Monday, March 1, 2010

sermon - This Thing Called Worship

This Thing Called Worship


This morning we are talking about Unitarian Universalist worship services, both worship in general, and worship as we do it here at UUFLB.

Today’s worship is a little more engaged in navel gazing than usual. I feel pretty strongly that what happens here should pertain to the rest of our lives and the rest of the world. But it is also worth our time to understand what it is we do here on Sunday mornings. It is after all the core of our church community. This is the one time that we all come together on a regular basis. And it’s a time that hopefully we are all pretty invested in.

Worship is serious business and it takes a lot of preparation. Because we are a small congregation, it may appear that worship just happens out of the kindness of a few hearts and some skill at public speaking. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s true that it does depend on the commitment of a handful of people, but the commitment that you see on Sundays is just a small glimpse at what they do. Each service takes significant preparation for our Sunday Service Associate. And when I’m not here, these volunteers prepare an entire Order of Service. Selecting hymns and readings, and making it all flow together, it’s not an easy task.
It is also serious business for the larger church world. Did you know that this is a whole field of study called homiletics. You can get a Doctoral degree in the field. But we have a team of amazing lay leaders who help make worship happen on Sundays. If you have been a Sunday Service Associate, or served on the worship committee would you please raise your hand. I want to offer a very public and sincere thank you! Creating meaningful worship is that lifeblood of the Fellowship. Thank you for sustaining our spirit.

Most broadly, what we do for worship can be seen from the word itself. The word “worship” comes from the Old English worthscipe, meaning worthiness or worth-ship — to give, at its simplest, worth to something. The historical details are not all that important, but I bring up the concept of worthship because it describes what worship means to us as Unitarian Universalists. In worship, we celebrate and name those things that are most important to us. For some of us that means worshiping God; for others that means celebrating our highest ideals and ethical principles.
Some of us are here worshiping one thing, while others are celebrating something else. So how can it be that we are doing the same thing? Why are we gathering to do this together?
Because for Unitarian Universalists, the most important piece of the equation is not what you worship, or even how you do it. The most important piece of the equation is the end result. The important part is who that makes you as a person in the world. In the midst of all our theological diversity, our worshiping of different things, we know that the goal of worship is not simply veneration of ideas or deities. The goal of worship is to bring meaning into our lives, and to empower us to live more fully in the world beyond these walls.

There are two basic pieces of worship theory that have a strong baring on what we do every Sunday. Hopefully they give some insight as to why we do what we do.
One pertains to the order of service, and why we keep it the same every week. You see, creating a worship service is a delicate balance of structure and chaos. There is a certain amount of structure in any service. We have a building, and we have things that we read, and we have hymns that we sing together. You know ahead of time, who will be leading the worship service and there is an order of service for you to follow.
But also in worship there is, hopefully a pretty significant amount of chaos. I am referring here less to logistic chaos than innerpersonal chaos, a moving of the spirit. Hopefully in worship services, those participating feel something move in their soul, they feel a shifting of thoughts and feelings. They encounter new people, new music and new ideas. Worship is a time to be shaken up.
The theory goes, and I tend to agree, that maintaining a solid order of service week to week provides a structure in which chaos can happen. When you know what’s coming next, when you feel safe, whether that means with a friend, or in your home, or here at church, when you feel safe you are more inclined to open your heart and mind to a new experience. It is a little counter intuitive, but the structure of a regular Order of Service, is put in place to enhance the chaos that we allow for in worship.

The other piece of theory that informs what we do in worship is about the way people learn. You may know this about yourself. Either you remember faces or names. You’re a visual or an oral learner. Maybe you really need to move your body or repeat the information to be able to absorb it. We as individuals learn best, and experience the world best through different means. In planning and executing our worship services, we try to take into account all of those different ways of learning. Worship needs to be a multisensory experience.
And this is also an important theological point. Our Unitarian Universalist theology and tradition, tell us that truth comes in different shapes, in different hues. Truth comes to us through different senses. There is insight available to use in the world in every moment in different ways. This was the truth that Transcendetalists like Thoreau, Emerson brought to our tradition. In fact for both of those men, the most spiritual and moving experiences came not from word, but from a visceral bodily connection with the world around them. Insight is available everywhere, so we do our best to reflect that diversity of insight here in worship.
This is honestly I think our biggest shortcoming as a worshiping community. We are not unique in this. Unitarian Universalist churches tend to be very stuck in words, either spoken or sung. We utilize pretty limited ritual in our worship services. And the only thing that changes visually from week to week is the color of the three-inch wide stole that I wear around my neck. And I only have a few of those.
I would really like to utilize more visual and kinesthetic sources in our worship together. Our new Ministering with Technology Task Force is working on some creative ways to improve our ability to use video in worship. And if you have ideas for how we can enrich the worship experience by using other senses of learning, either movement or visual, don’t hesitate to let me know. Even better than suggestions though, is help in executing those idea.

So we have talked about worship in the abstract, but what really gets people in a knot are the individual Components of our worship service. Pretty much everyone has a favorite, and something they could really do without. As you probably realize, our order of service follows a standard Protestant worship format, with a few notable exceptions. Oddly, it is those exceptions that raise the most fuss.

First I want to touch on the Community Covenant, because this is the most recent change that has been made to our order of service. It is that first piece that we read together on Sundays. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. The worship committee is still feeling this out.
The crux of this component is the meaning of covenant itself. In a simple sense, covenant is an agreement among people about how we will treat one another and how we will engage with the world. This is so crucial for Unitarian Universalism because we are a covenantal tradition, rather than a creedal one. That is to say, we covenant to build a community of mutual support and love, rather than a community centered on a theological creed. As King John Sigismund of Transylvia, the only Unitarian king in history, so clearly declared, “We need no all think alike to love alike.”
So the community covenant on Sunday mornings takes the place of what in many traditions would be a creed. Rather than a statement about what we believe about God, or the nature of the universe, we make a statement about why we come together and build this community. It’s a covenant.
That is a VERY quick overview of covenant. I have written a few sermons about covenant. I have posted at least one of them on my blog that you can access through the church website. And I promise you that I’ll bring it up in another sermon soon because it is deeply important to our faith tradition.

Another important piece of our worship service to mention briefly is our tradition of singing to one another after the offering. I have maybe one or two other UU churches do this. It is remarkable in a church service, to take time to turn to one another and say “thank you for sustaining our community.” It is so in line with our tradition of being a congregationally driven denomination that is run by the democratic principles from the ground up. It really is your generosity and commitment that allow this community to thrive. So we recognize that every week. To be honest, that portion used to annoy me. But now as I know this congregation better and better, as I know you all better and better and the work that it takes to make this all happen. And the wonderful way you support each others spirits, I have been converted. Singing that little song has become a deeply meaningful piece of the worship service for me because it is central to who we are, and because it is true.

And I have saved the best for last. Joys and Sorrows has to be the most contested piece of Unitarian Universalist worship services. Every church that I know of goes around and around about this portion of the service. I have participated in hours of discussion on the topic with ministers and lay leaders from this congregation and others.
The usual question is how to do it best. We have experimented with a couple of different formats. And I think we have the “how” pretty well under control here. Each Sunday people share briefly from the heart. Joys and Sorrows is being used as it is intended and I thank you for that.
Of course that raises the question, what exactly is it intended for? In some ways, Joys and Sorrows serves to let the broader community know when someone is in need of support or celebration. Sunday morning is the best chance to get the word out about anything, so we use the time to get support for people who need it. But, if we were just looking for communication, it would be easier and faster to have me, or someone else announce these things from the pulpit.
But during Joys and Sorrows we take time to hear directly from one another. It’s not filtered through my reading what has been written down. That’s because in times of pain, or even in times of unique joy, we can feel isolated. We can feel like no one understands what we are going through. Knowing you have been heard in your own words is an important part of participating in community. When we are given an opportunity to speak from the heart about those things that touch us most deeply, when we can share our heart, we know we are at home. It’s not just an exchange of information, it’s an exchange of feeling.
But there is one more reason. Joys and Sorrows is important because it is a much needed moment of realness in our lives. For just a few minutes the question “How are you?” is not a rhetorical one. For just a few minutes each Sunday we are reminded that other people, people close to us face tremendous hardship, and tremendous joy. We are invited to witness to the complexities of human experience. For just a few minutes on Sunday we recognize all that life lays at our feet. Not all of it is good, but all of it is worth our attention. It is worthy, it is a part of worship.

There are all sorts of theories of worship. Like I said people get doctoral degrees in the topic. But for our small community, worship is crucial because it is a hub. Every other piece of our community life is touch on in worship.
Being together in joy and sorrow provides pastoral support and builds a community. And it’s an opportunity for personal development. Hopefully worship provides some insight and helps make meaning out of lives. And it is a place where we build our personal theologies and sense of meaning.
We also do some justice work in just about every service. We either are reminded of specific actions to take at church, or are encouraged to embody our ideals in the wider world. And we take time for spiritual connection through meditation and prayer. Doing it together is a chance to enhance that spiritual experience. Like working out with a team.
For me worship is a wonderful chance to spend time with our children and hopefully learn about the world through their eyes. Many of us don’t have the opportunity to see children very often. Our time with them on Sunday mornings is such a gift. Even the financial life of the church is part of worship as we take a collection, and occasionally even talk about the spiritual and philosophical implications of generosity. And finally, we get to celebrate the arts on Sunday, most clearly with music. Every week I hear how thrilled people are with our growing choir and music program.

Our Sunday worship service is not just another aspect of our church life. It is not just about worshiping God. Sunday morning worship is the hub of our church community, and people participate, you participate for an array of different reasons. Probably some reasons that I haven’t even thought of yet. And on any given Sunday we may need one of these pieces more or in a different way than the week before, depending on what’s going on in our life outside of church.
The final thing I want to say about Sunday morning, and coming here to be together, is that it’s not just about getting something. We also come here to support one another in religious community. Sometimes you don’t “need” church. Well we sill need you to be here to support the community, whether you “need” UUFLB on a given Sunday morning or not.

“This Thing Called Worship” is actually quite simple. It is time set aside to come together and celebrate those things that are important to us. A time to celebrate human community, the ineffable spirit of life. It’s a time to support one another on our mutual journey of living and loving. That’s it. It’s simply a time to celebrate what is important. It’s time to lift up and celebrate what you bring with you in your heart.



  1. I appreciated your explanation with regard to the UU use of the word "worship." For at least my first decade as a UU, this word was a problem for me. The problem went away after writing prayer-poems for my son when he was just a toddler and our family's grace-poems for chalice lightings. The word worship means worthship to me now. I appreciate our worship together on Sundays.

  2. Lots of good stuff in there! The piece I'm going to pick up on is the incredible dedication of lay leaders in much UU worship. I find it hopeful and energizing - people giving their hearts to the community.