Worship is about storytelling. Every week there is a theme and we unpack that theme with scripture, hymns, preaching, prayers and meaningful ritual that tie all of it together. Worship needs to be good storytelling to be effective. The best storytellers begin their story with something that grabs you and draws you in. Their endings are satisfying, but not too neat. But, the real secret to a great story is what is in the middle. The middle isn’t just a straight road between the beginning and the end. It is the heart of the story, the part that engages the listener, so they can see themselves in the story being told. Worship relies on the middle for us to get the most out of it. What is in the middle makes all of the difference in the world.
So, there was this guy in high school Tony Corvette. He was in the stratosphere of cool kids. His claim to fame was that he had dated every single cheerleader on the Varsity Squad, and they would have all gone out with him again if he would have just said the word. When Tony came to his twenty-five year high school reunion, all the geeky losers were crushed because he looked exactly the same. Still beautiful, with a full head of hair, and just as muscular and lean as he was at 18. They had so hoped life had been harder on him than that.
Good beginning. Good ending. There is nothing in the middle. What happened to Tony in 25 years? The answer makes all the difference in the world, right? He sailed through college, got a great job, and made his first million before he was thirty. Or, he struggled through college, because God had not given him beauty and brains. His dad helped him get a job, but he was in way over his head. The stress of the job caused him to balloon up to 300 pounds. He spent weekends alone eating pizza and watching reruns of the Golden Girls. Swept up in an FBI sting of mail order brides, he has spent the last ten years serving hard time. While in prison, he lost weight on maggot infested food. Never one for books, he spent hours every day toning his body in the prison yard. Same beginning, same ending, two radically different middles. You see how the middle of the story makes all of the difference?
Today begins Holy Week. Really, a week long worship service, whose beginning story is Palm Sunday and climatic ending is Easter. This year I have received an abundance of colorful large cards in the mail inviting me to local churches to attend their special Palm Sunday and Easter services. The only thing they talk about between the two is a great egg hunt on Saturday. If we just attended Palm Sunday and Easter the entire story of Holy Week would only be about what Jesus did for us. The why is never answered? It is in the middle of the story that we become the characters that Jesus dies for and saves in the resurrection.
Maundy Thursday tells the story of Jesus’ concern for those left here after he goes. He gathers his disciples for a meal. In those twelve, we can see the powerful web of lies, deceit and self preservation that are at the heart of the brokenness of our world, then and now. Jesus doesn’t serve them a meal to scold them. Instead, he gathers them on this night he is betrayed to reassure them. I love you, all of you, even the one at the table who will betray me with a kiss. On Thursday, we begin with hope as we eat with Jesus. We leave with despair after the powerful ritual stripping of the altar around the universal story of betrayal that caused Jesus to be arrested.
On Good Friday we hear and live through the trial and execution of Jesus. This hard story is told with words and a lot of special, powerful and beautiful music. Everyone leaves the sanctuary drained and exhausted after just an hour. We tell this part of the middle in darkness, because it seems to come from the darkest places of creation. There is a moment of light, though. Each of us comes forward with candle, the flickering light a symbol of our trust in God’s presence even in our darkest days.
This middle ends with Saturday Vigil. The question this worship service asks, is what brings us hope in the midst of death. We begin in darkness, as if we were in the cave where they laid Jesus’ cold, mangled and beaten body after he had breathed his last. Through ritual, songs and scripture, we do what people of faith do when all seems lost. They tell hopeful stories of God’s saving God’s people before. They plant new trees of hope in baptism, where we welcome new life. They reassure themselves of the resurrection. So we end, the Saturday Vigil with a peek at Easter. The first look at the sanctuary, ready for our Easter celebration.
Crowned a king on earth, crowned a king in heaven, it all makes sense. God is great, look what he has done for us. Bring on the egg hunt!!! Wait…that isn’t the entire story. It leaves us out. We need to hear the middle that allows each of us to feel, taste and see ourselves in the story. This Holy Week, hear all of the story. And, enjoy our great egg hunt on Saturday.