Worship in spirit and in truth?
March 24, 2014
“Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple.”
What might that look like I wonder- an experience of worship in which the glory of the Lord utterly fills our space?
Picture if you can a tiny living room in a top floor flat on Kelvin Flats, in the late eighties. We were the Liberation Congregation, meeting weekly to pray and praise God and wrestle with the scriptures. David and Chris were doing unpaid community and campaigning work on the estate, and we supported them financially and in prayer. We took turns to lead; David usually brought his trumpet and Ivy always baked teacakes. The heart of our worship was an agape, an act of simple sharing at which one of Ivy’s tea-cakes and a cup of cold water passed quietly between us. There was a sense of urgency about our worship, a sense of purpose and energy. You never wanted to miss. And when David played his trumpet, the glory of the Lord filled that tiny living room.
Or picture the little Church of San Damiano in the fields outside Assisi, where St Francis had heard Christ speak to him from the crucifix. At 7 a.m. the monks sing the morning office there, and the summer I was staying with friends in a Fransiscan Commune we joined them every morning. There was an unspeakable beauty to the strong, resonant sound of the men’s voices singing the psalms in Italian in the darkened, candlelit church. As the service ended the ancient church door was thrown wide open and the whole building was flooded with Umbrian sunlight. The glory of the Lord poured out through the door into the fields and orchards surrounding it.
Or picture us last Thursday at St. Columba’s as we gathered to say our last farewell to Tom, an extraordinary man and a great Christian. After the funeral one of the soldiers who had come to form the guard of honour over Tom’s coffin came up to me and said, “You know, I often come to funerals with the regiment but, I don’t know why, today it was different……I’ve felt such a sense of love here, I can’t explain it, I feel it’s pulling me back towards church, though I haven’t been religious for years”………I was able to tell him that it was the God who is love stirring his heart, the God who meets us in Jesus, and that he should listen carefully to those stirrings, and act on them. What he was responding to was the glory of the Lord filling St Columba’s.
The glory of the Lord filled the temple.
I’m so glad to be able to contribute today to your sermon series on worship. And what a gift we have in our readings today. The passage we heard from Chronicles offers a detailed account of Solomon’s design and furnishing of the temple, and culminates in the an outpouring of praise and worship and the manifesting of the glorious presence of the Lord filling the temple. Jesus in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in our Gospel passage spells out for us what the hallmarks of Christian worship must be: “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
Worship is the heart of the Christian life. Worship is not so much about what we do, as who we are. As we gather for worship together as we do this morning, we’re in being mode, not in doing mode: here we discover our true identity as God’s people. Worship tells us who we are together. We lay ourselves open to the glorious, risky possibility of encounter with the God who meets us in the breaking open bread and of breaking open the word of scripture. Worship is that place where the glory and grace of God takes hold of us, and when that happens, we are changed, we grow, we are formed slowly and imperceptibly, into more of Christ’s likeness.
And yet we know the pitfalls. The heating’s playing up in church and the musicians have gone down with gastric flu. The powerpoint doesn’t seem to match up over the sheet the worship leader’s working from and there’s embarrassment over the absence of gluten-free wafers. The notices seem to go on forever. The glory of the Lord appears to have de-camped elsewhere, at least temporarily.
How can we worship God in Spirit and in truth? Given or human limitations, how can the humble experience of Sunday worship in a modest suburban parish church become a fount of water springing up for eternal life? How can “going to church” as we call it, become a glimpse of the very gates of heaven?
Let’s take two imaginary people, Adam and Anna, who arrive, separately, and rather late, one Sunday morning at St. Wellmeaning’s. Anna has had a huge row with her brother over the sale of their Dad’s house; it’s left her feeling irritable and guilty, and has renewed her feelings of grief for her Dad who died suddenly last year. She arrives late and misses the time of confession, and doesn’t recognise any of the hymns which adds to her feelings of irritability. Adam’s wife is starting to become forgetful and he has nagging anxieties about her health declining, and how he will cope, and suppressed doubts about whether believing in God makes sense at all. He wishes that he could have a moment of quiet, but the service is wordy and busy and he doesn’t find a the stillness he was hoping for. The service is upbeat and cheerful, but as Adam and Anna leave they are both are vaguely aware that the service hasn’t touched them at the point of their deeper spiritual need.
Adam and Anna are all of us. All of us live lives that are rich and complex, full of loose ends and unanswered questions, and it is surely a good thing that we bring all that complexity with us into worship. As we come into God’s presence in we need to be real, not to put on a front of false piety, false cheerfulness or whatever. If we are to worship in spirit and in truth, all falsity and pretence needs setting aside. We need to be real: honest before God and honest with ourselves. My question is, how can we create worship that allows Adam and Anna to be real, offer to God their loss, their anger, their worry, and their need to be reconciled? For it is only by doing so that Anna and Adam can encounter the glory of the Lord, the God who was in Christ reconciling all things to himself? How can we create worship that allows us both speak the truth about God, and speaks the truth about ourselves?
Well here goes. And as I reach for my prescription pad, do be assured that my prescription applies to me, and us at St. Columba’s as much as anywhere else! We have worship bad hair days, just as much as anyone else!
First of all, we need worship that allows us to be adults. Of course, Jesus said that we need to become like children to enter the kingdom – but there’s a difference between simplicity and purity of heart, and the awkwardness of being made to feel patronised and infantilised. Being a grown up means experiencing grief, loss, anger, doubt and shame as well as joy, desire, curiosity and laughter. We need to offer a faith that stretches wide enough to embrace and own all of that. How can we find a vocabulary for our worship that can articulates all of that. Impossible? Not at all. The Book of Psalms is the oldest prayer book we have and the power of the psalms is their ability to speak to the whole range of human experience. We need to draw on it more creatively. If we find ourselves singing worship songs that express love for God as a teenage romantic attraction – then we need to scrutinise these choices quite carefully. To worship in spirit in truth means attending to the truth of ourselves, as adult people, made in God’s image. We need to find a language of liturgy that is strong enough to bear the weight of the experiences we bring.
I think the liturgical year helps us here. We cannot do everything in one go, but we may take the opportunity to be more reflective, to allow for a deeper seriousness in Lent before pouring out praise and adoration at Easter and Pentecost. We can reflect on loss and mortality in the season of All Saints and All Souls, before celebrating the earthiness of God incarnate with us at Christmas.
Second item on my prescription pad: let’s aim for worship which lets us be are sensing people, not just thinking and feeling people. Words are important in worship: we need well-chosen words, but perhaps not too many. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount counsels simplicity in prayer. “When you pray, don’t keep babbling on like pagans, who think they will be heard because of their many words.” In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, he contrasts the simplicity and humility of the tax collector’s prayer with the confident eloquence of the Pharisee. I think Anglican worship can very often be rightly criticised for simply being too wordy. At St. Columba’s we have recently begun using one of the new eucharistic prayers which have been recently authorised for use with children. It’s great, I think: simple, biblical, direct, easily understood. So often, in worship, less is more: can’t we trust God to speak through the silence between the words, just as much as through the words themselves?
Yet, as I said, God has created us as people with senses, and God speaks to us powerfully through the power of symbol and ritual action. Penitence is a case in point here. It’s very easy for us to say the words of the confession on autopilot, for it to pass us by without us really connecting with what we’re saying. Our need to be reconciled to God, to ourselves and one another is our most fundamental need, as the Lord’s prayer remind us. Forgiveness: the heart of Jesus’s kingdom teaching. Our lack of inner peace isn’t about a shopping list of sins of omission or commission from the past week. Our inability to be reconciled is much more deeply rooted in past hurts and memories, in the structure and systems which we’re part of. So it may be that finding other ways of confessing will engage us more deeply. So in our act of worship we could try writing down the thing we need forgiveness for, and all burning our papers in a brazier. We could try holding a jagged stone, and letting it symbolise for us our hardness of heart, and then release it into a pool that is a symbol of the living waters of God’s grace.
Third item on my prescription pad – don’t worry, there’s only one more! – is that we can help ourselves and everyone else to make worship better by giving more time to prepare. As I read the Chronicles passages what struck me was the loving attention to detail in the preparation of the temple. The care and time needed to prepare is itself and act of love. Most of us come from lives that are too full and too busy. Worship requires us to rush less, and focus more. To love someone is to give them our full attention, so, out of love for God, why not give him some time? Why not make Sunday morning a multi-task-free zone? Remember the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha? “Martha, you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed.” Let me suggest to you that Sunday morning is time to be Mary, and that the one thing that is needed is to slow down, and come into God’s presence in worship with a sense of calm, and a sense of expectancy. If there’s one thing that would improve the quality of worship in my own parish context, I believe that’s it.
Fourth item on my prescription: know that worship is what the whole church does, not just what the clergy and the worship leaders do. Sure the clergy are here to lead, but our leadership should be for the purpose of enabling the whole people of God – that’s all of us – to offer praise and worship. the Methodists have got it right: we a priesthood of all believers, all of us are priestly people, and the offering of ourselves in worship is not for the experts, but for all of us.
Believe me, the depth of your prayer in Sunday worship doesn’t just make it a difference to you, it makes a difference to everyone else too. We all need one another’s prayer. The word sacrifice means offering, and for worship to be truly sacrificial, what’s needed is the wholehearted offering of each one present. What makes an act of worship take wings and fly is the openness to God of every person present.
Worship that allows us to be grown-ups: that speaks the truth of God, and the truth of ourselves. Worship that addresses our senses, as well as our minds and our hears. Worship for which we prepare, offering the gift of our time and attention. Worship not as active leaders up here and a passive congregation down there, but as a communal experience in which we all share equally, letting ourselves be drawn by the magnet of God’s love to us in Christ. Let us pray that God will stir our hearts to renew our worship, in spirit and in truth, that his glory may fill this and every place.