We went to church today. That fact probably does not seem blog-worthy. Since tens of thousands of others did the same thing, it plainly is not worth all that much, to say simply and without annotation that “we went to church today.” It is the having gone to church and then reflecting on the experience that makes it worth, I think, sharing with a wider audience.
First, I need to set the stage. It was a Lutheran congregation of about 800-900 members whose summer attendance numbers about 250-300 each Sunday in all three of its morning services. Of those three options, we chose the 8:00AM “traditional Lutheran” service. The liturgy for that kind of worship is right out of the “green hymnal.” Well, except that the words from that hymnal for liturgy and hymns are projected onto the two very large blank wall spaces in the nave. Even traditional Lutherans are “with it” in digital technology. The best part of the liturgy was that the parts that are sung were not being sung to those totally impossible tunes introduced with that “green hymnal.” The pastor, or whoever was in charge of those decisions, had replaced the unsingable stuff with good old hymn tunes in a meter that makes it easy to enunciate the words with a cadence that seems to be going in a direction at which there is a concluding chord, so you know just when to start over.
It was the Sunday of the year, in the appropriate three-year cycle, when the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” is read from the Gospel According to John. You know that one, where the boy appears with the lunch bag in which is found a couple of sandwiches worth of loaves and fishes.
The pastor is sophisticated enough that he did not reduce the mystery and awe of that story to some kind of syrupy notion that “sharing like the boy did will feed a multitude.” I mean, even the least well-read of that congregation know full well that the story was not included in the canon of sacred texts by the ancient Christian community because it was a lesson on “sharing what you’ve got,” even if he did title his effort “What Will You Do With Your Leftovers.”
No, the homily did not take us in that “children’s sermon” direction. Instead, with a pleasant voice and appealing style the preacher nudged us along to examine two paradigms, one of abundance and one of scarcity. Having gotten to this point in the service encouraged by being able to sing along, now I thought, “This is going to be OK!” I waited to hear these two paradigms connected to our contemporary economic and health care crisis.
I kept waiting and waiting.
Here we are in a climate when one political party obviously operates out of a paradigm of abundance and another out of one of scarcity. One says, we can afford to “feed the five thousand” if we develop a system that allows us to communicate more efficiently and cost-effectively among the “five thousand” and tax the extra loaves and fish that some have brought and use that to pay for “loaves and fishes” for everyone else. The other says, there is just not enough without burdening us and our progeny and their progeny with more and more responsibility and that we need to wait and not rush into the “feeding the five thousand” thing. But I kept waiting and waiting and waiting.
Finally the homily ended without any connection to anything broader than private hungers and personal needs and we all stood up to recite a creed first promulgated so that the Christian community might distinguish itself from a pagan and oppressive government and culture. The morning’s bulletin said that the creed was the “Apostles’,” but we were expected to make it our own. The words of the creed seemed as unconnected to what goes on around us as did the homily seem ignorant of the same context.
My wife and I both said that we’d probably come back again to this particular congregation. I think that the attraction probably had a lot more to do with our having chatted with folks we know and with our being able to sing some songs we have long been familiar with than it had to do with the hour’s experience meeting any real spiritual need we came with. We will have to wait a week to return to see if again we will leave ill-fed and undernourished.
It is a disappointment that the Christian community has such rich resources in it granary of stories but assigns stewards of those resources who seem not to know what to do with them. With very little imagination, that preacher could have had sixty-five pairs of ears attuned to taking into each of those hearts a relevant faith. But his imagination wouldn’t stretch that far this morning. Or maybe it was his paucity of courage, in so conservative a congregation. Maybe he forgot that he is in the business of raising the dead, from their complacency, their lethargy, from their paradigm of scarcity.
Does it really take much imagination to suppose that there is a link between vital piety and political reality? I am not at all sure just how much longer we can continue to identify with a tradition that just does not see that there are tens of thousands of us, not just five-thousand, hungry to make connection between our hard-wired spirituality and our hard-scrabble lives. When, oh when, will the Church recognise that it seems to have lost the capacity to know where to “find food that these people might eat?”