The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Second Sunday in Lent
Part 2 of Sermon Series “Practicing Christian”
This Sunday we’re continuing our sermon series on the Six Marks of Discipleship, or Six Spiritual Practices for following Jesus. This week, the topic is worship, and it’s meaning, why it’s important. Following worship we’ll have a mini-seminar that does deeper into the nuts and bolts of an actual worship service. So stick around after the service to go deeper.
But back to the what and the why.
This past week I was listening to an album by this Mississippi born blues and gospel singer Leo “Bud” Welch. [slide] Fascinating life story—he began recording at the age of 82, was signed to a record contract, toured the world, then died at 85.
I was listening to this one pretty rockin’ blues song that’s all about all about attending worship. And in it, there’s this great line: “I don’t know what you come to do,” he sings, “I don’t know what you come to do/but I come to praise his name.”
On one level, I love it. Because it’s got that tongue-in-cheek swagger you get in hip hop. Normally it would be bragging about how amazing, rich, or badass you are to a woman. But here it’s applied to God. All these other phonies come to impress each other, but I come to impress the Lord. It’s funny in that way.
It’s funny, but I think it also illustrates how many of us, inside and outside think of worship. I don’t know what you come to do, but I come to impress the Lord. It’s this idea that God somehow needs our worship. That God needs us to tell God how great she is, otherwise she’s hurt or offended. And not only that, but God needs us to impress him with the heartfelt nature of our songs, or the top-notch quality of our lives.
On one hand, it makes God seem needy, seem petty. On the other, it makes God seem like a taskmaster demanding piety in exchange for blessing. Which really is the road to either a sense of perpetual unworthiness for not being able to live up. Or a sense of divine ego and self satisfaction. And eventually, hypocrisy.
But this reveals a misunderstanding about the meaning worship. Worship isn’t something we do for God. It’s the other way around. It’s something God does for us. Worship’s for us, not for God. We’ve got it backwards. God doesn’t need our worship. We need worship.
God doesn’t need worship, we do. And today’s scripture passage from Exodus is a sterling example. I’ll admit that I read this passage once, maybe four years ago, and it just lodged in my brain. So finally I’ve had a chance to get it out. It really does illuminate the meaning of worship.
First of all, we need worship because it’s an encounter with the divine. The sacred, the transcendent.
“Go meet Moses in the wilderness,” says God to Aaron, Moses’ brother. Moses has been hiding out in the wilderness since he killed a brutal Egyptian slave-driver. And they meet it says, at the mountain of God. In the biblical view of the world, mountains are this mid-point place between heaven and earth. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls it the “place of ultimate encounter.”[i] It’s this mountain where Moses bumped into God, hearing the divine voice through a burning bush. This place where the divine world and the human world touch. They overlap.
This space relocates a few times in the Old Testament, settling for the temple in Jerusalem. That’s where the divine presence can be met, a specific place. But in the New Testament, Jesus says that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And in the gospel of John, Jesus says that worship won’t have to happen on a mountain, or a temple, but can happen anywhere “in spirit and in truth.” Anywhere God’s people are gathered together can be this place of encounter where God’s Spirit is present, and the truth is spoken.
It’s what ancient Celtic people would call a “thin space,” where the division between heavenly and earthly is permeable. Few of us would say that God is simply an important idea. So many of us have had these amazing experiences of beauty, and love that seem to go way deeper than just genes, chemicals and atoms. It’s more than an idea or a concept. It’s coming into contact with a living spiritual reality that’s bigger than us, beyond us.
While we can feel it anywhere, worship’s like Aaron’s visit to the mountain. It’s a place where, if the conditions are right, we’re able to feel in our hearts and our bones, the presence of God.
Worship’s for us, because we need to know there’s more to life than we can see. We need worship because experience makes all this God talk concrete. It makes it real.
Second, worship’s for us because we need to hear Good News.
Next it says that Moses and Aaron go back to Egypt, where their people still live under the yoke of slavery. They gather the people, it says, and Aaron performs the signs and speaks all of the words that God had spoken to Moses. And what God said to Moses a chapter before, is essentially this: “I have seen you. I have heard your people’s cries. I have come down, and I will deliver you from slavery.” Moses delivers gospel—good news. That the transcendant, that “something” bigger than us, is personal—sees us. And not only sees us, but is moved by human suffering, pain and oppression. And not only moved by our suffering and pain, but is with us, side by side in solidarity. And acts to deliver.
On one hand it’s good news for those who are literally the world’s slaves. Those of us who are beaten down by poverty, exploitation, hunger and abuse by the Pharaohs of the world. It says that God is not neutral. God not only wants justice and equity for those under the boot of oppression, but is actually engaged in razing Pharoah’s kingdom to the ground and planting a new and better one.
On the other hand, it’s also good news for those of us who are figuratively slaves. We’re slaves to power, to money. whether we’ve got too much, or don’t have enough. We’re servants to uppers and downers of all kinds, and our own egos. We’re beaten down by shame, sadness, self-loathing. One way or another we’re under lock and key, with no way out.
Either way, worship’s for us, because in Egypt, we need to know there’s a power greater than Pharoah. One that promises to deliver, based not on our action, our deserving, or our merit, but simply because the heart of the universe loves us. Sees the chains of our sufferings, and promises a jailbreak. Promises deliverance, promises salvation. We need to know that “there[‘s] life outside the empire.”[ii] We need worship to hear Good News of Grace in a Bad News world where the devil and Pharaoh seem to reign supreme.
Third, worship’s for us, because our lives need re-orientation.
It says after Aaron delivers this word of grace and hope, that the people “believed.” That they heard the good news that God had taken notice of them and their misery. And then it says, “they bowed down and worshipped.” There’s the word itself right there. I don’t know about you, but this always for me conjures images of people graveling. Like Wayne and Garth on Wayne’s World, “we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy.” And the word in Hebrew does mean “to bow down.” But bowing down means something more than showing you’re a worm. In the ancient world it’s a sign of allegiance, a pledge of exclusive obedience to a king. They’re throwing in their lot with God over their slavemaster Pharaoh.
Worship means putting on the jersey of a whole new team. It means putting our hearts to, and orienting our lives to a God who sees us, is with us in our suffering, and promises us liberation. Which also means shifting our loyalty away from our Pharaohs. Pharoahs of greed, addiction, exploitation. Pharaohs of violence, and false security, and self-justification. Pharaohs of suffering, depression, and doubt. False gods who are all blind to our plight, ignore our suffering, and use us for their own gain. Those things in our lives that demand everything, promise everything, but in the end give nothing.[iii] That’s what we mean when we say things like “Jesus is Lord.” It means Pharoah isn’t. It means Caesar isn’t. It means nothing else, nobody else, in heaven or on earth is.
Worship’s for us because we need re-orientation. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need worship because we need to be pulled away from all the false gods who enslave us with false promises, and be set on the liberating path to freedom leading into the heart of God. We need to be reminded week after week after week after week who we belong to and who gives life. And who brings death. God over Pharaoh.
And now finally. Fourthly, you could say. Worship’s for us because we need to be empowered to act.
The next thing Moses and Aaron do is they go to Egypt. They confront Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the world, a divine human, and they deliver a message from God: (get out your best Charleton Heston impression): “let my people go.” This encounter with transcendence, this hearing of good news, this shift of life-orientation and perspective. This gives Moses and Aaron the courage to not just escape captivity. But it gives them the strength, the power to face down evil for their own sake. And the sake of their fellow human beings.
Now, often, people will say that you can be a good person without God. Which is true, actually. Or, they might say that “it’s about what you do, not about what you believe.” That’s a favorite of a lot of United Church people, actually. One United Church person told me that the real work is in the world, and that worship is all just a show. A meaningless pageant.
Which it can be.
But the ultimate end of worship is always being freed, and being empowered to act for the good of the world God loves. That’s why our tag line is Inviting, Inspiring and Investing. Coming into a relationship with the divine, being freed and healed by good news, and re-orienting our lives towards God is always for the purpose of God’s mission to tear down Egypt, to demolish the kingdom of Hell, by empowering us to seek justice, and resist evil. As the United Church’s New Creed says.
Maybe some people can do that alone. But I can tell you that I can’t. I’m too selfish, personally, too cowardly left to my own devices. But the moments that I’ve surprised myself have always been acts of faith. Built on a courage that is not my own.
Worship’s for us, because God’s mission is healing liberation that, and the mission field is right outside these doors. And we need worship because we can’t do it ourselves. We need God, because we can’t face our Pharaohs on our own.
That’s the fourth and final point.
Friends, brothers and sisters. Fellow Egyptian captives. Worship is good news. It’s good news because we need an encounter with transcendence. We need to hear and experience liberating good news. We need re-orientation on the path that leads to life that makes us courageous bearers of love, justice and mercy. So maybe once a week isn’t too much to ask.
In the words of our boasting friend Bud Welch, I don’t know what you come to do. But I come for all of the above. Not because God needs anything from me. But because I need God. And God has promised me everything I need. Everything we need. Everything the world needs. Now to eternity.
Worship isn’t for God. Worship is for us. And that, my friends, is good news. The best, in fact.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 1, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 718.
[ii] Brueggemann, Exodus, 719.
[iii] Susan Ratray, “Worship,” in The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, rev. ed, ed. Paul Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), 1222.