Year B, Proper 4, Track 2, 3 June 2018
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT
Who here likes to be in control? Be honest.
Likely all of us.
Who here would consider themselves to be, at least sometimes, a “control freak?” By control freak, I mean “a person who feels an obsessive need to exercise control over themselves and others and to take command of a particular situation.”
Yes, I raise my hand. One of the many things I have been reflecting on in my first year of serving here at Trinity on the Green, is how and when I can tend to be a bit of a control freak. One of those ways is around liturgy. Now, I come by it honest! I was trained at the General Theological Seminary after all, and there we were carefully taught to be very precise and particular: that the Book of Common Prayer is our script, we are to follow it word for word and always follow the rubrics! Every gesture and movement should be exact in timing, and rich in meaning. We should sing beautifully, preach powerfully (yet succinctly), walk in step, in height order, crossing ourselves exactly this way, stand, kneel, bow, and kneel again, and end the service exactly on time.
I exaggerate only slightly.
It’s certainly understandable that many clergy and lay leaders in our Episcopal Church, as well as in the greater church, like having control over worship. After all, beautiful, life changing worship is what so many churches are known for, and it’s what people think we church professionals are working towards all other 6 days of the week. Sunday worship is at the center of our common life, it is what most people come to church for, and most want it to have a certain “feel” – a certain quality. It can be easy to view our worship service- whether it be Morning Prayer, or the Eucharist – as more like a production. A show. A show that should go off without a hitch, like a Broadway musical. We standing up here in the front perform for those in the audience to watch and listen.
Well, no. That’s not what worship is. While I do believe worship incorporates holy performances – like preaching and singing – worship it is not a show. Pope Francis said exactly that in print recently: he told a group of gathered faithful that the mass is not a show. So, what is it? It is a communal celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. What we are doing here is a communal celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, and every person in the room plays a part in that celebration.
In my first year here at Trinity, I have been reminded again and again that I have to give up my desired control over liturgy. For starters, it’s never about me. And truly, because – I can’t control it! In part, because we all play a role. I’ve come to learn that we never know when someone in the room might interrupt. When someone might suddenly ask for prayer aloud, laugh or sing when it might not seem appropriate so to do, or even approach the altar. One can view these interruptions as just that – annoying disruptions to our otherwise beautiful liturgy – or, we can view them as moments of grace: people responding to what they feel and see and need – responding to the stories of Jesus, responding to hospitality and love extended, which in turn causes them to reach out to receive healing from Jesus – interrupting our status quo to remind us why we are truly here, and to remind us that if Jesus himself showed up, he just might disrupt us, too!
In our Gospel from Mark today, Jesus and his followers have already offended the religious authorities: Jesus has shown an indifference to fasting, and he has been hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is already getting attention for his new teaching – with authority!1 Now, the disciples aren’t behaving on the Sabbath. They are walking through the grainfield plucking the heads of the grain. And then, Jesus himself doesn’t behave either, because he heals the man with the withered hand in the synagogue. Remember, for Jesus and his disciples as Jewish people, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship. No work is to be done. This causes conflict with the religious authorities, who correctly perceive that this Jesus is proclaiming a new understanding of who God is – that God is not confined to rules made by people. Jesus is also proclaiming himself to be the son of man – the lord of the sabbath!
Jesus does not deny or reject the significance of the Sabbath, as I would expect him to not deny or reject our gathering for worship on Sunday. But, he does remind us of what such holy times are meant for the people of God – that they are made for God’s people, not the other way around. That our gathering for worship is not intended to be a strenuous observance of rules and rubrics – instead, it is to be a joyful gathering to worship God. If we understand Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the day that we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, week after week, how do we welcome Jesus into our gathering? How do we create space for Jesus to touch us and heal us in unexpected ways? How do we see Jesus in each other? We are not to throw out the rules or the rubrics – we do need some – and we are not to lessen the quality of our services. But, I know I need to give up the desire for control, and instead, leave space for the Holy Spirit enter in to inspire and disrupt us -and to remind us that we do not create God with our rules and restrictions. God created and is creating us with an inclusive love beyond our human comprehension.
Jesus teaches that our time of holy rest and worship should remind us that we all belong to God. We do not belong to our work, or to money, or to systems of power. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. And we as Christians are called to engage and celebrate the goodness of God, and the new creation brought by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
So, how can we make our time of worship life giving and healing to those who gather here? How can we, on these summer Sundays at Trinity, promote the joy and freedom of the resurrection to all who gather? Could Jesus be challenging our own time-honored practices and traditions?
First, we need to loosen our grip – we have to give up our control, and trust that God’s got this. And God’s got us. Thanks be to God.
1 Mark 1:27