Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 19, 2008

2008.10.19 “Worship: We Are Sent Forth to Serve”

Central United Methodist Church

“Worship: We Are Sent Forth to Serve”

Pastor David L. Haley

October 19th, 2008

I date myself now, but one of my favorite TV shows was the ‘80’s police drama, Hill St. Blues. The show ran from 1981 to 1987, and collected twenty-five Emmy Awards, including ‘Best Series’ four years in succession. Although the show was shot in L.A., many of the background exterior shots were filmed in Chicago, including the station house in the opening scene, which is the old Maxwell Street police station at 943 West Maxwell Street), now the headquarters of the University of Illinois at Chicago Campus Police.

One of my favorite scenes in the show was where the show always began, at the end of roll call, when Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (played by actor Michael Conrad, who died of cancer in 1984) sent his officers out on the streets with this catch phrase, “Let’s be careful out there.”

It was a phrase I came to appreciate even more when I moved to West Chicago in 1990 and became Fire and Police Chaplain, and a Firefighter-Paramedic.  Every day when you start your shift, with every roll call, every time the tones go off or the dispatcher calls, you never know what you’re going to face.  Each year, roughly a hundred law enforcement officers and a hundred firefighters are killed in the line of duty.  As our Police Chief said, after we buried a 21-year-old officer killed in the line of duty, “Sooner or later the numbers come around.” 

But it wasn’t just us.  It was that, as you do the job long enough, you see all the senseless, horrible, tragic things that can happen to people. I could tell you story after story, but I’ll only tell one, for illustrative purposes.  A man was on the way to the airport to go on vacation with his family. As a followed a construction truck, the rear duals of the truck threw a large rock, which smashed through his windshield and killed him instantly.

When we would get back to the station, sometimes even my firefighter friends would want to talk about it:  “So, Dave, how do you explain this?” My favorite line was that of Texas Ranger Captain Augustus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s western, Lonesome Dove:  “There’s accidents in life, and he met a bad one.”

So, through the years, “Let’s be careful out there,” came to take on an even more significant meaning.

Knowing too well the kinds of things that could befall people at any unexpected moment, my Sunday morning benediction to the congregation began to take on new significance as well.  Except, instead of “Let’s be careful out there,” which in fact I sometimes wanted to say, what I would say was this: “Go forth in peace and joy, to love and serve the Lord, and may the blessing of God be with you and upon you, this day, this week, and evermore.”

This is the final of six sermons about worship, a one-time conversation we’ve had about what happens here each week.  Of the four essential acts of worship we’ve thought about, which is the most important?  We enter God’s presence, we hear and respond to God’s Word, we gather at the table of the Lord, and finally, at the end of the service, we are sent forth to serve, our topic today.

You might be tempted to think that this part of worship, “We are sent forth to serve,” is the least important.  But after you hear what I’ve got to share with you today, you might want to reconsider.

After all, how do you end a worship service? Is it best to say, “You are dismissed”, or to sing a final hymn, or to send people off with “Please join us for coffee and doughnuts in the Fellowship Hall”? Or all the above?

You might be interested to know that the word “Mass”, comes from the last phrase that used to be used in the Roman mass, which was, in Latin, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is the dismissal”) to which the people responded, “Deo Gratias.” (“Thanks be to God”).  So you may be comforted to know that if you’ve every said “Thanks be to God” – or it’s near equivalent “Thank God it’s over”, when a service ended, it won’t be the first time.  I do have to tell you that sometimes – worn out after a service – I do think of this phrase when I see people standing around talking long after a service is over: “Ite, missa est!”)

We don’t use this phrase to bring the service to a close anymore.  What we do, is this: after Holy Communion, or after The Passing of the Peace on Sundays when we don’t celebrate Communion, we conclude with an upbeat hymn, followed by the Benediction, or Dismissal with Blessing, as we sometimes call it.

I don’t expect you to remember, but way back at the beginning of this series, on September 15th, I shared with you some of the worship traits of vital and faithful congregations, from the book by professor and preacher Thomas G. Long, in his book Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship:

Vital and faithful congregations, Long concludes:

–          make room, in worship, for the experience of MYSTERY;

–          make planned and concerted efforts to show HOSPITALITY to the stranger;

–          make visible the sense of DRAMA inherent in worship;

–          emphasize congregational MUSIC that is both excellent and eclectic in style and genre;

–          creatively adapt the space and ENVIRONMENT of worship;

–          maintain a relatively stable ORDER of service and repertoire of worship elements and responses that the congregation knows by heart;

–          have strong, CHARISMATIC pastors as worship leaders.

        But there are two others characteristics of vital and faithful congregations that relate particularly to how we end a worship service.  They are, that, vital and faithful congregations:

– forge a strong connection between worship and MISSION, expressed in every aspect of the worship service, and

– move to a joyous FESTIVAL experience toward the end of the service.

So this how we end worship: “We are sent forth to serve.” Ultimately, this the point of worship, you know, to send us forth as God’s forgiven, inspired, gifted, strengthened, and commissioned people. Worship is not finally a “me” centered service that makes us feel better (even though it may do that); it’s not finally a meeting of our own little holy club, seeking sanctuary against that big bad world “out there”, (though it may sometimes feel that way).  The ultimate end of a worship service is to send us back into the world, more capable, more committed, more commissioned to be God’s people in the world.  Your most important witness as a member of Central United Methodist Church is not the hour you spend in worship on a Sunday morning, but the time between Sundays, when you are in your homes, your workplaces, your classrooms, and out in the streets.

This commissioning, this sending forth, is almost always expressed best in that final hymn. If the point of the first hymn is to bring us into God’s presence, and the second is to prepare us to hear and heed God’s Word, the point of the last one is to send us forth, to be God’s people in the world.

It coincides with the additional point Thomas Long made: vital and faithful congregations move to a joyous FESTIVAL experience toward the end of the service.

If there is anything a Pastor must learn sooner than later, it is that you never, ever pick a slow, somber, or sad hymn for the last hymn of the service.  It’s must be “upbeat.” Because, most of the time, what you leave people with is what they’ll most remember.  We know too well: it can be a cold, cruel world out there; let’s give people the biggest boost we can to send them forth to serve.


After the last hymn, we turn to the Benediction, or, as we sometimes call it, the “Dismissal with Blessing.” Do you know what the word “benediction” means? “Bene” (good) + “dicere” (to speak).  So it’s a “good word”, a blessing. The tradition is that the benediction is the conferring of a blessing upon the congregation by the highest ranking person present, either an elder, a pastor, or a bishop. It’s Biblical: something Abraham, and Moses, and even Jesus, did.

        It comes back to what I said at the beginning of this sermon: God knows the world is full of mortal and spiritual dangers, and we never know what’s going to befall us from one day to the next. The New York Times recently had an article that expressed it concisely: “Healthy Right Up to the Day You’re Not” (The New York Times, by Abigail Zuger, M.D., September 29, 2008). That’s why when I give pronounce the Benediction, I sometimes almost want to say, “Listen up, people: pay attention!”  Because you never know what you’re going to face, in any given week, on any given, ordinary day.


When I think of such things, I think of this true story. The West Chicago Fire Protection District includes DuPage Airport, which means that our emergency responses included plane crashes.  Several years ago we had a crash, in which a father and his daughter were killed.  I went from the scene in the ambulance to the hospital where I met with the mom, and I’ll never forget what she told me:  She said when her daughter left the house that morning, the mom – perhaps with a mother’s intuition – stopped her, and gave her daughter a hug and a kiss. To which her daughter said: “Mom, it’s not like you’re never going to see me again.”   

It’s a conversation I’ve never forgotten. Including each week, when, I pronounce the benediction.

So it’s more than just saying, “Let’s be careful out there,” it says:  “Go forth in peace and joy, to love and serve the Lord, and may the blessing of God be with you and upon you, this day, this week, and evermore.”  Amen.


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