Last week Tom and I returned to Trinity Lutheran Church in Hovland for the Wednesday night vesper service. The service centered around the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The service was beautiful, quiet, contemplative, and ordered: pretty much the opposite of the service at Mt. Rose Community Church the week before.
Trinity Lutheran is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, one of the main-line churches and the largest Protestant denomination in Minnesota. The ELCA churches I have attended have been very liturgical, meaning they follow “a fixed set of ceremonies, words, etc., that are used during public worship.” Someone who is Roman Catholic would feel comfortable in an ELCA service because you stand or sit at specific times, recite litanies, sing the psalms, and follow a set order for the season.
Evening vespers are part of that liturgical mind-set, going back to the time of Martin Luther, the founder of the denomination and the original protestant. The order of service in the evening vespers hasn’t changed much since it was set in 1526 by Luther. Part of the beauty of liturgy is this connection to tradition and history. The ordered worship contains highs and lows, silence and speech, movement and stillness, gathering and sending.
The evening vesper service at Trinity Lutheran last week was a small gathering of eight people including the musician and the pastor. Trinity is blessed to have a very good musician who is an organist, pianist, and excellent singer / song leader. The pastor and musician did a very good job of explaining where we were in the service and when we needed to jump to another section of the worship book / hymnal. So we didn’t have any problem following and participating in the service.
My favorite part of the service was the reading of the Gospel lesson about the Good Samaritan. We read it three times, with three different people doing the reading. Each reading was followed by a time of silence. After the third time of silence we were invited to share a word, a thought, or a phrase that was important to us in or from the reading. The verse that really stood out for me was a part of Luke 10:29: “but wanting to justify himself.”
We are people who want to justify our actions and our beliefs. We want others to put a stamp of approval on them. So we act a certain way and then look for Bible verses that support that way of acting. Or we decide a certain candidate is the right one to support and then we only read things or listen to things that support that viewpoint. When I was working on my Ph.D. the phrase for this was “cognitive dissonance” (the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change). We hate cognitive dissonance in our lives – it makes us uncomfortable – so we do everything we can to get rid of it. We want to justify our actions and beliefs and so we only seek out things that help us do this.
But Jesus is always challenging our actions and beliefs. Jesus wants us to act in love; not out of a need to justify ourselves and decrease our cognitive dissonance. The Pharisee and Levite in the Good Samaritan story justify their actions and ignore the man who is beaten and bleeding. The Good Samaritan puts aside his own concerns in order to show compassion to another. Too many times we ignore those around us who need our help and then we justify our actions. Jesus tells us to be a neighbor to those in need. What does it mean to be a neighbor? A neighbor shows mercy.
Jesus, Savior, open my eyes to my neighbor in need. Although I am comfortable in my justifications, push me out into your world to help those that you love. Help me be a person who shows mercy so that I might be a neighbor in deed. Amen.