The following sermon was written by my husband, Garth Stevens-Jennings and I for the student lead Wednesday Night Worship service at Wesley Theological Seminary. We wrote the sermon as a reflection on Amos 5:21-24:
“I hate, I despise your festivals.” This is strong language. Its frightening to think that all of the work that we put into worship services might be turned away by God. How must the folks that Amos is speaking to be feeling when they look around at the worship place that they’ve built and hear that God hates and despises it? Why would God hate this excellent worship, all of these offerings and music? Why would God reject this?’
When we were asked to preach for this week we were told to try and answer the question: what does worship mean to you? My mind immediately went to this passage from Amos, and to how sometimes we might think that we’ve figured it out, and that we know what worship is, but we are wrong.
Sometimes we imagine that worship is the place that we go each week to be seen so the people will think we are holy. We go to worship once each week to get our sins washed away again, and don’t think about it again until the next week and the next time we come back to get our spiritual get out of sin free card, but worship is not pretty things and fun music, or fancy robes or incense. The Israelites thought that elaborate festivals and sacrifices to God would be sufficient while they ignored injustice and neglected the poor. Amos shows us that God does not accept this. Public corporate piety is not enough. Public worship is not a “get out of sin free” card.
God doesn’t care about your public performance. Worship is not a show we put on. My husband tells a story about how he used to think that Church was all about dignity, pomp and circumstance, a sense of somber devotion, and that high church was best church.
He loved robes and crucifixes and organ music and sense of majesty that he got from all the smells and bells. He has slowly realized, though, that all of that is insignificant in determining the quality of a worship service he’s been to fancy, high-rite churches where service feels empty and low-church gatherings that feel full of the Spirit. He had fallen into the same trap as the Israelites, he thought that worship was a performance, but he has realized that it is not. He tells people now that worship can happen anywhere that the Spirit is presence and in all the places where God’s justice is being done.
Worship is not specific rituals or images or props or performances. Its not how loud you sing or how much you dance or how formal your service feels. Church services can be worship, but worship is not just Church services. Worship is coming together to encounter God and leaving to encounter to the world, bringing to it God’s mercy and love and justice. Worship is not just what we do inside church building, but ways in which we pursue justice in our daily lives. It is pursing justice so that we can know God and one another better. It is how we treat each other, how we treat ourselves, and how we act in community.
The community that Amos is preaching to has fallen into the trap of thinking that worship is just a performance that we do to appease God and look righteous. Amos tells them that is not it, but that worship is everflowing streams of God’s righteousness and whole rivers of justice. Amos says that worship is about participating in Justice that is so strong that it seems like an overpowering river. Its about a continuous stream of this life-giving, life-changing love and power of God that never ceases to flow, but is constant.If we are called to bring about a great River of Justice then, how do we go about that? It certainly seems like an intimidating prospect, to fashion such a great and powerful thing ourselves.
Until recently I used to think that it was my job to single-handedly create these rivers of Justice. I believed that as a Christian I needed to take on the systemic evils of the world, and when I looked up at the size of these obstacles in the path of righteousness, I could not envision a way to overcome them on my own. It turns out that this is because I am not meant to do it on my own.
Rivers are formed by many streams coming together, and so it is the work that we do together as the body of Christ that is capable of changing the world, that is capable of taking down all of those injustices that bar the way. When we are overwhelmed by the size, the immensity, the depth and the interconnectedness of evils and oppressions in the word, we have to remember that when we all come together to join this river of God’s justice, we can see the erosion of the systems over time like how the Colorado River has formed the Grand Canyon. The river has cut through the stone and earth over millennia, and has created something new. When we join in God’s river of justice we do the same thing: we have to think about justice in community and think more like community organizers than individual vigilante heroes.
We need each other. God has gifted us with community so that we can all be cared for. Sometimes, when we see the injustices of the world, we get angry and we call out to God and ask, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Where are you?” I am starting to believe that God’s response to that question is to hold up a mirror. God gave us each other. We need to stand by each other when someone is in need. More than likely, someone in our communities is gifted with the kind of skills needed to help someone else. When we make those connections and form networks, the streams flow together and we start to see the river form.
Another attribute of a river, aside from its power to overcome anything laid before it, st the life-giving nature that it possesses. Rivers foster life, and as they cut through the world around them an abundance of living things form. The Nile is just such a river, flowing through the land of Egypt and bringing with it the ability to sustain life and civilization. Whether through seasonal floods or by simply flowing, the Nile brings vitality and fertility to the lands that it touches, invigorating and transforming them. So too does the river of God’s justice bring life wherever it flows. It is a river of holy and life-giving water which flows from the Throne of God. This river is one of living water, which grants us new life as we are baptized in it. Baptism in this river cleanses us and changes us It connects us to the community of the Church, and binds us to the rest of God’s creation. In baptism, we are immersed in the river of justice and are reborn as a new stream which flows into it. We join with the Body of Christ, combining our vitality and work to the greater whole, In this, we become tributaries, joining God’s river and together forming an ever-greater force of righteousness, justice, love, and mercy.
During our time of communion today, you will have the opportunity to revisit the baptismal font, interact with the water in whatever way you see fit, and as you are there pleas take the time to remember your baptism, and remember your part as a stream that flows into the river of God’s justice. I suggest that as other people join you at the font, you offer to make the sign of the cross on their palms with the water as a reminder that we do not join the river alone, but enter into it in community.
So what is worship? We believe that worship, true worship, is our participation in the River of God’s Justice and Righteousness, and the ways in which we can contribute to the River’s journey. This is Worship, and no other consideration really matters next to it.