“Why Worship God?”
On Welcome Back Sunday we recognize that the reason we welcome each other so warmly is the same reason we worship God so joyfully, for both are done for the glory of God.
John tells us that Jesus once instructed a Samaritan women in worship. A common Samaritan view at the time was that worship was something limited. Many Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch and rejected the psalms, prophets and other parts of what we now consider the Old Testament. Many saw worship as being confined to specific times and places. Jesus responded that true worship is of the spirit. Jesus was saying that as the spirit is not contained to one time and place, neither should our worship be.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul help us understand that we have a calling to practice what we experience in worship in order to live out our faith. Reading now from God’s holy word.
In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.
Gladwell writes that in 1960, while they were still a high school rock band, the Beatles went to Hamburg, Germany to play in the local clubs. Many times they weren’t paid. Some of the audiences booed them. But the non-stop hours of playing time forced them to get better. By 1962 they were playing seven nights a week. By 1964, the Beatles had played thousands of hours together.
Bill Gates dropped out of college to form Microsoft in 1975. Doesn’t seem smart to drop out. However, Gates had thousands of hours of programming practice because as a teenager, Gates would sneak out of his parents’ home after bedtime to use the University of Washington’s computers to program.
In the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied the practice habits of violin students. All of the experienced subjects were asked the question: “Over the course of your entire career, how many hours have you practiced?” All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.
One fascinating point of the study, Gladwell points out, “There were not really “naturally gifted” performers who emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The researchers found the direct statistical relationship was between hours of practice and achievement.
So when it comes to your faith, how often do you practice it?
If your religious activity is confined to one hour a week, even if you go to church every week, 52 weeks a year, using Gladwell’s analysis you’d need more than 192 years in order to be really experienced and proficient.
So it’s important to find a way to practice our faith outside of Sunday morning. We can help you with that at Bradley Hills. Looking through the bulletin you’ll see a lot of activities. Small groups. Choir. Service. Bible study. Activities to help us grow in faith so we get more out of Sundays. Find what is right for you.
We don’t just practice our faith during the week to help get ready for Sunday. The role of Sunday worship is also to help us get ready for the week.
Let us pray.
Is anyone here a fan of the Rocky Horror Picture Show? The 1975 rock musical horror film which wasn’t critically acclaimed but gained a wide midnight following.
Seeing it is less about watching a film and more about having an experience. One of my high school friends played both the character Rif Raff and later the Frank Furter in an Ohio production so we went a few times there and once in Georgetown. People often dress up in costume, yell back lines at the screen, throw props and act out parts of the film during the movie. We usually brought rice to throw for example.
Going to the Rocky Horror show is not just passively watching, it’s participating in the drama.
Ours is a time when going to church too often is considered to be like passively going to the theater or to a regular movie. In fact some of the fastest growing congregations in DC meet in movie theaters and pipe in the sermon and much of the service from somewhere else on screens.
That is not the way the early church worshiped. They gathered in small communities. They say that the most authentic faith is formed in circles not rows. My own experience is that when people come together in small groups outside Sunday they can really deepen their faith.
Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish theologian who was critical of churches whose worship had become focused on pleasing the “audience”. He developed an alternative vision around the idea that Christian worship was a drama. But a different order of drama from the way many might think. What Kierkegaard observed was that in most congregational worship, God was thought to be the prompter. The liturgical leaders, musicians, readers and preachers, were thought to be the actors in the drama on the stage. The congregation was the audience in the drama. The focus had been on the actors, who entertained those sitting in the pews.
Kierkegaard disagreed. Instead, he believed the liturgical leaders were the prompters in worship. All of us, the congregation as well as the liturgical leaders, are the actors in the drama of worship. God alone is the audience.
Our hope is that we are that kind of congregation.
What we all do in thinking, reflecting, singing, praying, praising, glorifying God, is the real action of the day. Our choir and Chancel Players take seriously that their activities are first and foremost worship. Our banner here in the sanctuary reads “to God alone be the glory.” Our suggestion when we find something pleasing in worship, is rather than clapping for us as with a performance, to focus upwards and give God the glory. Our recognition of the Greek word for worship, proskuneo, meaning to bow down before, underscores our focus on humility and listening for God’s voice.
Yet we are here in the pews, how do we participate in the action? By thinking of our time here not as passive but as our performance. Yet more than that, not only a performance but also a rehearsal. Our human actions follow our thoughts. So we need to be thinking about the right things. Paul wrote that Christians should set their minds on those things which are true, honest, and honorable. Things that honor the mysteries of faith, hear the questions and are holy.
If one reads the Christian virtues Paul lifts up in our second lesson, it’s no surprise that these are many of the same qualities the Old Testament uses to describe God. The prophet Isaiah, for example, wrote to an exiled people after the destruction of Jerusalem to help them recognize similar qualities in God and give them hope that they were not alone. When we practice these virtues in ourselves, we begin to better understand God better.
Our worship on Sunday shapes our thoughts and thus our actions during the week. Paul told the Philippians to practice what they had learned and received, seen and heard. Our weekly worship service allows us to experience God’s presence. More than that it allows us to practice our connection with God so that the virtues and values it inspires stay with us during the week.
Our worship is magnified here, but not limited to here. A God so mighty as to be worth worshiping is not limited to one room or one morning. If our audience is God and God is everywhere than we should follow Jesus’ advice to the Samaritan women to worship God broadly all week.
In the Oscar winning film Birdman, the New York Times reviewer Tabitha tells a frustrated Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, that she can break him with a bad review. She proclaims that she has already decided to give his play a terrible, career ending review, before even seeing it. Tabitha is the last person one would think would change her mind. However, at the end of Birdman when she actually sees the show her mind is changed by Keaton’s character and she gives the play glowing review.
How we act during the week can impact others even if we don’t expect it.
Chesterton observed that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
It may be that God is our audience, but there are many other people who notice us. In some ways other people are like our reviewers. And how we act during the week influences them in ways we cannot always predict.
One hour a week of worship practice may not be enough time to become an expert, but it can help us rehearse the story of our faith.
There are connections between our worship on Sundays and our relationship with God during the week.
In worship we gather together as we are called by God. God wants us to gather in community and get out of our self-focus and realize there is something bigger than us.
In worship we confess our need for God. We go through life thinking we are independent and then something happens which throws us for a loop. A process of confessing our need for God’s forgiveness helps us cope with hardship and become comfortable with imperfection, and elicits praise when we realize that it is because of God’s grace that we are saved and freed. In worship we experience God’s word through children’s messages, singing, anthems, reading and reflecting on the meaning of scripture. We learn that we can experience God speaking to us in a variety of ways and that opens us to noticing God throughout the week. In worship we respond to God by accepting God’s grace and living out our faith, through prayer, stewardship and actions which bind us with others.
In worship we conclude with the reminder that our worship service may have ended but our service to God has just begun.
For when we serve others or read scripture in the morning or pray at noon, or reflect on God’s wisdom, or confess our sins or teach our children to give thanks at dinner or listen to sacred music in the car or sing at the top of our lungs of God’s glory in the middle of the week, we are living the faith we practice on Sunday.
Building on Kierkegaard’s idea, our worship time is also a rehearsal. Our performance is not only today but tomorrow and all week.
We worship to rehearse the story of our faith. The story of Christ and the story of imperfect Christians like Paul. We listen, pray, sing and consider our role in the drama. So that during the week we are equipped to make that story our own and to live out our part in the drama of Christianity.
In worship we remember the story of God. In worship, we recall the way of life of Jesus and all God’s people. In worship, we rehearse our best behaviors. In worship we remember our baptism. In worship we recall that we are children of God. In worship we rehearse how we are to live as people who are loved by God. Who trust God. Who are made in God’s image.
We worship God to rehearse the story of our faith over and over again each week to be ready for the week to come because that is where the rubber meets the road. That is where we show the world what it means to be the people of God.
We come to worship to understand God better in community. To rehearse the timeless story of God’s love for God’s people so that we can play our part throughout the week.
We come to worship because it makes a difference that we are Christians, that are have faith, that we are God’s people. We show that to the world by how we act on the stage of life during the week.
In Shakespeare’s famous play, As You Like It, the melancholy Jacques begins his monologue in Act 2 saying,
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players (I’d say our Players are pretty great);
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
We worship God because God is amazing and magnificent and calls us to worship. To be really good at faith we can’t just practice worship on Sundays for we have many parts to play. We worship God because all the world is a stage.
We are not passive observers. We are players in it. We don’t need to throw rice but should throw ourselves into worship as we rehearse the story of our faith.
Life can be rocky and horrible and some days its reviews are bad. Yet even those experiences can lead us to hope when we stay connected with God. Yet life can be beautiful. When we realize that our best values and virtues are the very qualities of God, we understand God better. God is our audience.
As we begin our program year and begin to worship together again, think of the emphasize you place on worship.
Our God is awesome and worthy of praise. Yet we worship God as well to rehearse, practice and prepare to be God’s people during the week. Today is our chance to practice for the grand adventure of faith that is ours in the week to come. Let’s make the most of it. Amen.