Tag Archives: Worship

7 April – Against ‘building the kingdom’

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Lent 5

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

In a sentence:
We are not called to do God’s work, but to do and be as God has given us

We’ve heard from Jesus today what is perhaps the most scandalous thing he has to say in the gospels, at least to the ears of the modern, left-wing-ish liberal: ‘you will always have the poor with you’.

This, in fact, is heard in three of the gospels, with the exception of Luke who, perhaps because of his sense that the poor and the marginalised symbolise something central to God’s work in Jesus, omits at least this version of the story and these words, although he has a story which is similar in some respects (Luke 7). (We might note in passing that John’s remarks about Judas here are unique to him, and something of a distraction; in Mark and Matthew’s versions, it is the disciples as a whole who say what Judas says, without apparent ulterior motive).

The problem for us is that not always having the poor with us is one of the aspirational engines of modern liberal democracy, although we’d have to say, looking at the evidence, that Jesus has the right of it.

So far as our friend Qohelet is concerned, the poor don’t loom large as an explicit concern. He does lament the situation of the oppressed (cf. 4.1-3) but he comes at poverty more from the perspective of risk and unpredictability: the rich cannot know they will not one day be poor, the righteous might well be accounted unrighteous and the living might suddenly not be.

Both Jesus and Qohelet, then, are in the same place on this, even with their very different framings of the matter, and it is a place quite different from where our political efforts are typically centred.

But there are two further questions about charity raised by Jesus’ response to Judas: What is charity, and When is it? These questions arise from the contrast Jesus draws between ‘you will always have the poor with you’ and ‘you will not always have me.’

If we ‘always have the poor’, What then is the meaning or purpose of serving the poor? What is achieved if, like Sisyphus rolling a great stone up the hill only to see it roll down again, we will not see the end of poverty through our efforts? It is obvious that, in any particular instance, what we do will make a difference for that individual. This is truly wonderful but it is not our political dream: the eradication of need. Some answer to this question – to the ‘What?’ of charitable work – is important for us as we consider once again our motivations and intentions in auspicing Hotham Mission.

Related to this is the second question arising from Jesus’ word here: the ‘When?’ of charity. When do we ‘not have Jesus’, so that we are then to serve the poor? Jesus’ point seems to be that not having him is having the poor; that that is the time for charitable work. Yet this also is less straight forward than it might seem, for the ‘when’ of Jesus is always coloured by Easter. The resurrection speaks of a continuing presence of Jesus (something like what Matthew has Jesus say at the end of his gospel account: ‘I am with you always’). It is too simple – and just not correct – to say that Jesus is no longer with us. All of this indicates that what Jesus means here – what the relationship is between the worship of God and the service of those in need – is not as clear as we might first think it to be.

Elsewhere we hear from Qohelet that ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’, and wonder what time is it now: time for service or time to worship, time to work or time to ‘enjoy’? We’ll come to consider that text more closely on Good Friday (I think!) but the idea of a ‘time for everything’ throws over to us the pressing question of what time we find ourselves in, here and now. This is the urgent question of all politics. The cause of all human anxiety is that we might not be in the right time, doing the right thing for this particular time. Is it the time for worship or for service? Should a years’ wages of perfume be spilled on the ground or sold and the money given to the poor? What should we spend on accommodating the life of the congregation? How big a percentage of the church budget should Hotham Mission claim?

To all of this uncertainty and anxiety, a strange word from Qohelet: ‘With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God’ (5.7).

Vanities and multitudes of words are the ‘form’ of getting the time wrong and sustaining ourselves in the error of ‘many dreams’. It is Qohelet’s ‘chasing of the wind’ to misconstrue where we are and what we are doing. With a federal election looming, let us be prepared for a vain multitude of words!

But, while it is easy to slip into cynicism here, Qohelet is not cynical and neither is Jesus. They ‘merely’ call us to the truth. This is largely by negative means in the case of Qohelet and largely by positive means in the case of Jesus, but it is the truth nevertheless in both cases.

Jesus’ ‘You will always have the poor with you’ and Qohelet’s caution against vain dreams and words are statements of what is the case. There is no accusation here, unless we persist in vanity and fear not God but some lesser thing. There is no permission to passivity here with respect to the needs of the poor or, more generally, with respect to the need to work that we and others might live. These are to be held together, appropriately.

The gospels finally resolve the worship-service question by Jesus’ own self-identification with the poor. To turn to Jesus is to turn towards the outcast and oppressed, the seemingly godforsaken and all-forsaken. In the case of John’s account of Jesus, the cross of the godforsaken becomes the throne of the divine Son. To see the one is to see the other, if the ‘seeing’ is sometimes worship and sometimes loving service.

In the case of Qohelet, the ‘fear of God’ he commends matches his other principal commendation, heard again today: ‘it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us’ (5.19). Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ of food and drink and each other is a refusal to allow the poverties of life under the sun to be feared. It is a refusal to be distracted from what is good and worthy and approved by God.

Only God is to be feared or, what is the same thing in Judaism and Christianity at least, only God is to be worshipped, only God is God. This is freedom from all utopias and visions, from all dreams and multitudes of words, ever threatening to crush us with the responsibility of making them real.

Our vocation, whether through a structure like Hotham Mission or in our quiet assistance of our next door neighbour, is not to usher in the kingdom. Our vocation is to know what time it is.

It is the time to live and to love for life and love’s own sake, and to leave the rest – whatever ‘the rest’ is – to God.

In this, may God ever keep us occupied with the joy of our hearts (5.20). Amen.

LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 5

LitBits Logo - 2

LitBit: Gathering indicates that Christians are called from the world, from their homes, from their families, to be constituted into a community capable of praising God. . . . The church is constituted as a new people who have been gathered from the nations to remind the world that we are in fact one people. Gathering, therefore, is an eschatological act as it is the foretaste of the unity of the communion of the saints.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

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LitBit Commentary – Alexander Schmemann on Worship 1

LitBits Logo - 2LitBit: …the basic and primordial intuition which not only expresses itself in worship, but of which the entire worship is indeed the phenomenon—both effect and experience—is that the world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence and power.

Alexander Schmemann


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LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 4

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LitBit: The goodness of creation as a belief and even ontological claim makes sense for us because we first experience the blessing, sanctification, and riches of the material world in the joy and pleasure of Christian worship. There is a performative sanctioning of embodiment that is implicit in Christian worship, invoking the ultimate performative sanctioning of the body in the incarnation—which itself recalls the love of God that gave birth to the material creation—its reaffirmation in the resurrection of Jesus, and looks forward to the resurrection of the body as an eschatological and eternal affirmation of the goodness of creation.

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

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LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 3

LitBits Logo - 2LitBit: There is a sense in which Christians are trained by the liturgy to be a people “untimely born,” as Paul says of himself (1 Cor. 15:8). This is not because we are traditionalists who slavishly and nostalgically long for the old ways (Jer. 6:16). However, there is a deep sense in which the church is a people called to resist the presentism embedded in the tyranny of the contemporary. We are called to be a people of memory, who are shaped by a tradition that is millennia older than the last Billboard chart. And we are also called to be a people of expectation, praying for and looking forward to a coming kingdom that will break in upon our present as a thief in the night. We are a stretched people, citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by “the contemporary.” The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an “old soul” that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom.

James K A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (p. 159).


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LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 2

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LitBit: One of the things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is. To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, hands to hold and raise. Christian worship is not the sort of thing disembodied spirits could engage in…The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship invoke and feed off of our embodiment and traffic in the stuff of a material world: water, bread, and wine, each of which point us to their earthy emergence: the curvature of the riverbed, the shimmering fields that give forth grain, the grapes that hint of a unique terroir. It does not take much imagination for these in turn to evoke an entire environment: The gurgling water in the riverbed calls to mind the reeds and pussy willows along its edge, muskrats slinking quietly from the edge under the water’s surface, as the water wends its way to twist the crank of a gristmill or a hydroelectric turbine, both providing sustenance for a civilization of culture. The bread evokes images of Kansas wheat fields or of parched African expanses that have failed to yield grain for years. The bread has not made it to this table without much labor, without hands (and machines) harvesting, sometimes toiling and despoiling in the process. The wine in the cup has its own rich history of grapes drooping on the ground, rescued from rot by caring hands of husbandry, perhaps also just escaping an early frost that threatened their ripe skins. So right here in Christian worship we have a sort of microcosm of creation—the “world in a wafer.”

James K. A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom


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LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 1

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LitBitChristian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the triune God…Worship is not for me – it’s not primarily meant to be an experience that ‘meets my felt needs,’ … rather, worship is about and for God. […T]he triune God is both the audience and the agent of worship: it is to and for God, and God is active in worship in the Word and sacraments. It is this emphasis on action, and particularly God’s action in worship, that Wolterstorff distills as the ‘genius’ of Reformed worship. ‘The liturgy as the Reformers understood and practiced it consists of God acting and us responding through the work of the Spirit.’ As such, ‘the Reformers saw the liturgy as God’s action and our faithful reception of that action. The governing idea of the Reformed liturgy is thus twofold: the conviction that to participate in the liturgy is to enter the sphere of God’s acting, not just of God’s presence, plus the conviction that we are to appropriate God’s action in faith ‘and gratitude through the work of the Spirit. . . . The liturgy is a meeting between God and God’s people, a meeting in which both parties act, but in which God initiates and we respond’.

James K. A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom, p.149f

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LitBit Commentary – The Basis of Union on the Congregation

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LitBit: The Congregation is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ. Its members meet regularly to hear God’s Word, to celebrate the sacraments, to build one another up in love, to share in the wider responsibilities of the Church, and to serve the world.

The Basis of Union


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BasisBits – Paragraph 18: The people of God on the way


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The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end. The Uniting Church prays that, through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life, will bring it into deeper unity with other Churches, and will use its worship, witness and service to God’s eternal glory through Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.

From Paragraph 18 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

LitBit Commentary – Justin Martyr on Worship

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LitBit: And on the day named after the sun all, whether they live in the city or the countryside, are gathered together in unity. Then the records of the apostles or the writing of the prophets are read for as long as there is time. When the reader has concluded, the presider in a discourse admonishes and invites us into the pattern of these good things. Then we all stand together and offer prayer. …when we have concluded the prayer, bread is set out to eat with wine and water…

Justin Martyr, describing 2nd century worship

(from Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor, p.46)


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