I continue this morning my sermon series called “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in transition.” I am taking us back to the time that the Israelites were in the Sinai wilderness in-between their old slave life in Egypt and their new abundant life in the Promised Land, and I am very intentionally taking us back to that time to help you as a church successfully navigate this in-between time between the formal end of David Bailey’s ministry and the coming of your future pastor.
Today’s lesson from the Sinai for you as a church in transition comes from the words God directed Moses to say to Pharaoh before Pharaoh gave the Israelites their freedom: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” This became a kind of mantra for Moses, which he began repeating every time he went in to address Pharaoh
God makes clear through Moses that whatever else the Sinai time was for the Israelites, and it would be about a lot of things, it was to be primarily about recentering the community of former Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire as the center to God as the center through the worship of God.
In the same way, the time between installed senior pastors for a church like yours, that is the interim or transition time, is about a number of things, but primarily it is about recentering this church in God mainly through the worship of God. During the time I am with you worship will be for me the most important, most central, most vital activity that we do together, and I hope it will be for you, as well. If you schedule is so limited that you don’t have time to do much of anything, I hope you will make time at least for worship. The interim time is meant to be a time for spiritual renewal in the church through worship, and one of my many roles as an interim pastor is to be a renewal preacher for you.
So what is worship? What is worship meant to be and do? Let me tell you a story.
In 1473 a baby boy was born in Poland who would grow up and forever change the way we think about our world. His name was Nicolaus Copernicus. He was an astronomer and a mathematician. He was privileged to make one of those rare discoveries that ended up being a game-changer ever after for the whole human race. His discovery produced what a modern-day philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, would come to call a “paradigm shift.” A paradigm is a model or construct we carry around in our heads that helps us understand the world and our lives, help us interpret all of that. A paradigm shift is when something happens that completely changes that model or construct and leads us to a fundamental rethinking of everything in life.
For thousands of years before Copernicus, human beings thought the earth was the center of the universe and that all the heavenly bodies in the universe revolved around the earth, and by implication human beings thought of themselves as the center of the universe as a result of living on the earth they thought of as the center of the cosmos. This idea of an earth-centered universe was just accepted without thinking from generation to generation as conventional wisdom.
Copernicus read the notes of others who had previously looked at and thought about the cosmos, looked through his telescope, developed his own mathematical proofs of what he was seeing, and concluded in time that the earth was not the center of the universe at all; rather, the sun was the center of a solar system, and the earth was just one of several heavenly bodies that revolved around the sun. Copernicus taught us the shocking truth that we are not the center of life in the universe after all, but like so many other things in the universe: just one of many along for the ride.
It was such a huge change in the way human beings thought about the world and themselves that it took the human race a good 100 years or more for Copernicus’ idea to really sink in and be widely accepted, but, once it was, it became known as the “The Copernican Revolution.”
So what is worship?
Worship, like the Copernican Revolution, is for us a paradigm shift that leads to a reconsideration of where the center of life is. Worship shifts our attention away from the people and things and ideas of this world that we thought were the center, to God, who actually is the center of it all, and that shift in attention is intended to cause a revolution in the way we think, speak and live in this world.
2500 years before Copernicus another paradigm shift happened, a revolution even more important than the Copernican one. A spiritual and religious revolution was underway in the Egyptian empire led by a Hebrew man named Moses, who by an odd set of circumstances had grown up in the Egyptian royal palace.
In his idealistic youth Moses murdered a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. When the crime was discovered, Moses fled as a fugitive into the Sinai and herded sheep there for 40 years. At the end of that time he had had a special spiritual experience in the desert at the burning bush, encountering the God identified as “Yahweh”, a loving power in the world that Moses would learn was greater than Pharaoh and the whole Egyptian empire. By the end of that holy encounter Moses felt compelled to return to Egypt, and he did, and the next he knew he was standing in front of Pharaoh saying, ”Hear the word of the Lord: let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness,”
So what is worship? It’s a paradigm shift. It is a regular reminder that God is the center of this universe, and in charge of it. Pharaoh, for all of his power in the world, was not the center, nor was the Egyptian Empire he led, nor was any other human leader or empire that would follow. In worship I am reminded that I am not the center, and you are remined that you are not the center. In worship we are reminded our spouse is not the center, nor our children, nor our parents, nor our teacher, nor our boss or workplace, nor even our church. In worship we are reminded that our money is not the center, or our lifestyle, our fears or greed or lust, or our dreams or ambitions. In worship we are reminded that our particular brand of politics or our nation is not the center, our particular social and economic theories are not the center. In worship we rediscover each week that God is the center, our creator, Savior and Sustainer, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ as described for us in the four gospels, In worship we rediscover that when we put this God at the center of our lives everyone in our lives, and everything in our lives, is put in its proper place.
Worship is the reorientation of one’s life that comes from regularly acknowledging God as the center. In worship there is a dethroning of all the people and things and ideas we thought were the center, and a new acknowledgement of God who sits on the throne of our lives and puts all of our people and things in their proper place.
A friend I had long ago, and now long since dead, once came to me with this happy pronouncement, “I have found the secret to life”, he said. “From now on I am going to make my wife the center of my life.” I knew the man in the years leading up to that as a small business owner who had been a chronic workaholic, and whose wife contemplated divorce for the previous six years because the man was always at his business and never home. She kept telling him, “I didn’t marry so I could spend my life alone. I married you because I wanted to be with you.” I told the man that knowing his history he had taken an important first step, but I encouraged him to take it a step further and make God the center of his life. I told him if he put God at the center of his life, he would find that his marriage and business and everything else would all fall into their proper place.
My wife, Molly, as you may or may not know, is a hospital chaplain, and she has that special something that makes people talk to her out of some of the deepest parts of their lives. She once attended a musical recital which took place in a Presbyterian church, and after the recital she found herself unexpectedly in conversation with a stranger, a woman, the mother of a teenage musical prodigy who had just performed. This mother told Molly that she had made her son the center of her life, gave him everything, provided him with every opportunity, poured herself into him, and now, after all that, she confessed that she did not like the way he had turned out or even how she had turned out. He was an unhappy kid, dangerously imbalanced, with an unhealthy obsession with his musical instrument that had pushed other good things out of his life. This mother was full of regret and in despair that she had given her son everything in life except God and the church and faith, and being back in the church building that day for the first time in years was surfacing in her all that regret and despair. She said they just never seemed to have had time for God or for the church or for faith. It was a cautionary tale, I thought, about the damage we can do to one another when we try to make each other the center of our lives instead of God.
You will notice in our gospel story this morning that Jesus himself was in the habit or custom of going weekly to worship at the Synagogue. Weekly worship was a spiritual discipline for him. On his trip back home to Nazareth, he went to the synagogue for Sabbath worship, and Luke lets us know that going to worship weekly was his custom, his habit, his ddiscipline.
As Presbyterians we pride ourselves on living by the grace of God and in the freedom we have in Christ. The emphasis in our Presbyterian faith is on what God has done for us, not on what we do for God. The popular Christian writer Phillip Yancey, though not Presbyterian, speaks for us as Presbyterians when he writes, “Grace means there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.” We believe that, too. It’s all about God’s grace. God has done everything that needed to be done through Christ, and we embrace God in Christ.
But what has troubled me as a Presbyterian pastor over the years is that we Presbyterians increasingly use the grace of God and our freedom in Christ to neglect the very spiritual discipline that Jesus himself exercised during his earthly life, that is, the custom or habit of showing up for worship weekly in the synagogue every Sabbath.
In Presbyterian churches I pastor these days, only 1/3 to ½ of the membership show up for worship each week, even before COVID, including the online segment. And over the years regularly attendance at worship no longer means weekly, but every other week, or once a month, or once a quarter. The trend is that Presbyterian Christians worship altogether less and less as time goes by. I don’t think it bodes well for the future of the church. My primary concern as a pastor is that when we neglect weekly worship and the weekly recentering in God it brings, we open our lives to another kind of center, which will be so much less than the God we know in Jesus Christ. We all have a center around which our lives revolve, and that center is either going to be God or something much less than God.
Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. Weekly worship keeps God at the center of our lives, which in turn puts everything else in our life in its proper place.
I notice that one of your recent mottos or slogans for this church was “God At The Center.” Our scriptures today remind us that what keeps God at the center in a church is regular worship together. I invite you as a whole church to join me in regular worship during this interim/transitional/wilderness/Sinai time to make sure that “God at the Center” is a living reality for us all, made possible by regular worship together. My hope as an interim pastor is to present you to your next installed senior pastor as a whole congregation committed to regular worship together.
Hear again the word of God through Moses: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” And hear again Luke’s description of the spiritual practice of your Lord Jesus Christ, who you place your trust in and follow. Luke’s gospel says “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”