Four homilies on why we worship the way we do…
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”
The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary as quickly as possible, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings. This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray.
For any of you that have left worship with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you. This morning we begin with “Why We Worship.”
Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering on a regular basis to praise God. From the crowded upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the modern gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs, getting together is what we do as Christians.
I would now like to ask each of you to pull out your bulletin. You will notice that our worship is divided into four parts every week: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – and Sending Forth. These four parts have connections with the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but it can be specifically drawn to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus gathers the two men on the road, later he proclaims the scriptures and interprets them, then they respond by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes are opened to Jesus’ presence they are sent to proclaim what they had seen and heard to the disciples. These four parts have their beginnings in scripture, and we relive them each and every week.
When does worship begin? Some would claim that it starts whenever someone stands behind the lectern and starts to speak, but worship actually begins long before the moment we are all sitting in the sanctuary. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we walk out our front door, to the thoughts we have while driving, to the quick and joyful conversations in the parking lot, to the greeting in the narthex and the ushers handing out the bulletins. All of these moments are part of God gathering us, and they all have an effect on the way we worship.
Once we arrive and are present in the sanctuary, God continues to gather us together in our announcements about upcoming activities in the church. It is a time of relating to one another and sharing opportunities about how we can grow in love of God and neighbor. Immediately following the announcements, we have what might be the most important piece of the gathering: preparing our hearts and minds for worship.
Rick will play on the organ for a brief period that we use to help center ourselves for the practice of worship. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to strengthen our spirits for the work of ministry in the world. Then the choir will rise to sing a call to worship, in effect calling us to worship the living God. We have a responsive reading as we center ourselves on the theme for the day, and we start singing our first hymn.
Picking hymns is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs best fit with what we will do. And as we sing that first hymn, the acolyte and I will walk into the sanctuary signifying how the light of Christ is here with us in worship, how the light guides us and gathers us together.
By the time I actually make it to the pulpit, God is still gathering us together as we humbly bow and begin to pray as a community. The prayers we offer are a sign of our respect for the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. Finally, we gather our gifts of tithes and offerings to present to God (but we will talk more about why we give next week).
This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus to change their lives forever. So let’s continue letting God gather us for worship…
Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about the things they had seen and heard in Jerusalem, he proclaims the stories of scripture and reinterprets them through his gracious work. But notice, they still do not know who they are talking and walking with on the way.
I will be the first to admit that God’s holy scriptures can be confusing. There’s nothing like a seemingly random assortment of names through a genealogical proclamation that can leave us scratching out heads. But the more we read, the more we interpret how God is still speaking to us through the scriptures, the more it begins to start fitting together.
The second part of our worship is dedicated to proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this every week by reading from the bible, singing a hymn, and then listening to a sermon. The scriptures are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings through a three-year cycle that goes through most of the bible. However, occasionally the scriptures are picked to fit a specific theme (like us using Luke 24.13-35 to talk about worship during this sermon series). We boldly proclaim the words of scripture and pray that somehow or another God can speak through a preacher to interpret these words for our lives today.
The middle hymn of worship is usually picked in reference to the specific text and our connection with it. Today we will sing “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus’ opened the eyes of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus through the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, but we also call on God to open our eyes to how the text continues to speak into our lives right now.
The sermon is a little bit harder to explain, because every preacher (and therefore every sermon) is different. Some can be funny and light-hearted; others are specifically focused on the Good News, whereas others can be more convicting about how we are living as disciples. The point of preaching is to challenge us to make God’s Word incarnate by the way we live our lives; which is precisely why preaching can be so hard to hear, and so hard to do.
This is how we proclaim God’s Word every week, just like Jesus proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples. So let’s proclaim God’s Word in worship…
A one sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples and our eyes are opened to Jesus in our midst. Amen.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Jesus made it look like he was going to keep walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While they sat at the table together, he took the bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road, in the bread and wine on the table, that Christ became real for them.
The third part of our worship is focused on responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by reaffirming our faith using the Apostles’ Creed, we make a public confession of who we are and what we believe. Other weeks we do something unique and special like last week when we broke off into pairs and prayed for each other. But the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.
Breaking down the multiple elements of responding with Communion demands its own sermon series, but suffice it to say that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and what we’ve done, we confess how we have fallen short of God’s expectations and are forgiven, we share signs of God’s love and peace, and then we feast.
This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table, just like Jesus did with those two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let us respond to God’s Word in worship…
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
I’ve always wondered what it must have felt like to be one of those disciples discovering the truth about their encounter from the road. But then I remember that I have had similar experiences: when I see someone come up in line to receive communion with a brilliant smile on their face, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I witness one of our preschoolers reach out in concern toward one of their classmates, I realize that I am catching a glimpse of Jesus. When I see you greeting one another in love before, during and after worship, I realize that I am catching glimpses of Jesus.
After their incredible and momentous discovery, the disciples ran back to Jerusalem to share all they seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, the only thing we can do is share what it felt like with others in our lives.
The final part of our worship is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymns are still resonating deep in our souls, as we continue to contemplate all we have seen and heard in this place, God sends us out into the world to share what we have experienced. I stand before the congregation and offer a benediction of blessing to go with us as we leave, and then the acolyte carries the light of Christ before us, encouraging us to take Christ’s light out into the world. Lastly, the choir sends us off with one final song, blessing us to be a blessing to others.
This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friends what had happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth to be God’s people for the world…