(14 May 2017)
St Paul’s Church, Byron Bay
This is the third sermon in our mini series looking at the attributes of spiritually confident faith communities.
We have already reflected on the dynamic of spiritual confidence, which is not to be confused with arrogance or bigotry. Rather, as we saw, it is about a deep confidence that our faith tradition offers sound spiritual wisdom for life’s journey.
Last week we reflected on the significance of the Bible, and our confidence that time spent reading the Scriptures with an attitude of faith and gratitude is an opportunity to deepen our personal spiritual connection with God. As an informal sacrament, the Bible helps us to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
This week we turn our attention to worship, and I want to suggest that we can be confident that our liturgies connect us deeply into the mysteries of our faith.
Thin places, deep wells
Come with me to that classic story in John 4, where Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman Jacob’s Well.
This icon may help you to enter that story more deeply. Pass it around as I am speaking, Feel its weight. Absorb its design. The colour. The interaction between Jesus and the woman. Hold this physical expression of deep faith in your hands. Join your heart with the elderly priest who created this icon in the crypt beside Jacob’s well.
First of all, notice the location of this story. This was a holy place in the time of Jesus, and it remains a holy place today. This is a quintessential ‘thin place’; a place made sacred as people have come to the site over hundreds and thousands of years, and offered their prayers.
Our modern world of gadgets and instant entertainment is in desperate need of thin places. Our liturgies and our church buildings are thin places. We just need to learn how to appreciate them.
Now, notice the well.
For thousands of years people have come to this well. Mostly they just collected water. But sometimes something deeper happened, as was the case for this woman on that day.
The woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestor Jacob gave us this well.” I want to steal her words and apply them to our Prayer Book: “Our spiritual ancestors gave us this book …” She had a bucket to draw from the ancestor’s well, and we have a Prayer Book to draw up the living waters of the holy tradition.
When we step inside this building and when we open our prayer books, we are on holy ground and we have in our hands a most amazing spiritual treasure.
Ritual runs deep
It seems that humans have a deep need for ritual.
This may be one reason for the continued observance of ANZAC Day, although I am sure that it has also been manipulated by politicians who see benefits to them from such events. The deeper reason is surely our shared sense that as a nation we need such occasions to celebrate our identity and commit ourselves to a shared future.
This love of ritual is also seen in major sporting events, as well as in the weekly assemblies at the local primary school. In those assembles we celebrate success, we build community, and we reinforce our core values.
A spiritually confident church does liturgy well.
By that, I do not mean that it perfectly observes all the directions of Ritual Notes 9th edition, nor that it has the finest music, the most eloquent preacher, or the best sound system.
I mean, of course, that it offers a liturgy that speaks to the human condition, even if not executed to perfection. Liturgy that connects the rhythms of our life with the mysteries of the faith. Liturgy that becomes, in its better moments, an encounter with God.
This kind of ‘good’ liturgy is grounded in the experience and the language of the local community. It grows out of, reflects upon, and enriches our shared life with those around us.
Such liturgy draws on the long tradition of the church, but it also integrates spiritual practices from other traditions.
It need not be heavy, but it can carry deep meaning.
It is often less verbal that what often passes for Sunday worship.
And it may engage the whole person and all of our senses.
The aesthetic qualities of good liturgy are powerful connectors with the participants, and time spent preparing the non-verbal elements of the service is seldom wasted.
A spiritually confident church will offer people a variety of ritual moments, and teach people how to create rituals within their personal lives. We will go beyond page 119, and tap into the rich resources of the ancient church.
Celtic spirituality may have much to offer here, as it names and claims so much of the everyday, connecting the familiar rhythms of our life with God’s deep presence among us and within us. That kind of spiritually may be a bridge to our neighbours who have little time for church, but a deep longing for connection with God.
A spiritually confident church will also provide ‘God spaces’ and ‘God moments’ for the wider community. I love it when I drive through Bangalow and see the sign outside All Souls’ Church: ‘Church open for prayer’.
There are no conditions on how you pray, or even to whom you pray. Just an invitation to step aside and spend some time in the company of God.
Common Prayer for the Common Good
As a spiritually confident faith community we will do our best to make our worship special.
The liturgy deserves our best: the best music we can arrange, the best preparation we can give to our different parts in the service, the best personal preparation we can make as we prepare to gather in this sacred space to begin our week in worship.
The worship we offer is not just for ourselves.
Behind our English word, Liturgy, is an ancient Greek word: leitourgia.
A leitourgia was something done as a gift to the community.
When people of faith gather for worship we are investing in the spiritual fabric of our community. We uphold our community, our nation and the world in our own hearts and in the heart of God. We are standing with the angels, and aligning ourselves with God’s dream of a world shaped by love. We are investing in shalom, deep peace.
Our Sunday worship is not about keeping the Anglican brand alive in the Bay.
We are calling to mind the depth dimension of life, and we are offering ourselves to serve as instruments of God’s love and peace right here and right now.
We are connecting with God, connecting with each other, and connecting with our world.
Each Sunday we come to the ancient well of common prayer, and we draw water from the well of life. We do this for ourselves, of course. We need the spiritual refreshment that this living waters provide.
But we also do this for our friends and neighbours, who may never come to this well, but may still share in the life that God gives freely to anyone who is thirsty.