Banquet Ettiquette and Pride

an exposition of Luke 14:1,7-14

We’ve got some fun stuff today!  While all four gospel books touch upon many of the same points in the life and teaching of Jesus, and there is a great deal of overlap, there tends to be a different emphasis taken on by each author, shining a different light on what our Lord had to say.  St. Luke has a particular emphasis on humanity – one could say he is the humanist among the Evangelists – concerned as he is for the poor, for the sinner, and for justice among God’s people.

Our Gospel reading today contains yet another “banquet feast” image – it’s a theme that shows up quite a lot.  And what he has to say in these two paragraphs can be read in several layers of meaning.

I. Practical Advice for the Dinner Table

The first layer is just plain practical advice: When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him.  And, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.  Our society isn’t stratified in the same way today – where you sit as a guest at a table is not as symbolic now as it might have been then.  And when you go to a wedding reception, the hosts typically have everyone’s Table Number assigned already, so you don’t have to worry about this.  Still, the principle of expecting a lower position for yourself and allowing for subsequent promotion is a good social grace, a courtesy, potentially even good business practice.  Jesus provides a “spiritual” lesson to this which we’ll return to in a moment.  The second part, about inviting the poor and needy to your table, is perhaps the less intuitive piece of advice.  When we celebrate, we like to celebrate with friends, family, and other associates.  But Jesus specifically says we should invite people who can’t pay us back.  This demands an explanation beyond the level of mere practicality – something spiritual is going on here.

II. As Christ as has done unto you…

A similar passage can be found in the book of Tobit, where the righteous old man Tobit is giving some last advice to his son Tobias who’s about to leave on a long journey.  Among his several teachings he says: Do deeds of mercy from your possession to all who practice righteousness and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it.  Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you…  Give some of your bread to the hungry and some of your clothing to the naked.  Give all your surplus to charity and do not let your eye begrudge the gift while you are making it (Tobit 4:7,16).  In the same way that Jesus would draw a connection between our forgiving others and God forgiving us, Tobit also drew a connection between our mercifulness toward others and God’s mercifulness toward us.  Indeed, one of the Offertory Sentences in the Prayer Book comes from this same chapter in Tobit: If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have.  So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity.  And Tobit adds, For practicing mercy delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness (4:8-10).  This isn’t a case of salvation by works, it’s a case of what “saving faith” looks like in action.  Knowing what Christ has forgiven in us, we forgive others; knowing how Christ has served us, we serve others.

This begins to explain why our Lord says it is a blessing to invite the poor and lame to dinner, but doesn’t complete the picture.  Nor does this entirely account for the first part of the Gospel story – about where to sit when you’re the guest.  To finish putting this together, we need to look at today’s actual Old Testament lesson, from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 10.

III. The spiritual benefit of all this

I’ll just re-read a little bit of it from the beginning, middle, and end: Arrogance is hateful before the Lord and before people, and injustice is out of tune to both.  Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth…  The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers and has seated the lowly in their place…  Pride was not created for human beings, nor fierce anger for those born of women (Sirach 10:7-8, 14, 18).

The big idea in this passage is pride.  “Pride,” we read, “was not created for man”.  Many consider pride the chief sin and the heart of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden.  Pride, in many ways, is the clearest example of how all sin is ultimately a rebellion against our Creator God.  In this passage of the great wisdom book of Sirach, pride is also linked to arrogance, injustice, and miserliness.  This is helpful because in a lot of current political and theological debate, liberals tend to talk about sin as societal, systemic, or other sort of group problem, while conservatives tend to talk about sin as a problem in each individual’s heart.  The reality, though, of course, is that when you put a bunch of individual sinners together you get a sinful society, system, or group!  And so when we, like Sirach, talk about pride and other sins, we must refer both to the individual sinner and to the corruption of entire peoples and nations.

This informs our Gospel lesson by identifying what Jesus was driving at.  His first lesson ended with For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted, and his second with you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.  When we hold dinner parties and invite the wealthy, we show off our status – how important we are to have such important guests!  That Jesus adds the possibility of being “repaid” with a dinner invitation from them only adds to the painful reality that even such a simple social grace can turn into a case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.

When we invite the poor, the unimportant, we throw away pretense of self-importance.  We aren’t doing this for show, we’re doing this because it’s what Christ has done for us.  As both Sirach says in this text and the Virgin Mary says in her song in Luke 1, The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers and has seated the lowly in their place.  We know that our God is a God of great reversals, that he has a special love for the poor and disenfranchised, that Jesus frequently stopped to help the sick and the demon-possessed and bless the children.  If we are to learn to love as he loves, we have to fight against the pride that pollutes the soul and corrupts the culture, and sometimes that means hanging out with people that might otherwise disgust us.  If that makes us look foolish and “wasteful” of our surplus possessions and wealth, all the better for the spiritual benefits of beating back pride.

IV. Take this prayer home

Let’s wrap this up with a little take-home resource.  Today’s Collect is exactly about good works like this.  O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us after us, that we may continually be given to good works… all our good works must be clothed in God’s grace.  Tobit said, after all, not just to give food to the hungry, but also to do so without “begrudging the gift.”  If we really are going to pursue such good works as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, without grumbling about the cost to our finances or our pride, goodness knows we need the grace of the Holy Spirit strengthening us for the task!  “God loves a cheerful giver,” Saint Paul reminds us, and certainly do we need God’s grace both to precede and follow all such undertakings.  So, please, do take this prayer home with you, and keep it before you throughout the week.  It will help you remember and internalize what the Scriptures have taught us today – that we must curtail the advance of pride as we amend our lives to conform to the way of Christ.  Amen.

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Christ in Judgment

This is my homily on Luke 12:49-56 for Grace Anglican Church upon 18 August 2019 [Proper 15].

INTRODUCTION

We’re living in some rough times for the Church.  Despite massive growth of Pentecostal Christianity across the globe, a huge retinue of false teachings about God, Jesus, and Christian prosperity is following in its wake.  Massive sex scandals and cover-ups have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, a string of cases of marital infidelity have disgraced a number of prominent Protestant pastors, and in this year alone several high-profile Evangelical personalities have walked away from the faith.  The author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an extremely popular book undergirding evangelical ‘purity culture’, recanted the teachings in that book last year, and has just publicly announced his departure from Christianity altogether.  Another prominent person – one of the major song-writers for Hillsong (a major source of contemporary Christian music) has also just announced his quitting of Christianity.  And, lest we think that some corners of the Church be untouched, Eastern Orthodoxy is also undergoing a major power crisis as the patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople drift closer and closer to schism from one another over issues of authority and nationalism.  In short, the 21st century has not been kind to Christianity.

These are all examples of God’s judgment playing out in the life of the Church.  Our varieties of sins and failings, as God’s people, has brought upon us a variety of chastisements and judgments.  The judgment of God brings sin and darkness into the light, it often embarrasses and shames the sinner, but it also brings about repentance among the righteous, and opens the door to a closer walk with Christ and a renewed life in the Spirit.

Too often, when we talk about judgment we think of one of two things.  One is the common cultural view: “don’t judge me, bro!”  This is a judgment of unkind criticism and implies a measure of self-righteousness upon the one who judges.  The LGBTQ+ community in particular feel the wrath of Christian judgment upon them, and they are often correct in that our treatment of them has been unkind.  The other common view of judgment is the apocalyptic return of Christ to judge the living and the dead: all will stand in the dock, their sins weighed, and their sentence of eternal life or eternal punishment will be doled out.  Both of these views of judgment are overwhelmingly negative, and miss the full scope of biblical teachings on the subject.

  • the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” – Hebrews 12:6
  • it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God;” – 1 Peter 4:17
  • Or, in our OT lesson this morning: “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” – Jeremiah 23:29

This brings us to our Gospel lesson today.  Jesus outright says that he comes to bring fire and division upon the earth – in short, judgment!  Failure to understand this reality may be single-handedly responsible for a great many of the cases of moral failure and apostasy that we’re seeing in the Church today.  Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is teaching us here.

MEET JUDGE JESUS

49 I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!

Fire is a common biblical image of judgment.  It’s not just the eternal hellfire of torment and destruction, however, but also the refining fire from which a purer product emerges.  John the Baptist had preached that Jesus was coming to baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, noting the fullness of that judgment: Jesus was going to bring grace and life in the midst of fiery trials.  St. Peter wrote “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).  Jesus was in “great distress” or yearning anticipation for that judgment to begin.  He wanted to see his beloved flock cleansed from their wickedness, he wanted to wipe away the sins and banish the lies and break the chains that bound them.  So we mustn’t read Jesus as a masochist or a vengeful deity looking to “get back at the sinners” for their transgressions against him, but a surgeon eager to get on with his surgery.

51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

This is a hard saying, and is probably not very high on the list of most people’s favorite sayings of Jesus.  On one hand it feels like a contradiction; Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace; St. Paul preached a lot about our finding peace in Christ, you may recall elements of that teaching from our recent exploration of the Epistle to the Colossians.  Rather, what Jesus is addressing here is the reality that his intrusion into the world of sin will cause trouble for the powers of evil.  Some will defect from Satan to Jesus, creating division and strife among the forces of the Enemy.  When some family members confess Christ and others reject Christ, that family becomes divided.  Sometimes amiable relationships are maintained, and sometimes the believers are utterly cut off from the rest.  Jesus does not delight in this division and suffering, but he knows that in many cases it will be inevitable.

This is one of the key points that we need to keep in mind as we look at the many failures in the Church around us today.  We want to be able to tell people that becoming a Christian will make their lives better, happier, safer, more peaceful.  We sing about joy and peace and blessed assurance in our worship songs, both old and new.  But if we take that to an extreme, in the direction of deadly “Health & Wealth Gospel”, then we set people up with false expectations.  Not all, but many of the recent cases of evangelicals going apostate have been accompanied by statements revealing the most shallow of theological understandings of God, the Gospel, and Christianity.  It doesn’t take a seminary degree to point out all the flaws in their abandoned understanding of the faith.  So we must pay attention to the full teachings of Jesus.  Turning to Christ will cut people off from many of their non-christian associations.  We cannot serve two masters: in this case God and Popularity.

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Jesus was criticizing the short-sightedness, or spiritual blindness, of the majority of his audience.  With the massive collection of prophetic writings pointing to the coming Messiah, and the preaching of John the Baptist directing those expectations squarely at Jesus, the Jews of his day had no excuse not to see the truth.  There he was, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and training the heavily symbolic group of twelve disciples on whom to build that kingdom, and there he was working miracles and healing the sick and exorcising demons… how could they not see who he was?

A RESPONSE OF REPENTANCE

In one sense, this rebuke echoes down to all Christian leaders today who have promised material wealth and riches to the faithful, or secretly molested children, or harassed women, or committed adultery, or hidden the sins of others, or sought the success of the Church by marriage to the state.  All of these are failures to interpret the resources of the present time.  We have the Sacred Scriptures, we have the traditions and ministry of the Church, all witnessing to the sovereignty and saving grace of Christ Jesus.  To pursue a life of sin or preach a different gospel in the name of Christ and the guise of Christianity is sheer hypocrisy, plain and simple.  But in another sense, this brief parable of Jesus invites us all to be observant.  When a lot of individuals have major moral or doctrinal failings, these are signs of major underlying problems.  The occasional bad apple in the pulpit or at the altar is inevitable, but left alone one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.  And when we overlook the sins and errors of a few, those problems entrench themselves and spread.  When you look at a denomination or tradition of Christianity and exclaim “how the mighty have fallen!” you’ve got to look at the foundation.  The judgment of Christ is there to show us that we have gone astray, and we must amend our ways.

For as I said at the beginning, judgment is not just about punishment and chastisement, it’s a sign of love from the God who wants the best for us.  We undergo these fiery trials not for God’s amusement, but for our awakening to repentance and correction.  In short, let us not read the news of fall pastors and leaders with grief, but as wake-up calls to fix our eyes upon Jesus and help teach others to do the same.  And so, let us pray.

Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy;
and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall,
keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Love like you’re married to Christ

This devotional is for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  It is part of a recording of the Evening Prayer, which you will find re-blogged below.

As this is a major feast day it’s good to take a moment to reflect on the lessons and reflect on this day, this commemoration of St. Mary Magdalene.

It has to be admitted up front that the scripture readings in our daily lectionary are just part of the continuous readings; they’re not appointed (at least in Evening Prayer) for this feast specifically. Nevertheless there is the occasional convenient coincidence, shall we say.

We have in Ezra 10 this very “exciting” story basically of a case of Divorce For The Glory Of God: all of these returning exiles in Jerusalem who’ve married foreign women and have to put them away, and have to live a new life, committed to God, even in their marriage and family life. Certainly [this is] a very extraordinary case, and not one we should lightly or unadvisedly repeat, but nevertheless it’s there. And it has the long list of names, which is option in the lectionary – you can skip them but I read them all, however imperfectly. But it’s important sometimes to read these names; it adds gravity, it adds reality to these stories. This is not just some random collection of people, these are real people who had to make this very difficult choice. So it’s a list that adds gravity, adds reality, and adds shame! This is a list of sinners, yet, of people who repented, so it’s not just a list of shame, it’s a list of grace.

So instead they’re called to faithful marriages within the people of God, and that is part of their existence in Old Covenant, Old Testament, Israel. Certainly, this shows a call to marriage-like faithfulness to God, something that we in the New Covenant as Christians are very much called to have – to be the Bride of Christ. Indeed, this was certainly not planned [by me], but the anthem we just sang also speaks of the same thing:

The dearest idol I have known
Whate’er that may be
Help me to tear it from my throne
And worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God…

Even there: divorce for the glory of God, taking away the idols, separating ourselves from our worldly affections.

This relates in an interesting little way to Mary Magdalene. She exhibited a love much like that. She was healed from many infirmities; she was delivered from seven demons, the scriptures say elsewhere; Jesus also made the comment that he or she who is forgiven much, loves much; and Mary Magdalene certainly loved Jesus. She had an affection that was very visible, especially in John 20, the most extant story of her interaction with him, when Jesus sent her to report to the Apostles.

So that real emotion-supported (not emotion-based alone) love, affection, committment to Christ – Mary Magdalene certainly exhibited that. And whatever kind of person she was before her calling – the old traditional assumption was that she was a prostitute, although the Scriptures don’t tell us that for sure – whatever she was, whoever she was before she came to know Christ’s forgiving power and love, she came into a place of wonderful affection for our Lord Jesus Christ: one that we would do well to imitate and learn from; one that sets aside the idols, the unholy marriages that we make in the course of life, and we replace that with the perfect Bridegroom, Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The Saint Aelfric Customary

We’ve got a daily hymnody plan available, an order for using the Occasional Prayers, and some insight on how to sing Simplified Anglican Chant.  Let’s put it all together and see what Evening Prayer can be like. We did this with Morning Prayer last week, but now let’s add some chanting to spruce up this feast day commemorating St. Mary Magdalene.  I should warn you that there are a couple of stumblings, hesitations, and even mistakes as I read, pray, and sing.  That’s life, that’s reality.  I’m not here to perform for anyone, and I just want to encourage you to pray and sing, yourself, too.  Anyway, grab your 2019 Prayer Book, ESV Bible, and 2017 Hymnal, and listen and pray along!

Order of service (so you can get your books ready)…

  1. Opening Sentence (BCP 41)
  2. Confession *
  3. Invitatory Dialogue with Hymn #444 instead of the Phos hilaron **

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Catholic Christianity in a Nutshell

This video post is a sort of combination of two similar blog posts from a while back.

Index:

00:00 Introduction
01:28 Definitions of ‘catholic’
04:08 Jesus at the center of our doctrine
09:23 Jesus at the center of our worship
13:38 Jesus at the center of our community
20:52 Contrast with non-catholic Christianity
26:14 Concluding thoughts
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The Sending of the Seventy: a specific example of a broad mission

This was my homily on Luke 10:1-20 at Grace Anglican Church on 7 July 2019.

The sending of the seventy, or seventy-two (depending upon which New Testament manuscript tradition you go with), is one of the classic stories in the gospels of apostolic mission and evangelism.  It is frequently cited as the example par excellence of how the church “ought to” grow.  Send people out two by two, go into the towns and villages, preach the Gospel, stay in one place (with a “person of peace”, someone who heeds your message) and invest in those who listen rather than showing the instability of one who jumps haphazard from place to place.  Signs and wonders, especially healing the sick and exorcising demons, are to be expected and pursued.  The power of God will therefore be seen both in the proclamation of his Word and the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit.  What often happens, at a conference or workshop or sermon dealing with this subject, is that the speaker takes this story of the sending of the disciples and applies it directly to us.  What town or community are you going to preach the Gospel in?  Don’t you hear the call of the Spirit in your heart to heal the sick and save the lost?  You and your church need to organize, get out there, and get to work!  And if you don’t know how to get started then you should come to our special training program for a special low fee, and we’ll re-train you how to be a real disciple-that-makes-disciples.

This can be very discouraging.  If this form of mission sounds foreign to who I am in Christ, does that mean all my years as a believer have been misguided and shallow?  Most of Jesus’ disciples, as far as we can tell, were fairly young adults, is it too late for those of us distracted with children to raise, or in the lower-energy golden years?  Do I have to submit myself to re-education in order to be valuable to and productive in God’s kingdom?

Thankfully the answer is “no.”  The sending of the 70 or 72 disciples was a specific example of a broad mission.  These disciples were people whom Jesus had been teaching and training for some time beforehand.  He gave them particular instructions: they were to go “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.”  Take note of that: Jesus was going to visit those places himself; he was simply sending these disciples ahead of him to prepare people for his arrival.  Therefore, this story by its very nature cannot be an all-encompassing picture of mission and evangelism; it’s just one example in one particular region and period of time.  We are not all particularly-trained-and-called evangelists to run around the county preaching in the streets and performing miracles.  That definitely is the gift of some, but in this room I’m not aware of anyone with that exactly sort of calling.

As our bishop reminded us when he visited us this week, God uses us in ways that match our ordinary callings.  The fellowship of elderly English ladies excelled at making afternoon tea – with the cakes and sandwiches and the whole deal.  They turned that into a ministry of service, friendship, and love in a nursing home, and eventually a large worship gathering spanning multiple generations was born.  The mission of God to bring the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ to a broken and dying world can be carried out in myriads of ways.  As we were reminded the other day, we don’t have to force ourselves into someone else’s mold of evangelism and mission; in fact to do so would only discourage and damage us.

So we learn from passages like Luke 10 according to its principles.  When you take a Bible story and try to apply it directly and immediately to yourself, some people call that “narcigesis” – instead of exegesis (drawing out the author’s intent and meaning) it’s narcigesis (making it all about you).  The Bible is a rich book, and more often than not its pages are telling us about God first, and ourselves second (or even third).  As I’ve already done here, we have to read Bible stories in context, and pay attention to what’s going on in them.  Only when we understand the story and its message can we move on to the task of application to ourselves.

So what do we learn here in Luke 10?  Here are four big examples.

  1. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” We have to trust that there are always people out there whom God will call to salvation in Christ.  As we minister to others in whatever ways we can, we must remember that there is always opportunity out there.  Never fall into the trap of complacency and assume that there are enough Christians out there sharing the love of Christ already.  The harvest is plentiful; keep your eyes open.
  2. I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” The specific dangers and opposition that the 70 or 72 faced are very different from the specific dangers and opposition you and I might face today. But the underlying spiritual war is identical: the world, the flesh, and the devil will oppose the Gospel of Christ in your thoughts, words, and deeds.  Just because things get difficult, that doesn’t mean God is telling you to stop; it’s far more likely that when you face harassment or opposition that you’re on the right track.
  3. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house.” Again, this is a specific instruction to specific people on a specific mission, but a basic principle is here expressed: stick to the ministry or place that you’ve been called to.  Especially in a fast-paced world such as ours, we can be tempted to give up and move on all too quickly if things don’t work out the way we hoped right away.  There is a point where Jesus commands his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on.  We must remember that they had itineraries to follow, and more towns to cover; we who live sedentary lives must take a much more long-term approach to our activities and commitments in serving our communities.
  4. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” When you meet with success, and the church grows and God’s kingdom prospers, don’t pat yourselves on the back too much.  As the disciples were not to rejoice that they had such authority over demons, neither should we rejoice at our cleverness when we see the hearts and lives of others turn to Christ.  Rather, we rejoice, we worship God, because he has saved us.  As important as mission and evangelism is, as important and significant is Christian service, these are not the reasons we gather for worship.  We worship God because he is worthy; and though we are unworthy in ourselves, he has written our names in the book of life, he has shown us his great mercy and love.  Times of worship can be encouraging, even inspiring to greater service, but the primary purpose of worship is always to praise and proclaim God, both in our midst as well as above and beyond us.

So let us keep watch for the opportunities the Lord may set before us.  When can we gather for fellowship more often?  What are we willing and able to do together that we can give to the Lord?  How can we come alongside those in our midst who already have a sense of outward calling and mission?  We are not the 70 or the 72, we need not (indeed should not!) attempt to become carbon copies of their assignment in Luke 10.  Rather, we are who God has made us to be.  Let us have the patience, humility, and joy to recognize ourselves for who we are in Christ, and then look to sharing that with those around us.

Let us pray.

Grant us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Overview of the book of Esther

If you aren’t following my work at The Saint Aelfric Customary, pop on over and take look! I’ve got a new video up, talking about the book of Esther.

The Saint Aelfric Customary

Evening Prayer in our Daily Office Lectionary begins the book of Esther in a couple days.  I had the joy and privilege of preaching all the way through this book a few years ago; it was a lot of fun, and I get kind of enthusiastic about it.  So please forgive me as occasionally stutter over my words in excitement as I talk about this book!

Subject Index of the video in case you want to skip around:

  • 00:00 – it’s an unusual book
  • 02:11 – Characters
  • 05:46 – A Tale of Two Esthers (Hebrew & Greek)
  • 09:50 – Authorship & Origin Questions
  • 13:58 – Canonical Purpose of the book of Esther

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Why I don’t dance in church

One of the things my wife and I like to watch together is the React Channel on YouTube, run by the Fine Brothers (FBE).  It features a regular cast of people of various ages who are lined up to react to various things – music, internet trends, foods, and so on.  One of the classic challenges is “Try Not To Sing Along / Dance”, which includes singing, lip syncing, swaying to the music, toe-tapping, and head-bobbing.  They then throw at these reactors a series of popular, famous, or otherwise catchy music to see how well they hold up.  I do pretty well resisting moving when there’s a lot of contemporary hip-hop, as even the beat just doesn’t seem that catchy to me.

But left to my own devices, I love listening to music.  And although I have no training (or even interest) in dancing, I do move to music quite a lot.  I’m not always good at memorizing lyrics but sometimes I mutter along when I know some of the words.  I bounce my kids in my arms, helping them feel and learn rhythm.  I sway and pretend to dance when no one is looking.  Or sometimes I pretend to conduct or to play an instrument… it depends upon the style of music and how into it I am.

matt talks music title

But when I’m at church, I hardly move at all besides looking up, from the words on the page to the cross and/or the altar, and back.  Does this mean I’m not into church music?  Does this make me a hypocrite?  Does “the devil get all the fun music” as some used to say?

No.  As a musician and could-have-been composer, I love music very much.  Both on my own and in collaboration with my wife I have arranged several pieces of music that we’ve gone on to sing in our church over the years.  There are several hymns that rank on my personal best-ever list of songs of all time.  So why don’t I want to dance, sway, clap my hands, or otherwise move about during the music in a worship service?

It’s not even a matter of fear of standing out – depending upon where you are, it’s the act of standing still that makes one stand out!

It’s because when I move with the music, I do so out of appreciation for the music itself.  If I’m clapping along it’s because I enjoy the beat; if I’m conducting or playing an air piano it’s because I wish I was among the performers; if I’m moving it’s because I’m caught up in the fun.  Church music, however, is about worshiping God.  It’s one thing to enjoy the music I’m hearing and singing in church – as I said, I’ve got several favorites.  But when I add the layer of motion and movement, I’m all too easily refocusing my attention from the heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit over to the sounds we are producing here on earth.

I write this not to accuse those who do “dance” in church of idolatry, paying more attention to our own acts of worship than to the Lord whom we seek to worship.  There are biblical examples of people dancing to/for the Lord God.  Most notably there’s King David dancing for joy at the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem – his wife Michal was punished by God for scorning David’s enthusiasm.  So some people are gifted the ability to worship God with bodily expression.  I, however, am not one of them; my dancing is for the love of music.  So I write this for two reasons:

  1. Consider why you do what you do in church.  Some churches have a culture of hand-waving, clapping, swaying, or even dancing to worship music.  This is not intrinsically bad, but it does enter the dangerous territory of blasphemy.  We don’t want to fall into the hypocritcal situation of those to whom Jesus said “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6).  For if you’re singing God’s praises, yet your actions betray your heart is actually occupied with the music itself, then you’re stepping into the sin of blasphemy and violating the commandment against using God’s name in vain.  Pay heed to your heart, and keep your mind attentive in worship, so you know why you are doing what you do.
  2. It is okay if you don’t want to dance in church.  Although dancing is attested in several biblical instances, it is never mandated.  It’s better to flee from temptation when one is weak.  If you, like me, know that you really love music, it’s probably best for your own spiritual health that you refrain from dancing during worship lest you distract yourself away from God.  It doesn’t matter what other people are doing; you must guard your own heart.

Because at the end of the day, worship is about God.  Liturgy is our coming together as one Body to be before the Father, embodying the Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We all bring our personal identities and quirks to corporate worship, but we don’t let those individualities guide us.  The aim of worship, especially in the wisdom of the ancient liturgical tradition, is to set aside our differences and raise up a single voice to heaven despite physical or temporal location.  Most of us probably ought to save our dancing for events apart from worship.

Again, I write this not to be a killjoy, but in order that we would give due consideration to what we are doing, why we do it, and for Whom.

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