When you think back to the rituals and ceremonies of your religious upbringing what experiences come to mind? For me the first thing I think of is The Introit (churchy language), and in particular the singing of the first verse of Holy, Holy, Holy. That is how every service of worship began at my home church and from conversations with many of you that was quite common on the United Church in the 1960’s and 70’s. That memory is relatively benign, neither positive nor negative. The most positive memory I have of church in those years was visiting persons we then called “shut-ins”. It wasn’t really a ritual or ceremony in any formal sense but it was to me a part of worship, leaving church and visiting all of the persons who were unable to attend services and thus appreciated our company and support.
When it comes to a negative memory of religious rituals and ceremonies I think back to how we celebrated Holy Communion. At the end of the service, at the one hour mark, the men in blue suits and my grandmother would make their way to the Elder chairs that surrounded the Minister’s chair behind the pulpit. We would be singing the first three verses of “Here, O My Lord, I See You Face to Face” and roughly half of those present would rise and quietly slip out of the church. The rest of us would move closer to the “front”, ready to receive the bread and grape juice from the Elders. I remember even then wondering how a ritual given by Jesus to those who sought his presence caused half of the community to feel they were not included.
The other negative experience involved our then Minister who had lived through a terrible car accident years before. Because of his balance challenges he could not climb the stairs to the platform where the pulpit, lectern and choir were present. Unsteady on his feet the Minister would stand on the same level as the pews, behind the microphone and occasionally sit when speaking to us. Instead of offering support to this very gentle soul there was widespread criticism, whispers that were very audible to the congregation. One parishioner even scolded him at the door, telling him “worship for me is the Minister standing above me, at the pulpit, and telling me what I need to know about God and the Bible.”
I often think about what our ceremonies and rituals in church reveal about our experience and expectation of God’s presence. The visiting of persons not able to be with us, the forming of community with those who were feeling isolated, seemed to me a perfect way to express God’s love, to create a custom that brought out the best of a worshipping community. Conversely, rituals and ceremonies that divided communities in half and made customs like standing behind a raised pulpit more important than supporting someone who lived with a physical and mental challenge, seemed to me “festivals that would not please our God”.
The prophet Amos strolled into his hometown one day with a powerful and unwelcome message. God had interrupted his life, God had erupted into his life. And so Amos invaded the complacent security of these upwardly mobile citizens of Bethel, the piety of those devout who patted selves on back. And as we discover in 2 Kings, just a decade later, the Assyrian war-machine demolished Bethel, all the money and religiosity left fluttering in the wind like so many burnt leaves. In other words the rituals and the ceremonies of God’s people did not draw the faithful into a covenantal relationship with God, rather it distracted and distorted the people, away from their true identity and toward something other.
Listen to Amos’ harsh words for his people: I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Our religious rituals and ceremonies are given to us to be reminders of whom we are called be, how God remains with us and how we are to live in community. We need to use our faith-filled imaginations to think about songs, litanies, creeds, collective actions, that inspire us, connect us and shape us into our true identity.
Today we have celebrated a Baptism, there is another sister to be found in this community of faith. The early church was clear that in Baptism we inherit another kind of family, that we relate to and care for one another as kin. If you have any doubt about the power of words and rituals we have used today think no further than the funeral we will be attending later on this afternoon for Anne Ihasz. Anne has been a sister in Christ to you and you feel this loss like the death of any family member.
Some time ago I was attending a theological conference in Bangor, Maine. One of the presenters offered an alternative wording for Baptism, one consistent with our understanding that whatever the world may think about the circumstances and expectations for the birth of a child in God’s eyes all of us carry the genes of God’s DNA. We are all born in grace, the offspring of a Creator who wills a relationship and a covenant based on love.
John Irving in his 1985 book The Cider House Rules describes a community of orphans who are cared for by a local doctor. The doctor would end every day with the following ritual, “Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find rituals and ceremonies that conveyed this message every Sunday? If you think of any please tell one of the members of our Session so we can consider your suggestion. God celebrates with us when we find words and actions that reinforce and remind us who and whose we really are. Amen.