Weekly Worship Thought – Easter Vigil Recap

Faith Lutheran Church began to hold the Easter Vigil in 2012. Some of our long-term members can recall gathering for worship on the Saturday before Easter decades ago, so technically 2012 was not the first time the Vigil was held at Faith. However, Faith began to celebrate the Vigil anew in 2012. That means that this was our fifth year to gather on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this service is not easy. It is not the most “user friendly” worship we offer. It starts late (8:00 PM). It runs long (nearly two hours). There is a procession from outside the building to inside the gym. There are SIX scripture readings (but I want you to know that there are 12 readings assigned for the service, so it could be worse). The air conditioning turned off half way through the service. I could go on, but you get my drift.

Why is it so challenging? Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection. In the first centuries of Christianity, believers would gather together and hold vigil, all night long from sunset on Saturday till sunrise on Sunday. The church would be gathered in prayer in one part of the building, while in another part of the building, final preparation was being made for candidates for baptism. These candidates had in some cases been preparing for three years. Three years of gathering with the believers on Sunday, hearing the word read and the gospel proclaimed, and then being ushered out of worship into a separate space for further explanation and instruction. There time of preparation was intense and included fasting and exorcisms.

Why did it take so long? Mainly because the church didn’t assume that their candidates understood the doctrinal basics of the faith. But also because these candidates weren’t simply transferring their name to a new church directory or joining a country club. They were undergoing the radical transformation that we call conversion. Their thinking, their livelihood, their origins, their idolatry, and everything else about them were called into question. It was a slow, measured, weighty process. These churches weren’t interested in the assembly line production of Christians. This was slow-growth, organic, artisanal discipleship.

Now you see some of the rationale behind the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate. Our motivating factor is slightly different though. We think that it is relational connectedness that is most needed for a newcomer in this day and age. More than fully grasping what it means that Jesus is both human and divine, more than renouncing our idolatrous ways of being, we think that candidates need to know that they are loved and cared for by a group of people called into community by God’s Spirit. That is the bed of soil that the seed of faith is planted in.

I have many favorite parts of the Easter Vigil, and one of them is how we gather together for this service. We start outside around a fire. If you’re a fan of camping you will get this. There is something magical about being outdoors around burning wood. If we try to explain the magic we can trace it all the way back to the origins of what it means to be human. What set us apart from the other animals is that we learned how to use tools and start fires. So gathering around a fire outdoors is perhaps one of the earliest, oldest cognitive memories of humanity. Fire is also a central symbol in our faith. God led Israel by fire through the desert. God spoke to Moses in a flame. All the way down to the narrative of Easter, where around the fire Peter denies even knowing the Lord. We start the service around a fire. But not any fire, a new fire, signaling a new way of being that is burning into our world.

If you’ve never been, make plans to attend the Easter Vigil next year.

Weekly Worship Thought – What Do You See?

Did you ever look at those 3D hidden image posters when you were younger? I think you were supposed to cross your eyes and slowly uncross them. Or stare at the center intensely. Or put your nose against the image and then ease your way backward. Then poof! A 3D image was supposed to appear. I have to confess – I don’t think I ever saw anything in any of them.

What we see matters. Sometimes it is the things we don’t see that matter most. There’s a story in the Bible about a time that Jesus noticed someone that couldn’t see (John 9). The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What the disciples saw was someone cursed. Jesus saw an opportunity for healing and restoration. After he was cured of his blindness, the people were baffled. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”

The blind man had become invisible. The community was blind to his poverty and need. As a beggar, he had faded into the background of his surroundings. No one noticed him anymore. The story shows that his neighbors couldn’t distinguish if it was really he or someone else; they forgot what he looked like. The greatest sin of this story didn’t have anything to do with the parents. The sin was a community that had forgotten their own needy.

Perhaps you’ve noticed something different at the baptismal font this Lent.

Several people have stopped me and asked what this installation symbolizes. Some have offered their own interpretation. That is the beauty of art – we can see many different things in it depending on our interpretation. When someone asks me what it is, my first response is usually to turn the table and ask them what they see in it. I’ve heard some very interesting and insightful interpretations:

  • The purple cloth could represent the robe that was mockingly placed on Jesus before the crucifixion. (The appointed liturgical color for Lent is purple because purple has long been associated with royalty. In this case, Christ reigns from a cross.)
  • The branches could represent the crown of thorns. Or they could remind us of the desert and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
  • The large, flat stones could represent the tablets that the Ten Commandments were recorded on.
  • The broken vessel could represent the vinegar that Jesus was offered on the cross. The broken pot reminds me of our brokenness and need for God to make us whole.

The point of the installation is simple: to help us recall the themes of Lent. What about you – what do you see?

Weekly Worship Thought – Counter-Cultural Baptism

river“Baptismal unity will never be that of an “insider” group. Baptism, which constitutes the Church, also calls Christians to identify in solidarity with all people. Its celebration will therefore have certain counter-cultural elements as well. The poor will be baptized with a least as great a dignity as the rich. Women and men, children and adults, and people from all ethnic/class/caste backgrounds will stand here on equal footing, equally in need of God’s mercy, equally gifted with the outpoured Spirit. Baptism, which creates members of the local community, also at the same time creates these people as member of the one universal Body of Christ. Baptism calls us to unity, not to division.” Chicago Statement on Worship and Culture, Lutheran World Federation, 2.3.

Weekly Worship Thought – Into the World

mutter_teresa_von_kalkuttaRiffing on an idea from Pastor Kerry’s sermon on Sunday: Mother Teresa (canonized as a saint on September 6) offers us a model of how faithful, Christ-centered spirituality does not primarily lead to mountain-top experiences of private “me and God” time. The call to give our lives away for the life of the world begins at our baptism. Jesus’ own baptism is our model. Jesus’ baptism marked his ministry and propelled him deeper into the world, not away from the world. If anything, Jesus’ own baptism wasn’t a cleansing of sin but an identification with the rejected and outcast. Jesus was baptized as a sign of solidarity with the marginalized of the world, even unto death. Our baptism, our continual dying to sin and rising to new life, is our call deeper into the world, not away from it.

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ~Mother Teresa

Weekly Worship Thought – Welcome to Baptism

riverIf you were with us in worship last Sunday you got to see the “Welcome to Baptism” rite by which we introduce our candidates in the First Steps @ Faith catechumenate process. The rite of welcome is an important transitional moment for these folks. It signifies that they are committing to growing their faith in Jesus in a very intentional way. It also lifts up to the church the fact that we have disciples sprouting in our midst, and our job is to nurture and encourage them in their journey of following Jesus. The ritual we witnessed is one of the most ancient rites of the Christian church. Record of its existence goes as far back as Hippolytus in 235 AD. “New converts to the faith, who are to be admitted to hearers of the word, shall first be brought to the teachers before the people assembled. And they shall be examined as to their reason for embracing the faith, and they who bring them shall testify that they are competent to hear the word.” (Webber, Journey to Jesus, p. 83)

(Welcome to Baptism starts at 34:42)

Weekly Worship Thought – New Creation

473071_381360811909765_143418169037365_1103946_468045949_oWhen we are baptized, all of our life is baptized. Every portion of our mind, body, and soul is washed in the cleansing stream of the river of life. Every corner of who we are is wholly dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized we are claimed as God’s child, brought into the loving embrace of God’s body, the church, and wrapped in the arms of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are then free to find our calling and serve in God’s kingdom, no matter what type of occupation we hold. Everything about us is put into service of making God’s plan of new creation happen where we are.

Weekly Worship Thought – Baptism

463245793Baptism is one of the rites that has been handed down to us through the centuries of Christian faith. In baptism we are connected to the countless stories throughout the Bible of people transitioning into newness of life: Noah and his family surviving the flood, the Israelites fleeing captivity through the Red Sea, and later crossing the Jordan River into the promised land. The imagery of baptism points us to death and resurrection. We go under the waters, dark and mysterious like the tomb, and rise from the experience dripping with a new life. Our tradition at Faith is to give people a new, white blanket and wrap them with it after their baptism. This symbolically shows that we are now “clothed in Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

Recap from "Exploring the Future Church" Session 3

If you’d like to follow along you can download the notes from Session 3 here: Session 3 Handout

Big Takeaway from Session 3: We took some time to read an article called “A Rite of Passage“ (p. 12-16) that describes baptismal rituals in the early church. The symbolism and community participation involved in this rite would have had a profound effect on the Christian community. It has many similarities to modern day initiation ceremonies in social organizations. We then reviewed “Church Bs” membership practice for our comparison. This church talks about membership being similar to “teammates,” which is a helpful analogy using modern language. We also wrestled with questions around how to contextualize membership in an “open source/wiki” world. How do you help people belong to a community without setting expectations that are either too low or too high?

 

Holy Week 2011 – Saturday/Easter Vigil

The texts assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Saturday of Holy Week are Job 14:1-14 (affliction, pain, and suffering), Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 (in your unfailing love, rescue me), 1 Peter 4:1-8 (live not by desires, but by the will of God), and Matthew 27:57-66 (the burial of our Lord Jesus).

The Easter Vigil service is a separate service with a large number of readings. The readings rehearse the story of salvation through the Hebrew Bible as well as the first Easter story. The historical use of the Vigil was a baptismal service for converts that had been prepared over a period of several years for entrance into the church. Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (circa 225 AD) gives some details of the event:

They shall all keep vigil all night, reading and instructing them. Those who are to be baptized are not to bring any vessel, only that which each brings for the eucharist. It is indeed proper that each bring the oblation in the same hour. At the hour in which the cock crows, they shall first pray over the water. When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing, that is, the water of a spring or a flowing body of water. Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family. After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair, and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water.

Job 14:7-9:

Even a tree has more hope!
If it is cut down, it will sprout again
and grow new branches.
Though its roots have grown old in the earth
and its stump decays,
at the scent of water it will bud
and sprout again like a new seedling.

Low in the Grave He Lay, stanzas of the hymn text by Robert Lowry (1874):

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!

Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Thoughts on the Sacraments

Some of my old acquaintances know that I’m in a different space now. If you knew me from school, or from seminary, or from ministry pre-2007, I don’t hold all the same theories and beliefs that I once did. That being the case, the praxis (practicing idea) of my ministry has evolved. It’s all about the journey and what you learn along the way. I don’t claim to be right about everything, but this is the place where God has currently led me, and I want to share some of it.

In recent years I have experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of the sacraments. I have moved from serving in and being schooled by the “believer’s baptism” tradition, to serving in and being opened up to the “infant baptism” tradition. I recently read a book by Leonard J. Vander Zee’s called “Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” A chapter entitled “Christ Is the Quintessential Sacrament” (p. 45-51) successfully captures many of the suppositions I have experienced in my sacramental shift.

“Paul calls Christ the visible “icon” of the invisible God (Col 1:15), and analogously, the sacraments are visible and material signs to us of the now invisible Christ.” (p. 45-46) To paraphrase, in the incarnation God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, and now Jesus Christ comes to us in the form of the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist). One of the first steps in my shift was the recognition that Christ is present in the elements of the Eucharist. If Christ is truly present everywhere and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), then the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be more than a private remembrance and personal reflection. It can also be prolepsis – the eager anticipation of the feast to come at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. This quote from Vander Zee about the “invisible Christ” reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory“: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” There is an acknowledgment of the inherently “tov” nature of man, a Hebraic concept. What God has created is good, and the goodness of Christ is always present despite common distortions and diminutions. If Christ is truly “hidden” in our neighbor, Christ is possibly more visible around us than we think.

“It seems to me that the Bible and the early church fathers spoke very differently about how God’s grace in salvation comes to humanity. In the biblical worldview, God decisively acted in Christ so that the whole course of human history has changed. God’s action in Christ places every man and woman’s relationship to God on a whole new basis. God is reconciled to them. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. All humanity, all of Adam’s race, has been regathered into the one new humanity, under the headship of the new Adam.” (p. 48) The next step in my sacramental shift was an awakening to the lack of control we have in God’s relationship with us. As it was in previous covenant-relationships with God’s people, God is both the initiator and fulfiller of the covenant. We basically just have to let it happen.

“Apostolic preaching is not shaped around the announcement of a hypothetical possibility that you will be given salvation if you believe in it. It is based on God’s stupendous act of reconciliation that through his Son involves all humanity and, through his death and resurrection, reconciles all of humanity to himself. ‘You are reconciled, so be reconciled.’” (p. 50) Reconciliation and the sacramental life have less to do with your beliefs about what happens during Eucharist or who is illegible to be baptized and what that baptism means. It is more about the way you live the other six days a week. It is more about seeing and treating other people through the lens of your reconciliation. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), neither the righteous nor the eternally punished ones know what determined their fate. They both ask the question “When did we see you?” Their fate was determined on whether they acted with kindness toward their neighbor. Maybe Lewis was right. Maybe our neighbor is even more sacramental than the meal and the water?