Why our worship is how it is

Sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany

I’m going to do something tonight that I do only very occasionally, which is to not preach on the scripture texts we have heard read aloud. While in principle I do think it important to speak to the readings, every eighteen months or so I set them aside and offer a different kind of reflection, focused around why we do some of the things we do when we gather for worship.

I’m committed to doing this, because I think that one of the risks for a church in the liturgical and sacramental tradition is that people begin to do things by rote and out of habit, and so what began as a rich expression of our worship of God becomes mere ceremonial. The answer to the question, “why do we do things the way we do?” should never become “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” or even “because that’s the way it is supposed to be done.” That is to move from rich symbolic and sacramental worship into a kind of religious piety that easily slips toward an almost magical thinking.

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So here’s the familiar scene. It is 6:59 on a Sunday evening, and you’ve just arrived, having taken a few minutes longer finding a parking spot than you’d hoped. It is cold outside so after picking up your menu you wander over to the coffee pot, where you run into someone you haven’t seen in weeks. Time for a quick chat? Sure, there’s still a ton of people milling around at the back. And then that church bell begins to ring, and you watch as everyone moves quickly to the pews. But that bell has done more than just signal that it is time to find a seat, for all around you people have begun to still themselves. Some pray, some simply sit in silence, most have begun to join the musicians as they lead us in the opening contemplative music. The gears have shifted.

You could play out something of the same scene at the Centennial Concert Hall: they have their own version of a bell, which comes over the P.A. system in the lobby—“three minutes to curtain time.” Everyone finds their seat, but the noise and chatter continue until the lights go down. The break is abrupt, and most people do quiet down… most, but not all. Not the people who always manage to sit behind me, for instance. Or the person in front of me who thinks there is time to send one more text message. Or the guy with the cell phone that even on vibrate can be heard from halfway across the theatre. You get the picture. We live in a culture that has a hard time settling into a space of quiet focus. Whether in a movie theatre, a concert hall, a classroom or some other shared public space, there seems always one more thing to say or one more electronic message to send or receive.

Which is why to make room for silence and stillness is such a counter-cultural act. That big church bell calls us toward a focused stillness built around music, and then our next liturgical act is a move into a silence punctuated only by the gentle sounding of a second bell; the one that sits at the back of the church. As its sound fades away, there is a moment of deeper silence. “But finding true silence requires more than quieting our surroundings,” writes Skye Jethani in his book The Divine Commodity. “It also means quieting our souls. This is the real dilemma of living in a wordy world.” And that is why we keep returning to these breathing spaces in our liturgy. After the reading of the Gospel, we sit silently for thirty or forty seconds; during the prayers of the people, our prayer leaders often leave those spaces of quiet; when we come to the time of confession, there is silence.

There is also that particular kind of stillness that we have tried to cultivate at communion. It takes us a while, of course, to share communion with as many as 250 people. Back in 2004 when we first moved into this church building, there were usually only 40 of us at worship, which meant the whole congregation could come together in a single communion circle. When we had grown to about 100 people, Steve Bell said to me that he’d been in the pew, thinking that this was going to take a long time, when it dawned on him that sitting and watching as people came into the circle and shared in the bread and wine was becoming for him a rather moving thing; a kind of prayer, in fact. So as you sit and either wait your turn to join the circle or as you wait while others have their turn, don’t think of it in terms of a “waiting for” but rather a “waiting upon;” a waiting upon what the Spirit of God might work in you in that stillness. Resist the temptation to have a quick chat with your friend. Don’t check the time, and don’t even think about checking for messages on your cell. In face, don’t do anything; just be there.

And as to our being shaped as a liturgical worshipping community, I think it is important to say that if liturgical words are said simply by rote and without any reflection or deeper integration, they do risk going dead on us. I’ve occasionally teased you regarding the dialogue that takes place at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Truthfully, sometimes as a congregation we’re not very convincing. “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” I say to you, and the answer comes back, “It is right to give our thanks and praise… [deep sigh]” Really? Once more with feeling…

The other side of that, though, is that what liturgical texts do is to give us a language and a kind of mother tongue that embeds deeply in us. A shared language we can use when we pray together; good, strong words to draw on at moments when other words fail us; and convicting words that will suddenly strike with a remarkable clarity. I can’t begin to guess how many times in my life I’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and truth be told it often rolls off my tongue so easily I hardly even notice it. Then every once in a while, I’ll hear something as I pray it, and I’m stopped dead. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and I’ll suddenly be up against the realization that I’m harboring some grudge or resentment that I’d better deal with, and soon. “Give us this day our daily bread,” and I’ll have to admit that I’ve routinely given priority of all manner of things other than daily food and simple sustenance. And as for “Thy will be done”? Don’t even get me started.

One of the ways to hear such words differently is to sing them, which is why some of our songwriters have written musical settings for several of our liturgical texts; think of Gord Johnson’s “Song of Confession,” Jenny Moore’s “Lord’s Prayer,” or Steve Bell’s “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And consider the music Mike Koop is leading us in tonight: settings for all of the key texts from the traditional communion liturgy. As we sing these shared liturgical words, let yourself inwardly hear them, and hear them differently. And yes, for tonight we’ll be singing Mike’s version of the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” rather than Steve’s. “Change!” you protest. “Heresy!” No. Let this setting shape the words differently for you; hear them and sing them differently than usual. Sing them anew, or renewed, or even awkwardly if need be… but let these words and this music do its work on you.

Having spent some time in that counter-cultural stillness—waiting upon God, rather than waiting for something to happen; being and not doing—and in hearing scripture, singing praise, and sharing in the great symbolic story-meal that is communion, take those renewed sensibilities with you into this coming week. Become what you receive; Christ’s body, Christ’s people, in a world that doesn’t even know for what it is deeply hungering. Go forth, having tasted something different in the silence, the words, the music, and the sacramental meal, and be open to the work the Spirit might do in you and through you on the other side of these stone walls and stained glass windows.

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