Who Found Whom?

[This message was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 101021, based on Titus 3:4-8, John 15:12-17. The sermon can be viewed on the Perinton Facebook page.]

Who found whom? I was reared in a faith tradition that put great emphasis on finding Jesus. I don’t think he was ever lost. Even as a 12-year-old, the precocious Jesus ditched his parents when visiting Jerusalem at Passover. When Joseph and Mary realized on their trip home to Nazareth that Jesus wasn’t with them, it took them three days to find him. They chastised him and he responded, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s work?”

Jesus was and is never lost; we were lost and sometimes still are. We don’t find him; he finds us. An old hymn verse, rarely found in hymnals or sung today, says it well:

 “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew/ he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true,/ no, I was found of thee.” (Jean Ingelow)

It took me some years to realize that I didn’t find Jesus, but Jesus found me. God is always the first mover, the initiator. Our fourth worship value gets this in the right order:

We value Responsive Worship, fully engaging us in responding to God’s salvation during the worship service itself as well as in shaping our daily lives. The Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—initiates and we respond.

Presbyterian theologians love Jesus’ words in John 15:16: You did not choose me but I chose you.” Our Presbyterian tradition puts the emphasis on God choosing us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make real choices; but it means that God is always acting first. The Apostle Paul puts it another way: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5) I was not born into Presbyterianism, but came as a young adult. Part of what attracted me was this emphasis on God’s choice over my choice.

There is a wonderful two-word phrase for this emphasis: prevenient grace. Prevenient means what was coming before: pre=before; veni=coming. Prevenient grace was at work in my life before I knew it, as it was in yours. Jesus says it this way: You did not choose me but I chose you.” Paul says it this way: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”

Annie Dillard has a quote about gathered worship that keeps working on me. “The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return. (“Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.” New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 40-41.) 

Responsive worship recognizes that God is at the center of our worship and we are not. We humans have a tendency to want to control and define God, making God in our image. Responsive worship checks that tendency and reminds us that we are created in God’s image. We tend to evaluate worship by what we like: the music, the sermon, the décor. We ought to evaluate worship by how it honors God, how it reveals the Good News of Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit is at work in it and in us. We tend to evaluate worship by what we get out of it. We ought to evaluate worship by what we bring to it: our whole selves as an offering to God. We tend to evaluate worship by how comfortable it makes us. Maybe the highest form of worship will make us uncomfortable as it reveals how God is God and we are not. A few weeks ago, Pastor Laura told us about two-handed giving,from the Korean worship tradition. Responsive worship is two-handed worship. In engages us fully in worshiping God and living responsively. Responsive worship engages us body, soul, and spirit.

Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” But let’s complete what he says, “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Responsive worship leads to responsive living. When we leave here, we see words on the back of the church welcome sign: Now you are entering the mission field. When we leave here, how do we respond to persons in need? How do we respond to injustice? How do we respond to systemic racism? How do we respond to people that are hurting? How do we respond to people living at the margins of society?

Last Sunday I went to a sunrise service. It was on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. It wasn’t at 7:30 or 8:00; it was at sunrise. I arrived on the mountaintop at 5:45am. The sky was dark. I found my spot on a flat granite slab looking east. And I waited. The eastern horizon very slowly showed hints of light. It was unmistakable where true east was. The gradual light was clear. Then, right on time, the sun slowly began crowning. The eastern sky was ablaze with glorious shades of red, gold, and yellow on a canvas made by no human hand. I was one of hundreds gathered there. We didn’t cause the sun to rise. We responded in wonder and awe. We knew that we were seeing the first light of day in the United States before anyone else. We were there. The images are embedded in the album of my mind and heart. There was nothing for me to do but show up, wait, and respond. We value Responsive Worship.

Just over five years ago, I heard that Tony Bennett would be singing at Eastman Hall in Rochester. I have been a Tony Bennett fan for decades. I said to my wife, we’re going to go hear Tony Bennett in person. I got two tickets. Five years and two days ago, we heard a thrilling concert. We didn’t know that shortly after that Tony started dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease. Last Sunday on “60 Minutes” (October 3, 2021) there was a report on Tony. The disease is progressing. Tony remembers almost nothing, except the names of his wife and children. But when a pianist begins playing one of the hundreds of songs Tony has sung, the lyrics come right back. The voice is there and the mind cooperates. He smiles and sings flawlessly. Tony’s wife and son see this and plan a final live concert for Tony and his good friend Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall. During that recent concert, Tony sang song after song flawlessly, without a piece of music or lyrics in front of him. The music embedded in his soul brought his mind to life and he responded to the sold-out hall with joy and wonder.

That is what ought to happen when we worship God responsively. By worshiping God responsively, God’s patterns may slowly become our own. It’s not easy or automatic, but God’s ways—God’s grace, justice, mercy, and barrier-breaking love—begin to embed themselves in us so that we live responsively to this great and glorious God, seeing Jesus about us in everyday life and responding to him as we respond to those around us. That begins in responsive worship, as the patterns of God’s nature become embedded in us. And we find that we have been found.

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