Sermon
October 28, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves
that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax
collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I
thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or
even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my
income.'

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven,
but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other;
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves
will be exalted."

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Sermon: Dangerous Worship

This morning I would like to look at three passages in the scripture that
give us guidance in worshipping God.  Worship is central to our life as a
church - it's at the core of our identity and activity and even our annual
budget - a budget we will vote on later this morning in our fall meeting.
In our confirmation class we study prayer and worship, and right now we also
have two adult classes that are focused on this topic.

We might think that there could be no activity in our lives that is safer
than worship, but I would like to make the point today that there is danger
in worship - that there is a right way and a wrong way to worship, and that
there is bad prayer and despicable worship that poses a danger not only in
that it allows us to fool ourselves about who we are, but is an offense to
God and separates us with a wall of pretense from the one we come to seek.

Let's take as our theme the words of Christ that we spoke together in our
call to worship:
M: God is Spirit
P: And those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.

What does it mean to worship God in spirit and in truth?  What are the
dangers we must avoid if we are to do this?

We get one clear warning in the Gospel lesson for today - a warning against
bad prayer.  Jesus gives us a picture of two worshippers going up to the
temple to pray.  One sounds like he's on a job interview - it's a sales
pitch to God.  The other offers a simple plea of confession and an
unencumbered cry for mercy.

It's a vivid example, and although our thoughts in prayer may not be as
blatantly self-serving as the Pharisee, we must be on guard to avoid
slipping into that self-promoting spirit - even when we're not praying.
Keep the Pharisee's phrase in your mind - I thank you God, that I am not
like other people - it is a warning sign in on our highway of life and
prayer.

Another teaching I would like to consider has to do with the danger of
presenting an offering.  Now the offering is an act of worship that would
certainly seem to be a safe bet, but listen for a moment to what Jesus says:

Matthew 5:21-24 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times,
'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be
liable to judgment;.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if
you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave
your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother
or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When I first came to New Milford we placed the passing of the peace right
before the offering.  It was a sign of our willingness to seek peace with
others before offering our gifts to God.  However, we are such lively
passers of the peace that some felt it was more of a distraction than an act
of worship.  So now we use the passing of peace as more of a greeting than
as a symbol of our need to forgive and reconcile with family and neighbors
before we presenting our gifts.  But the warning is still valid - make your
resolution to be reconciled if you want to worship God with your offering in
spirit and in truth.

The third teaching I'd like to consider is from the prophetic tradition of
the Jews seven centuries before Jesus.  This passage from Amos is a
foundation text for the point of view we hear again and again in the
Gospels:

Amos 5:14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the
God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.  Hate evil and love
good, and establish justice in the gate;
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn
assemblies.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to
the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The prophet says that God finds worship despicable if it is not faithfully
wedded to acts of goodness, kindness, and justice.  If what takes place in
the sanctuary is contradicted by what goes on in the marketplace, then God
takes no delight in our solemn assemblies and songs of praise.

This linking of the big world out there with the little world in here is
critical to worshipping God in spirit and in truth.  This can play out in
very disturbing ways and it can play in our very subtle ways in worship.

Going away from the obvious case of people whose personal and ethical
behavior seems immune to the influences of worship, let's look at two things
we're doing here today: making announcements and holding a congregational
meeting.

I'd like to share with you some comments that were on the worship discussion
forum of the United Church of Christ site on the Internet.  It's about
announcements.

The church my wife and I are attending since I retired last year does not
make any "announcements" before or during the liturgy because of the clear
understanding that upon entering the place of worship the focus of the
people should and must be on God, and only on God.
My wife and I attended another church recently where there was incessant
babble in the sanctuary before worship and then ten minutes of
"announcements" before the processional hymn. We were so disgusted that we
left during the processional, and will never return.
My suggestion is that if you want to have a truly worshiping congregation
that they be taught to approach God in silence and reverence and that
"announcements" are not a liturgical act.

Of course this elicited a reply:
Au contraire, Reverend Sir!
There are Announcements appropriate to be printed in the church bullet and
read during the worship service. They would tell of the contemporary "Acts
of the Apostles" the good works the people are doing and for which further
help is wanted/needed; of needs for prayer and other assistance.

While it is certainly true that announcements (or as we call them - our
Invitation to Ministry) - can get long, their presence in our worship is one
way of keeping the link between the love of God and the love of neighbor
that true worship must encourage.  And the same is true of linking our
meeting to decide on budgets and projects and activities for the coming
year.

This place where we worship is called the meetinghouse because in our early
tradition all meetings of the community were held here.  The sacred and the
secular aspects of life were not seen as being completely distinct; they had
to be interwoven for each to be pleasing in the sight of God.

Now the sacred and the secular aspects are not linked by the place of
meeting, but we hope and pray they are still connected through the influence
of good and faithful people who come to church to deepen their faith and
understanding and who apply their best ethical and moral insights to
decisions on school boards, zoning boards, and all manner of political
processes.

And, of course, church meeting remain integrally linked to worship both in
time and place.  That is why we will meet here, so that in the same room
where we have honored God with songs, prayers, offerings, and praise on
Sunday morning, we may plan to honor God with all that we do on the six
other days of each week.

So how do we avoid the dangers of worship?  How do we worship God in spirit
and in truth?

God has showed us, his children, what is good, and what does the Lord
require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with
our God.
  Amen.

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