We gather here together each Sunday, but what are we doing? Why do we do what we do? Some of what we do is simply based upon traditions.
I really do appreciate that most of you listen to the sermon, but it really is only a small part of the worship service. Every element, from the welcome, to the music, to the readings, the prayer, the chalice lighting, the offering, and yes, the coffee hour, compose together what is hopefully a meaningful worship service.
Our earlier reading explains some of what worship does, but what is worship and what is its goal? The root of the word “worship” is “worthship”, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. To participate in worship, in this sense, does not require one to have an image of a God. Atheists get to play too.
So what is the point?
According to a document prepared for the Unitarian Universalist Association the aim, the goal, of worship is to, I quote:
“Help order the religious consciousness in the individual and the group. It is to help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, to the world, to the totality of being.
The aim of common worship is to help us face up to our individual and collective limitations and failures, to open us to sources of creative, healing, transforming, and renewing power. It is to help us discover how that which transcends our narrow individual existence can move us, challenge us, inspire us, stimulate us to think, feel, act, and be. It is to help us declare, celebrate, rejoice in those things we have discovered to be “of worth.”
Leading the Congregation in Worship incorporated a previous document by the Commission, Common Worship: Why and How, which was written on behalf of the Commission by Frederick E. Gillis (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1981).
For the last two weeks, I have been doing a series of sermons on theology based upon a book called, “A House for Hope.” If you missed them you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. Our location is our eschatology, how we envision the end of the world and our concept of heaven or hell. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The walls our ecclesiology, and are what gather us into a collective space. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices.
We covered eschatology and soteriology in prior weeks. This week we are going to talk some about pneumatology. We’ll have three left after today: theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Hopefully I will get to those later in the year, because I think it is important that religious communities engage the theological questions common to all human experience. That engagement is what makes us different from social clubs and social justice organizations.
Are you ready for pneumatology? Don’t stress, pneumatology is not as scary as it might sound. The word comes from the Greek pneuma, which means breath or wind. Rebecca Parker says that,
“Within (a religious community)… there breathes a sense of the Holy, a response to the Sacred Spirit or Spirits present in life, inspiring creativity, compassion and social action. Worship, art, ritual, and music shape religious community, infusing the atmosphere of its environment, making space for people to breathe.”
Take a breath. Is this a place you can breathe?
I hope so, I hope this is now or will become for you a place where you can breathe in and breathe out, a holy place, where your spirit can be restored.
Our Unitarian Universalist worship practices reflect our theologies. Practices vary from congregation to congregation, but some are common to almost all.
Music is critical in worship, because music stirs something that is beyond words, it is the real language of the soul, if the soul has a language at all.
We listen to music or we sing and the music resonates with our bodies and the space inside our lungs. The breath, the spirit begins to move within us and around us. We sing and give voice in word and music to our hopes, our dreams, and sometimes to our fears. Depending on the song, we might move or clap.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not believe that the body or the pleasures of the body are sinful. When we sing or dance, we loosen up a bit, get out of our heads and become connected to our whole selves. One of the hymns in our hymnal contains the line, “body and spirit united once more.” That, too, is part of our theology. We sing together often during our worship services.
If a formal welcome is done, we welcome everyone because we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity and because those of us that believe in God know that God loves everyone, no exceptions. We use the time of the announcements to invite people into the community, to engagement.
Chalice lighting words remind us of why we are here together, of the values of our faith and what our faith requires. It connects us to other congregations and the denomination as a whole.
The flaming chalice itself is a symbol that was created during World War II when our service committee was working to rescue people from Nazi Germany. When that flame is lit, our history, our present, and our future are combined during that brief moment.
In this congregation, after the chalice lighting, it is traditional to read the affirmation together. It is also our history, present and future combined. Some congregations read their mission statement instead. Both are reminders, and both define the purpose and intention of why we gather in worship.
After the opening hymn, here at UUP we call the children up to recite a greeting in both English and Spanish.
I haven’t seen this done in other congregations, but it is a nice touch, a way of more inclusive welcoming. The greeting and the story are both ways of reaffirming the commitment to children and families that has been a part of UUP from its beginning.
Our readings are sometimes the sacred texts of the various world religions, but more often they are more secular. Poetry and prose are both used. Wisdom, we believe, can be found in many places. There is little we are unwilling to examine for whatever truth or meaning might be found. Readings from our hymnal can connect us to our wider faith tradition and to the diversity it contains.
We sometimes pray together because prayer helps.
Many of us find comfort in prayer, from giving voice to our pain, from sharing the awareness that we are not alone, that if nothing else, compassion can draw us closer together. Some of us pray to the Holy, however we define that term. For others, prayer is simply a way of expressing our hopes for a better world.
Unitarian Universalist sermons, unlike many other traditions, do not follow a lectionary. The subject matter, other than around holidays, is pretty much up to the preacher and we have what is called a free pulpit and a free pew. This means, basically that the minister is free to say what they feel needs to be said, and those in the pews get to decide whether they agree or not.
The purpose of the sermon is to open up hearts and minds to something that might not have been felt or thought much about outside of church. Hopefully, it sometimes changes your mind and maybe even your heart.
If a sermon should do that, I don’t believe it is just because of the speaker or even what was said. Instead, it is pneumatology, the spirit working in the interaction and space between the words spoken and what is heard. Yeah, pneumatology is pretty mystical.
Our offering is a ritual as well, and an important part of our theology and worship service. It is partly practical of course, we need money to keep this church going, but frankly, the Sunday morning plate provides for only a small fraction of the resources we need. Instead, the offering is about acknowledging our connection, that giving and receiving is what sustains our lives as well as our spirits. We breathe out, and the plants breathe in. No one is really separate and no one is really alone. Whether you drop in a dollar, a twenty, or a hundred, you are acknowledging that this community is worth something. Remember the definition of worship, “Worthship,” considering things of worth.
The offering is not an admission charge or a fee for service, but an opportunity to participate in something that is worthwhile. I encourage you to approach the offering as the ritual it is, and to put something in the basket each and every week.
The closing words, and in smaller congregations, sometimes a closing circle, signals the end of the service and the benediction is usually a “sending forth,”, a charge to go out and act with courage to live your values. The chalice is extinguished but its light still shines.
If it worked well, a worship service will have recharged our spiritual batteries and given us the energy to better face the coming week and all the complexities of our lives.
The worship committee did a survey recently, essentially asking individuals what parts of our services they found most meaningful. Members will get a report of the results soon, and some action items resulted, but as expected, there was also a great deal of diversity of opinion.
You might want to consider later today, when you reflect back on this service, what parts spoke to you. Was it the welcome, the music, the candle lighting, the prayer, the sermon, or one of the readings? Was it simply sitting in the company of other human beings? Was it how everything flowed together or didn’t? How was the pneumatology for you today?
Then go a step further. Ask others what they found meaningful.
Maybe it was something that didn’t really speak to you as an individual. If that is true, try to just listen with curiosity, and without judgement. Remember that the whole is always greater than the parts, another aspect of our theology and our understanding of the interdependent web of life.
Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful about what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
If the worship experience can help inspire us to create more peace and justice in the world, if it can move us to compassion and to forgiveness, if it can comfort us and give us hope, then it is worthy, it is worthwhile. Blessings on all of you.
The worship theme for today is “serve with grace.” What does that mean? Is anyone here named Grace? If so, she must be amazing if everyone wants to serve with her.
OK, that was a really bad joke. Not my fault. Someone told it earlier this week and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. Now I have passed it on to you. Can we get rid of it together? Take a breath, let it out, and let’s start over. Whew!
Grace is a “what” and not a “who”. You knew that, right?
But do you know what grace is? There are a couple of popular definitions. One is simple elegance. “Oh, that dancer moves with such grace.” Or, I could be really “graceful” if I weren’t so clumsy. One can also use the term to mean do honor to, as in “thank you for gracing us with your presence.”
Both of those definitions apply today. We hope our board members and religious exploration teachers will serve with grace, that they will perform their tasks on behalf of the congregation with a measure of grace and that their efforts will not be too terribly clumsy. They also honor us by agreeing to serve.
There is also a theological definition of grace, which is the one we are going to spend a little more time on today. We are, after all, a church, and theology is our business.
The tradition Christian definition of grace is “the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”
When we say “grace” before a meal, we are thanking God for the blessing of the food that we have been given. One of the roots of the word grace is gratitude.
So, according to that definition, grace is unearned. Sinners are saved by the grace of God, not by anything they do or don’t do. Of course, as in virtually every theological issue, there are many different perspectives on what that means. There have been huge, painful, and sometimes bloody arguments, over the issue of how someone is saved. Is it all up to God? Is it salvation by grace? Or is it based upon what you do, how you live your life? That would be salvation by works. There is a third possibility that is popular mainly among more conservative Christians. That is salvation by belief. If you believe certain things, then you will be saved. If you don’t, you will go to hell.
Because of the openness of our Unitarian Universalist faith, where we actually encourage doubts and diversity of beliefs, that third definition of salvation really doesn’t work for most of us.
We aren’t going to dig very deep today into what salvation might mean to us, but briefly salvation doesn’t have to mean a place in heaven. It can simply be the ability to lead a worthwhile and meaningful life. A belief in an afterlife is not required.
Historically, the Unitarian half of our tradition has been heavily into salvation by works. If you do good things and serve others, you save not only yourself, but you also help to save the world. The Universalists, on the other hand, stressed that God loves us all, no matter what we do or what we believe. We are all worthy and we are all saved.
I think the phrase, “serve with grace,” rather nicely brings both of those ideas together. Yes, it is important to serve others, but a measure of grace is also critical.
The theologian Paul Tillich had this to say about grace.
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.”
Have any of you ever felt like that? It is the cold dark night of the soul that many speak of. It is what brings some people to church.
Tillich goes on:
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.”
So grace in the theological sense is a deep sense of not just self-acceptance, but of knowing we are accepted by something larger than ourselves. We are acceptable. There is a prayer I say to myself sometimes before worship. It goes, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.”
It is a prayer that asks for grace.
I think grace happens. I think it happens here. Maybe not every Sunday, and maybe not for everyone, but it happens. I have felt it. I have felt it in myself when delivering a sermon that when I finished writing it felt dull and just not very good. But then something happens. More words come to me, and I say some things that I hadn’t written down. I skip over entire paragraphs, and somehow there is a magical connection. You seem to hear what I really meant to say. Some of you hear words I don’t even speak. You hear what you need to hear in that moment and we experience together a moment of grace. Grace also happens sometimes when I go through the list of who is welcome, which is everybody. Some of you have felt those words in a way that you have been hungering for. Yes, we welcome you. No matter who you are, what you believe, and what you have done or haven’t done.
This church community offers that holy blessing, that grace to everyone who comes through our doors. Or at least we try. It is our intention and our practice, but sometimes we fail.
We want our leaders to serve with grace in the sense that as we welcome their leadership, we also accept them as they are.
We know that they are imperfect humans beings who will do the best they can, but sometimes they will, as we all do, fall short.
I have explained before that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. It is about promises to do things, not adherence to a set of particular beliefs. You might have noticed that in the covenants we recited earlier, the board members and teachers promised to “do their best.” We need to leave some room for grace to happen. We break our covenants with each other frequently, but then, we go back to them and try again.
Two more quotes about grace.
The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones, a Unitarian Universalist Minister had this to say:
“For me, grace is, first and foremost, this spiritual experience. It’s that “unexpected gift,” tangible or intangible, that comes from a flesh-and-blood friend or stranger. It’s that mysterious in-breaking of wonder and thankfulness that frees our spirits from despair. It’s those times when something goes unexpectedly right just when everything seems to be going wrong”
And my friend the Rev. Fred Muir, who was also my internship supervisor says, “Grace happens, if you’ll reach out and take it. Hence the mystery that makes grace amazing: while on the one hand you can’t do anything to force grace because grace happens, at the same time if you don’t create the opportunity, if you’re not open to it, if you’re not willing to receive it, then there won’t be grace.”
So we are back to amazing grace. My wish for all of you, for our board of trustees and our teachers, but also for the rest of you, is that you will serve with grace. Create the opportunities in your life where grace can happen. Feel its approach and let it in. Whatever is happening in your life right now, know that you are worthy; that you are good enough and that your best is absolutely terrific. Feel the spirit that loves you, whether you image that as God or simply as the power to do good that we all have within us. Let that spirit in. Serve what calls you. Do what is meant for you to do. Do it with grace and with joy.