The Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh in Judaism, is divided into three parts – Torah, The Prophets and The Writings. Tanakh is an acronym for the three categories included in the Hebrew canon: Torah; Nevi’im; and Kethuvim.
A couple of weeks ago our Wednesday morning Bible Study at St. Alban’s began looking at (and having a great time doing so) the middle section of the Hebrew canon – Nevi’im – The Prophets. The prophetic witness of the Hebrew Scriptures is a good guide in regard to helping us address the question posed in my blog entry last week (What is Church?) because the prophets address what it means to be a holy people – that is, a people set apart by God for a particular and divine purpose – and much of the time they do so not by showing us where we’ve got things right but where our holiness is lacking. The criticism that the prophets bring to our living isn’t limited to a particular sphere of life but rather address what is lacking in our political, social and cultic (we’d say religious) identity as God’s people. The last category above is of particular concern to many of the prophets who declared that the sacrificial practices of the temple were empty ones. Jesus adopted many of the same criticisms of worship and temple practices that were devoid of holiness in his day calling the teachers of the law hypocrites who tithe mint and dill and cumin meanwhile neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. The whole of chapter 23 in The Gospel of Matthew is a relentless attack on church leadership and a vivid description of what God thinks when we worship our worship.
I don’t write these words in order to use this blog as a bully pulpit or to suggest that our worship as a church is empty or devoid of holiness. In fact, when I was lost and needed to know that I was loved by God, corporate worship in the Episcopal church saved my life. Still, as we ask ourselves the question “What is Church?” we must also ask “What is worship?” Where does worship happen? What does it look like? Who’s invited? To the unchurched, what does what we revere in our church buildings and services imply? Do we worship worship? The answer to these questions will most likely be “both and” as they say – that our traditional worship holds great importance but also that we must find new ways to express our love and devotion to God and to express what holiness looks like in the life of the church.
Recently we lined up four tables in front of St. Alban’s along Wisconsin Avenue to make replicas of human bones out of clay for the One Million Bones project. On the same day the National Cathedral was having its annual ‘Flower Mart’ and there were hundreds of folks visiting the Cathedral close. The bone-making project was magnetic. Young and old alike were drawn to the activity at the tables, asking, “What is this?” People lined up to ‘make their bone.’ The seeker, the doubter and the faithful were welcomed. Out came cell phones taking pictures and videos as representatives from One Million Bones and members of St. Alban’s described what the purpose of the project was. If we’d have started singing my bet is people would have joined in to make a joyful noise.
My favorite explanation of the morning happened when a parishioner responded to the question “Why are we making bones?” (asked by an inquisitive girl of about five years old) by saying, “We are doing this so we can teach people how to be nicer to each other.” As we were cleaning up after the event I heard someone say, “That was church.” Thanks be to God and to the prophets.