In any congregation of Christians there are some people who can say they have been blessed with an Epiphany, a powerful manifestation or experience of God. There are many more people who fervently wish that such a gift would be granted them and who imagine that if only they could have a conversion or they could have a 'mountain top' experience, then their faith would not be so difficult. They imagine that belief would be easier to come by if they could be as clear as they imagine those around them to be. And then there are yet others who have moved beyond any hope or expectation of such epiphanies in their lives rather in the spirit of what Jesus once said to Thomas: 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe' (John 20:29).
The scriptures appointed for today are filled with epiphanies and commentary upon them. We see Elijah ascending in a whirlwind into heaven. We see Jesus transfigured on a mountain in the presence of Peter and James and John, We have Paul reminding the Corinthians that it is 'God ...who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.' But it is in the opening verses of the Fiftieth Psalm that we get some help, some clues about epiphanies, wherever we find ourselves in relation to such things.
The Psalm begins praising a glorious manifestation of God who does not keep silent, but shines forth with a devouring fire going before and a mighty tempest all around. This manifestation is not an end in itself. It is given for the purpose of judgment and renewal of the people whose covenant was made and expressed in acts of worship.
Years ago I was whining to a wise monk, a man now in his 90s, about how dull and fruitless and boring my prayer and my worship seemed to be. He pointed out to me that I was looking for the effects of my prayer and worship in the actions themselves. I was looking for some kind of experience of God, some kind of manifestation of God, some powerful sense of God's presence. I was trying to conjure one by my devotion or engender an epiphany by the fervency with which I sang or sense of wonder that I was able to find as I approached communion. He told me I was missing the point. I should rather be looking for the effects of my prayer in my life, he said, and not in the prayer itself. Of course. The monk was right. I was praying not as a way of living into righteousness or right relationship, but as a means to an end. I was like the man who is really hoping for a kiss at the door when he pays for dinner or the woman who fights to get her children to church so that they will have a moral upbringing. All too often we come before the throne of grace with clear expectations as to how God will meet our needs. Some people complain that they don't get anything out of worship. They say they're looking for the effects of the worship in the worship itself and not in their lives. I was bored because I was an adventurer and a thrill seeker. I wanted that powerful experience of God and I was not really looking for judgment or transformation or renewal.
Talk about judgment! That monk's wise words were judgment for me. I had it all wrong. We look for the effects of right worship in our lives--for we are changed as we do what we are supposed to do in worship. When we worship, we orient ourselves toward that which is of true and ultimate worth. Or put another way, we turn anew toward God each week. We turn toward the light as we hear again and act out and respond to the story of our faith. And, somehow, in that experience we are shaped and transformed and renewed by God in ways that we might not even notice. But, in time, we can find ourselves living less anxiously and more freely through our regular practice of worship. And if we stop worshiping, we will find our anxiety increasing and our freedom diminishing. Any sense of immediate experience of God is a gift--it's an unmerited, undeserved, unpredictable gift of God's abundant grace. Just in the same way with the ways in which we are shaped by our turning toward what is of ultimate worth is itself a gift. It is simply what happens in real and right relationship with God. As the Psalmist would have it: The heavens declare his righteousness.
Members of congregations are not alone in having misguided expectations of prayer and worship. Clergy, musicians and other leaders of worship sometimes spend their time trying to create or design what they call a 'powerful worship experience'--something that will move or convict the people of God's might and majesty and power. The theologian James Alison has written about this kind of worship designed to create an experience as what he calls 'Nuremberg worship.'1 He's referring to the rallies that took place in Nazi Germany leading up to the Second World War He acknowledges that he could have used 'football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazing, newspaper sales techniques and so on.' (35). He says that the organizers of Nuremberg worship 'knew exactly what they were doing and did it remarkably well.'(35) As he puts it:
You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music and marching. You enable them to see many people in uniform, people who have already lost a certain individuality and become symbols. You give them songs to sing. You build them up with the reason for their togetherness, a reason based on common racial heritage. You inflame them with tales of past woe and reminders of past confusion when they were caused to suffer by some shame being imposed on them, the tail end of which woe is still in their midst. You keep them waiting and the pressure building up. All this gradually serves to bring people out of themselves; the normally restrained becoming passionate, unfriendly neighbors find themselves looking at each other anew in the light of the growing 'Bruderschaft.' Then after the build up, the Fuhrer appears...and, before long, the apotheosis takes place and he is in their midst. With a few deft gestures he conjures up the mood of those present... (35-6)
From here Alison describes how the crowd or congregation get whipped up into delirium and the Fuhrer is even able to thank God for allowing him to give his life working tirelessly in service of the people, and they--not any other--are the people, the Volk. Later, Alison suggests, on their way home perhaps, the people look at each other and anyone who might be an outsider--the Jew, the Gypsy, the black and the homosexual--in a slightly different light. So says our theologian: "To the divinization of one, there corresponds the demonization of the other, which is the dehumanization of all." (37)
This is incredible stuff and a real judgment on all those who would create a 'powerful worship experience.' Real worship, you see, is not the creation of a Volk--a folk, a people--but rather a reminder of our common humanity. Real worship is not the story of how we have been victimized or the recitation of some grievance, but the story of one who is victimized by us and who wants us to see the truth about ourselves. Real worship is judgment and renewal just as the Psalmist saw when God was made manifest in fire and tempest. Real worship happens when we once again turn our lives toward the One that really matters, that which is of ultimate worth and allow that to shape our interactions and relationships in ways of which we can never be fully aware. That is God's grace with or without a powerful and momentary experience.
Many people who get caught up in Nuremberg worship do find a measure of salvation, for God desires to use all things for Good, even--lest we forget--the Cross of Christ. I was one of those souls, granted a powerful experience of God's grace. It probably wasn't manipulated, but it was earnestly desired by the leaders of the occasion that I would call my conversion. I was granted a sense of belonging and a sense of identity, and I wanted to share it with everybody around me. I became quite a successful teenaged evangelist of other teenagers selling the Nuremberg identity to others who would know that they were the chosen while others might not be. And how we longed for the football players and the popular students and the chaplains and the headmaster to know what we knew and to give their lives to what we mistakenly thought was Christ, but was, in fact, a human creation, one that made us feel beloved and worthwhile, but a human creation nonetheless. We attributed all this, of course, to the Grace of God.
What changed for me was the experience of a real congregation or real people who were being formed in the story of our faith and shaped by what is of ultimate worth week in and week out, their whole lives long. Sometimes the worship was glorious, sometimes spare, often engaging, sometimes dull. A number of my friends tainted by that early experience of Nuremberg worship fell by the wayside and rejected the way of faith altogether, but I was granted real grace in the midst of a real congregation, in the midst of regular, ongoing gathering for worship. In retrospect, this was a powerful experience of God but neither the one I sought nor the one I expected as I made a transition to a new way of being faithful in the midst of the people of God all of whom were being transformed in God's grace and among whom--at best--there were no 'others,' no outsiders or people who fell into any of the ways we categorize each other to make ourselves feel superior or blessed or special in the sight of God.
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
He calls to the heavens above
And to the earth, that he may judge his people:
Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!
The heavens declare his righteousness,
For God himself is judge.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 All page numbers are from the essay "Worship in a Violent World" in the collection by James Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (Continuum, 2006) pp. 33-49