Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sacrament Sequence

As everybody knows, we Protestants have only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Those of us who are ordained to the “ministry of Word and Sacrament” are supposed to pay attention not only to what we say in proclaiming the word, but also to what we do in the sacraments.

I’ve been annoyed for some years by the necessity for taking the sacraments in a prescribed sequence: first, one must be baptized; then, and only then, may the person come to the Lord’s Table. It’s never to be the other way around. If it happens by accident or necessity that someone takes communion without having been previously baptized, then we’re supposed to put it in high gear and rush them to the font.

So the two sacraments ride in tandem, one in front and the other behind. I remember saying that in a meeting and getting chewed out by a theologian for suggesting that the two sacraments were unequal in any manner.

I guess if you say they are in tandem, that does mean that one comes first and the other second; therefore, one is primary and the other is secondary, and in that sense they are unequal. But I agree with the theologian, that they should not be unequal. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are on a par in that each one, in a different mode, witnesses to the real presence of our Risen Lord and our unity with him by the Holy Spirit.

The policies and procedures, however, outlined in the Book of Order, require the one-two punch approach to the sacraments. As an antidote to that, I propose a different way of thinking about the sacraments from our current typical approaches.

It is common for us to think about baptism as the “entrance rite” of the church, modeled as we believe, after Jewish circumcision. For a child or adult to become part of the “people of God” we call the church, baptism is required.

It is equally common for us to think of the Lord’s Supper as the “sending rite” of the church, the “bread for the journey,” the nourishment to carry us in strength as we follow our Lord into the world.

Baptism is the “welcoming sacrament”; the Eucharist is the “sending sacrament.” I have no dispute with either of those concepts. Except that, by themselves, they are inadequate to interpret both sacraments and their mutual relationship.

To my way of thinking, baptism is just as much a “sending sacrament” as the Lord’s Supper. Consider baptism, if you will, as the “basic ordination” for Christians. It is our dying to the old life so we may live the new life in Jesus Christ. It is our gift of the Spirit sending us into the world on the mission of Christian service.

In short, to consider baptism only as the means by which we become part of the Christian family, and not that which shoves us out the door into ministry, makes baptism merely an initiation into a self-serving club. In which case, baptism is likely to do not much more than make the church ingrown.

On the other hand, I also think that the Lord’s Supper is every bit as much of a “welcoming sacrament” as baptism. Sharing a meal is fundamental to human society. Hospitality is a central virtue of God’s people. Jesus himself displayed generous hospitality in hosting others at meals, as well as in being a gracious guest. He was indiscriminate about those with whom he would break bread.

In short, to consider the Lord’s Supper as merely something to perk us up as we go back to the real world, is to turn the experience into something akin to the roadside diner at the gas station—a good place to get filled up.

Put the two together as both “welcoming” and “sending” sacraments and the sequence problem evaporates. The baptismal font can be placed at the door as a visual reminder that baptism welcomes us in and sends us out each Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated with radical hospitality that invites the world to the Lord’s Table to receive the body of Christ, and sends us into the world to be the body of Christ.

How do you celebrate baptism as a “sending sacrament?” How do you celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a “welcoming sacrament?”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Party Crashers Welcome

In 1977, at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in Philadelphia, the Special Committee on the Lord’s Supper was to make its final report. As chair of the Committee, I presented the report, backed up by several members of the committee, at 2:00 AM. The major recommendation was to the effect that our denomination go on record as practicing “open communion.”

The recommendation was met with hoots and howls, and a debate more nasty than nice. After a quick consultation, the committee asked to withdraw its recommendation. That was granted, and we left. Obviously the mood of those commissioners was to preserve the status quo—the Lord’s Supper is to be only for the baptized.

That position was not unanimous. Ironically, Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit, had just appeared in English that year, and fresh copies were available in the General Assembly Book Store. In two places Moltman proposes that Jesus’ invitation is a completely open one (pp.242-246), and that therefore the Lord’s Supper should be an “open feast” (pp.258-260).

In my own ministry, in spite of the requirements of the Book of Order, I have long practiced “open communion.” Before my work on that committee, I was having difficulty “fencing the Table”* by announcing that only baptized Christians were welcome to partake. It seemed to me that, as the surrogate of the Host, Jesus Christ, I was speaking words contrary to his will.

When I started my ministry, The Invitation I used (from the Book of Common Worship, 1946) began: “Beloved in the Lord, hear what gracious words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him:…” and then went on to cite Matthew 11:28-29; John 6:35, 37b and Matthew 5:6. There were not even hints of limiting the guest list. Such an invitation welcomed anybody and everybody who was hungry and thirsty enough to want to come.

Therefore, “open communion” for me is the norm. When I retired and looked for a church home, that was one of the criteria by which I made my selection—that there were no restrictions on who was welcome at the Table of the Lord.

That, for me, is the precise issue: it is the Lord’s Table, not the church’s. Because it is the Lord’s Supper, the church has no right to limit the guest list. Yet the church in its many manifestations has chosen to identify certain people as party crashers. Curiously, however, it has rarely done this in the liturgy. Rather the “fencing” of the Table is done by the governance of the church, by the establishment of rules and regulations, policies and procedures. You will find the requirements of attendance at the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Order, but not in the Book of Common Worship.

The Invitation in the Book of Common Worship, 1993 reads:
"This is the Lord's table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared."
I suppose one might say, “Aha! The invitation is only for those who trust Jesus—which means they should be baptized because that’s how people show they trust Jesus.” It is naïve to assume that baptism, of adult or child, guarantees a trust in Jesus. Baptism confers no virtue or piety. Baptism is the beginning of a faith journey, not its culmination.

An unbaptized athiest has the same claim on a place at the Table as the most trustful baptized Christian. What is required is what the Reformers called “self-examination.” (They took their cue from Paul—see I Cor. 11:28.) Should such an unbeliever “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” and feel life’s burdens weighing them down, and the person, hearing the invitation, responds by coming to eat and drink and find rest, then I’m convinced that the Lord welcomes that person without qualification.

The same self-examination, of course, is due of the most trusting Christian who is still a sinner and “hungers and thirsts after righteousness,” and may well be among those who “labor and are heavy-laden” with life.

What is missing in the efforts to “fence” the Table is an awareness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not confined by actions of judicatories or bishops. The Spirit is not limited by ecclesiastical directives.

I believe that the Spirit is at work within and among each of us when we gather for worship, when we put ourselves in God’s way, and leave our souls vulnerable to change. I believe that the Spirit brings us together and binds us to Christ in that banquet. I believe the Spirit can and does accomplish more in human hearts than any of us can imagine—including capturing the faith of the least likely diner at the Lord’s Table.

I approach the Table trusting the Risen Christ to welcome me along with all the other sinners gathered there, without restriction.

Do you practice “open communion” in your church? If not, has the issue been considered by your governing body and clergy? How would you have participation in communion restricted?

* “Fencing the Table” is a common term meaning that some people are kept away by a “fence,” such as the requirement of baptism. Some Protestant churches still allow only members of a particular congregation or denomination to participate; Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches require participants to be baptized in that particular tradition.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What's the Good Word?

I think I’ve heard more different preachers since I retired than during all the years I was pastor of a church. It’s been very interesting and even instructive to have the view from the pew for a change. I still preach from time to time filling in for vacationing friends, but being among the congregation has its particular blessings.

Someone once said in my hearing, “Sermons are intimate conversations with people you love.” I’m sure that isn’t an exhaustive description of preaching, but it’s not a bad starting point.

Sitting out in front of the preacher I’ve noticed that some sermons do not live up to that saying.

Sometimes the sermon is not a conversation at all, but a monologue, a lecture, a lengthy exegesis. I tend to tune out when the preacher is talking to the air, floating on abstractions, and hardly looking at me or anyone else around me. I’d welcome a conversation, and like most conversations that are worth having, it should have something to do with me, with the state of my soul, with my relationship to God, with the purpose of my life. The sermon should, in a word, be relevant—not only to current events, but to my life and my struggle to make it a Christian life.

I’d just as soon the preacher wouldn’t load the sermon with quotes either. Bringing in a direct quote from some theologian or devotional writer, or even the next door neighbor, is bringing a third party into the conversation. It can be a real distraction. Preachers are supposed to be able to work with words—they should translate the quote into their own words, make it their own. We all need to remember that most quotations don’t mean nearly as much to the listener as they do to the quoter.

A friend told me that he attended Riverside Church in New York when Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor there. It’s a cavernous room, and it was jammed with people spilling out into the aisles. When Fosdick mounted the pulpit and began to preach, my friend felt that he and Fosdick were the only two people in the room. Now, that’s preaching.

If the sermon is about real life, and about the Good News of God’s love, it will be both tender and firm. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The Word preached reaches out to touch us where we hurt, to soothe the sore spots. The Word preached also pokes and prods to move us where we’d just as soon not be bothered to go. The old saw is right: “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” All of this preaching is dared because there is a love relationship between preacher and preachee, a love that is bestowed not by either, but by God.

Some have said that preaching should be recognized as the Third Sacrament, and there’s something to that. In the act of preaching, both speaking and listening, Christ becomes present. That’s why, in the old days, we were told to wear black robes, in order to keep ourselves unobtrusive, in the background, so the Christ present could be out front for all to recognize.

Not all preachers I’ve come across, I’m sad to report, do this well. A few—I like to think just a few—play the part of being a preacher. The sermon is a performance. It’s designed to impress the “audience.” One of the worst sermons I’ve ever heard was from a handsome, eloquent, 8x10 glossy preacher who put on a great show. There just wasn’t anything there.

At the same time one of the worst “performers” I’ve seen as far as presentation goes, was a preacher who spoke from his heart to the hearts of everyone in the room. It was almost like Jesus was there with us. It was what he said, not how well he said it, that counted.

I’ve become more critical of my own preaching as a result of my post-retirement church-going. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

If you’re a preacher, how often do you get to hear others? What do you learn about your craft when you do? If you’re on the other side of the pulpit, what do you look and listen for in a sermon? Do you ever talk with your minister about it?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Children's Sermons

I do not like children’s sermons! And that’s an understatement of mammoth proportions.

They go under various aliases: “children’s moment,” “time for the children,” “children’s story,” “pastor’s time with the children,” and so forth.

By whatever name, I don’t like them. And it’s not just personal taste. It’s not that I don’t know how to do them. I’ve done them with some success, I think, but my heart was never in it. I don’t like them because I’m convinced the so-called “children’s sermon” is a big liturgical mistake.

First of all, children’s sermons are entertaining for the congregation. Actually, the children are doing the entertaining. For that reason, the children are exploited to sit up front and look darling. Entertainment is not worship. This approach is very condescending and it is simply not right to use children in that way.

Second, children’s sermons or their kin are interruptions to the flow of the service. Adults are invited to take time out while a side show goes on with the little ones. When that bit of business is taken care of, the rest of us can start our worship again.

Third, if you think it’s good education for the children, I beg to differ with you. Most often the “sermons” for children are moralistic object lessons, but they do not enlighten children about the scriptural message. They are a poor way to teach what the young Christian needs to learn. They’re definitely not a substitute for strong Christian education.

Fourth, having a “special” something for the children sets them apart from the rest of the worshipping community. Usually they are bid to depart immediately after so the rest of us can do real worship. Such liturgical segregation should be verboten.

Well, then, what do we do with children in worship? Should we abandon “children’s sermons”?
Yes, I’d say, but I concede it’s not a realistic possibility. The late David Ng, Presbyterian educator par excellence, used to say, “Children’s sermons are like crabgrass—once you’ve got them, it’s hard to get rid of them.”

Well, if we can’t lick them, then let’s join them. Marva Dawn, in her book Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, suggests using the time to teach the children (and everyone else in the room) about the historic liturgy of the church.

I’ve tried it this way: Invite the children to climb up into the pulpit (which is more fun if you have a pulpit to climb up into). Let them see what it looks like from the preacher’s point of view. If there’s a big open Bible on the pulpit or at the lectern, let them open it with the ribbons marking the texts for the day. Point out the different readings, Old Testament and Psalter, the Epistle and Gospel. Talk about why we read them all, and how the sermon comes from those texts.

The very best thing I think we can do for children in worship is let them stay for the whole experience. Children learn by doing, and doing with mom and dad is one of the best ways. When dad sings the hymn with his child, pointing out the notes and words as they go along, there is education. When mom helps her child find the text in the pew Bible, that’s education too. And when the children look around at all the other adults and see how important worship is to them, that’s the example that will leave the most lasting impression.

I still wish we could get the crabgrass of children’s sermons out of the liturgy. If not, then let’s see if we can make it nice looking, greener crabgrass. Maybe at least we can keep it better under control.

How do you handle children’s sermons in your church? Do you have any better ideas about how to involve children in worship?