Worship in a Foreign Land
Posted by Inagrace Dietterich
(This is is fourth and last in a series of talks on the theme “The subversive act of missional worship” given by Debra Dean Murphy at the Convocation in Chicago earlier this year).
“I urge you as aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). What does it mean to worship a strange God (“love your enemies;” “sell all you have”) in a strange land (“for you were aliens in Egypt”)? How are Christians in North America a people in exile? We conclude our consideration of the subversive nature of missional worship by examining how the church’s worship prepares us to engage the culture around us: to recognize powers and principalities, to side with the strangers in our midst. The radical, embodied, cruciform witness we offer is one that does not shun or denounce or ridicule but which adheres to the missional impulse: to love the world as God loves it.
1 Peter 2 reflects the early church’s experience of exile and also recalls Israel’s experience of exile in Babylon. It is also instructive for our time: how it is that we understand the Church today to be a people in exile—in the world but not of it; critical of the host culture but not hostile to it. We will explore three key themes: The Liturgy After the Liturgy, Siding with the Stranger, Loving the World.
The Liturgy After the Liturgy. We gather that we might go forth. Or as Timothy Radcliffe puts it in his book Why Go to Church? : we go to church so that we might be sent from it. Worship is the church’s gift to God (the offering of ourselves in praise and gratitude), but worship is also where God’s gift to the church is received—a gift that transforms and commissions the receivers for action in the world.
- The Unfaithfulness of the Church
- A Trinitarian Justice
Siding with the Stranger. A church in exile, a people who worship a strange God who tells them to do things like love their enemies and sell everything you have, this kind of church sides not with power and prestige but with the lonely and forgotten, with outcasts and strangers. We know this because Jesus did this. And in many ways it is what got him killed.
- A Hospitable Approach to Immigration
- Casting Out Fear
Loving the World. People living in exile generally do not hold the dominant culture in high esteem. Remember Psalm 137? “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We have talked about how God can take this kind of honest rage. The depths of human anger and despair can be expressed to God—this is what the Psalms of lament tell us. But there is also that annoying call to love the world. Because God loves it, we are to love it. The wounds of Christ declare God’s love for the world. And yet what do we mean exactly by “world”? Read More…
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How does worship prepare us for ministry and mission?
The Liturgy After the Liturgy
We gather that we might go forth. Or as Timothy Radcliffe puts it in his book Why Go to Church? : we go to church so that we might be sent from it. Worship is the church’s gift to God (the offering of ourselves in praise and gratitude), but worship is also where God’s gift to the church is received—a gift that transforms and commissions the receivers for action in the world. The Eucharist is the prime act which transforms the bodies of participants into gifts for others. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” From the gathering of the people to the proclamation of the word and our responses to it, through the confession of sin and the prayers of the people, to the table of abundance: from the entering in to the sending forth we are being prepared for mission and ministry in the world.
The dismissal is not the mere conclusion of the Sunday morning service but the continuation of the people’s work in the world. Both mass and dismissal come from the Latin root word mittere, meaning “to send,” indicating the strong conceptual link between the service we render in worship and the service we offer in, to, and for the world. The blessing we receive as we are sent out (benedictus) is a call to connect in the most immediate and practical ways prayer and mission, baptism and justice, Eucharist and hospitality—to see liturgy and life as all of a piece, a seamless, organic whole. In Duncan Forrester’s words: “There is not, and should not be, a clear mark or frontier between [worship] and the life of the community, between the liturgy and the liturgy after the liturgy, between the Lord’s table and the common table.”
Said another way: we leave worship not so that we might retreat into our own inner sanctuaries, but that we might bear witness to the presence of God in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. You know this. We sometimes speak of this as the connection between liturgy and ethics, though we have to be clear that we are not talking about a cause and effect connection. That is, we do not “do” worship so that we can then go out and “do” ethics or good works. Worship is our ethic: it is the enactment, the ritual performance of a moral vision out of which the people of God are called to live justly and ethically. Thus liturgy is not a resource for ethics; rather, it is its ontological condition (the very nature of ethics).
Construed this way, Christian ethics is less about intractable moral quandaries and more about a way of imagining church and world (and the Christian’s place in both) that is rooted in the ongoing narrative of Israel, Jesus, and the church—a narrative that is given formal and dramatic expression in the church’s liturgy. (For example, in the drama of early Christian baptism .) The task of Christian ethics, then, is “to assemble reminders from the training we receive in worship that enable us to rightly see the world” (Stanley Hauerwas). It is to be formed by the truthful habits of speech and gesture, learned in worship, that shape the character of persons and communities for faithful witness in the world. And while the liturgy is not a tool for the moral formation of Christians, in and through worship, the baptized “become what they are already by grace, the holy people of God” (Vigen Guroian).
The Unfaithfulness of the Church
Yet there is a sense among many in our time that much of this talk about liturgy and ethics—about the liturgy after the liturgy—has a hollow ring to it. In light of sexual abuse scandals, financial improprieties, the continued racial and ethnic segregation of churches, rampant sexism and homophobia, and corruption of all kinds, positioning the terms church or worship and ethics in proximity to one another often evokes reactions of cynicism, disgust, incredulity, and anger. From this perspective, the church is lamented (and often dismissed) as a human institution easily given to the kinds of crookedness and shady dealing that have come to define much of the culture of corporate America and the spheres of politics, professional sports, and mass entertainment.
That the church is a human institution—a motley collective across time and space of human beings who are subject to weakness, pettiness, and unfaithfulness—is of course true. But the church is more than the mere sum of its human members; it is an eschatological reality: as our discussions of baptism and Eucharist hopefully have made clear, the church is the sign of God’s good future, the continuing presence of Christ in the world. So the church’s moral failings and ethical breaches can be traced, at least in large measure, to its inability to unwillingness to live true to this calling—its inability or unwillingness to enact a cruciform politics, and thus an “ethic” of truthfulness and holiness in the midst of falsehood, deception, and all manner of unholiness—an ethic predicated on eucharistia (thanksgiving) and on the call to be the gift of Christ’s body for others.
“The unfaithfulness of the church in the present age is based to some extent on its failure to take itself seriously as the continuation of Christ’s body in the world and to conform itself, body and soul, not to the world but to Christ (Rom. 12:2)” (Michael Cavanaugh). So the church goes forth from the worshiping assembly not in its own strength, not by its own power or cleverness. It goes forth in the Spirit to be a sign of the reign of God, to be the continuation of Christ’s body in the world, and to enact a cruciform politics: a way of being shaped by the self-emptying love of Christ. And we do this, as we make our way back around to our core subject here, as a people in exile: a people not at home in the host culture, in many ways at odds with the world around us. And yet it’s a bit tricky: we are to be in the world but not of the world; while at the same time we know that God so loved the world. So what is our stance to the “world” supposed to be? One of hostility? withdrawal? Are we supposed to transform it? convert it? shun it? What?
A Trinitarian Justice
What we learn from another biblical source on the theme of exile is that God’s people are to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29). But not from any impulse that we must seize control of its politics and dictate its ideology. Rather, the justice we seek to enact, the justice that flows directly out of worship is Trinitarian in nature. Let me say that again: the justice that Christians are sent forth to live out, work for, and witness to is based on the absolute reciprocity, generosity, and equality that constitute the relations among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is the source of all justice, all striving for liberation, well-being, and wholeness because, as the Athanasian Creed (from the 5th or 6th century) puts it: “in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater; or less than another; but the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal.” This is a doctrine of God with the most radical consequences for what it means to do justice in the world; it has evident implications for the organizing of human communities and for the material conditions of human flourishing.
When we are sent forth from worship with the words of the apostolic blessing, and then neglect to enact a politics that manifests Trinitarian justice—that is, when the church in the world fails to be what it already is by God’s grace—then we fail to do justice to the justice of God. And we are also in danger of rendering the worship we offer untrue, for work and worship are, as Nicholas Wolterstorff observers, “mutually authenticating.” Moreover, the liturgy after the liturgy for a church in exile is work performed from a position of vulnerability rather than strength or dominance. And that’s because the faithful church always exists in alien territory. The real triumphs of the gospel have not been won, as missiologist Lesslie Newbegin once noted, “when the church is strong in a worldly sense; they have been won when the church is faithful in the midst of weakness, contempt, and rejection.” The church is more likely to be “successful” in its witness, as Newbegin reminds us, when it is marginalized, persecuted, ridiculed, or written off.
The temptation, of course, is for the church to align itself with political ideologies, and that’s what the church in North America has done pretty much across the board. “Liberal” and “conservative” do not just name and identify viewpoints about doctrine or worship practice, they locate a church, a denomination within the partisan political debate in American culture. To tip my hand: there is much that Christians can affirm about liberalism as a political ideology: its advancement of human rights, its concern for the poor and dispossessed. But an exilic church grounds its life and witness not in the modern democratic social order, but in its worship of the Triune God whose own nature is radical justice. One way to put it a little more concretely, which may help us transition into our second theme here: the church that pronounces concern for the homeless must also stand ready to welcome the homeless in the shelter of their own homes and houses of worship.
Siding with the Stranger
A church in exile, a people who worship a strange God who tells them to do things like love their enemies and sell everything you have, this kind of church sides not with power and prestige but with the lonely and forgotten, with outcasts and strangers. We know this because Jesus did this. And in many ways it is what got him killed. In siding with the stranger in our midst, the church is not acting as another social service agency; it is not assuming that patronizing stance of giving handouts to the needy. Rather, as Sam Wells has suggested, “Christian hospitality assumes [that] the stranger has come to bring a gift—because Christ came to bring unlimited gifts, and Christ was a stranger—and that gift may turn out to be crucial for the maintenance and flourishing of the Christian community (God’s Companions, 108). We side with the strangers in our midst because we can’t be the Church without them.
There’s a story that Kathleen Norris relates in her book Dakota: “Visits to monasteries,” she says, “are as old as monasteries themselves. We think of monks as being remote from the world, but Saint Benedict, writing in the sixth century, notes that a monastery is never without guests, and admonishes monks to ‘receive all guests as Christ.’ Monks have been quick to recognize that such hospitality, while undoubtedly a blessing, can also create burdens for them. A story said to originate in a Russian Orthodox monastery has an older monk telling a younger one: ‘I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’”
A Hospitable Approach to Immigration
To be a bit more concrete here, I want to talk about a particular group of strangers in our midst; some that I have a little experience with, and hopefully this will help us be more specific in how we make this connection between the church itself being an exiled, marginalized community and its witness of hospitality to strangers in exile and at the margins. Immigrants. And in my own experience, Latinos. Missional Christianity and missional worship call the church to consider immigration through Scripture’s clear call to welcome the stranger as we see ourselves, like the immigrants, as a people in exile: sojourners in a foreign land who live not by claiming “our rights” over and against so-called outsiders, but solely by the mercy and grace of a generous, hospitable God.
Missional Christianity and missional worship call the church to link matters related to legislation, work visas, border patrols, ICE raids, and green cards to the Hebrew scriptures’ insistence that Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born and to the truth that the New Testament’s most notable refugee was Jesus himself. In Luke 24:18, as a part of the Emmaus story: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” The key word is the Greek word “paroikos,” usually translated as foreigner or stranger. Abraham lived in the promised land as a “paroikos”. Moses lived in Midian as a “paroikos”. Israel’s time in Egypt was a time of “paroikia”. The “paroikos” is not a tourist. The “paroikos” is a stranger, a refugee, a migrant, an alien. The time of “paroikia” is not a vacation. It is a time of suffering, a time of exile. This important word appears again in Peter’s first letter where he exhorts Christians to “live in reverent fear during the time of their “paroikia” (1 Peter 1:17).
Facts, as you know, do not seem to matter much in the current public debate about immigration: think about recent legislation—horrifying in its effects in Arizona and Alabama. Never mind that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for public aid programs like welfare, food stamps, public housing, or Medicaid. Never mind that the majority of undocumented workers have Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes deducted from their payroll (even though they are ineligible for any Social Security or Medicare benefits and for almost all of the federal and state government benefits funded by income taxes). It seems that fear is all over this issue: immigrants living in fear, Americans living in fear. But for Christians who care about this issue and the people affected by it, the way of Jesus offers a way out of the fear. “Perfect love casts out all phobos” (1 John 4:18). Jesus, who as an immigrant child fled with his family from the authorities, calms our phobias about strangers by coming to us as one—by being present in those who frighten and unsettle us, in the despised and rejected among us.
For several months I helped teach Sunday School and provide child care in a small Latino congregation in North Carolina. For the most part, the kids were like all kids everywhere: energetic, mischievous, manipulative, full of joy, a pain in the butt. But once in awhile—too often, as I think about it—one of the children would reveal something of the fear that they and their families regularly experienced. They would almost always do this in a casual, disinterested sort of way — perhaps as a defense mechanism or maybe because they’d been trained to be stoic in the face of difficulty. Most of what these kids revealed about their stressed-out lives was that their parents lived in continual fear of the police. Once, an ICE agent came to the church office (where I worked and where the Latino congregation met on Sunday evenings) looking for information about the Latino pastor. The fear these families lived in was not unfounded; it was a daily burden and one that their children were learning to bear with them. (It turns out that these kids were unlike most of their Anglo peers in an important way: they were not carefree).
Casting Out Fear
The children of immigrants put a human face on this contentious issue, but it is not a face that should engender pity or sentimentality. In the gospels, when Jesus takes a little child in his arms and says “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” he is not waxing romantic about the innocence of children. He is saying something about the subversive nature of the mission of God: that the first will be last; that the lowly will be lifted up; that the powerless will receive power; that the status quo will be disrupted. He is saying that immigrants—children and parents and whole families—are to be loved, not feared. Love casts out fear. This is the way of Jesus, the way of love, and when we dare to walk it, the kingdom of God is near. We are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. Jesus did not have a valid birth certificate. Mother’s name: Mary; Father’s name: unknown. In fact, Jesus had no papers in his name, no title deed, no rental contract. Nothing. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Loving the World
People living in exile generally do not hold the dominant culture in high esteem. Remember Psalm 137? “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” We have talked about how God can take this kind of honest rage. The depths of human anger and despair can be expressed to God—this is what the Psalms of lament tell us. But there is also that annoying call to love the world. Because God loves it, we are to love it. The wounds of Christ declare God’s love for the world. And yet what do we mean exactly by “world”?
If by “world” we mean the material creation, then we know that God loves what God has made: “at the end of each day of creation, [God] pronounced a resounding ‘Good!’ over his own concoctions” (Robert Capon). But if by world we mean something like the dis-ordering of a primordially good creation, well, then, we know that God still loves this broken, out-of-joint, messed up world: that the world is always the theatre of God’s redeeming activity; the world is not given up on by God, even when we want to give up on a world comprised of principalities and powers that oppress the weak and trample the downtrodden. The “world” is simply never beyond the reach of divine love. We all make a too tidy separation between church and world, sacred and secular, spiritual and material when we assume that God divides up what God loves, that God favors or prioritizes what God has called into being through the outpouring of divine energy and love.
God’s mission is to transform and renew, to heal and reconcile a world at odds with itself, with God. The Church participates in the mission by its witness which, in the case of something like, say, immigration reform, might mean resisting mightily the corrupt forces of the “world” as an act of love toward their transformation into good. Loving the world sometimes looks like political advocacy; sometimes it means exposing the forces of evil and darkness that would harm the world and its inhabitants. Loving the world can never mean giving up on it. The church, by being a new social humanity in the midst of the current social order, incarnates a “concrete rearrangement” of this order, thereby both critiquing the status quo and modeling a new way. As expressed by John Howard Yoder: “The church only exists as “living from and toward the promise of the whole world’s salvation.” (Priestly Kingdom, 12).
Which reminds us of that signature verse about God’s love for the world, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Isolated from all that precedes and follows it, John 3:16 has become the gospel distilled to sound bite, to manageable bumper-sticker slogan–the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all you need to know to be a Christian. Believe in Jesus. Accept him into your heart. (Phraseology that, interestingly enough, is found nowhere in the Bible). For John, loving the world as God loves it seems to have something to do with belief. And modern, individualist Christianity has understood “belief” to be a kind of private matter of the heart. As theologian Peter Storey has put it: “Some tell us that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, ‘May I bring my friends?’ And when we look at them we see that they are not the kind of company we like to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the rejected–the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, ‘Jesus, must we really have them too?’ Jesus replies, ‘Love me, love my friends!’”
This is what love for the world looks like: friendship with God in Christ, friendship with those in exile, even as we the church live as a people in exile. Learning to believe in God is learning to see all things in the way God sees them: infinitely worthy of our understanding, interest, and care. It is to love the world as God so loved the world. In missional worship the missional church is sent out to do the liturgy after the liturgy; to love the world as God so loved the world. And we do this in practical, material ways: by siding with the stranger who is often abused and abandoned in a world out of sync with God’s mission. We don’t give up on the stranger in need, and we don’t give up on the world that God loves. “Go forth to love God and your neighbor in all that you” is one form of liturgical dismissal—of being sent out for the work of the people in the world. May we, each of us, energized by these days of intense focus on the worship of God’s missional people, return to our communities with our love for the world enlarged, that God’s mission might be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How does worship prepare us for ministry and mission?
- What is the relationship between worship and ethics?
- Where do you see evidence of the unfaithfulness of the church?
- What is meant by a “Trinitarian justice”?
- In what ways can missional worship reshape immigration?
- How can worship in a foreign land enable the church to love the world?
Debra Dean Murphy is Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Debra brings wisdom and passion around the dynamic intersection of Christian formation and the church as a worshipping community. While she continues to write on this subject, her foundational work is, Teaching that Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education. Debra currently chairs the Board of Ekklesia Project, and has her own blog, Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.