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Sermon | Worship Forms Community
Text | Mark 10:35-45
Speaker | Mark Rupp
I have a very vivid memory from when I was in High School and got the opportunity to attend some kind of youth leadership seminar. Now, I don’t remember anything about what the speaker had to say, but what has always stuck with me was one of the illustrations he used. He had the entire assembly stand up, then he gave pitches to have us sing a major chord, starting with low voices and building on up.
I don’t think this seminar was specifically for choir kids, but I do think it’s scientifically proven that all the best leaders have at least some musical ability.
The group was fairly large, and so the chord we built was really nice and full, and we all sort of basked in this unexpected moment of harmony. But that wasn’t the end of the illustration. Once the speaker had established the chord in our minds, he told us we were going to sing it again. But this time, he would give a signal after a few seconds, and on that signal we were supposed to keep singing and reach out to hold the hands of the people next to us.
Because we were high schoolers, there was a fair bit of awkward snickering at the notion of holding hands, but since we were all super mature future leaders, we all pulled ourselves together with just a fair bit of curiosity about this strange task. The speaker built the chord again and it was just as nice as before. We held our notes, anxiously waiting for the cue.
I don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but when the cue came and our hands found each other, there was an automatic swell to the chord as if the richness that was already there suddenly had even its minor flaws smoothed away by an increase in resonance between our voices and now also perhaps between our bodies. It was a change in both volume and in quality, almost like there was a sudden surge of electricity connecting us all. Perhaps this change in tone was merely a projection of us expecting something to happen. Perhaps there is some scientific explanation for what we were hearing and experiencing.
Regardless, this little exercise gave us a glimpse of the unseen forces at work when people draw close to one another and become united toward a common purpose. I don’t remember exactly what lesson this motivational speaker was trying to instill in us student leaders, but what I do remember is feeling like I understood a little better how powerful it can be to join voices, hands, and perhaps even hearts and minds with the people around you.
Sometime when the world isn’t like it is, maybe we can try that experiment out.
I tell this story not to convince you that there is something really special about singing. I feel pretty confident that you all are on board with that idea already. Instead, I tell that story to remind us of the power that communal practices like singing have, especially as those practices draw us ever closer into community. Worship spaces are one of the few spaces in our society these days where communal singing ever happens. Sure there are choirs one can join, but outside of that, we may only ever be invited to join in communally singing “Happy Birthday” or maybe the national anthem.
Wherever and whenever voices, hearts, and minds are joined, whether in unison or harmony, communal identity is being formed.
In our current worship series, Voices Together and the Worlds Worship Creates, the sub-theme for this Sunday is simply: Worship Forms Community. It is a simple enough notion, but when I sat with this sub-theme this week, two interrelated questions began to emerge. First, how does worship form community?
We’ve already begun to explore answers to this question. Worship forms community by creating space to join voices together through song and texts, by bringing people together around a common story, and by providing opportunities for people to place their own stories alongside the shared story. The rituals we enact, the songs we sing, and the stories we tell (and retell and retell…) give us shared identity.
How does worship form community? To me, this first question is the less interesting one, because it feels a little obvious. Before we dive into that second question, however, it’s worth exploring this first one a little deeper. Thinking back to the first week of this series, we can remember when Joel pointed out, “We definitely have a choice what and how we worship, but we don’t have a choice whether we worship. It is baked into our humanity. Devotion, loyalty, allegiance, awe and wonder, these are fundamental features of conscious awareness.”
When I think about this, it helps me remember that, yes, worship forms community, but that the Church does not have a monopoly on creating community through worship. In the book You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith explores the idea of “secular liturgies” and all the ways we are formed (often unconsciously) by the rites, sacraments, and practices of various kinds of spaces.
For instance, Smith spends most of a chapter outlining all the ways that a shopping mall serves as a sort of temple to consumerism, bringing people together around a shared story about how a sense of wholeness can be found through buying new stuff. He argues that this story gets reinforced in a myriad of ways, from the sweeping architecture with its open skylights pointing us to something beyond, to the banners, flags, symbols, and rotating calendar of yearly rituals. (Anyone up for a pilgrimage to the big MLK Day blowout sale?)
Devotion, loyalty, allegiance, awe, and wonder.
Smith sums his argument up when he writes, “The mall is a religious site, not because it is theological but because it is liturgical. It’s spiritual significance (and threat) isn’t found in its ‘ideas’ or its ‘messages’ but in its rituals. The mall doesn’t care what you think, but it is very much interested in what you love. Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (p. 41)
As the title of the book suggests, Smith goes on to explore how Christian worship helps to reorient what we love. This leads to the second question I saw emerging in this theme: What kind of community does our worship form?
The Jesus we meet in the gospels doesn’t have very much to say when it comes to thinking about the specific details about how we worship. There is not a lot of guidance on what kind of songs to sing, which colors are appropriate for the season, or whether the offering should go before or after children’s time. What Jesus does have a lot to say about, however, is what kind of community we ought to be building. And if worship forms community, then worship that seeks to follow Jesus’ teaching should be done in a way that forms the kind of community he both lived and taught. The songs we sing, the sacraments we share, and the rites we perform can each be a reflection of this kind of community, symbolic microcosms for the Kin-dom of God that Jesus sought to reveal.
What kind of community does our worship form?
Our passage for today from Mark’s gospel shows just how hard it can be to shake loose from the secular liturgies and be reoriented to the story Jesus is inviting us to tell with our lives and our worship. These central chapters of Mark actually contain a series of three different encounters where the disciples miss the point and Jesus attempts to redirect them.
In the first encounter, Peter correctly names Jesus as the messiah, but becomes indignant when Jesus begins explaining that being the messiah means suffering many things. In the second encounter, Jesus just gets done teaching again about how he will be killed and will rise again when he finds out that instead of listening to him the disciples had been arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. And here in this third encounter after yet another teaching about how he will die and rise again, the ever-so-bold sons of Zebedee approach Jesus and request places of honor next to him.
The author of Mark places these three encounters inside bookend stories of Jesus healing blindness, probably as a not so subtle invitation for us readers to examine the ways we, along with the disciples, are failing to understand the call to follow Jesus.
In each of these instances, the disciples seem to fixate on the glory of what it means to be the messiah or to be in communion with the messiah, but their notions of glory have perhaps been influenced more by the liturgies of the world around them than by the new story that Jesus is telling.
With James and John, Jesus seems to get a little coy because he realizes that they do not fully understand what they are asking for. In their eagerness, the two disciples don’t miss a beat when Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism. “We are able,” they say quickly.
The cup and the baptism. While these symbols have become engrained with what we think of as worship rituals, we should not miss that to Jesus they both, once again, point toward death. In Jesus’ time, the symbol of the cup was often associated with the cup of sorrow or wrath. The act of baptism, a ritual reenactment of death and new birth.
It seems as though James and John are so focused on the idea of being in community with Christ, sitting at his left and right hands, that they have not fully comprehended what it means to be a part of the kind of community that Jesus is building. When they say, “We are able,” I imagine Jesus giving a kind of half-smile as he agrees that they will, indeed, share in the cup and the baptism, even if they don’t quite know what that means yet.
I like to imagine that even when we don’t fully understand, Jesus is always ready to take our eager hearts and gently redirect them toward the vision of the kin-dom. The cup has been poured and the waters are ready for any who find themselves captured by this alternative story, even as it continues to unfold before us.
But as for places of honor, that is a whole other question.
James and John may have been the ones making boldly foolish requests, but the other disciples show their misunderstanding as well by getting angry when it seems like Jesus is playing favorites.
Jesus tells them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
This is a different kind of community we are building. This is an alternative story to the one you’ve been told was the only way to truly live. This bread we break, the cup we share, the waters of baptism that are open to all who desire to follow Christ, each of these acts of worship are meant not just to form us into a community, but to form us into a specific kind of community, one where glory is reserved for those who serve and honor is given not on the basis of social status but on the depth of love one is willing to offer.
Smith says this very pointedly when he writes, “Christian worship...is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship...We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.”
Worship forms community because learning to love God takes practice.
Worship reorients the heart of who we are back toward loving God, neighbor, self, and world. It is a “re-story-ing” of our lives with an invitation to find ourselves inside a new story, one that flips the world upside down by calling us beyond ourselves.
The Church is often symbolized with the image of a ship. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author who wrote the children’s book The Little Prince, once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
The building of a worshipping community can sometimes feel like building a ship with lots of jobs to assign and tasks to accomplish. But let us remember that the ship is not the point. Rather, may all that we do within this community, whether in worship or mission or any of the other ways that we gather, may all these things point us toward the immensity of the sea with a vision of the world we can’t help but move ourselves toward.
And so my wish for us, my friends, is:
- That the community we form in these spaces of worship would continue to surprise us in new ways as we grow ever closer.
- That we would never lose sight of the kind of community Jesus is calling us to form.
- And finally, that we would trust that Christ is always willing to accept and redirect our eager hearts, even when we’re not quite sure where we are going.