September 2nd, 2012 “Gathering in God’s Name” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Sermon Series: The Theology of Worship
(Based on A More Profound Alleluia ed. Van Dyk)
Psalm 111 and Matthew 18:15-20
Since my arrival we have spent most of our Sundays with readings from the Lectionary. Today we are making a shift and leaving the lectionary behind for a while to move into a series of sermons about how we worship. It’s back to school time so we are going back to class together as we study our worship service. My goal is to spend a few months walking us through our traditional worship service.
We will talk about how we do things and the significance of each part of our worship and the order of worship including how each part relates to the other. We will be changing the order of worship a bit and discussing those changes as we go. We will also discuss why we do the things we do, namely the theological basis that is the foundation of our worship experience. I am basing this sermon series on the book A More Profound Alleluia: Theology and Worship in Harmony and I will quote materials from the book throughout the series.
So, why study our worship practices? Author John Witvliet tells us that “Christian corporate (or group) worship is an integrating practice at the center of the Christian life. It both reflects and shapes our view of God, the world, and their relations. It grounds, sharpens, and humbles the work the church does in every sphere of ministry, including education, pastoral care, evangelism, and justice. And it gathers up every facet of our lives before God’s face – at work and play; at home and school, and marketplace; in times of joy and sorrow – and sends us out to live in obedience and joy.”
In other words, everything starts here. Everything from the formation of our faith to the way we live outside the church walls is influenced by what we do here in the sanctuary. So, it makes good sense to take the time to study just why we do what we do here on Sundays and what each part of the worship service is about.
Our time of worship is powerful. Worship is the center of our Christian life and is worthy of our thought and study. Worship is where we come to meet God. We bring the whole of our lives to this time and place and in turn we are shaped from the experience and go out into the world with a new and different view. Genuine worship changes us.
Every part of our worship experience is about God. It is God who calls us to worship, God who meets us in worship, God who helps us to worship, God who sends us out into the world, and God who goes out with us to change the world. Our basic Trinitarian understanding of God, God relating to Godself through the three persons of the Trinity, informs our experience of God in worship.
C.S. Lewis describes the Trinitarian worship experience best when he says, “When an ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say their prayers, they are trying to get in touch with God. But if a Christian, they know that what is prompting them to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside them. But they also knows that all their real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside them, helping them to pray, praying for them. You see what is happening; God is the thing to which they are praying – the goal that they are trying to reach. God is also the thing inside them which is pushing them on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which they are being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal being is actually going on where an ordinary Christian is saying their prayers.”
The three parts of the triune God are active with and within us whenever we gather to worship. Theologian Thomas Torrance puts it this way, “In our worship the Holy Spirit comes forth from God, uniting us to the response and obedience and faith and prayer of Jesus, and returns to God, raising us up in Jesus to participate in the worship of heaven and in the eternal communion of the Holy Spirit.” John Witvliet points out that “The picture here is not of God as a passive being up in heaven, waiting for us to sing a little louder and pray a little harder before conferring a blessing. No, God is active in prompting our worship, in receiving it, and in perfecting it.” God is both the object and the actor in our worship experience.
All of the actions of our worship service say something about what we believe the nature and person of God to be. The first part of our worship service is not the welcome and announcements as you may guess, or even the prelude music. Rather, it is the congregating of all of us together in a certain place at a certain time. Worship begins the moment we make the decision to join together as a community for the purpose of meeting God.
Our Sunday worship service begins with a grand processional. Sometime in the morning all of us leave the places where we live. We come from the breakfast table and from the garden, from the shower and from the couch. We come from town and we come from the country, on foot or bicycle, motorcycle or car. We come on windy roads and straight, paved roads and dusty gravel. Every Sunday there is a grand procession of people coming together to meet God, coming together to call out to the Very One who created the cosmos.
We find the spirit of this gathering in our scripture readings for this morning. In our reading from the Psalms, the psalmist compels us to praise God. How do we do that? By gathering in the company of the upright, in the congregation. God is great and worthy of our praise and so each week we leave behind the comfort of our homes and gather here in community to praise our God.
Similarly in our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus teaches that he is present with us whenever the group gathers in his name. Before we read the beloved verse 20, promising the presence of Christ, we must wade through verses 15 on which remind us that to come into this place we must come in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. God meets us here, because we have already done the work of God in seeking reconciliation and justice inside and outside the church. The presence of God comes to the gathering of people; the presence of God comes in the spirit of reconciliation.
Of course God is all about relationship to self and to other. The Trinitarian God is present in our gathering together. It is the Holy Spirit which moves each of us to get up and get out the door to church. It is the Spirit which prompts us to gather together. Jesus Christ is the person we gather around as we come together around the concrete things of pulpit, font, table, and cross. These are the elements that remind us of his person and message. And of course, we gather together to address God, the one who makes our worship possible.
Turn back to the beginning of your bulletin and follow along with me. Careful readers will note that the language here has changed. What once read, “Our order for the worship of God” now reads “Gathering in God’s Name”. This makes clear what we are doing during the first part of the worship service. At 10:45 worship begins with the prelude music. This is a time to fully draw ourselves into this time and place. Though we may physically be present in the sanctuary, we have a tendency to lag behind mentally and spiritually. We are thinking about the Sunday school discussion or where we are going to lunch after the service and not thinking about gathering together in the name of God. The Prelude is a time to sit still, to listen, to meditate, and to bring the whole of yourself into this worship space.
The first words of worship are a greeting, from the pulpit each person receives a welcome to this time of worship and our collective desire for the service is expressed, that you might find Jesus Christ here. We share our announcements as a community at this time as well. It is important to get the business of gathering and church work out of the way so that we can more fully tune our hearts and minds to the business and spirit of worship.
Right now you see the passing of the peace and minute for mission after the announcements but in a few weeks those things will be moving to more appropriate places in our worship service. Soon, the announcements will be followed directly by the introit. This too works to calm our minds and bring us fully into the worship space. After all the busy details of announcing the church activities, the introit serves not only to draw us into worship; it calls our hearts to begin the praising of God.
Now we come to the call to worship and I believe that this is a time when we should stand. As believers we are called to come to worship, to stand in the presence of God to offer prayer and praise. In doing this we make clear where the lines of communication are. At its best the call to worship “reinforces both the vertical dimension of our worship (that worship is an encounter between God and the gathered congregation) and the horizontal dimension of worship (because worship is fundamentally communal).” (Witvliet) The call to worship is exactly that, a call to this time of worship together.
Following the call to worship we sing an opening song of praise to our God. From the dawn of time, people have praised and worshiped God with music and singing. Our hymns of praise are not simply our way of saying “yes” to God, they are the way we say “no” to everything that is not of God. “Every act of praise is a strong act of negation as well as affirmation. Every time we sing praise to the triune God, we are asserting our opposition to anything that would attempt to stand in God’s place.” (Witvliet)
I encourage you to pay attention to not only the words of our praise songs but all of our worship hymns for though the music is lovely and a joy to sing, it is the words of worship, theology, and praise that are the reason we sing the songs we do. Each week I don’t randomly pick songs out of a hat, rather I strive to pick songs that speak to the message of the day. You will notice that today’s hymn of praise: “Gather Us In” is all about the gathering of different folks from different spaces of life to worship God together. “Gathering in God’s Name”.
Our gathering together for worship is an expression of our beliefs as a church. The Trinity is the pattern of our unity and we gather together knowing that God will meet us. We begin our worship with centering music, with words of welcome, and by calling ourselves to this moment and place, declaring our intentions, and praising God with singing. It is God who works in and through us throughout our worship service.
Our hymn of response this morning is #132 “Come, Great God of All the Ages”. This is a wonderful hymn that points out the action of the Trinity in our gathering for worship. Before we sing I want to invite you to follow along in your hymnal as I read the words of each verse.