© 2020 Evan D. Garner
What do you miss most about worship at St. Paul’s? It has been exactly eight months since a congregation bigger than ten gathered for Sunday-morning worship here in the nave. What do you miss? What do your heart and soul ache for? Over the last few weeks, I have bumped into several members of our congregation who have discovered that the building is open every weekday for private prayer, and I’ve heard several of you say how much you have missed just stepping into this holy space. Many of us miss the people—both the familiar individuals we see when we gather together but also the whole congregation—the mass of people filling the pews, lifting their voice toward God as one. Some of us miss the music—feeling our bodies resonate with the powerful organ or the congregation’s full-throated signing of a favorite hymn. Several have told me how much they long for Communion—the consecrated body and blood of our savior and the unity between us that that sacrament both reflects and inspires.
For many of us it is the liturgy itself that we miss most—not only receiving Communion but standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and listening and praying together the familiar and comforting words of our worship. What we do here in church every Sunday is an anchor for the rest of our week. This place and the prayers we offer within these walls provide steadiness in a chaotic time, reassurance in the midst of anxiety, access to God when God feels so far away. No wonder we miss it so much. We need it now as much as ever, and yet we must remain apart, at least for now. We all miss worshipping at St. Paul’s, but I wonder what God misses most about our worship.
Hopefully, God thinks more highly of our solemn assembly than the worship that took place back in Amos’ day. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God declared, using two verbs of rejection in order to intensify God’s sense of displeasure, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Actually, the word the prophet uses to pronounce God’s judgment against Israel’s worship is the word for smell—God refuses to smell the fragrance of their convocations. Then, the attack on the senses continues. “The offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp.” The prophet wants the people to know that there is absolutely nothing about their worship that God will accept—not the sight or sound or smell of anything that they offer to God. Everything they do in worship is abhorrent to the Lord.
But why? Are the harps out of tune? Are the cantors under-rehearsed? Are the burnt offerings undercooked? Are the sacrifices less than perfect? In some chapters of Israel’s history, the prophets take exception with the content of the people’s worship. Out of laziness or greed, the people stop giving back to God their very best and instead bring whatever is left over—the lame and diseased livestock and the grain that has already spoiled. But not this time. This time, as far as we can tell, the music and offerings and incense were of the highest quality—a reflection of the people’s economic prosperity. In Amos’ day, God rejected the people’s worship because it was all show and no substance—because it went through all of the motions but didn’t make a difference in the people’s lives.
In the last verse of today’s lesson, God named for God’s people what was missing: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” We know that verse out of context because the prophets of our own day have used it to name God’s vision for our society. But, for Amos, it was the distillation of everything that was missing from among God’s people.
When Amos travelled from the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel, he brought a challenging message to a people that didn’t want to hear it. This was a time of great prosperity and security. The markets were up. The borders were secure. Trade routes and trade deals kept goods flowing in and out of the country and profits flowing into the coffers of business executives and government officials. People enjoyed both summer and winter houses (3:15). Their furniture was plush and opulent (6:4). They drank and ate and adorned themselves without limit (4:1; 6:6).
All the while, as the rich got richer, the poor sank deeper into poverty. They lost their homes to unchecked gentrification (2:6-7). They were denied justice by judges and politicians who accepted bribes (5:10, 12). They were cheated in the marketplace by dishonest merchants and left to starve by those who cared only about making money (8:5). And what did all of that have to do with worship? Why was the prophet so intent on declaring God’s rejection of the people’s offerings and prayers? Because religion that is only practiced in temples and synagogues and churches and not in streets and marketplaces and housing developments is not religion at all. Because worship that pretends to ascribe honor and glory and praise to God without shaping its people in the ways of God is nothing more than self-congratulatory entertainment.
In Amos’ day, people flocked to sacred shrines in order to celebrate their prosperity. At Bethel, God had revealed Godself to the people’s namesake, Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. At Beer-Sheba, God had met each of the patriarchs in order to reassure them with the promise that God would always be with them. At Gilgal, Joshua had built an altar of twelve stones where the people had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. It was at Gilgal where Saul had been crowned Israel’s first king. At these three centers of ancestral power, God’s people celebrated God’s limitless favor and endless blessing, but, back in the cities and towns, people were hungry and homeless, helpless and hopeless. And God wasn’t going to put up with it any more. God wasn’t going to receive the prayers and offerings of a people who ignored the very ones God cared about most, no matter how beautiful their worship was.
You cannot worship our God in a place of splendor while God’s people live in squalor. You cannot give glory to the Most High and ignore the depths of the people’s suffering. You cannot preach a message of salvation when there are people who need rescuing right on the other side of the church’s doors. Real worship—God-centered worship—is not merely a sacred performance or an offering to the Almighty of our Sunday best. It is a transformative encounter with the one who welcomes the stranger, lifts up the downtrodden, speaks good news to the poor, and binds up the brokenhearted. It is a moment when sinful, selfish human beings like us are met by the one who loves them and whose love has the power to make them holy. And real worship does just that—it shapes us into a reflection of our holy God so that we might take the truth of who God is with us back into the world for the rest of the week.
That kind of transformation happens whenever worship is honest. We must be honest about who God is and what God demands and about ourselves and our inability to meet those demands without God’s help. When we come to worship, we bring to God our very best because God is the one to whom only our best can be given. But we also acknowledge before God our very worst because we recognize our brokenness and our sinfulness and because we know that we need God’s help if we are going to be a part of making justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That’s why we come back to this place every week—in order to remember who God is and who we are and to be transformed by an encounter with God’s perfecting love.
If our worship is going to be honest—if we are going to be honest before God—we must know and trust and believe that God’s love is bigger than our failures, that God’s capacity to forgive is more powerful than our capacity to sin. That’s what makes worship at St. Paul’s truly special. This is a safe place to be a sinner because we believe that God’s love has no limits. But it’s also a place that believes that God calls us out of our sinfulness and into new lives of holiness. And, most important of all, it’s a place that believes that God will meet us here in order to make that transformation possible.