Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Second Sunday of Lent, 2008

Genesis 12:1-4a
12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.

12:2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

12:4a So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Psalm 121
121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come?

121:2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

121:3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

121:4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

121:5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.

121:6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

121:7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

121:8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?

4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

4:3 For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."

4:4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.

4:5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

4:14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.

4:15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

4:16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,

4:17 as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations") -- in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Matthew 17:1-9
17:1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"

17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid."

17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered "your lord is coming, he is close"

that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
"tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him."

--"Lachrimae Amantis," by Geoffrey Hill

Why didn't Jesus tell Peter and James and John to worship him? Why didn't he use the occassion of the transfiguration to insist they do the right thing and fall down in the presence of their God and offer worship? Aside from the fact the doctrine of the Trinity woulnd't be worked out until the 4th century, nowhere in the 4 gospels, even in the Gospel of John, does Jesus tell anyone to worship him. Why is that? Surely worship is the most important part of religion, isn't it?

It is today, anyway. Today that's the reason churches exist: to be "houses of worship" where people come on Sunday morning, the day of the week we set aside for it, and to worship in a special place, in special service led by people specially trained and paid for the purpose. Isn't that what God demands, first and foremost? Worship?

Except you won't find that anywhere in the gospels, or anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. When God approaches Abram for the first time, God doesn't say: "Fall down on your knees and worship me and kill me a fatted calf or two, and then we can talk." God simply says:

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.

12:2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
And the really amazing thing is: Abram goes. It's only later, in another encounter with God, at another time that God offers the promise of descendants, the Abram offers a sacrifice. The last time the promise is made, the one that comes before the birth of Isaac, Abraham offers no sacrifice at all. Instead, he offers hospitality to strangers, and he entertains angels unaware. In that offering, which might be considered a sacrifice, except the food and drink are not burned up into smoke or poured out on the ground, in that offering the promise is finally fulfilled. Maybe it's because Sarah laughs; but it isn't because Abraham builds a tabernacle or a temple, or otherwise marks the place where God visited him. He doesn't chant psalms or sing hosannas or do anything even vaguely liturgical, although the idea of a meal as worship would come up much later. Abraham doesn't worship, and yet God counts Abraham as righteous, and fulfills the promise made to Abraham. Where is the demand for worship?

It's the core, the center, the whole purpose of the church today; or at least, it seems so. Worship is the way "seekers" are brought into the church for salvation and discipleship; except that doesn't work out so well. Worship is what the church advertises, except to do that it advertises smiling pastors and slogans like "We Believe In You!" But where is that demand in scripture? Why didn't Jesus ever tell anyone to fall down and worship him? In fact, in this story, when they do, he tells them: "Get up and do not be afraid." Why is that? Isn't worship the first thing we should do? Isn't that the first thing God demands?

Worship is good, of course; worship is right and proper. But worship is not for God, anymore than prayer is. Worship is for us. God does not need our worship so much as we do, any more than God needs our prayers; but we do. Kierkegaard is supposed to have said that most people in worship think of the priest as the Actor, God as the Director, and the congregation is the Audience. In truth, he said, the Priest is the Director, the Congregation is the Actor, and God is the Audience. Our worship should be our offering to God; but it has never been something God demanded.

Fasting, for example; surely fasting has a liturgical purpose:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

A condemnation that turns into a doxology, and how? By instructing us in proper worship? No! And how much more complicated is it than the words of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" I've yet to hear anyone argue that the editors cut off: "Oh, and join a church, go every Sunday morning for at least an hour, tithe, and stay awake for the sermon! Remember! I'm watching!" There is precious little instruction about Christian worship in all the scriptures; even Paul spends very little time on it. And yet to look about today, you'd think worship was the only thing that distinguished Christians from everyone else, that worship was the sine qua non of both the Church and Christian discipleship. But what does the Lord require of you? To sing psalms? To pray responsively? To listen to sermons? To sacrifice at least an hour every Sunday, and whatever pocket change you might have on hand?

Why do we think so much about the importance of worship, and the importance of who is in our pews, when even Jesus doesn't wait around for Paul to build them shelters, and tells his stunned disciples: "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." Beyond the vision itself, beyond the evidence it provides that Jesus was indeed the living God incarnate, what does this story teach us? Maybe it is the one other thing Jesus says there on the mountain: "Get up and do not be afraid."

But that's after they've heard the voice of God, which is enough to terrify anyone. When Isaiah finds himself in the throne room of God, he trembles in God's presence. Because God is frightful and terrifying? No, because, as Isaiah says: "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, but my eyes have beheld the Lord, the living God!" The presence of God is "awful," in the older sense of the word: it fills one with awe. What other response could you have to the one: "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist"? But it does not necessarily lead directly to worship.

Why, then, do we worship? It is for us, not for God. And it is for us because it is corporate. Prayer can be corporate, too, but it can also be private. Worship is corporate. Worship is leiturgia, the work of the people. Worship is done by the faithful in the presence of the faithful, so we can share our faith with each other and share our sense of the presence of God with each other. Worship is not about who is in, and who is out; but compare the transfiguration in Matthew, with the statement made in John. God speaks essentially the same words here and in John's gospel, but the result is quite different. Jesus is not transfigured in John's gospel, because Jesus is already the figure of the Christ. But still God speaks to those assembled, an assembly that is a crowd, not three disciples alone on the mountain with their rabbi. And when God speaks, some hear the voice and believe; and some hear only thunder. It is a metaphor for worship: some hear the voice of God in the service, and some hear only....noise.

Why, then, do we worship? At one time the answer would have been: "Because we must!" And worship would have been tied to salvation: worship as an assurance we had been forgiven our latest sins; or worship as a social duty; or worship as a proof to others that we were still in God's good graces. None of that really applies today, however, and the reasons for worship seem to get more attenuated as time goes by. There was a time when worship was a part of daily life, as ordinary as going out to lunch. In Acts, Luke casually remarks that Peter and (?) stopped to perform a miracle "at the hour of prayer." For Luke, it's no more than a marker for the time of day, but for us...well, Muslims pray five times a day, but not Christians. Outside of monastic communities we have no such rule about prayer and worship. We keep the morning on Sundays open, or try to, but that's about as firm as we get. Perhaps we pray before going to bed at night. And all of that is custom, not requirement. We worship because we need worship. And why do we need it? Because "tommorrow we shall wake to welcome him."

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

We need worship because we need the sense of the awful in our world. We need worship because we need the sense of wonder, of transcendence, and of memory. One of the earliest liturgies in the Hebrew Scriptures is the blessing of the first fruits. The people are instructed to bring the first of the harvest to the priest, and to say: "A wandering Aramean was my father...." Imagine how far back that would stretch the generations today. I just saw a catalog entry for a book by the scientist who testified for evolution in the Dover school board case. He wrote the book, it seems, both to protest creationism, and to protest the "assaults" on science from the "left," from people presumably like ? and his paradigm shifts. Science, you see, is truth; it is not relative. One of the functions of worship is to remind us we are relative; we are not absolute, and what we know is not absolute. Thanks be to God.

We need worship because it is epiphanous; it allows us an epiphany that the daily rounds of our life do their best to quell, and we do our best to quell them. "Tomorrow we shall wake to welcome him," our Lord; but not today. We will wake up in our own good time, on our own schedule. We are in charge now, shouldn't we be able to set the terms of our encounter with the revelatory? Worship tries to make us wake up on a more regular schedule, with a more punctuated puncturing of our comfort, our security, our assurance that it really is, after all, all about us. Worship makes us confront people, and if we don't mind doing that, it makes us confront God. Worship draws us out of ourselves and puts us on the mountaintop in the presence of the revealed Christ, and then....? After all, of the three disciples there that day, only Peter seems to have had a reaction; and he didn't quite get it right.

One way or the other, it gets us. It gets us, and we need to be "gotten." We need to be stirred, we need to be amazed, we need to have our eyes opened and our ears challenged. Worship is our best chance to step out of the bath of the pure tones of promise and remorse, and stand revealed to ourselve in the light. That is why we need it, and why we have reduced it to only one hour a week. When God says "Listen to him" in John's gospel, some hear the voice; some hear only thunder. It doesn't mean they can never hear; it only means they need to hear it again. It only means God is still speaking. And worship is when we go to particularly listen. Because we spend so much of our daily round drowning out the voice of God. In worship, in the directed noise and reflected silence, in the brief glimpse of the desert of time when eternity means all the clocks have stopped and will never re-start again, we try to get the healing fountain to start. We try once again to go where God has sent us. We try to remember that: "The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore." We try, once again, to carry that with us.


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