The Rev. Adele K. Langworthy, preaching
October 21, 2018
How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. [Ps. 147:1b]
John Burkhart was one of my professors at McCormick Seminary. In his book entitled Worship, he writes, “Worship is an act of service to God even though God does not really need what humans offer. God does not require praise to be God; but as God, God demands it by right of being God.”
Our Psalmist reminds us, God, that you are the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds — all praise be to you, O God; to you are the one who determines the number of stars and their names — how totally awesome you are, O God; you are abundant in power and offer understanding beyond measure — all thanks be to you, O God; you are the one who lifts the downtrodden and casts the wicked to the ground — all glory be to you, O God.
Clement of Alexandria was a theologian at the beginning of the 2nd century. He wrote about worship, “All our life is a festival. Being persuaded that God is everywhere present on all sides, we praise him as we till the ground, we sing hymns as we sail the sea, we feel his inspiration in all that we do.”
“Spending an evening at a shelter for homeless women was not my idea,” writes Evelyn Bence in Christianity Today, “but when a friend asked, I was perfectly willing to tag along.”
“Although the winter was still young, the cold was harsh. I nearly ran from the comfort of our car to the warmth of the church annex that had, for years, opened its doors as a refuge from the night.
The director, Christy, efficiently assigned tasks. When the women arrived, we would help serve the food.
Christy assured me that most of the women, the “regulars,” had spent the day inside at one of several centers, but there were always the few who just appeared—seeming to have no history more concrete than their names.
My three hours at the shelter were not filled with dramatic scenes with the women. From a corner of the large sleeping area, I helped serve dinner to 30 women who ate their substantial but bland meal, sitting cross-legged on their sleeping mats. Except for two boisterously irrational women, they talked little. By nine o’clock, many were bedding down for the night.”
Evelyn goes on to tell how the dramatic scene of the night actually took place within herself. After she had helped the women with their meal, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for her nightgown and her very own pillow as she observed the women keeping their own possessions close to them while lying on the floor mat provided by the shelter, using a borrowed pillow and blanket, still in their clothes of the day. She prayed, “Thank you God that I am not one of them.”
Evelyn decided to find Christy and ask about some of the women. As she heard their stories she began to grow unsettled. Their paths had too much in common with hers — A mother’s daughter. Vulnerable. A sinner in need of grace. … Her prayer earlier in the evening wasn’t sitting well with her, it kept playing over in her mind, but she didn’t know why.
It was weeks later when the unsettledness of Evelyn’s night helping in the shelter subsided. (She doesn’t explicitly say, but I can imagine God working on Evelyn’s heart through conversation with the friend who took her to the shelter and in worship with her church family.) It became clear to her — the prayer of “Thank you that I’m not one of them” wasn’t what God had hoped for from her heart. Rather, the prayer — “Thank you for the grace you have shown to me, and help me to mirror your grace to others” was the one. The new prayer brought an inner peace and made her want to reach out. It reduced her discomfort around those who have less than herself, and, surprisingly, eased her fear of an unknown future. Why?
Evelyn writes, “Because even though I know I have no insurance policy against war and famine or sickness, I know I have a God who does not forget his own. And for that I thank him also.”
Thomas Aquinas, an Italian priest around 1250, might have said to Evelyn, “See, it is good you worship God and God wants you to for your own sake. Look how you have grown in worshipping God—the giver of grace has led you to a place of grace where you can share his grace.” All thanks be to you, O God.
What good is worship? In worship we revere God and humbly come into his presence. With an open heart in worship, we encounter the holy one and deepen our relationship with the one who so wants us to be in relationship with him.
We worship in community, here in this place. We worship each and every moment when we as individuals bow before our Lord and celebrate his steadfast love. “ Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre … His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” [Psalm 147:7, 10-11]
Frederick Buechner writes in Wishful Thinking, “To worship God, means to serve him. Basically there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done—run an errand for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do — sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.”
As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Steven Guthrie sang the Michigan fight song along with his fellow students—at football games, in the student lounge, at pep rallies on campus. Singing “Hail to the Victors! / Hail to the conquering heroes!” made him feel proud of his university and built in him a sense of loyalty to it. Steven felt a proud camaraderie with his classmates, the institution, and its sports teams …. Singing was not the sole reason that he came to feel a part of the university, but singing was a moment when his growing sense of inclusion in the university was focused and concentrated.
At the same time, “Hail to the Victors” served as a kind of embodiment of the University of Michigan community for him. He wrote, “When I first heard that song sung in a stadium full of Michigan supporters, I felt I was “meeting” that extended community and joining in its character and identity. When I hear it now, it carries with it still some flavor of that place, those people, and my experience among them.”
Steven acknowledges that this is trivial; it is a single song that is sung on occasions of a special sort and is explicitly designated to represent an institution. Nevertheless, it illustrates on a superficial level the sort of thing that happens much more profoundly among a group of people—such as a church—who gather together to worship the one who gives life.
John Burkhart says, “Worship is the Amen! It is responding affirmatively—accepting God, opening life to God, and rejoicing in God’s transforming reality.”
On January 12, 2010, a massive and devastating earthquake struck just outside Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. Countless buildings in the city collapsed and over a hundred thousand lives were lost. That night and for several nights following, with aftershocks rolling through the ground, almost all the residents of the city and the surrounding countryside stayed outside.
Under the starlit skies, the voices of the people of Haiti rose up in grief and lament, in prayer and hope. They still had their God — the devastation hadn’t stripped them of their faith — and with that belief came praise and worship, and songs of thanksgiving for their Lord and giver of life.
The God whom they communally worship is the same God whom we worship. The God who was there for them in tragedy is the same God who is there for you and me. As the Psalmist writes, “He [The LORD] covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow in the hills. He gives to the animals their food and to the young ravens when they cry. [Ps 147:8-9] Our God is there with us to meet our needs and uphold us. Amen!
What draws you into the holiness of God in worship? Look around you –
- Is it the church family who surrounds you? The unique faces and lives who have encountered the holy in some way?
- Is it the music that rings in our ears and touches our hearts?
- Is it the spoken word of God that brings truth and challenges us in our spiritual walk?
- Is it the prayers prayed that touch the deepest part of our souls?
- Is it the very place in which we are—in the air we breathe, in the sights we see?
- Is it a bit of all of this and more?
Come into God’s Holy presence, give him your undivided attention, rejoice in him, take delight in him and let the Holy Spirit take it from there! Do this and you will undoubtedly know the good that happens in worship and how that goodness lingers long after! All praise be to you, O God. Amen!
We take approximately 23,000 breaths every day. The process of inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide is a complicated respiratory task that requires physiological precision. We tend to thank God for the things that take our breath away. And that’s fine. But maybe we should thank him for every other breath too! Let us begin by inviting him into every breath we take as we join in litany and in song.