Sunday, January 29, 2023

Phil Kniss: Up and out worship

Jesus reveals authentic worship
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 6:7-34; Revelation 11:15-17

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First, a content warning.
This sermon may, at times,
make me sound like a grumpy old man.
I don’t want to be a grumpy old man,
I really don’t.
But then, I’ve been hanging around here going on 27 years . . .
and have the gray beard and thinning hair to prove it . . .
so maybe I’ve earned the right
to preach a grumpy old man sermon every now and then,
and you’ll just have to humor me.

Actually, in all seriousness, I don’t think I’m being grumpy.
I will have some things to say that are critical,
of myself and all of us.
But I will say them with deep love,
and with all the grace I can muster,
grace extended toward myself and toward us all,
and with a robust hope in the church.

So if I challenge us to be something more than what we are—
please realize it’s coming from a place of love, grace, and hope.
It’s not because I’m getting grumpy in my old age,
or because of anything I ate last night.

So . . . what is wrong with our worship?
Well, to prove to you I’m not just being grumpy,
let me first tell you what’s right with our worship.

We take worship seriously here at Park View (as do most churches).
Of all the things we do here, we invest the most—
in terms of staff, facilities, administration, and technology,
in our Sunday morning worship service.
We would not have built this big room,
and all the many systems and people that support it,
if we did not prioritize worship.
And that’s a good thing.

worship is our main job when it comes to obeying God.
I haven’t counted,
but I’m sure there are far more biblical instructions
about how to worship rightly,
than about any other task we undertake as God’s people.

Of course,
there is lots of instruction on other weighty matters of life—
how we treat orphans, widows, and foreigners,
how to care for the poor,
how to handle our money and resources,
how to relate to our enemies.
But even on those matters,
they are often tied back into worship,
because getting those things wrong
clogs up our worship of God.
And God wants our worship.
But God can’t stomach the worship of people
who don’t treat their vulnerable neighbors
with kindness and justice.

Idolatry, or in other words, mis-directed worship,
seems to be God’s #1 accusation
against God’s people.
Worshiping the wrong thing is what offends God
more than anything else.

We have long sections of the Hebrew Bible devoted
to detailed instructions about preparing the worship space,
and about how, when, and what to sacrifice in worship.
The 150 chapters of Psalms
served as the worship book for the people.
The prophets lashed out at corrupt practices of worship.
Jesus spent much of his time trying to fix
the hypocritical worship of the scribes and Pharisees.
That’s what today’s passage from the Sermon on Mount
is doing.
Jesus is calling out those who pray and fast and give alms
and do all their worship perfectly,
for the wrong reasons.
He’s calling out those who have divided loyalty,
which is no loyalty at all,
because you cannot, at the same time,
worship God, and worship wealth.
And remember Jesus and the Samaritan woman?
As soon as the conversation got past
the immediate issue of needing water,
it turned toward worship.
That’s when Jesus made his oft-quoted saying,
“The time is coming—and is here!—
when true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth.”

The apostle Paul worries about worship in Corinth,
and gets grumpy with the church there,
about how their worship perpetuates injustice.

And need I mention the book of Revelation?
The recurring picture, over and over,
in among all that fantastic symbolism,
is a picture of saints and angels gathered around God’s throne,
in full-throated whole-bodied worship.

Anyone who implies that worship is secondary
in our relationship with God,
has too narrow a concept of worship,
and does not read the Bible very carefully.

So . . . kudos to us, and other churches,
for taking worship as seriously as we do.

Can you all say the next word with me?
“But . . .”

But we still need to take a hard look at how we think about worship,
and how our thinking shapes our actions.
And on that front,
I’m afraid that COVID made honest self-examination
even harder for us to do.
Because the temptation we were already battling before COVID,
became even harder to resist when worship went virtual.

What is that temptation?
In a nutshell, it is the constant urge to make worship about us.

My primary competitor for the worship of God, is me.

See, when I make worship into something that satisfies me,
I am engaging in idol worship.

Call me grumpy.
But I don’t think I can do anything to soften that statement.
That has always been the case.
COVID just exacerbated the problem.

Modern forms of church—
be they high-church liturgical,
informal charismatic,
mainline, or evangelical,
or traditional Anabaptist—
all appeal to the needs of the individual worshiper.
It’s easy to see why.
As churches morph into institutions, and need to be maintained,
worship becomes an engine to drive the church enterprise,
rather than a selfless, sacrificial offering to God.

Worship is the one thing that churches routinely put out there
for public view and public consumption.
The more compelling we make the worship experience,
the more rear-ends we can get to sit in our pews,
and the more dollars in the offering plates,
and the more staff and programs we can afford,
and the more, the more, the more . . .
You see where it all leads.

We live in a highly consumeristic society.
We gravitate toward what brings us a good experience.
And churches continually compete on the open market
against other highly developed forms
of art, entertainment, and social activity.

I’d really like to say,
“There’s nothing wrong about trying to make worship
a good experience for the worshiper,
nothing wrong about shaping our worship
for the tastes, and sensitivities, and preferred styles
of those we’re trying to reach with our worship.”

I’d like to say it, but I can’t.
Because there IS something wrong about shaping our worship
around the personal experience of the worshiper.
It inevitably takes the focus off the proper object of our worship—
The God of the universe,
on whom we all depend for every breath.
And when our worship takes its focus off of
the only One worthy of our worship,
and places the focus on us and our “experience,”
we have engaged in idolatry.

It doesn’t matter what kind of “experience” we strive for—
whether to conjure up an emotional experience,
or to stimulate our intellect,
or whatever we do to make worship personally “fulfilling”—
if that is our focus, we miss the mark.

When we gather in worship,
we do it not for ourselves, but for God.
God is the audience.
We are all the performers.

Now let me be perfectly clear about what I am saying,
and what I am not saying.

I am not saying it’s wrong to do worship well.
I’m not anti careful planning.
I’m not anti helping a service flow and connect to the worshiper.
I’m not anti practice and excellence.
I’m not anti safe, comfortable, and welcoming sanctuaries.
I’m not anti professional training for leaders.
I’m not anti well-maintained and tuned pipe organs
and grand pianos and guitars and any other instrument.
I’m not anti investment in up-to-date hymnals
and quality worship resources.

What I am raising here is a bit of a warning flag.
All of those things can be used
for the selfless and sacrificial worship of God . . .
and all of them can just as easily,
even without realizing it,
evolve into what we do to enhance our personal experience.

It’s a temptation anytime.
It’s a special temptation, I’m afraid,
for us who made accommodations for COVID,
by making the worship “experience” available remotely,
mediated through the very same screens,
where we tune in other days of the week
to consume all kinds of other media and entertainment.
It is super hard for us, when joining worship remotely,
to set aside the electronic medium we’re watching,
and remember that we are not consuming,
we are participating in a communal and sacrificial act.

I’ll be honest and vulnerable here.
It’s a temptation for me as much as anyone.
Because I love excellence.
I love things that are done well.
I love the musical and visual arts.
I love well-designed technology.
I also spent time during COVID worshiping at home
in front of our TV screen,
if I wasn’t directly involved in the service,
or if I was home due to illness or other reasons.

But even when I was in the sanctuary during worship,
I would often review the video recording later,
looking at camera angles, lighting, graphics,
audio quality,
paying attention to how these things
might have impacted the viewer experience.
I’m not saying I was wrong to pay attention to those things.
I’m saying it was so, so easy for me, even if momentarily,
to forget who this worship service was actually intended for.

I’m incredibly grateful we have the technology,
and the skillful hands and brains of people that operate it,
that enable us to share our services with, literally, the world.

And speaking to the camera for a moment,
I’m so grateful that many of you—our own members,
as well as people looking in around the edges,
can connect in ways that bless and encourage you.
That would not be possible,
if everything stayed within these four walls.
So thank you for being with us, and welcome!
As you all know, being remote is not a new issue for Park View.
We’ve shared our worship on radio for nearly 70 years,
and we will keep sharing ourselves remotely,
however we can.

I’m also grateful we have professional, trained musicians leading us.
I’m grateful for all the artists and musicians
and people skilled in public speaking
who contribute to our services.

But we do need to keep reminding ourselves, I think,
that the event happening here
is the community at work,
worshiping God,
for the sake of the world.
It’s not a religious media production.

So then, how do we know the difference
between authentic worship of God,
and a consumer-oriented production to be “experienced”?

Maybe we listen carefully
to what our mind and spirit is telling us in the moment.
When the song leader chooses a song that isn’t our favorite;
when the microphone squeals, or drops out for a few seconds,
when a young reader stumbles over some words in scripture;
when a beginner musician flubs some notes in the offertory;
when the candle doesn’t light;
when someone with a disability doesn’t quite “perform”
at the level we are used to;
when the service runs five minutes over;
when you don’t care for what the preacher is wearing . . .
When any of these happen—and they do—
where do our thoughts go?
Do we cringe, and wish someone had practiced a little harder,
or just done something a little different to get it right?
Or . . . do we think about how God is receiving the gift?
Is God any less pleased with that offering of gifts?
If someone offers their best, with an open heart,
even if it’s not our preferred best,
isn’t God just as pleased with that gift,
as with the flawless performance we personally enjoyed?

Another way we can evaluate the matter—
to take today’s scripture readings seriously—
is ask whether the Gospel of justice is being proclaimed,
whether the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan
are hearing something that sounds like good news.

Authentic biblical worship goes up and out.
In other words,
our worship is directed toward God, and God alone,
and it is being offered with keen attentiveness outward,
toward the beautiful and broken world we live in
that is in need of God’s justice and saving mercy.

It is ludicrous and unthinkable,
to imagine a worshiper in the biblical temple or tabernacle
coming away from offering a burnt sacrifice on the altar,
and saying, “Hmmph. That didn’t do a thing for me.”

So how have we gotten to the point
where worshipers, not infrequently,
leave worship with precisely that thought?
“It didn’t do anything for me.”

As if it was meant to?
Was the love and goodness and mercy of God lifted up in public?
Did someone offer words or song in praise to God
for God’s faithfulness during a time of suffering?
Was bread broken and shared in a community of equals?
Was the stranger and outsider welcomed and shown hospitality?
Were the lowly lifted up, and the powerful invited to be humble?
Were gifts given that enable the poor to be fed?

Then our worship had a sweet, sweet smell in God’s nostrils,
just like the biblical burnt offerings were intended to do.
It makes no difference to God
whether the gift is offered in a cathedral or a crude shelter,
with a pipe organ or a homemade drum,
live-streamed to LED screens around the world,
or heard by only a few gathered under a tree in East Africa.

Any . . . any venue or form or style can result in
of worship that is authentic, and a sweet-smelling sacrifice.
Or it can result in worship that has the smell of consumerism
and idolatry.

I invite us all, every Sunday we join in worship—
whether in this space, or in front of a screen—
to ask ourselves, and give an honest answer.
Am I a consumer, or am I a participant?
Am I here for a personal experience,
or to join my community to publicly elevate God,
and join God’s agenda of bringing justice and salvation
to all the world?

In response, I know I need a confession.
Maybe some of you do as well.
Please feel free to join me.

one Almighty, all-loving God of the universe.
You who alone are worthy of our worship,
we confess we often misdirect our attempts at worship.
We strive for an experience that is personally fulfilling,
or emotionally satisfying,
or intellectually stimulating.
Thus, we become worshipers of ourselves instead of you.
We become idolators.
all Forgive us, God of the universe.
Lead us away from self-serving worship.
Help us serve and worship only you.
one Thank you, God of the universe,
for always forgiving our bumbling attempts to honor you.
You are eternally patient and continue to invite us
into partnership with you in worship, in witness,
and in the work of healing all creation.
all Praise be to you, O God, who never fails.
Lead us in your way of salvation and justice for all.

—Phil Kniss, January 29, 2023

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