Posts Tagged ‘worship’

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Our lesson this morning finds the great patriarch Jacob with his family. He sends them across the shallow ford of a river, spending the night alone. At least, at first he is alone, but he ends up wrestling an unnamed man all night long. The man figures out that Jacob is a fierce competitor, so injures his hip. Even with that, Jacob persists, telling the man: “I will not let go of you until you bless me.”

We are never told the identity of the man, but by virtue of everything else that happens in the story, we learn that he was some kind of angel or manifestation of God. He tells Jacob that his name is now “Israel”, which means “God-wrestler.” And Jacob names the place “Peniel”, which means “face of God.” Whatever it was that happened in the encounter, Jacob saw it as something holy, worth remembering and preserving, devoting the whole episode to God and his relationship with God.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

We have spent the last two months taking a closer look at worship: what we do, why we do what we do, why we do it in the order we do…In short, worship is meant to flow seamlessly from beginning to end. It begins when we gather – when we meet up in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the pews, as the music plays.

Somewhere along the way, we move from gathering to preparing: we praise, we confess and come clean, we are reminded of the absurd gift of undeserved grace, and share that peace with each other.

We encounter the Word of God: read in Scripture, sung in anthem, interpreted in sermon, made visible in baptism and communion, present in the Word made flesh, Jesus himself. From there, everything we do is our response to this meeting with the living Christ: we pray, remember what we believe in creeds, recommit our resources and ourselves to the work and desires of God.

And from there, we are sent. The hour or so of worship draws to a close so that the service begins. We go out to serve God in Christ, reaching out to a broken world in need of healing. And then, one week later, the people gather, and the drama begins again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What this overview fails to account for is the fact that faith isn’t always easy. As the popular phrase puts it, one of the goals of faith is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. In other words, this whole act of worship is one that is meant to take on both our brokenness and our complacency. Worship should be where we find both healing and prodding.

At least, that’s the hope. That’s my hope. If we spend the whole time agreeing with each other, then all we have done is luxuriate in self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-justification. On the other hand, if we only remind ourselves of how imperfect, how far off the mark we are, then we end up denying the God-crafted beauty that lies within each of us. Worship, instead, ought to be a balance between these two extremes: meeting us and embracing us as we are, but not content to leave us there, and so nudging, pushing, pulling us into other and better and more faithful ways of being.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

Each of us has our own encounters with the challenges of faith. Whether it’s the personal pain of broken relationships or undeserved hurts, or the desperate cries of “why me” in the hospital or by the bedside, or the glimpses of agony at a culture, a society, a world so full of injustice and wrongdoing and cruelty…if we take faith with any level of seriousness, we know it’s not a “happily ever after” fairy tale. It is, instead, a reality complicated by both joy and heartbreak, sometimes in the very same moment.

A few years ago, my friend Jim was driving his father to his sister’s rehearsal dinner. His father required the assistance of a cane to get around, and had been in poor health; but none of that was on their mind as they made their way to the celebration. Suddenly, Jim’s dad was having extreme discomfort. It turned out that he was having a heart attack. Jim pulled the car over and called 911, but it was too late. The next day, as the family gathered for the wedding, Jim took his father’s cane and walked his sister down the aisle.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions at that moment: rejoicing at this celebration, but grieving the devastating and sudden loss; overcome with the agony of physical absence, but comforted by the symbolic presence of what is unseen.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think God visited this suffering on Jim and his family. I don’t, for a moment, pretend to understand why the world works the way it does, but I know that God’s desires good and wholeness and peace. And when the world is troubled by evil and brokenness and wrongdoing, God’s heart is the first to break. God does not cause suffering; but if the cross at the center of our faith means anything, it’s that God is at work anyway, shaping that moral arc of the universe as it bends toward justice.

In their moment of pain, Jim and his family grabbed a firm hold of God, refusing to let go, no matter how much they were hurting. Their faith had taught them that God had joy in store for them ultimately. I am sure it didn’t feel like it at the moment; but they knew to hold tight for that blessing.

Faith is not easy; but it is worth it.

There is a larger story that surrounds our morning lesson, one that helps to frame it in surprising ways. Jacob’s encounter with the wrestler comes as he prepares to face his twin brother Esau for the first time in ages. If we remember, Jacob had twice betrayed Esau, getting both his inheritance and his blessing. The night of his wrestling is the night before he is to meet Esau face to face. He is understandably terrified. He knows he has wronged his brother, and he fully expects revenge. No wonder he spends the night wrestling with the divine, if not with his own conscience and history.

The next day, as Jacob limps his way across the expanse toward this unknown fate, he sees Esau coming toward him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, Jacob went first, bowing down to the ground as a sign of his contrition. What Esau does next is the gift: he runs to Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, and kisses him. The brothers embrace and weep. In an amazing twist, all is forgiven. Esau is overjoyed to meet Jacob’s family, this incredible collection of nieces and nephews. He rejects Jacob’s attempts to give him cattle, saying that God has already blessed him greatly. After this tender reunion, the two brothers go their separate ways, now reconciled through Esau’s gracious mercy.

In a sense, Jacob had to come to terms with himself before he could come to terms with his brother. The night-long wrestling was, in many ways, a manifestation of Jacob’s wrestling with who he once was and what he had done. Expecting to meet Esau the next day, there is no doubt that all that had transpired between them had come flooding back in overwhelming anxiety, fear, loathing, humiliation, embarrassment. It’s no wonder he slept little, if any, and came away in pain. Even so, through it all, he demonstrated fierce tenacity to his faith, holding on for dear life. Not only would he have to come clean to Esau; he would have to do so with God as well.

Friends, there is a gift of faith in the struggle with faith. It would be one thing to face reality and come away hopeless, with the sense that God has given up on the world, that humanity is doomed, that the planet will cure us as the virus we behave like. That kind of pessimism, as honest and realistic as it might feel, is actually the cop out, the easy route. Because if we are really doomed, what’s the point in being faithful? Why bother with any of it? Why waste an hour on Sunday morning? In fact, why eat well, exercise, befriend, volunteer, be kind?

The harder path, the faithful path, is the path of Jacob and Esau. Like Jacob, it is real honesty, the soul-searching for the wrongs we have done, even if we have to wrestle them through the night. It sends us to our knees, begging for forgiveness when we have wronged another.

And like Esau, it recognizes that past wrongs pale in comparison to the blessings God has given. It forgives – not because doing so is an easy way to forget the past, but because it is the hard work of coming to terms with what has been. And, in so doing, we find amazing freedom!

Faith is not always easy. But it is always worth it. There will be times when we emerge smarting, limping; but the promise is that we will come away singing, rejoicing, worshiping, praising.


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A few weeks ago I had an unusual experience for a church pastor: I went to another church as a visitor. I was there by myself, because I wanted to experience its creative worship and approach. It was, in many ways, a professional visit. and yet, what I experienced gave me some unique insights into how visitors often see churches when they visit.

I arrived a few minutes late, but worship had not yet started. And yet, no one greeted me and handed me a bulletin. I grabbed my own. The pastor noticed me and made a point of welcoming me warmly.

I sat in the back, next to a small group of folks. My neighbor introduced herself and was very friendly. We then, as is the custom of worship architecture, faced forward and worshiped independently.

The passing of the peace was a ten minute “break” in the middle of worship. I shook hands and shared the peace with about a dozen folks, all of whom were friendly, and one of whom engaged me in conversation. For the next eight minutes, I stood alone. I was tempted to pull out my cellphone to pass the time, but knew that it was important to stay in the discomfort.

The pastor, who was making her way around the room, greeted me and engaged me in wonderful conversation.

At the end of worship, I was the first to leave. I shook the pastor’s hand at the door and headed out.

Let me be clear: this was not a “cold” church – not at all. The community is warm, positive, energetic, and friendly…to each other. I was not inside the community, and so, I was mostly left to my own devices. I understand why that’s the case. I get that. Before and after worship is the time for the community to say hi to their friends they don’t see all week. Because of this, though, I slipped through, largely unnoticed, alone.

Is this what visitors experience at my church? They often arrive late, sit at the back, and are the first to leave. We are a warm, welcoming community; and yet, do we get so busy loving on each other that we forget to share that love with those whom we don’t yet know, those who have come with a genuine desire for community?

I am concerned that our admirable love for one another risks becoming an obstacle to welcoming others. If the focus of our love is turned inward, we will miss those who are still outside. We do not need an overhaul; and yet, our welcome needs fine tuning so that it is more and more like the extravagant hospitality of Christ. We shouldn’t let others slip through, largely unnoticed, alone.

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We’re not perfect.

I hope I’m not the one to break the news to you, but I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. Simply acknowledging this fact is where worship can begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at worship – its shape, its purpose, its intentions. And as we do, we linger over this moment of preparation.

Worship begins in the gathering; and as we talked about last week, the moment that we actually gather for worship is a bit of a mystery. It happens somewhere along the way so that, by the time we physically gather in the Sanctuary for the worship service, the moment of gathering in God’s presence has already happened.

From there, our worship moves into a time of preparation. Again, it’s not a cut and dried moment, but rather a shift, a second layer to this process of gathering.

You see, for Presbyterians, the fulcrum of worship is the Word. It is the high point. We elevate the Word, because we believe God is accessible in the Word. What do we mean by “Word”? Well, for one, it’s the Word as found in Scripture. And it’s more. It’s the Word that is spoken or heard in the sermon, or sung in music. It’s the Word we touch, taste, and feel in sacraments of baptism and communion. And it’s the Word Incarnate – that is, Jesus himself.

Before we get to the Word, though, we have to be ready. Prepared. And that preparation has three movements.

The first one is our honesty. If we really want to come to God, access God, hear and experience the Word of God, then we first need to be honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God. This is why our worship always contains confession toward the beginning. And boy, it can be a tough moment to face.

We have just gotten here. For those of us who have been here for a while, we have greeted familiar faces. For those who are relatively new, Oglethorpe Presbyterian prides itself on our hospitality, so I hope you have been welcomed warmly into this place and this time. There is a sense of eager anticipation as the music begins. We quiet down as the bells ring, and listen to a couple of announcements – possibly even getting excited about upcoming events in the life of the church, or in sharing good news. We rise to sing a song of praise, one that gets us going, puts a smile on our face. And then: sit down. Tell the truth. You didn’t get everything right this week, did you?

If we are taking worship seriously, this is the moment all of the air can get sucked out of the room. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. We’re not perfect. And it’s time to own it.

Before we pray, we are reminded why: if we say we have no sin, we are not fooling anyone but ourselves. But in the act of confession, we come before God honestly and openly. That word, “sin,” is a loaded one. And it means more than the meaning we tend to give it:

  • “Sin” includes those things we should not do that we do anyway. We vent our anger at someone who had nothing to do with what made us angry in the first place.
  • It also includes those things that we should do that we don’t. We miss an opportunity for generous compassion with someone in pain and agony.
  • And over all of this, “sin” is our general state of imperfection. We are mortal. We get sick. Our bodies betray us.

Even at our absolute best, we will always miss the mark. Just as no bowler consistently rolls a 300, just as no basketball player has 100% free throw percentage, just as no singer hits the perfect pitch every time, no matter the excellence we strive for, we might make it most of the way, but we won’t get all the way there.

I want to be clear: this focus on “sin” is not meant as an exercise in flagellation or a belittling or a shame. For some, I know that this is how it can be received. But if that is the intent, then even our act of confession is missing the point. The reason, rather, is honesty. It is self-reflection. It is an effort at transparency before God and within the congregation.

Other manifestations of Christianity focus on the private act of confession: the intimate secrets told in the sanctity of a confessional booth. While we may not have a wooden box tucked away in a corner, we, too, believe there is purpose in personal confession. It happens, more often than you might think, in the pastor’s office, or with a trusted therapist. And it happens in worship.

You see, what we do during this one hour on Sunday should shape everything we do throughout the week. It is, at the very least, a touchstone, that one moment where we are reminded of what faith calls us to do. And among those things we are meant to do, being honest with others and with ourselves is central.

In the world in which we live, in the society of which we are a part, such an act of confession is counter-cultural – downright revolutionary, in fact. The public apologies we see and hear are rife with conditions: “I am sorry if my actions offended.” They become meaningless, and we who hear them become jaded.

So what would it mean if we were to offer apologies without following them with rebuttals? What would it mean to say, “I’m sorry” and not follow it with “but you have to understand…”? Isn’t it enough to be contrite, to confess? Aren’t relationships bigger than just the one moment? Can’t it bear the rest of the conversation? Where is the harm, really, in admitting a mistake? Is it because we are afraid that others will see us as weak? Is it that we are afraid that others will smell blood in the water?

It is my conviction that we have something very different to offer the world. Our vulnerability, offered without fear, speaks volumes. It may be the most important witness we can offer society. Where Christians can be seen as self-righteous and judgmental, we can be living proof that not only is there more to the picture, but that this other image is simply unfaithful.

And that is because confession does not stand alone. It is just the first act. And without the rest, then it does become a moment to beat ourselves up for what we do or don’t do. But our confession is always – always – followed by second movement: pardon.

There is mercy; forgiveness. We are reminded that this honesty about ourselves is not done in a vacuum. You see, the counterpoint to our imperfection is God’s perfection. When we get it wrong, God makes it right.

Our lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews draws particular attention to the grand sweep of the whole drama. From the very beginning, God has been whole; while we, though beloved of God and created in the image of God, are broken. Think back to the many lessons of Scripture: Adam and Eve, violating God’s one request, and eating the forbidden fruit; Noah and his family, singled out among a world of corruption to continue this grand experiment; or Abraham and his offspring, selected to live in covenant with God; the Israelites, neglecting the promises over and over again; the prophets, sent again and again to remind them of God’s faithfulness.

Time and time again, our ancestors veered off the path. And we, unfortunately, have followed proudly in their wandering footsteps. And yet, this moment of Jesus brings it all back together, giving us the wholeness we so desperately need.

You see, as much as we are unable to make up for our missteps, God pulls it all together in Jesus. Our imperfect, broken vessels are filled with healing. And the light within shines out through our cracks. Jesus became, in the words of Hebrews, “like his brother and sisters in every way. This was so he could become a merciful and faithful high priest serving God, wiping away the sins of the people through sacrifice.”

As we say, week in and week out, in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! This is what gives us the strength to rise, to sing praise to God, to prepare ourselves, truly, to hear and sense and experience and then live the Word of God. And that’s just what is meant to happen in worship. For the rest of the week, and for the rest of our lives, we are meant to carry this joy, this knowledge, this wisdom with us. And when we do, when we recognize that we ourselves are forgiven, then we might just have the strength and ability to forgive others.

We are honest. We are forgiven. And then, we are on the move.

My favorite moment in worship here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian is the passing of the peace. As one of our former student pastors once said, “It is the moment in worship when we are most ourselves.” Amen! One of you commented to me that passing the peace in many congregations is a formal, mechanical turn of 360 degrees, where you shake the hands of those next to, in front of, and behind you. For us, by contrast, it is the opening of the flood gates, the beginning of a moment of holy, almost unbridled chaos. We get up and out of our seats. We are on the move.

When you are visiting with us, I know it can be disorienting. You might be expecting a brief delay in the important business of worship. In truth, though, passing the peace is, in itself, an important part of our worship. It really is who we are, that holy image of God within. We are, at our best, a people who genuinely love and care not only for one another, but for all our brothers and sisters who bear God’s sacred imprint.

And whether we recognize it or not, it flows right out of that act of confession, of honesty and transparency. From where I stand, it is as though mercy enters our honest imperfection, and in so doing, fills us to overflowing. And this causes us to spill out of the pews, into the aisles, filling the air with greetings, laughter, and joy.

And so, in our honesty, in receiving forgiveness, and in passing that forgiveness along, we are prepared to hear the Word of God. We receive it. We rest in it. We are troubled and blessed by it. And as worship comes to a close, the hope is that we are carried by it, spilling out into the streets of God’s beloved, broken world.

May that be what we do this day and every day.


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horse-race-2“Worship begins as the people gather.”

This is what our constitution, as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says about worship: worship begins as the people gather. This morning, we pick up on our worship series on worship. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the rhythms and movements of worship; why our worship tends to be in a certain order; the purpose of it. And so, this seems a fitting place to pick up: where and when worship begins.

It would be logical to consider that worship starts with some kind of formal piece of liturgy. Until it has been announced that we are worshiping, it feels more like social interaction. Worship should be formal. Quiet. Respectful. So perhaps it’s the call to worship…or the first hymn…or, at the very least, please say it’s after the announcements are over! Right?

Nope. Worship begins as the people gather.

OK – so, when we gather in the Sanctuary, right? This is the official worship room, after all. What we do in the Narthex doesn’t count, does it? Or in the lobby, or the hallways?

Worship begins as the people gather.

There’s an odd kind of segmentation that has crept into our life of faith over time. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we tend to believe that there are times and places where we ought to behave a certain, more worshipful, way; if we believe this, though, then we must also believe that there are times and places where God is “off duty” – or, at the very least, not as present and aware as at other times. But if we take this notion to heart, that worship begins as the people gather, then these divisions start to fade away. Worship becomes, as it should, a seamless whole.

Think about where our faith comes from historically. If we begin with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, faith in the God of the Israelites gained a crucial geographic focus. There was a place that was holier than holy. Priests had to go through particular cleansing rituals; sacrifices were carried out here, and only here. No wonder we developed the sense of a special place where heaven and earth meet.

And yet, there was much more to it than that. Synagogues dotted the land – places where people gathered for reading, reflection, and prayer. It was not the Temple; but it was still a place – at times, very far away from Jerusalem – where people would gather around their shared devotion to God.

This was the situation that greeted Jesus. He had made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and his parents had provided for a sacrifice of thanksgiving because of his birth. He grew up a child of the synagogue, hearing – and eventually proclaiming – God’s word through the Law and the Prophets. And as our Scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus came in the echoes of all these who spoke in the name of God, but has now surpassed them all in power and word.

You see, at the risk of understatement, with Jesus, everything changed! The intersection of heaven and earth was now found within him. In Jesus, Creator and creation were knit together in new and wondrous ways. In Christ, grace trumped sin. Life defeated death. And the unbridgeable gulf between God and us was overcome!

And the moment this all happened is the moment that transformed all we know about what and where is holy. The author of the universe, of all that is and ever will be, became like one of us – knowing our pains and suffering, our joys and wonders – and in the process blessed what is material, made, known, so that it – and we – might be a blessing in return. It’s just as we pray each and every week, for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” There is, in Jesus, the possibility that our world would become more and more the way God desires it to be.

Do we really need to be reminded that the world is not yet there? We are a year on from Ferguson, Missouri, and issues of race and division and prejudice and life and death are every bit as pressing as they were twelve months ago. Presidential campaign season is just getting warmed up, but our press has already failed to remember what is important. They don’t tell us where candidates stand on issues. They don’t tell us what solutions they are offering to our racial, environmental, military, economic sickness. Instead, our airwaves are filled obscenely with who is leading in polls or what a particular candidate did or didn’t say. None of this matters. And a year from now, when the weight of it all begins to come into focus, the fourth estate will still be more concerned about the horse race rather than how we might strive for those angels of our better natures.

Friends, before we are anything else – before we are divided racially or politically or ethnically or nationally – we are made in the image of God. And before any of these other identities come into play, strongly though they might, we are the body of Christ! This is our tribe. What makes this tribe unique is that it does not exist for its own sake. Instead, it exists for the sake of everything and everyone beyond our tribe.

If we learn nothing else from the example of Jesus, let it be this: the love we know at the core of our being is one that we treasure, but one we hold lightly and let go so that others may know that they, too, are loved. We do not hoard; we share. We do not believe in scarcity; we believe in abundance. We do not live out of fear; we live out of hope and generosity and holy, creative, imagination.

This is why we gather for worship. In the speed of days, when left to our own devices or caught up in the press of the world, we forget. We forget! Just as our bodies need sleep so that they can return to activity, so our souls need to rest in the presence of God so that we can return to faithful living in this world that so desperately needs fearless, generous people.

If we don’t, then we risk being used up and useless. We become cynical. We retreat into the shells of self-imposed solitude and our camps where everyone already agrees with us. What could be righteous indignation at persistent injustice becomes, instead, self-righteous certainty.

We gather for worship because, in our heart of hearts, we know better. We know that there is more to life than running on fumes and running out of time. We know, deep down, that we have been created for more – far more – than we would ever be able to imagine on our own. And it is this knowledge that brings us here, in this holy moment, in this holy space, on this holy day, because we trust that God will be the still, small voice that calls us beyond our own limited sight and into God’s holy vision.

Worship is not, ultimately, about what the preacher does or doesn’t say. It is not, ultimately, about what the choir does or doesn’t sing. It is not, ultimately, about the things we do or do not pray for. All of these things, at their best, are vehicles. They are channels that open up the possibility that God might, yet again, bridge that unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth so that we might hear and sense and know beyond knowing what it is that God desires of us, who it is that God has created us to be.

When we gather for worship, we do so as a moment to reflect this holy imagination of what we can be and do. And it begins, paradoxically, not at a specific holy time or moment, but seamlessly and almost unnoticed. Worship begins somewhere on the drive over, or in the parking lot. It starts in our Sunday School rooms, or in the hallways. It gets going in the Narthex, as we greet one another, as we take our seats.

Somewhere along the way, worship begins. And our gathering continues as the music draws our attention into this room, and as the three chimes focus us forward. It continues in announcements, as we lift up news and information, events and ministries in the life we share in this community of faith. And as we move into calls to worship spoken and sung and hymns of praise, we have somehow become, by the design of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the community of faith, the body of Christ, gathered here, in this place, for worship.

There is more to worship than this – much more, of course. And that is a topic for another day. For now, as God’s people, gathered in this place now made holy, in this moment now made holy, on this day now made holy, continue our worship.


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IMG_8506God’s love is as strong as death, Christ’s passion as fierce as the grave.

There are several books included in Scripture that are noticeably different. The book of Esther is one – it is part of the Hebrew Bible often referred to as history, of a young Jewish woman growing up in Persia, with a destiny to save her people. There is, however, in the book of Esther, not a single reference to God.

The Song of Solomon is another one. It is credited to King Solomon, but was probably written centuries after his death. The more traditional name, Song of Songs, is a little more accurate, therefore. In the book, the author mentions God, but never by the Israelite name Yahweh – another uniqueness. In style and in form, it is a love letter between a man and a woman more than anything else. There is passion, love, intimacy, desire – some steamy stuff, in other words. The particular excerpts we read this morning are often included at weddings, and that makes some sense. But why in the world would it be in the Bible?

While that question hangs in the air, we are beginning a worship series this morning on…worship. And over the next few months, we will be looking at the particular form and style of Presbyterian-flavored worship – why we do things in the order we do them in, what the purpose and hope is for worship, how it can shape the rest of our life. In a day and time when worship attendance is on the dramatic decline, we will also look at a more pointed question: why bother?

I’m tempted to just stop there, with these two questions dangling over us – just leave them there, drop the mic, and walk away. After all, there is faithful purpose in tension, in discomfort, in the mystery and even the frustration of unanswered questions. In some ways, I would love to attach these two questions to the ceiling today – namely, why do we consider Song of Songs Scripture and why bother with worship – and then run a string between them, on which we could hang all of our great unanswered questions. Then I remember that we have just recently replaced the roof, and I’m not sure it would be able to withstand all the weight of what we do not know.

So instead, here’s what I’d like us to do. I’m passing around a stack of post-it notes – invented by a Presbyterian, by the way. Take one or more, and pass them along. In the pew pocket in front of you, you’ll find pens and pencils. And during the offering, I want to invite us to write down our great, global unanswered questions. When we leave worship today, I invite you take your own questions of faith and stick them to the baptismal font as you leave. My hope is that they will form for us a kind of collective desire for knowledge, a yearning for God, that connects with the baptismal hope of being born anew, cleansed and renewed.

In some ways, that right there is the purpose of worship. It is a place, a space into which we bring these grand mysteries – the questions that seem to defy answer. And it’s not that they always wrap up nice and neat, tied with a bow. Sometimes, I’m sure, they are meant to be messy. But that may be the very thing that drives us toward God and knowledge of God day in and day out, week in and week out: our search for a deeper purpose, our desire for wisdom.

Our desire for wisdom…could that be the connective thread that hangs onto our Scripture lesson? Song of Songs is about desire. One of the reasons it was included in the Hebrew Bible was an allegorical interpretation that arose early on, that the poetry of love between two people was meant as a metaphor for God’s love for God’s people, and vice versa. In other words, it was intended as an elegant and intimate description of covenant. God pursued the people with deep desire – and the people, in turn, sought God with driving passion.

When the early Christian community embraced the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, a similar interpretation arose. The love of God for God’s people became Christ’s love for the Church, the Christian community. Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila expanded on this understanding, giving added meaning and passion to the relationship. Christ’s willing, self-sacrificial love was for the sake of the Church; and so, the Church’s covenant with Christ should have that same kind of desire, hope, attraction.

It may be difficult for us to connect with that kind of understanding of Song of Songs, especially with the more Victorian and Puritanical cultural strands that have run through our heritage in recent centuries. And yet, if we can get past those, if we can put our somewhat prudish thoughts aside, even for just a moment, we might be able to get at what it means to be in relationship with the God we know in Christ.

There are three different Greek words in the New Testament that are translated as “worship”. And, not surprisingly, none of them have the meaning “to sit in pews and look at the same wall.” Instead, they each have their own nuance that teaches us something about what it is that worship should strive to be.

The most common one, occurring about sixty times, literally means to prostrate oneself. Think of Muslims at prayer, kneeling, foreheads touching the ground in front of them. Worship is an act of love and devotion toward God.

The second most common word, appearing about twenty times, means “to serve”. This parallels with the Hebrew word for worship, which is the same root as the word “servant”. Everything we do as people of faith is a response to what God has done for us; and so we seek to live for God.

And the third word, appearing about ten times, means “to show reverence and awe.” Our relationship with God is not a partnership of equals; instead, we should be struck to the ground by our gratitude to the driving force of all of creation! That’s why we baptize children, even before they are old enough to grasp any of the meaning – because we know that God was at work in our lives long before we had any clue that this was at work! It’s why we don’t have membership dues or charge entrance fees or ask for tax returns, because our generosity in giving should flow in recognition of God’s generosity toward us.

And when we gather for worship, here, on a Sunday morning, at 11am, it is not because there is something necessarily sacred about the day, the time, the room in which we gather. Yes: there is historical reason for Sundays being the Christian Sabbath, the first day of new creation, the day of resurrection. And yes, history also points back to the Temple and the synagogue as special places for Sanctuary, for worship. And yes, it is true that Moses descended from Mt. Sinai at precisely 11am.

That last part isn’t true. But let’s get real for a second: is there a day that doesn’t belong to God? Is there a physical location that can keep God at bay? Is there a time of day where Christ can’t be at work? We set aside this time on this day in this space because we know that if we don’t do it, we will get so busy with the distractions of the world that we may never set our hearts and minds on God at all.

The purpose of worship is love. The goal of worship is intimacy with God in Christ. It may come in prayer, in song, in word, in deed, in fellowship and community, in service and generosity. And if we can do that here, then we might just be able to do it elsewhere, so that our whole lives become ones of worship.

My friend, the author Cathy Townley, writes that “a worship lifestyle is our relationship with God and our way through life.” In other words, worship may begin – or end – here. It may find some kind of familiarity or authentic discomfort here. It may find an anchor or disruption here. But if it is worship, true worship, then it cannot be contained here. If it is, then it ceases to be worship and becomes idolatry, confusing the act of worship with the object of worship.

And that’s the tension that I hope bears out in our time together in the next few months, in a worship series about worship. If all it does it point back to itself, then it really is idolatry, because we have confused the practice of worship with the God whom we are meant to worship. Instead, my hope is that our time in worship would reflect on it in such a way that worship becomes not just a rote activity taking place one hour a week (on a good week), but instead a critical practice that gives meaning and hope to the fullest extent of our lives, moving us from a worship service to a worship lifestyle.

When we do that, then all of these questions that trouble us or nag at us or tie us in knots will cease to be barricades we construct between us in God, keeping us at arm’s length. Instead, they will become part of the bridge, the pull, the drive, the desire, the very thing that encourages our thirst and hunger and pursuit for the knowledge and wisdom of God.

After all, God’s love is as strong as death; Christ’s passion is as fierce as the grave.


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“Thank you” is always a good way to begin.

This morning, we continue our closer look at the feast we share. And as we do so, we look at one of the terms we use to describe this feast: The Eucharist.

We have already talked about several of the other identifiers we use. Next week, we will talk about it as the Last Supper and what that means for us. We also speak of this as communion, a simple reminder that we are together around this table. We refer to it as the Lord’s Supper, remembering that it was Jesus who gathered the disciples together, set an example for them in the simple sharing of bread and cup, and commanded them to do likewise. Incidentally, it is this command, combined with the physical elements, which makes this one of our two sacraments as Presbyterians, the other being Baptism.

Today, we talk about the Eucharist. It’s an old term, one that comes from the early centuries of Christianity, when the bulk of the community spoke Greek as their common language. The word itself is Greek in origin. The two-letter prefix “eu” is the same that we find in words like eulogy. It is also there in evangelism, where it becomes “ev”; and it simply means “good”.

“Charis” means grace. Put them together, add a Greek ending, and you get the word ευχαριστία (eucharistía), which means “thanksgiving”. The Eucharist is, then, the thanksgiving feast. You can see some of this retained in the fuller liturgy we use, the call and response referred to as the Great Thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Communion, then, is an opportunity for us to thank God for blessings received and for the chance to gather around this table. In fact, if you change a couple of letters at the end of the Greek word, and you get ευχαριστώ (eucharistó), the modern Greek for “thank you”.

Elizabeth and I once had the chance to travel to the Greek side of Cyprus. I remember flying over on Cyprus Airways with its multilingual signs all around the plane. We sat in the emergency exit – or, as it was written in Greek, έξοδος  (exodus). The word for seat belt included ζώνη (zonay), which is also the name for the special liturgical belt that Greek Orthodox priests wear. And when the flight attendants thanked us, they said “eucharist”. I had no idea we were in for an experience that was so sacred!

I joke, of course; and yet, I wonder: could we live our lives in such a way that we, too, can see the sacred all around us, even in the most ordinary of things? Could we give thanks to God, not just when things are going the way we would like, but at all times and in all cases?

There is a tension in doing so. Our Scripture this morning from the Proverbs attributed to King Solomon reminds us of this fact. In them, we are told that “wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord.” And again, we are commanded to “fear the Lord” as we turn away from evil. How on earth are we supposed to give thanks to that of which we are supposed to be afraid?

The Hebrew word behind this phrase, the fear of the Lord, has many meanings. It means to be in awe, to stand in wonder. These are meanings we can swallow a little easier, I’m sure. The hard truth, though, is that it also means fear. For many of us, that might conjure up images of a vengeful God, one who stands ready to condemn us at a moment’s notice. And yet…if God really is God the way we describe and believe, then is it just possible that fear is the right response?

God created worlds with just a word. I can build a mean Lego house, if it includes the instructions…God has bottomless patience, calling for a people, sending prophets, and even came in the person of Jesus. I…I get angry when someone enters the Express Lane with sixteen items. And as Christ, God was willing to suffer and die on a cross. I, on the other hand, need a band-aid for a blister…

When faced with the creative, patient, and sacrificial power of God, could it be that we really should stand in fearful awe and wonder? The vastness of God and the smallness of humanity – that is a fearful gulf to be bridged…and yet, God does it again and again and again.

It may not be a comfortable place to be, between fear and gratitude, but it is a far more interesting place to be. And I believe that, somewhere in the creative tension that arises, we can find our faithfulness to what it is that God desires of us.

That, I trust, is the intent of gathering around this Eucharistic table. It is, among other things, a moment to remind us and reconnect us with the sacred so that we might find sacredness wherever we go. And yet, that is an increasingly counter-cultural idea. Our American culture is becoming one in which more and more people find transcendence in places other than in religious community. Faith is no less ardent; it is just as individualistic, too. What is new is that it is less and less connected to any recognizable tradition.

I suspect that many of us here resonate with that description, though. We find holiness, Sabbath, rest, refreshment in the mountains, or by the shore, or with friends and family, or in sleep and naps. I don’t think any of that is wrong. I personally find transcendence in conversations, in moments that challenge my thinking and assumptions, in serving others. I find it in music, in live performance, in laughter. I find it in many, many places far away from our gathered feasts, well beyond the four walls of a Sanctuary, away from the property footprint of a congregation. And yet…here’s the missing key:

It is the gathering of the faith community that gives context to the holiest of experiences. When we are here, when we listen to Scripture read, when we lift up prayers for and with one another, when we hear the call to selfless service, when we are fed and nourished in body and in Spirit, then the rest of the moments where we sense the divine come into focus. The grandeur of the mountains points to the God who crafted and crafts them. The relationships with others who lift us up, challenge, us, and stretch us remind us that we are not alone, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. The creative arts connect us with God’s creating and re-creating act. And all of it is focused in the light of Christ, reminding us that living in God’s desires isn’t just something we do in our hearts and minds. It is a fully-embodied activity, an incarnational truth that is at stake.

It is this perspective, I fear, that is missing for so many. You see: without the anchor of faith, without the joy and challenge of living in community, we are prone to craft our own beliefs, to create God in our image instead of the other way around, so that God, miraculously, agrees with us at every turn. We are never judged or convicted. And so we are never forgiven or receive mercy. Which means we don’t know how to share it with others.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a defender of religious institutions at all costs; far from it. I see the shortcomings and wrongdoings. I know how far we are capable of straying from what we are actually called to do. I believe that even a congregation as gifted as Oglethorpe Presbyterian has a long way to go to reflect the image of God within us.

And yet, with that said, I know that I am a better person when I am in community than when I am alone. It is only in community that I can grow more and more into the person that God has created me to be. It is because I don’t have it all figured out that I am forced to realize how grateful I ought to be. The very fact that others are willing to put up with me is the gift. When others reflect God’s grace and mercy to me, that’s what teaches me to pass it on – to live into the deepest, holiest “thank you” of the Eucharist.

So, come: let us gather around this table. Let us gather as God’s people, invited here not by me, not by the leadership of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, but by the awe-inspiring holiness of God’s very self.

In each other’s faces, may we recognize the beauty of God’s creation. In each other’s voices, may we heard the holiness of God speaking through in words of wisdom, of comfort, of challenge. In each other’s presence, may we know that we are not alone in this world, but that God is with us every step of the way, giving us the cause and the faith to say “eucharistó”, thank you, at every turn.


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Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

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