February 5, 2019
In 1899, a priest in the Church of England named Percy Dearmer published a book titled The Parson’s Handbook. It soon caught on as the “must-have” guide - not only in England but also around the global Anglican Communion, including the Episcopal Church here in America, and went into many editions, remaining popular until the 1960s. The handbook gives incredible amounts of detail about what the clergy should wear, in what colors and when; how to decorate the church; how to conduct services; what church furniture to have; what bread to use at communion; when and where hymns should be sung; and so much more. Because of the research that went into it, the book may indeed have a whiff of “British Museum religion” about it, as one commentator remarked, but there is an overarching point directing all of this detail. Dearmer cared about the beauty of holiness. He cared about making worship beautiful so that people could focus on God; so that they could have an experience of God. But he also cared about social justice and one of the opening statements in the handbook made that clear.
It has been pointed out that a modern preacher often stands in a
sweated pulpit, wearing a sweated surplice over a suit of clothes
that were not produced under fair conditions and, holding a
sweated book in the one hand, with the other he points to the
machine-made cross at the jerry-built altar, and appeals to the
sacred principles of mutual sacrifice and love.
Vulgarity – against which he railed – was not simply a lack of beauty in worship but it was about cheapness, which often meant buying goods made by people working in appalling conditions without proper pay. This passion for justice extended to church community: Dearmer believed that all could and should work together in the creation of worship, the creation of art, the creation of a more just world. And these were all connected for him.
Dearmer’s passions for liturgy, for beauty, for justice, for community – and their necessary interrelatedness - were shared with William Ladd, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School from 1918 to 1941; he was the man who brought Berkeley Divinity School to Yale from its previous home in Middletown, Connecticut. One of the first things he did as dean, a hundred years ago, was to invite Dearmer to be a visiting lecturer at the school.
Over the next couple of days, on the centenary anniversary of their collaboration, some of us will be discussing these two men and their work, and what they can teach us about worship and its significance today. And they do both have something to teach us about the ways in which worship can awaken us to God, awaken us to ourselves and to our callings. They prompt those of us who are involved in creating worship to ask: how do we prepare liturgies that bring us to a new sense of the divine and challenge us to work together for justice?
In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning (Neh 8: 1-10) Ezra and Nehemiah jolt the Israelites into a new way of being in God’s presence. The people are performing their usual rituals. Ezra opens the sacred text. The people stand. Ezra blesses God and the people answer “Amen, Amen” and they raise their hands. Ezra reads from the scriptures and interprets them. The people bow their heads and worship. It’s a highly scripted liturgy. It’s what the Israelites have always have done. And the next thing they were to do was cry and mourn as they heard the law. But Nehemiah changes the script – he tells the Israelites to rejoice rather than weep. Why? Because the day is holy to God! Go and feast, he says, eat well, drink sweet wine, share what you have with others, show hospitality to those around you. Do not be grieved, he says – God’s joy is your strength. Celebrate this!
What Nehemiah does is disrupt the usual liturgy. And that disruption is an opportunity – to experience God and God’s grace in a completely new way. And the people go and eat and drink and share what they have, and they do indeed rejoice.
Five centuries later, Jesus stands up in his home synagogue (Luke 4: 14-21) and performs a similar act of disruption after the ritualized reading of scripture. But it turns out a little differently for him. The scroll of Isaiah is handed to him. He unrolls it. He finds the portion for the day and he reads:
The Spirit of the Lords is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let
the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And when he has read it, he gives the scroll back to the attendant. Then he sits down again. Everyone’s watching him. Finally, he speaks: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
No one - no one! - is expecting that. He’s disrupted the usual ritual with the story of who he is. And he goes on to say something about them and their history that is not so complimentary. He makes it clear – to those whom he has known since childhood – that a prophet cannot always be heard in their own country. In other words, they may not heed his call for justice.
The reaction of those listening is not so friendly. They’re angry; they put him out of the city. They would really like to hurl him off the brow of the hill, but he evades them and leaves safely. They didn’t want to be disrupted or challenged or made new. Often, as we all know, it is easier not to be challenged or changed.
When has liturgy touched you, enabled you to know God better, even troubled and disrupted you? Were you able to respond to the challenge? Were you transformed through the sheer grace of being touched by the liturgy?
Many years ago, while I was doing my Ph.D. at U. C. Berkeley, I taught and lived at the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley (Church Divinity School of the Pacific). I dutifully attended chapel every day. We had a steady diet of the American Book of Common Prayer. It was well done, and there was something comforting in the repetition of the familiar prayers. And then, one day, a visiting Australian priest decided to celebrate communion using A New Zealand Prayer Book.
And right there in the middle of the service something happened to turn my world upside down. She spoke the words of absolution from that New Zealand prayer book:
God forgives you.
It was an utterly transformative moment. Up until then, I had mostly got that God forgives us. I was pretty good at forgiving others – not being one to hold grudges. But I was terrible at forgiving myself; so terrible at it, in fact, that I didn’t even realize how much I needed to do it until I heard the words of that absolution. I was transformed in that moment – that’s not to say that I can perfectly and with ease forgive myself always now, but I did in that moment receive a moment of deep grace and transformation that only the beauty of holiness in the midst of worship could provide. And, I would also contend, it was precisely because I went every day and engaged in the same familiar rituals, with a familiar and supportive community, that this slight change in words, this disruption, was so powerful. That daily repetition allowed a space to open up for God’s grace to enter. That is the paradox. That’s why I always suggest to people who are struggling with their faith that they just keep showing up and let the liturgy carry them.
If worship is an art, as Percy Dearmer declared, then it means that we – all of us gathered here, every time we gather - are a community of artists; we’re creating the conditions by which the grace of God’s beauty may be revealed to each one of us, just as we need it. We do the footwork – perhaps not in quite so much detail as Dearmer suggested; but we work alongside each other and alongside God to create these rituals and spaces for grace, offering our prayers for the transformation of ourselves and our world.