Sunday, November 01, 2009

Worship: Job 1 -- Core Values # 6

Note: This is the sixth and final sermon in my series on our congregational core values.

Psalm 95:1-7a

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

It’s All Saints Day, and so today we join with all the saints in heaven and on earth in singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to the Lord our God, the Almighty. We do this because, as the prophet Isaiah declares, “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). We sing praises to God, because as Augustine said, it’s part of who we are. It’s almost instinctive. At the very beginning of his Confessions he writes: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds it’s rest in you.”1 Augustine’s confession echoes the Psalmist invitation to do what we were created to do – that is, sing to the Lord and “make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.” We come into God’s presence with thanksgiving, because we understand that the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the seas and the dry land, lie in God’s creative hands. Therefore, “let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker” (Ps. 95:7).

It’s appropriate that we should conclude this six-week exploration of our congregational core values by giving attention to worship. It is, to borrow a phrase from an old ad, our job one. And if, as Augustine suggests, worship is our human destiny, then worship should define what we do together as church. And, each of the five other core values help define the nature of that worship. That is, if our worship isn’t compassionate; if it doesn’t call us to a life of service or make us more accepting and welcoming of others; if it’s not spiritually joyful or doesn’t bear witness to God’s love, grace, and mercy, then our worship will be hollow. But, if these five other core values define our worship, then we will be ready to embrace our calling to be a missional congregation.

According to Jesus and the Torah, there are two commandments that we must follow. We must love God with our entire being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These two commands sum up all that is in the Law and the Prophets. And, it is in our worship that we must directly express our love and gratitude toward God. But, if we truly worship God, then we will also express it by loving our neighbor. Therefore, as a missional congregation, our worship centers us in the one who called us into being. It reminds us that we belong not to ourselves, but to God, and that whatever ministries we engage in, we engage in through the power and presence of the Lord, our Maker.

1. What is Worship?

So, if worship is our job 1, and if it defines our missional calling, then what does it mean to worship? If I tried to answer this question by taking a survey of the congregation, I’d get a lot of different answers. For some, worship is centered on the Table. For others, it’s the music, and for others maybe the sermon. Some focus on the vertical dimension – the God-human relationship, while others focus on the horizontal relationship we have with each other as the body of Christ.

Whatever worship might involve, it is first of all the work of the assembled body of Christ. That means worship isn’t something that Pat, the choir, or I do for the congregation. Because it’s not a performance, the presiders and leaders of worship are called out from the congregation to assist the community in its worship of God, so that they might be formed into disciples of Jesus Christ. And what we do in this space, as we offer praise and thanksgiving to God, prepares us to live missionally outside these walls. Kimberly Long suggests that:
[S]inging praises becomes not just an element of worship, but also a way of life. All of worship, at its heart, is doxological and, rightly lived, so is all of life. We practice praise, so that even in the face of death we know what to say to God, even if we do not feel it – for the God who formed our inward parts, the God who claimed us in baptism, the God who sustains our every breath, does not leave us to our own devices.2

Worship can involve many elements, from prayer to singing, from sharing at the table to hearing the Word read and proclaimed. At times it’s joyous and celebrative, but at other times it can be reflective and confessional.

Ultimately, worship draws us into the presence of God. While we’‘re not Orthodox Christians, if you’ve been in an Orthodox church, you may have noticed that they tend to be rather ornate, especially by Protestant standards. The reason for this is that they pattern their worship after the heavenly worship pictured in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. For them, to worship is to be caught up in heaven. I think we can learn something from this way of worshiping. It reminds us that worship isn’t a lecture or a business meeting. When we come to worship, we should come expecting to join together with the heavenly choir in singing:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
For you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created. (Rev. 4:11).

2. Worship as our Missional Calling

As a missional church, the focus of our ministry will be outside the walls of this building, but what we do within the walls, especially what we do on Sunday morning is not irrelevant to that ministry. It’s important to remember that we’re not a service club or simply a nonprofit agency. We are the body of Christ that is called together for the express purpose of worshiping the Lord our Maker with songs of praise and thanksgiving.

So, when we talk about worship in a missional context, the issue isn’t style – whether it should be traditional, blended, or contemporary. It’s not enough to simply jump on the contemporary worship band wagon in pursuit of the elusive younger generations. Nor does it mean that we should defend to the death the old ways of doing things in the name of being true to our heritage. But, what it does it mean is that our worship should be incarnational. That is, we need to be attentive to what we say and what we do, so that we include rather than exclude. While relevance is important, being relevant doesn’t mean copying Letterman or Colbert, U2 or Neil Young. What it means is that God is calling us to be authentic in our worship, as well as being attentive to the community around us.

We have chosen to create a blended style of worship that includes both contemporary and traditional elements. We have an organ and guitars. We sing praise songs and hymns – both old and new. Because we’re Disciples, we gather at the Table every week, in season and out. We also baptize by immersion on profession of faith. And because we believe that Christians should be reasonable and thoughtful, we put a lot of emphasis on the proclaimed Word. But as we continue our journey into the future, new elements will be added, and maybe even additional services offered, which will reflect the new gifts and new people that come into this community of faith.

Some have wondered how an organ fits into our missional calling. It’s a good question, and the answer lies in part in how the organ is used. Those of us who served on the task force continually asked this very question – how might this organ support not only what we do on Sunday morning but expand our ministry into the world? We were very intentional about making sure that the new organ would support not only what we have done, but what we might do – and that includes supporting contemporary forms of worship and supporting a ministry of music that would bring beauty to our community.

As we think about what it means to worship in a truly missional way, it’s important to remember that what we do in worship isn’t just about me and my needs. If we believe that our worship expresses love for God, then that love will reach out to embrace the world that God already loves in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. This kind of worship isn’t about escaping the world, but embracing the call to join God in transforming the world that God loves and inhabits. This understanding is reflected quite explicitly in a Fred Pratt Green hymn we sang a few weeks back:
When the church of Jesus shuts its outer door,
lest the roar of traffic drown the voice of prayer,
may our prayers, Lord, make us ten times more aware
that the world we banish is our Christian care.

And at the end of the hymn’s second stanza, we sing:
Lest our hymns should drug us to forget its needs,
forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds.

Missional worship doesn’t offer us an escape from the world. It’s not about rescuing the perishing. Instead, it’s about living into the reign of God, so that we can put into practice what we pray each week as we repeat the prayer Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I can’t think of a better way of putting it than this. Therefore, in this spirit, let us
worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God, we are the sheep of his pasture, the sheep of his hand. (Ps. 95:7)

1. Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 3.

2. Kimberly Bracken Long, The Worshiping Body, (Louisville, WJK Press, 2009), p. 109.

3. Fred Pratt Green, “When the Church of Jesus,” Chalice Hymnal, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), number 470.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
All Saints Day
November 1, 2009

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