Can you think of some magical words?
Bibbity Bobbity Boo – Cinderella’s Fairy godmother
Open Sesame – Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves
Alla Peanut butter Sandwiches – The Grreat Mumford
Did you ever wonder where the words hocus pocus came from?
Imagine yourself taking a trip in a time machine through time and space and landing in a church in England 700 years ago. It is Sunday morning and you find yourself at the beginning of a worship service. The sanctuary is full of stained glass windows. The stone arches are covered with carved angels. From behind you can hear a well-trained choir singing beautiful music. They process down the aisle following a cross and some acolytes. Everyone is wearing robes. The priest is at the end of the procession. When they get to the front of the church you can hardly see where they go, for between you and the chancel part of the church there is a tall screen covered with intricate carvings of Bible scenes. It blocks your view of the choir seats and the altar and the priest.
The choir’s music is beautiful. You catch some words Kyrie Elesion…Gloria in excelsis Deo…Credo in unum Deum…Sanctus….Hosanna in excelsis….Benedictus….Agnus Dei quitolis pecata mundi…dona nobis pacem. You don’t really know what they mean but they do sound lovely. Somewhere hidden behind that screen is the priest. He is saying some words in the same language as the music. But you can hardly hear him over the people around you. You realize nobody understands the language of this worship service. So they have stopped trying. They are quietly chatting to their neighbors or praying their rosary beads. At some point during the service a bell rings. The chatter stops and everyone looks up. You look too and just over the top of the screen you see the priest’s hands holding a loaf of bread and you hear him say. Hoc est corpus meum. You ask your neighbor, what did he say? And your neighbor replies. Those are the magic words that mean "this is my body"– it's the hocus pocus that turns the bread into the body of Christ.
When the priest offers the bread and the chalice to the people very few go up. Your neighbor informs you that only those who had made a proper confession were allowed to receive, and many were afraid to receive wrongly. When the service is over and you are heading out the door you see a man and woman ahead of you, off to the side. You stop to look as the man cautiously shows the woman that he didn’t eat his bread. He says he’s bringing it home as medicine for his ailing elderly mother.
If you were able to travel around Europe in this time you would find that this pattern of worship would be similar throughout England, in France, Holland and Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and Italy. No matter what language the people spoke the worship would be in Latin a language the regular people did not understand. They knew something special was taking place, especially when the bell rang and the bread was lifted up – and the priest said hoc est corpus. When people had to worship in a language they didn’t understand it all seemed like magic to them – it seemed like hocus pocus.
Some people say that the Hokey Pokey dance come from these same magic words. Maybe, maybe not. But it can help us understand what worship is all about. Christ is really present and when you put your whole self in – come here ready to meet God, ready to participate fully in worship you will be in the presence of Christ.
Such a lack of understanding in Medieval Europe was fertile soil for superstitions to grow. People came to believe that priests had learned magic words, and use magical gestures to turn everyday things into magical, healing charms. The prayers uttered in Latin seemed like magic spells. People began saving bits of the consecrated bread to use later as medicine if they got sick, or to keep with them in an amulet as a good luck charm. They would carry these things around to ward off evil spirits.
All of this may seem very foreign to some of us. Many here this morning may have serious doubts that saying the words “this is my body” changes the bread and the grape juice into the actual body and blood of Christ. But then why do we say it? “Take, eat this is my body.” According to This Holy Mystery, United Methodists reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation – a theology most completely described by Thomas Aquinas who relied on the philosophical principals of Aristotle to explain how the bread truly becomes the body and the wine truly becomes the blood of Christ yet Christians do not become cannibals when they partake of the Lord’s Supper. However, Methodists do affirm the real presence of Christ when we celebrate communion. So how and when does Christ become present to us?
And what about pastors? Is seminary some kind of Hogwarts where pastors are taught magic spells that make Christ really present for their congregations? Our church, like many others, requires people to have seminary training can be ordained, and even Local Pastors need training in the sacraments before they may receive a license to preside over them in a local congregation. Clergy are set apart for the ministry of preaching and presiding over sacraments. What is the church expecting that clergy will be able to do during communion, if it isn’t a kind of magic?
Sometimes Christians today still act as if the pastor has some kind of magic transformative power. For example when a youth leader asks a pastor to consecrate the elements on Friday morning so that the youth group can take them along on their retreat and use them on Sunday afternoon. Such an action isn’t really all that different from the medieval brother or sister who took the consecrated bread home to use as medicine.
On the other extreme some people practice communion, and perhaps all of worship as if there is nothing holy or mysterious about it at all. George Barna conducted a survey in 2001 that showed 14% of adult believers admit that they have never experienced the presence of God, 14 percent have experienced God’s presence but not in the past year while 72 percent have encountered God in a real way within the past year. In atypical worship service, however, about half claim that they did not experience God’s presence of feel that they interacted with God in a personal way.
If Christ’s presence isn’t conjured up by the prayers of a magical pastor, how is he present during worship? Most Christian denominations today still cling to the belief that the amazing power and grace of Jesus Christ is present in this holy mystery before us. But how? How can we sing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place!” and really know we are singing the truth?
Once a young man from the East Coast went on vacation in the San Francisco Bay area. One day he rented a car and drove out to Muir Woods, a small National Monument about 15 miles out of the city. He wanted to see the giant redwood trees. He got there a few minutes before the park opened for the day and was among the first few people to enter the amazing natural cathedral made of towering trees reaching to heaven. He walked along the path a few steps, and looked up to see the morning light through the branches so high above. He took a deep breath to smell the redwoods, and he listened to the quiet sounds of birds. He stopped from time to time to touch the bark of the great trees and he bent down to greet the banana slug walking across his path. It was awe inspiring and majestic – he was overwhelmed by the beauty.
The park isn’t very big, so he was on his way out when the first tourist bus of the day arrived. The people were coming along on the path in groups of twos or threes. The first few remained silent and seemed aware of their surroundings, but the next people were chatting with one another, group after group, so engaged in what they were saying that they hardly noticed anything around them. Finally one of these chatterboxes stopped to ask the young man, “Is there anything of interest up ahead?”
He was dumbfounded. He looked up. The giant redwoods were all around her. He had just spent 45 minutes in wonder and awe at something she seemed not to perceive in the least. What made the difference? I think it had a lot to do with our intentions and where we place our attention. One was attentive to the redwood trees, the other was focused on the conversation she was having with her friend.
Our attention and the intentions we set for worship are very powerful factors that can make the same worship service be an awesome and holy experience for one person, while for another the ritual is boring and meaningless. Corporate worship is a time for a Christian congregation set our intention on experiencing the living God, and focusing our attention so we don’t miss God’s presence in our midst.
When we set our intention to encounter the living Christ in worship, we will. When we take a moment to calm our bodies and refocus our thoughts and pay attention to the music, songs and prayers, to all the acts of worship – looking for God – our experience of God will increase. When we listen attentively to scripture, expecting that this is the word that our living God is speaking to us today, we will hear God speaking. When we respond to Christ’s invitation to gather around his table and share the bread and the cup Christ is there with us. Our task is to remember to pay attention. The worship service is designed to help us do that. Look at bulletin – look at the main sections.
Christ is really present whenever Christians gather. Jesus promised that when two or three gather in his name he will be in the midst of us. This is true when we gather in the chapel for choir practice, or for a committee meeting. It’s true when we gather to work together serving a meal or renovating a building. But often when we do these things we forget to pay attention to him. Even if we pause for a moment of grace, or an opening prayer, we can so easily forget that the Holy Spirit of God is with always just a few minutes later. We forget to look for Christ in the eyes of our neighbor. We don’t notice when God is speaking to us through the person we are intent on serving. And if we do experience his presence we are shy to tell anyone.
So we help ourselves enter into the real presence of the Lord by setting our intentions to meet God in corporate worship. We set aside a special time each week when we intend to gather and encounter God together. We call that time worship. In our case worship starts at 10 a.m. And we set aside this special room designed intentionally to help us experience the presence of the Lord. We call it a sanctuary – a holy room. Christ is present in this room when we gather here. The Lord doesn’t wait for the Call to Worship or a prayer of invocation. Christ is present in our gathering. Today Christ was surely present by 10 a.m. when people are taking their seats and Mary began to remind us that Jesus love us with the gathering music. Did you notice? Did you let the music help you remember how much Jesus loves you? Christ is present every time we gather for worship – are you paying attention?
Worship and remember to keep the Sabbath day. Take a rest and think of God; put your work away!
Christ is present when we listen to his word proclaimed. In today’s scripture lesson, we read of people a lot like us. People who aren’t paying attention. Picking up from last week when we read about Jesus feeding the multitude using a simple boy’s lunch, today the same crowd is chasing after Jesus, looking for more food. Yet Jesus shows us that they hadn’t even realized that he’d just performed a miracle. “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions (not because you saw signs) but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free.” Even when he tried to explain to them that what God was offering them was something far greater than bread that can get moldy – that God was offering Emmanuel - God with them – his real presence the crowd didn’t recognize Jesus as the Christ. It wasn’t their intention to encounter God that day. But the Lord Jesus was gracious and patiently continue to reveal himself to them, saying I Am the Bread of Life and promising them “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Christ is present when we listen to his word proclaimed. He is patient with us when we fail to understand, when we don’t notice his abounding grace, when we fail to fully partake of his gifts. Christ is present when we confess these faults, offering us nothing but grace and forgiveness in exchange and beaconing for us to draw closer to him and receive a full measure of his grace. Christ is with us in the proclamation of his word and our response, waiting for us to turn to him so that he can feed our hunger and quench our thirst.
Worship and remember the Lord’s unending care, reaching out to love and help people everywhere.
Christ is present when we remember. Our service of Holy Communion follows a pattern developed by the early church to help followers of Jesus to remember through signs and symbols that the grace they heard about in the word is present here for them now. The Great Thanksgiving prayer helps us to remember that God was present to his people from the beginning of creation before Jesus was born, that God became present to us in a new way through the life and ministry of Jesus, that through Jesus God is with us in our sin, God is with us in our sorrow, God is with us in our death. And we are reminded of our hope that God will raise us up to eternal life in his heavenly kingdom. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again is our acclamation of faith – helping us to pay attention not only to what Christ did for us – but for his real presence among us and for what he will do for us in the time to come. Before someone is given the authority to become pastor of a church, he or she is trained to help the congregation remember rightly, remember fully so that in our remembering we will experience the real presence of Christ in our midst.
When people come to the Lord’s Table with the intention of meeting their Savior there, we can experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in powerful, life changing ways. The words we say are not magic, but they usher us into a holy mystery in which the Holy Spirit is poured out upon each one of us incorporating us into the Body of Christ which is the church.
And that leads us to the last act of worship. Christ is present when we go forth. We go forth not to resume a worldly lifestyle, but to bring Christ with us to the world. We go forth to invite all who hunger to gather around the Lord’s Table to be fed holy manna. We go forth to share the grace of the eternal God with those who live in darkness and despair. We go forth as a beacon for Christ, leading the lost and scattered into the safe harbor of the church. We go forth from this table living our lives in gratitude for God’s providence. Let us remember when we go forth today that Christ is always with us, that true worship is not an event, a weekly task, but a lifestyle in which we remember Christ’s presence with us every moment of every day, and we set our intentions to make time in our daily lives for prayer, and to meditate on his word. And we pay attention, so that we can see the opportunities to be the body of Christ for the world.
Worship and remember that God is like a light, showing you the way to go; ever burning bright!
May you experience the real presence of Christ now, every time you gather to worship, and as you learn to turn your whole life into an act of worship and praise of God.