When I heard the news about the atrocity at the marathon, my first inclination was to change this week’s sermon topic. These are the moments when collective trauma demands a response from the pulpit. I’ve done it before, especially after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT. My first thought was that I should diverge from our current series on the Great Ends of the Church and use our time together this morning to offer words of healing.
But then I remembered something that happened to me on September 11, 2001. I was a senior in college then. It was a Tuesday and I was late to my 11 o’clock class. I didn’t usually turn on the news in the morning, so I had no idea what was going on in the world. I remember looking over my shoulder as I rushed past a conference room and seeing a group of people huddled around a television and there on the screen was the image that would forever be burned into my consciousness: the burning towers of the World Trade Center. I immediately stopped in my tracks, walked back, and sat down with the others in the conference room to take in what was happening. Needless to say, I never made it to class that day.
The next day, I went to see my professor, Dr. Hauser, and apologized for missing class. He had a strict attendance policy and I wanted to explain why I had missed class. “I understand,” he said, “but your absence will still count against you.” When I asked him why he wouldn’t excuse my absence, Dr. Hauser said these words, which I will remember for the rest of my life: “Because the goal of terrorism is to disrupt and I refuse to allow them to accomplish that goal, so far as my class is concerned.”
And so, borrowing a page from Dr. Hauser’s book, I have decided that I will not give the Tsarnaev brothers the pleasure of disrupting our church service this morning. We’re going to continue with our regularly scheduled sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church. In fact, their actions will only serve to illustrate my point, as you’ll soon see.
This week is the third in a six-week series on the Great Ends of the Church. We’re using this old Presbyterian document to answer the question, “Why does the Church exist?” On the first week, Easter Sunday, we said the first Great End of the Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” Last week, we said the second Great End of the Church is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” And this week, we’re saying the third Great End of the Church is “the maintenance of divine worship.”
I actually think today is the perfect Sunday to talk about worship because it is moments of crisis, like this one, that so often lead us to lean more heavily and stand more firmly on the foundation of our faith. When one part of our identity is attacked, we humans almost instinctively look to ground our collective sense of self in some deeper and stronger source. I think it’s no surprise that people flocked in droves to churches, mosques, and synagogues in the days after 9/11. I also think it’s no coincidence that we saw so many ecumenical and interfaith worship services going on at the same time. Even if it was just for a moment, labels like Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu were being set aside in favor of some larger reality that embraces and connects us all. This week, we’ve even got Yankees fans wearing Red Sox jerseys (which is the biggest miracle of all, if you ask me).
When we talk about worship, we’re using a word that comes from the Old English term worth-ship. We’re talking about that which has ultimate worth or value in our eyes. In worship, we direct our attention toward that which is most important to us in life. We stop for a moment to orient our little lives within the larger context of the big picture. It is from this exercise that we draw strength, hope, and courage for facing the days ahead.
Drawing from the resources of our Judeo-Christian heritage, I picked out two passages of scripture that illustrate the act of worship and its power to sustain us in times of crisis.
I’ll start with our New Testament reading. It came from the book of Revelation, at the very end of the Bible. Here we read about a vision of what worship looks like from the perspective of heaven. The author saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” The author is told that these people are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal”. Having passed through life’s hardships, they exist in a state of constant, ecstatic worship before God’s throne in heaven. As Charles Wesley wrote in his famous hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, they are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” The angel serving as the author’s celestial tour guide says:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
This is the effect that worship has on their lives. They want for nothing. They fear nothing. We’re used to thinking of passages like this one as descriptive of the afterlife, but I see no reason why we cannot experience at least a taste of that heaven in this life.
This morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel tells the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young men who refused to bow down to the idols of the society they lived in and were made to pass through the fire by the powers that be. It was their worship of God that put them at odds with the values of the dominant culture around them. They saw their lives as part of a bigger picture than the one made up of the demands and concerns of the Babylonian Empire. So, when the reigning powers of that empire demanded their allegiance, they said no. The full weight of imperial sanction was brought to bear against them, but still they refused.
When they were finally cast into the fire, the reality of their faith was vindicated as it became plain to see that these three young men were not alone in their struggle. Someone was walking through the fire with them, some mysterious person who had “the appearance of a god”, according to those who saw.
As it was with them, so it is with us. As we pass through the fires and ordeals of this life, worshiping as we go, we discover that we are not alone. Our God walks with us in the fire. As it says in the book of Revelation, God shelters us and shepherds us, guiding us toward “springs of the water of life” where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
The purpose of worship is to open our hearts and minds to this grand reality in which we live, move, and have our being. In worship, we lift our vision higher than our visibility. We look at our circumstances through the eyes of faith. We gather the fragments of our myriad little stories and lives into one Great Story told in prayer, creed, scripture, sacrament, and song.
This is why worship has the power to get us through times of crisis like the ones we lived through this week. Through it, we come to realize (or are reminded yet again) that the deepest part of ourselves is connected to the deepest part of the universe. “Deep calls out to deep,” as it says in the psalm.
We reach out to feel the bond of this deep connection in moments of crisis. What we need to do is nurture that same sense of connectedness in our regular, everyday living. That way, when crises happen, large or small, we have a well of spiritual resources from which we can draw the water of life.
Those who learn how to live from this deep center are often the very same ones who are ready, willing, and able to share their abundance of spiritual strength and compassion with others. They are the ones who can walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with them.
That’s what the worship-life of the church is here for: to nurture that strength in believers. We do it together in our weekly services of public worship, but I hope we also do it individually during the other six days of the week. This is why it’s so important to have a regular, daily practice of devotional prayer and Bible reading at home. These spiritual disciplines, far from being rote religious exercises, are as essential to the health of our souls as food and water are essential to the health of our bodies.
We need to maintain that sense of deep connection, not just during moments of crisis, not just on holidays, not just weekly, but daily.
That sense of community bonding we saw in Boston this week is available to all of us, all the time. The purpose of the church’s worshiping life is to maintain that sense of connection in the normal, boring seasons of life so that we can be ready to spring into action as heroes and leaders when these moments of crisis arise. We can face the flames unafraid because we know that our God walks through them with us.
This week, I believe we saw God walking with us through the flames. The stories of heroism, goodwill, and sacrifice cannot undo our grief and anger, but they can exist alongside it, reminding us that evil, chaos, and darkness are not, in fact, the only forces at work in this world. Furthermore, they will not have the last word. So long as there is still one good person in this world who’s willing to run toward explosions for the sake of other, wounded human beings, we know that “the light [still] shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The worshiping life of the church reminds us of this truth and seeks to grow in us that same kind of strength and compassion, in hopes that we too might become beacons of hope and justice in this world, people strengthened by faith to stand up for love and walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with us.