Sunday, October 31, 2021

Why Worship?


October 31, 2021 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 26B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:00.

If Jesus moved to Fayetteville, where would he want to worship? Here? Temple Shalom? Genesis Church? What a ridiculous question! It’s as ludicrous as asking what kind of car Jesus would drive, which football team he would cheer on, and what candidate he would vote for. The reason that asking “What would Jesus do?” is so problematic is that it assumes we can yank ancient, first-century Jesus out of his particular context and wield him like a spiritual weapon to support our own agenda. Jesus doesn’t work that way. It’s a question that never helps us grow in faith. Still, though, I wonder what he would think about what we do in his name each week.

What would Jesus think about our music—the choir, the organ? Would he like the stained-glass windows—especially the ones that portray images of him? What would he think about Communion? Would he recognize the ways in which we try to “do this in remembrance of him,” or would our brand of worship be so strange that he would give it a hard pass?

As far as we can tell, the Jesus of the New Testament wasn’t a big fan of organized religion. All four gospel writers recall that, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he went to the temple and turned over all the tables and chased the moneychangers out of the temple precincts. If someone walked in here and started pulling down candlesticks and throwing chalices on the floor, no matter who it was, we would call the police and have them arrested. Christians often look back and mistakenly associate that prophetic act with a rejection of second-temple Judaism, but a careful reading of the Gospel reveals a Jesus who wasn’t opposed to the faith he knew and loved but one who was deeply critical of some of its contemporary manifestations.

We usually think of Jesus as the victim against whom the religious leaders of his day plotted, but Jesus gave out as much pointed criticism of them as they shot back his way. For example, just before today’s gospel lesson, at the beginning of Mark 12, Jesus tells a parable that portrays the authorities as evil, murderous, greedy, and unfaithful. Who can blame them for returning the favor? In repeated attempts to undermine his legitimacy as a teacher of the faith, the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes all came to him with trick questions, designed to force him to take an unpopular position, but he deftly dismissed them all by appealing each time to deeper religious priorities than their questions presented. 

Impressed with what he heard, one of the scribes—a latecomer to the rhetorical party—asked a different sort of question—not one that was designed to trap Jesus but one that sought genuine insight and instruction. “Which commandment is the first of all?” he asked Jesus, posing an ancient interrogative that would help a potential disciple discern whether this was a rabbi worth following. “Of all the precepts and commandments of our faith, to which one would you give priority?” 

Jesus began his response in a familiar place: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Shema, which affirms the singularity of God, is a prayer traditionally recited by observant Jews every morning and every night. It is the foundation of all that follows. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” By starting there, Jesus signaled that his approach to the faith of their ancestors—his authoritative teaching—was built on a traditional understanding of God. 

But Jesus didn’t stop there. “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Our modern translation (NRSV) leaves out a word that the King James Version and our Rite I liturgy convey: “And the second is like” or “is like unto it.” Without the word “like,” we might assume that Jesus had a hard time narrowing his choice down to just one commandment and that, despite the scribe’s request for the foremost precept, Jesus offered two. But the word “like,” which is in the biblical text, helps us know that Jesus wasn’t struggling to make up his mind but that he understood the two greatest commandments—loving God and loving neighbor—to be alike and, in fact, inseparable. 

Notice how Mark conveys this by depicting the exchange between Jesus and the scribe as one that flowed linguistically without a break. After Jesus finished his two-prong teaching, the scribe echoed Jesus’ response back to him, listing all the components without distinguishing one from another: “God is one, and besides him there is no other” and “to love God with all the heart, understanding, and strength” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” It’s as if we hear the scribe internalizing Jesus’ summary of the law as a whole, integral, indivisible expression of faithfulness. 

When thought of separately, there was nothing new about either of these two commandments, but, by combining them as if they were one to begin with, Jesus offered a new insight into what it means to be faithful. He taught that there can be no difference between loving God and loving neighbor. So remarkable was this teaching that the scribe, whose identity was enmeshed with the religious institutions of his day, responded with an uncharacteristic dismissal of temple worship: “This is much more important than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

So why bother with all those offerings and sacrifices? Why bother building a church and spending all that money on windows and pews, on the organ and the altar, on the clergy and the musicians? If loving God means loving our neighbor, why come to church at all? Why not turn over all the tables and throw down all the candlesticks? Why not spend all that money feeding the hungry and providing shelter to those in need? Because our love of God and our love of neighbor flow into each other in ways that strengthen both commitments and shape us for a life of faithfulness.

Left to our own devices, without God’s help, our love of neighbor would quickly become an exercise in self-interest. We would help those in need because it makes us feel good. We would give money away because we want to be held in high regard by others. Our pretense of loving of others would mask a deeper love of self. Eventually, we would define what it means to care for others in ways that reflect our own sense of what is most important and of who is most valuable. And the circles we draw around who deserves our love and who doesn’t always ends up reflecting our own priorities and not God’s. 

But, when we worship God—when we acknowledge that the Lord our God is one and that we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—our devotion begins to shape us. In worship, we encounter God, and that encounter with the divine changes us. It changes what we think is important and who we think is valuable in ways that conform us to the image and understanding of God. If God loves the world completely and unconditionally, our worship of God helps us love the world in that same way. It helps us leave behind our own definitions and cling only to God’s. And, if our worship does not accomplish that, then it has not helped us meet God at all. Worship that does not change us into the likeness of God is merely an exercise in idolatrous futility.

What did you walk through those doors expecting to meet today? If it was anything less than a transformative encounter with Almighty God, you came for the wrong reasons. And, if you leave without experiencing that encounter, then we have not only let you down but God as well. How will you know whether we got it right? How can you tell that our worship is good and holy and faithful? If you bring to God your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, God will shape you into one who loves the world simply for the world’s sake. May that always be our focus in this place.

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