Monday, January 16, 2017

Foolishness – 22 January 2017 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany

By God's grace, Jesus has called us to follow him and proclaim the foolish choice of fishermen to become apostles, the foolish and reckless love of God that led Jesus to battle death, the foolish message of a risen Savior who triumphed over the grave, and the grace of God that fools our senses coming to us in bread, wine, water and oil. Like the Galilean fishermen, we may be foolish choices for God's co-workers, but we have great bait. Now all we need is the patience of seasoned fishermen and fisherwomen. – John Paul Salay

Matthew 4:12-23

In today's Gospel reading, we see Jesus making an apparently foolish choice of followers. Jesus “saw two brothers. . . fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Jesus could have gone to the temple and invited the priests to follow him, for they were “professionals”. . .  Jesus could have . . . invited the biblical scholars. . . for they knew the Bible and could easily explain it to others. Why then did Jesus go to a lake and invite fishermen to follow him?

People who fish know that bait, time and place, and patience are essential for catching fish. Jesus knew that these three things are also essential to catch people for God's reign. You need good bait to catch fish, something that attracts fish, and that often means different bait for different types of fish. You need good bait to catch people. The bait is a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Simply stated, “You need a change of heart and mind because God's reign is here!” . . . St. Gregory the Great, in his Pastoral Rule, encouraged preachers to tailor their message to their hearers. Although the message remains the same, the way in which we present the call to repentance and the coming of God's reign will vary. – John Paul Salay

Isaiah 9:1-4

The prophet speaks of hope despite the devastation caused by the invasion of the northern kingdom Israel by the Assyrians. . . in 733–732 B.C. The pain of the people under the cruelty exercised by the conquerors is graphically stated: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Despite current conditions, the prophet announces that a light has shone (or will shine; the verb tense is unclear), the light of God's power when he reverses the fortunes of his people. – Joseph McHugh

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Oh, surprise, the church is quarrelling! And the apostle, who preached to bring the followers of Jesus together in Corinth, is not pleased.  

In a city. . . divided along philosophical lines (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans), Paul understood the church to be a community. Paul was sent “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” The divisions in the church can do exactly that: empty the cross of its meaning.

Paradoxically, power is found where least expected—in the powerlessness of the crucified one. Where human thinking sees only foolishness, the believer finds the true wisdom of God. – Joseph McHugh

Pay special attention to vs. 17 and ponder what Paul means in terms of the preachers’ task. The preaching he did was never intended to be “eloquent wisdom,” he says. He did not want “eloquence” to overshadow the cross? How could it? Is he speaking of fancy flourishes, exacting use of Greek rhetorical devices, manipulative emotive language, focus on himself as a star preacher, something else?

Is he saying attention to himself can actually diminish the cross’s power? The church’s purpose can, indeed, become distorted by the glamor of a preacher. That charisma, charm, suave demeanor can take our eyes away from the cross and the power of a love that chose to die in order to bring forth life. The foolishness of the cross is revealed to be the wisdom preachers are called to nourish in the hearts and minds of the assembly. 

Joseph McHugh is a freelance writer who writes on scripture and other religious topics.

John Paul Salay is Loyola University’s Minister of Liturgy and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 121-130.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Lessons from Congregations Struggling with Liturgical Change

Stephen Ellingson, author of The Megachurch and the Mainline (Univ of Chicago, 2007), studied for three years the effects of worship changes made in nine churches in California’s Bay Area.  
The trouble at Good Shepherd Lutheran began when the newly hired minister of worship and music introduced a new worship service during the most well-attended late morning service time one fall Sunday. The “Blessing of Life Service” did not follow the structure of the Lutheran liturgy, nor did its content reflect the theological language or commitments of Lutheranism. Instead, it was imbued with the language of Buddhism or, in the minds of some members, New Age spirituality. During the service I saw confusion and then anger on the faces of those around me in the pews and they voiced their displeasure quite loudly during the next week. In response, the clergy relegated the Blessing service to an experimental third service time slot, but they continued to experiment with worship over the course of the next year. They rewrote elements of the liturgy and dropped others, and they organized a series of dinners, small-group meetings, and weekly columns in the congregational newsletter to explain and win support for their efforts to remake worship. The clergy wanted worship to become accessible to a general population (few of whom were Lutheran), to become more authentically true to the message of Jesus, and to cultivate a deeper, more authentic faith. These efforts did little to appease a small, vocal, but congregationally powerful group who would eventually organize protests at church council meetings, circulate a petition that demanded a return to traditional Lutheran worship, and request the bishop assess the theological fitness of the senior minister. The latter turned into a months-long heresy trial, and I can still hear the anger, sorrow, and confusion in a parishioner’s voice when she said at one of the meetings: “The first Sunday with the new service there was no Lord’s Prayer or creed. I began to wonder where I was …. Without the creed, who are we?” She continued by describing what worship should entail––preaching based on the Bible, Holy Communion, and prayer––and sneeringly labeled the new style of worship “entertainment.” She concluded by declaring: “It [the new service] didn’t give you a feeling of being in the sanctuary of God, being able to worship God, and get something out of the service. I got absolutely nothing out of the service. Nothing.”
 Eventually the bishop declared the minister to be theologically sound, which prompted nearly 200 members to leave the church. . . .
Ellingson concluded his research with four insights into this difficult shift in our churches’ worship. Here they are simply named.
First, worship plays a central role in helping individuals cultivate their religious identities. Second, worship is anchored in tradition but that anchoring may be partial or contested, which may create problems for congregations as they attempt to alter worship. Third, clergy and laity may bring different expectations and understandings about worship when they enter the sanctuary. These conflicting expectations and understandings are often at the root of worship wars. Finally, changing worship is a delicate, even perilous task that must be managed with great care.
Look for the next installment of this essay to learn more of the details uncovered by his research.

Stephen Ellingson, “Why Worship Matters: Lessons from Lutheran Congregations Struggling in a World of Liturgical Change,” Liturgy 32, no. 1 (2017): 32-41.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Lamb of God – 15 January 2017 – Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1:29-42

This text contains several names for Jesus of Nazareth.

The Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God.” In this phrase the word of carries the meaning provided by. The image comes from the fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 53:7ff) and/or from Exodus 12's description of the Passover lamb in Egypt. Unlike all cultic lambs before him, Jesus actually takes away our sins. . . .

Andrew and another disciple move from John to Jesus, whom they address as “Rabbi.” But after listening to him, they decide Jesus is the Messiah. Andrew announces the good news to his brother Peter.

No attempt should be made to reconcile this account with that of the Synoptics in which Peter, Andrew, James and John follow Jesus without any introduction. The focus here is on the Baptist's ministry of witness. – Joseph McHugh

In addition to the names Lamb of God, Rabbi, and Messiah, biblical witness also has brought us to assign the name Suffering Servant to the Christ, linking his life, death, and resurrection with the one described by the Prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah 49:1-7

The Servant, representative of the remnant of faithful Israel, speaks to us today. His commission was to renew God's people, “to bring back Jacob to him” (v 5). The remnant (“survivors” in v 6) will experience freedom, but also embrace the obligation of bringing the message of the love of the true God to all the nations. . . .

This is also the mission of the church. We should not be surprised that many will reject the message of salvation. Our society also has its false gods of power and money. Many will not respond warmly to the Gospel message. Nonetheless, we, as servants of the Lord, must proclaim his message, else how will salvation reach “to the ends of the earth?” – Joseph McHugh

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Whether you call it evangelization, witnessing, or testifying, today's readings speak about proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to others. . . . The invitation is simple: “Come and see!”

John the Baptizer said, “'I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.' The next day… he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ ” (1:34, 36). John saw the Spirit descend on his relative Jesus when he was baptized. John heard God's voice thundering from heaven calling Jesus God's Beloved Son. John saw and heard, and then he spoke. That is what witnesses do. In a courtroom, witnesses are not called to convince the jury of anything. That is the lawyers' job. Witnesses are not called to condemn or pardon people. That is the judge's job. Witnesses are simply called to tell people what they saw and heard.

Like John the Baptizer and any other witness, we are called to tell people what we have seen and heard. . . . We have seen the Spirit's work in our own lives and have heard God's word to us. This started at our own baptism. While many of us cannot remember that event, we can speak about how the Spirit has led us from our infancy and how God's word has touched our lives, comforting and challenging us along our own personal spiritual journey. . . . All we need to do is speak about these things to others, just as John told others what he saw and heard.  – John Paul Salay

Joseph McHugh is a freelance writer who writes on scripture and other religious topics.

John Paul Salay is Loyola University’s Minister of Liturgy and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Homily Service 41, no. 1 (2007): 111-120.