Masks, Broken Hearts and Worship
| John 2:13-22
||Sun, March 26, 2000
|John 2:13-22. Anger. Rage even. Though it is rather tempting to linger exclusively on the radical act of Jesus in these verses, the same text calls us to name and overturn the hypocritical tables of our own religious lives, our own dealings with others, and even our own worshipping community. Today, I want to share with you another experience I had, which in the beginning I would not have named a ‘worship experience’ but have come to realize that it was and is worship. This experience has led me to begin to question what would be Jesus’ mandate for us, here at Uhill and as the overall ‘body of Christ’ (which includes all who worship everywhere): “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a __________.” What would be the things that Jesus would drive out of the church? Our church? What would be the things that Jesus would scatter? What would be the things that Jesus would overturn if he were here today? With this in mind, allow me to share this with you.
The dark night of the soul has been broken by hope. An older and dilapidated community center is overflowing with care and compassion. Ripped and faded jeans reflect the reality of broken-ness that chooses not to be hidden. A group of people mull around outside smoking. It is 7:55pm, as the community gathers on hard wooden chairs, a celebration is about to begin. I had the privilege of being present at a friend’s first year cake at her Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting a few weeks back. I had been in the process of finishing an assignment for my worship class prior to attending the function in the evening and yet somehow this did not happen. As a result of this strange and mystifying experience, I found myself writing at 4:51am puzzled by the transcendence that I felt at the Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting. Maybe it is because I had had too much caffeine last night and being unable to sleep, I had tossed and turned all the while thinking of the events of the evening. And yet, even my dreams up until that point in the morning seemed to focus on the events of the previous evening. Maybe it is because as I watched her describe her journey, as a Christian, living a life as an alcoholic covering up her ‘sin’ and ‘broken-ness’, I wondered whether my own father, who is very much an alcoholic, would ever have the ability to do the same thing. Maybe, just maybe it is because of this event that I have discovered my own struggle is with the church, particularly as a worshipping community…as I was sitting in a room full of broken people. (Little did I know how powerful the actions and words of Jesus in John 2:13-22 would be for me. Maybe, just maybe, we become so used to our own ‘hypocritical tables’ that they become part of our experience…)
I came away from this experience feeling refreshed and renewed. I had been in the presence of people who were broken and they knew it. They held their heads up high as they proclaimed “My name is _________ and I am an alcoholic.” To which all would reply “Hello ________.” Many of the testimonies that followed this rather vulnerable opening were reflections on each persons’ own sense of broken-ness and knowledge that they, themselves, could not change without the help of a higher power. The reality of their situation left them, and myself, with the acknowledgement that it is by the grace of God that we are healed.
It is this ability to be real that I have found most lacking in my own church worship experience. Humbly, I realize that I, too, am a part of the problem. If only our worship services would incorporate this introduction. When each person gets up to the microphone, they would say, “Hello, my name is __________ and I am a sinner.” As it is my sin that held Christ to the cross. As it is my sin that leads me to church on Sunday. As it should be. As it is not in a great many of our worship settings today. How judgmental of me, you might be thinking. How can I proclaim this ‘judgement’ on so many that I have not personally seen? Something in my heart of hearts tells me that this is so. I always heard and was told as a child that we were to wear our very best to church as we were entering the house of God. The people attending the Alcoholic’s Anonymous meeting were not wearing their ‘best’ and yet they had come with something far more valuable in the eyes of God – broken and contrite spirits. Maybe we should be less concerned about how we present ourselves to each other and more concerned with how we present ourselves to God.
I left the Sumas First Nations Alcoholics Anonymous meeting last night with the knowledge that I had been in the presence of Almighty God. This was shocking for me. Where were the copies of Voices United, the organ music, the sermon and the Lord’s Prayer? Despite these missing elements, seldom in my twenty years of being a Christian have I left church feeling or reflecting the same way. Oh, I have left feeling good from having sung an enthusiastic rendition of “Amazing Grace” or convicted of the need to change my lifestyle. That evening, I left assured of my broken-ness and assured that God alone could and would fill my broken-ness. Maybe this is because I, too, have felt the effects of alcohol within my life. Maybe, just maybe, it is because this is how it should be. When asked about how I felt about the evening, I commented that it was fantastic. This seemed to shock one of the other Christians that had attended with me. I am imagining now that this was in part due to how overwhelmed I felt by how ‘real’ the people in that hall were this evening; a ‘realness’ that I seldom see at church.
I think that this is one of the reasons that the United Church of Canada has become so dear to me is that journeying here with you at University Hill Congregation, we seem to have an awareness of our sin, our broken-ness and our desperate need for God. Maybe one of the reasons for this realization has in part been because of the current National church disregard for ‘sin’ and its’ consequences. Having experienced a theology that seems to deny these passions of the human soul, I believe that we have become diligent in our search for God. Worshipping here, hearing the thoughtful prayers and reflections spoken on a regular basis, I have come to realize that I need God. I need God. I hunger for God. I must know God. These seem to be the passions of the psalmist in his writings, and yet far too often in our churches or worship services, this is not reflected. How on earth did we get so pious to imagine that we were so good? Ultimately, our piety will lead to our death. As we face a broken world that does not realize that it is broken, or worse yet, does realize that it is broken and is in search for something more, something more beyond itself, will we continue to allow our piety, which is strangely enough reflected in our worship services, to keep people from the cross – the place of ultimate broken-ness where they will be healed? I must admit that this question leaves me feeling disturbed. Isn’t that at least part of what Jesus was getting at when he said to those who sold doves “Get these out of here. How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” Further, how dare you take the focus off the ultimate reason for why we come to worship – God.
The brother of my friend spoke for her that evening – he has been a pastor for the last ten years, a very uptight fellow. As he introduced himself, he threw in that he was clergy. After that, he went on to say that he and his family loved his sister regardless of whether she was drinking or not, but were profoundly happy that she had stopped. It was also remarked that he, (like another sister who spoke earlier), did not know of his sister’s problem with alcohol. Is it that we do not know about the broken-ness of the world, because we have failed to embrace and acknowledge that broken-ness in ourselves? Is this that simplistic and yet so profound? Ultimately, the truth, though he may have failed to realize it, is that we are all broken – admittingly his sister’s broken-ness was on display for the evening. Yet, he and I and everyone else in that room, regardless of whether we were alcoholics or not, are broken. Just as here today, regardless of if we realize it or not, we too are broken. Just as in when Jesus’ cleared the temple, they were broken.
As I approach the end of my 18th year of being a Christian, of being aware of my broken-ness and my need for Christ (oddly overly aware ), where in my journey do I place a cake or some other marker of the importance of my decision? As a community, when do we celebrate our spiritual birthdays – the most important day of our lives? One of my mother’s best friends is also celebrating her 14th year of being free from drinking alcohol a few weekends ago. As she does this, she will continue to label herself as an alcoholic. As I attempt to keep from sinning, it would be helpful for me to take on this same position…I am still, very much, a sinner. We are all still very much sinners. This is our common bond. This is the reason why we come. Not primarily because it is something we have always done, not primarily because there will be fellowship there – but because we cannot make it without God – we must celebrate what God has done for us. We must worship God “in spirit and in truth.” In the midst of our struggle, God has reached out to us. We come because without God we would never make it. My friend told me that she attends Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings sometimes three and four times a week to be amongst other ‘saints’ who realize that they, on their own, are powerless against their addictions. As a church, our addiction is that we are powerless against sin. When we meet, it should be because this is the ultimate reason. We are powerless without the redemptive act of the cross. (Ironically, this is how our passage ends today – with a reference to the cross.) It should all begin here. To end, it might be helpful to look at the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr…and then again at John, only a few verses past our reading.
GOD, grant me the
to accept the things
I cannot change
to change the
things I can
to know the difference.
(Alcoholic’s Anonymous stops here but we as the church should continue.)
Living ONE DAY AT A TIME;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as the
pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this
sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make
all things right if I
surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy
in this life, and supremely
happy with Him forever in
“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man's testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.”
1 Name left intentionally blank. The mandate of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is for complete confidentiality. Ironically, at the same time, it provides a safe place for those who are needy. This is unlike the church where we are mainly unable to share our deepest concerns as not to invade the comfort zone of those around us. If you choose to share at an AA meeting, there are not levels of intimacy that must be adhered to.
2 As it states in Step Three of the Big Book - ‘Many of us said to our Maker, as we understood Him: "God, I offer myself to Thee -- to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”’ Or further along - "My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen."
3 This does not mean that the congregation at University Hill is not without their own faults and difficulties. Our hope is that within our own struggle after God, we too, will be changed.
4 I am wondering if there are times when our over-awareness of our sin leads to ‘legalism’.
5 John 4:23