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Going Beyond Worship

To move beyond our normal thinking about worship we first have to move backwards. Consider worship in ancient times for a moment, which is why I chose a Psalm 96:1-9 for today’s reading. Did you know that the book of Psalms were the liturgical materials used in ancient Israelite and Judean worship? Basically, they are sacred poetry, the first hymnbook or prayer book of the Second (and perhaps the First) Temple in Jerusalem. This passage in Psalm 96 especially speaks to the act of worship – to sing, to proclaim, to revere, to pay tribute, to bring offerings, to tremble in God’s presence.

But why did people worship? Remember that in ancient times God was the source and cause of all that happened - good and bad. So, worship was essential in trying to keep God on your side. Exodus 34 says that God is a jealous God. This God needed to be reminded that He (and it was always He back then) was loved, honored, feared, respected. And so people gave offerings to make Yahweh happy. People made sacrifices of animals and crops to ask forgiveness, to show that they remembered that all they had was because of God's benevolence. There was the constant hope that if they worshipped correctly and offered gifts that were pleasing, then they would be blessed and avoid God's wrath.

Just for fun, I Googled “is worship required” and found that the answers that appeared at the top of the search weren’t much different:

  • God demands worship because he alone is worthy of it
  • God requests we acknowledge his greatness.
  • God expects worship as an expression of reverence and thanksgiving
  • We worship to thank God for his love, to ask forgiveness and to understand God’s will for us
  • Worship is not optional, it is an obligation, our eternal destiny depends on it.

Personally, I have a really hard time with all of this. First of all, it is dependent upon understanding God as a supernatural being out there somewhere watching us from on high, apparently full of his own sense of greatness and power and wanting to be worshipped for it. This God loves us, yet judges us, rewards us yet punishes us, forgives us yet sends us to hell. This God sounds all too human and narcissistic for me. Plus, I have a really hard time with fear-based theology, being told we need to do things because if we don’t, there are really unpleasant consequences.

For some reason, I was always drawn to the sacred, even though my family didn't attend church. When I was about 5 years old, so my parents told me,  I asked to go to church with the girl who lived behind us. They attended the United Methodist Church about two blocks form my home. Apparently, I came home crying and saying I was going to hell. Needless to say, I didn’t go with her again.

Over the years, I’ve heard many versions of this story. Often adults have talked about their fear as a child that their parents, or friends or grandparents wouldn’t be going to heaven with them because they didn’t believe the right thing, or go to the right church, or go to church at all. I’ve heard story after story of people who’ve been condemned to hell at their own funerals because they weren’t believers. The pastor or priest then used the occasion to try and scare the rest of their family and friends into going to church.

Fear-based theology is very effective in keeping people in line, in keeping people coming to church and giving to the church. But in my opinion, it is spiritually abusive.

Hence, I do not believe we have an obligation to worship either God or Jesus. The Divine Essence I’m familiar with does not keep a tally in a book somewhere to see if we attend worship or not. Nor does that essence have an ego that needs to be stroked by adoring worshippers. And as for worshipping Jesus… Jesus never asked for worshippers, he asked for followers. I have a feeling he’d be appalled to find his broken, bleeding body hanging in churches around the world as an object of worship.

If we move beyond theism… beyond a supernatural God who demands worship… then we also need to go beyond the traditional, ingrained understanding of worship. What then is the purpose of worship? I believe it is many things. It offers us a safe place to seek the divine, to ask questions, and to struggle with the answers. It is a place to give and receive support, not only for the spiritual journey, but for life in general. Worship offers us a community in which to celebrate life's passages, to learn and grow, to strengthen our values and to work together for a better world.

In Jan Richardson's blessing entitled "The Grace That Scorches Us" she describes for me what worship is about. Here's my synopsis.  This blessing, she says, must be uttered with other people, other people who aren’t exact duplicates of you, people who may challenge you, think differently from you, come from different backgrounds, be a different color or a different sexual orientation.

In this place we bring all that is weighing on us: our sorrow, grief, fear, weariness, pain, disgust at how broken the world is. No, this blessing won’t fix any of it, but if we watch, wait, and listen, if we “lay aside [our] inability to be surprised, [our] resistance to what we do not understand” then perhaps we will be opened to the sacred, to speak words we didn’t have before, to hear in ways we didn’t hear before, to feel a knowing in our bones, and a clarity in our hearts that opens us not only to the struggle, but to the grace within it.

Is that not what we do here on Sunday mornings? (Or try to.) We create sacred space to encounter the divine presence in each other, in the very air we breathe, in life – the good, the bad and the ugly - and in the world around us.

Gretta Vosper, in her book With or Without God, writes that the sacred space we call worship might be best described as:

 “the communal gathering that draws us together to recognize life’s rites of passage and reflect upon and deepen our understanding of the things we value and wish to enlarge in our lives while recognizing the challenges facing us as we do, the triumphs and failures we experience along the way, and which yet manages to uplift us enough to re-engage and recommit to living according to those communal values while filled with a sense of our own promise and interdependence.” 

These understandings of worship don’t require a church building, a particular liturgy, approved songs or readings, creeds or doctrine, because it isn’t about doing it “right” for a God who demands worship and obedience. It is about love and compassion-based theology. It is about being in relationship with one another, with God, and with creation. 

Many people are moving toward solitary worship in forms like meditating and yoga, which are all well and good and I encourage doing them. But there is something special and important about communal worship. Sure, it is easier to be spiritually connected to the divine when you’re alone, without distractions or people you may or may not want to interact with. But when we worship together, we get to practice being the best human we can be, and demonstrate the values and spirituality that we’re learning and trying to live – love and acceptance, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, giving, and so much more. 

We strive to create that sacred space here every Sunday morning. Space to come because it fills us, it replenishes our souls, it reminds us that we aren’t alone, it gives us a place to live out the values that are important to us, and we do it all with an unashamed gratitude to the divine in our midst.

Love & Light!