This blog is mostly about hiking. Other posts here are about gardening, music and tabletop roleplaying games. It is about "Sabbath Walks." By this I mean it is about finding ways to consciously involve the spiritual in what sustains us outside of the regular paths we occupy. It comes from an urge to find ways to form dialogues with the transcendent outside of what we think of as the "traditional" institutional ways. I think we often get lost when we try to do this alone. We want to have a spiritual life. We want that level of meaning in our lives. That, however, is hard to do. The topic isn't valued, after all. The sea we swim in every day is about money; who has it...who doesn't...how we make it...and how we make it for other people.
The Man wants us to work until we think that is all there is. It wants us to identify with how we make money over the other facets of our lives. This makes that spiritual dialogue a challenge. Also, I maintain, the Man does not want us doing these things in a community of faith. This has left congregations with a choice. Synagogues, mosques, and churches can be either counter cultural (pointing to a richer identity for humanity that includes a just and inclusive vision of the future) or co-opted (keeping people docile and in the place "society" has chosen for them).
I bring this up because I am a preacher by trade. Readers know this because I don't make it a secret. It is how I make my money and it is how I fight the Man. I am Team Counter Culture. However, I do not make church-stuff explicit here often because the co-opted faith is what most people know. I do not want my affiliations to get in the way of people's path here. People have ideas about religion; some gained by hard experience. I know that we can seem manipulative, judgmental, or just silly. However, I am trying hard not to be any of those things. I want what I write and talk about at Sabbath Walks to be taken seriously with openness as much as it can be.
All this is to say that I am breaking my rule--for a moment--to share this sermon about worship in the church.
This year I am off and on sabbatical and so is the church. We are thinking about what we can do to adjust to the post-modern world around us. To this end the Eliot Church, which I serve, asked for a prose copy of this sermon about a very churchy topic. If it is your bag please take a moment to read it. I will post some links at the end for further context. If you aren't into it, then you can move on judgement-free.
The Quiet Mystery
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
February 12, 2023
to infant light
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life –Denise Levertov
So, it turns out that human beings haven’t really changed all that much over the centuries. We still find our inspiration both inside and outside the temple of tradition. In our reading today from Luke Chapter 2, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem; the holiest of holy places in their world. They took him there for the rituals of purification for Mary and circumcision for Jesus.
They brought two turtledoves with them as an offering, just like in the famous Christmas carol. However, before they could make the offering, Simeon and Anna–Important religious figures in their own right; folk prophets, if you will–do a bit of an end run around the religious authorities. They provide their own blessings for the child
Then…Mary and Joseph still head inside to make it “official”
In spite of all they had witnessed–The angels, Zechariah being struck mute, the star in the sky summoning the magi, the shepherds' amazing stories, and even the presence of these two freelancers on the temple grounds–in spite of all the assurances that their child was unique and special, they still swung in to get the blessing done by the priests on duty before heading back to Nazareth. Perhaps cousin Zechariah himself was there performing the priestly duties, we don’t know.
Now, this phenomenon still happens from time to time. It even happens in our small “low protestant” church. We get inquiries for weddings. We get requests for baptisms and child dedications, too. We host or perform memorial services both here and by the grave for good people who do not claim to "believe" whatever it is they perceive us as believing.
Now, they are usually wrong about what we stand for. The truth is, they don't really care all that much, anyway because they are not looking for community in the long term. However, they are looking for meaning…in our church. At least in the one specific instance that brought them to us; the specific instance of birth or death or marriage.
They come to us because the Eliot Church building is a place that tradition has set aside for finding that meaning. They are not seeking a church nor a congregation. They all, though, seeking…a temple.
Now these days we get fewer of those people visiting, and there are reasons for that, some of them are even good reasons. Still, the urge is out there. There is something in the human mind that seeks a place with sacred connection.
Sometimes--as we have discussed before-- that place is out in the world somewhere. However, sometimes, it is right here where we still gather on the morning of the sabbath day. You see, the thing that congregations still do best–better than anyone else–is create a ritual landscape that carries meaning on a communal rather than an individual level. This is what the temple seekers who visit us are looking for.
When human beings are seeking a place to gather in their own community (whatever that may be) for the spiritual work of community–of formally witnessing life's passages–people are drawn back to the temple that our congregation inhabits and maintains for at least that one moment.
At the very beginning of this service I read a passage from Presbyterian minister Richard Dietrich, "How do we express reverence? We create communal responses in order to offer our awe...we create rituals around the seasons of the year, around the seasons of life: birth, coming of age, growing old, dying. We create things" and then we are loyal to them." People still get married in and buried out of churches, synagogues and mosques. These are places created by their predecessors. They dedicate their children even if they are not sure what they are dedicating them to.
Now, they also receive the meaningful and unconventional blessings of families and self-appointed prophets. In fact, “in house” in our congregation we offer a lot of those blessings ourselves. We bless each other in non-official ways. If Simeon and Anna were alive today, after all, they would still be part of a congregation and great people regularly on the temple steps.
All this means that the urge to worship more formally still exists–and it means a full house on Christmas Eve–but what we are doing right now doesn't have the draw it used to. Regular sabbath morning worship doesn’t have the draw anywhere like it used to. The problem, I think, is that for consistent participation and communal belonging as Human beings, we need to see ourselves–our lives and our understanding of the world–in the sabbath moment. We need this in both the old ways and the new ways.
This is where we have that problem of perception. For while–as the Eliot Church–we do see ourselves in both worlds, I think it is safe to say that in certain quarters of our society what we do on Sunday morning can be considered a bit…unfashionable, unproductive…and Quaint. Of course we know this for we also spend most of our time living in the present with its pressures, needs and biases. This old stuff from the past that looks to the future can feel like a waste of time when there isn’t some “temple need” on the horizon.
Why, after all, would a rational human being want to sit in a room for an hour to sing hymns, hear some poetry and listen to someone talk about it? We do not receive any gifts of productivity by being here. The era of the church as a networking site is long gone. There are more convenient ways to hang out with each other.
However, most of us here do this regularly...and we miss it when we can’t. Of course we also know that the answer to these questions is in the questions themselves. We are drawn to the hymns and the prayers and the poetry. We even appreciate that perceived inconvenience which pulls us from the rat-race for a moment that sets our sabbath intention. Each week we look around the sanctuary at people who do not mind stating with their presence that they, too, appreciate these things.
To be drawn to the temple for more than the holidays and major observances is to make the big picture a priority; to ground ourselves in the tested structures of the past. We talked about this last week. To be in the temple is to prepare for…whatever comes next in our lives.
We worship together in this place in order to experience the spirit in the quiet of our hearts. Also we worship in this space together for no less a task than to share the inner motions of our souls; to feel the call of the Divine in the thoughts and actions of fellow inhabitants of creation.
Jacob Trapp tells us that "To worship is to stand in awe under a heaven of stars, before a flower, a leaf in sunlight, or a grain of sand...it is an inarticulate silence yearning to speak. It is the window of the moment open to the sky of the eternal.” That is what draws us here and that is what compels us; to create a style and opportunities for worship that reflect not just where we have been and not just where we are now but also the world we want to bring into reality.
So now, in our shared sabbatical year, maybe we need to take some time to work on the way we worship. Maybe we need to ask ourselves how we are achieving this balance. Like Mary and Joseph we understand the importance of those old foundations in the new thing that is beginning.
This doesn’t mean doing anything rash, for timeless ritual–those abstract conversations and perceived inconveniences; that amateur singing and timely reflection–is what draws us here and draws those others who occasionally darken our doors. However, what we do need to do is think about inclusion; from where we place the coffee pot to how we preach, pray and sing.
People need to see new words and ideas in the old forms and a wider variety of faces in the front of the sanctuary. They need to be met where they are, not commanded to conform to the pressures and perspectives of the past.
In our lives outside these walls we are post-modern. We adapt to the context we live in and find ways to welcome the new, to accept and love people for who they are. Yet the church still can appear to be rigid and unresponsive to those changes. How do we find ways to reflect our adaptability?
This sabbatical year is a good time to experiment with these things. In fact, we have already started. There are lay readers and guest preachers who change the sound and look of who we think a worship leader can be. We have experimented a little with different forms and rituals, too. Still..there is more to do.
As you know, I am a big fan of inclusive language, for example. During my time away from leading worship I will be looking at some of the words we still use in this place. How can we broaden the Lord’s Prayer so that everyone can see themselves in God? How can we find and sing hymns that speak to our own experience? How can we pray our prayers, responsive or otherwise in a way that reflects our own broad theology?
We must also ask how we include people whose busy lives do not fit the time or form of Sunday morning. We are not going to “win” a battle against youth sports and family ski trips. People are busy. They feel the pressures of the lives they–we–have fallen into and a change of lifestyle or schedule that frees up Sunday morning is too much to ask for a first step. Our job is not to close doors through our perceived judgment and disappointment–and that is how many see it–but instead to open doors that they can find their way to enter. Therefore, we will be thinking once again about Dinner Church, Sabbath Walks, and Pub Theology. We need to find a path for ourselves to understand that these are not “add-ons” we do as well as worship, but forms of worship themselves.
Denise Levertov, in her poem Primary Wonder, writes about being burdened by the worries and cares of the world. However she ends saying, “And then once more the quiet mystery is present to me, the throng’s clamor recedes; the mystery that there is anything, anything at all, let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything rather than void.”
In this post-modern world we need to find ways to make steps into the temple that are easy to access for those who come after. If we do this, then they, too can feel the mystery that we have come to experience in our own lives. So let us take a moment in silence now to think about those steps Let us consider where they make us stumble and where they make us dance.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.