~ Psalm 92:1-5/Luke 15:22-24 ~
Of all the stories or parables Jesus told, one of the most well-known is the story of the prodigal son. If you remember, the son demanded of his father his share of the inheritance and, with cash in hand, off he went to a far country. There he squandered it all and ended up slopping pigs. When he came to the end of himself, he decided he should risk going back home, his tail between his legs, hoping against hope that his father would take him back as, maybe, one of his servants. But his father, seeing him come down the road, ran to him, embraced him, welcoming his son home. And then the father said this (reading from Luke 15):
…the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
I must say that whenever I see the word ‘celebrate’ a song pops into my head. Well, two songs actually and sometimes I get them mixed them up.
“Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music” by Three Dog Night. And…
“Celebrate good times, come on!” by Kool and the Gang.
Both were one-hit wonders but they live on because, well, they’re just so…celebratory! Interestingly, the saxophonist in Kool and the Gang, who wrote their song, got his inspiration from the Quran’s version of the creation of Adam, where it describes the angels celebrating and singing praises.
It is in that sense that we encounter our word for today from Noe Valley Ministry’s mission statement – ‘celebrate’. True, we might not be into an ecstatic kind of celebrating, handwaving and such, but it is a celebration, nonetheless. As our scripture readings today suggest, joyful celebration is encouraged.
There are four parts to our Mission Statement. The first of these, which we consider today (the others will be addressed in the coming weeks) is:
Celebrate God’s presence and the goodness of creation in worship that embraces tradition, the arts and the needs of a changing world.
There’s a lot packed into this sentence. The Mission Study from six years ago expressed some of what we aspire to where it says:
Through worship enriched with the arts, music, and dance, the congregation actively seeks to create a sense of welcoming hospitality where people from many different faith traditions can find nurture for their spiritual journeys.
Let’s tease this apart and consider the word ‘celebrate’?
Celebrate God’s presence and the goodness of creation in worship
What does it mean to celebrate God’s presence? I believe it means paying attention. Paying attention to creation and to where God is. It means looking for grace wherever it might be found. It means embracing love wherever it might be found. We come together to celebrate God’s gracious and loving presence in worship.
How do we define tradition? Who’s tradition? Well, we are a Presbyterian church, in the Reformed Tradition. Our liturgy and hymnody reflect that tradition. We could ask, how wedded are we to that tradition. Might it not be stylistically celebratory enough? Or maybe the question is: Are we comfortable with our worship style and tradition? Are we too comfortable with it?
Or, to put it another way, how does our tradition relate with the community we seek to serve? Does it resonate or does it not? How do we decide what traditions to hold on to and what ones to let go? How affirming? How adventurous?
Noe Valley Ministry has a great reputation of embracing and celebrating the arts – music, visual, movement. I think we can say that we believe the arts are a powerful expression of God’s presence. Our worship reflects that. Over the years we have intentionally incorporated a range of musical expressions and styles. Our Music for the Soul Sundays, which we miss mightily in this time of remote worship, are a poignant expression of our desire to experience God in music. It is in this vein that a shoutout goes to Kelly Savage. Her musical artistry and willingness to try new things are most appreciated by us all. And, I should mention those singers who dare to contribute in their various remote locations. If you’ve ever heard yourself sing a cappella on a recording you know how scary it can be.
But, again, raising questions that will help us live into our mission, how do we decide what art to pursue: Noe Valley Ministry’s artistic likes or the neighborhoods? How do we discern? Or, maybe even this question: Are our musical tastes too ‘white’? I’m not saying we should change our expression of the arts, but it is not a question too far. Given all that, we are a church that embraces and celebrates the arts. I give that a big ‘thumbs up’!
The needs of a changing world
What changes are we talking about? Changes in the neighborhood? What needs are we seeking to meet? The needs of the affluent in Noe Valley? Or, somehow the needs of the poor, even if there are no many poor in this neighborhood? If there are, where are they? Or maybe the needs of the isolated, aging folk who are living alone and maybe afraid? Or maybe the unseen, unexpressed spiritual needs of young professionals trying to make sense of this world?
But probably the biggest changes in our world we need to consider are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the work of dismantling structural racism. The former uninvited; the later intentionally embraced.
What will worship or doing church look like when we are through this pandemic? As many are pointing out these days, there will be no going back to the way things were, back to normal. There will be a new normal and how we do church in that new normal requires careful discernment. For instance, starting this week I will be joining a weekly city-sponsored “Faith Based Round Table” to help churches figure out how to do church safely and effectively in the ‘new normal’ world.
And, as we talked about already, addressing the issue of structural racism is based on the notion of, in effect, being an agent of change in our community. I and the session encourage you to engage in whatever learning opportunities come our way, such as the webinar I announced earlier. In this regard, I want to give a shout out to Jeanne for her relentless pursuit of resources and opportunities for doing this. We can and should be the much-needed source of change that our world, our community, needs. Amen.