Deuteronomy 6:4-9, John 4:20-24
Rev. Doug Van Doren
Here we are gathered as the church in worship. Worship is fundamental to what we do. It is the place and time when we are gathered as the church, not only on behalf of those of us who are present, but also on behalf of those who are part of the fellowship but are NOT present.
Worship is what we have done every Sunday, and on special occasions and holidays, ever since this church was founded. It is what our forebears did before that, back to the early church, and before that, to our Jewish forebears.
But what is worship, for you, and for us at Plymouth? Why do we worship? Whom do we worship? How do we worship? Plymouth clearly has an identity. What is its worship identity? We will be reflecting on this today and next Sunday. (This Sunday will be more the "who" and "why," next Sunday more the "how.")
I say "we" will explore, as worship is the work of the people. That is, even when not participating directly in singing or liturgy, the congregation is still attending, thinking, feeling, pondering what is said and done. Worship is active engagement, not a spectator sport. (Though I dare say I have often seen more active engagement from people sitting on the couch watching football on Sunday afternoon!)
This reflection is not at all to say what any one of us should or should not do in worship. It is not at all to say that one should have a particular understanding of God or worship as an individual. We come with many needs and perspectives. That is fine. Worship is individual, but it is also communal. So we will look more at the communal and reflect more, as I said, on what underlies our worship at Plymouth and our worship identity.
I said that we are gathered to worship. But we gather, even on Sunday morning, for other reasons as well, some of which are more primary for some of us than worship, and that is OK. We gather for fellowship. We gather to organize, communicate, and celebrate our response to God in our corporate life and mission. We gather for education and inspiration. And hopefully there is, along the way, some entertainment as well. This all is part of who we are, and part of our identity. People are welcome wherever they are in faith's journey, and whatever their reason for being here. As a community the major part of our gathering, along with those other things, is to worship.
What is Christian worship? The introduction to the UCC's Book of Worship begins with that question. It goes on to say, "The answers to that question reflect the rich diversity of Christ's church and account for more than a few of its divisions. There is no definition that exhausts the scope of the question. Every answer raises more questions and cautions humility in the presence of all that is holy. Where definitions are elusive, descriptions become an alternative."
It reminds us further that "Christian worship cannot be understood apart from the Jewish worship that first cradled and nurtured it. Like worship in Judaism, Christian worship is the glad response of total individuals - through "heart, soul, strength, and mind" - to the saving acts of God in history. It is the communal and personal celebration in the universal church of God's love for creation and for every human being. This divine love is revealed in God's gracious covenant with the people of Israel and in God's coming into the world in Jesus Christ."
So those are broad, somewhat technical examples of what worship is. It is "glad" response. It is gratitude for the "saving acts of God." But, of course, even those statements reflect a particular image of God, and are influenced still out of their origins in a Jewish sacrificial system.
It seems to me that there are a couple of dominant attitudes about worship (about God) that influence people's thinking, our thinking as well, even if we don't agree with the image of God underlying them. One is more historical and one more recent; maybe a response to the first.
Historically, the cross dominated theology and worship in much of the church, particularly in many of the Reformed and Baptist traditions. In that worship perspective there is a fear (often legitimate) that we will think more highly of ourselves than we ought. So concerned are they about the propensity for us to want to usurp God's place, that nothing positive about humans seems to be acknowledged or celebrated. The perpetual need is to really get it through our thick sculls how bad we are (totally depraved) and how utterly dependent we are on God to save us - through the sacrifice on the cross. The problem is, however, that they seem to forget that the Church stands on the Easter side of the cross and tomb!
Though the Christians took over many elements of Jewish worship, the fundamental change was in the day of Sabbath and worship. It was moved to the first day of the week. That is a theological statement of the profoundest order. Every Sunday is a little Easter. That is further emphasized in the Protestant Church by the empty cross. But it is more than the resurrection of Jesus that is celebrated. It is a celebration of what that symbolizes, which is new life, new beginnings for the world and for each of us. It is an affirmation and celebration of what God has already done and is doing. It is an affirmation that God has the last (and best) word! That underlies our worship. We don't have to force God to be God. We don't have to cajole, bribe, or charm God into caring for us!
This understanding is reflected in the Call to Worship we sometimes use:
We are here to celebrate God's abiding love, not to beg for belief.
We are here not to beg for another chance, but to humbly receive forgiveness and new life in Christ.
We are here not to be gatekeepers of God's realm, but rather to be stewards of God's extravagant welcome and abundant love.
We are here not to create the world, but to participate in building the world God intends.
Though we believe in deep reflection and confession, for we know our weakness and our propensity for evil (more about that later), we are the part of the Christian divide that more emphasizes that humans are created in God's image, rather than the side that emphasizes the fall of humanity.
Then there is another theology and style of worship that is all praise! I am not sure that it is very different theologically or at least in its view of humanity from the first, but rather than reflecting as much on how awful we are, it emphasizes how good God is, despite how awful we are, if we repent and praise properly. There is a lot of emphasis on thanksgiving and that we have been saved (gotten it right). This perspective on worship also tends to be much more individualistic than corporate and communal. God tends to be seen more as the judge and the problem solver.
Both of these approaches seem naturally to tend toward exclusion with an "us/them" (insider/outsider) result.
At Plymouth, as in all worship, our perspective on God determines our worship. We run the gamut in our individual perspectives about God, but corporately we tend toward an understanding of God as very vast, limitless, the very "ground of being" to borrow an old phrase from Paul Tillich. We often use names, and anthropomorphic language, such as "being held in God's hand;" those images that speak of God's love and care. And though many among us enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus, corporately we tend more in worship to relate to God the Creator - vast, incomprehensible, the force of creation whose love we see in human form in Jesus.
We are NOT dominated by a sacrificial system that says Jesus had to die to save us from God's wrath. We understand that, steeped in a completely sacrificial system, that is the only language and image the early church had to speak of God's presence in Jesus. But that system and way of understanding the world and ourselves before God largely doesn't compute for us. This is made more difficult by the fact that the sacrificial system and theology of one point in Christian history has colored how we interpret some of the biblical language about Jesus.
We see and celebrate, in worship, the love and self-sacrifice of God in Jesus. That is for us individually, but not just for individuals. It is also, perhaps primarily, for the world, as John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world." So the world, and our call to respond and follow, is central to our worship as well. Thus, our worship, we would hope and intend, invites and unites.
We do not primarily see God as the "puller of strings" or the "dispenser of goodies." Neither do we see God as the one who is "making a list and checking it twice, who's gonna find out who's naughty or nice." So the point of our worship is not to remind us how bad we are and how we better get right with God before it's too late. (We tend to beat up on ourselves as it is.) Neither is our worship to show God how righteous and full of praise we are. Nor is it to badger God into giving us all the things we think we need.
It is, rather, to bring our whole selves more consciously before that Presence which is loving and good, that Presence which is so much bigger and better than we are. It is to align ourselves with God and God's intention for the world. That leads us to acknowledge in confession that, left to our own devises, we make a hash of things - we become self-centered, self-absorbed, self-sufficient, and are capable of carrying or supporting unspeakable evil. We begin to think and act like we are God; and other people and the world are to serve us.
To align ourselves with God necessarily means engaging our intellect. In sermon particularly, we explore the scriptures and ourselves. We are always seeking to learn and grow in love and knowledge. But probably we are among much of Protestantism that has overplayed the exposition of the word and the use of the intellect as almost the sole means of responding to and accessing God. Though we have a deep conviction that what we say and believe must wash with our intellect, we ought not to worship as though the intellect is the only way we connect with the holy and even with each other.
We are talking about God who is spirit. We are engaged in things too deep for words. In our feeble attempts to open and align ourselves with God's intention for us and the world, in our desire to give thanks and praise for the One who comes among us in love and life, we sing, we pray, we meditate.
Music of many styles carries our hopes and joys, gives utterance to our spirit echoing God's spirit, and calls us to a deeper connection with the Holy. We understand that symbol, sacrament, and ritual can carry deep meaning, and we open ourselves to God's presence in a way that we cannot fully understand or initiate.
In worship we "remember" Jesus Christ in whom we see God present among us-in whom we see God's love and call most clearly reflected. And we respond to the invitation to be fed in a deep spiritual way - for many, a mystical way - that is beyond what we know and control.
For, we are here "Not to beg for another chance, but to humbly receive forgiveness and new life in Christ. We are here not to create the world, but to participate in building the world God intends." Yet again, today, we are invited to the table, where all are welcome.