For a number of years, members of my church have been bringing back worship bulletins when they visit other churches. I have encouraged them to do it, particularly when they go on vacation or business trips. In any given week, the folks in my church travel all over the place. When they go on the road, I am delighted that they are worshipping somewhere, rather than nowhere at all.
Members of my wandering flock always return home with a story to tell. Perhaps they heard a choir that was exceptionally good or the minister in that church told a story in the sermon they think I could use or they see a program or mission project that they believe our church ought to be doing.
We often talk for a minute when they drop off the bulletin, and most of the time the visitor will say, "You know, I got something out of it." That's an unusual phrase, but I know what those folks are talking about, don't you? Whether it's a radio show like this or Sunday morning in a church sanctuary, all of us want some piece of worship to grab us, to move us, to teach us, or to inspire us. Otherwise, we might tune out. So here's the question for today: "What do you get out of worship?"
Now I realize that's a tricky question. The musical anthem that appeals to you may not appeal to somebody else. The prayer that voices your concerns may leave everybody else in the dust. Much of what we get out of Sunday worship depends on what we bring to the experience.
During the 1930's in Germany, theologian Karl Barth said, "When the church bells ring and call the villagers to worship, they come with one question on their hearts. The question: "Is it true?"
These days in America, however, if anybody comes to church with a question, the question is more likely to be, "What's in it for me?" Some of the fastest growing churches in America are designed like shopping malls with a different boutique for a different taste. As they hold multiple worship services on the weekend, they target different appetites. There will be a contemporary service, a contemporary-lite service, a traditional service, an ethnic music service, and so on and so forth.
Up in Scranton where I live, recently there was a polka mass. Sometime ago The Atlantic Monthly ran an article about those huge churches which are designed to appeal to the best--and the worst--of American consumerism. The reporter was talking to the pastor of one of those churches and was marveling at the attendance. Over 15,000 people attend worship in that church every week. However, the pastor frowned, "There are two million people within an hour drive of this place," he said. "We've got only a two percent of market share. We have a long way to go."
What do you get out of worship? There is some help for answering that question, I think, in the story I read a few minutes ago. In many ways, this story from the second chapter of Mark goes in as many directions as the concerns we bring to it. All kinds of things are happening in this story. Jesus has gone to his house in Capernaum and begun to teach. A crowd gathers to hear him. Suddenly, some people rip a hole in the roof and lower a sick person to the teacher's feet. Is this a teaching story or a healing story? It depends on what you bring to it. This is a moment of personal attention where Christ singles out one person. Yet it is also a moment of profound community, with a pushing, seething, tuned-in crowd. Is this personal piety or communal faith? Depends on what you're looking for. At the heart of the story, Jesus offers a word of forgiveness. He says to the man, "Your sins are forgiven," even though the man and his friends never ask for that. Then Jesus responding to the self-righteous religious leaders decides to display his power. He heals the man of his paralysis even though the man and his friends never actually ask for that either. After all, maybe the crippled man wanted to be lowered to the feet of Jesus so he could hear the sermon better. Mark doesn't say.
All kinds of things are happening in this story. But the one center that holds the story together is the person of Jesus. In word and deed he comes to restore people like this withered man. In the Gospel of Mark whenever Jesus speaks the word he also heals the sick. There is no difference or distinction between word or deed; they are held together in one unified mission. Preaching and healing fit together. And in Mark's story of Jesus, one rarely happens without the other.
The very first time Jesus appeared in public Mark says he went to the synagogue. Jesus began to preach and teach and ten minutes later he heals a man in the fifth pew. Now, what do you suppose those people got out of worship that morning?
Reynolds Price was a middle-aged professor at Duke University, a tenured English professor and a critically acclaimed novelist. Price was successful in every way. Then one day he received the grim news that there was an 8-inch tumor wrapped around his spine. No operation could promise to fully remove it. Privately, the physicians agreed he could not have more than 18 months to live. The pain grew until it was devastating.
Price describes months of sickening treatments, the agonies of physical therapy, and a variety of remedies that attempted to relieve his pain. He even began to pray and read the Bible although he notes he didn't find any quick relief. One day he had a vision and it caught him offguard. He taught in a Methodist College but by his own admission, he was a part-time Protestant. In the vision, Price saw himself at the Sea of Galilee and Jesus summoned him. They waded out into the water. He writes, "Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back until water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once, 'Your sins are forgiven,' and turned to shore, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, 'It's not my sins I'm worried about.' So to Jesus' receding back I had the gall to say, 'Am I also cured?' He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words, 'That too.' Then he climbed from the water not looking around, really done with me. I followed him out and then with no palpable seam in the texture of time and place, I was home again in my wide bed.
Price was never physically healed. His cancer eventually diminished due to treatments, but he will remain in a wheelchair the rest of his life. You might ask, "Professor Price, what did you get out of that experience?" And he writes, "I am filled with gratitude." The vision erased any superstitious feeling that his sickness came as a punishment, for he heard Jesus say he was forgiven. The experience also held him close to the bosom of God even when his illness threatened to tear him away.
The point is, Reynolds Price didn't just get something. He got something back. Some piece of his life was given back and restored by the presence of Jesus Christ. I can't think of a better benefit to worship than that: that some piece of our life is restored.
Maybe it comes in that word from Christ, "Your sins are forgiven." God knows the devices and desires of our hearts. The gospel is the surprising announcement that God cancels our spiritual debts and absolves us of our moral trespasses. That's not to say the message gets jumbled in transmission. There's a church I know where nobody takes the time on Sunday morning to ever confess the sins. I guess nobody wants to admit they ever do anything wrong, but, oh, you should hear them gossip in the parking lot!
It's difficult to come clean about the parts of our lives that have withered. The honesty might kill us, yet ready or not, Jesus speaks the word, "You are forgiven."
As someone has said, "We are absolved not once in our lives, nor twice but regularly." We need the renewing power of God's forgiveness as much as we need food or water or air. If there is shame in this, it is redeeming shame because it reminds us who we are meant to be and who by the grace of God we are becoming.
When we worship God in Christ, something is given back to us. Something is restored.
How could it be otherwise? Mark's story of Jesus is a story of restoration. As Mark tells the story of Jesus, it sounds like the fulfillment of a great poem from the 35th chapter of Isaiah:
Isaiah says, "The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad."
Mark begins by telling us Jesus first appears in the wilderness. "The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus, and rejoice with joy and singing." And Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days to confront the powers of destruction.
"The eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy." That's just what Jesus does as he begins his work in Galilee. He heals the headache and cleanses the leper. He feeds the hungry and forgives the filthy. He mends the withered arm and restores the withered hearts. In Jesus Christ, life is given back to the children of God.
When we worship in the name of Jesus, we take part in his story. We reclaim what the world out there wants to take away from us.
A number of years ago, a woman I know went to a church conference. During the week, after some trust had been built, she found herself chatting with a preacher from another denomination. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned that on an average Sunday morning, he rarely preached for less than an hour. "I don't mean to be disrespectful," she said, "but why do you go on for so long?" He smiled and said, "What do you mean?" "In my church," she said, "people squirm if it goes on any longer than 59 minutes." He said, "Lady, I preach to people who have been told all week that they don't amount to anything. The world tells them they have no value, that they're worthless. It takes me a good long while to get it through to them that the world is telling them a lie. The world says to them, 'You're a nobody,' but I stand up in my pulpit and say, 'That's not true. In Jesus Christ, you're somebody. You are loved with an infinite love.'"
He said, "All week the world tries to take something away from my people but when Sunday comes, I'm going to take as much time as I need to speak the gospel and to let God give something back to them."
So, what did you get out of worship this morning?
We have an opportunity to be restored by the grace and power of God. "Every week the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing." As we gather we hear the story of Jesus who comes to forgive and renew. And when we trust this is true, we obtain joy and gladness, and "sorrow and sighing shall flee away."
Let us pray.
Creator and Redeemer of all, we thank you for your renewing power. Each day is a milestone of your mercy. Each evening is a testimony to your grace. Receive us and restore us this day; set us free from our sin and replenish our hope. Give us the faith to rest in the sufficiency of your grace through Christ our Lord. Amen.