This particular church cartoonist has only a few tricks up his sleeves. One of the standard scenarios: eavesdropping as people greet the preacher at the end of the service. Sometimes the cartoon fits the theme, “What they say and what they mean”. For example, the parishioner says to the pastor: “Interesting sermon”, which really means, “Where did you come up with that screwball interpretation?” (expletives deleted). Or, “Now that was a good sermon.” which means that the rest of them were dogs. I don’t have to make this stuff up. One Sunday, I preached on a challenging text. A visiting seminarian at the door greeted me with this sermon review: “Nice try.” That was only a decade ago. I’ve worked through it. I really have.
All of which is a rambling introduction to the topic of worship. On this Monday morning of Holy Week, I’d like to invite you to think about how you will approach the worship of this week. In recent years, and in the work I’ve been called to do with congregations, I’ve been led to consider the ways we envision our role in worship.
For much of my ordained ministry, wittingly or unwittingly, I’ve often operated on the premise that a worship service is a drama intended for the approval of the person in the pew. I’ve worked to make the music engaging, the liturgy just the right length, providing occasional yet tasteful tugs on the heart (nothing too manipulative), the sermon wise and witty. I can tell how I’ve done by comments at the door, and by other measures like attendance and pledging units. In this vision, a church service is like other gatherings: a concert, lecture, play, movie, each subject to review, each a consumer product intended for satisfaction of the audience, a group which can often be critical, as in, “Nice try.” I’ve worked through that. (I really have.)
But when I heard a quote attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, I was opened to a shift in thinking. To paraphrase, Kierkegaard said that the liturgy is indeed a drama, with the clergy, musicians and other liturgical leaders as prompters, the congregation as actors. God is the audience. It’s not a perfect metaphor, because it makes the Holy Spirit somewhat passive in the process, but it made this helpful shift for me.
It made me think more about the encounter with the divine. It made me think less about that ego-driven desire for approval (a clergy temptation, and often a downfall). It made me realize that whether I’m leading worship or sitting in the pew, we are all in this together as we make our offering to God: offering our thanks, offering ourselves with our need for forgiveness, offering our praises without restraint, offering service with time, talent and treasure.
Remembering, of course, that all of it comes as response to grace.
This Holy Week provides many opportunities to worship the God known to us in Jesus, who stretches loving arms on the cross to draw us into his saving embrace. If and when you find yourself in a church service this week, try Kierkegaard’s quote on for size. See if it makes any shift in your experience, as you consider the amazing grace that we can with intention enter into the divine presence, along with others seeking to do the same. Use the Holy Week prayers below if that’s a help.
And church isn’t the only place that worship can happen. Our offering to God can be made any day and all day long, with our lips and with our lives. For me, it often comes early when I’m able to see over the dunes to the sun cracking the horizon of a deep ocean that never looks the same two days in a row, whose surface suggests hidden depths of movement and vitality that intimate the mystery of the Holy One. All of that often causes me to say out loud “Thank you.” That is an offering of worship.
Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered into glory before he was crucified, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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