Clergy Corner: Thoughts on Christian worship

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Rev. Kent Leydens.

■ Rev. Kent Leydens / Contributed

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4 NRSV
Some years ago, I accepted an invitation to spend a week in July camping on a mountain with the Nez Perce tribe on their reservation in Idaho. Every night, we worshipped. Some 100 folks on folding chairs gathered in a metal pole-building with three sides open beneath thousands of towering Ponderosa Pines. We started with a hymn-sing after dinner around six in the evening. We never got out until close to 11 p.m.
Along with the music, every night we had a sermon and an altar call – and these were Presbyterians! They had been worshipping that way on that mountain since the 1870s. One night though, we were interrupted. It started raining. We pulled closed the side canvas curtains sides and tried to continue. After all, the preacher had a sermon. But it rained harder still, and then it started to hail. We learned the next day that the storm clouds on us, up on the mountain, produced tornadoes in the valley below.
It rained and hailed so hard you couldn’t hear yourself shout. The preacher’s mouth was moving, but no sound could be heard. Finally, he figured it out and stopped. It was very dark. We sat for at least a half an hour, with only our mortality held by an enormous force completely in its control. We were trapped, helpless, not moving, saying nothing, and deafened by the noise.
I remember reading from the Christian writer Annie Dillard about our words in worship: “[They are those] which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.” (Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1977, p. 59). That night, I understood what she meant.
It was as if the mystery of God’s real presence – the presence that came so close to Moses (Exodus 3:6), Isaiah (6:5), Job (42:6), and Peter (Luke 5:8) – was close to us. So close that all of our religious talk was silenced. The status quo? Wiped out! Our religious words got a kind of a good, strong cleansing; it was a harsh baptism. We saw ourselves as mortal and sinful as we truly are. I was changed. My ideas about what happens in worship were transformed.
One day in Nazareth, everything started out as normal as it could be. When Jesus sat down, everyone was ready to praise him. They were sure his mother Mary would be proud. The ushers did nothing more than check their watches and count heads. Everything was as it should be.
And then his words sunk in: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Not yesterday. Not in some day to come. Not nice words barely remembered, but fulfilled; and in your hearing. Not Moses and Isaiah. Not Job and Peter. But you.
This was not a sermon. It was a word from the Lord. Familiar verses became real news. God has come close in your life and time. Now. God’s word is present for you in all of its demanding fullness of Jesus Christ. The world has changed.
To encounter that word from God is to come to know our reason for Christian worship. It is not about our being satisfied and pleased. It is not about maintaining the status quo. It is not about keeping our assumptions and opinions. It is about the sheer fact and the real new – the Good News – that Jesus Christ is as alive and present now as he was in the little flock in Nazareth.
God comes close in Jesus Christ and speaks words to us that are fulfilled in our hearing: Justice. Liberty. Salvation. For all. These are not just a hope and prayer for some day or a hymn from the old days. It is a word from the Lord that judges us. A word that sends us reeling inward as if engulfed by a death-dealing storm. A word that frees us from our bonds of sin. A word that send us tumbling outward into the world to do as we are commanded by our Lord. For we are baptized and risen with Christ; our hearts turned, our minds changed and our voices filled with new life and new hope.

Reverend Kent Leydens is honorably retired from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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