A Tale of Two Parables: Why Doesn’t Contemporary Worship Read the Scriptures?

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“…and who is my neighbor?”

…the lawyer asked Jesus, seeking to justify himself.  Jesus had just commanded a perfect love for God and neighbor, and this man sought to understand exactly to whom this commandment applied.  He probably thought “surely some men qualify as my neighbor, whereas others do not.  I should focus my efforts on those and ignore the others.”  Rather than understanding “neighbor” as referring to mankind generally, whomever he came into contact with, he would rather reduce that to a more limited set.  Something manageable.  Something achievable, in order that his efforts might justify himself.  In seeking to prove his worth to God, he winds up searching for the bare minimum necessary to achieve this goal.  Jesus responds with the parable of the good Samaritan, which becomes one of the world’s most treasured stories.  You might say that the Aesop’s fable takeaway is “Love everyone, as much as you can.”  Do not seek a comfortably defined set of “neighbors,” but go above and beyond:  Shower extravagant love even on those whom you are least inclined to give it to (your enemies).

Jesus had a way of taking the law and upping the ante to impossible perfection.  In one sense, this crystalizes the ideal and keeps before us a constant guide in the way we should go.  On the other hand, it makes moral fulfillment impossible on our part.

When the Law sets the bar too high, those who would justify themselves, rather than lean on the justification that Christ feely gives, wind up denying the true essence Christ’s teaching, by reducing it to what makes them comfortable.  These neighbors, not those ones.  “I can do this to justify myself, and thereby inherit eternal life.”

“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

…said the apostle Peter.  He had just refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet.  He wasn’t about to let his Master serve him in this way.  But when he understood that it was either be washed by Jesus or stay dirty, and the son of Man came not to be served but to serve, the beauty of Christ’s gifts became clear to him, and he wanted all he could get.  Don’t just wash me, drown me!  I want as much of your cleansing flood as possible.

When we see that Christ gives us freely what we cannot get for ourselves, the response of faith to this is to behold the beauty of this gift with wonder and awe.  …not with our eyes on our watches.  And so…

“Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”

…the apostle Paul advises young Timothy, and thereby all ministers of the Gospel.  There are two ways we can approach this imperative.

We could approach it like the lawyer:  “Exactly how much Scripture is necessary to be read?”  In other words, what is the least we can include in a worship service and still be ok?  At which point can we say we’ve done enough loving of our neighbor/public reading of the Scriptures to justify ourselves before God/make our worship acceptable?

…or, we can, like Peter, say, if this is the gift given us, let us feast on it as much as we can!  Not only our feet, but our whole body!  Not only the sermon text, but the whole counsel of God – the law and the prophets, the epistles and the Gospels.

For the most part, contemporary worship treats the Scriptures like the lawyer.  Most contemporary services have painfully little read in them, sometimes amounting to as little as a single verse.  It’s as if it were something we chose to include in our service.  Find a passage that relates, find a place to insert it.  Peripheral, really.  We don’t have to stop what we’re doing and listen to God, I’ll just interweave this passage with whatever I wanted to talk about. 

LecternBible

Gottesdienst, on the other hand, doesn’t include Scripture with another brainchild (usually of revivalist derivative).  Rather, it starts with Scripture.  The written Word is it’s beating heart, and from there it continues to saturate the worship experience with more at every bend.  In addition to the three pericopes, there is the psalm, introit, gradual, brief responses, the proper verse, the liturgical canticles, the Lord’s prayer and Aaronic benediction.  It starts and ends with God’s Word, a veritable feast on the word.  No perceptive observer could leave such an assembly without a distinct impression of the Scripture’s significance to the people assembled.  Whereas in contemporary worship it can often seem like a book of inspirational quotes to be selectively pulled from at convenience, in the Divine Service, they are the formative core of our assembly.  We gather around them, our service is driven by them, and our focus is on what they are teaching us, and the Christ they are giving us.

I can hear the objection of some:  “But at our church, we read much Scripture in our contemporary service!”  Good for you.  Keep it up!  You may even read the full set of pericopes weekly, as is common in the LCMS.  But let’s be honest:  Your praise band probably sings a few hymns too, and you probably use some vestments or decorations highlighting the change in liturgical season (since you’re already following it with the readings anyways).  You aren’t contemporary, you’re blended.  Call it what you like, but for the sake of this article and the analogy of the two parables, that’s not what I’m talking about.  After all, liturgical worship is always blended.

I’m talking about the service that includes at most one brief reading, or no distinct readings at all, only the pastor inserting verses into his sermon.  “Well there IS Scripture there.  How much do we have to include to satisfy your standards?”

My only reply to that is:  “And who exactly is my neighbor?”

Which part of “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” don’t you understand?

Growing up in Evangelical churches, I rarely heard the Bible formally read in worship, outside the sermon time, which would at most include the sermon passage or assorted proof texts.  The first time I saw a stand alone pericope read in worship was when I visited a Southern Baptist church.  I remember being very unimpressed as the elder got up, opened the Bible, read from it, and sat down.  “I do have a third grade education,” I thought at him.  “You aren’t giving me anything I didn’t bring with me.  Anytime I want, I could have opened the Bible and read that for myself.  I come to hear somebody explain what it means, not just throw it out there.”

I was taught to look at the Bible as something valuable for private devotion and pastoral study, but in worship, they were not to stand on their own, and should only be used to the extend that they were being explained.  Scripture, in this paradigm, is primarily for the purpose of conveying information, and it needs help.

This view of the Scriptures comes from traditions which do not hold to the means of grace, and thus they fail to treat the written word as a powerfully active agent.  Should we be taking cues from them?  We believe the Scriptures are a means of grace. In them, the voice of Christ roars like a lion at the darkness in our hearts.   Does the church assemble to work on our understanding of God’s Word, or do we assemble for the Word to work in us?

If you even ask “How much Scripture do I have to read?” you are treating a free gift of the Gospel like a demand of the law.  The refusal of contemporary worship to read generously form the Scriptures thusly confuses law and gospel, confesses a rationalism that is more concerned with communicating information than delivering grace, and seeks to please God on our terms rather than celebrating His free gift of justification by simply hearing His Word with gladness, as the third commandment teaches us.

Worship that is truly good, right, and salutary is not about satisfying a particular set of arbitrary demands, as the lawyer sought.  Rather, it starts with the gifts given, Word and Sacrament, and feasts on and rejoices in these above all else, as Peter did, because they are the presence of Jesus in our midst, and therefore all that matters.  Not relevance, not “reaching people,” not cultural contextualization.  Without the presence of Jesus, we have nothing relevant to reach our culture with.  When you remove the reading of Scripture from worship, you are telling Christ we don’t want His voice teaching us.

“Here sound the Scriptures that proclaim

Christ yesterday, today the same,

And evermore our Redeemer”

Our churches are to be where the Scriptures sound forth in our worship.  If your “contemporary” is silencing them, it’s time to seriously reconsider your priorities.  Do you really believe that the written Word has the power to give you life?

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