It’s Not About You

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on February 1, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 6:7-21


Please pray with me:

Holy God,
Give us hearts to more fully love you,
so that we may more fully worship you.


Last November, the Church of England adopted legislation to allow women to be bishops in the church, after decades of back and forth dispute. This past Monday, one of their priests, the Reverend Libby Lane, was consecrated as the first female bishop in the Church of England. It was certainly a watershed moment in the church’s more than 500-year history.

In an interview before her consecration, Bishop Libby, as she’s now being hashtagged, said that she hopes that by her appointment, she will serve as a role model to young girls and inspire young women regardless of their faith. As news made its way around Twitter on Monday, one user posted, “Bishop Libby wants to be a role model for girls. She already is…” and posted a picture of his young daughter, wearing a white robe, with a purple stole over her shoulders, holding up and breaking bread, behind a play table on which sat a plate with bread and a chalice.

Last fall, we heard that our 11 o’clock Communion liturgy was being sung alongside refrains of “Let It Go” as young children ran around their house. Earlier in January, Emily Cooper made a cross out of tinker toys, read the Gospel lesson she had written, and served communion to her family.

“Playing” church… Singing songs and hymns from worship… Recalling Gospel stories…

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating many more times over, this…stuff…matters, what we do here…matters…

See worship is, primarily, a formative experience.

And I think, somewhere along the way, we’ve either forgotten how to allow ourselves to be formed by it, or worse, we’ve made a conscious decision to stop being formed by our worship… See, we come to worship—your presence here is clear evidence of that—but why? Why do we come to this place, at this time, with these people?

Some critics of religion would say that collective worship is escapist. That it’s a way for people to feel like they’re transcending the dirt and muck and grime of everyday life. Some critics say that we’ve got our eyes fixed on some expectation in the future, whether its heaven, or enlightenment, or nirvana, or self-actualization, or whatever you want to call it, and that it prevents us from being able to see the destruction, and death, and atrocities happening right here and right now.

And sometimes, it’s hard to blame some critics. There are a good number of Christians that are so singularly focused on the promised heaven to come. There’s a popular Christian song from a few years ago, and the chorus goes like this: “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong.” What does that say? What kind of message are we sending with lyrics like that? What does this escapist mentality say about why we worship?

Today we have Jesus, reversing the so-called “norms” of worship of the day. See at this time, worship had become a show, a spectacle. You went to the synagogue to be seen. The religious elite of that time would pray loudly in long-winded, eloquent speeches, hoping to be heard and noticed. And when they were fasting, they would rip their clothes and cry out in loud voices and put on sackcloth and rub dirt on their disfigured faces so that everyone would see that they were sacrificing of themselves.

Worship had become a spectacle, had drifted so far away from the intimate relationship between God and God’s people that it once was. So Jesus, as Jesus so often does, reverses that, flips it on its head. Jesus says, “Fasting is between you and God. Wash your face when you fast. There’s no need for ridiculously long prayers, because God knows what you need before you even ask it. Pray this simple refrain instead.”

And this simple prayer…it’s become something of a hallmark for many Christians; a kind of creed of sorts. In our weekly text study group, one of the pastors asked us to think about and reflect on the question, “What does the Lord’s Prayer mean to you?” I think that’s a great question, and one that I’d encourage you to think about. What does this central act of our worship, this simple prayer, mean…to you?

For me, growing up, the Lord’s Prayer was my way of participating in worship. It was one thing that really allowed me to feel like I was part of the worshiping community. In visiting with our shut-ins or people in the hospital, the Lord’s Prayer is a touchstone, a common liturgy that they and I share. 2 summers ago, when I served as a chaplain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, even though the people in those rooms had no idea who I was and often didn’t share my Lutheran faith tradition, I could end my visit with them by starting the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”, and they’d immediately start praying with me. We share this simple prayer across ages, and races, and faith traditions, and for many Christians it’s a prayer of comfort.

And it makes me wonder if we’re actually paying attention to what we’re saying…

See, the act of praying is a powerful assertion. Praying trusts, unequivocally, the nearness and the readiness of God. Praying orients us to God, making God the center, making God the focus. It’s about God. Not others. Not us. We ask God to make God’s will manifest on earth as it is heaven. But by saying so, we must recognize that world as it is is not the world as it should be. And if that doesn’t convict you that you have agency and a role in bringing that about, then I’m not sure you’re listening.

Our translation this morning uses the word “debt.” “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors…” This is not one of those translations where ‘it could be this word or it could be this other one, but we just arbitrarily chose this one…’ No. The Greek word is opheilemata — debt; Matthew is talking about real, economic debt, and is urging a release from that debt. We must recognize the ways in which unjust economies are counter to God’s hope for the world. The Lord’s Prayer recognizes the way in which the gift of release, this forgiveness, is part of the economy that makes the world work as God intends it.

This forgiveness is central to understanding the whole thing. Reconciliation is the entire point of Jesus’ ministry. Forgiveness…most accurately describes the work of God in making relationships right. Forgiveness…is the heart of the relationship with God and of life in Christian community together. At the heart of worship.

Faithful living comes from the heart, and only God can do this work. Not us. We strive to forgive as God forgives. And when this happens…the reign of God has come near, indeed.

I read an article this week that asserted that Christianity, as a religious institution, could not survive if worship continued declining, because worship is the central thing in our faith where we truly are able to experience God. It’s like I heard from a parishioner a couple of weeks ago about why they started coming to church again. They said, “And then I met people who don’t just go to church, but people who really truly experience God…”

The author of the article wrote, “When people sometimes tell me they don’t get anything from worship, I am happy to answer, ‘That’s great! Because its not about you.’ We need a place in our lives to tell us that not everything is always about us, about our personal happiness, our convenience, our frantic timetables, or shrinking commitments. Some things are bigger than us.” … “The future of the church is worship,” he says, “There needs to be a place where we are told uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our world, and even about God. Worship is the central act of proclamation of God’s grace to us, and that proclamation is focused on God.”

Our worship is formative, and it is transformative. It is but a hint of God’s reign made manifest here and now. We gather around Christ’s table of grace, and eat with the crucified and risen Christ, broken, so that we might taste God’s goodness, and mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, and love…

And so that we might live free in the knowledge that it’s not about you…

Come… Eat… Drink…


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