*This sermon is the first in a series entitled "Common Worship: Themes for Zion's Worship Life" and was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, August 19,2012.
Worship is God-centered. Of course it is! Duhhh! What else would it be? Well, it could be about the people who come to worship, socializing, following the order of worship in the bulletin, a particular style of music, finishing on time, meeting human needs, evangelism, keeping a liturgical tradition, or any number of things besides God.
I remember a very formal, high church worship service I once attended at the Washington Cathedral as a delegate for Mennonite Church USA. The high arched ceiling, sculptures of the apostles, elaborate clerical garb, colorful drapes, and stained glass windows were visually overwhelming for this low-church Mennonite. Every tiny detail of the liturgy was carefully scripted and led by professional clergy. It all fit into an ancient pattern including processional, waving of an incense contraption, antiphonal responses to the reading of Holy Scripture, recitation of the Apostle’s creed, and recessional; just to name of few of the worship elements. Was this worship? It was for many people gathered that evening. But, for me, I was so caught up in the externals of worship that encountering God in that space was far from my mind. I was more concerned about what was happening next in the bulletin! It was probably my own subjective experience that kept me from focusing on God, which was not the intent of the worship service itself. Nevertheless, worship had become about something other than God.
Worship is all about God. “Let us sing to the Lord!” says the psalmist. Psalm 95 is a hymn of praise that was used in Israel’s worship life. The word worship is an Old English word worthscipe meaning to create worthiness or worth-ship. Of course, we don’t create God’s worthiness, but we do create liturgy, which literally means “people’s work,” as a means of ascribing worth to God.
Worship is about attributing worthiness to God, pure and simple. The psalmist describes God as worthy of our praise in titles like Lord, rock of our salvation, great, King, above all gods, Creator and Sustainer of the mountains, of earth’s depths, the sea and dry land, and humanity. In response we offer worship through singing, making a joyful noise, coming into God’s presence, and kneeling before God. These are means to an end. Each of these forms is secondary to worship itself, which is ascribing “worthiness” to God. The psalmist makes clear what worship is all about. When we gather for worship it is not about style or harmony or perfectly crafted liturgies or performing for an audience. Worship is about attributing worth and praise to the Lord.
The psalmist invites us to sing praise to the Lord! Singing is about praising God. It is not about vocal skill or technical performance or musical preferences. For us Mennonites, we translate “sing” as four part harmony. As a newer Mennonite of 25 years, I can appreciate four part harmony. It is a beautiful sound. When I first heard the old hymn 606 after a conference in Kansas, I was amazed by this classical sounding music sung in parts and that a congregation could immediately turn into a choir without rehearsal! I can appreciate the beauty of harmony in acapella singing.
But, the psalmist doesn’t appear to be too concerned with the aesthetics of sound in worship when he goes on to say, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.” The Hebrew word can be translated as “a joyful shout, cry, blast, or battle yell.” Yaaahoo! Praise God! Not much harmony in a shout of praise! And yet, it is a means of praising God.
I take seriously the implications of making a joyful noise as praise to God. Though some of us here at Zion may not agree, drumming is means of praising God. Last Sunday I was praising God! Someone might say, “Drums are not for praising God. They’re just a bunch of noise.” Admittedly, there is more noise than harmony in drumming. But, the psalmist says, “make a joyful noise to the Lord.” Noise can be a form of praise to God, a method of worship. I even call my drumming program for churches, “A Joyful Noise.” My point is, the psalmist says that even noise, a loud shout of joy, like Hallelujah!, is a way of worshipping God. Worshiping God can be done with melody and harmony, but also rhythm and noise, if it is done in praise to God. The means of worship is secondary to the subject of worship; God.
First, God-centered worship means that worship is focused upon our encounter with God. More than getting to sing our favorite hymns, more than seeing old friends, more than fulfilling a Christian duty, more than promoting church events, worship is first and foremost about experiencing God. That may graciously happen through the channel of liturgy, hymns, proclaimed word, broken bread, and blessing. But, those outward, human words and events are the means to an end and not the end in and of themselves. Preaching professor Thomas Long reminds us: People are not hungry for more worship services, for more hymns, sermons, and anthems. They are hungry for experiences of God, which can come through worship; in the primal sense, this hunger is what beckons people to worship.
Granted, we cannot control or arrange people’s encounter with God, even with the most beautiful singing and powerful proclamation. The pastor, worship leaders, and song leaders at Zion will only encounter futility if we think we can plan for ultimate Mystery to erupt within our order of service. And yet, we do seek to evoke the Spirit and to enhance the possibility of our encounter with God through the liturgy.
Second, God-centered worship means that God is the subject of our worship. Our liturgy, our singing, our proclamation, our elements of worship should have God at the center. If God is the subject of our worship, then we may need to re-evaluate some elements of our order of worship. For some time I have wondered about the intrusion that announcements seem to make within a worship service, even when they are framed as opportunities of service to God. In other congregational settings I have advocated for announcements to be placed before or after the worship service itself. Announcements are mostly about reminders of events and the housekeeping chores of the church and less directed toward worship of God. In God-centered worship every element of worship is directed toward God in some form or fashion.
Questions we might ask of our own worship life: Do we direct most of the elements of our worship service toward the worshippers or the one we worship? Are our offerings more for church maintenance than in praise and thanks to God? Is our focus in singing upon the notes, the melody, the harmony, or God to whom we sing? Does the sermon point us to the preacher or to God? In God-centered worship the elements of the liturgy point us to God.
Third, God-centered worship means there must be preparation and engagement in worship. By focusing upon the magnificence of the Washington Cathedral, the elaborate liturgy, and my place in the processional and recessional, I directed my spirit away from God, the true subject of worship. It’s so easy to enter the worship service with our minds focused on talking to friends, thinking about what I have to do after the service, will I miss my seat at the restaurant if the service runs late, concerned about what the young people are wearing to church, or any number of things besides preparing my spirit to be open to an encounter with God through the word, song, visuals, or prayer.
Do we pray before we come to worship? God, speak to me through this worship service today? Do we reflect on the proclaimed word? God, how can I apply your word to my life? Do we sing our hymns to God or to ourselves? God, I sing praise to you! Do we join our hearts together in the corporate prayers? God, I too pray for those who are grieving. Worship can easily slip into an unconscious routine in which our hearts, minds, and spirits are disengaged and we go through the motions of the order of worship like putting parts together on an assembly line or washing the laundry. Didn’t we do the same thing last week? Sing, pray, hear a children’s story, listen to a sermon, receive a blessing? Been there done that. We can walk through worship like a sleepwalker moving through the house at night.
Worship is more than sitting through a weekly routine of repeated elements we have done for years. If it is primarily about encountering God, then we must prepare ourselves for worship and be open to engaging ourselves in the worship experience with an openness and attentiveness to meeting God.
Not only is worship about God, it is about how we worship God. We see this in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. She tried to sidetrack him from discussing the moral issue of having numerous husbands and living with one without being married. She switched the subject to worship. “So, you’re having this relationship problem, eh?” “Uh…. uh, what are your views on contemporary praise songs.” She noticed that Jesus is a prophet. I guess she figured this out because he asked her an uncomfortable question. Prophets have a habit of doing that.
Samaritans claimed their worship was the true religion of the ancient Israelites. They had some different means for worshipping God from the Jews. Their sacred text was their own version of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, with a significantly different version of the 10 Commandments. They rejected the post-Torah books of the Bible and the Talmud or rabbinical writings. Mt. Gerazim, not Jerusalem, was for them the true place of worship.
The Samaritan woman wanted to debate worship with Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” And debates over worship have continued to this day.
The Samaritan woman was focusing upon the differences in the location of their worship places; Mt. Gerizim vs. Mt. Moriah. The Samaritan woman’s attempt to put worship spaces is conflict serves as a fitting symbol for our contemporary “worship wars,” or should I say “worship skirmishes,” with our focus turning toward our differences in preferred outward forms of worship.
You say worship should be in Jerusalem, but we say it is in Mt. Gerizim. You say worship should be in a sacred cathedral, but I say it should be in a plain old meetinghouse? You say worship should be traditional, but I think it should be contemporary? You say worship should be with organs and pianos, but I say it should be with guitars and drums? You say worship should follow old worship traditions, but I say it should be creative and experimental? You say worship should be formal and serious, but I say it should be informal and joyful. And so the debate about worship that the Samaritan woman wanted to start with Jesus has been passed down through the ages. So, today we have what we unfortunately refer to as “worship wars.”
We will discuss “worship wars” more when we come to my sermon on blended worship. But, let me just say that “worship wars” usually occur when take our focus off God as the subject of worship, get caught up in the different, outward forms of worship, and insist that our preferred style dominate.
Jesus’ responds to the Samaritan woman’s attempt to sidetrack him with a worship debate. He appears to start off his response by reinforcing the differences in worship among the Samaritans and the Jews. Jesus said, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” His comments don’t seem like the best way to talk about someone else’s religion! Whatever you make of Jesus’ response, he seems to suggest that worship has a concreteness, a historical, cultural, and traditional situatedness about it one does not easily transcend. Jesus ties worship to a particular chosen people, the Jews. He doesn’t seem to be able to transcend the “Jewishness” of worship in his response to the Samaritan woman, Jesus Christ, why can’t you think more ecumenically, more interfaith, more universal! Jesus, you’re just too…too… Jewish!
There are some things we can’t transcend in our religious lives. Religion is always situated within some particular history, culture, and tradition. That’s why I get frustrated with Mennonites who, when I emphasize the importance of our Anabaptist tradition, I often hear something like, “Why emphasize being Anabaptists? We should just be Christians!” My response? Please, show me this generic or universal Christian that you want us rather to be. There is no such creature.
My hunch is that most often what the person who says these kinds of things means by “Christian” is “Evangelical Christian.” I don’t imagine that their idea of a generic or universal “Christian” means Russian Orthodox, Pentecostal snakehandlers, or Weaverland Amish! Every Christian is formed by a particular history, tradition, culture, forms and practices. There is no such thing as a generic Christian, any more than Jesus was some amorphous New Age, universalist, transcendental, Spirit-person. The early church rejected this kind of Gnostic, unearthly, spiritualized Jesus. Jesus was an orthodox, and sometime unorthodox, Jew whose understanding of religion and worship was tied particularly to the Jewish tradition and its practices. Only with this in mind can we understand his very Jewish response to the Samaritan woman about true religion and worship.
Jesus pointed the Samaritan woman to a coming time, which had already arrived, when the location or outward forms of worship would no longer be important. Where you worship must be transcended by higher principles or realities, whether worship is done on Mt.Gerazim, at the temple in Jerusalem, in a local synagogue, in a cathedral, or in the woods. There are some things that must be considered secondary to true worship. Place, forms, and style are among those things, particularly if we understand that God is the subject of our worship.
Jesus envisioned a coming form of worship that would focus upon God as Spirit and with true worship being in spirit and truth. To speak of God as Spirit is to recognize that God is other than human. God transcends all material existence. God transcends even our images of God, like Father, Lord, King. As Spirit God is not tied to a particular worship place, national or ethnic identity. God is not bound by my worship style or preferences. God’s Spirit is not hindered by sour notes, fumbled liturgy, or typos in the bulletin. God is not locked up in some sacred building. There is no particular land where alone God treads the earth. There is no “one nation under God,” but a Spirit that permeates all of reality.
If we end up worshipping our own musical preferences, our own historical worship tradition, a god of our national identity, a god of my racial or ethnic group, or a god of my denomination, then we have not worshipped God in Spirit and in Truth. Spirit and truth are interconnected. They point us back to Jesus’ reference to the living water, the Spirit within. To worship God in spirit does not mean to worship God internally as opposed to worshipping God with external forms. It means that it is the indwelling Spirit, the well of water that is within us, that connects us to the Spirit of God in worship. To worship in truth is to worship in the Spirit of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
To strive toward God-centered worship at Zion will not just be a matter of the Worship Commission diligently planning meaningful worship services, worship leaders conducting services with skill, or song leaders choosing appropriate hymns. God-centered worship requires a community of worship open to the Spirit, engaged in the liturgy with hearts open to encountering God, ears open to hearing the voice of God amid human words, and voices ready to give praise to God, who alone is worthy of our worship.
A day is coming when
We will worship God
as universal Spirit
Worship will not be bound by
race or ethnicity
physical or mental ability
gender or sexual orientationA day is coming when
We will worship God
In spirit and truth
Worship will not be limited
to sacred buildings and holy places
to formal or informal liturgical traditions
We will worship God
with our hearts open
with minds focused
with our spirits engaged
We will worship God
in the Spirit
not simply internally without external forms
not off in the woods as an isolated individual
but through the indwelling Spirit
within the transnational, multicultural
gathered community of believers
and in the Spirit of Christ
who is the Truth
A day is coming when
we will worship God
in spirit and truth