Category Archives: Liturgy

Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …



“They have no wine.”

As I stepped deeply into John 2:1-11 this week preparing to preach, I was drawn to the words of the mother of Jesus.

“They have no wine.”

“Do whatever he tells you.”

What a great model for prayer!

Too, often, when we pray we dictate the terms of the prayer.  I want you to do this, this way, in this time.  Micro-managing God?  Demonstrating lack of trust in God?  Limiting how God works?  Yes. Yes. Yes.

Mary’s words, if understood as prayer, models laying the need at the feet of Jesus and trusting enough to do whatever he tells us to do.


Pondering Pastor

Gifted floral designers

We are gifted to have as part of the congregation I serve, people who look at the lessons and attempt to make the flowers aid in communicating the Gospel.  Last Sunday was Pentecost.  The liturgical color of the day is red, and so one would expect red carnations as part of the floral arrangements in worship.  Our floral designers go one better.

Pentecost Floral Arrangement

Pondering Pastor

Scripture for suicide funeral

Funerals for someone who has committed suicide are challenging for the Christian pastor.   For much of Christian history, and for much of modern Christendom, suicide is considered an “unforgivable sin”.  I’m not convinced that suicide has placed someone irrevocably beyond God’s grace.  There are examples of suicide in scripture where there is no negative judgment.  In fact, 1 Samuel 31:4 has the account of Saul commanding his armor bearer to kill him, and when the armor bearer refuses, Saul falls upon his own sword.  Some will argue that Saul was already out of favor with God.  Some will make a distinction that a situation where one is likely to be killed and abused by one’s enemy is different than someone who willingly commits suicide.

Let me simply say that suicide is not a choice I recommend.  I don’t think offering possible scripture passages for a funeral of a suicide victim contributes to suicide.

I’ve conducted at least 2 funerals for people who have committed suicide.  I don’t remember many details of the funeral for the first one.  The second one, I used Matthew 13:24-30 as the scripture text.

Matthew 13:24-30 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

The refrain, “An enemy has done this” can be very effective.  We know that mental illness, including depression, can result in suicide.  I’m convinced that “an enemy has done this” and the experience of the master in knowing the difference between weeds and wheat, what was planted and what was not, who a person is and what awful things have been a part of that person’s life cannot be underestimated.

At least consider it.

Pondering Pastor

Funeral Sermons

A fair number of people have found this site by searching for funeral sermon material. Therefore, I might as well make some comments.

I clearly have developed a pattern and am filled with biases about funeral sermons over my years as an ordained pastor.

I believe that a Christian funeral should ultimately be about Christ. What does the Christian promise hold for those who die and those who live? Christ’s death and resurrection mean something. There is no denial of death in the Christian funeral. There is no denial of sin in the Christian funeral. There is no denial of the need of God’s grace in a Christian funeral. If those are not lifted up, we probably don’t have a Christian funeral.

Having said that, the funeral is not the time for an “altar call” or to drive the assembled family and friends into the arms of Christ. Simple statements about the impact or importance of faith are usually sufficient. A simple homily, very focused is usually best. It is hard for family and friends to endure long or complicated proclamations of the Gospel. My pattern is usually to acknowledge the loss, to give thanks to God for placing the person in our lives to know and to love, and to recall the promises of God in Christ (forgiveness of sins and everlasting life). Beyond that, the funeral liturgy is allowed to speak as it has for centuries.

There are many “Celebration of Life” services available, and this is becoming the usual thing people request. The person’s life can be acknowledged in the loss and the giving thanks to God sections of the homily. There is nothing inherently wrong with a “Celebration of Life” except that too often the emphasis solely on the deceased and usually one particular view of that person’s life. A Celebration of Life might not include Christ at all. It is rare that an eulogy is done well. (If pastors would stop making their relationship with the deceased normative, that would go a long way to improving the funeral sermon.) Consider that each person’s relationship with the deceased is different. Each have their own disappointments, their joys, their struggle, and their wonderful memories. The funeral sermon should be shaped so that people might be able to recall elements of their own relationship with the deceased.

The funeral service should be long enough to know that something significant has happened, and not so long that people begin looking at their watches. Funerals are places where people who normally don’t attend a worship service might have experience with Christian worship. It should be relatively easy to follow without compromising the integrity of the funeral liturgy. The funeral is no time to get “cute” and “innovative”. The liturgy has developed out of faithful experience over the centuries and should be maintained.

When the military is involved.  I try to finish the Christian burial pieces, and then let the military conduct the services without trying to integrate the two.  It just seems to work better.

Oh, and be sure that the cell phones are off.

Pondering Pastor

Arlington National Cemetary

Today I was honored to be a small part of a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery. I conducted a service at Arlington once earlier this year, but this time was different. George died a couple of months ago. Today was the earliest his family could have a service at Ft. Myers Chapel. It is an understatement to say that I wasn’t ready for a Full Honors Military Funeral.

For those not familiar with a Full Honors Military Funeral (Navy), the funeral included; a service at the Ft. Myers Chapel (just outside Arlington National Cemetery), a Navy Chaplain, a casket team including a horse-drawn caisson, a color guard, a firing party, a bugler, an escort and escort platoon, a military band, and this lone civilian. I’m guessing that there were approximately 50-60 Naval personnel directly involved in this service.

As the clock moved toward 1:00, the thermometer steadily rose toward 95 degrees, with a haze that turned the sky and horizon the same dull grey. Moving from the chill of the air-conditioned chapel to the softening asphalt parking lot I was stunned by the stark white uniforms of dozens of young sailors. These men and women were standing at attention to honor a man who served his country two generations before them. How he served, and what he did, they had learned in the history books as if it were in the ancient past. But here they were, standing in rows and columns mirroring the placement of the tombstones in this most hallowed of grounds. With great precision and ceremony, they attended to the remains of this hero with a tenderness that belied the uniform. He would have been proud to witness their devotion to their task.

I did not know that George commanded a ship that was part of the Naval blockade of Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. To me, he was a man who was a regular and faithful member of the congregation. He was thoughtful. He was passionate about his faith. He had a deep and abiding care for his wife. But behind it all, he had served his country honorably, and the honor was being returned.

Following the chapel service, where the Gospel of Jesus Christ and music of the faith gave witness to Christ’s love, George’s remains were transported to their final resting place. I’ve seen parades that were shorter. With the military band, the color guard, and the escort platoon leading the way, this parade moved steadily through row after row of honored military dead. We traveled not far from the grave of the US President who ordered George and his ship to Cuba. We stopped a mile later and walked into the sea of gravestones to the place reserved for George. Under the canopy of a US flag, held taut by 6 young sailors, George’s remains were commended to God. The firing party, those folding the flag, and the chaplain performed their duties with respect.

Thank you US Navy.

Thank you George.

Pondering Pastor

The sins of a pastor

No, not mine this time, but those of a pastor who should know better.

Well, in reality, this probably violates the 8th Commandment, so my sin is confessed even before I begin.

On Friday, I attended the funeral of a family member. Now, I admit I have very high standards when it comes to the care a pastor provides for me and my family. I have clear expectations and frankly, am almost always disappointed. I also pray that I might not cause the kind of offense I experience at the hands of these pastors. It all started with the visitation on Thursday.

Family gathered for the visitation at 4:00 pm. The public visitation was from 5:00 – 8:00 pm. By 4:30, the family had completed their “work” and drifted toward the food brought in at the funeral home. When people started to arrive just before 5:00, I chased family members back into the room so they could greet the people. The pastor had not arrived yet.

The visitation dragged on for me. I knew practically no one. At one point, I was cornered by a man who needed to find a new recipient of his stories. Everyone else in the room had heard them. At about 7:15 the pastor arrived. He spent a little time with the new widow, touched bases quickly with the children, and spoke with me before he left. He was in the room for 10 minutes. At 8, we closed up shop and went home. No prayer, no attention from the pastor to all who were gathered. From all indications, he was simply another visitor. At least he had been to the funeral home.

I expected more at the funeral on Friday.

Family were to be at the church one hour before the funeral service. That would include a last viewing before the casket was closed, a time of prayer together in the church basement, and then the family would proceed together into the church following the casket. The “prayer service” did happen, and in general, was respectful and attended to the needs of the family.

I was surprised when we began the funeral service that an Order for Christian Burial was not a part of the liturgy in the hymnbook. This was a disappointment to me. What resulted was the absence of some particularly meaningful parts of the funeral liturgy that I’ve experienced across denominations. I kept waiting for them, and was disappointed.

There were some stylistic and practical matters that were a bit distracting for me, but the worst was the funeral sermon. I have two pet peeves about funeral sermons. Far too often, they become more about the pastor and that pastor’s relationship with the person who has died than they are about the Gospel. Sure enough, this funeral sermon had that quality about it also. I’d guess that about 25% of the sermon was about that. The second pet peeve is that funeral sermons often trivialize a person’s life. The pastor often picks out one thing about the person where a connection is found, and drives that into the ground. This time, it was how the deceased loved baseball. We learned how he played baseball in high school and softball on the church softball team. We learned how he loved to watch baseball on television. (It formed the basis of the relationship between pastor and the deceased.) Frankly, I’ve known the man more than 30 years, and I’m not sure in that time that he even followed a team nearly as passionately as others I know.

The most disappointing (and distracting) element of the sermon was the specific naming of some of the sins of the deceased. Some of this man’s sins were enumerated as a way to get to the Gospel message of forgiveness. The shock of hearing these sins and the invitation for us to also fill in the blanks of the sins we knew about served to overpower the message of the Gospel. By the time I was able to listen again, the pastor had moved past the Gospel and was rambling on (in an ill-informed way) about the evils of embryonic stem cell research (where fetuses are created, used, and discarded). I confess that I don’t know how he got there, but my daughter, sitting near me, set her jaw and stiffened visibly. She is doing stem cell research in a Doctoral program at a Catholic University. She didn’t wait long after the service to inform us that the pastor was completely misinformed about how the stem cell research was conducted.

Following the church service, the graveside service went fine (as fine as they can go.) A few other snafus occurred, but those were not the fault of the pastor. One of the military honor guard rifles jammed, so he got a 19 gun salute. The VFW flag folder did the worst job I’ve ever seen folding the flag.

And yet, this was a service that was important to all who attended.

I’m glad that the funeral service is more than the sum of all its parts. God was at work in spite of the distractions.