Saturday, July 5, 2014
Dreaming of church without sermons
What is the purpose of church?
Worship? Fellowship? Prayer?
Let's call it a communal experience of the Divine.
The Church has found that experience in the Eucharist, by eating and drinking the Son of God, by uniting our souls and bodies to every generation of Christians past, present, and future, and uniting us to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the miracle supreme, the pinnacle of existence until we get to heaven.
Over time, the Eucharist was built up by augmentations: by certain prayers and songs and readings. Lectionaries were developed. We found ways to pray for those whom we forget about in our individual prayers. Brilliant means of worship through song were written, from chant to instrumental music to hymnody to Psalters. An exuberant, overflowing, overwhelming ecstasy of experience that transcends time and space.
OK, so most of the time it doesn't feel that way - the choir is off-key, you were up all night with the baby, you and your spouse fought on the way over and struggle to make it to the Peace. But when you take the bread and wine, no matter how you feel, the reality remains.
Can anyone tell me what the sermon adds to this?
I know that sermons were not a Reformation invention, but during the Reformation they were elevated to preeminence. As a Presbyterian, I was taught that the pulpit is the most important furniture in the church, because of the centrality of proclaiming the Word. And by proclaiming the Word, they didn't mean reading the Gospel; they meant having a 20-30 minute sermon on a text selected by the pastor, not by a lectionary. When you take out the altar and the sacrifice of Mass, a man's words (and it was always a man) become the focus. (Similarly, when you remove the offering of the bread and wine, the offertory is just a money-making opportunity, but that's another story).
Granted, the Anglican and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and (some) Lutheran churches retained their altars and Eucharists. However, there are still sermons or homilies. The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer doesn't even allow for its removal at the priest's discretion: the rubrics call for a sermon, full stop. That said, most daily Eucharistic services ignore this, or they simply read a brief piece on a saint's day, but Sundays always have sermons.
(Do Catholics have the option of omitting the sermon/ homily?)
Now, most people probably like sermons. They see it as a time to learn something, to be reminded of God's love, to be convicted or enlightened. They may fidget if the time goes over, or the priest has a verbal tic, but even poor homilies are taken in stride, a given, as expected as the Amen after a prayer.
However, for some of us, sermons are minefields. When visiting new parishes or listening to a guest preacher, we tense and clench our fingers, waiting for trigger words. We try to disassociate, or we fixate on the words so intensely, hoping to remove the shock of surprise.
God is not tame. We have a wild God.
We are at war, and every one of us is a soldier.
You have no choice.
Who are you to talk back to God? Who are you to say He is unfair to exercise His holy will?
When you die, what will you say when God asks "Why should I let you into my heaven?"
Do you know where you'll go when you die?
If you were to stop breathing this second, would you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you wouldn't be in hell?
Love the sinner, hate the sin.
Every non-Christian knows the verse "Judge not." Well, won't they get a surprise at the Great White Throne of Judgement!
You are either with us or against us.
Those people who abort babies are the same ones who don't believe in spankings. Guess a belt is worse than death.
When you don't share the Gospel with your neighbor, you sentence them to Hell.
God is a God of love, but He is also holy. He cannot look upon sin, and His wrath must be satisfied.
God doesn't see any difference in sin. Sin is sin, and the lustful thought you had is the same in God's eyes as the sins of a child molester.
It's not always this bad. In the Episcopal church, it rarely is. But after a lifetime of damaging sermons, it doesn't take much to trigger a panic attack. And guess what you miss then? Yep, the Eucharist, the whole reason you came.
Some of these damaging notions are heretical by most standards, but sometimes even technically correct notions are delivered in damaging ways. Humans aren't perfect, especially when they have to come up with "original" sermon ideas 52 weeks a year plus major feasts.
So, what's the trade-off? Those with religiously-influenced PTSD and traumatic experiences can stay for the Eucharist, but we may have to attend Sunday school or a formation group for Christian ed. In which case, isn't small group education better anyway? What, really, is the purpose of a sermon, since it's about a man talking to the congregation rather than the congregation and priest having conversation with God?