Monday, February 18, 2008

Christian Innovations, Bad and Good

While I was traveling and using my mobile phone as my window to the Internet, Locusts & Honey posted a list of the worst worship innovations. Some of the lowlights of the list, including contributions from readers, included the following:

Liturgical poledancing
French Kiss of Peace
Plucking out eyes
The baptismal super soaker for kids!
Hot ashes for Ash Wednesday.

And my favorite:

Speed Lent (based on Speed Dating.)

Combining Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter, all in one hour.

Hey, for some people, getting rid of Lent in time for lunch would be ideal.

While I posted my suggestion, in retrospect I could have posted another one. Back when I was still a member of a United Methodist church, several of us decided to decry church commercialism as part of a talent show. My contribution was a fake "Wesleyan Church Punch Mix" commercial, modeled upon the Bartles & Jaymes commercials that were popular at the time. (Originally I wanted to hawk "Wesleyan Wine Coolers," until one of the pastors pointed out that such a commercial would not be appropriate, considering the Wesleyan emphasis on abstinence.)

But while some of the modern innovations haven't necessarily benefited the church, the fact that sermons can be shared online HAS helped a great deal. Mark Daniels posts his sermons online, and since I couldn't make it to my regular second church in Henderson, Nevada, the fact that Daniels' latest sermon could be read on my phone was a nice touch.

Here's how Daniels started his sermon:

It was a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer some twenty years ago. I was then the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona, Ohio. I was looking forward to going home, getting a bite to eat, and then doing some hospital visits before returning home to finish getting ready for Sunday morning.

The church telephone rang. “Hello,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “Is this the pastor?” After I assured the enthusiastic-sounding man that I was, he began, “You don’t know me. But, my name is Joe Gerken. I used to go to that church when I was a little boy and my ancestors were among the founding members there.”

“I see,” I said, trying to sound interested, wondering what this guy had up his sleeve. “Well,” he said, “my fiancĂ© and I want to get married….” Pause. “And we’ve decided that you should be the one to perform the ceremony right there at Bethlehem!”

Joe Gerken spoke these words to me as though he was announcing that Bethlehem and I had won the lottery! Just imagine it, he seemed to be saying, of all the churches and pastors in the world, you are the ones privileged to have our wedding.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm and asked Joe Gerken, “When would you and your fiancĂ© like to be married?” “Tomorrow!” he said, now taking on the tone of one of those infomercial announcers who say, “Act now!”

When I explained to Joe that that wouldn’t be possible and that I didn’t know of any responsible pastor who would perform their wedding on such short notice, he was shocked. He, after all, was Joe Gerken, descendant of a founding family of the parish! He seemed to think that I should feel privileged that he had picked us for his wedding day.

So how did Daniels tie that story into his sermon on John 3?

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man named Nicodemus visits Jesus. I think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Jews, a renowned ruler of his faith. Nicodemus truly did enjoy the sort of high status among religious folks that Joe Gerken thought he could expect from the pastor and people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Okolona, Ohio.

But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, his mouth full of syrupy words of flattery, amazingly treating Jesus as his equal, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to the unwashed masses who hang on His every word. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says.

In my home church, the junior high students who are going through confirmation have to file reports on every sermon, and need to identify the three major points in each sermon. They would have loved Daniels, who made their job easy:

Point one: There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God gives through Jesus.

Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. It is pure gift.

Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom. We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.

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