Worship and the Senses

Here’s the last in the sermon series Historic, Sacramental Worship. As with all sermons, the homily as proclaimed was different than the one written here. In this sermon, the ending proclaimed was much stronger, tying up the incarnation and resurrection with our own lives and promises in Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

You sit on the examining room table, the paper covering crinkling and sounding 50db louder than it is. The foot rest is always too low for your feet, and lying back on the table is uncomfortable, so you sit with your legs hanging and feel like you are in second grade again.

Finally the doctor enters and begins a monologue and you tell him your ears hurt and your throat is sore and before you know it he’s sticking sterlized plastic into those orifices, and it makes it hurt worse and you gag, but you do it because you know it will make you feel better.

What would you do if he stuck his fingers in your ears? What would you do if he spit on his fingers and stuck those in your mouth?

So we hear our Gospel reading and this inner dialogue begins: “Wow. That’s kind of gross. But it’s Jesus. Yes…but it’s still gross. He died for your sins, you know. Yes, but spitting? You drink his blood. I know. He’s the Lord. But couldn’t he use, I don’t know, plastic gloves or something?”

It’s kind of hands-on for Jesus, isn’t it? Spitting and ear wax and sighing to heaven. Hands-on. Kind of like nails in the hands and feet and slow asphyxiation on the cross. Kind of like nursing and having diapers changed. Kind of like us.

We don’t like to think about these things though. We’re antiseptic, private people. We avoid personal space and cover our odors and smells. We don’t do bathroom talk. And we even like our religion to be antiseptic and “spiritual.” How many churches have blank walls and furnishing and simple crosses and look like schools on the outside? Not us, but far too many. How many of you are offended by Jesus’ body hanging there on that cross? How many of us would rather say a prayer than kneel, or think about Jesus far away in heaven rather than help a homeless man?

But Jesus won’t let us keep our religion away from our bodies and from our world. He became a man for human kind, for men and women. He was born in blood and tears and died in blood and tears. And just as Jesus became a man with flesh and blood and hair and reason and senses, He died for our flesh and blood and reason and for our senses too.

Let’s look at how those senses receive God and worship Him:

First, our ears, where the Word of God enters and converts us and convicts us and comforts us. With our ears we hear God speak through His Word. With our ears we hear the Word set to music, we hear the bells which draw us to the words of institution and the bread made body and the wine made blood.

And our tongues, which praise God, which respond in faith, which confess, which sing and which receives the Word of God too. The funny thing about our text: Jesus touches our tongues every Sunday too. Not with his spit, but with His blood. We taste and see the Lord is Good here at communion, in eating and drinking.

And our eyes see the elevation of His Body and Blood. They see the vestments, which cover me and show the office I have. Which cover the personality and convey the Office of the Holy Ministry. Our eyes see the cross and images of His death and resurrection for us. They show us the cloud of witnesses, the saint and martyrs depicted in glass literally surrounding us as Hebrews 12 describes.

And our bodies feel the one another in handshakes and hugs. They stand in honor of the Gospel and kneel in repentance and faith. We use our hands to make the sign of the cross over ourselves, to remind us of the cross for us and the cross we bear, to bless ourselves with the presence and forgivness of Christ on the cross.

And smelling, when we use incense. Using incense in worship connects our sense of smell to worship. Now, I know it’s a little more touchy than the rest of the senses, because we are not as used to it. But it is Biblical too. Incense was commanded by God in the Old Testament to burn from sunrise to sunset in His temple. Jesus worshiped smelling incense when He went to the Temple and taught the Word of God with it burning all around Him. Incense is a sacrifice, literally burning something of value for God. Incense is a smell and sight to remind us of our prayers ascending to heaven, as it says in Psalm 141: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” Incense is mentioned in Revelation when St. John sees a vision of heaven: And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Incense is our prayers, Scripture says.

Now, to be pastoral about using this sense of smell in worship, here is what I will do. I will mostly use incense in the 8:00 worship service as we do now. On occasion, we will use it in the late service. But here’s what we will do: whenever incense is used, it will be publicized in the bulletin & e-blast and on Facebook, and there will be one service where it is not used, so if it really bothers you, you can still attend worship and not be bothered by it. I am also exploring some alternative charcoal, lighting techniques and incense blends that are less prone to aggravate sinuses. This is really important to me because I’ve got seriously terrible nasal allergies too.

While it irritates even me sometimes, I think it is important to use incense. And it’s not just a “catholic thing.” Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans in America (a few), but many in Scandinavia and Germany use incense all the time, as did Christians going back to the earliest days of our faith and Israel even before that. It’s biblical and godly and historic and traditional and adds to our bodily worship of God.


Incense Sermon in the Can

So I preached the last in the sermon series on worship, this last one being “Worshiping with the Senses.” It went pretty well. The late Divine Service in particular was very responsive today.

I was a little nervous, considering about a third of the sermon was covering using the sense of smell with incense in worship. Now, it really helped that there is a thurible hanging in the sanctuary next to the altar. That, and my predecessor was swinging it for some time before he left. A no-brainer, right? Yet it is a touchy subject and some have strong feelings about it. And since Beecroft’s departure, it has not been swung too much at all.

I heard some positive feedback, and know there is some negative too, but I think the plan to announce and publicize which service will have incense may really help those who have a bad reaction to it.

I’ll be posting this sermon in a few days.

Lutheran Aerobics: Part I

This article appeared originally in the Grace Lutheran Church Newsletter. It’s being reprinted here for those who didn’t get a chance to see it. Yes, that means almost all of you. 🙂

 Lutheran aerobics. Lutheran calisthenics. We don’t sit still for long in our Divine Service. Why do we do such things? Why can’t we sit still and know the Lord? “Sit. Stand. Bow. Kneel as you are able.”

Our worship is bodily and physical and involves physical signs and movement for several reasons. First, we were given our bodies and they are pleasing to God. So much that He took a body upon Himself, become a man. He healed bodies, blessed bodies and even raised bodies from the dead. And if this were not enough, Scripture says that the Holy Spirit even dwells within our bodies. Scripture calls our bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Historically, the Old Testament worshipers of God did not sit at all! They stood for the service or made prostrations or genuflections at various times: both knees on the floor, then they stretched out their arms and put their foreheads to the floor. This was the lowest bow and highest honor they would show to God, and at times, other people. Old Testament worshipers also prayed with their bodies, standing and raising their hands upward, much like pastors do at times in our service today.

In the New Testament, worshipers did much the same, standing during the service, making prostrations at other times. Instead of raising their hands in prayer, it quickly became common to fold the hands at the breast. Likewise, Christians stood for the entire service from ancient times until relatively recently. Pews were not added to churches until after the Lutheran Reformation! For those who were weak, aged, or ill, benches or rugs were scattered around the worship area.

 Ways We can Worship God Physically in Worship

1. Making the Sign of the Cross over the Body. This is one of the earliest distinctly Christian acts we have recorded! Tertullian, writing around 190 AD described all the ancient practices Christians have used and retained from the Apostle’s days. One of these is making the sign of the cross at all times throughout the day. By tracing the sign of the cross over your body, you remember the body of Christ hung on the cross for you. You remember that you were baptized, “ We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Rom. 6:6 ESV) . It is a physical way of praying, of asking the cross and blessing of Jesus to be upon you.

How to do it: Using the right hand, touch your forehead, heart and then each shoulder in turn. The most ancient way was to touch the right, then left shoulders. During the middle ages, Roman Catholics changed the practice to left shoulder then right. Since Scripture does not describe this, it is a free thing, though most Lutherans make the sign in the more ancient method.

When to Do it: Our hymnals include a sign to indicate the traditional times to make the sign of the cross. These are at the Invocation and Blessings and Benedictions. Additionally, the sign of the cross may be made at the end of every prayer at the words “one God, now and forever,” in the Lord’s Prayer at the words, “deliver us from evil,” anytime the Pastor(s) make the sign, or whenever you feel like it!

A Tale of Two Towns

I had the pleasure of visiting Bartlesville, OK last week. It’s a a town about the same size as Enid where I used to live. Now a few hours of time in a town cannot begin to compare with living in a place for nearly ten years, but what immediately struck me was the cleanliness and neatness of the town. Businesses were plentiful and well maintained. The downtown area seemed vibrant and the retail establishments professional and branded well.
Enid paled in comparison for all those reasons. The question is why. Why is that two towns in the same state can have so much in common but be so different? Both have rail lines and highway access. Neither have interstate access nor large airports. Both are in northern Oklahoma, one in the east, the other in the central/west. So why is that Bartlesville seemed so much cleaner and more prosperous?

To answer that you’d have to look at the tax rate and structure, the policy and politics of the town governance. Bartlesville is closer to a major city by about thirty miles. I imagine those differences would be profound. But culture and status would matter too, and I wonder if this is not the biggest difference. You drive out west and you’ll notice that farms look different, property is maintained differently to different standards. Values change slightly. Even with identical economic resources, I wonder if the culture difference will account for any political and governing differences. And by culture, I don’t necessarily mean what part of the country you’re from, or where your grandparents came from, but more your values, social status, standards, work ethic and things like this.

But this isn’t an urban planning blog, so what’s the connection with church and theology and stuff? Congregations vary by culture. Some are friendly to a fault. Others are lower-key. Some are downright cliquey and cold. The culture defines the values and decisions of the leadership and people and especially how things get done. Do they pitch in, or are they a congregation of hiring people to do things? Do they make rapid decisions and follow through, or do they debate things for lengths of time? Do they easily mix with one another, or do they find divisions? Do they value new ideas? Do they maintain their property well? Are they concerned with their reputation and identity in the town, or are they more “isolationist?”

Culture influences how pastors get along and which congregations are “good fits” and which ones were not. When the pastor’s culture matches the congregation, all is good, even when there are controversies and bad decisions. When the pastor has a different cultural background, then you get problems, even if doctrinally and theologically there is a tight mesh. Again, culture is being used here to mean something different than language and accent. It has nothing to do with confession and doctrine. You can have a liberal catholic and a conservative baptist church sharing a similar culture, both equally friendly and outgoing, or equally introverted, for instance. Doctrine is not everything. Personalities, culture, class matters in how a congregation functions.

Can this change? Can a congregation’s culture change? Can it grow to match the pastor’s style and vision? Can it develop? Sometimes. Sometimes the pastor begins to change it, though it can take a long time. Sometimes the congregation changes the pastor so that he fits better. It’s easier to change one person than an entire corporate culture (meaning body, not business!).

This runs contrary to what some in the LCMS Brute Squad believe. They tend to look down upon notions of pastors and congregations “not fitting.” They say “what fits” is solid Law-Gospel proclamation and rightly administering the sacraments. Ok. Sure. But if the cultures and “class” don’t match, then you are going to drive each other crazy at best, even if they love your solid Law-Gospel preaching. How they do or don’t do bulletin boards, how they organize VBS, how they run meetings, how they talk—all these things will be source of craziness and conflict and banging heads against walls if culture doesn’t mesh.

Can “good ministry” happen without it? Sure, I suppose. But it won’t be pleasant. For anyone.

Historic, Sacramental Worship: Tradition and Scripture

This is part two of the sermon series. As it turns out, it is not as full as I wanted it to be on the relationship between the tradition and scripture. Nor is it as strong in the sense of Law/Gospel proclamation, though I fine-tuned that a bit in proclamation.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

The early Christian church must have been a homey affair. New believers baptizing and sitting and hearing the apostle’s teach, like a small group in a living room. You read the New Testament and what do you see? Paul teaching in homes, people gathering in homes for worship. The Lord’s supper mentioned here and there. And the story continues—the myth continues—when the Christian church was legalized, the Romans got their hands on it and really messed things up and made it more formal and institutional and so forth.

Have you heard that version of the story? It’s familiar among fundamentalists and restorationists of many types. They look at the New Testament and do not see assigned readings or responses. They look at the New Testament and do not hear about graduals and  set prayers.

But they are there. We just don’t always have the eyes to see them.

It’s like when you buy a new car, or a new-for-you car. As you drive across town you suddenly start seeing hundreds of tan Suburbans or Volkswagens. They were always there, right in front of you, but you didn’t look for them. God’s Word works the same way, but in this case it is our sinful flesh that covers over our eyes. It’s our habits and stubbornness that keeps us from seeing what God would reveal. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced the opposite, when a passage suddenly opens up to you and you ask yourself, “How could I have read that or heard that so many times and never noticed it??”

Hear again our very, very short sermon text: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Did you hear it that time? Apostle’s teaching and the prayers. And the Greek is quite clear on this. It is not just “prayer” or “some prayers” but “the prayers,” specific terminology for specific prayers, the same used for the liturgical Jewish synagogue prayers that all of them would have used their whole lives. And we know what those prayers were like, for the Jews preserved them from generation to generation and in writing.

The Early Church was a liturgical church. Hippolytus, writing in 150 years after the time of Paul described the traditions of the Apostles in an effort to preserve their ancient tradition which was being threatened with change, so he thought. From him we learn saying things like, “The Lord be with you; and with your spirit; Lift up your hearts; we lift them up unto the Lord; Let us give thanks to the Lord our God; it is meet and right…”150 after St. Paul this was already considered an ancient text and prayer and liturgy, as those forms date from Synagogue prayers and Jewish household prayers and were being given Christian expression by the Apostles and their followers who died in mid-to-late 150s, and Hippolytus who learned from them. Think about this for a moment. St. John the Apostle sat at Jesus’ feet. He died in 100 AD and taught many who lived into the late 100s and early 200s. 150 years sounds like a long time, but it’s just two or three generations from Jesus and the Apostles.

Christianity is a liturgical religion, using formal prayers and special conduct because of the presence of God in us, as Temples of the Holy Spirit, and in His sacramental presence in His sanctuary.

But where do the traditions come from? Why some and not others? For example, the use of a gradual, or short song between first and second Scripture readings comes from the Synagogue. Why do we have it, yet not some other things? Why not all Roman Catholic traditions? Why not our own? Why don’t we beg, borrow and steal, mix in our own traditions or others? Where do we go to know what liturgy to use?

Luther faced this problem and faced it head-on. We are heirs of those who came before us. We stand on their shoulders and have received the church from them. We are not alone. We are, as we heard last week, in the company of saints and angels. As Hebrews 12 began, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, the prophets of old and apostles and martyrs and saints gathered with us even today, even here, even now. We are not alone, and we didn’t sprout from stones.

The Apostles handed down the teaching and tradition: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” In fact, the word translated “tradition” means “giving or handing over.” Those traditions were passed from generation to generation. They were taught and adapted and expanded at times. So we do not reject them and what they passed to us. GK Chesterton said it best, “

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  Or this “Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are living.

So Luther kept the Tradition which had been passed down, handed over to him. But with one important thing: our worship and tradition cannot contradict Scripture. Where Scripture speaks, tradition must be silent, or agree. If there is conflict, the witness and teaching of Scripture rules the day.

So what do we do here? We worship according to the Lutheran heritage we have received, according to the tradition passed onto us, and according to the tradition of the ancient church, as we have received it in the West of Europe. We do little that is modern. That makes us neanderthals, doesn’t it?

No. It makes us Lutheran. It makes us Reformers. It makes us Catholic and Christian. It makes us Apostolic. It makes us mindful of our dead saints and prophets and apostles and teachers who are living, living in Christ. It joins us with the saints of old, it joins us in the same worship as the martyrs, with the apostles, even. It joins us to the Church, the Body of Christ, spread out over space and time. One in Christ, one in liturgy, one in spirit. Amen.

Historic, Sacramental Worship: Who We Are and How We Got Here

This is the first sermon in the sermon series. Just a word of warning: sermon manuscripts are always different than how they are proclaimed.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Today we begin a sermon series on Worship and Liturgy, looking today at Who we are and how we got here. Our text is Hebrews 12:22—29, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,  23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,  24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.  26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”  27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.  28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,  29 for our God is a consuming fire.

 “We don’t do that at Grace.” I’ve heard you say it. I’ve said it myself. We say it friendly-like most of the time, but we say it. We don’t do screens and rock bands, no drum sets or clowns. No girls in leotards prancing around calling it “liturgical dance.” No, our dance is the dance of standing and sitting, kneeling and page-turning, call-and-responses, God leading, us following, God giving, us receiving, Him forgiving, our Amens.

So…why? Why don’t we do crazy clowns and contemporary music and fog machines and light shows and walking around with object lessons and coffee cafes and the what’s-happening-now scene? Is it because of our building? I mean, how could you do praise band in this fortress and relic from the 15th century? How, with Jane Austin’s father’s lecturn right over there? No, that’s not our “style.”

Is that it, though? Is it the case that if circumstances had changed and we were somehow in a modern-looking building then all that would be game? We could do it? Is it because of the building? Probably not. So what is it? Why don’t we do that at Grace? Is it because it’s our personal, corporate style? Is it because we like liturgical, sacramental, reverent historical worship? Is it our choice, like choosing a radio station?

Shouldn’t be. So what should it be? Why do we do it? Why should we be worshiping like this?

Hear what our text says, “You have come to the city of the living God, to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” What does that mean?

The writer of Hebrews makes a comparison with Mt. Sinai. He says at Mt. Sinai, it was “what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest  19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them.” This is where the Law was given. This is how we relate to God without forgiveness. Without Gospel. This is the way of sin and death.

But this is not you. You are not there! Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law of God, made atonement for our sins and given the promise and gift of life. You are not in doom and shadow and smoke and fire, tempest and fear. You are in the grace and light and life of God. With holy angels in “festal assembly.”  We are here right now, and they are here. This is not just people of the Tulsa metro hanging around a nice building in a transitional neighborhood. We are in the midst of angels. Angels in festal gathering. In the midst of the living Apostles. In the middle of the saints of God, the holy martyrs of old. Heaven brought to earth, and us to heaven.

So let’s party, right? Let’s throw off our vestments and formality…

No, that’s not it either. Festal assembly means “a festal gathering of the whole people to celebrate public games or other solemnities.” It’s the same word used in the early Greek translation of the Old Testament to mean the liturgical feasts of the Temple, like Passover and Yom Kippur. And the worship of God is not done lightly. It is not done casually, and friends, this is straight out of the Bible. “thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,  29 for our God is a consuming fire.” Thus saith the Lord. Right?

 So what is acceptable worship to God? Is it making sure everything is verbatim, you know, right out of the book? If you sing the wrong response, in other words, is that somehow a sin? No. Acceptable worship is worship done from faith. God desires mercy. Faith in Jesus Christ, trusting Him to forgive. Faith to believe that God loves you. Faith to know that God gives life and salvation, even as we sing His praises, He is giving us His Word. Faith to trust God is good. This is acceptable.

So who are we? We are the assembly of the firstborn, gathered in the assembly of angels. How did we get here? By the death of Jesus Christ, who brought us into His body through His gifts of baptism and the Eucharist.

So how do we worship in “reverence and awe”? Well, we do that here, but what makes it reverent is the subject for next week’s sermon.