Monday, April 16, 2012

Must. Resist. Temptation.

Okay, I announced on Facebook yesterday that a blog was soon to come about my trips to Via, an emerging community in Winston Salem on Palm Sunday, my Easter visit to the Episcopal cathedral in Asheville, and my time at Westover (a Rick Warren style mega-church in Greensboro) on the Sunday after Easter Day, otherwise known as low Sunday because attendance tends to drop off dramatically. And I gave a teaser about how I never realized one could preach on Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats, without in any way mentioning its call to serve those in need.

That comment, of course, was aimed directly at Westover. The senior pastor did just that as part of a sermon he called "Jesus, the Great Divider." Mostly, his text was Luke 12:49-53 ("I come not to bring peace but a sword."). In the course of the sermon, though, he managed to mine the New Testament of several texts designed to show that Jesus brought division. Along the way, he talked about the sheep and the goats, but left out the criteria for determining who was who, and instead substituted those who believe in Jesus (sheep) from those who do not (goats).

Forgive me, but isn't the biggest point of the sheep-goat comparison to move conversation away from an intellectual or emotional place to one in which our actions are considered to show what we really believe? You might wonder what good news there was in this message; at first I did too. Then I realized he was able to reinforce a traditional understanding of heaven and hell, establish to a congregation made up of largely, White middle to upper-middle class families that they were, in fact, a community under siege by the surrounding culture, and even slip in penal substitutionary atonement for good measure. Take that, Rob Bell.

Pastor Dan also made clear that Jesus was the only way to God, and that our modernist notions of all religions containing truth were against genuine Biblical teaching. Not actually mentioned but not-very-deeply hidden in the subtext was the notion that not all lifestyles were acceptable either. Make sure that certain people know that what they are doing is not acceptable--you know who you are. Maybe I should say that they know who they are because I doubt many of them were sitting in that audience! Oh, and by the way, vote for Amendment One. No, he didn't say that either, but in North Carolina these days, every sermon that touches on who or what is acceptable to God has the marriage amendment dead in its sights.

But this is where I have to stop going down that road, at least for this entry. It would be so easy to write a snarky critique of Westover from my lofty perch as a single African American Episcopal priest. And maybe I will end up doing that before this journey is over. I have barely restrained myself already. But not today. Let's leave the snarkiness for after a few more worshiping communities.

 Let's consider instead those three questions I mentioned in the last entry. And specifically, I want to focus on the third question, "What idols do we need to smash today?" I believe all three of these communities may have something to say about idols, but the messages are very different. For the people of Via, the idols first and foremost are all the perceived excesses we have built up around worship, including the formality of it, and any hint of pandering to people to get them to join. Let's meet in the downtown arts center. Grab a cup of coffee. Sit at a table. Wear whatever you want. No pulpit, we can do the sermon sitting down. Let's have a prayer conversation in the middle of worship. Yes, we'll have communion, but the person leading it does not need to be a minister--priesthood of all believers and all that. I'll teach you this new song as I am doing it in the middle of the service. Let's not do anything that smacks of theatricality.

 Now, in many ways, the cathedral represents everything that Via holds up as the idols to be smashed. Definitely modern (Rite II for you Episcopalians), but also definitely mainline Book of Common Prayer. The great thing about being an Episcopalian is that you can go to any Episcopal Church in the country and know exactly what is going on, even if the music is foreign to you. For members, we make it extremely easy to join in. Heck, most of us do not even need to open the Prayer Book for a typical Sunday morning because we have memorized the responses.

 If an idol is the thing we want to avoid allowing into our worship at all costs, the the cathedral's idol must be enthusiasm. Look, I love a nice intellectual exposition of the meaning of the empty tomb for Mary Magdalene as much as the next guy, but I can't help thinking that she was a bit more excited about it than our preacher was. Well organized, points carefully researched and made, and dull as dishwater. And on Easter no less. You want to know why they are not coming back the next week? It's cause they can sleep at home. You have the most amazing event in the history of the world and you bored us through it.

 At first glance, Westover defines idolatry much the way Via does, but a closer look reveals more. An idol for Westover would be anything that makes people not want to come to church. So similar rules apply. Keep it informal. Wear what you like. Nice, comfortable theater seats. Overheads--Jumbotrons practically--for those who cannot be close up (though watching a giant pastor take his shot of grape juice during communion was a bit weird!). No bulletins or pages to turn, except in your Bible, and, if you are the visitor who did not realize you were supposed to bring a Bible, worry not. The words will be on the screen.

Where they depart from both Via and the Cathedral is dramatic reconsideration of space use. Let's face it. Westover does not look like a church but more like a very well kept auditorium and arts center. If not for the giant cross hanging on the stage, you would never know the worship center had anything to to with Church. No stained glass (or windows at all), no altar, a lectern that disappears when not needed.

When you show up as a newcomer, you see signs pointing you to the newcomers' parking lot right next to the building. You get greeted within five seconds of getting out of the car and are walked into the building and shown where to go; Adam, you did your job well. And, lo, the choices, not just of seating in the orchestra or balcony, but whether to go to worship at all. There were six or eight other classes you could attend at the same time as worship, for singles, men, newcomers, you name it. This is church as supermarket or mall. One stop shopping.

You know what, though? All three of them have idols they do not see. And here are the few I observed:

 1. Stubbornness. Maintaining tradition or abandoning it for their own sake serves neither the worship life nor the health of a community. Neither is responsive to the needs of those outside of the community.

 2. On the same lines, attachment to numbers and size or refusal to consider numbers as in any way important can both be idolatrous. Both are focused more on ourselves than on others.

 3. Rock bands and traditional music can both be idols. Sorry folks, the baby boomers grew up on rock music; it's not just for the young anymore. The gray hairs at Westover love the rock band. Still, the band had the sense to jazz up a version of "On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand." It was the most popular thing they played.

4. Informality. Sorry, but talking about coming to the table when there is no table is silly, and, anyway, you're bringing me the communion on trays so I am not coming to the non existent table. Musicians who start talking about when and why they chose the hymn, or worse yet, just decide to interject another one (with long explanation of why) is not worship. It's a concert. Reading your New Testament notes is not a sermon. That's not informal, it's sloppy liturgy and it suggests to visitors you don't really care about what you are doing.

5. Musicians. If we are clapping after every song (hymn?), is it really worship? After all, if our first response is to praise the band, not God, what is that saying?

That's enough for now. Notice this only refers to worship, and the life of a Christian community can reflect idolatry in so many other places, so I will be coming back to this question in the future. For now, though, it's on to the South. See ya in Georgia and beyond.


Mike Stuhler said...

Very good read, Kevin. Thank you for this. I sort of feel like you are taking one for the team. Sorry, that was probably a bit snarky. I'm still thinking about your idols question. The fact I'm still thinking probably is not a good indicator that I am even aware enough to discern what hidden idols may be lurking. I do know they're there, but I'm trying to decide what are actual idols and what would just be me airing out pet peeves.

Britta Waller said...

Ok, so now I want to hear the sermon about how the sheep/goats parable is about those around us, because I haven't heard an interpretation of it that wasn't centered around hell.

Kevin M said...

Britta, placement is everything. The sheep/goats comparison (I'm not sure it even counts as a parable) comes immediately after the parable of the talents. Is there judgment attached to them? Yes. But the larger point of the two is to reinforce the idea that following God is not merely about saying the right words or believing certain things but about acting to bring in the Kingdom of God. Sounds a lot like the prophets, which makes sense because Matthew always wants to place Jesus in line with the OT.

Also, note that both groups in the story know the Lord. It is not about believers and non-believers, but about who is listening to what God is telling the community.