Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I have written this sermon in response to the Balkanization of America, because I believe that the neighborhood church, and specifically the Epiphany style neighborhood church, is perfectly designed to counter act this trend.
Our secret weapon, hidden in plain sight, is liturgy. The essence of liturgy is captured in the Hebrews reading today: “Let us therefore approach the throne with boldness,so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need” (Heb 4:12b). We are indeed in times of need.
Our need is different than that of the early Christians. They suffered the hardships of deprivation, pestilence, war, and disease. Our suffering today is more a spiritual malady that comes from self-centeredness and greed and tribalism where we are pressured to fit-in (as I preached about a few Sunday’s back) in a way that is leading to the Balkanization of our nation.
Here is what I know…since the day I walked into Epiphany; since the day you walked into Epiphany, you have been worshiping with Reds and Blues; you have been worshiping with people who have partisan political opinions that are different than yours. You have been sitting shoulder to shoulder. Standing, kneeling, singing, praying. We are in classes together; we are in small groups together; we have parties together; we are in choir together; we hike together; and go on pilgrimage together. We take food to one another’s homes when we are sick. We are teaching each other’s children…
And so, I ask you, “Why is this?” What is the magic formula that allows us to live in harmony, shoulder to shoulder, Blues and Reds, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday? This is what I believe: It is about liturgy. And it is about God. Partisan politics is small and weak by comparison. I believe the most powerful response to the Balkanization of America is liturgy, as it orients us toward God in a common bond!
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said it like this: “Worship is like a drama: The clergy, ministers, and musicians are the prompters; the people are the actors; and God is the audience.” We don’t care if you are Red or Blue because there is God, and God doesn’t care. Worship directs all of our hearts towards God-praising together; breathing together; thinking together; eating together…Working off the same script and not in pursuit of what I want, but more so in thanksgiving for what we have together. God is the audience.
Does God need our adoration? No! God doesn’t need our praise. We are loved no matter what! But… think of it like this, I’ll use my children as an example, their adoration for me doesn’t increase my love for them, but it is sure appreciated every once in a while.
Worship is the natural human response. It is part of the human hard-drive. All communities, from time immemorial, have worshipped. Now liturgy is intentionally systemized worship, organized to train our hearts and minds and bodies to be habitually turned towards God. Why? Well, it reduces Balkanization; but more so, because it brings us joy and equanimity…which does reduce fear and thus makes us more loving.
Now let’s take a look at liturgy. First, it is important to remember that liturgy is a spiritual exercise that changes a person, whether they believe in its power to do so or not. The exercise is transformative by the doing not the believing. That is the nature of a spiritual exercise, we will be changed by doing it over and over again, whether we believe in it or not.
It is like going to the gym. If you lift weights, you will be changed over time, whether you believe that you’ll be changed or not. Liturgy works the same way, but upon a person’s heart and mind and body. The body? Yes, the body, because it is the power pack that takes orders from the heart. It is your body that sits here on Sunday because your heart says so. And it is here, in the spiritual exercise of liturgy, that our system becomes synchronized heart, mind, and body to God.
That is why teenagers fight going to church, incidentally. As they are developmentally seeking their personal, kingdom of me autonomy, and liturgy, naturally exerts its formative power on them orienting them towards God; they feel this. They can’t articulate what is happening, but they feel it, and they fight, or they flee.
If, we, as parents don’t understand the power of liturgy, then we might mismanage our child’s angst about church. I see this with adults as well. They come to Epiphany for a while as a community activity, no big deal. But again, it is like lifting weights as their spiritual muscles get bigger and their shirt starts to feel tight, and they have to make a decision, to buy a new shirt or stop lifting weights. At some point a person who is regularly ensconced in liturgy starts to feel different, little by little, and they have to decide to either go deeper with God, or start skipping church and staying home and reading a partisan newspaper…reinforcing the Balkanization of this nation.
I believe the most powerful response to the division in this country is liturgy that orients us, all of us, heart, mind, and body, toward something bigger than ourselves, greater than ourselves, that loves us, all of us, Reds and Blues alike. Liturgy does that.
Here is how it works: We open by admitting that God sees into our hearts. We collect ourselves with common prayer based on a common calendar. We hear scripture, interpreted in the context of the times… which is the sermon.
Let me say a word about the sermon. When I arrived at Epiphany ten years ago I told you I would never preach partisan politics. I hope I haven’t. Some of you might question that. Some of you may site a word or an idea that I’ve landed upon as evidence to the contrary. It is true that I do try to preach about the demons alive in our culture, but I am committed to doing so from a Kingdom of God perspective, because I believe what Jesus has to say is more interesting and powerful, and frankly more effective than any partisan political agenda I have ever heard. So, the role of the sermon in liturgy is to move our minds from the kingdom of ourselves and our tribes, to the Kingdom of God.
After the sermon we unite with our ancestors through an ancient creed; we pray for the world; we confess our transgressions each one of us, Reds and Blues in equal measure; and we are forgiven and absolved. The peace follows, passed as a symbol of reconciliation with those who we have a broken relationship with. Gifts are offered to acknowledge that everything we have comes from God. Next, we give God the praise through an anthem, and then, the highlight of the service, is our taking in the life of Christ, making a commitment to live our life as Jesus would if he had your life or my life; and in turn, acknowledging that our lives work best when set in the larger context of God. Finally, we say a prayer of thanksgiving and are sent out into the world to be love-spreading difference makers.
The structured power of liturgy forms the heart, the mind, and the body. All hearts are seen by God. All live under a common calendar. All hear the word of God and are called to live in the Kingdom of God. All attach to the ancestors and pray for the world. All confess in equal part… all are absolved. You see what is happening here? These are actions. Actions are formative, they change us, aligning our hearts, focusing our minds, sculpting our bodies toward God together. It is the structured power of liturgy, that, over time, brings us together, in unity, irrespective of our Red or Blue orientation, into the Kingdom of God.
The neighborhood church is the hope of the world. It gives us common cause, and that cause is God. The liturgy is an exercise, that changes us, little by little, until one day we wake up and notice that we are different. We are a little less selfish; we are a bit more tolerant; patience is now a hallmark of our character, showing up more than it used to. We laugh more, we are riled up less, and joy shines through.
Our church, Epiphany, forms love-spreading difference makers. This is our charge and our duty. It is why the neighborhood church, our kind of neighborhood church, is the hope of the world. Most folks don’t know this so tell them. If you’re worried about the Balkanization of our nation; if you’re worried that there is too much rancor and hostility and divisiveness, tell your friends about your neighborhood church.
Explain to them that here Reds and Blues live together in harmony, not because we talk about stuff, but because we worship God; not because we look at each other, but because we look toward God, and God looks back and smiles, and that divine love makes it a whole lot easier to be love-spreading difference makers in the world.
Here at Epiphany we participate in the spiritual exercise of liturgy. and it matters for the health and wholeness of this Balkanized world. In fact, I would argue that liturgy’s capacity to heal the nation has no peers. We are indeed living in times of need. It is a spiritual crisis with a spiritual remedy through the spiritual exercise of liturgy.