Over the past few weeks I have been inviting us to think about what I`ve called `Christian Treasures`. I`ve put before you such things as The Creed, The Lord`s Prayer, The Scriptures and the Church and I`ve suggested that these are examples of some of the things which we would want anyone new to the faith to really take to heart. These are things we would regard as vital for our growth and formation in faith. As there are only five Sundays available during this season I`ve increasingly felt somewhat restricted but one thing I felt I couldn`t leave out is Worship. This, I want to suggest is absolutely crucial.
However, let me begin somewhere else. If we`re talking about sin- the attempt to live as if God is NOT God- then one of the best signs of its presence is what we might call the `short-cut`. In other words sin always looks like the real thing but in the end it`s second best. And one of the best illustrations of this is what we have done with so much worship. Without wishing to over-state things or be unduly critical it does seem to me that so much of what passes for worship these days is indeed second best, a parody, a shadow of the real thing.
Now I`m sure I have mentioned this before but I have inscribed on my memory a little ad hoc comment made by the woman who lectured me in worship and liturgy at Theological College. In passing she said “The real problem with worship is that for most part we`ve lost interest in God”. And in this she was pointing to the sin. She was highlighting how caught up we are in the `second best`. The prime example of this is any situation where worship is viewed purely from our perspective. That is to say, whenever worship is assessed and thought valid as long as it conforms to my needs, my tastes and my convenience then it ceases to be an offering and instead it turns into something which is valued for how entertaining, artistic or therapeutic it is. Some churches, some clergy can be quite adept at putting on this kind of show but the point is that if we`re honest it`s no longer God that is at the Centre of things and the usual consequence is another skirmish in what I call the worship wars- where we have a falling out because Sunday didn`t do it for me.
The second thing is that we easily underrate the degree to which worship stretches our Vision of God and forms Christian character; the kind of people we are becoming. The word we often use to describe this is `transcendence`; or the sense that God is somewhat, to say the least beyond our comprehension. This reminder that we are creatures; this stretching of our sense of who we are before God along with an accompanying sense of uncertainty and even bewilderment is just part of the deal. Real worship can and perhaps should be an uneasy ride. But you know things are going wrong; the obvious signs of the short-cut is when the assumption is that we should be able to comprehend everything that`s going on and where there is no longer space for mystery.
A few days ago I was in conversation with some ten year-old children and one of them asked me the question about Jesus Resurrection…. “Well, who did move that great big stone?” he said. And it was really good to engage with them about faith being full of questions. In other words, I`m perplexed by the underlying assumption that by the end of our time together there has to be some kind of resolution or tying up the loose ends of our life. So that with our needs met we can go away until we feel the need for the next fix.
I know that`s a parody to point of being insulting but sometimes our approach to what`s going on here can seem far too tame it seems to me. Maybe like the Moslems we should remove our shoes when we come in…… I mean, I gave up watching soap operas many years ago but so many of them end with a cliff-hanger don`t they? And old TV series` used to end at an unexpected moment with some words along the bottom of the screen that read “To be continued….” And we would all groan. Now, I don`t want to use a crass analogy but surely coming into the presence of the living God will have a similar effect if it`s at all genuine because our vision of him will have been enlarged and enlivened. Perhaps we`ll go away with even more questions…. That`s why at the end of our worship the response is not:
Minister: Are you feeling alright now? People: Yes, that feels better, thanks.
But: Minister: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. People: In the name of Christ, Amen.
This is because worship- and this is the third thing- is primarily about encounter; engaging with God and being changed by that. As you might know several of us have been spending Lent on what we`re calling a `Prayer Adventure`; some weeks of guided prayer and reflection. Now one of the important distinctions we`re having to continually remember is that our praying is simply about being there with God; it`s not about having nice thoughts or ideas about him. It`s not about being clever and neither is it about notching up particular feelings or sentiments about him. These may resemble prayer but they`re another example of `second best`.
And the same is true in Worship. It is simply an offering. That`s the point. It`s not with the demand or expectation that this God will then reward us in some way we deem appropriate, enjoyable or flattering. But we have two particular ways ensuring something happens. These are the second-best; the two parodies of worship to watch out for: Firstly worship that`s about communication and secondly worship that`s about motivation. Communication is when, for example what they call `great teaching` becomes the focus. So nowadays we specialize in celebrity ministers rather than saintly ones and we see often quite large congregations focus on admittedly edifying words but it`s all about stimulating the grey matter. And motivation is all about `enthusing` and creating a lively atmosphere- which again has its place- but this often turns worship leaders into children`s entertainers and God`s people into spectators. So that`s my rant out of the way. How do we begin to rectify this?
Well in your service sheet this morning there is small piece of paper showing some ancient Roman Graffiti. As it says this was discovered in the 19th century and these scribblings on an ancient wall are an insulting caricature of one of our forebears- a Christian called Alexamanos. Someone rather cruelly decided to take the mickey out of him by depicting him as bowing down to a man on a cross; and the man on the cross, as you will see has an asses head. You might want to reflect for a moment on what it was like for Christians such as him to face such derision. Maybe you`ll want to give thanks that you`re not treated in the same sort of way. Or maybe you are? The desire of one member of the family to go worship –especially around festival time- can be a touchy subject even in the most devoted of marriages.
But what we might also want to remember is that our forebears in Roman times were accused of `atheism`. That is to say, their devotion to Christ and not to the Roman Gods (in particular the Emperor) was actually a capital offence. From what we know of those times this was a bit strange really, because emperor worship, we believe was actually quite attractive, engaging to the senses, impressive and attendance gave a certain worldly security; you were on the right side things. But here`s this picture of Alexamanos choosing to worship someone regarded as a crucified fool. So what`s Alexamanos teaching us?
Well in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus says: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it`. When we take our eye off the cross- the complete self-giving of Christ and his call for us to do the same- it`s easy to be seduced by the second best. It`s easy to get caught up in the modern equivalent of Emperor Worship. Again, it`s attractive, engaging, successful and everybody`s doing it. But when it comes to worship THIS is what needs to die. We need to deny ourselves that holy `Cupboard love` where our God gives us all the strokes and reassurances that we want.
And those churches that can muster a good `show` with all the latest gadgets can gather quite a crowd. But in our heart of hearts (and I know I`m generalising) this is where we`ve sold out. This is the short cut and after a while when it palls and is no longer entertaining, meeting our needs and all the rest the crowds will find their fix elsewhere.You see, typically of our generation, we have come to define worship as something which has to have a purpose and an outcome. As we say, we like to `get something` out of it, something that makes it worth doing.
But we forget that in truth it`s only real focus is God. There`s no tangible outcome. One author called it a `Royal waste of time`. (Marva J. Dawn 1999). The simple offering of our life to God for his own sake and reverencing his difference from us, in some circles seems to have gone out of style. But Alexamenos shows us the way. He stands before Christ; giving himself in a manner and to a God they considered foolish. Like Alexamenos we shall come before the Cross of Christ on Good Friday knowing that, as he told us in our Gospel today- the Cross is also ours to bear. And as you sit there before that Cross perhaps one of the things you could pray with; one of things we must nail to the cross is the instinctive short-cut that turns worship into something which is about us; which exalts us as spiritual people but places God on the periphery.