Each act in our service has a purpose and a tradition that carries deep meaning and intention. Many are centuries-old and some have even evolved into new meanings. This series will take a moment to look into some of our practices at Aldersgate so that we can all enjoy a richer experience of worship of God on Sunday mornings.
THE SHAPE OF OUR WORSHIP
United Methodist services have a rhythm of PROCLAMATION AND RESPONSE, a “conversation” between God and God’s people, which you can observe in the overall shape and within each part. Look at our usual Traditional order:
ENTRANCE – includes Announcements, Centering Music, bring in the Light, Choral Introit, Call to Worship, Opening Prayer/ Prayer of Confession and Pardon, Hymn of Praise.
PROCLAMATION and RESPONSE – includes Sharing Joys and Concerns, Call to Prayer, Prayers, Offertory, Doxology, Hymn of Preparation, Scripture Lessons, and Sermon, Invitation to Discipleship, Communion.
SENDING FORTH – Hymn of Dedication (altar call), Benediction
GOING FORTH - Sending Song and Carrying out the Light, and Postlude. Though music often expresses the liturgy in our Contemporary Service, Proclamation and Response still maintains the basic pattern:
ENTRANCE – Announcements, Songs of Praise and Worship.
PROCLAMATION and RESPONSE –Sharing Joys and Concerns, Prayers, Offertory, Doxology, Song of the Day, Scripture Lessons, and Sermon, Invitation to Discipleship, Communion.
SENDING FORTH – includes Closing Song (altar call) and Benediction.
The Passing of the Peace is a sign-act of reconciliation and blessing which is based on New Testament Christian practice (Romans 16:16 and at least 4 other verses advise, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”) These days, we are a bit shy about kissing, and some are even hesitant to shake hands, especially if they’ve got a cold. Nevertheless, the act is significant, whether we shake hands, bump elbows, hold up a hippie “peace-V”, or simply look one another in the eye as we greet each other. It is far more than a chance to say “Hi.” In sharing words like “The peace of Christ be with you,” and hearing the response “And also with you,” we are reminded us that we are all in this together; we are all God’s children, who “forgive as we are forgiven.” We have the power and the charge to bless others with Christ’s peace every moment of every day, but it’s not easy! In worship, we practice sharing that important, life-giving act.
It is good that we share the peace towards the beginning of our worship. It helps us to approach God with a clean heart. In Matthew 5:23, Jesus tells his followers, “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”
So next Sunday, as you prepare for worship, prayerfully consider people or situations in your life where God’s reconciliation and peace is needed. As you pass the peace with others, earnestly seek to offer and receive the Peace of Christ. You may at that moment experience a blessing of release and forgiveness, or it perhaps it will empower you to go and seek reconciliation in the week to come. Peace be with you !
The most important act of the choir is to serve as worship leaders, especially through the sung portions of our worship. Hopefully, their strong, heartfelt singing/leading emboldens everyone to sing easily and to focus their hearts on the meanings in the hymn texts or liturgy.
The choir also presents three special pieces each week that connect the theme of the day, scripture, or season, to acts of praise or prayer. At the beginning of the service, we hear the “Choral Introit” (root word: Latin, introire - entrance; go in) Though we don’t climb a hill to worship in the Temple anymore, in a way, the Introit invites, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.” This short piece, often a verse of a hymn or a chorus, is chosen to focus us all on the worship of God, with a “first word” that highlights the theme or summons us to praise. The “Call to Prayer,” another short statement, ushers us further in to the throne room, that we might offer our prayers and petitions to God. It’s sometimes hard to step out of our earthly cares into sacred space. These two choral “Calls” are encouragement to enter holy ground.
The Choir’s anthem, usually shared during the Offertory, lead us in one of three directions. First, it directs us UP - an act of praise and worship, lifting God’s name up and giving God glory. (“God, You are…”) Second, it can lead us DOWN – a musical “kneeling in prayer,” in which the anthem asks for God’s help, comfort or consecration. (“O God, hear our prayer…”) Third, it can speak OUT – and into our lives, with a proclamation of God’s word. (“Listen, my people…”) Anthems can be wonderful in that they add to the beauty and meaning of scripture texts through a new dimension, music. It is also one of the ways that we, through the Holy Spirit, experience “living Word,” as original texts are shared that are not literal scripture settings, but rather, are inspired words of Christians through the ages, and even today. Did you know that at one time, the ONLY text allowed in worship was strictly scripture? Our founders, John and Charles Wesley, were among the innovators who fought to open the windows to the Holy Spirit’s Word for today, by writing and encouraging the use of new, contemporary texts.
This month, as you listen to the choir’s songs, let them help lead you into God’s presence. See if their “Calls” can help you focus more intently on worship and prayer. During the anthem, “join the choir” by attending to the words and the beauty and meaning brought through the musical setting, and let your souls go UP in praise, DOWN in prayer, or OUT, as you hear and respond to God’s Word.
One of the most ancient worship practices that Christians observe is the Offering. In the Hebrew Testament, bread, crops, animals/birds, drink, and money would be offered or sacrificed to worship God and/or make restitution for sin. In Genesis, Cain and Abel were named as the first to make an offering to God. Throughout the Bible, emphasis is clear that the heart’s integrity, priorities, and generosity are valued over the size/expense of the actual gift. As Christians, we understand that Christ offered the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf, “once, for all,” so that our motivation in giving can be a response to God’s loving faithfulness toward us. We return our lives in service to God, as a living sacrifice (Ro. 12:1).
The word offering implies something freely given, something presented as a token of dedication or devotion. Everything we have and are is from God, and we acknowledge this by returning a portion (time, talents, gifts and service) back to the Giver. The Offering is not a brief break to take up a “collection” to defray costs, with some musical entertainment! Rather, it is an important act of worship, our vital response to God and God’s word. It is a way to connect our adoration for God with our life of discipleship. Musicians may offer their musical gifts while the rest of the congregation offers monetary gifts. Even if your offering to the church is given through automatic withdrawal, passing the plate reminds us to center our lives in thankful service to God. Singing the Doxology at the Offering is the traditional way of affirming the source and recipient of the gifts. The Offertory Prayer offers up our gifts as a sign of a larger commitment to serve God in the world, and asks for God to bless the gifts for sharing Christ’s love and building the kingdom of God.
There are several important scriptures to keep in mind as you give:
1) God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
2) Offering reminds us to put God first in our hearts. (Matthew 6: 19-20)
3) The level of personal sacrifice matters (Widow’s mite). (Luke 21: 1-4)
4) God wants more than 10%, God wants 100% of our heart, soul, mind and strength! (Matt. 22:37)
We all do it, but what is it really about?
Lots of meaning can be drawn from this gift of God. That’s probably why there are several common names for the sacrament. When we call it the “Lord’s Supper,” we are reminded that Jesus Christ is the host and commanded us to continue this celebration. (“Do this in remembrance of me.”) “Holy Communion” highlights the communal aspect of the meal - that we are joined together in one body, as we share in the one bread and cup. “Feast” emphasizes celebratory nature of the meal – a foretaste of the heavenly banquet table. “Eucharist” (Greek, for thanksgiving) focuses on the sacramental and sacrificial (God’s self-giving) nature of the meal, for which all we can say is “thanks.” At different times in your own spiritual journey, you will recognize that this sacrament is all of this, and more - an act of obedience, a remembrance, and a celebration.
Why do we celebrate the first Sunday of each month?
Holy Communion is appropriate at any worship service, as often as daily! But in early Methodism, the ordained pastor rode a circuit of many churches, and often could only be at a given church once a month. So, churches got in the habit of celebrating once a month when the elder was present.
Who is welcome to receive at the table?
United Methodists practice an “open table,” which means anyone, regardless of age or creed (as our ritual Invitation says, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him…”). Our founder, John Wesley, believed that you could even come unbelieving, and find faith through the mystery and gift of the sacrament. Another inspiring thought: our table actually stretches around the world and across all time! (“And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn…”)
What’s up with the long prayer we say every time?
The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving is one of Christianity’s oldest practices. It even has connections to Jewish table prayers. Much of the prayer is the same across denominational lines, as an ecumenical effort to return to very early (3rd century) church records of communion liturgy brings us all back to our common roots. Though some parts of the prayer may change by season or theme, certain things remain. One important aspect is the fact that we ALL say certain parts of the prayer together, affirming that we are all active participants in the sacrament. The prayer begins with praise of God, remembers our salvation through Jesus Christ (including the Biblical words of institution from 1 Cor. 23-29) and then invokes the work of the Holy Spirit; concluding with praise to the Trinity.
There is SO MUCH that God is doing in Holy Communion. Be sure to open your heart wide, to experience the fullness of the gift!
There are so many Biblical examples of believers standing in worship, the better question might be, “Why don’t we stand more?” At Aldersgate, we stand often, and it is not just to have a break from sitting! Our standing has great significance and tradition.
1. Unity - When we stand together, we “stand together.” We show with our bodies that we are collectively affirming what is being said; for example, rising to recite a Creed or sing praises.
2. Respect – In Nehemiah, when Ezra rises to read the recovered Book of the Law to the people, it says, “as he opened it, all the people stood.” And they stood for HOURS! Though we’ve gotten a bit lazy on standing for all scripture reading, we do rise for the Gospel reading, Jesus Christ’s words and story, which we honor as our primary authority.
3. Recognizing God’s presence – As we stand for our Call to Worship, we are similar to the people in Exodus, who would all rise and bow down whenever the cloudy pillar appeared at the entrance to the tent where Moses met the Lord. We stand to show respect for God’s presence among the gathered Body of Christ.
4. Signifying our Salvation – The Psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…” (Ps. 24: 3-4a) We are made clean and worthy because of salvation through Christ.
5. Preparing to March – Jesus’ healing words were often simply, “Stand up and walk!” Although at the beginning of worship, we may have been battle-worn and in need of healing, after an hour of worship, Jesus says to us, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." Our Sending Forth gives us marching orders and a blessing, and we follow the Light of Christ into the world to serve.
It’s difficult to impossible for some to continually stand up, but we can all “rise as we are able”! Whether we actually rise to our feet , or straighten up and sit at attention, our rising is an intentional expression of worship.
1. Sometimes our spiritual fire goes cold and dry on its own. Even spiritual giant Martin Luther once said “at home, in my own house, there is no warmth or vigor in me, but in the church when the multitude is gathered together, a fire is kindled in my heart and it breaks its way through.” There’s something very empowering about being with other people who believe in some One invisible, who help us to have faith when God seems silent, who remind us that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and where we can testify to God’s action in the world. Feeling “hot?” – now’s the time to be a sparkler!
2. There’s power in numbers! In the beginning, God created Eve to be with Adam, because “It is not good to be alone.” At our baptism, we are baptized into a community, born again into the Body of Christ. The word “corporate” means “united or combined into one body.” When we gather together in worship, God can build up our Body and empower us to lift high the cross. Jesus implied corporate prayer when he taught us to pray, “OUR Father…” Sometimes, sin is not as much individual as corporate or systemic. When we come together to confess, we are able to repent of that sin-sickness, and find reconciliation with God and each other. Also, it is through meeting with other believers that God often speaks to us.
3. It’s a God Thing. From Genesis, God has called God’s people to gather at least once a week to worship. Regular attendance to worship is the wisdom and blessing of God, a gift given to us through law and tradition. In private worship, we may pick and choose what we want to hear. But when we gather together, as we are commanded to do, we find discipline (that’s a good thing) through the authority of the Church. We are given Ministers to guide our faith journeys through Word, sacrament, and order. Together with Christians of many denominations, we hear the entire Bible in a 3-year cycle, through the common lectionary. We practice our traditions, share time-honored liturgies and creeds, and find expression through God-inspired hymns and songs. In that hour together, we rehearse the holiness that we hope to live out, in the week to come.
4. If you were invited to worship with Jesus this week, would you go? Jesus promised, “where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” That does not sound like an experience you’d want to miss! God can work on “perfecting us in love” when avail ourselves of the holy sacraments and means of grace that are offered at corporate worship. Sometimes we don’t even understand what’s happening, or what we need! We just show up, and Holy Spirit acts – to heal, to reform, to erase, to make new, to give us joy.
One of our Council goals for the year was to increase our regular attendance of weekly worship. Life pulls us every which-way and it’s a challenge to set aside even one hour a week! But, imagine what God could do with Aldersgate’s people and power, if each of us to try to increase our attendance by one Sunday a month. If you’re coming about once a month, try every other week! Twice? - try three times a month! And if you’re averaging three times a month, well, you might as well see what happens when your attendance is perfect! If you’re already coming every week, then you know what that’s doing for your life – so let it shine! Jesus said, “Sabbath is made for man.” So “remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy” – it’s what disciples do, and it’s a world-changer!
We’re fast approaching New Year’s, for the Church! Every year, Christians follow a liturgical year that helps us to experience and contemplate the story of Christ, from his anticipated coming, through his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Traveling through the story each year helps us to keep fresh our wonder at this central story of our faith. Each year, we are different, and as the Christ-story unfolds, we are touched and transformed in a different way. So, let’s take a look at how traditional practices help us to focus on the seasons. This month, we explore the upcoming seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany.
The Christian year begins with Advent, the four weeks of (including Sundays) that come before Christmas. This year, November 30 is our “New Year’s Day!” Advent (Latin: adventus) means “Coming” and is a four-week period of preparation and repentance, hope and yearning; characterized with the color purple (royalty and penitence) or dark blue (symbolizing hope). Who’s “coming”? Jesus, of course, but not just baby Jesus—we are also looking for Christ-with-us now, and anticipating the final, victorious return of Christ. Readings focus on prophecy and the story of John the Baptist, preparing the way. We sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and light a purple candle each week until Christmas comes. Other symbols that you’ll see in worship include: the wreath (with the circle and evergreen symbolizing eternity) and the Chrismon tree (adorned with symbols and monograms of Christ. Though the malls are playing Christmas carols, Christians know that Advent cannot be rushed: it is an important, reflective season which can deepen our spiritual experience of Christmas.
Surprisingly,the next season, Christmas, is not as long as Advent – beginning on Christmas Eve, it lasts just one or two Sundays. We read the familiar but always amazing Christmas story, joyfully sing all our best-known hymns and carols, such as “Joy to the World,” and adorn the church with white and gold. Often a white Christ candle replaces the purple candles at the Advent wreath. The focus is on the Nativity of Christ, so symbols such as Manger scenes, poinsettias (reminding us of the Star of Bethlehem), and angels are everywhere, as is exchanging gifts, parties and food (celebrating Jesus’ Birthday). FYI, Jesus’ birth day was set sometime before the fourth century, and may have been a way to show divine connection between the crucifixion and the Feast of the Annunciation (nine month’s difference). The date also has beautiful connections between the winter solstice (Dec. 21) and the Sun/Son of Righteousness. “Christ+Mass” relates to the main idea of the season – Christ’s incarnation, God in flesh. Worried about “Christ” being taken out of Christmas? Though we must be vigilant to honor Christ with our celebrations, the word “Christ” will not be easily removed -- X is a symbol of Christ (the cross), so “X-mas” still bears his name, and the phrase “Happy Holidays” actually refers to “Holy-Days.”
The short Christmas season gives way to the day of Epiphany, which is the 12th day after Christmas, January 6. We usually mark Epiphany Sunday on the Sunday closest to the 6th ( Jan. 8, 2015). This is another tradition-set date, as the magi don’t rightly belong in the stable, on Christmas eve or even twelve days later; their visit would have likely been delayed a year or two. Epiphania means “manifestation” or revelation. We celebrate the coming of the magi, and praise, with them, God-with-us, Emmanuel. Epiphany symbols include the gifts of the magi- gold, frankincense and myrrh, the star, and crowns. On New Year’s Eve or the first Sunday in January, Methodists often also observe Wesley’s Covenant Service, which formally renews our resolve to live in faithful covenant with God (see the beautiful “Covenant Prayer” on Hymnal # 607). The subsequent 5-8 week “Season after the Epiphany” is “Ordinary time,” book-ended with two high holy days, “Baptism of the Lord Sunday” and “Transfiguration Sunday.” The gospel readings tell the story of Christ’s early ministry. Except for white for the high holy days, the season’s color is a neutral green, symbolizing growth, and symbols might include the shell /baptismal, water jars for the wedding at Cana (Jesus’ first miracle), and candles, for the bright light of the transfiguration experience.
We will explore more in-depth the following seasons (Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost) in another article. Meanwhile, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!”
Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter Seasons
Aldersgate will be deeply involved in the Paschal Mystery! What is the Paschal Mystery? It all started with a sacrificial lamb, whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. That night, the first-born sons of the Egyptians all died, but death passed over (pesah=Passover) the houses of the Israelites. As the beginning of the Exodus, Passover is the central story of redemption for the Jews. Jesus established a new covenant with his body and blood at the Last Supper (a Passover meal), and then was crucified. His resurrection brought new meaning and power to that story of redemption for his followers. And so, during the six weeks of Lent, Christians enter into this Paschal Mystery, remembering the story of passion-death-resurrection, repenting of sin and focusing on the gospel news, to welcome with faith the Spirit of the living Lord.
We begin the season with Ash Wednesday, this year: Feb. 18th. We burn palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration to ash, and receive a mark of the cross, with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Or, “Repent and believe the gospel” as we kneel at the altar. Emphasis is on penitence, and on starting a closer walk with Jesus, through prayer, scripture study, and worship. For the 40 days of Lent, many take on a new spiritual habit, such as reading the Bible each morning, or doing acts of service/sacrifice. Others decide to fast from something, either food or a destructive habit. For the past number of years, Aldersgate has shared in a devotional book of testimony and prayer, written by members. The discipline of Lent helps us to renew our commitment to Christ. The week before Easter is an especially holy time for Christians. We observe Palm Sunday as the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” and was acclaimed as King. We wave palm branches, but are mindful that this is the beginning of the week of Jesus’ passion. We remember the stories of teaching and confrontation with authorities. On Maundy Thursday, we relive Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. On Good Friday, we remember the crucifixion and death of Christ. Aldersgate usually has a Service of Darkness (Tenebrae) with readings and special music designed to help us contemplate the meaning of the cross. The altar is stripped and bare, with candles which are extinguished into darkness as the story unfolds. Then, on Easter Sunday, this year: April 5, we celebrate the highest holy day of the year, with a great celebration proclaiming, “Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed!” The Easter celebration will continue for 50 days, culminating in the coming of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost Sunday. The Paschal Mystery is an ever-growing mystery for Christians, because each year, as we “proclaim his death until he comes,” we are drawn nearer to the cross. A thoughtful observation of Lent helps us to claim the reality that we rise with Christ on Easter Sunday, as we experience a new beginning, a revival of our faith. We learn something more about God’s love and power, and grow closer to our Lord and Savior. So, have a Holy Lent!
Light is a powerful symbol that seems to speak to our Spirits a sense of reverence and hope. It is a long-held tradition that assistants in worship would ceremonially bring in and carry out the light for altar candles as a way to signal that worship has begun. At Aldersgate, acolytes serve from 3rd through 6th grade. They wear special robes and cassocks, which set them apart for their special representative task.
Expect great things from God; Attempt great things for God.
The power of one candle to pierce the darkness is a strong biblical image that we understand. Jesus (who was present at the creation of light itself) said, “I am the light of the world.” When our acolytes bring in the light, they remind us that Jesus Christ is present with us in worship. Jesus also said to his followers, “You are the light of the world.” When the Christ-light is carried out in front of us at the end of our corporate worship, we are reminded that Christ goes with us, and we are to be Christ-light bearers in the world.
During the season of Advent and Christmas, light is one of our starring (pun intended) symbols. During the dark, long nights of winter, we anticipate the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. (It’s no coincidence that Christmas and the Winter Solstice, which turns the corner to longer days, are days apart!) We place candles in the windows, demonstrating the power of Christ to illumine the dark world, and showing our readiness for him to come again. We light Advent candles each week as a sign of our preparation. A special large white candle, called the “Christ Candle,” is at the center of the wreath, and is finally lit on Christmas eve, after the Nativity scriptures are shared.
Light illumines and warms – may it serve as one more way that we may be comforted by, and opened to God’s presence in our worship.
P.S. One of my fellow deacons shared with me that her first sense of “calling” came to her when she served as an acolyte. The responsibility of carrying the light touched her, helping her to realize that God wanted her to be a servant-leader for Christ. As you see an acolyte come down the aisle, say a prayer for him/her, that they, too, will embrace this, (our) highest calling in life: to be a Christ-light-bearer.