Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mythologizing life?

I was optimistic when I arrived at worship this morning. A quick look at the scripture texts for the day revealed that the epistle text was from Romans 8, starting with the passage about how the Spirit prays for us in our weakness and how God works for good in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. The gospel text was a series of parables from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like yeast in dough, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a costly pearl. These parables have become especially meaningful to me lately, and the Romans text likewise carries a lot of weight the last few months in my life. So I was eager to hear the pastor expound God's word this morning.

In the meantime, the hymns and liturgy are a sort of safety net -- carrying the theological weight of the gospel, providing a basic framework that gives the worshipper a sense of what life is all about -- entering in a spirit of praise, confessing our sins and hearing God's gracious word of forgiveness, crying out "Lord, have mercy," hearing the word of God read publicly as it has been for centuries upon centuries, confessing the content of faith through a historic creed and praying together collectively. All of these things provide structure and meaning and take some of the ponderous weight of preaching off the pastor.

But I was still looking forward to the sermon, given those scripture texts.

Unfortunately, the sermon this morning didn't connect for me in any way. For me, at least. We heard about the dining habits of horseflies, how Kierkegaard was the founder of Christian existentialism, and how Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were good examples of pre-Christian moralists. I was disappointed.

Bonhoeffer made a brief appearance, as he frequently does with this preacher, and so I got to thinking about some of Bonhoeffer's advice about the worshipping community. Interestingly enough, he was a staunch advocate for being a staunch advocate of the community you're involved in -- in other words, don't nitpick your church, but be thankful for it. Good, solid advice. Yet Bonhoeffer was also an outspoken critic of the German church in his own time, and a staunch advocate for change and internal criticism. And I wondered how he would have experienced this worship service. No doubt, he would have pointed out all that was good -- as noted above, solid hymnody, solid liturgy, excellent scripture readings. And he might have shaken his head in a good-natured way about the sermon. He preached enough to understand the ups and downs of that daunting task, and the need for both grace and high standards as the worshippers within the congregation listen to their preacher.

Then I got to thinking about something Joseph Campbell said many years ago that rolls around in my head whenever I think about the task of preaching. He was talking about artists, but I think there are huge parallels: Campbell said that the artist's task is to "mythologize life." In other words, to show what the meaning is behind life. I think preaching does much the same thing.

I was asked not too long ago what I get out of going to church. I read scripture and devotional writings every day. I have Christ-centered fellowship with other believers here and there throughout the week. I praise and pray, confess and read God's word on a daily basis. Why go to church?

This morning, sitting near the end of the worship service I thought of Campbell's words. Mythologizing life. Is that why we go to a corporate worship service that may be great or maybe not, but always connects us to a larger story? In hymns, scriptures, liturgy, and yes, maybe sermon, I am connected to the old, old story of Jesus and his love, connected to the story that God is continuing to write in my life and in the lives of all his people throughout this world. I get a sense of the "mythos" -- the meaning -- behind my life.

Or maybe it's like the wag who said, "You know why mountain climbers rope themselves together? It's to keep the sane ones from going home."

There's a tremendous temptation these days to get "sane" -- to buy into the agnostic secularism that says, this is all there is. Make the best of it and get ahead while you can. It doesn't mean anything anyway, so why worry about it? That temptation toward sanity gnaws at the underside of my life these days, and I consciously reject it every day. I know that my life is not my own, I have been bought with a price. I read the meaning of my life every day in scripture. But every once in a while it's good to gather with others and realize that there is meaning that we share. The story of Jesus and his love binds us and unites us and commissions us. We are about the work of building signposts in this life that point toward the kingdom of God.

I'm glad I went to church this morning.

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