2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19
One of the most interesting parts of my sabbatical has been visiting other churches. And there’s nothing quite like visiting other churches to appreciate how good your own is! Most of the time I have been ignored. Oh perhaps I got a smile at the door as I was handed pew sheets and a hymn-book – but not always. At the Peace people did indeed shake my hand, or limply touch my fingertips without even looking me in the eye, but you could tell they were just being polite before they could have a natter and a real smile for their friend in front of you. And then at the end I handed my books in and mostly nobody even noticed. Only once was I invited back for coffee.
In churches where I was known it was very different of course. There it was smiles and welcome-backs and catching up on news. So it was very tempting to keep going back to those ones.
And then there was the worship itself… Oh jings, but some of it was dreary. Hymn singing that you could hardly hear; (and you know, if you’re going to insist on only singing hymns written before 1900 at least sing them joyfully);
dull, dull, dull sermons straight out of a biblical commentary;
and Eucharistic prayers recited as if it was the phone book.
How great are we, I kept thinking? And we are great! And I really missed you!
But when I was reading today’s lessons the Old Testament reading reminded me of one church I visited where things were completely different. Let me remind you of those verses from the 2nd book of Samuel:
‘David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals… and David danced before the Lord with all his might.’
Dancing and joyful songs and musical instruments – surely not in worship? Surely not in Scotland? No indeed, this was New York.
St Mark’s in the Bowery to be precise. A church tucked away in the East Village, nothing much to look at outside, in a rather poor neighbourhood. But oh what a welcome! And of course you’re thinking ‘those Americans are a bit over the top when it comes to welcome and worship’ and you could be right. But you know, before the service people really cared that I was there and asked where I was from. “Scotland?! Oh wow! My grandmother came from Scotland.” “Scotland? Wow! What brings you here?” “Scotland? Wow! How lovely that you’re visiting us!”
Let me read you the welcome on their pew sheet:
St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery works hard to be a welcoming place. What that means here is that you are welcome, as you are, to participate in any of our worship services. We believe people encounter the holy here, and we want that for you.
We know that church might be something you have wanted to do for a while; a dream come true; kind of scary; possibly awful; or really exciting for you. We won’t assume.
We would like you to know that all kinds of people come into St. Mark’s week to week. You might find yourself next to a life long member, a new-ish one, or someone who has walked in for the first time. Don’t worry that you have to do what they are doing.
We love children. We are delighted to have them in our services. If you are worried that your child is distracting others, please do what you need to do to be comfortable, but don’t worry that we are worried. If you find it difficult or distracting to be near a child who is making noise, feel free to move. We want children to remember the church as a place that reflects God’s love for them. If you feel that you have been approached in an inappropriate or unhelpful way during your time at St. Mark’s, we would like to know. If you feel that something about how we do things causes you to feel unwelcome, we would like to know. Please talk to an usher, a priest, or email or call the office.
The service was relaxed, the music was mostly modern (quite a few Iona hymns actually) but we also sang The Lord’s my Shepherd to the Scottish tune Peter and Hazel had on their wedding day: Brother James’ Air. And the people really, really enjoyed singing them. There was even some swaying along to the music too. I couldn’t see an organ so they used a piano and if you felt like singing in the choir all you had to do was turn up half an hour before the service and join in the practice.
The sermon was funny in bits and serious in bits and there was a story (and you know how I love a story) and gave us all something to think about when we went home.
We sat in rows in a circle round the altar in the middle and when it came to the eucharist we stood in one big circle round it. “Come along!” they said. “Come and join us!” And Winnie, the priest, really meant that Eucharistic prayer, she believed it, you could tell. Then we passed the bread and wine along the circle from one person to another.
And you know that big AMEN at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer? That one that I’ve told you has to be said loudly and affirmed? Well they sang it and clapped it and swayed to it and someone even produced a tambourine for it.
So when I read this morning’s reading about David rejoicing and dancing in the temple, St Mark’s in the Bowery is what I thought of. I remembered the joy they had for all their worship. A joy that showed on their faces. A jazzy, gospel, blues kind of joy. A bit too cringey for you? For us in Scotland? Well perhaps. But what a sense of enjoyment I got there, of loving the Lord with all their heart and soul – and bodies too.
And afterwards when I was sitting in the sun in a nearby park jotting down my memories of that service, I saw the people from the church coming round with a big shopping trolley handing out food and drinks to the homeless folk there. Just like David who, when he had finished offering the sacrifice, blessed the people and distributed food among all the people – to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. (And I have some Hershey’s Kisses for you when you leave today.)
Now we may not be up for the dancing and singing but we can support the homeless by bringing food along for the Salvation Army. Do what you can in your own neighbourhood.
And perhaps in time, you’ll be so inspired and excited about coming to church that you’ll go out of here singing and dancing. You’ll know you’ve welcomed the stranger in your midst, made them feel at home in your little Temple of the Lord here in Falkirk. You might even want to go home and write it down so you never forget the welcome you got and how wonderful you feel. You might even believe that you are loved by God and you want to show it.