We don’t want to talk about sin. We don’t want to say that someone or something else has authority over what we think and believe. We live steeped in a culture that denies any absolutism in truth and celebrates an “anything goes” morality. But current fashions do not stop an unvarnished and clear presentation of such concepts at St. Paul Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Church.
This small church is tucked almost invisibly among commercial structures just north of downtown Denton on Elm Street. The small, intimate sanctuary features concrete floors and walls, wooden pews–half of them uncushioned–sharp angles, marvelous acoustics, and a sense of peace. The altar stands prominently centered on the chancel with kneeling rails on either side of it. Liturgists spoke from the nearly invisible lectern but he pastor, Rev. Russell Tieken, gave his message from the worship center floor.
The morning began with friendly welcome before the 10:45 am service. A gracious usher carefully checked to make sure that gluten-free communion would be available. Just before the worship service itself began, a reader asked this question: “Whom do you listen to?” with a reminder that multiple voices demand our attention, leaving many uncertain as to which ones are trustworthy.
The flow of worship carefully shifted congregational attention from things on earth to things of God. Hymns of praise, responsive words of trust in God, confession of sin and the sung Kyrie (Lord have mercy) followed by scripture readings and the Nicene Creed combined to lead the people into spoken and sung acknowledgment of belief and trust in a Holy God.
A worship leader called the children forward and asked “What is a prophet?” After explaining that he was not talking about “profit,” the leader then directed the children into a game of “telephone.” This clever reminder of how easily messages become garbled when passed from person to person brought appreciative laughter from the congregation. The children were then dismissed to their seats. Interestingly, I thought, they were not sent out to children’s church. Instead they would remain with their parents for the remainder of the service. This bucks the trend to separate children from adults in worship and helps expose them from their earliest years to the rhythms and rituals of the historic liturgy.
Rev. Tieken took the floor with “Grace, mercy and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” as he reminded us of the theme for the day, “Who do we listen to?” He reminded us that politicians, pastors, teachers, bosses, team leaders, fortune tellers, tarot card readers and horoscopes, among others, all talk to us. They all tell us what we should believe. With conflicting messages, we don’t know what to believe.
He then leaped into the text from Deuteronomy 18 where we read about the nature of a prophet from God. Tieken stated that we must only listen to a prophet like Moses, who himself was looking ahead to Christ. Tieken then transitioned to the Gospel Lesson from Mark 1:22 which speaks of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. He noted the importance of the response of the people, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.”
According to Tieken, if we will listen only to Jesus, we will hear words of grace, mercy, forgiveness, life and salvation. Jesus’ sole purpose is that his righteousness would become ours. If we believe in Jesus, mercy and grace will touch our hearts. Several times, Tieken referred to Jesus as “Prophet” and then ended this cogent and clearly delivered message with these words, “We are all called to be prophets and priests.”
As we moved into the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I perused the “Examination of Conscience” booklet found in the pew back. After noting the goodness of God, it states, “From the time of the fall in the Garden of Eden, people have been constantly tempted to look inward for that good. Our selfish search for good within ourselves is the temptation of the old Adam in us.”
The explanation of human selfishness included the elements of and preparation for confession, defined as “the return to baptismal grace.” Careful instructions in the booklet remind the readers that confession is not something done on the fly, but with intentionality and care. A helpful “confession mirror” followed, slowly leading the penitent through the Ten Commandments. As though looking at ourselves in a mirror, each commandment was accompanied by reflective questions designed to help gently expose our violations of these essential laws.
Guided by ushers, the congregation came forward in rows to stand or kneel at the chancel rails and receive the sacrament as a group. Those in their seats participated in the quiet moments by personal prayer and reflection. A final prayer, blessing and song followed and ended the service, a time steeped in holiness and words of Scripture.
We walked out in quiet peace and thinking, “What a good place to be in worship.”
[NOTE: this article is scheduled to run in the Feb. 6, 2015 print and online editions of the Denton Record-Chronicle.]
Further commentary may be found here.