“What Is Worship?: An Introduction to the Holy Habit”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
3 November, 2019
Psalm 100
John 4:7-26

We gather at least once a week to engage in this every Sunday.  Some of us have daily personal practices that help us dedicate ourselves to it even more regularly.  We’ve just spent eight weeks learning about prayer, which is one discipline or practice of the Holy Habit of Worship. . . but worship involves more than just prayer.  So, what is worship, exactly?  How should we define it?  And what is the purpose of it—why is it important?

The dictionary says worship is “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity; [to worship is] to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion.”  Sometimes, in order to define a word, dictionaries will start by looking at the etymology—the historical word components in their root languages.  In this case, worship comes from the Old English word, woerth-scipe, which refers to acknowledging the worth of something; worth-ship, or worthiness.  So, another dictionary, after the word worship, says: “Render due worth and obedience to a supreme power or authority.” 

But what does this actually mean, in practice?  How do we “render due worth” when God’s worth is infinite—how can you ever give back the worth of the power that Creates, Redeems, and Sustains every-thing that is?  We could never give back enough.  We can only acknowledge that worth, only honor it, by demonstrating our recognition of that divine sovereignty.  By devoting our entire life to serving it—by submitting every moment, breath, and action of our life to obeying that Sovereign’s desires, values, purposes, and commitments.

But that’s hard work!  It takes disciplined attention.  Worship takes dedication—devotion that’s focused on God and not on ourselves, or anyone or anything else.  It’s hard work, because we live in an ego-centric, consumer-driven, media-and-entertainment-saturated world that bombards us with distractions, constantly enticing us to worship (or devote ourselves to) objects of lesser power.

Did you know that the word liturgy means, “the work of the people”?   It is serious spiritual work to truly worship God, and serve only God.  When the would-be gods of this world make such beguiling promises about how we can have it all, that we don’t need to sacrifice but we deserve whatever they’re peddling, indulging our egos, keeping our hearts and minds focused on the Power above all other powers requires effort!  The temptation to worship false gods is real, and seductive—let’s not pretend otherwise.  Remember Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: “[T]he devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”[1]

But how can we assess whether we’re worshiping God, or are devoting ourselves to a lesser power, to a false god?  One way is to do a quick inventory of our thoughts, and of our activities, and our resources: What is your mind occupying itself with most of the time?  What is the main objective of the activities you’re involved in?  What picture does your bank account paint, in terms of what you devote your money to?

If the only moment we take time to measure how our thoughts, actions, and resources align with God’s declared hopes and expectations for human life is when we’re here on Sunday or for another special service, then is the Triune God—Creator, Christ, and Transforming Spirit—realistically the true object of our life’s worship?

But before defensiveness kicks in and minds or hearts start closing, let me say again what the Bible says over and over in so many different ways: cultivating the Holy Habit of Worship has always been hard work for human beings.  We have always struggled to do it well.  From the very first chapters of Genesis, we read about how from the beginning we’ve opted for lesser gods who seem easier to serve, don’t ask us to sacrifice (not at first, that is), and who indulge our selfish impulses—but who always wind up delivering disappointment.

Liturgy in daily life requires even more self-discipline than it took for us to become habituated to brushing our teeth or getting dressed properly before we go out.  Which is why reading the Bible’s inspiring stories about people who, having failed, tried again.  And again, and again.  It’s why remembering Jesus’ example of grace and forgiveness toward his bumbling disciples is so important—because Jesus manifested God’s practices toward us, and invites us to keep trying, keep practicing.
We spend most days steeping ourselves in a cultural bath of egocentric self-gratification. . .because, the sly marketers persuade us, we deserve it.  In contrast to the abundance proclaimed by the Scriptures and by Jesus Christ himself, the would-be gods of this world constantly preach that there’s not enough for us and all the others that want, so we are habituated to hold back.  In defiance of Jesus’ most often-repeated words, “Do not be afraid,” the lesser powers preach fear and suspicion and resistance of the “other.”

But the God we worship as we gather around the communion table is not one who tries to convince us that we deserve it—because we don’t.  And that’s why the Gospel is such Good News: God’s love for us is greater than our deserving.  Christ doesn’t set conditions (like having enough money, or the right background or profile or pedigree) in order for us to be able to access or receive his self-sacrificing gift.  Salvation from the smallness and meanness of life the wanna-be gods only ever deliver, is something freely offered out of the eternal God’s extravagant and unconditional love.  Clearly, that is a power infinitely greater than the grasping, temperamental, conditional sort of “loyalty” and “rewards” sold by the gods of this world.  God’s power alone, above all others, is a power worthy of worship, of our ultimate and habitual devotion.

The Samaritan woman in our reading from John’s gospel came to understand that in the course of her conversation with Jesus.  There are so many demonstrations in this story of the ways in which God’s power in Jesus overwhelms every other power in the world.  For starters, it is not inhibited by social conventions, not even by the prospect of scandal.  The Samaritan woman responds to Jesus’ request for a drink of water with amazement, because in that time and place, a Jewish man—and even more so a Jewish teacher—would never have initiated conversation with an unknown woman, particularly a Samaritan woman.  John (the author narrating the story) acknowledged it by explaining that Jesus’ disciples were in the city buying food—that’s how Jesus was left by himself for that moment, creating the opportunity for scandal.  Because (unless you were Jesus, who had a knack for this) Jews generally did not invite association with Samaritans; although they were all part of the same people of Israel many generations ago, the Babylonian exile had divided them.  The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—as authoritative for their faith and beliefs, while the Jews believed in the further revelation of the prophets.  There was a mutual distrust between the peoples.  Jews basically considered Samaritans heretics, capable of rendering a faithful Jew ritually contaminated.  But Jesus treated the Samaritan woman with the same dignity with which he addressed his closest disciples, introducing her to the spiritual concept of living water.

Next, Jesus did not humiliate the woman when he asked where her husband was and she said she didn’t have one.  He told her the truth of her life—that she’d had five husbands and the man she lived with now was not her husband—without shunning or shaming her.  Given the human tendency to find fault with, to presume moral superiority over those whose life stories appear questionable or sordid, Jesus demonstrated the power of divine love and compassion that neither condemned her, nor diminished the truth of her life.

Finally, he offered her deeper insight into divine truth and salvation.  After asking for more information about the “living water” Jesus had to offer, the woman commented on the different understandings they had about where and how God wanted them to worship.  “‘Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [Mt. Gerazim],’ she said, ‘but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[2]

In response to the woman’s implicit question about whether the correct place to worship was where her people said it was, or where his declared it to be, Jesus pointed her away from squabbles over geography to a more enduring reality: that true worshipers would not be confining their ritual activities to a particular place.  After all, God is spirit and spirit is not confined to material space.  Instead, true worshipers would demonstrate their devotion in their own spirit, and in truth.

In suggesting that she worshiped what she did not know, Jesus was saying that by lacking the words of the prophets, she was worshiping God with only part of the story; she wasn’t yet fully appreciating, honoring, or devoting herself to the God who had promised salvation to them all, salvation that would come from the Jews.  (Perhaps that tiny comment was a foreshadowing hint from the Jewish Jesus about the further revelation he was about to make to her.)

She responded that she had, in fact, heard that a Messiah was coming—to which Jesus responded, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  Jesus hadn’t even explicitly divulged his identity to his disciples yet, but here he was defying all expectations and conventions, and sharing this profound mystery with a Samaritan woman—scandalous!  But that’s just how God operates—even scandal is not a deterrent; consider how scandalous and offensive it is to think that our life should be modeled on a crucified person.  Especially when we have so many more, so many easier, ways to live our lives.

We are among those whom Jesus declared must, if we are to worship God, we must worship in spirit and in truth.  But what does that mean, practically speaking?

Well, for starters, if we’re worshiping in spirit, then our lives should reflect and bear “Fruits of the Spirit”.[3]  Does our demonstration of devotion to God produce love instead of hatred, fear, or judgment of the other?  Does it result in joy instead of sorrow?  Peace instead of anxiety?  Patience instead of impatience? Kindness instead of cruelty?  Generosity instead of selfishness?  Faithfulness instead of deceit?  Gentleness instead of harshness?  Self-control instead of recklessness?  If yes, then we are worshiping in Spirit.

Across the next seven weeks, we’re going to be exploring and practicing what it means to worship in truth, as we look at various passages of scripture.  As we make a joyful noise unto the Lord as we talk together about our personal experiences.  As we come into God’s presence with singing, and enter this place with thanksgiving and praise.  You’ll find some questions on the Takeaway insert in your bulletin—these are for you to think about across the coming week, and come prepared to discuss with each other as we focus our attention on God in worship next Sunday.

As we continue to practice our worship, as we undertake the liturgical work of devoting our everything to the only Power truly worth serving, may our eyes and ears and hearts be opened, to recognize how the Holy Habit of Worship transforms our personal life, and the world God has entrusted us to serve.  Amen.

[1]  Matthew 4:8-10.

[2] John 4:19-24.

[3] Galatians 5:22-23.


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