If you close your eyes and think about church you may get a flood of images of steeples, pews, and a choir, or of clergy members in various types of garments that denote their office and role. Perhaps you will feel emotions, be they positive because your experience with church has been largely positive. Conversely, you may feel triggered, traumatized, angry, or apathetic because your experience of church was predominately negative, and let’s face it, that’s a really good possibility because so much harm has been done to people by churches and clergy in America (and elsewhere). My own experience with church during my formative years and lasting into my early thirties was in many ways traumatic, so I completely understand the latter emotions.
Fortunately for me, and many others there are worshiping communities that refuse to conform to what many people think of as church, from the open and truly affirming mainline churches to the newer (or perhaps throwback style) churches like Ember Faith Community in Lancaster, PA. I am blessed to be a part of two such churches in Lancaster including the Ember Faith Community.
Ember is doing church differently. To my mind, it hearkens back to the house church communities we find in the New Testament in Acts and the Pauline epistles. At the same time, it is also a post-modern worship experience. Each Sunday evening, we gather around the table for worship with one another. There are familiar elements to worship such as our gathering statement, the singing of songs, open table fellowship, and community prayer time. One aspect where Ember diverges from so-called traditional services is in our deep engagement of scripture. In lieu of a sermon, we as a group dive into the Bible’s rich and varied texts together as a group. We focus on one book at a time, meeting each week to read, engage, and wrestle with the text of a single chapter or a chunk of a chapter if the chapters are long. Currently we are in Luke’s gospel and we will continue to read and discuss it for many months before we get to the end.
Once we’ve simultaneously read our week’s passage, we begin our discussions of the text. There is little to no certainty about the passage or chapter akin to what a baptist preacher may assert in a sermon. Rather, there is a good deal of “I wonder what this means or what it meant then” moments and often consternation and even rejection of certain views expressed within a passage, at least on my part, such as any text that suggests certain people are “less than” or are precluded from ministry because of their gender. Each week the discussion is rich with questions asked, insights expressed, ideas held loosely, and plenty “A-ha!” moments. Everyone participates, rather than just listening to someone expound on a theme. We engage the text critically and I believe that in so doing, we show that we take it very seriously indeed. We think about it in terms of its socio-historical context of when it was written as well as theologically for our own time and place as imperfect people of faith seeking to walk the path of a Galilean Jew from a backwater of a backwater whose life and teachings have brought grace to billions throughout history.
This Sunday we read in Luke 8:40-56 about the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the “issue of blood” who touched the fringe of Jesus’ prayer shawl and was healed. This pericope gives insight into Jesus’ daily life and ministry. Such was the import of his message, such was his charisma and ability to communicate meaning to the people of various social stations throughout Galilee and beyond, that large crowds followed him, or were awaiting his arrival in a new place he was going. These days we have a variety of social media outlets to get the message out about meetings or significant events that will draw a crowd. There was no twitter thread telling people where to go see Jesus speak, heal, and debate with other Jewish religious teachers. Yet, somehow they knew and as Luke makes clear throughout his Gospel, they followed him, pressed in upon him, begged him for healing or simply believed that touching the fringe of his prayer shawl would restore health. Imagine Jesus walking among us now, in our celebrity obsessed culture, healing people, scolding hypocrites, teaching the way to live out the Kingdom of Heaven, challenging social and religious norms, and even raising the dead. I don’t know about you, but I’d want to be a part of that.
Some of the things that stood out about this passage that came out in our discussion were the age of Jairus’ daughter being the same as the number of years the woman with the hemorrhage of blood had been unclean–both twelve an important number in Judaism. This woman, likely ostracized because of her affliction set aside her fear, and had the temerity to touch Jesus’ fringe thereby potentially making him unclean as well, and yet rather than scold her, Jesus creates a teaching moment out of it letting the assembled crowd know that grace is more important than ritual purity, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” To me that is profound grace.
He evinced grace again in the home of Jairus after the crowd told them that the child had died. He tells them to only believe and she will be made well. Instead of belief, the people present scoff and laugh at him. Rather than say, “Fine, I’m out of here, you unbelievers,” Jesus astounds them by commanding the girl to get up, which she does. No wonder he told them not to tell anyone, futile as that was. Even in the Ancient Near East, word traveled fast, and raising kids from the dead was a newsworthy event.
After we finish our discussion our focus shifts to the rite of communion. We are all seated around the table already. The bread and cup await us. It is a vital part of our worship each week, and as Jeremy Graeff said this Sunday, it may be heretical not to engage in the weekly table fellowship of communion. I tend to agree. We pray, we break the bread and dip it into the cup, and we sing. It is simple, poignant, and beautiful. It is also a foretaste of the age to come. We then gather in a circle to bring forth our joys and concerns to the community and to God. This connects us more to one another and to the important spiritual practice of prayer. To end our worship, we gather again around the table and sing our benediction together before going our separate ways.
Our meeting space is not a traditional church building. Our worship service takes place around a table and not in a sanctuary. Our worship includes deep engagement with scripture instead of a sermon. Our worship looks different than what is considered traditional or even contemporary. It is worship nonetheless. If you’re in the area, come join us…
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