50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
A father was talking with his young son one day about growing up, and the son asked the father, “Dad, what’s the difference between a boy and a man?” The father thought about this, and then said, “A man is someone who always works hard, someone who is responsible, and takes care of the whole family.” Now it was the little boy’s turn to think. After awhile he said, “In that case, Dad, when I grow up I want to be a man, too…just like Mom.”
Today is mother’s day, and we are wrapping up our sermon series on worship here at First Presbyterian Church. I’m not sure if there’s a really strong connection between the two, other than to quote the great theologian St. Augustine, who said “one cannot have God as a father without also having the church as mother. Augustine owed his own faith to the influence of his mother, Monica, and I know that there are many of us (myself included) whose participation in worship through the years owes much to the love, prayers, and persistence of a faithful mother.
I’ve been using the letters of the word WORSHIP as an acronym to help remember some important aspects of worship that we embrace here at First Presbyterian Church. Today is the final exam…without looking at your bulletin, can you remember what worship stands for? Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, Intelligent, and Public.
So today we come to the letter P, for Public. What does that mean, that our worship is Public?
To really understand this one, you have to go all the way back to the middle ages, where a practice had developed in the early medieval church known as the Missa Privata, or “private mass.”
It began as a simple convenience–a way to offer a service of worship for someone who, for whatever reason, could not attend mass with everyone else at the designated day and hour. In time, however, it became a way for the church to show favoritism to wealthy individuals or nobility who simply didn’t want to show up to church and worship with all the peasants. It also became a way to exclude undesirable people from worship–and sometimes in the middle ages that meant everyone except the clergy!
Can you imagine what an amazing worship service I could create if I were the only one attending? All my favorite songs/hymns, the scripture reading entirely in Greek or Hebrew, and no anxiety about whether or not anyone will laugh at my jokes. I would definitely laugh at them. I could recite the Apostle’s Creed at breakneck speed without waiting for anyone to catch up, the communion line would be nice and short, and at the end of the service I could bless myself with a great benediction and immediately go home. The offering might be a little light if I did that too much…but no worries: A few private worship services for the right folks at the right price, and we’re back in business.
You can see the problem with that, right? So did John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other 16th century reformers. In their reforms, they insisted that any time and any place the church gathered for worship of any kind–communion, baptism, a wedding, a funeral, that the doors be thrown open wide for the entire public, and if that was not possible, then neither was worship.
So worship is public, as opposed to private.
But there’s another sense in which our worship is public, too. The word public comes from the Latin word populus, which means “people.” But when you put it in the genetive case, populi, or popli, which becomes public, it actually means “of the people” or “by the people” or “from the people.”
Think about the ramifications of this. Worship is of the people, by the people, from the people. As opposed to “of the pastor, by the pastor, and from the pastor.” In other words, worship is not something that I do, while you watch. It’s not something the choir/praise band does while you listen. It’s something we all do together; we all participate, we all have something to offer.
That’s why the author of our scripture passage today in Colossians, when describing what worship looks like, says that you (plural) should “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” You (again plural) should sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
So when we say that worship is public, we mean that it’s open to everyone…and that everyone contributes something.
Here’s a great question we should each ask ourselves every Sunday morning when we gather in this place: What is my contribution to worship? What will I contribute, that if I were not here, would be missed?
That may seem like an easier question for some than for others. Hey, I’m the pastor–I contribute a whole LOT to the worship service (pat myself on the back). Good job! But really, do you know how easy it is for a pastor to go through an entire worship service on autopilot, without ever really worshiping God, because I’m too focused on the details of the service to see or experience the big picture? Yeah, I’ll admit to that.
Or it might be easy to think, I’m a musician–of course I contribute a lot to the worship service! I’ve been there too, as a musician leading worship in other churches. And so I know that it’s pretty easy to turn worship into just another performance, just another gig, and then mentally check out of the other parts of the worship service because we’re not in the spotlight anymore.
But for most, answering the question “What can I contribute to worship today” might be a different kind of challenge: “Contribute? What do you mean contribute? I’m here to sit back and listen, to receive, to consume, not to contribute.” But that’s not worship. That’s a concert or a lecture. Worship is a verb, it’s something you do, actively.
So what can you contribute, sitting there in the pews? Here are three ideas:
1. Your presence. But faithfully, regularly, consistently. Bringing yourself to worship every Sunday is in itself an act of worship. And it makes a difference. I preach better, and our musicians sing and play better, when they look out into the congregation and see a lot of familiar faces. We make each other better just by showing up.
2. Your voice. There are opportunities throughout the service for you to speak, sing, read out loud in unison with others. Don’t just stumble through those creeds and prayers–say them like you mean them, say them like you might actually inspire the person sitting next to you to believe them…because you might…and if you just mumble along half-heartedly, you will probably inspire the others around you to do the same.
And sing. I once heard someone say that the most pleasing sound to God’s ears is not the voice of the preacher, not the voices of the choir/praise band. Rather it is the voice of that one person sitting in the middle of the church who cannot sing well, knows she cannot sing well, but sings her heart out anyway, as if God is the only one listening. I believe that is true with all my heart: One lone voice, off-pitch, off-beat, but lifted in passion and sincerity in praise to God, is more pleasing than all the choirs of angels in heaven. So sing your heart out.
3. Your response. Or another way to say this is your engagement. I told you about God’s favorite sound in worship, now let me tell you two of my favorite sounds. One is Scott McLaughlin. After a really great song, when everyone wants to clap but isn’t sure if they should (or sometimes if we’ve just forgotten to clap), Scott will always lead the way, and everyone follows. I know that for years, it was considered inappropriate to clap in this church, and I understand the theological reasoning–that clapping makes it a performance, and gives praise to the performers when we should be praising God. But I think it’s okay to encourage each other as we are praising God, and applause is a great way to do that. When you applaud, you are giving thanks to someone who has contributed to the worship service, you are giving thanks to God for that offering, and in that way you, too, are contributing to the worship service.
My other favorite sound in worship is Mauricio Perusquia. Mauricio is one of our scholarship singers, and he has a beautiful voice…but as great as his voice is, that’s not my favorite sound. It’s Mauricio laughing! When I make a joke, or some other attempt at humor, no matter how ridiculous or lame or horrible it is, I know that at least Mauricio will laugh. And usually when he laughs, others realize that I was joking and that it’s okay to laugh, too.
It’s little things like that which make more of a difference than you realize. Sometimes, in mid-sermon, the look on the face of a congregation member will either make my day or ruin my week. And yes, I watch you just like you watch me. Your contributions to the worship service–your presence, your voice, your response–with these things you are an indispensable part of creating worship every Sunday.
The late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, would sometimes tell people a story from his childhood, about an old man who lived down the street. When Jobs was a teenager, he would mow the man’s lawn. One day, the man had him gather up some dirty rocks they found out in the yard. They took the rocks into the man’s garage, and he tossed them into what looked like a large coffee can hooked up to a motor with a belt, along with some sand and some water. The man flipped a switch and the motor began to spin the can with the rocks in it, making a horrible clanking sound. He told Steve Jobs to come back the next day, and they left the garage with the can and motor still running.
The next day, Jobs came back and the man removed the rocks from the can–as you might have guessed, they were now beautiful, shiny, polished stones, and the man gave them to Steve Jobs. He never forgot that, and often used it as a metaphor for teamwork and collaboration in his company.
I think it’s a good metaphor for worship, too. We come here Sunday mornings, often after a long and difficult week, and some days we probably feel like jagged, dirty rocks. In this metaphor, I’m not sure what the water and sand are…maybe it’s the music, the sermon, the prayers…I’m pretty sure God is the motor that spins us around for an hour or so. But although God supplies the energy, it is the thousands of collisions and interactions between us that polish us, knocking away the dirt and the rough edges.
In a similar vein, Proverbs 27:17 tells us that just as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens the wits of another. That’s why it’s so important that worship at First Presbyterian Church is public: Open to everyone, and everyone contributes. And as we bring our best, our genuine, our heartfelt contributions, both great and small, God brings something more, something unexplainable, that makes our worship (and us) greater than the sum of all our parts.
What a gift to experience that, to help create that, to be transformed by that!
What a gift to receive, and to give!
What a gift, is the worship of God in the company God’s people!