Seeds To Branches – Passionate Worship

Steve Lindsley
(Psalm 84: 1-12, Romans 12: 1-2)

Today we conclude the Stewardship sermon series Grace and I began five weeks ago, based on this book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.  To recap, the five practices the books talks about are:

Intentional Faith Growth
Radical Hospitality
Risk-Taking Mission and Service
Extravagant Generosity
And today’s practice: Passionate Worship.

And let me reiterate something I shared at the beginning of this sermon series – we’ve been looking at these five practices in our Stewardship season because Stewardship is about more than just money.  Yes, today is Dedication Sunday, or Response Sunday, whichever you want to call it.  It’s an important day in the life of the church, as we lay our gifts before God, our pledges for the coming year, our commitment to nurture the seeds of our faith that have long been planted here so that sturdy branches may grow.  So most definitely, Stewardship is about our money, our giving, our generosity. 

But it’s not limited to that. Stewardship is about the totality of our lives and our collective witness to the resurrected Christ in our world. 

So with that, I read to you our second scripture today, from the 12th chapter of Romans.  Just two verses, but two important ones about what worship is – not a “where” but “who” and “how.”    Listen for God’s word…

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

This is the Word of the Lord: thanks be to God!

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My hunch is that we probably haven’t noticed them all that much, because that’s what happens when certain things are in their place for a while.  They simply become part of the scenery, part of what just is, and we fail to take notice of them all that much.

But before you leave church today, I want to invite you to take a look at two hangings on either side of the double doors back there leading from the narthex into our sanctuary.  Because at some point in our church’s past, someone thought they’d be good to put there.  Someone thought they’d be appropriate to have leading into this sacred space, this house of worship where generations have gathered to sing, to pray, to worship God.

On the right side is a lovely picture of the outside front church doors flung open wide on a sunny Sunday morning, some number of folks making their way out of them into the world.  The date reads Sunday, April 1st, 2001 – our 50th anniversary.  There’s an inscription on there, and this is what it says:

This Church is the House of God and our spiritual home.
Here, babies are baptized, children instructed and confirmed in the faith,
Persons united in marriage, and mourners comforted.
Here, we study Christ’s teaching in the Holy Scripture
And receive God’s strengthening grace and forgiveness in Holy Communion.
Here, from divergent paths, we come to pray for God’s blessing,
And to give thanks for God’s tender mercies.
May this Church ever be a Hallowed Place where God is found.

Here is where we worship – that’s what that panel basically says.  That’s what the writer of Psalm 84 is trying to tell us as well.  As we read this psalm, we get the sense – as some scholars have surmised – that Psalm 84 may have been written by an Israelite pilgrim making his way to Jerusalem, anticipating the amazing experience that would unfold simply by stepping into the house of the Lord.  It may be helpful to remember that, unlike South Charlotte, one could not find places of worship at literally every corner!  Making the trip to the temple in Jerusalem was a big deal.

And it is more than the structure itself that captivates the Psalmist.  There is a deeper sense of what worship does.  The fact that everybody has a place and a purpose in worship.  In the Psalm there’s that lovely line: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds a nest where she may lay her young.  Young and old, black and white, gay and straight, red and blue – they all are welcome in the worship of God.  They all have a home there. And there’s no other place they’d rather be: A day in your courts, the Psalmist says, is better than a thousand elsewhere.

That word “courts,” and it’s counterpart in the previous verse, “dwelling place” – the Hebrew in both hints at another word familiar to our English-hearing ears: sabbath.  We use the word “sabbath” somewhat interchangeably with worship, as worship in the Christian context takes place on our day of rest.  Noted scholar Walter Brueggemann points out that the word “sabbath” literally means “stop” or “desist.”  Think about that: worship as stopping, hitting the brakes, pressing the pause button on life for a spell.

There’s another word in this same wheelhouse: synagogue, the place of worship in the Hebrew world.  That word literally means “come together.”  Some thousands of years later, an offshoot of Judaism later known as Christianity gathered not in a synagogue but in ekklesia, the Greek word for “church.”  The word Ekklesia means “called out of the world.

So – Stop.  Come together.  Be called out of the world.

That is worship.  But it’s something more.  It’s what Robert Schnase in his book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations calls “passionate worship.”  As we’ve noticed each week in this sermon series, the author tacks on these wonderful qualifiers – so it’s not just “faith development” but “intentional faith development.”  Not just “hospitality” but “radical hospitality.”  Not just “generosity” but “extravagant generosity.”  And here – not just “worship” but “passionate worship.”

It’s a word that, if we’re honest, makes us a little nervous.  What kind of passion is he talking about, we wonder?  Is this about style?  About praise bands and raising hands in the air and all that?

Listen to how Schnase himself describes passionate worship:

Passionate worship connects people to God and to each other.  In passionate worship, people gather as the body of Christ with eagerness and expectancy; they encounter Christ through singing, prayer, Scripture, preaching and Holy Communion, and they respond by allowing God’s Spirit to shape their lives.[1]

So for Schnase, passionate worship is not about style. Passionate worship can happen in any kind of church.  What makes worship passionate is, interestingly, what happens after the worship itself.  They respond by allowing God’s Spirit to shape their lives, he says.  Passionate worship doesn’t end with the benediction – in fact, in many ways it’s just getting started.  Passionate worship continues as we walk out of this place into the world that awaits us, into our lives moment by moment, our words and actions being shaped by God’s spirit.  Everything we do every moment of every day, he’s saying, is an act of passionate worship.

As Paul implored those churches in Rome: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, for that is your spiritual worship.

What is passionate worship, you ask?  That is passionate worship.  Presenting ourselves to God both in the act of worship and the worshipful response of our living.

In a way, it reminds me of the other wall hanging on the left of the double doors back there.  It’s a quote from Presbyterian pastor and Trinity favorite Frederick Buechner.  It’s a question, actually; a question one assumes the person who hung it there envisioned worshippers asking themselves as they prepared to step inside.  The question is this:

Are there in us, in you and in me now,
That recklessness of the loving heart, that wild courage,
That crazy gladness in the face of darkness and death,
That shuddering faithfulness even unto the end of the world,
Through which new things can come to pass?

I love the juxtaposition of those two hangings, strategically placed as people step from whatever the world outside holds for them into this hallowed ground and sacred space.  One talks about what we do: We worship God here.  We baptize babies, confirm faith, marry and mourn here.  We engage scripture here.  And the other talks about what it means: recklessness of the loving heart, wild courage and crazy gladness, and shuddering faithfulness! 

Which means that worship, the heart of worship, is about movement.  We may not think of it that way, but it’s true.  Take a look at the inside of your bulletin and the order of worship – a flow of worship, I might add, that is shared with other Presbyterian churches all across the country.  Look at the underlined, centered headings that you may not have paid much attention to before:

We GATHER for worship
We OPEN UP to God
God SPEAKS to Us (think of this as “We GATHER around God’s word”)
We RESPOND with Faith and Commitment
We GO FORTH to Witness and Serve

You may be sitting perfectly still in those wonderful pews of ours, but make no mistake: you are in constant movement in worship. You are gathering together and opening up, and gathering around and responding to, and going forth.  Every single Sunday, you are moving all over the place.

What is passionate worship?  That is passionate worship.  Constant, holy movement.

And that movement can take place anywhere, because sanctuary is not a static thing.  I love the story I’ve shared with you before, as told by evangelist Gordon Cosby.  Some number of years ago he was guest-preaching for a church’s Lenten mid-week service somewhere up in New England.  The worship service, conducted by the church, was particularly dull and uninspiring. Nobody sang the hymns; no one smiled or reacted. The only thing that moved, Gordon later said half-jokingly, were the offering plates!  After the service, Gordon and his wife retired to the room the church had rented them for the night, and they talked about what a drag the service had been.

And as they were talking, they became aware of this sound – many sounds, in fact.  They listened and finally figured out it was the sound of the tavern just underneath their room.  Sounds of people talking and laughing; sounds of movement and celebration.  Sounds of folks who were there because they wanted to be, not because they had to be.

Gordon would later say: There was more warmth and fellowship in that tavern than there had been in the church that night.  And I realized that if Jesus of Nazareth had a choice, he probably would’ve gone to the tavern instead.[2]

What is passionate worship?  That is passionate worship.  More than a “where” but a “how.”

There’s one other thing about passionate worship that I became acutely aware of this past week.  Many of you know that Grace and I held a prayer vigil this past Tuesday in response to the Las Vegas shooting earlier in the week.  We hold these vigils because it is so easy to be paralyzed by inexplicable acts of violence, acts that seem to be happening more and more frequently these days.  And we need space to sit with uncomfortable questions and answers that are slow to come, if they come at all.

And so we gathered at 6pm over there in our chapel.  About 25 folks showed up, not all of whom were church members.  One of them was a young lady I did not recognize.  And I want to tell you about her.  This woman arrived late, sat in the back.  Near the end of the service, she came up with everyone else as the names of the 60 lives lost were read, came up to light some of the 60 candles on the table.  She joined in with the others as we sang our closing hymn, a hymn that included the powerful line: Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain / But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.[3]

And when the service was over, this lady I did not know walked out into the narthex where Grace and I were handing out pieces of paper with the 60 names, encouraging folks to go home and look up these people, learn about their lives, where they worked, how many kids they had, what their friends and family had to say about them.  This lady I did not know came to me as I handed her a few of the names.  I’m so glad you came, I said to her. Thank you. 

Thank you, she replied.  I’m new here.  I moved to Charlotte not too long ago.

Oh, where from? I asked.

She paused and tears welled in her eyes.  And she said,  Las Vegas.

What is passionate worship?  That is passionate worship.  The kind of worship that is less about a set date on the calendar and more about when the need calls for it, when life requires it, when people carve out space for God to be present in meaningful ways.  That is when passionate worship can be its most transformative.

Every time we worship God, we create space for that kind of transformation, that level of passion.  And I am grateful for that.  I think God is as well.  I think every Sunday morning, or Tuesday evening, or whenever it is that we stop and are called out of this world to come together, I like to think that what makes God smile in our worship is that we sing praises not with any particular instrument, but that we sing it from our hearts.  I think what makes God smile is not that we read the right words from a bulletin, but that the words printed on a piece of paper in some way reflect the words that lie deep within our souls, words that long to be spoken, long to be heard.  And I think what makes God smile is that we’re not just going through the motions of a set liturgy and ritual, but that through that liturgy and ritual we are taken out of ourselves for a spell, out of ourselves and into the holy movement of the moment.

Those two hangings in our narthex speak to the essence of passionate worship.  Here’s what we do here.  Here’s why we do it.  We worship God because we need to offer ourselves up as a living sacrifice, our whole lives to praise God and respond to that praise, carrying worship out of these four walls into a thirsty and hungering world.

What is passionate worship?  People of God, that is passionate worship.

What do you say we do it again next week? 

In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!

 

* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, pg. 34.
[2]  http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=925.
[3] From “There Is A Balm In Gilead”