Sermons That Work

Worship That Works, Holy Name Day – 1997

January 01, 1997

The Reverend Canon Frederick Boyd Williams is the Rector for the Church of the Intercession, New York City.


Invocation: “May only God’s word be spoken. May only God’s word be heard. In the precious name of Jesus. Amen.”


Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Capetown, is fond of saying, “Christians are a eucharistic people; we must always be giving thanks.” For this short reflection on the topic, “worship that works” that’s an excellent place to begin. For Christian worship is about giving thanks to the Holy God; for calling us to be God’s Holy People; in all the Holy places; where we engage in Holy Play.

Christian worship at a genuine, effective and affective level of reality, results from the connection between our knowledge that God is worthy of worship, and our consistently doing something with and about that knowledge. It is the intimate dynamic between our being and our function as God’s chosen ones. When we seek to worship rightly, we are always aware of the warning in Matthew 15: 8:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

When we seek to worship in “spirit and in truth,” we recall the words of Cicero: “By example we clarify the nature of our statement. By testimony we establish its truth.”

For Christians, worship is at the very center of our journey “toward that city not built with human hands, but whose builder and maker is God.” Indeed, Jesus told the Samaritan women, “He seeketh such to worship him,” and Karl Barth has written, “Christian worship is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life.” Worship is that time when we remember is special ways God’s love, sacrifice, ongoing care, and invitation to us, “to come unto me all ye who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Worship is our faithful “yes”: to the command of Christ “to do this in memory of me.” And it is in the act of worship that we encounter God even as he promised, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be there in the midst of them.” In that encounter with Ultimate Reality we are changed — often in ways that make us more open and loving and faithful to God and the people of God.

In the power of the spirit when we cannot stifle our “Praise the Lord,” or in the silence of prayer in the midnight hour when we are still and know that I Am God, worship for Christians is a glimpse into that dwelling place eternal prepared for us.

How are we to develop “worship that works?” Most, if not all of the time? The Lutheran pastor, Paul Anderson, has written, “order and ardor can be happily wed. Truth is canonized but not style. The issue is not structure or freedom, but Spirit. God has no preference for formless spiritualism or spiritless formalism — he rejects both. Spontaneity offers no innate advantage over liturgy. Liberty is about where the Spirit is, not where the Preacher has thrown away his notes.” To all of which I add a hearty AMEN! But to go further, if we would have “worship that works” we must never forget these four points.

1. Holy God.

In Psalm 96: 9 we find these words, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness let the whole earth stand in awe of God.” God is the subject and predicate of all Christian worship. God is the one worthy to be praised. To God alone belong all Glory, Power, Honor and Dominion. All that is in heaven and on earth come from and go to God. This created order is the Lord’s, and God is exalted as head above all.

To this, the most holy one, we offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good our vows to the most high. We respond with positive, fervor to the advice of St. Paul (Romans 12: 1) that “we present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.” With the prophet Amos (5: 8), we “seek him that made the Pleiades and Orion, that turneth deep darkness into the morning, and darkness the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: the Lord is his name.” Before this Holy one of Israel, we set our prayers like incense, secure in the faith that all who follow where he has led will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8: 12). We who would have worship that works never forget “the pit from which we were dug, nor the rock from which we were hewn: and that pit is the Love of a Holy God, revealed in his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the solid rock! This is where worship that works, begins, centers, and ends.

II. Holy People.

In Psalm 16: 7-8, paraphrased in a modern gospel song, we hear these words, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Worship that works occurs when The Holy God is at the center of all life, and the people God has chosen to be The Covenanted ones give God thanks for their being and becoming The Holy People. We are the modern Ephesians (2: 19), those who are “no longer strangers and souourners but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We are those who hear and love the words of “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy. ‘I dwell in the high and holy place and also with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and…of the contrite…'” (Isaiah 57: 15).

We are those who understand that we must “offer to God, the sacrifice of praise…the fruit of lips that acknowledge God’s name. And, to do good and distribute forget not for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” (Hebrews 13: 15 – 16). We are those who “walk in Love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5: 2). We are those who even when we would do right, remember that “if as we offer our gift at the altar, and our sister or brother has something against us, we must leave our gift at the alter and go: first be reconciled, and then come and offer our gift.” (Matthew 5: 23 – 24).

We are those who because God who is Holy and has called us to be the Holy People, must always “give thanks to the Lord, and call upon God’s name, and make God’s deeds known among the people.” (Psalm 105: 1). Only when we have done these things as God’s Holy People shall we enjoy worship that works.

III. Holy Place.

Worship that works involves a third factor that often seems complex. The issue is the relationship of “Holy Ground” to “Holy Situation.” This tension is exemplified by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Paul on the “Ground” side, and by Hagar, Deborah, Ruth, Esther and Mary on the “Situation” side. We in our blindness often confuse “Ground” and “Situation,” while scripture talks and teaches about Holy Place. Worship that works is focussed on Holy Place and looks to Acts 2: 11 for clarification:
“and we all hear…in our own languages, about the mighty miracles of God.”
When the Holy People know and praise the Holy God, wherever they are is the Holy place, and the sound there of has gone out into all lands, and the message to the ends of the earth (Psalm 19: 4). Christianity is an incarnational religion. We know the love of God because it is shared with us in tangible ways — the blind see, the deaf hear, and the captives are set free. God gives us His word; confronts us with opportunities for faithful and obedient ministry. We respond to the challenge of faith and often say “Yes Lord.” When we do, the situation and the location become Holy Place — for it is “there” that we have met and known the Lord. In a manner and with words appropriate to each of us, but empowered with a spirit that is greater than all of us. Worship that works always occurs in the Holy Place.

IV. Holy Play.

Anyone who reads about worship in the Hebrew scriptures will soon discover that God is no grouch. There were many occasions of worship that worked and the people enjoyed themselves. The 2nd Book of Samuel (6: 5) records one such event:

“David and all Israel danced for joy before the Lord, with all their might, to the sound of singing, of lyres, lutes, tambourines, castanets and cymbals.”

The scene described is one where people entered into the gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise. I call this activity — Holy Play, and believe such to be a necessary component of worship that works.

The late Powell Mills Dawley, teaching at New York’s General Theological Seminary was fond of observing that “Good liturgy is always good drama. Good drama is not always good liturgy.” We need forms that give us a sense of continuity; that shape our identity; that provide structure to keep us focused on God as our center. We also need actions and symbols which involve all our senses and communicate in a more complete way. Ways that spoken propositions cannot. Paul Anderson says we need form and freedom. That we must not omit the artistic, the mysterious, the subconscious, the historical or the immediate situation “Worship is as much a matter of seeing as of hearing…and liturgy that breathes well not suffocate the saints.”

At a recent consecration of a Bishop in North Carolina, the prelates present engaged in a mild bit of Holy Play which drew sharp comment from certain quarters. I believe that some ideas of a North Carolina theologian, Dr. Michael J. Battle, reflecting on the work of the Jesuit, Anthony de Mello, will help in sorting out this matter of Holy Play, and move us closer to worship that works.

Referring to Jesus in the work of de Mello, Father Battle writes:

“The Master surprised everyone. He was not solemn and austere as everyone expected. He did not step on the children or wear a frown. He made people laugh. This made those disciples, wanting to be powerful people who expected more of a Master, angry because they wanted to be proud of their solemnity. But the Master was doing a strange and marvelous thing: he was teaching them not to laugh at him but to laugh at themselves.”

When we have learned that lesson, we will be closer to worship that works.


When have we worshiped? That’s what this relfection is really all about. How do we take the best of that old-time religion and hitch it to God’s “new thing?” When the spirit blows where it will (and it will) how are we to catch the direction of the wind and respond appropriately? The answer, like much that is basic in Christianity is quite simple — we must do what we can, using whatever we have, to enable people to enter the presence of God to worship. In quietness or exuberance, weeping or joy, repentance or reflection, the Holy People encounter the Holy God in the Holy Place with Holy Play to receive the power of the spirit. When that occurs, worship works.


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Christopher Sikkema


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