February 7, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 1 Chronicles 16:8-12, Luke 5: 27-34
Last week I said that I would offer three sermons based on your thoughts about Union Church. Last week was about Creed – what we believe. This week is on Cult – How we worship. I’ve titled this sermon Take Off Your Shoes after God’s words to Moses as he approached the burning bush. “Take off your shoes,” God told him, “for you are standing on holy ground.” Here are some of your words about worship at Union Church:
Union Church is truly a place of peace and Presence by the sea.
The Church building is an icon and a focal point, with historic significance.
One feels the spirit of the church when one enters the building.
The church is like the sea – open and inviting, affirming, refreshing, and flowing freely.
Our worship services are uplifting and cohesive experiences, with diverse music, spontaneity and humor, and thought-provoking sermons, amidst a balance of silence, and prayerful reverence.
We’re as comfortable with reverential silence and meditation as we are with music and prayer.
We hold the arts as sacred acts.
The music is the “best in town”, and is offered by gifted people: A blend of traditional and non-traditional ranging from gentle and meditative, to boisterous and uplifting, to grand and mellifluous.
There is informality here; worship can include skits, poems, and plenty of laughter, all of which fosters joy and participation.
We integrate the intellectual and the spiritual.
We are open to prophetic voices (i.e. wisdom keepers) and ideas from all faiths and from science.
We are focused on good, positive things, not guilt and sin.
We are Spirit-led; open to changing and improving our lives; we are flexible as a community, and embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness.
We remain open to mystery and the creative spirit.
Our pastor prays in the moment; there is a spontaneous calling of the spirit.
We cherish the act of praying with others in community.
We accept and recognize the contributions of children.
We are playful and have an ability to laugh with each other; our pastor’s sense of humor invites a “happy faith”.
These are some of your words as you described our communal worship.
A “happy faith” – The two readings that Lamar proclaimed this morning reflect, I believe, this happy faith that we want to celebrate. In I Chronicles we hear:
O give thanks to the Lord
Sing to Him
Glory in his holy name
Seek the Lord and His strength
These are the elements of true worship. We enter this church through its beautiful doors in an attempt to close out external distractions, and we come into a sacred space of peace and presence. We understand that this is not the only place, nor the only way that we can encounter God. But once each week we consciously leave our every-day lives and come seeking God presence in this place and with each other. And though we attempt to escape external distractions, it’s important, I think, that we come aware of our own needs, our concerns, anxieties, fears, discouragement, emptiness, insecurity, anger, hurt, cynicism, longing: whatever needs healing and whatever needs nurturing.
How do we encounter God’s presence? As human beings we experience everything first through our senses. By what we see: The attractive building, the dramatic cross, the beautiful flowers, the smiles of our fellow worshipers. By what we hear: The greetings from friends, the words of scripture, the prayers, the music, the sermon. The bread and wine as well as the goodies that we enjoy once the official service has ended, even the smell of coffee that drifts in halfway through the sermon, reminding us of the supportive fellowship that we will soon enjoy; all of this is part of the sacred encounter. We have found a home here and we know that it is holy ground: a place where we can experience God’s presence; a place where we can be fed.
But we need to pay attention. The sensory experiences that are part of our worship help focus us but the sacred encounter is not a passive practice. We need to remain aware of ourselves and of the Other. That is not easy for us to do.
When televisions first entered North American homes, commercials imitated radio. Sixty-second TV spots were the norm in the 1950’s. Constant media bombardment has shortened our attention span. In the 1970’s advertisers cut their advertisements in half to 30-seconds. Today, most television commercials are only fifteen seconds long. Part of that is due to costs, but primarily it is because the sellers want to ensure that we will focus on their message and their products and they know of our tendency to become distracted. *
There’s another reason, besides our difficulty to stay focused, why fixing our attention on God’s presence is so difficult. The Psalms are full verses about how wonderful, great and giving God is. One example is Psalm 40. It reads: “Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare.”
In this and other such psalms after praising how God is and what God does what follows is usually something similar to what we find beautifully said in psalm 116: “What return can I make to Yahweh for all his goodness to me?” What indeed!
Being grateful, being beholding is an uncomfortable feeling. Look at our behavior when someone gives us something or does something nice for us. We immediately want to return the favor. We want to reciprocate. Do you ever go to someone’s house for dinner empty handed? When we’re invited to someone’s home for a meal, after we’ve asked “when”, what’s the next question? “What can I bring?”
Many of the psalms that praise God and highlight God’s generosity include a verse that says something like, “How can I ever repay God? In light of all these benefits and blessings, what can I be or do to even up the score?” And the answer though in a variety of words is always the same, “I will go”, “I will take …” The best way to thank God is to seek God’s presence and to take what God offers. What God wants us to do in view of his love for us is simply to receive it. We begin to repay God by accepting willingly what God gives, what God has done and will go on doing for us. At first this seems difficult, but then if we put ourselves in God’s place it makes sense. What better way can those we love thank us, please us than by visiting, calling, spending time with us. And what makes us happier than watching our grandchildren, our children, the people whom we love, enjoying a gift that we’ve given them?
To be what God wants us to be and to have what he wants us to have, all that we need to do is to open ourselves to God’s love. The psalmists who reflect on God’s greatness and generosity also respond with words such as:
“I will call on the name of the Lord.” Again we make an effort be consciously connected with God. We do this silently and together out loud through prayers of praise, thanksgiving, remorse, and supplication.
The Rev. Paul Lehmann, a theologian and scholar of Christian ethics in an address before Princeton students, declared: Prayer is that meeting with God in which each is exposed to the other as we are. This is why we include the “Our Father” in our worship. It’s to remind us of who we are. We are members of one family.
Our first reading this morning ended with the words, “Remember the wonderful works God has done.” Here, before us, are the sacramental symbols of bread and wine. God’s love and grace are here and they are God’s free gift to us in the person of Jesus. As we take the bread and wine into ourselves, we remember the life of Jesus, his compassion, inclusion, respect, sensitivity, self-giving and we are nurtured and strengthened to live a similar life of love.
Someone in the congregation described our church and worship as, “A place where we can celebrate our joy and gratitude.” This is what Levi was doing with Jesus and his friends in this morning’s Gospel. Because each day we are bombarded with news about violence, hatred, suffering and the existence of evil , it’s important that we spend time with our faith community to experience and thus to remind ourselves of the Good News that there exists more love than hatred, more trust than fear, more generosity than greed, more welcoming warmth than defensiveness, more cooperation than competitiveness, more affirmation than tearing down, and more affection than violence. Worshiping together, celebrating together and experiencing God’s spirit among us reminds us of this good news.
One comment that someone made summarizes the way this community chooses to worship:
“We are accepting of a diverse set of ideas and approaches, building upon the strong foundation of Jesus’ teachings and His loving actions.”
So we will continue to have different approaches as we experience God’s presence in the assembly, God’s presence in the word, God’s presence in the silence, God’s presence in the music, and God’s presence in the breaking of the bread. One week you may find the music particularly uplifting or the sermon especially helpful; another week, not so much. It’s impossible to please everyone all of the time. But if we enter this sanctuary, as our bulletin invites us each week, as “open vessels that God may enter”, and if we remain attentive to God’s presence and actions while we are here, we will be blessed with what we need to receive.
I end with a poem by Macrina Wiederkehr entitled Child of Wonder, who presents an appropriate and beneficial attitude for us to have as we worship together each week:
My bare feet walk the earth reverently
For everything keeps crying,
Take off your shoes
The ground you stand on is holy
The ground of your being is holy.
When the wind sings through the pines
like a breath of God
awakening you to the sacred present
calling your soul to new insights
Take off your shoes!
When the sun rises above your rooftop
coloring your world with dawn
be receptive to this awesome beauty
put on your garment of adoration
Take off your shoes!
When the Red Maple drops its last leaf of summer
Wearing its ‘burning bush” robes no longer
Read between its barren branches, and
Take off your shoes!
When sorrow presses close to your heart
Begging you to put your trust in God alone
Filling you with a quiet knowing
That God’s hand is not too short to heal you
Take off your shoes!
When, during the wee hours of the night
you drive slowly into the new day
and the morning’s fog, like angel wings
hovers mysteriously above you
Take off your shoes!
Take off your shoes of distraction
Take off your shoes if ignorance and blindness
Take off your shoes of hurry and worry
Take off anything that prevents you
from being a child of wonder.
Take off your shoes;
The ground you stand on is holy.
The ground you are is holy. Amen