In deep appreciation for Dr. Don Saliers, whose life and teaching permeate every word of this sermon. Without him, without his witness, without his prayerful teaching and friendship for over 30 years, none of this sermon would have come to the page.
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In every church I serve, I notice at least one child. A child who makes the connection between their family table grace—“God is great, God is good”—and “Holy are you, great God of blessing,” spoken at the table of the Lord. A child, who insists on reading Scripture in worship from the big sanctuary Bible, when they have barely begun to read anything at all. A child, greatly distressed, because the church trustees have replaced the Christ candle—lovingly lit and extinguished each week by the children—with a battery operated candle for safety reasons. “That is not the flame of Christ,” one such child said to me. “Who’s going to believe that?”
I notice these children because I am one of them. My family says I prayed early, played quietly and alone for hours on end; a kind of contemplative monastic, led liturgy from the red stool in our kitchen when I was 3 years old.
Tables and Bibles and light awaken the holy imagination of some children. They quicken the senses of the soul. These children worship with uncommon intensity; losing themselves in wonder, love, and praise.
As an adult, the retirement speech of Perkins School of Theology professor John Deschner stays with me. Word, water, bread, cup, light: that’s all we have as church that the world does not have. Ordinary things of the earth, made extraordinary by the grace of God; they become the things that sanctify all of life. Word, water, bread, cup, light.
Children know the difference between real things and fake things. They will bend their lives towards the false in the absence of the true. And yet deep inside, they know the difference.
Today’s readings pulse with real things: forgiveness and peace, grace and praise, God’s breath and God’s glory. Today’s readings pulse with worship.
John finds himself in real trouble. Imprisoned on the island of Patmos—the Alcatraz or Robbins Island of his day—John reasonably assumes he will die there. And yet on a Sabbath Day, John receives from God a magnificent vision. A door stands open into heaven; a portal between heaven and earth. Moving through the portal, John encounters worship, capital “W”.
“Day and night without ceasing the heavenly creatures sing ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty, who is and was and is to come.’”
And as the singing continues, the white-robed elders remove their crowns, and cast them before the one seated on the throne. They bow down and they worship. “You are worthy, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power.” (Revelation 4)
More language for the liturgy of the church comes from John’s recorded Revelation than any other book in all of Scripture. And John insists that worship does not begin with us. Worship is not first and foremost about us. We do not initiate it.
Rather, we step into a great river of worship; a magnificent cosmic hymn of praise, that began before the world ever came into being and never ceases.
We take our turn, stepping into this great river; joining our hearts and lives and voices to heaven’s great song. We look Godward; for all true worship acknowledges God, blesses God, glorifies God—for being God.
Which means that worship is not as easy as it sounds for people like us; we like things our way, especially our worship. We like to manage our destinies, to be in control. Much about the way we live pushes and pulls against allowing God to be God.
My friend has frequent anxiety dreams. We know them. The dreams in which we forget our notes for the big meeting, neglect to set our alarm, stand up in front of a crowd to speak and realize too late that we are not wearing any pants.
One day, my friend was anxiously pacing before a sermon. A colleague took him by the arm, turned him toward a large window and said, “Trevor, look! The sun is coming up without you. And it will run its course this day, then beckon the moon and stars. And you will not have lifted a finger. And tomorrow, we will wake up in a day we did not make into a salvation we did not earn, held by a love we can only receive with astonished gratitude.”
Our Godward worship invites us into deeper affections: a particular and peculiar kind of hope, joy, and truth. We live as those astonished by God.
And so we bring the whole of ourselves to worship; place ourselves before God in hopes of entering into a conversation; honest and deep, real and true. For me, the heart of that conversation is this: “What do the people want to say to God and what does God want to say to the people?”
We worshippers bring to God our bafflement and frustration, our clenched fists and broken hearts, our faltering hope and dwindling courage and our longing. And we sit. And we wait. And we listen. And we enter into the liturgy, doing the people’s work: singing and praying and sitting through sermons that confound us. Trusting, believing, hoping that if we fling our whole selves heavenward, God will astonish us yet again.
That God will hear us, and time will fall away, and peace will rise up from a place deep within and we will know yet again the fierce tenderness of our God’s love. And then, in a moment we thought might never come again, we hear our voices rise in songs of praise. “Glory to you: who loves us and frees us. Glory to you: holy one of blessing. Glory to you: now and forever.”
Our praise gets to the heart of what God would do with us. God would make us into God’s likeness: a people of love, a people of justice, a people of mercy.
We worship to be made new; over and over and over again to be made new. The yearning never ceases; even when it lives outside our awareness. It’s like when our beloved returns after a long absence. We meet them out on the sidewalk, running straight into their arms, and only then do we realize how we’ve missed them. Our yearning surprises.
Entering a church I notice the prayers. How strong is the yearning? How broad the welcome? How deep the embrace of all God wills, all God desires? Worship has less to do with smells and bells—as much as we like them—and more to do with the prayer of Jesus in the world.
The church’s prayer says that what Jesus said and did he says and does. He healed and heals, taught and teaches, loved and loves in and through his body, the church. The prayer of Jesus leads us into terrible and terrifying places; leads us into the heart of grace. Leads us to pray for those who cannot or will not pray for themselves, to pray for those for whom no one prays.
The prayer of Jesus stretches us between the pit and the wing; stretches us out like Jesus upon the hard wood of the cross; leaves us exposed and vulnerable, yet hopeful and strong, fully alive before God.
To worship means to become worship: to sing hymns and become praise, to pray and become prayer, to love light until we become light. Don Saliers opened my first worship class in seminary saying, “All life is prayer.” I had not one single, solitary notion what he meant.
And then, in his being and by his presence, with gestures of body and gestures of soul, sometimes using words, Don taught us that Eucharist is not something we do. Eucharist is something we are becoming. To live as Eucharist means offering our lives to God who takes them, blesses them, breaks them open and we become God’s living sacrament, poured out and serving the world God loves.
I tell my students—when you stand by the font, in the pulpit, at the table—people are looking to see how you will touch and handle holy things: word, water, bread, cup, light. For in the touching, they will see something about how you will touch and handle the holy ones. And all within them that is shamed and broken, tender and precious, weary and worn.
These last eight years, I have noticed a child in some of you. A child moved to tears in prayer, a child touching and being touched by the water of life. A child meeting the living Christ in bread broken and wine poured.
True things, my brothers and sisters; real things: portals into the ongoing, mysterious, cosmos filling worship of God in Christ Jesus.
Glory to him: who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood. Glory to him; who made us to be a kingdom; priests, serving his God and Father. Glory to him: and dominion and power forever and ever. Amen.