Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver City, NM
When in the 8th my sister offered to teach me to play the guitar I jumped at the chance. All the cool kids played guitar, and in the "cool" department I needed all the help I could get. She taught me "Puff the Magic Dragon," that old 1963 song by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow and made popular by the group Peter, Paul and Mary. I was captivated. I played it and played it and played it. I loved the progression of cords, I loved the challenge of making my clumsy fingers go where they needed to go quickly enough not to stop the music. I loved the prospect of striving for such a high and lofty goal as to play for the youth group. I felt like a dry sponge soaking up water! (I am totally amazed to this day that my guitar did not end up stuffed with dynamite while I was at supper!)
In my senior year of High School I took a Music Theory class as an elective. There I learned the theory behind the guitar and the keyboard, and I went back to that dreaded instrument that my mother had tried to impose on me as a 5th grader-the piano, and again found myself unable to walk away from it. That little song on that borrowed guitar was a turning point, a milestone along a long and rich journey of musical discovery and expression.
Our Sunday morning Eucharistic Service is divided up into two major acts of a play. The first part of the service, what we call "The Service of the Word," is the first act. The whole of this act is an invitation to the wonder of the Spiritual Life. It asks us to be like sponges that soak up something and work incredibly hard to incorporate it into our lives, something exhilarating and challenging at the same time, something so compelling that you can't help it.
Now, we often do not experience Act I that way. The Old Testament lessons are full of bloody stories and impossible names, the Psalm is monotonous, the Epistle Lesson has big words about people and places of a different time and place, and you've heard all the Gospel stories already. The Creed sounds kinda old and irrelevant, the Prayers are confusing. And most of all the sermon.(If you could only bottle this guy and sell him as a little blue pill you could put Sominex out of business overnight!)
You know when you go to a German or Italian Opera they give you that little booklet that tells you the story, right? That's because you can't understand the singing anyway, and if
you didn't understand what was going on you'd think you were in Church. Herewith, then, is the little explaining booklet for Act 1 (next week is Act 2.)We start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The beginning of the liturgy proper is not the Processional, though at the 10:30 service that's always a lot of fun. It's a parade, a journey like Moses through the Red Sea from slavery to the Promised Land, from baptism to communion. The beginning really starts with the Introit. That's a redundant phrase; "Introit" means "introduction," which is generally at the beginning.
The Introit starts with the Salutation, or greeting. It sets the stage for what we are doing. Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We worship a Triune God, and we acknowledge the blessedness of God. And blessed be His Kingdom, now and forever. Amen. We also acknowledge that God has an agenda for creation that Jesus called a Kingdom. It is that sphere of action on the earth where God's nature and God's will are reflected.
Then there is the Collect for Purity. Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid. We acknowledge that nothing is hid from God, God is, rather, hidden from us too often by our mind that focuses on lesser things, and must be called to awareness of the ground of all things. It sets the stage for a forming of the mind, which is the point behind the first Act.
In Rite I it follows with the summary of the Law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength. Rite I is more penitential than Rite II, and it begins here, with a call to the Great Commandment to love.
Then there is a song of praise. This is the Gloria, the Kyrie or the Trisagion. The Gloria is a hymn of praise to the Trinity, the Kyrie is Greek for "Lord," as in "Lord have Mercy," a more penitential phrase. How is this a song of Praise? Because having mercy is God's delight. We are highlighting God's mercifulness and being thankful. Another hymn of praise can also be used, and we have been doing that lately.
The Collect of the Day is a hinge moment. On one hand it brings the Introit to an end, on the other hand it begins to introduce a theme for the day. And in doing that it prepares us for this particular day's teaching. The word "Collect" (as different from "collect" which is what you do with the offering) refers to a particular structure for prayer. It begins with a statement, followed by a request based on that statement, and ends with a doxology. The doxology (which is merely a formalized statement of praise to God, usually the Trinity) usually includes the characteristic ending, "lives and reigns with you and the
The Ministry of the Word proper follows. We read a lesson from the Old Testament. This is taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. It may relate a story, or contain a prophecy, but all of it reflects sacred history. It reminds us that God's kingdom is an idea that God has been working on since the very beginning. We say a psalm together. The Psalms were the hymns of ancient Israel. In effect we sing a song together, only we don't know how to sing Hebrew. :-) We read from the Epistles. Epistles are writings by the Apostles and their disciples, letters and other discourses that have been recorded for our use. In them we hear the record of eye-witnesses of our Lord talking about how to live the faith. We read, then, from apostolic instruction.
Finally, and at the late service we set this apart with song, we read the Gospel. This is read among the people, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. It is done by the Deacon, symbol of taking the message of the Gospel into the world. We frame it in special calls and responses to set it apart from the rest, for this is the story of the One who is at the heart and soul of our faith tradition, and it is common to make the sign of the cross as it is being introduced:
On the fore-head: God be in my mind and in my understand
On my lips: God be in my mouth and in my speaking.
On the heart: God be in my heart and in my choosing
All that takes place next forms our response to the instruction we have heard. The Sermon takes the truths of the faith and applies them to daily living in a teaching and inspiring moment. This is not without a sacramental dimension, however. I preached at St. John the Divine in Houston one time many, many years ago. In the pulpit on a little brass plaque are the words of the Greeks who came to Philip and said, "Sir, we would see Jesus."
The Nicene Creed declares our faith in a time-tested set of propositions of belief. It was hammered out in the church at a time of great controversy, and was the last great ecumenical declaration of our faith of the early Church. In declaring it together we not only codify our own beliefs, but we put ourselves in continuity and solidarity with the community of faith of the Apostles, and with every Christian everywhere who in the Creed sees his or her own faith. This creed is not what distinguishes us from other Christians, but what unites us to them.
After the Creed we take the concerns of our world, the truths of the Gospel read, preached and declared, and put the two together in petition form. It is fitting so to do. If we have cast our lives up against the eternal truths of the Gospel we do so in the context of our own time and place. We note the differences and gaps between the Kingdom Ideal and the reality of our world, and we ask for help in bringing the gaps closed as Jesus instructed us when he said, "Pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers."
But then the response gets even more personal. If the prayers take gaps between the Kingdom ideal and our community concerns and offer them in prayer, the Confession takes the gaps between the Kingdom Ideal and our personal living and asks for grace and pardon. Of course it is always God's delight and will to forgive, and so it is my privilege and duty to pronounce that forgiveness and call us into Shalom, the Peace of God, which we then immediately share with one another.
Note for a moment the flow of this whole Act 1. We have started with the Triune God, we have worked our way through God's self-disclosure and our best response to that self-disclosure as a society, as a community and as an individual-in that order. At the end we come full circle. We go back to the Shalom of God granted us through the message and its effect on us. Out of the abundance of that blessing we offer our offerings and oblations to the Lord. Here is a scene change, the hinge between Act 1 and Act 2, and I get ahead of myself just a bit.
But none of this is anything unless.unless you come with that expectant heart, with the desire to be a sponge that soaks it all up-can't get enough, then it will be what you expect it to be: The readings will be confusing, the sermon boring and the prayers pedantic and irrelevant. It's kind of like a bank account. If you come to Church with an expectant heart, with that desire to be the sponge, to soak it up, and to work feverishly and zealously to adapt your life to what you learned, then Act 1 will be full of good information, helpful hints, reminders and encouragement, and all those things that help you close the gap between your living and the Kingdom Ideal.
It's very important that you do so, really, for YOU are part of God's team to bring about that Kingdom. How YOU live is part of the whole plan, and how WE live together is as well. So you see this is not merely entertainment, it is briefing for work, it is equipping for service, it is making you into who you really are so that you can do what you really ought to do.
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