Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This morning’s reading from Acts offers us a scene from Paul’s missionary work in Greece, in which Paul is preaching to the citizens of Athens about the one God who has created all things and is at the center of all things, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being”. One of the key observations Paul offers in his sermon is that God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
In this Easter season we have been worshipping with contemporary elements of the liturgy, rather than out of the BCP. Our service includes not only contemporary Prayers of the People and Eucharistic prayer, but modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer and Nicene Creed as well. You may be shocked to hear that Heather and I have heard observations from quite a few people letting us know that their preference is for the more familiar or traditional forms of these prayers. In the context of those sentiments (that I think are probably shared by many,) Paul’s words about God living in shrines prompts me to invite you to reflect with me, this morning, about the very nature of liturgical language.
I want to begin by reading you one of my favorite books that I read with my grandchildren – What is God’s Name? (written by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Phoebe Stone, pub. Skylight Paths, 2014)
(After God created the world all living things were given a name.
But no one knew the name for God.
So each person looked for God’s name.
The farmer called God “Source of Life”.
The man who tended sheep called God “Shepherd”.
The tired soldier called God “Maker of Peace”.
The womwn who took care of sick people called God “Healer”.
The young woman who nursed her baby called God “Mother”.
The young man who held his baby’s hand called God “Father”.
And the child who was lonely called God “Friend”.
All the people called God by different names.
Each person said “My name for God is the best.” But no one listened.
The one day all the people came together.
They knelt by a lake that was like a mirror, God’s mirror.
They looked and saw their own faces.
They saw the faces of all the others.
At that moment, the people knew that all their names for God were good.
All at once, all together, they called God “One”.
God heard and was very happy.)
This wonderful little volume illustrates two fundamental ideas about all of the language and all of the ways in which we speak about God.
The first is that all of our language about God is symbolic – it “points toward” the reality of God.
The second thing is this - while our language points toward the reality of God, nothing we can say about God – because all language is based in the world of our own experience – will ever be able to do any more than point toward God, because our words can never begin to capture or adequately represent the complex and incomprehensible reality of God.
We call God “Father”, “Mother”, “Healer”, or “friend” and not only is God all of these and many more: God is a father, a mother, a healer and a friend unlike any we will ever know in this world.
Liturgy – including the language we use in worship - is the expression of our relationship with God. In it, we gather to express our thanks, our concerns and hopes, and to encounter God through the sacrament of the Eucharist, so that we may be spiritually renewed to more fully live our lives as God’s people throughout the week.
The language we use for liturgy doesn’t just express what we believe; as we speak it and listen to it, it shapes the way we think and understand. It can reinforce and deepen the understandings of God that we already hold, and this is often what we want and what we need from worship.
The language of our prayers can also open us up to new understanding of what God is, who we are, and who we are called to be. If we are to continue to grow in our faith, we need for our worship to challenge us to move beyond what we already know and understand, whether we like it or not.
The part of most of us that resists change is the part that wants spiritual comfort food – like those in What is God’s Name? who are convinced that their names for God are just about perfect.
But if we avoid encountering new ways of praying, we deny the breadth and complexity and oneness of the Holy One, and risk making our familiar prayers into our own Golden Calves. As Paul teaches – “God does not live in shrines made by human hands.”
A second important reason to vary our liturgical language is to make our worship accessible and comprehensible for those for whom language of the traditional BCP may be archaic and foreign.
We are the “village” raising Logan and Lucas, Liam and all of the little girls whose names I don’t know yet into the life of Christ, and we hope that the Spirit will blow some other seekers into our midst to be nurtured in the life of faith. They need to learn about God’s love in language that makes sense to them.
The changes in the contemporary versions of familiar prayers are not only about making our language more consistent with the way we actually speak. In a number of cases, they reflect what we now know to be a return to earlier, more original forms of those prayers. This next part is for those who love history.
There are two clear examples in the Nicene Creed.
1.) You’ll notice that the part of this version of the Creed that is most changed is the part referring to the Holy Spirit. The changes eliminate gender in reference to the Spirit. In fact, in the early Church, there was a very strong tradition associating the Holy Spirit with the figure of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is, strikingly, always referred to in the feminine. In removing masculine pronouns referencing the Spirit from the translation we grew up with, we are actually moving closer to the way the Church of the Apostles understood the Spirit.
2.) Similarly, we’re also going back to the original in dropping the words “and the Son” when we say from where the Holy Spirit proceeds.
At the 3rd century Council of Constantinople, from which the creed comes, there was a profound and bitter difference of theological perspective over the nature of the Trinity.
The first formulation of the creed stated that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. The latin phrase “filioque” – “and the son” – was inserted into the creed in the Roman Catholic Church sometime around the 6th century.
In currently-emerging liturgies, we’re going back to the original.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking familiarity in the words with which we worship: it’s OK to prefer familiar forms. I think there IS something wrong if we make those words into untouchable shrines, if we convince ourselves that the familiar are better, or more legitimate, and that we don’t need to vary our liturgical “diet.”
The tradition here in Greenfield – for the good reason of making the work of printing the bulletin more manageable – has been to choose a liturgy and stick with it throughout a liturgical season. I suspect that it’s the experience of living with contemporary forms for six weeks in a row that has many folks longing for the traditional.
Beginning with the season after Pentecost, we are going to adopt an approach that I think will provide a good compromise that is acceptable to everyone. On the first through third and fifth Sundays of each month we will worship from the Book of Common Prayer, alternating between Eucharistic Prayers. Each fourth Sunday we will use a contemporary liturgy.
I believe that embracing new forms of prayer may continue to feel like work, but it will provide us new discoveries – new opportunities to notice, to stop and think, to expand our vision.
It is my hope, as well, that praying these new texts will lead us deeper into the mystery of God.
And, as in my little book, God will hear, and be very happy.
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