Friday, September 22, 2017

Fusing the Natural World with Worship

A burgeoning concern of liturgical scholars and worship leaders has been to find ways to emphasize the gift of creation and the joy God’s word expresses about creatures and plants, water and earth itself. Scott Kershner explains here how he helped lead a mountain community to more fully welcome nature into worship. The full essay is available in Liturgy 33, no. 4.

In 2010, I left eight years of parish ministry in Brooklyn, New York, to accept a call as pastor at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state. Surrounded at Holden by the Glacier Peak Wilderness, I went from one of the most densely urban places to one of the most remote sites in the continental United States. The challenge of pastoral ministry in a wilderness threw matters of ecology and liturgy into bold relief. The task of connecting liturgy and local ecology is a pastoral imperative in every setting. Holden Village’s wilderness context allowed me, as a pastor, to appreciate this urgency. . .  

Holden Village is located on the site of the company town of an abandoned copper mine, given to the Lutheran Church in the early 1960s. Getting to this mountain valley of stunning beauty requires a three-hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan, a fjord-like fifty-mile-long body of water largely unmarked by human presence, followed by a bumpy bus ride on an eleven-mile dead-end road into a glacier-carved valley. As an intentional community and retreat center, Holden is composed of the resident staff, volunteers, and guests who stay for days or weeks. The institution is dedicated to learning, creativity, sustainability, and the nurturance and renewal of the church. The community gathers every evening for vespers (Evening Prayer) and shares Holy Communion every Sunday.  

. . . At Holden, it was not difficult to recognize the walls in which we gathered as both necessary (especially in a place with an average winter snowfall of twenty-five feet!) and a limitation to our liturgical imaginations. Our attempts at breaking down those theological and ecological walls were experiments in religare, the Latin root of religion, to bind together. . .

Here are some examples of how the worship at Holden Village came to attend to both the liturgical calendar and the blessings of nature’s seasons at the same time.

Because the shortening days of the Advent season were palpable to us as valley dwellers, we reflected in vespers on Advent themes of darkness, waiting, and hope. We worshiped outdoors in inky-dark evenings, with “pews” cut from banked snow while singing Psalm 19 by candle and starlight. The Christmas proclamation of the birth of the Light that shines in the darkness was a message of existential promise. When we filed out of Christmas Eve candlelight worship, handheld tapers were planted in snowbanks under a wheeling night sky as we sang, “Silent night, holy night.” Epiphany worship included a great Christmas tree bonfire. . .

Lent sent us into the woods. I spread field guides around the circular hearth at the center of our sanctuary and invited the community to collect cones during Lent from each of the sixteen varieties of our native conifer neighbors. Some grew nearby; others only at harsh elevations. As people hiked, skied, and snow-shoed, cones of each of these species began to populate our worship space, representing the forests our human community invited indoors to join the liturgical celebration. We began to see these trees as co-participants in our common worship and ourselves as faithful members of the land community beyond our doors.


Scott M. Kershner, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serves as University Chaplain at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He received a Pastor's Study Grant for this research, funded by the Louisville Institute.

Scott M. Kershner, “Worship in the Wilderness: Experiments in Liturgy and Ecology,” Liturgy 32, no. 4 (2017): 40-46.



Monday, September 18, 2017

Always Expanding the Base – 24 September 2017 – 16th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 25

Matthew 20:1-16

As is often the case in Matthew’s gospel, there is no clear context for the parable. Nor is there a parallel to this parable in another gospel. We may guess that in telling this parable, Jesus was responding to criticism that he was paying more attention to those outside the law (e.g., tax collectors, prostitutes) than to those who abided by the law of Moses. . .

The evangelist gives his own interpretation by locating the parable after the exchange between Jesus and his disciples about what the disciples will receive for having left everything to follow Jesus. Jesus promises great rewards to his disciples, but he also adds the warning: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30). The parable of the laborers in the vineyard reminds the original twelve that other disciples will follow them, and God’s generosity is such that they all receive the same reward: eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. . .  

The . . . parable is neither a lesson in economics nor in morality. It is about the generosity of God’s grace to the last as to the first. –– Frank C. Senn

Jonah 3:10––4:11

The prophet Jonah had been called to proclaim to the great Syrian city of Nineveh that unless the city repented of its evil ways, God would destroy it. After evading God’s call once (and being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a great fish), Jonah did the job God had given him. . . and the whole city repented. . .

Jonah is angry that God relented and did not punish the Ninevites. God uses the bush that shades Jonah and then withers (further angering Jonah) to make a point:

. . . If Jonah cared so much for the bush, which he didn’t even cause to grow, why should God not care for the great city of Nineveh?

Since Nineveh was a gentile city, the whole story of Jonah can be taken to be an expression of God’s concern and grace for God’s gentile children, with the implication that God’s Jewish children ought to . . . sympathize with . . . all God’s wayward children. –– Frank C. Senn

Philippians 1:21-30

Remaining faithful in the absence of the apostle to lead them must have been an issue for this church since Paul’s letter emphasizes persistence in the faith in the face of opposition. This opposition perhaps came more from the pagan society of Philippi. . . than from opposing parties in the church since Paul does not get into particular theological controversies in this letter but does make the Christian faith a life and death matter.

Since Philippi was a military town, the Roman civil religion probably flourished as strongly as any local cult. We are aware that Christians were not considered good citizens because of their refusal to participate in emperor worship. . . .

Perhaps in this context, Paul presents the example of his own situation as an encouragement to the Philippian Christians. Paul is apparently under armed guard, but this has given him an opportunity to witness to Christ. He . . . sees positives no matter what happens. If he lives, he continues to witness to Christ. If he dies, he gets to be with Christ. . . . The bond between apostle and church is that they suffer together because of their faith in Christ. –– Frank C. Senn



Frank C. Senn, an ELCA pastor who served Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois, from 1990-2013, has also taught liturgy courses at a number of seminaries and divinity schools and published thirteen books mostly on the history of the liturgy.


Homily Service 38, no. 10 (2005): 33-45.



Monday, September 11, 2017

Forgiving – 17 September 2017 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost/ Lectionary 24

The preacher today might circle around issues of forgiveness in our individual lives and in our national discourse to help the assembly come to terms with the fact that judgment is God’s alone. This is a radical counter to our civic notions about assigning blame and meting punishment.

Matthew 18:21-35

Peter raises a question about the quota for forgiveness, wondering when enough is enough. Jesus’ response. . .  [stipulates] the need for far more than Peter can imagine. The parable that follows is full of hyperbole, and certainly was received with humor as Jesus told the tale. . . The amount of money—ten thousand talents—is more money than a small country could accumulate, let alone a single slave.

The blame for the situation rests with both the slave, who has become encumbered by such an astronomical debt, and by the master, who lent it in the first place. The slave compounds the outrageousness of the situation by promising to repay a debt that ten lifetimes could not repay.

The gracious forgiveness of the debt is all the more unbelievable. The humor wanes as the slave who has been let off . . . now demands payment in full for a small amount from another slave. The outrageous has become outrage, and certainly the crowd would cheer as Jesus tells of the harsh punishment of that worthless slave.

We realize we have been caught by this parable, as the slave had been caught by the master. Judgment is not for us, forgiveness is. –– Timothy V. Olson

Genesis 50:15-21

While Joseph has reconciled with his brothers and has been reunited with his father, Jacob, in chapter 45, Jacob’s death presents a test. Will Joseph, now beyond the influence of his father’s place as patriarch, turn to seek revenge upon those who stole a lifetime of living with his father from him? Joseph’s responses to his brothers’ fear are notable. . . He recognizes that wrath, judgment and vengeance belong to God alone. Note in his next statement that the announcement of forgiveness is not an avoidance of accountability of judgment. . .

Through God’s gracious acts, the evil intended has been overcome for good, redeemed by divine act. In so doing, the original evil is condemned as well. Joseph now acts in accordance with the redemption, not the evil. Joseph desires to sustain them all and care for them. The human cycle of evil is broken. –– Timothy V. Olson

Romans 14:1-12

Paul continues his explication of how the lordship of Christ affects the daily life of the faithful in this passage. The subject at hand is the diversity of religious practices in the community. While the issue is the consumption of food, it seems to have wider implications about our life together in community as well. Paul uses images of the “weak” and the “strong” to identify the diversity.

Note, however, the way Paul defines each in contrast to the cultural norms of his day. The weak are those who observe the food laws closely, the strong are those who do not. This grows out of Paul’s overarching argument that faith is the center of righteousness, not works of the law, and that with faith comes freedom.

For Paul, the gift of grace that justifies does not release one from the reality of God’s judgment, it changes the character of the encounter. –– Timothy V. Olson



Timothy V. Olson is the Lead Pastor for Mission and Vision at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Ankeny, Iowa.


Homily Service 38, no. 10 (2005): 13-24.