I’ve had a number of encounters with beautiful people and communities on the road recently. Humble shepherds, selfless servants, devoted congregations. I’ve seen enough good to encourage me that power, domination, and ego are not the last word in contemporary religion. If Thoreau said, and we can all relate, that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” I can say that many unknown people lead lives of quiet sanctification.
I met many of these over the weekend. I gave a whole day of lectures at an Episcopal church near Memphis, Tennessee. They asked me to give five lectures and the times for these five lectures did not include the main morning service. So I got to be a participant, with no responsibilities. It was my first Episcopal service.
The Episcopal form of worship is as close as you can get to Catholic without crossing a line that is very important to a Jewish person (and to a Protestant). That is, Episcopalians have all the liturgy and ceremony of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but without statues or icons. I know that I would find great beauty in a Mass, but I could not attend one. I do not doubt the faith of Catholics or Orthodox Christians, but our disagreement about the use of images is not reconcilable.
So the Episcopal service is as close as I am going to get. And, having experienced it, I can say that there is beauty and wisdom and a sense of reverence for the Temple service of the Torah that is illuminating and inspirational when experienced.
The church has a modest-sized building in a small town that is a suburb of Memphis. They can’t fit all their people in the relatively small sanctuary (it holds probably 150 people). So they have two packed services and some people stand. Nothing in their facility is lavish or wasteful. But all is very well-kept. They portray an image of beauty and faithfulness in maintaining sacred space with none of the excesses sometimes associated with churches seeking to impress. These are not the kind of people who spend all of their money on themselves. But they have a dedicated congregation who care about the beauty of the place.
The Episcopal service has its own prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, which could be compared to the Jewish Siddur. The Sunday morning service is very formal. It occurred to me as I watched that at least a dozen people played vital roles in the ceremony.
And they all took their roles seriously, were dedicated to doing them well, and there was no sense of showmanship in the way any of them performed the sacred drama.
The opening of the service was a processional carrying some items like a cross (not sure what else) while reciting a liturgy about repentance for sins.
There were readings in the service from the gospel, from the letters of the New Testament, and the first reading was from what they would term the Old Testament. One of my sons, Josiah, and I were sitting there in our yarmulkes enjoying the worship experience. I thought it was fitting, on what I assume is the first time this Episcopal church has had observant Jews in attendance, that the reading was from Genesis 12, about blessing coming to the gentiles through Abraham’s descendants.
Much as we make the reading of the Torah central in our service, the scripture readings in the Episcopal service are surrounded with ceremony and invested with a sense of the sacred (but for them, communion or eucharist is central).
Throughout the service, I tried to watch at the front as the two priests and several lay ministers performing their roles treated the altar at the front of the church with reverence like the priests in the Temple had long ago. I observed throughout a number of rituals, including a sort of leaning with the hands (or at least, hands outstretched) and presenting offerings toward the altar as gifts.
Why did many Protestant streams feel the need to remove these elements? Were they afraid of appearing too Catholic?
My anticipation of the high point of the service increased as it progressed. I felt the Presence in that Episcopal sanctuary and looked forward to taking communion there. I knew it would be meaningful to remember the body and blood of Messiah in a place where so much beauty surrounds the remembrance.
Every nerve was tingling as the eucharist service began and people came in turns to the front, where two priests and a lay eucharistic minister served the bread and wine. I took mine by intinction, as I also instructed my son to do, not wanting to drink out of a common cup (intinction means dipping the unleavened wafer of bread into the wine and eating it).
I looked up and noticed the stained glass window. It is a beautiful image of a brown-haired, white-skinned, anglo Jesus with a halo holding a child and looking anything but Jewish. And I was kneeling in my yarmulke taking communion, remembering the death of my Messiah.
Yeshua’s movement has gone in some strange directions. But aside from the anglo Jesus on the window, I felt at home here. The service isn’t exactly the tradition of Israel, but it is a different adaptation of it, comparable in some ways to the traditional Shabbat service. The altar is central instead of the Ark. The service points to the Cross instead of Sinai. The readings of the sacred scriptures are highly venerated, but not as central as in the Jewish service.
The dedication of the people to learning to serve in the ceremony impressed me. I set a goal to increase the number of people who lead ceremony in our congregation. I reflected on the way in the Jewish and in the Episcopal service that the commitment of the people to the ritual is what makes it meaningful. When people who play many different roles during the week come together for a common purpose to make something inspiring happen, and when the sacred drama is not focused on one person, but is a group effort, God is easier to see.
There was nothing pretentious at all in this church service. And in the afternoon I found out more. As I lectured on the gospels to an enthusiastic and inquisitive crowd, I discovered how the gospel has formed other beautiful things in this church family. They resonated with the example and teaching of Jesus about making the world to come a reality now, of bringing the reality of God’s perfect world as much as possible to people now. During the discussion, they told me their priest had lead them over the past decade to make this more and more of a priority.
How much of a priority? I wondered. She told me, “Well, our annual budget last year was $700,000 and of that we gave away $315,000 to charity.” The only regret the congregation had about all this generosity is that they had not yet reached their goal to give away half of all receipts to charity. But they are working on it.