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Category Archives: Epistles

“Dance, Then…”

The pastor on the dance floor at his daughter’s wedding!

(a sermon for November 11, 2018, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Peter 2:1-10)

It’s actually one of the great assurances we’re given in Holy Scripture, and also affirms very succinctly who we are as the church: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Of course, how we got from what we were to who we are now; that’s another story… in fact, it’s the biblical story, and what a story it is!

I love how in his wonderful little book “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” the late Rev. David Steele managed to encapsulate the whole biblical narrative by describing it as a ballet. He wrote that the story of the bible is “about how… God calls people into the Dance. About how [God] works with individuals here, small or large groups there, getting their ears tuned to the music, teaching them the rudimentary steps, putting them in touch with the unique rhythms and movements [God] has implanted in their souls. [And, yes] it’s about how people resist [that call]; how they get tired of practicing; or how they feel burdened with two left feet and just want to watch.”

But, Steele goes on to say, this particular ballet is also about “the patience and persistence of [God], who keeps at the job of getting people ready for that final number, with a cast of billions, where every person holds her head up high, [where] no one is a wall flower, [where] each one dances his unique steps, and the total choreography is so stunning, so intricate, yet so profoundly simple that as we dance it our breath is taken away… the story of the Bible is about the Dance of Life,” concludes Steele, and its music is called the kingdom of God.

Well, speaking as one of those who has perennially felt burdened in his life with two left feet, I appreciate that parable; for it reminds me that at least regarding our faith, we’re all dancers in God’s sight and that we are all meant to be a part of this wonderful ballet that God has lovingly created especially for us!

I know I’ve shared with some of you already that of all the preparations leading up to the two weddings of our daughter and son this past summer and fall, the thing that worried me the most was… the father/daughter dance!  Not that I didn’t want to do it; on the contrary, I’d been dreaming of that moment from the time Sarah was born, just as I’ve always known that someday I’d be dancing at my sons’ weddings.  It’s just that… I’m not a good dancer; I mean: I’m. Really. Not. A. Good. Dancer!  Now, I’ve always tended to blame this on the fact that as a teenager I was pretty shy and very awkward, and so I didn’t go to a whole lot of dances in high school; and even when I did, and for years afterward I was usually in the band, so I wasn’t dancing then either!  But any and all excuses aside, the fact remains that I just was never very good out on the dancefloor, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass both myself and my daughter on her wedding day!

The good news here was that my daughter Sarah – the dancer, the dance teacher, the dance choreographer (!) – offered to give me a few lessons so that at the very least I would have a few “dance moves” ready for the reception; and so for several nights the week before the wedding, together with Sarah’s Matron of Honor and my wife Lisa, we practiced hard in our living room – Oillie barking at us the whole time (!) – just to get those moves down!  And you know what; come the reception, it actually all was pretty good!  The father/daughter dance went very well; Lisa and I enjoyed being on the dance floor together; and though I’ll never be confused with anyone who’s ever been on “So You Think You Can Dance,” it was a whole lot of fun… and it was fun again – and, might I add, a whole lot easier (thank you, Sarah!) – at our son’s wedding reception last month!

But having said all that, here’s the thing that I’d like to say about dancing: the ultimately, you get nowhere doing it! Understand, I’m not speaking here of the choreographed dances that Sarah teaches at the studio, or the routines you might see on “World of Dance.” No, what I’m talking about here is what happens when the music starts up, and you step out on to a dance floor and you start moving to the music: no matter how long the music plays or how long you keep dancing, at the end of it all you end up pretty much at the same place as where you were when it began! But there’s nothing wrong with that; because dancing, you see, is not about reaching a point of destination; it’s about the dance itself!  It’s all about the promise of the moment; the rush of your heartbeat; the joy of casting aside inhibitions for just a little while!  Dance is about celebration, about laughter shared with a caring partner; about the freedom to be who you really are! And the best part is that when it’s all done, even when you’ve ended up where you started, all you can think about is that you want to go again!

And so it is with the “Dance of Life” that David Steele was talking about there. It seems to me, friends, that so much of the comfort and joy that comes with faith is in what happens along the way.

There are a whole lot of people, you know, who approach their spirituality as though it were for them an intended destination; that is, they approach faith with the attitude that once certain objectives have been met, special goals have been achieved, and specific disciplines are maintained, the will have finally reached that one specific place they wish to be with God, whatever they conceive God to be. Indeed, this is not a terribly alien concept; it’s the focus of many Eastern religions including Buddhism and Taoism, and truth be told, it was a central concern of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time: the idea that the full purpose of life is in discipline directed toward the end of reaching a state of some sort of personal and spiritual perfection.

This is what I mean when I speak of faith as a destination, and a goodly number of Christians knowingly (or unknowingly!) live unto that rule; but understand me when I say to you that it is not a faith stance in which many people find satisfaction and fulfillment.  In fact, it’s been my observation as a pastor that for people like this, the ultimate destination always seems to be just a few steps beyond where they are; that perfection, whatever that means always seems to waiting beyond the next horizon. God’s righteousness, his acceptance and his love; for them it’s always somehow dependent on that “that one more thing” they need to do, that final change in behavior or lifestyle or identity that’ll make everything alright.

I had a parishioner many years back who I would consider and did consider to be a very faithful man. But he also never seemed to be all that comfortable or even happy in his faith; because where faith was concerned, by his own admission he’d never felt as though “he gotten there.” It’s not that he was brand new to things related to faith: he’d in fact grown up with a strict religious upbringing that belied an unsettled home life; and once he was old enough to be out on his own, he’d abandoned the church completely for years. Only when he was on his second marriage and his youngest daughter was born did he make a cautious reentry into a relationship with God.

The interesting thing is after so many years away from the church, he jumped right in. He became very active in the congregation I was serving; he was one of my chief cheerleaders for a lot of projects, led Bible Study, and eventually even took a two year course in lay ministry. He was a pilgrim in the best and truest sense of the word: but he was never happy.  In one way or another, he was always struggling with faith; not so much about having faith, but rather about what it meant to have faith, and being faithful. Maybe it was his upbringing that held him back; perhaps it was his own lack of self-esteem or a lingering fear that God was judging him for who he was or for what he’d been in the past; I was never sure, and neither was he. But I will say he always used to say to me, usually with a touch of sadness in his voice, “I’m a long way from where I was, but I have a long way to go.”

At one point he went out and bought himself a very nice, leather-bound Bible; one that he went on to read cover to cover, a chapter at a time, a couple of times over; and one that he asked me to inscribe for him. And though even to this day I’m not always sure what to write on the inside of a Bible (I always get this looming sense of impending posterity when I think too long about things like that!), I knew just what to write for him: I included a couple of verses that I knew held some meaning for him, but then below those verses, I wrote the words, “Remember that faith is a journey, and not a destination.”

Faith is a journey.  Faith is the dance borne out of love received and acceptance given.  It’s about being claimed by the God who loves you for who you are right here and right now.  It’s about freedom from the worldly powers and values that shackle us and hold us back; it’s being freed to truly be the people that we’ve always been intended to be.  Faith is about being led in God’s Dance; where you live in the world, but you’re not of the world and because of this the music of Life pulsates through every fiber of your being; it’s what sets your feet to motion and makes your spirit soar; it’s the music of that proclaims that the kingdom of God is dwelling within you!

Or, as Peter wrote to those early Christians who themselves wondered where their faith was taking them: “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

The good news, beloved, is that God loves us! God really does love us as we are, and where we are!  And that’s even considering that God has already seen our awkwardness as we’ve tried out our various “life dance” moves with some modicum of grace and dignity.  Oh, yes, God sees our failures and our rebellion, to say nothing of our self-imposed moral lapses,; and yet God is not embarrassed to call us daughters and sons. Even as we’re struggling with how we can dance without looking like a fool, here’s God coming take our hand and so that he might lead us in in the dance; helping us not to stumble, but picking us up when we do; lovingly reassuring us so that we might understand that sometimes even a little foolishness is the way we learn!

But here’s the best part: God loves us so much that he wants us to know that we’re not going to be dancers someday – that is, if we ever learn the right steps, or if we ever get the rhythm right in our heads – no, God loves us so much that he assures us that we’re dancers now!  We’re dancers of light, beloved; we’re God’s own chosen people, sent forth in love with the promise that whenever in faithfulness we dance the Dance of Life to the music of the Kingdom of God, it will be a beautiful thing indeed!

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”  That’s who we are, beloved, and as God’s people we are also dancers, each and all; and it’s good that we take a moment to remember that. Truly, we are as The Message has translated this passage, “God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him.”

So… in the words of the hymn we’re about to sing:

So, dance then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I’ll lead you all wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
                                   “Lord of the Dance,” words by Sydney Carter

Praise be to the Lord of the dance, and may our thanks ever and always be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Made to Worship: After the Benediction

(a sermon for October 28, 2018, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

I hope that if there’s one thing that has become readily apparent about your pastor as we’ve gone through this sermon series is that he really loves our time of worship together!

Honestly, friends; I can tell you that of all the many facets of my work here at East Church as your pastor, it is by far this time we spend together in worship that I enjoy the most and which holds the deepest spiritual meaning for me.  I love the flow and the feel of our worship in this place; the fact that whether the accompaniment happens to be organ or guitar nonetheless every Sunday as we sing our praises unto the Lord we do so with conviction and joy. I never cease to be spiritually moved not only by the moments we spend together in prayer, but also by what you bring to that experience in the joys and concerns that are shared as we ready ourselves for that time.  Needless to say, I never stop being surprised by whatever it is that one of our kids might say during our children’s ministry (!); and I never cease to be amazed by how something I say from this pulpit might just resonate with you in ways that I could not have predicted (understand, friends, there are days when what you get out of a sermon is not necessarily what I intended to impart!  But that’s the Holy Spirit for you, and I stand here humbled and grateful for that).

I’ll admit it; as a person and “parson” who’s a little too much of a perfectionist at times, I greatly value the times when everything in our worship beautifully comes together as one seamless whole (almost as if we actually intended it to be that way!); but I also have to confess that over the years I’ve learned there is much glory in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen between the Call to Worship and the Benediction (I’m remembering a wonderful quote attributed to an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services with the following prayer: “Dear God,” he prayed, “may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”).  But whether it’s all properly planned out or if it ends up happening by the Spirit’s intervention, there’s palpable joy that comes in knowing that somehow, some way, the right thing happens to touch a heart at the perfect moment.  And to that, let me just say that as your pastor, I am fortified by your love expressed in smiles, handshakes and hugs; truly, there is rarely a Sunday noontime when I don’t go home newly reminded of Christ’s presence in my life; and I can’t thank you or God enough for that.

So having said all that, friends, please understand me when I tell you now that as far as this pastor is concerned the very best part of our worship together is… when it’s over!  And no, that’s not because I’m in any real hurry to have our time together end, get home, change my clothes and take the rest of the day off (although I’ll admit that this week a nap may be in order, but I digress!).  No, it’s because everything I’ve been saying here today – indeed, everything we’ve been reflecting on all through this sermon series – comes down to that incredible movement of worshiping God: from our praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God by the reading for scripture and its proclamation, to finally responding to that Word with lives dedicated to faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And while in many ways that happens in the context of our worship, our true response to God really begins the moment you and I walk out the doors of this sanctuary!

You see, friends, ultimately the best part of our worship comes after the Benediction: when what we’ve received and shared in here is brought to a hurting world out there, the divine love by which we’ve been blessed being shared with others in need of a blessing; in the process deepening our own relationship with God, a relationship that cannot help but gird and inform every part of our lives.  When our time of worship comes to a close and the benediction is done, you see, that’s when the Christian life truly begins!

Not that this is the easiest thing for any of us to remember, much less live unto, especially in these times.  I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes it’s very hard to maintain the “attitude of worship” with the act of worship is done!

I remember at different times over the years how the congregations I served would send our youth to church camp for a week during the summer (in the Maine Conference of the UCC, it was always Pilgrim Lodge, but here in New Hampshire it’s the Horton Center), and for some of these kids it was to say the least a spiritual awakening!  The songs, the prayers and the outdoor worship; for some of them it was quite literally a life changing experience as they truly came to a faith in Jesus Christ for the first time!  And when the week was done, they’d come home feeling filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord in their young lives; but sooner or later, as life returned to normal, something would happen. Maybe there was a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; an argument ensuing with a brother or sister; or maybe Mom or Dad simply asked them to pick up their socks at exactly the wrong time!  Whatever the reason, suddenly and inevitably that bubble of hope/peace/joy/love would inevitably burst; and while the warmth of their new-found faith was not exactly lost forever, it certainly got misplaced for a bit!

And the thing is, whenever a parent would tell me a story like that, I got it; because the truth is that it happens to all of us from time to time!  It’s most decidedly not easy to live out of our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed, when all the while the waters of life-as-we-know-it has become muddled by pervasive challenges and lingering uncertainties!  How wonderful it would be to not have to reconcile the joy of our faith to the harsh realities of violence and hatred and all the issues that seem determined to divide us; how great it would be today to simply go home with our hearts renewed and fortified for every good thing that awaits us outside these doors!  Unfortunately, there’s a world outside these doors that would seem to do all it can to work against that, in the process seeing to burst our own bubble of hope/peace/joy/love!

So the question is, what do we do about that?  How do move from the joy of worship to love and faith “after the benediction?”

I think our reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us with that.  A little background:  we’re told that this particular epistle represents one of the earlier letters that Paul wrote, and was essentially a letter of encouragement.  Paul had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be.  In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity.  In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”

But now, you see, this new church was facing all manner of political and social turmoil, not to mention all the persecution that goes along with it.  The Thessalonians had felt this incredible awakening in their faith, and the surge of the Holy Spirit in their lives; and they were convicted in that faith.  But with suffering taking the place of rejoicing on a daily basis, it was now becoming a struggle to hold on to what had inspired them in the first place.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s hard for us to identify with the idea of persecution, at least in the manner that faced the early church; but we do know what it’s like to have the burdens of our lives be so great that the joy of our faith takes a backseat to everything else; the transformative experience of worship little more than a distant memory amidst the struggles and challenges of daily life.

We know all too well how that can happen, and Paul knew that as well; and so in beginning this letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, he offers up a reminder both to them and to us, that whatever the situations of our lives and living God has reached out to each one of us that he has chosen; and that “our message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  In other words, “after the benediction” God wants that experience of his presence and power to continue unabated.  As we step out into the world our joy is to be full, our thirst is to be quenched at the well of living water, and our hunger is to be satisfied with living bread; we are ever and always meant to be connected with the divine in every aspect of our daily lives.

And make no mistake; there’s not only strength that comes from that, there’s also great power.  Actually, what Paul says here is that as a result of that Godly presence in your life, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  Now, I know that sometimes as we read through Paul’s words, he sometimes comes off sounding as if he’s simply saying, “Okay, you just do what I do and do what Jesus says,” and you’ll be free of any and all persecution and relating difficulties.  But that’s not exactly what Paul means here; the original Greek of this epistle in fact suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you’re going to keep the faith in spite of persecution!  It means that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you for the way.  What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on, but that in the midst of it all “after the benediction” you keep an attitude of joy and faith; and that you seek to be and continue to be in these difficult times an imitator of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, we are indeed “made to worship;” but even more so we are made to respond to our worship with lives of faithful service. It’s about being witnesses to the love we’ve known as our own; about being able to say to others just as it’s been said to us, that we are the beloved and chosen ones of God and God; about letting the presence and power of God in our own lives affect a change in the hearts of others while changing the world – or at least a small piece of it – at the same time!

In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks an interesting question, “Do you look like God?”  And as odd as that might sound, he goes on to explain. “They just got back from the funeral home,” Poole writes, “picking out the casket and setting the time for the service.  You had cleaned their house and cut the grass before all the out-of-town family started coming in.  And for a minute there… you looked just like God.”

And then, “they had just gotten her home from the surgery and got her into bed, when they heard the doorbell.  You were standing there at the screen door with a casserole, biscuits and a pie. And when they got to the door and saw you, for a minute there, juggling your Tupperware and your Pyrex dishes on the front step… you looked just like God.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look [exactly] like you.  They are not going to worship you or confuse you [in any way] with God… it’s just that sometimes, you just seem so much like God!”

That’s the stuff that happens after the benediction; that’s how you and I end up being “imitators of… the Lord.”   That’s how we thrive as Christians and as the church of Jesus Christ; and who knows what great things can happen if we embrace the wonder of our faith as we head out these doors today.  Truly, may it be said that even as our worship ended today, our faith and action as God’s people had just begun!

And always, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c, 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Made to Worship: You There, Sitting in the Pew

(a sermon for October 14, 2018, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on John 4:20-24 and Hebrews 10:19-25)

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the family who, after having gone to church one Sunday morning, were in the car driving home and were, shall we say, evaluating the worship service that day.  And they weren’t exactly being kind:  there were complaints about how the minister’s sermon was boring and way too long, that the choir anthem was horrible, and the hymns unsingable; and then there was a whole lot of talk about all the emphasis placed on money and “the collection!”  “Honestly, I don’t even know why we go to that church,” said the father as he was driving.  And to this, his little boy, who’d been sitting in the back seat listening to all this, said, “Oh, I don’t know; seems to me it was a pretty good show for a dollar!”

Now, let me just say here first that I sincerely hope that that’s not the kind of conversation you have as you’re headed home after worship (!), but also that – one extreme or the other – we never lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing here!

I say this because as we’ve been working through this sermon series on worship, it’s occurred to me that mostly what we’ve been talking about, at least indirectly, is what I do up here on a Sunday morning as your pastor and as a preacher of the Word of God; and by extension, it’s what the others who help to lead worship in this place do every Sunday morning: it’s Myron and the other Deacons of our church who each week call us to worship and who read scripture; it’s Susan who plays the organ and leads us in song; and it’s the choir and the soloists who offer up a ministry of music to enhance this time we have together with God.  For lack of a better description, friends, we’re the ones who are “up front” leading worship; and while that’s not exactly a performance (nor should it be!), it does suggest kind of a “one way” offering.  In other words, what it might seem like is that morning worship involves all of us up here doing the speaking and the singing and the praying, and you… you’re sitting there in the pew and quietly taking it all in!

And let’s be honest; maybe there are Sunday mornings when our time of worship comes off like that: we lead, you listen, we all go out to have cookies and punch and then go home!  And that’s what concerns me, because our worshiping together is never meant to be one-sided; what we do here is not intended in any way to be a “show,” any more than it ought to be an ecclesiastical lecture on all things biblical and theological!  And understand me when I say this, it shouldn’t ever lead to indifference on the part of anybody involved: the ministers, the worship leaders and most especially the members of the congregation!  This is worship, friends – our time of praise and adoration of the Lord our God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ – and as such, all of you are as much a part of what’s going on here as we are!  Our Christian worship is in fact one of the most interactive experiences we have as people of faith: as you and I worship together, we pray and we sing and we speak to one another; even as together we speak to God, and as persons and as a community we listen for God speaking to us!

We have been saying this again and again throughout this sermon series: we are “made to worship.”  But what we need to remember is that worship is not merely about our receiving (though it is that!) it is about our giving as well; it’s about our gathering together, yes, in praise and thanksgiving, but it’s also and ultimately about opening ourselves to be sent forth into the world in love and service.  There’s nothing “one way” about this time we spend together; you’re not being “speechified” or preached “at” here.  You’re here to encounter the Spirit of God; perchance to be moved in ways you’re not even expecting at this point.  You’re here to be strengthened and inspired for the living of these days; but then to be empowered and consecrated to be Christ’s disciples in this time and place!

That’s what worship is supposed to be about!  So I suppose that the question this morning is this:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship? How are you engaged in this experience?”

What’s interesting, you know, is that Jesus always understood that the “act and attitude” of worship was much more than merely the physical act of coming to church, or even the sacred ritual of hearing scripture read and proclaimed.  For Jesus, worship was and is an issue of the heart of the one who’s worshiping.

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates this beautifully: it’s actually one small part of a larger story; that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  As you might remember, in this dialogue between Jesus and this woman there’s a lot of talk about living water, and about her life with the five husbands and one to spare (!); but then the subject changes to religion, specifically about the necessity and place of worship.  Pointing to the mountain named Garazim, the Samaritan woman says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Understand that this a question not only about location but also tradition; in essence, the Samaritan woman is asking whether the mountain is an appropriate place to worship, or if it has to happen – as the Jewish leaders of the time required – at the Temple in Jerusalem.  But Jesus, you see, makes it clear that it’s not the location that matters but the motivation.  “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Or, as The Message beautifully puts it, “Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

See what I mean?  Worship is never meant to be a one-sided, self-serving endeavor or any sort of spiritual spectator sport but requires the full participation of those who worship; it is for “those who are simply and honestly themselves before [God] in their worship.”

It’s worth noting here that the word that’s used here by Jesus for “worship” is translated from the Greek word proskuneo, which is actually not only the word used most often in the New Testament for worship, but which also the Greek translation of an Old Testament Hebrew word hishtahvah, both of which can basically be translated in English as “bow down,”  as in bowing down in reverence before the Lord, or (as we will sometimes read in the gospels) bowing down worshipfully before Jesus.  In other words, once again we find that worship is less about the building or the accoutrements or even the liturgy or tradition that we follow, as much as it is the humility and adoration that we bring to the act of worship itself!  Or to put it still another way, there must ever and always be an inner component devoted to what we do here on a Sunday morning, or else the outward aspects of it all mean nothing.  In the words of John Piper, “When the heart is far from God, worship is vain, empty, non-existent.  The experience of the heart is the defining, vital, indispensable essence of worship.”

So… let me just ask again:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship?  Where’s your heart at right about now?”

It’s also interesting to point out that by and large in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles) there isn’t a whole lot of talk about worship in the sense of what we’re doing here; there isn’t a whole lot of detail as to how the early church ordered their morning worship.  Rather what we hear about believers gathering together, “as they spent much time together in the temple,” breaking bread together “with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46)  It’s less about the requirement to worship and more about the opportunity to worship, and what could come of that experience.  Not that being present in that gathering isn’t of vital importance; in the words of our Epistle reading today from Hebrews, “not neglecting to meet together, as it the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”   And did you notice in that passage that part of the very reason we’re to worship involves “consider[ing] how to provoke one another to love and good deeds?”  Another reminder that worship is a two-way experience!  I may well be the one called to stand at this pulpit, leading the service, preaching the sermon and directing the course of things between the call to worship and benediction, but the fact remains that you are the ones who make this worship real by your hearts open to God’s Spirit becoming alive in you so that you – and the world that surrounds us – might be transformed for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

And if you want the name for what that is, friends?  It’s worshiping God “in Spirit and truth.”  And it’s what God seeks from us in our worship; yours and mine, here and now.

And when you think about it, that’s the kind of worship that doesn’t need a sanctuary to be real or to be transformative; indeed when the name of the Lord is invoked and the heart’s all in, every bit of life can become an act of worship.  That’s definitely not to say that this sacred place in which we gather is not the appropriate and glorious place for us to worship, for indeed this is a place where we do gather with the communion of saints past and present.  But my point is that are “made to worship,” and our worship encompasses the whole of who we are before God.

So… “you there, sitting in the pew… who are you today as we gather here in worship before God?”

I must confess that I adapted the title of this morning’s sermon from a beautiful reading written by the late Ann Weems, “You – Sitting in the Pew Next to Me.”  Her piece was written as inner dialogue between two people sitting next to each other in church and who are realizing that despite the fact that they’re part of the same congregation and see each other every Sunday at worship they really don’t know each other well on anything other than a surface level; certainly not in a deeply spiritual sense.  And that matters; because toward the end of this reading, it’s the question of one another’s faith that resonates the most:

“You – sitting in the pew next to me – What are you really doing here?  Do you believe in Christ Jesus?  How much?  Enough to risk? How much of a risk?  Risk your reputation?  Risk your family?  Your money?  Do you?  Do you believe in Christ?  Or is Christianity a convenience?  Something to fill in on consensus forms, something one just goes along with, something undemanding, something nice… Do you believe?  Do you know what you believe? Will you share it with me?  Or are you just another person in the pew I’ll never know?”  (Ann Weems, from Reaching for Rainbows)

You know, the fact is that I believe in my heart of hearts – and I hope that by now you know this about me (!) – that our morning worship together does not need to be so formalized, so cut and dry that it ceases to be both joyous and enjoyable.  I do believe, very strongly, in following a liturgy of Word and Sacrament; but let me also say that whatever the liturgy and however the style of worship, it also needs to come alive!  And for that, it needs singing, shouting, laughter and above all, Spirit! It can be – and at times, I believe – ought to be… fun!   Even the tears we share as God’s people in this place – and there have been a few as of late – need to be awash with the joy of the Lord.

But at the end of the day and at the benediction, what makes what we’ve shared here truly the act and attitude of worship comes down to the ways our hearts will be moved to speak and to walk and to live in true adoration of God.  I hope and pray that what you take with you this morning, and from every time we gather together in worship, will be a faithful and loving heart; for that is what will make all the difference.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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