I will confess that I am a bit of a worship junkie. I love gathering with a group of people whose hearts are tuned to God. I enjoy a good sermon. I could sing hymns and spirituals and other songs all day long. Praying, sharing my gifts… all these and more bring me joy as I encounter God. In my book, getting “lost in wonder, love and praise” is a pretty sweet way to spend an hour, a day, a weekend retreat.
Like many of you, I have my favorite worship settings, and there are some styles of music that I prefer. For many of our spiritual ancestors, choice and preference in worship would be a foreign concept.
Our reading from Exodus this morning gave us a tiny glimpse of what God asked of the people of Israel while under the leadership of Moses. This is just the start of several chapters of highly detailed instructions from God for how to construct the tabernacle, much of which is repeated later in the book.
It reminds me a little bit of a friend who described the process of building a custom house. She said after they’d made the first million decisions, the builder came back with another batch of questions…. wall sockets, trim style, grout color, width of the stair treads… By the time things were ready to move into the house, they were exhausted!
God made it easy for the Moses and the people – no decisions to make, just instructions to follow. From the layout to furnishings, even the recipe for the incense… The Hebrews reading picks up there, providing a recap of those long chapters, and giving us an idea of what it might be like to walk through the outer tent and then enter the Holy of holies, the place that only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and him only once a year!
The question for me becomes why? Why all this attention to detail? Why then? They hadn’t even made it to the promised land yet.
Up to this point, God had been a distant God for the most part, speaking on occasion to individuals- like Noah’s instructions for ark-building. At this point, Moses would experience God’s presence by going to the mountain, alone, and would bring the world of God back down to the people.
Building the tabernacle marks a change. God is preparing a way to be among the people. God would be present in the tabernacle, right in the middle of the camp. When the camp moved, the tabernacle would be moved, and God would be present in the tabernacle, right in the middle of the camp.
Because people are physical beings, beings that have mass (some of us more than others…), we experience things physically. God’s instructions for the tabernacle provide the sensory means humans needed to experiencing God’s presence. All of those sights, smells, sounds, and textures are meant to help us engage with the beauty and grandeur of a being that is wholly other. Wholly divine.
This is not a casual or accidental meeting, any more than Moses’ experience of God in the burning bush. God has designed a rendezvous between the Israelites and wonder and awe.
Now, God is not confined to the Holy of Holies, any more than God is confined to our modern sanctuaries, but God is there, God is here, ready to meet with us. Did you catch that? God’s presence comes first, we respond. We are called to worship, not vice versa.
The writer of Hebrews does more than simply point us to the tabernacle in all its glory. He reminds his readers of the next amazing step God takes toward humankind.
Jesus, the Messiah, is Emmanuel, God with us.
Unlike a human high priest, Jesus doesn’t broker forgiveness by taking a sacrifice into the Holy of Holies, once a year. Jesus took on sin when he entered time and space, even as he lived a sinless life.Jesus took on the role of mediator by taking on flesh and blood and as John’s gospel tells us, by tabernacling among us.
His very life bridged the gap between Creator and created, between God and humankind. The new covenant in Christ’s blood allows us to worship God who is nearer than ever before- dwelling within us, empowering us in the person of the Holy Spirit. We have access to God… 24/7, by faith.
Which begs the question – what makes this particular time and place or any other time and place holy? What sets this time and place apart for worship?
I’ll be honest, we have to walk a fine line when we start establishing when and what, is and isn’t, worship. Our gospel reading today reminds us that we are all too readily distracted from worship by what are really side issues.
No, we aren’t selling over-priced cattle or blemished sacrificial lambs in the narthex. Nor are the baptists across the street, as far as I know. But I suspect you, like me have heard the conversations… ok, the arguments… some of which have even split churches apart over things like contemporary music versus hymns, which translation of the Bible is most accurate, the color for new carpet, the best bread for communion, or when the choir should start and stop wearing their robes.
Any time HOW a congregation worships becomes a greater focus than WHO they are worshiping… well, it’s not hard to imagine an angry Jesus coming in and flipping the communion table to regain the people’s attention.
The trouble is that the church is forever holding in tension two things: the desire to maintain tradition and the need to adapt as people and communities change and the needs of those people and communities change.
Many of us here have smart phones and spend time on one or more social media platform. I have pastor friends who encourage their congregations to live-tweet worship, sending out the words or actions that are most meaningful as tiny missives to the world. Is that wholly inappropriate or a holy exercise in active listening? Church – it’s HARD to hold these things in tension… it makes you tense!
One of the Great Ends of the church is the preservation of divine worship. Knowing that we are pulled back and forth by tradition and a rapidly changing cultural context, how does the church know what to preserve?
In our Presbyterian tradition we tend to focus on four essential elements of worship Book, Bath, Meal and Service. I will have to look up who came up with that list, so that I can give them credit… but I like how easy it is to remember. Book, Bath, Meal and Service.
Let’s start with the Book. The work we do with the Bible. Reading and interpretation of scripture is more than the readings and the sermon. Many of our hymns and anthems, prayers and liturgical readings include scripture or allusions to scripture and additional content that illuminates the word.
I’ve noticed most Presbyterians don’t just like, they expect a good sermon. Hopefully not simply as entertainment… The act of proclamation provides a living, active connection between worship and what we are meant to do and be in the world… in light of God’s Word.
Bath – yes- baptism.
Baptism doesn’t happen every week. Sadly, in many congregational settings, this sacrament happens all too infrequently. I say sad because when we baptize a child or adult, we are welcoming a new member of God’s family, celebrating God’s new creation, new birth.
Stephen and I moved the baptismal font away from the wall and into view for my ordination service. We left where is stands – not just because it is so stinking heavy. The font is out and visible on purpose. So that every time I walk by it, I am reminded that I am a beloved child of God.
And every time one of you walks by it, or around it, I give thanks that you, too, are children of God, created and claimed in love, washed clean, forgiven, wrapped up in the grace and mercy of God in Christ Jesus. Everything we are called to do as believers, and as part of ordered ministry as deacons or elders, comes directly out of that first covenant in community, out of the promises spoken and kept.
The meal we will share today – the Lord’s Supper – is open to all who have been baptized and follow Jesus.
This same meal has been central to worship since the earliest days of the church. The settings and rituals have changed over time, and definitely vary from one congregation to another, but the pattern is the same. The words of institution were preserved within the writings of the apostle Paul, who likely heard the story of the last supper from one of the twelve who were there on the night our Lord was betrayed.
We bless and break apart the bread.
We bless and portion out the juice.
And as each one partakes of our share, this body that can feel like so very many separate and all too independent pieces is brought back together. Each member is made part of the whole, gathered in and re-membered as we remember the one who broke down the walls that divide and draws all people near. We are connected by the one loaf, the one cup, giving honor and thanks for one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Book, Bath, Meal… do you remember the fourth?
Service to others, to be more precise.
Once again, this faith tradition reminds us that, like Abraham and Sarah, we are blessed to be a blessing to others. We are reminded that the faith, hope and love that we experience in the book, bath and meal, are of little value if the community opts out of bearing witness beyond these walls.
In his gospel, Matthew recounts a moment when Jesus looks out at the crowds who gathered to hear him teach. Matthew says Jesus had compassion…for they were like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless.
In addition to the ministry he would do that day, feeding and healing the multitudes, Jesus turned and told his disciples to pray… to pray that the Lord would send more laborers. Jesus looked at the people and them looked at the men and women who would be the beginnings of a new way of following God’s laws and he knew there was so much more than they could do…
They needed to pray for some of those who were in the crowd to become disciples. They needed to pray that those new disciples would be able to teach and prepare still more so that the good news would be proclaimed, so that new believers would be baptized, so that they teach others what it means to love God fully and love their neighbors as they love themselves.
Jesus wanted his closest followers to continue healing, reconciling, feeding, comforting those who were destitute, weary, grieving, or ill. All of which required them – requires us – to see people as Jesus did: with compassion.
John’s gospel includes a final conversation between Jesus and Peter. As they eat breakfast on the lakeshore, Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me.”
Now, this is after Peter had denied Jesus three times, after he had spent a long night on the boat fishing with no luck at all, after some guy on the shore called out a crazy suggestion to try the other side of the boat, after they practically swamped the boat with all the fish they netted, after Peter realized the guy was Jesus – the risen Christ and jumped mostly naked in the water to go to Jesus’ side.
Jesus cooks him breakfast and takes him aside to ask, three separate times, “Peter, do you love me?” Each time Peter replies yes… yes, Lord, I love you.
And do you know what Jesus tells him?
Feed my sheep.
If you love me, feed my sheep.
In that moment Peter and Jesus were reconciled, as surely as you and I, who also need forgiveness, are reconciled to God through confession. In that moment, Peter was in the presence of his Lord and Savior, loving and being loved.
It was worship.
Plain and beautiful and pure.
And every time Peter preached, every time Peter healed the sick, cared for the poor and fed those who were hungry… it was worship.
Loving Jesus means feeding his sheep.
Feeding Jesus’ sheep is worship.
Plain and beautiful and pure.
We gather to worship together, but when we leave, it’s easy to think of our witness to others through acts of compassion as something totally separate, a completely different set of tasks.
The reality is that any time we point to God,
any time the focus shifts from the things I want, or even the things I need in that moment,
any time we care for those who are harassed or helpless or hungry or cold,
any time we give financially to the work of the Body of Christ to build God’s Kingdom…
we are pointing beyond ourselves and back to God,
we are declaring the good news of Christ
we are drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, our whole lives can be – ought to be – worship so amazing that we lose ourselves in loving Jesus…
Lost in the wonder of service,
Lost in love for God’s children,
Lost in praise and thanksgiving for the One who makes it all possible.
That is divine worship, worthy of preservation.