Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting to Gratitude

Luke 17: 11-19                                     
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
There’s nothing like traveling to evoke feelings of gratitude  You can’t help but breathe a prayer of “thanks” while watching whales breach the waters off Alaska or while walking along Waikiki beach.  And there’s nothing like the discomforts and frustrations of travels to send you home grateful to be back in your own bed, back with familiar foods, back to family and friends.   

Literal and figurative journeys often teach us to welcome gratefully the new and appreciate the old and to be thankful in all the unpredictable movements of life.  “Thank you” is one of the first phrases travelers learn to say in a new country.  That’s because seasoned travelers know they must be prepared to receive the gifts of the journey with grateful hearts.

Today’s Gospel reading is a healing story told as a journey—with a necessary stop at gratitude along the way.  If you’d like to go on this journey with me and with ten lepers, you’ll need to prepare for the journey by silently rereading Luke 17: 11-19.  Notice how this story is crafted as a series of four movements—like a symphony.  Pay attention to the literal movements of characters.  Who is moving?  Toward what and why? 

Movement 1. The story beings in verse 11 with Jesus making the first move.  As the emissary of God, his action suggests that healing comes through God’s initiative—although, as we will see, healing involves our own participation. As the embodiment of God’s gracious spirit, Jesus the healer is moving toward Jerusalem to challenge the oppressors more directly, despite great risk to himself.  You and I already know that the traveling healer who “sets his face toward Jerusalem” will soon be crucified there.  But along the way he continues to teach and heal and bless.  He heals individuals, yes, but he does so in the context of a larger mission to heal harmful systems that injure the human spirit.

Movement 2.  Verse 12 introduces ten lepers.  Just as Jesus is entering an unnamed village, 10 lepers move toward him.  Significantly, they are meeting in the liminal land between Galilee and Samaria, Galilee being the Jewish region Jesus and his disciples hailed from, and Samaria the area inhabited by a people distantly related to the Jews but who were despised in ways that only people separated after an internal schism can be despised.   If there were any place on earth that needed healing, it was this in-between country.  But maybe you’ve discovered what has been true for me:  Sometimes the deepest healing happens in times of questions and uncertainty.  Sometimes entire groups of people are healed of prejudices and fears in places where the boundaries get blurred.  In such a place, 10 lepers call out to Jesus the Jew.  Are the lepers fellow Jews or Samaritans?  Since Jews and Samaritans alike treated lepers as outcasts, their religious and ethnic identity mattered not at all.  In keeping with the religious law and custom of the times, the lepers were permitted to approach a nonleper only so far. 

Keep in mind that leprosy then was not the disease we call leprosy or Hanson’s  disease today. When the Bible speaks of leprosy, it may be referring to any number of skin diseases, some very minor, that made one religiously unclean.  When a leper’s skin condition cleared, Jewish law said he or she could go before a priest to be declared “clean” again and reenter society.  As in the very first healing story in Luke’s Gospel, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus’s healings often emphasized restoring a marginalized person to the community more than curing an illness.

The lepers call out to Jesus from the required distance, and they ask . . .  for healing, right?  No.  They ask for MERCY, not healing (verse 13). What a social outcast may need is merciful kindness.  “Have mercy on us!” they shout with one voice.  And Jesus responds. Jesus responds first by SEEING THEM. Maybe he saw the “clean” human beings they wanted to be.  Maybe their physical condition had already cleared but they’d been stuck in some old way of seeing themselves and needed someone to see them with merciful eyes and affirm their wholeness, their rightful place in society.  Maybe they didn’t know the social stigma that had dogged them for weeks or months or years—was not only the thing that defined them.  Maybe merciful eyes could see who they really were and merciful words could point them back home.  Maybe Jesus saw past their disease or maybe Jesus removed their disease or maybe Jesus SAW that they were no longer diseased and it was time for them to submit themselves to the priest for inspection—because sometimes religious authorities are the last to recognize when stigma has vanished. What seems clear is that the ten didn’t ask to be cured.  They asked for mercy.

Think of the healing WE can do as God’s emissaries if we can SEE people with merciful eyes and tell them who they really are and affirm them into wholeness.  Think what we as a church can do if we can look at one another—and name one another as CLEAN, despite our flaws—and SEE one another into wholeness.  That’s how healing happens. 

Think, too, about the instances when people whom society has declared religiously unclean must demand to be named clean.  “Go and show yourselves to your priests,” said Jesus then. “Go, gay and lesbian and transgender and bisexual people and show yourselves to your religious leaders and demand that your religion rename you as clean.”  “Go, people with mental illness and people in poverty and immigrants who’ve been labeled as 'illegal' and demand that the priests and religious leaders bring you from the margins into the center of society. Go. Be seen. Demand to be declared clean." THAT is part of healing, too.  

Movement 3 begins in verse 14, which says, strangely, “As they went, they were made clean.”  They were made clean AS THEY TRAVELED ON.  At this point it’s clear Jesus didn’t zap them into a state of cleanness.  It happened as they were on the way. Isn’t that really how life works?  We can pray that God will wave a magic wand and make us suddenly into a new and improved version of ourselves. But usually change happens as we go, as we act, as we try, as we move forward with life and try again and fail again and learn something and practice over and over how to be part of the human community.  As we go, we are being made clean.  You’ve known some folks who are sometimes not safe to be around.  These folks enjoy transmitting their toxicity to others. They really need a grown up “time out” before being certified as safe to return to society.  Maybe that’s what we do here each week. We journey away from life’s messiness and then are declared clean and certifiably capable of returning to our community.  So here each week we remember our belovedness and practice how to forgive flawed fellow travelers, how to share with others, how to give, how to thank, how to care.  Through the movement of our simple liturgy, we are being made clean: certifiably safe to be around others.

Remember when someone asked Maya Angelou if she were a Christian?  The poet/novelist responded with her own question, “Are YOU a Christian?” and the inquirer answered, “Yes!” to which Maya Angelou responded archly, “Already?” 

We are being made clean.  We are being nurtured into our belovedness.  We are being guided along this spiritual journey.  We are in process.

Movement 4.  The story might have ended there, with ten lepers leaping as if in some deranged Christmas carol.  But the fourth movement occurs with one, just one of the former lepers, realizing he has been made clean—and going back to thank Jesus.  The most important movement in the story is the pivot—back to Jesus.  It seems not an intellectual decision but a sudden change of heart. He praises God with a loud voice and thanks Jesus, wildly prostrating himself at his feet, no longer needing to keep a certain distance between them.  And it’s only then that the narrator, with dramatic timing, reveals what we should have already suspected was possible: this leper, now former leper, was a SAMARITAN, a person doubly marginalized.  He was the ONLY one of the ten who was a Samaritan.  And only he came back to say thanks.  How like Luke’s Gospel to use some outcast to illustrate the right way, the Jesus Way.

Why didn’t the other nine return to express their thanks?  Maybe for the same reasons you and I fail the gratitude test.  We’re often too busy.  We’re self-centered.  We’ve not made it a spiritual practice.  Maybe the Samaritan, being doubly marginalized, had the greater cause for gratitude.  We don’t know the reason for only one man’s return to say thank you.  Jesus, too, ponders this, as if he can’t quite believe the others’ lack of gratitude.

But we do understand the consequence of the Samaritan’s gratitude.  Because the story concludes with this amazing command and explanation from Jesus: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

More than one commentator has noticed the final word in the story.  It shows us the thankful Samaritan leper was the only one who was healed or “made well.”  Yes, all 10 were “made clean” but only the returning Samaritan who gave thanks is healed or “made well.”  The Samaritan’s journey brought him to a place of gratitude.  And although the other nine were declared clean and restored to their community, there was another level of healing available to the one who got all the way to gratitude.   

The story suggests that you can’t stay in the same place and experience healing.  You have to move forward.  But perhaps you don’t reach your fullest healing until you have experienced deeply in your heart and expressed genuinely to another your profound gratitude. 

We can go home again, but we can’t return home completely healed if we’ve not found gratitude on the way. 

God Who Sees Us With Merciful Eyes, help us to stop for gratitude so that we can experience full healing.  AMEN               

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What Theological World Do You Inhabit? An Interactive Sermon With Prayers and Communion

Text:    Luke 21: 5-6       
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

In last Sunday's scriptures, the prophets and Jesus were critiquing the ways people worshiped.  In today’s brief verses from Luke we hear Jesus predicting the destruction of the lavishly adorned Temple, the locus of Jewish worship. According to the writer of Luke, Jesus foresaw that even the ancient, imposing Temple was ephemeral—and as Jesus will intimate later in the same chapter, institutions are especially vulnerable during periods of social upheaval.

We, too, live in a time when the demise of religious practices and institutions are widely predicted.  Every day another article announces that Christianity is dying, that 8,000 to 10,000 church doors will close this year in the U.S., that the Millennials are leaving the church in droves, that more and more young adults identify as spiritual but not religious and fewer and fewer Americans attend religious services, that one in five adults have no religious affiliation and nearly 1 in 3 adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated.

Why, you might have wondered, would anyone START a new church in such an unpropitious climate? Isn’t that as foolish as starting a local newspaper or buying a Blockbuster franchise these days? 

IF you insist on starting a new church in Mobile, Alabama, surely you’d be smart enough to know that only conservative Christians are still interested in church.  Surely you’d pitch your church to folks who want assurances that the Bible has clear answers for all life’s questions and then you’d provide those answers.  Surely you’d craft an invitation to people that sounds welcoming but would make certain people wonder if they’d really be included, which would then insure that you could exclude some while only seeming to include everyone.  Surely you’d have a normal (that is, male) pastor and use words and images that reinforce a patriarchal culture.  And surely you’d create emotionally charged worship services pulsating with praise band music and MC’d by a charismatic young preacher.


Instead, you and I have set out to offer a liberal and liberating Gospel to Mobilians.  Consider this diagram in which the horizontal axis represents people in our community who self-identify as nonreligious on one extreme and highly religious on the other.  Intersecting that axis is a vertical line running from highly progressive to highly conservative:*

     NOT RELIGIOUS -------------- I------------ RELIGIOUS

In 2009 the first participants of Open Table were drawn mainly from the few nonreligious progressives in our city, represented in the upper left quadrant. Although progressive religious people (upper right) would have been in some ways our ideal target audience, most “religious” people are already active in church and my aim was not to siphon off members from existing churches.  Instead, I felt that some nonreligious folks might still think of themselves as spiritual, and perhaps some nonreligious progressives might value a community working toward social transformation together.  I also thought current Christian theology could be translated in ways that made sense to postmoderns. I certainly wasn’t setting a trap for nonreligious progressives out of a desire to save someone’s soul.  I just believed there were people with a religious-y zeal for changing the world and spiritual impulses to fuel them, and I thought these people might be surprised to hear ways Christian theology—influenced by science and other world religions—was evolving and expanding. I pitched Open Table to the very people who were least likely to darken (or brighten!) our doors. I welcomed religious progressives, of course, but I thought my primary audience would identify as nonreligous/spiritual and progressive.  And our earliest members came from this section.

I hoped to have access to religious conservatives, since that is by far the largest demographic group in our culture, but I knew my own journey from conservative evangelicalism to Christian progressivism took years.  I knew people in the lower right quadrant would have to be especially hearty and patient to hang with us long enough to “get” us and get something from us.  Also, since including LGBT folks in our faith community was a nonnegotiable for me, and since most conservatives in our culture do not affirm LGBT people (though that’s changing!), I thought we’d be unlikely to attract many from the lower right quadrant. But in some ways I was wrong about that, and I’m glad I was.  (As far as I know, we have not attracted anyone who is anti-religion and conservative.)

Open Table’s first participants probably labeled themselves as liberals or progressives, though I must apologize for using unhelpful and divisive labels to make a point.  Many had left the church years before because Christianity had become a list of fourteen impossible things you had to believe before breakfast—instead of a path of peace, of way of compassion, a yearning for the More.  I was gambling that even in Mobile there would be people who might love being included in a faith community that loved and lived the big questions, hungered for the challenge of a more expansive theology, longed for companions for the journey, and hoped to include folks that others might exclude.  Many of our founding members were surprised to find themselves back in church and some were embarrassed to tell friends and family where they were spending their Sunday evenings. That first group of Open Table participants appreciated finding a haven for progressives in an overwhelmingly conservative culture.

Once Open Table began advertising, we reached new folks whom we were thrilled to include and love—but who had different backgrounds and needs and expectations of church and ways of reading the Bible.  These new members were less interested in rethinking Church and reimaging God—and were more interested in finding a safe and supportive faith community. 

I kept assuring the first group that they really could ditch the dogma and stretch their concepts of God and appreciate the Bible’s metaphors and exercise their faith through political protest.  Then I had to assure the second and subsequent groups that we truly are a Christian communion and our bottom line is Jesus’ bottom line: loving God and neighbor.  Perhaps that is when we started becoming a real congregation rather than a single interest group, because the labels couldn’t contain us and the layers of diversity continued to be peeled back to expose the hard but rewarding work of community formation.

Recently I’ve dusted off a book from seminary titled Worlds Within A Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity.[i] The author, W. Paul Jones, pleads for what he calls “internal ecumenism” (20).  As you know, ecumenism is the call to Christians of different denominations to find common ground.  But Jones is saying that in every congregation there are people with diverse theologies who have to learn to talk a common language and work toward common purposes.  He even believes that theological diversity within a particular congregation is not only normal but should be celebrated and encouraged.  To better understand our own lens on the world and to appreciate others’ differing theology, we'll consider Jones' five basic theological worldviews—which account for many of our worship preferences. 

His book contains a 62-question inventory that helps readers recognize their own theological worlds. But because of limited time, we’re going to cheat.  I’ll simply describe these 5 world views and ask you to spend some time deciding which of these categories best captures your primary theological view.  Later we’ll divide into groups and experience prayer in a way that might be most comfortable to persons in that particular theological group. Paul Jones believes that the more you’re aware of the variety of theological perspectives in your church and the clearer you are about your own “theological foundation,” “the less threatened [you] will be by others’ theologies  (21). 

These five theological worlds are not mutually exclusive, of course.  You may visit all of them from time to time, but you might identify most strongly with one or two.

Let me walk you through the 5 theological worldviews.  Note that this is not a list of what you believe and which doctrines you ascribe to.  After reading about each of the worldviews, you’ll move to the prayer station assigned to your primary worldview and follow the directions for that prayer station. Your group will conclude with a small group communion experience.

5 Theological Worlds
 (Descriptions of the world and the liturgy are from Jones, pp. 145-150. The interactive prayer activities are mine.)
1.   Your theological world: Your journey is from isolation to unity.  Key question: Where am I?  You have feelings of separation or longing leading to mystery, unity, and peace. 
The liturgy of world one:  Best experienced in an atmosphere of mystery, with a taste for candles and receding shadows. Sacred experience touches the outer edges of knowing and being.  Even a quiet, darkened, peaceful room will do. Liturgy is valued more for its poetry than its concepts.  When leaving, the worshiper wants to have experienced centered silence, periods of timeless peace with a promised wholeness.
Your prayer:  Sit comfortably before the unifying Christ Candle, noticing the movement of the flame or your own breathing.  Recall that the oxygen that fills your lungs also feeds that flame. Let your gentle breathing be your prayer.

2.   Your theological world: Your journey is from oppression to liberation.  Key question: What can be done?  Feelings of anger and frustration lead to vision, commitment, focus. 
The liturgy of world two:  You are uneasy with mystery, silence.  You want to hear prophetic, challenging declarations and calls to action.  Rather than a vision of transcending differences, World 2 people must enter boldly into the cleavages of good and evil, rich and poor, working for a new earth here and now. The worship space would have pamphlets, posters, bulletin boards, and sign-up sheets.  (Or the worship space might ideally be a park where the homeless gather for food, and holy communion is the peanut butter sandwiches the church blesses and shares with the hungry ones.  See Rev. Jerry Herships' ministry with AfterHours Denver.**)
Your prayer:  With the paper and markers provided, create protest posters for a cause your group chooses and as a way to pray for justice.  Choose the slogans on your posters thoughtfully, prayerfully.

3.   Your theological world: Your journey is from insignificance to belovedness. Key question: Who am I?  Feelings of emptiness and invisibility yield to feelings of belonging, assertiveness, self-realization. 
Liturgy of world three:  Worship is a warm, gentle family event with lots of story sharing, lots of affirmation, nurture. The mood is upbeat.  Worship has happened for world 3 people when they leave feeling “I was fully myself today.”
Your prayer:  In your small group, let each person tell a story about a worship experience that he/she has had.  This might be a positive or negative experience.  Offer thanks for opportunities to come together for spiritual nurture.

4.   Your theological world. You journey from failure to acceptance. Key question: Who or what can restore me?  Feelings of guilt, conscience give way to feelings of being accepted, adopted, claimed, forgiven. 
Liturgy of world four:  Worshipers believe confession is good for the soul and prefer scriptures and sermons about repentance and forgiveness which rest upon Christ’s atonement.  Favorite hymns are the “I” ones because salvation or spiritual growth is primarily an individual rather than communal experience.  “I once was lost, but now am found, twas blind but now I see.”
Your prayer: Reflect on the events of this day.  Recall words you’ve said, thoughts, behaviors and interactions you’ve had, things you have failed to do. Write on a slip of paper provided something you regret doing or not doing. Now try to regard that imperfect act or attitude in the way that the Divine Source of Compassion might.  Imagine a loving voice speaking forgiveness to you.  Now burn that piece of paper and give thanks for God’s grace that lets us learn from the past and move forward into a fresh future.

5.   Your theological world: Moves from survival to integrity. Key question: Can I make it?  Key feelings: Being overwhelmed and weary give way to feelings of strength, hope. 
Liturgy of world five:  The music of blues and jazz captures the mood of this world.  The prayers of the people that rise from the week’s pains and struggles are crucial in worship life of group 5.  And the prayers focus on asking for strength to endure.  The music helps worshipers to let go of the pain. Just as life itself is often without much pattern, the worship service just flows, is not rigidly structured.
Your prayer: Write collaboratively some additional verses to “We Shall Overcome.”  When several verses have been added, discuss in your group what these additional verses mean to you, maybe sharing a story from your own life to explain why you wanted to add a particular verse. Then sing together these two original verses, below, and the new verses you’ve composed.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day.
Oh deep in my heart, I do believe.  We shall overcome some day.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace, we shall live in peace
some day.
Oh deep in my heart, I do believe.  We shall live in peace some day.

At the sound of the chimes, the groups will conclude their prayers of different types and someone in each group will, in their own words and maybe with help from the group, relate the story of the last supper Jesus shared with his followers.  Pause for a silent prayer of thanks for the life of Jesus that lives on through us.  Then share the bread and cup at your prayer station with one another in whatever way you wish.

[i] Jones, W. Paul.  Worlds Within A Congregation: Dealing With Theological Diversity.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
* I borrowed this diagram from a recent discussion session of UCC clergy and laity meeting for Extravagant UCC in Cleveland.
** See an example of such a ministry at .

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Worship Matters

Texts: Isaiah 1: 11-18, Micah 6: 6-8, Thessalonians 1: 3, 11-12, and Matthew 6: 5-7

Not happy with how this worship service is going?  Been thinking you’d have changed the liturgy a bit—more of this, less of that, a different song here, a different prayer there? Well, you’re following a centuries’ old tradition.  As long ago as the eighth century BCE, prophets like Isaiah and Micah critiqued the religious rites of their day. “The Nameless One hates the way we worship,” said Isaiah. “Don’t bow before an altar; instead treat each other right.”  Similarly, according to our Gospel reading, Jesus criticized a common practice of public prayer. “Enough with the showy prayers, folks,” said Jesus. “If you’re praying empty phrases to look righteous, cut that out.  If the old religious language doesn’t express your reality—even after you have tried to enter those capacious metaphors—change the words and the ways.  Don’t fake it with God.”

Both the early prophets and Jesus disapproved, not of ritual, but of empty ritual that failed to change the hearts of people and serve the oppressed. The very ones we cite when we resist change were themselves advocates for changing religious practices.

Our denomination also encourages the evolution of worship practices.  The preamble to the United Church of Christ’s constitution affirms “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”  Sincere and relevant worship is key. 

In that spirit of ongoing reform, I gathered this past week with other clergy and lay leaders across our denomination to look toward the future and imagine the impact of technology on worship, to consider what a “geographically dispersed congregation” might look like and how a virtual church might worship.  Already a number of online faith communities worship via social media. Before you automatically discount the authenticity of an internet-delivered spiritual experience, at least think through what, for you, are the hallmarks of worship and spiritual formation.

What, for you, are the essential characteristics of an encounter with the Sacred?  What are the AIMS of a transformative spiritual experience—in a communal context.  How do you know when you have really worshipped?


I’m offering 3 key marks of a Close Encounter—of the God Kind, and as I do, I ask you to consider: How much of this worship outcome is up to you? How much depends on others?  How much is up to God?

AWE.  Worship at its best offers a transcendent spiritual encounter with mystery where I overcome my own ego and connect with others and with the Sacred.  To whisper awe as my “amen” in worship is to experience an overflow of gratitude, a delight in the unutterable beauty of the arts as well as the natural world, a sense of my own belovedness. Worshipful awe often is, for me, an experience of pondering important questions that take me deeper into the life of God, yet it's an experience of turning off the analytical mind and simply opening myself to the Silence. Answering questions does not produce awe.  Pondering the unanswerable does.

Awe is not created through entertainment.  The awe resulting from true worship, like the awe of true art, differs from the excitement, diversion, titillation, and escapism of entertainment.  Entertainment usually focuses our attention on the entertainers.  Worship points us beyond those speaking, teaching, singing, serving— to God.  Awe evokes gratitude, delight, transcendence, love, humility and moves us deeper into the heart of the realest reality.  Awe feeds me on life-giving bread and wine.  Entertainment, in contrast, takes me away from reality for an hour or so and feeds me with a tub of butter-drenched popcorn and a sugary soft drink. It’s great to be entertained—to know vicarious excitement, laughter, thrills.  But let’s not confuse it with worship.

Too bad “awesome!” has become a popular descriptor of things completely incapable of provoking true awe.  When I think about the potential power within a worship experience, I am reminded that Annie Dillard cautioned worshipers to prepare for being truly awe struck. 

She writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.*

Have you ever left a worship experience feeling that the Waking God has drawn you to new place from which you can never return?  Awesome!

CONNECTION is another product of a communal spiritual practice that draws you to others and others to you. Connection leads you to care and love those within the church and beyond; it calls you to see yourself as part of God’s family, to feel responsible for others’ wellbeing. Connection is an experience of profound union where we set aside ego for a while to make space for those on the margins, to reach beyond the self to The More, to God, By so doing, we grow to care as much about others as we do about ourselves. Worship connection is intimate, a deeper knowing, a portal into the Jesus story where we find ourselves walking around inside his historic and ongoing life.

Certainly we need social interaction outside of worship in order to develop social connections. But a spiritual connection is not contingent on sharing a hobby with someone else or supporting the same political party or rooting for the same football team.  It is deeper.  And you can be connected to a pew mate even if you know little about that person.  You can pray with and for that person in a bond of compassion and in common hope. Connections through communal worship draw you to people who are not like yourself.

What aspects of worship help you connect in these ways?  What are other ways we can strengthen connections in worship?  

TRANSFORMATION is the final worship aim and outcome I have time to explore this evening.  The experience of awe and connection make transformation possible—within our individual lives and throughout our larger world.  The prophets knew real worship had not happened when the hearts of the worshipers were not changed and the culture they inhabited continued to oppress the widows and orphans and the poor.  That’s why Isaiah imagined God pained by worship, crying out, “My soul HATES your ways of worship; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” So “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 16-18).

We know we have worshiped when we reach a place of compassion, conviction, and courage. What brings about that transformation in us and in our world might be moments of silence, or the hearing of scripture, sermon, litanies, and poetry, or a call to give our offerings, or the simple sharing in bread and wine so we get practice every week in the sharing our lives.  To some extent, worship “leaders” are responsible for your experience of worship, and in some sense you are, and in some sense the uncontrollable Spirit is.  Though we can’t orchestrate the Spirit, we can certainly recognize the Spirit’s impact—as a worshiping people become a more loving people who begin to bring compassion, peace and justice to their world. But we have to be willing to be changed within and participate in doing a new thing and being carried to a new place. 

Richard Rohr believes that transformation requires a new and contemplative mind that is cultivated through prayer.  I’d expand prayer to include all means of worship and agree with Rohr that prayer and other liturgical practices were first attempts to  “change our thinking cap” and look out at reality “from a different pair of eyes.” Healthy spiritual practices of individuals and faith communities cultivate this new mind or alternative consciousness. “The single most precise way to describe this new mind is that it sees things in a non-dual way, which is precisely why holy people can love enemies, overlook offenses, see things as paradoxical without giving up their reason, and believe in Jesus as both fully human and fully divine at the same time. Frankly, without the contemplative mind almost all major religious doctrines and dogmas are just silly nonsense, and worse, they are not even helpful to humanity—or God!” I’d add, without the transformation of our minds, which calls us into transformation of the world around us, worship, too, is “just silly nonsense” and “not even helpful to humanity—or God!” 

One reason a worship service helps us shift from the ego-controlled mind to the contemplative mind is because it requires us to come to God in ways that sometimes suit OTHERS best.  You can say, “I need THIS kind of music to feel God’s presence in worship,” but consider that your willingness to let someone else sing THEIR preferred music is actually a way for you to let go of the ego-controlled mind and take on that new mind and be transformed by the power of God’s love.  If praying is all about me, then I’m no better than the egoistic Pharisee Jesus observed.

We’ll continue experimenting with worship. But let’s not worry about getting worship “right” every time. Worship is a spiritual PRACTICE.  We come together to practice sharing, giving, loving, caring.  We practice words in song and liturgy that we might then be able to call to mind in times of trouble.  We practice storytelling and story listening. We say prayers aloud to name collective hurts and hopes. We practice the spiritual disciplines of giving up our need to have things just our way, moving from a consumer’s mindset to a worshiper’s mind.

And if one day you walk in here to see children mixing up TNT on the floor, be sure to ask for a crash helmet.  Something powerful just might happen.

Unnamable God, we don’t know how to pray.  We are not even sure what we are feeling and have no understanding of what we need.  Let us simply pause, and pay attention to our feelings, pay attention to this room and the slight shifting noise of those sitting near us.  We are hoping that the love and life coursing through each of us will flow out into a world in need of  vital energy.  Amen

*Dillard, Annie.  Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 40-41.