"Just How Important Is Worship?"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 21, 2003

Psalm 22:22-31; I Timothy 2:1-10


     This morning begins our Stewardship emphasis for next year's spending plan.  Rather than have a series of minute people talk to you about key areas of our faith community, this year the Stewardship Committee decided to give me the honor.   

     For a number of Sundays, we are going to cover Worship, Missions and Education.  We are going to hear how these elements are critical to human life.  This morning, I am going to talk about why Worship is absolutely essential to the quality of our lives. 

     In the narthex, you will find two large posters that contain interesting information. One of them provides a break out of what happens to a single dollar that is given to St. Matthew’s.  You will see that 39 cents goes toward our Sunday morning experience. I found that absolutely beyond comprehension.  How could that be possible? Yet when a formula was applied to how people and resources are used, it worked out to that amount. 

     With that said, let us begin our look at worship by saying that congregations everywhere today are a tough crowd.  When people find a worship experience not to their liking, they often do not give that church a second opportunity "to impress them."  People church shop and church hop all the time. The denomination no longer matters. Seekers are looking for a particular style of worship with which they resonate, and many of them know  immediately whether or not they will come back.  Decisions can be that spontaneous.    

     The culture right now in the United States has conditioned its citizens to be this way. We want personal satisfaction at nearly every level of life. If a person gets poor service at a dry cleaners, for example, they will find another one.  If the service is poor in a restaurant, they may not come back.  We have grown quite accustomed to getting what we want.  Since churches are everywhere in Bowie and the menu in each is varied, people will self-select. 

      In early America, there were not many choices.  People came to church for reasons other than self-satisfaction. Church was not a place to be spiritually entertained but to have life challenged to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ and to be engaged in mission in some form every day.               

     Think about this. What would your life be like today if you could have controlled what you studied from the first grade through the secondary level of your education?  You could pick your teachers and if there was something about the teacher that you did not particularly care for, you could select another class. 

     That is not how education works.  Whether we like it or not, we are exposed to the disciplines of Geography, English, i.e., grammar, reading and writing,  Mathematics, History, Physical Education, Music, Art Appreciation, Foreign Languages and maybe recess.  When it comes to our religious life, a number of us choose what appears familiar and comfortable.  The right "code words" have to be used during the worship service for us to feel at home. 

     Some people would rather be told who God is instead of being challenged to come to their own conclusions. Some people would rather listen to sensitive discourses on prayer and forgiveness  than actually engage in the behavior.  Some people would much rather pay attention to fascinating Biblical accounts than to examine where their faith may be a little thin.  Self selection often draws us to our comfort levels rather  than to mastering the challenges we face every day.   

     Because Church attendance is something we choose to do, we can easily create excuses for not participating. "The service is boring."  "We do not know the hymns."  "We find the sermons are beyond our grasp or they do not engage us with anything substantive."  "We would rather be at the gym with our friends or getting 'our batteries charged' on the tennis court because Monday morning is coming." 

     One of my favorite stories deals with two men who were playing golf together on a Sunday morning.  One of them said, "I should be in church." The other said, "Why?  I used to go but I found it to be the most useless hour of my life.  I never got anything out of it and I could never remember a single thing that was said, read or sung.  Why blow an hour of your life when you can be out here in God's creation on these lovely greens?" 

     His friend said, "From time to time I experience the same thing as you did.  Not every service is useful to me, but being there does something for me that I can't describe."  His friend said, "Humor me!  You feel guilty for being in church but you can’t tell me how you benefit from it?” 

     After they played another couple of holes his friend finally responded, "I've been married for 47 years to the same woman.  During that time I am sure that I have eaten more than 32,000 meals that she prepared.  For the life of me, I cannot remember even two percent of what she served me during all those years.  All I can tell you is that I would not be here playing golf with you without the nourishment those meals provided." 

     Nourishment is one issue.  Another issue is when we cannot pay attention. Ministers can become discouraged when people sleep in the pews Sunday after Sunday.  When it comes to listening to prayers, Scriptures, anthems and sermons, a number of persons close their eyes every Sunday and their heads bob and weave. What benefit does the person gain from sitting in a pew when they cannot remember anything when the service is over? This is an excellent question.  

     I will now tell you more than I know.  There is a part of us that never sleeps.  Think about this.  Who is awake when you are dreaming?  Who is tuned in when a mother suddenly sits up in bed in her Chicago home because she just witnessed her son being shot in Iraq. She knows he is only wounded. Later in the week, when she and her husband received the official news, that very day and time were confirmed as the exact moment when the incident occurred. There have been numerous reports of this interesting phenomenon in every war.  What do these experiences mean?  How did she know about her son when she was sound asleep? 

     A colleague of mine had a patient in a Baltimore hospital when he was the pastor of Towson United Methodist Church.  A parishioner of his was dying of cancer and she was in a deep coma.  Nothing could have aroused her.  Steve and a duty nurse, who also belonged to his church, closed the door.  They held her hands and they sang a duet of "How Great Thou Art."  When they finished singing, tears were flowing from both eyes of their friend. Who was the listener in that comatose body?  What I am saying to you is that while some of us cannot stay focused, there is a part of us that is being nourished anyway. 

     Each of us is inexplicably connected with God and our beliefs have nothing to do with that reality.  When we feed our spirits, they devour everything.  When we do not feed them and the link between ourselves and God is not stimulated or nourished, our spirits will communicate, "I am lonely and bored with the routines of my life.  No one understands me.  I am not getting the love that I need. I am just marking time with my life. I can't shake this sense of dread and doom."  We do not know why our spirits do this.  Perhaps this is the only way they know how to say, "Feed me. I'm starving."   

     We can watch the news.  We read dog-eared magazines as we wait in the doctor's office.  We pick up the Post or Times and reflect on what we read.  We can be as well informed about world events as we want to be.  Who is taking care of the world we cannot see?  This invisible world fuels our motivation, enthusiasm, understanding, confidence and hope.     

     Our lesson this morning is a personal letter from Paul to a young man named Timothy. In it he described how worship should be experienced. "First of all,” Paul wrote, “I urge that petitions, prayers, requests, and thanksgiving be offered to God for all people, for rulers and all others who are in authority, that we may live a quiet and peaceful life with all reverence toward God and with proper conduct."  Paul urged the early followers of Jesus to come together in prayer and to examine the content of their lives. 

     We get an image from Paul that one of the opportunities given to those who worship is that the key relationship between God and people is kept in tact.  When we lose that perspective, something else will be governing the direction of our lives. Jesus described what happens when the branch is no longer connected to the vine.  We slowly wither and many of us do not know why. 

     A number of us have been there.  It seems like an endless aching need, a dark night of the soul or a sense of having meaningless lives, and these feelings will not go away.  Or, we may go to great lengths to protect our identity which has become fragile and easily upset. Many of us cannot identify the source of our irritability and increased lack of patience.  Only when we become attached again to the vine do we realize what has been missing. 

     One of the best stories that Jesus told was his Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Every component in that story can happen in our lives. The lure of fame and fortune, our enjoyment of a good party atmosphere, and then the emptiness, the starvation, the desire to return to what has substance and the love we receive when we follow through and come home. 

     Each time we have a power failure that lasts for days, we are reminded that something vital is missing in our lives.  We go into the bathroom and automatically flip the switch.  Nothing works.  People whose water supply comes from a well experience their dependence on electricity  more than the rest of us.  We take it for granted.  We assume that power for living is always going to be there until a day comes when it is not.   

     This is the way it is with the worship experience and the linkage it provides to our Creator.  We take it for granted.  Some of us assume that we can take worship or leave it.  Some of us have been away so long that we never knew anything was missing.  Yet in recent years we begin to notice that nothing works as well.  We may be successful but there is an awareness that something is missing.  Our spirit is saying, "Feed me!" but it comes packaged in a form we do not readily associate our relationship with God as being the missing part.                

     God would be the first to tell us: 

It is really okay to do exactly what you want to do with your life, but if you let go of my hand while we are walking together at the carnival, you may not easily find me again.  You will go from the balloon man to the merry-go-round then on to the ferris wheel. You will stop by the hot dog and funnel cake vendors and be distracted by the clowns.  When it is time to go home, you will suddenly realize how on your own you have been.

     When the spirit is fed, wisdom comes from a source the origin of which we cannot define. The way we perceive life is focused through a prism that was being formed while we thought we slept in the pew.  Result areas suddenly appear out of nowhere that may be absent in the lives of those who spent a lot of their time enjoying the environment provided by the carnival. 

     Worship just may be the only source of nourishment that we receive during the course of a week.  There is no substitute for coming together with others and remembering who designed us, who walks beside us and who will be there when the curtain comes down on our little drama.   

     Thirty-nine cents of every dollar gives us the components of an environment where our faith community gathers. It is worth it!  We all have a responsibility to remember with our tithes just how important St. Matthew's is to us.  Our church family helps feed the world within us that no one can see. It is that world of spirit that radiates who we are. Soon it will be time for us to remember and express financially how important that 39 cents of every dollar really is to us.      

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    We thank you, O God, that your love is eternal and changeless.  We thank you for coming to us, even though our lives often reflect crosscurrents in the way we express our discipleship.  We know that understanding truth does not always give us the courage to live it.  We know how easily we can be careless with our opinions.  We know we often allow the hurts in our past to guide present decisions.  We know that being right is often more important than being kind.  We know the times when we greet conflict with silence and avoidance.  Yet you have called us to represent you in the world.  We welcome the challenge to be your hands and feet, to pass on to others the torch of understanding and to become the bridge over troubled waters.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    We find ourselves living in time, O God, and we know that for you there is only the current moment.  We find that so hard to comprehend.  We live in a world where life constantly changes.  As we find ourselves moving from one day to the next, we become aware that our adventures never cease.  Hurricane winds topple trees, the costal regions experience storm surges, rivers spill over their banks and into homes and our loss of electricity helps us identity with people in parts of the world who have never had it. 

    How grateful we are that we have each other.  How wonderful it is to see people pulling together to keep stores and restaurants open, to see neighbors helping neighbors, to see electrical linemen from so many jurisdictions helping to get our homes and businesses energized again.  How wonderful it is to be here so that once again, you might nourish and feed a part of our world that no one can see.  Thank you for your love which is everywhere and, in these days, quite visible.    

    Even though life changes constantly for us, help us never to loose sight of our need to remain tethered to you.  It is so easy to become discouraged when the changes of the external world never stop.  We are amazed at how focused and peaceful we remain when we know who it is that walks beside us.  Help us never forget this simple fact that makes all the difference in the world.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .