24 March 2009

My Ministry

For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. 2 Corinthians 4:5-7. KJV

I went and heard the Concordia Seminary Chorus sing this past Saturday. Afterward I was talking with some of the men, none of whom I had known before. In saying goodbye, one of them, a first year man, said, "God bless you in your ministry." I responded with something along the lines of, "the ministry is not mine, it is Christ's. If it's mine it's over" and walked away. I walked away only because I was in a hurry not because I was mad at him or offended by his statement. Because I wish I had more time to speak to this man, I'm writing now and if by some strange chance he reads this blog, explain why I said what I said.

I understand the intention of the seminarian, you have to say something nice to a chatty pastor as he leaves, but I have heard such a blessing given many times in the past from brother pastors and such and it has always given me pause. The reason why is that the Holy Ministry does not belong to me. I don't own the office. It is not a possession of mine. It does not come forth from anything in my being. The Divine Call I received 10 years ago did not generate from my heart or by my own will. The ordination I received was by prayer and the laying on of hands and I wasn't doing the praying nor did I put hands on myself. The Holy Church and Her Ministerium declared me fit and Christ Himself made me His servant, and that is that. The Divine Call I received 5 years ago also was not generated from within me, as a matter of fact, I wrote out an extensive personal pro-con list whether to stay where I had already been put or to come here to Brookfield, and guess what, there were no personal pros to coming here, not one. The ecclesiastical list was different, and so I here I am far away from Fenway Park without my annual season pass.

But believing that the Ministry is not mine is something I have had to learn, and learn the hard way. Really, if the ministry is mine, these dear ones I have been enslaved to are really in trouble. Seminarians don't know much about this, but I wonder why brother pastors say such things as "my ministry". There is nothing nefarious in the words of course, perhaps I have become much more cognizant of the fact that I am but an earthen vessel, good for carrying around Christ that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus might be given out with this earthen voice preaching Christ, with these earthen hands as His baptism is administered and as His Body and Blood are distributed. None of this is mine, it is all His. Yes, He has shined in my heart, but for His purpose that He might be preached as Lord.

My response to the Seminarian was so because I need to be told this over and over again. Once I start thinking that these gifts are mine, that this congregation is mine the whole thing is in danger. Then I am thinking that I am Lord. It always comes back to idolatry. The Church is Christ's; He has purchased Her with His own blood and cleansed her to present her to Himself. To be sure, I do play a part of course, as a bondservant/slave and vessel, in order that the excellency of power may be of God. Christ's bondservants are but earthen tools for His good work, and such work is excellent and glorious but such excellency and glory are seen in suffering and in the weakness of the preaching of the cross, which is the power unto salvation for those who believe. The Holy Ministry is not ours, we ministers are not even our own according to our own person; Holy Baptism has seen to that. We are the Lord's for His use. And we are replaceable. One minister comes after another until Christ the chief Shepherd appears and there will be no more need of ministers at all. The more we understand and believe this the better.

23 March 2009

Parable of the Sea

Here is an interesting little story called the Parable of the Sea.

It was posted on the blog of a popular emerging/emergent church expert to bolster his argument against "personal preferences, denomination, and tradition" and to drive a wedge between evangelism and tradition.

Ironically, this story actually says the opposite of what he thinks it says.

The lifesaving post in the parable is the traditional Church. For 2,000 years, the one holy catholic and apostolic Church has been saving souls using the primitive means of the Word of God, of Holy Baptism, Absolution, Communion, and proclamation - by sending out ordained preachers armed with water and the Word. Through her liturgy and confession of absolute truth, the Church has indeed been a lifesaving operation for the lost who are in search of something secure and sure, a place to encounter the immutable God of the universe who took flesh for their sake in the midst of the storms of life that toss us about in the fallen world. Billions have been saved with little fanfare.

For twenty millennia, the Church has been sending out such missionaries armed with the unchanging Word of God and the traditional liturgy that carries that Word of God into the lives of the rescued.

But something has happened in recent years.

The Church morphed into something else: a club for young people, a place of entertainment, a coffee-shop catering to the hip, a stage where rock music is performed. It became the private venue of politically leftist twentysomethings where an Orwellian "inclusiveness" trumps the truth, where mission isn't about actually saving anyone from damnation, but rather talking about mission, talking about hairstyles, talking about tattoos, talking about music, talking about coffee, and most of all, talking about themselves and their "superior" methodologies.

Where the little outpost of the Church had its own culture that transcended national barriers and crossed the generation gap, now the newly-remodeled youth-driven coddled urban/suburban version in which baristas have replaced pastors, dialogue has taken the place of authoritative teaching, and where being cool has overturned the need for the forgiveness of sins and communion with the One True God - those who do not fit this homogeneity are pushed out.

In this changed institution, "mission" is now nothing more than marketing to the youth culture. Mission is no longer a means to the end (rescuing people), but the end in itself: which is to entertain young people and keep them coming back.

Thus the elderly, the politically conservative, families, those who seek the reverence that marked a real belief in the presence of Christ in the Mass, those who believe the Scriptures mean what they say even in matters that are unpopular in the secular culture (e.g. the sinfulness of homosexuality and the prohibition of women clergy) are told they aren't welcome any more. "This isn't your grandfather's church" they are told. And furthermore, the lifeboats (if they are even sent out at all) won't stop for the kinds of people who don't fit the target demographic.

Instead of life under the cross, people now expect the Christian life to be an MTV-style reality show. Instead of candles, people expect lasers. Instead of hymnals, people want Disney-like special effects. Instead of the "still small voice of God," people expect fast-moving amplified soundbytes. Ironically, entertainment has replaced salvation - which was the original intent of the lifeboats in the first place.

And anyone who disagrees is now paradoxically "against mission."

One of the greatest lifeboat captains in the Church's history also used a maritime analogy that is as relevant and authentic today as it was when he first said it in the ancient days before the iPod: Ephesians 4:14-15.

12 March 2009

Questions about Remarriage after Divorce

This (Thursday) morning's Gospel, from St. Luke 16, has me thinking about divorce and remarriage. Jesus specifically says that "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."

I didn't include any references to this part of the Gospel (St. Luke 16:10-18) in my sermon, but I got to thinking about it.

I'm wondering what conscientious confessional Lutheran pastors do with this passage. The norm has become allowing remarriage of the divorced, provided there is some sort of stated repentance. I have even followed this norm myself.

Yet it was not always so. Our forefathers did not permit remarriage, and in some traditions, as I understand it, that remains the case. That was (is) the interpretation of this passage by others.

On the other hand, Moses permitted divorce, and Jesus did not chide him for doing so. And even going back as far as the 12th century, the venerable Hugh of St. Victor indicated that the remarriage of the divorced is sometimes permissible, since God has called us to live in peace.

So I'm wondering what's the prevailing opinion among us, or if there is one. I'm aware of the divergence of interpretations of this passage, and that, though the norm in our own day may be to permit remarriage, it was not always so.

So, some queries:

Do you remarry divorcees? Do you remarry divorcees even if they are clearly guilty in the divorce? If you do, how do you interpret this passage? Does it bother you?

10 March 2009

Sin is Bad, Really, Really Bad

Some of my favorite lines from movies are the short, overly simple ones. The founder's statue in Animal House with the quote, "Knowledge is Good", or Spaceball's Dark Helmet's ominous (and false) statement just before he is defeated - "So now you see that evil will always triumph. . . because good is dumb." They are great line because they are so simplistic.

Here is one for today. Sin is bad, really, really bad. But it is true. Now, in general I dislike people banging on Postmodernism (because often people just look at the down side instead of how a Postmodern approach opens up avenues of discussion), but one thing we have seen according to the big religious survey is that less and less people claim to be Christian. I am going to lay this at the feet of popular Postmodernism.

Technically speaking, Postmodernism is really a skepticism of assumed truth - that just because a society or culture has said, "X is true" doesn't mean that it actually is true. What a culture believes could just be their perception. For an example - "criminals ought to go to prison" is not a universal truth, but a societal one. There are plenty examples throughout history where the typical punishment for crime in general had nothing to do with prison. Criminals going to prison isn't a universal truth, rather a "social construct" claiming to be truth. It is an idea our culture has. . . cultivated. Now, Vulgar postmodernism blows beyond this by assuming that ergo there is NO truth - classically speaking, Postmodernism itself just is skeptical and attempts to peel away the ways in which the understanding of truth has been culturally manipulated. Cultures and the people who shape them gain influence and control by manipulating social constructs (if interested, Foucualt's "Discipline and Punish" is an accessible place to start to look at scholarly postmodernism - but it still is a nasty hard book to read). This approach has impacted the way people perceive their religion.

It is true today, my generation and younger are more apt to be skeptic and simply assume that what their parents said is not true. They are more apt to claim no religion. Does this mean that there are suddenly less Christians now than there were say 20 years ago (what was it 88% to 75%?). I'll argue no - it just means that there are less hypocrites and works-righteous Pharisees who vainly try to live up to false standards. It means that there are less people who simply claim to be what their parents were because of cultural expectations.

I would contend that the actual problem has remained the same - be it now, be it 50 years ago when the religious elite were rubbing their hands together thinking about how to make Christianity relevant. It boils down to a simple truth that is Universal. Sin is bad, really, really bad.

Specifically, your sin. Your sin is harmful. And this provides our avenue of approach, I believe, in this era of skepticism. Truth claims about God and about what happened 2000 years ago can be brushed aside with ease today (just like they could in the Modern era, by the by) - and so can blanket statements of morality. Different cultures have different standards of morality - thus the claim that yours is right can easily be questioned. But what cannot be brushed aside (as easily, and not at the layman's level) by the Postmodernist is personal experience.

It's the second use of the Law. Show people their sin, and its negative consequences - not necessarily in terms of divine retribution or eternal damnation which they can't have experienced yet, but just in the sense that if you sin, it doesn't bring real pleasure. When you make that connection, when you can say, "On the basis of the long standing faith to which I hold, I can tell that ______ is actually empty and doesn't really satisfy you," and you are right, you have established a strong evidence of truth for the faith.

Sin is bad. No faith, no group in the world teaches the true impact of sin like Christianity, for not only is there the eternal aspect, not only is there the divine aspect, but with the examples of Scripture (especially of Genesis and the Old Testament) we clearly teach that when one sins one is never satisfied. The fruit always looks pleasing to the eye and sounds like a good idea, but it leaves you worse off than you were before.

Today, sin is downplayed - it becomes a matter of please yourself. We can show people why they are not pleased - and when they see their sin, then we can explain Christ the Living Water - then we can explain why we hold to this faith and the benefits we get from it. If part of what we teach is true in their life, directly and immediately true in their life, then they are prepared to hear.

Of course, this is nothing more than saying what we have been taught - you must preach the Law before the Gospel - but rather than being a stick that beats the person over the head, sometimes the preaching of the Law is finding the bruised and battered person and saying, "I can tell you why you are bruised and battered."

We as a culture don't understand, don't assume sin anymore - and we are lost as to why we are hurting. As Christians we know - and that will be our greatest avenue of approach to people - that will be what resonates. In a day when there are no truths and explanations, we know the Truth.


Pascal's Wager was a horrible thing. Why do we end up assuming that if we live according to God's Law here that we give up or lack anything? The gains of Christianity are not just a future matter - they are a present matter, and not in terms of "stuff" but in terms of peace and satisfaction. We gave ground we should not have given. Here my various strains of blood (including German, English, and Jewish) are in agreement - what good comes out of France?

09 March 2009

Mea Culpa

Dear friends, Fr. Hollywood here.

I posted a couple sermons here by mistake - thinking I was posting them to my own blog. Sorry about that! I deleted them from Four and Twenty, but Google Reader thinks they are still there. I'm sorry for any confusion, and please excuse the interruption.

And now, we return to our regularly scheduled programming...

Attendance Observation

I've served in two different locales - one in the Chicago suburbs and one in rural southern Illinois. I don't know if it holds across the country, but it is invariably true that attendance is highest on the first Sunday of a month.

The most reliable indicator of a low-attendance Sunday? Any time I think I've written a really good sermon. Never fails.