Thursday, July 30, 2015

Prayers PLEASE. . .

Please pray to our Merciful God on behalf of Pres. Matt Harrison and his family.  They suffered a house fire yesterday.  It appears that all the family is okay, dog was hurt, but the house was a total loss.  They are in a hotel right now.  Please lift your prayers to the Lord in thanksgiving for their safety and His grace to surround and strengthen them in their loss.  Yesterday was the last day of his vacation.

Almighty God, merciful Father, Your thoughts are not our thoughts, Your ways are not our ways. In Your wisdom You have permitted fire to destroy the home of the Harrison family.  We implore You, let not the hearts of Your people despair nor their faith fail them, but sustain and comfort both the Pres. Harrison and his family. Direct all efforts to attend to them, supplying all their needs in Christ Jesus. All this we ask for your mercy's sake.  Amen.

Loss of confidence. . .

Americans have less confidence in organized religion today than ever measured before — a sign that the church could be "losing its footing as a pillar of moral leadership in the nation's culture," a new Gallup survey finds.  "In the '80s the church and organized religion were the No. 1″ in Gallup's annual look at confidence in institutions, said Lydia Saad, author of the report released Wednesday.  Confidence, she said, "is a value judgment on how the institution is perceived, a mark of the amount of respect it is due." A slight upsurge for Catholic confidence, for example, parallels the 2013 election and immense popularity of Pope Francis.

Overall, church and organized religion is now ranked in fourth place in the Gallup survey — behind the military, small business and the police — while still ahead of the medical system, Congress and the media, among 15 institutions measured.  "Almost all organizations are down but the picture for religion is particularly bleak," said Saad. In the mid-'70s, nearly 7 in 10 Americans said they had "a great deal or quite a lot" of confidence in the church or organized religion. That has bobbled downward decade by decade to a new low of just 42%, according to the report.  However, the most significant influence on the religion statistic is the high number of Americans disconnected from organized religion and likely to have little or no confidence in it, Saad said.

You can read the whole USA TODAY story here.  I suppose I should be upset by this. Try as I might, I just cannot get too excited by such stories.  I am not sure that the Church ever really benefited by the culture around us having great confidence in our institutional life.  I am even less certain that such confidence in the Church and organized religion has really contributed all that much to real church growth.  I am probably wrong in this but I am stubbornly right in asserting that "faith comes by hearing the Word of God" and the only "no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." 

Yes, it is an awful thing that the moral failings of church leaders has so prominently figured in the bad publicity about the Church.  Yes, it is an awful thing that most of our members who sit in the pew are not moral role models of righteousness as they should be.  Yes, it is an awful thing that the public witness of the Church to the world has been fraught with contentious talk and accusations that shed more heat than light.  That said, I fail to see where Jesus commanded righteousness as an evangelism tool to the unchurched or that the folks in the pew were anything but sinners who remain in need of forgiveness or that church leaders shed their sinful humanity upon assuming ecclesiastical office or that the righteousness of the leaders was the key to sacramental efficacy or effective evangelization or that doctrinal ambiguity was a key component to church growth.

If Christians in pulpit and pew speak the Word of the cross, faithfully come to the services of God's house, raise their children in the faith, pray, love their neighbors within the bonds of their human frailty, God has promised to do the rest.  The Church is not some school of moral perfection but a hospital for sinners and a school to teach righteousness to the unrighteous.  It is not a museum of saintly people but a hospital for the sick with sin who believe Christ forgives them and saves them.  It is not a gas station to fill up the empty for the next leg of their journey but the House of God where He reveals Himself in Word and Sacrament and makes Himself accessible to us that we may know Him, receive Him, and live in Him. 

No, I remain hard to convince that the Church is really aided in her mission by people having confidence in institutional structures.  As far as the complaint against organized religion, I have been a pastor long enough to know that organized religion is not a label authentic to most congregations and nearly all jurisdictions.  I feel fairly comfortable in saying that if organized religion is not your thing, Lutherans are the church for you.  Now, don't get me wrong, I am NOT saying we should settle for unrighteousness or immorality or anything of the like but neither should we presume that this is why people become Christian or not.  It is the work of the Spirit that any and all are saved who will be saved.  Period.

The Lord of Creation is in charge. . .


Sermon for Pentecost 9, Proper 12B, preached by The Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, July 26, 2015.

Today, we once again hear the account of Jesus walking on water. This is a story that most of us know very well. We’ve heard it many times and we’ve seen it illustrated in numerous works of art. Just Google Jesus walking on water and countless images pop up on your screen. When we see these images we remember Jesus’ encouraging words. We can hear Him say to His frightened disciples, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In this miracle we see the Lord of creation in control, coming to His people; coming to sustain them; coming to save them.

I. The events of today’s Gospel are a continuation from last week when Jesus fed 5,000 with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. In this amazing feeding we see Christ’s care and compassion for His people. We also see that He is the Lord of creation. He’s in control of all things; something that He shows again today.

After everyone had their fill of bread and fish, and after 12 large baskets of left-overs were collected, Jesus sent His disciples out on their own. He made them get into the boat and sent them to the village of Bethsaida across the sea. Then, Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up on a nearby mountain pray (Mk 6:45-46). The fact that Jesus sent the disciples out on their own ahead of Him is an important detail in this story. This detail tells us that Jesus was responsible for the disciples’ struggle. In His divine foreknowledge, He knew what the disciples were getting into. He knew that they would struggle in their endeavor to cross the sea.

Sometimes, we too encounter struggles in our endeavors because of Christ. Our culture today is quite obviously against our Savior and all who follow Him. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, because Jesus warned us of this. In Matthew 10:22 Christ said, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” As Christians we are hated because of Christ. This hate affects us in many ways. For example, it has broken up family and friends. No, Jesus never said that following Him would be easy or that our lives would be smooth sailing after Baptism. Like all people we still suffer from hate and the curse of sin.

Going back to the Gospel reading, we see that the disciples and Jesus were separated for some time. Evening had come upon them and Jesus was still on the land while the disciples were out on the sea (Mk 6:47-48a). The disciples had battled against the wind and waves all night in the darkness. It wasn’t until early the next morning that Jesus came to His disciples, walking on the wind tossed waves (Mk 6:48b).

Mark includes another important detail at this point in the story. He tells us that “[Jesus] meant to pass by [the disciples] (Mk 6:48c). This detail tells us that they disciples weren’t in any significant danger. Even though the winds were strong, they were still safe in the boat; even though the disciples felt differently.

The disciples had no control of what was going on and they feared for their lives. This fear took control of their thoughts. They couldn’t think straight. Seeing Jesus walking on the water towards them should have been a welcomed sight; but it wasn’t. Instead, the disciples, in fear, thought Jesus was a ghost, and they all cried out in terror, thinking their lives were over (Mk 6:49-50a).

At times, we know the fear that the disciples felt that night. Not having control is a scary thing. Just think about a time when you didn’t have control of a situation. How did you feel? What did you do? When I think about being out of control, I immediately think about being a passenger in the car of a not so good driver. They take corners too fast, they text and drive, and they always wait till the very last minute to slam on the brakes. When I ride with these kind of drivers, I constantly find myself stepping hard on the imaginary brake pedal in front of me. But of course this does no good. No matter how many times I slam on that wished for brake pedal, nothing happens. I’m completely out of control, and I’m overcome with fear.

There are many many scary times in our lives when we have no control over what is happening. The times when the phone rings and it is our doctor with positive test results. The times we get called into the boss’s office and due to cutbacks, we no longer have a job on Monday morning. The times when the command has come down from above and we’ve been transferred to another post, another country. At these times and in many others we are paralyzed with fear, and all we can do is cry out, just as the disciples did. And just like when the disciples cried out, your Savior hears you, and He comes to you.

II. There was no delay in Christ’s response to His disciples. Listen again to what Mark wrote, “But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. do not be afraid” (Mk 6:50). Christ didn’t leave the disciples in their fear. Hearing their cry, right away He come to them. He came to them speaking encouraging words, embolding words. “Take heart,” “have courage,” “be strong,” “Trust in me, your Savior.” These encouraging words weren’t empty platitudes, spoken by someone who had no idea what else to say. These words were spoken by God Himself.

When Jesus identified himself by saying, “it is I,” He wasn’t just saying “Hey guys, it’s me, Jesus, the man you’ve been following.” No, with these words, Jesus announced that He was God. He revealed Himself as the great “I AM” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:13-14). Jesus is true God, He is the Creator of all things incarnate, and He is in control of His creation. Jesus’ divinity is seen in all His miracles, the feeding of the 5,000 and the calming of the winds.

The response of the disciples after witnessing the Lord of creation at work is telling. We are told that they “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk 6:51b-52). The disciples shouldn’t have been surprised, they should’ve known that Jesus had everything under control, but they didn’t. They didn’t because their hearts were hardened, hardened with sin and self trust

Because of their sin, they couldn’t understand what had just happened. They had a hard time of letting go of control. They trusted in themselves, thinking that they had to do it all on their own. And once they realized that they had no control, they were seized with fear.

Often, the fear we experience during tough and struggling times is because we sinfully trust in ourselves. We desire to be in control, when in reality, we aren’t. We want to do everything ourselves. We want to be in charge. We want to determine how our lives will turn out, according to our plans. We don’t always trust that God has our best interest at heart, even though He does. And when we realize that we aren’t in control, it’s tough, it’s humbling.

Our Lord uses these times to discipline us, to call us back to Him. He calls us to trust in Him above all things. Through the Holy Spirit working in God’s Word, we are confronted with our sin, and we cry out in repentance, and our Lord hears us and comes to us without delay.

Our Savior, the Lord of creation, came to us and walked on this earth. He walked to the cross, carrying our sin, and there He suffered and died for us. He suffered the punishment for our sin. And then He came to us again from the grave, defeating death and sin for us. With this victory, Jesus showed that He is in control. He has redeemed His creation, He has redeemed you. You are His, and He will never leave you alone. When you cry out, He is there, coming to you in His Word, assuring you He is in control. Through His Word, He reminds you that He has overcome sin and death and He promises to preserve you. Through His Word and Sacrament, He strengthens your faith, your trust in Him. You are never alone in this life. Christ is with you. He isn’t a ghost. In sickness, in life changes, in all sorts of difficulties, He is still in control, preserving you and sustaining you to everlasting life.

Although we and all of creation suffer under the curse of sin, the Lord preserves and orders His creation according to His good will, for the benefit of His Church, for the benefit of you, His saints. At times it can feel as though you’re alone, striving against the winds of this broken, fallen, sinful life all by yourself. But you’re not. Your Savior is with you, and He is in complete control. He doesn’t leave you alone in your fear. He comes to you in your time of need and saves you. Thanks be to God that Jesus Christ, the Lord of creation is always with you, strengthening you, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” In Jesus name...Amen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Third and worst Planned Parenthood video. . .

You can watch it here but I could not get through the first few seconds. . .

The latest sting video from the “Human Capital” documentary web series produced by the Center for Medical Progress is the most disturbing one yet. The horrific footage includes technicians picking over aborted baby parts, and is being described by horrified viewers on Twitter as “Godless,” “evil,” and “demonic.” The video also includes new admissions from Planned Parenthood leadership about the illicit pricing structure.

Without the Eucharist, we cannot exist. . .

In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered the destruction of Christian places of worship throughout his empire and forbade any kind of Christian assembly. In fact, Diocletian was convinced, after ruling the Empire for nineteen years, that an extermination of Christians was the only way to restore internal order and pagan religious rites. During this time churches in Abilinitina, North Africa, continued to gather for worship, which resulted in the arrest of the entire church. The Roman officials asked the Christians, “Why did you do this?” And the Christians responded: “Without the Sunday Eucharist we do not exist.” Consequently, the entire congregation was given to martyrdom.  The early Christians understood their relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ to be fulfilled at the Eucharistic Supper each week.

I picked up this from an Orthodox parish newsletter.   In it the priest was decrying the fact that too many of his parishioners moseyed on into the Divine Liturgy whenever they chose and often left early, seemingly oblivious to what was happening in that Divine Liturgy.  He also complained about the many who received the Body and Blood of the Lord only a couple of times a year.  He could certainly be speaking for the average Roman Catholic priest or Lutheran pastor. 

There are too many who come and go throughout the Divine Service as if they were somehow or other disconnected with what is happening there.  Nobody who paid good money to go to a concert would give into such distractions and yet the Lord gives us this treasure freely in Christ who paid for it with His suffering and death upon the cross and some of us act as if it were no big deal.  In other cases, the pastors and elders have to practically plead with inactive members (who claim to believe and who desire to remain on the membership roster) to actually come regularly and faithfully to receive the blessed Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood.  It is as if they were doing us a favor by gracing us with the gift of their presence when the focus is on Christ whose presence in Word and Meal bestows forgiveness, life, and salvation, to all believers who participate in the means of grace.

Without food our bodies die.  Without the food of Christ's Word and Supper, our spirits die and we become empty shells.  It does not matter how healthy our bodies are or how happy we think we are, we are the walking dead without the gracious presence and gifts of Christ.  We cannot exist without the sustenance of the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.  It is not a choice or even a preference.  It is our need.

At the same time, it is also our identity.  We are the body of Christ, the Church, gathered to receive the Body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.  Here in the great mystery of the body that receives the Body, the Church is given her identity and the fullness of Christ's life and blessing.

In the same newsletter the priest closes with solemn words of warning -- words too often ignored or disregarded by those who claim to be of the faith and who insist they still desire to be part of the church:

The Holy Scriptures record the angel writing to the Church at Laodicea saying, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot ... So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15,16)  This judgement comes not from the church or the clergy or other Christians but from God Himself. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vanity of vanities. . .

The ultimate vanity of our sinful nature is that we truly believe it is all about me.  We may learn to cover this narcissism because when it is too obvious it is not flattering but it is always there.  In the Garden it was this temptation to which Adam and Eve succumbed -- that they could trust themselves, their feelings, and their desires more than the Word of the Lord.  Vanity is still the character of our sinful nature even when we wear masks to cover it up.

So, quite apart from the content of what was said, the venue of a recent ELCA bishop's coming out sermon cannot be avoided.  At least in the pulpit it should be about the Word of the Lord but it seems even there some of us preachers cannot avoid making it all about me.  At the ELCA National Youth Gathering on Saturday, July 18, Bishop Kanouse was preaching to the North Texas and North Louisiana youth and adult leaders gathered there (approximately 400 or so).  In the midst of a sermon on Jesus healing a paralytic, Bishop Kanouse turned the sermon into a coming out address and admitted that he had been a closeted homosexual for 40 years.


Later Kanouse recounted the experience in a letter to his synod in which he wrote that after hearing the emotional stories recounted by young people at the conference, concerning the role of God in their lives, he was “Holy Spirit-moved to tell my own story publicly, for the first time.”  As a young man, Kanouse said he knew he was gay but “buried it deep” because of the antigay bigotry and the idea that “homosexuality was a sin” from his conservative upbringing in Pennsylvania.

“I learned early on that I had to hide my true nature ... especially because I wanted to be a pastor and serve in the church,” he said. “After all, pastors could not be gay and serve Jesus.”  His experience as a closeted gay man and Lutheran pastor was liberating and stifling, according to Kanouse.  It should be noted that is married to his wife of over 40 years and the father of two sons.

Whether or not you find the Bishop's admission heroic or disgusting, the point here is the venue.  In a sermon the Bishop turned the attention away from Jesus and onto himself.  He became the one and only thing that anyone will remember about his preaching.  He was a closeted gay man who deceived his wife and his church and everyone else for more than 40 years.  But instead of repenting of his stealing of the pulpit for his own purpose, the Bishop repented of voting against the homosexual policies of the ELCA recognizing same sex relationships, marriage, and clergy.  Again, he made it all about himself.  Perhaps some will think this noble of him but I am shocked and saddened every time the pulpit is hijacked for another purpose than speaking the Word of the Lord to the people of God.  Perhaps we have become so accustomed to this that we no longer notice when the word of man is substituted for the Word of the Lord, when the Law and Gospel are sidelined from the sermon, and when preacher and people would rather hear a compelling personal story than the story of the cross and empty tomb.  But that does not make it right.

According to the Bishop:  I was moved to share my journey with the youth because I know many are struggling with these and other issues of self-esteem, rejection, and self-loathing.  I wanted to instill the hope of the Gospel among youth who are defining themselves. In these two sentences the Bishop has hit upon the crux of the matter.  who define themselves.  We do NOT define ourselves but God defines us.  He has placed His Word within us in the voice of our conscience.  He has connected us to Christ, to His cross, and to His death so that we are new people in baptism, created in Christ Jesus for good works.  We do not define ourselves but come to know who we are by what God has done.  He is the one who enables us to renounce sin and unrighteousness even when its voice and desire are more familiar to us than the voice of God and the new desire born of our baptismal death and resurrection with Christ and into Christ. 

My journey, the Bishop's journey, and the journey of our youth are not the subject of faithful preaching but the object.  Christ is the subject and the object is lives of faith, obedience, and holiness in response to this Gospel and under the power of the Spirit.  The Bishop may have had noble intention but no intention can justify the misuse of the pulpit and the sidetracking of the faithful proclamation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified by our own stories (no matter how compelling or interesting or heart wrenching).  Preaching is where the church first begins to fail, where our stories are equated with THE story of Christ, where opinion trumps fact and truth, and where we are set adrift on a sea of sentiment.  So preaching must be held to the highest standards and the preacher judged according to this high standard.  Words come and go and stories are told and forgotten but the Word of the Lord endures forever.  The Bishop's story was no substitute for faithful preaching of the Word.  He became the center of his sermon and that is a fail on every scale of faithfulness.










Always sad. . .

When the membership of the former Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Maywood dwindled to about a dozen worshipers, there appeared to be a higher calling.  "That we would very much like to sell it to another congregation so that it would always be a church," said Susan Nelson-Colaneri, pastor.  The sanctuary, a school and the property sold for about $1.2 million and that's when church officials said the real missionary work began.  "We sat down and did the joyful work of deciding who was going to share the rest of our legacy," Nelson-Colaneri said.  She is also the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in nearby Hasbrouck Heights. She and other members chose eight different non-profit charities and two churches.

Watch the news report here. . . and read about the news story. . .

It is always sad when a church closes its doors but it is even more sad when the dispersal of funds from its sale is seen as the real missionary work.  I do not at all mean to disparage the use of these funds for the poor and other causes consistent with the identity and mission of that congregation but to suggest that the real missionary work of the church is not alleviating poverty or supporting good causes but doing what ONLY the church can do -- speak the saving message of Christ crucified and risen to a world captive to sin and its death.  All of the other things a church does are peripheral or flow out of this one essential calling and purpose and are not substitutes for preaching the good news of the Kingdom.  We can do all the good we can in the world but unless we proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ's name we are not being faithful and the good we do will not have lasting benefit or fruit by God's design and purpose.

How many congregations close their doors because the Word has ceased to be the center of their life together, the witness to Christ's death and resurrection has fallen to the fringes of their identity and purpose, and they have used their voices for nearly anything and everything but speaking repentance and forgiveness in Christ's name?  This is the pivotal work and the unique calling of Christians in but not of the world.  This is our real missionary work.  We had better not forget it or we will be closing and selling a whole lot more church buildings and shutting down a host of congregations.  Just sayin. . .

Monday, July 27, 2015

Problems with identity. . .

Bruce Jenner insists he is and has always been a woman.  Rachel Dolezal insists that she identifies as a a black woman.  We seem, for the first time in history, to be facing a crisis of identity.  The burning question of our age seems to be "Who am I?"  The places you normally went to answer those questions (family, ancestry, the mirror, etc...) no longer are believed to provide reliable answers.  Therefore there is but one place left to go -- how do I feel.  Feelings are among the least reliable sources to answer the vexing questions we face as children, adolescents, teenagers, and adults.  In fact, I would posit that our feelings are the worst place for us to go to answer the weighty questions of life.

You do not have to be Bruce Jenner or Rachel Dolezal to be in this dilemma. Where do we go for answers to the questions that haunt us?  Conscience and moral values were once reliable voices to address the debate within our souls but now they take second place to our feelings.  Science was once considered reliable (and still is when its answers suit us) but as Rachel Dolezal has said there is no biological proof she is her parents' child.  Last time I checked science thought it was pretty good at DNA tests.  But even science can be discarded when it conflicts with feelings.

Feelings are a prison as much as a gift -- that is the fruit of the Fall and Adam and Eve's terrible legacy to us.  We cannot trust them and we cannot control them.  They lead us where we should not go and leave alone with our guilt and shame when darkness gives up its secrets to the light.  They prey upon our weakness and cast off the very restraint that is God's noble work in us.  They are temporary and volatile, burning hot until they consume us or others and then as cold as ice.  The wonderful gift that feelings were has been forever marred by sin and now we must listen to a more reliable voice in happiness and in sorrow -- the voice of the Spirit working through the Word.

There is no identity crisis.  What there remains is a vulnerability through our feelings to the things that can destroy us as easily as they can satisfy us.  Feelings are as much as quest as an answer -- and the endless pursuit of that which satisfies us and makes us feel good is the most fruitless journey a life can take.  The Caitlyn Jenners of this world and the Rachel Dolezals do not need time or understanding.  They need to be set free from the oppressive reign and rule of their feelings that cannot and will not be satisfied.  Identity is the gift God gave us in creating us and in redeeming us.  We know who we are.  We are His.  Not by our choice or desire but by His divine act of love in reaching into the abyss of our sinful wants and desires and loosening the chains of our endless pursuit of feelings that satisfy.  He died on the cross to end this death and rose to bestow on us eternal life.  And in baptism He killed what was already filled with death that He might make us alive with the life death can no longer touch.  When we begin to see how our identity flows from and is rooted in Christ, then we will know peace.  But until then, our feelings will rule our hearts and we will know everything but peace.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A little too exubrant. . .

It is typical for us to confuse exuberance with truth, as if shouting something makes it more true than speaking it in a normal tone of voice.  We often substitute volume for reason, shouts for piety, and enthusiasm for faith.  Now there is nothing wrong with these but it is a great temptation to confuse the work of the Spirit with things ecstatic or a people out of control, noisy, and long winded.  This is not a new problem.

Cyprian wrote about it as well: 
Let our speech and our petition be kept under discipline when we pray, and let us preserve quietness and modesty–for, remember, we are standing in God’s sight. We must please God’s eyes both with the movements of our body and with the way we use our voices. For just as a shameless man will be noisy with his cries, so it is fitting for the modest to pray in a moderate way. …

When we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we should remember our modesty and discipline, not to broadcast our prayers at the tops of our voices, nor to throw before God, with undisciplined long-windedness, a petition that would be better made with more modesty: for after all God does not listen to the voice but to the heart, and he who sees our thoughts should not be pestered by our voices … And we read in the Psalms: Speak in your hearts and in your beds, and be pierced. Again, the Holy Spirit teaches the same things through Jeremiah, saying: But it is in the heart that you should be worshiped, O Lord.
 
Beloved brethren, let the worshiper not forget how the publican prayed with the Pharisee in the temple–not with his eyes boldly raised up to heaven, nor with hands held up in pride; but beating his breast and confessing the sins within, he implored the help of the divine mercy. … and he who pardons the humble heard his prayer.

                                                                   (from the Commentary on the Our Father by St. Cyprian)

It is easy to confuse many words with great piety.  Indeed, I often wonder if the liturgy is not too wordy.  An economy of words is the result of attention to what is said and how it is said.  It is easy and lazy to make up for a lack of this attention to what is said and how it is said by adding words.  Nothing makes this more apparent that when we add running commentary to the liturgy.  It is not uncommon for the individual parts of the service to be introduced with more words than are included in the actual part of the ordinary.  An example of this lies in the many words necessary to unpack the few words of the Kyrie:  Lord, have mercy.  Good hymns are just as concise and compact as the language of good liturgy.

We are very impressed with enthusiasm.  Think of the often raucous demeanor of a crowd at a sports event or high school graduation.  Air horns, shouts, chants, loud music, and catcalls signal the involvement of the crowd in what is happening on the field or on the stage.  That said, how many events are ruined because of enthusiasm that has run a muck, turning the event into a spectacle and robbing the spectators of the ability to listen and see what is really happening.

Worship, however, is meant by God to  be done decently and with reverent order.  Now this solemnity does not preclude enthusiasm but directs the hearts and mouths of the people to orderly response, said or sung.  God is not a God of chaos but a God of order.  Reverence is not formality or stiffness but an attention to order which allows all the people to participate together both in receiving God's gifts and responding to them with prayers, praise, and thanksgiving.

Silence has become awkward time instead of the quiet moment in which we have the opportunity both to reflect upon and process what has been said or sung or what we have received.  Our great temptation is to replace silence with noise, with words or music as a cover for the silence.  Often this is done because we refuse to be silent and the organization of words to be said or the cover of music played distracts us from the background noise of a people who cannot shut-up and be quiet.  Indeed, the greater offenders here in most worship services are not children but adults.  We text, talk, whisper, and comment out loud on everything that is going on as if everything required a response from us or our feelings compelled us to make them known.

Finally, how easy it is for us to confuse noise with eloquence!  If we attend a worship service which has quiet dignity, organized response, and moments for silent reflection, we assume that it is dull or unexciting -- especially in comparison to the spontaneous and disorderly appearance of pentecostal services.  Yet under it all is the confusion of whose voice is the one that needs to be heard.  We speak because we think we have something to say and a right to be heard or to self-expression when we are hear primarily to listen, to hear the Word of the Lord, to believe it, and to be instructed by it through the ministry of the Spirit.  As in the classroom, we have mistaken inclusion to mean we can say and do what we want, when we want.  Even on Pentecost, the myriad of languages was in essence one voice:  everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.   

In fact, St. Paul reminds us that the language of worship and its reverence and order exist to make it possible for each and all to add their "amen" to the praise and prayers.  I am not at all suggesting that we should substitute boredom for enthusiasm but to remember that just because things seem to be hoppin in our minds does not mean that they are faithful.  The truth remains the truth whether it is shouted or prayed quietly.  Pep rallies and political arenas often substitute what is loud for what is profound.  Let us make sure that we do not do the same thing in worship.  Some settings for worship have become as much a threat to the ear as to the heart when what we do and say puts us in the limelight more than God and His mighty acts of deliverance that gives us forgiveness and life.