Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sermon: We are Members One of Another

Dear Readers,

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach my first-ever sermon, having been invited to provide pulpit supply in a west Toronto congregation during these quieter summer months. My goal was to introduce some background about the Taizé Community to the congregation, which already has some Taizé songs in its repertoire, to inspire their curiosity and open the door to further exploration of this style in the future. I hoped to do this in the context of the wider concerns of the worship service that day, including the lectionary readings. The sermon was followed by a "suite" of chants in the Taizé style.

I thought I would share it now with a wider readership; I welcome your comments!


Lectionary Readings:

Ephesians 4:25--5:2
"So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another..."

John 6:35, 41-51
"Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty'... I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’"

In today’s passage from Ephesians, the Apostle Paul describes in detail his view of what Christian community should look like; the real-world implications of his ethical advice to them earlier in the letter. Our Rev. Paul pointed out last week that to exist in a healthy Christian community, we ought not to strive for uniformity, but unity, mutuality, solidarity. As described in Ephesians, in order to live out the vision of God’s kingdom on earth, we must in essence put the needs of the community ahead of personal grievances: we are instructed to always be reconciled to one another: “do not let the sun go down on your anger,” as the Apostle puts it. Put away bitterness, slander and malice; forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Paul actually sums up the hermeneutic, the basis for this reasoning, right at the beginning of today’s passage: “you are members one of another.”

As I understand this, each of us in the body of Christ is in a mutual communion with each other member. That does not mean we always have to agree with one another’s choices in life, or approach to the faith journey, or taste in favourite hymns. But it does mean we are each intimately connected, an embodiment of one another lived out in the world. I think there is a rich understanding to be had by connecting this with today’s gospel reading from John: here, Christ makes an analogy of himself with bread, a living bread that brings us into relationship with God, nourishing us in a way no earthly food can. We are familiar with this idea from imagery tied to Holy Communion: just as we eat a piece of bread, and it becomes a part of our physical bodies, so by breaking bread in memory of Christ’s sacrifice, Christ lives in us. I think the letter to the Ephesians echoes this sentiment, as an image to aid us in strengthening our communal ties. “You are members one of another” – you belong to one another, you em-body one another, just as you belong to God and so Christ is embodied in you.

This past spring, I had the opportunity to visit the Taizé Community, in the Burgundy province of north-eastern France. Taizé is a unique and very special modern community, built around daily prayer services, reflection on the scriptures, and silence.

The Taizé Community has been built up on the outskirts of the very small French town from which it takes its name. It is an international ecumenical Christian community, founded in 1940 by a Swiss monk named Brother Roger (Frère Roger). When the Second World War began, Brother Roger felt called to aid Jewish refugees, offering them a place of safety in spite of the great danger involved. Today, the core community of Taizé is a brotherhood of over one hundred monks, who have taken vows of poverty and given their lives and talents over to the continuation of the community.

If you already recognize the word “Taizé,” you may think of it as a type of song, or a style of worship. The unique style that emerged from the community over the years is characterized by brief, four-part songs or “chants.” These songs are meant to be sung several times over, ebbing and flowing as the spirit works through the community in song. In this way, they are repeated, but not repetitive, as they are never the same twice. Worshippers are invited to enter into the world of the particular chant, and as the song carries on, as it “sinks in,” it becomes a prayer embodied by the community.

Different people experience this in different ways; you may like to think of a Taizé chant as a ritual prayer that is internalized through repetition, somewhat like the Roman Catholic spiritual discipline of praying the rosary. You may imagine that the music picks up the sentiment of your prayer and carries it to heaven in a way words alone do not – in the spirit of a phrase attributed to St. Augustine, “those who sing, pray twice.” You may like to think of it as a kind of mantra, that gradually wends its way into your soul, and that may reveal God to you in a new and unexpected way.

Over the years, Taizé has become a kind of pilgrimage destination. People come from many countries, representing every continent, to experience this life of meditation, silence, and song. These participants may take part in daily discussion groups and Bible study sessions. Others choose to join a special group which spends the week in silence, taking the opportunity to be separate from the daily concerns of speech, and to delve deeper into reflection on scripture and silent prayer.

During popular times of the year, Taizé is prepared to accommodate in excess of 5000 visitors, both on the grounds and in the worship space itself, the Church of Reconciliation. Indeed, during Holy Week when the community is most heavily visited, young people sleep on mats in the chapel itself for want of space anywhere else – but no one is turned away.

David and I arrived on Thursday to experience the latter portion of the week at Taizé, a week that is built on a repeated cycle, not unlike summer camp. The similarities with camp continued as we pitched our tent in the nearby field and lined up for a lunch of bread, fruit, and hot chocolate in a large plastic bowl. The mandate of simplicity pervades all aspects of life there. Visitors to the community each receive a work placement to help keep the community running smoothly; you might spend an hour each day mopping out the showers, washing the lunch dishes, or sweeping the dormitories.

We quickly fell into the rhythm of life in the community, aided by the serene presence of the Taizé brothers and the friendliness of our fellow participants. When I had the chance, I slipped into Exposition, the shop where the brothers sell their artisanal products for the benefit of the community. I bought a small enamel cross, symbol of the community. I chose a deep flame red colour, because Taizé has always been for me a symbol of Pentecost.

This perception was confirmed during our time there, particularly during a workshop on the story of the Prodigal Son. The talk was given in German by a Chinese brother. So that we English speakers could understand, a volunteer sat in the corner with us and translated from German to English as the talk went along.  Midway, it emerged there was a small group of French people present. A participant from Belgium sat with them behind me and translated from German into French for their benefit. As the languages swirled around me, bringing new layers of meaning to a story I have known all my life, I felt as if I was one of witnesses to the Pentecost event, being enveloped by the rush of a mighty wind and receiving God’s word in my own language.

This Pentecost allegory continued with the experience of worship at Taizé. Previously, Taizé chants were all sung in Latin, on the basis that since Latin is a language that no-one speaks in community, singing in Latin is an equalizing choice, as it is no-one’s mother tongue. Now, the songs have proliferated and spread all over the world, and have been translated into dozens upon dozens of languages. So, many participants come to Taizé already knowing the songs from their home communities. As a chant is sung, you might hear it in three or four different languages around you simultaneously. The ever-changing community of pilgrims is made up of people of very different Christian backgrounds who espouse varying understandings of God, yet in that act of singing we enter into mutuality, as all sing in their own language, and all understand. “You are members one of another.”

Another central aspect of prayer at Taizé is silence – an extended time of silent reflection, often lasting several minutes. Here again, worshippers will experience this period of silence in different ways. You might take the time to clear your head of the thoughts and concerns of the day, to seek out an inner place of quiet and simplicity, and to open yourself to the presence of God. You may choose to take this time to think more deeply on the scripture passage of the day. You might bring your silent prayers to God, your concerns for yourself, our community, and the world. “Let all mortal flesh keep silence / and with fear and trembling stand,” intones the ancient hymn. Don’t worry too much if the silence seems long, or unsettling – we are clearing a place for God to speak to us, and this is a powerful concept.

A number of scholars have pointed out that a key aspect of John’s Gospel (from which we read today) is what is known as a “realized eschatology,” a view of the coming kingdom of heaven as a present reality. That is, the Kingdom of God will come, and is being lived out on earth; Jesus reigns now in heaven, and will come again in glory. Those who partake of the Bread of Life, who believe Jesus is Lord and follow where he leads, are glimpsing the Kingdom that is to come in the present day. This tension between “already” and “not yet,” of what has been accomplished and what is coming soon, is central to our faith.

Brother Roger referred to Taizé as “a parable of community.” It is the only place in the world where people of any Christian communion, whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, are actively welcomed to partake of Holy Communion together, to share the bread and wine in corporate worship. This is no trivial concept,  in a world so in need of reconciliation; a world where tempers flare over nothing and shootings in public places have become disturbingly commonplace; a world where violence is done on innocent people in their places of worship, such as the Sikh community in Wisconsin attacked by a White Supremacist shooter last Sunday morning.

Indeed, the Taizé Community, a beacon of trust and reconciliation, has itself experienced violence: in August of 2005, Brother Roger was stabbed repeatedly by an assailant during the evening prayer service in front of over two thousand worshippers; he was carried away by a brother of the community, and died shortly afterwards. This assault was an act of sickness by a schizophrenic woman, toward whom the Taizé Community offered up prayers of forgiveness shortly after. In spite of this occurrence, as David and I experienced this past spring, the community continues to operate on a basis of openness, trust, and fellowship to all who come as pilgrims. “You are members one of another.”

I believe that the Taizé Community lives out, in its simple daily life, the tension of “already” and “not yet” of John’s present kingdom. In negotiating one another’s disparate backgrounds and differing languages, in entering into prayer and silence as a community, in living together in a spirit of trust and mutual respect, and in the bread that is broken and shared by all, we receive a glimpse of the world to come.

One Taizé chant says: “The kingdom of God is justice and peace / and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.” I invite you now to pray with me, in the manner of the Taizé Community.

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