The trial sermon: Mainline worship lacks power

I preached and led the service for the first time this Sunday.  Then I was escorted out while the congregation voted on me.  I was brought back in to a warm ovation.  What an amazing experience!  Leading the service was quite comfortable, although the choreography is new and uncertain to me.  Then, as the new pastor, I had to be “on” for coffee hour and to work the room.  But again, very natural and comfortable.

In the sermon, I continued the approach which I have held to since first contact: say directly what needs to be said, especially if no one else is likely to say it.  Here it is.

“A Power Problem”

Mt 6:1-18; 2 Cor 12:1-10

Paul would prefer not to talk about himself. So would I. Paul puts no stock in his identity. He tells the Corinthians in his first letter: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” I’m not going to claim Paul’s very noble motivations. But generally I like to talk about the Scriptures, and about us, and keep the attention off of me.

Second Corinthians is a strange letter. In our section Paul is engaged in a several-chapters long defense of himself. The Corinthians, apparently, have severely tested his authority. So Paul must “boast,” he must talk about how impressive he is. He carefully signals that he hates doing so. At one point he interjects: “I am talking like a madman.” And toward the end of this rant, he turns the tables on them: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” I want to get to that “Power of Christ.” But for now just note that Paul says the way to get to that power is to be upfront about your weaknesses and not, like our politicians, celebrities, or just about anyone in power, to celebrate your achievements and divert attention from your faults.

That’s what you do in a job interview, isn’t it? Haven’t we all done that? Unlike the Corinthians, you’ve been very welcoming to me and have shown me every respect; but this does feel a little like a job interview. And so, like Paul but for different reasons, I am feeling a little uncomfortable. Still, Paul does what he has to do.

I don’t have anything nearly as impressive as Paul to boast about, but I too have had life-changing visions, mystical experiences. I was raised in a slightly clubbish Presbyterian church, and like so many youth drifted away as soon as I was confirmed. My faith reignited at 16 when I had a day or two of absorbing awareness of God’s love. At the time I had little knowledge of the Bible or theology. Studying these, as I have for 20 and more years, has not produced any (more powerful) personal experiences, although I’ve had a variety. It has led me to reinterpret that experience of long ago, although never to doubt its power and authenticity. But moreover, my study has turned my attention outside of myself to our world and its complexities. If you ask me today about my personal spiritual life and private thoughts, I will share them with you with more precision than Paul does (“I do not knows, God knows,” as he keeps saying), but it may take a long time to explain, and there might be a required reading list first.

I can talk about my weaknesses, too; I am still a little surprised to be presenting myself as a leader of this august congregation. But notice that Paul is much vaguer about his weaknesses—what is this “thorn in the flesh” anyway? I’d rather wait until my weaknesses show up in our work together. And then I will talk about them with all candor and honesty, so that you don’t have to do it for me. But for now, I believe, again like Paul, that Christ doesn’t dwell only in me personally, or only in you personally, or in any of us individually. Christ dwells in two or three of us, gathered together. So I want to talk about us, and I want us to be honest about ourselves as a church. And to talk about power.

My honest belief is that the mainline church is in real trouble; it has a power problem. I hope I’m not too far out on a limb with that one. We’ve seen UCC churches nearby close recently. This church should feel very good about showing some growth while others have declined, but from talking with you I know that you face many challenges too.

I don’t know this church very well yet. But I have seen that you are a group of good people, which is why I am excited to be here with you. The trouble I’m talking about lies not with you individually, or you as a particular group of people. Of course, none of us is innocent; we are all fallen and fallible creatures. But I believe your heart is in the right place. I have seen that you care deeply about this organization and community; but it goes beyond that: you take seriously the fact that you are a church of God. This spiritual earnestness commends you, and it also reflects well on your previous ministers.

But the problem of which I speak is much bigger than you. It affects a vast number of churches in this country and in other parts of the globe, especially what many call the “mainline churches”: Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (DOC), and the United Church of Christ.

The problem does not show up in first and foremost in a church’s fellowship, its meetings and governance, or its big-hearted service. I see it in worship. The problem is that so much of mainline worship lacks real power, godly power. Now worship is often pleasant, or interesting; the time can pass quickly or slowly. But worship is supposed to place you before the living God. It might be joyful, or mournful. It might be intellectually engaging, or almost purely emotional. It might feature a sermon, or skip the sermon altogether. It might feature gorgeous and intricate music, or simply consist of words and silence.

None of that is essential. What is critical is that worship be powerful. If worship is good, whatever form it takes, it will be powerful. Now, feeling this lack of power, many try to orchestrate better worship; but it’s not that simple. Godly power in worship cannot be manipulated; it must come from God. Actually, the power must be God: it is the Holy Spirit. You cannot compel the Holy Spirit. You cannot frighten people into powerful worship with talk of hellfire, you cannot drag down God’s Spirit by wowing people with blitz and glitz, you cannot seduce them into it by playing to their sentimental favorites (hymns, scriptures, or political causes). And you certainly can’t guilt trip them into it. All these forms of manipulation fail necessarily. The Spirit refuses all lies. God will not be mocked, or manipulated. That’s magic. That’s idolatry.

Worship should be powerful—powerful because of what it is, not because of something we do to it. Worship means letting God show or reveal God’s power, God’s glory. It’s tricky business. Because we have to do things, right? I am doing things, and Michael is, the choir is, and the deacons are, and so is the reader. But we have to let our actions be revealing of God, rather than call attention to ourselves. That’s another reason I dislike talking about myself. And I prefer a simple style in worship that gives a prominent place to the primary materials of worship that are not me, are not us: Scripture and its words from long ago, traditional formulas like the doxology; water, bread, wine. But there’s no recipe or formula that will guarantee that God will speak here, as much as we like to say, “God is still speaking.”

And that’s the key question I have for you: is God still speaking here, today? Does God’s Word take on power, Holy Spirit power, in this corner of the mainline church today? I have seen God’s power elsewhere. I never experienced such Spiritual power as I did during the two years I spent with 12th Street Christian Church, an old-school African-American church in Washington, DC. God’s power resided deep in the culture of that lovely church, like a deep well. You often, but not always, see a similar power at work in communities struggling to survive, often amid poverty, ethnic marginalization, or violence. I believe God lifts up communities like that, just as God did for the Israelites groaning under slavery. But there’s no guarantee there, either. Every community has its faults; and God’s election is mysterious.

It’s also true that you do get glimpses of God’s power in every congregation, if you know what to look for. Sometimes its very “subtle,” shall we say. Sometimes it’s just very weak, or obscured by all kinds of other things going on.

So you can only answer this question for yourselves, individually, and as a whole body. Is God’s power revealed here? Does it engross you? Capture you? Revive you? Direct and empower you? Does it knit you all together into one body of love?

That’s a question for all of you, young and old, and the start of a conversation for us. But you would not be alone in the mainline church if you answered, “no”—or “not all the time.” Would we have so much trouble keeping our youth engaged in church if they felt God’s power here? It’s not the kind of thing you can just blow off. You can’t experience God’s power and then say: “yeah, whatever.”

I want to repeat very clearly: if God’s power is lacking in your worship, it is not your fault. I am completely uninterested in guilt-tripping you (ever). (I did like Rev. Nada’s point last week, that we don’t always want God’s power to take over. It’s disturbing and forces us to let go of our control. Keep pondering that. )

But if God’s power is obscured or lacking all across this nation in the mainline churches, it seems to me that there is an entrenched, complicated, and messy cultural problem at work. We don’t just need the resolve to do better at worship. We need some discerning wisdom. And hey, I’m good at this part.

First, we need to discern, understand, and resist the forces in our culture that have captivated and oppressed us, and that take us away from receiving the power of God. (We need to be comfortable, notice, with the idea that we are captivated and oppressed.) In far too many ways we are shaped by our culture without even being aware how.

But second, we need to own up to the fact that there are also legitimate challenges to and criticisms of our Christian faith. We need to understand these questions and problems in our own house, for they erode our confidence, even when we don’t admit it to ourselves. Being honest about these challenges should prompt us to explore anew that Christian faith, in a fresh and unguarded way. In my years of study, I’ve considered carefully just about all the challenges to the Christian faith, and I’ve had to rethink many things. You might not like or be able to follow all my private thoughts about God. But let me assure you: I believe our Christian faith is fundamentally sound and trustworthy, even if we need to tweak it and clarify it quite a bit. We stand on good and godly ground. But be aware: possessing this faith in God’s most glorious revelation only makes us more responsible for how we can fail and corrupt this faith—and we have always done so.

So we should have great confidence in the faith we have inherited, even as we freely open ourselves to rethinking our faith. I am convinced that the mainline churches have greatly narrowed their grasp on who God is, relying too much on a few simple formulas that don’t do justice to the rich portrait of God in Scripture and church tradition. And that has not helped our power problem.  I said that that problem is bigger than us; thank goodness that God is bigger than our small imaginations about God. I’ve confirmed over the years that God is an unfathomable mystery, but the deeper you plunge, the more buoyant you feel. And you plunge deeper by exploring all the manifold ways God has been shown to God’s people. There’s a great tool that you already use to see God and the Christian life from various vantage points: the liturgical calendar—that cycle of seasons from Advent to Christmas, Lent to Easter, and Pentecost through Ordinary Time. I want to expand upon and enrich how we tour the Christian faith through the seasons of the year. So I’d like to begin in the coming weeks by briefly revisiting where we’ve been this year: the essential message of Easter, and then of Pentecost and the birth of the church, and then to consider some key issues concerning how we live as a Christian community—the stuff of “ordinary time.” And we can have all that done by the time we begin the new year with Advent. The diversity we find in the seasons of the liturgical year is a wonderful way to restore us to an openness to all that God is beyond the things that we’ve settled into. And to further aid that openness, it might help to experiment with liturgical forms—that’s why, as I told the search committee, I am anxious to begin a mid-week worship service, probably in late afternoon or early evening, a service that will be solemn but refreshing, and appeal to those who are looking for a fresh face on this religion that they had written off or become jaded on. I want to poll you on what kind of service at what time would best accommodate you.

I believe that doing these things will enable our worship to become a vessel for the revealing Power of God. Whatever we try to do as a body that is not based on that revealing Power amounts to a house built on sand. (Don’t get me wrong, there are nice houses built on sand.) But if we—or better, if the Holy Spirit working through us builds a house on that rock, we won’t have anything else to worry about.

I believe this can happen, but I’m not certain. I’m giving my speculations based on my experience with and observations of other mainline churches. I need to get to know you and your particular heritage, your gifts, your desires and needs and dreams. I need to come learn these things from you, and I need you to share them with me.

Even so, I can give you no guarantees that God will reveal God’s glory here, nor do I know you well enough to trust that you are fully ready for that to happen. But the one thing that we can do, one thing that is within our control, is to be honest with each other, and honest with God. How absurd it is to try to hide something from God, like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden. The passage we read from Matthew is abundantly clear and striking: it is absurd to make a show of religion. You can fool others, but do you think you can fool God? What would you hope to gain? The whole point of turning to God and praying must include getting in touch with a reality that you can be entirely honest with, free from all the posturing we have to do with each other.

So if our worship is not yet all that it can be, let’s not pretend that it is. Let’s not say we are strong when we are weak. And let me be one who keeps you honest: I won’t allow you to try pretend things are going great in your life, or in our worship, when they are not. There’s no guarantee that the Holy Spirit will show up in power and glory, but I am quite sure that the way to drive out and keep out the Holy Spirit is to pretend you are already full, when in fact you are empty. Let’s confess our weaknesses and open ourselves to God’s help.

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One thought on “The trial sermon: Mainline worship lacks power

  1. My first attempt to join a blog. Is there a blog etiquette? Is this a judgment free zone where opinions are expressed? If so count me in. I for one am very happy Bill has joined our church. Bill’s enthusiasm and desire to share his thoughts and visions are palpable. I do believe this will be interesting ride as Bill and the members get to know each other. This process will take time and effort on all sides. So join in, buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride! Let’s see where God takes us!

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