Bethany Lutheran Church
Bethany Lutheran Church, West Hartford, Connecticut
September 15, 2002
Right at the start let me admit that I have had only infrequent experience of the faithful practices of Lutherans. But, as you have heard it said in another context, some of my best friends are Lutherans. The preacher, Dr. Paul Scherer, who laid his mantle on me (and scores of others at Union Theological Seminary) was
a Lutheran. I helped with the preparation of a book of quotes from his writings, Love Is a Spendthrift, nearly two generations ago. Martin Luther, the 16th Century Protestant Reformer, is one of the clearest windows on to the Gospel through which/whom I have peered in a lifetime of preaching. For eighteen years in Brooklyn I pastored a church of Norwegian-Americans, many of whom began their Christian careers as Lutherans. Twenty years ago I gave the sermon at the investiture of the new pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Troy, New York. He had been for a couple of years, wonder of wonders, my associate in a Methodist church on Long Island.
But on a free Sunday for a busman's holiday in the City I gravitated to the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. The thought of attending a Lutheran Church, especially a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church like this church in which we worshiped Sunday just past, just never entered my mind. Pity the prejudice! For we discovered, as we have again and again in this season of our divine perambulations, that the Christian Church is alive and well and welcoming no matter the denominational brand. In fact, Monday morning, Yom Kippur, and the holiday children were as noisy as the Fourth of July, the phone rang. "Anton," he identified himself, "the pastor of Bethany Lutheran." We chatted for five minutes, even after I explained that our visit was just a visit, that I was a retired Methodist pastor, and that we were making the rounds of local churches. He was gracious and curious, just the way I would have been were I still preaching on Sundays in my own pulpit and a visiting cleric came into view. I told him as we said goodbye that I was very impressed that he had remembered our address, mumbled to him (inchoherently, I thought) at the door as we shook his hands. Such diligence from the senior pastor speaks well of the church's desire to reach out and include.
Were I a Lutheran Lutheran (but I'm not, nor am I a Methodist Methodist), I would sign up for membership at Bethany forthwith.
Building: modern construction, light oak everywhere, organ in the rear balcony (choir of ten too), a communion table in the center of the raised dais, behind which I spied an altar probably used prior to the Roman Catholic Church's transition from altar to table in the 1970's. The color of the season, green, adorned the room in paraments and other hangings. The muggy air outside was ameliorated by the air-conditioning inside. The acoustics were excellent and expertly used. Hearing assists, large print hymnals, a Cry Room for obstreperous children, and an access ramp by the front door told me that strong efforts had been made to make the church a welcoming building. Stained glass windows depicting the life and ministry of Christ let colored light into the room. I always take note, and wonder why the choices, of certain Biblical scenes for stained glass. Up front over the communion table and altar were three windows, each of Jesus, birth and crucifixion flanking a far larger Christ the triumphant. All in all the sanctuary was a very pleasant place.
Music: two hymns were sung and, though the tunes were familiar, the words weren't. I suspect the Missouri Synod, ever concerned about theological correctness, may have found the traditional texts used in other churches to be less than orthodox. Communion was celebrated, as it is every Sunday, and the choir led the sung responses. The clergy chanted and sang (pretty much on pitch!). The anthem, "Come, Spirit, Come," by Beall was quite lovely and mitigated by initial fear that the service would be heavy on our sinfulness and light on the love of God.
Sermon: the associate pastor preached to the children and the adults, no mincing here about "Message" or "Meditation," Lutherans know that preaching is also the Word of God. In a Texas accent the preacher invited the children to look around the room and see all the reminders of Jesus' love and light. The sermon for the rest of us began with a story, bizarre enough to leave me wondering about its authenticity: about the burial plot of a man who was contrary in everything in this mortal life, placed in death on an angle from the rest of the family's caskets, because they wanted his resting place to match his cross-wise life. The three texts for the morning (Joseph, the Egyptian regent, forgiving his brothers; Paul the Apostle admonshing Christians at Rome to be more tolerant; and Jesus setting the measure of our forgiveness at 490 times, along with the his parable about the wicked servant who did not give the kindness he got from God) were woven into the prepared sermon, not so much read as referred to. The preacher's point: those of us forgiven by God, are, by God, expected to forgive, just right for a communion liturgy which goes strong on sin, guilt, grace, and forgiveness.
Communion: the invitation in the order of worship was open to everyone who believed that "Jesus Christ is really present in Holy Communion." Well, I do so believe, just don't require of me to locate where. We went forward. Wafers for the bread, wine for the cup, with a choice concerning the latter, common or individual. My hygenic worries haven't relented, so I opted for the individual cup.
Bible: the NIV (New International Version) lection passages for the morning were printed in the order of worship, a practice all churches would do well to emulate.
Welcome: the usher at the door greeted us with a firm handshake, my partner in visitation noting that his last name was the same as mine. We were given, as visitors, small crosses made of thread through plastic. The woman at the end of the aisle was friendly enough, but I was perhaps a little too keen to ascertain that the associate pastor knew some of my favorite Texas Lutherans, one of whom was my associate pastor on Long Island. Yes, he did.
The Order of Worship: the "bulletin" handed out as one enters was, if not voluminous, lengthy. It contained the full text of the Scripture Readings; a listing of those for whom intercessory prayers would be offered; a brief statement of the Church's beliefs, offered in a literate, non-credal form; a schedule of the coming week's activities; and, of course, the morning's agenda. A liturgically intensive church like Bethany does face the difficulty of keeping strangers like me oriented to page and line as the service is conducted with the use of a ritual in the hymnal. It might be best simply to make the hand-out a little longer and print the entire service without resort to scattering page numbers throughout the order of worship. I also noted a paragraph encouraging members to remember and pray for the president of the local jurisdiction of the church, a pastor who is presently threatened with removal from office by his peers in the Missouri Synod, who deem as heresy his participation a year ago, following 9/11, in an interfaith commemorative service of hope at Yankees Stadium. The prayers, I quickly add, were not for the president's admission of error but for his peers to see the light.
Rating: three haloes. If I were a Lutheran, I would raise the ante to four.