A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Pentecost 8 – Psalm 100, John 4:23-24 (MSG)
So, the basic point of this sermon is to look at our regular Sunday worship service and answer the question: Why do we do that? Perhaps you already know all this, but I think it’s good to lift up from time to time the things that may seem obvious but don’t always get said. Every single piece, and every single moment and movement in our worship gathering has a purpose for being there, and a theological reason as to why we choose to do it in a certain way. Of course, this isn’t the only way to structure a worship service, and lots of other ministers and communities of faith are free to make different choices. But for us, here’s why we do what we do. I hope you’ll enjoy this.
Let’s start with one of the hardest things – we begin worship with the life and work of the church, also known as announcements. Many of my colleagues will argue that this should be after the offering as part of our response, because it’s all about how we’re living out God’s call on our lives. I get that, but for me announcements so break the flow of worship that they would actually undo much of the good work we’d done spiritually in the hour.
So I insist they go at the very start – adjacent to worship, but technically not really part of it. Announcements are a vital feature of the life and work of the church – they just don’t feel worshipful to me – and that’s a big thing for me.
Feeling worshipful – having the gathering be experiential, and meaningful, and moving.
Worship oughta move your heart, not just your head! (And then inspire you to move your feet!)
Then we pause for a few moments – a deep breath – a chance to switch gears from the doings of the church and ready ourselves for being fully present in worship.
John 4:24, Jesus says, “Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, I can’t just flip a switch.
I need a moment or two – I need a deep breath to let go of ‘out there’ and make sure I’m really here – present, in the moment, open.
A musical introit draws us in, and while that happens “the bible is placed and the Christ candle is lit, representing our journey into God’s word with Christ’s light guiding our way.”
Everything has a meaning!
I hope you’ve noticed over time that there are three main movements in our worship. They’re marked in bold, italic, capital letters in the bulletin.
This is the skeleton or frame upon which the whole thing hangs – we gather, we listen for God’s word, we respond. Makes sense, doesn’t it? – We gather, we listen, we respond.
Whether your worship is ultra-traditional, ultra-modern, or ultra-somewhere in-between, it probably follows that basic movement.
Our call to worship is always done responsively, but it doesn’t have to be. I find it’s a great way to connect us, and more importantly to create the sense that we’re in a conversation here. It’s not just me yammering away and you listening. You get to participate all the way through – by singing together, by speaking together, by praying together.
Our call to worship begins with the familiar words, “Surely, God is in this place. Help me notice!” It’s a touchstone phrase that we use in all sorts of aspects of our faith life, and it’s perfect for calling us from whatever we were doing and inviting us to focus on and notice God’s Presence.
We have a few ‘anchor’ phrases that you hear every week – like the prayer before the sermon, the benediction, and the introduction to our greeting of Shalom.
That’s next. It’s based on an ancient Christian tradition of greeting one another with the peace of Christ. Some places call it ‘the passing of the peace.’ Traditionally, the passing of the peace was used as part of the communion liturgy, and a ‘kiss of peace’ was often offered. Hey, if y’all wanna start kissin’ that’s up to you!
Confession time – I’ve never liked the passing of the peace. It always feels so artificial to me.
The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.
The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.
The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.
By the time I’ve said it a couple of times I’m done. It just feels weird to me. So I prefer to use the word Shalom.
On the day of resurrection, in the upper room where the disciples were gathered together, the presence of the risen Christ mystically appeared, and Jesus said to the disciples, “Peace be with you.”
Except in Hebrew that was simply the word Shalom.
Jesus greeted his friends with Shalom. That’s good enough for me!
It’s easy to say. It’s quick.
It functions just like “Hello” but it carries a significant spiritual meaning.
Because it’s in a foreign language it instantly feels more spiritual.
And I can say it multiple times and it never feels weird to me.
So I hope that when we exchange that greeting of Shalom that you actually say the word Shalom, and don’t just say ‘good morning’.
Be like Jesus! Say Shalom!
And then we sing.
Psalm 100:1-2 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing.
Our mainline protestant tradition is steeped in hymn singing. Some people suggest that the clearest expression of our theology is found in our hymnody. In other words, we sing what we believe. The hymns of our tradition tend to be fairly wordy, and focus on justice and the character of God.
When it comes to style, at Faith United we purposely try to include ‘regular’ hymns from our Voices United book, newer hymns from our More Voices book, praise songs, and good old classics.
We use the organ, the piano, the guitar, the drums, whatever a song needs to make it sound great.
We have choir anthems, we have soloists, and on Sunday Nights we have a rock band.
Whatever the music that lights up your heart you’re going to get a chance to sing it here – maybe not every week, and maybe not as often as you might like – but then again, we’re not here to just please ourselves, are we.
So why are we here?
To praise God. To pray in community.
To learn. To be inspired. To feed your spirit and fuel your way.
To confess our sin.
Does that one trip you up? I hope not!
We do that every week here; we just don’t call it that.
After our first hymn we have something called the ‘prayer of invocation and transformation’.
We used to call it the ‘prayer of approach.’ I don’t love that language – mostly because it suggests that God is somewhere else and you have to travel somewhere (approach) to find God.
I prefer the language of invocation. To invoke means to call upon with earnest desire.
And then the transformation part is our confession.
I use the same words every week – standing in your light, hearts broken open, acknowledging our humanness, seeking transformation, savouring your Holy Presence, we pray…
That is the language of confession – open hearts, acknowledging our humanness, how we fall short, how we hope to do better.
And then we silently pray, because my words may not reflect your heart on any given day, so me rhyming off a list of ‘offences’ may leave you cold.
Instead, we just create openness – the silence gives you time to pray what you need to pray.
And then there are words of blessing, and more singing.
We do a time with our children, to remind them and ourselves that their presence is important here. It’s important to me to not just use the kids as a way to get laughs, but to really try to get to the heart of the message in a way that they can understand. To be honest, it’s the hardest part of my week!
Next we move into the ‘listening for God’s word’ section.
We do that in three ways – in scripture, in music, and in preaching.
Usually I only have us do one scripture reading. You may know other churches that do two or three or even four.
The reasoning is that most people don’t read scripture on their own so hearing it in church is vital. That’s a solid reason!
But I don’t do that because scripture can be really tricky – and sometimes it’s downright confusing and potentially misleading or even harmful if it isn’t carefully talked about. So my rule is that I don’t offer a scripture reading unless I have the chance to unpack it and preach about it.
Scripture is far too powerful to just shoot out there and let it fall where it may.
Then we have music ministry. That language is important!
It’s not just an anthem, or a solo – it’s ministry in the form of music.
I’m a musician. I know how powerful music is. I know how it can communicate things words alone never can.
And then come the words – the sermon.
You may notice it’s called the message in the bulletin, but I just called it the sermon. I like both terms, but I know that the word sermon turns some people off – it’s a trigger word for finger-pointing judgmentalism.
We gather each week for around 75 minutes, and every week the sermon is the longest or biggest part of the worship service. Mine are usually around 18-20 minutes.
For me, wrestling with scripture and offering insights and applications of it is the most sacred part of my calling.
Many of my colleagues preach topically and use the scripture as a jumping off point to talk about spiritual issues. That’s kind of what I’m doing today.
But usually I’m what they call an ‘expository’ style preacher.
That means I like to dive fully into the text and get into the language and really try to discern what it’s all about.
Sometimes people ask me what method or format I use to do a sermon. My answer is that I just go where the text takes me – whether I really want to go there or not.
And in the back of my mind I follow this simple structure: What? So what? Now what?
– What is it really saying? Why does that matter? What does it mean for us today?
After the sermon we ‘respond’ with singing, and then the Offering. Like it or not, money in our society is the primary way we measure worth and value. We’ll talk a lot about this in September so I won’t say much now – but an offering of our resources, financial and personal, are a vital part of our spirituality.
On the first Sunday of each month, like today, we have Communion. The United Church celebrates two formal sacraments: communion and baptism.
We do ours by intinction (communion, not baptism!) – a dipping of the bread into the juice.
Others pass trays, others use a common cup – there’s no one right way.
During the Last Supper, Jesus just had his disciples remember using the food on the plates in front of them.
That’s how we do it on Maundy Thursday.
It was just an ordinary meal, made extraordinary.
So as soon as we ritualize it we’re changing it – so really we are on our own.
I prefer to use the Emmaus Road communion story to the Last Supper one. Every church is different – yet connected by the sacrament.
When we don’t have communion we have a long prayer time together – sometimes with anointing and laying on of hands.
Our tradition is one of many words.
Words are nice, but I also try to offer several times of silence in our prayer times as well.
It helps us remember that prayer is never about the quality of the words you use, or having the right words.
The words are only useful in that they help us focus.
The more important part is the opening of our hearts, the lowering of our guard, the willingness to listen, or be moved, or be nudged. Praying communally is a powerful part of worship.
(And it’s a vital part of your personal worship too, so I do hope you’re praying at home, and everywhere else too!)
And then we sing some more (we’re always singing!), and then I send you out with a benediction (which means good words, or words of blessing) and a commissioning (which means marching orders).
I hope you notice that I use a Trinitarian form – naming God, Christ, and Spirit.
And over time we’ve incorporated a hand gesture of palms-up openness.
It’s just a little thing – but often, it’s the little things that matter greatly!
And then we shake hands and drink coffee! (And eat cookies!)
And we visit with one another – we have fellowship together – we connect.
The fancy word for all of this stuff, for everything we do here on Sunday, is ‘liturgy’. It comes from the Greek word leitourgia which literally means ‘the work of the people.’
That’s what this worship gathering is – it’s the work of the people.
This is our work.
This is our spiritual labour.
This is a liturgy of love – love of God, love of neighbour, love of one another.
It’s a liturgy that takes a lifetime of practice.
It’s a liturgy that we share.
And it’s good work!
I’m blessed that I get to share this liturgy with you.
And perhaps after this sermon your liturgy literacy is a little more robust!