(a sermon for October 6, 2019, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday; first in a series, based on 1 Chronicles 16:23-31 and James 5:13-20)
(a podcast version of this message can be found here)
So the question is… why are you even here today?
Seriously… what motivated you to get up out of bed and come to worship on such a beautiful autumn morning as this? Don’t get me wrong; speaking both pastorally and personally I’m very glad (and grateful!) that you’re here, but I’ll confess this is something I always kind of wonder about! Have you come here, for instance, out of a sense of gratitude for the ways God has been acting in your life? Does this place and our time together in worship serve as an oasis, if you will, amidst life’s many difficulties, not to mention respite from a world that that more and more seems to be spinning out of control? Or is it more of a matter of routine for you, something you do simply because it’s Sunday morning? I don’t know, perhaps you’re here this morning out of some sense of obligation or even guilt; hey, it happens!
Now, I’d like to think that maybe you’ve come here today because in some way or another you’ve found some measure of comfort, inspiration and joy in what happens in our time of worship, and you’ve come seeking more of that: that you’re needing to hear and to sing music that speaks to the heart and lifts the spirit; hoping perhaps to recognize yourself in scripture or song or prayer; wondering if today the preacher just might say something applicable to your own life (and I’ll be honest, I’m always hoping that’ll happen)! Or it could be that you’re hoping that being here will help you grow in faith and, to quote the Rev. Christopher Winkler, a Methodist pastor and preacher from Illinois, to live your life a little “more faithfully tomorrow than you did yesterday;” and perhaps by being part of this sacred community of the church you’ll find the kind of fellowship, support and teaching that will help you do that.
Actually, I suspect that truth be told, the reasons that led you to worship here this morning likely encompassed all or parts of this, and so much more besides! And I hope it goes without saying that it’s all valid; I mean, this all speaks directly to our personality as a congregation and about the vitality of our life together, right? It’s all about who we are and what we do in the context of Christian worship. And worship matters; in fact, I think it’s safe to say that our gathering together for worship is the central activity of our life together as the church; some might even argue that it’s our primary reason for being. But all of this said, friends, I would like suggest to you this morning that the real purpose for our gathering together on this or any Sunday morning, “the Way” of true worship ultimately has little or nothing to do with any of these reasons we’ve been listing off here. If we are sincerely engaged, as we so often say, in worshiping the Lord “in Spirit and in Truth,” then it’s not primarily going to be about the style of worship, or the preaching, or the music, or the way we “do” communion, or how we pray, or how long the service lasts, or how great the refreshments are going to be after the service, but simply and wholly in “ascrib[ing] to the LORD the glory due his name… worship[ing] the LORD in holy splendor,” glorifying and praising God for his steadfast love that endures forever.
Without that being first and foremost in our hearts, then all the rest of it? It’s all very well and good, to be sure, but in the words of a worship consultant by the name of Ken Lamb, it all ends up as “all the wrong reasons for all the right things.”
The great 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard used to use the theater as a metaphor for describing how most of us will misunderstand the role and purpose of worship. Kierkegaard would complain that all too often we imagine that the minister is the star actor or actress in a play, with the choir, the musicians and the rest of the worship leaders in supporting roles, and the congregation as the audience of theatergoers. In other words, worship itself becomes too much like a performance, in which those of us “up here” are engaged in offering up something of value to you “down there.” And, trust me here, that’s not how it should be at all! In fact, just the opposite; Kierkegaard says that in a proper “act and attitude of worship,” the worship leaders are in fact prompters helping to lead the congregation in offering up their best “performance” of worship and praise unto the God who is, “in the most earnest sense,” Kierkegaard writes, “the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to.”
The way of true worship, you see, is not so much about what we’re getting out of the experience but rather about what we are putting into it! I’m reminded here of a great story told by Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary in which he recalled his years of being a church pastor, and how following a service of worship one day a member of the congregation met him at the door to berate him for the his choice of hymns for that day. “Those songs you picked out were horrible,” she said. “Not a single one of them were the least bit familiar, the words are all changed and they weren’t even singable… I hated every one of them.” And to this, Barnes calmly replied, “Well, that’s okay… we weren’t singing them to you.” (I wish I’d thought of that!) Ultimately, you see, our worship is not for us; our singing isn’t for our benefit nor our entertainment; our prayers of praise and thanksgiving and intercession is never meant to be an act of self-aggrandizement.
It’s about God. Every part of our worship is to be directed toward and for the praise and glory of God. I’m here as a prompter, so to speak, as are Kat and Susan and our choir; we are here to prompt your worship of God. And in that regard as worshippers we’re all the performers, and the Lord God is the audience. But it’s in that all those gifts grace and healing and forgiveness and wonder come to pass.
Our Old Testament text for this morning from the 1st Book of Chronicles has to do with David’s reclamation of the Ark of the Covenant, which was the container that ancient Israel had created to house the fragments of the stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments (and yes, in case you were wondering, that’s the same Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones went searching for in “Raiders of the Lost Ark…” but I digress!). Biblically and historically speaking, the backstory here is that King David had done just about everything possible to return the Ark to Jerusalem and now it was finally happening; and with much music and shouting and food, not to mention David himself “leaping and dancing,” (15:29), there is this incredible celebration that now, at long last, the Ark – this symbol of who God was to them and everything God had done – the Ark has been returned and now there would be this place of worship where the presence of God lived amongst his people. There’s great rejoicing, and it all culminates with David calling the people to thanks and praise for all of God’s wonderful acts, “his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.” You see what’s happening here? It’s what one commentator I read this week refers to as “theology set to music;” a song that declares how wonderful God is, sung before the very presence of God!
A celebration of the presence of God amongst us; a joyous affirmation of the movement of God in and through our lives; a much-needed reminder of the reality of God’s unending hope and to give thanks and praise for his power amidst the living of these days: that is what worship is supposed to be all about. It’s what informs every part of this time we spend together every Sunday; it’s what my preaching, no matter the text or subject matter, has to be about; it’s why we sing and play the songs we do as a choir and congregation; and it’s what leads us in everything else we seek to be as the church of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our only Savior. It’s what makes us who we are as a church and the “Way” that we walk… it is first to ascribe to God the glory due his holy name.
But, of course, that not where it ends.
Our other text for this morning, from the New Testament Letter of James, is another of the so-called “pastoral epistles” that seek to encourage us in the ways that we seek to live as disciples of Christ within (and beyond) the life of the church. Specifically, it’s about dealing with those are sick or suffering or lost or enmeshed in sin (“Are any among you suffering? They should pray.”), or even cheerful (!), in which case, a song of praise is in order! The message here is that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and that’s important to remember; but it seems to me that the larger point is that our prayer and praising, while of first importance and absolutely essential for us as God’s people, is never meant to happen in a vacuum. We are called to bring true worship unto God and God alone, that is true; but by our worship, we are also meant to be transformed, day by day, more and more into the people God created us to be. In other words, we should never leave here on a Sunday morning the same way we came in. In some small, even perhaps at times in a seemingly imperceptible yet nonetheless palpable way, we ought to leave our time of worship feeling different… changed, somehow… challenged in our thinking and living… relieved, maybe, or strengthened, or filled up with something akin to true joy and real love. Scripture is filled with stories of men and women and entire nations coming into the presence of God and being changed – body and soul and heart and strength – forever; and so it ought to be, each in our own way, with you and me. What’s the saying about faith being a journey and not a destination? Well, beloved, it’s God’s presence and power experienced in true worship that sets us forth on that journey.
In just a moment we’ll be answering this divine invitation that’s been given us, joining with countless other kindred hearts on this World Communion Sunday in feasting at the Lord ’s Table, sharing in this wondrous experience of knowing his presence in a simple meal of bread and wine. Now I know that in many ways, our sharing communion today is no different than it is on every other first Sunday of the month when we have communion, and that we have our “way” of having communion that’s wrapped up in tradition and liturgy and “the way we’ve always done it.” And the truth is, at times I worry that this truly blessed meal becomes for us routine. I hope and pray that this won’t be the case for any of us today, but that perhaps as we pass the bread from one to another and drink from the cup of blessing we’ll see it as an opportunity to fix our full attention on God; to truly give God our whole thanks and praise for the life abundant and eternal that’s been given us in Christ Jesus; and by our prayers, both spoken and silent, ascribe to God the glory due him. But then, having been refreshed at this sacred table of joy and life, let us be moved to go… go and become the people that God has always intended for us to be.
This, beloved, will be the way of true worship, and I have no doubt that each one of us, and our world, will be the better for it.
Thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry