Sunday, July 12, 2015

True Worship

A Sermon preached on July 12th, Pentecost VII, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
As I’m certain you know by now, next week is our big festive service to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the dedication of this church as a house of prayer and of worship … and much more. As you can imagine, this is something we have been planning for some time. One source for the liturgy we will use is of course our prayer book, but we should probably also look at other best practices, perhaps even in the Bible?

How about using today’s passage from 2 Samuel as a template? Instead of David and all the house of Israel, we could dance before the LORD with all our might, and with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And instead of David I – or the bishop – could dance before the LORD girded only with a linen ephod – which is not a lot at all! And after the service we could distribute a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins among all the people, to the whole multitude….. Well while the latter will almost come true, as I’m sure you will all bring plenty of food to share with the “whole multitude” at the reception, the other elements of David’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem will not. Our service will still, I hope, be joyous and joyful ….. but a little more staid.

But that still got me thinking about worship, about what we do when we worship and why we do it. For ancient Israel, at least on big festive occasions, processions, music, dance, vested clergy, and also sacrifices were a key part of the cultic ritual. Much of what we do in Christian churches has its roots in Jewish practice and while we here at St. Augustine’s don’t go in for liturgical dance it can be a beautiful addition to a service. We also don’t have physical sacrifices of course, as according to our teaching Jesus Christ was and is the one, true and perfect sacrifice for the whole world. But we still recall his sacrifice in our Eucharist Prayer and in the words you will hear later we offer a symbolic sacrifice when “we celebrate the memorial of our redemption … in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension, we offer” our gifts and ourselves.[1]

The English word “worship” – literally “worth-ship” - means to give worth to something or someone. In the story we heard in 2 Samuel why did Michal, King Saul’s daughter and David’s first wife, who had remained loyal to her husband despite the enmity of her father, suddenly despise David in her heart when she saw him leaping and dancing before the Lord? I suspect that it was because the worship was becoming too David-centered and the true object, the true something to be given worth, God, was being sidelined! That’s one reason why God didn’t let David build a temple for the Ark … it might have become more a memorial to King David than to God, as in fact the temple David’s son Solomon built eventually did. 

And that’s also the danger with all the music and ceremony and ritual and decoration – it and those performing it can become the focus and the center of worship, rather than God. That’s why the more radical Protestant Reformers, especially our Swiss friends Calvin and Zwingli, were so adamant about removing all decorations from churches and taking most music out of worship – they were considered to be potential distractions. Worship was to focus entirely on the Word. While I understand the risk they saw, I don’t agree with their solution as you will not be surprised to hear. I’m all for using all the God-given talents in our congregation – both musical and other talents or treasures – to enhance and to beautify our worship and our worship space. And it’s not the written word or the book we worship anyway, it’s the living Word! Whatever helps us to praise, to adore, and to give thanks to God, is good.

Why do we worship God? Well that’s where the extract from the Letter to the Ephesians we heard helps us. I’ve seen it described as a long opening act of worship and praise. Paul tells his readers – possibly in Ephesus, though the mention of that city in the letter might also be an indication that it was written there, perhaps during one of Paul’s stays in prison. You see, even in prison Paul felt a need to worship and praise God. Why? Well he tells us, because God never gives up on us and because God has great things in store for us. Human beings, made in God’s image, were destined to share in the management – the stewardship – of God’s kingdom and in furthering God’s mission – but we messed it up. Yet God has still destined us for “adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 1:5) Through this same Jesus Christ we are already delivered, bought free from sin and evil and forgiven our trespasses. (1:7) God’s purpose is to gather up all things in Christ, both in heaven and on earth. (1:10) And in Christ we are destined to live full lives for the praise of his glory. (1:12) 

That's why we worship God, because of who God is and because for God nothing and no one is excluded from the free gift of salvation. Those people who were and are “the first to set their hope on Christ,” like Paul, like the Christians he was writing to, and like us, are not offered some privileged position or first class ticket to heaven, but are chosen to be witnesses and signs to the rest of the world, signs of the Good News of God’s love in Jesus and signs of God’s kingdom that Jesus inaugurated during his time on earth, so that everyone has a chance to hear the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and to come to believe. (1:13) 

That really is something worth giving thanks for, really is something worth giving praise for – but Paul’s summary is not just a description of why we worship, but also of what we do in worship. Whether in song, or prayer, or in Scripture, in the sermon, or in the act of the Eucharist itself, we tell and retell the story of what God has done for us and is still doing for us in Jesus Christ and we model – in the Peace, in the unity of Holy Communion and in the act of being sent into the world at the Dismissal – how God wants us to act and interact as witnesses, as signs, as actors on God’s behalf. 

The sequence Paul describes, first hearing the word of truth, then believing in God in Christ, finally being marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, is not just the sequence of how we become Christians, though it does recall the process of Baptism. No, the sequence is also a model for our worship, which should help us renew and strengthen our knowledge of God, our faith, and experience the powerful and personal presence of the living God. So each week we hear the word of truth, we affirm our belief and we pray that by God’s Holy Spirit the gifts of bread and wine will be the Body and Blood of God’s Son and that each week we go out into the world blessed, marked with the seal of God’s Spirit and empowered by that same spirit to act to the praise of God’s glory.

This applies to all our worship – including and especially our anniversary service next week. When we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the dedication of this church, let’s not just celebrate a building, a structure of brick, wood and stone, however beautiful it may be. Let us celebrate what it enables: let us celebrate the worship and the witness it made and makes possible, let us celebrate what this building lets us do and become and share, let us celebrate the Christian life and action that flows out of our worship and out of this building into the world we are called to serve, to bring the Good News to, and to transform.

[1] BCP, 362

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