A sermon based on Romans 12:1-2
While my preached sermons never mirror the manuscript, and I tend to go off-script and illustrate as moved, the following sermon, more or less, was delivered last Sunday. The question, “What is worship?” was posed and I attempted to answer the question through the lens of Paul in Romans 12:1-2.
What is Worship?
Worship is a word, an idea, an experience even, that gets thrown around so often. Yet I imagine…that most folks don’t give a ton of thought to what the word actually means. What the word describes. What it asks of us.
I mean, we are gathered here this morning for a worship service. It consists of us-God’s people, prayers, song, scripture, response and offering, perhaps and affirmation of faith and communion, and a sending forth.
So here we are, and still there are Christians around the world today participating in what they would call worship. Some of it may look like, smell, feel, and resonate with what we are doing…and some worship looks and feels nothing at all like this.
If you were to find yourself in Korea today, the worship service would look and feel differently than if you were attending worship in East Africa, than it would in South America, than it would in Eastern Europe, than it would even in…say…California. California, after all, is a foreign country to many of us.
Several years ago, my husband and I had relocated to Northern California with the military. We were looking around for a church home and decided to check out a church in our neighborhood. From the outside, the church looked like many other churches that we would consider relatable and familiar to us. So, we stepped in. And for a few brief moments, everything on the inside felt relatable too.
But then, just as the worship service began, we heard loud screaming and people began running up and down the aisles with what at first looked like spears. Jolting to attention, I was only slightly relieved—while shaken out of my comfort zone—to realize that we were not about to get speared to death but simply ‘treated” to a flag show.
Why are people with flags running wild in the worship center? Is that a painter who just appeared on the platform? What is she doing? Where are the simple words and songs? Why is everything so loud? What is happening up in here?!
These are other thoughts raced through my mind as I tried-and came up empty-looking for something that would connect what I thought of us worship to the experience we were now…stuck in.
Whatever we were experiencing was completely foreign to us. And yet, is was comfortable and normative for the large congregation gathered that morning.
To worship God.
The same God we are here to worship today. And the same God Christians in Korea, China, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and the Ukraine have already worshiped today in their services.
After the confusing worship experience I had at the church in California, as foreign as it was to me personally, something inside me wanted to know more-to get to know someone from that church at least. Some time later, I wound up contacting the painter from the service. We met for coffee one day as she shared her story. I wound up purchasing the very piece of art she created that Sunday in worship. Turned out she creates pieces during worship and then sells them to support youth mission trips.
Hmmmm, something I could relate to after all.
The piece currently hangs in our dining room and reminds me that we, church, are all One:
The church, friends, is an organic being; a living and breathing organism made up of all of us, with Christ as our head. Furthermore, the church is always organic to the place and time in which she finds herself.
She…is dynamic, diverse, and alive!
In fact, the only thing constant about liturgical elements-what is included in a worship service-and worship styles throughout the ages and places-is that they have always changed and adapted. Rooted in our profession that Jesus is Lord and grounded in ancient creeds, ancient practices of prayer, song, scripture, confession, and response. And yet, flexible enough to adapt in order to be recognizable to the time and place.
You will be hard pressed, for example, to find the Gregorian Chant in a worship service today, but it was quite common for several centuries.
The New Testament, in fact, gives us scarce evidence of any particular format or order for worship gatherings. We know there were songs or chants, prayers, and scripture-which would have been the Old Testament, but there is no clear formula or directive. To the point, Paul simply tells us in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that corporate worship-is richly varied and that many people were involved. Meaning, not just a pastor, or music director, or the head of church council, but many people together-lifting up their voices and selves in service, to praise and glorify God. The word liturgy itself, in fact, means “work of the people.”
BUT, is corporate worship or liturgy—what we are doing right now–the all-encompassing definition, or more specifically experience, of worship?
I have been thinking a lot about this seemingly simple question: What is worship?
Hold that thought for a second.
Several folks from our church attended our district training yesterday. For those of you who went, I hope you found it meaningful and that you came away with ideas and energy for our shared ministry. The keynote speaker was Mike Slaughter. Mike is the pastor of one of the largest and most missionally successful United Methodist Churches in the united states, but he’ll be the first to tell you Jesus doesn’t care about church growth and I’d add that Jesus likely does not care about many of the measures we use to track church business. Any number of things-good, bad, or downright wrong and deceptive could cause an organization of any kind to grow.
Growth isn’t our purpose.
Rather, Jesus cares about mission and multiplication. Jesus cares about us living out the mission he gave and that IS to make disciples, to baptize, to love. Jesus says, “follow me” and I will make you fishers of men.
Multiplication, not growth, happens when lives are changed by the gospel and those lives go on to disciple others. Rooted in Christ’s transformational mercy and God’s unconditional love. Disciples that make disciples. Said another way: changed lives that change lives. That is multiplication.
Anyway, Pastor Mike is so passionate about this mission, that he doesn’t allow anything-especially off point busyness or business-to distract him or his church leaders from it. He told us yesterday, “Jesus didn’t die so we could sit in meetings.”
What did he mean by that? He didn’t mean that we don’t need meetings at all. We obviously need to communicate, coordinate, and ensure we are working to the same purpose. Quite frankly, however, Mike meant that we are often so tied up in meetings and meetings and more meetings, that there is little to no time left for mission and ministry. We often get in the way of God. Unintentionally, of course, but still.
So, what did Mike do at this church when he arrived thirty-eight years ago? He cancelled the meetings. He simplified the structure. Not allowing his folks to have their time and talent tied up in busyness, he cancelled the meetings except the one’s organizationally necessary. But, he didn’t just send his folks home and tell them to kick their feet up. Nope. Instead of wasting time in meetings, he sent his leaders out to tutor students at a local school, a school with a high illiteracy and poverty rate.
Is that worship, I wondered? When hearing him tell this story. Is it worshipful to use our time and talents loving and helping others? Caring for our neighbors? Teaching kids to read? Preparing food for those without? Volunteering at a shelter? Visiting the homebound?
What is worship? Is it was we do on Sunday morning? Is it what we do with our lives Monday through Saturday?
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, his capstone work, writes these words in Chapter 12:1-2. Hear them specifically as they speak to worship:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy—–I’ll stop there for a second because those words “in view of God’s mercy” are so important and everything after this statement must be seen in the light of God’s mercy. It’s not our doing or our will, but rather God and God’s mercy going before and guiding us.
Paul continues, “…in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Ahhhh, now that is a definition of worship I can get behind.
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Wow-that passage is chock full of theological AND practical goodies. First and foremost, GOD is merciful. Our response, our worship, and all else we think, say, and do with our lives acknowledges this truth.
This is so important because many of us, unfortunately, grew up in a church or faith community that either guilted, shamed, or gave voice and life to other fear-based teachings that instilled in us the misguided belief that we could ever affect God’s love. This passage, however, helps us to rightly order things. The truth is that there is nothing we do to affect God’s love, to earn God’s love, or to make God love us any more or any less. Nothing.
AND YET STILL, I believe God does want us to receive his mercy, grace, forgiveness, and to respond. I do believe God cares about how we think, the words we choose, our actions, and how we live our lives both inside the church and out in the world.
As a response to God’s love and mercy, never to earn it, Paul exhorts that we:
- Offer our bodies as a living sacrifice. Sacrifice and worship go hand in hand in the Old Testament. Sacrifice, in fact, was often the language of worship. But then Christ came along and became THE sacrifice for us, the only sacrifice we have needed since then. In light of that Good News, we are invited to offer ourselves, essentially, back to God. And since we operate in the world in bodies, our bodies matter to God. More to the point, this passage, in one particular translation of the Bible, says that our spiritual worship involves offering our bodies. We cannot worship God in spirit apart from out bodies.
- Live in ways that are holy and pleasing to God. This statement reminds us that we are set apart people, made right by Christ, AND that when we respond to God’s love and mercy by offering ourselves back to God, it pleases him. This statement tells us that we-flawed humans-are capable of pleasing God.
- Renew our minds. Verse two goes on the say we ought not to conform to the patterns of this world, but should allow God to renew our minds. We are told here that it’s not just our bodies is concerned with, but our minds too.
So basically, worshiping God consists of our entire selves. Our prayer, our song, our meditation on scripture, our response, our offering, our affirmation of faith, our participating in the sacraments, what we do with our minds, what we do with our bodies, what we do with our very lives. It can ALL be worship when the Being of our desire and focus is God.
Last Sunday was the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. We remember that Jesus himself was baptized, not for his own sake, but for us. We were also invited last Sunday to reaffirm our own baptismal vows.
The thing about baptism for Christians is that is represents for us NEW life. We die with Christ and Rise in Christ. We go down in the water, and come up a new creation. The water washes away the old, and soaks us in the new. For some of us, our baptisms happened when we were small children. For those whose baptism happened later in life, they will often share powerful stories of life transformation. Men and Women experiencing something life-altering, life-giving; many able to articulate clearly that they are receiving a new chance at life. That’s how powerful baptism is.
It is new life.
Do we think about our relationship with Jesus and our response to his mercy as essentially being given new life?
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest in the Roman Catholic, church has studied and written about near death experiences. His research captures similarities in folks who have had some experience that has taken them close to the brink of this life. As you may imagine or even know, an experience like that is life changing.
He notes that people who have had near death experiences have noticeable changes in how they live their lives afterward. First, they have an amazing ability to live in the present. They are able to focus on what or who is right in front of the moment and give it all their attention. Second, they have an abiding sense of deep confidence. Despite not having all of the answers and even knowing that they are mortal, they gain a new confidence and a deeper peace. Third, they experience a decreased interest in material possessions. Their core has been shaken and they instinctively start to prioritize. AND fourth, they often experience A strong sense of life’s purpose–that their life, your life, and all life has intrinsic worth and value.
WE, brothers and sister, should and ought and hope to experience that same type of shake up and wake up when encounter our new life in Jesus. When we are welcomed into the life of the church.
We have had not just a near death experience in our baptism, but a total death and resurrection experience.
And it’s out of that new life, that our worship flows.
So, what is worship?
Worship flows here on Sunday morning, it flows in our prayers, our petitions, in our song and in our dance; in our breaking of bread and receiving the cup. It flows in our celebratory moments and in our moments of deepest grief. Our worship flows through these doors on Sunday morning as we gather and remember, and straight back out them when we depart our service and go–sent into the world to live our lives as a reflection of God’s love. Our worship flows into our neighborhood, and homes, and communities, and workplaces, and every place we go and in everything we do, when we are attempting to honor, praise, and glorify God.
You see, worship is all-encompassing. We gather today to remember who we are and whose we are. We gather today acknowledging that while our corporate worship experience should be neither perfect nor a performance, that we all should be seeking to worship God, here in the sanctuary and in our lives, with excellence. We are called to worship with excellence in all spheres of our lives. Giving our best to God because God has given his best to us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.