First Lutheran Church of San Diego

The crucified Christ hung against an intense aquamarine background in the contemporary-primitive painting that adorned the chapel at First Lutheran. His heart was exposed and bleeding. The rough-hewn character of the painting provided dramatic contrast with its surroundings, which, like the rest of the building, felt like a tasteful, modern update -- and also a reminder -- of the elements found in a traditional church. Everywhere was brick and hardwood, glass and metal, tile and rough cement block.

The organ and piano held pride of place near the front of the church. Over the course of the service, it took on many moods -- swollen and booming, sweet and trilling, somber and meditative. It boomed for the opening hymn -- all four verses of it, as well as an interlude -- but before it did so, Pastor Miller asked all to rise and face him at the back of the church as he welcomed us. "We pray that you might encounter Christ's presence as you are with us. We also welcome you, regardless of denomination or affiliation with other churches, when it is time for Holy Communion.... Jesus invites you all to partake of this great meal."

That desire to welcome others showed up again in the Confession: "We have not loved and accepted one another. We have not reached out to those who are poor, hungry, or lost." It showed up in the hymn after the Gospel: "Here the outcast and the stranger/bear the image of God's face/let us bring an end to fear and danger/all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place." It showed up during A Prayer for Others, as the deacon prayed that the church might bring "God's healing hand to all who are marginalized or outcast, that the world might see the power of Christ's love," and during the Sign of Peace, when the congregation left their seats and milled about -- chatting, smiling, shaking hands. And it showed up in Pastor Miller's homily.

The Gospel told the story of a leper who cried out to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Jesus, moved with pity, touched him, and he was made clean. Miller, clad in a white cassock and green stole, began by seeking our empathy for the leper. Shunned for his disease, forced to wear a warning bell and cry "unclean!" he "longed to be embraced, to be included in the lives of those he loved." Miller reminded us that the leper had been cast out by a priest who was following the religious tradition begun in Leviticus, and that Jesus, in touching the leper, "has a deeper desire to heal the suffering soul than he does to obey religious tradition."

Miller never took a step, and his gestures remained controlled but his whole persona grew increasingly animated. "The very word religion means 'to reconnect with,' and yet, time and again, our churches, in the name of holiness and cleanliness, do the exact opposite of reconnecting: we disconnect.... This past week, Bono was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast." The U2 frontman gave "a sermon that few pastors would dare preach: 'I have avoided religious people most of my life. Maybe it had something to do with having a father who was Protestant and a mother who was Catholic.... I remember that my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays, and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God.'"

Members of the congregation rang bells to symbolize their own unclean aspects, but even so, said Miller, "Have you heard? We are the body of Christ, people who love the unlovable, embrace the unclean ones." Communion and the feeding of the homeless, he said, were "the same meal...Jesus coming to feed the broken and the hungry. "

After singing a refrain ("Taste and see the goodness of the Lord") throughout Miller's praying of the Communion Liturgy, and after praying the Our Father, the congregation approached the altar to receive communion. The acolyte stood, his arms wrapped around a large glass bowl holding a round loaf of bread. Miller, standing beside him, tore off chunks and handed them to the communicants, saying, "The Body of Christ, given for you." Communicants then proceeded to one of two cup-bearers -- one holding wine, one grape juice -- and either sipped or dipped their bread into the cup: "The Blood of Christ, shed for you."

What happens when we die?

"It seems to me that Christians spend far too much time worrying about that," says Miller. "I believe in heaven, and I have lots of visions of what it will be like, but Jesus says, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' We say in our funeral liturgy that when we get to heaven, Lazarus will welcome us who was once a beggar. I'm called to live my life faithfully now, in this world, and I catch glimpses of heaven, because Christ was present in this world, and I catch them in the poor and the vulnerable and the broken."

First Lutheran Church of San Diego

1420 Third Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Pacifica Synod

Founded locally: 1888

Senior pastor: Pastor Wilbert Miller

Congregation size: 200

Staff size: 6

Sunday school enrollment: 40

Annual budget: $280,000

Weekly giving: $5,000

Singles program: no

Dress: some semiformal, some dressy-casual

Diversity: mostly Caucasian

Sunday worship: 9 a.m., 11 a.m.

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Website: firstlutheransd.org

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