Today I had the “day off” from teaching my Sunday School class, and decided that I’d visit our local Lutheran Church (an ELCA church). This was my first visit to a Lutheran church since the the branch I grew up in (LCA) merged with the more “liberal” branches of the church, and probably my first such visit in over 20 years (I think the last time was for a funeral). But, as I’ve been reconnecting with Lutheran theology over the past year, I thought it was time to actually experience a Lutheran worship service.
My first impression was that I perhaps had picked the wrong church to visit. I was a few minutes early, and the place was near empty. Rather than the organ music I was used to, there was a very sad little combo playing off to the side, with a drummer who really shouldn’t be a drummer. When the service began, there were perhaps 50 people there, with an average age of at least 70. I saw one child, and 3 other people who may have been in their 20’s. The Pastors were gone (a married couple), off to their daughter’s wedding. A woman pastor from a church downtown had come to fill in. And, rather than use the liturgy in the official hymnal, they were using parts of something called the “Bonnie Drewes Liturgy” with a couple of additional modifications. The “Confession of Sins” had us confessing that we hadn’t fed the poor and were not environmentally responsible. But, I decided to be patient and see what developed.
I was glad that I stayed.
The first part of the liturgy was focused on the reading of Scripture. It was read from “The Message,” and included selections from the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles. After the sermon, there was more liturgy, including the collective recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Now, many probably will not understand this, but I couldn’t wait to say the Apostles’ Creed with these people; I was actually afraid they were going to skip it (I had a hard time following the schedule in the bulletin and things were out of order from what I remember from the old days). But, I should have known better – Lutherans would never skip the Apostles’ Creed.
It was the sermon, however, that had the biggest impact. It was a tremendous sermon; typical to Lutherans, it was about 10-15 minutes long, but she said more than most pastors get across in their self-indulgent 45-minute discourses. She spoke simply of the heart of Lutheran Worship, that no matter who we are outside of church, whether we are friends or enemies, we are sinners who need the saving grace of God. She spoke of baptism, and why the baptismal font is prominently displayed, to constantly remind us of the living water which washes us. And, she spoke of communion, that brings us all to the cross to receive forgiveness and grace.
It was then that I knew that I could take communion with these people. Now, I don’t take communion in the church I attend, because what they believe about it makes it either an empty act or an act of superstition. However, I understand what Lutherans believe, and the Pastor reminded me that in church we are all equal in our need for grace. Communion, you see, isn’t about the unity of our beliefs or lifestyles (there was at least one lesbian couple there); it’s about the unity we have as sinners who have been equally forgiven.
I understand Lutheran worship now, more than I ever did growing up. It probably helps that I understand what is so lacking in much of evangelical theology and worship; coming back, I see the depth in the apparent simplicity. It’s not empty ritual, it is the enactment of the story of God, of creation, incarnation, and re-creation, and of the reality of God’s kingdom, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
I need to do this more often.