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Is worship a waste of time? (a sermon)

March 20, 2010

In my previous post on breaking up with Jesus several people asked me to clarify what I meant by a ‘liturgical’ relationship. In the sermon that follows I found myself doing that – particularly in reponse to the Philippians text. Preaching is so much fun!

texts: Isaiah 43: 16-21   Philippians 3: 4b-14   John 12: 1-8

What a powerful moment! … Mary pours out perfume worth a year’s wages, over Jesus feet. And the fragrance fills the house. Such a dramatic moment! Such a waste! What an act of adoration! And she wipes his feet with her hair. It reminds me of the wedding vows ‘with my body I thee worship’. There’s something incredibly sensual about this moment, wiping perfume off his feet with her hair.

It’s interesting that Judas knows it’s a waste. He is responsible for the finances. He knows that you have to find some proportion between expenditure and benefit. And there is no framework that he has which makes sense of this cost-benefit analysis. $60,000 NZ dollars would go a long way to helping the poor. You could set up a trust. You could feed a lot of people.

John’s Gospel tell us that he was a thief, that he has his own agenda here… But thief or no thief, his reasoning can see nothing but pure waste here.

In his world worship is waste… Adoration is overflow and surely waste – a waste of money, a waste of time! Why do we bother with it? What justification could we possibly give for such waste? Surely there is something better you could be doing with your time and your money than gathering to adore Jesus. Seriously… surely God’s concern is not that people gather on a Sunday to flatter him. You could be caring for the poor, or simply taking some time out to refresh yourself in solitude so you can live a better life, at least that might appear useful. How is this thing we call worship (this “love-in” with Jesus) anything other than a waste of time?

Here’s a theologian’s response. It all depends on your point of view. I speak to you as one who has dedicated his life to worship. But I still think the question is worth asking. Is it all a waste of time? There’s a certain kind of realism about what will change the world and what won’t, which can only see this as a complete waste of time.

God’s purpose definitely is to “change the world”. So the question is a good one. And it still remains true that we play a part in that… But how?… what is the broader perspective that Judas needed… and perhaps we need also.

Our Old Testament reading begins to address this issue… In the return from exile the prophet begins to tell the people that God is about to do A NEW THING … do not consider the former things… the past is not the same as the future… He describes that ‘new thing’ like this

For I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

How does God do a new thing for the world? He forms a people who declare his praise. A people who both adore God and who do so publicly, who declare it to the world – in other words a people seen and heard by the world, who are formed by God.

This is the clue… worship is about formation (not flattery). Augustine said: we imitate whom we adore. It is in the overflow, the apparent wastage of our worship, that we are formed and con-formed to the image of God. I learnt recently that the word ‘thank’ and the word ‘think’ come from the same root. When we respond, with the words “thank you”, originally it meant “I’m thinking of you”. I’m looking through the gift to the giver. I see not the gift but the love of the giver. And my response is a kind of overflow. The woman’s perfume served no obvious purpose, unless perhaps it was a “thank you”, part of the excess which is love.

If there is no apparent waste, no pouring ourselves out in adoration … there will be no formation…

And according to Isaiah it is not just the formation of individuals, but of a people that the world needs.

It all depends on your point of view whether worship is a waste of time… In the letter to the Philippians Paul tells of the reversal, in his own life, of what was a waste of time and what wasn’t.

Paul says religiously he was a success story, as a religious leader he was a top dog. Culturally he was a success story. He made it. He was changing the world in all the right ways… for example he was purifying the world by persecuting Christians. But all of this success he ended up regarding as crap (the most well documented case of swearing in the bible) – as genuine waste… waste product… a waste of time… why?

You probably know the story. Paul has a Jesus encounter on the road one day – off to kill a few more Christians – in which he realizes that he is working against God. Just as God became the world’s victim in Jesus death, so Jesus was identifying with his (with Paul’s) victims. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting”

And out of the experience of forgiveness (forgiven by his divine victim) Paul starts to see all his success to date as crap

“because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings”.

I want to know THIS Jesus

How? How did he come to know Christ? Paul’s answer is interesting. [aside] Years ago I used to think of knowing Jesus a bit like a buddy-buddy conversation. Jesus or God was my invisible friend… I ended up doing all the talking, but I called it a conversation. I was taught that listening was important, but as far as I could gather it amounted to either interpreting whatever came into my head as the voice of Christ or reading scripture and then regarding whatever came into my head as the Word of God (ideally after a bit of study). Either way I ended up talking to myself. How did Paul talk about knowing Christ.

I want to know Christ… by becoming like him in his death

By being conformed… formation is at the center of knowledge. My relationship with my invisible boyfriend was one sided. I did all the talking. This relationship of Paul’s is one-sided too. Paul does all the receiving, we might even say listening.

The talking that matters has already been done… Jesus did it in going to his cross… It’s not just any Jesus or any God that Paul has a relationship with… “I want to know Christ… by becoming like him in his death” The Christ he relates to is the Christ whose life is centred in his crucifixion, and shaped towards that crucifixion (cruciform). That is what the Spirit will work out in Paul’s life.

Formation in this way has a shape…. And its shape is adoration

Which is what worship is at its core… a gathering around the cross of Christ. We are together today to gather around the cross of Christ. All worship should culminate in Communion.

On my blog I recently wrote a piece about my one-time buddy-buddy relationship with Jesus. I called it “Jesus and me broke up”. In that piece I talked about ditching that kind of relationship… for something much more focused… something like ‘adoration of the Jesus who is on is way to his cross’.

The point is the shape of my relationship to Jesus is different now. Hopefully it’s still one-sided, just the other way round.

Paul knows that ‘knowing Jesus’ is a lifelong process. He writes:

Not that I have already reached the goal [of knowing Christ]; but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

You see, if, in the end of the day, in ways we are not even fully conscious of, we do ‘imitate whom we adore’, if we are formed by his life, conformed to him… then our time is not wasted.

What appears to be a complete waste of time, may in fact be the only way the world is saved.

Bruce Hamill 21.3.10 at Caversham Presbyterian Church

18 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 3:23 am

    Thank you so much,

    I see that John leaves out the Mk/Mt “Wheresoever this gospel is preached, that also which she has done…”

    Which adds wonderful support of your meaning, I think… it was important to our Lord in an incarnational way. “Me ye have not always” being very definitely a reference to his body in a setting which is passing rapidly toward “the Father’s promise” of a new kind of comforting presence.

    I try to explain this kind of “transcendental math” to folks who think there’s no time to “spend” on contemplative prayer as well.

  2. Deane Galbraith permalink
    April 3, 2010 10:55 am

    Bono also comments on the John 12 (or something like it):

    “It’s the heart, I think, that God is after. It seems to me that religion is preoccupied with the details, which is like the story of the two sisters and Christ goes around to see them. And one of them breaks open the oil. You only use this oil once in your life. And she breaks it open over His head. And the other one is going, ‘That’s ridiculous! You’re making a big fuss.’ And she’s going in to wash the dishes. And He says something like, ‘You’re _so_ preoccupied with all the unimportant things.’ And I always think, you know, that’s religion – washing the dishes, getting the table clean for the priest to come in. And it’s completely unimportant.”

    • bruce hamill permalink
      April 4, 2010 6:47 am

      Nice quote Deane. I wonder, even if religion is full of crap, whether (given the need for a cruciform formation of the heart) there might nevertheless be a place for a thing called ‘eucharistic worship’? Or do you think that might be a lost cause also?

      • Deane Galbraith permalink
        April 4, 2010 8:12 pm

        Or U2charistic worship?

        Yes, there is a place. Although, I’d tend to eliminate any associated eschatological anticipation and concentrate on community.

  3. Andre permalink
    April 7, 2010 9:38 pm

    I’m going to have to disagree with Bono on this… details are everything. It is precisely at the level of the seemingly trivial and insignificant that the great dramas of human life are lived out.

    • April 8, 2010 12:08 am

      Disagree with Bono!? Is that possible? 😉 But seriously though… your response is good, if ambiguous, depending on how you define details. Your ‘details’ are non-trivial yet seemingly trivial. Does this mean a flattening out of reality such that ‘all things are equal’? Or just an undermining of the logic of power that determines the shape of significance and triviality at every level? By the way Ben Myers did a radio interview at Easter time (see his website)responding to some of Richard Dawkins assumptions with a beautiful account of the paradox of power in NT thought.

      • Andre permalink
        April 8, 2010 1:19 am

        Disagreeing with Bono might just be one of the most controversial things you can do in certain circles! BTW: I like U2, but I can’t think of anything worse than listening to ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ while taking the eucharist (ok … maybe listening to Coldplay). Chic spirituality and trendy, superficial doubt.

        I have no interest in “a flattening out of reality”; but I think I would want also to query this talk of “undermining the logic of power”… certainly if we were assuming that by appeal to such language we were clarifying a certain kind of activity. ‘So what are you doing?’ ‘I’m just undermining the logic of power…”. ‘Oh yes, now I understand”. A better way of unpacking what I’m trying to say would be to point to the novels of Henry James or Faulkner or Updike, or to a film like “Doubt” (and to Streep’s character in particular). It would, I think, be slightly ridiculous to say that James or Austin or Updike or Faulkner or John Patrick Stanley were seeking to undermine “the logic of power” (whatever work the definite article is doing in that phrase… which isn’t, to my mind, at all clear)… but they all see in the seemingly trivial the occasion of real human success and real human failure, of the private wars that occur, to use Miller Williams words, “where the spirit meets the bone”. To talk of the “seemingly trivial” is of course ambiguous, but it is a necessary ambiguity: there is no easily won perception here of what actions might be ultimately unimportant and what might cost a human being the loss of their soul. The tragedy is that you usually find out too late, but even to know this is a kind of wisdom.

  4. April 8, 2010 8:02 am

    Yes I think I see what you mean… I haven’t seen Doubt… something about the advertising made me suspicious. perhaps I should see it. It seems to me that an awareness that the most important things (often) happen at the level of the apparently trivial does not mean that people in their everyday lives out of that awareness are seeking to undermine the power of the apparently powerful. However I suspect that your view about the mistake of assuming the everyday to be trivial does apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the structures of power which assume they have access to the ‘handles of history’. I guess if we were to return to Deane’s comment the question might be be ‘what about religion is genuinely trivial and what is only apparently trivial?’

  5. Andre permalink
    April 8, 2010 9:09 am

    You should definitely see Doubt. What I think was so startling about that film was that the harshest, most judgmental and seemingly unloving person, the one most obsessed with the enforcement of rules and regulations that really are trivial, who quite self-consciously uses fear and power as a means of enforcing discipline, who seems to place the demands of order above those of love and friendship, turns out to be not only a person of fierce moral courage, but one who has won for herself a genuine perception of human nature. Almost – and this is really counter-intuitive – it is she who practices a real empathy, and not the post-vatican II, wine-drinking, warm and likeable, priest who wants to teach the kids songs off the radio, and reach out to the community, etc., etc. Streep’s character is also the one person in the film who experiences real doubt, not the trivial sort, but the sort that is the occasion of a profound, inconsolable anguish.

    I think I understand your point about applying a hermenuetics of power. What I was probably objecting to was the sense that one had a clear, well-defined project to start on, or that, part of this project involved a kind of straightforward abandonment of power (which is not, I think, what you are suggesting). At any rate, the task of distinguishing between the trivial and the not-so-trivial is a perilously difficult one, and no more so in regards to the practices of faith. I’m not sure I know how to go about answering your question. One way might be to point to a person whose faith seems to you to be serious and to say, ‘whatever it is that that person is doing… that is what isn’t ultimately trivial’.

  6. Andre permalink
    April 8, 2010 9:38 am

    Another way, might be to ask where a particular practice fits (or indeed, whether it fits) within the overall shape and logic of faith. To take an example from the Catholic liturgy: the question of whether the priest ought to face the altar during mass (as used to be done) or face the congregation (as is now most often the case) is, as Benedict XVI pointed out when he was C. Ratzinger, a significant one, since the latter practice might seem to obscure the fact that the church during mass is open to that which is transcendent. On the other hand, as Ratzinger also points out, the likely consequences of again changing the liturgy at a time of liturgical confusion outweigh the benefits. So here we have an issue (a) where something seemingly trivial may actually be quite important when read in a broader context which includes not only (or even in the first instance) doctrinal coherence but pastoral formation; (b) but where the pastoral responsibility of the church at the same time mitigates against something which nevertheless remains significant enough to invite serious theological reflection and comment.

  7. April 8, 2010 10:09 am

    Thanks for the heads up on Doubt. Interesting point about the Priest facing the congregation or the altar. Jason and I visited the coptic orthodox church last year and one of the interesting liturgical practice was the priest facing the altar. At the time it struck me as taking away the protestant performance phenomenon, and in a surprising way making us all participants with the priest rather than his audience. I also think your point about the significance of the detail is highlighted in another way in James K. A. Smith’s recent augustinian take on liturgies (both secular and religious) in “Desiring the Kingdom”

    • April 8, 2010 2:29 pm

      Your insight at the Coptic church is the same one I experienced in reverse 30 years ago when I tried to find a home among the Protestants after several years away from the Roman Catholic liturgy.

      “Who on earth does this fellow think he is?” is something like my inner reaction to all of the minister’s facing and confronting of the worshippers outside of the sermon. I think you are absolutely right about the surprising participatory feeling that occurs when the officiant takes himself out of the performance by sitting on the sideline or turning his back on the pews to address the transcendent possibilities represented by the altar.

  8. Andre permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:28 pm

    That’s really interesting, Bruce and John. The reason for the change was precisely that people felt that the priest WAS excluding them from participation by turning his back. Ratzinger notes, however, that this is a mistake, since the priest isn’t turning his back against the congregation, but facing the altar with them.

    • April 9, 2010 9:27 am

      I just saw Doubt… really enjoyed it. You comment proved a marvellous heuristic device. The performances were fine indeed.

  9. André permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:53 pm

    I’m glad you liked it Bruce. BTW: what did you make of “An Education”?

  10. April 9, 2010 9:52 pm

    Loved it. But its a while now since I watched it. I do recall some similar themes coming through… dragon school teachers, idealistic young women. It certainly stood out among the oscar nominations for me. Must watch it again in the light of Doubt

  11. André permalink
    April 9, 2010 10:19 pm

    I really liked it too. But there was one thing that really frustrated me… the bit where she recognizes that “there is no shortcut to the life I want”. That seemed to me not only a bit sentimental… it also isn’t an adequate answer to the problem she had posed about the point of the sort of education that involved learning latin etc…. unless, that is, we see that the life she wanted was not just financial stability, a nice apartment etc., but was more about being a certain kind of person. That’s why none of her teachers could answer her question about the point of it all, because they were their own lives were the point. This is there in the film, but (and here I blame Nick Hornby, who rarely misses an opportunity for sentimentality and triteness), it seems to me to be obscured by her statement.


  1. About ‘An Education’ « boo to a goose

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