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The Work of the Word

August 21, 2011

This is week two of our current message series, taking a look at the Mass. Today we’re looking at the Liturgy of the Word (liturgy means work).

At Mass we read the Scripture, but not in a linear way from Genesis to Revelation.  Instead it comes in cycles, that are repeated every three years. Interestingly, the idea of a three year cycle  of readings is rooted in ancient Jewish worship. Some scholars think it’s probably how teachers and rabbis presented Scripture in the local synagogues in Jesus’ day.  During the course of those three years we hear a lot of Scripture: 14% of the Old Testament and 70% of the New Testament.  That’s great, but it also underscores the importance of private Scripture reading, to see the Sunday readings in context as well as read the Scripture we do not hear at Mass.

The first reading is taken from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. When Jesus refers to Scripture, which he did all the time, this is what he is talking about. In the Old Testament the beginning of the story of our faith is told, the mystery of our salvation begins to unfold, and Christ is everywhere present (though in a hidden way).  Read the Old Testament looking for Christ, and you will find him everywhere. The reading usually corresponds to the Gospel reading, underscoring how the events of the Old Testament prefigure and prepare for Jesus Christ.

After the first reading comes the Psalm. Thus, God speaks to us and then we speak to God.  But we are using the words he gave us. The Psalms are a collection of 150 hymns, or songs, many written by King David.The Psalms are deeply rooted in the human experience and give expression to the full range, from triumph to tragedy, but always in the context of God’s power. Then comes the second reading, from the New Testament, mostly the letters of Paul to the early Christian communities like Rome and Corinth. This reading will probably stand apart from the first reading thematically, but between the two we have the story of God’s family both before and after Christ.

It is in the Gospel that we have his own story itself. Because of the special importance of the Gospel reading we stand, sometimes there is a procession, and we sing. We sing “praise the Lord!,” we just do it in Hebrew: “Alleluia!” In the reading itself, we aren’t invited to hear a story about something someone did long ago.  Rather, we are invited into an encounter with the living Lord who speaks directly to each of us.

After the reading comes the homily, or the sermon.  Homily is a Greek word that means “discourse” and sermon is a Latin word that means exactly the same thing. Not sure when the former became Catholic and the latter Protestant since it doesn’t seem to matter which one is used. Internally we like to call it the message, because that seems to best underscore the point: communication containing information God’s word tells us we need to know. Here are a few principles I find myself relying on when it comes to preaching:

  • First of all, I preach to myself, because that guarantees I’ll always have something to say.
  • Second, I preach to my community, and the message needs to be relevant to the culture of the community, as well as the season of the year, current events, whatever can be touching the hearts and minds of listeners.
  • Third (and this is a huge value for us) we say “one church, one message.” We offer the same message at every weekend Mass nearly every weekend of the year. We think that keeps the parish focused on one theme, facing the same challenges, growing in the same direction.
  • We also preach messages in series.  Exploring a single theme over the course of multiple weekends is a common practice in many evangelical churches.  But it makes so much more sense in liturgical churches that have the liturgy’s seasons and the lectionary’s cycles of readings.  We’re not as good at this as we want to be yet, but for sure the strongest, most effective series are closely linked to the liturgical readings.
The purpose of the message is the same one Jesus had in his own preaching: life change. We’re trying to help people move, intellectually and emotionally move from where they are, closer to where God wants them to be.  We’re trying to help people change the way they think and the way they feel about God’s word so that he can shape them according to his will, so that they can start changing their life. Taking a page from our friend Andy Stanley, we like to ask the question: “what do we want them to know and what do we want them to do?” We try and be as clear as we can about that, because if the message is a little fuzzy up in the pulpit, it will be a dense fog out in the pews.

When it comes to the weekend message, lets be honest.  The most brilliant homily I will ever give has a shelf life of about two days.  It’s just the way it is.  So, the best way for me to approach my weekly task of preaching is going to be with the attitude that all I’m doing is getting the conversation going. The best compliments I get are when people tell me they were discussing the message in the car on the way home, or around the dinner table or water cooler. The best place to do it is in your small group.

The Liturgy of the Word is an authentic encounter with the living God. The Bible doesn’t merely talk about God, it is God’s own speech. And it has power to change us.  Scripture itself says it best:

For the word of God is living and active.
Sharper than any double-edged sword,
it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.
Hebrews 4.12

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