Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Why Worship?

          As we enter into this highly ritualized season, this time of extra worship, and very particular worship—whole days dedicated to entry into Jerusalem, foot washing and meal, gathering around the cross, waiting and storytelling, and of course tonight, confession and ashes.
          As we enter into all of this, and as we feel the readings, especially from Isaiah and Matthew, rub against the rituals of worship and the disciplines of Lent
—it is worth asking the very basic question, Why Worship?

          When I say “Why Worship?” I’m being rather broad, not just why here in this building, but also I’m talking about our Lenten Disciplines.
Why, for example, participate in prayer partners,
why choose a practice from the Instead of Me Tree,
why collect food for the two Food Pantries we support?
          And there are two answers you might give me. The first, the same answer as Isaiah’s society, the second more inline with Jesus’ description of cultivating treasures in heaven.

          The first is that we worship to discharge a duty,
do a thing so we’re done with it and can forget it forever…
this answer would be a sort of show spirituality, ultimately an act of insincerity.
          Consider Isaiah’s description of a society in which faith is given a lot of lip service
—people play humble, but don’t notice the humiliated,
fast but instead of feeling for those who do not have enough food, they fight and fix the incomes of the poor so they continue to go hungry.
          It’s a society that is outwardly religious, but is in fact faking it,
so self centered the hungry and homeless are hated,
even members of one’s own family forgotten.
It is a society that looks like a spiritual oasis, but once you get up close is a mirage.

          Similarly Jesus hears piety pumped out of a bullhorn.
Alms given to get praise,
prayers said to be seen,
fasts kept to receive commendation.
          I’ve heard tell from friends who get grants from the government  to do good, that when you talk religion to Senator Cory Booker, one of our two senators, he responds:
 “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people;
before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all His children;
before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors.
In the end, I'm not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as in how you choose to live and give.” And he’s not wrong.
          If our answer to the question “Why Worship” is:
to be done with it
—to ritually do a good thing so you don’t actually have to go out into the world and face it as it is, and do what you can to better it and live faithfully in it
—then we ought to be ashamed.

          But, if a simple discharge of duty isn’t our answer to the question “Why Worship?” but instead Worship is about Discipline
If Worship is practice.
If we’re doing these rituals here, to strengthen us our there,
If worship is strength training for the soul by the Holy Spirit
—if we do ritual so we can to do it regularly,
to bring our practice out into the rest of our lives
—if our dismissal causes us to go forth and serve God and neighbor
Then maybe we’re getting somewhere.

          Why Worship? Because it is part of an ongoing cycle of life… the cycle of Practice, Participation, Frustration, and back to Practice,
Participation, Frustration,
Practice, Participation, Frustration!

          Consider this evening right now:
Tonight we practice
we admit that we are immoral and that we are mortal. We confess together our faults, we receive the reality of our limited nature,
touched with dust.
          And we’re sent out, participating
living out this reality, more aware of our shortcomings, more aware as well of our neighbor being in that same spot. And we are gentler with one another because of it.
          We’re sent out, the dust and ash imposed on our brow, even long after it has blown away, it is there, and we are there in it, taking more seriously our moments, savoring our time here on earth all the more.

          Eventually though there will be frustration
these are hard things to bear, especially as the days wear on, as signs of sin and death take hunks out of us…
Think of Paul, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, dishonor, treated as imposters, punished, sorrowful, poor, impoverished…
that’s gotta wear you down…
It’s like that Springsteen Song says: In the end what you don't surrender. Well the world just strips away.”
          And that’s why we come back, again, to practice…
gathered and sent, gathered and sent… so that we might endure faithfully.

          Why worship?
          Never to hide, never to stunt our sacred duty to God and neighbor. Never that.
          Why worship?
          That we might endure, that we might follow faithfully, and when we fall, find ourselves held by the Spirit, nurtured, and sent out again.