“Give me that old-time religion/ It’s good enough for me,” sang the Chancel Choir from their section of seats at the Lamb’s Players Theatre. And Coronado Community Church did give that old-time religion, at least in form. The Introit, the Call to Worship, the Confession of Sin, the Gloria, the Doxology, the Benediction — all steeped in the “old time” of tradition. The Anthem dipped back linguistically into Latin, pleading “Dona nobis pacem” (grant us peace).
The content, too, offered some of the traditional understandings of sinful man seeking redemption. From the prayer of confession: “Almighty God, You have loved us but we have not loved You. Help us to admit our sin so that as You come to us in mercy, we may repent, turn to You, and receive forgiveness.” And there was this, from Reverend Mather’s opening prayer: “Come as Holy Fire and burn in us.... Come as Holy Truth and dispel our ignorance.... Come as Holy Power and enable our weakness.... Convict us, convert us, consecrate us, until we are set free from service to ourselves to be your servants in the world.”
But other prayers struck a more modern, or maybe just a more personal, note: “We can relax...and take comfort that we are yours, and that we have simply to discover what our authentic self is, what our destiny is, and relax in that. Lord...help us learn what we are to do while we are here, so that...we will have the sheer joy of...having done what You purposed us to do.” A different way, perhaps, of getting at the sentiment expressed by the Hymn of Consecration: “Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus/ Just from sin and self to cease/ Just from Jesus simply taking/ Life and rest, and joy and peace.” The Affirmation of Faith, meanwhile, was a deep rewrite: “We believe in God as the origin of life and its meaning.... We believe in Jesus as the Christ, the one who showed us what God is like.... And we will welcome the presence of God’s Spirit with us, everywhere, in all things, and in all people.”
That spirit of following the Spirit wherever it blew informed Mather’s sermon, which took Jesus’ Parable of the Leaven as the occasion to ask, “Is George Carlin in heaven?” (“The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”)
“There’s nothing worse than a fallen-away Irish Catholic,” granted Mather. “He just hated religion; he thought it was pretentious and hypocritical. He didn’t believe in God.... Well, maybe the God he didn’t believe in isn’t one that should be believed in. Deep down, there was idealism, I think. He was like the prophet Amos, who just ranted and raved and used intemperate language to make a point.”
Jesus did the same thing, said Mather. “Jesus, in the parable about the leaven, does something very interesting. In Jewish language and thought, leaven is almost always connected with evil.... Now Jesus is coming around and saying that the leaven is an example of the transforming power of God. He takes something that no one would have thought had any redeeming value in terms of religious significance and says, ‘This is precisely what the kingdom of God is like.’ I imagine His hearers were a little startled.... If God can use leaven, God can use anything. Carlin invited us to take seriously what we use words for, what our ideals are — to think about the attitudes we ordinarily go over” without thinking.
Mather cited another parable of the kingdom — the one in which the foolish virgins were locked out because they were unprepared. “You have to decide whether the text needs to be changed — whether it has the faint echo of how maybe God can even change the script. In Godspell, Jesus opens the door and waves the virgins in. Oh, I know: ‘How can we fiddle around with holy writ?’ Our understanding of God grows; our appreciation for what God is doing grows. Is George Carlin in heaven? I have a hunch that whoever is running the show up there will surprise the drop-away Irish Catholic with the words, ‘George, you really got things riled up. Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Mather’s Benediction: “Now is the time to return to the world. Do not be irreverent — well, maybe a little. Do not be irrelevant — certainly. Find ways to express your faith that are imaginative...and maybe push the envelope just a little bit.”
What happens when we die?
“I think there’s a cosmic surprise,” said Mather. “Everything will be neatly tied together, and the things we thought we were so certain about will be neatly turned around. There will be a great reversal — Jesus said, ‘The last shall be first and the first shall be last.’”
Address:Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado, 619-437-6827
Founded locally: 1996
Senior pastor: Stephen J. Mather
Congregation size: 150
Staff size: 7
Sunday school enrollment: 15
Annual budget: $150,000
Weekly giving: about $2800
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Sunday worship: 10 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 5 minutes