Robert Short wrote the classic The Gospel According to Peanuts.
Then there was a Gospel According to the Simpsons
both published by our very “hip” Presbyterian publishing arm.
Someone else has written The Gospel According to Tony Soprano.
It’s touted as being about “faith, forgiveness, and family values.”
Well, my book is almost finished.
The Gospel According to the Ed Sullivan Show.
Chapter One explains to younger readers who he was.
Chapter Two explains the concept of the variety show.
And Chapter Three tells of why Sullivan’s Sunday night show ran for 23 years.
Sullivan himself was a writer, a columnist.
He didn’t tell jokes, he didn’t sing or dance or act.
He wasn’t even a very good announcer, really.
But his variety show ran for all those years because he knew the meaning of variety!
He booked a ballet company, performing seals, Johnny Cash,
a vaudeville comedian who drew a long string of bananas out of his baggy coat,
and a Metropolitan Opera tenor —
followed by a trapeze artist from the Barnum and Bailey Circus,
all in one hour-long show.
He brought on the likes of Elvis and the Beatles in their heydays,
but only amid dancing elephants, a jazz pianist, and trained monkeys.
There’s nothing like it on TV now, except Sullivan’s reruns.
The variety show is passé.
One reason is that we don’t much care for variety anymore.
We know what we like, and we have a low tolerance for things just outside our liking.
As bandwidth increases, our tastes become more narrow.
You want elephants and seals? They have their own channel now.
A teenager who likes Taylor Swift isn’t going to sit still for Wynton Marsalis.
A fan of the opera might not appreciate dancing bears wearing tutus.
In our likes and dislikes, we have becomes specialists,
and variety is a spice that has somehow lost its flavor.
Oh, we have choices, more choices than ever before.
Almost every day brings another toothbrush design,
another electronic gizmo, another way to do our banking.
We have choices, but so often we settle into our ruts and coast,
suspicious of new turns, new ideas.
And that includes our worship, too.
We have settled into an order of worship that most of us appreciate.
The vast majority of folks enjoy the old familiar hymns,
even while admitting that every hymn was new before they learned it!
Some folks love the “real” Doxology and the most familiar Gloria,
and if we change them, just for a season, it is discomforting.
When I graduated from seminary as the 1970’s dawned,
some churches were experimenting with folk masses, jazz services, and rock music.
There was a newsletter that I subscribed to, called “Lively Liturgy.”
If Vatican II had opened an age of experimentation in Catholic churches,
we Protestants responded by adapting Catholic folk hymns into our services.
Out of the “Bossa Nova Mass” came, “We Are One in the Spirit,”
better known as “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.”
[Yes, that’s from the “Bossa Nova Mass!”]
I was ordained as a “Minister of Electronic Media”
and when I was invited to lead worship in local churches,
the expectation was that I would go “do my thing,”
which meant playing rock music, projecting slides, and, later, using video...
in the eleven o’clock worship service.
If people hated it, the pastor could blame it on me,
and go back to worship as usual.
Which almost everybody did.
These days worship experimentation is in revival.
As few years ago I visited a once staid New Hampshire church.
Its congregation met in a recently renovated sanctuary,
a room that preserved the traditional lines of an historic building
and that still held the traditional furnishings of a church in the Reformed Tradition,
that is, a pulpit, a table, a baptismal font.
But there were also music stands for the “praise band,”
and microphones enough for every other singer,
a projector, and amplifiers and speakers,
all signs that their worship is slightly different from ours.
When our son Jim first went out to Purdue University for his graduate work,
Joan and I joined him in visiting a church in Lafayette.
It was a Presbyterian church, our brand,
but its worship style was very different, slick and smarmy, I thought.
When I came back home and preached a sermon critiquing their worship
and holding ours up as an example of “correct” worship,
I was rightly critiqued myself, by a visiting minister
who thought my sermon was too judgmental, my view too narrow.
He was right...
for as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there are varieties of gifts.
Still, I know what I like.
I know what speaks to me in worship.
The problem is, I need to know what it is that God likes
and what in the worship that we offer speaks to God,
for it is God at the center, not my likes, my feelings, my comfort.
I get the feeling God likes variety, for that is how God made us,
different folks, different strokes, as the song says.
Brian Wren is a poet, a hymn writer, and a professor at Columbia Seminary.
He has come to appreciate the variety of gifts that enrich worship.
I doubt it came easily, but this sentence from one of his books is helpful for me:
“I have come to appreciate musical styles formerly unknown or foreign to me,
and to accept as valid styles that offend me theologically
or aesthetically leave me cold.” [Wren, Praying Twice]
More power to him! And to his worship of God.
Not entirely unrelated...
Before David Letterman and Stephen Colbert did their late night TV shows in the Ed Sullivan Theater,
CBS had turned a magnificent showplace into that studio space.
Built in 1927, it was originally called Hammerstein’s Temple of Music.
Actually, looking at the photographs of the original interior of the theater,
one can see the design of a gothic cathedral,
complete with stained glass windows, vaulted arches, murals painted to resemble a mosaic ceiling,
and instead of proscenium boxes, there were urns reminiscent of baptismal fonts.
When patrons first entered the theater back in the twenties,
not surprisingly they were greeted by the sounds of a large pipe organ.
Here was a Broadway theater designed to look like a church.
The irony these days, of course, is that modern church interiors
are being designed to look like Broadway theaters, or TV studios,
with stages and theatrical lighting and audio paraphernalia, even plush theater seating.
And what goes on in some of those newer sanctuaries
seems more like a “show” of some kind rather than worship.
The worship leader sounds like an emcee,
the choir sings into hand held microphones
as their voices are mixed with a pre-produced orchestral music track,
and each element of worship is rewarded with warm applause.
It’s all very entertaining.
And many folks, finding the old traditional forms of worship dull and rather lifeless,
flock to those worship centers (no longer referred to as sanctuaries),
I think of an Assembly of God church I once attended.
That congregation of hands-clapping, tongues-speaking, bodies dancing “charismatics”
had moved into an old downtown gothic stone church
that had been abandoned by mainline Protestants who fled the city for the suburbs.
There was no order of worship that day I visited, nor was there ever an order, the pastor told me later.
The Holy Ghost gives us our orders, he laughed.
Guitars, bass, drums, and some horns joined the pipe organ in syncopated praise
while parishioners raised their hands over their heads and swayed rhythmically.
The preacher shouted, the people shouted back, Spirit-fed fire in their voices.
For two hours the energy level remained high as heaven allowed,
and one of my seminary friends received the gift of “tongues” that day.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in the rustic chapel of a Trappist monastery
listening to the gentle and comforting unison of Gregorian chant offered by the monks.
Young novices stood straight in their places in the choir,
joining their voices to those of their elderly, bent-over brothers
who had sung the same flowing tunes for sixty years.
An old monk padded his way to the lectern and read the Epistle reading
without a spark of emotion,
but clearly, slowly and distinctly, and with deep reverence for its mystery.
The chapel’s little electronic organ remained cloaked by a canvas cover.
The music of the monastery was unaccompanied,
unless you counted the feeble sound of a pitch pipe as the little choir rose to sing.
We followers of Jesus have so many ways to worship God.
So many songs, so many voices, so many gifts.
When a confirmation class of 12 and 13 year-olds
had finished a four week “tour” of local churches and one synagogue,
they sat in a circle in the youth center of their church
and reflected on the differences they experienced.
They had endured the marathon length of a Greek Orthodox service,
but loved the rich visual imagery of statuary, colorful mosaics, and icons.
They didn’t understand much of the synagogue’s worship since it was in Hebrew,
but they liked the rabbi’s storytelling sermon (which was in English, of course).
The Roman Catholic church included a praise band and the baptisms of eleven babies;
it was a so-called “family” service, youth-friendly, with up-tempo music.
They went to a small, rural church of their own denomination
and heard a seminary student say, “y’know,” fifty times within his 17-minute sermon.
As the youth thought back over the tour,
they focused naturally on the differences,
and some insisted on arguing for a particular style that was right.
(And, not surprisingly, “right” meant, “the way we were brought up.”)
So their pastor tried to move them away from their arguing,
and asked which service had provided the richest experience
of true worship for them as individuals.
The next exercise was to see what they would do to change their own church’s worship.
When they tried to take something from each service,
the way a hungry person might take several offerings from a cafeteria line,
they realized they couldn’t agree as a group on any one new order.
The closing devotions were based on Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman,
the memory verse being John 4:24...
“God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”
As we read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth,
we realize that followers of Jesus have always enjoyed a variety of ways
to sing, pray, preach, and offer their worship.
The church there was vividly alive,
and worship in the spirit was undoubtedly noisy, happy, and, even then, — divisive!
Not everyone who gathered in the Lord’s name
liked what was happening in the Lord’s name.
And somehow Paul got wind of it.
We lack details, but it’s clear that some folks there were manifesting signs
of not their oneness in the Spirit, but spiritual conceit.
They weren’t using their gifts so much for the worship of God,
but to show off,
to let fellow worshippers know what they had achieved spiritually.
I confess that I might have been one of the “whistle blowers,” if I had been alive back then.
I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m an introvert,
and I’m very uncomfortable with extroverted worship!
If someone leading music says, “Come on! Clap your hands!”
I’d really rather just stand in the back and watch.
As a worshipper, I’d rather sit with the Trappists than stand with the Pentecostals.
So I can picture myself at this house church in Corinth,
and I look around me and people are standing there swaying back and forth,
heads thrown back in ecstasy, eyes closed and arms raised,
and someone starts praying in a strange language,
then another, and then more, and here I am surrounded by the spiritually gifted,
feeling like a wet blanket,
wondering why the Lord hasn’t goosed me with such spirit-energy.
And afterward, one of the Lord’s more boisterous worshippers
approaches me and says something like,
“If you knew the Lord better, the Spirit would move your lips and your hips, brother Jeff.”
Or, “If you’d just let go of your inhibitions,
the Spirit would be freed to use your voice to praise the Lord!”
Not agreeing with my exuberant Christian friend,
I determine to write Paul and tell him how these so-called spiritual gifts
are causing trouble in church.
I’m wondering if you’d sign my petition?
Maybe this isn’t a ‘hot button” issue for you,
but I’ll bet it would be if five or six folks announced one Sunday
that the Lord had given them a song to sing,
and they pulled out their electric guitars and asked you to clap along,
and raise your hands in the air and open yourselves to the Spirit,
and sing along, whether you know the lyrics or not —
the Lord will give you the voice you need...!
And then in the middle of the song,
(though you are only guessing it’s the middle, because they’re making it all up as they go along,
led by the Spirit, of course)
someone starts speaking in tongues,
and then this Corinthian thing comes home to roost, so to speak,
and, now, you’ll sign the petition,
because these holy rollers have disrupted the way we do things around here.
And it’s not just the idea of change we reject.
Or, the element of surprise, or that none of this went through the proper committee first;
here’s what gets us:
there is the growing implication that those “on fire for the Lord” folks
really are “on fire for the Lord,” and we’re just sitting here smoldering!
Whether they’ve actually said anything,
we just know they think they’re better than we are, spiritually speaking.
So, Paul hears what’s going on and writes back.
And we 21st Century Christians read this excerpt
and wonder if we’ve gotten the right mail.
Paul is writing of variety, and that we understand.
Variety is good.
Different people have different gifts.
As the old song from the 70’s sang,
“Different strokes for different folks...”
Varieties of gifts, same Spirit.
Varieties of services, same Lord.
Varieties of activities, same God.
Yes, this post card has our address on it.
Until, Paul starts getting specific.
He writes of the “utterance of wisdom,” and the “utterance of knowledge.”
Gifts of healing.
The working of miracles.
These are not the gifts of our church, are they?
They may have been the gifts of the Corinthians, but not of Union Presbyterians.
Is that what you were thinking as the Epistle lesson was being read?
How foreign this all sounds?
Remember that the context here is worship.
Miracles. Prophesy. Tongues.
Variety is one thing; but the rest sounds more like holy rolling Pentecostals.
Is our worship Biblical if it lacks the spiritual gifts Paul lists here?
Sure it is. Remember? Varieties of gifts.
They may not be my gifts, or ours here, but they are given by the Spirit to some.
And the same Spirit gives other gifts to other folk.
Elsewhere in the Epistles, there are other lists of gifts,
not so much for worship expression, but for the living of our spiritual, worshipful lives.
Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control...
Everyone who can summon the faith that says, “Jesus is Lord,”
has a gift from the Spirit of God.
Everyone, every one who is in Christ has entered the realm of the Spirit,
and has a gift to offer in worship of God and in service to neighbors.
Your gift is perfect for you,
and mine for me.
And our gifts are meant to be shared.
What Paul is saying here is summed up in verse 7:
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
The Contemporary English Version puts it even more simply:
“The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.”
Whatever gift we have is not for our own benefit,
certainly not the stuff of spiritual boasting,
but is beneficial only as that gift profits others.
The AIDS quilt comes to mind here.
Individual squares, patches so different from one another.
Some are childlike, some sophisticated.
Some are roughly crafted; others are expertly sewn.
There are patches that are sweet and some that are outrageous.
Some hold hope. Some are sewn in despair.
Each piece of that quilt, that quilt now too large to display in one place,
each piece represents a person who lived a life, a gifted life, cut tragically short,
— yet all those patches together make one immense blanket
“of love, care, sadness, and beauty.” [Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, Compassion in Action]
Each square is a small gift that contributes to the common good.
On this particular Sunday in January,
it is good to remember the truths we heard in the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the things he taught was that while God’s people are of various colors,
live in differing cultures, and even practice different religions,
there is one “supreme unifying principle of life” – love,
“the key that unlocks the door that leads to ultimate reality.”
Knowing that the Ultimate Reality is the God whom we worship,
we weave every individual gift into an offering of love to God,
who so loves us!
In the meantime, as we await the gifts this newest year brings,
maybe we could consider a new Doxology.
Maybe I need to adjust my preaching style.
There are still new hymns to learn.
Maybe there is more wisdom than we know in what we do Sunday-by-Sunday.
Maybe there are more miracles in our midst than we can see.
Maybe there is healing that we overlook.
I wonder what gifts are here before our very eyes...
This we can know for certain: there are varieties of gifts,
all signs and wonders of the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ,
and all we have to do to experience renewed worship and revitalized faith
is count our blessings, consider our gifts, thank God for them all, and then
put our gifts to work.