Today I am off to Washington D.C. to take part in the 2018 Festival of (#homiletics2018) if you follow hashtags. And on Thursday, with thousands of other Christian leaders I will march to the White House to #reclaimjesus. You can read about the festival here and the Reclaim Jesus movement here.
Below, for your consideration is the sermon I offered at Upper Sackville on Sunday. I hope it brings you some inspiration!
Wasn’t that some wedding sermon! I’m with Harry – “Wow!!!”
Experiencing that sermon in the midst of a rather tradition (read staid) Book of Common Prayer liturgy got me to thinking about the ways we worship…
When I first served this church back in 2007, I was told by one member who is no longer among us, “we’re not a happy-clappy church”. Actually I think that is only half right.
Things have changed over the years.
I’ve discovered over the past year that there’s plenty of happiness around, and a warm welcome – there’s nothing stiff or unfriendly about Upper Sackville or Sackville. But I think I’d be pushing my luck if I expected you, here at Upper Sackville, to do too much in the way of clapping along to the hymns.
Please, by all means feel free to do so if you want to. Dance in the aisles if that’s what you feel like doing…Raise your hands in worship if you’d like to – I often do behind the pulpit!
But I’d be a bit surprised if Upper Sackville United Church suddenly turned into a place where displays of unbridled emotion and ecstatic worship became the norm. That sort of style has never quite made it into the DNA of this community.
So how would we feel if what happened to Jesus’ first disciples on the Day of Pentecost happened to us? There they were, gathered in an upper room, waiting, praying, but not really sure what for. Jesus had told them that God would send the Spirit on them to help them in the mission they’d be given, that little task of taking the good news of his love to the ends of the earth. At this point, they probably didn’t even know how they’d take it to the end of the road, so how would they even find the courage to begin?
But then, suddenly something happens. They aren’t sure what, but it’s a pretty emotional experience. Luke is obviously struggling to find images to describe it. It sounded like a rushing wind, he says, but there was no wind. It looked like they were on fire, but no one got burned. And somehow their stumbling Aramaic words communicated to people from all corners of the known world heard in their own languages.
They can’t explain exactly what is happening; all they know is that they have been suddenly swept off their feet. Their rational assessment of the situation has been bypassed. They’ve been caught up in something bigger than themselves, something that blows them out of their own comfort zones, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
It’s a dramatic story. And we might enjoy hearing it. But how would we feel about experiencing it for ourselves? Like I said earlier, my experience is that this congregation usually prefers a rather more “measured” approach to worship, shall we say.
That’s not the case in some other churches, of course. I spent much of my late teens in a pemtecostal church (following a girl) where ecstatic, exuberant worship was standard. Church wasn’t church without some singing in tongues and people standing up to prophesy and pray spontaneously.
I’m glad to have had that experience; sometimes it’s good to put aside our reserve and I needed to at that point in my life. But I quickly realised that emotionality isn’t the be-all and end-all of being Spirit-filled or Spirit-led.
I’ve also heard the voice of God in a Taize prayer with two or three people present, and felt the touch of God’s hand in our ordinary Sunday morning worship. Often God comes to us in the still, small voice, not the wind and the fire.
The tension between emotion and reason in worship – the heart and the head – goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Paul tells the Corinthian church that they shouldn’t all pray or speak at once, no matter how excited they are. “God is a God not of disorder, but of peace” he says (1 Cor 14. 31). But in his letter to the Romans he tells them that when they haven’t got the words they need, “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”. The fact that they couldn’t, with their rational minds, think of what to say, didn’t mean that they couldn’t pray.
In the Middle Ages emotionalism in worship bubbled up again in movements like the Franciscans. Ordinary people, not monks or priests, felt inspired to preach, teach. They developed new forms of worship, like the Christmas crib, which originated in this era, things that appealed to people’s hearts. Often, though, these initiatives fell foul of the Church authorities. They were suspicious of anything they couldn’t control.
In the eighteenth century it was John and Charles Wesley who were in trouble with their outdoor preaching and their energetic, popular hymn tunes that anyone could pick up and join in with. John Wesley dated the turning point in his faith as 24th May at 8.45pm – it was as precise as that – when, during a prayer meeting he felt his heart “strangely warmed”. Suddenly the faith he had known in his head connected with his heart, and it changed everything. But for the rather staid Church of England at the time, in the midst of the rationalist Enlightenment, this was all too much to take. The downtrodden masses in the Industrial slums or the impoverished countryside thought it was great, but the powers that be were, at best, embarrassed and at worst afraid this emotional excitement was the precursor to revolution. The Wesleys were accused of being “enthusiasts” – and not in a good way. “Enthusiast” literally means someone with God “Theos” inside them. Who did they think they were?
You could see a little of this tension – shall we say – in the wedding of Meaghan and Harry yesterday… a traditional Book of Common Prayer marriage liturgy, with a black gospel choir and preaching the likes of which that cathedral had probably never heard as Bishop Curry invited people to consider the Power of Love…
When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive, when love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of god’s children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that god is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of god. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.
The symbols of fire and wind that Luke used to describe the Spirit on that first Day or Pentecost weren’t primarily symbols of excitement. Fire and wind, for ancient people, were about movement and transformation. Wind filled the sails of their ships. There’s evidence that it was used to power irrigation systems and other machines too. Fire was an agent of transformation. If you had fire you could turn rock into metal, sand into glass, mud into pottery, raw food into something delicious and sustaining.
This Pentecost Spirit – love among us is what Bishop Curry was referring to in his sermon… it was a Pentecost sermon!
Likening the Spirit of God to wind and fire was a way of saying that the Spirit caused real change in real lives, real movement from somewhere to somewhere else. Jesus’ disciples – the word literally means learners – were transformed into apostles, literally people who are sent out.
Our worship, our faith, should touch our hearts, but it’s not just about stirring up emotions. We may describe our experience of worship as “moving”, whether it is ancient or modern, but the question should always be “where has it moved us to?”
The Spirit is God’s gift to us, Godself with us, far more than a passing moment of excitement. The Spirit , as the Gospel says, guides us into truth, speaks to us and through us, gives us the words we need when we have none of our own, and strength beyond our strength and wisdom beyond our wisdom. We can’t make the Spirit come to us. All we can do is know our need and open ourselves to God’s gift.
So, however we worship, however we encounter God, quietly or exuberantly, privately or for all to see, let’s be open to God’s Spirit – in our heads and our hearts. Let’s be ready to be changed, ready to hear good news, and be good news to those we are sent to, in the power of the Spirit. Amen