SERMON: The Rhythm is Gonna Get You—Sundays: Word & Table

Last week, (through Fr. Gregg) we spoke of primary rhythm of life:
resting and working
working from out of rest
Sabbathing and laboring
abiding and going out
being pruned back and growing in fruitfulness

Back and forth the rhythm goes...like a pendulum...

Today I want to connect this most basic of rhythms to the other related rhythms of our life in Christ. My hope is to explain some of the parts of the liturgy as I do so.

One of the over-arching ideas in this sermon series is that we are primarily creatures of affection, we are desiring creatures, and thus we are what we love (via James K. A. Smith's book You Are What You Love). We end up becoming what we love the most. When we love something we spend time with it, we learn about it, and eventually that thing transforms us and shapes us into who we are. So, as I connect the rhythms of the Christian life together I also hope to be able to describe to you some of my own story, to show you how I came to desire these rhythms, how I wanted them in my life, and how they were practices I longed for.

Now let me first say this. Thinking musically, when it comes to rhythms there are short repeated rhythms and there are long repeated rhythms. The short rhythms come and go quickly but the long rhythms take time to develop. Music has short and long repetitions and so does life. People want to feel the beat when they listen to music. They want to get into the groove and they want to know that the beat is steady and dependable. But they also want variation. A good song or piece of music offers both the right amount of predictable repetition along with the right amount of variation or surprise. Both are key and necessary elements.

A concise and effective example of shorter and longer rhythms working together in a piece of music is the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The shortest rhythmic set of the piece is the iconic 4 note ba-ba-ba-bum… It’s a motif, repeated all throughout the movement. Over and over it comes in different intervals and keys. The motif continually shifts and yet stays the same. It varies it’s form but stays familiar enough that we know it’s the same thing repeated over and over. Let’s listen to the first 17 seconds. You get an entire musical idea in that 17 seconds. 

It’s a complete musical thought. There were lots of little rhythms in it, and as a musical thought that entire section acts as 1 larger rhythm. Then the section repeats, but it’s a variation and extension of the first section. From 17-41 seconds it develops into something else. At the end of that section the piece shifts altogether into another mini-movement. It sounds completely different and yet if you listen, underneath are the same ba-ba-ba-bum rhythms. Everything has changed and yet much is still the same. Then, at the 1:21 mark everything starts all over, again with now even more variations on the main theme. This is the work of a brilliant composer. Numerous tiny rhythms make up the infrastructure to create a much larger set of rhythms, creating all the various sections of this movement of the symphony.

The rhythms of the Church year are much the same. We have a number of daily and weekly rhythms that connect to the larger seasonal and yearly rhythms.

Let's take a closer look at some of the most basic rhythms of our life in Christ.
Our first rhythm is simply a rehashing of Fr. Greg’s sermon from last week. 6 days you shall work and on the 7th you shall rest from your labors. We are meant to feel the pull of Sundays. To heed the call to worship. I have a good pastor friend who refuses to see Sundays as a work day for himself. He makes it a point to go into worship as if he were simply a worshipper like everyone else. To him, even as a pastor worship should still be a time of resting and abiding. I kind of like that, even if I don’t if I don't necessarily agree. Nonetheless, the idea is that our being drawn into worship is that it’s a kind of sleeping, of being rejuvenated.

Now, it’s worth noting that the original 7th day, the day of rest is Saturday. When we speak of the sabbath we can only mean Saturday. Sundays are not the Sabbath. Christians shifted the day of rest to Sundays and it is good for us to acknowledge this. Sunday is “the day of our Lord.” According to Acts, the first Church met on the day Christ rose. Down through the ages there has been handed down an understanding of why this shift occurred. Sundays have come to be known as the first day of the new creation. Christ rose on Sunday, conquering sin and death. By making Sundays our day of worship and rest we a then declaring Christ’s new kingdom, that is, the new heavens and the new earth that Christ is remaking.

This understanding of Sunday is reflected in the hymn, “O Day of Radiant Gladness.” Here are the lyrics:
O day of radiant gladness, O day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness, most beautiful, most bright;
this day the high and lowly, through ages joined in tune,
sing, "Holy, holy, holy," to the great God triune.

This day, at the creation, the light first had its birth;
This day for our salvation Christ rose from depths of earth;
This day our Lord victorious the Spirit sent from heaven,
and thus this day most glorious  a triple light was given.

This day, God's people meeting, his Holy Scripture hear;
his living presence greeting, 
through Bread and Wine made near.
We journey on, believing, renewed with heavenly might,
from grace more grace receiving on this blest day of light.

That light our hope sustaining, we walk the pilgrim way,
at length our rest attaining, our endless Sabbath day.
We sing to thee our praises, O Father, Spirit, Son;
the Church her voice upraises to thee, blest Three in One.

Note that in the second verse it mentions the first day of creation, Easter Sunday, and the day of Pentecost as landmark events. And so, when we gather on Sunday’s our worship is a living memorial to those events. By worshiping we inhabit the realities those moments in time brought about. Creation, redemption, transformation.

And so, allow me to make a bold assertion, one entirely not my own: Sundays are the most important Christian holiday. Every Sunday we live into, celebrate, and proclaim Christ’s resurrection. In the same way, we can say that every Sunday is a little Easter and that Easter is the most important of all Sundays.

By feeling that weekly tug to gather together each week, we are also feeling that tug for eternity, for the new heavens and new earth. And so our worship is a proclamation that the world is different now. Our worship is meant to be a foreshadowing of the coming King and his kingdom. Notice the last verse of the hymn: the new heavens and new earth are their own “sabbath day”. The smaller rhythm of weekly Sundays is reflected in the largest rhythm of all: that of eternity.
Now, what do we do when we gather together on Sundays? What kind of rhythms go on there?

We call the order and the actions of our gathered worship “the liturgy,” and the root meaning of this word is that it is “the work of the people.” There is much I could say about what all this means, but very simply I want to say that in the power of the Holy Spirit, together as God's people we bring the liturgy to life. We enact it and inhabit it together. Our “work” in the liturgy is to proclaim who God is and what story he is writing in our world. We come together as a team or as a drama troupe and re-enact the game or the story. But it’s a living story and a true story.

As we work together performing this “liturgy”, this work together, there are two primary rhythms: Word and Table. We hear God’s word spoken and talked about and we gather around the meal of our Lord in the Sacrament of his body and blood. Every Sunday you should feel these rhythms. Word, Table. Read the Scriptures, celebrate the Meal.

I want to speak of both Word and Table primarily in terms of presence, God’s presence. God is always with us and where 2 or more are gathered God promises to be there among us, but I want to note the uniqueness of having the Word of God spoken aloud in the midst of the community, and then of partaking of the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine. Along with presence, another word you could use is sustenance. We feed off of and gain life both from God’s Word and in the meal of Communion. 

The word we use for these moments or rhythms during or worship, as mentioned above, is sacrament or sacramental. This words denotes a particular action or substance where the presence of God is made manifest among us through something physical. Sprit and substance combine or work together in an act of grace. In fact, the most basic definition of a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.” God works through something tangible to effect something spiritual. 

Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx gave a basic definition of the sacraments as “the properly human mode of encounter with God.” In more detail he also said: 
““In part we have indeed to manage now without encountering Christ in the body. Precisely on this account Christian life is an Advent. We must be on the lookout, waiting for the encounter which has yet to come. Christianity is the religion of the Maranatha: ‘Come, Lord Jesus…’
“In part we have indeed to manage now without encountering Christ in the body. Precisely on this account Christian life is an Advent. We must be on the lookout, waiting for the encounter which has yet to come. Christianity is the religion of the Maranatha: ‘Come, Lord Jesus…’"

…Christ Makes his presence among us actively visible and tangible too, not directly through his own bodiliness, but by extending among us on earth in visible form the function of his bodily reality which is in heaven. This precisely is what the sacraments are: the earthly extension of the ‘body of the Lord.’” (E. Schillebeeckx, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter With God. Sheed and Ward, 1963. Pgs. 6, 41) 

According to Schillebeeckx the sacraments are tangible encounters with the glorified Jesus. Think of this in terms of what happens when we engage with God’s Word as it is spoken aloud, and in the Eucharist when we eat of the body and the blood.

Our rhythm of Word and Table was one of the primary reasons I was drawn into this way of worshipping. I was astounded by it actually. I grew up in a Pentecostal-Evangelical church who placed a high value on Scripture. Sure, we had prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the other gifts of the Spirit, but everything we did and said needed to line up with the Word of God. And yet…hardly any Scripture was spoken in our times of worship. Sometimes, perhaps only a short passage was read and then often the sermon given would hardly relate to even that passage. For a people who valued God’s Word so much, it seemed like we got very little of it.

And so I was amazed in the first few months of going to a liturgical church at how much Scripture there was in the worship. There was such a large scope: we got an Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament, and a Gospel reading. Even if all the verses were relatively short we were still receiving this wide swath of Scripture. We got to hear it speaking to us from so many different places. 

I soon began to play a game every Sunday: Connect the Dots of Scripture. I wanted to figure out how all the readings connected to each other. I wanted to figure out how they spoke into each other, what kind of conversation might be going on. I didn’t always win the game—sometimes I wasn’t able to make a connection between them, still, it was always fun to play. Soon I found out that one of the Scripture readings wasn’t a reading at all, but instead a prayer raised up by the congregation. The Psalm, I came to learn, was a response from the congregation to the Old Testament reading. So there should always be some sort of thematic connection between the Old Testament and the Psalm. I loved this as well, how we actually got to pray the Scriptures together. 

Looking back it makes me a bit sad, how something so normal and natural was a complete novelty to me. We didn’t recite Scripture together in my church growing up. We didn’t read long passages of it out loud to each other. I longed for this. I wanted this. I loved simply being present and allowing the words to waft over me like a beautiful melody. It didn’t matter if I failed to understand everything. What mattered was that they were being spoken and that I was there to take it in. I began to look forward to this weekly rhythm of slowing down and listening…

The way God’s Word is used in the liturgy is it’s own kind of long and short set of rhythms. There are weekly, yearly, and tri-yearly rhythms. Every week we have the Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, and Gospel. This is like the steady beat of a song. Then there are the certain high holy days throughout the year that sometimes use the same Scripture passages. The readings for Ash Wednesday are always the same. Often though the readings will be similar but different from year to year. So for Palm Sunday each year we read a different version of the Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, rotating from each of the first 3 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This would be like the verses of the song, where the melody is the same, but the words differ. Finally, even though each week is somewhat the same from year to year, we are on a 3 year cycle, years A, B, and C, again drawing from 1 of the Gospels each of those years, with the Gospel of John being read at various times throughout all 3 years. I’m not sure if the comparison works, but this 3 rhythm is something like the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure in a song. All of which is to say, just as there are patterns in a song, there is a definite, outlined pattern to how we read through Scripture together in the short-term and the long-term. 
And then there is the pull to the Table. We come to the Feast. The Passover lamb is prepared for us. A table is spread. We remember Christ’s words to his disciples. We remember his actions that night and then what happened all through the next day leading to his death. As we break bread and drink wine we remember all that Christ has done. In fact the reality of the work of Christ is recalled to us right then and there as we eat food. As we partake of a physical reality it transforms our spiritual reality. Christ has been resurrected and he ascended to heaven where he reigns at the right hand of God the Father. As we partake of the Body and Blood, this reality, this victory is our victory. We are a people of resurrection.

When I first started going to a church that celebrated Communion every week I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even realize how hungry I had been. Even as I was filled each week I was left with this ache for all the years where we only took Communion every once in a while. And even then the celebrations weren’t like they are now, they weren’t as full, as joyful, as meaningful, as transformative.

Here’s what I felt: in Communion, Heaven was coming down to us. It wasn’t all that different than my Pentecostal church where we asked God to anoint someone. We asked God’s Spirit to come down and fill us and change us and show us who he is. Communion was the exact same thing except it simply used the words of Jesus to do so. When our pastor would pray over and consecrate the bread and wine Heaven came down and met us. It wasn’t that God wasn’t here before that. But I knew those simple elements of food had been blessed. That there was a grace given to it. It was Presence.

Again, I longed for it. It was a rhythm whose beat needed to be struck weekly. This was how I worshipped now. It was emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical all wrapped up into one.

At the beginning of Communion the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” And then we say “It is right to give thanks and praise.” In these statements is the basis of the Table, which is to give thanks for what God has done in Jesus. And this is why Communion is also called Eucharist, a Greek word meaning “great thanksgiving.” We call the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, The Great Thanksgiving. Theologian Alexander Schmemann said this about the Eucharist:
“All Remembrance is ultimately the remembrance of Christ, all thanksgiving is finally thanksgiving in Christ. “In Him was life and that life was the light of men.” And in the light of the Eucharist we see that Christ is indeed the life and light of all that exists, and the glory that fills heaven and earth. There is nothing else to remember, nothing else to be thankful for, because in Him everything finds its being, its life, its end.” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963. Pg. 40.)

We hear the Word of God spoken and it works it’s way into our hearts and minds, it renews us and transforms us. We intake the body and blood and it gives our own bodies spiritual grace. 

Hearing the Scriptures weighs heavier on the intellectual side of who we are. Celebrating Communion is visceral and sensual. Both of these acts counterbalance each other, making our worship fully mental, physical, and spiritual. These parts of ourselves do not fight each other, but instead compliment each other, coming together in a single act of worship of the almighty God.

This action of Word and Table is a proclamation. We proclaim it to each other and in turn the hope is that we proclaim it to the world in word and deed. This act, this movement, this rhythm, is the Good News, the Gospel itself.

Often, a big emphasis of church life is on doing the things we need to do and because we need to do them. The ritual of coming to church on Sunday, of reading God’s Word, and having Communion is something we need to do. It is an obligation. We are obligated. And so we often get caught up in the "shoulds", in the list of things that must needs get done. But think of it: we are not to come begrudgingly. It is not a chore. Instead, it should be a mixture of holy joy and holy fear. 

Consider the feelings and preparation you experience when an important guest is coming over for dinner and perhaps even for a night. We find ourselves caught up in joyous fear: Will we be ready enough in time? Will we get things just right and to their liking? We truly want them to be happy with their meal and their room and the entire evening. We want it to be special. Oh we hope it’s special. So we clean and organize and chop vegetables and get out new towels and linens and some of us even get out specific books or movies to share with our guest. The whole thing becomes and event. And it is our deepest joy to pour so much into it. It makes us nervous and excited all at the same time and it is worth it on every level.

When we gather together to enact the liturgy as Christ’s Body, our posture should be entirely the same. My desire for us as the Church would be that we long for these moments together each week. Oh that we might long for it. To be in God’s presence together. To pour out our lives before God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There are other rhythms to be sure and we will talk about those when I preach at a later time. But these are the most basic. They give us a foundation and feed into the other rhythms. 

Sundays: Word and Table. 

May our hearts, minds, and bodies be caught up in the rhythm of it all.


Speaking the Truth in Love
Plunge into the glorious mystery: a sermon for Trinity Sunday
Taking a pilgrimage to the wounds of Christ with doubting Thomas
Reflections on the Death of Moses
Come to his marvelous light: a sermon for the Epiphany
We have a problem with authority: A sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Is the Liturgy Too Elitist and Academic For "Normal" Christians?
Liturgical Worship is Like Being a Radiohead Fan
Why People Don't Go To "Liturgical" Churches Part 1: Liturgy's Superiority Complex
Why People Don't Go To "Liturgical" Churches Part 2: It's Un-American!
How the Liturgy can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)
How the Church Calendar can speak to modern people (if we allow it to)

Episode 49: Doug Chu on White Churches, Multicultural Worship, and the Asian-American Experience
Episode 47: Dr. Lester Ruth on the history of Contemporary Worship

Episode 26: Zac Hicks author of The Worship Pastor

1 comment:

Mary Sayler said...

Excellent word! If your other posts tie into various aspect of this one, you might already have a book that would interest publishers who, like myself, want to see works that bringing healing to the church. May God guide and bless you in Jesus' Name.