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Category Archives: Worship

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: 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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