When Liturgy Goes Wild, Worship Happens

Worship is more often formal than informal, boundary-making rather than boundary-breaking, controlled rather than free. When liturgy goes wild and abandons form and boundaries, it can tell us what free really means.

Dancing in the nude during an Easter Sunday worship service, performance artist Lawrence Graham Brown (pictured above with his assistant Leon Dozier) challenged Rev. Schaper’s congregation to see Jesus in a new way. Credit: Mari Meade Montoya.

On Easter Sunday at my church we invited a performance artist named Lawrence Graham Brown. He danced in the nude, with braided, beaded, and dreadlocked pubic hairs. He also taught us a little more about what it means that they found Jesus’s grave empty, with his clothes laid on the ground in the abandoned tomb. Here I want to speak some about Easter nakedness and worship, and to go on to name a half dozen other events in which worship left the tomb of formality, boundaries, and control. I want to rejoice in these wild liturgies that brought us to the true in the true.

I also want to talk about seeing Jesus and how seeing Jesus is the purpose of worship, at least for Christians like me. The purpose of worship may be to glimpse Spirit or Energy or Force instead of Jesus. Worship often feels like a long list of “have to do” rather than a short list of “must do.” The poet Galway Kinnell says that our first task is to astonish, and then, harder, to try to be astonished. That is what worship is: it is the astonishment that we won’t always be hungry or thirsty or locked up. Pain is normal. Pain is life. Trouble is tyrannical—and everybody has a little of it, and some have a lot of it. Jesus is the refusal to stop the ache and instead the permission to enter the ache. Jesus is the daring speech that we can see through and beyond injury (both our own injury and that of the world). Morning by morning, we see new mercies. Normal is not just a setting on the dryer, as many of us imagine. Instead, normal is misery, followed by mercy. There are so many pressures to tame the text of Jesus, as if it were about the afterworld or the next world, as if gunmen weren’t shooting up movie theaters at midnight or as if global warming were some kind of fiction. When we seek out the wilder sides of liturgy, we are less likely to tame the seeing of Jesus. We especially want to see Jesus on a day like Easter.

Encountering a Naked Jesus

When Judson Memorial Church (the church in New York City where I serve as senior minister) invited Brown to be part of our Easter Celebration, we did so for five interrelated reasons. First, we had seen him perform a long dance piece called Sacred Space, which involved a Eucharist within itself, and the congregants who saw it were profoundly moved. The show, sponsored by the Gay Men of Color Alliance, took our breath away. Second, we had studied the 350 questions that Jesus asked, according to the Synoptic Gospels, and discovered, to our surprise, that about 20 percent of them were about clothing, nudity, nakedness, and being stripped down—questions such as, “Why do you worry so much about what you will wear?”

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