Sunday, July 20, 2014

And a good time was had by all. . .

In ancient times every social engagement was fodder for a brief but predictable newspaper story.  After the details of who was there, what they ate, why they gathered, and what they did, the little stories all ended the same:  a good time was had by all.  Well, of course.  How could it be otherwise in the Lake Woebegon's of the Lutheran homelands?

Nobody reports on this stuff anymore.  In my daily newspaper there is less news than there was in my weekly newspaper growing up.  Mostly ads dominate the sections (often no more than one page folded into the four sides).  Even if they did we would not read such banal stuff.  We are above that -- except when it comes to church.

It seems hard for me -- even after 34 years as a Pastor -- not to work so that a good time WILL be had by all who attend.  It seems hard for those in the pew -- for the parents with children and the other folks without -- not to expect and hope for the same thing  -- a good time.  It seems the prevailing preoccupation of Christian worship today is our desire for all to have a good time.  We pick hymns to appeal to various folks, we preach uplifting, humorous, and lighthearted sermons that are at least good for a smile, and we strive to get them in and out before boredom sets in.  That is the perfect picture of a successful parish pastor and parish!

I will admit it.  I don't have a good time at church.  Some Sundays I can barely find the strength to get up and drive home after two services and a full Bible class in between.  I am exhausted.  I have trouble remembering all the information passed to my ear as I was shaking hands or walking down a hall.  I don't even know what to say to the sad stories I hear or the disheartening updates on who is about to leave the church, move for a better job, get a divorce, start cancer treatment, etc...  I walk out with the lingering feeling that I have not been as faithful as I should (usually spot on).  I drive home with the haunting disappointment that I might have, could have, should have preached a better sermon.

But I do not count it as failure or loss.  I was not supposed to feel hunky dory after working at worship, leading folks through the Scriptures, and shepherding my people all morning long.  I have looked in vain for the promise of God that if I work as hard as I am able to preach the Word in season and out, instruct the young and the erring, apply the counsel of Law and Gospel to the situations people place before me, hear the confessions of those weighed down by sin and its guilt, and preside as faithfully as the Holy Eucharist deserves I will feel better at the end.

It is the worst lie you can tell a reluctant kid -- church will be fun!  You will have a good time!  Yeah, how gullible do you think I am????  It is the most foolish expectation to have -- we will feel the hammer of the Law beat us right dead center in the forehead and still have a good time... we will be cut by the two edged sword of the Word of the Lord and be patched up to feel downright grand afterwards... we will surrender our wills and desires to Him whose will and desire was our salvation but it won't hurt, it won't cost us anything, and in the end we will be happy we did.  What are you smoking?

Worship is NOT a feel good activity.  We should feel manhandled by the Word from time to time.  We should feel convicted because of sin and convinced of our unrighteousness as well as forgiven and in awe of such a gift of holiness we cannot afford.  We ought to feel exhausted -- if we don't it means were were not paying much attention to the Word of the Lord (always a mighty effort to stop thinking of ourselves even for an hour or two) nor were we singing very much or praying very seriously.  The response to God and His Word empty us before they fill us and they do not fill us with cotton candy and marshmallows -- the food of the Lord is solid, chewy, and something to gnaw on for a while.

That is not bad.  That is good.  It is good to be exhausted after worship.  It is good to have worked hard to give up your preoccupation with self long enough to actually hear the voice of God and respond.  It is good tired -- like when you have worked to accomplish something and are happily tired to view your accomplishment.  We are the happy tired who have emptied ourselves in response to the bidding of the Lord, the gifts of the Lord, and the grace of our Lord.  Going home tired does not mean the pastor or the liturgy failed us -- just the opposite.  It is success!

Sadly we have bought into the old lie that if worship is good,  a good time will be had by all....  Even in His comfort, God is not easy.  Even in His mercy, God is not casual.  Nope, no good times here.  It is work just to keep the mind on the voice of God.  It is work to sing, to pray, to speak, to meditate, and to sit down, stand up, kneel -- over and over.  But it is the good work that bears rich fruit in the life of the baptized.  Try it once.  Work so hard at listening, praying, singing, speaking, and meditating that you are actually weary after the encounter with the Lord in His House on His day.  You will not settle for a feel good moment ever again!

Peppy little ditties instead of the sturdy hymns of old, joke telling preachers who leave you laughing, music that keeps you clapping or crying it is so tender, creative little rituals to replace the old stale broken bread of Christ's body and the cup of His blood shed... this is not Church.  This is not faithful.  This is not fruitful.  It is a sugar high that must be regularly pumped up or it will leave you empty.  Do not settle for this pale imitation of the real means of grace which strike us down in awe of mercy beyond imagination freely given for the sake of Christ.  Nope, a feel good moment will not suffice once you have had it real and true with the Word that slices and dices even as it trims and prunes or the worship that drains your energy because you cannot do enough in response to the pure grace freely given!


Ted Badje said...

Keep fighting the good fight, Pastor

Anonymous said...

Pastor, thank you for being faithful. For giving the forgiveness of sins -- every time.

Church is NOT entertainment. That kind of church is reminding me of commercials I see on TV. It is manipulative. It is shallow. It is flashy and TRIES to get your attention so they can SELL you something. (Though commercials are annoying to me and I put them on mute.) It is market driven. And the feelings you get for one hour, are temporary. This kind of church does NOT teach the kind of faith for which we might have to die -- if that should ever come to us.

In my imagination I try to place a worship service like that in the same vicinity as the Cross on Good Friday. The contrast is ludicrous.

Let us be the church of the Rock. Not the church built on shifting sand.

The Resurrection gives us joy and proves everything Jesus said is true. That is what each Sunday is about. In the other kind of church, Good Friday and Easter Sunday don't come around until -- Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That's not enough.

James said...

Thank you for this. It took me years to figure out the purpose of worship.

Worship is prayer put to song.

~~James Hearn

Feel free to steal my quote.

Janis Williams said...

Thank you for not doing standup comedy. Thank you for ministering Word and Sacrament. Thank you for standing in the place and stead of Christ (definitely not a comfortable position!). Thank you for delivering God's Word offorgiveness to hungry sheep, not asking the sheep to feed themselves. Thank you for Divine Service - God giving His gifts to us, not our banging drums, singing pop "Christian" songs in order to please a deity.

Hearing and listening are the work I have to concentrate upon in worship. To really hear the words of the collect, the readings

, the Creed, the sermon, not just the "blah, blah, blah" of Charlie Brown's school teacher.