Monday, June 27, 2011

Customs and Courtesies: the hollow shell

Genesis 28:10-15
Matthew 5:21-26

In the armed forces (and specifically to my knowledge, the Marine Corps), saluting is a big deal. In boot camp our drill instructors even walked around us and adjusted our arms and even our fingers (and not gently, I might add) if they were not completely straight, upper arm precisely parallel to the deck, and fingertips touching the brim of the cover (hat) in precisely the right place because if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.

I was a private in the beginning so if it didn't move it probably required a salute, so saluting soon became somewhat routine, if automatic. I will never forget the day, though, when I was walking from a guard post to my battalion area which required walking past the Commanding General's lawn (base headquarters). It was late in the day and about the time when "colors" is announced (the raising and lowering of the US flag). When "colors" is announced by a bugle call, all are required to stop, face the flag, and offer a salute until the flag is completely down or up. If not in uniform, one is expected to face the standard and stand at attention.

So this happens each day, morning and evening, without exception. No biggie. Except for this one particular day. For some reason the flag seemed especially majestic as it swayed in the breeze, and the sun shone just right that suddenly all the US flag means, all that flag has endured, all the flag stands for just hit me like a truck! I suddenly became acutely aware that I was wearing the uniform of a United States Marine and watching with extreme reverence the retiring of the "colors" I was trained and expected to defend. In that moment I was awash with such a sense of pride and privilege, duty and honor, that I could barely contain my emotions. That day the salute I offered was not given because I was expected to do. That day the sharp, rigid, and picture-perfect salute came straight from my heart. I don't think I was ever more aware of who I was and what I was than in that moment when I was completely connected to an entire nation and an ideal much bigger than myself.

Worship should be like that. Worship is to a great extent a social gathering, of course, because we are social animals. It is good that we enjoy gathering for worship, and it is even better that we enjoy gathering together to worship. The "Church" is not quite the Body of Christ if it is missing an arm and a leg while everyone and his brother-in-law are all out doing their own thing. So we gather together, sing hymns of praise, offer the Lord our gifts and tithes, offer prayers, enjoy the choir, hear a sermon, do communion, and then go on our way.

The next week we do it all over again. And the next week. And the next ... and the next. From one week to the next, nothing much will really change. Gathering for worship soon becomes the fulfillment of an expectation, an empty gesture, just something we do because we are expected to and have in some sense come to believe we "must" do (as indeed we certainly must), but we are not really connected beyond ourselves. We are more aware of the people around us than we are of the Divine Presence.

I fear that a sense of social obligation - and maybe pride - has overwhelmed us to the point that we have a greater anticipation of seeing a dear friend than there is an eager expectation of the Lord moving our souls. I am probably guiltier than most when I wonder whether we will break 90 in attendance or fall below 70 souls. As the worship leader and pastor of this church, I wonder if I can put together a "program" that will sufficiently enlighten, fulfill, or "entertain" enough folks to keep them coming back - and maybe bring or invite a friend next time. I wonder so much so that I have asked our music director to join in my anxiety. And it occurs to me that during all this worry and planning, there is not a single moment I can readily recall in which I actually wondered - or asked! - "Will this be pleasing to our Lord?" I find myself more concerned with your reaction.

The Lord speaks through the prophet Isaiah as Israel's downfall and exile are imminent: "When you come to appear before Me, who asked this from your hand? Trample My courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation - I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity" (1:12-13).

Why? Why is the Father suddenly not pleased with the sacrifices and offerings He requires and has actually commanded? Because we do not offer these as gifts from the depth of a grateful soul; we are merely going through the motions, paying a "tax" by writing a check or simply being in the pew - while being spiritually disconnected. We claim Jesus as our Savior - in word - yet in our actions when we readily and eagerly embrace something or someone - including our own children - more eagerly than we embrace our Savior, we are deemed by the mouth of that same Lord "not worthy" (Mt 10:37).

When we enter into a sanctuary of a church and allow - or demand - someone to make or break our experience, we betray the One who is faithful. When we come before the Lord and hastily reach into our pockets for whatever is loose (while making sure there is enough left for lunch!) so that our neighbors can see us putting something in the plate, we deceive ourselves in our own self-imposed darkness even in the Light of Christ our Lord. When we refuse to enter into a sanctuary of any church because "so-and-so" might be there - "and I can't STAND so-and-so" - we are "Trampling His courts" and proving to the Lord that His words ring hollow in the "empty shells" of our souls.

John Wesley, Methodism's founder, once said: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

If we worry about the direction of this nation and the continued degeneration of our society, we must first worry about whether we are sufficiently salvageable ourselves. If we have convinced ourselves that there is such a profound evil that even the Lord cannot or will not forgive, we must first consider whether we have placed ourselves beyond redemption.

If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well; and the Lord demands no less. Customs and courtesies of the Church exist for a reason, for it is the discipline of the Church which holds us accountable to one another to support and encourage one another lest we fall into the hands of the evil one. We must take the Lord by His outstretched Hand. We must reach from deep within the pit of our soul and offer to Him everything we have and everything we are; for without Him we are no good. It is only when our practices, our customs, and our courtesies are directed at the Lord that we will ever have "the power". Through Him, with Him, and in Him. Amen.

No comments: