Sermon preached at Burke UMC LifeSign service 10/8/2011
Text: Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Many of you know that I have been coaching my son’s soccer team this fall. Not only do I not know what I’m doing, but my son is often uninterested in kicking the ball or even staying on the field. Our game last Saturday was cold and rainy. The other team’s coach and I decided to play anyway since we’ve had so many games rescheduled because of weather. One kid on my team is a beast who attacks the ball no matter where it is and keeps running the entire 8 minute quarter. I’m often reluctant to pull him out of the game. Well in the third quarter, he was starting to run out of steam, so the next time the ball went out of bounds, I took out our star player and put in my son.
Matthew loves the rain. He likes the way it feels on his face. He likes to catch it on his tongue. He also loves the wind because it feels like he’s flying. So when Matthew got on the field, he completely ignored everything, spread his arms wide, closed his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and tried to let the wind blow him wherever it would take him. He almost tripped over the ball several times. For three uncomfortable minutes, I watched until I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I yanked him out and put our star player back in. I had a miserable rest of the game both as a coach and as a father. It wasn’t until a few days later that God nailed me with the lesson He was trying to teach me through my son.
I had been reading a book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian named Alexander Schmemann where he says that “worship is the basic vocation of humanity,” which means that worship is (or should be) the purpose of everything we do. I’ve read sentences like this many times before, but this time it hit me differently and I connected it to my soccer field drama. Let me try to explain. You’ve probably heard me say before that we’re supposed to glorify God in everything that we do. We often take that to mean that if we’re Christians, we shouldn’t embarrass God in our workplaces or social interactions by being deceitful or arrogant or lazy or difficult to get along with. In other words, when we’re on the “soccer field” of life, we should play hard but not cheat or trip other players in order to display the kind of athleticism and sportsmanship that would make our heavenly Coach proud. Furthermore, whenever we score a goal, we should point to the sky to give God the glory for our achievement. When we’re successful and we thank God for our success, people see that and they want to have that kind of God on their side too.
I would wager that this is the predominant understanding in American Christianity of what it means to worship God by how we live. We worship God by trying our best to be successful and by doing everything that we can to make our kids successful, whether it’s sending them to soccer or taekwondo or art class. And hopefully we consider it part of our pursuit of success to read the Bible and send our kids to mission projects and Christian camps. In this way of viewing life, our weekly gathering to sing songs to God and receive encouragement and inspiration is an exclamation point on the end of the sentence, so we can stay motivated to glorify God by working hard.
Now here’s the problem with this way of thinking. When we assume that we glorify God through our achievements, then achievement is what’s most fundamental to our lives, not worship. When we organize our lives around our pursuit of a successful career or the activities that help our kids become successful adults, actually spending time with God pretty well loses its relevance even if we think it’s something we’re supposed to do. We skip out on the weekly singing and clapping and settle for remembering to give God glory in our thoughts whenever we have some downtime in the bleachers at halftime.
For worship to really be our underlying purpose in life requires a completely different paradigm than simply giving God credit for our achievements and working hard to make God look good. Living in worship requires viewing life as a gift rather than a competition. We worship God when we see our life story not as the story of what we are doing for God, but of what God has done for us. This is what Moses is telling the people of Israel in our scripture reading for today: “Fear the Lord, walk in obedience to him, love him, and serve him with all your heart” not out of a sense of terrified duty or a need to prove your worth, but because God has given you “commands and decrees… for your own good,” since despite the fact that “all the earth and heavens” belong to him, he “set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations.” Moses is telling the Israelites to serve and worship God not to win His favor but because they already won His favor before they did anything.
The reason that we come together as the body of Christ every week is not to get pumped up for another week of being successful for God, but to learn to see our lives in a completely different light. This transformation happens as we learn the story of what God did for our ancestors and what Christ did to prove that God has chosen us too. The faith of the ancient Israelites who first heard Moses’ words in Deuteronomy was grounded in the story of how God delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, so they worshiped God through festivals like Passover and the Feast of the Tabernacles which commemorated the night of their liberation and the forty years their ancestors wandered in the desert. As Christians, our worship is grounded in the story of how God delivered us from slavery to sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection, so we center our worship around the communion table that Jesus gave us to remember His sacrifice.
As we learn God’s story, then we start to see everything around us in the cubicles and on the soccer fields of life in the light of God’s generous grace. The more hurtful and frustrating things that have happened to us, the more help we need to catch a glimmer of God’s grace in our world, which is why God has called us to gather each week as a body where everyone can feel safe. Worship means refusing to let the hurt and frustration have the last word. One of the most poignant statements of worship in the whole Bible occurs when Job, a man who lost everything, refused to curse God, saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; praise be to God!”
Worship is the stubborn insistence to view life as a blessing and to live in the story of an abundantly gracious God no matter what has happened to us. So what then does worship have to do with hospitality? Everything! The reason that Moses can tell the Israelites in Deuteronomy to love the foreigners and widows and orphans among them is because they worship a generous God who took care of them when they were strangers in a strange land. Their entire identity has been built upon the story of God’s generosity; thus it is an entirely natural extension of that generosity to show hospitality to others. If we see life as a gift from God and recognize the human beings God created in His image as part of that gift, then we will cherish the sacredness of every human being we talk to and we will listen closely to what God has to teach us through each of His children.
Last Saturday on that soccer field, I was living on the playing field of worldly achievement and not in the kingdom of worship. In that way of looking at the world, my son’s behavior was frustrating to my efforts to make him successful at soccer. But looking at his love for the rain and wind through the eyes of worship, I can see why Jesus says that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15). Jesus also said that those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind as they float upon the breath of God (John 3:8). It doesn’t matter that my son isn’t yet able to say that He was thanking God for the wind and rain, because every time I replay that moment in my head, I worship God for teaching me to repent of my worldly anxiety and simply enjoy the goodness of His creation. Let us view all things with the eyes of worship so that we may welcome Christ and all that He has to teach us through the people He has given us to love.