Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 09/10/2017

The Sunday lectionary readings from Exodus skip over the story of the plagues and Moses’ repeated call to Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” It’s a story set up as a contest that has the Lord and Moses and brother Aaron on one side and Pharaoh and those who do his bidding on the other side. From the beginning we know who’s going to win but there’s no quick resolution as the story goes on for five chapters; sometimes Pharaoh’s people can match what Moses and Aaron do, sometimes they can’t but the bottom line is that despite the various calamities that occur, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he won’t let the people go until the final plague, the death of the firstborn.

Before that final plague and the departure of the people, the Lord issues the initial instructions for the observance of the Passover, observance that will cause the death sentence concerning the firstborn to “pass over” the houses of the people of Israel. The beginning of those instructions is what we get in today’s first reading.

At first it might not seem like these instructions are of particular interest to us as Christians describing as they do a Jewish observance. What these verses do though is provide us with an opportunity to think about worship and what we do in worship and why we do what we do. There is a description of one particular ritual here, one that doesn’t pertain directly to us, but what’s more important is how it describes the way ritual is used in establishing and maintaining the identity of a community and how ritual can help to mediate the presence of God. With that, also emphasized is the importance of doing worship properly and correctly.

This description of the sacrifice of a lamb and putting some of the blood on the doorframe of the house, for Jewish people is the reminder of an important part of their faith history, something that happened a long time ago. However, it’s not just about what happened a long time ago; it’s not just past tense. It’s a once for all event that must remain in the present tense for each new generation. The ritual introduced here and explained more fully later in Exodus and in Deuteronomy is the means for bringing this event into the present so that it continues to provide identity for future generations.

Keeping the events that define our faith in the present tense through the use of ritual has always been an important part of what we do in worship. For Christians, from the earliest days of the church the primary ritual has been the celebration of Holy Communion which is understood as a means of making Christ present to us in a physical way through the elements of bread and wine. In a way that we can feel and taste and smell, it gives us identity as part of the body of Christ, as part of the church just as observance of the Passover provides identity for Jewish people.

Rituals like that described in Exodus and like what we do every week with Holy Communion are pre-rational activities. In other words, they’re not based of careful reasoning. To an outsider observing what we do, it wouldn’t make much sense, it wouldn’t seem reasonable and even if you tried to explain it to that stranger in the parking lot I talked about a couple of weeks ago, you probably wouldn’t get very far. That’s because what we do constitutes a pre-rational activity being done in a world that runs on reason, or at least thinks it does. Excessive explanation won’t cause the stranger to say, “Oh yeah, I get it now,” because with a pre-rational activity, the only way you are going to get it, the only way Holy Communion is going to have meaning, is to do it and to do it again and again and again…in the context of the story from which the ritual comes.

The story is important too. That’s why when I do First Communion instruction, the main thing I want to get across to the kids is the story of the Last Supper. I don’t expect them to “understand” communion, because I’m not sure that anyone does, at least not from just hearing it talked about. But I want them to know the story, and I want them to hear, not my voice, but the voice of Jesus saying, “Take and eat, take and drink; this is my body given for you, this is my blood, shed for you.” With that, through this pre-rational activity, the presence of Christ becomes real and a community gathered around that presence is identified. Then the ritual takes on deep meaning.

Can this ritual or any ritual be empty though, just going through the motions? Is Holy Communion deeply meaningful every time you receive it? I doubt it, but I still don’t think that renders it totally empty or without meaning or that it’s just going through the motions; it might be, but not necessarily. Here’s another thing I thought about. If that stranger in the parking lot entered the church in the middle of the communion liturgy, he wouldn’t understand what was going on other than people coming forward to eat a small piece of bread and have a sip of wine. But what I hope he would observe is that whatever was going on, it was being done with reverence and dignity. The stranger wouldn’t understand the significance of what was happening, but the fact that it represents something serious and meaningful to those gathered should be clear by the way they do it. It should be obvious that this is not something that is taken lightly.

As we continue to consider the Reformation during this 500th anniversary year, one of the effects of the Reformation was that there was some push back against what I’ve called pre-rational activities as worship became a more rational activity. Prior to that, the ritual of the Mass, centered on Holy Communion, was the main thing. Plus, everything was done in Latin which most people didn’t understand and preaching was not an emphasis. So, for better or for worse, there was by nature an element of mystery about Christian worship. Some, including Luther would say there was too much mystery, that in reality people were intentionally being left in the dark.

For Luther, the word, especially scripture read in the language of the people and the sermon as a means of explaining scripture became more important. Worship became less mysterious, more of an exercise of the intellect which is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact at its best it’s a very good thing. It could be argued that this openness to an intellectual approach to the faith is still characteristic of the Lutheran church. We don’t ask you to turn off the thinking part of your brain when you walk in the door.

Luther did elevate and place emphasis on the place of preaching in worship, but for him, the celebration of Holy Communion continued to be central, especially the mystical union with Christ that it represents; he was adamant about Christ truly being present in the elements of bread and wine. Others however, went further than Luther would have liked and minimized the importance of the communion ritual that had been at the center of Christian worship from the very beginning. This difference of opinion plays itself out in the tangled web of church history and all different denominations that emerge. 500 years later, one result of this are the churches that meet in non-descript rooms or large auditoriums or arenas where the service is almost exclusively centered on preaching and too often perhaps on the personality and charisma of the preacher. In those churches pre-rational rituals that define the people and mediate the presence of Christ are largely gone and with that, an important part of religious experience is lost.

Ideally, elements of both the rational and pre-rational are present in worship because as human beings we need both. We need the rituals that define us like Holy Communion that we celebrate every week. Our other primary sacramental ritual is baptism, which we’ll celebrate next week, another pre-rational activity in which one is washed in water that Christ has made holy, marked with the cross of Christ and made a child of God.

Further evidence of the importance of ritual as part of our overall religious experience is that our worship around the central story of our faith, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, is the part of the church year most heavily laden with pre-rational rituals. It starts at the beginning of Lent with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and then continues, especially during Holy Week with the various rituals of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, all of which require little explanation apart from the story they are attached to. From my perspective as the preacher, they are all cases where you don’t want excessive verbiage to get in the way of the ritual. It’s a case of less is more. Again, the meaning comes in the doing, in the pre-rational experience.

As was the case with the ancient people of Israel, what we do in worship does provide us with identity. It identifies us as being a part of a different reality, one that is not governed only by that which is logical and reasonable but a reality in which, through word and ritual, we imagine and encounter a holy other. For those who enter into the mystery of it, it becomes our primary encounter and our primary identity as part of the body of Christ.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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