Click here to view the full sermon video, titled "Fast"
Peter Scaeffer’s play Amadeus imagines the life of classical composer Mozart through the eyes of one of his long-forgotten contemporaries, Antonio Salieri. The play is structured as Salieri’s deathbed confession in which he claims responsibility for Mozart’s premature death. In recounting the story, the first act ends with Salieri raging at God. Salieri wanted, more than anything, to make music. And he did what so many people do, he made a bargain with God: make me a great composer, he said, and I will honor you with music all my days. This was no lazy ask, because he then set about doing what he promised, devoting himself religiously to it and rising to a certain level of prominence in the process. Yet just when he felt he’d achieved everything he wanted, along came the impossibly prodigiously talented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was everything Salieri was not- undisciplined, crude and undignified, and musically gifted beyond all measure. In Mozart’s music, Salieri could hear everything he wanted to and was not. Faced with this unhappy fact, he did what so many people do when they feel God has not live up to God’s side of the bargain, he complained. Loudly. “Grazie,” he spits sarcastically at God, “You put into me the perception of the incomparable- which most men never know- then ensure that I would know myself forever mediocre. Why?” he asks, “what is my fault.” What is the point of doing everything that we are supposed to do, what is the point of faithful worship and devotion, if God cannot be trusted to hold up God’s side of the bargain? That is the same question facing the people of Israel as they come home to the reality of what is left of Jerusalem as they return from exile. A quick recap. During the age of the Judean monarchy following king David and his son Solomon, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon rose up as that world’s superpower. Eventually, his army descended upon Judah and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem for nearly a year and a half- starving its people and weakening its resolve. When the city finally fell, the Temple of God constructed by Solomon was destroyed, the surrounding city was decimated, and anybody with any wealth or skill was carried far away to live in exile in what is now modern-day Iraq. It was a physically brutal and spiritually devastating experience. Then Babylon gave way to Persia and God’s people were allowed to return. After seventy years of singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, all they wanted was to go home. That is, until they saw what had become of Jerusalem in their absence. It was a city in ruins; no wall to protect them from their neighbors and no Temple in which to properly worship their God. That was a big deal because the consensus among the people was that this great tragedy had befallen them precisely because they had failed to worship God properly. Their worship had grown lax and complacent. They had allow outside influences to corrupt their religious practice. Clearly, the solution was to clean things up- to seek after God in strict obedience to the rituals of repentance. They did all the things that repentant people are supposed to do when they realize they’re on the wrong path. They put on the scratch clothes, they marked themselves with ashes, they fasted and prayed. They were quite serious about the whole thing, convinced- like Salieri- that if thy held up their said of the bargain, if they showed their devotion, God would hold up God’s end and restore them and the city of Jerusalem to their former glory. Does any of this sound familiar? There is a similar kind of disillusionment and dismay among the people of God today, particularly among those who belong to churches like our own with a considerable history. We do the things we’ve always done, things that always seemed to work for us in the past, only to see other, newer Christian communities flourish and grow. Why, we ask in dismay. What is our fault? We cast about for a culprit, someone or something that is to blame for our decline to near-ruin. We haven’t kept up with the times, say some. We haven’t kept up with the Spirit, say others. We need to jazz things up, so we can meet people’s felt needs- the places where they need a little boost. Except the act of worshipping with a gathered community of the faithful really isn’t supposed to be about our personal therapeutic issues, or satisfying some individual need. The invitation to worship is the invitation to encounter the living God, to hear a Word that doesn’t necessarily meet what we feel we need or want, as much as it speaks to what it is that God wants, what it is that God says we need. To enter into worship means that we take the serious risk of being transformed by the Word of God. It means taking the chance that God will indeed turn the world as we know is upside down. But when we use worship and the church as an outlet strictly for our own self-expression, as a vehicle for advancing our own ideas and understanding of the way we think things should be, the way we want the world to look- well, then we’re no longer listening to and worshipping the living God. We’ve substituted something made in our own image for the one in whose image we are made. It what we worship conforms to what we already think, if, as the writer Anne Lamott has observed, the God we invoke hates all the same people that we ourselves hate, then we can safely conclude that we’re just worshipping ourselves and we really should expect too much. We certainly should expect God to pay any mind to what we are doing. It isn’t so much that God actively works against us, although in parts of the prophet Amos God has some pretty harsh things to say about worship that’s just going through the motions. I suspect it’s more a matter of God having better things to do than to stick around and watch as we bow down before something that is so ridiculously self-serving. It’s kind of like what happens with those moving walkways that see in big airports. You know, those things that look like escalators, only they’re flat. You step on one of those things and you can really move. It’s a great feeling. Every step you take feels like you’re taking two, or three, until you get to the end. Once you step off that walkway, the inertia of the ground beneath your feet is enough to bring you to what feels like a crashing halt. Suddenly, walking under you own power- which shouldn’t be a new experience for us- feels like this tremendous effort. What happened? Well, you stepped off the walkway. Maybe you wanted to go in another direction, or maybe you had some other felt need. But what you find is that you’re going nowhere fast. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing the newest top-of-the-line sneakers, or it you’ve got on an old pair of sensible shoes. If you are not on the walkway, it is going to slow you down. It isn’t so much the form of our worship that makes a difference. Some people groove to a set of drums and a praise band, others are elevated by the sound of the organ and familiar hymns. It is the content. It isn’t about the style, the ‘how’ of worship- but the substance, the “what”. If we completely disregard the character and the will of the God we worship, then it doesn’t matter if we’re fasting in sackcloth and ashes or waving our hands in the air, all we’re engaged in is religious busyness.
What God desires, according the prophet Isaiah, is neither brilliance, nor religious upkeep. What God desires is the active pursuit of the things that God cares deeply about: loosing the bonds of injustice where we live, sharing our bread with the hungry in our community, bringing the homeless poor of the city into our house. And when we align ourselves with that, when our life and worship reflect and play a part in what God desires, we will find ourselves with a front row seat to the miraculous. Back in 2006, after watching its membership slide from more than 1,000 in the 1950’s to fewer than 10 in worship most Sundays, the faithful few left at Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC- all in their 70’s, or older-decided it was time to make the hard choice. A letter was mailed to their Presbytery saying that they had decided to close. But when it was announced in worship the next Sunday, something startling happened. An interracial couple in their 30’s came forward to ask if it was too late- because they had come with the intention of asking if they could join the church. They were part of a group that had been meeting at the church for a while in prayer and bible study. The next Sunday, more than 40 people came to worship. Over the next five years the church became one of the fastest growing congregations in its presbytery with a membership of about 200. In the time leading up to that fateful Sunday, this church in ruins began to say, ‘yes,’ instead of ‘no’ to the people in the surrounding neighborhood that had changed considerably. They became, and continue to be immersed in their community- housing a bilingual preschool for low-income Latino families and opening on their property a 60-bed emergency shelter for homeless women, in partnership with the Salvation Army. When God called, they answered, even when it meant things weren’t going to stay exactly the way they had always been, even if it meant things were not necessarily going to be the way they thought they would. Once we stop bargaining with God- if you give me this, then I’ll do that. Once we accept the rather risky proposition that opening ourselves to the presence of God means no longer being in a position to bargain, only to follow; follow God into places we might not otherwise be inclined to go, that is when God begins to satisfy our needs in ways we cannot begin to imagine. That is when God begins to rebuild what may look ruined- whether it is a church, or a career, a family, or a marriage into something altogether glorious.