Paul’s sermon in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) is substantially different from any of his other sermons. While his other sermons are identifiably Pharisaical and present the gospel in a way that would be accessible to a predominantly Jewish audience, the Athenian sermon employs patterns and concepts which were common to first century Athens. It is a significant and noteworthy accomplishment on Paul’s part and it may be taken as a mandate to subsequent Christians always to be prepared to articulate the gospel message using new and distinct cultural patterns. While the content of the Gospel is always consistent, the form in which the good news of Jesus Christ is presented should always be flexible. What follows are excerpts from a somewhat playful worship service that was designed to illustrate to a worshiping community the issues and possibilities involved in attempting to articulate a Christian worship service in a particular context. College students, youth, and children are often engaged by this way of distinguishing between what is essential and what is negotiable in worship. Read the liturgy after the jump.
While planning a worship service at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, one student said, “If we’re going to do the Kiss of Peace, can we play Spin the Bottle?” Although her comment was intended as a joke, she and the other students—with the encouragement of the college chaplain—developed a version of “Spin the Bottle” as an appropriate and authentic part of our Christian communion service.
After the Invitation to the Lord’s Table, Eucharistic Prayer, and Words of Institution, a worshiper who was chosen before the service began, took an empty water bottle and spun it on the floor of the Chapel. When it came to a stop, the first worshiper and the worshiper toward whom the bottle was pointing met in the middle of the Chapel, exchanged the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace, and then went to the communion table and served the Eucharist to each other.
Then the next worshiper spun the bottle and met the person toward whom it pointed in the middle of the Chapel. They exchanged the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace and went to the Table and served the Sacrament to each other.
We learned about the “Mar Thoma” Kiss of Peace from an Austin College student who was part of the Mar Thoma Church of India. We have begun to use it often in our worship because it is an appropriate and non-threatening way for worshipers to touch each other.
To exchange the Mar Thoma Kiss of Peace, two worshipers face each other, extend their hands forward, and then touch hands so that the right hand of each worshiper is between the palms of the two hands of the other. One worshiper then says, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and the other responds, “And also with you.”
Students find this to be an enriching part of worship because—with a little assisted reflection—they realize that they might be paired with a close friend or they might be paired with a fellow worshiper whom they had not even known before the service began. In either case, worshipers are reminded that our lives as Christians—as the Body of Christ in the world—might involve both those to whom we are closest and others who we may not know at all.
Take Pentecost for example. The story in Acts 2 is rich with allusion, imagery, history, narrative - all of which have filled many books and many sermons. If we frame the reading of the story with a musical response sung by the congregation, we encourage the worshipping community to glimpse more of those layers. More than glimpse: experience.
It is the prophet Joel's story: though he'd lived long before New Testament times, his presence continued to be felt. Repeating the refrain reminds us of the prophetic witness that informs this account of the event.
It is a Jewish story: there were many Jewish renewal movements before, during and after Jesus' time. The events described by Luke took place during Shavu'oth, the harvest festival, with Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world. The music below is in the form of a hora, a Jewish dance of celebration. Even though the composition is modern - and we of course do not know how the music of the time of Jesus sounded - the music itself can give us a flavour of the times.
This is our story: singing a response allows us to both listen and participate in it.
The music lives in our soul long after we've left the worship space, drawing us back into the story to experience new insight.
Singing also gives children an access into the scripture reading: they can remember short texts and repeated melodies and rhythms. Parents in my church community often ask me how to get their children to stop singing - over and over and over - music they learned in church.
Last year we used this Mother's Day liturgy and it received a warm reception. It's inclusive of women in all stages of life.
In addition to our recent post on Mother’s Day I would add a few more seeds for thought. During the season of Easter it is appropriate to remember our baptism each Sunday service. In re-membering our baptism we are re-minded that God has claimed us as children and we have made promises to God to live into the life of Christ. This means promises to serve others (especially the “least of these”), to be faithful to prayer, breaking bread and taking care of the community of faith as any has need (yes, I’m evoking the last part of Acts chapter 2). During the rite of baptism the community also makes vows to love, care and nurture those God is claiming through water and the Spirit. We are also called to nurture each other in the faith.
Remembering our baptism this Mother’s Day may be a way to honor both the season of Easter and mothers. You may begin the service standing by the font, giving thanks for water, God’s promises to us and reminding the community of the promises we make to each other during the time of baptism. One resource for remembering baptism can be found from the ELCA’s Holy Baptism and Related Rites. Perhaps on this day we can accentuate the vows to love and care for one another. This is a way you can talk about how mothers, at their best, who live into these promises of baptism through their care and nurture of children (not just their own but all children of the community). In this way mothers, and Mother’s Day points back to baptism and a life in Christ as opposed to the worship pointing to a cultural holiday.
The picture is of a baptismal font from a mosaic on the floor of Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, England.
I’ve been reading lately about how our consumer culture tempts the Christian with a competing and compelling way of being in the world. It even has its own calendar, featuring economic “holy days” in which we are encouraged to engage in ritualized pagan practices. This upcoming Sunday, Mother’s Day, notwithstanding its ostensibly Christian origins, is one such day.
Not surprisingly, many churches participate in the cultural holiday by having special “Mother’s Day” worship services. This is not in itself a necessarily bad thing. The church excels at baptizing culturally suspect practices and turning them to God’s good ends. And I love my mother, I love my wife, and I happen to be a huge fan of motherhood and know well the spiritual value that being a parent can bring.
But we’re on dangerous ground when the Church’s worship on this day turns away from new life in Jesus Christ, and turns rather into a slightly veiled civic celebration of the “traditional” family and the woman’s often subservient role within it. We are on slick footing when we plan services that have less to do with engaging a triune God and more to do with handing out a bit of instruction regarding our own preferred parenting methods. We risk pastoral malpractice when we put a certain type of woman on a pedestal, take a soft-focus picture, and offer bland, if well-meant praise, all the while ignoring the pain and the gifts of other types of women in our congregations: unwed mothers, women who have had abortions, women who have suffered from undesired childlessness, and women, both single and wed, for whom God’s call does not include children at all.
So this Mother’s Day, make use of the counter-cultural liturgical calendar, and follow the lectionary readings for your service planning. And then let the struggles of family life and motherhood inform a rich pastoral prayer, like one of these from the Lutheran Church in Australia:
God of all life,
We thank you for adopting us into your family through the miracle of baptism,
and for calling us to be brothers and sisters to each other
through Jesus, the only Son of God.
Today, loving Father, we pray for our mothers:
who cared for us when we were helpless,
who comforted us when we were hurt,
whose love and care we usually took for granted,
as we often take your love for granted.
Today we pray for:
those who are grieving the loss of their mother,
maybe even years after they were separated;
those who never knew their biological mother,
and now yearn for her;
those who have experienced the wonder of an adopted mother’s love;
the families separated in the wars in ___.
Lord, give them special blessings.
Keep us united with Christ, so that we can love in the way he loves us and all people.
We ask this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Gracious God, we pray:
for new mothers, coming to terms with both the joys and demands of motherhood;
for pregnant mothers, expectant and wondering, or fearful;
for those mothers who are tired, stressed, ill or depressed;
for those who struggle to balance the demands of work and children;
for those who have to struggle with difficult decisions about whether or not to become a mother or to have another child;
for those who are unable to feed their children due to poverty;
for those whose children have physical, mental or emotional disabilities;
for those who have children they do not want;
for those who raise children on their own;
for those who have lost a child through death or abortion;
for those who care for the children of others;
for those whose children have left home;
for those whose children have rejected their love;
and for those whose desire to be a mother has not been fulfilled.
Bless all mothers, that their love may be deep and tender, and that they may lead their children to know and do what is good, living not for themselves, but for God and for others. We pray by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a class I'm teaching on Crafting Language for Worship, we recently had a discussion about the value of significant words and repeated phrases in worship. Some of my students from evangelical and free-church traditions reported with delight the value they have discovered in the the persistent Easter season call-and-response "Christ is risen! Alleluia!/He is risen indeed, Alleluia!" They report that using this refrain now is profoundly formative, reminding them of the catholicity of the church, and connecting them with the faithful of so many times and places.
All of this reminded me of a time when my congregation practiced a fast from the use of the word "Alleluia" throughout the season of Lent in anticipation of its exuberant reintroduction to worship on Easter Sunday. Throughout the forty days, we still sang songs with "alleluia" in the lyrics, but self-consciously hummed "mm-mm-MM-mm" instead.
Meanwhile, the young children of the church spent one of their education hours creating colorful construction paper butterflies, decorated abundantly with the word "Alleluia." These were then crafted into a beautiful mobile, which debuted on Easter morning hanging high over the communion table, pointing to new life in Christ. Alleluia! He is risen!