When we talk with one another about our experience of first coming to The Episcopal Church, often we’ll say or hear “we felt at home,” “it just felt right,” or “we loved the experience of worship.” This is particularly true if we are not from a Roman Catholic background, when we haven’t experienced liturgy before. I commend to you the glossary entry for “liturgy” on The Episcopal Church’s website, but I’ll sum it up for you: liturgy is the work we, the people of the church, do in public worship of God. We who follow the rubrics or instructions of The Book of Common Prayer (from which our printed bulletin is derived) have a predetermined, set liturgy. This consistent structure gives us the comfort of going to any Episcopal Church and experiencing the same thing, for the most part. There are, of course, cultural variations. ; )
That we experience comfort in the liturgy or that we miss it if we’ve been away from it for an extended period of time doesn’t strike me as odd. When conditions are right, we are at ease. When we know what to expect, we are comforted. Even when we are relaxed, there are ways to experience challenge without being threatened, to do hard work without being afraid, and to take risks even repeatedly. It occurs to me that this is what we do week in and week out. We gather in this space and are, through the structure of our worship, given time to assume postures ready to receive, to learn, and to serve, encompassed in an environment and posture of praise and thanksgiving, whether that’s standing on our feet or kneeling on our knees. Have you ever thought of it that way before?
If you go back to the beginning of the bulletin, you’ll see we start with song, with praise and recognition of God. Charlie Rigsby, former organist at St. Paul’s always said when you sing you pray twice, so we give more than just a nod toward our praise of God, especially in our Gloria. And we stand through this. You don’t stand because I’m processing toward the altar. We stand with the cross entering the room; many bow or reverence the cross as it moves toward the altar, drawing our eyes and intention toward the even larger cross we have on the wall, behind the altar, our common table, God’s table. We stand as a sign of respect and attention. Here we are, gathered together to do something so counter-cultural. We come to focus on something other than ourselves, to praise the one whose name is above all else, our almighty and everlasting God. Our hearts and voices open and bodies oriented toward that altar, we are in a posture to receive. “All hearts are open, all desires known.” Here we are in our fullness, and with words of praise still lingering in the air, we are ready to receive.
Open to receive, we then turn to learn from God’s Word. It’s so intentional, our liturgy. We open with praise, ready to receive, and then we intentionally receive the Word, ready to learn. We don’t sit and open our skulls like they’re on a hinge to be crammed full and then shut tight. With the Lord with us, we pray to set our intention for this day. Our Collect does just that–let us pray it again together:
“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
From here we go on to learn from the Word directly. From the Old Testament through the prophet Jeremiah, we learn again how God is on track to lead the people toward a time of building and planting. Whereas before the people had fallen short on following the Mosaic Law (the law of Moses), God is giving them the law in their heart, not just in their mind. There’s a new sense of intimacy between God and God’s people. This is important not just for the people individually following God’s commandments, but it also plays a part in realizing that the presence of the law is not solely kept in the Temple. For a people pulled away from their homeland, where the presence of God is thought to be kept, isn’t it significant that there is a story of God placing the law directly in your heart? If something is written on your heart, isn’t it there forever and always? The words of the psalmist affirm the positive attitude toward God’s law, the significance of obedience and the gift of understanding that comes from God’s commandments.
The second letter of Paul to Timothy is our Epistle reading, epistle being a fancy word for letter. These readings, remember, come after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These letters are generally given toward people living in faith after Jesus’ ascension, which is why they are so often applicable to our lives, given contextualization. I find this applicability very much the case today, as Paul commends to Timothy the importance of scripture and the fulfillment of ministry, particularly as it relates to teaching and training the followers of Christ with perseverance. The work of an evangelist is not to go get more people to come to your church or believe what you believe–that’s proselytizing. To evangelize is to share the Good News, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
To be able to share the story, to be an evangelist like Paul and Timothy, we have to know the stories, and so we turn to the gospel. Today we hear Jesus offer a parable to his disciples about the widow and the unjust judge. Lucky for us, we’re told straight out of the gate that this parable is about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We could learn all day long about Jesus’ life and teachings, but eventually your eyes will glaze over (if they haven’t already). How does this relate to you? To us?
One thing I find fascinating about our scripture is that at any moment, this literature, inspired by God, speaks to us in our place and time just as it describes another time and place. This is why we call it the Living Word. By the power of Holy Spirit, we continue to receive the Word and learn from it as it impacts our lives today. We don’t have to look far to find one who is oppressed, seeking justice against their opponent, nor do we have to look far to find those in positions of power who have no love or fear of God and no respect for others. The enormity of both lists, actually, is enough to send me into a state of anxiety or paralysis. But I return to what the parable is about: the need to pray always and not to lose heart. Last week I mentioned that faith involves perseverance. Even when it seems our prayers are not answered in the way we would have them be answered, it doesn’t mean we aren’t being heard. At the time of the Last Judgment, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Will Jesus Christ find those of us who continue to pray with perseverance, to endure all the trials and tribulations with a faithful heart? (Remember that even doubt points to a yearning to seek God, so that’s an act of faith, too.) Jesus sharing this parable, these words with his disciples, is meant for our learning, too. Whether we are new to this faith or long-time believers, we come to this Lord’s day to learn again, as if for the first time, that God hears our prayers, that God is a just God, full of mercy. We know that God is merciful because of the very life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps our greatest act of faith is believing that whatever pain or suffering we endure, joy comes in the morning. Believing the story of Jesus is believing that sin, suffering, and death are not the end, that there is hope in everlasting life, that the moments of joy we taste and know on this side of glory are but glimpses of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven, where sin and suffering are no more. This message of Jesus Christ is our Good News, which I am given to proclaim and expound upon not just on Sunday mornings. If you want to wrestle with it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it some more, come to Tuesday Bible study, read a little each day, do the Daily Office, talk with me about what it means or doesn’t mean to you. As Epsicopalians, we love the Word of God so much we spend half our service dedicated to it in a posture of learning because we need to know it. The Godly Play curriculum we share with the little kids offers it to them in a way they can engage with it to know it deeply as the wonder what’s important about these ancient stories and how it relates to their lives.
And what do we do with this knowledge? We profess it. We don’t have everything figured out, but this is what our tradition has to offer as a base line, as scaffolding to hold us together. So with our voices it’s like we hold hands, even if they’re too hot or too cold, sweaty or dry, shaky or calm. We create a net of common faith to hold us together as move forward, and then we offer our prayers for all people, today focused on hunger as we share in Bread for the World Sunday. And then we confess for not following God in thought, word, and deed, for not loving God with our whole heart or our neighbors as ourselves. Because God is just and merciful and truly knows our hearts, we seek God’s forgiveness and renewal. And we move forward in peace to greet one another and put into action our gratitude. We bring forth the Presence of Christ in our Holy Communion. We take, bless, break, and share, full of praise and proclamation. We do this prayerfully, intentionally, and gratefully. Together we partake in this holy meal, and then we go to love and serve the Lord.
We, who have received, and learned, been nourished and blessed, posture ourselves again to follow the cross and go out into the world. We go to live lives that speak louder than our words of our deep love of God. We offer a ride to a neighbor, check in on the sick, tend to our families, greet strangers, feed the poor, advocate for the vulnerable, laugh with our friends, cry with the weak and the strong, and do all the things we do because God has continually revealed God’s mercy through the presence of Christ in our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives us strength to continue when we think there’s no way, no how. And we come back next week, God willing, again given the opportunity to receive, to learn, and to serve. Sometimes we make that net of faith stronger, and sometimes we rely on the faith of others to hold us. Always, we do this work together, in a posture of gratitude in the liturgy of our Holy Eucharist.