Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Brethren Love Feast as sacred liturgy

My kinda countryside. Approaching Salem Mennonite, Freeman, S.D.
Last week I had the pleasure of spending Monday through Wednesday in Freeman, South Dakota, teaching and preaching at joint Holy Week evening services between four Mennonite congregations in the area, hosted at Salem Mennonite Church, where my friend Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard is pastor. He and I worked together over the evenings to try and give an account of how worship works, relying heavily on the work of Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith and his "Cultural Liturgy" series.

To summarize, Smith's work is all about desires and loves, using ancient and contemporary wisdom to argue that we humans are worshipping animals who are what we love, and therefore worship what we love (in the churchy and non-churchy senses). The tasks for Christians, then, is to cultivate our loves toward faithful ends, namely love of God and neighbor (even enemies), and seeking first the peaceable kingdom of God. This happens by the enlistment of our imaginations, which is a whole-bodied enterprise. In volume 2 of his series, Imagining the Kingdom, Smith argues that "the way into the heart [and therefore the imagination] is through the body, and the way into the body is through story" (p. 14). Christian worship is the training ground to allow the "big story" of God's redemption of the world through Christ capture our imaginations, seep into our bones, train our loves/desires, and pull us toward a vision of the good life. Because of our sinful proclivity for self-deception, it's important that Christians also train our vision to see what other stories we've been enlisted into, and what false kingdoms we've been misdirected toward, because not everyone who confesses "Lord, Lord" with their lips and rational beliefs is a full-bodied Christian disciple. True evangelical faith takes practice, and the story-shaped, Spirit-filled practices of the church help cultivate faithfulness.

So on the final night of worship, the night before Maundy Thursday, I gave a narration of the Brethren Love Feast as I experienced it as a youth in Prairie City, Iowa, and made the argument that it is an example of a particularly "weighty" sacred liturgy, especially during Holy Week, and one that the wider church (and Brethren who have been letting it go by the wayside) should take up and appropriate. Rather than celebrate the full Love Feast in that service, we then moved into a time of washing the feet (or hands) of our sisters and brothers in Christ. In this area, these Mennonites have not commonly practiced feet washing, it was a beauty to behold children and parents, spouses, young people and elders, washing each others' feet and hands. Here's hoping a Love Feast might follow in time!

Story-shaped practices, cross-shaped people

The Brethren Love Feast is essentially a participatory recreation of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. Early Brethren also practiced reconciliation within the fellowship beforehand, sometimes not holding Love Feast until adequate harmony was achieved within the fellowship. Here are the moves of the liturgy w/ accompanying scriptural references:
  • Reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-221 Cor. 11:27-34) – Called "the rule of Christ" by early Anabaptists; delaying Love Feast w/out first doing this is based on on the 1 Cor. 11 text on not partaking unworthily
  • Shared meal (all gospels, Last Supper and plenty of other meals Jesus shared w/ folks)
  • Feet washing (Jn. 13:1-20 – Other gospels have others washing Jesus’ feet, and not at the Last Supper
  • Holy Kiss (1 Thess. 5:26) - Following the washing of feet, the two stand and embrace and pass the peace of Christ (Jn. 20:19-23)
  • Communion (all gospels, 1 Cor. 11:23-26)
  • Hymns (Mt. 26:30 – after meal, on the way to Mt. of Olives)
Not only is each act in the service a deliberate imitation and/or following of commands of scripture, as a whole it engrafts the gathered body into a highly participatory feast of worship. It is particularly poignant during Holy Week when Love Feast is typically held on Maundy Thursday.

Also significant are the sensory elements of the service. Again, per Smith, most of what captures our imaginations is more than just ideas about the Christian faith deposited into our brain receptacles. No, it's about engaging our whole bodies. In Love Feast, everyone is immersed in:
  • Tastes – Meal and communion
  • Smells – Meal and…feet! :)
  • Touch – Food, feet, embracing others, communion elements
  • Sounds – Reading/hearing scripture, singing hymns, people eating, quiet (absence of sound) – some don’t practice any small talk; others do
  • Sights – Low lights (some do, others leave the lights on); but the absence of light creates special significance in my assessment
  • “Sixth sense” – The presence of the Holy Spirit in the gathered body of worshipers
As I spoke prior to foot washing last Wednesday night, I tried to argue forcefully-but-gently that this difficult practice should be taken more seriously by more Christians. Just because a practice is uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not good. In fact such hesitancy on our own part can be an indication that the practice has a lot of work to do on us, reshaping us and redirecting us into deeper discipleship. Washing feet can seem difficult just as forgiving and loving an enemy can seem difficult, and this is as it should be.

But like starting a new physical training routine (c.f. Paul’s repeated race analogies) – the early days are uncomfortable, even painful. But with perseverance and support from a community of character and care, the pain recedes, and the fruits of the practice become manifest. Forced routines solidify into natural habits or a kind of “second nature.” They become "boring."

Washing feet cultivates the virtue of humility, which is a key virtue in the Christian life. Few other Christian practices present us so vulnerably to our sisters and brothers than this act. Perhaps it’s why Jesus said we should do it, not simply that it might be a good idea.

So there you have it - the virtues of the Brethren Love Feast. It's my ongoing conviction that this liturgy is the Brethren's most precious gift to the church catholic. May God be glorified and we be edified by its practice in the presence of the Holy Spirit!

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