By William Willimon, The Last Word, Abingdon Press, 2000, pages 78-80.
Last year, on a bright summer Sunday, we worshiped with a little congregation in a fine old suburb of Berlin. The beautiful old church was only a few blocks from the Wannsee House where, just sixty years earlier, leaders of the Third Reich met and, over coffee and strudel, planned their “final solution” for exterminating all the Jews of Europe.
To our surprise, the small parking lot of the church was full– full of expensive cars. When we entered the church we could see why. There was to be a baptism. The proud parents, grandparents, and friends had gathered toward the front of the congregation, with the baby wrapped in elegant white linen and lace.
I doubted if the family and friends had been in church often before that bright morning; perhaps they had been there on some Christmas past, or the last time they had a child baptized.
The pastor stepped into the chancel, welcomed the congregation warmly, and prayed an opening prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer, as I had expected, there were three or four clicks and flashes of the assorted cameras, capturing everything for posterity.
“Excuse me,” said the pastor, “this is not a press conference. This is God’s church, this is a service of worship. When we are finished, you may take all of the photos you wish, but not now. This is what we call ‘worship.'”
Everyone became very still.
Then we began to worship. After hymns, prayers, and Scripture, the pastor preached. He began his sermon by noting that parents today face heavy responsibilities. They must provide for the education, the safety, and the emotional well-being of their children. Children require resources, patience, and time.
“Unlike some previous generations,” noted the pastor, “we have the opportunity to provide generously for the material needs of our children. We are able to buy them many things.”
He continued, “Unfortunately, we are finding that it is much easier to give our children material gifts than to give them other gifts. Gifts like a reason for living, a purpose for life—where can these gifts be purchased in the stores?”
The congregation was quiet and attentive.
“These gifts, these gifts that matter, can only come as gifts from God. We have a word for it– grace. Therefore we pray that God will give our children what we can never give them—grace. We smother our children with gifts that corrupt, that deface and deform our children into superficial, materialistic adults because we are not good at giving, because we do not have the resources to give them gifts that matter. Therefore we must pray to God to take our children, to give them gifts that matter. We offer our children back to the God who gave them to us, and dare to ask God to form them into the image of God.”
In a number of places the Bible claims that it is a fearful thing to be brought into the presence of the living God. A fearful thing. Yet on Sunday, in worship, even such fear can be life-giving. There, on a bright summer Sunday—in a church whose sad history is a grim memory of a time, just sixty years ago, when the church had not the resources to say no when no was needed—a courageous pastor enabled us to worship a free, living, demanding God.
That Sunday, we truly worshiped God.
Psalm 95:6-7 — Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice!…
Hebrews 10:31 — It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Deuteronomy 4:39-40 — Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.
A PRAYER FOR SUNDAY MORNING WORSHIP:
Holy Spirit, you give life; bless this our gathering, the speaker and the hearer; fresh from the heart may the words come, by your aid; and, by your aid, let them also go to the heart. Amen.
–Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)