Thursday, February 11, 2010

Some Thoughts on Lent...

In most parishes Lent is accompanied by additional mid-week worship services (Vespers or Evening Prayer and some Divine Services). Inevitably, the sermonic focus of this season of services is a series of homilies loosely tied together or well connected. In the past these tended to be sermons on the Passion of our Lord. As a young Pastor I preached these sermons on the details of the Passion (the places of the Passion, the people of the Passion, etc.). You can purchase sermon series in this vein (which include worship services, though generally of a non-liturgical variety).

After a while I saw that the Passion was less the focus and this became a teaching series of sermons on a variety of subjects and topics (parables, miracles, etc.). Then when 40 Days of Purpose hit the bookstores, Lutheran parishes began exchanging Lent for 40 days of this or that, all starting with the obligatory run through the book that started it all.

I occasionally preach on Passion themes but have generally moved away from this and toward catechetical sermons for these Lenten mid-week services. The topics are often drawn from the Catechism of Luther and are generally more focused upon the renewal of our faith than the learning of specific details relating to the Passion of our Lord or other non-Lenten themes.

As time goes on I see more and more the need to preach on the basic tenets of the faith. We live in a world in which contemporary Christian music is heard everywhere and its statements and themes have had great influence upon Lutheran Christians (not a salutary influence, I might add). We have learned to speak in the language of CCM, of evangelicalism, of pop Gospel, and of trendy theology instead of being comfortable within the vocabulary and language of our Lutheran Confessions. Part of the reason for choosing a catechetical tone for these Lenten mid-week services is to become familiar and comfortable again with the language of our Confessions.

The Christian world around us moves us away from the "controversial" elements of religion (such as baptism, Eucharist, etc.) toward topics seen as less divisive -- prayer, for example. While this is not a terrible thing, it has had the subtle effect of moving us away from the concrete sacramental reality of baptism, absolution, and the Eucharist and more toward the areas of prayer and devotion as the footings of our faith. This is not a good thing. What has happened is that we identity our prayer time and the latest devotional or spiritual book as the ground and foundation of our faith instead of the divine encounter God initiates through the Sacraments of water that cleanses and gives new birth, absolution that forgives and restores, and the bread and wine that feed us the heavenly food of Christ's Body and Blood. Catechetical sermons move us back on the solid and secure footing of what Christ has done for us and not what we do.

Indeed, the music we hear on the radio and that so many sing in church on Sunday morning is music that does not speak of the sacraments or the faith in the language of the Church, the catechism, the creed, or the confessions. It speaks a language of feeling, desire, and sentiment -- which are not terrible unless they replace the concrete language and images of the great hymns that convey the faith, tell the story of the Gospel, and describe in Law/Gospel terms what God has done and what we have not. So just relearning the great catechetical hymns of the past is not a bad place to start. As Lutherans we do not have to look very far to find those catechetical hymns that sing the language of the catechism in all its six chief parts.

I don't know what Pastors are planning and what will end up happening in Lutheran parishes across the land, but these are some of the things I think about as I plan out and prepare for the great opportunity of the Lenten season. For us we will have an additional 120-130 people in worship -- this is a great and wonderful gift to the Pastor, preacher, and parish musician. What will we do with it?


LambertsOnline said...

Thank you for a well-written post that points out some problems with a lot of so-called contemporary Christian music. I say “so-called” because it’s music aimed at Baby Boomers (and I fit into that category).

Rev. Josh Sullivan said...

Pastor Peterson, I enjoy reading your thoughts. They are incisive. In his book on the Lutheran Liturgy, Luther Reed comments that years of using Bugenhagen's Passion Harmony turned Lutheran Lententide into a time of wearing ourselves out with the passion (my loose paraphrase). I am trying Bugenhagen's Harmony this year, mostly to say I've done it. I'll probably post about it on my blog at Lent progresses.

I very much like the idea of using the catechism for midweek vespers though. Perhaps even going through the Lord's Prayer petitions, one a week. Or Baptismal life in Christ. Or of course the 10 Commandments. But you hit the bullseye: people no longer speak the language of the catechism. Instead the language they speak is more pietistic self-religion. Inundating them (and ourselves) with the catechism might just stave off some of that CCM language and reintroduce something that sounds like home.