Sunday, November 26, 2006

Orthodox liturgy

Occasionally, if I get the chance, I like to pop into an Orthodox liturgy. There is an Armenian (no not Arminian) church in Evanston. Westcott House shares its chapel with a Russian Orthodox church plant. I have been meaning to sit in on one of their Sunday services while being here in Narnia, and finally got around to it today. I could never be Orthodox because I am a flaming Augustinian, and Augustine never really happened in the East, but I enjoy the occasional Orthodox liturgy because it is just so foreign to what most folks (Catholic or Protestant) in the West get on a Sunday morning. The copious amounts of incense make Anglo-catholics look puritanical by comparison.

One of the things that has struck me about the few times I get to pop into an Orthodox church is the quality of preaching, surprisingly enough. One thinks of Orthodox liturgy having so much mystery that actual exegetical preaching would seem to be on the back burner. That is completely not the case, at least from my limited experience. Thinking back on the 10 best sermons I've heard during my seminary years, I think 6 of them were non-Anglican, 3 of which came from the few times I managed to pop in to an orthodox service.

Today was no different. The deacon (because the priest was at an episcopal ordination in Moscow) preached. The text was the "camel through an eye of a needle" story of the rich man who came to Jesus and Jesus tells him first to obey the commandments. When the man said he had from his youth, Jesus ups the ante and tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. The text says the man "went away sad" because he knew he couldn't because he was rich.

The theme of the sermon was that Christianity was not a respectable religion, which I thought was a breath of fresh air, having been studying at an Established Church seminary and a culture where, at least until relatively recently, people went to church precisely because that was what respectable people did. That is certainly still true where I am from in the American South.

The deacon used this interesting refrain through the sermon of asking when, exactly, Christianity was respectable. He was speaking from a Russian historical viewpoint, but I thought it was quite provocative. As the deacon pointed out, Christianity was not acceptable in the Roman Empire at first, not the Russian empire, or the Soviet Empire, nor now in a Material Consumer Empire. He then went on to discuss how the Spirit would always force the church back to being unrespectable whenever it got established.

He also made some interesting points on sacramental theology, almost as asides, making the point that formal sacraments are precisely for the unchurched people because Christianity is unrespectable. He mentioned how sacraments like reconciliation are effective to people who are not churched precisely because they are subversive and mysterious, and the church is making a dreadful mistake if they try to water down the mystery to gain converts by being more "respectably inclusive" and "relevant" if "relevant" means "selling out to respectable culture."

I thought that was deliciously subversive.


Kyle said...

Tasty. :0)

Ryan said...

That sounds awesome, and I agree with the preacher's point about making liturgy "relevant" to culture's standards (as if you'd guess I wouldn't). Glad you're enjoying your time in Narnia.