Sermon from February 2, 2020. 4 Epiphany A. Matthew 5:1-12.
Borrowing generously from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Benediction, “Blessed are the Agnostics.”
Somebody’s Prayin’ by John Elliott, arr. Mark Hayes.
Clayton Faulkner, vocals
Joanna Thornton, piano
Will Van Horn, pedal steel guitar
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 Our version of the Easter Vigil is modeled after what we know the church did based on historical documents from the first several centuries after the resurrection.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.
I saw the film “Silence” last week. The new Martin Scorsese movie is getting a lot of buzz in the religious world. It raises many spiritual elements in a thought-provoking way: faith, doubt, iconography, apostasy, evangelism, and suffering to name a few.
I read the novel by Shusaku Endo (on which the movie is based) about five years ago. One of the most intriguing characters in the novel/movie is Kichijiro. He is the guide that the priests take back to Japan to show them the way. He ends up being the Judas-type character of the story. But the more I think about it, Kichijiro is like the church. As much as we whole-heartedly repent and turn to seek God, we just as earnestly jump back into our old ways. I’m reminded of the line from Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”
This film has stuck with me. Most movies I see don’t leave much of an impact, but I find myself still reflecting on this one. I recommend it if you get the chance. This is not a popcorn and soda type of movie though. It is sobering and very artistically done.
If 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)
On Saturday, August 10, 2013, the first TUNE UP worship band gathering was held. Over 125 contemporary worship musicians and sound techs assembled on the campus of Faith Lutheran Church in Bellaire, TX (Houston) for a day of learning, growing, and networking. The event was organized by the Worship Excellence Team of the TX-LA Gulf Coast Synod (ELCA) to provide training in the fundamentals of music and worship.
The group that gathered represented 28 congregations including Lutheran, Nazarene, Episcopal, and Non-Denominational churches. Churches from as far away as Austin, TX and Chalmette, LA brought musicians to attend the event.
The schedule included times of worship, instrumental/vocal tracks, and conceptual tracks. A team of track leaders with main speaker Bishop Mike Rinehart led worship. The instrumental tracks were divided by specific instrument (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, drums, vocals, sound tech). Each group gathered together for training and instruction specific to that instrument. Conceptual track offerings included sessions on arranging songs for worship, choosing songs for worship, and principles for worship. Additionally, a “Coaching for Bands” track was offered in which two church bands received feedback and help with their music from a panel of track leaders.
One attendee commented, “It’s nice to attend an event where you get something you can actually use.” Another said, “Thanks for doing this. It helped to refocus me on being a lead worshipper instead of a lead guitarist.”
An overwhelming amount of positive responses suggest that we will likely offer the event again in the future. Watch the event website for details: TuneUpGathering.org.
I’m part of a new community that is forming called the “Ancient Future Faith Network” (AncientFutureFaithNetwork.org). I’ve always felt the need for ministry to be rooted in the historical, not just concerned with the novelty of the now. Bob Webber, in “Ancient-Future Faith” writes:
“In biblical and ancient times worship was the primary way of experiencing God’s saving work in history. Early Christian sermons (as in Acts) and liturgies (both Eastern and Western) are oriented around the proclamation and enactment of God’s saving work from creation to the consummation. This historical and symbolic recitation expressed the identity of the church, gave shape to its communal self-understanding, and signified its place in the world. During the first three centuries of the church, worship took place in homes or the catacombs. Its content was primarily the proclamation of God’s salvation and the anticipation of Christ’s return. The culminating praise of worship celebrated the work of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Because believers did not meet in churches, worship was informal and intimate.” (p. 97)
The vision of the Ancient-Future Faith Network (AFFN) is to grow and facilitate a grassroots network of like-minded individuals and churches.
At its core is Bob Webber’s 2006 “Call to an Ancient-Evangelical Future”. But the association is not so much about doctrinal bona fides as it is about mutual encouragement and resourcing. The very heart of the Network is its members. Our desire is that members will find in this virtual community of faith a vibrant place for interaction. The Network: