Hospitality like Massachusetts Highways

A sermon for the Central Massachusetts District of the New England Conference, United Methodist Church  Worship Revitalization Conference, 1st UMC Westborough, Saturday Feb 2, 2013

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. ~ Luke 4: 21-30

As soon as she picked up her fork, I knew. She grabbed the fork the way you might pick up a wrench from a toolbox. All four fingers wrapped around the top and her thumb tucked underneath the metal, her whole hand around her fork in a tight fist.  She pushed the tender asparagus from the back of the place forward. When she reached the edge of the place, she last stabbed the food, and with little flick of the wrist, picked it up and moved it towards her mouth. I looked closer and the cloth napkin was still on the tablecloth, not placed gently on her lap. She’s never been to a place like this before.

Phillip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And the Ethiopian Eunuch replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ How can I unless someone guides me? Will you pray with me…

Everything seems to be going fine. He spoke nice and loud. Even the ladies who sit defiantly in the back row could hear his words. He read very well, I couldn’t hear his accent at all! And he chose such a lovely passage. Jesus’s reading in the synagogue seems to go very well for a time. Maybe we’re even given Luke’s guess at what makes for a good sermon: first the people are praising Jesus’s generous words, or translated another way, “smooth words.” But then it gets a bit more interesting. He asks them some pointed questions. Jesus is the guest preacher, the itinerant who rides in from outta town, shakes it up and then gets outta Nazareth. By the end of the Lectionary passage, the people are trying to run him off a cliff. Beneath those smooth words, Jesus prodded them to consider that the Spirit might just show up beyond the bounds of their tightly proscribed community.

Our work today is audacious goal of changing Church, in seven hours. It says so, I read it on the registration form. 7 hours and we’ll be movers and shakers, transformed by excellent preaching, compelling worship, informative workshops- no pressure anyone. I am grateful for the exceedingly strong Methodist conviction that the Holy Spirit can find her way out Route 9 even if I can’t. We are tasked with revitalizing worship. And yet, somehow at a Methodist revival, you’ve invited a Congregationalist pastor and ecumenical bureaucrat to break open the word and say something profound that will spur you to make change in your community. Here is the truth: my expertise is in going to worship, not planning it. I cannot guide you to building a better worship service. What I can tell you is what it is like to be a guest. Most Sundays, I am visiting some congregation somewhere around Massachusetts, trying to connect all these denominations and congregations who are convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than what divides us. I may get a bit of liturgical whiplash going from Methodists to Episcopalians to UCC to Armenian Orthodox and back again, but I am a professional church visitor.

Almost by definition, we are insiders. We are the kind of people who know what an introit is. We are the kind of people who know to laugh and nod knowingly when someone makes a joke about hearts being strangely warmed. We are the kind of people that go to conferences on worship on a Saturday, filled with ideas of how to rearrange the pews and add drums and encourage meaningful participation. We are the people who hear what’s going on in Caperneum and want to try it at our church. I hear that the First United Methodist Church of Caperneum has a worship service at 6:37 on a Tuesday with an upright bass, a video screen, liturgical dancers, and a labyrinth. Maybe if it works in Caperneum, then it’ll work in Shrewsbury and Tewksbury and Sudbury. We are the well-meaning people in the synagogue who ask Jesus “Do here also in my hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” But Jesus presses us. He asks more of us. He asks us to look again with the eyes of an outsider.

The faithful worshipers in the synagogue get angry when Jesus starts to push them beyond their familiar space. Jesus tells them the stories of the prophet Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian and the prophet Elijah interacting with the widow at Zarephath, which I think is out past Winchendon. It’s not the hometown crew, but the outsiders that has the good view of who is invited to worship this God who keeps extending invitation to the furthest of outsiders.

Carlo Rotella, a Chicago native transplanted to Boston wrote this week in the Globe: “If you live in the Boston area and you’re not from around here, you receive frequent reminders of your non-belonging.” You should just know that route 9 starts in Boston south of the Mass. Pike and then crosses north of it somewhere in the wilds of Framingham. You should just know that 128 is the same thing as 95, except when it’s not, and for extra inaccessibility sometimes 128/95 North is also Rt 3 South. You should just know that while 495 ought to be a North/South highway, it starts moving east in Bolton to the North and Franklin to the South. You should just know that Suffolk is actually north of Norfolk County. And if you can even pronounce it, you should just know that Worcester has a Lake Quinsigamond, a Quinsigamond community college, Quinsigamond avenue and Quinsigamond village … no two of these four places are anywhere near each other! You should just know that the ‘H’ is silent in Amherst and Needham. And in Boston, You should just know that East Boston is actually North, the North End is just a little north of Southie, Southie and the South End are two different places, but Southie and South Boston are the same thing and both Southie and the South End are further north than Dorchester (h/t Rev. Hank Pierce). You should just know to sit during the postlude.

You should just know what a postlude is. How could a stranger know, unless someone guides him? This is the danger with our worship services. You should just know how to pronounce Leominster or Worcester or intinction or apocrapha or Caperneaum.

We keep talking about the rise of the religious ‘nones,’ people who have no religious identification and yet we aim to invite these very people to worship that requires presumed knowledge. We genuinely want to be “seeker-friendly” but we’re filled with bits of code, frequent reminders for your non-belonging. It’s not road signs that say Stop! Do Not Enter! but the absence of signs. Things you should have known. Cues you should have picked up. Napkins placed in your lap and your fork held gently with just your fingers as you delicately pick up your bite.

The transplant Rotella writes “But if you live anywhere long enough, the way of life there, the lay of the land itself, will sink into you.” The way of life sinks in. The roads without road-signs become familiar. You do it a few times, and you know how to get to Logan without looking at your map. And it becomes oddly hard to give anyone else directions. It’s not malice or anger, it just familiarity. That’s as true about knowing how to drive to the airport as it is about how to go to church. It doesn’t matter if your worship bulletin has a helpful note instructing guests to use “trespasses and trespass against us” or “debts and debtors” if you don’t even know the words to the Lord’s Prayer in the first place! Printing the words of the Doxology means nothing if you don’t know what a Doxology is and what tune it might be set to or that there’s some secret choreography where the entire congregation turns towards the cross? And this strange ritual about passing plates and putting money that’s cued up without much explanation? I’ll be so bold to say that every time we take the offering without testifying about what an offering is and why as Christians we give back to God, we fail to teach our children and our guests how to follow Christ. We invite newcomers back to coffee hour in rooms mysteriously named after the faithfully departed with no indication of where those rooms are, and then wonder why they can’t find their way. Where are our missing road-signs? How could they know unless someone where to teach them?

What breaks us out of this sinking familiarity is something new. Someplace new. I have come to believe that ecumenical awkwardness is a spiritual discipline. We see our own worshipping community with new eyes when we go somewhere else for a bit and see how much is presumed. You will learn many good and important things at this conference today. You may even want to try some new ideas at home. And you should. But to see how strangers experience our worship, you yourself have to become a stranger. Go somewhere else. Worship in another tradition. Ask the people in your congregation who were formed by communities other than Methodist churches what they find strange or confusion.  We have to become as strangers to look at our own worship and see how we are preventing people from participating. Jesus turns their eyes to Sidon and Syria. He tells stories of when God shows up in outsiders and unexpected places, implicating the good people in the synagogue who have sunk into their familiar ways of being community. Luke writes “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” You would have thought that Jesus took the American flag out of the sanctuary on the fourth of July, they were so angry.

Sometimes it takes us going to another community to be as a stranger to see worship with a stranger’s eye, and sometimes it takes a brave stranger in our midst to help us see what we presume. The church where I am a member was full on Easter Sunday. After the bread was broken, the wine poured, the prayers recited, our pastor said “Come, for all things are ready.” And the servers reverently and mindfully walked forward to pick up the bread and the cup. From about 10 pews back, a young woman rushed forward, first in line. Her face was flushed. She looked like she had been crying. All the polite people in the first nine pews had not even stood up yet and formed orderly lines to receive. How could she know, unless someone guides her? All things are ready, the pastor said it! But it wasn’t quite true. But she was ready, even if we weren’t. May the Holy Spirit make us so bold to move to the altar too. Amen.

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