Sermon: It’s What We BRING to Worship That Matters
Other messages in this series
- Sermon #1: “Rethinking the Priority of Worship” (Sept 5)
- Sermon #2: “Worship You Don’t Have to Go To“ (Sept 12)
- Sermon #3: “When All of God’s People Get Together” (Sept 19)
Scriptures: Isaiah 29:13; John 4:19-26; Philippians 4:4-9
When I was in college, a friend from the dorm invited a bunch of us to go with her to her church. She loved her church and wanted us to experience what she did every Sunday. She attended Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor. She raved about how exciting their worship was, but also gave us a heads-up that what we would experience that Sunday would probably be a lot different than what any of us were used to.
Well, to simply describe it as a lot different would be an understatement. It was unlike any worship experience I’d ever had in my life up to that point. I can’t say if all AME congregation’s worship in the same manner, but in the case of Ann Arbor Bethel in the mid-1980s, their worship was literally hopping! Throughout the service, but especially during the singing, people danced around the sanctuary. They shouted. They clapped their hands. They laid on the floor. They spoke in tongues. In almost every way possible, it was an utter antithesis to what took place in the sanctuary of my church. Because I was there and witnessed it with my own eyes, I can tell you for a fact that the Holy Spirit was active in Bethel AME that morning. Without a doubt, worship was alive and moving and Spirit-filled.
But I can also tell you that I got nothing out of it. I didn’t personally feel the Spirit moving like the rest of them did. I didn’t personally feel the excitement like the rest of them did. I wasn’t personally moved to worship in the same demonstrative manner. The bottom line was, I went to a worship service that morning, but for the most part, I didn’t worship.
Let me ask you something. Was my overall worship experience a reflection of that church and its worship service, or was it a reflection of me? I believe it was a reflection of me. Yes, I was there in body, but because I was so overwhelmed by the overtly spirited style of worship, I was basically an observer. Even though my friend had given us a heads-up, even describing what it would be like, experiencing in person was different. The truth is, that morning I pretty much sat back and watched it all. I watched the other people worship. And while I left there with a head full of new memories and even a much broader understanding of how people worship, I nevertheless left the church that day unaffected by the Spirit’s presence.
So, here’s what I’ve come to understand. To me, it seems very likely that what we experience in worship and what we take away from worship is often a direct result of what we bring to worship. That what we “bring” on Sunday has a big impact on what we “take away” from it. How else can we account for the fact that person A leaves a worship service feeling inspired to deeper levels of faith while person B leaves that same worship service unmoved? They both same the sang songs, said the same prayers, heard the same message, followed the same order of worship, but were affected entirely differently by that shared worship experience.
I’ve personally experienced that myself. I’ll give you two examples. First, more than once, a worship service resulted in one person sending me a note of thanks, expressing appreciation for how something I said in my sermon, or a prayer that was said, helped them, while a different person contacted me for the purpose of taking me to task for length of the sermon, or for the lack of inclusive language in a hymn we sang, or to disagree with something I said.
Another, and more specific in nature, was when a particular liturgy element was included in the order of worship on Mother’s Day. That week, I heard from two people in regard to that liturgy. One person was offended by it and shared with me their view that the content of that liturgy didn’t reflect what they believed we should be focusing on when it comes to recognizing Mother Day. The other person couldn’t thank me enough for including that liturgy, sharing with me that its content was a source of personal healing for sins committed against her in the past. Now, in both of these personal examples, I’m not saying those who liked what happened were right and those who didn’t were wrong. Not at all! I’m simply pointing out the fact that from the same worship service can come different responses and experiences. And I have to wonder if part of the reason for this has to do with what we bring, or don’t bring, to worship. Maybe it has less to do with the what’s going on in the worship service and more with what’s going on in one’s heart?
In Isaiah 29:13, we the readers are privy to something that’s upsetting God. It’s like we’re flies on the wall, listening to God grumble to himself. These people say they’re mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote (New Living Translation).
First of all—and it’s pretty much worded this way in all the different Bible versions—God’s talking about his very own children, the Jews, but in this case, he instead refers to them “these people.” These people say they’re mine. It’s like he doesn’t want to admit any connection to them. Kind of like when we’re upset with one of the kids, and we say to our spouse, “Do you know what your son did today?” In this case, it’s God, grumbling about these people who claim to be in relationship with him: Who are these people? They SAY they’re mine, but honestly, I’m not so sure! I hear the words that come out of their mouths. They say that they love me. They say that they fear and respect me. They say that they serve me and will obey me. But their God-honoring words ring hollow. They’re empty words because, in truth, these people don’t really mean what they say. Their hearts are far from me.
When I consider how worship can be absolutely uplifting one week and utterly ho-hum the next week in light of God’s grievance in Isaiah 29:13, I think about the fact that a typical worship service contains a lot of words—a LOT of words! We used about 150 words to call ourselves to worship last week. Between the various songs and hymns, we sang about 225 words. The quartet sang about 400 or so words between their three pieces of music. And, of course, there was my sermon. Last week it took me about 3,200 words to make my point! And that doesn’t include the announcements, the invitation to give, and the pastoral prayer and Lord’s Prayer. Nor does it include the many words used in our Communion liturgy. Nor the “words” behind any organ or bell music which is based on a hymn. The fact is, whenever we gather to worship, we speak and sing and play and pray a lot of words.
And for the most part, these are God-honoring words, right? They’re proclamations of praise and professions of faith. They’re prayers of intercession and prayers of confession. They teach spiritual truths and offer a healing balm. But then I hear God say, “These people honor me with lip service while their heart is distant from me.” And I wonder, are all my worship words backed up with a heart that’s truly seeks after God? Is what I claim to be regarding my relationship with God true and accurate? If a non-Christian who has a highly attuned B.S. meter stands back and compares what I say with everything else about my life, where on that meter will the needle fall?
You want to know what never fails to blow my mind? When a person in their 70’s or 80’s, who I know for a fact loves all the elements of a traditional worship service, goes to a loud, band-led worship service which contains none of the familiar worship elements they’re used to, and yet comes away from that saying, “Wasn’t that wonderful?! Wasn’t it great to see all those young people singing to Jesus? I didn’t know any of the songs, but that didn’t really matter, because everyone else knew them, and sang them. That was great, and I’d go to that worship every week!” I have to think that that type of response is born out of a heart that’s focused on a seeing and hearing where God’s at work, and not so much on finding what’s there for me.
Let me ask an important, but pointed question? What we do here together every week, who’s it for? By most standards, one could easily say it’s for us. And to a degree, there is some truth in that, I know. I know that worship should result in each of us receiving something from God. In fact, I begin every worship by asking God to send his Spirit, and to open our hearts and minds to be able to receive whatever he has for us. But the real truth of the matter is that in this setting we are not the receivers as much as we are the givers. You see, worship is a verb, which means it’s something we DO. We don’t so much come TO [a] worship [service] where others happen to be gathering as much as we gather together in order to WORSHIP. To worship God. In the end, God is the audience. God’s the one receiving the praise and glory and the worship words and hearts that we give over to him. Bringing a heart that’s focused on giving ourselves to God in whatever format or setting it may be results in our receiving God’s blessings. Sometimes that blessing can be tangibly felt and experienced. But a lot of the times it won’t be. So, we just have to trust by faith that the Holy Spirit is present and pouring himself into us while we worship him. But the fact is, what we do here is really for God more than it’s for us. In the end, the question isn’t, Was it pleasing to me? but rather, Was it pleasing to God? And what makes our worship pleasing to God has to do with the heart we bring to it.
In the Gospel of John, we’re let in on an intimate conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman he just met. At some point, the topic of worship comes up. She says, “Our [Samaritan] ancestors worshipped [here] on [Mt. Gerizim], but you [Jews] say that it’s necessary to worship in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). You see, there was a time when the location of the worship service mattered, and Jews and Samaritans openly disagree about the right location. But very quickly, Jesus breaks through all those denominational differences and gets to the heart of the matter. Knowing this, he says to her, “the time is coming—and in fact is already here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way (v. 23).
It’s probably a bit oversimplified, but here’s how I interpret what Jesus said. The external trappings of worship—the location, the instruments used, the songs sung, the use of or no use of formal written liturgies, dancing, speaking in tongues, length of the sermon or the whole service, whether it’s on Sunday morning only or Sunday morning and Wednesday night—all these things that we put so much emphasis on and which are the cause of so much division in the church, these don’t matter nearly as much to God as the kind of heart we bring and offer him.
Concerning the kind of heart we’re encouraged to bring before God, Paul tells us to be glad in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). In all that we do, give thanks to God. Giving thanks probably leads to being glad and thankful.
What else does he say? He says that a worshipful heart is one that’s focused on all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that’s worthy of praise. So, what, exactly, amounts to these various groups of things that should be the focus of our thoughts? Well, on the one hand, Paul’s probably encouraging us spend more of our time focused on all the different aspects of life which are true in nature, and which are holy in nature, and so on. That really could be an endless list. But when it specifically comes to worship, I propose that the object of our focus is not a what but a who. Jesus Christ fulfills everyone of them. Jesus Christ is true. Jesus Christ is holy. Jesus Christ is just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise.
When God’s people gather together, we do so to worship him. He’s the audience of our active worship. And our heart and mind’s focus are on Jesus Christ, who is the object of our worship. Now, I know that we all have preferences when it comes to the external trappings. But those things aren’t nearly as important to God as the heart we bring. And if they’re not as important to God as they are to us, maybe we should consider how we might re-tool or overhaul our usual approach to worship, so that we’re more concerned about what we bring to the Lord than with what we’re going to get out of the music, or the sermon, or the service itself. Am I talking to myself? You betcha!
Ask anyone who’s participated in some kind of mission project which required a certain amount of giving of themselves. Whether it’s a day or raking leaves for neighbors or ten days down south doing hurricane clean-up, almost every person will report the same experience, which is this. I did the job for them. I went there with them in mind. My hope was to give to them so that they would benefit. But in the end, I think I ended up getting a lot more out of it than what I gave. Some of you have been there, I know. Well, I think that’s kind of how it works when it comes to worship. When we come into the sanctuary—whatever that may look like—with God’s people, and our focus is on offering ourselves to God through active worship, we usually leave with the sense that we ended up getting more out of it than we gave.
Friends, over these four weeks I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to talking about the role and place of worship in our lives. There’s a lot more to be said. But let me draw it to a close with this. God designed worship to be the highest priority in our lives. We’re hard-wired to worship the one who Created us, because it’s the only mechanism we have at our disposal that connects us to him. That connects human flesh to the eternal Spirit of God. At its best, worship becomes a lifestyle we live out daily in the “everyday world.” As we grow in faith, we learn to respond to the happenings of life with faith and trust and grace. And in this sense, worship is something we do on a personal level. But worship is also designed to be something that we do together on a regular basis. And at its best, we do it alongside people of all ages. And when bring a heart focused on pleasing Christ more than ourselves. May it be that because of what we do here together each Sabbath day, and on account of what each of you do to grow in your faith and practice throughout the rest of the week—may it be that we as persons and we as a congregation will come to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our being, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength. Amen….Let’s pray.
God, thank you for drawing us all together this morning. Thank you for giving us the desire or, at the least, the inkling to set aside this time to be with you alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. Thank you for providing us with a place to worship you and, ultimately, a reason to worship you. Thank you for raising up worship leaders, including the various musicians, and liturgists, and ushers and greeters, and technicians, and even our office staff; really, all who play an important part in making what we’re doing here this morning a reality. Not just for us, but across our city, throughout our state, our nations, and ultimately, around the world. We pray for your worldwide church, the body of Christ which isn’t limited by location or denomination or size or style. We thank you for healthy, vital congregations; and we pray for those that are struggling, for those that are conflicted from within, for those that are dying, and for those that are attempting the hard work of turning themselves around. We pray for churches that are addressing issues of pastoral abuse, for churches that are divided and see no way to stop it, and for churches in search of pastoral leadership. We pray for The United Methodist Church as we try to address the challenges facing us. And, of course, we pray for our own congregation, that the things we do and say as a church would truly reflect your holy and guiding presence in our midst. By your Spirit, enable us to be a people of grace and love and peace. Stir us to actions of compassion and justice, and please don’t allow us to choose the easy path to renewal, but rather, the one that requires something of us. For a brief moment, we lift up to your divine care those we know who are hurting or struggling in some way….. We pray for those in the community still without power, and those who are facing a sizable uphill road in terms of clean-up or home repairs following the storm. We pray for our neighbors, especially those we don’t like or who try our patience. Bless them, God! Bless them abundantly, that we might see your grace in action—and maybe even be a part of your blessing of them!
The psalmist encourages us to “honor the Lord for the glory of his name. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.” Help us to live into this command every day; not just on Sunday, but every single day. And so, we honor you, Lord, for the glory of your name. We worship you in the splendor or your holiness. All in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, whose prayer we now say together: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.