Sunday, November 14, 2010

Provoking the Liturgy

A rainy, cool day here in Toronto. Low attendance at church. I take encouragement, however, in the fact that more and more people feel like they need to tell me when they aren't going to be in church. It shows the level of commitment as well as their sensitivity to the fact that I care whether they are there or not.

It was an unusual Sunday. For one thing, we were recognizing Remembrance Day. We have a tradition at Church of The Messiah of reading the names of the parish war dead and ringing the church bell once for each name. We also sang "O Canada" and "God Save the Queen." A more emotional inclusion was a short, one verse hymn written by a parishioner's brother-in-law shortly before his death over the skies of Europe.

We changed service music, too. We are doing a new Gloria and very cool and funky paperless setting of the Nicene Creed written by Marilyn Haskel. It has a wicked syncopated rhythm in the melody that makes it very catchy--especially for a Creed. For the past few weeks we have been saying "Affirmations of Faith" instead of the historic creeds. There is nothing wrong with the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, but we think they can become pretty repetitive and rote when they are repeated Sunday after Sunday. What's the alternative? The alternates provided by Common Worship 2000 (the Modern-language liturgy collection authorized for use in the Church of England) is a place to start. Bishop Yu is okay with this, though he has warned people not to be making up their own Creeds of questionably theology. The Affirmations of Faith we use are paraphrases of scripture, so they are pretty orthodox, and help ground the faith in scripture.

Anyway, we've noticed that the spoken Creeds sometimes bring down the energy. Everything just kind of grinds to a halt for some reason at Messiah when we say the Nicene/Apostles Creed. So... having a nice music setting is a way to deal with this challenge. Today was encouraging.

The sermon was challenging. Luke 21:5-19 is about Jesus forewarning about the destruction of the Temple. As Richard Swanson points out in his Provoking the Gospel commentary, you really can't understand this passage from Luke without realizing that it was written only about 30 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Temple in the Great Jewish Revolt. The Romans were trying to put down the Jews by striking as the spiritual and cultural heart of the Jews. It was a horrendous massacre. Josephus, who is generally apologetic for the Roman Empire, describes the fall of the Temple this way:
Now as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done), [Titus] Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and Temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as they were of the greatest eminence; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison [in the Upper City], as were the towers [the three forts] also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind. ....

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it. (source)

The carnage was massive. Indeed, the commander of the Roman army (Titus) refused to accept a victory wreath because, he said, there was no honor in defeating a people abandoned by their own God. Yikes.

Swanson says that he you need play this scene as though the backdrop was the funeral of a child. Yeah, it's that bad. When I preached, I told the story of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the Bar Kokhba revolt. The Bar Kokhba revolt had a pretty nasty ending. The Romans killed the last of the rebels at a fortress called Betar, and then, according to the Talmud tradition, used the blood to fertilize their vineyards for the next seven years. It would seventeen years before they would allow the dead of the fortress to be buried. What can we compare this to? I mentioned the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and the Holocaust, and 9/11. "Not one stone will remain on another..."

So how to get this back to a place of hope? I re-read the Isaiah passage appointed for the day: Isaiah 65:17-25. It's a wonderful vision of the promise of the restoration of Jerusalem. Then I talked about resurrection and the meaning of resurrection. How Jesus didn't come to give us less death--He came to give us more life. That means that the wounds are still there. The stones will still fall. But the wounds will be transformed--made glorious.

A complicated sermon, to be sure. Difficult to pull off this kind of emotional turn, but worth it if you can do it. As I explained to Nancy (my student), on Remembrance Sunday... the week after we did Holocaust Education Week... with these texts.... you just can't ignore the bad stuff, all you can do is redeem it.

For the Eucharist we are using Common Worship 2000 Prayer F. Nothing wrong with the BAS prayers, but Prayer F is excellent. Beautiful and vibrant imagery. I'm singing the Preface (really nice music, too), and then speaking the prayers. The congregational responses after each paragraph are sung with a simple echo (I sing it, the congregation sings it back).

Anyway, those are a few of my reflections post-Sunday!


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