Sermon: Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations Part 1 Passionate Worship
Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, Part 1: Passionate Worship (Matt 2:1-12)
For the next five weeks we’re going to look at five practices of fruitful congregations. The list has gained a lot of traction among many churches across denomination, size, and location. We’re following UM Bishop Robert Schnase’ version of the list but changing the order a little: passionate worship (Jan 07), risk-taking mission and service (Jan 14), radical hospitality (Jan 21), intentional faith development (Jan 28), and extravagant generosity (Feb 04). We begin where Bishop Schnase and almost everyone else does. Fruitful congregations practice passionate worship. And this is the perfect Sunday for it because this is the Sunday the Church remembers the wise men who gave us our first glimpse of the practice of worship of Lord Jesus. It is a practice in three acts.
Act One – The Summons (Matt 2:1-2)
I love T S Eliot’s vivid description of sheer inconvenience of the magi’s journey. … It’s such a grown-up read of the Christmas story!... But if it’s that bad, why do it? They have to do it; someone compelled their journey… “Magi” are Persian experts in reading signs in nature & dream interpretation… There was this unusual star in E moving toward vicinity of Jerusalem and certain ancient prophecies; it had to be a God-thing, mysterious, persistent.
There is the voice that summons us to worship - but it’s not the one you think. It’s not the voice real or remembered of some nagging parent, Sunday school teacher, or preacher. It’s not the star in the East; it’s the Maker of that star. The final voice to summon us to worship is the voice of God Almighty, saying, come apart and recognize me as your true Lord, have done w lesser gods, reconnect with me that I may bless you… The summons may come as interruption and inconvenience. We may be told to break off lesser pursuits… The summons may put us out of sync w religious “nones” among our family, neighbors, or co-workers. It may clash with our own introverted personality. But listen to the text, it’s not them or you you’re dealing with; you are bumping into a larger force.
The first move of worship, the summons, is a God thing. People come because God compels them, the summons may be vague, ambiguous, or even clever. One generation comes to please parents, the next comes to spite them; for some of us mind takes the lead, for some the body takes the lead (the mind catches up about the second hymn) but God is the main actor bringing us here so that in worship we might find the missing piece of life’s puzzle, get in touch with our better angels, find the reset button. There is a divine person behind the magi’s star saying, “come here, come closer to me that I may bless you”.
Act Two – Pay Homage. (Matt 2:2 & 2:11)
The magi follow the star to Jerusalem. Surely if something momentous is about to happen Herod would know. It’s a good guess but mistaken judgement: King Herod is an outsider who clawed his way to power over Judea w capital in Jerusalem, maintained in power by Romans. He’s insecure, even paranoid about his position. You want to inflame Herod’s paranoia?, open your conversation like Magi do “Where is one born to be king of Jews?” Want to pour gasoline on the fire, tell him what you’re up to. “We have come to worship him”.
That verb (proskyneo) in verses 2b & 11 has had several translations. In my opinion it has been diluted in translations through the years: KJV (“worship”) which clearly means a deference not typically shown other humans; NRSV (“pay homage”) softens the transcendent edge, you could pay homage to God and to VIPs like bowing to the queen, or standing as the judge enters the courtroom. The CEB (“honor”) softens the transcendent edge even more. We regularly honor others: standing ovation at concert, open door for an πelder, place matriarch at head of table… I prefer the transcendent edge of the KJV preserved in NIV translation. This verb appears in Matt 14 where Jesus comes walking across water to disciples in boat on stormy sea, as gets into boat they worship him; same word in Matt 28 when risen Jesus appears to disciples, they fall to his feet and worship; after Jesus’ resurrection worship becomes common response to Jesus. But that comes 33 years later, here it is novel and conspicuous as the magi enter the house, fall on their knees, and pray, and present their gifts.
Sometimes you witness that you are a Christian by your peculiar body language… A disciple of Jesus knows how to act in the presence of Lord God Almighty: they learn by watching others and practicing. Practice: to be still & know” God as God; to stand in honor, to bow head or kneel in reverence, to hold palms up the receive the communion bread, to place offering in the plate. We didn’t learn these postures from the culture at-large: where we learned finger in your face of “we’re number one” or other finger flashed at annoying driver, or thumbs up for like, thumbs down for dislike. We learn the language of deference to God here in the sanctuary, among gathered people of God. The magi follow a summons, then they enter the sacred space practicing homage, honor, worship before the newborn king.
Act Three – Go Home by another Road (Matt 12:12)
I don’t want to miss this final piece. Worship is all three pieces together: the summons, the paying homage, but also the going home by another road. The final summons to worship comes from Yahweh the jealous God, the God above all gods, who says, come apart and recognize me as your true Lord, have done w lesser gods that I may bless you… T S Eliot’s poem ends: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms; but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation
with an alien people clutching their gods.”
No star this time! Magi don’t need another sign to point them to a different road home. Now the Lord is near to them, speaking more personally, more clearly, in a dream. They go home by a different road. Worship is complete.
You can’t help but hear echoes of Exodus in Matthew. Moses says to one tyrant, Pharaoh: God says let my people go out in the desert to worship me (implication being: not you!) The magi ask another tyrant, Herod: where is the one born king of the Jews for we have come to worship him –(implication being: not you!)… Worship drives a wedge between God & lesser gods. It dislodges the believer from the hold of lesser gods.
I knew this truth before 2002, but “got it” (head to heart) when went to teach in Moscow that year. Sunday morning, small group of UMs gathered in only rental space available, a Soviet Communist social hall where communist censorship of religion still prevailed as in a time-warp. Congregation could rent space, but no signs allowed outside or inside building; directions by word of mouth; there were hall monitors & sound had to be kept at minimum; room was a converted auditorium, piano was on stage at one end & folding chairs were about 40 ft away at the other end of the room. The pianist had to play softly, we had to sing softly to piano’s echo; the preacher could not use a public voice, the group was muted in their conversations, Big Brother might be watching, was service being bugged? It was creepy! But afterwards, as went out into brisk late Sept air, there was this exhilarating feeling, we had done something subversive but right. I felt a closeness to God. That’s magi worship at its best.
A Quick Endnote if I may: here at Hershey First UMC we say: Worship is our duty and delight. It’s a sentence that goes back to the Reformation. And it holds together the drama of the summons here (our duty) and the serendipities of God’s presence and transformation while we are here (our delight). May you know worship as your duty and delight in 2024!
Sources. Eugene N. Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew”, NIB 8… T. S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi” (1927).