How to be a worshipper

Tracy Niven
Monday 27 November 2023

Preacher: Professor Ian Smith, University of St Andrews Business School – Economics
Readings: Psalm 100; Ephesians 1: 15-23

Long ago, when I was a postgraduate student, I became interested in the work of the film maker Woody Allen. I enjoy his humour, especially the witty one-liners. He often stars in his own films and his character is typically neurotic, experiencing high levels of existential anxiety, negotiating complicated relationships and fascinated by religion.

If that describes you too, then you may benefit from a chat with the Chaplain. You might also enjoy watching the Oscar winning movie, Hannah and her Sisters, made in 1986. Woody Allen plays the role of a hypochondriac film producer who thinks he has an inoperable brain tumour and faces imminent death. That turns out to be a false alarm. The medical tests show there is no cancer. Despite this reprieve, our protagonist remains preoccupied with the fact that one day his life will still end. As an atheist, he’s worried there is no afterlife. And if death is final, then life is futile and has no meaning. Whatever he achieves, ultimately does not matter. A godless universe is indifferent.  

To escape this existential crisis, he looks for something to believe in and visits a Catholic priest. He asks for evidence, for proof of God. This is a recurring theme in Woody Allen’s work. On another occasion, he exclaims, “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank”.

In the next scene, we see Woody with a paper shopping bag. He pulls out a New Testament, a picture of a saint, a crucifix, a loaf of white bread and a jar of mayonnaise. He’s acquired a collection of religious objects but they fail to generate religious devotion. Purchasing scripture and a cross does not turn him into a worshipper and Woody soon gives up on that experiment and moves on.

There is no transformative encounter with the reality of divine love. Nothing spiritual touches his heart or ignites his affections. He is far from the experience described in our reading of Psalm 100. There we find the psalmist exuberantly delighting in God and calling others to worship.  The Prayer Book titles the psalm, Jubilate Deo, rejoice in the Lord. It’s very short, just five verses, and these verses squeeze in seven imperatives, that is, commands.  Let’s look at them more closely.

The first is a summons to make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship is vocal. It’s loud. It’s cheerful. It engages our emotions. It’s directed to the Lord. And it’s global.  As the metrical version of Psalm 100 begins, All people that on earth do dwell sing to the Lord with the cheerful voice.

The invitation to worship is universal, multicultural, diverse and inclusive.   It’s for everyone who has breath across space and time to praise and magnify the Lord, to glorify him and enjoy him. The focus is not ourselves but the Lord. The one who reigns as king, sovereign over all.

The second and third imperatives continue the theme, calling us to worship the Lord with gladness. And to come into his presence with singing.

Admittedly, all this talk of joy and gladness can be a challenge at times. We may be anxious about our health, our family, our finances or academic performance.  We may be burdened with a sense of failure or guilt or fears about the world. How can we worship God when we feel despondent?

Reading all 150 psalms, we find a lot of distress, discontent, depression, longing and lament. Struggles, troubles and pain are never far away. Yet the psalms continually urge us to place our trust in God who knows all about us. He will lift us up.  Whatever our circumstances, the Psalmist insists there is joy and gladness in God’s presence. Worship draws attention to our lives as part of much bigger story, God’s story, re-framing our perspective.

Notice how we are invited to come into God’s presence with singing. Music helps us to express our deepest feelings. It’s intensely pleasurable, powerfully moving and socially bonding. And it doesn’t matter if we sing like a nightingale or a gale in the night. Singing makes worship communal. We are not a random collection of isolated individuals but a community, gathered and enfolded in fellowship together.

Now, I’m an economist and proud, very proud of that, so let me introduce you to the economic theory of worship. One of the fundamental ideas is that the quality of my worship experience depends on the contributions of those around me. If others sing wholeheartedly, attend regularly, and greet me warmly, this enhances my experience and gives me a faith lift.  Economists call this a positive externality or a spillover. 

The energetic participation of other worshippers is a benefit for me.  Conversely, if others are absent or half-hearted, this free-riding undermines the quality of the worship for everyone and threatens the long term viability of the congregation. So while worship is rightly directed to God, remember that it confers benefits on others too.

The fourth imperative of the psalmist is to Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Worship is a response to our knowledge of who God is. The psalmist delights in God as our maker. Our existence is a gift from him. We belong to him, whatever happens, our identity is in him. For we are his people, chosen to carry his purpose into the world. More than that, we are also the sheep of his pasture.

The most famous sheep in Scotland used to be Dolly but Dolly has been recently eclipsed by Fiona the sheep. Poor Fiona was stuck for at least two years at a beautiful spot at the foot of dangerous cliffs on the Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness. As she was all baa herself, the media dubbed Fiona the loneliest sheep in Scotland. She was resc-ewed a few weeks ago by five Scottish farmers who dragged her up a 250m steep slope. During her two year isolation, Fiona had understandably engaged in a great deal of comfort eating and added to her BMI. The extra weight from her thick fleece made the rescue an even tougher physical challenge but they found a way. The farmers were relieved that, throughout the whole process, Fiona remained calm and super-chilled, though doubtless a little sheepish.

We do not have five Scottish farmers to save us when we are alone. We have much better. The Lord is our shepherd. As sheep, we are vulnerable, but God watches over, guides and cares for us. We can lean into that security. We safe in God’s hands and licensed to chill in his pasture.

The penultimate verse of the Psalm provides us with the final three imperatives. The psalmist calls us to Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.  Give thanks to him, bless his name.

The entry point to worship, the gate, is a heart of full of thanksgiving. It’s easy to take for granted the privileges we enjoy: living in comfort in the 21st century in a beautiful place; learning at an elite university; freely worshipping in an historic chapel.

It’s right to give thanks. It’s also good for us. Research shows a grateful disposition has strong positive impacts on our mental wellbeing, physical health and relationship satisfaction.

The psalm concludes with further powerful reasons for thanksgiving, stating: For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations

Our praise to God is not mindless euphoria. It’s grounded rationally and confidently in who God is. Sustainability is at the heart of the University’s strategy and there is nothing more sustainable than a God whose character is good, whose love endures, who is faithful to all generations.

The foundation of our praise is the assurance that God’s heart of love is for us and will not fail us. And because the world is in the hands of a dependable God, we have hope. There is misery and injustice everywhere, but we do not despair because God’s goodness and faithfulness are unshakeable. Weak as we are, we trust in Him.

The Psalmist knows so much about God but knew nothing of the glories of our reading from the first chapter of Ephesians: that God would bring joy to the world by stepping into history in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name.

We have more reasons to come and adore than the Psalmist could ever dream of.

Within the University community we are often reminded of our motto, Ever to Excel, and rightly align ourselves with it.  But as worshippers we live under even more extraordinary mottos: Ever to Exalt and Ever to Extol. God uniquely deserves to be exalted and extolled. There is no-one who does not owe him worship. Alleluia and amen.

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