The Holy Spirit Invites Us to Worship

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2012 Acts 10:44-48

Let us pray. We are grateful this day, O God, for those important women in our lives, with us still or now gone from us. We think of mothers around the world, particularly those who love their children in the most challenging of circumstances. We think as well of women who would seek motherhood and are not able to share that experience. Bless them, O God, with your presence and care. Bless us as we gather here in this place. Bless our worship. As your Spirit opens the word to us, may it take root in our souls and take wing in our lives, for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


Perhaps the best moment of my sabbatical came on the first day – January 1, 2012. I was attending a local church and an usher approached me before the service. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do I know you?” I was prepared to offer an explanation of who I was, when she said, “Aren’t you a soccer coach?” Why yes, yes I am. She went on to explain that I had coached her daughter years earlier; we had a nice visit.

Perhaps the second best moment came several weeks later, on another Sunday morning. I was visiting another church and was greeted before the service. Afterward, a woman came up and introduced herself to me. She said that the usher had told me that they had a visitor, a handsome young man, and that she should be sure to say hello.

So to sum up, this handsome, young soccer coach visited 12 different churches in his 13-Sunday sabbatical. He attended a total of 14 services, plus one service at a synagogue. I am not sure I would do it that way again, but I am certainly glad I did it this time. I can say unequivocally that every experience was positive, that my spirit was touched each place I visited, that I worshipped God each time in ways that felt authentic.

I attended two Episcopal churches, one Methodist church, one Reformed church, one United Church of Christ church, one primarily African-American Baptist church, four Presbyterian churches with attendance ranging from 40 to about 800, and two churches who are not parts of denominations and who represent vastly difference places on the liturgical and theological spectrum. Several places felt very similar to this place; several felt vastly different.

I went, as I said, primarily to worship God and secondarily to learn and reflect. I can say that by stepping out of my regular rhythm I reflected on worship in a way that I rarely do, that I learned a lot about how I approach things as a worship leader and worship planner, and about how we approach things here, what it means to be a worshiping community.

So it seemed well, on a day when we think about worship and music and arts, and recognize all of those who make it happen so faithfully and effectively around here, to share a bit of that experience.

Here is what our Presbyterian Book of Order, our Constitution, says about worship: “Christian worship joyfully ascribes all praise and honor, glory and power to the triune God. In worship the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed. In worship the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world.”

Worship is who we are, what we do, the heart of our life together. But more so, it is the essence of what it means to live as a child of God, a follower of Christ. And though I believe you can worship God in many ways – walking on the beach or listening to a Bach cantata or reading the Sunday Times – those are always limited and incomplete. Since God created us in community, God calls us to community to worship.

Whether on sabbatical or not, I go to church when I am away from this place not because I am particularly holy – goodness no! – but because I would otherwise miss the gathered community, miss the opportunity to pray, to sing, to engage the word, to place my life within the larger context of communal life in God's world. I can get that in no other way, in no other place. My life is incomplete without worship, whether as the medicine I need to live each day or the guidance I need to navigate this complex world or the inspiration I need to make a difference.

I need worship. And therefore worship needs me – not God so much, but this community, any community. We need worship. We are diminished by anyone’s absence and strengthened by every person present, hearts united, voices lifted, prayers shared. And then, commissioned to depart to serve.

So I came back from my time away more convinced than ever that what we do on a Sunday morning and at other times matters a great deal, and that thinking about it a bit will help us.

I get here very early on a Sunday morning and leave after most everyone has gone, so what I miss on Sundays is seeing how many people aren’t at church, any church. I saw that for three months, and what I thought mostly wasn’t “what’s wrong with them that they aren’t at church,” but “what they are missing by not being part of some worshipping community,” and what that experience would do for them, and do for the world.

We have, of course at times, turned worship into an obligation, a burden, sometimes even a punishment. But that’s our fault, and not worship’s.

There are volumes and careers devoted to this, why and how we do what we do. There are many recent volumes analyzing what works and what doesn’t, and how the church can solve all of its problems by tweaking this or that. I can say that my mini-experiment would suggest otherwise, that the way that a church worships and the seeming health and vitality of its congregation are unrelated. I visited thriving places with traditional worship and thriving places with contemporary worship, though those very labels aren’t very helpful. In fact, most of the books and blogs I read these days do not mention worship styles at all as reasons why young people are participating in church in declining percentages. In fact, research suggests that even more traditional and ancient worship practices than ours are increasingly attractive to younger adults.

I learned in general that places seek to be visitor friendly, but are rarely fully so, that lots of things are taken for granted both in terms of content and logistics. That is to say that we should expect visitors, and not be surprised by them, and make whatever we offer as clear and evident as possible, because if it’s not clear to a first-time visitor it’s not likely to be clear to a long-term member.

In those weeks away I always valued preparedness, clarity, engagement, that whatever a church did, it sought to do it well, and with purpose. That has nothing to do with style or content. I went to services that weren’t my personal cup of tea, either in content or in style, but that I appreciated because they had their own integrity.

I learned that we often treat worship as a spectator sport; it isn’t. It is much more than a consumer experience, something you observe or watch, like a movie. Participation matters; what you invest in the experience will influence what you receive.

Music mattered a lot. The style of music offered matters less than the spirit with which it is offered. My two highlights were not sermons, which hurts me to say, but musical moments, one a choral anthem and one a congregational hymn. That’s a good reminder this morning on the power of music, both the music offered by our choirs – notice I said offered and not performed, and the music offered by the congregation, you all, the true choir.

I learned some other things.

Parking matters. A lot.
Sound and lighting makes a BIG difference.
Gluten free, soy free, nut free, dairy free communion bread is not as bad as it sounds.
One man did what he was asked to do, by reading my name on a friendship pad and introducing himself to me, using my name, after church. If he can, we can.
I learned that joy is joy and praise is praise whether in jeans and golf shirts or dresses and suits.
Formality need not be a barrier nor is informality always the most user-friendly, and vice versa.

These experiences and reflections led me to other, deeper matters.

Worship should be thoughtful, in that leaders have thought about it before hand, prepared… worshipers too.
Worship should be integrated – the spoken word, sacraments, all holding together, because we worshippers do well when have a narrative to follow.

My most significant observation, and one that bears much pondering, is about the nature of liturgy – our order of things, the elements of a service, sermons and hymns and prayers and anthems and sacraments – and the nature of community. That is to say, I could go to 101 Episcopal churches, all of whom use the Book of Common Prayer, and have 101 different experiences.

For we Presbyterians, it’s not so much what we wear – black robes and Geneva tabs or golf shirts and running shoes, or singing hymns from a hymnal versus words projected on a screen – but a focus on the centrality of the word, worship that leads to the word and then responds from it. Even sacraments, for us, are not the end of worship, but a primary way of responding to the word. In my several Presbyterian visits, I experienced that order, and freedom within that order. That’s good, I would say, a testament to the beauty of diversity, but also to the gift of order.

While worship springs forth from a history and context – in our case Presbyterian, American, Rochester – there are practices and traditions and orders that come from beyond a particular context. How do we tend faithfully and thoughtfully to that interrelationship? What makes worship Presbyterian, but also what makes worship ours?

I am mindful this morning that all of this talk about worship feels funny, like a golfer reading a book about golf rather than hitting the course. Every once in a while, a little reflection might be good, even reflection that incorporates singing and praying.

If I learned any one thing on my little sojourn, it is that regardless of style or content, big or little, plain or fancy, black or white, liberal or conservative, if the Spirit is present in the midst of the community, then worship is authentic, and it feeds the people as they seek to serve God.

We Presbyterians who aren’t quite sure what to do with the Spirit need to remember that, that the Spirit isn’t about emotional response – though it can be – it is about authentic response, response that captures the spirit, engages the heart, challenges the head – all in gathered community.

That’s what happened in the book of Acts. Peter is speaking, and “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Without the Spirit, the word rings hollow and the gathering falters.

With the Spirit, who knows what can happen. In this case, people were baptized. In other cases, hearts are mended or souls are stirred or revolutions are launched.

With the Spirit, our gathering is transformed, no longer an assembly of obligation, but a celebration of grace and hope, of justice and joy.

With the Spirit, prayers matter, music soars, and even a sermon can become a vehicle for the gospel.

With the Spirit, how can we keep from worshiping, how can we keep from praying, how can we keep from singing? Amen.



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