Worship should change us, not entertain us, says Easterling

Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling delivers her sermon at the first morning worship service of the season Sunday in the Amphitheater. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling loves to worship.

“I have always loved worship; although, if my parents were still here, they might recount it differently,” Easterling said at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “Even after I left for college, when many young people run away from church, I continued to go for the music, the singing, the preaching and the occasional silence. But I might not have if I had understood the danger.”

The title of Easterling’s sermon was “I am a Friend of God: A Bold and Dangerous Call to Worship.” The scripture reading was Psalm 100. 

Easterling told the congregation, “I am not fond of danger and fear, but when we enter the courts of praise, we are vulnerable. We have no pretense, we relinquish control and lay ourselves bare. This is the posture of real worship, the posture of a child of God.”

Psalm 100 is the first of the enthronement psalms and is the inspiration for the doxology sung in Christian worship. The psalm, said Easterling, is a call to worship and a call to orient our lives to God. 

“It is a call to a cruciform life, a life not for ourselves but for service, for transformation of the world,” she said.

She told the congregation that God’s still, small voice can still be heard, saying: “I made the heavens and the earth and I led you to freedom to be a holy nation. If you are my friends, you will live by my will, not your will.” 

“If we are friends of God, we are proclaiming that our lives begin and end with God,” she said. “We have a Western notion of privilege and being catered to and entertained, even in worship. If we don’t like what’s playing, we change the channel.” 

Author Paul J. Wadell, in his book Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship, wrote that Western Christians act as if they believe that everyone, including God, has an obligation to please them.

“We have convinced ourselves that our world view is beyond reproach,” Easterling told the congregation. “In Christian nationalism, it is not faith that impacts politics, but politics that impact faith. We reject preaching that convicts us; we have a preference for a liturgy of ease.”

She continued, “In John 15, Jesus said, ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ Abraham did what God commanded and was God’s friend. Jesus did what God commanded. If we are friends of God, we have to show some sign; we have to bring our whole selves to the sanctuary.” 

The old stories in scripture are told as modern moral tales in worship. “We bring our biased, ‘not in my back yard,’ closed-borders selves into the place where our selfishness meets God’s righteousness,” Easterling said. 

“We do not come to worship to be entertained, but to be changed. Worship is never safe,” she said. “We allow God to renew us, to sanctify us, to make us new creatures in God.”

She told a story of theologian Stanley Hauwerwas, who was at a conference studying a statement from Roman Catholic bishops on the challenge of peace. Hauwerwas told the gathering he regretted that the bishops did not ask more of American Catholics to make pacifism more integral to their faith. 

When the bishops talked about how hard that would be, Hauerwas said, “Catholics go to mass all the time. What does it do for you?” 

“Let me be clear and ask us all: How many times have we been to worship and it had no effect on us, prayed and we still had the same preferences, kept our same hatreds even after we have received the host?” Easterling said.

She noted that 11 a.m. on Sunday is still the most segregated hour in our country. “We have to orient ourselves to God’s way of unconditional love. Worship could lead to the dangerous exorcism of our democracy that is riddled with damnation. The dangerous call to worship could remove the barriers to real intimacy.”

Psalm 100 shows humans what it is to be clothed in our right mind. “We are friends of God when we allow ourselves to be ambassadors for God’s message that God has plans for us to prosper,” she said.

Easterling urged the congregation to overcome the fear of change, to be “born anew in the crucible of true worship, to become more like God and to have the mind of Christ.” She illustrated that thought with the hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” She quoted the hymn, saying, “‘Have Thine own way, Lord, / Have Thine own way; Thou art the Potter,/  I am the clay. / Mould me and make me / After Thy will, / While I am waiting, /  Yielded and still.’”

She asked the congregation to begin this work. 

“Take me God, heal me, quiz me, remove the hurtful words, make me new inside and out,” she said. “Then we will be declared friends of God. May it be so.”

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor of Chautauqua, presided. Candace Littell Maxwell, chair of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, read the scripture. Nicholas Stigall, returning for his second season as the organ scholar, played “Phoenix Processional” by Dan Locklair for the prelude. Under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Stigall, the Chautauqua Choir sang “Ubi Caritas,” music by Zachary Wadsworth and words from eighth century Northern Italy or Burgundy. “Taps” was played by Music School Festival Orchestra members Jeremy Bryant and Fiona Shonik. Written during the Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War by Captain David Butterfield of the 83rd Pennsylvania Regiment out of Erie, Pennsylvania, it was first played by Oliver Wilcox Norton. Norton Memorial Hall was given by his wife, Lucy Coit Fanning Norton, in his memory and that of their daughter Ruth. The offertory anthem, sung by the Chautauqua Choir under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Stigall, was “Psalm 122,” with music by David Hurd. The postlude was “Final,” from Symphony No. 1, by Louis Vierne, played by Stafford. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy Fund. 


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.