What It Means to Worship

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on Sunday, November 11, 2018.

Psalm 100, Psalm 150

This is the second of six Sundays during which we are lifting up themes of giving and generosity. So what better way to begin than with some stewardship jokes!

A man died and went to heaven.  He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter who led him down the golden streets.  They passed stately homes and beautiful mansions until they came to the end of the street where they stopped in front of a rundown cabin. The man asked St. Peter why he got a hut when there were so many mansions he could live in.  St. Peter replied, “I did the best with the money you sent us.”

At an Executive Council meeting, the congregation’s wealthiest member decided to share a portion of his faith story. “I’m a millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I can still remember the turning point in my faith, like it was yesterday: I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a youth meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God’s work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give everything I had to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today.” When he finished and sat down, the chair of the stewardship committee (Mario) leaned over and said: “Wonderful story! I dare you to do it again!”

The Sunday School teacher was just finishing a lesson on honesty. “Do you know where children go if they don’t put their money in the collection plate?” the teacher asked. “Yes ma’am,” a boy blurted out. “They go to the movies.”

The pastor of a tiny country church had been having trouble with stewardship and offerings.  One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we receive the offering, I would like to request that the person who stole the eggs from Widow Jones’s chicken coop please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. God doesn’t want money from a thieving sinner.” The offering plate was passed, and for the first time in months everybody gave.

Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him. “You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!” Horrified, the little boy obeyed. After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty? “Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”

I know there are some groaners in there. And also some questionable theology. But I will circle back to these in a moment because I think there is actually a point to be made in there somewhere.

As part of our effort to highlight the many and marvelous ways your gifts to the church are used, on each of the next four Sundays we will be celebrating one of the four cornerstones of the church, Worship and Music, Fellowship and Community, Outreach and Mission, and Children and Youth. So this Sunday is a celebration of our worship and music.

Which begs the question, what is worship? Some might call this gathering on Sunday morning a church service. In fact some of you may have simply said last night, “I’m going to church in the morning.” And it is not uncommon for someone with a Catholic background to ask me what time our mass is. But at First Church we call this a worship service. These distinctions might seem unimportant but, it seems to me, worship has a particular and important meaning in the context of our faith.

The Hebrew word for worship is Shachah – “to prostrate in homage to royalty or God: bow down, crouch, humbly beseech, make obeisance, do reverence, worship.”

There are several Greek words used for worship in the New Testament, but the closest to our meaning is Latreuo – “to render religious service of homage.”

English synonyms for worship include: revere, venerate, pay homage to, honor, adore, praise, glorify, exalt, extol, cherish, treasure, adulate.

Wow! Whether in in Hebrew, Greek or English, worship is a strong, evocative word.

What do we worship? I suppose we could cynically and critically respond by saying we worship money, status, youth, looks or fame. In fact many a sermon begins with just such an observation. But this is such a negative application of the word.

If we use the word to mean adore or cherish, we might use worship to describe the way we feel for a lover, “I worship you.” But any therapist worth their Marriage and Family Therapy License would challenge such worship as misplaced and unhealthy.

No, I think worship seems to require an extravagant affirmation of something truly good. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we rarely use the word uncritically or without suspicion.

Yet, we claim the word regularly in church. Not only do we describe this as a worship service, we have a Call to Worship, and regularly talk about worshiping God. Does the word have meaning for you in this context? This morning, as you left the house, did you “go to church” or “prepare yourself to worship God?”

This is the connection between generosity and giving, as represented in those jokes I told, and this worship service. Neither is about us. Each requires us to radically decenter ourselves and assign our highest value to something that is not us.

The Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Copernicus came to the radical conclusion that our solar system revolves around the sun, not the earth. The implication,that humans are not at the center of the universe directly confronted both Catholic doctrine and Protestant reformers of the day. John Calvin wrote, “We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre.”

Though we have long since come to agree that the earth is not at the center of the celestial universe, we humans still act as if it is, and we are, and that everything revolves around us.

And whether in our life of faith or in our decisions around giving, subjugating our own perceived self-interest is a radical notion indeed.

This kind of decentered giving was represented at a fundraiser for the clinic we support in Uganda, when over eighty people gathered in Palmer Hall for a celebration of the Faith Mulira Health Care Centers great work.

Regardless of what each of us concludes about God’s nature, whether a divine being or the presence of a transcendent unconditional love, it is this radical act of living our lives decentered that is the fundamental act of faith. This is what we do when we worship, and this is what we do when we give to the church.

So just to circle back to those opening jokes.

The size of your home in heaven does not depend on the amount you give in this life.

Unlike Mario, I don’t ask you to give your last dollar.

Please, hold on to enough money that you can go to the movies without guilt.

And, I would be delighted to accept offerings from thieving sinners.

But that mother gets it exactly right. It taint yours; it taint mine; it’s God’s. All of it is God’s.

Let us decenter ourselves and worship God.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord!



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