This marks the third time in three weeks that I have been in close proximity to our good bishop, Suzanne Dillahunt. As most of you know, too much of me isn’t necessarily a good thing. Last week, we were together at a conference hosted by our three Ohio Bishops. The week before we were together attending a funeral for a colleague, Pastor John Mittermaier, whose death at 93 we celebrated as a testament to what a lifetime of dedicated service to the ministry should look like.
I was on staff at Trinity Lutheran Church in Circleville,with Pastor Mittermaier for four years. At 34, I was the youngest pastor beginning my first call and at 76, he was the oldest and at his last call. Our age and experience differences sometimes were pronounced. One summer, when he was in the hospital for a minor procedure, I visited him. His beautiful wife Joan, left the room with me after the visit, held my hand and with nothing but love and concern for me said, “Pastor, you know how fond John is of you. He truly enjoys you. Thank you for your visit. Now, please don’t ever come to see him in a hospital in shorts again. It upsets him greatly.”
He taught me that the most important thing a pastor can do is love their parishioners. He was passionate about the need and welfare of the people he was beside in ministry. He taught me how infectious in a congregation good humor and optimism can be. He taught me the importance of worship. He loved worship and pushed constantly in our staff meetings for quality in our music and preaching. He expected pastors to lead worship in a way that did not distract the congregation from what their focus should be, God. His desire to improve my worship leadership, might have been for him even more pressing than convincing me to stop wearing shorts.
As you know, I tend to make a lot of mistakes. I simply blank out at times. “Christ is risen, no wait it is Alleluia, Christ is risen…right?” “May the Lord, keep you, no, May the Lord bless and keep you…” Everytime, I would lead worship at 8:00 in the morning, Pastor Mittermaier and Joan would be near the front row. Every morning, it seemed I would have one of those moments. And, Pastor Mittermaier’s reaction was always the same. His head would drop, his eyes would close, and I imagined the silent prayer was “Lord, save the church from young pastor’s like this.”
I have grown to want what Pastor Mittermaier wanted, excellence in worship. Worship is what believers do. Over and over again in scripture, when people realized who Jesus was, the very presence of God among them, they fell down on their knees in worship. Worship is what we do when we encounter God. Worship is what we do when God has found us. Worship is our gift for God who has given us the greatest gift, grace and love that we neither deserve nor earn. Why would we give God a shoddy gift?
We don’t worship to flatter God and get on God’s good side. We don’t worship to capture God, domesticate God and keep God caged in this space. Worship isn’t our weekly visit to God as if we were going to the zoo. As Solomon said in our reading from I Kings, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.” We don’t worship to gain the notice of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, hoping he is keeping track of how many times we can be found in these pews.
We don’t even primarily worship in order to get something out of it. As a worship leader, I hope that people are moved closer to God in the midst of a wonderful song or solo. When Pastor Liz or Pastor Fritz preaches here, it is likely we will be drawn closer to God by great insight or wisdom. Weekly in worship , we can count on receiving the very real presence of God when we come forward with our hands out to taste and see. Those gifts in worship are just bonuses, frosting on the cake, not the main purpose.
We worship because we have fallen in love with God and the only gift we have to give God is our adoration. Why would we give a shoddy gift? So this renewed space is our effort together to give the best gift to God we can. We have worked at limiting the distractions in worship, as Pastor Mittermaier taught me, less clutter, less wires snaking about, no wrinkles and tears in our carpet. The distractions I cause have not improved unfortunately. We have refocused our eyes to the the primary ways we encounter God in worship, angling the pews and bringing the font, the pulpit and the altar to the center of our site line. We have worked to brighten up the space with new colors and new lights so that nothing keeps us from participating, not even aging eyes that have trouble reading hymnals or bulletins in dim light. Padding on the pews? That’s great, but just frosting on the cake.
We have improved our space so we can better love God together in worship. Worship is our gift for God and good worship is worth any sacrifice. Because, why would we give a shoddy gift? Amen