Tuesday, April 12, 2016

April 10, 2016 - Worship as Conversion

We began our discussion of worship last week with conversation.  When I thought about the responses afterward, what was interesting to me is that we didn’t really talk about worship in and of itself.  When we discussed the question, “Why do you worship?” we ended up talking much more about what worship does rather than what worship is or what constitutes good worship.  I’m sure if I had framed it as what makes good worship it would have been a different conversation.

But we discussed “Why do you worship?” People talked about worship as an anchor for their faith, a time for growing in faith.  A couple of people voiced the idea that as the week progresses it can be difficult to feel grounded in that faith.  Weeks can be stressful.  They can be filled with both very good and very bad news.  It can be easy to forget that God is with us in the midst of all of it.  But as we gather as a community, with people who share some common beliefs, who find strength in faith, as we pay attention to God with us, we are anchored to the faith for that time. 

Now as someone pointed out, there are other ways we might anchor ourselves during the week.  We might spend time in prayer or with scripture.  We might listen to music that reminds us of faith.  We might give thanks at meals or find other ways to express gratitude.  These are all anchors of one sort or another and I strongly encourage you to find them and use them.  Keep reminding yourself of God’s loving presence outside of Sunday.  Yet it is also important to say that for the past couple thousand years, the community gathering has been a primary anchor for Christians.

So I want to talk about something that worship does, another function.  I see worship as a conversion experience, if we are doing it right.  As I said last week, the critique that worship receives from both the prophets and Jesus is worship that fails to send us out to live the faith.  If we just come and feel really good for an hour, we are missing the point.  If you like music, go and listen to a nice concert.  If you like art, walk around a gallery.  If you like food, go have a nice meal at a restaurant.  If you like nature, go take a walk in the woods or on the beach.  Those are all things that can make you feel good for about an hour.  And often when we walk away from the hour, we will continue to feel good for a few minutes; think about how it was enjoyable experience and then move on to the next business.  It becomes a pleasant memory.

There is nothing wrong with doing something that feels good for a little while, that is just done for the pure enjoyment of it or as a break from regular life.   Worship can easily fit into that category and I think both traditional liturgy and contemporary worship have been used in that way but it should be something more.  We have music, but we are not concert or a performance.  We have food, but we are not restaurant.  We have images, but we are not art gallery.  We have teaching, but we are not a school.  We have members, but we are not a club or a social hall.  So what are we and what is this?

I think we are a place to be converted.  Worship at its best can be a road to Damascus experience where the scales fall out of our eyes and we are not the same person when we leave.  And it is not because we listened to nice music or had good food or learned a good lesson, it is because we have been opened to presence of God in a unique way perhaps through the combination of all of these things.  Whenever I talk this way there is often someone who will say, but isn’t God present everywhere?  And that is something I believe to be true.  It is certainly a big part of the contemplative tradition which seeks to find God in all things.  But there is something unique about this time we spend gathered together, being opened, opening ourselves, to God together that creates the possibility of conversion.

We don’t talk about conversion very often, perhaps because we have lived in a culture where most people around us grew up with a Christian background.  They may not have been practicing, but there was a connection there.  We might think of missionaries who went out to convert people in far away places, but locally, what would you convert to?  Most often I have heard conversion talked about in born-again communities, where a lot of the focus in on creating a moment of conversion (or decision).  They often see conversion as a one-time experience.  Faith is like an on/off switch.  I once was off, but now I’m on.

In our tradition, baptism is a beginning of faith but not an end to itself.  We are frequently in need of conversion.  Faith is more like a dimmer switch.  Sometimes it is obvious that it is on and sometimes we are not so sure.  We need to be converted again and again, and that is more than choosing Jesus for your personal savior.  We need our eyes reopened to the vision for the world which Jesus has shown us.

There is a common theme that we find in the gospels of giving sight to the blind.  We heard it again in Paul’s story from Acts.  He is struck blind on the road, but as Paul is ushered into the Christian community by Ananias, his sight is restored.  The theme of restored sight points to the idea that Christianity is more than being nice to one another.  What Jesus has given us is not only abundant life, but a new way of looking at the world that is shaped by that life.  It is a way of being in the world that is shaped by love, by truth, by justice and by peace.  When we are looking at the world with this vision, we are already living eternal life.  It is not something that you are going hear from your favorite party’s candidate.  It is not something that you are going to read in a self-help book.  It is a vision that we glimpse as we gather together in this place, as we set aside our imperfections and our differences and praise God together, and listen together, and dine together.

But we need to be reconverted because you all are going to leave this place and go back into a world where people are going to try to sell you things you don’t need but you will start to believe that those things will make life better.  You are going to out into a world where people will tell you that you are better than somebody else because of your race or your upbringing or your education or your stuff and it feels good to feel better than somebody else.  You are going to go out into a world where people will tell you to figure out what side you are on; what team you are on; who are the winners and who are the losers and it feels good to be a winner.  You are going to go out into a world where people will tell you that violence in some form or another is necessary and good.  You are going to go out into a world that will tell you to be afraid of what is unknown and what is different

So I say that we need to be reconverted every day and every week.  We need a place where we can go and let the scales fall from our eyes so we can see with Christ’s vision.  We need a place where we can open our eyes to the deep reality that fear can turn into peace; sorrow can turn into joy; death can turn into life.  This is the resurrection promise; this is the Easter good news.

Let this time be a moment for reconversion so that you can walk out those doors with Christ’s vision fresh in your mind.  So that you can be part of God’s love, peace and life to those around you.  But I promise you, you will be blinded again.  And that’s okay because we all are at times.  The relationship that is faith is there.   God will always hold up that end, that is the nature of the baptized life. The promise is constant.  God is always near and always with us.  The power is on but the dimmer switch is low.   Our minds and hearts are blinded; we lose sight of it or even try to walk away from it.

So we gather in this place, at this time, for this worship and pay attention to God, turning toward God in praise and receiving from God new sight and a glimpse of God’s kingdom.  We are converted and reconverted, renewed in Christ’s promise and empowered to share life, love and the joy of Jesus with the world around us.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April 3, 2016 - A Conversation on Worship

For this Sunday we were experimenting with dialogue as part of worship.  As such there was not a formal sermon but a couple of introductions, which I will include here.  I will also offer summaries of comments.
Conversation 1:  Why do you come to worship?
                It is not secret that fewer people are attending worship.  It is estimated that about 20% of the population is in church on a given Sunday.  At the same time the demographics of churches are changing.  A recent study found that 60% of churches in the United States have 100 or fewer people in attendance.  Meanwhile, 75% of people who attend go to churches that are 350 or more. 
                An interesting fact is how more people view worship as what they think they should do.  That is, if you determine the number of people in worship by surveying people, asking if they were in church last Sunday, 40% of the population say they are in worship on a given Sunday.  If you go by actual attendance, you get about 20%  (Hartford Institute for Religion Research)
                So why do you go to worship?  Is there something you hope to find?  Is it simply part of your weekly ritual?

Summary of conversation
Several reasons for attending worship were discussed.  Some looked at worship as an opportunity for education; others talked about the importance of the community itself, that there was something important about gathering together.
A common theme was idea of worship as an anchor for the rest of the week.  It was mentioned that while our closeness to God can feel like it goes up and down through the week, worship was an anchoring moment, a time when we feel like God is present and a time when we are paying more attention to God’s presence.

 Conversation 2:  Jesus and Worship
                Some critics of Christianity point out that the Bible seems to contradict itself.   That’s going to be an issue anytime you make blanket statements about the Bible having no mistakes and being without error.  This happens especially if you treat the Bible as one unified text when in reality it is a collection of texts from different authors in different places at different times with different audiences written over the span of a couple thousand years.  I believe that each text is inspired by God and each text speaks to and reveals some truth about God.  So I don’t end up saying that the Bible contradicts itself so much as it critiques itself.  As an idea played out in history, people sometimes took it too far or, as Jesus often challenges, took it too rigidly.
                We can find this when it comes to worship.  In the same Bible where the author of Exodus goes through several chapters on how to build the Tabernacle for worship in the wilderness and the book of Leviticus goes on at length describing the procedures for worship that is centered around animal sacrifice, we have Amos and other prophets who critique worship done in the midst of an unjust society with the voice of God saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
                This is not a full-fledged rejection of worship or contradiction within the text but rather a critique of worship, especially an attitude that says worship is the central thing for God.  And there are two things I want to say about that.  First, as more congregations experience decline it is interesting that the attitude I often hear is, “At the very least, we are going to worship.”  Is that something we should give some more thought to?
                Second, Jesus doesn’t say much about worship.  It is sort of in the background of the text.  They all sing a hymn at the last supper.  He has interactions at synagogues and at the Temple, but many of these interactions are prophetic or critical of what is going on.  He gets run out of his hometown synagogue and  his words and actions in the Temple point out what is wrong with the practices he sees.
And as we heard the story of his appearance to the disciples after the resurrection, he sends the disciples out; he empowers them with the Sprit.  What we never hear is, “Now I want you all to get together every week and worship me.  If possible, sing songs with a really expensive instrument that only a handful of people know how to play and be sure you have a building that may eventually suck the life out of your community because I’m all about worship.”
                That’s my little piece.  What are your thoughts?

Summary of Conversation
                Our conversation focused a little more on how worship and being in community shape us.  It was noted that in addition to gathering for worship, gathering together gives us an opportunity to find out if there are needs in our community, who is sick and who might need help.  Gathering together allows us to love one another more concretely.
                The importance of Christ’s presence was also noted.  Someone in the congregation mentioned Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered, he will be present.  So when we gather in his name we enter into that presence.  Another participant pointed out that he is aware of Christ’s presence when he is alone, especially at prayer.   We talked a little about what it means to be present in a relationship, that perhaps worship provides a different take or a different awareness of Jesus in our midst.
                The discussion wrapped up with the understanding that worship has an outward direction.  If worship is not sending us out to live the good news and share God’s love in word and action, then that worship is falling short.  The critique of worship mentioned above is about worship that fails to the do the job of equipping the community to live the faith outside the church walls.