The Way We Were

Isaiah 58: 3-8
1 Corinthians 14

 The Way We Were

The picture on the cover of your bulletin is the congregation of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Funkstown, Md.  The year is 1970.  If you have very sharp eyes, you might spot 17-year-old me, standing in the second row on the right with my dad.  My little brother, Ed, is also in the picture, but not on the front-row with all the other little kids.  Evidently, mom had ducked out early to go home and check the pot roast.  My sister, Sally, is also suspiciously absent.

But what is present in the photo are dozens of reminders of the way we were 50 years ago – the way life was, the way church was half a century ago.  Funkstown, MD was a little town; its elementary school had a single class of each grade level.  Yet, the congregation of St. Paul’s was surprisingly large.  And we were not the only church in town!  Fifty-eight young children stand on the front row!  Girls in patent leather shoes; boys in tiny sports coats. Their mothers are all wearing dresses.  Many wear hats.  Every man wears a tie.  Choir practiced on Wednesday evenings.  Youth group met on Sunday night.  It was the same with my friends who attended other churches —  Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian.  Following World War II, church was an American institution, a rite of passage into the Middle Class, a respectable sort of country club that offered men’s and women’s groups, social clubs, dinner parties, youth fellowship, and more.  I don’t recall much emphasis on mission.

Handsome young preachers whose wives taught Sunday School and baked cookies were eager to move into the church parsonage. Their duty would be the spiritual tending of the immediate flock.  In those days, most stores were closed on Sunday, there were no ball games, and even mowing the grass was frowned upon.  The turbulent 60’s – a decade of racial unrest and free love had yet to leave much of a mark on small-town religion.  In Funkstown, church was still about the only game in town.

I do not question the sincerity of most worshippers during the mid 20th century but certainly belonging to a church was a social expectation which offered many perks to those who did.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to be nostalgic about such a time when membership was large and donations strong.  But “the way we were” was not perfect.

The text I chose for this morning is a precious snapshot of another early church — the first-century church of God located at Corinth.   Apparently, the spirit of God was alive and well among the members of this church. But all was not perfect there either.  It’s founder, the apostle Paul, finds himself writing at least two letters to these baby Christians, including today’s passage about “orderly worship.”

Now, before we look at Paul’s message, I want to emphasize very clearly that Paul was writing a letter to a specific people, in a specific time, to address specific problems.  Even though Paul’s words still hold important counsel, Paul had no expectation or presentment that his letters would one day be considered holy scripture and read by generations as though intended for the universal ages.  Bible scholar William Barclay says that, with very few exceptions, “Paul’s letter were written to meet an immediate situation.”   Paul did not sit down in the peace and the silence of his study to write a theological treatise that would stand for the ages.  No, there was something threatening going on in Corinth and he was thinking solely of the people it concerned.

What was going on? What was the trouble in River City?  We’ve discussed this before.  Corinth was, perhaps, the Las Vegas of its day — offering every manner of temptation and vice known to man.  The early church battled evil influences from outside but problems from within, too.  For starters, they didn’t know how to worship.  They had no previous models to copy. Who should do what? when? for how long?  Having a “pastor” or “minister” in charge wasn’t the first-century model.  They functioned more as Quakers do — that is standing up and speaking when led by the spirit.

The problem was that people were speaking in tongues.  In a sort of frenzied ecstasy, they were voicing unintelligible speech which meant something to God but nothing to other people hearing it.  In the early church, speaking in tongues was a much-coveted spiritual gift — unusual and exotic.  The premier gift to have.  Thus it was creating jealousy (and some, Paul suspected, were faking it).  Plus, such outbursts were disruptive.   “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three,” writes Paul, “ take turns and interpret for one another.  But if there is no one to interpret, then for heaven’s sake, keep quiet in church, and speak privately in tongues.”

Paul addresses a second problem:  Men were prophesying–sometimes translated “forth-telling” or preaching or speaking “truth,” but they were doing it all at once — jockeying for attention and talking over top of each other.  “Stop!” Paul counsels, “Let two or three people give their prophecy.  Take turns.  Take time to ponder what has been said. If someone receives an insight or revelation, yield the podium to that person. Take turns.”

And there was yet another problem.  Women.  They were talking –either among themselves or trying to address the congregation. They were not behaving submissively as the law dictated. It was, from Paul’s perspective as a first-century Jew, a shameful thing for a woman to do.

Taken all together, God’s Church at Corinth was rife with problems; their worship must have been like a three-ring circus!  And Paul, from a distance, was trying to be the ring leader of this Big Top! In my NIV translation, this passage is captioned “Orderly Worship.”   and — in fact– that is the unifying idea that Paul writes to convey.  “All things,” says Paul, “should be done decently and in order.”

As Presbyterians, we know all about conducting ourselves decently and in order and have, perhaps, taken it to the extreme. But Paul’s larger objective was not just to produce a carefully scripted service.  No, his goal was that the worship would be (1) instructive and (2) encouraging to all present.  In verse 31, Paul reminds them, “ for you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.

Boy, Paul hits the nail right on the head!  We come together in worship to praise and thank God; but we also come to learn and be encouraged. From the very beginning, worship was to be corporate (with other human beings) and participatory –  Whatever is done in worship should be done to the glory of God and for the participation and benefit of all.

What does that mean?  Participation and benefit of all?   Well, the definition of “all” is much broader than it was 2,000 years ago or even 50 years ago.  When I first took a position at the Board of Education, Debbie Gillespie was Director of Special Education for Mercer County Schools.  Debbie was a good administrator but also an unyielding supporter of full inclusion as dictated by law.  Her students who needed modifications — all of her students from grade 1 – 12– were to be included to the “extent of their ability in the full offerings of the school system.”  At every administrators meeting, Debbie would begin her presentation with the same mantra: “ALL means ALL.”   It meant children with speech and language delays, with sight and hearing deficits, with learning disabilities and behavioral issues.  It also meant those in wheelchairs, in motorized seats, and those on gurneys who could not speak and had no control of body functions.  To the chagrin of some of our principals, Debbie insisted that every student who could walk, ride, or be pushed would attend the concert, the ballet, would go to the picnic, would participate in the pep rally because, she explained,  “ALL meant ALL.”

Thirty years before Debbie Gillespie’s tenure, schools were in the early stages of including special needs children in their curriculum.  Churches in 1970 were even less prepared.  Those who could easily attend church without any accommodation did so; those who could meet the spoken or tacit dress code did so.  Everyone else stayed home.

Let’s look at the cover of your bulletin again. Do you see anyone with a walker?  With a cane?  In a wheelchair? Good thing!  Because there was no way into the sanctuary other than to climb those steps.  Do you see anyone who couldn’t afford to wear a sports coat?  Do you see any black faces?  Anyone whose ethnicity stands out from the others?  Do you see a female pastor? When I was growing up, women could participate on some level in church leadership but, in most denominations, the time had not yet come for women pastors.  And that text we read this morning? — “Women should be silent in church” – has, sadly, been the verse most responsible for keeping them silent.

Granted, the situation in in first century Corinth was very unlike today!  99% of first-century women could not have led worship even if given the chance. They simply were not prepared. They had been denied education, were illiterate, had little experience beyond the home, and were consumed with the exhausting drudgery of running a household. Further, the “law” (both civil and Jewish) assigned second-class citizenship to women, denied them legal rights, and rendered them the property of their husbands and fathers.   But, on the other side of the equation, Paul–though a tireless crusader for God, was nevertheless a man of his time.  Paul’s main concern in this letter to Corinth was ORDER — the orderly worship of the God.  For women to break with law and tradition was not Paul’s idea of orderly worship.

Was Paul a chauvinist?  NO. He was fully aware of Jesus’ open acceptance and inclusion of women in his ministry.  In Paul’s other letters, he himself hales a woman named Tabatha as a Christian disciple; he recognizes Priscilla and her husband Aquila as co-pastors, and Phoebe as a minister (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea.  In Philemon 2: Paul pens a letter to “Apphia, our sister” as a valued leader of a house church.  In scripture after scripture, Paul cites women as partners in Christ — making it clear that his words to the church at Corinth were spoken to that particular situation and not a general pronouncement.

Paul closes this part of his letter with a final sentence:  So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40but all things should be done decently and in order.

Paul’s counsel to the church at Corinth has had a profound influence on the Christian church and on our Presbyterian brand of worship. Our worship is orderly but also active and participatory.  The regular use of lay worship leaders began in the 1970s, along with children’s sermons and other involvement of kids in worship.  Our church relies upon responsive and unison readings, collective singing, spoken needs for prayer.  I frequently engage you in conversation even during the sermon.  We do all this because true worship is the work of the whole people — lay, ordained, men, women, adults and children.  Professor of Worship Ruth Duck says, “The body of Christ is not complete unless everyone can be present and participate fully.  Every church should strive to provide access to the space for worship — with ramps, elevators, space for wheelchairs, accessible bathrooms and drinking fountains, listening devices, good amplification, clear sight lines, and braille or large print materials.”  There are still frontiers to be explored:  How can we more fully involve people with disabilities, people with Alzheimer’s or dementia? How can do reach out and welcome immigrants and non-English speaking people to our worship? How ready are we to accept the poor and troubled? //

Looking at your bulletin for the last time, look now at the order of worship on the inside – the bold print headings.  tell me what comes after the sermon?  (RESPOND TO GOD’S WORD)   Yep, each Sunday we gather in worship, invoke God’s presence, confess our sins to God,  sing hymns of praise, hear the Word of God, listen to the interpretation of that word, then RESPOND TO GOD’S WORD – by becoming disciples, praying for others, giving our tithes, then going out to serve.  The end goal of worship each Sunday is to prepare and feed us so we can go out and feed others.

In that regard, worship is a means to an end.  Listen again to the passage from Isaiah.  “For all your pretty worship,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “ True fasting –true worship–[is not special words or empty piety.  It is] . . . to loose the chains of injustice, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, to share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer –the immigrant– with shelter” [Isaiah 58:6-7].

Yes, worship is to be orderly, participatory, instructive and inspiring but then we are to take it outside! Into the world.  Out among the madness.  “If you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, THEN your light will rise in the darkness . . . THEN the Lord will guide you . . . and you will be called Repairers of the breach, Restorers of Streets with Dwellings” [10-12].  AMEN