Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 3, 2010
THE WORSHIP WE HOLD IN COMMON, AND
THE WORSHIP OF OUR SEPARATE FIDELITIES
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; I Corinthians 14:26; John 4:19-24
I’m a worship enthusiast – some would say worship junkie – a lover of worship in almost any form. Light a candle, sing a song, ring a bell, say a prayer, and I’m there.
Raised in evangelical Southern Baptist worship with good sacred music, led by my father, I’ve landed in a church I love with an ecumenical worship that draws from the rich stores of the Church throughout the ages; call it, for now, Cathlo-Baptist, cathlo meaning the root meaning of catholic, universal, not specifically Roman Catholic.
But along the way. I’ve been to Pentecostal worship and Quaker worship. I’ve worshiped in storefront churches in Argentina and under trees in Brazil. I’ve frequented Anglican worship in England and monastic worship, Benedictine and Trappist, in America. I’ve been in mainstream Protestant worship at its best and worst. I’ve been to Billy Graham crusades and a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service in a basketball arena. I’ve been in Zen worship at the Zen center in Berkeley, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christ Church in Oxford, Notre Dame in Paris and Catholic mass in the castle city of Peniscola, Spain. Did I mention a shaman ceremony in Otavalo, Ecuador? And a Jesus Rally in Georgia where the evangelist tried to lead a Jesus cheer: Give me a J, E, S, U, S, except that he began: Give me a “G”! Someone has said of the variety of worship among Baptists: Some burn incense, others bay at the moon!
This afternoon I will begin a year-long class exploring the Christian way with a four-part series on worship. This morning I preach on Worship: the Worship We Hold in Common and the Worship of our “Separate Fidelities.” The phrase “separate fidelities” comes from former poet laureate Robert Hass. He said that every poet seeks universal truth but there are “limits to our imagination”; so we return to our “separate fidelities,” our experience of the truth most powerful and vivid for us.
There is the worship we share with Christians all over the world. And there are the “separate fidelities,” worship we’ve inherited from Baptists, the worship form of this particular church as it has evolved through the years and the “separate fidelity” of our own personal worship of God. Today’s sermon will look at worship in its classical, universal and particular forms.
I went to Sunday mass this past July 4 in Peniscola. Spain. A very friendly sounding and looking Spanish priest led the service. It was in Spanish with a few Latin phrases sprinkled in at key moments, but I felt at home because our church’s worship reflects a classical rhythm which is two thousand years old. Older.
The priest greeted us and we sang a hymn of Praise. There was then Confession with the Kyrie: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison: Lord have mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy. Then there was the Service of the Word with several texts read – Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel – and a short sermon. Then came the Table, with the Eucharistic prayer, or Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, with prayers of thanks to God, Christ and Holy Spirit, with the singing of the Sanctus, Holy, Holy, Holy, and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. We passed the peace, came to the Table, sang a closing hymn, heard the benediction, and went home. There was also an offering and announcements! I felt right at home – even though I understood almost no word. It was the holy rhythm, the sacred actions of worship, a rhythm and set of actions close to our worship here.
Where did we come to share so much?
The classical order or rhythm of worship follows the passage from Isaiah we heard today. Isaiah was in the temple (sometimes you just need to show up). God’s presence filled the temple; there was a vision of God on a throne. Isaiah was filled with an overwhelming sense of awe in the presence of God. Then came the confession, “Woe is me,” then the forgiveness or purification. Then the word of God: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then the response of Isaiah: “Here am I; send me.”
There we have the basic form of worship shared with all Christians:
1) The Gathering, with Praise and Confession
2) The Service of the Word with Scripture and Sermon
3) The Response including Table and Offering
4) The Sending Forth into the world, with final Hymn and Benediction
In the earliest Christian worship service we’ve found described, a second century text, it was all there. It still is. Some Christians have Communion every week, some every day, some every month, some twice a year. We celebrate Communion six times a year on Sunday mornings and four times in the evening on holy days. Some call it Eucharist, some Holy Communion, some Communion, some The Lord’s Supper.
So there’s this classical rhythm.
Now I move to universal worship as introduced by Jesus to the woman of Samaria. She raised the theological question: Where and how should we worship? People have been discussing, arguing over these questions forever. As someone quipped: “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can reason with a terrorist.”
She was asking a question vitally important as the early Christian movement came to Samaria. Should we worship on Mt. Gerizim as Samaritans do, or in Jerusalem as the Jews? Jesus brings an astounding answer. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.... God is spirit, and those who worship him next worship in spirit and in truth.”
So where, how? Wherever, however we are in the Spirit of God, and with as much truth and honesty as we can bring to God. American Christians have been engaged in the so-called “worship wars” these past thirty years. Traditional worship, liturgical worship, informal worship, blended worship, praise worship, emergent church worship?! Tastes Great! Less Filling!, we shout against one another. My worship is better than yours. There is fervent seeking here, and an element of human pride.
Jesus makes it simple: In the Spirit of God, with all the truth we can bring.
Which brings me to the third text, to worship in our own particularity, worship according to our “separate fidelities.” Paul was trying to figure out how to do Christian worship in a radically different cultural situation than traditional Jewish worship in first-century Palestine. Corinth was like California. “Anything goes,” as the saying goes, and almost everything went! There was a wild array of spiritualities. How could they bring order and meaning and shared experience to the worship of God together? Paul wanted to honor the freedom of the Spirit, yet maintain common, mutually enriching worship. So he wrote:
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up (I Corinthians 14:26).
People could bring what was meaningful to the church, a song, a reading, a scripture, a testimony. It was like open-mike night at the church. But there were guidances; these had to be for the building up, for the edification of the church. If you spoke in tongues, someone had to interpret them. You couldn’t sing the Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” If you bayed at the moon, someone had to interpret. If you burned incense, someone had to explain.
There were certain things that had to be done in a precise way: like the words said at Communion, but there was freedom, too.
“Separate fidelities”: we bring what is most powerful to us and offer it to the community. I call it “Corinthian worship.” Corinthian worship is free worship. It lets everyone who comes have a chance to speak or sing. It is like Quaker worship, Waiting Worship, where amid the silence if anyone feels moved by the Spirit of God, of Christ to speak a word, they do. Is there a way to do “Corinthian worship” here at Myers Park Baptist? Can we create a space for such?
And there is the “separate fidelity” of what the Baptist tradition gives us: Free worship, a free pulpit, affective worship, the centrality of scripture, songs that touch the heart, no prescribed liturgy the same every week.
And there is the “separate fidelity” of this local congregation as it has evolved through our sixty-seven years. It is described on our web-site in these words:
Worship at Myers Park Baptist Church brings together the ancient and the new. It honors the two thousand year worship traditions of the church and shapes them in our “free-church” tradition to bring something fresh and vital. It seeks to reach the mind, heart and will of every person. Worship here offers superb sacred music of many different genres, pastoral and prophetic preaching, carefully planned liturgy, and the “freedom of the pulpit” cherished by the congregation. We, a church “open to all and closed to none,” want worship to be, as Jesus put it, “a house of prayer for all people.”
Then there is the “separate fidelity” of our own private, personal worship, whenever, however it comes. In church, along a mountain path, at home in prayer. However, wherever. In Spirit and in truth.
I’ve just returned from thirty days at St. John’s Abbey and the Collegeville Institute. I worshiped in the Benedictine tradition about thirty times in those sixty days. Their services of prayers were at 7 a.m., 12 noon, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with Eucharist at 5 p.m. The services were comprised mainly of saying and chanting four or five psalms per service along with other songs, scripture, liturgy. On Sunday their 10:30 Mass was a full service with Eucharist. I generally took in two services a day, some days three, some days one.
The Eucharist was the biggest surprise. For there at the Table I met the living Christ day after day. In illumined words, and in his presence evidenced in me in joy and peace, a happiness deeper than the word happy, and a peace deeper than understanding.
But there were two moments at every Communion that undid me, struck me at my heart of hearts with deepest grace. The first was at the passing of the peace before we came to the Table. “The peace of Christ be with you,” the priest said, “And also with you,” we answered. Then he prayed, “Lord, look not on our sins, but upon the faith of the church.” It took several times for the words to sink in. This worship is not about me, and my failures, petty and great! This is about the faith of the church, the great faith of the church, all over the world, down through the years. Look beyond yourself. See all that God has done, is doing in the church and world! Then we turned, looked each other in the eyes, grasped hands and passed the peace of Christ.
The other moment was the prayer we prayed just before coming to the table. It was in unison, by heart. It took several times for me to get every word, and when I did, there in their midst as we all prayed it together, it overwhelmed me with hope and gladness. This is what we prayed:
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.
But only say the word, and I shall be healed.
At first, the beginning words, “I am not worthy,” stopped me from hearing the next words. Then I realized the “not worthy” was not a groveling before God, a “for such a wretch as I” moment; it was me as Isaiah in the temple confessing my humanity before the holiness of God. It was my saying, “Lord, who am I to receive you?” Who am I in my humanity in all its glories and faults to receive into myself the holy presence of Christ?
Then the words, from a healing story in the Gospels, the story of the Roman centurion with his servant very ill (Matthew 8:8). “But just say the word and he shall be healed,” he said.
We’ve moved from the Jerusalem temple with Isaiah to a roadside in Galilee and come to Jesus for healing. With a faith not just our own but by a grace beyond us we say, “But just say the word and I shall be healed.”
And I came to the table over and over, fifteen or so times during those September days, and it felt like something inside me was being healed.
Eucharist. Not just a memorial meal, not just communion with God and others, but also a table of healing.
So Christ, the Risen and Living One has promised to meet us here at this table. Let us give thanks and come to his table.