What Do We Do and Why Do We Do It?
Starting on September 18, I began a series of sermons preaching from the liturgy, and how the pieces fit together to make a unified whole. (You can find all the parts on bishopandchristian.wordpress.com as they are completed.) The reason I’m doing this is partly out of my own experience, as I mentioned in week one’s sermon. That is, it took me a very long time to understand what I’ve come to understand about the Divine Service and how the pieces fit together. I certainly do not understand it all, and even as I’m writing each week’s sermon, new avenues of thought are being opened up, even since I first did this eight years ago.
When I was a child, we used what became Settings I and II in Lutheran Service Book. That was in the “green hymnal,” Lutheran Book of Worship. Then I attended a church in college that used The Lutheran Hymnal (the old 1941 blue or red hymnal, depending on the congregation). Then I used Lutheran Worship (the 1982 blue hymnal) while I was at the seminary, and we used The Lutheran Hymnal again in Little Rock, Arkansas, where I had my vicarage.
When I was in college, a good friend of mine wrote his senior thesis on the Lutheran liturgy, but that seemed like something beyond the interest of a select few. It was while I was at the seminary (after 23 or 24 years of using the liturgy in its various Lutheran forms) that I finally began to ask, “Why this?” Why are things in this order, rather than some other order? Why do Lutherans do what every Lutheran assumed “we always did”? As I’ve mentioned before, there was only a single required worship class at the seminary. That meant that we had to cram the entire history and practice of Lutheran worship into a single 10-week period. Needless to say, that wasn’t really sufficient to answer all the questions I had. So I started reading whatever I could find and, on vicarage, began to write for the congregation a simple explanation of the parts of the liturgy, mostly cribbed from Luther D. Reed’s book on the liturgy.
Being a pastor, tasked with leading that liturgy week after week, made me ask the questions in a very concrete way. Not only what are we doing, and why are we doing it, but how should we do it? I have never liked even thinking about saying “I don’t know” when asked why I’m doing something, so I’ve made a very concerted effort to be able to answer the questions for myself before they’re asked. How could I expect someone to do something, when I wasn’t even sure why I was doing it? So I’ve asked and asked and asked: myself, my teachers, those Christians who have gone before me who asked the same questions.
There are always new depths, new insights, new connections to be made as we do the liturgy that has been handed down to us. What amazes me is the profound meaning that continues to come to the surface in the Divine Service: in bits and pieces, in particular moments, and when faced with particular challenges and sorrows and joys. All of this is why we’re spending some time hearing the Word of God as it comes to us in the specific form and pattern of the Lutheran liturgy.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”