What are we doing and why are we doing it?

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 113
Luke 16:1-13

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

 

113:1 Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD; praise the name of the LORD.

2 Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time on and forevermore.

3 From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the LORD is to be praised.

4 The LORD is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens.

5 Who is like the LORD our God, who is seated on high,

6 who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

7 He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap,

8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.

9 He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 113, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: O God, you call us to embrace both you and the children of this world with unconditional love. Give us grace to discern what your love demands of us, that, being faithful in things both great and small, we may serve you with an undivided heart. Amen.

 

Psalm 113, our text for today begins and ends in “Praise the LORD” which is fitting for this sermon as it is all about the worship of God.  We believe that worship is offering praise to God.  Worship is our response of all that we are – mind, body, spirit, talents and treasure – to God for what God has already done, is doing and will do for all of creation.   Worship is also an attitude.  It is a feeling of gratitude, for all the blessings of life.  Worship can actually be done anywhere at any time in our lives, regardless of place or situation.   When we talk about Sunday morning worship, we are speaking of formally gathering together in the sanctuary to worship.  We sing, we pray, we hear scripture and proclaim the Word of God through the sermon, and we offer ourselves and our gifts to God in gratitude for all God has blessed us with. So whether you are here every week as you have most of your life, or if worship is a new and strange thing for you, I invite you to think about why we do what we do in worship, for when we are at our best everything in our worship service has a reason and a purpose and particular meaning.

 

First, why do we have our worship services on Sunday?  From its beginning, the Christian community has gathered on the first day of the week to hear the scriptures read and proclaimed and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  This day has special significance, since it was on “the first day of the week” that Jesus’ followers discovered the empty tomb and met the risen Lord.  It was the day to remember and celebrate the resurrection.  The Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, is therefore the very center of the church’s calendar.

 

Having worship services each week at the same time is significant.  It will happen again.   Therefore, we, the gathered community of faith, can build on our faithful heritage, so we are empowered to face the future and all of its uncertainty with hope and faith.  The fact that we gather for worship each week gives a flow to our lives and fills us with a purpose as we leave to go forth into our work week, our school schedules, and our life of retirement.  Worship as it is repeated and repeated and repeated sustains us and defines who we are as the church and it enables us, the church, to live out our mission in the world.  Once you get in the rhythm of coming to worship you will notice that you miss it, something in your week is off a bit when you miss the worship service.

 

While we benefit greatly from regular worship, in reality, in a theological purpose, the worship service is not for us.   Instead our worship service is for God and when we think about it that way it seems awfully serious.  SΘren Kierkegaard, a Danish Theologian, came up with an image for the worship service as dramatic theater.  “Who is the audience? Who are the actors?  At first glance, most would say that the congregation is the audience, and the minister is the actor.  But no—Kierkegaard stated; God is the audience, the worshipers are the actors, and the minister or priest is the prompter.”[1]  We are participating in worship to glorify God.  What we do matters and why we do it does too.

 

The Presbyterian Directory for Worship states: “Public worship need not follow prescribed forms. However, careless public worship may be both an offense to God and a stumbling block to the people.”[2] So, we gain some insight into why Presbyterians and Episcopalians like order and structure to our worship services. We don’t want it to be careless or a stumbling block.  We want order, meaning and purpose.

 

So, I am going to walk us through our worship service today and explain why we do what we do.

 

The form and structure of the worship service we call the liturgy.  Liturgy— literally means the “work of the people.”  It is the words and structure for public worship according to our particular beliefs, customs and traditions as Presbyterians and Episcopalians. We honor both of our faith traditions every Sunday here at the Indian Hill Church.  Because our traditions both believe in the Priesthood of all believers, meaning that anyone and everyone has connection, access to God, we try to involve everyone in the worship service.   Historically this is why the Scriptures were translated into the local vernacular, and worship was conducted in the language the people spoke not only in Latin.  This underscored the inclusion of all people as active participants in the worship service.

 

There are basically four parts of worship:

 

(1) Gathering (Prelude)

As we gather, we may informally greet one another as members of the household of faith.  Some of you may pray silently, others of you may engage in quiet meditation, or sit and listen to the music of the prelude.  The purpose of the prelude music is twofold, it helps us focus our attention on God and God’s kingdom and also lets us know that something important is about to happen.

 

We start worship being reminded of God’s gracious acts.  We respond with praise, usually a glorious hymn.  We sing praise to God in a hymn, psalm, or spiritual, which tells of God’s greatness, majesty, love, and goodness. We are coming together as a community of faith after a week out in the world and we need to be reminded of God’s greatness.  This adoration of God makes us aware of our own sinfulness.

 

(Confession) So, then we confess our sins and we are then assured of God’s mercy and grace.  As John Calvin, the founding father of the Presbyterian Church stated, “Knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are inextricably linked, so that “we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God”[3] and conversely, contemplation of God’s goodness leads us to recognize our own sinful nature.  We are reminded that we not worthy of God’s mercy.  We believe that confession is not a one-time thing, rather we need to confess week after week after week.  It is cathartic, it is healing, and it is grace.   We do not earn God’s forgiveness through our expressions of remorse; because we have already been forgiven, so therefore we freely confess our unworthiness and receive forgiveness anew.  We start over, have a fresh slate and start anew living into who God created us to be.

 

(2) The Word, once we have acknowledged God’s greatness, and then confessed our own sins and accepted once again Gods’ forgiveness and grace, we are ready to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed.  Hence, the sermon.

 

(Sermon) So why do we have a sermon? In a day of instant gratification and constant news; in quick, easy to digest clips, why is the sermon still important or necessary?  The short answer is that faith is difficult, the bible is difficult, it is not black or white, read it once and you have you have it.  The Bible needs to be studied and analyzed and prayed upon and lived.  The sermon should take the Biblical story and relate it to our story.  It should begin a conversation that invites us to do our own thinking and praying and wondering.  It requires the study of Scripture, daily prayer, and a sensitivity to events and issues affecting the lives of the people.  The sermon should present the gospel with simplicity and clarity, in language which can be understood by the people.  The sermon is not meant to wow people into believing, but to invite people into a conversation, to encourage people to study God’s word, to reflect on it, and to see how it affects their life today.

 

Once we have heard God’s word read and proclaimed, then it is our turn to profess what we believe.  The people respond to the proclamation of the Word by affirming the historical faith of the church by using the Creeds.

 

(Creed) From early in the church’s life, an affirmation of faith has been central in corporate worship.  We still do it today as a way of connecting with our history and a formal way of professing what we believe.  Each of the creeds we recite have become the defining beliefs of the Christian church.

 

So our worship service as progressed from gathering and praising God, to confessing our sins, to hearing God’s word read and proclaimed and then professing our own faith.  After that we move into the sacramental worship.  In the Episcopal tradition the Eucharist is celebrated at least every week, in at least one service.  In the Presbyterian tradition we are not mandated to celebrate communion every week as long as we celebrate it once a quarter.

 

(3) The Eucharist the early Church, following Jesus, took three primary material elements of life — water, bread, and wine — to become basic symbols of offering life to God as Jesus had offered his life.

 

In this sacrament, the bread and wine, the words and actions, make the promises of God visible and concrete.  The Word that had just been proclaimed in scripture and sermon is confirmed, for all that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ means is focused in the Sacrament.

 

At the end of worship we are changed people and we respond to God.   In response to God’s love in Jesus Christ we then offer God our lives, our gifts, our abilities, and our material goods, for God’s service in the world.

 

(4) Sending: following the giving of our gifts to God through the offering we are then sent forth from the sanctuary with God’s blessing to serve.  God calls us, the church to join the mission of Christ in service to the world.  As we engage in that mission, we bear witness to God’s reign.

 

God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. We go out to follow Jesus in the world — to show and tell the good news of God to everyone.  We go to serve where God sends us to serve and go as changed people, forgiven children of God, who have been reminded that all that we have and all that we are comes from God.

So here in the Indian Hill Church we live out two different traditions but rather than difference we have more in common with the way we worship.  There is broad historical ecumenical consensus on these four primary movements liturgical pattern: gathering, the word, the sacrament and the sending.

 

Which brings us back to the Psalm of today. Psalm 113 ends with the same word with which it begins – Praise the LORD – forming a frame of praise around the words of the psalm. And as we end we add our voices to the chorus of “Praise the LORD” to the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives.  Hallelujah and praise God! Amen

 

[1] http://gpmchurch.org/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Kierkegaard.pdf

[2] PCUSA Directory for Worship, W-1.1001

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, Chapter I, page i

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