Texts: John 4: 1-15, 21-26

The Elements of Worship: What’s Worthy of Our Deepest Attention?

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           “You might be an ambassador to England or France.  You might like to gamble, you might like to dance.  You might be the heavyweight champion of the world.  You might be a socialite with a long string of pearls.  But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  It might the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  So says Bob Dylan in his 1979 gospel song “Gotta Serve Somebody.”  It’s a simple song, and I don’t necessarily love the dualism of serving either the devil or the Lord.  But it makes an important point.  Dylan closes his shows with that song these days, and it’s a potent reminder that one way or another, each of us is going to wind up serving, worshiping, something.  Best be clear about what it is, Dylan seems to be saying, and to make sure it’s worthy of your attention, your devotion, your life.  No matter how much money you have, no matter your social position, no matter your life experiences, no matter what, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

            Since January, I’ve invited us all to think through the various aspects of our worship services here in Old Lyme.  It’s an emphasis that emerged after I spent ten days in Cuba witnessing the rituals and music of several African derived religious expressions, known as Santeria and Palo.  I was in Haiti this past week, and I had the privilege of visiting a temple dedicated to Vodou, another African derived expression.  Their devotion, their worship, was beautiful to observe, and inspiring as well, which winds up bringing me back to our own practices.  I want all of us to understand the beauty, and the depth, of what we do in this place week after week. 

Two weeks ago I spoke about the role of music in our services, and why we always begin as we do – with the music of the prelude, followed by an anthem, or a hymn.  It’s because of a need to prioritize beauty in our lives, insisting that within the ruthless furnace of the world, we have a powerful need for pleasure and enjoyment if we are to remain human.  And so we begin with artistic expression.  You might like music, or you might be indifferent to it.  You might like the kind of music we hear and perform around here, or you might prefer other kinds of music.  Whatever your personal preferences, those moments symbolize the deep human need for artistic expressions if we are to capture the fullness of our living.  However you find it, those elements of our worship are an invitation to spend a portion of each of our days lost in the pleasure of our senses – sound, sight, taste, you name it.

            But note that while we begin with music, and while we end there as well, there’s a lot more that happens after the opening hymn is over.  That’s because as important as aesthetics, the pursuit of beauty and pleaure, might be, we become something less than we’re meant to be when we remain in the aesthetic realm for too long.  At best, we simply remain shallow.  At worst, we become monstrous.  There are reports of American soldiers liberating German concentration camps, and finding the commanders of those camps reading Goethe and listening to Beethoven, absorbed in beauty and oblivious to the suffering around them.  So too we might think of the famous lives of libertines or aesthetes – the Don Giovannis and Marquis de Sades of the world, who turn feelings of pleasure and pain into the sole governing principle of their lives.  But you don’t need to go to extremes to witness that dynamic.  How many people do you know who use art – music, painting, film, tv, theater, dance – as a means of avoiding ethical considerations, a way of hiding from the depth dimension of existence.  It’s possible, in other words – indeed, it’s all too common, to be culturally sophisticated, but shallow of soul, committed to little more than pleasure, and avoiding its opposite.

            That’s why the call to worship is so very important in our worship services.  It might seem like a harmless little litany, spoken half-heartedly every week after our opening hymn.  The language, I know, can sometimes obscure the enormity of what we’re doing in that moment.  It can, I recognize, feel formal or stilted, unlike the way we actually speak in our day to day lives.  However imperfect the language, it actually points to something far deeper, and far more expansive, than the words themselves might be able to capture.  Beneath the particular language we might use from week to week, the call is a summons to reflect on what is most worthy of our devotion, and of our deepest and sustained attention.  The call to worship is a weekly opportunity to consider where our priorities actually lie, and to align ourselves with that mysterious presence in the world that gives energy, rather than taking it, a presence that strengthens our souls rather than diminishing them.  It is an invitation to concentrate upon that which enhances our sense of human interdependence, that which leads toward a greater sense of responsibility, justice, and mercy.  The call to worship is a summons to each of us to insure that our hearts and minds are well oriented, because there’s an awful lot calling for our attention, our respect, our time, and our devotion.  We’re gonna serve somebody, after all.

            David Foster Wallace is among my very favorite contemporary writers.  And his great novel Infinite Jest stands as one of the very best theological reflections I know about the activity of worship.  It’s also the most pleasurable books I’ve ever read – it makes you work, sometimes very hard, but it’s worth it.  The basic idea of the book is this: that human beings are, fundamentally, creatures who worship.  To be human is to long to give ourselves to something, to hand over our freedom to an organization or a religion, to politics or a nation, to money, to an ideology, to a game, or an entertainment, or a needle or a bottle.  The object itself is incidental to the will to give oneself away.

            One character puts it like this.  The word “fanatic,” he says, derives from the Latin word for temple, fanum.  In its most literal sense, a fanatic is simply a worshiper at a temple.  The person continues: “Our attachments are our temple, what we worship.  What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.  Are we not all of us fanatics?  Who teaches your children how to choose their temple?  For this choice determines all else.  All other of our so called ‘free’ choices follow from this: what is our temple?”[1]

             We all spend our days in worship, of something or other.  Here’s how another character in Infinite Jest describes the attachments, which is to say, the faith, the temple practices of many North Americans.  “We want choice,” this person says.  “To be loved by someone.  To freely love who you happen to love.  To feel valued.  Not to be despised.  To have good neighborly relations.  Cheap and abundant energy.  Pride in work, family, and home.  Access to transport.  Good digestion.  Work saving appliances.  Reliable waste removal and disposal.  Sunsets over the Pacific.  A tall lemonade on a squeak free porch swing.  The loyalty of a domestic pet.  High quality entertainment.”[2]

Hearing that list, some of you might be thinking, “Well, what’s wrong with that?  I happen to like those things.”  I’m with you.  I do too.  But I want to push at this a little bit, because it all amounts to classical utilitarianism in action, which is a hollow simulacrum of Christian faith.  Utilitarianism is this: one lives one’s life simply by maximizing pleasure, and minimizing displeasure.  So on that understanding, the good can be defined as that which yields the greatest amount of pleasure, while minimizing its opposite. 

I can’t say for you, but I suspect that definition actually nails how worship actually works for many of us in our daily lives.  We chase the good, which amounts to maximizing pleasure, and minimizing displeasure.  We then bless and sanctify that which creates pleasure, saying that it’s “of God,” and then condemn, or desanctify, that which doesn’t.  The particular objects that fulfill or don’t fulfill that pleasure are interchangeable.  But the chase, the worship, the investment of faith in a particular “temple,” of maximizing pleasure, is not.  Not only that, by operating in such a way, we’re never encouraged to reflect upon what happens when maximalizing our own pleasure is actually the source of other people’s profound displeasure, their suffering.  We do, after all, serve something, somebody, and too often it renders us shallow, and superficial.

            A call to worship seeks to address and intervene within that dynamic.  It seeks to name that which stands above, beyond, or outside of the feelings of pleasure and pain we might feel, or our attachments to finite goods.  But it also seeks to connect us to the rest of the world, to the human, to the ordinary struggles that people like us, and not like us, are facing in their lives.  Every week, we follow a differing litany that ends with these words: let us worship God.  What do we mean when we say those words?  And why do we repeat them every single week?  What is to worship God, as opposed to the limited goods that we so often seek?

            Jesus sheds light on the question of worship, including the call to worship, when he spoke to the woman at the well in our Scripture reading for the morning.  She’s a wonderful character, because she’s so recognizable.  She’s moved from pleasure to pleasure throughout her life, without ever finding a core to her existence.  Somehow, Jesus correctly observes that she has had five husbands thus far, and he notes further that she is currently living with a sixth.  The well from which she draws sustenance for her life is shallow, and she knows it.  Like many of us, she confesses that she has no idea how to find deeper water – I have no bucket, and the well is deep, she says.

It’s at that point that the conversation turns to the question of worship.  “You worship what you do not know,” Jesus tells her.  He’s not telling her that she worships the Unknown, or the Mysterious.  His point, rather, is akin to the one made by David Foster Wallace.  The woman’s life is already conducted as a long act of worship.  She’s already in a self fashioned temple, only she’s not aware of it.  And it seems to be draining her.  She suggests a way of going deeper, naming some prominent places of worship – a sacred mountain, a sacred city, as if to suggest that perhaps, if she went to one of those places, she could access the deeper water, the deeper life, that she seeks.  We know something about that as well – if only I lived here, if only I could be there, if only I were a part of this group, movement, club or university, my life would be fulfilled.  But Jesus keeps pushing.  “God is spirit, and those who worship (God) must worship in spirit and in truth.”  Which is to say, it’s not about where you are or who you’re with.  It’s about getting yourself right internally.  To which the woman responds by saying that she knows the Christ is coming, who will proclaim these things.  “I am he,” Jesus tells her. 

Two insights follow from that conversation, and they have everything to do with those four simple words we speak every Sunday: let us worship God.  On one hand, God is spirit.  In Hebrew, the word is ruach, which means breath, or wind.  In Greek, the word is pneuma, which has a similar meaning – that invisible life force that we can neither see nor touch, but that we all take in, and take out, thousands of times every day.  It isn’t found in a particular place.  It doesn’t belong to a particular people.  It can’t be bought, or sold.  Nor – let us say it explicitly – is God a proper name.  That which we designate with the word “God” stands outside of every religion, ideology, or tradition.  Every living creature participates in it, draws upon it, and depends upon it.  It is that which animates us, connects us, and enlivens us.  To worship God, in other words, is to be freed from the chase, freed from the incessant pursuit of this or that limited good.  It is to be given the freedom simply to be, and to realize that what we most deeply need, what we most deeply desire, is already near at hand.  It is as near to us as our breath.  Let us worship God is a way of saying, “just breathe, just be.”  That will be enough.

But there’s more.  The conversation ends with a confession of Jesus as being the Christ, and that too is crucial.  You see, it can be hard to worship something abstract, like spirit, or breath.  Some people can, but many of us need something a little more concrete.  And so to the answer of what God might be like, beyond the abstraction of breath, some thoughtful and faithful people across the centuries have said, well, God might be an awful lot like a human being, not unlike you, or me – one who draws breath.  More than that, God might be an awful lot like this specific person, Jesus of Nazareth.  To be with him, for many people, was like drawing oxygen after suffocating.  He was in love with the people around him.  He understood their drives, their passions, and their struggles, and he cared for them wherever they were.  He challenged the occupying military powers of his day, and he was impatient, hostile even, to those who used the name of God to control and manipulate other lives.  He saw the ways human beings were deformed and debased by both tendencies – nation and religion – and he sought to free us from it.  To be so freed was to feel like breathing deeply again after a weight has been removed from your chest.  Finally, he was a man of sorrow, afflicted by the pains of the world, willing to suffer and even to die to bring people to their senses, to help them breathe again in freedom.  That’s why people of faith see God in other suffering bodies, and in other suffering lives.  In Jesus, we know that God is there, especially there, and that too helps us to breathe deeply, in the assurance that we are not alone.  Let us worship God, then, is a statement connecting us to other bodies, and other lives, noting the presence of God in human life.

Both of those impulses free us from the solipsism of pleasure and pain.  Both of those impulses deepen us, moving us beyond mere beauty and its absence.  For some among us, I know, the name of Jesus has been damaged beyond repair by the Fundagelical Right, and by the sordid list of atrocities committed in the name of Jesus for centuries.  If that’s you, then perhaps the call to worship, where God is simply spirit, breath, is what you need.  You don’t need to chase the divine.  You don’t need to acquire this or that, belong to this or that, or do anything at all really.  You simply need to breathe.  And God is there.

But for those of us who can still hear the name Jesus without a shudder, we can also know that the call to worship, that statement, let us worship God, is calling us toward other people, other bodies, who are often in pain.  That call connects us to other human lives, in whom we sense a trace of the divine.  And it draws us into lives of responsibility, where justice and human rights – commitments beyond utilitarianism, beyond the feelings of pleasure and pain – are discovered and pursued.  That’s what it means to drink water from a deeper well.  That’s what it means to grow roots that are deep.

  It turns out that Bob Dylan had it right.  You do have to serve somebody.  The call to worship that we speak every week is a reminder of that, an invitation to consider just how, and toward whom, our lives are oriented.  We began today with the call to worship.  We’ll end there as well, this time as an affirmation:

We are children of God:
Called to praise, and to bless, and to show mercy.
We are citizens of the world:
Called to care, and to respond, and to share our common struggles.
We are members of a community: 
Called to know each other, and to accept each other, and to welcome everyone.
We belong to God, and through God, to one another.
So may our hearts be as one.  Let us worship God.  Amen.

[1] Wallace, David Foster, Infinite Jest, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996), pgs. 106-107.

[2] Ibid, pg. 423.