I love questions. I love dreaming them up, twisting, stretching, pulling, and bending them, letting them stew in my brain and heart. I’d rather simmer in a good question than a hot-tub any day. Sometimes I get into trouble asking people to join me in the pot but I think I’m in good company. Jesus loved to ask questions too. Luke tells us that before Jesus’ bar mitzvah, Jesus was asking questions that reflected a level of understanding that stumped the scholars (Luke 2:41–52).
Here is a question I’ve been wrestling with over the last number of years.
Let’s say it’s Sunday (not because it’s more sacred than other days, but because most churches still meet Sundays). Only this Sunday, instead of going to church, you’re on the golf course, at the cabin, chilling at the beach, or visiting with friends around the BBQ. Sure, it’s Sunday, but maybe you’re on holidays, or maybe the weather is “just too nice to waste.” It’s Sunday, but life is just so busy, and this is the perfect time to cut the lawn or catch up with the laundry.
How do you decide when not to go to church?
Come on, let’s admit that there have been Sundays when you could have gone but instead chose…something else.
Does it matter? Does God care if I sit in a pew or swing in a hammock this – or any – Sunday?
That all depends on why God wants us there in the first place, doesn’t it?
Have you ever noticed how much of Scripture is a call to remember? Consider the number of times in Scripture God commands people to remember. Do you know why? Because human memory is a leaky thing! Not ours, of course; we have no problems remembering that God is at work in our world. We are nothing like the people of God in Exodus, who see God do amazing things in the morning and by nightfall are wringing their hands in fear, complaining that God doesn’t care if they live or die!
Naturally, if we had just witnessed God’s strong and mighty hand levelling Egypt, we would have sat on the banks of the Red Sea eating watermelon and roll kuchen, waiting to see what God was going to do next.
We would be relaxed. Israel panicked because Israel forgot (Exodus 14:10–12).
Consider that one of Christ’s final acts with the disciples before dying was to gather them together to say, “Whenever you eat, whenever you drink, remember….” Why? Because human memory is leaky.
I’ve been in ministry for decades, and I’ve noticed that communities that forget to remember spend an awful lot of time whining, complaining, and filled with fear. We gather so that you can remind me when I forget and I can remind you when I remember.
There’s a video that I’ve been using in the classroom and in worship seminars for several years now. The video is of an individual, presumably during a Sunday morning service, singing a hymn. One does not need to be a musician to cringe at the way in which the music – almost universally revered – is ruined, denigrated, and, some have suggested, mocked. It’s that bad.
When I use the piece, I explain that I believe the individual in the video suffers from a combination of disabilities. Then I ask, “If this person were a member of your church community and asked for the opportunity to sing on a Sunday morning, would your church allow it?” Very few answer, “Yes!” and those who do usually lack the authority to prove themselves.
Is it perhaps a mark of true community when there is room for all to be engaged, even to explore areas where one is not yet as competent as other members?
Before you challenge that with a slew of “yes, but…”s, just think about it for a second. I know it’s tough for those of you who are competent, and talented, and beautiful to imagine what it’s like to be an outsider, but for a moment try to imagine the kind of community where even outsiders are fully and truly accepted.
Imagine a community where people feel accepted and safe enough to offer their best, even when their best doesn’t “measure up.” Imagine a community that is generous and grace-filled enough to allow this offering. Imagine a place where you are valued not for the gifts you bring but for the you you bring. Imagine being celebrated not because of what you put in the offering but because you came offering. Are we turning away the kinds of offerings that Jesus encouraged us to celebrate (Mark 12:41–44)?
Covenant relationship is one of the reasons God calls us to gather. This is deeper and broader than whether I like you or not. It encompasses not only our covenant relationship with each other as members of a community, but also our collective relationship with God.
Consider the feasts and festivals that God instituted for Israel to help them remember. They were community events. Often, all work ceased. They frequently involved travel (a leaving behind of the “regular grind”). Invariably, these events included families gathered together, and they centred on the covenant community in the presence of God.
Our culture ingrains within us the value of individuality over the value of community. Tragically, more often than not, our pastor’s challenge is to ask, “How does this apply to me?” When was the last time your community sat to wrestle through how the Word was to be applied to the faith community: “How does this apply to us?”
Typically, “for the Word” is one of the first suggestions offered when I ask church-attenders why they gather. The Word of God. Now, I’m not talking about what we call “preaching”; I’m talking about the powerful, dynamic, relevant, unchangeable Word of God to the people of God. The Word which brings order to chaos. The Word which sets captives free. The Word which brings life to what was dead. The Word that heals. The Word which d rives out darkness. The Word which feeds the hungry. The Word which reconciles busted families and shines like a beacon so strong it draws the blind and opens their eyes.
Find me a gathering of the people of God in Scripture where God’s Word was not proclaimed. These days, we often sit to hear two or four verses taken from one of a dozen familiar passages, recited in a monotone, cleverly threaded together with clips from the latest Hollywood release and quotes which could just as easily be spoken by Oprah.
No wonder we opt for the cottage.
You’ll notice how none of this has anything to do with music. This is not a formula. Nor is this a program or a series of steps. I’m not suggesting that according to biblical models, a community should do a little bit of remembering, then do a little bit of covenanting. In Scripture, these components are all woven together. They inform each other and shape each other – even as the community is woven together and shaping each other.
We gather to remember our covenant with each other and our God, and we covenant in order that we remember. We experience the Word of our covenant-keeping God and remember what God has done, and as we remember, our covenant is strengthened. It’s tapestry.
It almost goes without saying: the community must respond. It’s a natural outflow of a community engaging in the other three.
Our problem is that for many of us, our response is often reduced to the hymn we sing before the postlude. What if the response God expects from us is reflected in how we treat our families? What if it has to do with how we handle our credit cards and bank accounts? What if our response is best reflected in our day planners and our driving? Not as individual acts but as communal acts. What if how you treat your family affects my ability to hear God, and my lack of faithfulness in finances or time management affects your relationship with the Grade 4 girls you teach in Sunday school? We cannot say the church has responded unless the individuals who make up the church respond, but the individual is only part, not the whole. In Scripture, the community of faith seemed to understand that their response also took place in the living of life after the community dispersed.
The benediction is not a “worship-is-now-ended-Amen,” but a “worship-continues” prayer of sending forth to respond.
I started with a fairly significant emphasis on Sunday. At the risk of creating a little confusion, let me explain neither worship nor gathering is about Sunday. This dialogue is about why we gather.
The date and location are irrelevant. It could be Sunday, but it could just as easily be Wednesday night or Friday afternoon. It could be a church building, or it could be around a backyard BBQ, or even on the golf course, baseball diamond, or the lake. What’s important is that as we gather, we understand why we’re gathering. What’s important is that when we gather (two or three or more – Matthew 18:20), we do so with an awareness of the nearness of the One who calls us to gather, and that our gathering reflects God’s purpose, not just the pursuit of our own pleasure.
I can’t help but wonder if our dialogue on this issue will in itself be an act of faithful gathering. Can our reading and responding strengthen the covenant community? Can this dialogue spark memories of God, and inspire a faithful wr estling with the Word and a joy-filled response to Yahweh’s God-ness?