From St. Augustine on Whether Proximity Elicits Faith –
“Few are they who by faith touch him; multitudes are they who throng about him.”
And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?'” (Mark 5:30-31)
With Christmas on the Sunday, some of the minor festival of the church year fall on a Sunday as well. This Sunday was the Nativity of John the Baptist. Hence some Advent Hymns and a biblical character who we normally see is December.
But read at the end of June one line of the text jumped out at me – “What then will this Child be?” Luke 1:66. That is what all the neighbors and kin of Zachariah and Elizabeth were saying about the events of John’s birth. And I thought isn’t that often the question at graduations (not to mention births). And that brought up the commencement speech of this year – “you are not special”.
The truth is that only one is special – Jesus Christ. But the only special one by our normal way of thinking has a different measuring stick – grace. You’re not special, but you are chosen. Chosen by grace to know salvation. To Walk in the ways of peace.
This is a “pastoral letter” from a priest to his parish about first communion/confirmation/church attendance. (HT Rod Dreher) The comments on the main sight are enlightening. I guess I’d put it on the list of examples of the “coming divide”. For a couple generations be nice was the primary rule. In Lutheran speak, don’t use the law, it hurts self esteem. And what that produced was a weak tea moral-ism that drove people away (hello MTD), a dissent industry sowing discord and heresy and a faithful who saw the beliefs and practices they drew life from pooh-poohed. This will be interesting.
We have tied our religious education to the public school system of kindergarten and eight grades. The sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation have become graduation rituals, rites of passage, instead of the beginnings of a life of faith and commitment. We have turned sacrament into sacrilege. When you “get your sacraments” you’re “outta” there. (“Out of there” for those who don’t speak Chicagoan.) The Sacraments are an ending instead of a beginning. I can’t do this anymore. I believe it is morally wrong. The last time I brought this problem up, angry parents called the bishop. I remember one agitated parent who railed at me for questioning his Catholicism. He said that he was perfectly good Catholic. He went to Mass every single Easter and every single Christmas without fail.
When I realized that Eastern Rite Catholics from the Middle East don’t have Communion and Confirmation classes, a light went on in my head. They receive first Communion and Confirmation when they are Baptized, even if they are infants. They have religious education for the rest of their lives and, consequently, they have a spiritual life. They are prepared for the Sacrament of Penance, but not for Communion and Confirmation. The result is that they have a vibrant spiritual like that they have maintained in the face of 1,300 years of unremitting persecution. In this country, we can’t manage a religious life because we are up against team sports.
I intend to drop the classroom model and go to a discipleship model that is called Youthchurch. It will involve Bibles, catechisms and water balloons. And maybe doughnuts. I will know the program is a success when I find that the kids are mad at their parents for missing Mass on Sunday.
I no longer intend to prepare children for First Communion and Confirmation. There will no longer be First Communion and Confirmation classes. How and when will the children receive Communion and Confirmation? They will receive when they are ready. When are they ready? They are ready when they want the Sacrament. How do we know they want the Sacrament? When they understand it, can tell the pastor what it is and why they want it. If they are not in ongoing religious education and they are not coming to Mass on regular basis, they don’t want the Sacrament.
Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Luke 12:27-28 KJV)
Today was David’s (middle child’s) last day of kindergarten. He can be a delightful goofball, or in a different mood…a complete pain in the…. Well, after the end of year play, I stopped by work to pick something up before heading back out, and I was greeted by these…
Our trustees and groundskeepers do an amazing job…with a little help from the one who clothes. If God makes these that beautiful, what will he do with goofballs, o ye of little faith.
In our Sunday Morning Bible class we got into a little discussion about ecumenism, joint efforts and an Eastern District Convention vote. The title of the post comes from Ecclesiastes 3:3. I could have also quoted Ecclesiastes 3:5 (cast away or gather) or Ecclesiastes 3:7 (sew or tear). I think it is true that everybody wants to be in the reaping, gathering, building or sewing business. Not that those times are necessarily easy, but those times allow for margins of error, lazy thinking and the hedging of bets. Its those other verbs (casting, breaking, tearing or planting) that require deeper discernment. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if I said I think the task of this generation is tilted toward breaking, tearing and planting. A fellow minister used the analogy of Moses in the desert for 40 years. He doesn’t expect that he will see the promised land – if you define the promised land as a church that faithful and robust. (This could probably be said for the culture in general on many levels.) Bringing this back to where I started, the discussion was started because the Eastern District in convention voted to break ties with Campus Ministries that had been joint with the ELCA. This was the right thing to do. We do not share a confession with the ELCA. We might share the name Lutheran, but given that bodies’ actions in 2009, to continue in a joint ministry is to walk in significant error and give cover for it. The bible class had been reading Ephesians 4:1-32. The first part of that I had termed – “How do discern a wound in the body of Christ from a cancer on the body of Christ”. The second part was “how do you act as a body that is perpetually wounded”. There might be several faithful pastors and laity within the ELCA right now, but as a body, by its actions in convention in 2009, according to Ephesians 4:18-20, they have become a cancer. When you do break away or tear the old things, Thomas Jefferson and the American founders were not far off. “A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel the separation.” That is what the Eastern District in Convention did. Even though the tearing was first caused by another group breaking with sound teaching.
There will be many people who might not like hearing this – many faithful people in heterodox church bodies – but the time of growing together (Matt 13:30) is coming to an end. Of all places to look the New York Times’ Bill Keller says the same thing. (He even does so referencing a Rochester Congregation). Call it what you wish but it is time to break down ties that formerly held, because we cannot speak truth to each other. Maybe God will choose to bless them and we shall have a prophetic sign that things formerly not kosher are now clean. Although I doubt that coming to pass. It seems too easy and too near the desires of my heart to avoid confrontation and just all get along. Something that cannot be said for Peter who saw the vision of the table of pork. It was not his heart’s desire to accept the gentiles. Accepting them was the hard thing.
What breaking down does do is place on the remnant the burden to build. But now we build in the confidence of building on the rock (Matt 7:24). We also build being free of the former things delighting in the new thing that God is doing. (Isaiah 43:16-21) It will not be a restoration of “our grandfather’s church” as so many might desire. It will be that in so far as Father, Son and Spirit are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But it will also be new. And that is a tension. The unchanging God is new every morning. We are already of the new creation even though the old has yet to be put away. And so we inwardly groan as we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:23) But we groan, not in misery or longing for Egypt as the Israel of old. We groan because of the surpassing greatness of what is to come.
We all have a bias to the dramatic. The problem is that the really incredible stuff happens in the quieter times. What the dramatic does is reveal. It reveals those that have grown and prepared. It reveals those who are escaping a burning house. It reveals those who don’t. Mark is the only gospel to include the parable of the patient (maybe neglectful) farmer. Mark is dramatic in that way. He includes the tough, the embarrassing. Mark’s Jesus doesn’t include adultery as a grounds for divorce. Mark’s Jesus – not even the son – doesn’t know the day or the hour of the end. The affront within this dramatic parable is the absence or neglectfulness of God. He sleeps and rises – night and day. He plants seeds and is clueless about the rest. The earth itself bears fruit. Only when the fruit is ready – and this apparently by accident as the farmer hasn’t done anything but watch – does the harvest come. That parable is tied together in the text with the mustard seed. The word is found in small things.
What is more artfully put forward in the sermon is that the very smallness, the obscurity and commonness of the gospel, is what gives us the space to grow. And the farmer’s point is growth and fruitfulness. The promises of God attach to things like bread and wine, water, the gathering of believers and the scriptures. Small things. Things easily neglected and overlooked. But those are the readily available water of grace. That is where you meet and find God in this world. The rest is for the growth of his people. God backs off, provides space, for his people to grow. What is necessary is supplied.
I don’t know if I can call it one of my favorites, but the Kipling poem Gods of the Copybook Headings has a certain fun about a deadly serious truth.
What the poem refers too is an old teaching practice. A sentence (in Latin sententiae) was placed at the top of the page. The student would copy that sentence until memorized. The sentences were normally aphorisms or short bits of wisdom. In Christendom they were often taken from the Bible, but the Greeks and Romans and an occasional bit of old wives tales would be found. The purpose of education was the gathering of wisdom. Seeing as wisdom is uniquely unsuited to be taught in a classroom, the methodology was memorization with the hope that phrase would come to mind before it was too late. Kipling, the poet of the Empire, lived long enough to see his son die for that Empire and to see it dissolving. The God’s of the Copybook Headings had not been heeded and were extracting their due.
We don’t use that method of teaching. First because wisdom is no longer the primary goal of education. And second because its is boring which isn’t as shallow as it might sound. But the end point is that certain pithy ways of retaining wisdom from generation to generation have been lost. Or they have become the domain of specialists – like parish pastors or “Grandma Schmidt”. You know Grandma Schmidt – that old woman who if you really want the answer to almost anything in life you ask her. She looks you up and down, takes your measure if you can handle the truth, and then either tells you what you don’t want to hear or asks if you want a cookie.
Ross Douthat here has caught one of the strains of our forgetting. Rod Dreher also echoes. We have forgotten what marriage is about. (The God’s of the Copybook Headings will show up for payment at a later date.)
If gay marriage is simply a basic natural right, of course — the formal legal expression of our right to love as we wish — it shouldn’t be up for reconsideration under any circumstances. This is a widespread view of wedlock, and it may already be the dominant one. But Regnerus’s study is a reminder of why marriage has traditionally been regarded as something other than just a celebration of love and a signifier of civic equality, and why the rationale for the institution has involved a child’s rights to his or her biological parents as well as in two lovers’ rights to one another. Marriage’s purpose, in this sense, has not been just to validate the consenting adults who enter into it, but to provide support and recognition for a particular way of bearing and rearing children – one whose distinctive advantages remain apparent, even as that recognition declines and disappears.
Meanwhile, our new meritocratic philosopher-kings are relearning something. While they are diligently forgetting sexual mores and familial common sense, they are starting to realize old rules about solidifying social status. The old WASPs knew a thing or two. They didn’t much care if FDR was a C student at best. In fact is was probably a better sign that he wasn’t wasting his time with distractions like learning stuff. Instead he was building the networks of the right people and stoking the ambitions of the family among people born to it. Tyler Cowen passing along a fellow economist’s relearning. Of course, being modern meritocrats and not old WASPs he calls it a completely non-poetic “social capital”. Ross Douthat and an older world might just have called it privilege.
Of course Jesus confronted this in a bunch of ways. Mark 10:17-27 and Mark 10:32-45 are a couple with some copybook style sayings. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
This past Sunday we sang one of the most haunting hymns in the Lutheran Tradition – I Walk in Danger All the Way. It is one of those songs where the melody is clear and rather light, but the words are deep. It has a history within the LCMS as it was sung on the floor of a Synodical convention after a particularly ugly fight. My guess is that those there took the wrong message from its words. If I was picking my 10 favorite, this on has a place on that list. But we rarely pick it for the congregation because I think the words are just too far removed from comfortable American middle class existence. We live a daily existence that is largely materialist. Rarely do we give a nod to spiritual things outside of maybe Sunday mornings or that odd deja vu/coincidence. The third stanza talks about death. That is breaking the rules in the United States. It takes those three stanzas to make a turn and the fourth starts to remind us of the gospel. Basically my gut tells me when I have the congregation sing it, in one sense I’m putting falsehoods on their lips. Not that the words are false, just that we don’t feel them.
So what does that have to do with the sermon. Well, that hymn is a hymn of spiritual maturity. The text is a call to belief, and not just to belief, but discipleship. It presents us with three groups of people and puts on Jesus lips the challenge to do the will of the Father. The text doesn’t use the metaphor, but the disciple Walks with the Lord. And that is not always easy. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death (stanza 3), but we fear no evil (stanza 5). The mature Christian will accept that walk.