October 28, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
The Good and Beautiful Community
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
The Worshiping Community
A few years back, our theme at Annual Conference at Lakeside, was “Planted in the Past, Rooted in the Future.” During our time there we were reminded who we are as Methodists and the traditions out of which we were born as a denomination when founded in America during the middle 1700’s.
As a church movement at that time, through our founder John Wesley, we had clarity about God’s purpose for this world, a discipline of Bible study, prayer, worship, and holy society gatherings, the flexibility to adapt to the changes happening in a newly created nation, and the ability to sacrifice whatever was needed to expand the church and to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
One of our speakers talked about a new church plant that allowed anyone to worship with them, but if anyone wanted to become a member of the church, then certain requirements had to be met. At the coffee talk with the pastor, the pastor would lay out three requirements for church membership that must be followed. See how you rate yourself against these requirements.
First, the new member was required to be at worship service every Sunday. If he couldn’t be, then he was to bring a bulletin from the church he attended while away. The pastor believed that it is in worship that the community can praise God, learn of God’s word, cultivate a relationship with God, and foster their spiritual life.
Secondly, the new member must be in two small groups. One in which she receives teaching and is held accountable to others, and one in which she gives back to the community in service. And the third and final requirement was that the new member tithe, that is, give 10% of his income to God to promote the kingdom work and to learn and experience the meaning of extravagant generosity.
How did you do? Could you become a contributing member of that United Methodist Church by your presence, your prayers, your gifts, your service, and your witness? Because that is what is in our vow when you become a member. After all, that is what the worshiping community is all about, isn’t it? Would you pray with me?
There are times that I worry about just how important community worship is to people in our society and culture today, especially when our churches are so sparsely populated on Sunday mornings. Only about 18% of the population in the United States actually attends church and out of that a regular attender is now considered one who comes to church at least one time a month instead of every Sunday. I am sure I am speaking to the choir here but those statistics are appalling. Almost anything else seems more important than worshiping our Creator.
We seem to have this false narrative that worship is a personal matter meant to inspire me. We have this idea that worship is private. Private worship can bring about some emotional sensations, but corporate worship is about the transformation of you and me within, by and for the community.
Bishop Schnase, the author of Five Practices of Fruitful Living, says this about passionate, corporate worship: “People who practice Passionate Worship attend worship frequently and consistently until it becomes a valued and sustaining pattern for them. Worship becomes a priority and they shift schedules to attend when conflicts arise. They love worship because they love God.”
The true narrative about community worship is really this: Worship is a communal activity meant to instruct a people. We go to church not to be entertained but to be trained. We go to church to worship not as an obligation we owe to God, but as an invitation given by God. You see, in truth, God does not need our worship. God is perfectly fine without it, but we need to worship. James Bryan Smith says this: “When we worship we are aligned with the truth, and our souls function well when immersed in the truth.”
Worship is our response to what God has done and is doing in our lives. Worship is an invitation from a gracious God who bids us to come and enjoy his beauty and goodness.
Our scripture passage today is a song of the sons of Korah. Korah and his sons were keepers of the tabernacle, especially the temple doors. They were of the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes from which Aaron and Moses were descended, who God had set aside to work and to be priests in the tabernacle. This psalm is a praise to the dwelling place of God. The Korahites certainly enjoyed God’s beauty and goodness. The temple was a source of delight for those who lived there.
How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. You see, to the servants of God’s most holy place, the temple brought a joy of praise, worship, and adoration. It brought a joy of personal communion with God. It brought a joy of fellowship with God’s people. How blessed are those who dwell in Your house! the Psalmist writes, They are ever praising You. For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
Worship is meant to be done in community, not alone. In fact, the great writer and theologian C. S. Lewis wrote this: “When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to churches and Gospel Halls; …I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”
“But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nonetheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”
When God stepped in, he taught Lewis the invaluable worth of corporate worship. Worship is not about us. It is about God. Just like it was for the sons of Korah, worship is about our relationship with God and with each other. Smith writes: “We need each other, despite our differences. Worship is not about the quality of the performance but the heart of those who worship. Worship is not about ‘individual fulfillment’ but the ‘constitution of a people.’”
Without a doubt, worship has changed over the many centuries, but we are still a worshiping community. In the early church in the Book of Acts, we find the Christians devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. This brought thousands to Christ.
But as a people we have changed. The times have changed. God’s movement among his people has shaped worship as the Holy Spirit has increasingly inspired and brought hearts to a new understanding of God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Chants became hymns, and hymns became praise choruses, but it is all for the glory of God.
The psalmist writes: For the Lord God is a sun and shield (that is, guidance and protection). The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. (In other words, God blesses his people with favor and honor and so they prosper and succeed). O Lord of hosts, How blessed is the man [or woman] who trusts in You!
You see, when we prepare ourselves for corporate worship on Sunday mornings, our worship can become more meaningful; our relationship with God more personal; our devotion to a Savior more profound. Worship is structured today to bring us from the world into the very holy of holies of the tabernacle itself. We greet each other to acknowledge each other’s presence. You see, the world can be pretty cold and ruthless outside the kingdom of God. But when you come into God’s house, we are all Christians, nothing else, and it really feels good to be home.
We have a time through prayer and silence to experience resting in God and making a connection with God. We can confess our sins before God and hear the good news that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us. We learn that in the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven.
In our creeds, commandments, and Lord ’s Prayer we come to realize the true Christian doctrine of the church in a very shortened form. Really listen to our beliefs in the Apostle’s Creed. It tells the whole Christian story. These creeds establish us as Christians and connect us to the body of Christ through the ages.
Your life has a story. My life has a story. When worshiping communities read the Bible in worship and hear the sermons preached, it is a way of telling our story into which you were baptized. When you became a member of this church, you pledged to raise each other in the Christian faith. It is the story that binds us all together through these many centuries.
It is in the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, that we are reminded of the death of Jesus and all of its blessed implications. It is through this blessed meal that we eat together that we are reminded that we are an eternal community, an unselfish and generous community, a unified community, and a reconciling community. Jesus said, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” But most of all, Communion reminds us that we are a holy community; set apart to do good works.
And though many might not like it, it is in our singing that we can tell our story, offer praise, and experience the joy of God’s holiness that can only come through music. God designed us in such ways that sound and rhythms inspire and motivate us. Music can touch us at an emotional and bodily level, and when it is used to offer praise to God, it connects us to the Trinity and each other in ways that teaching and preaching cannot. Singing involves our whole bodies.
Also, our offering gifts are an act of worship in itself. You see, the world tells us to look out for ourselves. But offering our gifts helps us let go of the need to store up treasures for ourselves and truly brings us joy to advance the work of the kingdom.
And lastly, the benediction encourages us as we go back into the world from which we came to worship. Aaron said to the Israelites: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. The benediction reminds us that we are to be light to a darkened world. Just as God summoned us to worship, he now sends us out to spread his word and to show the world through our deeds that we are truly his followers.
Folks, we are a worshiping community. Christian worship, whether it is traditional or contemporary, should be marked by joy and gratitude. When worship is not joyful – when it does not reflect our deep gratitude toward God –then it becomes primarily about us. What makes worship boring is not the style of the music or the flow of the service; worship is boring when it is no longer about the God who makes all things new, who transforms all of life.
An American diplomat was once visiting with a Brazilian Indian in the Amazon. Through the interpreter, he asked the Indian what he most liked to do. The Indian answered, “Being occupied with God.” What an excellent definition of true worship for us, “being occupied with God!”
Friends, what the church offers the world in worship every Sunday or throughout the week cannot be had anywhere else. Not by yourself, Not at the beach. Not on the golf course. And certainly not while hunting or fishing. The good news of Jesus makes all the difference in the world, and we believers need to offer ourselves wholly and completely to God in our community worship.
Bishop Schnase of the Missouri Conference writes this in his book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: “Passionate Worship connects people with God and with one another, opens lives to the experience of God’s grace and to the hearing and doing of God’s Word, and forms people into the Body of Christ.”
God is inviting you and me into a relationship with Him each and every week. Heed that invitation. As our psalmist sings: How blessed [are the people] whose strength is in You, [O, God], in whose heart are the highways to Zion!