One of the things I have most enjoyed about my work as a pastor over the years has been the office of teaching - an office that I don't nearly utilize enough. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while doing some office work and decided this year I would use this newsletter space to do some teaching; specifically, to teach about Lutheran worship and what we're about when we gather together, be it Sunday mornings or any other occasion.
To begin, the word "worship" itself points to a particular activity within time and space, so far as Lutherans understand it. "Worship" is a derivation of the Old English weorthan, from which we also take the word "worthy". We "worship" when we reserve time and space for contemplation, explication, and adoration of "the thing that is worthy" - as Dr. Luther put it in The Large Catechism, "the thing upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god." So, for a person like myself, fall weekends become a time to be careful about where I invest my heart and my time. It would be incredibly easy for the time between Cornhusker kickoff and the final snap to be the most important time of my week - and so to take for myself a god who carries a football and wears scarlet and cream. I know, I know - some of you could argue this has already happened, and will happen again. You're probably right, so let's just move on with the acknowledgment that we're all going to fall short when it comes to worshiping our true God, shall we?
In the earliest years of the church, the followers of Jesus worshiped as faithful Jews in the synagogue, but gathered regularly for a meal that commemorated the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his friends on the night before his betrayal and crucifixion. Over time, Christians and Jews diverged, and Christians merged reading and teaching from the Hebrew Bible, letters from apostles and other Christian evangelists, and the love meal into one event. After Constantine I made Christianity a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the pattern of worship that had developed organically over the previous centuries was generally solidified into something that would be recognizable today in "traditional" liturgical churches like ours.
"Liturgy" is another term with a more diverse meaning than one might have suspected. It comes from the Greek leitourgia meaning "work of the people" or "public work" - and this work can take place in many different ways! It's a misnomer to say that there are "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" churches; it might be more accurate to say that some churches prefer a more structured liturgy while others tend toward a free, extemporaneous liturgy. There are also gradations within the trends, as many of you know well. Liturgy tends to be an anthropological phenomenon in every congregation around the world, with strains and influences from sources most people would struggle to even remember. One example would be the klokker or "song leader" common in many Norwegian congregations in America from the 1800s through the 1950s - other churches would not have known what this position was or how it worked in worship, but it would have been second nature to most Norwegian churches in this part of the country at one time. Another is the development of monthly communion, mostly due to the scarcity of ordained ministers for frontier churches: what was once a concession to geography and travel requirements became standard practice and, for some, a preference to be defended, even though the early church celebrated communion weekly and would have been mystified by the idea that you could make the meal "less special" by celebrating it more often. Ethnic and ecclesiastical history, regional trends, cultural changes - these and many other influences have shaped Lutheran worship in the United States since the first Lutheran churches were established in the colonies almost 300 years ago.
Today, when Lutherans talk about worship, we generally value a great deal of flexibility around what we consider essential: preaching and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. The 7th article of the Augsburg Confession states, "it is enough to agree on the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments...it is not necessary that human traditions, rites, and ceremonies be everywhere alike." We have central principles about worship which we hold in common, but how those principles are lived out tend to be determined by local congregations as seems best in each context. There are Lutheran churches whose worship is barely distinguishable from the highest, most richly ceremonial Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches, making use of incense, fully chanted liturgies, ceremonial dress for pastors and lay ministers, and much more. There are Lutheran churches whose worship is barely distinguishable from the most charismatic Baptist and non-denominational churches, with raised hands, loud music, shouts of joy and affirmation in preaching and singing, and not a note of chant to be heard above the organ, drums, and choir. What makes the worship in these churches "Lutheran" is NOT a traditional liturgy, but the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the celebration of our sacraments. For Lutherans, everything must serve the Holy Spirit's work to justify God's people by faith alone apart from works of the law: that's "Lutheran" worship at it's core.
I'm looking forward to the rest of this series this year, and I hope you'll help me by offering questions you'd like me to answer about different aspects of our worship life together. Most importantly, I hope this series enriches your experience in worship at St. Petri and at other houses of worship this year, and that through that enrichment you may find it easier to discern the Spirit's work in your life. I hope to see you in worship soon!
Yours in Christ,