Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in–Ossory on Wednesday, 3rd November 2010
“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Alleluia” Psalm 150:6
At our diocesan clergy conference, a speaker from the Church of England talked about the celebration of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. The suggestions were not universally well received, they included making a terrible racket in church during the Easter service. The notes from their prayer book says, ‘the joy of the resurrection is properly demonstrated by noise, bells, music etc. This may continue into and through the singing of the Gloria in excelsis’. The speaker suggested that we might have whistles and party poppers and vuvuzelas—there was not great enthusiasm amongst the clergy. Finally, one spoke, ‘we tried that one year; it was an embarrassment’.
Shouldn’t we have been more enthusiastic? Look at what Psalm 150 says,
“Praise him with the blast of the trumpet; praise him upon the harp and lyre. Praise him with timbrel and dances; praise him upon the strings and pipe. Praise him with ringing cymbals; praise him upon the clashing cymbals’.
There is a lot of noise there, and much of it not very tuneful—the blast of the trumpet, the ringing and the clashing of the cymbals—a terrible racket worthy of the sort of Easter celebration being suggested to us. Noise is a biblical way of worshipping God, but there are lots of biblical ways of worshipping God, which is perhaps a lesson we all need to remember, especially clergy.
I remember starting Theological College in Dublin in 1983 – a 22 year old fresh from England with easy answers to all the world’s problems and an intolerance towards anyone who disagreed – an awful character.
One of the things I do remember was an attitude that a place could only be special or holy if it fitted into my idea of what was special and holy, which really meant that it should be like a medieval English parish church. The noise of Psalm 150 would have not found much of a place in my thinking.
One of the things I came to learn was that a sense of holiness can be found in very many and very diverse places. God isn’t just encountered in 15th century buildings.
I think this was brought home to me most forcefully in the Philippines in October 2001. Visiting one of the Filipino villages, a Presbyterian minister and I, were asked to celebrate Mass in a little community hall built from concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof.
We explained that this was not possible; we were not Roman Catholic clergy and would not wish to mislead people. Our interpreter explained to the people and turned to us, ‘nevertheless’, he said, ‘we would like to have a Holy Communion service’. There was only a Mass in the village once every three or four months and many of the people could not afford to travel elsewhere.
We agreed and said we would need half an hour to prepare something. We wrote the congregational responses from the Church of Ireland Alternative Prayer Book on large sheets of paper and stuck them to the wall. We found a Bible in Ilongo, the local language, for people to read the Epistle and the Gospel. We said the Creed in our own languages and people stood up to say their own prayers at the time of the intercessions.
Roger read verses from the 11th chapter of Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as the Communion prayer.
The altar was an old table someone had brought from somewhere. A candle had been found and stuck in a glass. The bread was three little sweetbreads that someone had for a special occasion; the wine was rum, made from sugar cane that grew around the village, shared around in a china cup. Hymns the whole congregation knew were sung in the local language. There were about forty of us gathered under the light of a single unshaded light bulb. The hall was open on two sides – the wall rising to no more than three feet and mystified bypassers looked in at us.
To have looked at the scene through the eyes of everyday life would have been to have seen a gathering of poor people – some without shoes – and two Europeans – in a building that wasn’t much better than a farm shed. Yet there was there a sense that this was something special, that this was a place of holiness.
“O praise God in his holiness; praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts; praise him according to his excellent greatness”, exhorts Psalm 150 and that is what this gathering of desperately poor people were doing—the mighty acts of God were far more important to them than to many wealthy Westerners, the hope of the resurrection was often their only hope
The experience was a lesson that a place of holiness is the place where one meets with God. We may find that a church is the place where we meet with God, but that does not mean God is not met elsewhere. If we read Jesus’ words in John Chapter 4 we are told that where worship takes place is not what is important; what is important is that God is worshipped in spirit and in truth.
What about Jesus? What style of worship does Jesus think is the right one? The answer is that Jesus participates in many different traditions. He values the Temple, with its high rituals and its great amount of noise; he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath for the reading of Scripture and teaching; but he finds also other places for prayer and quietness, in Mark 1:35 we read, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”; and the single act of worship we remember week by week is Jesus sharing the Passover meal, the Last Supper.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark” – Jesus deliberately sets aside a very specific and very quiet time to be with the father. This was a time when there would be no distractions, nothing else competing for attention. The solitariness and the silence are a complete contrast with the maximum volume of the worship in the Temple; no dances or timbrels or trumpets, and certainly no cymbals,; yet both forms of worship are within God’s scheme of things.
Even within Psalm 150 itself there is a diversity of worship; there is a big difference between the gentle tones of the harp and the blasts of the trumpet; I suspect most traditional members of the Church of Ireland would prefer the soft tones to the loud ones, but what we must recognize is that they are both Scriptural; charismatic worship led with electric guitars and drums is as much in keeping with the Bible as church organs and four part choirs
There used to be a bishop in the North who would say, ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it’. What service you had in church wasn’t important, what mattered was the spirit in which it was conducted. Our Communion service in that little Filipino village was a pale and pathetic effort in contrast with the liturgies of the great cathedrals, but its power came through the spirit in which it took place.
There is no right way of worshipping God. There is no set way of meeting with holiness. ‘Let everything that has breath praise the Lord’, concludes Psalm 150. Isn’t that what matters? Not whether it’s noise or silence; not whether it’s high church ritual or low church simplicity; not whether it’s a great gathering or just two or three people; what matters is that the Lord is praised.