Posted by: dacalu | 22 May 2017

What It Means to Worship

Today, I had the privilege of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Here is the sermon I shared.



O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Acts 17:22-31 (Paul in Athens. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”)

1 Peter 3:13-22 (“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” andHe was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit“)

John 14:15-21 (“because I live, you also will live”)



What do you worship?
As with much of the language and much of theology,
	we tend to complicate things in unproductive ways.
The word ‘worship’ sounds a little Medieval to modern ears.
Many people I know would say they don’t worship anything,
	but that, I think, misses the point.
To ‘worship’ is to value highly, to give worth to,
	or, if you prefer, to recognize worth in.
The Angles and Saxons spoke of worthship as a property a person might have,
	and from that worthship, we get our modern verb.
	When we worship, we acknowledge the worthiness of the thing we adore.

In the same way, we can talk about values.
It has a religious – or at least philosophical – sound to it in modern English,
	but it’s a very every day word.
It refers to that which you value.
Any time you make a choice,
	you have preferred one thing over another,
	chosen one path over another,
	you have demonstrated that which you value more 
and that which you value less.

There’s the rub.
We speak about worship, and value,
	things like dignity and rights,
	as though they were binary.
“Either you worship God or you don’t.”
“Either you value human life or you don’t.”
And so on.
That is not the way they work.

Every time you attribute worth to something,
	you are judging it as worth more than something else,
	or less.
Every time you value something,
	you are giving it a value in relation to something else.
All virtues do not work this way.
	I am not claiming that you can only love your family
		by disregarding others.
	I would never say that.
	The Christian virtues are not comparative.
Worship and value are not virtues in themselves.
	They are ways of talking about choices.
	They are the basic language we need to get to virtues.
If the word ‘worship’ only applied to God,
	I would have no way of asking 
what you give worth to.
If the word ‘values’ only applied to preferences I myself prefer,
	I would have no way of comparing
	my values to yours.
This is a real problem.
It’s particularly difficult because we live in a society
	that bends over backwards
	to avoid talking about worth and value in a meaningful way.
Many popular figures expound their own values,
	but rarely do we have opportunities
	to compare our values with those around us,
	even our closest friends.
The monetary value of an object or experience 
is taken to be its default value
and even then, we avoid telling one another
	how much we paid.
We have to wait for an election
	to reveal the priorities of our neighbors.
	And even then, we find ourselves confused,
	and no-one seems capable of bridging the gap
		between one value set and another.
	Why did you choose as you chose?
	What do you value?
	And what do you worship?

The word ‘worship’ rightly bears some connotation of sacrifice.
	To worship often requires losing one thing of value,
		to keep another.
	In Matthew’s gospel, this is the “pearl of great price,”
		a gem so wondrous that a merchant sold all that he had,
		just so he could purchase that one jewel.
	We worship that which we value above all else,
		that which we are willing to sacrifice for.
I value my free time,
	but I value sermon writing more, at least this week.
	(We’ll see if I valued it enough.)
I value honesty, but I value compassion more.
	So, I tell the truth, but only for the sake of helping people.
	I do not tell the truth only for the sake of truth.
	There are a shocking number of unhelpful truths out there.

Diving in, we can see why abortion
	can be such a vexing political issue.
	I know no one who does not value life.
	I know no one who does not value liberty and choice.
	And yet we use these terms – pro-life and pro-choice,
		as though they summed up our position.
	The rubber meets the road,
		when we ask how much of our liberty 
are we willing to sacrifice to preserve life.
	And how many lives are we willing to sacrifice
		to preserve our liberty.
	If that question sounds easy,
		I’d encourage you to apply it to capital punishment,
		and health care,
		and the military.

Worship is a tricky business.
Nor are we honest about what we worship,
	either with ourselves or with others.
So, I’ll return to my first question.
What do you worship?
	And how does that play itself out
		from the big decisions of career and mate
		to the weekly decisions of what to do on a Sunday morning,
		to the second by second choices we make
			with our time, money, and attention.
What do you worship?
What do your neighbors worship?
What does the country worship?

It can be a difficult process to look closely.
	We often find that the values we think we have
		are not the same as the values our choices reveal.
		But how can we know unless we ask?
One the reasons I am most grateful for the church,
	is that it gives me tools to ask the difficult questions.
It gives me rituals, prayer, and meditation to look deeply at my own life.
It gives me a community of compassionate people
	willing to share in the process of reflection,
	willing to hold me accountable
	and to be creative when my imagination fails.
The community gives me options,
	new ways to think and new things to try.
I love the church.

Much of the Bible only makes sense in this context.
All of us have options for what we worship.
	All of us make choices. All of us have values.
Paul goes to the city of Athens to speak about Jesus.
	He does not say, “You have to worship something.”
	He does not say, “You are worshiping the wrong thing.”
	Both are poor evangelical strategies, and Paul knows it.
He says, “This thing that you value, let me give it a name.”
	“Let me help you know it better and worship it more fully.”

Part of my Christian hope rests in my confidence
	that this will work with anyone I meet.
God who made all things in heaven and on earth,
	who made the whole human race from a single model,
	who gives life and breath to all mortals – 
	this God gave us an ability to seek the good.
Sometimes we are confused.
We are almost always confused.
And still, at our core, all of us want good things,
	all of us know that there are better and worse ways to worship,
	better and worse things to worship.
And so, though it will be different for every person I meet,
	I can always find one thing they value, 
	that I, too, value,
	and can recognize as an aspect of that deeper worship
		I have for God.
I can always say,
	I value that, too, and, what’s more,
	I can name it for you.
I can name the source of light and life and progress and goodness and joy.
I can name the love that made all loves.
I can name the faith, the relationship on which rests all truth and knowledge.
I can name the hope that gives rise to all hope.
Jesus Christ.

I can always say that,
	but I don’t always say that.
	Perhaps I should say it more often.
I don’t say it for the very reason I mentioned earlier.
I value honesty, but I value compassion more.
	These words – truth, faith, hope, love, Christ –
	people do not think of them the way I think of them.
	They use them to mean something different.
	They have been taught to understand them differently.

I listen to what they mean by them,
	before I say them back.
I listen to the truth they have on offer,
	before I share my own truth – 
	at least when I can.
Most often I end up saying exactly what Jesus said.
“Come and see.”
Faith, hope, and love are not ideas to be grasped.
They are actions we perform,
	relationships we join,
	and gifts we receive.
It is so much easier to demonstrate
	than it is to explain.
And so I demonstrate,
	and I invite.

Faith, hope, and love take work.
They take lifting the hood of our worship and peaking inside.
They take conversation as much as conversion,
	because they are not static possessions.
They have no monetary value, because they cannot be owned
	or traded or taken away.
They must be lived.
Truth, unsurprisingly, is the same.
I don’t think you can even be given the truth.
You must wrestle it to the ground daily.
	Truth is about the relationship you have to reality
	and reality continues to change.

And, of course, Jesus Christ takes work.
	Paul tells us the world is vast and ancient and defies understanding,
		at least so far.
	If you worship the boundaries of nature,
		that which divides the undifferentiated nothingness
		into quantum foam and energy and matter;
		that which gives order and regularity to the world,
		then you worship Jesus Christ.
	Paul tells us that the world is more than physical atoms,
		bouncing around in infinite space.
	If you worship breath and life,
		that which moves the atoms,
		and moves our souls,
		giving us sensation, memory, reason, and skill,
		then you worship Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you don’t know it by that name.
	Many do not. That’s okay.
	I am honestly not invested in whether you call it one thing or another.
	A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And yet, I share this name, because it reveals something to me
	about the most fundamental reality,
	about the true object of worship
	and the highest of values.
Jesus Christ is a person,
	someone who has feelings,
	someone I can relate to,
	talk to,
	care about.
This same immense, fundamental force
	(he said, as though ‘fundamental’ and ‘force’ 
were not grossly inadequate terms) –
this same boundary between nothing and something,
	between death and life,
	can be approached as a friend and lover.
I want to say it’s counter-intuitive,
	that we don’t naturally think this way.
That, of course, is false.
All of us think this way by default.
It is a modern conceit that the universe must be cold and mechanical,
	incapable of love and joy,
	and that the universe is all there is.
It is not counter-intuitive,
	only counter-intellectual.
It runs against the philosophy we have been sold since childhood.

You can love the mystery at the heart of the universe –
	without losing a healthy skepticism.
No true friend asks you to give up critical thought,
	whatever the popular dramas and comedies tell us.
Friendship asks for open eyes, curious hearts,
	and the fullness of our minds
	devoted to a fuller understanding.
We give up being sure
	because it allows us to keep listening and learning.

Jesus is not dead – 
	not in any sense of the word.
Not historically, or figuratively, or metaphorically.
Jesus is alive because Jesus is the life of the world.
Jesus is alive because his body drew breath,
	and though it stopped, it started again.
Jesus heart beats still.
And Jesus is alive because Jesus, that central mystery,
	is alive in the Church, here and now.
	As sick as the Church might be in any specific time or place,
	that Spirit still moves in it which gives it life.

We do not give up the critical apparatus of skepticism and science.
We embrace them fully, with the skepticism to say that they are not the all and all.
We do not worship the human mind and reason,
	we worship the reality that they perceive.


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