Bishop Michael Rinehart



Hin nach Texas!

Bethlehem Round Top at 150

I’m excited to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Round Top this Sunday (1866-2016). Here is a little history.

1837: William Frels establishes Frelsburg, Texas.

1839The Rev. L. C. Ervendberg from Illinois comes to Texas, gathering a congregation in Houston. He also establishes preaching points in Industry, Cat Spring, Beigel Settlement, La Grange and Columbus. He marries people in Fayette County.

How Round Top got its name: A stagecoach station at Rocky Creek became known as Round Top Place because the top of a building had an octagonal shape cupola. The stage drivers would yell out upon their approach . . . “Round Top” . . . thus in 1851 giving birth to the name of the town, Round Top.

1840: Houston’s German population reaches 400. A German Union is established by the Texas Congress.

galveston-immigration-southeast-texas-family-activity1842: The Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas is formed. More commonly known as the Adelsverein, was a colonial attempt to establish a “New Germany” in Texas.

1843: On January 9, 1843, Count Ludwig Joseph von Boos-Waldeck buys a 4,428-acre Nassau Plantation in Fayette County, two miles east of Round Top, for $0.75. The plantation is maintained by slave labor and operated for the recreational pleasure of the Adelsverein. The plantation is the primary base for arriving German immigrants. Twenty-five slaves are bought to work on the property. Prince Solms inspects the plantation in 1844, and recommends the Verein divest itself of the property, rather than be associated with slavery. Gustav Dresel, Special Business Agent for the Adelsverein, sells Nassau plantation on July 28, 1848.

A Tale of Two Round Tops

1844: Five Adels-Verein ships arrive in the second half of 1844, bringing 439 people (many of whom were impoverished) in 103 families, with 134 children. They settle in a tract of land bought by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, at IndianPoint on Matagorda Bay, about ten miles south of Port Lavaca. The settlement is called Carlshaven, and later Indianola.
Pastor L. C. Ervendberg conducts services there on Christmas Day in 1844.

Even cute songs are composed like Hin nach Texas!

1845: On March 2, 2845, The Republic of Texas becomes the 28th state of the United States of America.

1845-1846: 5,247 more Germans arrive in Galveston. They winter in tents at Carlshaven. Hundreds don’t survive the winter.

1848: The Round Top Post Office was added on to the Dry Goods Store. See photo:

1850: Texas population reaches 208,000, including 58,000 slaves. In 1850, Round Top has a population of about 150.

The Lutheran Synod of South Carolina sends Pastor G. F. Guebner to make a trip through the state to analyze the mission field. He organizes a congregation in Galveston and stays a few years. Guebner marries someone in Fayette County in the 1850’s according to records.

1851: the Texas Synod is formed in Houston.

1852:  Pastor Roehm marries someone at Ross Prairie in 1852.

1853: A pastor by the name of Adolphus Fuchs is marrying people in Frelsburg in 1853. One license lists him as “A. Fuchs, ordained Luth. Priest, late parson at Kolson, Mecklenberg-Schwerin, Germany.” But by 1861 he simply lists himself as “regul. ord. Min. of the Gospel.”

1854: The Round Top Academy is formed, on the H. Ledbetter Plantation, just 2 miles east of RoundTop.

1855: A Pastor Lieb is serving in Round Top. He is still there in 1858. The congregation at Round Top is “dedicated,” according to the minutes of the Texas Synod Convention. Pastor Roehm takes a call to Frelsburg where he will stay 22 years, until 1877.

1857: Round Top parochial report says, “J. G. Lieb – Round Top– 1 congregation, 10 members (families), 11 baptized, 113 communions, seven weddings, no schools.”

1858: Church building dedicated in Round Top. Pastor Lieb.

1859: Round Top parochial report says, “J. G. Lieb – Round Top– 1 congregation, 35 members (families), 18 baptized, 12 confirmed, 290 communions, 7 weddings, no schools.”

1860: The Texas Synod convention meets in Round Top. Round Top parochial report says, “J. G. Lieb – Round Top– 2 congregations, 47 members (families), 22 baptized, 3 confirmed, 300 communions, 1 burial, 2 church building, 1 station, 2 weekday schools, 1 Sunday School.” The census shows 129 farms owned by German settlers.

Pastor Adam Neuthard (1828-?), who was Heidelberg educated and St. Chrischona School trained, arrives in Galveston from Bremen, and is installed as pastor. In 1861 he marries Fritz Tiemann and Mary Giese.

1863 – Johann Traugott Wandke, a cabinet-maker and organ-builder from Germany, buys a lot in Round Top, moving from outside of La Grange. According to his son, Wandke built seven pipe organs for Lutheran Churches in Texas. Bethlehem’s Wandke Organ, the oldest functioning organ in Texas. John Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity episode on the Wandke Organ.

1866 – Pastor Neuthard completes his two-story stone home that is, at that time, one of the show places of the county. He boarded students from his school for $4/month. In 1866 he had 20 students boarding. Neuthard knows Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, French and English. Penmanship was a specialty, and voice lessons were given daily.

The cornerstone is laid for the new church building in Round Top. This building may be the oldest still-standing Lutheran Church in Texas. The total cost was $2,400. From the picture here, one can see that the pulpit was originally above the altar. 

1867 – The Evangelical Lutheran Congregation in Round Top was organized on the First Sunday after Epiphany (January 13, 1867). The Wandke organ was dedicated the same day. The Wandke organ is completed. Bethlehem’s Wandke Organ, the oldest functioning organ in Texas. John Lienhard’s Engines of Our Ingenuity episode on the Wandke Organ. The choir sang, “This Is The Day of the Lord,” and the offering was $50.35.

After being criticized for starting so many preaching points, Pastor Neuthard and Bethlehem withdraw from the Texas Synod.

1872 – Joining fees at Bethlehem Round Top were $5. Members’ children were exempted.

1878 – The Lutheran school becomes part of the school system.

1893 – Adult joining fees were removed, and a $5/year pastor’s salary fee was enacted for all adult male members.

1898: Here is a photo of the Confirmation class of 1898:

1902: Pastor Neuthard dies after serving Round Top for 41 years. He baptized 2,450 children. He confirmed 1,480 teens. And he buried over 1,000 people. His grave says, “Die Lehrer aber werden leuchten Wie des Himmels Glanz.” Loosely translated, it may mean, “The teacher’s light is like a reflection of heaven.”

That’s the early history of Bethlehem Round Top. For a look at the pastors into the 1960’s check scroll to the bottom. 

A Chronology of Lutherans in Texas

Round Top Population:

1890 238

1900 169 −29.0%

1910 186 10.1%

1920 150 −19.4%

1930 132 −12.0%

1940 120 −9.1%

1950 126 5.0%

1960 124 −1.6%

1970 94 −24.2%

1980 87 −7.4%

1990 81 −6.9%

2000 77 −4.9%

2010 90 16.9%

Est. 2015 93

October 30, 2016 is Pentecost 24C

Committed to Christ Series

img_1729We are in week four of a six-week series called Committed to Christ. We are reviewing, as we try to do each Fall, the basics of the Christian faith. How would you explain to someone who is from a different tradition, how you practice your faith?

My weekly blog posts for these six weeks are going to focus on six aspects of discipleship:

  1. Prayer
  2. Bible Reading
  3. Worship
  4. Witness
  5. Financial Giving
  6. Service

The goals of this series are:

  • To engage the entire congregation in praying and growing together in faith
  • To develop small groups that grow faith and bond the congregation together in strong
  • friendships
  • To welcome newcomers and close the back door of the church
  • To grow faith and generosity

The key components of the series are:

  • Daily devotions
  • Weekly home groups
  • Sunday worship

In many of our congregations, the last Sunday in October is Reformation Sunday. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year, there are some important things to keep in mind. In particular, the way we tell the story is important. Any time there is a conflict, between individuals or groups, opposing sides tell the story of “what happened” in different ways. Both sides may give completely factual accounts, but which facts they choose to use and which they leave out can have a profound impact.

Lutheran and Catholic leaders are asking us to commemorate the Reformation in a way that will serve the proclamation of the gospel, rather than the promotion of our tribe. I would encourage you to look at these resources, in particular chapter 3 of From Conflict to Communion, and work on how you tell the story of the Reformation.

For those who are doing the Committed to Christ series, this is a nice fit with this theme’s topic of “witness.” We proclaim the gospel of justification by grace through faith. This is a departure from the typical human religion of laws to be obeyed in order to get right with God. Here are the texts for Reformation Sunday:

Reformation Sunday – October 30, 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.

Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)

Romans 3:19-28 No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.

John 8:31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.

For the WITNESS theme, consider these traditional hymns:

  • O Zion Haste
  • I Love to Tell the Story


As usual, I will not provide a sermon, but rather some thoughts to spark your own imagination on the topic at hand: witness.

When talking to small groups about evangelism and witness, I like to invite people to think for a moment about a restaurant that they love – their favorite restaurant or one of their favorites. Then I will ask them to share that restaurant with a person nearby. This will take a few minutes, but watch what happens to the room. Within a minute, the room will come alive. Use your phone to video the moment. People become animated. There will be laughing, bright eyes, big body language, and wide gestures.

People love to talk about their favorite restaurant. It might be the food. It might be the ambience. But when you’ve found something you just love, you can’t help but talk about it. Sharing faith can be the same way. We are not called to arm-twist. We are only called to share what we have experienced with joy. How has faith made a difference in your life? Where has God shown up? Why are you part of a faith community? What have been the most significant moments? If you break it down, that’s all that witnessing is. Telling the story of what God is up to.

I once heard T. D. Jakes speaking about witnessing. Someone said, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” T. D. Jakes responded with the big grin and maximum vocal inflection for which he is so well known, “I don’t have to make them drink. I just have to tell them how good it tastes!”

Witnessing is telling the world how good it tastes – how good the food is. Witnessing is one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread. That’s how we fulfill the Great Commission. That’s how we become fishers of people.

Yes, there are plenty of Scripture passages that talk about witnessing. It’s not proselytizing. It’s not winning people from one group over to yours. It’s not indoctrinating them into your religious club. It’s sharing the good news that God loves them with an everlasting love, that even death can’t destroy.

When Jesus first called the disciples, some of them fished for living. Matthew 4:18-20 says,

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Jesus teaches his followers to fish for people. We are called to invite people to be a part of what God is doing in the world. We are not told to give them a litmus test. Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus? These are important questions, but they will come in time. You can’t expect people to be where they aren’t. Take them as they are. Invite them to be a part of something you are doing that matters: serving, music or a small group – something. Don’t load them down with expectations. Throw open the doors. Preach and teach the truth, but let people work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, one step at a time.

Those who are attracted to faith, spirituality, and serving, will, in time, find themselves in a small group discussion, a one-on-one conversation, or in worship. They will hear the good news, and that Word will take root, and do what it always does: grow. We plant seeds, the Holy Spirit gives the growth. We just preach, teach, and listen. That’s how disciples are made. They experience grace first.

Matthew ends his gospel with these words (28:18-20):

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is both command and promise here. The command is to make disciples, to baptiz,  and to teach. The promise is, “I am with you always.” In the gospels, people are healed by Jesus, and they can’t help but go out and tell the good news of what has happened, even when Jesus asks them not to. The women at the tomb cannot help but go and tell. As my preaching professor used to say, “You can’t preach a dull sermon if you’ve come across an empty tomb.”

Come and See

Another Bible passage that helps us look at witnessing is in John 1:

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

John calls Jesus “the Lamb of God.” Then one of his disciples asks Jesus where he is staying. Jesus responds, “Come and see.”

“Come and see” may be one of the best ways to witness and invite. To what or to whom are you inviting people? Where will they encounter this faith, this Jesus? There has to be something tangible to which you are inviting people. Invite them to see what God is doing in your life, in your city, in your congregation. If you can’t find anything, then you may have trouble.

Your members are your congregation’s evangelists. To what can they invite their friends? What would you suggest to them in your sermon? Where is God at work in the world, in the community, through your ministry?

Immediately after this passage is another witness story in John 1.

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Jesus then invites Philip to follow him. Philip witnesses to Nathaniel. “We found the one spoken of in the Law and the Prophets.” Nathaniel immediately responds with skepticism. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replies as Jesus did earlier: “Come and see.”

If you witness to people, expect skepticism. They have seen too many religious charlatans. Many have been abused by religious people. They see television evangelists begging for money and living in mansions. They will respond with skepticism.

Philip is not deterred. He does not defend or argue. He simply says, “Come and see.” When people respond to you with criticism, invite them to come and see for themselves. Again, this requires that you have seen God at work in the world and have something greater than yourself, or your argument to which you can point. What is that in your life? Where is God at work? To what can you point people, or to what can you invite people, where they can “come and see?”

If it doesn’t make sense to invite them to you, invite yourself to them, like Jesus with Zaccheus in Luke 19:5.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

Or like the woman at the well in John 4:

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Invitations can take many forms. At the heart of invitation is grace and relationship. Jesus approaches the short, rich, unpopular Zaccheus and invites himself over. He approaches a Samaritan woman, crossing several social barriers in the process (widowed or divorced, woman, Samaritan…). He asks her for water. He’s asking her, but it’s about a relationship. It’s about grace. It’s about inclusion.

Our witness is not: come and be a part of a peculiar religious group that follows certain laws. Our witness is come and see what the God of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, is up to in the world.

Show and Tell

Witnessing can take many forms. Often times, it is simply telling the story of what God has done in your life. No one can argue with your experience. It is only when we start telling others what to do and believe that we begin to manipulate.

Another witness is serving selflessly. Let people see the love of Christ in you. One of the most famous sayings attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is this:

Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words.

Witness will eventually seek expression in words, but actions will always speak louder than words. If we proclaim Christ with our lips and deny him with our lives, our witness will be ineffective. People will say, “Your actions are so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying.” Don’t just tell them about Christ. Show them Christ. Show and tell. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Dare to share and care.

You will be my witnesses

The resurrected Jesus, in Acts 1:8 reminds his disciples once again, that they are called to be witnesses.

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

We are called to be witnesses, not judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or salespersons. We are called to witness in outwardly moving circles. Jerusalem, at home, to those people closest to us. Samaria: those nearby, but different. The ends of the earth: everybody else.

The fact of the matter is, our words and our lives are a witness, whether we intend them to be or not. People are watching. Our lives tell the story of what is truly important in our lives. If Christ has claimed you in baptism, you will be a witness, here, and to the ends of the earth.

Finding Refuge

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). 

This is what we are doing and why we are doing it. 

October 16, 2016 60 Minutes episode: Finding Refuge

Remembering the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,
may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
– John 17:20-21

I think then that the one goal of all who are really and truly serving the Lord
ought to be to bring back to union the churches which have at different times
and in diverse manners divided from one another.
– St. Basil the great(330 – 379),”Epistle CX Ivete”

Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the eve of All Saints in 1517, sparking what is now known as The Reformation, a period of history that reordered the church, and to a great extent, European society. 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of this watershed moment in history. How shall we mark this milestone?

In the past Lutherans and Catholics have told the story of the Reformation in very different ways. Children on one side of the Protestant/Catholic divide grew up suspicious of the other side. Both tellings of the story were filled with truths, but which truths we choose to tell, and which we choose to omit, can convey a bias. The way we tell the “facts” also matters.

Since Vatican II, Lutherans and Catholics have been in various bilateral dialogs. Dialogs began in 1965 and continue to this day. We have made significant progress along the way.


For example, in 1999, Lutherans and Catholics signed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg. This document stated that Lutherans and Catholics now share a common understanding of the doctrine of justification, something that was a stumbling block in the years following the Reformation. Lutherans and Catholics agreed that their respective mutual condemnaions do not apply to today’s churches. While not all Lutheran Church bodies in the world signed on, the agreement is a significant milestone.


Declaration Along the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist is a helpful summary of some of the agreements from the last 50+ years of dialogs. This document gathers together 32 agreements of understanding, complied from the last 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogs. Pages 9-15 give a short list of those 32 agreements. The rest of the book offers deeper commentary on these understandings.

How do we commemorate the Reformation in a way that recognizes these huge strides? How do we retell the story of the Reformation that does not rehash old polemics and set us back decades?


From Conflict to Communion is an effort to move us in the right direction. Prepared by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), this document lays out a vision for commemorating the Reformation in 2017. This may be the first centenary that  takes place in the ecumenical age, and the first to have an eye towards evangelism. How do we commemorate in a way that promotes the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, in this global and secular context?

If you read nothing else in this book, read the third chapter. This chapter retells the story of the Reformation in a way that both Catholic and Lutheran theologians have crafted. Use it to retrain yourself to tell the story in a way that does not promote your tribe, but proclaims the hope of the world.

Here in the Gulf Coast…

In the Gulf Coast Synod we are commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in several ways.


$500K by the 500th is an appeal to raise half a million dollars to alleviate world hunger by the 500th anniversary, October 31, 2017.



Lutherans and Catholics have agreed to commemorate the 500th by praying together in a spirit of confession and repentance. Common Prayer was prepared by Lutherans and Catholics for this 500th commemoration. It is the only common liturgy I know of prepared for and approved by both churches. Protestant and Catholic congregations will gather together for prayer on various occasions over the next year. Also, two large events have been planned:

  • A prayer service will be held on Monday evening, 7:00 p.m. October 23, 2017 at the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis in New Orleans, with Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Bishop Michael Rinehart presiding.
  • A prayer service will be held on Wednesday afternoon, 5:00 p.m. October 25, 2017 at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, with Archbishop Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Michael Rinehart presiding.

Both events will be a time of prayer for Protestants and Catholics together, open to the public.


In Houston, Lutheran and Catholic clergy gathered recently to listen to and learn from one another. Hosted by Cardinal DiNardo, this will hopefully be the first of many opportunities to discover how much we have in common. As Pope John Paul II said, “What unites us is greater than what divides us.”

Other Possibilities

Other possibilities such as lectures and service projects are being considered. The important thing is that we move forward in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation. We pray, as Jesus did, that the church might be one, so that the world may know the love of Christ.

We are grateful to Pastor David Roschke in Houston and Pastor Ron Unger in New Orleans for their work coordinating these efforts alongside their ecumenical counterparts.




October 23, 2016 is Pentecost 23C

Committed to Christ Series

img_1729We are in week three of a six-week series called Committed to Christ. In this post-Christian culture, many congregations find it critically important to do a series each fall on the basics of following Christ – the marks of discipleship, if you will. What does it mean to be a Christian? How does one belong to The Way? We cannot assume that people know what it means to follow Christ. Our world is as spiritually hungry as ever, but when they come to the church they often get inducted into club membership, rather than invited to grow spiritually. This series focuses on what it means to follow Christ.

My weekly blog posts for these six weeks are going to focus on six marks of discipleship:

  1. Prayer
  2. Bible Reading
  3. Worship
  4. Witness
  5. Financial Giving
  6. Service

The goals of this series are:

  • To engage the entire congregation in praying and growing together in faith
  • To develop small groups that grow faith and bond the congregation together in strong
  • friendships
  • To welcome newcomers and close the back door of the church
  • To grow faith and generosity

The key components of the series are:

  • Daily devotions
  • Weekly home groups
  • Sunday worship

The texts appointed for this coming Sunday in the Revised Common lectionary are posted below. The Gospel reading is a good choice for a theme of worship this week.

October 23, 2016 is Pentecost 23C

Joel 2:23-32 – I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Even on male and female slaves, I will pour out my Spirit.
Sirach 35: 12-17 – The Most High will not show partiality to the poor; but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22 – Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us.

Psalm 65 – Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come. When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Psalms 84: 1-7 – How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. My soul has a desire for the courts of the Lord. Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a place to rest her young at your altars.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 – As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation. My time has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.

Luke 18: 9-14 – Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (warning against hypocrisy)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
October is Clergy Appreciation Month.


Two weeks ago we talked about prayer and even gave a number of different strategies for praying. Then, last week we discussed daily Scripture reading as a devotional tool.

One could get the impression from these conversations that prayer and Scripture reading are private matters between God and an individual. One could get the impression that prayer and Scripture reading are things to be done when one is alone and never in community.

True, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says his followers should not be like the hypocrites who like to stand on the street corners and pray, so that they may be seen by others. Instead, his followers are to go into their room, to pray “in secret.” The point of this teaching does not seem to be privacy, but rather a concern with ostentatious praying. We are not to pray to impress others, feigning a shallow righteousness in a boastful way.

Pride is the enemy. Humility is Jesus’ constant call. This is the point of the gospel reading appointed for Pentecost 23C. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

While Jesus does not want his followers standing on the street corners praying out loud simply to impress others, this injunction falls short of an all out prohibition of corporate prayer. In fact, Jesus goes to the synagogue weekly, on the sabbath as a custom. There in the synagogue is frequent corporate prayer and the reading of scripture. Jesus prays with his disciples and even fusses at them for falling asleep, notably in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he is crucified: “Could you not watch and pray with me one hour?” Indeed, the Passover Supper is a meal of prayers.

Praying at meals and eating while at prayer, with Scripture, became a way of life for Jesus’ followers. A vivid depiction of worship in the early church can be found in Acts 2:42-47, perhaps an appropriate first lesson for this Sunday:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

In this passage one finds so much of what it means to be the church.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. By the time Luke is writing these words in Acts, letters from Paul and those who sat at the feet of Jesus had been circulating for nearly half a century. Since most people were not able to read or afford copies of these letters, they gathered to hear them read. It was the role of the presbyter/elder/pastor to explain and expound upon these texts. The devoted themselves to the teaching of those who had known Jesus in the flesh.

They devoted themselves to fellowship. The word for fellowship is “koinonia.” It means community. They committed themselves to living out their faith in community because the work that God is doing in the world will require all hands on deck. Christianity is a team sport.

They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and prayers. They gathered to break bread and drink wine in remembrance of Jesus, as he had asked them to do at the Last Supper.

We get a picture of early Christian faith life and worship: Scripture reading, teaching, community, Holy Communion, and prayer.

In addition to this, 1 Corinthians 14:26 says,

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.

In the informal house churches, one might select a hymn, another a Scripture reading, and there was the practice of praying in tongues. Whether formal or informal, worship has some basic components, and it is central to living out the Christian faith.

We need each other. We need the mutual support. We need the balance and perspective of others. We need to confess and forgive one another. We need to serve together and give together. Worship is central to following Christ.

The RCL gospel text from Luke 18 spells up the proper posture for worship: humility.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

One man comes to the Temple with arrogance. He feels morally and spiritually superior. “I thank thee O God that I am not like others… thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors. I fast, I tithe…”

We have folks in our churches like this. Going to a church, being a member of a church, gives them a sense of moral superiority. They are better than the unchurched, immoral idolaters of the world. Their universe is black and white. The drama allows them to be the heroes of their own story.

Rather than muddy the simplistic world of the Pharisees, Jesus accepts the binary scenario but turns it in its head. The other worshipper already knows he is not superior. He is not blinded by self-righteous arrogance. He acknowledges that he is captive to sin, and has fallen short of righteousness and justice. Jesus once again makes a hero out of someone his listeners, the Pharisees, see as a villain: the tax collector. The tax collector is “justified” in God’s sight because he has the proper posture: humility. The tax collector turns out to be more righteous than the religious leaders.

We need worship because we too are broken by sin. We participate in sinful political and social structures from which we cannot extract ourselves. We are captive to addictions and misplaced priorities that are deeply ingrained. We need confession and absolution. It is the only way forward.

Another lesson that might hit home on this day comes from Hebrews 10:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…”

But worship is not an end unto itself. We come to hear the news of Christ’s death and resurrection. We come and receive hope and forgiveness, then we are sent forth to love and serve the world in Jesus’ name. How shall we do that? We cannot sit on the mountain top, resting on our laurels. We are called, then sent.

A traditional hymn to sing may be How Good Lord to Be Here. The last stanza says,

How good Lord to be here, but we cannot remain
But since you bid us leave the mount, come with us to the plain.

There are some who will disagree with this, but I believe that if worship does not affect the way we live, then our worship has been in vain. If hearing the gospel of the empty tomb does not drive us to pour out our lives in sacrificial love for the world, then we have not heard the true gospel.

I recently heard a new story about a decommissioned church been turned into apartments. They were interviewing a neighbor who was concerned. “This building used to be a center that cared for children, cared for seniors, fed the hungry, and served the neighborhood. It is doubtful that apartments will fill those purposes.”

The world needs the church, the body of Christ, not superior, but forgiven, fed and sent out into the world with joy to be a healing presence. The world needs community and friends. People need, want, and crave relationships.

Essential to being followers of Christ, are prayer, Scripture reading, and worship, together.

As Bob Crossman says, this would be a good Sunday for a lay testimony: someone besides the pastor who will share the life-changing effects of worship in their life.

Worship is more a gift than an obligation. We come to be filled. We come to receive: forgiveness, hope, the Word, faith, community, and more. We also, then, get the opportunity to give. We love, we serve, and we give generously to the work of the church in the world. Then we are sent to be the presence of Christ in the world.

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