Sermon: Rhythms in the Liturgy Part 1—Word & Deed

Alternate Title: What to do when the repetition of the liturgy bores you or starts driving you crazy.

This is the second sermon in a series of three. The first sermon can be found here:
The Rhythm is Gonna Get You—Rhythms in the Liturgy: Word & Table

In the first few days after starting seminary I distinctly remember running into the above work of art while needing to go downstairs to visit some staff member for one of those mundane tasks you are required to fulfill in the registration process. I chatted with the librarian, accomplished my task, and then lingered outside his office just looking at the work. It was titled The Sermon. Next to it were hung other works by the same artist, those entitled Daniel Among the Lions and The Prodigal Son, but this particular work grabbed me, demanding my attention. 

"Words, words, words, words, words..." emanate from the preachers mouth. His right hand is curved into an upside down arch and his face depicts a look of self-assured piety. His left hand may be interpreted as covering and thus silencing the holy book: the preacher will give his message, his interpretation of the text, thank you very much. I became transfixed with this work over my three and a half years at the seminary and I would often make conscious trips downstairs just to visit it and continue to contemplate it. It haunts me to this day and I still think about it often. You might say it is my favorite work of art, and Robert Hodgell (or R.O. Hodgell) my favorite artist. His is a distinctly 20th century voice and thus his overtly religious works speak to me in ways the ancient masters cannot. To me The Sermon is a visual word of prophecy to future ministers. It is a warning...

I love words you see. I love verbosity. I love to think that I know important things and that I can speak important things at you. "Words, words, words, words, words..." says the preacher. The irony of The Sermon is the preacher's words seem to be floating away, evaporating into mist. He is barraging the people with his sermon, with an extensive meaning-filled message, but do his efforts lead to understanding? Are the people transformed by the words? Or has he delivered his sermon for the sake of his own vanity?

My sermon today is about the "rhythms" of our liturgy, the rhythms or the structure that make up what we do when we gather together on Sundays. I particularly want to speak about the balance between Word & Deed, but in order to explain those rhythms I must first go back and explain the template of worship I grew up with, which was not liturgical at all. I should say that I was drawn to "liturgical" worship because it seemed like the opposite of the worship I grew up with. It seemed to offer everything my given form of worship lacked.

Growing up in my Pentecostal church I saw worship as a time where we were to come and meet with God through drawn out times of singing and prayer, through hearing God's word spoken through the sermon, and then through responding to the sermon with an "altar call." The whole time of gathered worship was about movement. We came to meet with God, and God came to meet with us. God spoke to us through the Word delivered to us that day (a particular Word that we needed to hear on that particular day) and we were moved to respond in any of a number of ways. Perhaps we were called to repent of certain sins, to "get real and get right with the Lord" to quote a Sufjan Stevens song. Perhaps we were called to some kind of mission or evangelistic purpose either in the short term or long term. Or perhaps we were called to receive God's physical, emotional, or spiritual healing touch on our lives. The singing and worship was our offering to God, the sermon was where we received the message from God, and the altar call was where two met. It was movement and action and a dance between God and us.

But when I came to worship in a "liturgical" church I was drawn to it primarily for the words. Ah the words... They were so beautiful and meaningful to me. I felt like I was drinking from a well after having only been allowed to drink from one of those little tiny Communion cups. The text called to me. They were coming from a more ancient place, a place of depth I had never known. We were given these articulate prayers to pray where our faith was expressed in words too ornate for my upbringing. We were given huge chunks of Scriptures to recite and reflect on. We spoke the truth of our faith in the beauty of the Creed. And the prayers during the Eucharist were so long and expansive. I could not take in what it all meant, but I knew I loved it.  It was all poetry to me and I loved marinating in it week after week.

But then the backlash occurred. The rhythms of my youth's worship started to rear their head. I began to feel like strictures were being placed on me in having to do the liturgy. It was the same week after week and it was weighing me down. I dreaded the routine of it all. I felt like I was not given a choice for what to do in worshipping God, that worship was being mandated to me. The liturgy had become a straightjacket.

I hope you see that I was caught in a pendulum swing. I love liturgy! I hate liturgy! Liturgy is the way worship should be done, it connects me to God! Liturgy is stifling, it's just a bunch of rules for getting to God! Depending on how I felt that day, I could have a completely different reaction to the liturgy. This was not a good place to be. So in the midst of this stasis, in the midst of being caught between the polarities of expecting worship to be spontaneous or completely ordered, I decided to innovate.

Instead of giving up on the liturgy and going back to the freer, looser way of worshipping, and instead of biting the bullet and just gritting my teeth and determining to get through it each week, I started to do 2 things:
1.) I began to consciously memorize as much of the liturgy as I could, and 
2.) I decided to zero in on a few specific passages or even sentences each week.

What this did was two very important things:
1.) By memorizing the liturgy, I was making it second nature. It became something I didn't have to think about anymore. It wasn't this gargantuan mass of words that I had to force feed down. Instead, through memorization it was as if it's DNA was being written into me to the point where I could recall without much effort the words of each section. And so by making the words second nature I was actually able to dwell on their meaning to a greater depth. I did not feel like I was constantly trying to catch up, constantly trying to catch 5 balls of meaning that were being thrown to me at once (all of which I usually dropped).
2.) Then, upon knowing the passages by heart I could pick any particular passage I desired on a particular Sunday to focus on. I could essentially slow time down for myself and meditate on one tiny idea. Everyone else would be moving on (and often my own lips would be moving one while my mind stayed put), but I would be dwelling on one little thing, and it would be alright since I had it memorized. Once I was done with my little mini-meditation I could jump right back in when I decided to.

Take the Collect For Purity, that we begin worship with each week. There are so many options to focus on in that little prayer alone. You could meditate, for instance, on what it means that all hearts are open to God, that nothing is hidden from God. Or we can contemplate what it means to "perfectly love God" or how the entirety of our lives are meant to "worthily magnify" God's name. The options are there, but what you choose to focus on is up to you and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The end result of these two ideas was that I eventually learned to live inside the liturgy. Each week I could make it new and I could discover a room or a corner within it that I had never looked at before. It was innovation paired with routine. The two came together to form something greater in a paradox: continual newness within continual sameness.

In the midst of these new practices I began to realize another concept that is vitally important, that of Word & Deed.

A parallel dilemma to all of this is that in the midst of any given Sunday I felt trapped between trying to figure out what all the words of the liturgy mean and what was actually happening in the liturgy. On one hand it felt like the liturgy was about having to get through a certain set of words and on the other hand it felt like we were doing all these actions together. But if I didn't understand the words, how could I know what the actions were? To me this is where the brilliance of the concept of Word & Deed comes in. They must always go together. We cannot think life is all about meaning and understanding and reading texts. We can also not think life is all about action and doing. We must instead turn to God in the creation of the world, who spoke the world into being with his very words. His words enabled action. And you could say our actions cause us to want to explain them through words.

Our liturgy is always about Word and Deed. They always go together. The liturgy therefore is a set of words that enable us to perform certain actions together as the Body of Christ.

I very intentionally decided to call this series "The rhythm is gonna get you." I see the liturgy, the way we do worship, as this great stream and it is up to us whether or not to jump into it and allow ourselves to be carried along by it. As Americans and especially as those who were raised to worship God in a less structured way, we instinctively push against something so ordered and seemingly rigid as the liturgy. But if we instead approach the liturgy like music I think we will more easily give ourselves over to it. If we like a song we never say "No, this song can't tell me how to feel. This song can't make me dance." Instead, we give ourselves over to the song, we let the rhythm move us, we allow it to shape our emotions, we move to the rhythm in our bodies and souls, and we do all of this gladly. So be willing to give yourself over to the "music" of the liturgy and to the beat of the rhythm inside it. When we start to move to a song we rarely ever know what the song is about. Understanding may come later, but for now all we can do is move...

Every time we worship with the liturgy together more words are put in front of us than we can ever take in at one time. Resign yourself to this. Embrace the largeness of it's scope and be at peace with not being able to know it all at once. The liturgy is a song worth giving yourself over to, and the more you dance with it the more its meaning will begin to take shape. We struggle to submit to something that seems to be telling us what to do, but I want to encourage us: give yourself to the liturgy, let the rhythm move you. Often you have to first allow yourself to enter in before you understand what is happening.

Next week I will go over the specific actions of the liturgy. Today has mostly been a setting of the stage. We will delve more specifically into what exactly the liturgy is doing and we will see how its words and deeds are intrinsically linked to each other, giving us a model for living out the words and deeds of the Christian life. I love the artwork from Robert Hodgell because I love words so much, but I know his print is pointing to something else: that words are empty unless they lead to action. One of the most powerful truths our liturgy shows us is that words shape reality, and so we must know that as we submit to and worship God with the liturgy, that it is shaping reality and shaping us into a particular kind of people. Next week I will break down exactly what kind of people we are becoming.

I must apologize for up to this point I have hardly used any Scripture in this sermon. So far it has mostly been my own "words, words, words..." So, I want to leave us with the Psalm we will pray together next week. Consider this a sneak peak:

Psalm 133
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

In light of this Psalm I want us to leave this morning with a few things to remind ourselves of:
1.) The liturgy unites us together. When we give ourselves over to the rhythm of the liturgy, it is a dance we join in together. And behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
2.) It is easier to memorize because we do it together. There is truly something special that happens when we all speak the same thing at once. It unites our hearts, souls, and bodies. And somehow someway I am much more able to recall the words than I would by myself.
3.) To come ready to dwell only on a few briefs moments of the liturgy. There are a lot of words to choose from, pick choose one or two and simply dwell on them, considering what they mean.

Along with the Scriptures, the words and deeds of our liturgy proclaim the Good News of Christ. So, with the time we have left today, let us proclaim that Good News together.

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

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