Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

St Lukes Altar

The Altar at St. Luke’s

*This is the final essay of my 3 part reflection series “Becoming an Episcopalian,” reflecting on my transition into the Episcopal Church. Please scroll down to see parts 1 & 2 as your leisure or desire so determines*

6. Sermon in Support Role, Eucharist Central

One of the striking dissimilarities between a formal and “informal” liturgical order is the presence of the sermon. In the Nazarene Church, as for many low church or free church traditions, the sermon is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Everything in the service revolves around, and moves toward, the proclamation of the Word. This is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the elevation of the proclaimed Word/word above all else. As a corrective to abusive Catholic Church power, many Protestant Reformers gave the reading and explication of Scripture primacy in worship. A Renewed emphasis on Scripture, as seen in Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, was a welcome but unexpected historical development. Even though Anglican tradition emerges simultaneously as the Reformation in Europe, it, however, remained in harmony with broader Catholic tradition and the Eucharistic table retained its central importance.

First, let me acknowledge that I love listening to sound biblical preaching. As a vocational minister, I love to preach, and I enjoy the study of homiletical method. I have a passion for wrestling with the biblical text and delivering a well-crafted idea from the pages of scripture. I cherish the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit that brings clarity of thought, words of power, and emotive delivery to the Word that is Jesus as I proclaim the words of men in the text. However, this foray into Anglican tradition has been a good check on the central importance of preaching and a much-needed relief.

One of the many temptations of making preaching central is the pride of the preacher and the pulpit becoming a personality cult of sorts. We all want to do well, especially pastors, preachers, helpers of any sort really. We want our words to inspire. Preaching is a practice preserved and performed within the institution of the church. Yet, preachers are humans and humans can be subject to the trappings of pride and inflated egos at the expense of the gospel. Of course, this is not merely a “low church” problem but in a tradition where there is so much pressure on the sermon because it is THE THING each Sunday, pride can seep into even the most sanctified of gifted speakers.

Consequently, the sermon being the pinnacle of worship, there is an unspoken amount of pressure many educated pastors place upon themselves to have a “great sermon” or be a “great preacher” all the time. After all, people come to church to worship and to hear a good sermon. They got their families ready, woke up early after a long week of work, and despite proclivities to maybe sleep in and enjoy coffee on the back porch, they came to church. Older folks, for whom attending church is sometimes a physical struggle, made coming to worship a main part of their day; they need a good sermon for their efforts. The preacher must make sure the sermon is worth listening to! Rarely will people remember all the songs of praise, or out of tune pianos, but most certainly the congregation will remember at lunchtime a sermon that lands with a thud (even as it fades quickly from memory).

Anglican tradition is full of great preachers, past and present. However, in Book of Common Prayer and liturgical rubrics, preaching is tangential and supportive of the central act of worship each Sunday: The Communion Table. The main attraction of each Sunday is not the preacher, whether that preacher was John Wesley, John Claypool, John Stott, or even the very alive NT Wright and Fleming Rutledge. Jesus, and him crucified, is the main attraction each Sunday.

The priest climbs into the pulpit, not at the center of the church, but to its right, when the Gospel is preached. The preaching matters; it is a lesson for the church and should be done well. Priests should not shirk behind the liturgical primacy of Eucharist and produce shallow or anecdotal sermons. There is a place in Anglican tradition of powerful proclamations of the Word.

However, the priest knows that no matter how well the sermon is crafted or how much insight they can demonstrate, the role of the sermon is to always move the church toward the paschal mystery of Jesus that takes center stage in worship. Regardless of the voluntaries played, hymns sung, prayers offered, or the homily presented, all of that is wrapped up into the mystery of the table and the sanctification of the body of Christ by eating the flesh of the savior. This is the direction of worship.

I am thankful that my words will fail before that mystery and that I have discovered, and learned, the efficacy of the Word does not rely on my clever rhetorical packaging.  I rest in this new tradition knowing that while I do matter, I don’t matter near as much as I would like to think, and the table can always accomplish infinitely more than I can with words that will eventually always be forgotten.

7. Crossing Oneself.

For those outside of catholic practice this is an odd thing to see and an even odder thing to begin doing. We often associate this practice with Roman Catholicism but church members in the Anglican Communion do it as well. This is one of those practices that can give the impression to some of the “dead traditionalism” noted by Jaroslav Pelikan. I have been in conversations with evangelical/lower church folk who have commented that it is a routine done by Catholic’s that doesn’t mean anything; it is a “going through the motions” without intent.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of others regarding crossing oneself, or the automations humans develop over time, but I can share my own.

First, the act of crossing oneself is an act of consecrating yourself to God; it is my way of claiming my body for Christ. It reminds me of who’s I am and from where I have come. Whatever I am, I am foremost identified as one that identifies with the crucified Jesus. There are moments when I cross myself that I sense the Holy Spirit testifying to my physical affirmation through this simple act. This is a physical way of identifying with Christ, nothing flashy or presumptive

Scripture notes several ways people “mark” themselves, identifying with God or against God. Of infamy, the Book of Revelation notes the “mark of the beast.” The other mark noted is noted in the Old Testament at various places refers to carrying God’s law on our foreheads.

Marking ourselves (identifying) on the head or body is a common thing done in scripture for both ill and good, for both men and women. The “mark” in Revelation is juxtaposed by this Old Testament mark of the people of God. Crossing oneself is a means of not being marked with the mark of the beast, not succumbing to the powers of darkness that seek to inebriate us with false power and sin. It reminds me of all the promises that lie beneath the cross that has just marked my body.

Secondly, as crossing oneself is often done at moments when the trinity is named, after prayers or repentance, prior/after receiving consecrated elements, etc., it is a reminder of God’s otherness and my submission to the mystery of God. When I mark myself, it is my physical confession of acceptance of this Christ and affirmation of participating in this great mystery.

What I have discovered is that marking oneself is not something done out of a false sense of piety, as if this is a Timothean (2 Tim. 3.5) version of having a form of religion without the power thereof. It is a physical gesture of an aphysical reality that centers and reorients the one who crosses themselves with intent.

Lastly, as part of the liturgical renewal movement of several decades ago, fonts were placed where the nave and chancel meet. Fonts are also traditionally at the entrance of churches, prior to the sanctuary space. I sometimes mark myself with holy water (crossing myself) when exiting the chancel post-communion or when entering a church. I have seen fonts at both places (entrance of church/exit of altar area) and have used the water from both. This is a simple act of dipping one’s fingers in water (that has been consecrated) for the purpose of sanctifying the one that uses it and reminding us of the sanctifying power of our baptism. There is surely some grand baptismal theology do be done here, but my personal experience as an act of piety is that it takes me back to my baptism, reminds me of that birth in Christ, and extends grace to me through the watery chaos of death overcome in Jesus. For these reasons, with a thankful heart I dip my fingers and mark my head or body with the waters redeemed in Christ and presided over by the Holy Spirit.

8. Smells and Bells

As one who had never been in a service wherein liturgical time/events were marked with bells, nor the divine presence of God noted with incense, I too had the common “eye roll” over these sorts of activities. It was easy to sit on the outside and wonder “why” and then equate these sorts of things with traditionalism. I would argue at this point that I was wrong in these leanings and offer these remarks to those who wonder at the smells and bells we do in church. Key word of this section (as well as Eucharistic theology) is anamesis.

First, it should be noted that every context is different. I have been to churches in Cleveland, TN (where I attend), Chattanooga, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA and Glenmoore, PA. Each church has a tradition within the tradition and within their context have all been faithfully Anglican. Some churches chant more than others. Some use bells, some do not. Some use incense, some do not. Some have a full slate of Holy Week Services that culminate in the Great Vigil, some do not. Etc, etc. As in the Nazarene tradition, there is more latitude across region and context in the Episcopal church than many outsiders know.

Secondly, the smells and bells are not a dead traditionalism. They perform key functions in worship through sensory means. The smell of incense reminds (anamnesis/re-member) one that we are in a holy space, the presence of God, and takes us back to the same sorts of experiences that would have been shared by ancient Israelites. The smell permeates the space in much the same way the holy spirit can be sensed, but not necessarily seen. The incense is a cue that we are “somewhere” with this unique air and invites participants to ask, “what is that smell? What’s happening?” That, my friends, is the point. The smell is a trigger to look for what is happening, to seek out the reasons for the smell. The incense means we are in a different place, a place where this smell resides and that means there is something special about this place. Pay attention.

Likewise, the bells are a notation of action. The bells are typically used during the Great Thanksgiving to denote the sacrificial action of God in Christ. When the bell is rung, the intent is to look for the place from which the ring comes, to look for what it announces. When literacy was not as prevalent as today the bells were used to communicate various parts of the liturgy. This is the simple role of bells: they are an alarm, stop what you are doing and take caution, etc.

In the liturgy, the bells draw our attention to the table when the Christ has given us his body and blood. Jesus is lifted via the elements, and to make sure we do not miss this divine act, the bell brings our attention to the drama unfolding at the table. There may not be anything biblical about ringing a bell in worship but that does not mean that worship cannot incorporate means of drawing one’s attention to the central drama of worship.

*I trust that these brief reflections have been as edifying to read as they were for me to consider. I have not written all that can be said (or debated) on these issues  and I invite you to explore and reflect your own experience as a part of our deeply rich Christian tradition. May the peace of God dwell in your hearts and shape your lives continually*

It’s What YOU See

its-not-what-you-look-at-that-matters-its-what-you-see

Have you ever ran across one of those quotes, or sayings, that no matter how hard you rack your brain the simplicity of the statement gets lost on you?

Usually, I get lost when reading Hegel, Whitehead, or some other abstractly concrete thinker begging me to silence all the glowing screens and focus on the ENTIRE argument. I take no shame in admitting that on more than one occasion, I not only read, but I re-read, and do so loudly, to follow the argument and make damn sure I have understood every word, every sentence, every nuance that might be hidden beneath and on top of the words.

But sometimes, when I travail against my own inclination to cohort with academic prose and I succumb to the allure of imagination, I read fiction.

Fiction teaches me to see. It teaches me to create.

It’s not an argument; its an invitation to see something that no one else sees yet is seen by everyone. It invites us into a picture shrouded with ideas, worlds and ends that are somehow conjoined together by the illusory fiction that fiction is based on seeing what the words give us, rather than seeing what the words create in us…hence recasting our angle of vision into something not even the author could have foretold.

So I read and I am shaped. I see.

I am shaped by those fictive words and those non-fictive ones, in anticipation of something I know not what but inevitably lead me to seeing as I never have before, or will, thereafter.

The beauty in such seeing is that some passages, particularly ones that don’t require a ton of exegetical context literarily, fly off the pages at us and slap us with their simplicity. They teach us to see when we forget we had forgotten.

We grew up. We put aside child play. We lost our sight.

One such passage that now sits ornamentally on the desk I pretend to write at is by American literary icon and transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau.

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I have managed to live my life without much Thoreau. This isn’t surprising. I have managed to live without much of a few things that I now find indispensable. I was 33 before I read a single word of him and this to my shame.

I am 33 now.

To the point, Thoreau is deserving of all the accolades that adorn his name, his books, his story. In his journals, he writes of seeing as only a transcendentalist can.

To risk the cliché I mention it here, the simple words that slapped me in the face, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it what YOU see.” [emphasis mine].

Thoreau’s work is full of this idea of sight, of seeing what others miss even though they are staring at the same damn thing. His work is full of a oneness of thought and rugged intellectualism that unities nature and nurture. His writing taps into that human originary desire to peel back the complexity of life and just…you know, be human in the world.

At first blush, a philosophical treatise made more sense to me than this quote. What does it mean? What romantic ideal is he describing and why does it matter?

I am always suspicious of these bleeding heart Utopian dreamers, like Thoreau, that push me to the edge and dare me to jump.

Yet, I need them.

Their logic is impervious to a logic that sees in this sentence what I see in prose, even poetic prose.

When I first read Thoreau, this quote, I think, “Of course it’s not what we look at that matters! It’s what we have been sociologically conditioned to see! We see only what our lenses allow us to see!”

Allow a simple American sports analogy.

It is common parlance for someone to say, as if to commend their sight, “I call it like I see it.” This once simple sports confession by umpires has now become common vernacular for “it is what it is” or “It is what I see” so to speak.

In other words, this trite saying presumes the one seeing is seeing correctly. In reality, who cares “if you call it like you see it,” especially if you’re an idiot and you saw it wrong! The fact that you’re relying on your own weak empirical vantage point doesn’t make your sight impeccable.

So when I, one trained in the humanities, read Thoreau and I see this, I think, “well, duh, of course it’s all about what you see…it’s never been about what you’re looking at.” From Plato’s cave to an Atlanta Braves baseball game, life is never about objectivity, it’s always about perception.

Then, something made its way into my life.

This quote now not only sits in the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, but it sets on my desk, encompassing a circular pewter encased magnifying glass. To remind me, “hey stupid, look here, remember this lesson.”

This small object careened into my life and it yelled at me.

Those words, “it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what YOU see,” punched me in the stupid head that is supposedly filled with things that make me smart.

It careened not only into my life but was born during a moment in which it appeared that everything I have been working toward for nearly 15 years was finally coming to fruition. Yes, you did the math correctly. This would be a journey that started when I was 18.

Ubiquitously, this meteor of awakening fell into my lap only recently, a year past what has become a loss, and not a victory. I stared at this object, with these words, Walden rolling around in my brain, and my nihilist self thought, “what the hell does this even mean? What the hell is HDT even talking about?”

You see…I was dense. I admit it. It’s one of only 3 hamartias in my life. Being dense is prob 3rd on the rung.

So, I asked someone wiser than me. I was the Ethiopian Eunuch and I needed a Philip.

I asked, “what does this mean? How does this make sense? How I see obviously got me no where!”

And I have to admit. I am not prone to emotion. But the next few words that hit my ear were equivalent to the Blitzkrieg emotionally, precisely because I am dense, “it never mattered if you got in, what always matters is the way you see things because the way you see things is unlike anyone else.”

Ho.Ly. Shit.

Srs?!

I thought what I achieved mattered! I thought that my great ideas mattered! I thought the prestige of this next journey mattered! Nope. None of it. I was wrong.

None of that ever mattered…and as I stared at where I wanted to be a year ago, I finally learned (though I have hardly incarnated), it’s not what I was looking at that mattered. What mattered is what I saw when I opened my eyes, light flooded my body and I inhaled creativity each day…because no one did that, or does that, quite like me.

What always mattered was just…my seeing. What my sight beheld never mattered; it was always what I saw through my sight that mattered. That was the gift, even though I often berate the smallness of the gift, of my own human potentiality or possibility.

Of course, I have been taught how to see. I see because of many factors, most of which I did not choose. My Apologies to Arminius.

No one has quite had the same experiences I have had. No one has read the bizarre combination of texts and integrated that with the many people that have walked through life with me. No one is the unique mess that is my life. And my life is comprised of a ceiling that covers my world and shapes what I see when I stare at what is through the glass ceiling that hangs above us all.

And this is the lesson: The world is never what we look at…what we look at is only what we see in front of us. The real world is what we see in the world that we look at, and that position, is unique to us all, even when in our darkest moments we feel like the eternal night of the soul will never end.

Quit looking for the gift…the gift was already given and it’s what happens when you see the world and you give the gift of sight to others.