In conversation with a few of you after church last Sunday, I explained the way my first few sermons seemed to come together this fall. The first was prompted by something I heard on my sabbatical (the soundtrack to that amazing musical “Come from Away”), the second by something I read (which is why we heard from Mma Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book series last week), and this third sermon was prompted by someplace I went.
I visited quite a number of congregations, and I expect you’ll hear about others of them later in the year. But the biggest surprise came on the very last Sunday I was away, at the end of September.
I’d been hearing for years about the Compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral, compline simply meaning a service of evening prayers, said or sung before retiring for the night. I’d long heard that the music from the men’s choir there was quite something. And I’d attended Episcopal churches when I was younger, so I also knew a bit about the compline order of worship, the beautiful prayers and sung Psalms and so on. All that was missing was a Sunday night my husband Ken and I actually had enough energy to be out and about at 9:30 or 10 pm (since our Sundays as pastors tend to start pretty early). So I wanted to be sure we got there during my time off.
As you already know if you’ve ever been to that service at St. Mark’s, or heard it broadcast on the radio (have you?), we were indeed treated to gorgeous music, in a contemplative setting. That wasn’t the surprise.
Actually, there were two surprises. The first was that we’d learned from the website that the cathedral was undergoing renovations, but we had no idea until we got down there just how substantial those renovations were. I know things are a little chaotic around here with our plumbing project underway, but over at St. Mark’s? Wow! We’re talking massive scaffolding inside and out, major disruptions to parking areas and to entrances and exits, making it quite difficult for us as newcomers to find our way in, and then when we entered the sanctuary, enormous swaths of plastic sheeting everywhere, covering huge windows which were apparently in the process of being replaced. As it was late September at this point, this made for a chilly arrival at 9:30 at night, inside the huge stone sanctuary. And then there was the issue of noise. St. Mark’s is the big church building you see up the hill as you are driving through downtown Seattle on I-5. It’s really rather close to I-5, and think about the way sound carries. Again, no glass windowpanes, just plastic sheeting. So as we waited for the service to begin, our musical “prelude,” if you will, was freeway traffic, and helicopters overhead, and sirens, and cars going by in the neighborhood. Quite understandable, obviously, under the circumstances, but also quite a surprise, since we’d been prepared for quiet that night. Still, it was a powerful reminder that the God we were coming there to worship has our whole world in his hands – a world that is very often not quiet, as people rush around in their cars, dealing with traffic and deadlines, and as medivac choppers fly people overhead to the regional trauma center at Harborview Hospital.
The second surprise was the congregation itself. It was much larger than we expected, for that hour of night, and a stunning percentage of those present were young adults. Now Ken and I have read and heard any number of so-called experts on church growth over the years, often specifically on reaching out to younger generations, and this flew in the face of everything we’d been taught. And I’m not just talking about the stereotypical expectation that younger people can’t handle traditional church music, though we do hear that a lot, that you’re never going to attract teens or college students to church without a praise band. Well, obviously those kinds of worship services do appeal to a segment of the younger population. But this was a far cry from drums and guitars and a big screen in front of an auditorium; we’re talking ancient monastic chants in a stone cathedral.
Even more surprising to me (since I like to give people of all ages credit for being open to different types of music), was the lack of clear instructions about the service itself. There was no bulletin, and they didn’t seem to be following the prayer book in our pew. There were no opening announcements or words of welcome and no explanations of what we were supposed to do when (Would we participate in some of the singing, we wondered? Would we simply listen?) And then there was a point in the service when everyone stood up around us, seemingly with no prompt to do so. As professional worship leaders, you can see how this kind of thing would throw us off! We try very hard to design services that are welcoming to those unfamiliar with our traditions. And we especially try to avoid “high context” moments, when a newcomer walks into a situation and everyone else seems to know what to do, but they don’t, and no one bothers to explain. “Whoops, I guess they forgot about that,” we thought in the first several minutes. “Isn’t it too bad that they aren’t helping along those of us who are visitors tonight?”
BUT… here’s what was so humbling about the whole experience for us. Even with all of those complicated variables – sirens and car alarms competing with the pitch pipe as acapella choral music began, a complete lack of directions on how the service worked, difficulty finding the front door, and a chilly fall night in a stone building with no glass in the windows, people kept streaming in.
And sure, we might not have known to stand or sit at particular times, or how exactly the service would unfold, but I’ll tell you what – the young woman in front of us with bright purple hair knew, and so did the teenage girls who were kind of curled up in the seat behind us, resting their heads on the back of their pew as they listened, and so did the kilted young man at the end of our row who was completely bald except for his Mohawk and his long braided beard. Without any sort of bulletin, prayer book, or script in front of him, he recited aloud any number of those prayers. And how moving it was to watch group after group of 20- and 30-somethings come in, as the service went on, carrying blankets and pillows up to the very front of the sanctuary, to sit together on the front steps or even lie down on the stone floor, looking up at the ceiling or closing their eyes, to soak it all in.
The outside noise was a little distracting at times, but there were also moments when the music – just from those choral voices - would overpower it dramatically. It truly was a memorable experience, and I commend it to you. In fact, later today I’ll send out the link to a video about the compline service at St. Mark’s, so you can at least get a sense of what it’s like, even if you can’t make it in person. (http://www.saintmarks.org/experience/worship/compline/)
The surprise takeaway for us as pastors, then, was simply this. In spite of a number of technical difficulties, and in spite of not following the rules we’d been taught about how to attract people to church, St. Mark’s is clearly filling an enormous need by offering that sacred space and sacred music every Sunday night.
We also noticed that the service didn’t ask anything of us. It didn’t require our active participation. While this too threw us off our game a bit – after all, we Presbyterians are big on worship being the work of the whole people of God! – it was also a gift simply to receive it. The whole service was a benediction of sorts, a blessing. The body language of those around us spoke volumes. We saw postures of absorbing, basking, receiving those prayers, that music, those holy moments. It was as if our fellow worshippers were plants leaning toward the light, or for that matter Pacific Northwesterners feeling the sun on their faces after a long grey winter… they were absolutely soaking it in.
Our texts for this morning are just two of many blessings included in the Scriptures. The first, a priestly benediction from the OT in Numbers: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26) The second, the line with which Paul closes his letter to the Philippians in the NT: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” (Phil 4:23)
Tony Robinson, former pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church here in Seattle, used to say to a pastors’ group I was in: “We don’t offer people enough blessings.” By this he simply meant that (for lots of good reasons) we as pastors try to challenge our congregations, we try remind each another of our responsibilities and our calling as disciples, to live in God’s ways and to work for God’s justice … but how often do we allow people to simply absorb or receive, to soak in a holy moment? How often do we allow ourselves, for that matter, simply to sit in the presence of God and receive a blessing? Certainly sometimes we need a rousing call to action, or to be nudged out of our comfort zones, but then at times we also need just to be still and listen for the voice of God, or to remember that Jesus also reaches out to us “softly and tenderly,” as we sang together a few moments ago.
Our last two sermons here contained reminders to do the Christian life - to act in love, for instance, and to show gracious hospitality to strangers. But those kinds of messages are incomplete without this balancing word. We need to receive God’s grace in order to share it, and it’s not only acceptable but important to seek out holy moments and grace-filled benedictions, to rest in or soak up the very love of God we want to share.
In some congregations I’ve been part of, folks stand with their hands open and outstretched, like this, a physical sign for them of receiving the benediction at the end of worship. Not all of us are comfortable with physical demonstrations of what’s in our hearts, but I suspect even the introverts among us might be kind of doing this on the inside, right? Again, we probably don’t bless each other often enough, don’t allow one another opportunities simply to receive a prayer, a benediction, a sign of God’s grace. So that our hearts, if not our hands, might well be reaching out for it when it comes, in at least that one predictable spot, at the end of each Sunday’s service. Think about the ways the “passing of the peace” offers us opportunities for blessings to be given and received each week too. I know I sometimes use that time to welcome someone I haven’t met before, and maybe you do too, but let’s not miss the opportunity to look people in the eye and wish them God’s peace as well. I don’t know anyone who can’t use that blessing, that peace. As Liina-Ly pointed out in her children’s time this morning, the litany of parting we do with the kids each Sunday gives us an opportunity to bless each other as well.
My Magnolia colleague Marilyn Cornwell, rector at Church of the Ascension, is known for signing off letters and emails with the reminder: “We are blessed to be a blessing.” For when we do feel grace-filled, and refreshed, and fed, when we are able to soak in those holy moments, or to receive a meaningful blessing, it can kind of spill over to those around us.
I guess it was just a couple of days later, after that service at St. Mark’s, that I found myself taking a short walk at Greenlake. And then I found a bench, and just sat there for a bit, looking at the sunshine sparkling on the water, feeling the sun on my face, enjoying the leaves beginning to change color, and thinking all the while about that memorable benediction I’d received in the form of compline service at St. Mark’s. Pretty soon, without even really thinking about it, I realized I had started saying little silent blessings for all of the people walking by. Because, really, who among us doesn’t need a blessing? So God bless the young mom pushing her newborn in a stroller, I thought, because heaven knows that was a hard stage of life: “the Lord bless you and keep you.” And God bless the high school kids running around the lake for PE credit, because life can be awfully tough at that age too: “The Lord make his face to shine upon [each one of] you and be gracious to you.” God bless the gentleman with grey hair who’s got walking shoes on with his business clothes, clearly trying to catch a short break and take care of himself, in the midst of a full workday: “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.” And God bless the younger guy who’s pulling his aging golden retriever in a wagon, to give his furry friend a blessing of his own: “may the Lord give you [both his] peace.”
Naturally I can’t remember to do this constantly, in every moment of every day, and as I say, it’s easiest to do this when you’ve recently had your own blessing tank refilled. But when you have, it’s kind of fun to try this out. It’s related, I suppose, to the old reminder to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Or perhaps to the Quaker practice of holding someone in the light. In the midst of rush hour traffic some morning, try catching a glimpse of a nearby driver or two, imagine how their days may have begun, and say a blessing for them: “The Lord bless you and keep you.” Say a blessing for the big bunch of kids goofing around at the bus stop: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you”… and another for the student standing at a distance by herself. “May the peace of Christ be with your spirit, sweet girl.” Pray God’s blessing on a family member or a friend. Not even a fully formed prayer of petition, I suppose a benediction is more about simply asking that they would feel God’s presence with them. “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
After all, who among us doesn’t need a blessing? But then again, where could we ever go, where we would not already be standing on holy ground?
God bless us, everyone.