by Rev. Doug Gray
With school starting this week, I spent some time thinking and praying for students and teachers. Do you remember any of your teachers? Who was one of your toughest teachers? What made them hard?
[Take responses from the congregation.]
I think lots of people approach life like we approach school—find the person in charge of a class, figure them out, do what they want, and carry on with our lives. Like a student switching classes, many of us think of God kind of like a teacher for class Sunday morning…and when we are done, we set God aside until the next class. We call it “going to church,” and “worship” is the name of the class, and Jesus or God is the teacher. We come out of the world, and we go to the God-place and do God-things. How we usually think of church might look like this:
Work with me here: Anyone know how many hours in a week? 168. Let’s set aside some time for sleeping, roughly 8 hours a night—56. How much for God? Worship plus some social time before and after, maybe 2 hours. If you’re really involved or have additional responsibilities, maybe it’s as much as 10 hours…but let’s stick with the 2 hours for a minute. How much does that leave you? 110 hours. For most of that time, we scatter into the world, like this:
God stuff: 2 hours. [Switch picture to graphic with red dots in corner.] Our stuff: 110 hours. [Switch back to graphic with red dots spread out.] That’s how humans have often thought of worship, including the folks in Jesus’ and Paul’s time too. They thought that if you give the gods the offerings they want, pray the prayers they want, then they reward you with better stuff in this life and a better after-life. If you look at it this way, the only piece that really matters is what we do for God that’s connected with the building, and the only people really doing ministry are the folks who get paid to do it in the building on Sundays. This is how lots of people think of church.
For the people of Jesus’ and Paul’s time—and maybe for us—Paul’s words are shocking: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” Wow! From Paul, we get a very different way of imagining worship.
First, worship is a response to God’s mercy. In school, we study because of what we get out of it or because our parents make us. With God, we worship because of what God has already done—created the world, created us, come to us in Jesus Christ, sacrificed His life for us on the Cross, rose from the dead for us, shows us kindness and grace in our families, work and school every day. Paul writes, “…in view of God’s mercy…” We worship because of Who God is and what God has already done for us.
Second, worship is giving our whole life to God. In school, we learn new stuff, and then we go back to the rest of our lives. What God longs for is a relationship, to become part of our eating, working, sleeping, parenting, playing, cleaning—whatever we do. If that’s so, then worship isn’t just something like this—
—worship is something that happens wherever we are in our weeks. So God goes with us into all of these places,
ready to help and strengthen us, wherever we are, whoever we are with.
Finally, worship allows God to shape us. In school, we learn new stuff, but we don’t really have to change. Paul writes, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” If we become like everybody else, the culture in which we live takes over and our dots gray out. What we are hoping for is that God will change our lives, that we will not just learn some new things and carry on, but be transformed! God doesn’t just want to teach us about what a nice person does, what kinds of love Jesus showed, and how to save your marriage—though God can do all those things. What God really longs for is the same thing we long for—that we would become a truly loving, truly good person. God will shape us— and then we will become better friends, better partners, better children and better parents. Worship allows us to be transformed.
Earlier, we thought about our toughest teachers, but when we think about our best teachers, they truly care about us as a person, and with humor and challenge, they help us think like scientists and athletes, musicians and writers. And so we become, to some degree, scientists, athletes, musicians and writers. That’s a reflection of how God wants to work in us too. By renewing our minds and hearts, God helps us think about differently ourselves and our life together. So what if the way our culture has taught us to think about church is the way our culture wants us to think about church? Imagine church is really the people—us!—and church goes wherever we do. What if we are the church when we are gathered—
—and we are the church when we are scattered
What if the real front lines of ministry are not in here—but out there? What if God has placed you in the world with a purpose—to be the seed of God’s love where you are planted? Imagine church engaging our whole lives!