Posts Tagged ‘worship’

Come Up To Me

What follows is my meditation from this morning’s Monmouth College Chapel Service.

“Come Up To Me”

Exodus 24:12-18

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

February 28th, 2011

Have you noticed how people are always climbing mountains in search of God?

In today’s text Moses is in need of instruction, he is in need of the law on stone tablets, and, I imagine, he is in need of reassurance that God is still with him as he leads his people on an excruciatingly long exodus through the desert.

Elijah, in a moment of great despair and desperation, climbs a mountain in 1 Kings and experiences God in the sound of sheer silence.[1]

Jesus takes his disciples and climbs a mountain in this Sunday’s Transfiguration text where the glory of the Lord shines around them and God’s voice is heard from a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”[2]

According to Judaic tradition, the Temple or synagogue was always built at the highest point in the city so when the people went to worship they had to go up, they had to climb the mountain, singing their songs of ascent as they went.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is a tradition that continues today and draws together many religious traditions.  It’s a theme that is evident in literature (remember Tolstoy’s story from last week where the emperor climbed the mountain in search of the enlightened old hermit.)  It’s a theme evident around the world…I was struck on a trip to Austria how every mountaintop was adorned with a large cross.

Climbing the mountain in search of God is something people have done for centuries and still do today.  And all of this is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern belief that the mountain is the pillar of the earth, holding the earth and heavens in place.[3] So in order to experience God you climbed the mountain.

After graduating from seminary, a friend of mine and I took three weeks to go backpacking through Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.  Austria is one of my favorite places in the world and I was bound and determined to climb some of those beautiful mountains while we were there.  I believe we were in Innsbruck, Austria when we tackled our first mountain.  The trail was well cut and we set out with confidence.  But, after a couple of hours of hiking, my feet hurt, my back was aching, and we weren’t even close to reaching the summit.  We made it, eventually, and it was beautiful at the top of that mountain.  I still treasure the pictures I took from there.  But that night for dinner all I could eat was Ibuprofen as I lay in bed moaning because my body was so sore and hurt so bad.

Climbing mountains is hard work!  And it’s important for us to recognize this as we consider this theme of climbing mountains in search of God.

I am a pretty big believer in the idea that experiencing God doesn’t just happen.  It takes some work on our part.  Sure, we might have the rare experience of God that just happens spontaneously, but most of the time we need to be pretty intentional in preparing our hearts, in opening our minds, in being attentive to the movement of the Spirit, in order to truly experience God.  Climbing the mountain is a good and helpful metaphor, then, because it reminds us of what is necessary, what we need to do in order to experience God.  Traditionally, as the people of God climbed the mountain, or as they ascended to the Temple, they were singing spiritual songs, they were praying prayers, they were opening themselves up to receive what God wanted them to receive, they were working hard to experience God, they were working hard at worship.

When I met with our Student Chaplains for our first meeting together we talked about the hard work of worship.  I said to them that for worship to be done well it would take a lot of hard work.  It would take preparation, and prayer, and thoughtfulness, and creativity.  It would take us being open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we have to intentionally open ourselves to receive that guidance.  Worship is hard work.  And it’s not just the worship leaders who have to work hard at worship.  For worship to truly be well done, for us to truly experience God in this time and place, we all need to be prepared for some hard spiritual work.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard helpfully compared worship once to a play in a theater.  With this image in mind, Kierkegaard mourned the fact that too often worshippers come to the sanctuary imagining the minister or the worship leaders as the star actors on the stage, with the musicians or the choir as the supporting actors, and then the people in the seats as the audience.  So this is how people typically view their roles when they come to worship.  But, Kierkegaard said, this is all wrong.  Comparing worship again to a play in theater, Kierkegaard said it is the people in the seats that are on center stage, with the minister and the leaders acting as the directors, and then the audience, of course, is God.  As we worship then, we offer ourselves to God as our audience; we sing to God, we pray to God, we attend to God and to our relationship with God.  We….every single one of us….work hard as we worship God.  And if we do, if we all work hard, then worship will be well done, God will be pleased, and we (more than likely) will experience God in this place.

I have noticed that there aren’t many mountains here in Illinois.  It’s hard enough to find a good hill for sledding around here, let alone a mountain.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience God.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t go up to the Temple, singing our songs, praying our prayers, and preparing our hearts to be moved by the Spirit of God in this place.  And of course, God is eager to meet us here and to move us here, as God bids us to “Come!  Come up to me!”

Now to this God who bids us to come and worship, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19: 11-12

[2] Matthew 17: 1-9

[3] Judy Fentress-Williams, in “Exegetical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pg. 439.

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Precious, Honored, and Loved

Well, in spite of the pottery pitcher being SO heavy that my hand and arm shook as I poured the water into the font.  And in spite of the pottery plates of glass beads being so awkward that many beads were spilled leaving our poor new elders scrambling on the floor to catch and retrieve them.  I thought today’s renewal of baptism service went pretty well.  I had fun with the liturgy today.  I used the baptismal font more and played with the water.  I wish I had the time and energy to memorize more of the liturgy.  I think it would make worship more powerful if I did.  But I’m not there just yet.  I am thankful for our new elders…all five of them this year.  And I am thankful for another chance to remember that I (we) are precious in God’s sight, and honored and loved.  Here’s the final version of this week’s sermon.

“You are Precious in My Sight, and Honored, and I Love You”

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 10th, 2010 – Baptism of the Lord

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” This past week I’ve been sneaking into my children’s rooms after they have gone to sleep in order to whisper these words over their heads.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” These words are perfect for a mother to whisper over her children’s heads. They are words that just seem meant to be whispered, in a dark room, after everyone is all tucked in and all the good night kisses have been given.  Stroking the soft fine hair of my baby’s head, saying these words felt like a blessing and a prayer, as if I was anointing my children with love.

The prophet Isaiah gives us some beautiful, poetic words today that seem most appropriately spoken between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends or partners.  Words this intimate seem meant to be passed from one human being to another.  But it is not our mother, or our spouse, or our best friend whispering these words to us today.  Instead, it is our God through the prophet Isaiah.

In a way, it is hard to imagine God whispering to us these words,“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” I don’t know if it is just because God is so abstract or if it is my own lack of imagination, but it’s just hard to picture God leaning over my bed, stroking my hair and whispering these words of love.  I can picture my mother saying these words to me, and my husband, even a good friend.  But God?  Does God really love me this much?  Is God’s love for me as real as my mother’s love and my husband’s love and my children’s love?

One scholar writes, “These comforting and hopeful words of Isaiah 43:1-7 are easier to read and write about than they are truly to hear and believe.  [So] this is a passage we need to return to over and over. Words this good—love this uncommon—take time to be believed and absorbed.”[1]

This reminds me of a story I heard Maya Angelou tell once during an interview with a newspaper.  In the interview, Ms. Angelou described how, as a little girl, her Sunday School teacher made her say over and over, “God loves me, God loves me, God loves me.”  And then, when she was finished, her teacher would say, “Now try to know it.”

Now try to know it.  It really is hard to imagine, hard to know, that God loves us this much.  We must return to these words, saying them over and over again, in order to believe them and absorb them…in order to make them feel real.  We must repeat God’s words of love in our heads and in our hearts.  We must enact God’s love through our rituals in worship.  We must remind ourselves of God’s love through the waters of baptism.  God’s love is possessive and protective.  I am yours, God says through the prophet Isaiah and, You are mine, God says through the waters of baptism.

Such a love is uncommon and unreal in the sense of being hard to believe.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves us this much.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves all of us this much.  And it is a love for all of us, for all of creation in fact.  Isaiah stresses the inclusiveness of God’s love.  But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. God’s words of love are for everyone (even every thing) that God has created, and formed, named and claimed.  I am yours, God says, and you are mine.  Such inclusive love is hard to believe, it’s hard to get our heads around a love so grand and so amazing.  But perhaps harder still is following through on God’s command for us to embody this inclusive love and share it with all the world.

As the church of Jesus Christ we are to embody God’s inclusive love. As we begin this new year together, as we renew our baptismal vows today, and as we ordain and install our new elders, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of our demanding, yet vital task, to embody God’s inclusive love as the church of Jesus Christ.

This week I read about a pastor who goes to a funky restaurant in her neighborhood in order to write and reflect on her sermons.  She goes to this restaurant because as she says, “the music is soulful and the ambience is warm.  The coffee and tea are offered in wide mugs by friendly but not pushy servers.  The art on the wall is provocative.  The feeling is inclusive.”  She gathers there with other strangers who all become temporary colleagues while working on their laptops and sipping their coffee.  They suggest to each other what salads to try on the menu and watch each other’s computers if someone needs to slip off to the restroom.  Then, as she is sitting and working, she overhears one of these strangers say something out loud, sort of to herself.  And the pastor replies, “What did you just say?”  And the woman says it again: “I wish my church was like this.”[2]

I wish my church was like this.  It’s hard to know what the woman meant by this comment.  But the comment did seem to be inspired by an atmosphere of warmth and tangible hospitality.  By music that was soulful and art that was provocative.  By a sense of community in which she was immediately included, even though she was a stranger.  I wish my church was like this.  Well, of course she does.  Of course we do.

Because this is the ideal for which we strive as the body of Christ.  We strive to be a place of warmth, of tangible hospitality, and of inclusive love.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel invited and inspired.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel precious, and honored, and loved.  We strive to be a place that embodies God’s inclusive love.

But so often the church falls short of this ideal.  So often we fall short of this ideal.  We get annoyed with each other or offended.  We hurt each other and play silly games.  We take sides and we fan the flames of controversy and conflict.  And we do all this all to the detriment of embodying God’s inclusive love.  We do all of this to the detriment of the body of Christ, the church.

It’s not easy being the church.  It’s not easy living up to this calling.  But we are not here because it is easy.  We are here because it is right, and because it is good.  We can’t be the church all by ourselves.  We need each other.  And God needs us…to be Christ’s body in a hungry and hurting world, to be God’s light in a time of great darkness, to be the bearers of God’s inclusive love sharing the words that are so hard to believe, but so life-giving to hear, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Today we will renew our baptismal vows. Even if you have not been baptized you are welcome to join us in professing your faith in Jesus Christ and promising to live as his disciple.  In a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us of God’s great love for us.  Renewing our baptism reminds us that we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.  But, also in a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us that we are sent, and challenged, and called to glorify God by embodying God’s inclusive love and sharing it with all the world.

May we all be filled by God’s love today.  So we can then, as instruments of God’s love, go and fill others.

Now to our God who calls us and claims us in the waters of baptism, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] W. Carter Lester, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” pg. 222.

[2] http://www.achurchforstarvingartists.com/2010/01/this-is-what-church-could-look-like.html

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Monday’s Thoughts

Returning from a week of vacation I spent some time this Monday morning contemplating the quiet of my office.  On the one hand, I am so happy to be back at my desk, reading, thinking, praying, and relishing the quiet time that my work often affords me.  On the other hand, I miss my children.  I kissed them goodbye this morning with mixed emotions as they left with Dan for daycare.  Spending the week with them was wonderful, and joyful, and, more simply put, full….full of laughter and smiles, full of diaper changes, temper tantrums, and first attempts at potty training.  Full of “No’s”, and “Stop, please!” as well as full of sweet, sweet, “I love you’s.”  The week was full…full of family.  And now I return to a full week’s worth of work…of sermonizing, of preparing for officer training, and of pastoring.  It is good to be back.  It is also good to be full and to be filled.

This Sunday (Baptism of the Lord Sunday) we will ordain and install our new officers while renewing our baptismal vows.  In the past I have focused on the Gospel text of Jesus being baptized for this service.  But this year I’d like to do something different.  So I have begun reflecting on the Isaiah passage (Isaiah 43:1-7).  I wrote this passage out freehand in my giant, artsy sketchbook (a trick Anna Carter Florence taught me) and I uncovered a moment shared of genuine, honest love.  God, speaking to God’s people, shares words like I might share with my son, or my husband, in the dark room, right before bed, right after the good night kisses.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” God says.  So intimate.  So close.  I can almost feel God’s breath on the cheek of God’s beloved….and wait, that’s me, I am God’s beloved.  You are God’s beloved.  We are all God’s beloved.  The commentaries stress how universal Isaiah’s description of God’s love is.  These words are addressed to Israel, to God’s people living in a dark and desolate time.  But these words are for all of us.

I am struck by how possessive God is in this passage.  “You are mine.”  And how protective, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”  These are all things I would like to promise to my children, but can’t…because I know I cannot protect them from everything.  So what does God mean when God promises these things?  We will not be overwhelmed?  We will not be burned or consumed?  Can God really promise this?  I have been overwhelmed.  I have been burned.  I have been consumed.  What are you really promising us, God?

I have more thoughts…but not enough time to write today.  I’m hoping tomorrow will bring more focus, perhaps the beginning of an outline???  That would be nice.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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