“Liturgical Fireplace and Pentecostal Fire”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Breathe on us, Spirit of God, and may we never be the same. Amen.<<
Today, Pentecost Sunday, we begin a three-week series in the world of liturgy. Three Sundays to match the three, main parts of our Sunday morning service. Today we focus on the first part – the “Gathering” part. But let me begin by taking us back to antiquity.
A Greek inscription from the first century BCE contains an ancient example of liturgy. “Liturgy” comes from an old Greek word that means “work of the people.” The work of the people – the “liturgy” – chiseled into that ancient slab of marble from the Greek city of Philadelphia gives us a snapshot of how the ancients worshipped. The inscription is about five hundred Greek words long, and tells the story of a man named Dionysius. Dionysius claimed that Zeus – the high god of the ancient pantheon – visited him in a dream and told him to found a religion in his house. This tiny new religion would be comprised of men and women, slaves and free people, wealthy and poor; and there would be a list of rules and regulations carved into marble. The group would meet and eat together, sacrifice animals to the gods, and display their piety by living morally upright lives. The marble slab – the same slab archaeologists would discover centuries later – sat at the front of Dionysius’ house, and everyone who entered would have to touch it. It was a liturgical act – a “work of the people.” And the reason for touching the rock, according to the inscription, was to test one’s moral mettle. On the rock are the rules of Dionysius’ house-religion; and touching it was a public way of saying, “I’m keeping the rules.” But, the inscription warns, the gods are watching; and they’ll know if one touches the rock falsely. The inscription lists bad things that will happen to naughty people.
We’ve discovered hundreds of ancient inscriptions like this, each one offering a glimpse of the liturgies of the past – the works of the ancient people. Ancient religions, such as early Christianity, were often practiced in houses with rules and procedures to guide the group, with sacred meals and sacred words – sometimes set to music. What we do on a Sunday morning – our work as a people, our liturgy – has a rich and deep history, evolving and developing over centuries, like a great tree: from the acorn of early Christian house churches – with their simple meals and simple songs – to the oak tree of medieval Latin chants, and morning and evening prayers, ecclesiastical rules, prayer books and hymn books and lectionaries and liturgical calendars like thick foliage adorning Christianity’s many branches. The liturgies of our tradition ebb and flow over time, some die out and then get resurrected in new forms. Stroll through almost any New England town, and you can find evidence of liturgical backlash: plain, white congregational churches with see-through glass instead of stained glass, weathervanes on steeples instead of crosses, and, uncomfortable, straight-backed pews to keep our Puritan forebears awake during the hour-long sermons. All of it a reaction to the ornate Anglicanism of England.
We see liturgy wherever people congregate. Liturgy is structure and routine, like a fireplace housing a fire. There are tailgating rituals before football games, some with liturgical songs that praise the home team. There’s a red carpet procession before the Oscars. The royal wedding yesterday had a very precise dance of liturgy. The 1980s film Wall Street put all the main characters in liturgical settings from procedures for aggressive trading on the Stock Exchange floor to subway rides that lead to mass processions to cubicles and structured phone conversations with clients. When I was in seminary, we studied liturgies from across the Christian tradition, and found that no matter the context – whether it’s the smells and bells of Anglicanism or the praise songs and altar calls of Pentecostalism – there is a set liturgy, some “work of the people” – a realization that led a few of my friends to leave their home denominations to pursue something more liturgically robust. Some become Episcopalians. They called their journey, “walking the Canterbury trail.” Others became more Catholic. They called it, “crossing the theological Rubicon” – a reference to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River and heading for Rome. (Gotta love seminary humor.)
Our Sunday morning service follows a set, liturgical form based on the template in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship where it is written that Sunday worship “lift[s] up the common liturgical threads which flow through the church, linking the tapestry of the past and weaving the fabric of the future.” Our Sunday service has three main parts under four headings in our bulletin: Gathering, Listening, and then Responding and Sending. The whole is “liturgical” – from that Greek word meaning “work of the people”; we all do something in each part of the service: praying, singing, listening, sharing, giving, going. There’s a flow to the service: we gather as a community; then we listen and ponder; then we respond with prayers and gifts before heading out to Be the Church in our community. We sing three hymns to match these three parts: a gathering hymn at the beginning; a more meditative hymn in the middle; and a sending hymn at the end. We gather; we listen; we respond and go. The anchor of the service – with deep roots in our Protestant tradition – is the word: the word read from scripture; preached during the children’s time and from the pulpit; and sung in the choir’s Anthem. The word is at the center of the service: we gather to hear it; we respond to it, and head out to live it. Three parts. Our liturgical fireplace.
A fireplace that houses the fire of Pentecost. Today’s New Testament reading from the Book of Acts is a story about fire – the fiery spirit of God falling like little flames, like little tongues of fire, on those first followers of Jesus. The story of the first church in Acts begins with wildfire – a wildfire that settles a bit into the fireplace of liturgy when Peter stands up to preach that first sermon. The story begins with the followers of Jesus huddled together – tight and insular – until rushing wind turns into a roaring, spiritual fire that fills the room – expands the room to bursting, falls upon them all, and empowers them to speak boldly in other languages. It’s a symbolic story – a moment when, as philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes, the church’s “message” was forged, a message “that all people … should view themselves as members of a single commune created by God … [and that all] enmities that arise among individuals and groups … [should be] dissolv[ed].” Pentecost is fire – a fire that burns down boundaries and borders. Witnesses of that first Pentecost, according to Luke – the author of the story – were dumbfounded at what they saw. Some scoffed that the followers of Jesus were just drunk. But others testified to hearing their native languages from across the Roman Empire: from the easternmost edge near Parthia, to Egypt in the south, Cappadocia in the northeast, to the Latin of Rome itself. The church of that first Pentecost – filled with God’s fire – would, as Sloterdijk says, dissolve all enmities between individuals and groups. Pentecost is fire, and also reversal – a great reversal of the Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis – today’s Old Testament reading – a tale about how the languages and divisions first emerged. If Babel is about tearing and division; Pentecost is about the spirit of God stitching all things back together – a healing of human-made rifts, which is why divisions and borders and fences and walls and boundaries of all sorts fall short of Pentecost’s flaming vision for the unity of humanity.
Last year, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei began constructing an exhibit across New York City on the theme of fences and borders inspired by the Robert Frost poem that begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The exhibit opened in October. There were circular, cage-like fences. Baseball cage-like fences. Glass walls in front of bus stops. A fence with a small opening under the archway into Washington Square Park. And many others. The purpose of the exhibit, said Ai Weiwei, was to illustrate visually “‘the rise of nationalism [in our time] … , [the] increase’,” he said, “‘in the closure of borders, and an exclusionary attitude towards migrants and refugees, the victims of war and the casualties of globalization.’” Ai Weiwei’s exhibit, it seems to me, is a Pentecost exhibit. Not walls and fences, but healing and joining and unity and belonging. Pentecost is about gathering – the gathering of every tribe and tongue, every person – like the gathering at the beginning of our Sunday service where we welcome all regardless of state in life or statement of identity or faith. All are invited. All can sing together. All can participate responsively. All can pray together. All can confess their shortcomings and brokenness – because no one is perfect or completely whole. All can share Christ’s peace, because Jesus didn’t turn anyone away and neither will we. Liturgy – the work of the people, the fireplace that houses Pentecost’s fire – is like practice, a weekly dress rehearsal for living. A dress rehearsal that prepares us to live as people of Pentecost in between life’s Sundays. A weekly reminder of God’s dream for our world.
Our Sunday liturgy is also a weekly reminder of the rift between the world we live in and the world as God dreams it to be. It’s a weekly reminder of the competing liturgies of our world. Today’s Call to Worship begins with the words “The Spirit descends like a dove, bringing peace to unite the world in a just and caring community.” It’s a dream. A hope. Something to live into. A liturgy of life to contrast the liturgies of death in our news: the Palestinians being slaughtered at the gates of Jerusalem; the school children gunned down in their classes. Today’s Opening Prayer thanks God for breaking through barriers of sin and death, for rooting out injustice, for empowering us to love and serve. It’s a prayer that says we work alongside the spirit of God to make all this be so. A Pentecost liturgy to contrast the liturgies of hate we encounter in between Sundays, like that of lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, whose racist rant went viral this week. Our Sunday liturgy – our Sunday work as a people – this fireplace that houses God’s Pentecostal fire that burns within us – our liturgies of hope and life that counter those liturgies of death and hate – this work is our weekly practice, our weekly dress rehearsal, for living God’s dream.
After every school shooting – like the one in Santa Fe High School this week – The New York Times has followed a macabre liturgy. Usually, the day after a school shooting, The Times publishes a piece with a title that names the place of the shooting and some version of the phrase “Here are the stories of the victims.” And then one by one, the stories of each person killed are told, like mini, paragraph-long eulogies. Yesterday, The Times journalists assigned to perform this grim “work of the people” were Julie Bosman and Jess Bidgood. “The shooting began at the start of the school day,” they wrote. “Some students at Santa Fe High School had just settled in for art class when gunshots sounded, in rapid succession, and a fire alarm went off. Students scrambled for doors and into closets. Ten people were killed … ,” they continue. “Among those who perished: a teacher, an exchange student from Pakistan who was planning to return home in a few weeks, a football player on the high school team.” And then, one by one, Bosman and Bidgood told their stories. A liturgy of death.
But there was also a liturgy of life this week; yesterday, in fact, in Windsor, England, in a thousand-year-old English castle. There, wrote Ellen Barry, also of The Times, “an African-American bishop and a gospel choir … nudge[d] the British royal family into a new era,” when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married – a wedding that especially resonated with me, because a boy with a ginger beard was marrying a biracial girl. That biracial girl – Meghan Markle is the descendant of slaves. The bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, is the descendant of slaves. Both were standing in the hub of British imperial power. “It was not your average royal wedding,” wrote Ellen Barry. “Among the throngs who filled the streets of Windsor on Saturday were black women who had flown in from Houston and Atlanta, moved, sometimes to tears, to see a woman of color so publicly adored.” One of those women from Atlanta said, “‘[A] children of slaves is marrying a royal whose forerunners sanctioned slavery; the lion is lying down with the lamb’” – a reference to that great prophecy of Isaiah about God’s dream for our world.
I want to close this morning with words from Bishop Curry’s homily – a beautiful example of the power of liturgies of life. “When love is the way,” he said, “then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.’”
 The inscription can be read here: http://philipharland.com/greco-roman-associations/divine-instructions-for-the-household-association-of-dionysios/
2 Book of Worship: United Church of Christ (Cleveland: UCC Office for Church Life and Leadership, 2005 ), xi.
3Peter Sloterdijk, God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (trans. Wieland Hoban; Malden, MA: Polity, 2009), 56.