“Staying Focused: Daily Pathways into Worship Outside of Church”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
17 November, 2019
Week 3 of 8 on the Holy Habit of Worship
Psalm 51
Romans 12:1-2
Colossians 3:15-17

At the top of Psalm 51, there’s a superscript that reads, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”  Some of you will recall the story of when David, as King of Israel, was out on the roof of his castle one afternoon and spotted the beautiful Bathsheba bathing.  He asked who she was, but the fact that she was another man’s wife—and more precisely, she was the wife of one of his soldiers who happened to be off fighting one of his battles at the moment—was of no consequence to David in that moment.

Long story short, Bathsheba wound up pregnant with David’s child, and in order to cover up his bad behavior, David engaged in even more bad behavior, placing Uriah (Bathsheba’s husband) on the front lines of battle in order to have him killed.  God was not pleased, and prompted Nathan—the king’s trusted prophet—to go and have a word with David.  Nathan told the king a story about a rich man in his kingdom.  The man, Nathan said, had abused his power.  When an unexpected dinner guest arrived to the rich man’s house, Nathan explained, he wasn’t inclined to sacrifice any of his own flock in order to feed the guest.  So, he went to the poor man’s house and took for himself the one valuable thing the poor man possessed—a ewe that the family loved dearly and treated well.  The rich man just took and killed the sheep and served it to his dinner guest, without a thought to the impact on the poor man and his family.  King David was incensed.  “‘Why, as surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die!  He should restore what he stole fourfold, for what he’s done without pity or compassion.’  Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man.’” (2 Samuel 12:5-6)

It’s not hard to imagine King David sitting down and furiously scribbling out this mea culpa, this confessional prayer after his conversation with Nathan.  But, in spite of the superscript above Psalm 51—a heading that was probably added by editors long after the Psalm was first written—this isn’t only David’s prayer.  I daresay, if we’ve taken time to examine our own consciences, we’ll recognize its appropriateness as our own prayer at one point or another even if our particular sins are not those of adultery or murder.

The confession of transgressions and sin in this Psalm, the recognition of having done “what is evil” in God’s sight came from self-reflection, and from genuine worship: from acknowledging, and an effort to submit to, the sovereignty of God.  Both the author, and every other person who has prayed this prayer from the heart, acknowledges that they are a worshiper of God who’s gotten off-track.  There’s a recognition that attention and intentions have shifted for a time—from devotion to God above all others, to the pursuit of self-centered things.  True worship of God has been abandoned, self-gratification has been indulged, and a recognition of the destructive and painful impact of those choices has resulted in the powerful prayer that most of us resonate with at various points in our life.

But Psalm 51 is not just a prayer of confession.  It is as much or more a story about God’s character as it is about human sinfulness.  In the story of David and Bathsheba, what has the final word is not David’s sinfulness, but God’s grace.  Not that David’s sinfulness didn’t have grave consequences—it did; among other things, Uriah was unjustly killed, the first child born to Bathsheba died, and David’s family nearly fell apart.  Nevertheless, David’s sin was forgiven.  Despite having broken at least half of the Ten Commandments, and although he himself had declared to Nathan that one who had committed such acts deserved to die, David was allowed to live and to remain king!

That sort of amazing grace—the grace that allows us to live, and to heal, and to get beyond the sins that we’ve committed against God, against people we love, against people we don’t love and sometimes don’t even know—the love of God expressed in the grace that forgives us and affords us another chance at life: that is what always has the last word.  And that’s because God’s love, the essence of divine power, is sovereign: it is the greatest power, the only power worthy of worship.

The challenge for every single one of us is to allow that power, greater than all other powers, to truly be in control of our lives.  Because God allows us the freedom to do otherwise.  In our heart of hearts, and in our more reflective and worshipful moments, we know that it is only by following God’s desires for human life that we actually find the happiness and peace we’re longing for.

But we live in a world that endlessly tempts us to believe something else—that this car, or that house, or these clothes, or this social group, or this other person who is so beautiful and beguiling—that these or other things will deliver the contentment and security we want, even faster, more immediately.  But every single one of us knows that, although these things may deliver a momentary experience of pleasure, satisfaction, maybe even security—those are always only momentary.  They never last, even (maybe especially) when we devote ourselves to pursuing them full-time.  They only become more demanding, taking more and more of us, and making us less and less of who we were designed to be.  As our relationship with God fades to the background, so does the strength of our own character and the sturdiness of our soul.

The only thing that endures without fail is God’s grace, divine love.  And, the power and security our hearts are searching for are only found when we devote ourselves to pursuing God’s ways and will for our lives full-time.

So, how can we devote ourselves to worship—to regularly re-directing our attention to God’s ways and will for our life?  What can we do to help us stay focused?  To, in the apostle Paul’s words, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect”[1]?

Well, you’re off to a good start this morning: you’re participating in communal worship, which is really important.  This is where many of you said last week you find peace.  In our other New Testament lesson from another Pauline letter, we’re exhorted to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, to which indeed [we] were called in the one body.”  We’re called to “…be thankful.  And to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly—teach and admonish one another… and with gratitude … sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”[2]

Getting together with other people of faith regularly, and acknowledging our individual and collective sinfulness and need for divine grace is a fundamental building block of worship and a healthy relationship with God.  After all, we encounter God here as we look in each other’s eyes; as we hear one another’s voices in word and in song acknowledging our mutual experience of brokenness, and of divine healing.  Here, we devote ourselves to listening to the Word of God in Scripture together, and we are reminded that God’s word doesn’t start and end with us—it is revealed in the whole of creation.

I want to thank all of you who shared some of your thoughts last week, on why you come to worship here on a Sunday morning, and what helps you to worship.  I was delighted to see that about half of each of the congregations responded—and many of the responses reflected what you’d discussed in groups, so it wasn’t just one person’s feelings.  I felt like it was a great representation of our entire community.  And, what I also discovered is that all of the components of our weekly services here are really important.  Some of you feel most closely connected to God during our prayer times, especially when we share concerns and celebrations.  Others really enjoy hearing the Scriptures read and explained with relation to our life today.  Some of you feel your spirits connecting with the divine most powerfully when we sing hymns, or when the choir makes music.  Others think the feeling of being one member of a community gathered to receive and share messages of comfort, challenge, and encouragement is vital to setting the tone for your week.  Some of you appreciate the opportunities you hear every week regarding how you can give and serve—because you’ve discovered that it’s only by giving that we receive, and that the joy of generosity is a central feature in your Christian faith and practice.  And a number of you expressed the importance of reciting our Common Commission at the end of each service, because that is a reminder of how you intend to try to live your life each day.

However, like David, most of us are tripped up at times.  Who can say what our Bathsheba might be, but there will inevitably be something that represents an opportunity to veer off course in our devotion to God’s will and ways.  So, what are some other ways we might stay focused on the Holy Habit of Worship across the week?  [Allow space and time for personal ideas.]

If you turn to your Takeaway insert, you’ll see that I’ve listed some other possibilities:

            *Each day, as a first act, pray that what you do and who you are will be offerings of Worship.

            *Each day, take time to stop for a moment or two and notice the glory of God around you, e.g., in the smile of an older person or the chuckle of a baby, in the miracle of electricity and other modern technologies that can help to connect us, in the healing skills of doctors and nurses.  Make a practice of turning these pauses into praise.

            *Before you retire for the night, bring to mind the ways in which you have been blessed (especially on difficult days!) and let it lead you into Worship, offering thanks and praise.

            *Individually, as a family, or with friends, develop a simple pattern of daily Worship. At a meal, for example, share highlights and struggles, and then give thanks to God and commit the challenges to God’s watchful presence. Or, choose to read a devotional booklet (e.g. Upper Room) or UCC’s Still Speaking devotions aloud and discuss together.

            *On the way to work or school or wherever you’re going, listen to Christian worship music. Let that worship shape your day.

            *Keep a Gratitude Journal or Worship Journal in which you record things for which you’re grateful and/or concerns you’re entrusting to God’s care.

            *Utilize a “Star Word” to help you pay attention to a specific aspect of your experience of God, the world, and your worship practice.   How many of you have been using a Star Word this past year?  [Share about personal reflections and how it’s helpful in guiding personal worship across the week, and across the months of the year; how you’ve grown personally and spiritually as you’ve paid attention to it and allowed it to shape you.]

Friends, the truth is that, although we can get better as we practice and develop the Holy Habit of Worship, we will get off track.  We will become distracted by more immediate pleasures and self-interested pursuits.  The Good News is that God forgives us; God’s grace and love prevail, and invite us to start again—to get back on the only road that truly leads to the joy and peace, the hope and love our hearts are seeking.  That, my friends, is worthy of worship!  Thanks and glory be to God.  Amen.

[1] Romans 12:2

[2] Colossians 3:15-16

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC