Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 12, 2008

2008.10.12 “Worship: We Respond to God’s Word”

Central United Methodist Church

“Worship: We Respond to God’s Word”

Pastor David L. Haley

October 12th, 2008

One of the most suspenseful moments in worship each week occurs at the end of my sermon. If I’ve done it right, there is a moment of suspense, of silence, even coughing. For a moment, it seems, people have been holding their breaths. Of course, I might be mistaken: it might just be relief, that it’s finally over.

In truth, in that moment, many questions may flash through our mind?  WHAT did he say? What did I hear? What did he ask me, to think, do, or believe?  Perhaps, most importantly, “What – if anything – am I going to do about it?

I suppose, in this media age, we pastors should be thankful more contemporary forms of evaluation haven’t already hit the church. What if congregational members held up numerical ratings, as they do at the Olympics? What if Wolf Blitzer and a team of laypeople immediately convened to say, “Well, what do you think? Did he do what he needed to do?”  What if each of you had approval dials in your pew, turning them up when you liked what I’m saying, down when you don’t? What if we had instant polling: 60% agreed with what the pastor had to say; 38% didn’t; two reverted to pre-technological forms of voting: they got up and walked out.  (And yes, I have had that happen.)

You don’t have to do this exercise which St. Paul called the “foolishness of preaching” (as opposed to the “preaching of foolishness”) very long before you develop both a sense of responsibility and humility. Responsibility, because a speaker holds tremendous power to manipulate people: by the power of words, to incite you, to make you laugh or cry, but to what end?

But also humility.  One of my favorite stories was told by one of my teachers, Martin E. Marty. When he was young and naive, he was a new preacher in a urban congregation, where the neighborhood was rapidly changing, and the congregation was seriously considering “white flight”: selling and moving out. After an initial vote of something like 92 to move; 10 to stay, Marty decided to preach a sermon series from the prophets, in an attempt to persuade them to stay. After the series, there was another congregational vote, and he found out that not only did he change no minds, six more people switched to the column of those voting to move.  So much for the power of preaching.

My point is, each Sunday after we hear the Word of God, after the Scriptures are read and the Word that is proclaimed, each and every one of us is faced with a verdict: “What then shall we do?  And how shall we respond to what we have heard?”

This is the fifth of six sermons about worship, continuing our conversation.  As we have learned, there are four essential acts of worship: we enter God’s presence, God’s Word is read and responded to, we gather at the table of the Lord, and finally, we are sent forth to serve. Today, I want to talk about what we might call “Act 2, Scene 2” of worship: after “We Hear God’s Word,” “We Respond to God’s Word.”

Even casual knowledge of the Bible reveals that any hearing of God’s Word, in any form, is risky business. Throughout the Bible, when God’s Word is preached or spoken, the response is rarely casual. 

God spoke to Abram, Abram responded, and not only was his life changed, so also was human history.  Moses heard God’s Word and said “yes”, and a nation was delivered from bondage. In the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8, when, after an absence of many years, the Law of God was read to the people, the people wept. The prophet Isaiah heard the Word of God in the temple, said, “Yes;” his words are still inscribed on the walls of the United Nations: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares. And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up swords against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.” 

In the New Testament, it is no different.  When Jesus spoke, people had never heard anything like it: some wanted to anoint him King; others wanted to throw him over a cliff.  When Peter spoke on the day of Pentecost, people were struck to the heart, and said, “What then shall we do?”

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, suggests that when we come to worship, it is still 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).

The point is this: whenever we open ourselves up to hear and respond to the Word of God, we never know where it’s going to lead.  No wonder the prophet Jeremiah said, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)

Whatever our response to the Word individually, in worship we also respond, ritually.

We turn to God in prayer.  What’s more appropriate, after hearing the Word, than to turn to God in prayer?  We pray in three forms of prayer, first silently, then through the prayers we share with each other, and then through the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s an awesome moment when we pray silently: the church becomes quiet, and one wonders what unspoken prayers fly to God.  Unfortunately, because in our society we are uncomfortable with silence, rarely do those moments of silent prayer last long enough.

Then we join in prayers that we share with one another: our prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession. In some congregations, those prayers are called out.  In our congregation, we write them in a book, which I – if I can decipher them – share with the congregation.

I could do another whole sermon series discussing what we should pray for. I know St. Paul said, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God,” but do you really think that included the Cubs? (Although, God knows, they need our prayers.) Of course, we pray for the sick and shut-in.  (Sometimes I wonder if it’s time to find another way of doing this?) What about, for example, those not sick and shut-in, but out and about? What about those who may actually be in more spiritual danger, such as our children, our youth, our young adults?  What are we saying about our faith if we only pray for the sick, the aged and the infirm?

And what are we saying if we only pray for those ill of mind and body? What about those who are healthy, but spiritually sick? I remind you that the greatest sins in the Bible are not those sins or weaknesses of the body, but sins of the spirit? What about not just individuals, but our congregation, and society? If we believe in prayer, surely those things are worth praying about too.

        Some pastors pray a Pastoral Prayer, and some of you wonder why I don’t do one.  Personally, I find that to be a risky business, because it’s so easy to wind up praying to you, rather than God. Remember, Jesus had some pretty stern warnings about the dangers of praying in public.  Furthermore, even when we do it sincerely, it’s hard to do it well, without being trite and rambling.  Did you know that pastors known for their pastoral prayers, sometimes spend as much time preparing those, as they do their sermons?

        Finally, despite our failings in silent or spoken prayer, how can we respond better to the Word of God than to pray the Jesus Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, The Lord’s Prayer. To pray the Lord’s Prayer in sincerity is perhaps our very best response to the Word of God:  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The next thing we do in response to the Word of God in worship is to offer ourselves, our lives and our gifts to the Lord. Please do not reduce that to “we take up an offering.” 

Occasionally, we have a small service where we may think, you know, we really don’t need to take an offering.”  But then, I always think, “Is it possible to have a service of worship and not have an offering?” Because the offering of our lives and gifts – of which are financial gifts are only one part – is an essential part of worship, and direct response to hearing God’s Word: “Here I am, send me.”

        In Romans 12, verse 1, St. Paul appealed to us: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  However, the problem with a living sacrifice, as someone once said, is that it keeps crawling off the altar.  And so, in every worship service, we offer ourselves anew to God.

As a part of the offering, we also have a musical offering, another way of offering our gifts to God. Sometimes, that’s one of the best parts of the service, because it reaches a part of us that words cannot reach. If you have musical gifts to share with our congregation, and you’ve been holding out on us, please consider offering them.

Sometimes, especially during penitential seasons like Lent, in response to the Word of God, we confess our sins, both privately and collectively.  Like Isaiah, we say, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips . . .” (Isaiah 6:5).  Sometimes our best response to the Word of God is to express our unworthiness, and ask for forgiveness, for those things we have done and not done. 

On some Sundays, as a response to the Word of God, we affirm our faith. The United Methodist church is not a creedal church in the sense that we ask you to “sign” a creed to become a member.  However, we are a creedal church in that as United Methodists, we assent to the major ecumenical creeds of the church.

        The thing you should know about creeds is that they are almost always written in response to a particular question or controversy in a particular time, and answered in the understandings of the time, especially the one that “won out” over minority opinion.  (It’s true that the winners write not only the history, but also the theology. Thus, with a few notable exceptions, creeds tend to become dated.

        For example, The Apostle’s Creed, the most universal creed, is a baptismal creed, perhaps the best and best known Christian creed.  If you’ve ever had the experience of being in a church and reciting it with other Christians, you know it’s an awesome experience.

        Occasionally there is a new creed, as there are several in our hymnal.  But not very often.  As someone said, “If you want to know why, just try writing your own creed, and you’ll understand why there are not many good ones.

Not every Sunday, but some Sundays, we invite people to Christian discipleship. I believe it ought to be our expectation, that every Sunday there will be new people, new Christians, new members seeking to unite with our congregation, to be their spiritual home.  Sometimes this includes Holy Baptism, which we mainliners sometimes forget was intended for adults, and not just infants. 

A few years ago a family came to my previous congregation, and wanted to join.  During “Coffee with the Pastor”, the Dad, a construction worker, admitted he’d never been baptized, and wanted to be. That morning, before the congregation, as I baptized him, the tears that washed down his cheeks were matched by our own.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen every Sunday.  But what does happen every Sunday, in response to the Word of God, is that God is looking for a verdict. Again, to quote the prophet Isaiah, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 10 – 11)

Every Sunday, our response to hearing the Word of God should be:  “What did this ask me, to think, do, or believe?” “In light of this, do I feel differently about this person, that issue?” “What action steps – based upon what I have heard – do I need to take?” “How is this Word of God calling me to be changed, transformed, into what God would have me be and do?” Our response, every week, should be nothing less than this.

Back to my Professor, Martin E. Marty.  Mr. Marty claims to be influenced by a German scholar most of us have never heard of, whose name we can hardly pronounce: Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.  From him, Marty said he got his motto, which as he says, “would be on my coat-of-arms if I had one.” And what is it?  In Latin, “Respondeo etsi mutabor”: “I Respond Although I Will Be Changed.”  So we respond to the Word of God, and – incrementally, graciously, inevitably – we ARE changed. So may it always be.  Amen.


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