“Worship begins as the people gather.” This is what our constitution, as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says about worship: worship begins as the people gather. This morning, we pick up on our worship series on worship. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the rhythms and movements of worship; why our worship tends to be in a certain order; the purpose of it. And so, this seems a fitting place to pick up: where and when worship begins.
It would be logical to consider that worship starts with some kind of formal piece of liturgy. Until it has been announced that we are worshiping, it feels more like social interaction. Worship should be formal. Quiet. Respectful. So perhaps it’s the call to worship…or the first hymn…or, at the very least, please say it’s after the announcements are over! Right?
Nope. Worship begins as the people gather.
OK – so, when we gather in the Sanctuary, right? This is the official worship room, after all. What we do in the Narthex doesn’t count, does it? Or in the lobby, or the hallways?
Worship begins as the people gather.
There’s an odd kind of segmentation that has crept into our life of faith over time. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, we tend to believe that there are times and places where we ought to behave a certain, more worshipful, way; if we believe this, though, then we must also believe that there are times and places where God is “off duty” – or, at the very least, not as present and aware as at other times. But if we take this notion to heart, that worship begins as the people gather, then these divisions start to fade away. Worship becomes, as it should, a seamless whole.
Think about where our faith comes from historically. If we begin with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, faith in the God of the Israelites gained a crucial geographic focus. There was a place that was holier than holy. Priests had to go through particular cleansing rituals; sacrifices were carried out here, and only here. No wonder we developed the sense of a special place where heaven and earth meet.
And yet, there was much more to it than that. Synagogues dotted the land – places where people gathered for reading, reflection, and prayer. It was not the Temple; but it was still a place – at times, very far away from Jerusalem – where people would gather around their shared devotion to God.
This was the situation that greeted Jesus. He had made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and his parents had provided for a sacrifice of thanksgiving because of his birth. He grew up a child of the synagogue, hearing – and eventually proclaiming – God’s word through the Law and the Prophets. And as our Scripture lesson this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus came in the echoes of all these who spoke in the name of God, but has now surpassed them all in power and word.
You see, at the risk of understatement, with Jesus, everything changed! The intersection of heaven and earth was now found within him. In Jesus, Creator and creation were knit together in new and wondrous ways. In Christ, grace trumped sin. Life defeated death. And the unbridgeable gulf between God and us was overcome!
And the moment this all happened is the moment that transformed all we know about what and where is holy. The author of the universe, of all that is and ever will be, became like one of us – knowing our pains and suffering, our joys and wonders – and in the process blessed what is material, made, known, so that it – and we – might be a blessing in return. It’s just as we pray each and every week, for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” There is, in Jesus, the possibility that our world would become more and more the way God desires it to be.
Do we really need to be reminded that the world is not yet there? We are a year on from Ferguson, Missouri, and issues of race and division and prejudice and life and death are every bit as pressing as they were twelve months ago. Presidential campaign season is just getting warmed up, but our press has already failed to remember what is important. They don’t tell us where candidates stand on issues. They don’t tell us what solutions they are offering to our racial, environmental, military, economic sickness. Instead, our airwaves are filled obscenely with who is leading in polls or what a particular candidate did or didn’t say. None of this matters. And a year from now, when the weight of it all begins to come into focus, the fourth estate will still be more concerned about the horse race rather than how we might strive for those angels of our better natures.
Friends, before we are anything else – before we are divided racially or politically or ethnically or nationally – we are made in the image of God. And before any of these other identities come into play, strongly though they might, we are the body of Christ! This is our tribe. What makes this tribe unique is that it does not exist for its own sake. Instead, it exists for the sake of everything and everyone beyond our tribe.
If we learn nothing else from the example of Jesus, let it be this: the love we know at the core of our being is one that we treasure, but one we hold lightly and let go so that others may know that they, too, are loved. We do not hoard; we share. We do not believe in scarcity; we believe in abundance. We do not live out of fear; we live out of hope and generosity and holy, creative, imagination.
This is why we gather for worship. In the speed of days, when left to our own devices or caught up in the press of the world, we forget. We forget! Just as our bodies need sleep so that they can return to activity, so our souls need to rest in the presence of God so that we can return to faithful living in this world that so desperately needs fearless, generous people.
If we don’t, then we risk being used up and useless. We become cynical. We retreat into the shells of self-imposed solitude and our camps where everyone already agrees with us. What could be righteous indignation at persistent injustice becomes, instead, self-righteous certainty.
We gather for worship because, in our heart of hearts, we know better. We know that there is more to life than running on fumes and running out of time. We know, deep down, that we have been created for more – far more – than we would ever be able to imagine on our own. And it is this knowledge that brings us here, in this holy moment, in this holy space, on this holy day, because we trust that God will be the still, small voice that calls us beyond our own limited sight and into God’s holy vision.
Worship is not, ultimately, about what the preacher does or doesn’t say. It is not, ultimately, about what the choir does or doesn’t sing. It is not, ultimately, about the things we do or do not pray for. All of these things, at their best, are vehicles. They are channels that open up the possibility that God might, yet again, bridge that unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth so that we might hear and sense and know beyond knowing what it is that God desires of us, who it is that God has created us to be.
When we gather for worship, we do so as a moment to reflect this holy imagination of what we can be and do. And it begins, paradoxically, not at a specific holy time or moment, but seamlessly and almost unnoticed. Worship begins somewhere on the drive over, or in the parking lot. It starts in our Sunday School rooms, or in the hallways. It gets going in the Narthex, as we greet one another, as we take our seats.
Somewhere along the way, worship begins. And our gathering continues as the music draws our attention into this room, and as the three chimes focus us forward. It continues in announcements, as we lift up news and information, events and ministries in the life we share in this community of faith. And as we move into calls to worship spoken and sung and hymns of praise, we have somehow become, by the design of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the community of faith, the body of Christ, gathered here, in this place, for worship.
There is more to worship than this – much more, of course. And that is a topic for another day. For now, as God’s people, gathered in this place now made holy, in this moment now made holy, on this day now made holy, continue our worship.