Liturgy for Living

A  sermon preached on Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011, by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut.
Palm Sunday is like no other Sunday of the year because on Palm Sunday we do a small re-enactment of a day almost 2000 years ago. We start outside the church and we bless palms and distribute them and we read the gospel with several voices, not just one. We try to get the feel of a day long past.

Of course, when you stop to think about it, we do a kind of re-enactment of a past event every Sunday. We remember a meal Jesus shared with his disciples and we take bread and wine as he did and give thanks to God as he did and break the bread and share the meal as they did. And I’m sure there are some who see it as something like a grade school pageant re-enacting the first New England Thanksgiving, just a re-enactment, an attempt to remember and re-live the past.

Let me suggest another way of looking at it – and a better way, I think. If you go to a concert, or even if you listen to a tape or CD, what are you doing? If it’s a Mozart symphony, are you trying to re-live the 18th Century? Would it be better done if you put on a wig and 18th century clothes? If you put on a Beatles’ record, for that matter, are you trying to relive the 60s? I doubt it. I doubt that idea ever occurs to us. We listen to great music, or not so great music, not to recreate the past but to recreate ourselves, to make an impact on our lives today. And each time, it’s a new experience and it affects our feelings, our mind-set, our outlook on life, who we are. We “get into” the music, and it gets into us, and it renews our spirits.

Now, it seems to me that liturgy, what we do in church, is something like that.  Just as Mozart and Haydn and John Lennon shaped a pattern of sounds that many still value today for what it is, so liturgy is a pattern of actions that we value now for our lives today. Going to a concert has nothing to do with re-living the past. There’s an order and harmony in great music which we want in our lives again and again. It’s a matter of finding a shape and a pattern, an order and a harmony, which our lives need now and which we can’t find any other way. You can hear sermons and read the Bible and say your prayers and sing hymns and all that kind of thing – and there’s nothing wrong with it – but liturgy is something that involves our whole life: mind and body, eyes and ears, hands and feet – all of us, all that we are, and all we need to become.

You know, before astronauts are sent into space, they spend months and years rehearsing, going over and over every possible contingency, so that the future will have no surprises. Whatever happens, the odds are good that they’ll have done it before and are prepared to do it again. But ordinary life isn’t like that. Tomorrow you’ll be faced with problems you’ve never faced before because you’ve never lived on the 18th of April in the year 2011.   If nothing else, you’ll see something on television that’s a least a little bit different and your reaction will be a little bit different. You and I are not computer chips ceaselessly choosing between Os and 1s. Real life is constantly shifting and changing and facing us with new decisions, new reactions.  And we can’t rehearse how to do them. Real life is a question finally of who we are:  the order and pattern and harmony of our souls, our essential being.

What we do here today is to become part ot a pattern, part really of another life because liturgy is the process that brings our lives together with the life of Jesus Christ in whom God was fully present and so it’s a pattern by which the order and pattern of Jesus’ life shapes ours, by which we enter his life and he enters ours,  indeed, by which the order and pattern of the universe God made shapes us.

So we aren’t simply repeating the past when we take part in Palm Sunday and the liturgy ot Holy Week and we aren’t trying to program the future as the astronauts do. God calls us into a future beyond anything astronauts can imagine and liturgy is our way of being prepared to live in that kind of world.

2000 years ago, on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus confronted the people of Jerusalem with a way of living so new that most people couldn’t face it. They killed him rather than try. And that’s not surprising at all. A future that’s really new can be frightening. It’s much easier to do things the same old way and ask no questions. Sometimes you can get away with that. Sometimes, sometimes when it really matters, you can’t. Every day of a real life is new and you can’t rehearse your life. What you can do, though, is find a music, a pattern, a liturgy, that will still be valid whatever the future may be. For nearly 2000 years, in every age, every society, in all those past futures that human beings have created and lived, Christians have found in the liturgy a pattern of life that enabled them to live in a new world with confidence because in that world as in this their lives were joined with God.

Somewhere there are astronauts rehearsing the possibilities so they can make the future as dull as the past. Here we’re preparing to live in a world so new only God can imagine it.

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