(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