Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Go
Filter By:

I’ve been a bit behind catching up on the news lately, so it was just this past week that I saw footage and photos from Barbara Bush’s funeral. It was a moving ceremony, and there’s much worth remembering. But, I know what image will stay with me the longest. It’s not the photo of former presidents and first ladies all gathered together, political differences set aside. I am grateful for that photo and even find it a bit hopeful. But what I will remember the most is the photo of 43 and 41. The caption under that photo reads, “Former President George W. Bush wheels former President George H. W. Bush into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston for former first lady Barbara Bush’s funeral.”

 

That caption is accurate, but it isn’t true. In that moment, the truth is, a son wheeled his father into the funeral for their beloved mother and wife. When they entered that sanctuary, they ceased to be defined by their titles and their functions, because in that moment, if you look at their faces, you can see it—they were defined not by who they were or what they had done; they were defined by who they loved.[1]

—————

I’m not sure we’ve had a chance to talk about this yet, you and I, but taken as a whole, the book of Psalms is one of my favorites.

 

I think it’s the most honest book in the entire Bible. If you are looking for words to praise God, you’ll find them in the psalms. If you are looking for words to give thanks to God, you’ll find them in the psalms. If you are looking for words of tremendous hope, you’ll find them in the psalms. And if you are looking for words to curse God, to give God a piece of your mind, to be mad or heartbroken or just downright exhausted and whiny, you’ll find those words in the psalms, too. Somehow, this book captures the full range of human emotion—and, by showing up in scripture, by being recorded and remembered in a book we call holy—it gives us permission to feel that full range of human emotion, and let it all out.

 

It’s okay, the psalms tell us, if you need to rant and rave and rage, God can handle it.

 

It’s because the psalms make space for us when we are at our worst, that I can take more seriously the psalms that remind us how to be our best.

 

Praise God, Psalm 98 says. Sing to the Lord. Make a joyful noise, break forth into joyous song, find your trumpets and sound your horn. Raise your voices and clap your hands.

 

In other words: worship.

 

Worship because the Lord has done marvelous things, because his righteousness and holiness have carried the day before, and they will carry the day again, to all the ends of the earth. Worship because the Lord brings steadfast love and faithfulness. Worship because the Lord is coming, and when he comes, he will bring justice and goodness and mercy to all people, all people and all the earth.

 

And not for nothing, but biblical historians tell us that this psalm is one of a collection that was created to be used in corporate worship.

 

These words…they came from worship; they instruct us to worship, and they remind us why we worship.

 

One of my best teachers was my ethics professor, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Dr. Cannon was the first African American woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and she is not one who ever minces words.

 

“Why do we worship?” she once asked our class. “Does God need our worship? Will God cease to be God if we sleep in on Sunday? Do God’s ego and ability depend upon our singing and praying?”

 

So, what do you think? Why do we worship? What difference does it make if God is going to be God no matter what?

 

Because to assert the opposite, that God does need our worship—well, that statement is a theological mess, because to say that says we believe ourselves to be more powerful than God.

 

Here’s what I can tell you. It’s just my understanding of things. But, it is the honest truth that, for me, worship matters because it is here, in this time and place each week, with all of you, that I am convinced anew again and again that God’s promises really are true.

 

Again, I’m not saying that our worship makes God’s promises true. I’m saying our worship helps me believe they are true. In that way, worship is more for me, more for us, than it is for God.

 

At the same time, I also believe worship matters deeply to God, because worship is where we practice living the way God longs for us to live.

 

Here is something of what I mean by this:

 

Even a casual glance at the news in the past 48 hours wearies my soul.

 

Two Native American young men, on a tour at Colorado State University, were removed because a woman on the same tour was nervous, and called the police. She was in the wrong, but they suffered the consequences.

 

More and more immigrants who reside in this country legally are being stripped of their Temporary Protected Status, and more and more families have been separated from their children at the borders of this country.

 

The Nobel Prize for Literature won’t be given out this year because the Swedish Academy is caught up in a “crisis of confidence” following a hailstorm of accusations, including but not limited to sexual misconduct.

 

And walking down 75th Street the other day, I overheard a young woman crying on the phone after her boyfriend broke up with her by text message, saying, “Have a nice life, but it won’t be with me.”

 

That last one may not be as grievous an act as the others, but it reiterates the same point: by and large, we humans do not always treat each other very well.

 

In the midst of those moments, it is harder to believe in the promises of God. It is harder to believe that there will be a day when all will be made right, because we are swimming in evidence to the contrary.

 

And that is why I need worship.

 

Because a central point of worship is this—because God is God of all people, of all creation—because as the psalmist puts it, “all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God,” when we come together to worship God, we pray for, care for, and care about all people.

 

So, we come in here to practice doing exactly that. We practice saying I’m sorry, I was wrong, and asking for forgiveness. We practice sharing peace with other another, literally wishing the peace of Christ to be with everyone whose path we cross. We practice listening, and praying. We practice lifting our voices together in shared song and common creed, declaring that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” We practice sharing a meal, allowing ourselves to be fed, and taking the time to feed others. We practice reminding one another that we are children of God, recipients of God’s grace. We practice giving away some of what we have, and we practice saying thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

When we worship, we practice living the way God wishes for us to live, treating one another the way God wishes for us to treat one another. When we come together every week, we are reminded who God is and how God loves and what God wants for us. We are drawn into the presence of something — someONE — bigger than ourselves. We are drawn into the embrace of the God who makes known his victory, who remembers with steadfast love and faithfulness all the ends of the earth, who says I am coming again, to make all things right. So, we practice acting not as if we have the answers to all that is wrong in the world, but acting as if we understand how much those things matter to God, and, therefore, how much they should matter to us.

 

All of which is to say, when we worship, we practice loving God and loving like God. Which means, I suppose, that worship is less about what we get out of it, and more about what we put into it. And we show up and do it again every Sunday, because, eventually, the muscle memory of our hearts will kick in, and we will love that way on Monday and Tuesday and every other day, too, right up until the arrival of God’s promised day.

 

——————

They were just father and son. They had both been President once, both once held the most powerful office in the world, but in that moment, when they entered that sanctuary, they weren’t defined by who they were or what they had or had not accomplished. They were defined only by who they loved.

 

We all need a place like that, don’t we? It is my prayer, my fervent hope, that we will be like that, every time we gather. Because if we can be like that in here (gesture to church), that will make a difference in here (hand on heart), which means it will make a difference out there (point to doors).

 

[1] This insight and phrasing comes from my friend and colleague, Rev. Tom Are, Jr.