The Sunday Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020
Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-2
Laying Down and Running
From Romans 12:1-2 in worship last Sunday to Hebrews 12:1-2 this week. Being Transformed by the renewal of our minds in order to make the choices we must make for the Kin-dom of God on earth is going to take some time. So as the last full month of summer comes to a close and we look to the fall, we are preparing to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. And while we do that, let’s also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.
Pray with me …
It’s the last Sunday of August and we’ll step into September in two days. Normally a month of “return” – to worship with a full choir, Sunday School classes, Youth Group gatherings and annual Fellowship plannings – this September we will be continuing our distancing with recorded and drive-in worship services and, while we’ll add a few more educational opportunities through the wonders of video-conferencing, we will continue to gather together, apart. But many before us – that “great cloud of witnesses – have run their race with perseverance.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Hebrews 12:1-2. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Many before us have run their race with perseverance. So will we …
I suppose what jumps out at us most from these two verses from Hebrews is its appeal to us to lighten our load – “lay aside every weight” – in this marathon called life. We must. But we don’t do that through forgetting “every weight” in our life, or through refusing to acknowledge the “sin that clings so closely.” We do it through remembering and admitting all of that and then allowing forgiveness and change to happen in our lives. And we do that most effectively through our continued and continual communal worship together.
Is that happening for you? Worship that allows you to feel forgiven and changed? Outside the walls of our church buildings? Distanced from others in your faith community? Without the beautiful trappings of our well adorned Sanctuary? I hope so. Because we are worshipping together much more, on many more days and at many more times, since the end of March
After being intrigued and more than a little pleased with “online attendance” in the first month or so of recorded worship services, our virtual attendance has leveled off or declined this summer. No doubt, that was from safe family travel and summer “time-off,” but my guess is that it is also is a result of the novelty wearing off, creativity waning a bit, and a nagging question in many of our minds that sounds something like this: What is the point of worshipping like this? It’s a good, faithful, question, I think. And a good faithful response requires us to take a closer look at what “worship” actually is.
Back when we were still arguing, and some in our state insisting, that “we must be allowed to re-open churches,” one of the biggest claims was that worship provides “spiritual solace” to those who got to Church (or Temple or the Mosque). But, in her article “Rising from Stones” in the August 26th Christian Century, Clair Miller Colombo notes that this way of arguing for worship reveals how we view this time together like so many other “deliverables” in our life. With this reasoning “worship becomes a transactional event that requires the presence of consumers seeking their own consolation” (26).
Thinking about and “consuming” worship in this way reveals two wrong understandings about what we’re doing when we gather two or more to experience GOD: That the main purpose of worship is to deliver spiritual comfort and that a safe, comfortable version of it must always be made available. It reveals to us that we very easily, and very often “worship Worship”. But if our COVID-19 experience of social distancing has proven anything at all to us, it is that worship is not an act of self-preservation but of self-sacrifice. And if the racial unrest that has risen to the surface once again has proven anything at all to us, it is that worship is not first and foremost for our own comfort but for our own conversion.
There was a survey done in another magazine, the Jesuit weekly America (May 22, 2020), that asked readers what they missed most about Sunday worship. People wrote that they missed their favorite pew, the community, the times of silence (brief as they may be in the Presbyterian Church), the singing, and children’s church. And one woman lamented that “Sundays no longer feel special.”
I understand the sentiment of this lament, I think, but I wonder if that is so because, at least in part, we’ve found “Sunday” and ways to “do Sunday” at other times and on other days of the week – in a Zoom gathering on Sunday evening, the reading of a pastor’s letter mid-week, the receipt of the church bulletin on Friday afternoon, and even every day this past week as we engaged the PCUSA’s Week of Action daily. (I hope someone other than me is did this. There is one more day left, today. Check your emails when you get home.)
“Sunday” and “Worship” have become more than a once-a-week-for-only-an-hour thing for us in the time we’ve been apart, together. We have become members not only of the “10:30 a.m. Sunday morning congregation”, Colombo notes, but also members of the “communion of saints,” or as the author of Hebrews describes them the “great cloud of witnesses.” And it’s in the midst of this communion and in the depth of this worship that more than ever we are able to lay aside “every weight” and the “sin that clings so closely.”
Our life has, our lives have, changed and they are changing. They are “in process.” Let’s make the connection: For us the Way of Christ is Life (however much we try to live differently). As the Church we embody that Life, that reality (however imperfectly). Which means that we, too, are changing. Life has changed. Christ is Life. The church is Christ. So, the church has changed and we are changing. Or more accurately, we’re being changed. Who can deny that today?
To be “the body of Christ” in these times more than most times, is to allow ourselves to be changed. And so we do. So we are. And for however long this particular “transformation” is upon us, we will “persevere” and deepen our understanding of how, when, and where worship “happens,” laying aside those things that distract and separate us from the holy and the sacred in the world, setting aside whatever distracts us from justice, righteousness, and Love. And when this pandemic is done and the next change-agent comes along (and it will), we will renew our minds once again and grow deeper this understanding.
Every day this week you have had the opportunity to gather through the webinars, town halls, and videos that are offered through the PCUSA Week of Action website. If you participated, it was worship for you. Every day of the week ahead, and the week after that, and the week after that, you have the opportunity to worship – to lay aside every weight and every sin that clings so closely so that you may run … freely and in the sure and certain knowledge of forgiveness and grace.
It’s been a good summer. A summer unlike any we’ve ever known as a church community – here or anywhere else we’ve worshipped with others. But it’s been a good summer, so now let’s prepare for the Fall, beginning with the new month ahead, by opening fully to it. Be transformed by the renewal of your minds, set aside that which separates you from GOD, and run with perseverance the race set before you.
Follow along with the lyrics of this morning’s anthem: On Jordan’s banks we stand and cast a wishful eye. It’s time to cross over this Fall. Let’s do it together.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / August 30, 2020