In the Face of Death!

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“They were singing?”  They did not know I heard them.  At least, I am fairly certain they did not want me to hear them.  I acted like I did not hear them.  I passed them wearing my clerical, carrying a bunch of hymnals, with my communion kit on my shoulder.  I passed them as they were sitting in a group near the front door.  They were talking amongst themselves.  They were apparently listening to what we were doing.  Not that that would have been difficult with as loudly as I tend to sing.

I did not hear what was spoken before or after.  I only heard, “they were singing?”  I can imagine there were other thoughts and comments.  “They are singing here?”  I did not hear any of this but it is not a long leap of logic.  In the place we were singing I would imagine there is very little singing.  I would imagine there are many people there who have little reason to sing.  Even those who confess to have great reasons to sing, still there is little singing.  We were in Serenity House.  Serenity House is the local Hospice House.

Yes, we WERE singing.  We were not only singing but celebrating.  In the face of certain death we were singing, chanting, and celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  Strange?  Yes, I imagine that would be.  I believe it is.  Good.  I imagine the strangeness of the Sacrament is something we have not considered in a while.  The Sacrament is comfortable and the same.  Easy and safe, ours to do with as we please, the Sacrament is wrangled down in the minds of the people as the usual mode of the 2nd and 4th Sundays Worship service.  However, when you celebrate and sing in the midst of a house of death, the Sacrament echoes its strangeness.  “They were singing?”

INDEED!  We were singing, celebrating, and eating in the face of death.  And we can do that.  We can do that just as surely as Jesus asked Mary like the Angels before Him, “Why are you crying?”  But, the question before us was, “They were singing?  Why are they singing?”  Why are you not singing?  When death is the end and all there is, there is no singing.  When we fear death and pain to the point of closing it up in special homes and removing it from daily life, there is little to sing about I would imagine.  But, we were singing, celebrating, and eating together in the face of certain death.  Strange?  Yes, to a World, nation, and people whose lives are dictated and formed by the fear of death we sing to the victory over our enemies and proclaim death, Christ’s Death, until he comes.  Sadly though, the fear of death seems to be shaping and forming much of what even we the church might be doing, and thinking, and celebrating, and singing.

Marriage and the Economy

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If you are holding off on marriage because of the economy in my opinion you are not ready for marriage.  I just watched a Early Show interview with a young man who really wanted to get married but the economy is keeping him and his fiance from doing so.  Hmmm.  If there ever was a statement of love to build upon it is , “I really want to marry you but this economy blah, blah, blah.”

Now, that is the world.  That is the way a young guy in the world thinks about marriage and the heaviest factor in marriage is money.  That makes sense to me.  What is harder for me to understand is why we seem to share much of the same kind of thinking.  By “we” I mean the church.  Sadly when I talk to many folks the overwhelming factor in many relationships is money, jobs, and the economy.

No, for us marriage is not a matter of money or economies.

Matthew 20:1-16

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 “The first will be
last and the last first.”

We usually hear these words as a joke.  When we have arrived late to the pot-luck and find ourselves last in line, “The first will be last and last first.”  These words are no joke though, and perhaps we ought not treat them as such.  Jesus is saying to you what he says to his disciples, “many of the first will be last and the last first.”  Jesus explains what he means.

The Reign of Heaven is like a householder who went out and hired workers for a set wage.  He hired early in the morning, in the
afternoon, and evening.  Then when it was late he told his Steward to gather the workers and pay them the wage.  He started with the last hired working toward the first and they all received equally, one denarius.  Those who labored through the heat of the day
grumbled against the householder.  And he answered them, “It is lawful for me to do with these things that are mine like
I want, isn’t it?”  In this way the last are first and first last.

There is the hard Word, “can’t I do what I want with what is mine.”  These are hard words to hear because YOU are the Lord’s.
That is right.  You are His Own.  Even Martin Luther reminds you in his catechism of this.  Does anyone remember the explanation to the 2nd article of the Apostles Creed?  “that I may be his own…”  Luther says.  You are God’s own possession.  You
were made his by your Baptism.  When water was poured over your head God took action.  He claimed you.  He sealed you in Faith and made you his own.  So, these are very hard words from Jesus.

They are hard words because you are used to being your own.  But now, God is butting in.  That is why I am here again
today.   God is exerting His rights over you, and your life and family, your thoughts and actions.  We hear a lot about rights these days.  We hear about citizens’ rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, right to life, we even talk about the rights of the congregation to choose a pastor.  But here another voice cries out.  “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine?”  God’s rights.  The rights of the creator and Lord; the rights of YOUR creator and Lord!  This is why the first are last and the last are first.  God can do what he wants in His Kingdom with what is his, and the workers are His.  He has called them into the vineyard.  He has given them work.  He pays them in whatever order and all the same.  They all got the same!  You all get the same!  Radical!  Radical because it is new.

I do not have to tell you about the old ways and lies of this world.  You are bombarded with the language and ideas of “the bottom line” and “productivity” nearly everywhere you go.  The most productive are the most valued, best paid, most noticed.  If you show up late, you do not get paid and probably will get fired.  There is little to no generosity on behalf of employers and you are always in fear of termination, unemployment, and financial ruin.  So also in the church, we are led to think the first are first and the
last are out of luck.  The productivity of a person dictates worth and standing.  Think of the practices we employ here at St. John.  When a child is confirmed in this church what happens?  They are given voting rights, and offering envelopes, and they can take communion.  Does that seem strange?  What does that seem to confess about us?  I think it says we only want you to be a part
of this community when you are smart enough and productive enough to contribute in tangible ways.  This same attitude
extends to the handicapped and mentally retarded, those members who are chronically delinquent, even those shut in and unable to come.  But Jesus tells you today that in the Reign of Heaven the first are last and the last are first and that is because God can
do what He wants with what is his own. Isn’t that amazing?!

This Reign of Heaven is nothing like the reign of the World and you are caught up in THE KINGDOM!  Your Lord has made you His own.  And here again at this altar he will remind you of His decision for you.  He will again give you His Body and Blood.  What a proclamation from God!  “Here, you, this is my Body for you, and this is my blood for you! Take it and eat it and drink of it all of you!”  There is something new going on here.  A new covenant, a covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ.  It is a new Kingdom and a New Reign.  A Kingdom where the first are last and the last are first and we all get the same.  Isn’t that just Amazing!

Be careful though.  When you eat and drink this Body and Blood of Christ you are making a strong proclamation yourself.  You are declaring you are the Lord’s.  You are saying you are for the Vineyard.  You are saying you stand with all the workers of the vineyard together.  You are making confession that you side with the householder of the parable and not the grumbling workers.  You are declaring that in the Reign of Heaven God gets his way with his own things.  This is your declaration because it is the
Lord’s desire to have you here today, and it is his desire to feed you again today, and it is his desire for you to be one body, and here you will come to this rail, you will kneel and receive exactly what the Lord has to give, and you will all receive the same.
Forgiveness, Life, and Salvation.
Amazing!  Amen.

A Theological Paper at a Theological Symposium?

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Preaching that does not kill God.  I wrote about one bright spot in the St. Louis Symposium.  That will be the paper, “Preaching that does not Kill God.”  I know that it will be delivered early in the morning, 8 a.m. to be exact, but what day I am not sure.  What I find interesting is this; I have read through the list of presentation and papers that will be given.  None of what I have seen seems to be theologically potent.  Dr. Meyer’s presentation on “baptismal theology” and its work in shaping a sermon might be a good one to sit through.  Theologically potent?  That will be seen.   Other than that these seem to be vaguely theological leaning toward more hermeneutical and, of course, homiletical.  The bulk of the presenters are “practical” theologians, whatever that is?  And their topics reveal the issue I brought up in the first place, rediscovering the artfulness of preaching is not what we are currently in need of as a church.  What these topics do seem to present is that there seems to be a clear division between theology and preaching that is even evident in the symposium.  Other than Dr. Meyer’s main presentation on the underpinnings of baptismal theology and preaching, the main presentations are about using the text, the creative Word and why that means we should be creative in preaching (that might be entertaining), and devotional structures to help you get your point across and be remembered.

If I were spending the $140 bucks to register, paying for a hotel and gas, I would make sure that I am at the Seminary at 8 a.m. to hear what I think will be one of the clearest, most theologically potent papers that will be delivered.  I think I might even go so far as to say this might be one of the most theologicall potent papers I would have ever heard in a Symposium.  “Preaching that does not Kill God” will get at and make very clear just what I meant when I said, “God has been suffocated from our pulpits.”  What this paper will do is lead us to think about removing the pillow from God’s face or loosening our fingers from around his neck.

St. Louis Symposium and then there is Preaching

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I thought I might post another little piece that helps flesh out where I am coming from a bit more.  I do not want to seem reactionary or vindictive in any way.  This is something I have been thinking of for a long time.  Since I know little about Ft. Wayne I might just assume the issue is the same there, but do not know so I will not say.

I have just said why I think the upcoming symposium is going to be a bust.  I say that, and news comes to my attention about one bright spot.  I think the art of preaching is not something we need to rediscover.  Many pastors are very good at telling stories and doing that well.  What we do need to rediscover is a good reason to preach in the first place.  Which I think means rediscovering the only story the church has to go on and proclaiming that from our pulpits.  After that is accomplished, the artfulness of preaching is then put in its proper place.  To help us begin I turn to Luther and his writing on the New Testament, which is the Mass. I think he helps illumine the point.

When speaking of the Mass Luther states that if the people do not grasp and comprehend the words of Christ and believe them, what do we need the artfulness of the Mass for?  If the people do not hold tightly and cherish the words of Jesus, “This is my body given for you, this is my blood of a new testament shed for you for the forgiveness of sin” and believe them to be His gift then the priest would do well to get rid of the bells, chausibles, genuflections, elevations, chants, and all the external beauty of the Mass because the internal, or Spiritual, beauty of the Mass is not believed and cherished by the people, and it is an empty thing and does them no good(LW., Vol. 35).  Stripe away all the things that are not necessary to proclaim to the poor souls the Gospel and when they grasp it let all the beauty, internal and external, unfold.  How does this relate to our current topic of rediscovering the artfulness of preaching?

The problem seems all the more compounded in our day.  Most certainly Luther is assuming that the priest in any place knows the depth of the Gospel of the Sacrament of the Mass.  Luther also assumes the same priest will be able to proclaim that Gospel to his people and from there move toward the celebration of the full internal and external beauty of the Sacrament of the Mass in that place.  Why is the problem compounded in regards to preaching in our day?  I am afraid not only do the people perhaps not know why they are listening to a man preach to them, which in turn leads to worse preaching, but that also the preacher might certainly be ignorant of why he himself is preaching in the first place!  The problem is then ignorance and ignorance!  These poor people are hearing little to no Gospel from their preacher and their preacher might have no good reason to preach another way because the people make no peep either for ignorance or fear!  And, there is little discussion on preaching to influence him.  The people fear because they do not know if they can speak to the pastor about such things.  I am afraid this is a most terrible place for any man to be.  Be he a pastor or layman.  This is why I think the artfulness of preaching is better buried and put away for the time being.  There are obvious questions that arise though.  How can a pastor not know the reason for preaching?  For the purposes of this little essay we will not explore such questions because that question occupies an essay all for itself. I will now move to some concluding remarks.

Here is St. Paul doing what I would like us to do.

I have been thinking much lately concerning why a pastor preaches.  After-all, I am now a Called and Ordained Servant of the Word.  I am the one Called to speak on behalf of God in this place.  I stand in line with the Apostles and their designation from the Lord.  I take that seriously. That is not to say other men in the Office do not take preaching seriously.  I notice that many of them DO take preaching seriously.  This is the very reason why I am writing.  But, what I observe from where I stand is that many do not take preaching seriously in the way I am taking it seriously.  In fact, in light of the title of the upcoming symposium in St. Louis, I think

many preachers take preaching seriously for the sake of artfulness rather than for the sake of proclamation.  Because if we were worried about what was being said by the preacher and not the artfulness of the preacher, the classes at the seminaries would look differently than they do today.  Our Sym

posium would have a different title.  Also, visits from district presidents to parishes would look differently than they currently do.  Many want to be great preachers according to their seriousness and because of that they want to rediscover what seems to be a lost art to preaching.  I think a current thought is if we have artfulness the proclamation of the Gospel is stronger or more beneficial and clear.   Again, I disagree that there is a lost art and that this is the point in time for the church to worry about increasing such things.  What I AM worried about, as I hear and see all the things from within the Synod and without, is that God might be the thing that is lost, suffocated, and buried among all things artful in the church.  Maybe HE needs be rediscovered!  For, as Luther pointed out, if we have great beauty and artfulness but no Word from the lips of our Savior to cling upon, believe, and cherish, we have nothing.  If the Word of God is gone God himself is gone!  For as we Lutherans believe, God has bound himself to His Word for us.

Yes, again I will say, I hear a great deal of stories and jokes, I see a great many pictures across screens, movie clips, visual aids, and talk about God which all try to communicate some point that is apparently very important.  I hear a great many voices quiver and crack throughout a sermon.  But for all this art, beauty, help in communication, and rhetorical force we have covered over and seemed to have pushed aside the one Being worthy to occupy the hearts and minds of His People.  And we seem to have been convinced to do this because the people are ignorant and need these things to make the Gospel come alive.  If there is one thing I know and believe with all my heart it is this; the Gospel needs no help from the minds of men.  It is man who is in total despair and destruction without the good news of God for us.

This then brings up what would hopefully be a longer conversation, but one worth having.  How is it that preachers and churches can suffocate and bury God in their preaching?