A Sermon on Our Gatherings and What They Mean

One of the the things I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and reading about lately is our worship service. I tend to do this and then start reading a lot of books, meeting people and asking hard questions so I can better understand what is going on. So there are different questions that I’ve asked myself over the last little while, such as…

Why do we show up here on Sundays? What motivates us?
Do people feel pressured to come or do they love being here?
Is it guilt? Is it passion? Is it habit?
Why do we sing songs?
How do we choose our songs?
Why do we pray out loud?
Why do we have a sermon?
Why do we eat together?
Does everyone feel welcome?
Why do we do communion?
Why do people give money?

So this morning is going to be my attempt to answer some of these questions and give some more substance to the reason we go about this weekly ritual. So to start, let’s talk about this out loud a bit.

Before we had ‘church services’ like we have today as we call them, the church used to come together and share the Eucharist. This was the meal that Jesus had with his disciples and then told them to continue to do it in remembrance of him. From this meal (which was already jam packed with rituals and symbolism) evolved everything we now see in worship services. From the big buildings to the singing to the priests to the prayers to the sermons everything came from this meal. Now the church building, church services and activities look a lot different and most of us, my guess is have no idea how we got here or how what we do is Christian at all. What I want to do this morning is show us how what we do here on Sunday morning shapes us into being certain kinds of people. Which will then lead us to ask ourselves what kinds of people we will be if we continue to worship the same way together on Sundays into the future.

One of the words that I’ll use a lot this morning is the word ‘liturgy.’ This isn’t a common word in context so let me give a brief explanation before we get going.

The literal meaning of liturgy is ‘work of the people.’ It comes from the Greek word Leitourgia. Before Jesus, this word would refer to the work done by citizens of a community, for the community. This is the practices and rituals that people participate in together for the edification of the group.

Many congregations have rediscovered that public worship is not a presentation by a select few, but rather an activity and effort of the entire congregation. In those settings where once a minister presided and a choir responded, now all worshippers join to participate in prayer, singing, ministering and speaking. The members of these congregations are affirming that worship is what they do together, not what they have done for them. For these congregations worship is active, not passive. It is the “work of the people.”
-Alan Peters

Liturgy doesn’t necessarily have to be Christian or at church either. They are the collective actions of people, the collective work that people do together. The other things about liturgies is that they are powerful at shaping people into being certain kinds of people. The habits and routines of people shape and dictate the kinds of people you will be.

“Liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.”
– James KA Smith

James KA Smith wrote a book called Desiring the Kingdom and in it he makes the previous statement. He spends the rest of his book proving this statement and showing us how a vast majority of what we do day in and day out are forming our desires and a lot of the times we barely even know it’s happening. He uses the example of a mall. Actually he spends a few pages of the book explaining the mall but through religious terms to try and trick your brain into thinking he actually is talking about a religious institution. He does this to show us that the mall is in fact liturgical. It isn’t liturgical because it is trying to get you to believe something or it is intentionally turning you into a mall rat or pushing ideas into your head. It is liturgical because it is the rituals of people that are part of a mall turn the mall into a very formative place. The mall liturgy forms people into very specific kinds of people. We’ve all seen and heard cultural critiques about what commercialization and materialism has done to society and it is because of the practices that we partake in when we go to malls.

But this isn’t to demonize the mall as a bad place and demonize us for shopping at a mall. The reason it’s important to recognize what kinds of people our practices at the mall turn us into is because most of the time we are unaware and unconscious to the ways that the things we do shape us to be certain kinds of people. If we aren’t aware of what shapes us we will be prone to think that simply what we believe and think about the world is how we actually live in the world. Unfortunately there is more to how we act than simply just what we believe. The way we act and live is much more tied into the practices that we participate in rather than the things that we believe.

Christians engaged in cultural renewal need to be cognizant of how cultural practices viscerally shape our desires. We are not disembodied brains who view the world with a detached intellectualism. We are shaped by the cultural spaces we inhabit and the cultural habits we practice. Unless we realize what subliminal messages these cultural liturgies are sending, we will be unaware that they are drawing our hearts to an alternative and un-Christian vision of the Kingdom.
– James KA Smith

We talked about this before in that what we believe doesn’t necessarily equal how we will act. When we sin, it isn’t always because we don’t know what we are supposed to do. There are other reasons that are in play that are causing us to sin or act outside of God’s call to holiness. We are certain kinds of people because of the certain kinds of things that we practice and do as routine. Enter the church. The church gathering together has become the church’s chief way to have it’s own practices and routines that is different from that of the world. The church gathers and everything it does together becomes part of the liturgy that forms its people. So the practices that we do together on a Sunday morning all play a part in forming us over the long haul into becoming certain kinds of people.

So now you can see, that the things that we do on a Sunday morning together are extremely important. It’s important that they are thought out and intentional. The way we do things matters. The things we say matter. Why we do things matters. Some would argue that the church is dying and lacking people who are passionate about Jesus because our worship liturgies lack any formative power since they have adopted the liturgies of the world (malls, business, schools, politics, home life). If our church services just simply sell another commodity, or become all about us being spiritually fed, or become about meeting our needs, or become simply about downloading knowledge, or hearing a great sermon, or out of fear of eternal destruction then I think probably we need to rethink what our church services are meant for.

“The liturgy is the means whereby we express and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church” (Constitution on the Liturgy, #2) In other words, liturgy is our self-expression of who we really are: a people who take time out from all the pressures of earthly life to rejoice in God’s nearness. The “work” of liturgy is much more like play-a celebration of who we are because of all that God has done for us.

So let’s unpack the meaning of what a Sunday morning should be and see how we are doing. This next bit comes from a friend of mine and Aaron Nicholson who is at a church in Seattle called ‘Wit’s End’ and I think he beautifully lays out some key aspects for us to grasp when we are talking about our worship together on a Sunday morning.

First, our Sunday morning gatherings should be Christian. I know it seems obvious, but it’s important to state and be intentional about. It must be a response to the action of God on our behalf, centering on the person of Jesus and putting us into dialogue with the Holy Spirit (notice the Trinity). Worship that is Christian will make confessional affirmations about God (ie. who he is, what he has done, what he promises to do, where we long to see him act). It uses the Bible as its primary text and uses the stories, metaphors and images in the Scriptures to draw on for songs, prayers and resources. Christian history and tradition have made available a rich legacy of spiritual resource for the church to explore as it practices discernment and remains forever thoughtful, creative and self-critical about what it incorporates into its practice of worship.

So, if our services don’t actually do these things, then it is possible that we are practicing something that is shaping us into something other than Christians. For example, if our songs draw language from other places rather than Scripture. Or our affirmations in the songs are in regard to ourselves and how we feel. If remembering Jesus isn’t central or is the community isn’t in conversation with God. If our service is only about creating a certain feeling, or to put a bow on a neat package of beliefs or to absolve our guilt then we are no longer participating in a Christian gathering. A Christian gathering is not about us, rather it is something from us. It is the work of the people, it is a sacrifice of praise for God.

This understanding of worship is an ancient one, firmly grounded in the stories, descriptions, and instructions contained in the Old Testament. The fundamental activities of Jewish worship-the psalms, prayers, and sacrifices-were the duties and responsibilities of all the people. Everyone who entered the temple was incorporated actively into the proclamation of faith. The early church built upon this concept of public worship. The early church fathers even described their worship services by using the Greek word liturgy, which means: “the work of the people.” Their intent was clear: worship is to be the avenue which all believers travel to glorify God.
– Alan Peters

The second thing that Nellis points out that our service must be congregational. This means that the practices that we do on Sunday morning must happen together, they do not do or mean the same thing when done alone. Our practices turn us toward one another as we worship God together. This is why we take notice of each other, we listen to each other and we acknowledge where God has moved in each other’s stories.

The Story of God and humanity has been one where individuals are called out and made into a people. Ultimately, our Father seems to be primarily interested in making for himself a family where the ethos is communal, interpersonal and diverse- we practice this by curating worship that is congregational.
– Phil Nellis

It is too easy to become a service that is simply about encouraging people in their individual journeys and perfecting their own spiritual growth. Our songs would become about me and I and not us and we. So it’s important that our services together have a congregational aspect to it that it is us, being formed into the people of God that are worshiping our creator together.

Finally the third thing he brings up is that our worship services should be contextual. This means that the church that is worshiping is present during it’s worship service. Who has God called us to be? What makes our specific church peculiar?

To curate a space for worship and invite the congregation into worship means to have a sense for our story as it exists in relation to God’s Story on a grand scale and as it exists in relation to the Christian story in this culture, place and time. To do this well requires that we pay attention and strive to know our congregation, our stories, our place in the city and in the world. We must have eyes to see the Kingdom of God and have a sense for not simply our current place in it, but also our church’s calling to participate in its’ future.
-Phil Nellis

Is theStory being true to who we are and where we are? Are our gatherings just a cookie cutter version of pop culture churches? Tv churches? Mega-churches? Are we just trying to repeat what we’ve seen and experienced somewhere else or do we have a gathering that is particular to our place in this community?

That is far from an exhaustive list of what we should be looking for but it gives us a good foundation that I think we can appreciate so that we can learn to be self-critical and give us something base our analysis on. So after all that, let’s do a look over of what our gatherings look like together and see if we can better grasp why we do the things we do. Then using James KA Smith’s book let’s walk through each of these and dissect their meaning a bit.

Call To Worship
Prayers of the People
Tithes and Offering

Call to Worship
We don’t really officially do a call to worship, but we do start each of our services off with a prayer and a scripture reading to prepare our hearts for worship. All over the world people are gathering by a call to worship at this time. There would be a specific phrase or words that the priest or pastor would say over the congregation to denote this call. People from every country and nation put down their regular schedules and important life duties to gather with their local community to respond to this call. That is why we are here right now, we are responding to this call to worship and here we are.

“Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what ‘church’ means: ekklesia, ‘called out.’

“Gathering indicates that Christians are called from the world, from their homes, from their families, to be constituted as a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people. Gathering, therefore, is an eschatological act as it is in the foretaste of the unity of the communion of the saints.”
– Stanley Hauerwas

Embedded in our gathering in response to this call is an implicit understanding of what is required for human flourishing. To be human is to be called. But called to what? Gathered for what? The congregation gathers in response to a call to worship, which is fundamental vocation of being human. God is calling out and constituting a people who will look ‘peculiar’ in this broken world because they have been called to be renewed image bearers of God — to take up and reembrace our creational vocation, now empowered by the Spirit to do so.
– James KA Smith

So look – we haven’t even got into the service yet and we are already unpacking so much meaning in what is going on here. Just by showing up we are participating in a ritual that is reminding us who we are and what we are called to be.

We sing usually 3-4 songs here on a Sunday morning. But why? Is it just to add some cool style to what we are doing? Is it so Dan gets to showcase his awesome singing skills and he just loves to be up front of people? There are a few things going on when we sing together. When we sing, it is a full bodied action that activates the entirety of a person – significantly more going on by merely passively listening. Singing pulls together parts of our bodies that would otherwise be dormant and allows us to express ourselves. There is harmony, rhyme, rhythms that all get into our brains and hearts in a way nothing else can. Throughout church history songs have become the church’s language.

If being a participating member of a society is reflected by one’s ability to speak the language, then one could say that song is one of the primary ways that we learn to speak the language of the kingdom.
– James KA Smith

So song engage our bodies, it gives us a language to speak in that sinks deep into us more than anything else and it also is full of theology. John Wesley calls songs ‘a sung theology.’ The songs and hymns we sing are deepened into our hearts and form us into a certain kind of people because of the lyrics and the words that we repeat over and over again This is why we need to thoughtfully choose our songs because the words we sing shape us and in many ways gives us a taste for the Kingdom of God. This is also why it is important that our singing never becomes about a performance by those leading.

It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
– James KA Smith

Q: Don’t worry we won’t hurt Dan’s feelings. When we sing here on Sunday mornings, does it feel like a concert? Does it feel like we are one body singing our theology in unison and being shaped into God’s people?

Prayers of the People
We sit there silently for the most part and call on the Creator of the universe because we believe he actually cares about the daily on goings of our lives. Praying engages and enacts a reality that we don’t always understand but the very act of doing it says that we think there is more to prayer than just talking to an imaginary sky daddy. We are making a statement that we think God is personal and he cares about the world. When we pray for the world and each other we are reminded that we aren’t called to worship for our sake but for the sake of the world. Just like Adam and Eve, just like Israel, so the church is called to be God’s ambassadors and image bearers to the world by caring for creation, worshipping and praying together. We are called outside ourselves and our own interests to concern for others. We use words to articulate what justice and restoration looks like by praying for things that don’t look like justice and restoration to end so that we can see what the kingdom of God looks like in those situations.

Q: Has our prayers of the people been a meaningful aspect of our Sunday mornings for you? Why or Why not?

The scriptures that we speak from acts as our text that reminds us of what our story is. Where we come from and where we are going. We named our church theStory for this very reason and we’ve looked at this quote many times.

If there is no point in the story as a whole, there is no point in my own action. If the story is meaningless, any action of mine is meaningless…so the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ can only be given if we ask ‘What is my story?’ and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, ‘What is the whole story of which my story is a part?'”
– Leslie Newbigin

We are story-telling people who live and breathe stories all day and we need to constantly immerse ourselves in what our story is. Our worship service is shaped by us articulating the story of the scriptures.

“The Scriptures provide the story of which we find ourselves a part, and this the narration and absorption of the story is crucial to give us resources for knowing what we ought to do. The end of ingesting the story — “eating the book” — is in order to be and become a certain kind of person and a certain kind of people….We begin to absorb the plot of the story, begin to see ourselves as characters within it; the habits and practices of its heroes function as exemplars, providing guidance as we are trained in virtue, becoming a people with a disposition to ‘the good’ as it’s envisioned in the story.”
– James KA Smith

Q: Is the sermon time of our gatherings a good time for you to recognize your part in God’s story? Is it something else for you?

Every week we eat together (even though some of you still haven’t figured out that we need you to sign up for potluck a few times!). Usually once a month we take the sacraments of the bread and wine in a very specific ritualistic manner, but every week we eat together. In mainline churches the entire worship gathering climaxes at the Eucharist and this is what is the most important part of the service. When I was at the Anglican church a few months ago, there was a time change and an older couple missed the service. They were so disappointed but the priest said not to worry because there was still some bread and wine left and they could receive the sacraments. I found this fascinating because this was the first time I saw and understood the Eucharist as the climax of the worship gathering instead of the sermon. In our circles the sermon is the most important part. If someone misses the service we tell them that they could read our blog or listen to it online. The idea that you could take the sacraments after wouldn’t even cross our mind.

The Eucharist is a kind of foretaste of what is coming. For one it reminds us of the banquet table that will be set where the marriage supper of the Lamb will take place and reminds us that this is the way that things ought to be. No one will hoard a surplus leaving others with nothing because the bread and wine are freely distributed to all. “The Lord’s supper constitutes practice for such a kingdom economics.” The Lord’s Supper is about forgiveness and reconciliation with our enemies and with each other. We take it together because we can’t do this alone. A kingdom-shaped community does not work if all of us are so called saved to God but we have no reconciliation with each other, which is one of the things that happens when we eat together as Joe talked about last week. So eating together (the Eucharist) requires forgiveness and reconciliation, because we don’t eat with those we haven’t forgiven. Just think about all the warnings throughout the Scriptures before you commune and forgive with your brothers and sisters. We cannot bear the image of God in isolation while we hate our neighbour. The Eucharist demands we forgive before we remember. The Eucharist gives us a chance to practice forgiving and reconciling.

Q: Have we done well in making the potluck an extension of the Eucharist? What could we do better when it comes to the Eucharist so it becomes a practice that shapes our community?

Tithes and Offering
Now this part we don’t make part of our actual community gathering. We have a little tin at the back, some of you might not even know it’s there, but it’s where we collect your money so that we can run this operation and use it towards the things of the Kingdom. It’s not where you pay for your services here, rather it’s where you get to practice generosity. It reminds us that our relationship with God isn’t one of contract and money but one of covenant and gifts. Again, by giving our money, we are embodying a new economy, an alternative economy to the world. Remember, we are the church, we are an alternative society that has been redeemed by God. This means we use and spend our money differently. Money means different things to us. We know this to be true because we just read Acts and in almost every story in Acts when people came into contact with this Christian community it meant that their economies were rearranged and they started putting their money towards different things. God’s people are marked by a different economy that pushes against greed, hoarding, consumption and offers something that is counter to the imagination of capitalism. This is why we give. What happens with that money is an entirely different story and it’s probably unfortunate how the church has spent it thus far. But it is something that we desperately need to re-visit so that we are modeling an alternative economy and aren’t just participating in a Christianized version of buying and selling.

Now these are just the things we practice here on Sundays. There are lots others that we can talk about that are the practices that the church should do together in order that we are shaped and modelling the Kingdom. Things like baptism, confession, sending out, discipleship – things that we do at times but we haven’t even touched on. But this was a brief overview of the kinds of liturgies that we practice and why we do them and what they are representing and what we are modelling when we do them. By doing them, repeatedly, and participating with each other we re-enact the Story of God’s creation to redemption and remind ourselves that we are in fact God’s people. As James KA Smith states

Liturgies are not just symbolic and ritualistic; they are enacted stories that are repeated and participatory.

And most liturgies would end the way that they began. We would normally say something like “Love God, Love Others and Tell His Story” but today I will end as many churches end their services quoting from Numbers.

The Lord Bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
The Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace (Numbers 6:24-26)

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