I continue my “Acting Out” sermon series by looking at the words we use in worship and how well they reflect the Word.
SCRIPTURE – Psalm 19
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat. The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Acting Out sermon series
#2 – The Word and the Words
June 13, 2010
You may know the name Ralph Stanley. Stanley is a legend in the music world. He’s a bluegrass and folk singer with a gravelly, haunting voice and I heard he plays a decent banjo, as well. One of Stanley’s CDs is a two-volume set. One of the volumes is called “Sunday Morning” and has songs about preaching and praying and God and such. The other volume is called “Saturday Night” and has songs about the “real” stuff of life, like working hard, raising kids, taking care of each other and facing death.
Stanley isn’t the only one who sees a big difference between what we say on Saturday night and what we say on Sunday morning. Chances are a lot of people come to church on Sunday morning because of what they said on Saturday night! And yet, I would argue that the words we speak in the world should inform the words we speak in church, and the words we speak in church should transform the words we speak in the world.
We all know the power our words carry. How many of us, when we were kids, would have rather gotten a spanking than a lecture? My step-father would say, “Kory Thomas, we need to talk,” and I would think, “Wouldn’t you rather beat me instead?” At least the pain from a spanking fades, but the words of rebuke or disappointment would last a lot longer. Words can douse a dream, ruin a life, feed an addiction or break a heart.
But along with the danger of words come their beauty and generative power. Remember in Genesis God said, “Let there be light.” God spoke the world into being. Words are the wombs from which rich symbolism and uplifting humor are born. Words have the power to create as much as they do destroy. Just ask anyone who has said the words, “I do,” or has heard the words, “You’re hired,” or has been told, “I love you.”
We use words several different ways in our worship – we speak words to God, better known as prayers, such as the invocation, benediction, the pastoral prayer and our prayers at the table; we speak with each other, through the call to worship, the greeting, and announcements; and God speaks to us throughout all of it, including but certainly not limited to the scripture readings and the sermon.
But just because we say the words doesn’t mean they are always the right words. Sometimes the words we use are empty or trivial or self-serving or presumptious. And sometimes they are just too numerous. Sometimes in worship we bloviate and pontificate, forgetting that God doesn’t want our words as much as God wants our hearts. That’s why we are building a time of silence into our worship. We can’t hear God speak to us if we’re always talking.
And during worship, we believe God does speak. Sometimes it is through the sermon; sometimes it is in spite of the sermon. Sometimes it’s in a comment from one of the kids during Children’s Time. I often hear God through the singing of the choir. Sometimes God doesn’t use words to speak, but instead speaks through the symbols of bread and cup or through the hug from a friend. Just as we speak in worship, so does God.
In fact, that highlights one of my favorite metaphors for worship. Worship is a conversation with God, a dialogue between humans and the divine that is often structured but sometimes free-flowing and spontaneous; sometimes intimate and sometimes formal; sometimes harmonious and other times confrontational; on occasion quite personal and at other times communal. As we talk to each other, as we talk to God, as God talks to us our sense of community deepens and our ability to express our faith and praise grows.
This metaphor of a conversation may seem strange at first since it’s only those of us up here who do most of the talking. But that doesn’t mean that you, the congregation, are simply passive recipients of the message. I’ve only been here about six months, but I know better than that! I watch your faces during the sermon; I see how you react non-verbally. This congregation is very participatory in that way. You smile, you frown, you nod your head. When you do that, you are conversing with the preacher and with the text. I believe you are taking in the words, processing them, measuring them against your own beliefs, determining their applicability for your life, allowing them to move your emotions or challenge your intellect or inspire your imagination. Or maybe you’re just disagreeing with them. That’s fine, too! When you listen and respond, you actively participate in conversation with the words and God’s Word, Jesus Christ. As Fred Craddock wrote, “Preaching increases in power when it is dialogical, when speaker and listener share in the proclamation of the Word.”
You see, we all share in the responsibility of speaking our praise to God, and that shared communication that is the basis for our community doesn’t end when the last word of the benediction is spoken. Ron Allen, my preaching professor at CTS cautions against saying “Amen” at the end of a sermon because that implies the end of the conversation. Rather, the end of the sermon and the end of the service should be the beginning of a conversation that continues in the narthex and in Chalice Hall and during the ride home and at the dinner table and in board meetings and on the playground. The words we speak in worship are not the period at the end of the sentence, but the capital letter at the beginning of a sentence that continues to be spoken Monday through Saturday as we ponder what God is calling us to do and be.
So, our conversation together in worship is crucial for us as we think about the link between Saturday night and Sunday morning. We may not think there’s a connection. Maybe we would rather not let the two intermingle. “I’ll keep my Sunday words like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘Thy will be done’ right where they belong.” We may be like comedian Flip Wilson, who said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander. They wanted me to become a Jehovah’s Witness but I didn’t want to get involved.”
But I believe our faith compels us to get involved, to use the words we learn on Sunday in our daily lives. Professor Tom Long calls worship “the language school of God.” Long wrote a very interesting book called “Testimony” with the provocative subtitle of “Talking Ourselves into Being Christian.” In the book, Long says we need to talk about God the way a mariner needs to talk about the sea, and he argues worship is the primary place we learn to do that. He says that on Sunday we have the opportunity to speak our faith, and it is through saying these things out loud that we come to know what we truly believe. We talk ourselves into being Christian.
I find Long’s premises very intriguing, especially in conjunction with our calling to be a “light to the world” and a “city on a hill.” Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” In other words, if someone asks us why we believe what we believe, we have to be ready to answer that, and we learn that answer in church on Sunday as we speak God’s vocabulary. We talk ourselves into being Christian so that we can talk about what it means to us to be a Christian.
We also learn to speak what Long calls authentic God talk. There’s a lot of God talk in our world. God’s name is invoked in numerous ways, but not all of them are authentic to who God is. I wish God’s name was only abused in cusswords, because at least then the misuse would be easier to identify. Sometimes it feels like God’s name is used as a weapon to beat down people who believe differently or to entice people to give money to questionable causes. Sometimes God’s name is used to justify injustices and to sanction immoral choices. The great tragedy in our world is that people hear so much counterfeit God talk they become numb to the real thing.
So we then are called to pay attention to the relationship between Saturday night and Sunday morning so that we can bridge the language gap between the two. Long says that “perceiving the reciprocity between Saturday night and Sunday morning enables us to worship as people who have real lives and to live as people who are in worship relationship to God.” Worship is our dress-rehearsal for the drama of the Monday-to-Saturday world.
That means when we leave this place, the words we speak stay with us and as we speak them, the places we go become holy places. Our homes become sanctuaries, our jobs become places of ministry. For example, when faced with an ecological conundrum, we may not recite the psalm that says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that’s in it,” but we live out that language in our responses and actions. We may not repeat, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” but we say those words in how we treat the day and each other. We may not quote Micah who says, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” but we speak those words when we seek to live them out in our communities. As we let the language of worship saturate us, as we let it permeate our own vocabulary, we offer the world a different language than the one of greed and destruction and violence.
We pray and we respond and we read scripture and we hear sermons so that all of us may be inspired by the Spirit of God to go out into the world and do what we talk about. Sometimes it is hard to take those words with us; it would be easier to leave them in the sanctuary. But it is up to us, you and me, to give them life. To make them come alive, to give those words true meaning, we must embody them, we must be doers of the words we speak and hear. When we show what it means to love, to forgive, to be gracious, we move beyond the limits of our language to the infinite reach of God’s love. In a world filled with words that tear down, we need more words that build up, that light up the darkness of our world. We speak and listen to those powerful words each Sunday. Now, let the conversation begin.