February 5, 2017 |1 Kings 19: 1-13 | Rev. Brenda Fawkes –
The killings and injuries in the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre this week is an unbelievable act of violence that is incomprehensible and challenges our notion of a diverse and tolerant Canadian society. Its consumed many our thoughts and prayers and questions this week. And I think it is even more troubling that it happened in a place of prayer and worship. It adds another layer of violation and fear. These folks were at prayer—in a mosque –in a place of supposed sanctuary. They were worshipping their God. How could it warrant an attack? How does it incite violence? We call our places of worship sanctuaries—they are that—places for peace, for respect, where we align ourselves with the holy, where we remember who we are and who we belong to.
In worship, even if brief…we glance toward what our purpose might be in the various intersections and complexities of our lives. We are challenged by something more, drawn out from behind ourselves into communion with others others of of other times and places and history and others in this time and place and we access gratitude and greater perspective –for some of us we finally get a moment of peace and quiet or we finally experience the touch of another’s hand the only time out in our week. We are nourished, find delightful harmony or the opportunity to break down in despair anticipating maybe…a word of hope. Or needing to-claim our regret or feelings of inadequacy and start again. We ask the big questions, seek meaning or touch the hem of mystery. Sometimes we just show up because we need to.
This just names a few of the whys of worship.
Why wouldn’t we want to protect such a sanctuary or find it or cherish it. Why wouldn’t we want to take off our shoes and stand on holy ground?
When I talk about my work and I talk about the part of it that is teaching worship or liturgy I refer to it as the opportunity to teach worship. It is fascinating work. I had a student this year approach me about our upcoming class. She is an excellent student and I am glad she is part of our community. But she approached me presenting a case. She had registered for the class and it was, she knew, mandatory for her to take. But she claimed…she had a lot of experience leading worship in the United Church already. Excellent I said. She said she felt confident in her work and that there was a retired minister in her congregation that suggested she would write a letter for the student—a letter to me—informing me that the student was already masterful at leading worship. Excellent I said again. I have been learning about and leading worship for twenty some years, and I’ve taught the course half a dozen times and the awesome thing is I learn something new every time. It will be awesome to have you in the class to share your experience with us. By the end of the weekend together we all learned more and my students learn that all liturgy all the time is not far from my mantra. Why we do what we do, how we do it, our intentionality about it and how it changes our lives and faith is meaning and life worthy. Now I know this mantra makes me a bit peculiar but it is not the only thing that does I can assure you.
Our United Church Song of Faith claims worship to be
An outpouring of gratitude and awe
A practice of opening ourselves to God’s still small voice of comfort
and God’s rushing whirlwind of challenge.
We come to worship to praise—to express our gratitude for life and meaning and awe and wonder for that which inspires us and brings us closer to the divine. And we come open, longing wanting that experience of the God and Spirit –whether it be in the dramatic and joyous or the still small gentle presence. Or somewhere in between.
The part of our Song references the scripture read today and Elijah’s experience.
In the scripture from Kings we touch down on Elijah as he flees for the dessert or wilderness – a place known for encounter with God. His life is in jeopardy—he has challenged the monarchy and their religion and the Queen wants nothing less than his life. He flees for his life full of self-pity and ready to die. He goes to the wilderness and is provided for there—nourishment enough to continue his journey to the mountain. As he goes to the mountain he is in search and with expectation of finding God there. He would have been searching/expecting God in the way the Israelites had in the Exodus on Mount Sinai. He expected to find God in Fire, or a mighty wind or a thunderous earthquake. He did not find God in the way he was expecting — he did not find God—he was broken again by pain and despair and hid himself away in the cave. It was then that he was sent out by the word of the Lord to continue to stand in anticipation of an encounter with God. And it wasn’t, this time in the wind, fire or earthquake that came—it was in a moment of sheer silence.
Our United Church Song of Faith claims worship to be, like what Elijah discovered in his fleeing and doubt— worship as much reliant on our opening as it is of God’s action toward us. Sometimes God comes to us in expected and familiar ways and other times is veiled by our own doubts and questions. The song is intentional in opening us to as wide and as broad an experience as we can imagine. Ours is not a tradition that decides ahead of time that god is only in the sacrament of communion (God disclosed), or the word preached or in peaceful meditation or the steady rhythm of a praise song– but in all of the above.
Over the centuries there have been many arguments about the right way to worship. Different denominations and leaders, even states and emperors have attempted to define a proper order and emphasis and related language and doctrine. Hours and hours on worship teams, at continuing education events, academic study and experimentation have been given to try and make worship more relevant, more interesting, more contemporary or more like the good ol days. Or there is an attempt to narrowly define a common practice across all of our diversity. This is worthy work and another way that we attempt to open ourselves to what this spiritual practice can be and define ourselves as followers of Christ. But Elijah’s story might suggest instead we ought to stand not in expectation of God’s predictable arrival on our terms and in response to our subpoenas—but in anticipation that God will surprise us, catch us off guard or satisfy our longings in a sheer moment of silence. Ours is a/the task of attention.
The song of faith is invitational—to worship through word, music, art, sacrament and in community. And I suspect that I am preaching to the converted—the faithful remnant that come to worship because you do encounter God in some form or you wouldn’t be here. Very few of us, anymore, if any, come out of habit or duty.
And if you are like me you will of course have had the conversation with many a friend or family member –or even yourself—who says I don’t want to worship God in a church—I want to worship God in nature. We don’t preclude that. Worship happens in solitude as well. Of course an outpouring of awe and gratitude arise when we notice the sudden and abundant bloom of a purple and pink fuchsia plant dancing with colour even in the darkness of the morning shade, or snow capped mountains boldly holding up the sky or the brush of a sea turtle in the depths of the ocean. We worship there too. Our task is not to contain but to open and to encounter and to praise.
Eban Alexander who wrote the book: Proof of Heaven (many may be familiar with it) was a neurosurgeon and self identified agnostic. His book traces the journey he underwent when he contracted a rare brain infection and fell into a coma. By clinical measurements (the standards he dealt in) he was believed to be dead. He had an experience while in coma of life beyond this one that we know. He survived the illness and eventually came out of a coma miraculously and unexplainably. He could not explain away his experience with any of the scientific knowledge he was well versed in. It is worth reading about his experience. But the part that moved me the most was his description of his life after the experience. He started attending church –a cathedral church in the Episcopal tradition in the United States. He describes that when he attends there with the candles and the music and the word and prayer and the art–all of it—he is surrounded in that place with as close a proximity in this life as to the one he did in his experience in a spiritual other life. It is not the same but a faint approximation.
The other important thing the song points us to in our worship practice is that in it “God changes our lives, our relationships and our world.” Worship changes us. One of my students raised this issues in our practice. Are we changed and so we come to worship in response. Or does worship change us and so we go out differently. I think you could convincingly argue both ways.
But the liturgy (order of worship) in our tradition it has been intentionally designed to be both the place of encounter and to change us. The movement of gathering, opening, listening, responding and sending (eventually as a student you live it in your sleep) is meant to change us. Like our fellow Muslim pray-ers in the corridor of the airport our acts of worship are meant to cut across our daily mazes—whether it be mazes of burden or boredom, joy or anguish—to cut across and remind us of who we are—comfort and challenge us—call forth our best selves in community with others and empower us to live and move and BE different.
For some that will be through the holy revelations wrestled through scripture, for others it will be a question or insight from a child, others of us will be changed by union with something invisible made visible in the waters of baptism or the cup at table. For many it is a holy chord. “God changes our lives, our relationships and our world.’’
Over the events of our week and the weeks ahead it is worship—in every variety and tradition that has encircled mosques in peace and protection, it is worship that has called out love over hate, it is prayer and ritual and lamentation that has marked the reality and passage of death and the promise of healing—it is worship that can point to new life and hope and it is acts of prayer and conviction that have reached across divides at airports, schools, temples, streets and even or especially or the silence between strangers.
Our entire living can be an act of worship—even all liturgy all the time. May it be as God crosses and invites us at the intersections of our lives.