Worship doesn’t only happen on Sunday morning. It happens any time we put on an attitude of worship, of worth. If you can do that other times and places, more power to you. I like to worship in my garden, but I am alone there. It is sweet to come into this beautiful space at the appointed time and see your beautiful faces gathered, and be comforted by familiar words and songs, and challenged by a few new ones. It is a habit that feeds our souls.
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 19, 2018
Why We Worship
Psalm 98 : O sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The LORD has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
I took my first transitional ministry training in 2003 at a Southern Baptist seminary in Dallas, Texas. I was the only woman there, not surprising since in 1984 the Southern Baptists had voted that woman should not be pastors. It was quite an experience. They were kind to me. I had much more in common with them than I expected, because Baptist church government is congregational. So as long as we talked about pastoring churches, and not politics or theology, we related. Many of them had not heard of the United Church of Christ. Over lunch one of the men asked me about the UCC, and I said, “It’s a pretty liberal church.” I didn’t think it would be helpful to explain exactly how liberal. Another fellow piped in, “Oh, liberal. You’ve got one of those praise bands with electric guitars and drums?” To him, liberal was a style of music. A lively discussion started about the church conflicts they’d seen over styles of music.
In most churches I know, music wars have calmed down by now, thank you God. Yet, many people have strong likes and dislikes about music. This is part of a paradox about coming together to worship; what works for you may or may not work for me, and yet we need to do it together, or it’s not Christian worship. Earbuds and fifty different channels is the way our culture has gone. But that defeats the purpose of worshipping together. So we take our different musical tastes, and life experiences, and moods, and expectations, and we all come together on Sunday morning. And sometimes it works! Worship together takes us places we could never go alone. And sometimes it doesn’t ring your bell, for whatever reason. In that case, all is not lost. There’s still fellowship time, which I honestly see as an important part of the our Sunday morning ritual.
Think of the visitor joining us on a Sunday morning, expecting... Who knows what they’re expecting. The worship of their childhood, or of their last church? That never quite works out, does it? Every church has its own personality and ways of worship. That is more true in the UCC than some other traditions, because we have no required prayers or readings.
Despite our freedom here, we have “liturgy-style” worship. We got it from the Congregationalists, and they got it from the Church of England, and they got it from the Roman Catholics... Tradition! Stand up, sit down, sing a song, read a prayer, scripture, sermon, more prayer, stand up, another song, benediction, and so on… The order varies, but having this long list of worship elements complicated enough it that needs its own program is a very ancient way of worship- Orthodox churches today are using liturgies from the 4th and 6thcenturies, virtually unchanged. Liturgy-style worship relies on a mix of familiar rituals along with changeable parts to interpret the tradition for the world we live in. And newcomers might need an orientation, or at least some post-it-tape flags for their hymnal. That is the hard part of liturgy-style worship: knowing when to stand up or sit down, finding the song or prayer you’re supposed to be doing next.
The other main style of Christian worship is “camp meeting style.” Camp meetings were traveling Christian revivals that were held outdoors in tents in the 18thand 19thcenturies. They were great entertainment for people with pretty limited entertainment options. The point was to captivate people into becoming Christian (i.e. to save them from hell), or get them excited to renew their faith. Greg Laurie’s “Harvest” is in that style. Camp meeting worship is very simple: start with a bunch of music, where you may or may not be invited to sing along, move into a long passionate prayer, and finish with a come-to-Jesus sermon. Just these three things, no program or orientation required. Oh, and one more thing, at least in the original camp meeting, an altar call: people were called to come forward to repent or declare their desire to be Christian. They might be baptized on the spot. A seminary student came to that style of church and asked how long he was expected to preach. “Till the people get happy.” said the elders. How long might that be? “As long as it takes.” But seldom less than forty-five minutes, it turned out. This camp meeting style relies heavily on the power of an emotional experience to ignite faith, and honestly I am glad I’m not trying to whip up emotion like that every week. But I know some of you miss that powerful emotion.
Worship is an odd thing in this place and culture. Seeking spirituality not from Youtube videos or the self-help section of the bookstore, but together, in person, at the same time. How odd is it? From our national UCC staff I heard about a young man who was booking a wedding at a church. He got a tour around the sanctuary and said, “This is a beautiful room. What do you do in here?”
How would we explain our worship to him? Where else do grownups have sing-alongs? And why do we do these things? What does worship mean, what good is it? Now I know that some of you come out of habit. Some of you come to see your friends. And that’s OK. Why do your friends come? If the answer were only to see you, we would have a problem. There is more, but it’s hard to put into words, isn’t it?
We can get some clues from the word “worship.” It comes from the word “worth.” Worship shows what has worth to us: what we value, what matters. It’s worth gathering with our friends on Sunday and not just saying prayers by ourselves at home. It’s worth getting a religious tune-worm in your ear that you can hum the rest of the week. It’s worth sharing our concerns and our joys out loud in this sacred space. It’s worth reminding ourselves what really matters. It’s worth trying to get in touch with the sacred at a regular time and place, and also to get in touch with our own hearts.
God is worth rolling out of bed for on Sunday mornings, worth our attention, our offerings of song and prayer, and our celebration. I don’t think that God is some king on a throne. Honestly, that’s what a lot of traditional worship was modeled after: bowing before a king and telling him how great and glorious he was. I am quite sure God does not need our bowing and our praises. Instead it is we who need to look beyond the little dramas of our lives, and remember that there is something much larger than ourselves, something worth living for. We need power and wisdom and love bigger than our own. We need to remember the kind of God we claim, who is in and through us if we can notice it, always at work bringing healing and hope out of every dire situation, always guiding us into love and life. And so we worship.
The words we use for worship matter. You hear Trinitarian words here: but Father and Son are usually said “Creator and Christ.” You do hear words of praise, but we got the “holy ghost” out of it, if you’ll notice. The Lords’ Prayer is in really old-fashioned language, but when I’ve tried to update it, we lose that wonderful way almost everyone can say it together. I struggle with some of that traditional language of God as all-powerful, king and mighty warrior, as we find in today’s psalm for instance. I am grateful that here we have the freedom to craft new prayers, rephrase the psalms, change the words of liturgy to fit our understanding of the sacred. Traditional liturgy’s language of father and king and lord and ruler is familiar and dear to some people, but nontraditional language of mother flowing spirit and creative transformation, and more, better describes how many of us understand God. Inclusion and tolerance and diversity means, among other things, we can include and tolerate diverse language, and not all of it will work for each of us. The writer of our Psalm reading was getting mighty creative saying that floods clap their hands and hills sing for joy. And that works just fine for me. Creativity in worship is a great way of honoring God, don’t you think?
Worship does sometimes fall flat. That’s such a shame, because we need it. And it’s ironic too, that the Source of the universe, who makes floods clap and hills sing for joy, has intelligent creative creatures who can manage to make worship a drag. How do we do it?
Sometimes worship is not what you were expecting. You wanted to boogie, and ended up with the frozen chosen. Or you wanted quiet meditation and ended up with the shouting holy rollers. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In this case, there is a fix. Let go. Let go of our expectations of worship and remember that anyplace we seek the sacred, we can find it, if we come with open hearts and minds.
Sometimes the worship is not in our language. That may mean in Spanish or Latin or Samoan. More likely it is just church-talk, a bunch of words that only make sense to the insiders. Then the invitation is to go beyond the words, and find the music of the Spirit. It’s always there.
And this is not the mall, or the 14-screen movie-plex. We are all together in one worship, in part to support one another, so if a message one Sunday doesn’t ring your bell, you can pray… pray that it rings someone else’s. Those of you who are lucky enough to have gotten family members to join you at worship, you are doing something countercultural, and the experience is likely to mean more to some family members than others. But it gives your family a common experience to talk about, to talk about the sacred, and what matters to you. How precious.
The things we do are nice, and we attach meaning to them, but they are just the forms of worship, they are not the meaning. What is essential is what Jesus told the woman at the well in John’s gospel (Chapter 4), when she was asking which was the right mountain on which to worship. Jesus said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in Spirit and truth.” Spirit: we don’t control it, but we allow our hearts and minds to open to it. Truth: honesty, risking your whole self. That might mean admitting that you do not feel a connection in worship. And then you might hear why someone else does. Jesus is asking a lot of worshippers. It’s easy for newcomers to just see the forms, the words on the page, and miss the Spirit and truth behind them, especially if they can’t find the right page. Regulars too can lose track of Spirit and truth, and just go through the motions, and become overly attached to the forms because we forgot to look for the meaning, the Spirit and truth beyond the words and the forms.
Worship is not a spectator sport. We get out of it what we put in. That is both attitude and action. You might think that you just sit here, but you pray, and you sing, and you ponder the words, and perhaps even discuss them later, and it makes a difference. Thank you.
Worship doesn’t only happen on Sunday morning. It happens any time we put on an attitude of worship, of worth. If you can do that other times and places, more power to you. I like to worship in my garden, but I am alone there. It is sweet to come into this beautiful space at the appointed time and see your beautiful faces gathered, and be comforted by familiar words and songs, and challenged by a few new ones. It is a habit that feeds our souls. And we are blessed that each of you came this morning. Amen.