Open Our Lives to the Word

That’s the title of our Gospel Acclamation in this fall season.  The gospel acclamation is an element, generally a song, that “welcomes” the gospel.  Most of liturgy echoes the ancient form of proclamation and acclamation – for example, a reader might proclaim “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good” and the assembly might acclaim “his mercy endures forever.”

The entire structure of the “Word” part of our worship is proclamation and acclamation.  Someone proclaims, and the group acclaims.

You may be aware that at Bethlehem, we follow the “lectionary” which is a three-year cycle of set lessons for each Sunday or feast day.  The first year (aka “Year A”) centers around the gospel of Matthew; the second “Year B” around the gospel of Mark. and the third “Year C” around the gospel of Luke.  These three gospels are known as the “synoptic gospels” because they follow roughly the same chronological order of things, although with some variances.  The gospel of John is interlineated throughout the three years, and (in my opinion) tends to be utilized to make big cosmic points (i.e. at Christmas, Lent, and Easter).

This year, we are in Year C and so our gospel is generally taken from Luke.  The lectionary – known in ecumenical circles as the “Revised Common Lectionary” – is used by churches around the world.  Here is a great article on the ELCA website about the Lectionary:

http://www.elca.org/Growing-In-Faith/Worship/Lectionary.aspx

There is some – shall we say – “spirited discussion” around the subject of whether to use the lectionary, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post!

Generally the structure is that we’ll hear a lesson from the Old Testament, possibly sing a Psalm, then hear a lesson from the non-gospel areas of the New Testament, and then hear the gospel lesson.  For an excellent introduction to the lectionary structure, including the relation of the readings to each other, I suggest the Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary:

http://www.commontexts.org/rcl/RCL_Introduction_Web.pdf

As we prepare liturgy each week, the lessons are the centerpiece.  Everything we say and do is vetted through the filter of the scriptures.  Every hymn we sing either relates directly to these texts, or is a comment on a festival day (for example, Reformation Sunday).

The person who will preach (bring the sermon) generally reads the gospel, as that tends to be the main text for their remarks.  After the sermon, we have a uniquely Lutheran element called the “hymn of the day” or the “sermon hymn.”  This hymn must be chosen carefully so as to act as the assembly’s acclamation to the sermon.  An interesting side note: there is a practice evolving of NOT ending the sermon with “Amen” because “Amen” is an acclamation.  The preacher is proclaiming; no need to do one’s own acclamation.  Then the sermon hymn can act as the acclamation, and the assembly does the acclaiming.

Our credal statement this fall is a little different.  A credal statement is a statement or affirmation of faith – most frequently the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed for festival days.  For the fall, we decided on an affirmation of faith from the United Methodist Church (with whom we are in full communion) that takes the essential elements contained in the Apostles’ Creed and reshapes them in language that is more immediate and clear to our contemporary experience.

The Prayers of the People follow a pattern – we pray for the church, the world, those in need, those who have died, and any specific needs that have arisen.  The language of the prayers echoes the themes we heard earlier in the lessons.  Either the lector (reader for the day) or another congregation member will bring the prayers, along with Pastor Laura or Pastor Daren – again, a symbol of “collecting” the prayers of us all.

At the conclusion of the prayers, the presider brings a greeting of peace:  “The peace of the Lord be with you all.”  We respond, “And also with you” and that peace of Christ is shared all around.  This is an element that first appeared in our liturgy in 1978, when the “green book” (Lutheran Book of Worship) was published, and it is found in most other churches now as well.  It is Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:23-24 to “be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  I remember when we first started using the green book and we came to that part of the liturgy – we were stunned!  Bethlehem has always been a friendly place, but that level of intimacy in worship took some getting used to.  Now, of course, sharing God’s peace can go on for some time – but that’s a good thing!  That tells me that we are actively creating and maintaining community in Christ.

In different seasons – particularly Lent and Advent – we might take a different approach to the “Word” part of worship.  Perhaps a drama or poetry might be involved, a seasonal song used for the gospel acclamation (such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Advent).  In the season of Easter we might “process” the gospel from the ambo (reading desk) down into the people, and sing the acclamation again after it is read and the book is processed back to the ambo.  Among all these possibilities, though, we keep in mind the “Word and Sacrament” centers of our worship and direct our choices to clarifying both for the assembly.

One thing I forgot to mention at the beginning: the children’s sermon.  We use this as the transition into the Word part of the liturgy.  Many of the deepest theological observations occur during the children’s sermon!  On the Sunday of the Baptism of Jesus a few years ago, Pastor Laura asked the kids, “how old do you think you should be to be baptized?”  Oooh, hard question.  They thought about it.  Then one young man said with conviction: “The age you are.”

WORD.  (So to speak.)

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