Finding Truth: Thoughts on Ritual

Finding Truth

Does anyone here have a morning ritual?

A ritual has been defined as a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to a set sequence.

Here is mine.

Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor dark of night keeps me, Lucy and Roxy from this morning custom.

Monday through Friday, I get up around 6:30, get my dogs and drive over to the St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery.

There is a paved path that is a half mile long loop in the cemetery.

I drive to the far end of the cemetery and park.

I let the dogs out of the car off leash and we start on the path.

We go clockwise.

We take two laps.

The dogs follow me because I have treats that they get by the cemetery chapel.

When it’s dark, they wear lighted collars so I can see where they are.

When the second lap is over, the dogs go to the car.

They just do.

I put them in, give them their final treats and we head home.

Why do I do this?

It starts our day with an outdoor walk.

It’s good for me.

It’s good for the dogs.

By 7:15, we have accomplished something.

When that ritual is disrupted, though, we get a bit off kilter.

One time I got to the cemetery and there was a truck carrying a burial vault blocking the path.

I had to park at the near side of the cemetery.

Nothing else was different.

Off we went.

But soon I noticed that Roxy was not with us.

I looked for her everywhere.

I even asked the truck driver if he saw her.

I looked into the newly dug grave where the vault was going to be placed.

I called and called and called her name.

No Roxy.

Finally, I called Karen.

Julz was home so she and Karen came over.

More searching.

More calling.

No Roxy.

Finally, Karen called our vet, hoping that Roxy’s rabies tag would have the vet’s name and maybe someone would find Roxy and call.

When Karen told the vet we lost our mini wiener Roxy, the vet asked what collar Roxy had on.

Karen said it was a black collar with little skulls and cross bones.

The vet said, “She was just here!”

A woman had found Roxy walking on Connor Road, which was well off our ritual path, stopped, got her and took Roxy to the vet to report her as a lost dog.

We immediately connected with that woman and went and got Roxy.

That is what can happen when our rituals are disrupted.

To me, rituals are like a map.

If you want to find your way to a particular place, rituals show you how to get there.

If you go there often enough, you don’t need the map, you just repeat the ritual.

But when the ritual is disrupted, like a truck blocking your way, it is easy to get lost.

Just ask Roxy.

Religious rituals are the same.

They are like maps that lead us into God’s presence.

If we want to find God in our lives, sometimes we need a map, a ritual.

If we make that journey often enough, we have the way memorized.

It’s the ritual.

Here is an example of ritual here at JMPC.

Sunday worship.

Since 1965, people have been gathering at JMPC on Sunday mornings to follow a worship ritual that offers a way into God’s presence.

It has worked pretty well.

But then our ritual got sidetracked by a pandemic and we feared we would get lost, like Roxy.

But here is the thing, if we still follow our map, our ritual, we will get to where we want to be.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.


John 4: 19-26

19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Today’s scripture is a part of the story of a Samaritan woman at a well with Jesus.

This is a remarkable story packed with lessons about Jesus, faith and finding God in strange ways and strange places.

Jesus is in Samaria, speaking to a Samaritan woman, a second-class citizen, who has been marginalized by her community.

The conversation between the two makes the woman believe Jesus is a prophet.

So, she asks him a theological question.

Jews and Samaritans both believed that the place of worship was critical. 

The first rule of worship was that people had to gather in community at a place where they could imagine God to be present.

This rule was followed since the Exodus.

In Moses’ time it was the tabernacle.

Sort of a portable church.

Later, Samaritans believed God was to be worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, while the Jews believed God was to be worshiped in Jerusalem at the Temple.

In Jesus time, there were also synagogues for folks who were lived too far away from the temple.

A synagogue was where Jesus worshiped most of his life.

Worship wasn’t worship unless it was in the right place.

“Which is it, Jesus? Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem?”, the woman asks.

In response, Jesus makes an interesting statement about worship.

… [T]rue worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Where we worship is not important.

How we worship is important.

We need to worship in spirit and in truth.

What does that mean?

How do we do that?

The first thing we need to remember is that Jesus was accustomed to a particular manner of worship that allowed the worshiper to imagine that the worshiper has entered into the presence of God.

Maps to God.

You, know, rituals.

Each phase of the worship represented a particular part of that entry into God’s presence.

Start here, go there, make a turn, pull in thee, and you will find God.

It lookde like this:

There was a call to worship of some kind.

The people acknowledged they were not worthy of being too close to God and sought God’s forgiveness for their sins.

Scripture was read and interpreted.

Offerings were made.

The people prayed.

And the finally, before they left, the people were reminded that they were a holy nation, chosen by God to be God’s representatives in the world.

The map.

The ritual.

Entry into, communing with and exiting from the presence of God.

That was worship in spirit and in truth, regardless of its location.

It’s kind of a ritual.

If all this sounds familiar, it should.

These are the elements of Christian worship.

We divide worship into five parts.

  • The approach or gathering around the word.
    • Here at JMPC this includes the call to worship, an opening hymn, the prayer of confession, the assurance of forgiveness and the Doxology.
  • The proclaiming of the word.
    • This is the reading of scripture and the sermon.
  • The response to the word.
    • This is the Prayers of the People and the Offering.
  • The sealing of the word in the sacraments.
    • This is Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
  • The sending of the word into the world.
    • This is the Benediction.

Entry into, communing in and exiting from the presence of God.

Knowing, Glorifying and Serving God.

That is worship in spirit and in truth, regardless of its location.

That’s the map.

That’s the way.

That’s the ritual.

But lot of people don’t go to church just because they don’t think all the ritual does anything for them.

They complain that church is repetitive, meaningless and, well, boring.

No spirit.

No truth.

But here’s the thing.

Ritual does have meaning.

It does inspire.

It helps us find truth.

If understood and considered, the ritual allows us to experience the divine.

That’s where truth is.

And that is what ritual is in the church.

We approach the divine, we confess, we receive grace, we read holy words, we interpret those words, we ask God to intervene in our lives, we give back a bit of what we have received for the benefit of others, we leave with a benedictory charge to live better lives, and then we keep coming back.

These are the rituals of our church.

But the pandemic has knocked us off our ritual.

We can’t gather for worship in our sanctuary.

We are afraid that we are getting lost.

It is the truck in Roxy’s path.

But Jesus words tell us that we need not be afraid.

We are not lost.

Because even when we can’t be in our own sacred space, we can still worship in spirit and truth.

We can still find our way into God’s presence by following the ritual that needs no time or place.

And we have here at JMPC.

More importantly, many more have joined us on that journey!

Don’t believe that?

Here is the evidence.

Our last worship service in the sanctuary was March 15.

Since that time, we have been worshiping online using Facebook Live as our “sanctuary”.

Since September 13, we have also invited people to come to the parking lot for worship and streaming that service on Facebook Live.

When we were worshiping with our two services in the sanctuary, our average weekly attendance was around 135 people.

That’s a bit over 1/3 of our membership.

Statistically, that is about what most churches get on Sunday mornings.

If you get to 50%, you are really doing well.

But once we went online, the number of people who “attended” exploded.

The “views” of the online service are in the neighborhood of 270.

Once in the parking lot, we are heading toward 300, if you add those here and online together.

Now, before you start asking why all these online folks don’t show up in the sanctuary on Sundays, let me suggest that this is really a good thing.

Regardless of the reason faithful folks don’t come to church on Sundays, and there are many faithful folks who have valid reasons not to show up on Sundays, a whole bunch are showing up online.

If not live at 10, later in the day.

Just look at the views and you will see that they grow in number as the day goes on.

And then take a look at the YouTube viewer numbers.

Even more folks worshiping.

And we are not alone.

This phenomenon has been reported by lots of churches, small and large.

This is a good thing, make no mistake.

The pandemic has changed our worship location, but not our rituals.

Well what would Jesus say?

If performing these rituals focuses our attention on a moment in the presence of the divine it is spirit and truth filled.

These rituals exist to remind us of who and whose we are.

The rituals we follow in the Reformed Church have been around for over 500 years.

Over time they have changed.

They are changing now.

We no longer have Sunday morning as a particular sacred time for our sacred rituals.

But for the 300 people who watch our Sunday services, the time they spend doing so is sacred.

It is spirit filled.

And it leads us to the truth.

The presence of God.

And we do it with the rituals.

We gather.

We confess.

We read and interpret scripture.

We pray.

We make offerings.

We are sent into the world as people of God.

And in all this, we find Jesus.

We find God.

We find truth.

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