First United Methodist Church
October 8th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Cultivating Peace in an Unsettled World
A few years ago, after a worship gathering one Sunday morning, two very different people approached the worship leader. After they both shared their opinions, the young leader realized that there are two profoundly distinct “worship experience cultures” gathering in our churches today.
The first person told him, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this. The music is too soft. We can all hear each other singing, yes, but the energy has left the room. You guys are up there giving everything you’ve got, and the sound is so low that it takes the life out of the music you’re making. If you notice around the room, many people aren’t engaging. When the volume is up, and the energy is high, the room rises. And that matters because people are inspired and stirred in their faith. Truth is, you guys seem like you’re hearing something different through your monitors than we are, which makes you act like there’s energy in the room that isn’t actually there. Your passion leads us, but the soft music is distracting. It actually separates us rather than bringing us together.”
The second person said, “Can I talk to you? The sound is too loud during the worship set. I can’t hear those around me singing, and sometimes I feel like you’re trying to be louder than the voices in the room. I find it difficult to connect when the music is louder than us singing. Could you please turn it down?”
Who is right? Do these different responses really have to do with the volume of the music in the room?
The truth is, that over the past 35 years of worship leading, contemporary worship culture has evolved to include two extremes: Worship Accompaniment and Worship Immersion. An accompaniment culture desires to be supported and accompanied by the music, which can either be a piano, organ or full praise band. The ideal worship environment is to be able to hear the voices of others around them, mingling in harmony and shared enthusiasm.
An immersion culture on the other hand, wants to be surrounded by the music. They have been raised to listen to music in headphones and concerts, and in many cases, they don’t even feel as though they need to sing in order to engage individually, or even corporately. Worship Immersion Culture is not primarily drawn to sing about God, nor do they always feel a need to sing to God. Rather they are a culture that wants to sing with God. They want to participate in God’s life, and be propelled by worship encounters into a world that is begging them to live out their worship incarnationally – manifesting Christ’s presence in all aspects of life.
There are several other subcultures that fall in between these two, and there are several other forms of worship, but if you consider both opinions here, and are realistic, you begin to understand that there is no right or wrong here. Both are right. Both people participated in the same worship experience, but their personal engagement was affected by their individual expectations. In our reading today, Jesus says “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Although Jesus used this metaphor to refer to himself, you can see that it can also be applied to the style of worship that is accepted or rejected by different individuals.
The parable that we read this morning is pretty straight-forward. Even the religious leaders realized that Jesus was talking about them, but to truly understand the depth of this parable, we have to keep in mind the historical relationship between the tenant and landowner.
The situation that Jesus sets up is very real and very common. The original listeners recognized the investment that was involved in setting up a vineyard and understood that a return on this investment was expected. Faithful tenants would be able to produce a harvest that would return a profit to the landowner as well as provide a comfortable living for themselves. When the tenants murdered the servants, Jesus’ listeners immediately made the transition to Kingdom of God language, because the behavior of the tenants was not normal. There would not be multiple murders, because there would be no second chance. If the tenants behaved in this way they knew that the landowner would return immediately and remove them from the land. He would not destroy the vineyard. Therefore, as we hear this parable, we need to remember that Jesus is not condemning Israel, he is condemning the tenants, or the bad stewards of the Kingdom of God, who in this case happen to be the religious elite of Israel.
Although Jesus was rejected by many of his own people, he becomes the capstone, or cornerstone, of his new building, the church. What we discover as we read this story and compare it to the real life events that will follow in just a few days, is that God never gives up on his people. After sending a number of prophets who were rejected, imprisoned or killed, God finally sends his own Son in an effort to reach us with his love.
Jesus uses the metaphor of the rejected stone to show that one stone can affect people in different ways, depending on how they relate to it. Ideally they will build on it, many, however, will trip over it. Ultimately judgment will occur, and God’s enemies will be crushed. Meanwhile, Christ offers mercy and forgiveness and those who live in the Kingdom of God according to Kingdom law experience this through Christ’s abundant love.
The problem, though, is that the law, the teachings, and the parables are all easy to read, but are very hard to live authentically. Our society values individual freedom, and Kingdom law is hard to sell, especially when the selling is mostly done inside the church, which, as I mentioned earlier, has difficulty communicating to people who experience God’s love in so many different ways. But these teachings are what the world needs, not to curtail individual freedom but to teach us to be truly free in the life that God offers. In a world that is filled with violence and hatred, we need these words of guidance and radical, transforming love. These are the words that can bind us together in spite of the differences of language and custom.
When people think about “church,” some think of the building. Perhaps they envision hard wooden pews, stained glass windows and a beautiful dome. Other people think of “church” as people – a social group that gathers each week. And there are even people who think of “church” as the experience they have on Sunday mornings. But what if “church” wasn’t a building, a group of people, or an experience? What if it was the result of these things?
Jesus said that his followers would be marked, and known, by their love. John Wesley believed that worship was one of the means of grace, but not the entire experience. Love becomes an embodied expression of one’s faith through acts of mercy carried out in the community. In other words, church is an action word. Church is a verb. Church is love enacted.
Although community outreach seems to be a modern term, it isn’t a new idea. The earliest followers of Jesus were not defined by what happened in their worship space, but by how they lived and acted in the public sector.
In the second century, when a plague swept the Roman Empire, Christians didn't join those who were fleeing for safety to the countryside. Instead, they stayed in the cities to tend to the dying. They seized this opportunity to embody Christ's love.
And when their neighbors practiced infanticide, exposing unwanted children to the elements—where they'd either die or be snatched up to be trafficked or enslaved—Christians adopted vulnerable children into their families.
Throughout the centuries Christians have opposed the persecution of selected races and religions and have often risked their own lives to protect or stand up for the rights of others.
Jesus Christ calls us to live and think differently than the rest of the world – to live for others, not for ourselves. Wesley called this active engagement “Social Holiness.” He summarized it through a saying many of us are familiar with:
Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.
Wesley claimed that by inviting others into our lives, including those who are isolated or marginalized, we will grow into true disciples of Jesus as we grow in our commitment to Christ.
The power of the good news that Jesus announces lies in our understanding that we as the church are the new tenants in the Kingdom of God. Just as the gospel breaks down boundaries between societies and between people, we are charged to do the same in our own relationships. Producing fruit and promoting peace and justice in the world begins by maintaining peace in our souls. In a community of peace, there is no violence. There is no hatred. There is only love.
Peace begins within. John Wesley maintained that we are acceptable to God not because of what we do but because of what Christ did for us. God’s gracious acceptance of us both enables and requires cultivation of inner righteousness, which Wesley understands as perfect love. Our experience of perfect love is expressed through our worship and our praise of God, and also in our work in our community and our world. In all of this, there is no room for violence. As a community of praise, let this place be a sanctuary for peace. This is God’s house. Let us pray:
O God, our rock and our redeemer, be our strong foundation, even when we are unsteady. Be our guiding light, even when we wander in darkness. Be our steadfast faithfulness, even when our faith falters. Be our coach and our cheerleader, and push us to grow closer to you, closer to love, and closer to your creation. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship:
Today’s Scriptures offer us an invitation to rethink why we are here. We gather as a community of hope because we have already experienced the forgiveness and mercy of God. When we live out what we have learned from following Jesus, church becomes something worth sharing. Go in peace.