God is still speaking . . .

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
Epiphany 6B (2 Kings 5:1-14), February 15 2009

Bell rings.
A song.
A song.
Go Home.
{repeat next week}

I don’t know about you, but sometimes for me worship becomes a series of steps that are so well-rehearsed and well-known that I sometimes forget to participate. I mean, of course, I show up! I’m the priest after all. Someone has to hit the “Play” button of our Sunday morning worship. Somebody has to make it all start. But once it begins, I can step back a bit. I can even daydream a little. In the Episcopal Church, our liturgy – with all its beauty and with all its well-thought-out depth of meaning and balance between the Word and the Sacrament – with all of that – our liturgy can become deadly. Our liturgy – our songs, our prayers, our worship of God – can become empty. Our liturgy can become so comfortable (I know that’s hard to believe for those of you who are new to the church), but really, our liturgy can become so comfortable that we forget. We forget that we are here, not because of some obligation – or worse – not because we can think of nothing better to do on a Sunday morning; no, we are here because we want to worship the living God of our faith.

The living God of our faith – a God who can shape us, a God who wants to shape us, a God who shows up every Sunday morning at St. Barnabas and each week at churches, synagogues, and mosques around the world hoping and praying that this will be the week that we will remember why we are here, that this will be the week that we will remember that God is here, that this will be the week we remember that our worship is not about “getting it right” – hitting all the right notes, praying all the right words, wearing the right thing, being seen by the right people – in short, that this will be the week we remember that our worship is not about us. Our worship is not about us. It is about God. And week after week, God shows up to transform our lives, to show us that the God of our faith is indeed a living God. And week after week, we hit the “play” button of our Sunday morning worship and sit back expecting absolutely nothing.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, we heard the story of Naaman – a great man! – the commander of the army of the king of Aram. Despite his greatness, we learn, however, that Naaman, has leprosy. At the urging of his wife, he travels to Israel to be cured. And through a series of messages from the king of Aram to the king of Israel and from him to Elisha, the man of God, Naaman receives a message from Elisha telling him “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” And Naaman gets angry because surely for such a great man as himself, Elisha would come and meet him personally. Surely for this wonderful commander of the army of the king of Aram, Elisha would “come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” And Naaman almost leaves Israel without a cure because of his pride. But for the humble and wise words of his servants, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” And so, for these wise words, Naaman does what Elisha bid him do and he is cured. Naaman’s pride gets in his way of hearing God speaking through the words of Elisha. Naaman wants a great show worthy of his importance, worthy of his place in the world. Naaman wants God on Naaman’s terms and is unable, at first, to accept God’s grace and God’s healing, on God’s terms. Naaman’s pride gets in his way.

When we come to worship, what gets in our way?

While we were on vacation this past week in the Berkshires, we drove past several congregational churches – The United Church of Christ – one of the most prevalent Christian denominations in Massachusetts. And at most of these churches, a huge banner hung outside that said, “God is still speaking, are you listening?”[i] What a powerful statement – “God is still speaking!” and what a powerful question – “Are you listening?”

As a priest – as a leader of a worshipping community - I need constantly to be aware of the passion at the heart of what we do when we gather for worship. I also need to be aware that my role in worship is just that, a role – one role among many. Anthony has a role as well and, of course, the choir, the readers, the servers, the altar guild, the sexton. . . and on and on . . . each has a role. But in this one hour on Sunday morning, my role, the priest’s role is not the primary role. Does that surprise you?

In the middle of the 19th century, philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard described worship as a theatre where the congregation are the chief actors, the priest is the prompter and God is the audience.[ii] According to Kimberly Long, a Presbyterian minister and a presenter at the Calvin Symposium on Worship I attended at the end of January, the best models of worship – like Kierkegaard’s - clearly show the congregation as the primary actors and the priest, the presider, as the servant of this assembly. [iii] Let’s think about this. You are gathered here this morning – not randomly. You didn’t each get out of bed today and get in your cars or decide to take a walk with no sense of your destination. No, you purposefully made a decision to come here, to be at 13 W. Bates Avenue for this service of worship. You came here with the intent of being a community, assembled for the work of worship. And my role, my role as priest or presider, is to be a part of that community, to be a part of the assembly gathered for the work of worship; and to be called out from that community to facilitate, at times; to lead, at times; to prompt, at times; to announce, to rejoice, to celebrate, to worship. I am here to assume a role as your priest and to remain authentic to who I am and to offer you the best that I have and to worship – just as each of you, are here to assume your roles as worshippers, as authentic selves, offering the best that you have – as we come together as a community to worship the living God of our faith.

On my part, there have been times when I have failed in my role. Times when I have gotten in the way of our ability to worship together by letting the words become just words, by getting overly confident – so poised, so polished, so charismatic (well, maybe not that much!), by getting bored because I’ve said the words so many times. . . . by excusing myself from worshipping by saying, “I can’t worship while I lead worship.” In short, by forgetting that what we are doing here, right now, together. . . is not about me.

What are some of the ways in which you have fallen short in your role, in your role as worshippers who intentionally come together to actively engage the living God of our faith? Are you here because you feel obligated? Are you here because you need to talk to someone that you knew would be here this morning? Are you here because you could think of nothing better to do today? Are you here because your mom or your dad or your friend made you come and, in reality, you would rather be curled up in bed? Sadly, I think many of us have forgotten why we are here, have forgotten what worship is about. Because, just as worship is not about me, my friends, it is also not about you. Our worship is about the living God – the living God who is here with us, in this place, right now, wanting nothing more and nothing less than the opportunity to transform our lives. So are you here because you feel obligated or are you here because you desire nothing more and nothing less than this life-changing encounter with God?

“God is still speaking . . . . .
are we listening?”

[i] According to the United Church of Christ’s official website,

“the Stillspeaking Ministry was initiated in 2004 as a proclamation, identity and communication effort designed to: Speak to the alienated, the un-churched and those seeking a spiritual home; Let people know that “No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."; Embrace a common brand and theme that would enable the United Church of Christ to be instantly recognizable to those both within and outside the denomination. . . . Since Stillspeaking was launched, more than 2,500 churches, representing 60% of all United Church of Christ members, have joined the Stillspeaking movement.”

[ii] Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing, Trans. Douglas Steere (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948) pp.180-181.
[iii] For my discussion of Kierkegaard, “best models” of worshipping communities, and the role of the presider, I am grateful to Kimberly Long’s worskshop at the Calvin Symposium on Worship 2009, “Leading Worship with Style and Grace,” January 31, 2009, Grand Rapids, Michigan.