Acts 17:22-31

Practicing Resurrection: Worship

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Acts 17:22-31

Practicing Resurrection: Worship

By Rev. Amy Butler

We’ve been talking since Easter about what it might mean to live our lives like Easter is more than one day of the year . . . to live in the process of being transformed by the miracle of resurrection every single day.

Helping us explore the possibilities is Diana Butler Bass’s book Christianity for the Rest of Us, in which she identifies several “signposts of renewal”—qualities of vital community and intentional living that indicate an openness to the ongoing work of God’s Spirit. Today we’re examining the practice of worship as a signpost of renewal, an indicator that resurrection is real and tangible and even matters at all for our lives.

Out of all the qualities Butler Bass presents, worship might be the one that gives us the most pause. After all, it’s rare that we think of worship as a practice at all . . . many people think of worship in the same way they think of any of the many consumer experiences that fill our everyday lives. Just think: it’s called a worship service. Would that be like a laundry service or a catering service or a cleaning service or any other kind of service we consume from day to day?

The Washington CityPaper thinks so. This weekly publication in our great city highlights one faith community a week by sending an undercover worshipper to visit and subsequently rate the experience using several different standards. A faith community can rank between one and five stars in categories like: music, refreshments, friendliness, sermon. Believe me, this is a source of animated discussion in my various pastors’ circles—who got reviewed last week, when our community might get a visit, what the snacks during coffee hour are really like at New York Avenue Presbyterian . . . .

And even those of us who attend weekly worship as a habit or even a spiritual practice sometimes end up falling into the trap of seeing worship in this way. Everyday there’s a new book published about what kind of worship is going to appeal to people the most. Depending on the day that could mean figuring out how we might incorporate drums into worship; mounting a huge screen at the front; serving coffee; burning incense. Whatever the latest thing is, church folks flock to learn about it, desperate for that one strategy that will bring in the visitors by droves.

But Butler Bass has found that there are vital communities of faith all over this country . . . and none of them worship in exactly the same way. Some are burning incense, but some have huge video screens. And some have a jazz band in worship every week and some of them sing the good old favorites from the hymn book. It seems there’s no magic formula for packaging worship. Instead, there are intangible qualities that make their worship experiences vital, qualities like authenticity, honesty, openness, community, the possibility of encounter with God.

And that’s what we’re all looking for, isn’t it? After all, any one of us could have spent this morning sleeping in. But we long, in the crazy chaos of our lives, to catch even just a glimpse of the Divine.

This longing to experience God is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about in our Acts passage today, when he visited the great city of Athens, climbed up to the Areopogas and began talking with all the cultured, educated folks living in the center of power and culture of his time. He noticed that they had created shrines and altars to every kind of god you could think of, a kind of shopping mall of the divine.

If you needed help with your love life, you should be sure to visit Aphrodite’s shrine. If you were sick, you might try Asclepius. If you needed help with a business deal, you really should head over to Pluto’s shrine.

But the thing that caught Paul’s attention, the thing about which he commented in today’s Acts passage, was the shrine to the unknown god, a shrine designed, presumably, to cover whatever bases got overlooked with all the other shrines around town. Paul noted that and he started talking with the Athenians about looking for God—that we yearn so deeply for encounter with the living God, so much so that we erect altars to a God we don’t know in hopes of finding something to hang onto as we wander around searching . . . for something.

The practice of worship, what we do here every single Sunday, is a regular practice that puts our hearts, minds and souls into a posture of openness, readying us to get a glimpse of God enough to take us through the inevitably harried days ahead of us. But, like the Athenian’s realized, sometimes we set things up as best we can, we cover as many bases as we can possibly cover, but we cannot manufacture God. God is mystery, never confined to our limited understanding or preferred expression. And true, resurrection worship is always pushing the limits of our comfort as we search—Paul says grope—desperately for God, allowing the possibility that we might—we just might—have an experience with the Divine.

When I was a kid there was no such thing as Chuck E. Cheese. For those of you who are unaware, Chuck E. Cheese is a place of horrible torture for any adult in her right mind, where children clamor to ingest greasy pizza; where they run around playing loud video games; where they sit mesmerized in front of huge jumbo tron screens depicting people-sized mice singing the most annoying songs. Chuck E. Cheese is a very popular place to hold your birthday party, at least if you’re under 10.

Of course this did not exist when I was in any sort of mindset to enjoy it myself—it only came into being when I was a parent with children whose lives would surely end if they couldn’t have their birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese. And invite their whole entire class.

Nope, when I was a kid we had homemade birthday cakes, balloons blown up by the forced labor of my brothers and sisters, and party games planned and run by the talented party planners that were my parents. One game I remember playing at many birthday parties was the old favorite, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. You know, that’s the one where there’s a big poster of a donkey with no tail up on the wall. Each kid gets a tail, usually with a piece of tape on it (although it’s way more fun if you use a thumb tack and “accidentally” pin your tail to somebody’s arm), and is instructed that the goal is to get the tail in about the right place on the donkey, if you know what I mean. When it’s your turn you get blindfolded and spun around a good bit before your walk toward the wall, feel your way as best you can, and try to get the tail as close as you can to where it belongs.

You know how it goes—hilarity ensues as everybody tries the best they can to feel their way through the darkness to put the tail as close as possible. Sometimes you get lucky and the tail lands right where it belongs. Sometimes you end up with a donkey sporting a tail on an ear or something like that. And sometimes you miss the wall altogether. Remember that game?

Well, this is kind of what the genuine, resurrection practice of worship is like, and it’s why Paul used the term “groping for God” when he talked to the Athenians. We come to worship every single week, and hopefully there is something in our experience of worship that catches our imagination or touches our spirits. Sometimes, in fact, we have an experience of worship that radically changes us, that we can look back on and mark as a moment that changed our lives.

Call me crazy, but my experience, anyway, is that this does not happen every week.

In fact, a former boss of mine always told me: “Sunday afternoons are the loneliest time of the preacher’s week.” He said that there is a Monday Morning Quarterback kind of feeling for those of us who plan worship—what went well, what didn’t, did we feel God’s Spirit, why not, who was there, wasn’t that second hymn a dud, why didn’t anybody laugh at my jokes??!?

See, we’re all groping for God, even the people who plan and lead worship. But the good thing is, as we faithfully practice the resurrection quality of worship, we are never doing it alone. True and authentic worship, after all, happens in community, where we gather together and bring along with us the little shreds of our lives, opening ourselves to run into God, somehow, someway.

After all, it’s almost impossible to play pin the tail on the donkey by yourself, and it certainly is no fun whatsoever. We all need help adjusting the blindfold. We need somebody else to spin us around and point us in the general direction of the donkey. We need people cheering us on as we grope around looking for the place that we’ll pin the tail on this turn. And we need folks around us when we pull the blindfold off and assess how close we got, whether we got close at all, and to remind us that that donkey is still a donkey, no matter where we put the tail this time.

This is practicing worship . . . showing up, holding hands, cheering each other on as we grope for God, hoping for an experience of the divine that reminds us, ultimately, that we live with the hope of a different reality—a resurrection reality. When we faithfully practice this kind of worship, we are practicing resurrection.

It was three or four years ago, sometime in February, I believe. On Saturday night the snow started and we all started wondering what would happen with regard to Sunday morning worship. My general policy on snow Sundays is to try my best to make it down to church, just because I worry that some folks will brave the weather and show up anyway. But the time I set out Sunday morning I already knew I would be the only staff member able to make it in. Our organist lived too far out; others who were leading worship couldn’t make it in. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anybody to show up.

But, by the time the beginning of worship rolled around, wouldn’t you know it, we had about 20-25 people here in the sanctuary. There was a sort of a festive spirit in the room, with everyone struggling out of snow boots and recounting their harrowing adventures coming to church that morning.

As we got closer to the start of the service, I realized the normal worship approach wasn’t going to cut it. There was no choir. It would seem completely ridiculous for me to turn on the sound system and march up to the pulpit to deliver a formal sermon to 25 people scattered throughout this 900-seat sanctuary, you know what I mean? I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

So, I asked everyone to come on up to the front and I brought a music stand down here to the floor for my notes.

I remembered that Kevin Hagan played the organ at his church growing up, so he was finally convinced to play the one hymn he remembered on the piano—Amazing Grace—as our opening hymn. But he couldn’t play both the right and left hand parts at the same time, so Laura Canfield said she could sit next to Kevin on the piano bench and play the left hand part while he played the right hand. And so we sang Amazing Grace, verse after verse, and by the time we got to the last verse, Kevin and Laura were moving along nicely together.

And Doris Vermilya was there. For the life of me I can never get Doris to speak from the pulpits in the front during formal worship; I think she’s too shy. But she stood right up from where she was sitting and prayed the most beautiful opening prayer you could imagine, putting all of us in a frame of mind to worship God, even in this strange situation.

We had some visitors that day, too. Soren Dayton and Amanda Butler had just started attending Calvary, but we needed everybody to pitch in, so I asked Amanda to read scripture. And she did. She stood up and read the Gospel passage so everyone could hear it, not in the formal way we normally do it with all the Alleluias, but in her quiet, determined way, so all of us could hear the story of the ten lepers from Luke’s gospel.

Then Katie Canfield Thomas, who loves to sing, got up and sang a song without any musical accompaniment. She didn’t sound quite like Denise Graves, but who does? Her clear, high, 10 year old voice rang out over our gathered community and invited us to worship God.

And then I preached a sermon, which was not the sermon I had written for that Sunday, but something much more informal. I remember talking briefly about the Gospel passage Amanda read and explaining where I had planned to go with the sermon. I think I threw some questions out to everyone. Since we all knew each other’s names by then and were gathered together in this huge space that suddenly felt rather intimate, the sermon became more of a conversation. We began talking about what it might feel like to be excluded from your community, like those lepers felt. I remember Zach Boren raised a point I had been thinking of but felt hesitant about bringing up—too controversial for a sermon, I had been thinking. But since Zach raised the point it seemed like we could all talk about it openly. And we did.

After about an hour of worship I think we sang another song—a capella this time—then joined hands in a circle and said a final prayer together.

It wasn’t like a normal worship service, that’s for sure. We didn’t sing the Doxology or say the Lord’s Prayer. The organ wasn’t played at all and we didn’t even use the bulletins once! But it was, without a doubt, a meaningful and rich experience of worship. Each one of us brought our limited understanding of God to our gathering, we pooled everything in the middle of the room, and together we did what Paul talked about the Athenians doing—we groped for God. Not the most elaborate music or formal prayers, not the most stunning sermon every preached in this sanctuary and just a small number of folks compared to regular Sunday services. But it was real worship. It was a genuine practice of opening ourselves in expectation to God. It was practicing worship in a most unconventional way, and it was practicing resurrection.

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A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the exegesis and the sermon for today. I even used part of your sermon – the part referring to the three times when Jesus told us to love our enemies and the quotation from Paul. I wanted to pass on the reaction from the congregation. Many people said that thinking of actions instead of feelings made things much clearer for them. I told them about agape and hina… Anyway, I always enjoy your exegesis. Usually I don’t read your sermons until I am well on my way with my own. This time I did and it was a real help.”

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One of the qualities of a vital Christian community is our individual and corporate commitments to practicing worship, no matter how that practice comes to be. We’re not here to see and be seen; nobody is taking note of who looks the best-dressed; and there better not be anybody here rating the sermon, that’s all I can say! We’re here because we’re practicing resurrection, living like Easter matters by gathering together to remind each other that we must live in expectation of whatever it is God is going to do in and among us. You know this congregation—practicing worship could mean an incredible anthem from the choir . . . or it could mean Kevin and Laura at the piano working their way through Amazing Grace. It could mean someone like Tony Campolo in our pulpit or it might mean all of us puzzling through a text together. It could mean a passage read in another language or a banjo playing a Japanese folk tune or children singing or drums playing or anything else that you or I bring to this place, because together we are determined to wait with expectation to experience God. Week after week after week we practice worship because we are people who want to live groping for God, practicing resurrection, waiting with expectation for God’s powerful and ever-present work . . . among us!

How is it that you are practicing the spiritual discipline of worship? Add your voice to the voices already raised here; find your place in the search for God; practice worship, week in and week out. When you do, you are living like Easter matters, and together as we worship, we are . . . practicing resurrection.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2008, Amy Butler. Used by permission.