Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c.1598. Oil and tempera on canvas

“It’s not about you.”

Rick Warren made this line famous in the book that made him famous, The Purpose Driven Life. “It’s not about you” is now regularly invoked in all kinds of discussions—theological and otherwise. It’s meant to counter the solipsism of our age, the tendency to frame and evaluate everything in light of modernity’s angst-ridden question: “What’s in it for me?”

Discussions about Christian worship—in books, on blogs, and in lots of other places—often feature the “it’s-not-about-you” argument. In response to the niche-marketing approach to worship (designing meaningful experiences with various demographic groups in mind), it’s a fair enough point: the centerpiece of the Church’s liturgy is our adoration of the triune God—not ourselves and not our feelings as worshipers.

But on another level, worship is always and only for our sake. As James Alison puts it:

God needs no worship, no adulation, no praise, no glory. No divine ego is flattered, stability maintained, nor is any threatened petulance staved off, by our worship. No, the only people for whom it matters that we worship God is ourselves. It is entirely for our benefit that we are commanded to worship God, because if we don’t we will have no protection at all against the other sort of worship.

The “other sort of worship” that Alison refers to is any of a great number of ways that worship takes place in our violent world: the liturgical organization of “football matches, celebrity cults, raves, initiation hazings, newspaper sales techniques and so on.”

Alison describes a Nuremberg rally as an example of liturgy in a culture of violence, not because it is uniquely awful but because its liturgical elements are easily recognizable:

You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music . . . You give them songs to sing. You build them up with a reason for their togetherness, a reason based on a common racial heritage . . . You keep them waiting and the pressure building up . . . After the build-up, the Führer appears . . . they are united in fascination with this extraordinary person, to whom they have handed over the task of being the chief liturgist. And he does not disappoint . . . the crowd is delirious, outside themselves, united in love and adoration . . .

Worship in a violent world is a dangerous and dehumanizing thing. The un-Nuremberg, by contrast, is the true worship of the true God, for it is there that our imaginations are “set free from fate, from myth, from ineluctable forces, from historical grudges.”

In worship—in repetitive, mundane acts like saying the Creed or offering our gifts or singing a hymn—we participate in a kind of “orchestrated detox” (Alison) through which, over time, our desires are transformed and a glimpse is offered into the divine mystery at the heart of our life together.

The epistle and gospel lessons for this weekend help us to get at this, I think. Jesus’ words in Luke’s familiar story of Mary and Martha reveal the “need of only one thing” (10:42): worship. “Mary has chosen the better part”—to adore the One in her midst, making herself present, as Alison would say, to “the other Other who is just there, and who has been inviting [her and] us, all along, to his party.”

The reading from Colossians is itself a kind of liturgical hymn that rehearses (recounts, recapitulates) the substance of the faith we confess. It’s a poetic primer of sorts in systematics—Creation, Incarnation, Salvation, and more; it’s all there to be read, heard, preached, pondered, and lived.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (1:19-20).

These words and all the words we say in worship are not for the purpose of conjuring certain emotions or making worship “relevant” or “exciting.” Rather, they are part of “a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us” (Alison).

Exactly.

Worship: It’s about us.

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This is a slightly edited version of a post from July, 2010.