I guess it was the my first Friday night at The Way when it hit me again...a memory, a thought I had shared before when I served here. Those kinda things happen frequently these days. I see projects that were first imagined years ago come to fruition. There's a lot of "oh yeah, I remember when we talked about that." Kinda cool, really, to see dreams realized. Hang on...we ain't done dreamin’ yet!
Sitting in the sanctuary on a Friday night is a special thing, if you haven't done it yet, what are you waiting for? It is among the most wonderful of things to see people come fully aware of how broken they are and finding food for the body and the soul in their gathering. As I said from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago, this is one of the two services of worship St. John's celebrates each week. It’s my aim to transplant some of the “soul” of Friday night into the life of our Sunday morning gatherings. If you're curious about it, "come and see."
Anyway, I'm sitting in the pew as the music begins. Although I have played The Way three times before, it was through the eyes of one coming in to do a thing, not as one who is pastor of the place where it's being done. It was through that lens I observed the dissonance between a service being led, a meal being shared, and an open invitation to the reality that, as John says, "We love ya and God loves ya and there ain't nothing you can do about it," and the thing around which the Church gathers to share the Holy Meal, the altar, relegated to the corner because it's in the way.
Didn't need "The Way" to remind me that what we have is "in the way." I've long felt that as we worship together at St. John's. There's nothing wrong with an altar...for Cathedrals and Queen Churches it is most important.
But way back in the late '70's, a St. John's pastor spoke to the reality that on the corner of Peabody and Bellevue, the Queen was dead. We are heirs of that pronouncement. The ministries of love, service and justice that exist now and those to be born in our future flow out of that understanding.
St. John's, like most Protestant mainline churches, is an amalgam of theological and liturgical influences in its architecture, none of which have been taught well to the succeeding generations.
A little St. John's architectural history:
What you see now when you look at the chancel is not what's always been. In fact, the chancel has undergone multiple transitions across the years to adapt to the ministry opportunities of the day. The original configuration (1907) of the church chancel looked like this, with a center pulpit, exposed organ pipes, and yes, the wood is much darker than what we have now. That original configuration is consistent with “preaching houses” of the revival era. The “preached” word was the primary thing.
In 1953, it was renovated moving to a divided chancel, the covering of organ pipes once exposed, and establishment of a pulpit on the east and lectern to the west. Affixed to the south wall of the sanctuary was the altar. What you see in the picture is closer to what you know, the biggest difference being the position of the choir. The establishment of a permanent altar communicated an understanding of the importance of the sacraments….one consistent with the general liturgical leanings of The Methodist Church in those days. That is, very penitential…”we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under Thy Table.” Sacrament is a sacrifice in this modality, and the altar is the place wherein it is re-enacted.
In 1978, gone was the red velvet hanging over the altar and commissioned was the wall hanging that remains to this day, even as we use other artistic expressions seasonally that cover it. The significance of the imagery on the woven piece reflects the totality of the understanding of God and the Holy Sacrament. It is also on this work that we see enshrined the butterfly as the living symbol of St. John’s, her ministry, her mission, and the power of the resurrection of a church receiving new life through servant ministry. A symbol so significant for us that it is our church sign on the corner.
Almost 15 years ago, the configuration of the chancel changed again. Our ministry of music was making a big impact on our worship life. Because it was growing, space was needed to accommodate. So we changed to what you know. And what of the altar? It was literally ripped off the south wall with plywood serving as backing and placed where you see it now. It is heavy, has been patched together more than once. If you sit in the choir loft, your view of it is particularly unappealing. Truthfully, it was never meant to be anything more than it was built to be…an altar, a permanent, non-movable structure.
So what do we do now? We are a people of Table. We “celebrate” Communion. Our liturgy bespeaks a “Great Thanksgiving.” We are a people open and welcoming, and we need visual signs in our worship space confirming that truth. There’s a practical sensibility to this as well as theological. You don’t move altars. You do move tables so that all may come around it. The Table of welcome needs to be present at every service, including The Way. It needs to be far more flexible for our Sunday worship than it is.
Last week I shared an idea with the Church Council. While nothing has been done in any official capacity, I do believe it a proper time to make this symbolic shift serving both a functional and theological need. Let’s commission a Table be built for our sanctuary. From the multitude of artisans we know, I believe we could find someone to serve this purpose that is a “Memphis” soul. Let it be beautiful in its simplicity, yet profound in its message: here, in this place, around this table, all are welcome – and together we accept our call to bring around the Table with us those longing to know home.
And let us dedicate this Table around which all may gather to the glory of God and in the memory of the leader who set us on the footing for servant ministry…the very thing that gives us life today…from the food pantry to the soup kitchen, to Feast for Friends, to The Way, to the Community Garden, to Empty Bowls, to Bruce School, to so many more that have been as well to those yet to be…. the Rev’d Frank Lewis McRae.
What a celebration is in store! Let’s make this happen…together.