October 20, 2014

Loving God through Worship

            The recent lectionary readings from Matthew narrate Jesus’ encounters with those who would “test” him.  Religious leaders want to know about competing claims; how does one live in the empire yet serve God?  Jesus manages to silence his critics with nuanced understanding of human obligations in an oppressive political environment; however, he reminds them that they also have accountability to render to God what is God’s.

            The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday offers another conversation, this time between Jesus and certain Pharisees who were concerned about his treatment of the law.  With legal precision, one asked: “Which commandment of the law is the greatest?” Jesus responded: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  This is what we are called to render.

            I have just returned from a gathering of the Alliance of Baptists in Dayton, Ohio.  The focus of the meeting was worship in the progressive church.  Carefully crafted liturgy invited participants to love God through worship.  It was a bracing and renewing opportunity, and I felt that we were loving God with our whole selves—heart, soul, and mind.
We know that humans are created for worship; it is just that we usually worship the wrong things.  Donald Hustad described worship as “rehearsal for life.” It is hardly necessary to argue the proposition that as persons we tend to be changed by what we idolize, what we worship.  We begin to resemble what we worship.

Aquinas said certain things were to be used, and only God to be enjoyed—yet we tend to use God as a means to some supposed greater end.  A utilitarian view of God is hardly worship.  So what are we to render to God? 
We are to give our whole selves to God.  The worship service is practice for a lifetime of giving to God; our “living sacrifice” is what God desires—not because of divine vanity, but because God wants us to understand our place of dignity and humility in the cosmos.  We become like the Triune God as we worship—more loving, more generative, more hospitable, and more joyful—for we are dwelling in the richness of community, divine and human.
Worship is essential to our humanity.  I love the venerable proverb: “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  So it is with Christian worship—it will keep us; God will reveal divine glory, and we will reflect God’s likeness as we rehearse together for the performance of Christian living.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

October 13, 2014

Opening the Heart for the City

            As a child, New York City seemed to be “the uttermost parts of the world.” Textbook pictures of the Empire State Building, Times Square, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty confirmed how important and busy a city it was.  Grainy documentaries (it was the fifties, after all) showed it to be full of immigrants, business tycoons, tickertape parades, and big ships traversing the harbor.  Our teachers would then comment how safe and secure we were in small town America, by contrast.

            Cities hold both promise and peril, perhaps in larger proportion because of the sheer density of population.  Transportation, housing, and livelihood present significant challenges in this tightly packed city.  As one local observer noted, “only the very poor or very rich can make it here—the poor because of subsidized housing; the rich because they can afford the over the top prices.”

            The prophet enjoined the exiles, “seek the welfare of the city.”  The displaced were to count the new location as their own and strive to live at peace with others.  They were to recognize that the divine presence remained with them even in the exilic experience and that God was granting a future with hope.
            During my week in this teeming city, I have had opportunity to witness the creativity of churches as they embrace their contexts with enthusiasm.  The bunkered church does not thrive here--or anywhere, for that matter.  More than seeking to survive, the churches I have visited are finding ways to make welcome their neighborhoods through imaginative ministries.

            Judson Memorial Church, located for 117 years in the heart of Greenwich Village, understands its mission as “a gathering place for people who seek spiritual nurture to build public capacity for social change.”  The church understands the centrality of the arts in this city and uses its facilities to foster dance, music, and theatre.  This congregation of about 150 persons makes an impact far beyond its presence at Washington Square because of its sensitivity to human longings for beauty and justice.

            Another venerable congregation, St. John the Divine, located at a busy bus stop, understands how important the concept of sacred space remains in the frenzied pace of urban life.  Not only does it keep its doors open as a place of rest and contemplation, but also regularly hosts art exhibits that are accessible to all.  The longing for beauty and longing for God are closely intertwined, and many find their way into the cavernous structure built to the glory of God.
            I am deeply impressed with those God calls to serve here.  Pastoral leaders in the city open their hearts to those God is bringing their way, with all their resources, needs, demands, and brokenness.  Pews fill with the newly arrived, the storied generations, the cossetted, and those on the edge.  They continue to seek the welfare of the city, and God uses them to provide theological orientation, healing balm, and reliable guidance.

            Molly T. Marshall

            Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving