Scripture: Psalm 36:5-10
Sacred Signposts: Prayer, Praise and Worship
I wonder what brought you to Federated Church this morning. Not the vehicle you came in. No, in a deeper way, what is it that made you leave the warmth of your home, especially on this cold, snowy morning, to venture here to this place and to enter into this thing we call worship?
Admit it—this is an odd thing we do. We sit in hard, not particularly comfortable, pews—though now with more comfortable cushions—all facing in the same direction; we pray and sing and recite together in a choreographed routine of standing and sitting; we read from an ancient, sometimes inscrutable, book and seek to mine its riches. Some Sundays, as we mentioned last week, we put water on people to welcome them into the community. Other Sundays, as we will do in two weeks, we ritually share a meal together.
And, idiosyncratically, we almost always have candles burning. Candles, in the middle of the day. Candles, when we don’t really need them to light the room. Benjamin Dueholm, in his book called Sacred Signposts, quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila. Lila, not a church person herself, “wanders [one day] into a church and poses a pointed question: ‘Why did they waste candles on daylight?’” (Sacred Signposts, p. 123).
It’s a great question. Why, indeed, do we waste candles on daylight? There’s no practical reason for it, is there. Why not just make do with our wonderful new LED bulbs? And we might want to go further and ask why this wonderfully renovated sanctuary; why this magnificent new organ? Isn’t it all just a diversion from more important matters? Dueholm goes on to say, “There is a luxury involved in worshiping. It is unaccountable from the standpoint of the need and anxiety of the world in which worship happens.” As Lila says, “There was no need for any of it” (p. 123). Could it be that she’s right? Might this all be just a distraction from what really matters?
Maybe. But I really don’t think so. We’re focusing during this Epiphany season on “sacred signposts,” some of the distinctive markers that make the church the church. Today’s marker is “worship, praise and prayer.” And like the other signposts, there is something ever-so-slightly different, ever-so-slightly counter-cultural, about worship. Yet there’s something about its very idiosyncrasy that makes it a gift.
You could easily argue that nothing of any real import happens here. Worship doesn’t feed people, it doesn’t mend broken bones, it doesn’t stop people from shooting each other, it doesn’t give people a roof over their heads. But that would be missing the deep truth that worship does something that nothing else does. At its best, worship brings light into our lives—hence the candles. It gives us hope; it connects us to each other; it lifts us out of the ordinary into a kind of transcendence. When we come here, we take a break from our sometimes frenetic doing, we stop trying to accomplish anything, and we listen for a word from beyond us—a word to buoy us and challenge us and center us. Worship points us to our spiritual true north. We come here to remember what life in its fullness is all about.
In her gem of a spiritual memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott talks about why she takes her young son Sam to church: “I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by” (cited in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 251). A path and a little light to see by. That’s why we’re here.
One way to think about worship is as the place where we come to say “Thank you.” We say thank you to the One who has given us life and has filled our days with blessing. Even with all the struggles and challenges that fill our lives—the sadness and the failure and the abuse—there is still something unbelievably grand and spectacular about this world in which we live and the journeys we’ve been given to walk. And our lives would be woefully incomplete if we didn’t, in some way, say thank you.
Saying thank you is what completes a generous interaction. If you give me a gift of some sort, and I don’t thank you, something crucial is missing. If God gives us life and breath, and gives us the person in the next pew whose smile warms our heart, and gives us the brilliant beauty of even such a snowbound day—if God gives us all that and we don’t respond in gratitude, the blessing hasn’t really hit its mark, it hasn’t taken root.
This is essentially what the 36th Psalm does. In the face of dire evil, it nevertheless praises God for the richness of our lives. Three times it uses that great Hebrew word “hesed,” which a minister friend of mine in RI used to have as his vanity license plate. It means “steadfast love” (NRSV) or “lovingkindness” (KJV). “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!” says the psalm. “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (36:7-9). This is the psalm’s way of giving thanks to God as the source of manifold gifts.
Maybe another way to put it is to say that worship is our way of saying, “I love you” to God. Like saying “Thank you,” saying “I love you” is part of what it is to be richly human. I’m reminded of the story about the taciturn old Vermont farmer whose wife, after they had been married for decades, complained in exasperation to him one day that it would be nice if he would tell her he loved her. “I told you that on our wedding day,” he responded, “and if anything changes, I’ll let you know.” Now I don’t want to cast judgment on taciturn Vermonters, but that may not be the ideal way to be, in a marriage, with family and friends, or with God.
We come to worship to say, “Thank you” and “I love you” to God. And it’s made all the richer by being something we do together. I read recently that one of the healthiest things you can do in life is to sing together. That rings true to me. Doing this communally enriches the whole thing.
Rabbi Harold Kushner “likes to tell the story of author Harry Golden, who asked his father, an atheist, why he regularly went to temple. ‘You know Garfinkel?’ Golden’s father responded. ‘Garfinkel goes to temple to talk to God; I go to talk to Garfinkel’” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1987/10/29/making-room-for-religion/01e8d6ce-9623-4870-9c90-f1e080286c93/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.76f769aaedd3). We come here for any number of reasons, some of it to be in communion with God, some to be in communion with each other.
When we come here, we come to share and to support each other through trials that might otherwise be unbearable. A Lutheran minister says that, after his wife died on Good Friday a number of years ago, he went to worship two days later on Easter. That day, in his bottomless grief, he himself was totally unable to sing the hymns. But it meant the world to him that others would sing those hymns for him. Their singing helped keep his own faith alive, when he wasn’t able to do it himself.
Not only do we come here to say “thank you” and “I love you” to God, and not only do we come here to connect with each other, but when we come to worship, we are reminded again what matters most in life, and where we get our bearings. On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, it’s worth remembering how vital worship has been in communities of enslaved peoples. Stephen G. Ray, the President of UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, says “Theirs was a faith built entirely on the experience of God’s nourishing presence in the midst of a ‘weary land.’ The spirituals born of their faith and the narratives that are their lingering witness all point to the God who was the final protector of their children when law and custom were not, the one who was [and is] forever faithful. In all of this their faith was not confirmed by their immediate circumstance—for they remained chattel in the eyes of many—yet their faith was greater than their circumstance. . . .
“[The] presence [of God] created a space in which they and their children could experience their humanity as more than suffering and a veil of tears. They could see through to eternity and with that vision claim a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that no whip or auction block could finally destroy. While most enslaved African Americans lived their entire lives in slavery, they were able to pass along a hope to each succeeding generation that would not wane in the face of segregation, lynching, and decades of oppression, precisely because its bearers understood that they were not trapped in the momentary reign of evil” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, pp. 250-252). This reframing of life is what worship has accomplished for so many. What a blessing it has been.
When Anne Lamott said she took her son Sam to church to give him “a path and a little light to see by,” she also told this story about worship as a communal event that remakes us as the people of God. She describes a woman named Ranola, “a devout pillar of the church. Ranola was weary of Ken, a gay man who was a member of the church. She had been raised to believe that his life was not pleasing to God. Ken was dying of AIDS. He had been too ill to make it to church, but one Sunday he returned to worship, though he was unable to stand for the hymns. During the singing, Ranola watched Ken with a cool eye, his face contorted in a combination of illness, pain, and joy. Then suddenly, Ranola’s face assumed the same expression as Ken’s, and she went to his side, lifting his body up next to hers, his weakness resting on her strength, and vice versa. Ranola’s fears melted, as both she and Ken began to cry. In that moment, they found shelter and hope, resting together in the shadow of God’s wings, drinking from the fountain of life” (cited in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, pp. 251), or, in the words of today’s psalm, drinking from “the river of God’s delights.”
In worship we remember the heart of God’s good news, that, no matter how we might be feeling on any given day, steadfast love fills us and holds us. You’re grieving? God lifts us in hope. You’re sad? God honors that sadness, and inspires us with joy. You’re elated? God is the One we go to to thank. Not only that, but in worship we find direction for our days. In all things, God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. And worship is what reminds us of this center of life: God’s steadfast love is the heart of all that is. Thanks be to God.