“The Lectionary,” you may know, is a suggested schedule of Bible readings, which churches can use in their worship planning. For each Sunday service, four Bible passages are offered, for our consideration; the schedule runs in a three-year cycle, before starting over again.
One of the advantages of the Lectionary is that, over the three-year period, it leads us throughout the whole Bible, so that we can come to know the whole book, instead of just coming back to our favorite or most familiar passages over and over again.
During this second half of “Year C,” the Lectionary brings us to the prophets, for our Old Testament readings. So over the next few weeks, we may be using readings form the prophets as the “jumping off point” for some of our worship services.
The key phrase defining the prophets is “Thus says the Lord:” the prophets bring a message to the people, and through the Bible to us, from God—“Thus says the Lord.” Today, having read from Amos, we ask: What is God, through Amos, saying to us today?
One of the things we have in common with the people of Amos’ time, the eighth century BC, in the nation of Israel, a peaceful and prosperous time, is that we gather in weekly worship. We may do that a little differently from the way they did, over 2700 years ago—worship may not look the same in many ways—but we both do it; come together once a week to worship God. This practice is something that God told the people of God, then and now, to do, so one would think this gathering would be pleasing to God. But what does Amos say to his people about their worship?
“Thus says the Lord: ‘I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. I will not accept your offerings; take away from me your songs. I don’t like your worship.’”
Now what would cause God to turn around and reject the worship that God had previously wanted? What were the people doing wrong? Why was the worship unacceptable to God? And more to the point for us: could our worship also be somehow displeasing to God? Are we doing any of the same wrong things? Is our worship acceptable? What would make God “despise” and reject a people’s worship?
One possibility, I suppose, would be if that worship was done poorly—if no effort went into it. Imagine the musicians not bothering to rehearse, the custodian not preparing the worship space, the preacher figuring “Oh, I’ll just talk about whatever pops into my head at the moment Sunday morning.”
And imagine the congregation being fine with that: “Well, that’s OK, we don’t care. We just put our hour in and go home. Hey, maybe that’ll even shorten the service.”
I’m afraid this isn’t as farfetched as we might hope. Both back in Pennsylvania and here, I served on my Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, the group that tries to help churches through the transition when their pastor leaves and they’re searching for a new one. It wasn’t at all uncommon to hear someone suggest in all seriousness, in one of those churches, “Well, let’s just not have a pastor for a while: think of how much money we could save”—or even, “let’s close down for a few Sundays.” And I’ve heard the same about other worship elements: “Let’s not have an organist, a choir director, bulletins, a conscientious Administrative Assistant to prepare them. We could save money, and then we could put less in the offering, and keep more for ourselves!” One kind of worship displeasing to God would be half-hearted worship, no effort, “we don’t care.”
A second kind would be worship that isn’t focused on God—on praising God, on listening for God’s Word. People that come together supposedly for worship, but then use that time or energy for something else. We’ve just come through a time of year when churches are tempted to do this: from the middle of May to early July, you can find churches devoting all their worship time to: honoring mothers, congratulating graduates, honoring fathers, praising America—twice, Memorial Day and July 4th. Singing patriotic songs, reading poems about motherhood, promoting kids to next Sunday School classes, and seriously, maybe only hearing one or two Scripture readings and no Biblical sermons or hymns for seven weeks! Getting lost in all our cultural observances, and not focusing at all on God or God’s Word, even though that is what worship is for! That would be “worship,” if it’s worship at all, that’s displeasing to God.
A third reason, the main reason which Amos specifically identifies, about God’s displeasure back then, has to do with follow-through, with how the lives of the people throughout the week match up with the words they mouthed in worship.
“You people say you’re interested in leading Godly lives,” Amos says in effect; “you show up here claiming you wish to follow God, but then all week long you go out and take advantage of the poor, cheat them out of what little they have, accept bribes to do illegal things, pretend that lies are true, and generally ignore all standards of fairness and justice—all the while gathering here on the Sabbath nodding solemnly when the priest reads Scripture about helping the poor, and practicing justice! When you practice what you preach,” God says, “when you let justice roll down, and do what’s right, then I will appreciate your songs and offerings and presence here in church. But not while your daily lives and daily decisions contradict everything you say you believe.”
History is full of extreme examples of people saying one thing Sunday morning, and doing the opposite the other 160 hours of the week: people reciting “love your neighbor as yourself” Sunday morning and donning Ku Klux Klan robes Sunday night. Or the “Godfather” movies: the family attending Mass at the same time their henchmen carry out their orders to kill a rival.
Our “Affirmation of Faith,” in a few minutes, was written in response to the National Church of Germany approving of Hitler’s policies, including putting people in ghettos and concentration camps and worse. But there are plenty of other, closer-to-home examples too, are there not: people affirming “family values” Sunday morning, and neglecting or cheating on their families the rest of the week; people saying how important God is to them during worship, but always finding reasons to cut back on their giving to church or to charity when the time comes; our own affirmations of justice and righteousness and fairness and obedience on Sunday morning, but then rationalizing “well the rules at work are different, and I need this promotion” Monday through Friday.
And it’s not just our individual decisions; together, as churches, we say “cut back on the mission giving, we want a new carpet;” “don’t challenge their lifestyle, we want to keep them as members;” “don’t worry about the community; let’s take care of our own.”
And God answers, “As long as you’re not living out justice and righteousness, I’m not much interested in your worship.”
Fourth, God is also displeased, I believe, when our attitudes or motivations for coming to worship are, shall we say, “questionable.” Picture two people named Helen and Russell serving on their church’s worship committee, where lately they’ve joined the churches which are fighting “music wars:” will we have contemporary music, or stick to our old favorites. Russell wants all new praise hymns and anthems; Helen wants all traditional and classical. Sunday after Sunday they grab a bulletin as soon as they come through the door, to count how many of the hymns and anthems are new, and how many old. Which side’s winning? What’s the score? Who’s ahead? Every Sunday afternoon they can’t tell you a thing about what the theme of the service was that day, what the Scripture readings were about, but they can tell you how many old and new hymns there were. Are they coming to church to worship God?
Or: “I’m here to check the bulletins for typos; or for dust in the corners.” “I’m here to make sure they didn’t slip any changes into the order of service.” “I’m here to make sure worship is the way I want it.” Is that the attitude that pleases God—forgetting we’re part of a community, with a mixture of needs and wants; forgetting that worship is about shaping us into what God wants, not getting what I want?
Finally, speaking of being “shaped,” I think God is also displeased—“despises our festivals, takes no delight in our assemblies”—when we come to worship with no intention of being shaped or affected at all by this hour, when we keep ourselves detached, uninvolved. How easy it is to become passive in a worship service, to not participate, not engage. It’s something that has become ever easier as we’ve gotten ever more used to sitting and watching: watching TV shows, watching movies, watching sports events—stuff “out there,” for my entertainment. When we “gather with praise,” it’s so that everyone can praise God, as the Bible tells us so often to do, not to listen to someone else praise God.
And if singing isn’t your favorite thing, sing softly, or speak the words, or at least read them along carefully, sending them to God in your thoughts; join in the praise of God.
When we confess our sins, that period of silence is there because we each, every week, have something to confess ourselves, individually. Participate in that prayer, and if the printed words don’t happen to hit upon one of your weaknesses that day, that silent period is still there for you to pray in, confess your sins, not just wait impatiently.
Many churches these days, by the way, are doing away with the prayer of confession entirely, in their services; “It’s not fun,” they say, “not uplifting, upbeat. We want to sing happy songs, not think about what we’ve done wrong.”
When we have our group time of prayer, later in the service, there is also a short period of silence; say to God whatever you’re most thankful for this day, or ask for what you need most. Participate; engage. On those Sundays when we say what we believe together, look at those words: “What am I saying? What does it mean? Do I mean this?”
When we hear the Bible read, and explore together what the texts mean, in sermon, Moment for Youth, song, and prayer, listen for what God is saying to you today. What is the Bible telling me about my life? What do I need to do differently? How can I become more faithful, according to this passage?
How many times have I heard, as people have greeted me on the way out the door, “Good sermon, pastor. You really told them today. You said what they needed to hear.” And as much as I appreciate the affirmation, I want to say, “No, it’s not just for them! Your job isn’t to listen in from afar, and evaluate what I say to someone else. You’re not the movie critic, the judge, the reviewer, sitting off, detached, saying, ‘Well, what grade would I give worship today? How did the worship leaders do? Did they send a good message to those people, over there?’ You’re supposed to be listening for God’s Word to you, to be shaped yourself; to respond, in your life, yourself. What is God calling you to do in response?” And watch out, I probably will say that next time.
Or people come to be entertained by the pastor blasting the culture, the media, the sinners out there—“keep it at a distance, nothing about me.”
No, we’re to participate. Engage. Respond. That’s what worship is for. That’s what makes worship acceptable, and pleasing, to God.
When I started the outline for this sermon, I thought I was making a list of several ways worship could be displeasing to God, several traps to avoid, several things Amos could have been referring to, when he spoke about what kind of worship God would reject, or despise: (1) worship done poorly (2) or focused on something other than God; (3) worship without follow-through the rest of the week; (4) or attended for the wrong reason; (5) worship just “observed,” not participated-in.
But as I reviewed my “list” toward the end of my preparation, I found not so much a set of points, but variations on one theme: God wants worship to touch our lives. God wants us to let worship touch our lives. For us to put effort into worshipping, to follow through on what we’ve said and heard the rest of the week, to come with the attitude of listening for God’s Word to me. Worship that is pleasing to God . . . is worship we let touch our lives.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for calling us to worship, and all you offer us in worship. Help us to be faithful worshippers, and faithful to you throughout our weeks—that our worship may be pleasing to you. Amen.