Sunday, April 6, 2008

Worship Works

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
RCL, Year A: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

“I hate church!”

At least that’s what I said to my mother when I was about 8 or 9 years old.

Part of it was the contrast between Saturdays and Sundays. Saturday mornings were filled with Looney Toons, Land of the Lost, Pop-Tarts and Captain Crunch, and all while dressed in pajamas. Sunday mornings were completely different. That’s when I had to put on dress clothes – you know, slacks, button-down shirt, a clip-on neck tie, and a navy blue blazer. That’s the equivalent of a strait jacket to little boys. Once we were all dressed, we went to the Methodist Church. I fidgeted in the pew during the 45 minutes sermons, eating mom’s hard candy and enacting battles for the fate of the world between my superhero action figures to pass the time.

But the worst of it was the first Sunday of the month – Communion Sunday. That’s when we got not only a 45 minute sermon, but also an extra 30 minutes for everybody to go to the altar for crackers and grape juice. It took forever. I just knew that I would die. “O God, please save me from this!”

That attitude changed dramatically when I went to a Presbyterian school. Early in my freshman year, I attended an evening communion service. It was a small group of about 10 guys, including the chaplain and one of the teachers. We gathered around a table by candlelight. We sang songs accompanied by acoustic guitar. We read scripture aloud. The chaplain spoke briefly on the gospel reading (I never knew a sermon could be less than five minutes long!). And then we prayed prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving over real bread and real wine. We passed the broken bread to each other in the name of Jesus Christ, and we did the same with the chalice of wine. And somehow, in a way that I was unprepared for and did not expect, I felt as though I was in the Upper Room, seated with the disciples sharing that final meal with Jesus. I felt my heart burning within me as the bread and the wine passed around the table. My eyes opened.

Something so familiar from my childhood – and previously so dry and boring – as Holy Communion “clicked” for the first time in my life. Gathered around that table, I recognized the presence of the living Christ in broken bread and wine. And to this day, I look back upon that Eucharist as one of the spiritual turning points of my life.

I can imagine that Cleopas and his companion in today’s Gospel reading had a similar experience of being surprised and jolted into a new way of seeing things and persons that had become all-too-familiar. After all, they knew Jesus. Perhaps they had followed and lived with him. And so, no doubt, their connection to Jesus was not that of a young boy’s boredom in church. Theirs was a connection of friendship and zeal. They had pinned all of their hopes for the social and political emancipation of Israel from Roman occupation on this Jesus. And in Jesus’ crucifixion, their hopes had been decisively dashed.

It was a no-brainer: everybody knew that the Messiah does not die at the hands of Israel’s enemies. Quite the contrary, the Messiah conquers Israel’s enemies! Therefore, Jesus cannot be the Messiah.

Jesus’ death on the cross proved that his disciples had been utterly wrong. Everything they had lived, worked, and hoped for was a big lie. So with the heaviest of hearts, Cleopas and his companion begin plodding their way to the small village of Emmaus outside of Jerusalem.

Along the way and out of the blue, the risen Jesus joins them. Perhaps the depths of their grief keep them from recognizing him, but they haven’t a clue that it’s Jesus. So they proceed to tell him what’s just happened in Jerusalem as if he doesn’t already know. They share their loss and dashed hopes. And then Jesus – still incognito – begins to weave the story of Holy Week into the grand narrative of Israel’s hope for the redemption, not just of a nation, but for the whole of creation. As he breaks open the scriptures, it starts making sense, this whole business about the Messiah having to suffer and die.

It must have been exciting to hear familiar passages of scripture in a completely new and fresh light. Cleopas and his companion clearly want more, and so they invite the still-incognito Jesus to supper. And that’s when something they weren’t prepared for and didn’t expect happens. Maybe it was because they had seen him do it before, but something about the way this stranger touches the bread and says the blessing brings it home. Like scales falling from their eyes, Cleopas and his companion suddenly see – really see – this stranger for who he is. It’s Jesus! It turns out that what the women had said is true: he really has been raised from the dead.

Almost as soon as they recognize him, Jesus vanishes from their sight. But their encounter with the risen Jesus in the reading of scripture and in the breaking of bread transforms their sorrow into joy and their dashed hopes into a deeper, richer and stronger faith in a God of surprises who does the impossible, turning the world upside down by overcoming death and decay with incorruptible life.

The story of the walk to Emmaus underscores a truth of the Christian faith that goes all the way back to the first disciples, a truth that we enact every time we gather on Sunday morning. And that is that the we discover the most sure and certain means of encountering the surprising, challenging, and reassuring presence of the risen Jesus in scripture and the breaking of bread, in Word and Sacrament, in the worship of the Church.

It’s true that God can and does touch us in many ways. God is not limited to the confines of the Church. But the experience of the faithful for almost 2,000 years testifies that the risen Christ consistently touches and changes lives in powerful if often imperceptible ways when scripture is read and interpreted in preaching, and when bread is broken and wine shared in remembrance of his death and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist. These changed and empowered lives show that worship works.

In addition to my own experience of that candlelight Eucharist, there are many other examples of this. Take, for instance, something that happened over a decade ago. Many of you remember the burial service for Princess Diana. During that service, I vividly recall Tony Blair’s reading of 1 Corinthians chapter 13, the apostle Paul’s soaring hymn on the virtue of Christian love. We’ve all heard that passage read so many times at weddings and funerals that it may wash right over us. But this was a reading of scripture unlike most I’d ever heard. It was passionate, yet focused and restrained. It drew out the core of the passage’s meaning. Somehow, the Spirit orchestrated the words read by Blair and God’s Word into an outward and audible sign of God’s healing and restoring grace. It was a public reading of scripture that connected God’s Word with a grief-stricken nation and world. And it was a reading of scripture that opened space for the risen Christ to speak a word of hope.

My friends, reading scripture in worship works.

But the examples hit closer to home. I think of something my daughter said when she was only about 3 years old. After receiving communion and returning to the pew, she said to her mother, “Momma, I want some more Jesus.” A little 3-year-old girl had encountered the risen Christ in the sacrament. And in her own childlike way, she knew she had encountered the risen Christ. And she hungered for more.

My friends, sacraments work.

Or what about the child who recently complained that she didn’t like coming to St. Andrew’s for worship (because, she said, “It’s boring”), but then was so captivated by the Palm Sunday processional and the enacted Passion Gospel that when the congregation shouted out “Crucify him!” she whispered to one of her parents, “Are they really going to do that to Jesus?” Suddenly, this child was invested in the story of Jesus. It mattered in a way that perhaps it never had before.

My friends, liturgy works.

The list of examples could go on and on. And I’ll bet that if you reflect on it for a moment, at some point along the way in your journey, it’s probably happened to you, too.

It can be overpowering. Perhaps most of the time, it’s far more subtle. Occasionally, we may even find it dry and boring. But over time, week after week, the Church’s worship in Word and Sacrament does its work. It binds us closer to each other as one Body of Christ. It reminds us of who we are and to whom we belong. It brings us into the transforming presence of the risen Jesus. And in the midst of life’s changes and chances, the worship of the Church drops down an anchor, allowing us to rest secure in the eternal changelessness of God’s love.

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