Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Anything we do regularly can’t help but shape us. Consistent physical exercise keeps our heart and muscles in good condition. Reading often to young children helps them develop strong language skills. Household routines like frequent meals together form our relationships in significant ways.
So too when it comes to our worship life as Christians. Anything we do as often as this thing we’re doing right now – gathering together to lift our praises to God, to hear the word of God, to pray to God – anything we do this often can’t help but form us. So it matters a great deal what we are singing and saying and praying as we go.
To put this another way, it’s possible if we’re not careful to be mal-formed by worship. To believe that it’s all about me and Jesus, for instance, as if we’re the only two in the world that matter. An exclusive diet of hymns and praise songs that convey this can’t help but impact the singer over time. It’s also possible to be formed (or rather, mal-formed) by worship to believe that those with the most money and material possessions are God’s favorites, or that God frowns on women’s leadership, or that white people are somehow superior to people of color in God’s eyes, or that God is always on the side of a certain political party. Tragically, there are worship traditions offering steady diets of sermons and prayers along all of these lines. Preaching a false gospel which in turn forms or molds worshipers in toxic ways.
Worship should instead be steeping us in biblical truths - that every human being on this planet is made in God’s image and of equal worth and value, that the planet itself is God’s precious creation and should be treated accordingly, that our God is a God of justice who expects justice from us, that Jesus lived and died and rose again for everyone everywhere, that we as his disciples are called to extend God’s love and compassion, grace, kindness, and hospitality wherever we go.
Again, anything we do as often as this thing we’re doing right now can’t help but form us as Christians. So it matters a great deal what we are singing and saying and praying.
Worship as spiritual formation. I’ve long enjoyed planning for worship, participating in worship, leading worship, and this fall I want to take you behind the curtain, if you will, and talk about why we say and do the specific things we say and do together each week. The biblical foundations for worship. The theology behind our practices. (Or as the people who live with me might put it: why Deb spends so much time obsessing over song lyrics and sermon and prayer wording as she prepares for Sunday services.)
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, as we learn what the kingdom of God looks like and as we “follow Jesus to become like Jesus in order to do what Jesus does.”
And I realize I don’t need to tell you this, you who are already here, but of course this is why it’s been so critical to keep gathering for worship this year even at a physical distance like this. Worship isn’t optional for the Church. It’s the primary thing we do – it’s vital – and when done correctly it will inform everything else we do as God’s people too.
If you’re someone who ever worries you’re not doing enough for your personal spiritual growth, that maybe there’s some elusive recipe out there for strengthening your faith and you just can’t seem to get the hang of it, remember that participating in weekly worship already has you off to a good start. Certainly, there’s more we can do to grow and challenge ourselves and if you’re struggling along those lines, let’s talk and I’ll see if I can offer you any suggestions. But remember, too, that every time you turn up on a Sunday morning, every time you join us in praise and prayer and hear the word of God read and proclaimed you are doing something for your spiritual health. You are allowing yourself to be molded and nurtured as a follower of Jesus. You’re being formed as a person of faith.
We invite one another to this important exercise in spiritual formation every week in our Call to Worship. Why refer to it as a call? Because we’re being asked to move. To step away from one mindset and into another. From the cares and concerns that have been your focus for the last seven days to casting all your cares on God who cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7) From the hectic pace of daily life and the insanity 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) From an ethic of upward mobility and ‘me first’ to being reminded what matters most are things like humility and generosity and serving those considered last and least. (Matthew 25:31-46) From a world in which human lives are routinely discounted because of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, and country of origin to a world in which people of every imaginable variety gather around the throne of God singing “blessing and glory and … honor … and might be to our God forever and ever!” (Revelation 7:12)
That’s the kingdom of God. That’s our primary citizenship. The rest will fade away. But since the rest is where we spend the majority of our time here and now, we’ll need regular reminders to reorient ourselves. “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.
People of faith have been doing this for thousands of years. I love that when Don read for us the opening words of Psalm 95 this morning, he called us to worship the same way ancient Israelites were called to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, the same way Jesus and his parents were called to worship in the synagogue in Nazareth, the same way the earliest Christians were called to worship in places like Ephasus and Rome, all of them using the biblical psalter as their hymnal and prayerbook. “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into [God’s] presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (Psalm 95:1-2)
I recently stumbled across a wonderful footnote in a Jewish prayerbook that explains a call to worship this way. As service begins “the leader asks, ‘Are you ready to pray?’ And we respond ‘Yes! Let us pray!’”
Friends, let’s pray together as if our lives depended on it. Because they do! Let’s answer God’s call to worship with our whole hearts, eager to be formed and transformed as God’s people.
 David W. Swanson, Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity (InterVarsity Press 2020), p. 19.
 Adapted from Richard Levy, as quoted in Mishkan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur: Shabbat (CCAR, 2007), p. 29.