Sunday, August 16, 2020

Phil Kniss: Worship as public works

“May all the peoples praise You!”
Psalm 67; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

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How do we “rewild the church”
and what does it even mean?

When environmentalists “rewild” an area of land,
they restore it as much they can to its natural state—
how it was before non-native species came in,
before human beings messed with the ecosystem.

The church has been around for over 2000 years,
so understandably,
we have a few non-native forms and traditions
that Jesus and his disciples didn’t have in mind.
Some of those are probably life-giving
and still true to Jesus’ vision.
Some are probably not—
invasive species that choke out the life Jesus intended.

This series of worship and conversation
is meant to help us explore that idea together,
and figure out which is which.

It won’t surprise you
that in a worship series on the “native species”
or “big stones” of the church,
we start with worship, with the praise of God.

After all, worship is the big drawing card for churches today.
It’s the main thing churches put out there for public view,
in hopes of pulling in more worshippers,
and strengthening the base.
Worship is the engine that drives the church enterprise.

More compelling worship experiences
put more rear-ends in the pew,
more dollars in the offering plate,
which buys more staff and better programming,
and brings in even more people and dollars.

Browse a few church websites, and you won’t look far
before you see blatant marketing of the “worship experience.”
So I can’t help but be . . . just . . . a little cynical
when some churches now are
flouting public health guidelines, and even the law,
insisting on a religious right to gather in big groups
and create a “worship experience” for their consumers.
Is it really religious freedom driving that resistance,
or is it a need to keep the church enterprise humming,
keep the customer satisfied?

If we’re talking about a return to native or natural practices,
and if we’re trying to spot invasive species
taking over and choking out the good stuff,
then we don’t have to look further than this
hyped-up, consumer-driven, so-called worship experience.
It is one of the most pernicious invasive species
taking over the church today.

I do think worship is one of the big stones of the church.
And yes, it belongs on Day 1 of this series,
but maybe not for the reasons you first thought.

I’m here today to change your mind
about the purpose of worship.
But I realize that’s a tough sell.
We all suffer from the tendency to think of ourselves
as consumers of worship.
Even I fall into sloppy thinking about worship sometimes.
It’s a constant temptation for me as a public preacher,
whose words are not only amplified in this space,
but out on the airwaves.
And now, thanks to COVID,
all our worship is only getting to you,
because it’s piped to you
from microphones and cameras,
through cables and modems and cell phones
and TV and radio tuners.
So, it’s really hard for you,
not to think of yourself as a consumer of this worship,
and it’s hard for me,
not to think of myself as a producer of a product.
It was hard before.
And the pandemic makes it harder,
to reimagine the shape of worship, to de-consumerize it.

I’m going to try, anyway, and here goes.

This communal worship act is not primarily for us,
it’s for God.

That in itself is hard to swallow,
because it’s hard to think of God as someone who needs worship.

At first glance, it seems a little petty
and even narcissistic . . . and emotionally needy of God,
to be so insistent that we worship God alone,
and praise God and God only,
day and night, night and day.
And that God would get so jealous and angry,
when some of our worship gets misdirected
toward other objects of our affection.

Does God have an ego problem, or what?

Actually, it might be our problem to solve.
We need to stop making God in our image.

God designed creation to give God glory,
not because God has some egotistical need for love and attention.
That’s us projecting our ego-driven-self and putting it on God.
That’s us making God in our image.

God’s desire is not for psychological affirmation,
God’s desire is for shalom . . . harmony . . . alignment.

Creation was designed by God to work together in the same direction.
And when all creation is living into its created purpose,
there is shalom.
So when we creatures are aligned, are God-oriented,
we are giving praise to the creator,
we are fulfilling our role in God’s ecosystem.

And our primary role, our vocation as human beings,
as the pinnacle of God’s creative purpose,
as partners in God’s shalom project,
is to worship God and point the rest of creation
in the same direction.

When any part of creation—be that human or bird or tree or bacteria—
is fulfilling its divine purpose in the ecosystem,
the creator God is being worshipped.

Because worship IS alignment.
The worship of God in creation,
is the alignment of creation with God’s purposes.
When bees buzz, they worship.
When flowers bloom, they worship.
When people love and serve one another, they worship.
When all creation is looking in the same direction, toward Creator God,
we are aligned,
we are in sync with our created purpose,
and there is shalom.

So when we are a community in worship
we are modeling the proper alignment between creation and creator
we are modeling that for the rest of creation.

And I’ll be so bold to suggest that when we’re all together
our hearts aligned in the pure worship of God,
we’re saying to the rest of creation, in essence,
“Look at us, and do as we do,
align yourselves also, with your created intent.”

That is the work of worship.
We worship not for our enjoyment or inspiration.
We worship for the sake of the shalom of all creation.
That is theological bedrock,
and it is affirmed over and over in scripture.

Did you hear the psalm this morning,
“May the peoples praise you, God . . .
so that your ways may be known on earth”?
Did you hear the prophet Isaiah speak for God, saying,
“My house of worship will be called
a house of prayer for . . . all . . . nations.”

And in the church, we used to know that, instinctively.
It’s the modern Western church that got off-track,
and made worship a consumer product.

The ancient Greek word for worship,
appearing even in our New Testament . . . is liturgy.

Know what it means?
Literally, “the work of the people.”
Liturgy is “public works.”

Public works is something undertaken for the good of everyone.
Municipal water, sewer, and electricity are “public works,”
because they are specifically for everyone.
Not just for the deserving, or the elite. For all.

Worship is one of the primary “public works” of the church,
that we undertake for the good of all.
It is the core vocational calling of the church.
It is something, without which, the church could not be the church.

Shame on us for turning it into a product to sell!
Can we uproot this invasive species called
“the worship experience,”
and rewild the church back into this holy vocation?

Worship should be our way of saying to the world,
“Look at us looking at God.”
God’s vision of shalom is for all of us and all of creation.
You and we are all invited to align ourselves to that vision,
and watch God create a new world of shalom.

This is not about selling people on our religion,
certainly not on our particular brand of religion,
it’s about inviting the world to align
with the God who created it all, and loves it all.

Crushing the competition is not the vocation of Christians.
Winning the most theological arguments is not our vocation.
Giving people a satisfying worship experience is not our vocation.
Getting the most members in the door is not our vocation.
Gaining the most influence in the halls of power is not our vocation.

Our vocation is to worship God, and worship God alone.
It is to turn toward God, individually and collectively,
and say to the world, “Look at us looking at God.”

We are God’s representatives to the world—
we reflect to the world God’s love, goodness, holiness, and justice.
And we reflect back to God the praise of the world,
of all nations and creation.
It’s the “angled mirror” analogy again.
Our worship holds a mirror at a 45-degree angle,
so when the world looks at us,
they see God’s character and divine image.
It comes to us and reflects out to the world.
And the same mirror reflects back to God
the worship and praise coming from humanity and creation.
That is our vocation.
That is our public work.
That is our liturgy.

May we be called up short every time we get careless
and fall into the trap of thinking like a consumer.

So yes, let us keep doing communal worship and doing it well.
Let us sing and pray and laugh and weep
and read scripture and play our instruments
and sit in silence and exercise our minds
and bring our very best as an offering,
while knowing full well it is not for us,
but for God and the world that we worship.

—Phil Kniss, August 16, 2020

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