[Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8; Luke 22:14-20]
I was looking forward to the party! About three years ago an old friend from High School invited me to a surprise 50th Anniversary Party for his parents. His parents had been my friends too, through the years, starting with his father being my grade 7 Industrial Arts teacher, and a youth leader in the Baptist Church, and his mother getting me started in a big way growing perennials in flowerbeds.
So, the date was set, a little community hall in Paradise would be prepared, and the surprise Anniversary party would be a very fun time! But it wasn’t. It did not happen. My friend’s parents got wind of what was happening, and put an end to it. They did not want a party. There was no gathering.
Something there is in many of us that loves a party. We have the need to gather, to do traditional things, or create our own little traditions. We also need to gather when bad things happen, and to remember the troubles of the past and find healing.
We are so limited in our usual ceremonies now. Our three scriptures stories today each describe the formation of new ceremonies for the people of Faith. Passover is a ritual meal, at home, for the Jews to celebrate their freedom from slavery. The associated Festival of Unleavened Bread also celebrates the gift of their freedom from Egypt. Thousands of years later, Jesus sets up a new ceremony while taking part in the Passover with His friends. We call it Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.
The Need for Ceremony
Even before all our pandemic precautions, there was a need for ceremony and ritual in our lives. A need for people to have ways to gather and share an activity that meant something, that expressed the suffering or the success of human life. In a time when so many people are not religious, at least, not practicing any religion, there can be a longing to do something together, at special moments in life.
There is a birth. There is a death. Two people join together. A family moves to a new town. A person retires from work. A special anniversary is achieved. A tragic event shocks a community. What does one do? We have some traditions, some ceremonies, some gatherings. But today, anything goes. And sometimes, everything goes out the window: nothing is done, there is no event to mark the occasion. No way to get together. No ritual to observe.
I remember hearing author, artist and activist, Jan Phillips, talk about the need for rituals in our day and age, and the need for us to become ritual-makers in our society. As a minister who crafts liturgy almost every week of my life, this made sense to me. Phillips wrote a book called ‘No Ordinary Time,’ and in her intro she says, “It is a book for people conscious of their power and ready to co-create new sacraments and ceremonies that celebrate the Divine dwelling within us.” (2011, p. 1)
There is still enough experience of tradition out there that people look for some familiar rituals. We often want to recreate them. A look at the history of any one ritual will show how it has changed. Like a wedding, or funeral. Or Holy Communion. Baptists did not always have many individual cups, you know. How did they serve their wine? And, yes, Baptists used to serve real wine, before the Temperance Movement was embraced.
A month or so ago, a young woman from Hants Co. sent me a note, asking if, perhaps, I could baptize her youngest child. I had ‘dedicated’ her other child, years ago, when I lived and served in Windsor. My answer was ‘no,’ because I never ever go back where I used to be to officiate. No dedications, baptisms, weddings or funerals where I used to live. This is simply one of my personal professional rules. I consider those things the ministry of the pastors there now, not mine to do. The woman’s request shows the need for a ceremony that blesses.
Over the past month, we here got a request for baptism from a person who lives out west, and will be home to visit in December. She wants her baptism (and her boyfriend, and her child) here because of a connection with family, especially her grandfather. It does not make sense to me to be baptized into Christ not where one lives, but it makes sense to her.
In recent months, the loss of our usual ceremonies has been keenly felt. We finally had a memorial service, last Sunday, outdoors, for Jean Brittain. On Tuesday I ‘attended’ the funeral for Rev. Dr. George Allen by watching all 97 minutes of it on my computer. Yet a great deal is lost. Here, on a Sunday morning, we cannot touch and greet each other in familiar ways. We cannot make all the music we used to do. Attendance is down because many people feel too limited and unable to come in under the present restrictions and risks.
The Creation of Ceremony
Last week our CBAC staff hosted another online Leadership Forum, mainly for pastors, to share about how to do church now. To compare ‘how has it been going?’ Lennett Anderson is Lead Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church: the Meeting Place, in Hammonds Plains. Here he is, speaking with Kevin Vincent, and the rest of us…
It was our 175th church anniversary. I had plans, we were going to have a party, like, the best on this side of heaven! And, anyway, COVID happened! Ruined all my plans. I was devastated, I did not know how we were going to celebrate as a congregation our witness in the community.
And, one of our deacons said, “Why don’t we have a drive by BBQ?”
So, you know, I said, ‘Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.’ This is the best we can come up with?? Ha. A drive by BBQ for our 175th anniversary!?
I could not believe the people in attendance. We had tents in the parking lot, we had the entrance, we had the exit, we had the music, the balloons, and I thought the people in Upper Hammonds Plains… people from Chester drove in, Lunenburg, Dartmouth Musquodoboit! We had food for 200, we ran out, I told them ‘I’m not Jesus, I can’t multiply it.’ First come first served.
It was just… The energy! People were speeding into the parking lot. They weren’t paying attention because they were, like, “Hey! We’re Here!”
And I was saying “HEY!” I didn’t know who they were, they were masked. Some had new hair, no hair, I don’t know, it’s been six months since I’d seen them; but it was just incredible. I didn’t realize how emotional I would be seeing the congregation, just seeing the saints. Um, some did the drive by and then parked on the side of the road or in the back of the parking lot, just because they wanted to have a holy huddle, they got out, they were still masked, but they were just: ‘How you doin, how are you?’ It was a real connection. I think it was one of the best anniversary events we’ve ever had.
The time for creating new ceremonies is now! Necessity is the mother of invention; a pandemic is the mother of new forms of ministry by us, Church. At this past week’s little Ministerial meeting, we look ahead to this year’s Journey to Bethlehem, and we can see how it can still happen. A little differently, but it will happen. We need it, and God will help us do it.
The scriptures tell us how the ritual of Passover was given to the Children of Israel, long ago, and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. And we know, know so well, the little story of Jesus taking the wine of passover, and the unleavened bread, and creating a new ceremony. There are times to birth new rituals. And for them to take hold is inspiring, when we sense that God actually planned them, the Spirit truly gave a new ceremony for us to use.
The Power of Ceremony
There can be such power in ceremonies and rituals. What do I mean by power? Simply that rituals change things for us. It is said of spiritual practices – like prayer and fasting, or confession or scripture study or meditation – doing these things puts us in a place where the Spirit can transform us. So, laying your hand upon someone when praying for healing can show that person God’s touch for their body. Actions speak louder than words. A Sunday morning service together can open our hearts to be cleansed by God. Sharing pieces of bread and sips of juice can help us know, for sure, that the real body and blood of Jesus were broken and spilled.
Thanks be to God that a number of ceremonies and spiritual practices have been given to us. We heard Jesus’ familiar words today: “Do this in remembrance of me,” and, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
We Baptists are in the Church tradition that talks about there being just two ‘ordinances,’ sometimes called ‘sacraments.’ There are not seven, there are just two rituals Jesus Himself, in the Bible, said to do. Baptize people, and eat the bread and wine to remember Him. Yet we have many other ceremonies in which we know God and the power of God’s blessings. Worship together; worship alone. A wedding ceremony. The ordination of a person to special Christian ministry. Fasting. Going on a spiritual retreat. Examples of these, and others, fill the pages of the scriptures. Our many uses of the Bible itself are little rituals, of a sort, that God uses to recreate each of us.
I wonder about the simple act of reading through the Bible, all the time. Each day I have my own little ceremony. A prayer from a certain book of prayers, a devotional reading from Tabletalk, then the reading of my daily portion of scripture: OT, Psalm, NT, Proverb. Then more praying. I happen to be reading through Isaiah right now, among other things. What powerful things can be happening, in me, because I have just worked my way through Isaiah again?
I am a believer in the power of us sharing the same ceremony – doing the same thing with Christ. To me, this is ‘religion,’ in the best sense of the word. When people share some ways of being with God. Sharing rituals, sharing words, sharing time, sharing beliefs. To have your own individual beliefs and spiritual practices is fine, but if you don’t share the same things with anyone else in the whole world, there is something missing, something sad about that.
I heard on a classical music station on the radio something about the French composer Erik Satie. An amazing musician, he was a weird man. Satie founded a religion called “The Metropolitan Church of Jesus Art.” He was the only member.
To me, religion is shared spirituality. You and I share a spiritual path, if we are willing. I’m glad you are willing to be Christians with me. To be Baptists with me. To be Digby Baptists with me. Next Sunday I will offer a special sermon – different, very personal – and I think you deserve to hear it from me.
I take Jesus to be the creator of our fellowship here, though He gives us a lot of freedom to make this what it is. Consider what Christ does with us, and our community, because this Church exists. And take seriously the actions we do together: may the power and love of God be active in us!
So many of us, these past seven months, have been limited in participating. In ‘doing church.’ We can handle the present challenges, that seem to put a stop to so much, because Jesus can handle these challenges. There is still power in the Spirit, power in God’s Church, power in worship and service in the name of Jesus. Our how-to may get changed; the Holy Three-in-One remain steadfast! So we still hunger for getting together, like we used to, because this is not the same. We eagerly desire to share feasts and festivals, music and mourning. May the Spirit of Jesus quench our deep desires for the ceremonies that matter. And May we join our Creator in creating more.