Sunday, October 26, 2008

How (not) to worship

On the public nature of worship, and leaving religious consumerism outside the door
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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This is a sermon # 5 in a series of 7 on
“how to be . . . or how not to be . . . the church in public.”
I did not put these sermons in order of importance.
If I had, this would be sermon #1.
When it comes to understanding, and living out,
what it means to be a faithful public church,
a missional church,
a church “before the watching world,”
there’s nothing more important
than regularly gathering together in worship.

When we come together as a collective offering to God,
a gift of our bodies, minds, spirits . . . and possessions,
and offer these to God in worship . . .
what we are doing is getting clear about who God is,
and about who we are in relation to God.
Worship is where we listen to the story of God and God’s people,
where we come to believe and embrace that story,
where we enter into that story and make it our own.

The culture we live in also has a story.
This broken, sinful, and violent world also has a narrative it operates by,
a powerful narrative that shapes our lives,
that forms our beliefs and values and attitudes.
And we are immersed in that narrative every moment of our lives.
Except . . . when we come together to worship as God’s people,
and become part of a different narrative.
Corporate worship is our first and best chance
to be shaped by a different story,
by our true story.
It is the single most important thing
that a missional church can do.

But unfortunately, and tragically,
over two thousand years of history,
the church of Jesus Christ has often forgotten its story.
Instead of staying clear about its identity
as a pilgrim people
as sojourners in this world,
it has gotten lost in the world.
The church has become fully acculturated,
blended and dissolved into the melting pot of culture.
Predictably, what our culture values, we value.
The way American Christians “do church”
reflects American cultural values.

Western culture in general,
and American culture in particular,
has a powerful unifying focus.
We value, above all else,
the happiness and freedom and fulfillment of the self.
Our society revolves around the desires of the independent self.
Economics, politics, religion, the environment—
in nearly every case,
we are mostly likely to act on something
when it benefits us personally and immediately.
We tend not to act
if it’s costly or inconvenient to us personally.
It’s not enough if it only helps the community,
or the nation, or the planet.
If it has to come out of my wallet,
or it cramps my lifestyle,
or it impinges on my freedom,
then forget about it.

Our self-interest is especially obvious
every time a political season comes around.
On both sides of the party line, we vote our pocketbooks.
And it’s not only individuals who are guilty of self-interest.
Every defined group tends to put its own particular interests
ahead of the interests of the whole.
How many times have you heard an interest group say,
“Going in this direction will hurt our agenda;
it will damage our cause.
But since it benefits most other groups,
we will support it 100 percent.”
No, the life of every individual,
and the agenda of every group,
seems . . . on the whole . . . to be guided by self-interest.

So we can hardly expect the church to be different, can we?
We can hardly expect people to walk into a worship service
and just switch off that way of thinking.
No, not if our values and beliefs
are shaped primarily by the narrative of American culture.
But if we get clear about who we are as God’s people,
about our identity as a peculiar and called out people,
then maybe we can expect things to be different at church.

I think this is precisely what God had in mind in Deuteronomy 26,
read a few minutes ago.
God, through the voice of Moses,
instructed the children of Israel how to worship
when they arrived and settled down in the promised land.

God knew, of course, how inclined human beings are to self-interest.
So when the people of Israel stopped wandering in the wilderness . . .
when they stopped depending on the daily manna and quail
air-dropped from heaven . . .
when they started planting and harvesting their own crops,
from their own land, by their own hand . . .
God knew they would let self-interest take over.
They would start being proud of what they could accomplish.
They would keep the best produce for themselves,
and for their enjoyment,
because, after all, they had produced it.
They earned it, and it belonged to them.

God knew how quickly human beings forget.
So before they ever crossed the Jordan,
God gave them specific instructions for worship.
And God’s order of worship was, if followed faithfully,
a vaccination against the disease of self-interest.
Everything about that liturgy in Deuteronomy
leads the worshipers to put self-interest aside,
to acknowledge their utter and complete dependence on God,
and to let go of anything and everything
that prevents them from giving their all.

I think this order of worship in Deuteronomy
is a model for all faithful worship of God.
What is worship, if it is not a total offering of ourselves to God?
Worship is offering.
Worship is sacrifice.

But that is not, I dare say,
how most American Christians experience worship.
In a typical (or shall I say, stereotypical) American church service,
the only time offering or sacrifice even comes up,
is during one tacked-on part of the service
where an offering plate is quietly passed,
and people discretely give up spare cash,
while music is being played to
make it seem like something important is happening.
That one token act of offering almost feels like payment,
in exchange for the worship experience,
and the other benefits we get from church.

’Cause we all know it costs money to produce a good worship service.
Preacher needs to be paid.
There’s a building and utilities and upkeep.
American churches invest a lot of resources
to put on good programs to attract worshipers.
And the worshipers come,
expecting something of quality to happen up here,
so that . . . those sitting out there watching, listening,
and occasionally participating,
will have gotten their money’s worth.
People think,
“If I go to church, and don’t find something I like,
I shouldn’t have to pay for it, should I?”

And I’d have to admit,
the part of the service where that skewed thinking
is most likely to crop up,
is the sermon.
When a paid preacher stands up front
trying to deliver a quality product
that will satisfy the paying customer.

Yes, I know, that’s a terribly cynical way to look at it.
And not very smart of me, as a paid preacher,
to even suggest it.
And there’s a lot more than that going on, of course.
I certainly think that we here at Park View
are thoughtful enough, and faithful enough,
to distinguish ourselves from the stereotypical American church.

I think in this body of Christ,
we do truly value full participation in worship,
we do, at least in principle, see our worship as an offering to God.
But oh, the temptation is there, and it is a powerful temptation,
to see worship not as an act of communal sacrifice,
but as a packaged experience to benefit the worshiper.

Even I, who ought to know better,
often go to worship services,
hoping to experience something I can take with me,
something to enrich, and benefit, and inspire me.
Quality music. Effective scripture reading.
Well-spoken prayers.
Timely silence.
A challenging and well-delivered sermon.

Now don’t get me wrong.
I’m not saying there’s something noble about shoddy worship.
I do think we should do all we can
to present an excellent offering to God—
in the sermon, the prayers, the readings, and the music.
I hope everyone who leads the congregation in worship
sees it as their sacred gift to God,
to come fully prepared, practiced, and ready to offer their best.

What I’m talking about is the attitude of consumerism
with which many American Christians approach a worship service,
and the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle ways,
that American churches reinforce that kind of thinking
by marketing their services like a religious product
to sell to religious consumers.

I thank God we don’t have “worship wars” at Park View,
like many congregations do.
But I think the only reason there is such a thing as “worship wars”
is this badly mistaken idea that worship is about us,
about what we like and don’t like.
We don’t come to worship in order to be blessed,
we come to bless.
We come to worship to work.

The word we use for worship—liturgy—
we usually associate with what happens up front here.
The prayers and readings and musical performances,
the Word and Table . . . sermons and sacraments . . .
all together comprise the liturgy.
But liturgy means, literally, “public work,”
the “work of the people.”
When we come as a community to worship,
we’re all here to work.
We’re here to do a job. To perform a service to God.
A worship . . . service.
The service we engage in here . . . together . . .
is just as significant to God and God’s kingdom
as the service we engage in at other times and places.
Or it should be.

Back to that liturgy in Deuteronomy, remember how it went?
The worshiper was instructed to bring in
the first fruit of the harvest.
The prime part of the crop.
And give it up.
Offer it to God, via God’s representative, the priest.
That first bushel basket of food
would not go to market to earn the grower any income.
It would not feed the family of those who planted it.
It would be offered up.
And as they did so,
the landowners were instructed to recite their history.
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,
few in number, and there he became a great nation,
mighty and populous.”
And the litany continued,
to tell about their brutal slavery,
how God heard their cries and delivered them,
how God provided for all their needs in the wilderness,
and how it was God who brought them to this place,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Now why a history exam as part of a worship service?
That was the way they came to remember, to believe,
and to live out their true narrative.
Their narrative told them,
“We are here in this abundant land
not because of how smart and powerful we were
to overcome our slavery and overthrow our enemies.
We are here because of what God has done.
Even with fertile land and bumper crops,
we are still utterly dependent on God for all we are and have.
Even with houses and foundations,
we are still, at the core, sojourners.
Like our father Abraham, we are pilgrims in this land.”

That was their narrative,
and this prescribed worship litany kept them from forgetting.

And after the worship was over,
after God had received all the offerings that were given,
there was a big party—
a grand celebration
where all these gifts that were brought to God
were freely shared with all,
including those who didn’t have enough—
the Levites and the aliens,
since neither group could own land and raise their own crops.

So from Deuteronomy,
we gather that worship is based on a shared past,
it is expressed in community,
it is oriented toward God and God’s actions in history,
it involves placing the smaller self into God’s larger story,
and most importantly, and most counter-culturally of all,
it is about sacrifice.
It is about giving up ourselves, our gifts, and our possessions,
to the larger purposes of God.

And giving ourselves over wholly and completely
to a loving and powerful God
is not to be taken lightly.
It is a radical act.
When Christians proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
it has implications impossible for us to predict, or control.
It has nothing at all to do with self-interest, and self-preservation.
It has a lot to do with taking risks for God
and for God’s purposes.

Annie Dillard wrote about the risky nature of worship,
in an often-quoted passage of Teaching a Stone to Talk.
She writes:
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.
For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense,
or the waking God may draw us out
to where we can never return.”

May we have the courage to lay ourselves on the mercy of God,
to bow down in humble submission
to the God who loves us with a passionate love,
and wants to “draw us out to where we can never return.”

We talk about wanting to be a missional church,
about wanting to be a faithful church before the watching world.
It begins in worship.
It begins by remembering who we are,
and who we belong to,
and who is calling us.
It begins by putting self-interest aside,
and saying to God, before the people of God,
here I am, here we are.
Take us. Take all we are and all we have.

May God help us.

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