Mini-Rant from an otherwise Happy Rector – Religious Services for Sale

So, it was another of those “Would you please do my wedding?” phone calls from total strangers.  We all get them.  Weddings are easier than out-of-the-blue baptism requests, usually from grandparents.  My staff knows how I hate them, and they also know that I will want to talk to them.  It is a sincere request, if misguided.  I am relieved to say that my staff recognizes them as misguided.

The request is usually for religious services.  “We want to get married in a church.”  Which is usually, almost always, followed by a “but we don’t have one of our own.”  There is almost always the “we would definitely come here if we could” which always has a “but . . . ” following it.  Unconnected.  No desire for the lifestyle or the work.  Just a little Jesus icing on our cake, please.

Okay, I get it.  You have some deep desire for something, and this moment in your life is so important that your normally easy to ignore longing has become something of a social need.  You recognize that you should do something holy.  And I am a little gratified that you turned to an actual religion rather than your agnostic uncle or that other group down the road, which I won’t admit that I hold in disdain, but I do.  I am glad that our sanctuary is attractive to you, and that your grandparents or great-grandparents darkened the door once during the Great Depression, or was it the Civil War?

But seriously, sometimes I envy Hare Krishnas.  They are enough of a cultural oddity that I cannot imagine that they get the regular attractive couple walk-throughs.  I can’t imagine one of those perfect glowing couples taking pictures of Ganesha statues and saying “This would be just perfect.”  I mean, I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure most of the couples I talk to on walk-throughs wouldn’t recognize the difference between a lotus-sitting Elephant-faced representation of the Brahmin and the empty cross.

We aren’t actually a faith for most of them; we are a store for religious services.  Those services don’t have any content or context that really matters to the happy couple.  There is generally no more understanding of the sacrament than most college freshmen have of the Tibetan prayer flags they bought at the local patchouli-smelling shop-of-all-faiths to show that they were no longer bound by the church their parents never made them attend in the first place.  (Subtract ten points if bought at Urban Outfitters.)  I am the Mary-is-my-Homegirl t-shirt worn to a family reunion at most weddings.

I hate these requests.  I hate them because they are frequent and fairly consistent, but frustrating because they sometimes hide a real search for something more and maybe even a sincere turn to a real faith.  But not usually.

In Tucson, in a church where I could count 19 crucifixes from my seat on Sunday, in an office surrounded by my collection of empty crosses, a young woman with a wedding binder in her lap after four sessions of pre-marital counseling announced that we wouldn’t be mentioning Jesus at the wedding.  God was okay twice, but many of her friends were not religious and neither was she, and she certainly did not want to offend them.  I thought it was a joke at first.  I was wearing all black except for my bright white collar.  Her wedding was less than two weeks away.  The groom just mouthed, “I’m sorry.”

I really thought that this would be a great story, an anomaly that would serve as this great outlier in a life of ministry.  But it is only the epitome of the religious services shopping that I have struggled with for twenty years.  It gets worse as your sanctuary gets more beautiful.  “This would be so perfect in our pictures.”

I am not a shopkeeper with religious wares to sell.  I am not a witch-doctor.  Our sanctuary is a place of worship of the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and known in the Holy Spirit abiding with us.  It is not a third-space for sell.  This isn’t a business; it is a community of faith.  I am a servant of that community.  We follow Jesus, which makes great demands on us about how we live, how we love, and how we do things.  Our services are really for those who are part of that faith community, who are committed to this life of royal priesthood, of discipleship.  They don’t make a lot of sense outside of that community.

My hope is that how we live, love, and do things reflects well the teachings of Jesus and our commitment to him.

If we are a royal priesthood, how should we relate to the the walk-through couples?  What should we offer to them?  Are our sacraments something we offer for sale?  For free?  For anyone? How do we express the free love and grace of God to the world?

I am sure of a few things after the last couple of decades.  Weddings are perhaps the least effective way to get couples into church.  There are a few exceptional couples, but they are usually clear after the first meeting.  Baptisms without formation are a close second in the least effective ways to share the faith.  Funerals work, but often they have a very different feel in terms of the relationship to who we are, although I have spread a little Jesus icing on some funeral cakes, for sure.

I am sure that it could be lucrative for a church to turn itself out like a cheap wedding whore.  I see it sometimes on the front page of church websites, like a Craigslist ad for religious services like dating a faith community.  Is that too strong?

It sells out everything we stand for to offer weddings for sale like that.  It destroys the holy community doing ministry in exchange for the holy clergy doing religious stuff for money, shopkeepers and whoredom.  But I could maybe be persuaded.

I am sure that it is good financially for priests to whore out our services.  Sorry, I mean to sell our sacraments.  No, I mean to share the gospel in these holy-ish moments.  Forget it.  I have done too much of this.  I am the guilty one.  I love weddings and baptisms, and I really love funerals.  I love articulating how God is at work in the lives of people and naming the work of grace in these liturgical moments when communities of otherwise pretty secular families and neighbors actually come together to do something approaching holy.  But I am not doing that for strangers usually.

These weddings are not disciples promising to live out the Gospel and Rule of God in relationship with their spouse.  These baptisms are not honest vows of raising a child within the Gospel and Rule of God, keeping the apostles teaching and fellowship, much less rejecting Satan and evil or respecting the dignity of every human life.

At least at funerals I can do what I really think a royal priesthood does at funerals, tracing out the traces and places of grace and wisdom where God has been at work in this all-too-human life.

So I tell one couple yes, and I spend a lot of time using their wedding preparation as a chance to offer them training in the Gospel and Rule of God, and I tell one couple no because I just don’t think they want more than icing.  But then I am not very good at this priesthood business.

This nails it:  The BAD VICAR. Some of us watch in humored horror, and some of us watch in envy.

Why Your Funeral Should be at the Church

and what the Church’s Job Is

This past week we buried a family member; this week we will continue to bury the homeless and homely, the rich and the wonderful saints of God.  I have done and do funerals as part of my work as a priest, but occasionally as a family member or friend I sit in the pews, and this shifts my perception.  This week left me rung like an iron bell.

This week left me sure that a good explanation of what we are doing in a funeral and why you should have one in a church are necessary, not least because we gave a Christian burial to someone who was never really a Christian, but a good human being, and I am not sure anyone there really could say why we were there.

from Whitby Abbey

from Whitby Abbey

The Exposition (Where the author takes a long time to lay the groundwork for something more interesting.)

Jesus was the Son of God, according to what we believe, right? So he comes to inaugurate and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God, or Rule of God.  That Rule is already present in heaven, hence why we pray, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is the will of God lived out.

What is the will of God? That we live as we were intended from the beginning of Creation, as God’s image bearers, the children of God.  We were to incarnate the love and care of God for the creation, and one another in companionship.  That went wrong right from the beginning, as the nightly news attests, it still goes wrong.

We are made to be God’s stewards of creation.  We were made for companionship and cooperation.  But we go grasping after power and knowledge.  This is clearly part of our nature.  The story may be Scripture but it is also an accurate description of the human condition and growth.  And just like in the Bible, we are not forsaken as we leave the Garden, but we have to find new ways of relating to God and each other.  Law is introduced after failure.

Law is supposed to reveal a larger picture, a vision of God, humanity and creation.  But we get stuck.  We have to be born again, in Jesus’ words from John.  We have to begin again in relationship to God, our separation forgiven and redeemed, set free from the bondages we inherit.  As we get set free, we become full human beings.

I grew up with the need for salvation, but not much beyond that.  This is the interesting part to me.  We get set free, or brought up in freedom if we are blessed enough to be brought up inside the Rule of God.  We get to begin again in new relationship with God.  Now we are not newborns.  We begin again with our now shaped brains and bodies, souls and habits.  We have to learn how to live as human beings in relationship to God.  We have to learn how to take care of the creation and how to love each other.

It is sad that after almost two thousand years, we still get so inspired by Paul’s and Peter’s and James’s letters.  You would think that we would keep growing up, but that too is part of the story.  In those letters we learn how they taught these new people to live into this new reality.

The Rule of God is a way of talking about the reality that God’s way is revealed in Jesus.  God’s character is love and care, and God’s vision is a healthy creation and humanity that lives in right relationship to each other.  You can see this in the Law of the Hebrew scriptures that we call the Old Testament.

The idea of God’s Rule came to be located then in the Temple in Jerusalem. That created the classical problem of the location becoming the point, rather than the reality the location represents.

So Jesus is said to be the new Temple, see the anonymous letter to the Hebrews.  He brokers God’s forgiveness and blessing, healing and restoration in his miracles.  He incarnates God as the Temple had.  The Spirit descends on him at his baptism, just as the presence of God had on the Temple.

The Gospels then have Jesus breathe on his disciples (John) passing the Spirit on to them, or sending his Spirit on them (Luke), or appearing to them to give them his blessing and authority (Matthew) telling them to go and make disciples, baptizing them into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This authority is sometimes called the name or the peace of Jesus or his disciples.

The disciples become the temple: brokers of forgiveness, blessing, healing and redemption.  This is the most missed turn in the New Testament by believers.  We are supposed to do what Jesus did.  Every Gospel, every letter, every thing in the New Covenant is leading to this.  As a restored humanity, we become Jesus’ body in the world.  We incarnate God.

Paul puts this beautifully in one of the passages from Romans that we read at funerals. “The world waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In the New Testament, there is no ordained priesthood.  The word that gets appropriated as “priest” in our tradition is really presbyter or “elder.”  The priest or high priest refers to Jesus and then to the church community.

We are a royal priesthood: royal because we are God’s children and heirs, priesthood because now we stand between God and humanity.  We represent God to the world and the world to God.

The Point (Where if one knows the author’s theology well, one should begin to read with some attention again.)

So it is appropriate and right for the church to bury people as an act of offering their life to the God who will receive them.  As the priesthood, we are to love as God loves and embody the grace (forgiving and redeeming love that is not earned) to the world, especially at the moments of life and death.

We should be crying out to God for grace and mercy, as the prayers of our services do, and we should be crying out to the families and friends of the deceased to not wait to receive this grace and mercy because it is available right now.  Be set free and born new to begin again and join in the freedom and life of the believer!  But also, O God, receive a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

I sat in the pew this week and was a little put off that the priest in charge had chosen to wear purple-black velvet vestments, a shroud of mourning worship.  But I was also shocked that he buried the deceased as a Christian, when his life was never put under the Rule of God.  There was appropriate mourning for a life cut short by bondage and addiction to drugs.  There was appropriate celebration of the signs of his humanity, a loving kindness from the depths of his being.

The priest proclaimed both mourning and hope in his sermon.  I was impressed by his willingness to tell the truth in front of people who don’t love truth.

But that is why we have funerals.  We offer our lives and our loved ones up to the God who made them, loved them, and loves them.  A God of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  But we are remiss when we don’t offer people that grace and love in this life, before they die.  So the funeral has to be both worship and an act of love, even when love demands that we tell the truth.

You should have a funeral.  It is not an act of hubris but humility.  Our lives get placed under the story of creation, fall, and redemption.  We get held up to the one who made us, loves us, and before whom we will all stand one day, for judgement and a meal (see Isaiah and Revelation).

Your funeral should be at the church.  We are the people of God, even if we suck at it, which we do pretty often.  God set us free and made us new, but God still left us human beings.   We will probably mess something up.  But we will stand with your loved ones and hold them up and love them, no matter what.  We will love you too, in our imperfect way.  And we will offer your life to God.

I hope you don’t wait until the last day or later to run to grace and mercy, forgiveness and healing.  If you do we will be waiting with open arms and really good music.  But oh that you would find grace and mercy now.

It takes a while to unlearn the habits of a lifetime, many of us exhibit this in clear ways.  We are all still working out issues.  That is why we make such vows in our baptism.  It takes work to live in the church with other Christians.  But we are a committed lot.  We are still, after two thousand years, working out all that loving God, our neighbor, and our selves means, much less caring for the creation.  But we keep at it.  Join us.  We need you.

The Rule of God is your home.  You were born to be God’s child.  Everyone comes home eventually.  Don’t wait.

Take your place at the table, and taste the feast today.  Think about it.  God loves you and wants you to be the you that you are.  God knows you.  And God loves you.  This was Jesus’s message, and now it is ours.