What is worship? Most of us, when we think of worship, we consider what we do on a particular day of the week. If Christian, we might first consider what we do on the Sabbath: the act of saying prayers, or listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or participating in some kind of gathering. Part of our experience with Covid 19 has changed how we worship—we may meet virtually, instead of in-person. We may find our “church” on-line, instead of rooted in geographical space. But consider this: the author, Sarah Ban Breathnach (pronounced “Bon Bronnack”), has said, “An authentic life is the most personal form of worship. Everyday life has become my prayer.” For Ban Breathnach and for the Apostle Paul, worship is actually how one moves through one’s life. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1). By “bodies,” he means “your total selves.” He urges the Romans not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed. Clearly, this doesn’t simply happen on a Sunday, or in some kind of pre-fixed worship setting, but is an on-going, daily, full-body process. Worship becomes a way of everyday prayer, devotion, and a way of living in the world in harmony with each other. That isn’t usually the way that we consider worship. Our worship team plans and prepares Sunday services for your edification and to help facilitate your communication with God. But that is primarily a Sunday thing: what theme will we explore, what message do we hope to convey, and how we can best welcome the Spirit. Paul is saying something different with his letter.
What Paul suggests is that we worship God in how we live our daily lives. We might rightly ask, “What in the world does Paul mean?” and how we are to do this. In part, that is what today’s passage from Romans is about: the how of worship practiced this way. In this short scripture, we are given at least 30 imperatives for living the Christian life. Thirty! Verb after verb after verb concerning how to live—in these bodies—as a form of worship. And by these bodies, he means our own physical body but also the spiritual body that we form when we participate in the body of Christ. This is a kind of worship that no worship team member can facilitate for you. It is dependent on you. Each imperative is a plea for you to live in harmony with your God and with God’s people.. In your day-to-day life. In your every moment. In your every place.
But what does that actually look like? To examine all 30 imperatives in one virtual sermon message would be foolish for the pastor. To meditate on each of the imperatives and to live them really well takes a lifetime of practice and discipline. Instead, what we might do today is to consider something a bit less ambitious. We might ask, “ which of these imperatives are ‘of the essence’ right now? For example, is it more important for us to “be patient in suffering” or to “hate what is evil”? Is it more necessary to “feed our enemies” or to “live in harmony with one another”? Which of the 30 imperatives for Christian worship are priority for us? Which are most difficult for you in these dangerous and uncertain times? Do you need to be reminded to “persevere in prayer,” to “rejoice in hope,” or to “rejoice with those who are rejoicing and to weep with those who are weeping” even when you are gritting your teeth, venting under your breath, or straining with unfulfilled expectations? Or do you need to learn to “associate with the lowly” or “to love with mutual affection””? Do we need to “extend hospitality to strangers” or to “contribute to the needs of the saints”? Here, we are a far cry from choosing what hymns to sing, or how we might collectively gather, or what particular and potential technology we might try to master in these challenging times. Here, it is not just a few people thinking about or considering the business of worship, but every member engaged in thoughtful worship reflection within the particulars and confines of their life.
The message of Paul to the Romans (and by extension, to all of us) provides a different focus for the church and a kind of grounding. Take any one of these imperatives for presenting ourselves, our bodies, as a living sacrifice and a living witness for God and see what you come up with. See how it challenges and changes you as you consider the news or engage with those who enter (and depart) your daily walk. I promise that you will find connections.
On Thursday, this past week, my neighbor hand-delivered, to my family, a homemade Chinese meal, around lunchtime. When I opened the door, she eagerly stepped inside to show us what she had brought—a kind of fried seaweed dish made from fresh seaweed from Virginia Beach. In the excitement, my dear children forgot their manners and began to sample the plate of food and bread, even as she held it. As she stepped lightly across our threshold, I noticed that she wasn’t wearing a mask and held my breath. She wasn’t silently trying to voice her political oppf; she simply forgot. I had a decision to make. Would I accept her enthusiasm and her generosity of the moment or would I comment on her missing mask? In that moment, our gratitude outweighed any discomfort.
On a different day during the same week, I was researching care for hermit crabs. Like many of you, I belong to various groups on-line and those groups have their own dynamics. In our hermit crab group, there was a scuffle of sorts about whether or not a particular poster was trying to scam someone by trying to give away hermit crabs to good homes. It seems that she had ordered too many (50, instead of 5) and was frantically trying to find new owners. She promised free crabs for overnight shipping. Yet, it was a real tempest in a teapot. One particular individual vehemently argued that her need wasn’t legitimate. For me, it revealed that people can be rather rude and often expect the worst of people, rather than the best. There was a lot of back and forth and not all of it was kind, patient, or even hospitable to strangers. For a group focused on the well-being of crabs, the participants could be rather “crabby” and critical themselves!
For every example that I might give here, you likely have many similar moments in your life, when you are faced with a choice either to live out the imperatives lived by Jesus, and spoken here by Paul, or express something other than worship of your God. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Abba in spirit and truth, for the Abba seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
A Japanese legend tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful, lush, glittering, and spacious. But then the man came to a room that was filled with shelves. On those shelves were piles and piles of human ears, just ears! His heavenly guide explained that the ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened each week to the word of God, but never acted on God’s teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. When these people died, therefore, only their ears ended up in heaven.
For Jesus, Paul, and others like Ban Breathnach, worship is clearly more than what happens on any given Sabbath. Worship begins, so far as it depends on us, when we leave our sanctuaries and “go out” into the world and make ourselves a living gift to the One who has given all for us.