This scripture reading makes me uncomfortable. It condemns me, since almost always I wear a robe, sit at the front of the church, and in a seat, that looks more like a throne than a chair. So yes, this scripture reading convicts me. It is for that reason that I feel uncomfortable. And it is for this reason that I’m not wearing a robe today. By the end of this sermon, I hope you will be uncomfortable, too. Misery loves company, or something like that. If you object to my making you feel uncomfortable, let me remind you it’s part of my job description. A preacher’s job is to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. Now that we have new pew cushions especially, I suspect you are getting a little too comfortable. Time to shake things up!
l want to start by sharing with you an experience I had at a church I served maybe 10 years ago. I have already touched on this before. It concerns a woman I’ll call Suzie. She and her two young children attended our church services irregularly, always without Suzie’s husband.
Then, surprise, surprise. One summer morning, Suzie and her children show up at my front door. I can read fear in Suzie’s face. I direct us all to my back deck—since the children are carrying Happy Meal breakfast boxes—I have visions of grease spots on my new living sofa. While the children are enjoying their breakfast, out of ear shot from their mom and me, Suzie says, “My husband and I had a tremendous fight. He threw me on the floor, sat on me, twisted my leg.” (Here Suzie shows me her still swelling, and bruised leg.) “Before climbing into his truck and taking off, he threw my car keys in the front yard. The children and I found the keys. Honestly I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I drove to Charlottesville and McDonalds. Bought them happy meals and then I came here. I hope you don’t mind.”
I’m compressing a lot into a few words here. The four of us land at a Region 10 office. Eventually an advocate is assigned to Suzie’s case and Suzie and her children are whisked off to a shelter.
We stay in touch by phone. With the advocate’s help, Suzie files charges against her husband. Suzie asks if I can meet her at the Nelson County Courthouse for her day in court. “Of course!”
Suzie and I meet in Nelson County’s courthouse waiting room. Hers is among the first cases of the day. While we wait for Suzie’s advocate to arrive, we wander around. Neither of us have been here before. We peer into the empty courtroom. Then her husband appears in a hallway. Suzie points him out to me. Fire is shooting from his eyes. Meanness and revenge are etched into his solemn face. He is terrifically scary. Apparently, though, Suzie is not as terrified of him, as she is of the judge. We find a bench in the waiting area. Suzie tells me she has never spoken to a judge before. This whole thing is just more than she can handle.
My exchange with her here is definitely NOT one of my finer moments. I should have just listened. But, assuming a motherly role, I say something like, “Well, you should be nervous. The court room is set up to intimidate you. Did you notice? The judge’s bench is on a raised platform. There he sits, like God. The judge comes in wearing a robe, which gives him authority. He sits center stage—in other words he commands and demands the courtroom’s attention.” That’s what is coming out of my mouth, but at the same time, I am thinking of the church, Don’t I wear a robe, preach center stage, and from a dais? By the end of my spiel, I have just about talked myself out of a profession!
To my credit, I did go on to say to Suzie, “We will hope that the judge is a compassionate judge, and that he makes sure justice is done, so that you and your children can be safe.”
Just so I don’t leave you hanging…. the judge DID decide in Suzie’s favor; she got custody of her children; she and her husband separated and ultimately divorced. Suzie went back to school, got a degree in education, landed a job. My nickname for her was, “My rising Phoenix.” She is that. Up from the ashes of one life, and into God’s good future.
So again--the robe, the raised dais, the two seats below me—chairs that look more like thrones than seats. A little like a courthouse, don’t you think? Why do WE do worship like this? When I climb up to the pulpit on Sunday mornings, is it so that the short, feisty woman of small proportions before you, can intimidate you, have authority over you?
Jesus wouldn’t put up with that! What if some Sunday, during a worship service, Jesus strode in? I bet he wouldn’t be wearing a black robe. More like a homespun tunic, right? And he wouldn’t sit up here—the place of honor. No. He would sit in the very back. Linda and Bobby scoot over!
Now I know some preachers who sadly, would continue on with their sermons undisturbed, hoping, maybe, or worse, even assuming that Jesus would compliment them at the end of the service—“Fine sermon, my son; fine sermon, my daughter.” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do that. I PRAY to GOD I wouldn’t do that! I would ask Jesus to come forward, and I would sit down and listen—maybe I would even sit at his feet, a la Mary—you know the story of Mary and Martha?
So let’s go with that. Jesus comes into our church. He sits down at the back, but I ask him to speak to us. And he complies. He comes forward. Where would he stand? Not at the pulpit, certainly. No, he would stand on the floor. He would want to be at your level. He would want to be among us.
I have a pastor friend, Joel Morgan. We served on a search committee for Hanover’s camp director. We met every week for an entire year, and then some. Search committees are so tedious! All to say, we got to know each other well. Joel serves Westminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond. Big brick church on Monument Avenue. The church membership was moving away and dying off when he was called. They realized they were in trouble and they wanted him to DO something!
I have an inkling of what those church services must have been like back then. Joel invited me to preach there one Sunday—that was maybe seven, eight years ago. Humongous, cavernous sanctuary. I’m near sighted, so maybe it was me, but from my perch standing in that nose-bleed pulpit, the people seemed small and far away.
There was a choir loft. One lone soul offered her voice that Sunday. The sanctuary boasted a thunderous pipe organ. The organ music was terrific, but of course, there were few in the pews to appreciate it—maybe fifty people? I wore a robe. Joel said the congregation expected me to. During my sermon, I told a few jokes— No one laughed, or even tittered a response. At least I don’t think they did. I was so high up and they were sitting so far back, maybe I just didn’t hear them. But, I can tell you that this preacher, probably all preachers, like to hear and see some indication of engagement. I would have left that day sad and defeated, except…except that earlier that day, I had also preached at Westminster’s morning service.
Wow! That first service was in the fellowship hall. It was set up like a coffee house. Round tables. People sipping coffee they had poured from an urn at the back. There was a screen up front, on which to read hymns. There was a stage too, for the band.
Now I had been to seeker services before. Never preached at one before that Sunday, but been to some. They can be abysmal displays of showmanship—musicians trying to out-do each other, playing loud music that is frankly, caustic to the soul. One service I attended actually had a fog machine. When the preacher walked on stage, fog came out, too, stage right. What was THAT all about?
At this seeker service, though, the music was pleasing to the ear, AND NO fog. I preached the same sermon, I would later preach at the 11 a.m. service.—but from a podium or maybe it was from a music stand. I can’t remember. I stood at eye level. I didn’t wear a robe. When I wasn’t preaching, I too sat at a table. Part of the crowd.
Here was the best part for me. When I preached, this congregation actually laughed when they were supposed to laugh, and tittered when they were supposed to titter. I could read their faces, too. They were engaged. After the service, I stood at the door, and shook hands with the worshipers. Some told me, “We are double dippers. We try to make it a point to come to both services. We enjoy the fellowship at both, and it’s good to hear the same sermon twice, to hear two different styles of music.” Others in that congregation were seekers, you know the crowd that Atlee Church says it attracts. They said, “We like the fellowship. And my spouse plays in the band.” Still others said, “We have gotten to know Joel. We really like him. And he’s a good preacher.” And I have no doubt Joel is a good preacher. Hopefully they came, too, to learn more about God and Jesus, and to grow their faith.
It wasn’t a huge crowd-- 30 people, maybe, but Joel told me later, when he called to thank me, that the service was catching on. He was hopeful.
And it HAS caught on. There is a renovation project now underway at Westminster. That cavernous sanctuary is being exploded. I haven’t had a chance to visit, yet— I’ll wait until the construction is complete. On the church’s website, though, I read the plans for the new space. A screen, yes, and movable chairs rather than pews. There will be folding dividers for the space—so that it can accommodate both small and large crowds. There’s no pulpit.
So do I think this is where Scottsville Presbyterian should be headed? No, I do not. And anyway, it’s up to the Session to set goals for the church, not me. However, I think we do wrong to vehemently—yes, a four syllable word, yet will I use it, I think we do wrong to vehemently defend our way of worship as the only true form of worship. Robes? Pulpits? Does it really matter? And here I will just add: When researching new forms of worship, in preparation for this sermon, I read this damning claim by a youngish pastor: “The sad reality is, a lot of Christian worshipers have chosen tradition over the faith lives of their children.”
So, my take away from this, and I hope your take away, too: just maybe these new fangled forms of worship will revitalize our churches and bring us ALL closer to God, closer to Jesus. Some of them, anyway, are doing it Jesus’ way, after all.
Now, have I done my job? Are you feeling uncomfortable? Let us be open to and accepting of the spirit of God, still and always at work in the church. Amen