recite the next week.  Youth groups, starting in Middle School, focused on the bible, as did the bible study that began an hour before youth group.  Our Senior High youth group, along with another bible study on a weeknight, drilled home in me the content of the bible and much of its meaning.  Add to this that we were encouraged to read the bible on our own, which I did one chapter a night before bed for almost fifteen years.

So you can imagine how in that environment the focus on today’s reading honed in on the verse, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted for them the things about himself in all of scripture.”   From there the focus skipped forward to the two disciples saying to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he… was opening the scriptures to us?”  For us, the bible was the primary sacrament of the church.  Knowing it was central to knowing God.  The headwork of knowing the bible led to a heart on fire for God.

When I entered college in the fall of 1978 I did so with the intention of majoring in religion and philosophy.  Philosophy morphed into economics, but I stayed with religion.  I had classes in Old and New Testament survey, which were largely content driven and easy for me.  I also took a class in New Testament Greek, which was a significant challenge.  Over the next few semesters I had classes on the life of Paul, Old Testament theology, the Minor Prophets, the Book of Revelation, and on and on.  There was a lot of bible and even in massive doses it fueled my spiritual life.

During this time I drifted away from the mainline Presbyterian Church and tried out a couple of different bible churches before settling in to a small Orthodox Presbyterian Church in my college town.  They hired a new pastor from New Zealand who decided early on to start a preaching series beginning at Genesis 1:1 and making his way from there through the entire bible.  That is an ambitious undertaking both for the preacher and for the congregation.  Worship at the O.P. Church was something straight out Puritan England – an opening hymn, a long pastoral prayer (and let me emphasize the long part), a responsive reading from the psalter, an offering, and a 45-minute sermon.  Now, when I say ‘sermon’, please don’t mistake this experience with the wonderment I weave here Sunday in and Sunday out.  These sermons were straight bible commentary – comparing and contrasting the position of several renowned scholars arguing over the intricacies of some nuanced point. 

By the middle of my senior year, what with classes in the bible six days a week (yes, my college had Saturday classes) and what felt like another whole class on Sunday morning, the warm, burning I had come to associate with reading the bible cooled off dramatically.  Over the previous two years that pastor had preached is all the way to the 9th chapter of the book of Genesis and I found myself longing not for words about God but for an experience of God.  I returned to the mainline Presbyterian Church in my college town and there became reacquainted with worship as opposed to study.

I returned home to Ohio after graduating in 1982 and that summer was introduced to the Episcopal Church through, of all things, a bible study.  But this is not what grabbed me.  What grabbed me was the worship.  I was moved by the music (the church had an incredible Men & Boys Choir associated with the Royal School of Church Music), the liturgy (which I found made my heart burn within me), and the preaching (which, rather than engaging the bible as an academic exercised, focused more on applying it to daily life and experience). 

I vividly recall the first Morning Prayer service I attended on the 4th of July weekend.  I remember being dumbstruck as the Officiant offered a Collect for our Armed Forces and a Collect for Peace.  What impressed me so deeply was that he made no attempt to reconcile the two, no effort to articulate to God exactly how opposites should be balanced and tensions resolved.  We simply, humbly, and gracefully offered our prayers to God and then trusted in God to hear them and to guide us.  How refreshing it was not to be exposed to a lengthy survey on scholarly opinions and what a relief it was not to be subjected to the particular point of view of the person praying!  We all came before God, said our prayers, and put ourselves in a position of trust.  I was hooked for life.

The next Sunday was the first time I participated in the Eucharist at an Episcopal Church.  At every other church I had attended, we sat in the pew while communion was passed out to us.  Every other church I had attended, there was no clear reason even to have communion except a couple of times a year (and even then, many resented that the service took longer than usual because of it).  In my mind’s eye, I can still envision walking up the long center aisle of the church, into the chancel, past the singing choir, and kneeling for the first time at an altar rail.  I can still taste the bread and see the large chalice (filled with wine, not juice).  The basic act of coming forward and kneeling, as everyone else in the church did, started a burning in me that I had never felt before.  It began in me what has been a complex and amazing journey of finding Jesus made known in the breaking of the bread.

Initially I experienced the Eucharist as a deeply penitential moment.  In it I recounted all my sins from the previous week, promised to do better in the week to come, and then hit the reset button on the following Sunday feeling all the while like a miserable sinner because I had failed at my reforms.  Over time, my experience of the Eucharist began to change, not because I was any less a sinner, but because I began to find in it God’s deep acceptance of me for who I am.  This phase of the journey began innocently enough when I received communion from a priest who looked me in eye as he gave me the bread, smiled, and said, “Keith, the body of Christ which is given for you.”  In that moment I felt loved by God for who I am, not condemned by God for who I am not.

I do not regret a thing about my upbringing with its emphasis on knowing the bible.  Frankly, I continue to be surprised at how life-long Episcopalians can sit through services week in and week out and still lack a coherent understanding of the bible.  Beginning this summer with our Wednesday evening pot-luck dinners, I am going to start walking us through the bible and its stories beginning (where else) at Genesis 1:1.  My hope is to expose us to the basic content of the bible and to gain a better sense of its historic flow.

My personal testimony is this: word without sacrament lacks something of the mystery of God.  It is too small.  Too confined.  When God wanted humanity to know God, God became a person, not a book.  That person went through life without writing a thing.  And when he wanted to institute a ritual to remember him and his words, he did so at a meal rather than a bible study.  But sacrament without word is not sufficient either.  The basic stories of our tradition along with its teachings and wisdom begin a holy conversation even in our day.  Without the conversation, the experience of God may happen while the voice of God goes unheard.  At its best, our Episcopal tradition gives us both.  I invite you to commit to a regular practice of reading the bible and conversing about it while at the same time engaging in the worship and sacramental life of the church.