Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We come to the end of our fall sermon series today, a series in which we’ve been talking about worship as spiritual formation. Anything we do as often as this thing we’re doing right now can’t help but form us. So it matters a great deal what we are singing and saying and praying as we worship together each week.
David Swanson points out that “the way you and I experience the world, and what we expect from it, largely results from how we imagine the world.” Worship forms our imaginations as Christian disciples. Every time we turn up on a Sunday morning, we’re allowing ourselves to be molded and nurtured as followers of Jesus. We’re being formed as people of faith.
Formed by a weekly call to worship, for instance, that moves us from one mindset to another as we begin. From the cares and concerns that have been our focus for the last seven days to casting all our cares on God who cares for us. (1 Peter 5:7) From the hectic pace of daily life and the craziness of the 24/7 news cycle to the rhythms of Sabbath, and grace, and resting in God’s presence. From listening to powerful world leaders claiming they’re masters of all they survey to hearing once again the foundational truth that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1) “Do not be conformed to this world,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds...” (Romans 12:2) So we call ourselves to worship again and again. To refocus. To regain our footing. To be transformed as God’s people.
We’re formed as well by our weekly prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. Every time we confess our sins we’re saying: this is the way things are; this is the way we are. We’re owning up to things we’d prefer not to think about. Doing this regularly is essential to our spiritual formation, for how can we grow in faith if we can’t acknowledge our starting point? So we don’t look away. We don’t pretend things are better than they are. We speak openly about our own failures and about the enormous problems in the world around us. Because we also know God’s longing for our repentance in order to transform us. While it is true that we have sinned, it is a greater truth that we are forgiven through God’s love in Jesus Christ.
And we’re formed by other types of remembering in worship. As we dedicate our weekly and monthly offerings and our financial pledges to God for the coming year – remembering that all we have and all we are comes from God. Remembering we can’t possibly outgive God. Remembering we give only in response to God’s great generosity toward us. As we share regularly in the Lord’s Supper – remembering Christ’s love. Remembering Christ’s sacrifice for us as together we share bread and cup together in his name. Do this, he commanded, in remembrance of me. And we do.
We’re formed spiritually as we pray together too. Orienting our hearts to God as we express our gratitude and as we lift up the needs of others. Trusting God meets us in our own needs as well, even in our moments of lament. Expressing our awe at God’s majesty and God’s power and God’s creative artistry in the world around us. Anne Lamott says all prayer can be summed up in three words: Help. Thanks. Wow. Worship affords us regular opportunities to give voice to all three.
And, of course, we are formed in worship by the regular reading and hearing and proclamation of the Scriptures too.
We can even be formed by the way we conclude worship each week and it’s that focus – that final opportunity for charge and blessing every Sunday that I wanted to touch on briefly as we wrap up this series today.
First, the charge. It’s significant that when we end worship, we don’t simply leave; we are sent. We’re tasked with putting what we have said into action in the days ahead. Charges can take all kinds of forms. The one I’ve been using this month sends us out with reminders of specific needs in the world, and calls us to help meet those needs.
Because the world is starving, go with bread…
Because the world is filled with fear, go with courage…
Because the world is flooded with lies, go with truth…
Because the world is seldom fair, go with justice…
And so on. Today’s reading from the Old Testament prophet Micah puts it even more simply, outlining God’s requirements of us this way: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) Like so many biblical charges it’s filled with action words. Because thinking good thoughts about justice or kindness or humility is insufficient. God asks us to: Do. Love. Walk. In other words, we’re given our marching orders as we conclude worship. We’re charged to live like people who’ve taken seriously the things we’ve been singing and saying and praying together.
But our charge at the end of worship also comes packaged with a blessing. Tony Robinson, former pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church here in Seattle, used to say to a pastors’ group I was in: “We don’t offer people enough blessings.” By this he simply meant that (for lots of good reasons) we pastors try our best to challenge our congregations, try remind each another of our responsibilities and our calling as disciples, to live in God’s ways and to work for God’s justice … but how often do we allow people simply to absorb or receive a holy moment?
In some congregations I’ve been part of, folks stand with their hands open and outstretched during the benediction at the end of worship, a physical sign of receiving it – as if the pastor is handing something off to them and they are ready to take hold of it. Not all of us are comfortable with physical demonstrations of what’s in our hearts, but I suspect many of us might kind of do this on the inside, right? Again, we probably don’t bless each other often enough, don’t allow one another opportunities simply to receive a sign of God’s grace. So that our hearts, if not our hands, might well be reaching out for it when it comes, in at least that one predictable spot, at the end of each Sunday’s service. When we do feel filled with God’s Spirit and God’s grace, it can spill over to those around us.
Flip to the end of any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament and you’ll find a concluding blessing similar to the one Sally read for us today from 2 Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (2 Corinthians 11:13) Words used by pastors around the world and across time to bless their church communities, too. And hundreds of years before Paul ever wrote those words, Israelite priests were blessing their congregations with the words we talked about in children’s time today:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
God’s people have been gifting one another with words of blessing for millennia.
Taking to heart Tony Robinson’s observation that we don’t offer people enough blessings - and considering how the circumstances of 2020 have us craving all the divine grace and peace we can get - I’ve intentionally added a number of new blessings to our services this year both in the benedictions I’ve spoken myself and in musical form.
Again, as David Swanson reminds us, “the way you and I experience the world, and what we expect from it, largely results from how we imagine the world.” Blessings like these invite us to imagine ourselves and those we love bathed in God’s light and surrounded by God’s love. They invite us to imagine the whole world being healed and renewed by the hand of God. We leave worship reminded: this is the God we worship, and this is what God is about. So that we don’t just leave when the service is over. We’re sent.
As this hard year continues, I pray you will find great strength, deep encouragement, and lasting peace in words of blessing like these, carrying them with you as you set out again bravely down the path ahead. Amen.
 David W. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity (InterVarsity Press 2020), p. 19.
 Anne Lamott, Help. Thanks. Wow. The Three Essential Prayers (2012).