(Preached at Alma United Church, September 3, 2017)
The ancient Israelites did it, from the time of Moses onward.
King David did it. He did it in a tent, but he wanted to do it in a building.
His son Solomon was the first to actually erect a building in which to do it.
That building was destroyed, and later Israelites erected an even bigger building in which to do it.
Jesus and the disciples did it in that second building. So did the very first Christians.
When that building was destroyed, a few short decades after Jesus and his disciples graced it, smaller groups continued doing it in homes. Eventually, many buildings were built in which Christians and Jews could continue doing it. Some of those buildings were small, and some were even bigger than that second building in which Jesus did it.
Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Rastafarians and Unitarians do it. Even atheists do it, though they might deny it.
Africans and Asians and Europeans and South Americans and Australasians and North Americans do it. Even those few souls residing at the South Pole do it.
Ancient humans did it—there is even evidence that pre-humans did it. Modern humans do it, and I expect that as long as the human race exists, we will continue doing it. I also believe that if we were to make contact with an alien species that was as intelligent as ourselves or more so, we would find that they do it as well.
It, of course, is worship.
But what exactly is worship, and why do we do it?
And perhaps even more on our minds might be the question, “Why is it important to do it here in this place, at this time, with these people? Couldn’t I do it just as well someplace else? Like, say, in bed?”
Let’s start with what worship is. The word “worship” comes from the old English “worth-ship” which simply means ascribing worth to something or someone. When we call the mayor of a town “Your Worship,” we are ascribing worth to her based on the position which she occupies. When we “worship the ground someone walks on” we are ascribing worth to that person based on qualities we admire.
That’s why I say that even atheists worship. They may not worship God, but they do worship something or someone.
Some folks I’ve met worship their car. They take more care of it, spend more time with it, than they do with their own spouses and children! Some folks worship nature or animals, even to the extent that they put the welfare of other species above the welfare of their own.
Some folks worship famous actors, rock stars, athletes or politicians. They imagine what these ordinary human beings are like, then ascribe worth to them based on that purely imaginary image.
When you look at worship like that, it becomes something that we do every single day, wherever we happen to be, rather than something we do in church for an hour every Sunday morning.
When I find a human trait that is as universal as the urge to worship, I find myself thinking that there has to be a survival function to it. Sociologists will tell you that the survival value of worship has to do with fostering social cohesion, allowing groups of people to unite around a common belief system. This fosters order in the group, and gives the group, and therefore the individuals who are part of it, a better chance of survival.
I think this is true, but only so long as the worship itself is focused on something bigger and more important than mere humans and petty human desires. If the worship is focused on a thing, whether human-made or natural, in the end we will be let down. The celebrity will turn out to have flaws. The politician will say something we don’t agree with. The idol will fail to deliver the desired miracle. The car will eventually rust and fall apart.
But the worship of God is different, for God is something that is bigger than human imagining or desires, and although many times we try to shrink God to fit our understanding, deep down inside we know that the creator of the universe is always going to have surprises for us, and that there will always be new revelations.
And so we come to why we worship.
We worship in order to learn what God is really like and to ascribe to God “all glory and honour and praise,” as the psalmist puts it. We worship to remind ourselves that we are not in charge of the universe or our little part of it—God is.
We worship all the time, in all places. We find God revealed to us in nature, though God is bigger than nature. We find God revealed to us in our daily interactions with others, though they are not God. We find God tucked away in the books we read—not only the Bible, but other books as well. We even find God waiting for us as we drink our morning coffee and listen to or read the news. And we are awed by how great God is, and we worship.
So why are we here? If we can worship God anywhere, why do we get up at an inconvenient time on a Sunday morning, and come to this inconvenient place, to hear words we’ve heard many times before, a preacher we may or may not agree with, and sing hymns we may or may not like or even know?
If we look back at those early Jews and Christians, worshiping in the temple together marked them as part of a counter-cultural movement that said, “Caesar is only a man. We’ll pay our taxes to him, but we worship God alone.” Doing this together gave them a little more credibility. The Romans didn’t like it, they didn’t understand it, but they allowed it.
Today, we stand against our culture of self-worship and worship of manufactured things and money. We need regular contact with a supportive group of fellow rebels who will encourage us and support us as we travel the road less traveled, and likewise those fellow rebels need our encouragement and support. Being here on Sunday morning lets us know that we are not alone, that we are part of a global family that does the same thing as us at approximately the same time and on the same day.
The support and encouragement we receive comes not just from being in a group, but from being in a group where we feel we belong. Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose Driven Church, says that as Christians, we are called not just to believe, but to belong. We are not lone rangers, but part of a family and members of Christ’s body.
Worship in community nourishes us in a way that worship on our own out in the world does not always do.
First, we encounter others who are on the same journey as ourselves, but perhaps are in different places. When we share our testimonies of what God has done and is doing in our lives with them, and they share theirs with us, we can learn to be more attentive to the actions of God in our lives.
Second, we are held to account, both by the example of other Christians in our community, and by the words read and spoken and sung in worship. We may not agree with everything we hear or read or sing, but we should always allow those words to challenge and even change our perception of others and of God. We each have only a piece of the “God puzzle,” and it is by sharing our differing perceptions that we come to a more complete and accurate knowledge of who God is.
Christians need relationships with other Christians in order to grow. The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.”
Thirdly, worship reminds us that the growth of faith is a journey that lasts our entire lives and beyond, not a destination that can be reached by shortcuts. If our worship is true and our learning is in earnest, week by week we will grow spiritually.
This stands against our culture of instant gratification, where we expect one-week makeovers to change our entire lives without any further learning.
There’s a story I first hear some time ago about this:
A Church goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. ‘I’ve gone for 30 years now,’ he wrote, ‘and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the priests are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.’
This started a real controversy in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column. Much to the delight of the editor, it went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: ‘I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals.
But I do know this… They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!’
Worship is our spiritual nourishment, giving us energy for the work we are called to do for God’s world. Let us not, as many in our world have done, give up on the habit of meeting together weekly to sing and pray and listen, but let us encourage one another.