Among the Lutherans, a few surprises

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

At Mount Olive Lutheran Church there was much that seemed familiar, with a couple of surprises.

Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), 2336 St. Johns Ave.
Service, 10:45 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014
Length of service: 1 hour, 10 minutes. Length of sermon: 17 minutes

I decided to attend a Lutheran service on my second outing for the simple reason that it seemed likely to be the least unusual to someone brought up Catholic. Mostly, I was right.

There was a lot of ritual and rote response and singing with organ accompaniment, and there were a couple of young fellows in black-and-white vestments who could have passed for altar boys. The large, airy sanctuary was virtually indistinguishable from a modern Catholic church. There was one noticeable difference from St. Patrick Co-Cathedral, however: After seeing most everyone at St. Pat’s in jeans, I decided to wear that article of clothing when I attended Mount Olive, only to find myself in a very small minority of casual dressers.

AtYourServiceI told myself that from now on I’d better wear my vaguely respectable gray slacks. Look for future updates on denominational sartorial trends.

And I should say that I don’t know much of anything about Lutheran doctrine or the differences between its various branches. I was under the impression that Missouri Synod Lutherans were the more conservative branch of the family, but I didn’t notice anything overly fundamentalist or reactionary about the service.

The only surprise came during the sermon, delivered by Pastor David Preus. The older pastor, Mark Grunst, conducted most of the service but yielded the floor to Preus for the homily.

His subject was a single statement by John the Baptist, which Preus characterized as the best and shortest epiphany sermon ever delivered: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”

What is this series about?

To read the essay that introduced this series click here.

Preus is a handsome, well-spoken man who looks to be in his mid-30s at the oldest. He delivered a straightforward exposition of St. John’s words. He spent at least half of his 17-minute sermon just on the word “Behold,” saying, among other things, that it directed the attention of the listener away from the speaker directly to Jesus.

He said he, too, was merely a “lowly ambassador,” a man who “points away from myself.” This was interesting if not brilliant stuff, but all at once he forced me to sit up and listen—by warning his congregation to beware of “false teachers” trying to entice them into the shallow waters of errant doctrine. He singled out the threat of Mormonism, advising his flock to steer clear of that “cult.”

Well, I said to myself, that is some damned specific advice. He got more specific still, however, by going on to condemn the televangelist Joel Osteen and the Charismatic Christian author Joyce Meyer. He said Osteen preached Osteen, not Jesus, and that Meyer indulged in the “intolerable heresy of self-esteem.”

I was really warming up to him, but he soon put the scourge away and reverted to more traditional sermonizing. Even there, though, there were things to savor, as when Preus referred to himself as “a poor, miserable sinner.” Earlier in the service, during the “Confession and Absolution,” we church-goers recited the same phrase, along with describing ourselves as “a poor, sinful being.”

I rather like that about the Lutherans. The heart of Christianity is that we unholy creatures can only be saved by the sacrifice of Christ, but the Lutherans emphasize our pitiful nature much more often and more overtly than Catholics would dream of doing.

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And yet I can’t say the congregation seemed much more engaged than the folks at St. Patrick’s. I’m sure that’s partly because regular church-goers hear similar messages so often that it’s hard to focus. Also, the music seemed quite dull. There is so much good Protestant music, but the hymns of this day were of that flat variety that is the result of trying to squeeze a tune out of straight prose.

It didn’t help that almost the entire service is set to music, or a nearly tuneless simulacrum thereof. Pastor Grunst has a fine voice and made the best of it, but the recitation of the service had neither the exaltation of great music nor the mesmerizing, meditative drone of a true chant.

Likewise, Grunst sang the first part of The Lord’s Prayer and we all joined in on the last verse. The experience only confirmed that if any prayer in English is better spoken than sung, that is the one.

Speaking of the church as an institution rather than a means of salvation, it is worth pointing out that the 10:45 service was attended by a good many families, some of them quite large by contemporary standards. And for whatever reason, the comportment of the youngest among them was much superior to that of their Catholic peers.

There was but one burst of caterwauling during the sermon, upon which the child’s mother hurried him off to the outer hallway, and then there was one more fit of shrieking just as the service ended and Grunst was beginning with his announcements.

At that point the pastor could afford to be benign, and he bestowed a tolerant smile on the child, who was, after all, but one more miserable little sinner.

Next week—Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.

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