“We’ve had it backwards all this time: Reflections on Worship and Prayer”

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

Proper 16, Year B

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; St. John 6:56-69

August 26, 2018

 

We’ve had it backwards all this time:

Reflections on worship and prayer

See the source image
(This is not a photo of me, although it pretty much sums up a whole lot…)

When I was a little kid in Arkansas, back at Egypt Missionary Baptist Church, our little church had a tradition—one that I wonder would be meaningful here.

The first Sunday of every month, Bro. Louie Dean, who was the song leader, would stand at the front and lead us in singing a special hymn to mark that month’s birthdays.  If you had a birthday that month, you were invited down to the front altar.

Now, you may think that you were going to receive a birthday blessing, but that was not the case.  Rather, we kept, at all times, a small plastic church building sitting on the altar up front.  During those first Sunday birthday hymns, folks came down and put an offering in that little plastic church.  When August came round, since I was usually sitting by my grandmother, she would reach in the pouch of her Bible cover, next to the peppermint, and give me a couple quarters.  I couldn’t wait to walk up and put my money in the little church as we sang the hymn—and it was always a good hymn to get you walking!

This memory is a powerful one for me: that on these birthday celebrations, we didn’t receive anything special.  The attention was not focused on us; rather, we were given the opportunity to give of ourselves, to focus on God and be grateful for the blessings we had.  That degree of consciousness, it turns out, was the greatest gift of all.  I was being taught what devotion was.  I was being taught how to worship.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we have one of the few accounts of the Book of Joshua that we actually include in our lectionary cycle.  Here, tucked in chapter 24, we have this account of Joshua summoning the elders of the tribes.  It is time to get certain things settled.

“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  For Joshua, it is time to get real.

And the people respond back “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods,” because remember, they say, all that God has done for us.  We are grounding ourselves in an awareness of God’s presence, and we recommit ourselves to worship of God alone.

It is a powerful image: “choose this day whom you will serve.”

Here’s the thing: we all worship something.  Truth is we worship multiple things.  We all pay homage to something.  Our lives are oriented around something.  Something attracts the focus of our attention, our energy, our sense of identity.  We all hold something of ultimate worth.

Jesus knew this full well.  He realized how our sense of loyalty, of worship, is fickle and has a strong tendency to focus on ourselves and selfish desires.  We are bit like puppies whose attention is grabbed by every squirrel that runs by.  But it is deeper than merely something grabbing our attention.

What we worship, what we offer devotion to, informs and shapes what we value, where we put our energy, what we invest in.  It also shapes what we let go, what we neglect.  It shapes how we act in the world.  It molds our ethic, our way of living and being in our culture.

As we talked about this morning in the Sunday Forum, there is an axiom in religious practice that says, Lex orandi, lex credendi.  “The law of prayer is the law of belief.”  Or, in perhaps a more familiar form, “the way we pray shapes the way we believe and act in the world.”[1]

The way we pray, or the way we pay attention to something, what we give devotion to, what we venerate, what we worship…this is what shapes the way we live in the world.

Look at Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, standing in the synagogue offering this teaching of what the “living bread” is, inviting the people to focus their attention on this level of awareness.  He is inviting those gathered to make sure they understand the significance of their religious observance, the rituals they share, that shape their lives.

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.  But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

And notice what many of his disciples say: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  The words here are fascinating.  The word used here for “difficult,” is actually the word skleros.  You’ve heard that before: as in arteriosclerosis, a stiffening of the arteries.  Those disciples who hear this teaching of Jesus about the true bread, the living bread, criticize it and call Jesus’ teaching: hard, difficult, rigid, sclerotic.  The irony, of course, is that they are the ones who are rigid and sclerotic.  Jesus is offering them a spaciousness, a depth, a greater awareness of God’s presence.  But, it is an age-old pattern when you encounter news you don’t like: find a way to twist things around and discredit it with the basis of your own fault.

We’re not rigid, you are.

What they are really saying is this:  1) we don’t want to admit that we want to continue grasping on to this, because the way we are currently paying devotion is benefiting us, 2) the amount of energy to open ourselves is terrifying, and 3) what do we do with the running narrative in our lives, the story that we have been telling to ourselves and others?

Like I said, we all worship something.

Jesus asks us to examine what we are worshipping, what we are eating, what we are paying attention to.  Is it the living bread, or is it something else?

Do we worship profit?  And do we then organize our entire lives so that the grounding element in our lives is profit and materials success?

Do we worship busyness and accomplishment?

Do we worship, in a strange way, a preoccupation with our children that gives them a warped sense of the world and makes them feel entitled?  I think back to that first experience at Church:  what do you mean I’m expected to give something on my birthday?

Do we worship physical appearances?

Do we worship power and control?  Safety and security? Esteem and affection?  These are Thomas Keating’s categories that are so helpful.

Remember, we all worship something… And Joshua’s words call us to account: “choose this day whom you will serve.”

I think of Evelyn Underhill, that great English writer on mysticism, when she said, “Worship is the total response of the creature to the Creator, for which we were made; the only true relation in which we can stand to God.”[2]

The question of “what do we worship” may just be the central question of our lives, and here I want to offer you a reflection.  And, remember, we are offering copies of these sermons on the table out front to keep the conversation going.

We do not “worship God” as though God is some object who—although the biggest or grandest object—is still just another object that must fight for space among the myriad other objects that saturate the space of our existence.

When Moses encountered the burning bush, when God infused into Moses’ being the call to worship God alone and not put any other gods before the Creator, Moses actually encountered something—was encountered by something—so utterly profound that we have not yet fully absorbed it into our consciousness, or been transformed by it.

Moses encountered the nameless Source of existence, of all reality, that reoriented every aspect of Moses’ being.  “Who shall I tell Pharoah sent me?” Moses asks the Presence.  “Tell them I Am sent you.”  In other words, you can’t fit me into the typical categories of your existence.  Something else is going on.

Here’s the deep truth of our Tradition: Moses did not encounter God as an object; rather, God is the ultimate subject.  It turns out that we get it backwards all the time when it comes to worship.

God is not an object.  God is the subject.  We are the objects.

Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun in England, tries to describe this reality in terms of prayer:

Prayer.  We take the word for granted but ought we do do so?  What do we mean by prayer?  What does the word mean in the Christian context?  Almost always when we talk about prayer we are thinking of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply.  For me, it is of fundamental importance to correct this view.  Our Christian knowledge assures us that prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us.  It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God but what God is doing for us.  And what God is doing for us is giving us the divine Self in love.[3]

I am the living Bread that comes down from heaven, Jesus says.  This teaching is difficult, who can accept it? His disciples resist the yielding that is called for when our prayer, our devotion, our worship is transformed in this way.

How does it open your heart to consider that prayer is something that God is doing for us?  That God is giving Godself to us, pouring out Godself.  The Living Bread.

It is much easier, I think, to persist in seeing God as another object.  This way, we can keep going with the sort of spiritual multi-tasking that we are so used to.  Sorting out how much we come to Church, what we pledge to the community, how we share our gifts, etc. etc. and try to figure out the balance that will work best for us.  If I’m going to have to walk forward and put quarters in the little plastic church for my own birthday, how many should I put in there?

But how does it shift our worldviews, transform our hearts, to see that what shapes our devotion, grounds our worship, and infuses our own prayer is but a response to God’s own self-giving?  What right do we have to stand in the way of that gift?  What gives us the right to clog that channel of divine love with our egoic grasping and busyness?  How dare we place anything else on that altar of Divine Self Offering?

Perhaps the Book of Common Prayer says it best when it comes to worship, with images of open hearts and focused attention.  If you will turn to page 833 in yours, let us join in this collect together, the one entitled “Before Worship.”

O Almighty God, who pourest out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and of supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship thee in spirit and truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

[1] Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, The Way of Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement, 2018), 5.

[2] I have had this quote tucked back.  I have no idea where it came from.

[3] Ruth Burrows, Essence of Prayer.  (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 1.

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