By Paul Koch –
I often joke around with some of my colleagues that the reason I default to the historic liturgy of the church along with an established lectionary system is that I’m lazy. I don’t want to try and figure out some sort of creative thematic series, so I just open up the book and follow the next lesson that is prescribed. I don’t have the confidence to write out my own confession or proper preface nor the time to do so, so I just use what has been used since long before I was ordained into the ministry.
But the truth of the matter has to do with far more than my laziness (though that’s certainly not off the table). I stick to the liturgy, lectionary, and for that matter the hymns of the church because I have a very healthy understanding of my own sin. There is something comforting and reassuring about following a form that has been rehearsed and sharpened through years of faithful men and women who have gone before me. This allows my own pride and pet peeves to recede into the background. At the very same time, it frees me to speak and act with confidence. These defining forms of our worship keep us focused on the Gospel, so to embrace them is to aid in my internal battle to wander from the Gospel in my proclamation.
However, the greatest benefit of the church’s liturgy has been far beyond the normal Sunday morning worship. For me, one of the greatest benefits has been in visiting the sick and homebound of my congregation. It is in the presence of the hurting, dying, and confused that that little book in my hands is of the greatest use. Oddly enough, standing before a large gathering of our Lord’s sheep doesn’t seem to leave me at a loss for words. Rather, it is when I am standing with family members as they say goodbye to their father who’s dying of cancer that I fumble around with the right words to say.
What really can you say?
So I open my little Agenda and find rich and powerful guidance. Services such as The Commendation of the Dying, Visiting the Sick and Distressed, and Individual Confession and Absolution allow me to open my mouth and speak words that need to be heard as our Lord’s Word breaks into such tumultuous moments. Laments are validated as promises are anchored in the gifts of Christ. God’s Law and his Gospel go to work upon the hearers in the room as hope is proclaimed and grace dominates their fears.
Over the years, I have learned and continue to learn that it is not the rote reciting of these words that gives hope and confidence but the Christ that those words carefully proclaim. The realty of this was demonstrated again to me just yesterday as I sat in the home of longtime member of our congregation. This proud and strong man who flew a B-25 during the Second World War now sits in his living room losing his coherency to dementia.
When we’ve met in the past, we usually have a little small talk and then get down to the business of handing over the gifts of Christ. I set up my little portable communion set, opened the book, and began the service. But this time, his confusion was quite pronounced. He couldn’t follow much of what I was saying; even our small talk was strained.
Usually, I like to use the simple question form of confession offered in the Agenda:
Do you confess to almighty God that you are a poor, miserable sinner?
Do you confess to our merciful Father that you have sinner against Him in thought, word, and deed?
Do you confess that you just deserve His temporal and eternal punishment?
Do you believe that our Lord Jesus Christ died for you and shed Hi blood for you on the cross for the forgiveness of all your sins?
Do you pray God, for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of His beloved Son, to be gracious and merciful to you?
Finally, do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?
The penitent hears each question and answers faithfully. They can do so whether sitting in a chair or lying in bed. They don’t need the book in their hands. Instead, upon hearing each question, they can take the time to make their response. It’s really quite joyful and intimate.
Yesterday, I asked the first question. This is something I’ve done there in that living room many times before. This time, there was no response. I asked it again as he looked at me, and still there was no response. I thought I might just move on to the next one, but all he had to say was something about his college roommate. As he kept fidgeting in his chair, I realized he wasn’t going to be able to make this confession. He wasn’t going to be able to ask for grace.
But the words of that rite were driving us to the proclamation of Christ, a proclamation that could not be derailed by his inability to ask. I simply skipped to the next part (which is my favorite part anyway) as I leaned toward him and said, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
A small grin crossed his face, and in a brief moment of clarity out of his confusion, he said, “Thank You Lord.”
Grace unrequested but given.