Once there was a little girl who went to a worship service with her grandparents in a simple wooden chapel with a stage, a podium, a microphone and a piano. The people were ordinary people, no wearing fancy clothes. They sat on folding chairs, the plain metal kind that have no padding. The girl was too young to understand much that the grown-ups were saying from the podium. And she couldn’t read very well yet, so many of the songs they sung were a delight to her ears, but she couldn’t join in. But during that service the most remarkable thing happened. They were singing a hymn she’d heard many times before. She could even sing along with the refrain. “Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee. How great thou art…” All of a sudden, during the middle of the hymn, she heard something. She looked behind her and noticed a woman who was crying. Tears were streaming down her face, but she was also smiling. This woman was like a rainbow. She didn’t know this woman, she had never seen anyone cry tears of joy before. But she could sense that it was powerful and that it was somehow connected to the song. So the girl decided to memorize all the verses.
They were on retreat. A small group of about 12 people, all strangers to one another,had signed up for the same week-long retreat. They started Sunday evening and now it was Thursday morning. When they gathered for Morning Prayer, as they did each day after breakfast, the retreat leader announced that they would be washing one another’s feet at the end of the service. Dan began to feel the electric pulse of anticipation even as the scripture was read from John; where the Disciples were gathered for supper, and during the meal Jesus, who had been sitting at the head of the table like Lord Grantham, got up, took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, and took a basin of water to wash the disciples feet. After the scripture was read they sang “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.” And then the foot washing began. Dan could feel his anticipation grow until it was his turn. When he got in the seat and felt the warm water being poured over his feet, his whole body was overcome with the experience. He cried out, “oh, oh!” as he lifted his hands toward heaven and felt the blessings of God pour out on him like a shower of rain. He had never felt so completely and utterly loved by God in his life – and he’d been part of the church all of his years.
We sat in utter silence, even the children and toddlers were with them like that for 20 minutes. Just sitting in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. No talking, no music. All was still. About 40 people sat in a circle, 4-5 rows deep. It was a sunny day and the light streamed in through the clear glass windows. You could hear the crickets, and the wind in the trees. It was so I noticed the dust swirling around in the light. Yet the room was filled with a kind of electricity. After 20 minutes the children were dismissed to run and play. But the adults continued in their silent meeting, until eventually the Spirit moved someone to share what they heard from the Lord.
The three of them had been meeting together to pray for several weeks in the semester. They took turns going to one another’s dorm rooms. A candle and some incense were lit. Their time together was simple. Some scripture was read aloud. There was silence. Then each was welcome to voice her prayer for that day aloud. During one session one of them got a vision. She told her friend that she saw her standing in a wheat field like Ruth. God told her in that vision that her friend would be harvesting souls for Christ. It was an unasked for, but welcome confirmation of the inward call to ministry that the friend had begun to feel.
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. I can feel his mighty power and his grace….
These are examples of true worship. Richard Foster defines true worship as the times when spirit touches Spirit. When our human spirit knows we have been in the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. Foster writes, “Form and ritual do not produce worship, nor does the disuse of forms and rituals.” We can sing hymns, pray, listen to the word of God and the choir and take communion without having worshipped. Worship takes place when Spirit touches spirit.”
You see scripture assures us that God is constantly seeking to touch us. We read it in the call to worship from Isaiah today. God says, “Be alert, be present, I’m about to do something new.” We heard it a few weeks ago when we considered the discipline of meditation. Jesus says “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” And we looked at the famous painting that shows Jesus knocking on a door with no outer knob. God calls us beloved, and is constantly wooing us, serenading us. When we respond to God’s overtures of love by opening the door and letting him into our hearts, that is worship.
When was the last time you truly worshiped?
I have often heard people say that they wished they had lived during bible times. If they were one of the disciples, then their faith would be strong. But the gospel lesson for today shows that even those who ate and talked with Jesus before his death and resurrection – even they did not all receive Jesus as Emmanuel – as God with them – not all of those who were with Jesus worshiped him.
The setting is a dinner party at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. In the chapter just before this one we read that Lazarus was sick and was dead three days before Jesus got there. But Jesus had brought him back to life. So now the family was holding this dinner party in honor of Jesus’ work of restoration. Four of those present with Jesus are named in the story.
First there is Martha. Martha served. John doesn’t say anything more about her, but that simple sentence fits well with what we know from Luke about Martha. She was a servant. She exercised her gift of hospitality, bustling about the kitchen trying to make everything just perfect for her guests. But Luke shows us that something about Martha’s motives was off, just a bit. Martha was not serving with pure joy. For when she looked out into the parlor and saw her sister, Mary, sitting there enjoying Jesus’ company, the bitterness in her heart bubbled up and she started to complain. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Worship can’t happen if all of our actions are dominated by a sense of obligation or duty. People who go to worship motivated mostly by duty are the ones who keep looking at their watch, thinking of all the things they would rather be doing, and hoping that song, the prayers and the sermon don’t go too long. People like Martha tell themselves they need to stay in the kitchen even when Jesus has arrived and the divine appointment has begun. When they finally join the others they remain distracted by the many things they need to remember. They might grumble their dissatisfaction to the Lord, but they don’t really open themselves to listening to his voice. And then before you know it they jump up early and run out of the room, never receiving the final blessing.
Now, to be fair, John does not tell this story of Martha and Mary at all in his Gospel. John doesn’t give us any clues about the state of Martha’s heart at this dinner party. It is possible that the Spirit of Jesus had touched her spirit and now she was no longer serving out of obligation and duty. If she was truly worshipping Jesus at this dinner party for her brother, then she had learned to sit in his presence, receive his grace into her heart. Then the energy for her service could come directly, freely and powerfully from Jesus, and her service would be pure joy for her and for the guests.
Now I will not forget your love for me and yet, my heart forever is wandering. Jesus be my guide and hold me to you side, and I will love you to the end.
Then there is Lazarus. John says very little about him, just that he was sitting at the table with Jesus. I imagine Lazarus was still quite overwhelmed. He had died not for a minute, or ninety minutes, like some popular recent accounts. But three days. He was already in the tomb wrapped in burial cloths when Jesus got to Bethany and commanded, “Lazarus, come out.” We could logically speculate that Lazarus’ heart was full of thanksgiving for Jesus – he had his life back. He could embrace his family, tell jokes and hear his guests laugh, smell and taste Martha’s great cooking. He had his life back and he owed it all to Jesus, the Son of God. Lazarus knew he was completely dependent on God for his very life. Richard Foster assures us that such holy dependency leaves us looking “forward to God acting and moving and teaching and wooing and winning.”
Once we have the experience of spirit touching Spirit in worship, we learn to anticipate it happening again. I can imagine Lazarus preparing for worship as Richard Foster suggests. The night before, he would go to bed early. Inwardly he would examine how he’d used this gift of new life since his last encounter with Jesus? Had he quarreled with his sister, or been stingy with the time he gave a lonely neighbor? To us Foster suggests that we read the scripture passages that will be used on Sunday. It also helps to arrive early. Get to church with plenty of time to take care of business, and actually take your seat and settle your body and mind 5 minutes before hour. Use the first notes of the music to go deeper into stillness – take some deep breaths – center yourself. Let go of all inner distractions so you can fully participate in worship.
After the miracle Jesus did for Lazarus, we will understand in a far more profound way the power of the Living God. And we will want everyone to know that power. In God all things are possible – so I can let go of my agenda, my concerns, of the blessings I want and the even the word of God I want to hear – and defer to God’s highest and best for everyone gathered. Richard Foster says, “If you are praying for a manifestation of the spiritual gifts, it does not have to come upon you but can come upon anybody and upon the group as a whole if that pleases God.”
My life is in you Lord, my strength is in you Lord, my hope is in you, Lord, in you it’s in you.
Then there is Judas. Of all the guests John describes at the dinner party it is quiet safe to say that Judas was not worshipping the Lord in the least. His body was at the table but he had not given his heart or his intentions to the Lord. Jesus loved him anyway. Judas continued to be welcome in the inner circle even at the Last Supper. Jesus washed his feet as lovingly as he washed anyone’s.
But Judas was there for the wrong reasons. He was trying to look good, he took on a position of responsibility in the inner circle, volunteering to manage their finances. But he seems to be something like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son. The one who stayed with the father, worked on the farm, but never experienced the grace of being a beloved part of the family.
Though I’m sure Jesus would have provided Judas everything he needed, he was like a child sneaking into the cookie jar when no one was looking. John tells us Judas had sticky fingers, skimmed a little her and a little there from the community funds, to use as he wished. Then in public he would acting as if he were super responsible to through people off of the truth.
So when Mary bounded into the dining room, threw herself and Jesus feet, dumped all that perfume on them and started wiping them with her hair he was horrified! With a self-righteous expression he said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” Nope, Judas was not interested in that spirit touching Spirit stuff. When people worshiped it always led to confession, and great change and strange, improper behavior like that fool Mary. Nope – I don’t want God’s Spirit touching mine. I want to be left in peace.
I can be a Christian by myself. Leave my dusty Bible on the shelf. I’ll take the off’ring then I’ll know where the money’s gonna go. My heart’s the church my head’s the steeple. Shut the door and I’m the people. I can be a Christian by myself. (Avery and Marsh)
But Mary is the centerpiece of this story. Of all the guests John describes at this dinner party Mary worshiped with her whole self. She made use of her senses including touch and smell. Her act was sensual – intimate. Like the woman who gave two coins into the offering, Mary gave her best. Nard is a perfumed ointment imported from the Himalayas. It was an extravagant response.
Mary was doing this in thanksgiving for what the Lord had done. She had experienced God’s extravagant life giving love and she was responding in kind. Nothing was worth more than her life, and the life of her precious brother.
Mary was also anticipating what Jesus would do. She washed Jesus’ feet with her hair – Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the son of God was about to wash his disciples’ feet. She poured out the most precious thing she owned. Jesus – Emmanuel - God with us – poured out his very life so that Lazarus, Martha, Mary and even Judas - all of us might be set free to live according to the image of God.
Woman in at the feast, let the righteous stare; come and go in peace; love him with your hair! Come and join the song, women, children, me; Jesus sets us free to live again!
We can be all of these people. There are times when I come to worship like a distracted Martha, my heart and me head someplace else, not ready or able to be fully present to the Lord. Or I am like a Judas, intent on showing how righteous I already am so that I can avoid being touched and changed by the Spirit of God. Sometimes I come to worship like Lazarus – I know that the Lord has blessed me in rich and amazing ways, and I worship in quiet gratitude, thankful to be in his presence again, and hopefully expectant about what the Lord will do next. But sometimes, sometimes we are all called to worship like Mary. To forget about ourselves, drop all our defenses, take off our shoes and let Jesus touch us truly and deeply so that we might be blessed healed, changed.
So forget about yourself and concentrate on him and worship him. So forget about yourself and concentrate on him and worship him….worship him, Christ the Lord.