Saturday, February 25, 2006

Psalms: the heart of worship

The word "worship" has become a chameleon in our day. It morphs and turns into whatever the speaker wants it to mean. It is corporate and individual, it is structured and spontaneous, it is exhuberant and reflective and pensive. Some equate worship with music alone(eg, a church's "worship leader") and others equate worship with the 20-30 minute sermon. Worship styles have become points of contention and debate in churches and even within families.
Modern American christians "shop" for churches that meet their needs. A question often heard asked after Sunday morning worship is "What did you get out of worship today?" A harsh criticism of worship is "I didn't get anything out of worship today, I might as well have stayed home!" Different cultures worship differently. Different denominations champion different worship styles. Different eras in hisotry built different kinds of structures for worship.
Yet, an absolutely vital component of the Big Story from the Big Book is worship. Israel always worshiped. The people of Israel asked to leave Egypt so that they could worship God. Right from the start of their exodus, Moses led the people into worship at Mt. Sinai and the tent of meeting and the travelling tabernacle. Worship was the non-negotiable center for the faith of Israel. It was more important than buildings or even the land. Worship is the key concept to understanding the first four commandments.
On Sunday February 26 the entire theme is worship at the peak of Israel's life, from its richest worship book; the Psalms. It is not so much a Sunday "about" worship, with teaching and instruction. It is a Sunday immersed in worship. The altar wsets the theme by being decorated with instruments of worship and praise from the Psalms: the horn calling people into worship called the "Shofar", a drum and tambourine. The gold tassle speaks of the splendor of the Temple and the rack of candles of the lights indicating the presence of God.
Montecito's worship on February 26th will be a unique departure from our customary format. It will be a steady stream of gifts of praise to God from within the our own community. There will be brass and voices in the choir. There will be the reedy sounds of the saxophone and the strumming of stringed guitars. We will emply the percussion of a drum to punctuate our confession sin and we will join our voices as a whole body in hymns of praise. Our young people will use their bodies in dance to praise God. And we will be given the opportunity to bring our gifts to God in offerings and prayer.
The question for this Sunday will not be"what did you get out of worship?" but "What did you put into worship?"

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Season of Kings

We don't really like Kings and Queens. It's not any personal animosity that we have. I'd guess that few of us know or have ever met a real King or Queen. It's just that in our democratic society, we resist notions of class and caste, of privilege and servitude, of royalty and peasantry. Many of our ancestors came from other countries where there were rigid class divisions, even slavery and the buying and selling of persons. Our nation was founded on notions of individual dignity (at first for only white males and later for women and even later for persons of color). We like level playing fields and equality. Even when our society tries to redress wrongs, we don't like notions of tokenism or ethnic quotas. It's an uncomfortable neighbor.
So the era of Israel's life when Kings came on the scene is a little odd for us. Oh we understand it on one level, but on another level we think of it as an historic experiment that had its day and is no longer relevant for our times. We recoil today when our own elected leaders try to claim spedcial entitlements.
But Kingship is so much more than privilege and entitlement. Kingship in Israel was instituted to serve, to lead and to sacrifice. It was set up to insure permanent and stable leadership over long periods. The altar piece for this Sunday (photographed above) depicts the splendor of royalty with the peacock feathers and the King's wealth with the brass container and the brocaded fabrics. But it also tells the story of divinely appointed task with the cruet of oil used to annoint Kings to their sacred function. Annointed means to be marked and set aside for a new identity and a new task. The task for Israel's Kings was to protect the people at all costs and to keep them faithful to the covenant. The annointing act told the people that God chose this person as his instrument, pay attention! It told the King that they were in their position due to God's will.
But Kings, like us, forget their tasks and bask in their privileges. So they were replaced with other, more faithful Kings. But humans being humans, were fragile and susceptible to temptations to privilege and power, until Jesus came as the perfect "annointed one" the "King of the Jews" with his own "kingdom of God" in which he reigned. "Messiah" means annointed one, a new kind of King.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Israel Trip on for Oct 17-27

Are you interested in having a life-changing experience with friends? Would you like to have your Bible reading breathe with new life? For years I resisted "Holy Land" trips because I did not like the thoughts of crowded busses, long lines, and the trinketization of sacred sites. I worship God through Jesus, not some stones or lakes. And my argument worked for years until a friend in Minnesota said "You're a good preacher Don, but you could be better if you got the dust in your shoes from the land where the Bible was written." His argument was so convincing, we went. And I was this day.
On October 17 a group of friends from Montecito Covenant Church are planning a 10 day trip to Israel through Educational Opportunities from Lakeland Florida. The cost of the trip will be around $2,000 per person. That price includes r/t air fare, all hotels, breakfasts and dinners, busses and entry fees.
The trip will include Jerusalem, Capernaum, the Dead Sea, Caesarea, Nazareth and Bethlehem. If you are interested or have questions, please contact me (Don Johnson) at church 805-969-0373 or by email The deadline for a $60 ssavings per person is February 24.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Entering a New Land

How much fun is change? Mow much do you like to move? How easy is it for you to change locations, even vocations? When Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land, they went through a change almost as great as when they left Egypt as slaves and began their 40 year walk through the wildeerness.
The altar decoration tells all sorts of stories of change; the staff propped in the jar, leaving shepherding for farming. The jar for water and holding the produce of vineyards and olive orchards. The fabric at the base of the jar that could be a rug for tent living or textiles woven in a more stable world of agriculture. Then there are the reeds from the river basin; reeds that had to be parted once again to go through the waters, that parted when the priests' feet touched the shoreline. And lastly is the gnarled ladder made of vine-like brances. Vines are the image of the new fertile land that God promised Israel through Joshua. But the key in the whole account is the command to "be strong and courageous."
What "river" is God calling you to cross? Where are you "leaving" old ways and heading out into new and unknown areas? Where is God calling you to "be strong and courageous?"

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Big Ten

The Ten Commandments have become part of our popular culture, with cinema images of Charlton Heston as Moses smashing the stone tablets. They have become part of our statuary in mausoleums, civic buildings, churches, synagogues, and even some contested courtrooms. They have been toyed with and joked over. They have been updated and restated. But they remain the Big Ten. These foundational commandments are the core expectations God has for us as people of the Covenant. Jesus does not come to eliminate them, but to fulfill them. They remain the Big Ten for us today.
The altar decoration for Sunday February 5 speaks evocatively of ten shafts of light, backdropping the open Bible as the footing and support for the Jewish and Christian faith. There they stand, as a whole unit radiating light together. Sunday will be an examination of all ten as a whole unit and how they are more of a gift from God for us than a burden on us. Come celebrate the Big Ten!