Summary: The church is for far more than empty ceremony on occasions demanded by tradition; it is the steward of new life, with a rich and full experience that employs the diversity of gifts God has given it.
Last week you seemed to get a big charge out of my little story about going to a wedding rehearsal and wasting time waiting for a key person to arrive. When I said that I didn’t know what we’d do on Sunday afternoon if he didn’t show up, you let out a belly laugh. You assumed I was talking about the groom.
Actually, I was not. I was talking about the rabbi. This was an interfaith wedding, with a Baptist bride and a Jewish groom. You will be relieved to know that the rabbi did show up, so did everybody else, and the wedding went off well.
But I learned that there was something else missing on this occasion. I learned that something else was not in place. The bride was there, the groom was there, the minister and the rabbi did their things. The organist played, the soloist sang, the trumpeter trumped, the mothers wept and the fathers added up the bills. Everything was in place, except for one thing – there was no congregation. There was no community surrounding this young couple. Their families were there, and a few close friends, but the chapel was nearly empty. A vast, beautifully kept space, but nearly empty.
In fact, I learned that that’s the rule in that space. We were at the Chapel on the grounds of the Naval Security Station at Ward Circle. A lovely place, originally built for Mt. Vernon College. But I was told that there was no worshipping congregation in this chapel. No one comes there on Sunday mornings, no chaplain serves the base, no spiritual nurture goes on there. It is for ceremonial use only – for weddings, for funerals, for retirements. People come to the Navy Chapel for rituals, but there is no community there to love it, to cherish it, to make it alive with the sound of children’s laughter or the weeping of souls in anguish. It’s just a place of ritual. Otherwise, it’s dead. Dry and dead.
Some folks think of all churches in those terms. Ceremonial, ritual, performance. In fact, we have a term for it in ministerial circles. Pastors speak about how we are expected to be up and running when people hatch, match, or dispatch. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The great ritual moments of life. People expect the church to be ready when they hatch, match, or dispatch. But I tell you, all those rituals are empty of power if they are not done in a vital community of God’s people. All of these are empty ceremony unless they are set in the midst of a people who are about the Lord’s business, and who can see the power of the Lord at work bringing new life.
Take hatching, for instance. When we celebrate a new life, we do it in the setting of the community, because that life is given by God to all of us. Parents bring their baby to promise that they will raise that child in the fellowship of the church. Infant dedications are not magic words said over the baby to give some sort of protection; they are a solemn promise that the parents will raise the child in the arms of the church, and the church promises to embrace the child. New life! Or if it’s the baptism of a new believer, we do that in the setting of public worship, because the person is being baptized in order to demonstrate his witness to the people of God. Except in extreme circumstances, we don’t do private baptisms, because that would be beside the point. Baptism is a public witness. Without that, baptism would be nothing more than empty ritual. The church is about new life and not about mere ceremony. The church is more than hatch, match, and dispatch. The church is a steward of new life.
Or weddings. Matching. I always tell couples that my intention is not to do a wedding ceremony. That gets their attention! I tell them I am not interested in just doing wedding ceremonies! If that’s all they want, get a judge to sign the license and get it over with. But I am interested in helping them make a marriage! We work on marriages rather than just run weddings. Weddings last for a few minutes; marriages are to be built so that they will last for a lifetime. The church is more than ceremony. The church is so much more than hatch, match, and dispatch. The church is a steward of new life.
And even when the end of life comes, and someone wants a funeral service, all too often there is the expectation that the church will fix everything that was broken in this life and will preach the deceased into heaven, saying flowery things, with maudlin poetry and soppy songs. Some of the most unpleasant experiences of my ministry have come when I’ve been asked by one of the local funeral homes to provide a funeral service for someone who had no church connection and whose family is out of touch with all things spiritual. I do my best to point to the source of hope and life, but for the most part I get empty stares and muffled cliches. They just don’t get it, if they’ve never been a part of a spiritual family. The church is about so much more than providing ceremonial proprieties when someone dies. The church is the steward of life. So much more than hatch, match, or dispatch. We are the steward of new life.