The Purpose of Liturgy: 1. Forming our Hearts

March 1, 2020          Lent 1

For the Lenten season this year I thought I would try something a little different: a sermon series. And the topic I want to speak about is the Sunday service.

Week after week we gather here to meet with one another as friends; to listen to these ancient passages speaking to us across the centuries, and try to make sense of them for our lives today; to sing hymns; to pray together; and to share in the bread and wine. It is what we do as Anglicans. It may not be the most important thing we do (although increasingly I am thinking it may be); but it is certainly the most visible, characteristic thing that marks us as different from our neighbours.

Why do you come to church? Think about it for a moment. There’s nothing automatic about it – after all, your neighbours find something else to do with a Sunday morning. I sure if I put you on the spot and asked why you come here, each one of us would express it a bit differently: but presumably they would be variations on a theme that we get something out of the service. At least I hope so.

That’s the personal question. But there is another way of looking at it – amid all the different reasons why we are individuals are here, what are we trying to do here together? But why do we do the service the way we do? As Anglicans, the answer is often “Because we’ve always done it this way.” We are creatures of habit. But every now and then it is a good idea to think about things that we take for granted, to question our habits.

So that’s what I want to do with you over the next few weeks. Maybe we can tease out into the open things that we sense about why certain parts of the service work for us – and maybe why other parts don’t work so well. Maybe we can become more aware of what we are here for – and maybe, at the end of the day, we will find that we get more out of the service.

Over the next few weeks we will think about different parts of the service. Today, I want to set the stage with some ideas about the whole thing – how it all hangs together.

A word we Anglicans like to use for Sunday service is liturgy. By that we usually mean a set, formal way of worship, rooted in tradition. The word comes from the Greek of New Testament times, and it had a different, somewhat broader meaning. A leitourgia was a public work, some kind of large public event. A prominent figure might sponsor a chariot race, or a banquet, or an athletic competition, to increase their standing. The Roman emperors, famously, offered people bread and circuses, to keep them happy subjects of the empire.

This reminds us that liturgies don’t just take place in church. The Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith points out that our society has all kinds of liturgies. He uses the example of the Saturday trip to the shopping mall as an example. When we go to the mall, we think we’re just going to pick something up, a purely practical and convenient task. Smith argues that we are unconsciously engaging in a secular liturgy. Everything is laid out to lead us through an entire experience: the architecture, which leads us into a space where the weather is always perfect; the floorplan, that guides us around the mall; the imagery, the window displays and posters, which catch our attention and awaken our desires. The way we behave is quite ritualized: entering a store, looking around, shuffling through the racks, trying things on, and finally consummating the experience with our credit card on the altar of the cash register.

This playful account of a visit to the mall has a more serious point. We may think of it as just a neutral activity, something we do because it’s fun or it’s necessary. By speaking about it as a quasi-religious ritual, Smith is bringing out a truth that advertisers and retailers are well aware of. Something else is going on: we are being shaped by this activity. Desires and expectations and attitudes are being awakened or strengthened in us. And the same can be said about any number of ritualized social activities we engage in: a hockey game, a family holiday dinner, a date, a political rally, the gossip circle at Tim Hortons. Each of these activities is designed in a way to form and reinforce certain values within us.

Think of a Canada Day celebration. There are certain things we might expect: a party or picnic, may a parade, some speeches from local dignitaries, probably a band, maybe fireworks or face painting for the kids. It will be a little different in each community. But I think they all tend to have the same kind of feeling about them; and they will feel just a little bit different than a fourth of July celebration in the States, for example. Because we are just a little bit different. Maybe we share mostly the same values, but those values have a distinct flavour here. And when we take part in Canada Day celebrations, we’re not just having fun – we are participating in activities that form those values within us. We feel part of a greater whole, we feel strengthened in our commitment to what this country means to us: neighbourliness, decency, tolerance, fairness.

Similarly, on Remembrance Day, we come together to honour the dead, to experience sorrow, and gratitude, and respect. We act these feelings out when we gather for a ceremony, and by acting them out, we ourselves are changed, refocussed on what is important.

St. Augustine says, what tells us most fully who we are is not what we think, or say, or do – most fundamentally, it is what we love. The heart makes the person. And the point of liturgies is to shape our hearts, by teaching us what to love. Our hearts are taught not by ideas, but by acting out what we love. Liturgies are patterns of social behaviour that invite us to act out our values, and in so doing those values are formed and strengthened in our hearts. Those values may be healthy and life-giving: such as Canada Day, or Remembrance Day, or family dinners. Sometimes they are less healthy: the desires and values awakened by our visits to the mall, I would say, are not really good for us in the long run; their promises of fulfillment and meaning through consumer goods are empty.

When we gather here on Sunday mornings, we have come to enter into another liturgy, alongside many others that shape our lives. We have come to participate together in ritualized social behaviour: we do church together, and we do it according to regular patterns. What we can sometimes lose sight of, is the reason we participate in these rituals. It is the ultimate purpose of every liturgy: to form our hearts to love certain values. And here the values we learn to love are the values of God: the kingdom of God, the promised kingdom of justice, peace, and care for creation; the example of Jesus, his compassion and self-sacrificing love; the call to discipleship, to becoming a community of love and care for one another and for the world around us. We come here not just to talk about these things, but to rehearse them, to act them out, so that, week by week, they settle more deeply down into our hearts, into our guts, into our very bones.

For example, every week we exchange the peace with one another. On the surface, it seems like an ordinary thing to do: we say hello to our friends and neighbours, exchange a hug or a handshake. But never forget that in that ordinary encounter something very special is going on: we are acting out the kingdom of God. We are acting out what Christ’s peace should look like, a place where we can set aside our quarrels and jealousies and meet one another with caring and friendly regard. As we act it out, we grow to love more fully this vision of the kingdom, we want it to govern our whole lives more and more. It is an everyday moment, but one that opens up to startling depths of holiness. And we must never forget these depths, or think that this is just an ordinary good morning we are saying to one another.

Or when we pray the prayers of the people together, and offer intercessions for the needs of the world. For whose sake are we doing this? Not for God’s sake – God doesn’t need us to tell him about brokenness and pain, God is already there before us. For the sake of the people we are praying for? Well yes, it is a comfort to be upheld by the prayers of the community. But first and foremost, we say these prayers for our own sake. We are acting out what it means to be a caring community, concerned with the needs of others, not turning away from pain, but looking at pain and brokenness and sometimes hopeless situations with the steady gaze of love. When we say these prayers, we are schooling ourselves to look at all that is wrong in the world with the eyes of God; we are schooling our hearts in the virtue of compassion.

When we say together a confession of our sins, it is not because we need to grovel and make ourselves worthless to come before God. It is because this is a place where we don’t have to wear a mask and pretend we are perfect, where we can come with our failings and know that we are loved and accepted, by God and by one another. We are training ourselves in honesty and humility and forgiveness, learning to forgive one another and to forgive ourselves (which is often harder). We are learning the lesson, over and over again, that it’s okay to be human.

These are just three examples of what our liturgy is for: to train us and shape us, to form our hearts, into the vision of a human life in tune with God that our tradition offers.

This is what guides our worship planning. When Lynn and I develop services, when the worship planning group meets a few times a year to plan the services to come, when the lay readers craft their prayers, it is with something like this in mind.

The thing is, we are creatures of habit, particularly as Anglicans at prayer. We fall into habits of following the service because that’s the way we’ve always done it. And if we are not careful, we can slip into just going through the motions; I think it is inevitable. When we go through the motions, I’m sure the liturgy still has a positive affect on us, but I don’t think it works as well as it should. That’s why we mix things up a bit in our liturgy planning, instead of doing the same things every week. We stick to the same patterns of worship, but try to find fresh words, fresh images, fresh rituals, to shake us out of autopilot and remind us of what we are really here for.

And that is why I thought it would be worthwhile to take a good chunk of time in the sermons this Lent to look at what we are really doing here, why we come together to worship, and what the inner logic of the service is. So there will be more to come, more detail, in the weeks ahead.