12th Sunday After Pentecost – September 1, 2019
A group of us sat there in the freshman dormitory one night in the autumn of 1989 when the conversation unexpectedly turned to religion. We were all still getting to know one another, and this was the first time this particular topic came up. After some sharing of our respective religious histories (or lack thereof), my new friend Clint asked this question: “Why would God create humans just to worship him?”
Without realizing it, Clint was in good company in asking that question. It turns out that when C.S. Lewis returned to the Christian faith of his youth sometime around 1929 or 1930, when he was thirty-one or thirty-two, this was his primary objection, one brought into stark relief as he perused the psalms.
In his 1958 book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis writes about how he came upon God’s commandment to praise God. If none of us cares to be in the company of a person who demands congratulations praise, how can we stand this behavior from God? He says, “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand… Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.” (1)
In this morning’s text, the author of Hebrews writes “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.” In these two sentences, this epistle asserts the faith in Christ and the worship of God are inextricably linked; the “sacrifice of praise” comes from the lips of those who believe in him, who “confess his name.” Worship, therefore, is the natural posture, the ordinary means of communicating to God for all Christian people.
There is a very old fable that tells the story of a scorpion and a frog that goes like this: “A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too. The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”
Replies the scorpion: “I am a scorpion. It’s my nature.” (2)
And this is how it goes for those of us who believe as to why we worship. We are Christians. It is our nature. And yet, as Lewis did, we to find this answer facile and unsatisfactory. We, too, find ourselves like the frog, asking “Why?”
Why do we worship, anyway?
Like just about every other person in my field, I find myself observing the modern decline in worship attendance and wondering what, if anything can be done? At Reveille, our clergy and program staff are our worship’s fiercest critics. Each Monday, we dismantle each of the week’s worship services to see what could have been improved. How was the sermon? How was its interplay with the lyrics of the hymns, as well as the rest of the liturgy? Were there problems with the sound? How was the flow of the service itself? Were the transitions good? Was the worship immersive? Did it communicate the central thrust of the biblical text? Did the service go more than an hour? What could we have done wrong to cause this (a question the pastors of our partner churches in Swansboro find hilarious).
As tedious as this process of review can be, it is important that we do it in this disciplined fashion week after week after week as we plan again and again the worship life of this congregation, yet not for the reason that may first come to mind. At first glance, it may seem like we put so much thought into planning and evaluating worship because we want the worship to be good so people will attend. However, the problem with this thinking is that it is reductive, turning worship into a transaction, wherein your worship leaders are purveyors of a religious product that we hope and pray people like you will continually select, as your increasingly precious worship attendance is sold to the highest bidder, that is to the church with the most appealing product.
It is an awful way to think, one that quickly steals the joy from the rare privilege of crafting and leading Christian worship. In this scenario, the clergy feel like some kind of hybrid of Dale Carnegie and P.T. Barnum, half-persuader, half-showman.
And it is obscene.
We do not plan worship, we do not participate in worship, and we certainly do not pick it apart simply because we wish to give you what we think you want. We do it for the same reason you got up on a holiday weekend and came here this morning to participate in this strange and wonderful thing that we do: because God deserves it, and as such, we can do no other.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes “let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God.” In this short phrase are two critically important truths that we ignore at our peril. The first is that we do not merely worship God when we are together. We worship God continually. The second is that our worship of God is a “sacrifice,” a “sacrifice of praise.” Let’s consider these in order.
The Episcopalian priest Gray Temple writes of how “Souls that emerge from a worship service in which people actively admire and praise our Lord are in a somewhat fluid, molten state. The issue then is, how will my molten soul “set up”? Will I rush back into my normal routine, to be shaped once again by the world’s mold? Will I sit docilely in some class where a teacher or pastor tells me exactly what to believe and practice and exactly how to do it? That would be like pouring my molten soul into somebody else’s ice tray—and calling it ‘growth!’ Far better to gaze around the coffee hour for eyes equally ablaze and forge relationships with them, letting my self-in-transformation be shaped in our mutual discovery of Jesus’ high adventure.” (3)
Worship, then, is not merely something we do when we are together in the sanctuary. It is also something we do when we are apart as we scatter into the world. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote about Christian vocation, about a calling shared by clergy and laity alike, and how each thing we do throughout the day can be a little act of worship, if we do it for God’s glory. In such a world, worship is everywhere; in each changing leaf, in each brushstroke on a canvass, in each honest transaction, even in each changed diaper, each kind word spoken, in each act of compassion throughout our customary round.
Now, I can already hear the wise objection: if everything is worship, then nothing is. Not so! The worship we do out in the world as daily we live lives glorifying God are in indeed worship. However, they are all worship that compliments what we do here yet does not supplant it. The author of Hebrews opens today’s text with an entreaty to “Let mutual love continue” and goes on to list numerous ways in which our togetherness matters, and as such, worship is not merely an individual endeavor, just as Christian discipleship is not a purely individual way of life. To be a Christian is to live in community, and the natural posture of authentic Christian community is worship.
C.S. Lewis writes the following about his return to worship as a young adult: “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target.”
He continues, “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” “But as I went on,” he says, “I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” (4)
Which brings me to the cryptic phrase above: “a sacrifice of praise to God.” If worship is the natural fruit of the confession of our faith, it seems that worship should naturally flow from us. Our faith should inspire us to worship, and as such, worship should be easy, pleasurable even, but certainly not a sacrifice. To understand this, we have to return to where we just were, with this notion of worship being a “product,” and an entertaining product at that. There is a saying that “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he didn’t exist.” I am not so sure. I believe the devil’s greatest trick may have been convincing the church that worship is all about us, and as such, should be directed to our likes, our desires, our proclivities, our tastes.
If you spend enough time working in a church, the parlance of it becomes second nature. The paper you are handed as you enter worship is a bulletin, not a program. The area where the worship leaders stand is called the chancel and not the stage.
Our music director Daniel Banke recently taught me another bit of the parlance of Christian worship as we picked apart a worship service at one of our Monday staff meetings: he reminded us that the people in the pews are not the audience. They are the congregation, for God, and only God, is in the audience.
This is not pedantry. It is true and remembering it can help us to reorient how we think about what it means for the nature of the Christian to worship. An entertainment-obsessed culture has taught us that it is the duty of nearly everything, from our work, to our leisure, to even our education and our worship to entertain us. Frankly, our worship spaces tend to be set up so much like the theatre that in many ways, it reinforces this notion; we stand up here and do stuff. You sit out there and take it in.
Yet what if: what if we understood things differently. What if it were our belief that it is not just the people up in the chancel leading worship, but instead, worship was all of us and all we did together? What if the quality of the preaching or the beauty of the solo musician were but fragments of a much larger mosaic, a mosaic incomplete without the beauty of all of our voices weaving together, as we journey through the liturgy, as we sing, as we pray, as we speak, and as we are silent? And what if all of this, all of it, was directed away from us and towards a holy and living God?
It is why our being here matters. Like an orchestra missing instruments, our worship is lacking when we, the family of faith God has established in this place, are missing essential parts as we direct our praise to our audience of One.
It is like the old preacher joke which tells about a young man who became a priest and decided one day, early in his ministry, to call in sick to one Sunday morning so he could sneak away and play golf. So he told the senior pastor that he was feeling sick and convinced him to say preach for him that day. As soon as the Associate Pastor left the room, the new young priest headed out of town to a golf course about forty miles away. This way he knew he wouldn’t accidentally meet anyone he knew from his church. Setting up on the first tee, he was alone.
At about this time, Saint Peter leaned over to the Lord while looking down from the heavens and exclaimed, “You’re not going to let him get away with this, are you?” God sighed, and said, “No, I guess not.” Just then the priest hit the ball and it shot straight towards the pin, dropping just short of it, rolled up and fell into the hole, a 500 yard hole-in-one! St. Peter was astonished. He looked at the Lord and asked, “Why did you let him do that?” The Lord smiled and replied, “Who is he going to tell?”
Which brings me back to where we began: why would God create people just to worship him? C.S. Lewis writes “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with . . . “ (5)
The Shorter Westminster Catechism describes the chief end of life as simply “To know God and enjoy him forever.” For Lewis, as for us, our joy in God is incomplete without praise.. He writes “Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.” (6)
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be glad for all he has done for us, all of the grace, all of the love, all of the beauty and joy so generously heaped upon us, in times good and bad. As the psalmist writes, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”
It is why we worship. We are Christians, the redeemed, the someday-to-be-sanctified. It is what we do. It is our nature.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.