Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Psalm 145:1-13, 21:
At the end of the book of Genesis we are told that after Joseph’s death, and Joseph of course looked amazingly just like Donny Osmond with his amazing Technicolor dream coat, after his death that the Pharaohs forgot about him and what he had done and as a result what did they do to the Israelites? They got made slaves, which then brings Moses onto the scene, who looks just like Charlton Heston. God then calls Moses and tells him that he is to go to Egypt and to petition the Pharaoh to set the people free. When Moses appears before Yul Brenner, as the Pharaoh, he asks a rather peculiar thing of him. Moses does not simply say, and is commonly thought, let my people go. Instead he asks Pharaoh to allow them to go out into the wilderness, to do a particular thing. What does Moses ask the Pharaoh to let them do? Worship. Let the people go into the wilderness so that they can worship. That is how the exodus story begins, and of course the Pharaoh refuses to allow them to go worship God. Why would the Pharaoh be so concerned about that? Of course there is the possibility that perhaps he thought that if he let them go out into the wilderness that they would never come back.
But I think an even better interpretation, and one presented by Lovett Weems, is that while they are in Egypt the people belong to him, but if they are to go out to worship God, they now belong to God, because that is who they are giving their allegiance to and who they will be listening to. For as it turns out we really belong to whatever it is that we worship. Last month we kept coming back to Jesus’ statement that you cannot serve both God and mammon because you will love one and hate the other, which is really to say that you will worship one and not the other, and you can only ultimately worship one thing, because everything else will subtract or interfere with that worship. The root meaning of the Hebrew word that we translate as worship means to bow down, or to prostrate oneself. When we worship something or someone we enter into a fundamentally different relationship, it’s about much more than just being a follower. In the story of Jesus’ temptation, the devil does not say come follow me and I will give you whatever you desire. Instead what does he say? “worship me.” Worship is important. Two of the Ten Commandments, that would be 20% for those not good at math, deal with worship issues.
Last week I quoted the Rev. Zan Holmes who said that churches are guilty of the sin of low expectations, mainly because we don’t have any expectations, and people will, I believe raise or lower themselves to what is expected. If expectations are high people will rise to meet them, and if there are low expectations people meet them as well. In studies of churches that are growing or are vibrant and healthy, there are lots of commonalities that are found, and one of those is that they have high expectations for their members. I have high expectations for this congregation, and hopefully you also have high expectations for me, and so that is what we are talking about for the month of November. As United Methodists we vow to support this congregation by what? Our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. Last week we began by talking about prayer, which is first on the list for the simple reason that prayer creates the foundation upon which we build our faith lives, and it is my expectation that we will be praying every day, and praying for this church and its members every day, and today we talk about the second, which is presence.
Presence in this case is primarily about worship, because that is one of our primary activities. When someone says they are going to church, it almost always means going to worship, and similarly when someone says they don’t go to church, it means that they are not attending worship. It is my expectation that we will be attending worship every week unless we are out of town, or are sick, and that you will, also be participating in Christian formation activities through classes and small groups, which we are also going to be working on, and that is something I will be following up on. Churches are normally pretty good at giving you statements about your giving, to let you know how you are doing, but how many of you have ever received anything from the church saying how often you have been in worship and asking you to improve on that? I suspect the answer is probably zero. So what does that say about where we put our importance? This sort of only reinforces the idea for some that all the church cares about is money.
So it’s up to us to put into place the tools to be able to let you know your attendance, which we don’t really have in place as of yet, although I’m grateful to Al Gray for his work on attendance, and then it’s also up to you to actually sign the attendance pad and then work to live up to this expectation. But why is it that we worship? I would have to guess that even with the primacy of worship that few of us have ever heard a message on why we worship, what the purpose of worship is, what we are supposed to do, and what we are supposed to get out of worship. I know that I have never given a sermon on worship, and this one is not going to answer all of those questions because we don’t have the time, and so we will have to come back to it time and time again.
Now contrary to what some people often think or say, we do not worship God because God is some sort of ego maniacal being that needs our praise. We are called to be in worship for God because of what God has done for us, to praise God, just like the psalmist in the passage we read today does, but it’s not because needs to hear these things in order to feel good. One of the things we routinely read is God saying something like, “I appreciate your worship, but what I need is for you to rend your hearts, that your sacrifice offerings do not come with a sacrifice of your lives to following my ways.” We come to praise God, to give thanksgiving, to prostrate ourselves to God, but we are also called to be transformed and changed by worship.
Worship calls us to come into the proximity to God. The call to worship we practice each week is not us calling God to worship, it is calling us to worship. In the gospel of John, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well, and they have a conversation about worship, and Jesus tells her that her people worship on their mountain and the Jews worship at the temple, but the time is coming, Jesus says, when people will seek God to worship God in “spirit and truth” and those are the types of worshipers that God “seeks.” God is not seeking us to worship so that God’s ego can be assuaged, God is calling us to worship to come close to God so that we can be more like God, that we can be transformed. If we are not transformed by worship, then worship has not done what it is supposed to do, and most of that begins with the expectations we set about worship. Daniel Benedict, from the General Board of Discipleship of the church, wrote, “Worship, when viewed as an important part of the programmatic life of the congregation, leads to one result. Worship, when envisioned as the heart of the congregation’s spiritual life – its relationship to God – leads to quite another result.”
Do we expect just to show up sing some songs, hear a sermon, and go home, no different than before, so that it is a worship service? Or do we expect to be transformed by worship, so that it is a worship experience? Worship is important. We cannot deepen our faith, we cannot grow in discipleship separately from worship. Everything we do in worship brings us into fellowship and community, because it is not about us, it is about the body of Christ being one. In looking in scripture at the early Christian communities, one of the crucial factors was the aspect of being the gathered community, it was in coming together that they could not only worship, but they could deepen their faith, and they could be transformed as disciples.
In his now seminal work Celebration of Discipline, which is not about how we are to discipline our children, but instead about the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster gives a series of things we should do in order to help us to worship God in spirit and truth, and to be transformed. I am going to simplify it to 6. This might be a good time for you to take out your blue sheet and take some notes.
The first thing we need to do is to learn to experience God’s presence in all aspects of our lives. To feel God’s presence in worship, we must work on feeling God’s presence in the rest of our lives, because if you don’t feel God at other times it’s not just going to magically happen here on Sunday morning. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century Carmelite monk who was known for his works and later his writings on feeling the presence of God. When he joined his Carmelites monastery he was assigned to work in the kitchen, a place where the drudgery of his work did not originally lend itself to spiritual development. And so he worked on cultivating a spiritual aspect to everything that he did. He talked about the rules that we establish to get to God, that like we talked about last week with prayer, might actually keep us from God. “Yet it might be so simple,” Lawrence wrote. “Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?” To find God’s presence in worship then was very easy, because he found God in everything he did. So to work on feeling God’s presence in worship, which I will admit is not necessarily going to happen every time, is to cultivate God’s presence in our everyday lives, and it also requires us to expect to find God’s presence.
Second is to find ways to prepare for worship. Go to bed early the night before so you are well rested. Study the scripture readings for the upcoming weeks, which you will find in the bulletin insert, and ponder what the passages are about, form questions or ideas and come with those in mind, and maybe at some point we’ll work on changing this time so that it’s not so much a time of me lecturing you but of us engaging the text together. Come to worship early and have some time of quiet contemplation and prayer in preparation for worship, releasing the things that might hold you back from fully entering into the worship experience. And come prepared and with the expectation that you will not only encounter God and be moved by the Holy Spirit, but that you will be transformed by our time together as well.
Third is to be willing to experience the power of the gathering of the body of Christ. That means putting aside our own agendas and remembering that worship is not about you and it’s not about me. Even though I have more control over our worship experience than most, there are still others who help plan it out, and we will be putting together a team to help do even more so that this time is about all of us. But putting aside our agenda is to remember that the “language of the gathered is about us, not about me.” That means that sometimes the message or the hymns might just not do it for you that day, but for someone else they might be exactly what they needed to hear, and so we remember that the group is more powerful than the individual. This also means that we are in prayer for others who are here to worship with us. Maybe you notice someone who seems distracted, or sad, or angry, and praying for them before and during worship that they might experience and feel God’s presence in this time together.
Fourth is to undertake different experiences of worship, so that you might experience worship and praise in different ways. We will do some different things here, but it might be that you need to go to the traditional (or contemporary) just to see a different way, because one of the things that we find in the New testament is that there is no set form for worship. There is not a right or a wrong way to worship, and as Foster says, if the form is getting in the way of worship, too bad for the form. So be open to other experiences and different ways of doing things that can open us up to experiencing God in different ways.
Fifth is to absorb distractions with gratitude. We all want and need different things out of worship, and sometimes others are doing things that distract us. So rather than fussing and fuming about those distractions, and therefore taking you away from the worship experience, instead lift up those distractions, thanking God for their presence, or asking God to touch them, so that rather than being a distraction it instead becomes a blessing and can keep you centered.
Finally we are to learn to offer a sacrifice for worship. There are times in which we don’t feel like worshipping, for many different reasons, and we can come up with lots of reasons why we can’t go to worship, but these are the times in which it is most important to go, and so we say that these are my people, and to say to God, “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to do this, but this is your time and I am giving it to you,” and we trust that God is going to reach into our lives in these moments and touch us. The simple fact is manure happens in our lives, and I have a sermon specifically on this and what we do with this manure, but to give the kicker away, you can’t just let this manure pile up in our lives because all that does is stink, and so we have to compost that stuff so that it can be spread around to give new life, but do you know how often a manure pile needs to be turned over in order to compost it? According to the extension program at Virginia Tech, manure must be turned over every seven days so that it can break down and be turned into something that is useful in our lives. And worship can do the same thing, we gather together every seven days in order to turn over the manure in our lives so that they don’t build and overwhelm us.
But here is the crux of all of this. In order to have worship be meaningful, to have it be transformational, in order to have it be the best of what we can offer God, we must not only plan and practice for those things to happen, we must also have the expectation that they will happen, and have the expectation that we as this body of Christ will be here to experience it together and bring the best of what we have. We will be a congregation in which we don’t gather for a worship service, but instead we are here for a worship experience, an experience in which we not only look to experience God and to be transformed, but in which we expect that we will experience God and be transformed. I pray that it is so my brothers and sisters. Amen.