Sermon preached November 14, 2010
Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 22:1-5
This past week we celebrated Veteran’s Day in our county – giving thanks to those who have served the United States in the military. Some churches have large wall plaques commemorating members who served in the military and lost their lives in the line of duty. In one such church, the pastor noticed one of his young parishioners, a boy named Alex staring at that church’s plaque. It was impressive, covered with names and with small flags on either side. The pastor walked over, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.” “Good morning pastor. What is this all about?” “Well, Alex, this is a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.” Without saying a word, the two stood there for a while. Finally, Alex broke the silence. “In the service, which one, 9 or 11?”
One of many memorable lines from the television program M*A*S*H had Major Frank Burns tell a prominent military chaplain that he attended church services as often as he could. “It’s a great way to kill an hour.” A great way to kill an hour? Sometimes worship is one of the few events that can make an hour seem like it is seventy minutes long.
So worship is sometimes difficult, dull, removed from life. Sometimes the sermon is off the mark, or the music is all unfamiliar. Worship can be more, can be better, but I want to ask those of us gathered here – why worship?
Why worship? Listening to some Christians, and some other religionists as well, you could get the impression that God is a God who needs to keep hearing how wonderful God is. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg writes, “Worship is not about God needing praise” (157). That he feels the need to write this says that there are some who seem to think that is just what worship is about – God needing praise, God needing to hear how wonderful God is, and if God does not get the praise and adoration God deems deserving, well, God gets peeved. We worship to keep the angry God at bay. I don’t think this is very good theology or spirituality, especially not if our spirituality is rooted in Jesus, but we would be less than honest if we did not admit that there is sometimes a fear factor in why people worship.
If we are sometimes unsure about why we worship, we can also be uncertain as to what constitutes good worship. The invitation to worship for this morning used three statements – all of them from an inventory used to determine “spiritual types.” The author of that work argues that there is no one way to be spiritual. None of those statements is meant as the bottom line truth about worship, though persons of particular spiritual types think so.
Worship is complicated stuff. We are not always sure why we worship, and sometimes fear lurks there. We disagree about what makes for good worship. Yet we know worship is central to Christian faith, life and spirituality – we knew it before we read Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, yet because many of us are reading it worship and beauty are today’s themes. And if we accomplish nothing else this morning, I hope we will see the link between worship and beauty as important elements in a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and I hope we will drive the fear out of worship.
Why worship? What is worship about so that it draws us in? Marcus Borg is right, worship is not about God needing praise, but he is also right in saying that worship is about praising God. But worship, though centered on God, is not just about God. It is also about our lives in relationship to God. Pamela Dickey Young (Recreating the Church, 109): Worship is said to glorify God and sanctify the human being. Worship is focused attention to God and to God’s presence…. Worship glorifies God by noticing God, by being “set apart” moments in time and space where Christians concentrate on the God-human relationship. Worship is about God, and about the human relationship to God. In encountering God, in paying attention to God, we are changed. In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “at its core, worship is an experience that transforms the heart” (177).
What sort of experience. Butler Bass tells the story of Eric, a pastor. Trying to think about the heart of worship during a study leave, Eric one summer day was sitting on the dock of a lakeside cabin. As he stared at the water, the largest bass he had ever seen swam by Eric was filled with wonder and awe. Eric: “This is the foundation of worship. If you can take an hour on Sunday morning and open people to experiencing just a quarter-second of awe, wonder and surrender you just experienced, it is accomplished.” (173). Similarly, Marcus Borg writes about worship as a thin place, a place where we encounter God in wonder, awe and mystery. The Christian life is about the “hatching of the heart,” the opening of the self to the Spirit of God by spending time in “thin places” – those places and practices through which we become open to and nourished by the Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being (The Heart of Christianity, 161).
Worship is about praising God, expressing gratitude for the good gifts of life. It is about wonder and awe and mystery and thin places. It is also about celebration. Kent Ira Groff: “Genuine worship is celebrating God’s work in people’s lives” (The Soul of Tomorrow’s Church, 54). We gather to pay attention to where God has been in our lives, trusting that we may catch glimpses of where God is moving into the future. We pay attention and celebrate. Butler Bass: “Christian worship embodies the full range of emotions any person would experience in celebration, from sorrow to mirth…. Christian celebration… participates in God’s festival of life and shalom” (177). Worship helps us notice good things and among those good things is that we are still here – individually and collectively – and that is good!
We celebrate God’s work in people’s lives, and one way to characterize that work of God in the world is beauty. Read the texts in the Bible that try to describe the direction of God in the world, texts like Isaiah 65 and Revelation 22. God is creating a new heaven and new earth. Houses will go up and vineyards will blossom – and they will be enjoyed. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.” There will be a river, ‘bright as crystal” flowing from God. The trees along the river are fruitful and the leaves are “for the healing of the nations.” Only beautiful visions can grasp something of what God is doing in the world. I like the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. God “is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by [God’s] vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, quoted in Mesle, Process-Relational Philosophy, 86). Only beautiful words can describe what God is doing in the world because God’s work is beauty.
Beauty is not an easy concept to define. Writing about beauty and worship, Pamela Dickey Young writes “by beauty I mean that which evokes satisfaction in all its senses, a balancing of harmony and intensity that allows one to enter into the fullness of life” (111). Another theologian writes “beauty is that which glistens on the edges of our yearnings and lures us into the depth of things” (Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God, 1). God’s work in the world is creating beauty – a beauty which includes justice and peace and reconciliation, and healing of the nations. When we encounter beauty, it changes us, and worship is intended to be an encounter with beauty in some form or another. Beauty is intended to change us. Author Sam Keen in Hymns To An Unknown God pens these words: "Throughout my life, beauty, more than any argument, has persuaded me of the blessedness of this world” (123). Beauty opens us up, engages our mind, enlarges our hearts. Good worship is beautiful, and beauty makes itself know in worship as the work of God which we celebrate. We worship because we need to, because we need to encounter the beauty of the poet God which changes us.
Out of all the instinctual needs we human have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54)
But beauty is better experienced than discussed. This has been a rather learned sermon, lots of quotes, but in the end, I want to give way to beauty – images, music, and a poem.
[ played: John Coltrane, “After The Rain” with 24 slides @ 5 seconds, ending with Denise Levertov poem read while the music was still playing.]
Denise Levertov, “Primary Wonder”
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.