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Category Archives: Old Testament

The Way… of True Worship

(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

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God of the Crushed Silence

(a sermon for June 23, 2019, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Kings 19:1-15)

The time had finally come for us to go home.

We knew that; we’d actually been preparing ourselves for that inevitability for quite some time.  But given the stress of those last few weeks – trying to pack up everything we own so that most of it could go into storage, dealing with countless last minute details and a few tearful goodbyes, to say nothing of seeking to bring some semblance of faith-centered closure to a five year ministry that had been… difficult – we were not only physically exhausted but also emotionally and spiritually drained.  And if that weren’t enough, quite literally as we were packing the last of what was going with us into the cars, our cats – four of them, mind you (!) – choose that moment to decide to make a break for it and scatter throughout the neighborhood!  It took several hours of Sarah and her best friend Breana coaxing the cats back with an opened can of tuna fish (!) and a night spent at a local hotel, but it did happen: early the next morning we did leave Ohio and were finally on our way back to Maine.

And… all these years later I still remember what a terrible, horrible, awful trip it was.

To begin with, as fate would have it, this was the weekend just prior to the 4th of July, which meant that there was nary a decent hotel room to be found anywhere from the Berkshires east; at least not one that didn’t cost an8 arm and a leg, or more importantly, one that was “pet friendly.” (And which – I guess after all this time I can confess this – eventually led us to literally “smuggle” those four cats into a Motel 6 somewhere in Chicopee, MA!) Moreover, it was inordinately hot and muggy that weekend, the traffic was bumper to bumper and interminably slow all the way to Maine, and the whole trip – hour after hour, mile after mile – was accompanied, by the noise of roaring engines, blaring horns, wailing sirens and hip-hop music being played at excessive volume and bass!

I have to tell you, however, that the worst part of it all was that there was way too much time for thinking… thinking about what had brought our family to this moment; thinking about what went wrong and what I could have done differently; thinking about disappointment, and failure, and – if I’m being honest – about the fear and, yes, the anger I was feeling at that moment about a hard present and an uncertain future.  Now, could this have been, at least in part, the inevitable result of all the stress my family and I’d been experiencing, of too little sleep and too much caffeine, to say nothing of having had all this cacophonous road noise filling my ears and brain for two days straight?  Maybe… but let me tell you what I remember the most about that trip: we finally got to northern Maine and to camp about dusk, and we were so tired we didn’t even unpack; we just made up the beds, crawled under the covers and collapsed.  And I remember lying there in the darkness – too exhausted to do anything else but sleep, but so keyed up from all the driving to close my eyes – and in that moment the only thing I could hear was… the quiet.  “A sound of sheer silence,” as scripture so eloquently puts it; a lack of sound so profound and so all-enveloping as to be overwhelming; almost crushing.

And I’d never before heard – or not heard – anything like it.

What’s interesting about our text for this morning, the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God at the cave on Mount Horeb, is that it really should have been should have been the moment of Elijah’s greatest triumph!  After all, he had just come from Mount Carmel, where he’d challenged – and completely routed – some 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal; God’s singular power and presence had been displayed for all to see, and if that weren’t enough, a long-standing drought had come to an end, just as God had promised and as Elijah himself had proclaimed!  By all reasoning, this prophet of God should have been in high spirits, confident for the future and ready for his victory lap!

And yet, as we pick up the story today, Elijah is far from feeling the thrill of victory.  He’s tired, scared and – thanks to a death threat from a vengeful, Baal-worshiping Queen Jezebel and her power yet spineless husband King Ahab – he’s on the run for his very life; first escaping to the city of Beersheeba and now hiding out in the wilderness.  Needless to say this was not how things were supposed to work out; and Elijah – who by now is lamenting his circumstances and feeling pretty desperate – is also filled up with self-pity.  Never mind that an angel is waiting on him with food and drink for the journey; never mind that the Lord himself comes to ask after him: all the while Elijah is ranting about how much had gone so wrong, and fairly well begging God just “to take him now,” since as a prophet he was such an utter failure; “no better than [his] ancestors,” he says.  And he’s thinking, this whole thing’s so unfair: he’d done what the Lord had asked him to do; he’d stood firm in his commitment to God, against all odds and at great personal risk: that ought to count for something, right?  But no… as far as Elijah is concerned this business of being God’s prophet, it’s all for naught… it’s a losing game.

Not exactly the stuff of heroism, is it; nor of the kind o leadership that’s truly of “biblical proportions.”  But we do understand, don’t we?  We get it… because most of us at one time or another have been there.

It’s been said, you know, that this story from 1 Kings is one of relatively few occasions in scripture where we get insight into the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters in the biblical story; mostly we have to rely on things like translation, history, tradition and the overarching message of holy scripture so we can “read between the lines.”  But not this time; we really do know what’s happening with Elijah, because you and I understand all too well what things like crisis and fear and discouragement and utter despair can do to someone; we get how life will at times become so exhausting, so disheartening, so incredibly soul-searing that you end up feeling like you’ve been trampled upon and are too weak to stand. You and I look at Elijah, and we know that there just seems to come a point when, having been beaten down, burnt out and abandoned in the midst of life’s hardships and injustices, we wonder if it’s all worth it.  It’s what led the Psalmist to cry out in despair, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5)

It’s truly, in the words of the poet, “the dark night of the soul.” But it’s also the place where God comes with power and with love.

And so it is for Elijah; and it’s important to note here that when God comes to Elijah it’s not out of anger nor is it to chastise him for a lack of faith; rather it’s for what might be referred to as “unexpected encouragement” that defies our expectations.  As it turns out, God does not come in the power of a wind so destructive it was “splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces;” nor was the Lord to be found of an earthquake after that; and no, God’s voice isn’t one of fiery judgment and divine retribution.

When God speaks, it’s with silence.

In fact, in one of the richest images that’s found in the Old Testament, we’re told that the voice of the Lord comes in “a sound of sheer silence,” as it’s often translated, “a still, small voice;”  I’ve even seen it referred to as “a whistling of gentle air.” Actually, I’ll give you still another translation, from the original Hebrew, which directly translates in English to a “crushing silence;” that is, a quiet so all-encompassing that it envelops and overwhelms everything else around it.  Or to put it another way, it’s God’s voice speaking at the exclusion of all others; and this was a voice of mercy, compassion and love, a voice that spoke directly to Elijah’s heart, leaving him so exposed and so vulnerable that, we’re told, he immediately wrapped his face in his robe because it was all too overwhelming for him to face.  I mean, can you imagine it?  Can you even envision how it would be for you and me to stand there with all the noise suddenly silenced and every one of our fears and doubts on full display to God in all his glory?  But it’s precisely in hearing the voice of God in that crushed silence that Elijah could begin to find his healing and hope.

And so it is for you and for me; indeed, so often what it takes is get past the cacophonous noise of our lives – that unending barrage of sound that comes both from outside and within –  so that we might start to hear the voice of the Almighty speaking directly to us in the midst of the quiet.  And while when we finally do hear it the effect might be jarring – even crushing, if you will – when we stop to hear God’s voice, to listen and yes, to actually, pay attention to what’s being said, it’s there we find the peace we’re looking for and we’ve so needed, and might I add, renewal for the way ahead; because it’s also worth noting in this story that when Elijah finally comes out of the cave to, this time, really listen to God, what does God do?  God sends him to Damascus on another assignment!  As Richard Nelson has written, “God’s therapy for prophetic burnout [usually] includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a [new] future that transcends the prophet’s own success or lack of it.”  In other words, friends, in the silence God helps us to move forward in faith, in service and in love.

Now, I would like to tell you that on that dark night of my own soul so many years ago that having experienced a truly “crushing silence” that I was suddenly aware of the voice of God speaking to me, and that immediately everything was okay and life went on much better than before; that certainly would have been a better ending to my story today, but the truth is that I still had a rather long and occasionally arduous journey ahead of me.  But I will tell you this much:  that night I slept better than I had in weeks; months, even.  And the next night, once again retiring to the evening quiet of our “pond,” it was the same thing all over again.  In fact, all through that summer, I came to look forward to those times of dwelling in the “crushed silence,” because it was there, away and apart from all the noise, I could let go of anguish and the fear and the despair; it was there where I could weep; it was there I could pray… and there where I could listen.  And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was there where I was being encouraged to move forward and to be led along the very first steps of a journey that, while still involving a few twists and turns, would by God’s grace and mercy eventually lead me… here.

It is a noisy world out there, beloved, and sometimes it’s just more than we can take!  My hope and prayer for each one of us today is that we would seek to come away and apart from the cacophony so that we might truly hear and listen to our God of the crushed silence, who even now is calling our name and offering up peace, comfort… and life for today, tomorrow and always.

In praise of the one who speaks in that still, small voice, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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