In Aldous Huxley's satire of the future, Brave New World, he envisions a utopia where time is measured not from the birth of our Lord but from Henry Ford. Science and hedonism rule everything and there is no religion but there are community sings where people get together. They seem to be a substitute for worship and indeed there is a character called the Arch-Community Songster of Canterbury. And just as Huxley's novel has foreshadowed scientific and social trends on the current world, so he has with a movement to have atheists and agnostics meet on Sundays to “hear great talks, sing songs, and generally celebrate the wonder of life.” (link here) Such services are being held in Houston and London where they plan to build an atheist temple. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church says he provides such services for secularists and humanists “who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death.”
As I've shown before, there is a lot of scientific evidence that faith in God is beneficial to the physical and mental health of individuals, as well as society. A recent scientific study showed that religion was necessary for the smooth transition of a community from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural settlement. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford has found that religion allows us to bond with many more people than our brain size would normally allow. Religion also involves emotional storytelling, singing, repetitive movement and often dancing, all of which, Dunbar's research shows, trigger the release of endorphins and facilitates social bonding. People who worship science often have a problem with religion but now some are acknowledging the data, believing however that it is the community activity rather than the content that is essential. But there is no denying that humanity has a need to worship. The oldest song we have found is a hymn to the wife of the moon god. After graves, the oldest buildings in the world are temples. And, by the way, the graves of Neanderthals show evidence of ritual as much as 50,000 years ago.
It seems we cannot help but worship. And this makes sense since children naturally believe in God, in an unseen agent who acts upon the world and gives things purpose and meaning. Studies have shown that you cannot disabuse them of the notion until around the age of twelve. And so as far back in history as you can go you find people worshipping God.
We said in our sermon on prayer that praising God is more for our benefit that his. And sure enough, scientists have found that regular church attendance (the only way they can measure religious faith) is associated with lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, lower levels of inflammation, increased levels of dopamine and a boost in the immune system.
But what are the spiritual benefits of worshiping God?
Worship is a contraction of “worthship.” You are ascribing worth to someone or something. People grow to become like what they worship. We see what happens to people who worship money or might or celebrity or themselves. Worshipping such idols, things that are not worth ultimate allegiance, deforms a person spiritually and morally. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one of the surprising facts uncovered by the recent election is a growing number of conservatives who call themselves evangelicals but don't actually go to church. These unchurched “evangelicals” are less hostile towards gays but more hostile toward blacks, Latinos and Muslims. Some researchers opine that the admittedly limited integration in churches might counteract that tendency in people who do attend regularly. But, according to the Atlantic article by Peter Beinart, “In their book, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices. Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion, and emphasizing race and nation.” When you remove God as your ultimate value then something else will fill that power vacuum, and things like politics and race are very strong candidates.
Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Serving the God who is love is arguably a better thing than the other idols people follow. And coming together to celebrate in word, song and ritual what we find worthy about what God in Christ has done for us is important. We are social beings and we love to get together and rejoice over the things we love. Folks flock to attend concerts by their favorite bands, rallies for politicians they support, pop culture events they enjoy like Star Trek or Doctor Who conventions. Why should we not gather to proclaim our love for the gracious God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus?
Worship involves 3 main elements: prayer, proclamation and praise. Prayer we discussed in the first of this sermon series. In communal worship we pray together. That of necessity widens what we pray about and how. Instead of us merely thinking about ourselves and those we love, corporate prayer takes into account our world, our nation, the universal church, and the concerns of races, genders and groups other than our own. It's real easy to say God loves all people but when I am praying with and for other people it brings the point home in a way my personal prayers rarely do. In community prayer I must seek and find the image of God in folks of another race or gender or ethnic group or religion. I must remember that what I do to others I do to Jesus. Praying in a group takes me out of myself and puts me in touch with the God whose concerns are much bigger than I usually think about.
Proclamation of God's word is vital in that it puts before me ideas and ideals that I subscribe to but often take for granted. I need to be reminded of them so they don't go dormant in my thoughts, words and actions. In addition, I hope to learn something new about them or see them from another perspective. And even if I think the preacher is wrong, I must grapple with why I feel that way, how did he come to those conclusions and is my reasoning solid and complete or have I missed something. Anything that deepens my grasp of my core beliefs and values, anything that throws them in a new light, every useful insight is important.
In a world that contradicts and often mocks what I see as the essential spiritual truths about life, it is good to meet with others who see these things as invaluable as well. And it is good to praise what we see is good and helpful and wise and restorative. And it is good to do so using all the gifts God has given us: music, art, poetry, movement and more.
Now you may think that worship is best when it is done as well as it possibly can be. And while I think we all need to do our best when praising God, I don't think that means that we need to beat up on ourselves when we don't come off as smooth and as professional as bigger churches with paid worship leaders and bands. I am heartened to see people doing their best even if it wouldn't pass muster with the folks that produce shows for TV or Broadway. If someone doesn't quite have the range of a trained singer, doesn't read the lectionary as smoothly as Morgan Freeman would, doesn't move as gracefully as a dancer, that's OK. I don't do everything perfectly either. I'm sure God enjoys our attempts to praise him the way we enjoy seeing our children sing and perform for us. The love and effort is what is important. We are not professionals but people doing what we can to praise the God who gave us gifts, both great and small, and we are grateful for them. And we want to show that gratitude.
Worship is ultimately about gratitude. Our word for communion, Eucharist, is just Greek for “thanksgiving.” In our service we thank God for creating the world and us and for acting in the world to redeem us, climaxing in what God has done in Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. We read from the Hebrew Bible, from the psalms, from the New Testament and from one of the gospels every Sunday. We listen to an explication of the written Word of God and/or meditation on the living Word of God. We sing about God's mighty acts. We confess our sins and hear God's promise of forgiveness. We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ. We are sent out into the world to proclaim the gospel with our lips and our lives. And it is all done in a spirit of gratitude for God's love and mercy.
Worship is not all that we as a church do but it is a vital part of what we do. Humans have a need to worship something and we direct that need towards the only thing worth worshipping: the God who is not an aloof creator but one who, when his creatures were in distress, entered into his creation, lived and died as one of us, rose from the dead and who also lives in each of his as his Spirit transforming us into the image of the God who is love, who is light, who is life, and who deserves our praise and gratitude and service.