March 12, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

1 Chronicles 16:23-31
Psalm 63:1-8
Acts 2:42-47

“Passionate Worship”

Why do we worship? Hopefully when I asked that question of the children this morning, you began to reflect on it as well. Because we can’t even begin to consider whether our worship is what bishop and author, Robert Schnase, would call “Passionate Worship” without first thinking about the nature and purpose of the worship that we offer to God Sunday-by-Sunday.

Psalm 63 is not an argument for why we should worship God, and the author is not trying to convince us that regular attendance at worship is important. Instead, the psalmist is simply sharing his own experience. In fact, his words aren’t even addressed to us. They are actually a prayer directed to God – a prayer that beautifully expresses how critically important it is for this man to spend time in worship:

“O God, you are my God,” he addresses the Holy One, “I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” He describes what it is like for him to spend time in the sanctuary praising God and meditating on God’s glory. He says, “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.”

Over the years, I’ve heard a few people describe worship like that. They have commented that coming to worship on Sunday morning “fills them up” and prepares them for the week ahead. They are refreshed, encouraged, and equipped for all that lies ahead in the coming days, strengthened to live as disciples of Jesus at work, and in their families, and in all the activities of daily life.

The psalmist makes it clear that he NEEDS GOD. He needs God like people need water to live. He needs God like people need food for life and energy. It seems that his worship is both a response of praise because of the help that God has already provided, as well as the way that he can come into God’s presence to receive the continual upholding that God provides.

For most of us, I think there are times when (like the psalmist) we recognize that we need God too. Sometimes it happens when our lives become overwhelming… when things go wrong, when plans don’t work out, or when decisions seem too difficult. We may try coming back to church, or we may commit to doing our own personal devotions every day – reading Scripture, praying, or journaling… and hopefully, as we open our hearts to receive God’s direction and help, that need will be filled.

But we have to admit that there are times for most of us, when we forget that we need God. We start feeling pretty competent and talented when things are going smoothly, and we run the risk of dropping our commitments to spend time with God. I think it’s in those times that we need to remember God’s COMMAND to worship. Indeed, it was the greatest commandment according to Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

And the command to worship shows up elsewhere in the Bible too – in the Books of the Law, scattered all through the Psalms, in the New Testament, and all the way to Revelation in which the vision of the Kingdom of God includes all of creation bowing down to worship God with singing.

Of course, many of the psalms are attributed to King David, who obviously enjoyed worshipping God. I love the passage where they are bringing the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, and he strips off all his clothes to dance before the Lord with all his might – a dance of pure joy and thanksgiving for God’s help and provision for God’s people.

In today’s passage, King David commands his people to worship God – acknowledging God’s love and power, and giving glory to God for every blessing in their lives. He says, “Sing to the Lord all the earth. Tell of his salvation from day to day… Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!’”

But for many of us, if we are honest, coming to worship Sunday-by-Sunday has less to do with a felt need, and less to do with a sense of obligation, and more to do with a habit that we picked up years ago, and we just keep at it because it is what we always do on Sundays. We learned it from our parents or our grandparents, or we joined in the weekly pattern with our spouse when we got married.

And that’s not a bad thing! Getting into the habit of coming to worship on Sundays no matter what… getting into the pattern of spending time in prayer every day because it’s what you always do… is wonderful! Even on the days when you are not expressly feeling like you NEED God… even at those times when other demands or desires are pulling you in other directions.

We learned this pattern of prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship from the earliest Christians who practiced it, and who passed it on from generation to generation. Our reading from the Book of Acts reminds us that the first Christians were devoted to worship. And they experienced many wonders and signs, and were filled with awe as they worshipped God together.

And because we learned from those who came before us, or because we were commanded to do so, or because we honestly discovered that we do actually NEED God, we continue to gather to worship God and listen for God’s voice.

In his chapter on the practice of worship, Robert Schnase reminds us that “All churches offer worship services,” but “Passionate Worship means a church cares enough about the service to offer its best, its utmost, its highest.” Schnase believes that people are looking for church communities that are shaped by Passionate Worship.

There is a common assumption today that people (perhaps especially young people) are looking for a particular style of worship, for a certain kind of music or level of informality.  But he argues that “Passionate Worship is not restricted to any particular style; it can be highly formal, with robes, acolytes, stained glass, and organ music… Or it can take place in an auditorium, gym or store-front, with casually dressed leaders, images on screens, folding chairs, and the supporting beat of a praise team. Authentic, engaging, life-changing worship derives from the experience of God’s presence, the desire of worshippers for God’s word, and the changed heart people deliberately seek when they encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians. Worship leaves people challenged, sustained, and led by the Spirit of God, and it changes how they view themselves and their neighbours. An hour of Passionate Worship changes all the other hours of the week.”

If fruitful congregations practice Passionate Worship, what may God be calling us to do in our worship to make it more compelling and passionate for each other and for those who might come to join us in our mission and ministry here at St. Andrew’s?

Robert Schnase tells of one small congregation and how they approached the renewal of their worship: “The pastor, volunteer organist, and a few members met to plan what to do to deepen the worship life of the church. They spent an evening discussing the purpose of worship. They studied Scripture, prayed, read a chapter in a book about worship, and came to the conclusion that Christian worship is ‘for the love of God.’ Then they conscientiously considered what each person might do ‘for the love of God’ to make Sunday worship more special. They humbly opened themselves to creative change.

“One member volunteered to place fresh-cut flowers in the chancel each Sunday, a dramatic improvement over the plastic ones. This she would do ‘for the love of God.’ Another member volunteered to arrive early each Sunday ‘for the love of God’ and go through the small sanctuary, wiping dust from the furnishings, arranging the hymnals, and cleaning up so that the sanctuary looked inviting and smelled fresh. The pastor, prompted graciously by some of the members, decided that ‘for the love of God’ he would prepare less formal sermons and work on preaching with more eye contact and a more relaxed posture. He’d try to make the sermons more practical and useful for people.

“They decided that ‘for the love of God’ they would close each service with everyone (about thirty people) holding hands for prayer. They decided ‘for the love of God’ to take communion to the homebound whenever they celebrated the sacrament and that ‘for the love of God’ they would talk to the Trustees about making the entry handicapped accessible. ‘For the love of God,’ the organist even agreed to support the soloist in singing with recorded music from time to time!

“These little changes, appropriate to a small family-sized congregation, reveal how much the people care about worship, that it really matters to them, and that they really believe something is at stake in this sacred time.”

I love how Robert Schnase describes the “palpable air of expectancy as people gather for worship” in spiritually passionate communities. He contrasts it with how we sometimes “unconsciously enter worship in the evaluative posture of someone preparing a movie critique. We rate the sermon, the time for children, the prayers, and the music according to some internal scale… Our attention turns to the imperfections, mispronunciations, missed cues, discordant sounds, personal discomforts, and the weaknesses of the leaders and flaws of fellow worshippers.

“In a mind-set of expectancy, as opposed to one of searching for every human weakness, worshippers discover that God wants a relationship with them and seeks to say something through the time together. People are not at worship to observe and evaluate but to receive what God offers and offer their best in response.”

Whether we will hear God speaking to us in worship depends a great deal on our own attitudes and expectations of worship. But it also depends on how we, as leaders and as a church community plan and prepare worship, allowing space for God to speak to us.

So, let’s take some time to pray about and discuss our worship here at St. Andrew’s. First, take some time to think about how you have experienced God’s presence, love, or challenge through worship. Then discuss what we can do together to improve our worship as a congregation – to make it more alive, engaging, authentic, or creative.

Let us pray.
Holy, holy, holy God, we worship and adore you.
We long to hear your voice, to be transformed by your love,
and empowered by your Spirit to do your work in the world.
Guide us as we reflect on our worship,
that we may be faithful to your commandments
and open to what you may calling us to do
to become more passionate in our worship. Amen.