“Shame on you.”
And then he walked away. I am stunned, and something inside me breaks.
The people continue to stream out the sanctuary door. But I’m having difficulty focusing on them. Quite a few say lovely things about the service, the sermon, the music. But I’m having difficulty hearing them.
What I hear instead is shame. On me. A sermon illustration had been misunderstood, turned in a different direction than I had intended, and so had been judged wrong, even harmful. Hence the barb at the church door.
He goes home, maybe satisfied he had said his piece. I go home but have no peace. So ends my Lord’s Day. But that is not how this day began.
The benediction. It is one of ordination’s dearest privileges–to speak God’s peace and blessing to the people of God. If we serve the gracious God revealed in Christ Jesus the Lord, then our every worship encounter ends with grace and peace.
This night I use a lyric benediction I recently learned. It wishes the people the surrounding presence of God in their lives to guide, befriend, support, and protect. And so this night’s blessing concludes, “Do not be afraid. Go in peace, Amen.”
The blessing of God. The assurance of grace. The gift of peace. This is how all people should be able to exit God’s house at the end of the Lord’s Day. There is no more profound an emblem of what it means to believe a gospel of good news than this: to encounter God and then leave with his favor.
And so also this night the people go.
The prayers of God’s people. As is true every Sunday, the banks of pews are occupied by people who appear reasonably together and happy. But it’s not true, not for everyone. Not by a long shot.
So many needs, so many hurts. There is not room on the walls of the pastor’s heart to list all the pain that is out there any given Lord’s day. But as a pastor, I know it’s there. The lonely young woman whose phone never rings. The frightened senior who feels his strength ebbing away daily and who knows his dignity will soon follow when others will need to do for him what no grown man should want done by another. The dear woman with chronic pain whose every joint hurts. And yet she smiles so broadly and always has an encouraging word.
Let us pray. We pray for each other. We pray for those who cannot pray for themselves. I lead the prayer but others join me in their hearts. I think of my friend who called recently from the E.R., his wife so sick. On the phone his voice breaks. He’s crying. I dash to the E.R. immediately so that we can pray. Tonight I pray for them again. Lord, have mercy.
Scratch the surface of anyone’s life, and the pain, the disappointment, the fear comes rushing out.
It is good to bind our hearts together this way as brothers and sisters. It is the proper thing to do when on a Lord’s Day we gather together before God’s face. God sees us as we are and knows our hidden hurts. So once again on this evening we
come before God.
The sermon. Tonight it’s on integrity. The Lord tells Moses to speak to the rock to provide a thirsty people with much-needed libations. Moses strikes the rock. The water bursts forth, the people praise God. All is well.
But Moses is in trouble. It’s not enough to look good on the outside. It’s not the end of the story just because externally everything works out well. God sees the heart. So I encourage us all to have in us the mind of Christ and to resist our society’s “image is everything” motto.
In the Reformed tradition the longest single element in the worship service is always the sermon. This Lord’s Day, like most, I will deliver two sermons in the end. They represent the bulk of the week’s work, and become the target for a good bit of my praying.
I finish the sermons well before Sunday, but I know they are never really finished until they take up residency in the hearts of the people. The Holy Spirit “finishes” the sermons when they become a living word. Tonight it’s on integrity and so I close with a call to live for the God who again and again desires to show himself as holy in our midst. I recall Martin Luther’s having said that all any preacher can do is preach his (or her) best and let the Spirit do the rest. So this sermon also ends.
With the Spirit.
The call to worship. I welcome God’s people to the house of the Lord for a second time this Lord’s day. A special greeting is given to visitors–may you especially feel embraced by the God in whose presence we’ve gathered.
The choir follows my welcome with their exuberant call. “I will sing songs of gladness!” Music is a mystery. It does something to us I cannot explain. But as the choir sings this night, I sense the descent of the Spirit. It is going to be a good service, a lovely service, a holy time of worship.
And so we begin.
Naptime. For pastors, this may be the only part of the day that resembles “a day of rest.” I am older than I was when I first began to preach but I am not yet “old” by the reckoning of most people. Still, with each passing year I find that the busyness of the Lord’s Day, and the mental and spiritual drain that preaching causes (for reasons difficult to spell out) make me a bit more tired all the time. A glass or so of wine with Sunday noon dinner is all it takes to set up a much-needed and enjoyed nap.
As I shut my eyes, I thank God for having been with me and the others who led the morning service even as I whisper a prayer for the still-to-come evening service.
The catechism class. Actually, we’re not studying the catechism this year but the Belgic Confession. The high school juniors and seniors this year are a particularly bright and lovely lot of kids. I’ve been in this congregation long enough that most of these young people can’t recall any pastor other than me. It’s been a joy to watch them grow up. They were just first- and second-graders when I arrived. Now they are young women and young men, poised to move into adulthood (and eager for it, too).
Parents like to have their children spend time with the minister before that happens, before the children head out into the wider world. So I’ve always had this particular age group to teach. Today we talk about faith.
Faith is what grasps grace. It is the God-given container into which grace gets poured. With faith, we see the world differently. We see creation, not just nature. We see providence, not just lucky breaks. Above all we see Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
It’s good to be with these kids. They ask good questions, and my optimism, my hope, for their future is strong. The class ends well.
The morning service begins. Before entering the sanctuary I pause. I pray. Lord Jesus, be present now. Help everyone to see You through this service.
A singularly gifted soloist grabs our spirits, bringing us out of the world and into God’s presence. He sings a Bach piece, “Awake, All Ye People.” I wryly think to myself that this is particularly apropos: like most Sunday mornings, a few folks definitely don’t look awake yet. But the real truth of the anthem rouses us all when we are reminded that our true life is hid with God in Christ. That’s why we are here at all and not home watching Tim Russert. This is our real life–more real than the news of the week. We come here to enter life again.
We are warmly greeted by our God. I raise my hands and confer on these dear people grace, love, and p
eace. And so we worship God.
I’ve been up awhile already, as usual on a Lord’s Day morning. The person who invented coffee makers with timers is to be commended. My coffee is ready and waiting when I lumber my way to the kitchen at 6:30. With coffee in one hand and my morning sermon in the other, I settle into the den, as far away from my family’s various bedrooms as I can get. I then rehearse the sermon, marking my manuscript here and there with little red-ink markings to help me not lose my place.
Then I pray. It tends to be one of the longer prayers of the week. Above all I pray for strength to lead God’s people the right way in worship on this first day of the week, the day of resurrection. I am thankful for the sermons that are ready to go. I am thankful for the skilled musicians who have spent their week getting ready to offer back to God the fruit of their sizeable talents.
Before I finish my prayer, I say the words I always intone at the start of a new Lord’s Day. May all that I say and all that we collectively do in this day give God the glory for all that he is and all that he has done.
It’s the right way to begin a Lord’s Day, the right goal to aim at throughout the Lord’s Day. Twelve hours from now may the day end the way it now begins.