We Need More Cowbell! And Communion and Baptism, Part 2.

 

Note: This is the second post in a 2-part post on a UCC clergy gathering on the sacraments. Part 1 on communion is here. 

Background:

In September I went to Cleveland, the city that rocks, for a UCC clergy conversation on the sacraments. I was invited by my beloved liturgical co-conspirator, Sue Blain, who I met while I was at Union and worked at The Riverside Church.  Sue had just left Union as the Director of Worship to head-up worship at Riverside and working with Sue was part of my work-study job. One of my tasks–organize Sue’s paper files!

Sue is now the Minister for Worship and Formation for the UCC, working in Cleveland at the UCC’s Church House.

Sue and Ivy Beckwith, Faith Formation Team Leader, gathered about 10 UCC clergy for a 2-day conversation on the sacraments.

We noticed in our conversations in Cleveland that talking about communion came first and foremost. Baptism seemed secondary.

Clarification moment: We do communion more than baptism at Pilgrims so of course it’s on my mind more.

Follow-up clarification: We need more baptism.

Not just the baptism of human beings…the renewal of baptism, water in the font, the touching of the water, singing about the waters of baptism, the story of baptism, telling our own stories of baptism.

This is how we added baptism into 3 of our liturgies at Pilgrims this fall.

These are the communion trays we use for communion on the streets during Capital Pride. We used the trays for our Stewardship Sunday.

These are the communion trays we use for communion on the streets during Capital Pride. We used the trays for our Stewardship Sunday.

All Saints: We pulled our font, which lives right at the entrance of the sanctuary, right up against the communion table.

We gathered around the table to share the bread and cup (next time–cup and bread) and to share the memories of those who had died. What we added this year was marking ourselves with water from the font after the sharing of a name/memory.

As the person marked themselves, we all said, “remember your baptism.” The ethic behind this action is that the baptism of the person died hasn’t ended (contrary to what we say in the funeral liturgy “their baptism has been made complete in death.”

Not quite. That’s a really linear way of seeing baptism and death. Start. Finish. Done.

As we marked ourselves with water, we were saying that we now take that person’s baptism and live with the sacramental waters. We carry that person’s baptism forward. Their baptism is now part of us in a physical, kinetic way with the marking. Friends: There is no beginning or end with baptism.

Stewardship Sunday: Our Stewardship Sunday was the Sunday before Advent. For the past several years, we’ve had an at-table service on this Sunday. We drag a bunch of tables and chairs into the sanctuary, have a simple meal, share in the bread and the cup.

This year we added a renewal of baptism into the service as a way of re-committing ourselves to the life of Pilgrims for another year. We modified our baptismal liturgy including the sharing of hopes and dreams. During baptisms, people are able to share a hope and dream for the human being baptized. After a hope/dream is shared, the sharer pours a bit of water into the font. The human is baptized by those waters of hopes and dreams.

On Stewardship Sunday we asked folks to share their hopes and dreams for Pilgrims for the upcoming year.

As people shared, two people stood around the font and poured the water. Then we took lavender and rosemary, dipped the branches in the font and flung the baptism water over Pilgrims. Remember your baptism!

Advent Prayer Station: We have prayer stations as a part of our prayers of the people for Advent. Each station is based on our Advent candles: groundedness, healing, becoming, and new beginnings.

One of our stations is at the font and uses four big pieces of slate that were back in the trash area of Pilgrims. The font is full of water and folks are invited to dip a paintbrush in the font and paint on the slate, responding to a prompt at the station that asks you to ponder becoming.

As you paint, the water almost instantly starts to evaporate into the air. Your becoming comes and goes, you can paint over it, others can paint on the same piece of slate. The prayers seem to ebb and flow on top of each other with the slate, water, and brush as you paint with the waters of the font.

Powerful People: John Allen and Lenten "At Table."

This is an occasional column on powerful people doing powerful things. The Church of the 1950′s is done and dead. People talk about how the Church needs to change. This column highlights people living that change now through creative thoughts, methods, and endeavors. In sharing stories of power people,  I hope that radical change and the dismantling of domination is seen as having unlimited possibilities.John Allen grew up in Needham, MA, graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and received his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2013. He is currently a Pastoral Resident at Wellesley Village Church and ordained in the UCC. John spent a lot of time in James Chapel, the liturgical laboratory at Union, and thrives on liturgy that takes us full throttle into the heart of the Biblical narratives.  While at Davidson, John was Pilgrims summer intern in 2008 or 2009---I can't remember what year. Below John shares his experience of liturgy "At Table."

Christian worship, even in its more modern forms, tends to be unidirectional. Classic architecture dictates all participants facing the front, more recently communities are making a shift toward worship in the round facing a center point. Neither of these arrangements however allow truly erode the sense of authority and sacredness having a fixed location which others face from a distance.

At Village Church we have begun gathering for worship around tables. This “At Table” worship service happens in the evening, over a meal, and invites participants to make worship at each of their tables. Bread and juice are set out in the center of each table and participants eat food and share conversation with one another, blessing and sharing the elements at each table and having sacred conversations about ordinary life.

At Table is a model for Christian worship with its roots in the early Christian meal. Jesus’ first followers did not meet in churches, while their movement was fledgling and their numbers small, they met in each other’s homes, or in rented rooms, for dinner. Gathering in ‘supper-clubs’ was a common form of meeting in Roman society. All the ship-builders in a city might have had a weekly dinner meeting, or all those who worshiped Dionysius. So also, the ‘Jesus people’ had their weekly dinner.

Whether religious or not, all these meals followed a familiar pattern. Guests would gather, say a blessing, and eat having informal conversations with those around them, about their day, their lives, and probably a good bit of gossip.

Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life
Agape Meal in Ancient Christian Life

After a time, the host would rise and bless a cup of wine, sometimes as an offering to emperor, or some other deity. In the case of the first Christians, this cup was offered in memory of Jesus.

After that, attention would turn away from eating and toward the “symposium,” a time of conversation on a specific topic. This might be a time when one of Paul’s letters would be read or a story about Jesus told and the guests would discuss and debate long into the night.

Many ancient ‘supper clubs’ were quite homogenous. Those who attended these meals all worked together and were often all from the same ethnic group. Early Christian meals however seemed to break some of those trends. People from all walks of life ate together, and it seems possible that women’s leadership was recognized more in these gatherings than in other spaces.

It was this sort of radical inclusion that often got Christians in trouble in the ancient world. They were accused of being an unruly bunch who were bad for Roman society because they would not follow social norms. Hence the common accusation hurled at Jesus in the gospels “he eats with sinners.”

It is remarkable how many well-known Biblical stories take place around meals and it is telling that the central sacrament of our faith is the sharing of bread and wine. In recognition of this Hal Taussig and Janet Walton at Union Theological Seminary have developed a modern Christian worship service called “At Table” which seeks to bring the spirit of these earliest Christian gatherings to life for us today.

The service we do at Village Church is our own adaptation of their work.

What we have learned doing this worship at Village Church is that stripping away pretensions and formality around worship creates a space for profoundly genuine experiences of God and one another. By dispensing with vestments, fixed roles, a singular table, and polished forms of speaking and prayer, worshippers are invited to meet God as they are, and to witness each other having that experience.

There are plenty of awkward moments in the service.

  •  Storytellers often stand up to talk and struggle to quiet the room down.
  • Sometimes uproarious laughter at one table impinges on a painful story being told at another.
  • Sometimes people pouring grape juice into their glasses pour too much, and they have to pour from their glass into someone else's to be sure that all have some.

These are the moments I love in the service because the people of God are asked to be improvisational in navigating a shared sacred experience. Worship is a rehearsal for life. The more choreographed forms of Eucharistic worship in our community may instill us with a sense of God’s abundance and abiding presence, but they do not quite help us practice the bumpiness of communal life.

Gathering At Table we learn that we encounter God as we navigate our interactions with one another through humor, grace, laughter, and honesty.

As we go forward, I wonder how we could bring more spontaneity into our time together. For now we plan who will lead different moments, who will tell a story, what songs we will sing, who will cook dinner for everyone. The one thing we never plan is who will do the dishes, but people stay, often because they want to linger over a conversation, or simply because they are faithful disciples.

I often wonder if we might carry that trust to other areas of a service. What would it look like if we did away entirely with roles and entrusted the yearnings of the community to lead us through our time together? What if we asked folks to bring a bit of something to share and trusted that we would be well fed? What if we heard someone’s story and said, that’s the one we all need to hear, stand up and tell it again.