The door to the house: Proclamation and Response

April 25th, 2023

This article is the fourth in a series we're calling "A Good and Joyful Thing: A series on liturgical spirituality." We hope this series takes you on an imaginative “travelogue” at various worship services in a local United Methodist church where the liturgy is treasured. We hope that these resources will accentuate how the Wesleyan “religion of the heart” can be fostered by liturgical experience in the richness of our liturgy, both for United Methodists and others who follow the deep flow of the church's worship history.

A reader steps to the pulpit where that massive Bible came to rest after the procession. You notice she produces a sheet of paper from a shelf below on which the day’s readings are printed and places it on top of the Good Book. Maybe that’s because it’s a King James Bible, and this congregation generally prefers the NRSV in worship. It matches the pew Bibles, which some around you grab in preparation for the reading. Their eyes will follow the words. You choose to leave it to your ears to receive what Luther likened to a “sacrament of sound waves,” the Word proclaimed. So, the big Bible is for show, the sheet of paper is for tell. Where else do we make artificial distinctions among ornaments, books, and vessels, that we actually use? Doesn’t that contradict the old maxim about “to be, not to seem”? A lovely chalice sits on the altar for communion but isn’t actually used. The baptismal font has a large basin, in which is placed a saucer more suited to a bowl of oatmeal. 

Another prayer preempts your meandering thoughts. This time it’s the Prayer for Illumination. Feeling cleansed by the Collect for Purity, do you now need illuminating? What’s this prayer doing here? Why not just get on with hearing scripture? This little collect comes out of the Reformed tradition and offers a parallel to the eucharistic prayer to come. Just as the “sacrament of sound waves” is about to be offered, it seems right and good to ask that your cluttered mind be tidied up. Is a one-sentenced prayer enough? Can I do much to harness my restlessness? The reader invites us, and so we say together:

Lord, open our hearts and minds
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that, as the Scriptures are read
and your Word proclaimed,
we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

The Lord is about to speak a word into your preoccupied, overscheduled life. God will not wait for you to become calm and serene, as if you were alone on a mountaintop, the alone seeking the Alone. Instead, you are here, in this gathering of preoccupied selves, all asking that we might hear a word from the Lord. Notice the prayer isn’t asking that we do anything. We cannot respond because we haven’t heard. Just listen, but we pray that we would listen with joy. Maybe the joy here is enough to arrest your restless mind and heart so that, real as they are, yesterday’s cares and tomorrow’s worries don’t have the last word. The Illuminator does. 

Welcome to the second portion of the service, Proclamation and Response, Wesley’s doorway to the house of faith. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17), and faith justifies and creates the repentance and cleansing already introduced at the Entrance. And not only repentance, but the beginnings of new life in Christ, figured in the acts of Response that follow Proclamation. 

The reader proceeds. It’s the Old Testament reading first, followed by the Psalm, sung using the first tone on UMH 737. The choir and congregation alternate verses. This creates an ethereal, otherworldly sound to what this Sunday’s psalm heaps on thick as the psalmist pours out complaint to God about enemies. This week, the psalm doesn’t provide a joyous refrain for the first reading, nor does it roll out the red carpet for the second. It’s a lament, plain and simple. You are reminded that the Word you’re supposed to be open to is a disruptive word, and that in the psalms God has made room for your cries of pain to become words of hope. You have turned my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11). Am I hearing with joy what God is saying to us today?

A hymn is sung, and we stand, as able, for the Gospel. You remember when this business of standing for the Gospel was introduced years ago. It seemed too Episcopalian to you, a practice imported from our more liturgical kin. Now it’s second nature, and it feels a bit disrespectful not to rise for it. It breaks a stretch of having been seated for the first two readings and psalm, and your legs welcome the stretch. The young woman in the wheelchair further up the nave, the elderly man on the edge of the pew on the other side, are seated. The One whose body was crucified not only speaks to their seated selves but sits in solidarity with them while others stand.  Would my heart and mind be more opened to hear with joy if I, too, sat in solidarity with them? Perhaps either posture, standing or sitting, for whatever reason, is an appropriate response to the Crucified who addresses us all. 

The gospel ends and we all sit, except the preacher, who now steps away from the pulpit to walk around the chancel during the sermon. She doesn’t stay there, though, making her way down its steps to the head of the aisle as she preaches. It really is impressive, this “proclaiming in the midst.” It calls to mind Jesus among his hearers. It seems intimate, less formal and removed than a sermon from behind the pulpit. If the Collect for Purity left us with nothing to be hid from God, the preacher has no notes to hide from us, and that’s impressive and authentic and “in the moment” all in a way that makes the medium the message. And yet there’s much to be said for preaching from the pulpit, the “place of the Word.” The connection between text and sermon is maintained better there. The effort to proclaim up close in aisle preaching requires the preacher to walk away from that place, to dissociate text and preaching, though, a quick poll would likely reveal that’s not on peoples’ minds now, as it shouldn’t be. Is the sermon becoming a further revealing to us of what God is saying to us today? Is it delivered in such a way that we can hear it with joy, with not a glance at our watches? Or, having feasted on the Word, are we left with a satiated disinterest in what is said? 

The preacher sits. Silence. The Word proclaimed, now something is called forth. But what? What could pour forth from our hearts and lips and bodies? Could we sing some more? Dance? Walk around the room with reconciling hands stretched out to one another in the gesture of peace? Would some want to complete the old revival liturgy and come forward to the altar to pray, profess faith, remember their baptism with thanks? Should we turn our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit to the world outside the double doors to intercede in prayer for it? Should we affirm our faith? Should we offer our gifts? 

Yes to all of it. Faith, concern, prayers, repentance, offering, peace: Don’t these express how the Spirit has been busy with us, cleansing our hearts and opening our minds so far in today’s service? 

Wesley never disjoined justification from sanctification, grace from response. If this second portion of the service brings scripture’s glad tidings in text and sermon, then response is called forth. It is all of one piece, a point-counterpoint of grace and discipleship, grace operating upon us and for us so that we may come to co-operate with what God is doing in the world. Kenneth Collins calls it Wesley’s “shape of grace.”[1]  

And so, we begin this series of responses with a creed. Today it is the Modern Affirmation, No. 885. Concerns and Prayers follow, formulated as petitions and intercessions with the simple response, “Lord, have mercy.” We pray for the environment, the social and political world, the church universal and our local church, that we might apply what we have heard read and proclaimed. The congregational “circle of concern” is remembered—the sick, homebound, grieving, moving, recovering. Those last prompts remind you to stop by the hospital to visit someone who was named. Will any of what you have specifically heard with joy be shared with them? Will you intentionally extend today’s table of the Word to them? Hopefully someone will take them the Eucharist we are about to celebrate, from which they will be absent. Will that be a Stephen Minister, or one of the pastors or the deacon who also leads children’s ministry? Could it be you?

These concerns and prayers do much to jog your memory about how you might respond to the gospel in daily life. The environment, politics and society, the parish, the world, all are arenas for service. But it could also sound as though we have given God marching orders for the week ahead: Almighty Lover, can you tend to this…and that…and the other thing…this week? We’ll have another wish list for you next week. Or is it for you to hear? Or both God and you, so that God may work through you as a willing servant? All of this touches on questions of moral agency, theodicy, divine action and human response, huge theological questions you circle in the tiny raft of this moment in worship. The questions must stay for now. The prayers have been offered. And that is enough. 

The tension of those questions is released in the familiar Invitation:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.
Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.

You are reminded of the older version, found in Word and Table IV:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbors,
and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God,
and walking from henceforth in his holy ways:
Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort,
and make your humble confession to almighty God.

This table is open and welcoming, but it is not completely unfenced, an antinomian free-fall into grace abounding. You are being invited to consider what you intend to do, really, who you intend to be, when you leave this place today. Is the confession here, in its traditional place, redundant after the spiritual bright light of the Collect for Purity has given way to the Spirit’s cleansing shower in the Prayer for Illumination? Or do you need to be more specific? Maybe not quite in the sense of your Roman Catholic cousin who regularly attends private confession. In fact, your cousin’s practice is much closer to that of your Methodist forebears in their bands, where they mutually confessed their sins and heard words of grace. Is that a bridge too far for modern, private, individuals? And yet we so freely post our every “happy” activity on social media with little thought! What is this inability to be honest with one another, before God, doing to our souls?

And so, we mumble through it together:

Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Interestingly, the prayer frames our disobedience in terms of us being part of one big disobedient family, the church. Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh is here: there’s a will to be done, laws to be kept, and yet divine love goes unrequited. Prophetic voices blend with Jesus’s where we confess neighbors and needy neglected, (Isaiah 1:17, Micah 6:8, and many more). The hearing with joy at the beginning of the Proclamation resonates with the cry to “free us for joyful obedience.” The joy then seemed such an end in itself, pure joy at being addressed by God. Now it finds fulfillment in the cry to be freed for joyful obedience. If the proclaimed Word creates joy, then the joy the proclaimed Word creates must take shape in obedience, since it’s disobedience that is the primary way in which our lives have become misshapen, as this prayer’s theology has it. 

The confession forms a V shape: The thesis statement is at the top left end of the V, as we pray corporately, as disobedient church. How are we disobedient? Let us count the ways: first, by evading God’s will, the most general indictment. Moving down the side of the V, that will is expressed in God’s law. You think of that little placard of the Ten Commandments you saw in someone’s yard this morning on the way to church. The middle line of the prayer, about rebelling against God’s love, is the nadir of our sin. The will and law of God are expressions of God’s love, and our disobedience puts us at odds with love. Specifically, not loving God means not loving our neighbors, as Jesus explicitly connected the two. The prayer moves us up the other arm of the V, first with forgiveness, then joyous freedom. The Amen puts us at the other peak of the V. From there we await a verdict about us. 

Silence again. A searching, searing silence after that litany of what the Collect for Purity’s God already knows about us. It’s Holy Saturday contracted to a moment, between the crucifixion of sin and the resurrection of forgiveness. A leader arises and says,

Hear the good news:
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners;
that proves God's love toward us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

Simple, crisp, clear. Never should an assembly be denied these or similar words. And then, we say them back to the leader, who receives them with a slight bow of his head.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!

Together, we say,

Glory to God. Amen.

We have, in the broad sense of a corporate confession, confessed to one another, and, it makes perfect sense that this bit of liturgy teaches us that repentance is something we do together. We forgive and are forgiven. The Glory to God acclamation reminds you that pardon is pure gift, not achievement. That song of the angels points to Bethlehem’s swaddled babe, and that forgiveness is not a disembodied word from beyond, but a word spoken directly to us, leader to people, people to leader, a liturgical embodiment of what we might be called upon to do during the week. You think again of that difficult meeting awaiting you at work on Tuesday.    

Let us offer one another signs of reconciliation and love.

The passing of the peace that follows underscores confession and pardon as part of a larger work of reconciliation God is up to amongst the gathered, week by week. The Peace, like standing for the gospel, seemed at first an intrusion from another tradition to United Methodists not used to it. It still doesn’t seem natural to some folks to use the ritualized (but deeply New Testament!) “Peace be with you.” Perhaps that’s why the rubric leaves the wording individualized. What should we want to say to one another after the words of pardon?  What does the Spirit call forth in those who have heard with joy and just been freed for joyful obedience? Yet another “Good morning! How are you?” Or something else? What seems to be the right, good, and joyful thing to say to the person on the other end of the pew today? Did the gospel just heard offer any clues? Is there anything on your heart to say to someone particular whom you encounter on a quick trip around the sanctuary to pass the peace?  

As forgiven and reconciled people,
Let us offer ourselves and our gifts to God.

The choir stands to sing an anthem. Ushers move through the assembly bearing collection plates. The pastors move to the altar to make it ready for the Great Thanksgiving. You feel cheered at this point in the service, fed with the Word, freed from sin, reconciled in peace. Taking the offering envelope out of your pocket seems a right and joyful thing about now, and so you do. The musicians crescendo to a stately Doxology. What could only come next but Thanksgiving?

[1] Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007).

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