The Middle Finger
Matt 5:14-16; 2 Cor. 3:18

Why worship? You could sleep in, sit at home with the Sunday paper or TV, sip coffee, get ready for the football game (unless you’re a Lions fan in which case you might be sick of losing), and if you really want to do something spiritual, light a candle and meditate. Oouuumm.

As you are probably aware, more folks are taking me up on my suggestion. Between 2000 and 2006 the only state with a net increase in church attendance was Hawaii. The other 49 seem to favor meditating alone on Sunday mornings, oouumm, to the degree they are spiritual.

As more people are turning to individual spirituality on Sundays and otherwise, they find a reason in Jesus’ words. You are the light of the world! So all one needs to do is to get in touch with one’s inner light. Block out the stress, relax, and discover me. It’s all about me.
So why come to worship?

Beyond. Have you noticed that the world tries to blow out your light? It’s reminiscent of that Sunday School song, Don’t let Satan whew it out… For every good thing you try to do there is criticism. Why didn’t you make it blue? Everyone knows that blue is the power color. I talked to one person who was telling me of another in an overly critical home who could hardly open the door correctly. How do you keep your light going with strong gusts of criticism?
This is why Christian gatherings focus on praise, but the greatest reason is that praise reminds us that God is beyond us. God is greater than us for we praise that which is beyond. The middle finger represents worship because it’s our tallest priority. Jesus teaches that our light reflects the light of the God who is beyond, as the moon reflects the sun. Therefore nothing can happen to me to snuff out the light because finite humans cannot blow out the infinite blaze. I am one of a thousand points of light with you because Jesus is the source of all light.

Your former pastor who just passed, and my mentor, Bert VanSoest, once told me of a racially charged town meeting in Denver in the 60s. Bert stood up to speak out in favor of, say, a bussing plan to desegregate schools. He sat down to one overwhelming reaction: boooo. As I was getting a lot of criticism in my first church at the time, I asked, How did you handle that? He smiled, I was fine. I just thanked God that I had hit a nerve! Worship praises the source of Light beyond. God’s light cannot be hid by human hands. Praise God, it will always shine!

Beyond and before. The growing majority of Americans who express their spirituality through meditation, do spirituality alone. By themselves. Not before anyone. As such there is a tremendous propensity to delude themselves. Andrew Delbanco from Columbia University was doing research on AA. One Saturday morning in an NYC church basement he listened to a “crisply dressed young man” speak. The man said things like, My father left me. Other teens picked on me at school. My boss hasn’t treated me right… Delbanco wrote, “he…gave the impression of a grievously wounded pride.” And that’s why I’m an alcoholic. About that time a 40ish African American with dreadlocks leaned over to Andrew and said, I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem. Huh? Pride imprisons behind bars of our own making.

And this is why after praise we lay our souls bare before God, each worship service, with confession. I am a sinner. When I stand, or sit, before God I see with unveiled face. Having seen God’s greatness clearly in praise, I see my weakness clearly. I’m not by myself, but I am before God. You know what living coram deum, as the Reformers called it, before the face of God, has taught me? The very thing that I hate in my mother is in me. I am a worrier. Not like her, thank God, but I worry. Will this work out ok? What will they think? Have I done my part? And God cannot do the surgery necessary to remove that tumor until it’s diagnosed before God.

Beyond, before, be changed. To behold God who is beyond and before us is to be changed. If I just navel gaze at my inner flickering light by myself I won’t change. I may feel more peaceful. I may even be more happy, but I may not change. Why? If we become what we behold, then beholding my navel will likely keep me as I am because I’m looking at me.

And yet, if in worship I behold Jesus who is both beyond and before me then I will be changed. I’ll say, if they criticized him to the point of crucifixion then a little color criticism won’t kill me. Jesus, I praise your honesty and strength, and I believe that you’re filling me with yourself, and with honesty and strength. Every Sunday I behold Jesus and am changed. Every day I keep Jesus beyond and before me in prayer and scripture–from one degree of glory to…

Does it really work? Dr. Harold Koenig of the Duke University Center for Religion and Health documents seven, statistically significant, effects of weekly worship attendance:

  • Religious people having stronger marriages and families.
  • Religious people have healthy lifestyles.
  • Religious people cope better with stress.
  • Religious people recover from depression more quickly.
  • Religious people live longer, healthier lives.
  • Religious people may have less cardio vascular disease.
  • Religious people use fewer expensive hospital services.

That’s the science that you can study if you read The Healing Power of Faith, here’s a story:
Just as I’m writing this sermon this email comes from someone who has allowed me to share its contents but would prefer to remain anonymous: For the past few weeks, I’ve been a bit overwhelmed, with work changes, a family health issue, committee work and just keeping up at home. But the best part of my week was this Sunday. Just traveling to the worship service, I had a different mindset. I enjoyed attending the early prayer and adult class, and the worship service was best. The cares of this world were nowhere in sight. Thanks for the great sermon.

That’s why we worship–to behold God who is beyond and before us, to be changed.