Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 30, 2007

2007.09.30 “Church at the Passages of Life: Worship”

Central United Methodist Church

“Church at the Passages of Life:  Worship”

John 4: 19 – 24

Pastor David L. Haley

September 30th, 2007

       Have you heard the story about the boy in church with his father?  When the acolytes lit the candles, he asked his dad, “What does that mean?”  His Dad said, “It means the service is about to begin, and God’s is with us.”  The lay reader took the Bible, preparing to read, and the little boy asked, “What does that mean?”  And the dad said, “She’s going to read to us from the Bible, God’s word.” A few minutes later, as the Pastor got ready to begin his sermon, the Pastor took off his watch, and laid it upon the pulpit.  “What does that mean?” said the little boy.  The Dad replied, “Not a darn thing,”

        What does it mean, when we come to worship, and most importantly, what does it mean to us? When we could be doing so many other things, why should we come here, and what happens – or at least what ought to happen – that is so important?

        First of six sermons in a series entitled, “Church at the Passages of Life, the way the Church impacts our lives at some of the most important times of our lives.  Not so much a monologue as a dialogue with you about what goes on, and how we could make it even more meaningful.

        Of all the ways and times the church impacts our lives, none is more frequent or important than weekly worship.

        I want you to know that our worship service is very important to me.  It is the one time of the week where our entire church family gathers.  It the showcase of our congregation, the one thing more than any other that determines whether visitors stay or go.  Because of this, I believe my time preparing for this service and my sermon is the most important thing – as your Pastor – that I do for the congregation.   In fact, I have to confess that after over 30 years of doing this, it still makes me a little sick every Sunday morning.

        But most importantly, worship is important to me because I know it is important to you.  I know that on any given Sunday, there are children and youth exposed to worship who will make a lifetime habit, or drop it as soon as they get the chance.  I know there are people with failing marriages, people struggling with disease. I know there are people in the midst of change, or mourning a new loss. I know there are people living in desperation, people seeking insight and guidance, people seeking a touch of transcendence, a word from the Lord.  I know there are people seeking to follow Christ, and awaiting a Word from him.  I know what you mean when you say, “You know, Pastor, I’m just kinda hanging by my fingernails here.”

        Why then is worship as we often encounter it so tedious, so boring, as Homer Simpson once said, speaking for a lot of people other than himself.  When Marge chided him, and said, “But Homer, worship shouldn’t be boring!”  He said, “Shouldn’t be, but it is!“

        Not necessarily in this congregation – but any many congregations – the service is too one-dimensional, too text- based rather than multi-sensory; it moves too slow; the music is dated and sung without passion; the sermon could have been mailed in. If there is anything the mega-churches did taught us mainline churches, it was that the bar has been raised for the quality of our worship, even in smaller congregations.

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, suggests that when we come to worship, it should not only not be boring, it should be a risky adventure:

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … 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 awake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to wherever we can never return.”  (Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40-41).

But what if we ask the question, Biblically and historically, what should worship be, and do?

        Obviously, the Bible is full of people worshipping, singing, praying, praising God in both formal and informal, public and private worship.  There’s that classic OT text that we read, of  Isaiah’s experience in the temple, the book of Psalms as the hymnbook of both Israel and the church, and there is Jesus reading the Scriptures and preaching in synagogues.  There are even a few glimpses at what went on (and what went wrong) in early Christian worship services, as in Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians.  But you might be surprised to hear that nowhere in the Bible is there a prescription for “How to Worship.”

Most of us, if we experienced church at all, experienced one of the three major traditions:  Some version of liturgical (catholic or protestant), evangelical, or pentecostal. I once heard a colleague say, rightly, I believe, that any congregation’s worship service will be one person’s heaven, but another’s hell.

I have learned the most about worship from Robert Webber, former faculty member at Wheaton College, and founder and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, the only institute in the country devoted solely to the study of worship.  Always intended to go back, but sad to say that on April 27th of this year, Webber died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 73.

Born as the son of Baptist missionaries, Webber graduated from Bob Jones University (fundamentalist), earned degrees at Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran seminaries, taught at Wheaton College, and, at the time of his death, at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.  His own spiritual journey took him from fundamentalist to Episcopalian.

Webber wrote more than 40 books on the topic of worship, focusing on how the worship practices of the ancient church must shape worship today. It was Webber who coined the term “blended worship”, (a mix of traditional and contemporary,) as well as the term “ancient/future” worship, the convergence, in one act of worship, of both historic and contemporary streams of worship.

At the core of authentic Christian worship, Webber believed, was the Jewish synagogue service, with the Eucharist, (Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) added.  The pattern, from that time to this, had these four essentials:

Gathering           Word         Table Sending

 

As Webber would say, the four acts of worship are a lot like hosting guests for a meal.  Both require a spirit of hospitality and the same fourfold pattern:

—                Gathering. You welcome people at the door.

—                Word. Conversation flows to more serious topics.

—                Table. You share a meal.

—                Sending. Whether with hugs at home or a benediction in church

        Really, as long as you got this core, it doesn’t matter how you dress it up.  It can be a Roman Catholic mass, Lutheran or Methodist service, or a U2 Eucharist, as long as you have these elements at the core.

I really believe that the ideal – as different strokes for different folks – would be multiple services in a variety of styles: traditional services, contemporary services, emerging worship, maybe even worship services in both kinds of music, country and western.  But since we don’t really have the resources to do that, I think the next best approach is what is called a “blended” service; something old and something new, which will either appeal to everyone or frustrate everybody.  That’s why I like to mix it up: in worship style, in music, even the way I dress for worship.   I would like for the substance of our worship service to be as accessible to as many people as possible:  white collar, blue collar, and yes, no collar.  I like the way St. Paul put it:  “I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever.”  (1 Corinthians 9:22, The Message).

I have been to worship services in tiny one-room rural churches, and in technologically adept mega-churches. I have worshipped in mission churches in Africa and orthodox services in Russia.  I have worshipped in a service led by the Rev. Al Green in Memphis, which lasted three hours. Last January, I worshipped with my family in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with a service entirely in French, where the music was Gothic chant and clouds of incense rose into the nave of the famous cathedral.   In each of these places, with their extremely different styles, I have worshipped God, and been changed.

 

As Garrison Keillor once said: “If you can’t go to church and at least for a moment be given transcendence, if you can’t pass briefly from this life into the next, then I can’t see why anyone should go.  Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person.”

Just a brief moment, that’s all it takes.  In worship, in the words or music of a hymn, in the silence of a prayer, through the reading of the Scriptures, by an insight during the sermon, we experience a moment of transcendence, pass briefly from this life to the next, and we are changed. 

That’s what worship means to me.  How about you?

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