Sermon of the Week
Elements of Worship: Sent Bearing Blessing
Keywords: cell phone, waiting room, eye contact, connection with neighbor, neighbors are people, bear God’s blessing, social rational animal.
Paul Nicolaus framed everything by painting this picture for our consideration.
“The doors open wide, you enter, and they close behind you.
As the elevator begins its ascent, you realize
it’s just you and one other person taking this ride.
The silence soon grows uncomfortable.”
So, Nicolaus wants to know:
“Pop quiz,” he asks,
“What’s your go-to move?
- Stare at your shoes.
- Pull out your cell phone?
- Make brief eye contact?
- Initiate chitchat?”
This was all in an article he wrote for National Public Radio this week.
Many of us, Nicolaus suggests, tend to do just about anything to avoid conversation
or even eye contact with strangers.
This isn’t an extravert vs introvert matter.
We’re not talking about wanting to strike up a friendship
or spend an hour hanging out with someone.
Eye-contact. A hello. That sort of thing.
For many of us, the answer might be B:
pull out your cell phone, check out what’s up on snapchat.
It’s not that they’re the only factor,
but apparently smartphones make it easier to avoid other people.
A professor from Georgetown University and another from UC Irvine
conducted a research project
that showed a significant correlation between
having a smartphone in your possession
and neglecting to even exchange a brief smile with people we meet in public places.
“Strangers smiled less to one another when they had their phones in a waiting room.”
Nicolaus wondered: Might we just be short-changing our happiness
by ignoring opportunities to connect with people around us.
What does it matter, anyway?
Well, several years ago, another study was conducted at a busy coffee shop.
Researchers asked participants to go in, grab a drink,
and half of them were asked to strike up a brief conversation with the cashier.
Those participants randomly assigned to turn the economic transaction
into a brief social interaction
left Starbucks in a better mood, said the lead researcher,
a psychologist from the University of British Columbia.
“And they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community.”
It mirrored the research they had previously done about
random interactions with people in a dog park, or waiting for mass transit.
The researchers found that seemingly trivial encounters
with minor, tangential characters in our lives
the Starbucks barista or the guy in the dog park or the person in the elevator
just looking them in the eye, or sharing a smile, or saying hello
can affect feelings of happiness and connectedness.
Here’s how one researcher put it,
“Just that brief acknowledgement, that brief glance—
with or without a smile—
made them at least temporarily feel more socially connected.”
And it goes both ways.
By making that acknowledgement,
the one receiving the smile, the look
also feel more connected, more alive, more human.
“It takes very little to acknowledge somebody’s existence.”
The whole article made me pause for a bit this week.
I was reading it, on my phone, at Starbucks.
I noted the irony.
I immediately asked myself if I had been kind to the cashier.
I couldn’t remember, honestly, if I had.
I was checking my email.
(I was, by the way.
I thanked him for the order,
and complimented his somewhat ornate, flowery shirt.)
But there is something very elemental, it seems to me,
that Nicolaus was trying to say in his article.
It takes very simple gestures to connect with other people.
Looking at them.
Maybe smiling at them.
And these things have impact and import far beyond the energy we spend to do them.
They help people feel recognized, and affirmed, and in some way human.
They help US feel connected to other people,
attentive to others
ready to observe not just what is around us
but WHO is around us.
There is power in a simple look, a gentle smile, a quick hello.
Nicolaus, and others, apparently,
are concerned about the basic elements of our social fabric
the things that bind us together into community
and they’ve gone looking at the basics.
Philosophers and theologians and heavy thinkers
have put their time into this as well.
For example, Aristotle described human beings as Social Rational Animals
meaning, of course, that it’s not just our capability to think and to ponder
that makes us unique,
but it is also our need to be in relation with one another.
We are inherently social creatures.
Martin Buber, a major Jewish Philosopher from the last century,
wrote about the way people have to be on guard
against treating other people as objects
like everything else in our world.
The true relationship between people is always “I Thou”
not “I it,” not me as a person and you as a thing, but two people: Me and You.
It is only when we do that,
when we are captivated by the humanity in the face of another person
as Emanuel Levinas once put it,
that we sense who we really are
and we can build all of our relationships from that
from the most meaningful—family, neighbors, friends
to the most ordinary—the stranger next to us on the bus, in the elevator,
checking us out at the grocery store.
We don’t need our cell phones to endanger any of that.
I remember, as a child of eight or nine,
sheepishly walking into a dentist’s waiting room with my father.
I was there to get teeth pulled for my braces
four teeth pulled
one from each quadrant of my mouth
and who wants to do that…
but I remember entering that waiting room
which had a surprising number of people in it
for the rural Iowa town we lived in at 10 in the morning
and when we walked in
everyone was looking at a magazine or a newspaper or a book
and not one person looked up at us. Not one.
I found a seat and sat down and it could have been an empty room.
It felt empty, even though it was full.
That might be a good description of our modern problem:
life can feel empty, even when it is full.
Cell phones or no, we can easily ignore one another, or we can be easily ignored.
And maybe having a computer in your pocket
with the very magazine or book or social media we’re wanting
makes it that much easier, in the moment,
to tune the rest of the world out.
Our focus, for this sermon series,
has been about worship.
What are the foundational elements of worship?
Why do we do the things we do?
How do the practices and the habits and the values of this hour
shape and form the rest of our week
whether at play or at work or with our loved ones.
I’ve suggested that there are six pieces for us to think about
when we come together for worship:
–How we are called to worship by God, for God’s sake.
This hour reminds us that God is God, and that we are not
that God loves us and created us and sustains us
and that we gather because of that
but we want to hear and see and engage THAT loving and creating God
knowing that we are finite, that we don’t have as wide a perspective,
and to remember that our lives belong to her.
–Our second element of worship is a prayer of confession
and acknowledging God’s generous forgiveness.
This is the practice of truth telling,
of recognizing how we miss the mark, how we make mistakes
and how that hurts our relationships, with God and with others,
and how, even so, we have a God who loves us unconditionally
quick to mercy and generous with grace,
not just that, but a God who offers a way for us to learn from our mistakes
and to live more loving lives.
This is important, we believe,
because it helps us practice truth telling elsewhere in our lives
so that we can share honest contrition with people we’ve hurt
so that we can hear apologies spoken to us
and have some hope that our relationships can be repaired in the process.
Because we all fall short, we do this a lot,
and so this movement of apology and forgiveness is important in our day to day lives
with the people we love and care about.
We practice truthful speech and openness to reconciliation here.
–The third element is a focus on the Word of God proclaimed,
how we look at scripture and engage a sermon
a sermon that points to Jesus the living Word.
A sermon is a strange thing
an evolving dialogue between a preacher and a listener
and the holy spirit between them.
A sermon is a chance to engage holy things
where you might agree with what a preacher says,
or might not,
but in that exercise, you’re considering, dreaming, wrestling with notions about God
and come out of it changed, hopefully stronger, more faithful,
ready to find your place in God’s amazing story.
–Then we looked at what all that engagement means for us.
What sort of response is appropriate
when we consider divine things?
Well, we pray. We offer our concerns and our hopes and our joys to God.
We recognize that we are given many gifts and should use them
to help others, not just to hoard for ourselves
so we symbolically give a portion back to God
to help sustain the church and to fund its work in serving others
but we, more importantly, practice generosity
so that we can be generous people the rest of the week.
–Last week we talked about the sacraments
the particular rites that Jesus shared with us
a great meal that we share together,
the waters of baptism, that welcome us to God’s family…
how God takes ordinary things, bread and juice and water,
and helps make ordinary people part of God’s holy work.
When you think about it
we’re doing a lot when we gather for worship.
All of these movements matter.
They’re meant to help shape and form us
so that we can see God in our daily lives
so that we can be ready to help share God.
And then, at the end of worship,
we gather ourselves together
and we venture out into the world
to see what the next week has in store for us.
The world hasn’t changed, in this hour.
There are still children in cages on the border due to an intractable immigration mess
and a politics of scorched earth divisiveness by our leaders.
The hungry are still food insecure.
Our friends and family members and neighbors still face
cancer and heart disease and depression and anxiety and addiction.
And at the same time,
there is incredible beauty,
moments of deep compassion and selflessness and mercy,
people mobilizing to fight hunger and disease
opportunities to reject divisiveness and to see the image of God in our neighbor
and to work for justice and peace and reconciliation together.
The world hasn’t changed, in this hour.
And so we end every week with a blessing that we call a benediction
a reminder that the grace of God isn’t just here, inside the walls of a church building
but that we carry it with us as we go out into the world in peace.
The Scriptures show this movement
of going out into the world
bearing the name of Christ with us.
Don read an example of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke,
Jesus commissioning seventy of his followers to go out in pairs
to every town and place, with a word of peace.
Go: don’t take the things that might disconnect you from others
don’t even take a bag or sandals.
Go. See if you can make a connection with people, my disciples.
And if you do, stay there, eat with them,
stay in their house
help heal and form friendships and then say
look: the kingdom of God has come near to you.
We mused, during bible study this week,
if the essential part of this story was not carrying anything with us.
I get leaving the purse at home, but no Shoes, Jesus? Really?
Maybe the more profound point is the way that Jesus prepared his disciples
to be open to those they encountered along the way
to be READY to meet people where they are
to look them in the eye in the elevator
or to just say hello at the marketplace
or make chit-chat at the dog park.
What a blessing can happen, in that moment!
Where you affirm the other, and they affirm you
and, disarmed, you can begin to treat one another as people
loved by God
someone with gifts to share and wounds that need healing
and a need to belong just like the rest of us.
This isn’t a moment for biblical literalism
where we say that shoes, purse, bag: bad.
When you see what Jesus was trying to accomplish with his disciples
trying to help them experience
the point of the thing was to create a beloved community
where people share with one another
and where people respect one another
and sometimes, to do that, you have to make yourself vulnerable
like not having shoes on
or looking up from your cell phone
making eye contact
and saying hello.
When you do that sort of thing, Jesus says
you can carry my peace with you out into the world. And I need you to do that.
In our other reading today,
the Apostle Paul wrote to a church in Corinth that was getting tired.
They were fighting amongst each other,
and they were weary serving a world that has as much trouble as the one we’re in.
We shall not lose heart, Paul told them.
For even though we have hard work to do
we have something even greater: a power and a love that comes from God.
And so we can be afflicted, but not crushed
perplexed, but not driven to despair,
persecuted, but not forsaken,
struck down, but not destroyed…
That sounds rather dire, doesn’t it.
But we all have those moments, though we fear them.
We know what Paul is talking about.
Fear not, said Jesus, says Paul,
because as we spend our day to day,
we all have the calling to make the life of Jesus VISIBLE in our lives.
Paul uses the words “the life of Jesus may be visible in our mortal flesh.”
Sharing it with more and more people, increasing thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
How do we do that?
We look people in the eye.
We say hello.
And we affirm that they are human beings, and therefore, that they are loved by God.
We build relationships based on care and compassion and love.
We seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
We take what we experience, in this hour, in this very room
and build a life upon it
committing ourselves to God’s values of reconciliation and the common good.
And through these things, we bear God’s blessing, day after day,
as we seek to be the hands and feet of our Lord in the world.
This is what we remember
as we close the worship service with a benediction
and often a charge that reminds us of this joyful possibility
that we might actually have courage, hold fast to what is good, honor all people
and rejoice in the power of the holy spirit,
the capstone to our hour together
until we gather again next week,
to experience God again, to be nourished and challenged and empowered once more.
May we, dear friends,
pay close attention to the movement of God in our worship
celebrate that God loves us,
speaks to us,
connects us to one another,
and then sends out into the world to be God’s people
community minded, loving and serving.
May THAT possibility
so lift our spirits and enliven our hearts
that we show the world a different way of living,
the way of the Kingdom of God,
the way of Jesus Christ our Lord.
May it be so.
 “Want to Feel Happier Today? Try Talking to a Stranger” by Paul Nicolaus. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/07/26/744267015/want-to-feel-happier-today-try-talking-to-a-stranger (accessed July 27, 2019)
Image from pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/bar-cafe-restaurant-shop-counter-768564/