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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Service and Participation (A31O)

My mind and heart are full of thoughts about service and participation this week as I prepare to give the reflection at all the masses this weekend for our liturgical ministry fair, and then to speak later this month in London, Ontario, at King's College at the University of Western Ontario about participation, particularly in song, as an act of faith and conversion. There is a lot to be said about all that, of course. What I'm hoping is to say some of it in a comprehensible and true way, with a beginning and a middle and an end. It will be slightly easier when I can speak for 45 or 50 minutes on the topic; less so this weekend when I want to restrict myself to less than ten minutes speaking time. 

I know that the first reading and gospel offer to any preacher of the word a wonderful opening into the paschal mystery that offers to us a God who tells us, in Jesus, that "whoever would be greatest among you must serve the rest." This can only be true, of course, if it is true of God, so we must somehow try to imagine that God, rather than ordering the universe through fiat and command, does so through the gentle persuasion of love and sacrifice, of somehow serving creation, being at our service, as the story of Jesus, who is "the image of the unseen God," reveals to us in faith.

The contrast between this beautiful reality, which we know to be true through our experience of people whose humility and simplicity in servant leadership have called out our very best through the years, and the image painted of spiritual leadership in the texts from Malachi and the contentious chapters of Matthew that lead up to the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus, couldn't be starker. With language borrowed from vassal state covenants learned from their Babylonian and Assyrian masters, the prophet speaks on behalf of the "great King" who is displeased with his priests:
O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen,
if you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the LORD of hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one father?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with one another,
violating the covenant of our fathers?
Neither is Jesus pleased with the Jerusalem leadership of the Jews, whom he praises, one must speculate, for their teaching ("observe all things whatsoever they tell you") while excoriating their behavior ("but do not follow their example.")
...For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
The context of all this is the rivalry between Christian Jews and traditional Jews in the community to which the author of Matthew belonged, and it's not pretty, especially the violent rhetoric ascribed to Jesus. The condemnation of the actions of the leadership is set up as an example of how to not to act in the Christian community. Christians aren't to say one thing and do another. Integrity is to be the rule. Humility, honesty of character, should mark the Christian believer. Then we hear that line that rings across all the synoptics in several forms: "The greatest among you must be your servant."

One might be tempted to go after certain corners of church leadership, following Malachi's diatribe against the corrupt priesthood and Jesus's portrayal of the temple leadership. But the "bad news" for us Christians is that we are all called to same integrity. In the eyes of the Church, we are a "royal priesthood" of Christ, all of us baptized into the one priesthood of Jesus. We are all called to the same
high standard of behavioral integrity, to "preach the gospel," as St. Francis is reported to have taught his Little Friars, "with words if necessary." Nobody's off the hook. The good news is we can all stop competing to get to the top of the heap, we can stop losing sleep over our career path. Instead of striving to get higher, we need to learn how to bend lower, but with a purpose: that of serving those who need our help.

In the church like in all of life, the shape of our service is the shape of the impact our gifts can have upon communal need. Service in the liturgy is a sacrament of service outside the liturgy. In our lives, based upon our talents and passions, we try to match those positive energies to the needs of those who have other gifts. I'm a songwriter, for instance; that's one of my talents. What am I supposed to do with that? Well, strange as it seems, people seem to need music for all kinds of reasons, all kinds of reasons having to do with emotional support, creating meaning, and making memory. Not everybody can write songs. I can do what I do, and fill in a hole in what's needed by other people. The same goes for playing them; and for empowering other people to join together to sing. That is a real need. That other people do what I do better than I do, or reach a wider audience, or do so in different genres, it doesn't matter.

So all of us in the church are called to be who we are for the purpose of transforming the world, of "lifting up those who are bowed down," which is what God does, of protecting the weak and reconciling differences among people, which is what God does. We are called by God in our baptism to be facilitators of unity, peace, and reconciliation, with a special love for those without easy access to opportunity and resources.

Liturgy is kind of an act of intentional remembering for the purpose of arousing thanksgiving in mind and action, and also a physical acting-out or rehearsal of a grateful response. We remember who God is, what God has done in Christ through the Holy Spirit for us and for our world, and we set about acting in a way that allows God to act through us. We greet one another, friend, family and stranger alike, as beloved sisters and brothers; we announce and respond to God's word, we sing God's word, we sing memory and forgiveness and thanksgiving and love songs to God; we feed one another from God's table with living bread, the living self-gift that is Jesus Christ in his mystical body; we collect gifts of money for the use of the church and offer them with ourselves and Christ at the altar. Into that apparently mere ritual are folded the other 167 hours of the week, hours filled with caring for one another, especially sick family members, aging parents, volunteering at PADS sites, food pantries, and resale shops; big and little acts of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. All of it a mosaic of people using their gifts to serve the needs of others, with an eye to lifting up the lowly. All of it practice in bowing down, in service to one another. Which is what God does.

Participation in liturgy is a sacrament of participation in life. The more conscious, the more fully aware and active participation in liturgy is, the richer the experience is, just as the experience of all of life is enriched by reflection and gratitude. That's what I'm going to try to tell people at St. Anne this weekend when I'm inviting them to consider participating in liturgical ministry, if it's their time, and if they're feeling the call to do so. I know that there is a need. I believe in the church, and that this is the way the Holy Spirit leads and organizes the church, by relating gift to need. Then I hope I'll be able to relate this entire experience and my own career in music and songwriting as a microcosm of the Spirit's miraculous work in my talk at King's College.

The gospel and tradition of the church calls us to integrity in humility: what we say and do matters. Our deeds need to match our words. The word this weekend is, Do not strive for glory as ministers for God. Instead, become great by going lower, by becoming a servant. That's what God does in Christ, and no servant is greater than the master. We have one master: Christ the servant.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week:

Gathering: Psalm 23 (Conry)
Psalm 131 My Soul Is Longing for Your Peace (Deiss)
Alleluia - Mass of St Aidan
Gifts: To You Who Bow
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Joy and Peace (Alonso)
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd
Closing: Canticle of the Turning