A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Let My People Go that They May Worship Me!
May 14, 2020
In the past two letters I have explored how the church, with its facilities locked down, can be guided by the first two Great Ends of the Church: Proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind, and shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the people of God. Today we consider the third of the Great Ends, one that seems especially challenging when our sanctuaries are shuttered: Maintenance of Divine Worship.
The call to worship God rightly is embedded into the identity of God’s people from at least as far back as the Exodus, when Moses repeatedly spoke the word of God to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me!” (Exodus 8:1, et al.) Capacity for faithful worship is critical for the well-being of God’s people.
In the generations prior to the Exodus, Abraham and his heirs worshiped God authentically, even though there was no place to gather for formal worship. The Tabernacle and Temple were later additions to divine worship, meant not to replace household worship but to supplement it. The prophets excoriated God’s people for engaging in ceremonial sanctuary worship while their daily practices were far from godly. (For a powerful and poignant example, see Amos 5.)
Jesus taught that what matters with right worship is not where we worship, but how we worship. He told the woman at the well that it doesn’t matter whether we worship in Jerusalem (at the Temple) or on the Samaritan mountain (at a shrine); what matters is whether we worship God in spirit and truth. (John 4:20-25) That can happen in a sanctuary, to be sure, but it can happen anywhere. If our worship is defined primarily by where and how we gather, we misunderstand the essence of worship, from the patriarchs through the prophets to Jesus.
Our Reformed forebears understood that worship is first and foremost something that happens in the heart, is practiced at home, and is lived out day to day in our worldly dealings. Our Book of Order and our Book of Common Worship offer instructions for household worship, but today we focus almost entirely on how those resources shape our corporate worship.
The COVID pandemic has redirected our worship from sanctuaries to households. In so doing, it has forced us to return to the core of true worship – acknowledging God’s presence at home day by day, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
Sunday’s corporate worship keeps our daily worship fueled and grounded. It is meant to serve, rather than to supplant daily worship. Many of our pastors and sessions are now providing not only resources for Sunday worship at home, but also resources for daily home worship. In so doing, we may be more faithfully engaging the mandate of maintaining divine worship than we have done in recent memory.
As we begin to consider whether, when, and how to resume public worship in our sanctuaries, I rejoice at how eager some among us are to worship again each Sunday in person with our faith family. I’ve never seen such hunger for corporate worship in the church! Some of it is no doubt due to our missing a treasured part of our life’s rhythm. But perhaps some of it results from our appetites being whetted by our experiences of worshiping at home. We want more, praise be to God! The more we worship at home, the more we will long to gather with others who share our love for God.
The community in which I once served as a pastor hosted a classic car show every spring in the park behind the manse where Tammy and I lived. Proud owners came by the hundreds to show off their vintage beauties to friends and strangers alike. They spent countless hours at home preparing their beloved automobiles to look and run showroom perfect. But only when they gathered with others who similarly invested their time and love over long hours in their private garages was their passion for what they treasured fully articulated and satisfied.
Sunday worship is the car show. Daily worship is the care invested day after day in something we find precious. Sometimes those times alone can feel long and tedious, especially when they stretch out to months, not just weeks. But the day will come when we join again with the saints to celebrate the beauty and power of what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Due to our rightful concern for the welfare of the vulnerable among us (by reason of age, most people in our congregations are highly vulnerable to disastrous consequences if they catch the COVID virus), it may yet be long delayed. But it will come. With the psalmist, we will exult gladness when we hear the summons, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1)
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister