Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 23, 2011

2011.10.23 The Second Practice of Fruitful Living: Passionate Worship

Central United Methodist Church
The Second Practice of Fruitful Living:
Passionate Worship
Pastor David L. Haley
October 23, 2011

“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, God of hosts. My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.”
(Psalm 84:1 – 2)

[Note: As stated, this five sermon series is based upon Bishop Robert Schnase’s books, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007), and Five Practices of Fruitful Living (2010). This is therefore my summation of Bishop Schnase’s Five Practices, a combination of Bishop Schnase’s material and my own. For a more full version, see Bishop Schase’s books. You can also learn more at Bishop’s Schnase’s Five Practices site http://fivepractices.org/, or at the Cokesbury site http://www.fivepractices.cokesbury.com/
– Pastor Haley]

If we are gourmets or gourmands, people who take great pleasure in cooking and eating food (and some of us are), the most important thing is the MEAL, the food experience.

If we are sports fans (and some of us are), whether Cubs, Sox, Bulls, Bears, or Blackhawks, who follow the game and wear the gear, the most important thing is the GAME.

If we are musicians (and some of us are), having learned and practiced for years, followers of the great artists and orchestras, the most important thing is the CONCERT.

If we are travelers (and some of us are), we drive old cars and budget and plan for months, all for the sake of the TRIP.

I could go on, but you get the point. Just as the meal is to eating and the game is to sports and the concert is to musicians and the trip is to travelers, so is WORSHIP to those of us who love God and follow Christ. Worship is where it all happens and comes together, the most important hour of the week. The congregation gathers, we praise God, we read the Scriptures, we pray, we give, we gather around God’s table, and we go forth to serve. Through worship, vibrant, fruitful, growing churches connect people to God and to each other.

We continue today with our study of the Five Practices for fruitful congregations and fruitful living. For those not here last week, the five practices come from two books written by Bishop Robert Schnase, Bishop of the Missouri area of the United Methodist Church, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (2007), and Five Practices of Fruitful Living (2010). These five practices are: Radical Hospitality. Passionate Worship. Intentional Faith Development. Risk-taking Mission and Service. Extravagant Generosity.

Last Sunday we learned that Radical Hospitality, receptivity to God and hospitality to others, is the first essential practice for fruitful congregations and living. This week it should come as no surprise to learn that Passionate Worship is the second essential practice of fruitful congregations and fruitful living. If Radical Hospitality is about receiving God’s love, Passionate Worship is about loving God in return.

There are three important things about these practices I would like to note. First, they are practices, not doctrines, not things we believe, but practices we do, and must continue to do, over and again. Just as no professional athlete or musician ever quits practicing, so no church congregation or faithful Christian can neglect these practices, at least not without effect. As the violinist Jascha Heifetz once said, “If I miss practice one day, I know; if I miss practice two days, the critics know; if I miss practice three days, the audience knows.” In the same way, if we as congregations or individuals neglect these practices, somebody will know.

Secondly, these practices are not done consecutively, meaning that we master one before we go to the next, but simultaneously, all together. Just as a basketball player has to run, dribble, shoot, play offense and defense, so it is with these practices. You can’t just do any one and get by. When we do them well, the church grows and our lives bear fruit; when we neglect them or do them poorly, the church declines and our lives are diminished. Which is the third thing, why the adjectives describing the practices are as important as the nouns themselves. It’s not just routine hospitality or passable worship, it’s Radical Hospitality and Passionate Worship. We give it our very best, heart, soul and mind and strength.

What is Passionate Worship? Passionate Worship is not defined by any particular style. It can be formal, with robes, acolytes, stained-glass, organ music, orchestral accompaniment, and hardwood pews with hymnals in the rack. Passionate worship can also take place in an auditorium, a gym, or a storefront, with casually dressed leaders, images on screens, folding chairs, and the beat of a praise team. Passionate Worship is authentic, engaging, and life-changing. It derives not from style, but from substance: from the experience of God’s presence, the desire of worshipers for God, and the changed heart we seek when we encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians. Passionate Worship leaves us challenged, inspired, led by the Spirit, and changes how we view our selves and our neighbors. One hour of passionate worship colors all the other hours of the week, and that’s why it’s so important, not to be missed.
This morning I am not going to argue this or lecture about it; the first fall I was here in 2007, I preached an entire series of sermons about worship. (You can still view them on our church website.) My guess is that all of us have experienced Passionate Worship. It’s like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Just as we can remember sermons we have struggled to stay awake through, music we have cringed at, and services that were boring and interminable; so we can also remember memorable preachers and sermons; music that has brought tears to our eyes (in a good way), prayers that have expressed the cries of our hearts, and participation of our bodies that has shaped our spirits, whether by standing to sing, kneeling in prayer or going forward to receive the sacraments.

I’m sure it has happened to you as it does to me, in different ways and different parts of the service, not always under our control. Sometimes, in sermons, the story told or the word spoken speaks to us. Sometimes, through music, the Spirit moves us, in a way words cannot. Sometimes during Holy Communion it gets to us, as all of us, different as we are, come forward to receive. In Passionate Worship it is beyond us, never totally within our control, when God reaches out to us and we reach out to God.

I’m sorry it has taken so long for many of us mainline, Protestant churches to understand how important worship is, and why it must be passionate, or we’d be better off not doing it at all. To illustrate its importance, hear two stories. Last week, I told you the story of Mitch. Hear today the representative stories of Linda and Helen.

Linda was in her early 40s when her husband died, leaving her to raise two young children by herself. Neither her family nor her husband’s were church people, so Linda regarded Christianity with skepticism and Christians with suspicion. A few years after her husband’s death, her daughters began attending youth activities at a nearby church with her friends. Today they were singing in the youth choir, and Linda wanted to be present to support them.

With no church background, attending worship was daunting. When she walked in the door, several people offered greetings, shook her hand, and gave her leaflets. She wasn’t sure where she was supposed to go, so she stood awkwardly watching people. Almost every pew already had people sitting at the ends, so she wasn’t sure if she was supposed to step over them or ask them to move down to make room for her. She felt self-conscious about every step she took. She found a place near the back.

The music began and people quieted down. She sorted through the announcements. Some piqued her curiosity – a recovery workshop, a financial management class, a Habitat for Humanity project; others remained a mystery, their purpose hidden behind acronyms she did not understand, such as the Acts 28 team, the Keystone class, or an Alpha–Omega Circle meeting. The Pastor began to speak, and the people around her responded in unison; then everyone stood and began to sing. Neither the tune nor the words were familiar, and Linda felt awkward. There followed a confusing mix of announcements, greetings, quotes from Scripture, and moving around. During the prayer someone mentioned a family by name that had lost a love one and requested prayers for them. There was silence as people throughout the sanctuary prayed for the grieving family. Linda remembered how alone she felt when her husband had died, and she wondered how it must feel to have people pray for you. What do the prayers do?” she wondered, but she felt moved by the compassion of the gesture.

At last the youth choir moved forward, and she watched her daughters sing with their friends. A sense of parental satisfaction surged through her as she listened. The refrain was beautiful and catchy. She liked it. Later the pastor told a story about a shepherd leaving the flock behind to search for the sheep that had gone astray. He said that the sheep had ”nibbled its way lost,” and Linda smiled at the line. “That’s how we get lost from God,” the pastor said. “We don’t intend to, but we go from one tuff of grass to another until we end up somewhere we never imagined.” Yet God loves us and searches for us and never gives up on us.” While Linda wasn’t sure what she believed about God, the message made her think about her own life.

As the service ended, the mother of one of her daughters’ friends came up to Linda and apologized for not noticing her sooner, gave her a gentle hug, and said how glad she was to see her. “Next time you’re here, let’s sit together,” a woman said. Something washed over Linda that moment that was sudden and profound. The words touched her. Before that moment, she had never imagined returning for worship. As if a thread of grace had been cast across a great chasm, she felt a connection ever so tenuous and yet full of promise. She returned to her car and sat there for several minutes. ”What do I do with this?” she asked herself. “What just happened?” The refrains of her daughter’s song was running through her mind, she was praying for a grieving family she didn’t even know, she was thinking about that sheep nibbling its way lost, and she was smiling about the invitation to return.

In contrast to Linda, let’s consider Helen. Helen grew up active in the Christian faith. At her baptism as an infant, her parents vowed to support her growth in grace. As young girl, she loved worship. She learned songs in Vacation Bible School, led youth services, and worshiped outdoors at summer camp. At confirmation, she committed herself to follow Christ. At her wedding, she and her husband made public their covenant before God, right there at the altar. Helen adapted different patterns of worship with each phase of her life, shaped by the activities of her children and her own changing needs. Frequently, she assisted with communion, served as a lay reader of Scripture, worked as an usher, and volunteered for the worship committee.

Helen became one of those people to whom others instinctively turn for insight and counsel. She wore the mantle of spiritual encourager with great humility. She was even-tempered, warm, open, and gracious.

She loved Scripture, and each year would sign up to participate in Bible study. Her comments always had a different quality to them, profoundly personal, reflective, and engaging. Scripture is not merely about people “over there, back then,” but about our own lives. She’d quietly say, ”I feel that God may be telling me something through this story …” She allowed herself to be shaped by God’s Spirit.

For instance, a single sermon moved her to organize a prayer group. She and five friends met weekly for years to encourage one another’s growth in Christ. In another sermon she sensed God’s call to initiate a literacy-tutoring ministry among immigrant families. A service about tithing set her on the path of increased giving, and this inspired her to teach others the spiritual significance of generosity. Through a Walk to Emmaus retreat, she felt the spirit prompt her to a deeper life of prayer and of teaching prayer. The retreat invigorated her love for Holy Communion, and she came to regard the sacrament as one of the most important practices of her spiritual life.

Helen’s rich interior life overflowed into the lives of others. At times she’d even step into the pastor’s office and ask if she could pray. ”Prayer,” she’d say, “is about desiring God, not just desiring something from God.” Her soul work helped others with theirs.

Helen invited people into the life of the church, intuitively knowing the right things to say and do to make guests feel at home in worship. She made room in the church for strangers, becoming a friend and encourager.

Helen was diagnosed with cancer when she was in her mid 50s. For two years she faced the uncertain and anguishing rhythm of progress and set back. All those people she had loved came back into her own life as caregivers and prayer partners. She grew weaker physically, but continued to strengthen everyone around. Friends and family gathered with her for a service of healing. They shared Communion and surrounded her with prayer. People found themselves overwhelmed by her graciousness, her sense of peace, and the ease by which she accepted death itself as a kind of grace. When she died, her funeral was a celebration of her life, an expression of gratitude to God for a life well lived. Helen taught us how to live, and how to die. She was deep-hearted, generous, grounded, and wise. She became that kind of person through a lifetime of worship.

Imagine if we could extract from Helen’s life all the formative worship experiences that shaped her. Imagine if we could remove from her heart, mind, and soul all the thousands of worship services; tens of thousands of hymns, sermons, and prayers; the church’s songs and campfire devotions. Imagine if we could take away the baptismal vows taken by her parents, the commitment she made her confirmation, the covenant she embraced at her wedding, the renewals she experienced through the sacrament. Imagine if we could take away all the morning prayers, the blessings before meals, the prayers she taught at the bedside of her children, the intercessions others offered for her. After extracting all these experiences from her life, who would she be?

We would not recognize her as the same person, because the lifelong practice of loving God changed her. Worship changed how she viewed herself and her relationship with God; informed her sense of purpose and drew her toward others; through worship, God called her to make a difference in the world and she responded. In worship, she made the most critical decisions and commitments of her life. Worship gave her depth and coherence, a purpose that was irreplaceable, and that was only achievable by the path she took in following Christ. Her life was saturated with grace. Through worship, Helen became someone she otherwise never would’ve become.

We began with Linda feeling awkward, yet curious, just beginning to discover the rhythm, strength, and belonging that comes with the practice of loving God. We end with Helen, for whom worship was life.

At whatever stage of faith we find ourselves, God uses passionate worship to reach us, to change our hearts, and to make us God’s own. Through passionate worship, we love God in return, and like Helen, are thereby formed into faithful followers of Jesus the Christ.

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