part series re: worship. Each week, in addition to the readings, I'll focus on the how and why of our worship tradition. This week the emphasis will be on "centering and gathering" and we'll move on to engaging, reflecting and blessing.
There are three American idioms that I want to share with you at the start of my message this morning because we’re going to talk about worship on this feast day of Christ’s Ascension – and how we might do it with more intentionality and verve. That is, I want to consider with you ways that we might worship the Lord our God more deeply, more faithfully and even more passionately as a congregation.
The gospel text for today tells us that before Christ was raised beyond our comprehension into the everlasting presence of God, “He opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures.” Before they had been afraid – locked away in confusion and grief – but after their minds had been opened by the wisdom of Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. They were changed people – women and men who not only understood the love of God in new ways – but now also embodied this love. They became witnesses – the living evidence that God’s love was greater than death and that Christ’s grace was bigger than our sins – witnesses.
So as I started to organize my thoughts about this worship in light of the Ascension earlier in the week, three old truisms kept popping up at me:
· The first belongs to Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in American baseball history, who played in both the segregated Negro League as well as with an integrated Cleveland Indians team, who said: It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you do know that ain’t necessarily so!
· The second is ascribed to Earl Landgrebe, an Indiana businessman who while serving in the US House of Representatives became a fierce partisan against the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1972, who said: My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.
· And the third comes from NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who apparently told a television journalist during a debate that: Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.
And there are two facts about worship that I want to draw to your attention today – facts and not opinions – essential truths about common prayer not incidental personal preferences or habits.
· Fact Number One: worship is like theatre. As Kierkegaard once wrote authentic and faithful worship starts with the knowledge that God is the audience, the clergy and musicians are the prompters and coaches and the whole congregation the actors. When the congregation becomes the audience – or the consumer – and the pastor and musicians become the actors… then something is rotten in Denmark and worship is reduced to entertainment and commodity. The First Testament of Israel calls this idolatry – a sin – something that separates and distracts us from the love and grace of the Lord our God.
· Fact Number Two: worship is an offering we bring to God that paradoxically gives us back much more than we ever give up. The preacher, William Temple, who once served as Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII spoke of worship like this:
Worship is the submission of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of the mind with His truth; the purifying of the imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of the will to His purpose – all gathered up in adoration and the most selfless expression possible…
In a word, at our most faithful we don’t come to worship to receive a blessing – or to hearwe come to worship to make an offering to the Lord. God calls and we respond – and by grace alone when we respond in humility we are also blessed and nourished and healed.
Those are the two facts that shape worship – turning our attention away from ourselves and bringing an offering of gratitude to God – but all too often that’s not how contemporary people comprehend worship, right?
· How many times have you heard someone say: “That preacher was totally boring; he didn’t help me out at all?” Or this: “The music was really off – it didn’t touch me at all?” Or even: “I didn’t get ANY thing out of that service?”
· Have you ever heard those things? I know I have – man, I’ve SAID them – and more than once: I didn’t get ANY thing out of that worship. To which someone should have said to me, “Well, what did you BRING to it? Did you enter the gates of the Sanctuary with praise or grumbling? Did you come to church to look in the mirror or worship the Lord? Do you understand that the celebration is NOT all about you but the very Creator of the universe we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”
Maybe Satchel Paige was right: It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you do know that ain’t necessarily so! Take, for example, the first component of our worship on a Sunday morning. Without looking at the bulletin, do you remember what we call this first part? GATHER – think about that – what does it mean? Right underneath this worship heading there’s a short description that says: A time to shift gears from the hustle of our everyday lives and become centered in God’s love.
· Hmmmmm…. a time to shift gears from the hustle of our everyday lives and become centered in God’s love. What do you think that means? How do you practice being centered for worship – any ideas?
· What do most people do, however, when they come into the Sanctuary for worship?
In our tradition, there are three things we do to help us shift gears from our usual busyness so that we can become centered in God’s love: we listen quietly and carefully to the centering music, we participate consciously in the call to worship and we enter joyfully into the hymn of praise. Three very specific practices that have been time-tested for millennia to help us shift gears and be embraced by God’s love – so let’s take a moment to consider each of these practices so that we might open our minds to the promise of God’s joy rather than be confused by our opinions and habits, ok?
First there is the centering music – instrumental sounds almost always played on the organ – and that is not an accident. I’m going to encourage Carlton to say something about the centering music he plays each week so as he’s making his way to the microphone let me add these two observations:
· First, the sounds of the music played at the start of worship have meaning: they are carefully designed to evoke something within you that resonates with God. They are NOT background, elevator or “wall paper” music, but a musical invitation connected to some aspect of God’s truth. But you have to pay attention, right? Jesus once told his disciples not to throw pearls before swine… you have to give some focus to the gift that is being shared musically or else you’ll stay caught in the busy-ness of your everyday life.
· And second the centering music is almost always instrumental – no texts are involved – in order that you might go inward. This is prayer time – quiet time – transition time not travelling music or background noise.
· What else is going on for you during our centering music, Carlton…?
So first worship begins with music that calls us inward to be centered in God’s love: didyou get that? Worship BEGINS with our centering music, ok? Not with the spoken word, not with the call to worship, but with our centering music. Second worship goes deeper with our shared call to worship that might more properly be called a corporate call to worship. And there are two reasons why the call to worship happens next:
· First, we have each been called by God into the body of Christ – not into our personal time of retreat – nor a private hour alone with the Lord – we have been called into the body of Christ. The very word church – ekklesia in Greek – means to be called or summoned out of one thing and into another. In our case, we have been called out of selfishness and into community – out of busy-ness and into reflection and praise – out of ourselves and into Christ.
· Second, because we’ve spent all week being beaten around by sin and fear and worry and brokenness, we need to recall the deeper promises of God. The call to worship is like a reality check that says: you may have been wounded, but God doesn’t make junk. You are the beloved of the Lord coming into the presence of God so wake up, pay attention and rejoice in that peace that passes all understanding.
Are you still with me? This is what Jesus communicated to his disciples just before he was raised beyond our understanding on the Ascension: he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem… then lifting up his hands, he blessed them. And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. So they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
First we let God’s love center us in sound. Second we affirm together that we are God’s beloved and that the promises of the Lord are greater than our fear, pain, sin or wounds. And third we open our hearts to the Lord in songs of praise. Bono of U2 put it at least as well as Bach when he said: Music introduced me to God – not belief in God – but an experience of God that filled and touched me in ways that were greater than myself. We sing hymns of praise – not lament or confession – but hymns of praise at the start of worship: do you know why?
· Music is experiential – it puts into practice surrendering our hopes and fears to God’s love – and opens us to the Spirit in ways thinking and speaking and reading cannot.
· All of God’s creatures sing in response to their creation: birds do it, bees do it, coyotes, dogs and whales do it, too. Scripture tells us that the angels in heaven sing songs of gratitude perpetually to the Lord. Why else do we start off worship with songs of praise?
The brilliant contemporary scholar and composer of church music, Brian Wren, puts it like this: singing songs of praise to God is corporate, corporeal, inclusive, creedal, ecclesial, inspirational and evangelical all at the same time. That is to say, singing together unites us in joy and faith and connects heaven to earth all at the same time.
Throughout the month of May, we’ll be considering what it means to live into the wisdomof our worship each week so that we can worship God more deeply. This week we focused on entering God’s love by gathering together. As May matures we’ll also look at what it means to engage, reflect and bless, too.
We gather together to become grounded and centered in God’s love. So let me ask you to think about this:
· What would happen if you came in to worship each week and let the sounds of God’s love speak to you in quietness? Leave the visiting until coffee hour – or after worship – what would happen if you gave yourself 10 minutes to get centered in God’s love? What would have to change?
· What would happen if you joined your voice with others in the call to worship like it was a refresher course in grace? A bold reminder that you were God’s beloved?
· What would happen if you sang the hymn of praise boldly – as a proclamation that heaven had embraced earth – and that God was the center of your life?
Jesus told his disciples: You are my witnesses… and I am sending you into the world to pro-claim and show what the Father has promised through me. Then he opened their minds to understand… and they returned to Jerusalem with a great joy. Lord, may be so among and within us, too.