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Category Archives: Jesus

Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

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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Are You Faithful (or Just Religious)?

(a sermon for September 2, 2018, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

It’s a question that gets asked around a great many dinner tables, especially those with children:  “Did you wash your hands?”  And very often – most especially when children are involved – the question is answered a loud and heavy sigh, not to mention the occasional stamping of feet as one or more of said children slump out of their chairs to return to the bathroom sink.  Then, inevitably, Dad and Mom will themselves sigh, hoping that a bar of soap and some running water might actually be involved in the process this time around, while wistfully longing for that day when their children will at last know and understand that washing up is not only a matter of cleanliness, it’s also about good manners!

Well, the question might have been similar, but it was a different kind of scenario in our text for this morning; for when the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Jesus to confront him with the question of why his disciples were eating “with defiled hands, that is, without washing them,” they were not concerned with the disciples’ lack of table manners, nor even, for that matter, their cleanliness per se.  In truth, theirs was more of a concern about matters of law and tradition.  What for you and I would have been a minor breach of etiquette and at worst, an unsanitary way of eating was in fact for many in Jesus’ time a pressing religious issue.  Hand washing, you see, struck right at the heart of what, at least for the Pharisees and the learned scribes, was the right way to do religion.

Let me give you a little background on this.  The Jews believed, of course, that the written law contained in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, also known collectively as the Torah – was absolutely binding.  But in addition to the Torah was also an oral tradition of policies, statutes and codes that rose up over the generations for the sole purpose of ensuring the complete observance of the written law.  Now, over the course of many generations, some of this got written down in what is called the Mishnah and the Talmud, but by Jesus’ time, much of it had become so convoluted, confusing and contradictory that it never actually got written down, but had become kind of assumed in the tradition of Jewish life.  In other words, a great many things were done simply because that’s the way they always had been done;  and such traditions were known among learned Jews as the “tradition of the elders.”

Washing one’s hands before eating was one such tradition, as was the physical act of washing food and utensils.  What we need to understand, however, is that though cleanliness and health must certainly have entered into such a tradition, ultimately it wasn’t really about that at all.  This was about consecration: the ceremonial ritual of thanksgiving before and after a meal; a simple act of piety that over time and quite literally across generation had become pretty much a mindless ritual and yet a rigid regulation among the Jews.

So you see, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, this business of the “tradition of the elders” had become quite a controversy amongst the religious leadership of the day.  On the one hand, there were the Sadducees who rejected the notion that any oral code was binding to them; only law which is written in the Torah or the Talmud, they said, would be the law they would obey.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, placed oral code as of equal importance to written law; and since, as scripture so often reminds us, the Pharisees were strict legalists, they believed that only by following each and every law, code and tradition to the letter could one ever hope to gain the acceptance and salvation of God!

So as far as the Pharisees were concerned, for Jesus and his disciples not to wash their hands before eating was nothing less than a direct assault upon the law, tradition and God; and they certainly were not going to let that pass!  “Why do your disciples flout the rules,” (The Message) showing up for meals this way, they asked Jesus.  Who do you think you are, Jesus, that you would blatantly ignore the traditions of the elders?  Don’t you know that those traditions are there for a reason?  You’re undermining our authority, Jesus; how are we supposed to maintain order and discipline in the temple if you are out here eating like pigs and tossing our time honored traditions to the four winds!

Now, as Mark tells this story it doesn’t say, exactly, but at this moment you can almost see a wry smile cross Jesus’ lips, a recognition that the Pharisees had once again revealed their true colors for all to see.  “Isaiah was right about frauds like you,” he said.  Remember what Isaiah said; he said, “’This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’  You abandon the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”

In other words, you… you Pharisees, there is a vast difference between following the precepts of God, and what you’re doing, which is being fashionably, politically, socially or even religiously correct!  And Jesus lays it all out before them: that eating dirty food with dirty hands is ultimately not what makes a person unclean, but that which is already inside the human heart and comes forth that defiles; what’s truly dirty is found in the acts and attitudes that degrade one’s self, others and God!  When it comes to true consecration, the heart of the matter is not whether you tend to the “details” of religious tradition, but rather in the ways that you tend to your life before God; it’s not focusing on the minutiae of “how things are supposed to be done,” but rather on working purposefully to make everything you do, every part of your life an act of faith!

The Pharisees were bent on religious perfection; on doing everything correctly and according to tradition, ever and always maintaining the status quo; but at the end of the day, that was wholly the sum and substance of it. Ultimately, the Pharisee’s legalism had very little to do with being faithful to God, and Jesus knew it: “You abandon the commandment of God,”“ditching God’s command,” is how The Message puts it – letting go of all these timeless and eternal precepts that speak of how God would have you live, all for the sake of clinging to human tradition and passing religious fashion!

Well… I suspect that very, very few of us considered the theological aspects of washing up before church this morning, but nonetheless as we read this passage of Mark’s gospel this morning there’s a relevant question being put to you and me: Are we faithful, or just religious?  Indeed, taking in mind that this whole conversation about hand washing is really about consecration and worshipfulness, then it can’t help but confront us about the way we prepare and practice our worship as well.

Think about this with me for a moment.  Every Sunday morning, or nearly every Sunday, we come to church: we sing the songs, we pray the prayers, we receive communion as per tradition on the first Sunday of every month; yes, we do all these things, but the question is how do we do them, and why?  We are very quick to condemn the Pharisees for their shallowness of true faith; but I would submit to you today that you and I run the same risk of becoming more caught up in the trappings and performance of “religion” than aspiring to a life of faith!

Or, to put it another way, (and here’s a quote that dates me!) in the words of George Burns in his role as the Almighty in the “Oh, God” movies back in the seventies (!):   Religion is easy; faith is hard.

The truth is, it’s easy, really, at least in practice to come here and worship each week.  And we of the congregational tradition tend to keep things pretty simple:  we know when to sit and when to stand, when to sing, when to stay quiet and when to pray; we know we’re supposed to bow our heads when the minister says “let us pray.”  Most of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and can rattle it off with nary a thought.  But what is not so easy is letting that ancient prayer become your words of prayer and praising unto the Lord; what is more difficult for us is to allow prayer and devotion to become a true discipline in our lives, to the point where it governs the patterns of our very lives.

To take this analogy a bit further, economics and logistics aside, let’s be honest and say that it’s a fairly easy to put something in the offering plate each week; we all know when we’re to do it, and most of us, I suspect, already know how much we’ll give before we even get here.  But it’s not so very easy to begin to view the entirety of our life and living – our skills, our ideas, even our daily calendars – as a matter of our own personal stewardship unto God.

And friends, it is relatively easy to nod our heads in quiet agreement when we speak in worship of things like loving one another, of being true disciples and “doers of the word.”  But it is not so very easy when love and committed discipleship carries real weight in the decisions we make and the priorities we set!

There is a difference, you see, (as is pointed out elsewhere in scripture) between doing the word and merely hearing it; well, what Jesus reminds us here is that there is also a difference between truly “doing” the word and doing it by rote.  True worship (and understand that I’m not just talking about this hour we spend together, but the whole of the Christian life), it comes from the heart.  True worship is an act borne of faith, a response to the infinite blessings of God and focused on the desire to be strengthened, empowered and sent forth to be the hands, heart and feet of our Lord Jesus.  When worship (of any kind) is done solely by the numbers, merely out of duty and “how it’s supposed to be,” well… that’s religion… not faith.

Don’t get me wrong here; there is a place for traditions, both oral and written.  Liturgy and even ritual is important for us in the church. There are good reasons why we do things the way we do in worship (actually, we’re going to be talking a lot about that in the weeks to come!): to begin with, it places us in a common community with believers in this place and across the world; it gives us a historical and cultural context in which we can be unified as Christians.  Tradition and liturgy serves to move us in the direction of heart-felt worship.  But in and of itself, tradition is not the most important thing:  if we do not keep our focus where it needs to be – that is, on God – there is a very real danger of our becoming a people with good habits, but without a good heart.

A Canadian pastor and counselor by the name of Alex Thomas says this very well; he says that the outward traditions and practices of a religious life are valuable to keep and can be quite helpful to us, but “when it comes right down to it, there are spiritual values that take precedence over those outward things if we are to be in any way Christ-like.  Our spirituality,” Thomas goes on to say, “does not consist solely on keeping outward traditions and practices. The spiritual values such as love, kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and the like, come from within.  The heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.”

So… do wash your hands!  Do come to church; and do find some comfort in the traditions of which we are part here at East Church as the Church of Jesus Christ.  Break the bread and share the cup this morning in just the same way we have done so many times before.   And then come back next Sunday to worship again as a community of faith.

But don’t stop there.   

Move from focusing on what we do to who we do it with.  Check your heart as we come to this table.  Move from the task and the ritual to its intent!  Move in our communion, one with another and with God, to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

May our worship today be blessed, and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2018 in Church, Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Worship

 

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