Today's liturgy and readings remind us that my second favorite trinity β the Church, the city and the world β have expectations of us. They have high expectations β maybe even holy expectations. Their expectations of us here today are no different from the expectations of all of God's people of every time and every place. We're expected to be something and most of us, for a variety of reasons, are very uncomfortable with what the Church, the city and the world expect us to be. In fact, we hate the term. Most of us have spent our whole lives doing everything we can to avoid being what the Church, the city and the world expect us to be. For that reason, no preacher I know has ever used that word or expressed that expectation from this pulpit. But here's the truth and there's no getting around it: According to today's liturgy and readings, God has the same expectation of us also. So here it is, this is what the Church, the city, the world and God expect of us at this time and especially in this place. They expect us to be orthodox.
There, I said it. More to the point, I said it on the feast of the Holy Trinity, a day which, in most of our minds seems to be about a doctrine β a doctrine we do not fully understand, therefore a
doctrine we refuse to believe and therefore a label we refuse attached to ourselves and therefore an expectation we choose to reject. I want to say something about the doctrine, but it's something other than doctrine that the Church, the city, the world and God expect of us today. The orthodoxy they expect is not so much a matter of doctrine as it is a matter of stance, action and behavior. It's not a matter of what we struggle to believe, but what we aspire and are inspired, to do.
But first, the doctrine.
We sang a beautiful psalm today, a psalm that expresses great surprise about God and, simultaneously, great faith in God as well.
What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them,
human beings that you should care for them?
Surprise! God cares β God is mindful β of us and we can bet our lives, we can bet our future on God's surprising mindfulness. God for us. That's the doctrine that the Church in all its teaching wants to always and everywhere express. And in light of the life, death and
resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Church has found that to proclaim God for us, we must also proclaim God as, in Pastor Stahler's favorite formulation, "always Three, ever One." God for us, also known as "the Gospel", is the doctrine. God as Holy Trinity is the formulation. This is an undeniably simplistic explanation, nevertheless I will say it again: God for us is the Gospel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Holy Spirit uses that Gospel to motivate, energize and propel us to be what the Church, the city, the world and God expect us to strive to be β orthodox.
But being orthodox is not primarily about doctrine. Being orthodox is primarily about worship. Worship β dox-ology β is the orthodoxy that the Church, the city, the world and God expects of us.
Etymologically, doctrine and doxology are not even related. Doctrine is about teaching and learning and intellectual assent. Doxology is about relationship, about glory experienced and glory being given. A real Orthodox Christian β Greek, Russian, Syrian or the like β the ones we pray for when we pray for Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Demetrios β would never
confuse the two.
But we, especially those of us raised in churches before 1970, might and we do. We were raised with the notion that "going to church" was all about doctrine, about listening and learning so that we would be "wise unto salvation." We were raised in churches where the Sermon and, second only to the sermon, Sunday School, were what we went to church to get. In fact, "getting something out of" church was what going to church was all about. Most American church architecture powerfully reinforced this: Pulpits were high, lifted up and occasionally smack dab in the center. Altars, were like breakfronts, shoved against the back wall and seemingly chiefly for holding candles, flowers and books. Baptismal fonts, the size of finger bowls, were tucked away in invisible corners. Yes, there were choirs and organs and great music, but we placed them high up in the back where they could be heard but not seen, mostly because their role was chiefly to entertain; just as congregational singing was primarily to explicate and further explain what had been taught and, most importantly, to help us "internalize," that is memorize, all we heard. In that environment, "going to church" meant going to learn. It didn't
matter what the Church, the city, the world or God expected of us; we (or our parents) expected us. We went to church to "get something out of" church β something we could memorize; something that could be tested; something we could use to give the right answers and therefore to be "right," refute any who would question us, and prove anyone who didn't agree with what we learned wrong. No wonder most of us hate to be labeled "orthodox." No wonder so many of us moved to New York!
The liturgical reforms of the 60s and 70s transformed all of that by restoring the Eucharist to be the chief Sunday liturgy and "Holy Baptism to the liturgical rank and dignity implied by Lutheran theology." Today we assemble primarily to worship God and, as we worship, to receive God's gift the Holy Spirit which comes to us through the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Today we don't just go to church to sit, listen and learn, we do liturgy, our work, the work of the people of God. Today we no longer gather to "get something out" of church (although we do β we receive the gifts of God), today we gather to offer "ourselves, our time and our possessions, sign of God's gracious love" to God. That's what it means to be orthodox. That's
what's expected of us. Like it or not, that's what's especially expected of us here.
To be orthodox literally means to "worship rightly" β a worthy goal, but for our purposes today I'd put this differently. To be orthodox is to strive for excelling in worship; to constantly strive to offer God our most genuine, passionate, perfect praise and best and finest gifts. That's what we are called, gathered and nourished to do. It's that striving that we see in each and every liturgy. It is that striving that is at the heart of our choir, our dancers, our readers, ushers and liturgical assistants; our pastors, our Cantor and our Director of Jazz. It is that striving to excel in worship that the Church, the city, the world and God expect of each of us here and all of us who assemble as the holy people of God. It is that striving that causes us to always seek to do better and because this is our offering; this is what we give to our most mindful, caring God. This is the striving, the genuine orthodoxy that the Church, city, world and God expect us to be.
That's why we must always seek the best people to lead us to excel in our worship. I am so very grateful that Ike and Jared, Fabian and Guillermo, Roberto and Hannah and Wayne and
now Karosi BΓ‘lint are here with us and can be trusted to do just that.
And that is why we must constantly remind ourselves that we never worship alone. We expect to be, as we pray each Sunday, to be, "led by Mary, Mother of God." We expect our praises, led by her, will not be ours alone, but be joined with "all the choirs of angels, the church on earth, the hosts of heaven [and with] angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and earth and sea and all their creatures" together praising God; together glorifying God's name. Because that's what the Church, the city, the world and God expect of us, and that, in turn is what we have come to expect of them, so that "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses," and with our praises magnified, we can "run with perseverance the race that is set before us and take our place among them with Christ who continually intercedes with us at the right hand of God.
Thanks be to God!
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York