Sunday, January 13, 2013

Full-bodied worship

In Light of the Incarnation: Worship
Romans 12:1-2

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Several weeks ago, just before Christmas,
in my sermon about the person and role of Mary,
I said that Mary was the “instrument” of God’s Incarnation.

And I said that what we have in the story of Christmas—
the Incarnation of God—
or the “en-flesh-ment” of God—
is the single most important
theological claim of our faith—
that God is with us. Emmanuel.
This is the ground of our faith.
That in the fully human person of Jesus of Nazareth,
was embodied full divinity.
God was not a distant, uninvolved and untouchable deity.
God was with us—really.

So if what I said was true,
that God in the flesh, God Incarnate,
is at the center of our faith,
then it’s worth stretching out the celebration beyond Christmas.

And as Barbara pointed out last Sunday,
Epiphany, January 6, is also not one day, but a season.
So in this season of Epiphany,
at least for the next three Sundays,
we explore what difference the Incarnation makes,
especially in the life of the church, the body of Christ.

Think about this for a minute.
We, the church, call ourselves the “body of Christ.”
We use as our defining metaphor,
the body,
the literal, physical body.
I think it’s no coincidence,
that this very real and physical vehicle of God’s incarnation,
is the metaphor we adopted for ourselves as a church.
There is a connection between God’s incarnation,
and our own embodiment,
individually and communally.

So what is that connection?
Well, Jesus was “God enfleshed”
the Incarnate, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Jesus embodied God’s real presence
in a way that was qualitatively new and different
than anything that preceded.
And . . . Jesus left his disciples with the task of continuing his mission,
continuing to embody the real presence of God in the world.

Now, the Incarnation of God in Christ,
was, and is, unique in all of history,
and never to be repeated,
but incarnation, with a small “i,” continues.
Emmanuel, God-with-us, was not a once-and-done thing with Jesus.

Christ calls us to continue his ministry,
to continue to be bearers of the incarnation,
to continue to represent the real presence of God in the world.

If that’s the case,
it would deeply shape how we conduct ourselves as a body,
what kind of practices we would engage in,
our worship practices,
our communal practices,
our missional practices.

So we’ll have two more Sundays,
to look at the communal and missional aspect,
but today we examine our worship.

How do we worship, in light of the Incarnation?

When God calls us together in worship . . .
and we come . . .
we are here both to meet God,
and to represent God.

That’s part of the wonderful mystery of worship,
that we are both blessed by the presence of God in our worship,
and we become the presence of God to others who worship with us.

And no, I’m not saying we become God, or replace God.
We don’t conjure up God by own will and workmanship.
In other words, we aren’t the source of God’s presence.
But we are the vehicle.
God chooses our physical bodies,
individually and collectively,
as instruments by which God reveals himself to us.
The incarnation (small “i”) continues in our gathered worship.

When we physically gather,
we engage in the embodied practices of shared worship—
we use our bodies to pray, to praise, to weep, to laugh,
to stand, to sit, to bow,
to touch, to hear, to sing,
to taste the bread and cup.
In doing so, we act out the real presence of God in our bodies.
We rehearse the salvation story from scripture.
We interact with that story through our senses.
We allow that story to shape us, form us, transform us.
And we give our full bodies back to God in worship.
So when we go from here,
clear about who we are,
we carry the embodied presence of God out into the world.

We heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
Romans 12:1-2 are verses I have read and heard many times.
But I saw something new in there this time,
as I read it in light of the incarnation.
Paul writes to the church, “I urge you, brothers and sisters,
in view of God’s mercy,
to give your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”
Through the Incarnation of God, in Jesus,
God gave himself to us in bodily form.
Our response to the incarnation,
is to give our bodies back to God.
Full-bodied worship,
completes the transaction.
Full-bodied worship is a thanksgiving offering to God,
for the gift God has given to us in the incarnation.
Giving our bodies to God in worship,
is an act of gratitude.
As Romans 12 says, depending on your translation,
it’s our “reasonable” or “spiritual” or “sensible” worship.

In other words, it’s the right thing to do,
in light of the incarnation.

Now there’s a pretty long tradition,
at least in the Protestant stream of Christianity,
of practically dis-embodying the worshiper . . .
of trying to keep as much distance as possible
between God, the object of our worship,
and the physical bodies of us who are engaged in worship.

That tradition was a reaction, of course,
against the overuse of, and over-dependence on,
the physical elements of worship . . .
putting too much significance into the icons,
and statues, and relics, and incense,
and holy water,
and the bread and cup,
and too little significance to scripture.
So to avoid crossing the line into idolatry,
the church got rid of many of the physical pathways
to worship,
and began to re-emphasize the spoken word,
the reading of scripture, and expository preaching.
Instead of an altar front and center in the sanctuary,
set with the bread and cup and candles,
the pulpit was moved to the center.
The sermon was more important than the Lord’s Supper.
So the podium was more important than the table.

Now, I don’t necessarily fault this development.
There was a sad neglect
of the public reading and proclamation of scripture.
And thus, a basic lack of understanding
of what all these symbols really meant,
because they were rarely explained,
and the words weren’t even in the people’s native tongue.
The church sorely needed a corrective move
toward the proclamation of scripture,
making scripture available to all.

But I wonder whether some of the Reformers might have
become unbalanced in the other direction.
For some, true worship required very little bodily participation.
The only important body organ was the brain.
Worship became for some,
more of intellectual exercise, than anything else.
The preacher was the scholar,
and parishioners the students.

Over the years, as different Christian streams developed
and branched off here and there,
many ways of worshiping also developed.
Some streams still emphasize and prioritize
encountering God through our five senses,
and the physical rituals that engage those senses—
incense and candles and bells and the Eucharist.
Some streams emphasize and prioritize
the intellectual pursuit of the truth,
and give pride of place to long sermons,
and teaching of right doctrine.
Some streams emphasize and prioritize
the emotional and experiential aspects of the faith,
and encourage expressing our love of God
with the ecstatic spiritual gifts
and charismatic worship.
Some streams emphasize and prioritize
the relational component of faith,
and invest most of the time and energy of the gathering
on growing a sense of human community,
and strengthening our relationships to each other.

I think the reality of the Incarnation
requires us to go deeper and broader in our worship,
than any of those traditions tend to do on their own.
God came to live and dwell among us in Jesus of Nazareth,
and came to us as a whole human person.
Whole. With a body. With a brain. With emotions.
With physical desires and needs.
With a need for deep relationships.
And we ought to worship God accordingly.

If we engage only one part of our selves in the act of worship,
we are not giving due honor to the Incarnation.
By God coming to us as a whole human person,
God made clear that he loved and accepted us
as whole human beings.
With all our idiosyncracies, with all our natural appetites,
with all our human failings,
with all our rational and irrational needs.

So to show gratitude to this God who came to us,
fully embodied,
we ought to offer our fully embodied worship and thanksgiving.

We ought to engage our intellect, for all its worth.
We ought to know what the scripture says,
and spend time learning, discussing, and debating its interpretation.
We ought to be clear in the way we think about our faith.

And . . . we ought to allow our bodies to engage fully
in the more physical aspects of worship.
We should appreciate, and interact with,
the visual arts that are brought as a gift, and an aid to worship.
We should make our musical experiences as rich as they can be,
both as well-prepared performers,
and as active participants and listeners.
We should gladly come to the table
whenever the Lord’s Supper is served,
expecting to enjoy (yes, enjoy!) the taste and texture of the meal,
as well as its symbolism.
We should revel in the practice of baptism,
as we did last Sunday when Claire Smeltzer was baptized.
This Sunday,
traditionally known as Baptism of our Lord Sunday,
we remembered the day that Jesus submitted his whole body
to this formational ritual of baptism.

And . . . we should open our heart to what the Holy Spirit
may be leading us to experience
through our emotions and inner psyche.
We need not fight back the tears or stifle the joy and laughter.
We can even, believe it or not,
use our physical bodies to express our emotions—
with raised hands or bowed heads or some worship posture.

And . . . we should open up our lives more fully to each other
in deeper, mutual relationships,
as a necessary part of our worship of God,
since God is also made known to us,
in our sisters and brothers in the community of faith.

Sure, some of us, maybe most of us, are more comfortable,
when we engage in worship in our preferred mode of engagement:
head, or
heart, or
body, or
But since when did worship require being comfortable?
The words worship and sacrifice are almost synonymous in the Bible.
Yes, sacrifice.
I doubt being personally comfortable in your preferred style,
has a whole lot to do with authentic worship.

But, it’s not really even about worship style, per se.
You can have quiet, contemplative, loud, upbeat,
formal, and informal styles of worship . . .
that encourage full-bodied worship,
that engage head, heart, body, and relationships.
Or . . . you can have those same styles,
that cut off one part of our body, in favor of another.
Worship that doesn’t make us think, is not full-bodied worship.
Worship that doesn’t invite us to feel, is not full-bodied worship.
Worship that never asks us to physically move, or touch or taste,
is not full-bodied worship.
Worship that keeps us from connecting with each other
in human relationship,
is not full-bodied worship.

One of the things that, to me, makes the worship life of this congregation
so compelling for so many of us,
is that it consistently provides the space for full-bodied worship.
In our worship life here, we are regularly invited to think,
to feel,
to move,
to sense,
to connect with one another.
I know, from listening to some of you,
that some of you would like more of one of those things,
and less of another.
This morning, I invite us all, to embrace it all, joyfully.
Embrace this shared experience of full-bodied worship of God,
in gratitude for God’s gift of full-bodied, incarnational
presence with us, Emmanuel.
God is with us. Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, January 13, 2013

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