Friday, August 31, 2007


The debate on how one goes about preaching has heated up just a little recently. There is really no reason for a debate. The man called to be the pastor, the seelsorger, of the congregation should be quite clear on the task. He is to think of what he does, what he has been called to do, as a seelsorger (a curate of souls) and a shepherd (for that is what the word “pastor” means).

When one begins to think that their job is to simply proclaim the naked law and the naked Gospel, they have ceased being a pastor and taken on the role of an evangelist, and that only in the modern sense of the word. A shepherd does not create sheep, and one who is the “curate of souls” does not go about creating patients, but taking care of the ones who are his assigned lot. His lot, of course, is assigned by the Lord, which Lutherans believe is accomplished by the call. The Lord, then, adds to or subtracts from the “cure” (an old word meaning the district or persons assigned to the spiritual care of a clergyman) by calling individuals into His family by conversion, and calling them home to Himself in eternity by what is known as death of the body.

Between those two events - the call into faith and the call to eternity - the pastor has the care of such souls as His responsibility. He is equipped with three tasks and two sets of tools with which to accomplish this care. The tasks are preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments. Note that these three tasks are intertwined, not individual and self-standing tasks. The tools with which these tasks, and the entire cure (or care) of the soul, is to be accomplished are The Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and, whether you count it as Word or sacrament, Absolution. I left the word “holy” out of the names in order to avoid the modern offense of seeming to be too “catholic” and because there is little point in redundancy. If it is the Word of God, or worked by His Word, it is holy, and simply saying or not saying the word does not alter that condition.

When one considers the task of the pastor in the light of the call to be curate of souls, the issue of whether one preaches to teach or preaches to convert disappears. No proper sermon ignores the Gospel, and yet there is more to caring for the flock than simply announcing forgiveness. The flock of God needs to be armed against the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. That armor is applied by the Word, by knowing God’s good and gracious disposition toward man, and how far one may trust in God and for what one may count on Him - in short, the more that a believer knows of what God has revealed for his edification, the more he or she can believe and trust in the Lord, and understand their lives and circumstances as in the presence and care of God.

The preacher who is teaching his flock, and nurturing them in the Word with both Law and Gospel is also preaching that which converts. If He is not preaching the Gospel, he is not serving as shepherd or seelsorger for his flock. If he is preaching without teaching and warning his flock, he is not serving the shepherd duties either. Any individual who believes that they can do one without the other is not competent for the office.

Modern seminarians are taught to preach short sermons. Such a practice is often aimed at the short attention span of the modern listener. The problem with that approach is twofold: first, it short-changes the congregation, and second, it misunderstands the attention span of the average listener. First, the congregation comes to worship to receive God’s gifts. The Word proclaimed and taught is one of those gifts. The Sunday service is the chief contact time for the pastor with the congregation. More of his flock is present at that one time (even if it involves multiple services on a Sunday) than any other time. He must teach the dickens out of the time He has been given in the service.

Second, the congregation’s attention span, as a product of modern American culture, is significantly shorter than ten minutes. Some are able to discipline themselves and focus on the sermon for the ten minutes, or twenty, or thirty, depending on how long one preaches, and the discipline of the individual. On the other hand, some cannot actually focus as long as the reading of the text. There are a variety of reasons for their distraction; children, their health, the comfort of the seating, the temperature of the air, ambient noises, and how well they slept the night before, and the attire, behavior, or personal grooming of the people seated around them, including their perfumes, among other reasons. People tend to fade in and out of the sermon, despite their best intentions and efforts. The short sermon doesn’t give them time to fade in and out and still hear the message. It rudely demands that they be as capable and clear-headed as the preacher was when he wrote his sermon – and sometimes the sermon demonstrates that the preacher wasn’t all that capable or clear-headed.

There is no ideal length for a sermon. Each sermon should be as long as it takes to proclaim the Word of God, both Law and Gospel, and teach what the Word for the day teaches. Some sermons are shorter, and some will be longer. I have preached as short as fifteen minutes (rarely), and as long as forty-five (a couple of times). The shorter sermon was greeted with complaints that the congregation felt cheated, and were just settling down to listen when I finished, and the longer sermons have been met by several in the congregation noting that they were totally unaware that such an amount of time had passed. I imagine that the important thing is to say something worth listening to, however long or short your sermon may be.

The sermon might well be viewed as a public speech, with the purposes of informing, persuading, and moving to action, to use the categories I learned when studying public speaking as a youth. While the power of the sermon rests in the Word of God, the preacher does well to keep in mind that he is part of the process God has chosen to deliver that Word to his specific group of people. If the Word alone were sufficient, without regard to the deliverance of the Word, one could simply read the original language to the people and be done with it. Of course, that is silly.

The preacher must consider the message, and the audience, and his own abilities, and structure his sermon to inform the congregation of the meaning of the text, and to persuade them that it is true and applies also to their lives and faith, and that they might live in the light of the truth they have just heard. For some preachers, “Goal - Malady - Means” works just fine. For others, the old, ‘Tell them what you are going to say, then say it, and then tell them what you said’ is effective. For some a didactic style works and for others a more conversational approach is better. The style isn’t as important as the Word of God, nor as important as the preacher remembering who he is and why he is standing before a congregation on a Sunday morning.

He is the messenger of God, sent to proclaim the glories of salvation, the goodness of the grace of God, and to feed, nurture, comfort, strengthen, and encourage the people of God in faith and by means of the Word of God. He is not standing before them as a showman. He is not a great adviser. He is not the programmatic “vision-caster”. He is not here to win their respect or to be popular. He is there as the mouthpiece of God, like a radio-station repeater, speaking what God has given Him to speak in the text for the day.

If you can do that, the questions about where your focus is supposed to be in the sermon will fade away. The focus is on the Word of God being delivered, proclaimed, and taught to the people of God for their blessing, comfort, encouragement, and faith. If you cannot preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments, then you don’t belong in the pulpit to begin with. Seelsorger. “Curate of souls”, Pastor, Shepherd, all mean the same thing. If the pastor forgets what he is there for, his presence serves someone other that Christ.

Monday, August 27, 2007

An Age of Unbelief

We are living in an age of unbelief.

In the church, politics and power matter more to most than does truth, God, or salvation, although the majority of those rightly accused by these words would cry out that I am unjust in saying so. But that is just part of the game. You have to pretend to be about Christ and church and such, but in reality it is the advance of power and personal privilege that takes center stage.

In society, I see the very same dynamic. Our politicians, with precious few exceptions, play at national politics as though it were a game and the dangers of the world around us cannot possibly intrude. Logically, if the dangers of the world around us could not possibly intrude, we would have no need of government. But if the dangers are real, the "playing of politics" as a game, without an eye to the potential repercussions, is idiotic to the point of treason.

Today the enemies of our nation's elected leader have succeeded in finally acquiring the resignation of the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. He was hounded into resignation over the perfectly legitimate firing of eight Federal Prosecutors. They do serve at the pleasure of the President. The previous president fired every single one of them - ninety-three, I believe. That firing put an end to some troubling federal investigations - one into the President's own conduct. But that action was defended as entirely legitimate at the very same time the firing of eight men was called a presidential abuse of power. The only differences one can observe is that President Bush did not terminate any on-going investigations into his own conduct or that of another Republican, while President Clinton did, and President Bush only fired eight men, not ninety-three.

I carry no brief for Mr. Gonzales. I find the Democratic Party's attack on everything that they can possibly connect to President Bush to be irresponsible to the point of being treasonous. There are real-world dangers from which all of our elected representatives are charged with protecting this nation, and the wholesale assault on every effort of one party to do anything does not strengthen us. It is playing politics as though it is a game with no other consequence than winning a prize. But there are enemies looking to destroy us, and the Democrats are willing allies with those people in appearance, if not in fact. And I am none too sure about the fact in this case, either.

I do wish there was some way that the game players could reap the whirlwind without the destruction and misery that their behavior strives toward falling upon the whole nation of us. My greatest concern is that they will reap what they are sowing -- and so will we.

And in these times of turmoil and uncertainty, we should be able to look to the church for comfort and peace of mind. God offers it in Jesus Christ, and the knowledge that He is still (and always) in control, even when the world seems to be spinning out of it. Sadly, though, the institutional church is failing because its leaders are caught up in playing politics just like our national leaders. Like them, they also forget that there are real dangers and real enemies, and they play down and dirty to win the prize of position and power without thought or concern for the real-world consequences for those they are called to protect and shepherd.

With regard to the church leaders, at least I have the comfort of knowing that they shall reap what they sow, in the end. I, and others who continue to fight the good fight, will have to reach out to care for those forgotten by the ones who style themselves as "leaders" in this age of unbelief.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An Old-Fashioned Bully

I was watching Bill Maher on the Larry King show on CNN when it struck me, the man is a bully. He has the microphone, and says the most outrageous things, offensive and deliberately so, in situations where those he offends and insults cannot respond.

Sure, he doesn't kick them or punch them. He does something much worse. He wounds them with unreasonable attack while the ones he attacks are unable to either defend themselves or respond in any effective manner.

I was always told that bullies were cowards. I guess attacking faith and any opinion you don't like - and not just arguing a reasoned objection but pathetic name calling and ad-hominem of the most extreme sort - from the safety of the working end of the microphone qualifies one as a coward.

He makes a big deal of how unreasonable people like Rush Limbaugh are. I don't think his insults toward Rush are anything particularly bully-ish. Rush has a microphone and an audience. He can respond. It is when Mr. Maher spreads his contempt toward those - either individually or as a class - that hold opinions contrary to his own by ridicule and insult, rather than reasoned discourse, that he demonstrates the character of the big thug who can take your lunch money away, and there is nothing you can do about it! So there!

Bill Maher is just a bully. And he styles himself as a humorist. How sad.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Early Communion

I link to an article on the idea of early communion, advanced on Cyberbrethren. It is worth some debate. I find it disquieting, and not because I appose early communion. I began training children for confirmation earlier, in my last parish, due to the pressures of the culture and society, and the eagerness of the children. I don't see age as an impediment. When they are ready, they are ready.

The defense of the idea - the case that the author, Pastor Rick Stuckwisch, was making began to sound oddly like, "Oh, what the heck! Let's do it!"

I respect Pastor Stuckwisch, and believe he is sincere and careful. I suspect, however that the approach he and Rev. McCain are advancing would tend back to the Roman practice of first communion at about first grade, whether the child is prepared or not. At least the practice of instruction for confirmation before communion gives us a fighting chance to pound something into the heads of the children. I am not opposed to the very utilitarian nature of the practice which gives us the confirmation class years to teach. We need to get something into the child's brain about Christian doctrine. Memory work is good too. What we get in there the Holy Spirit can call up for use any time. What isn't there cannot be recalled. Changing the practice to earlier communion isn't a real answer to the questions people raise - including the Rev. McCain - about the age of confirmation. It is simply moving the same questions from 14 to 6. We will then be facing the question of why not just commune infants - and some Lutherans are asking that already.

The Lord's Supper is not required for salvation. It is not a sine qua non as Baptism is (and we have people debating the necessity of Baptism!). I don't like the graduation idea, either, but we can use the opportunity to instruct. I think the current practice is useful.

I know that faithful pastors like Rev. Stuckwisch will exercise his spiritual oversight faithfully. But when the practice is established, those who follow may not. It is hard enough to get pastors to do confirmation instruction now. Imagine how careless many would be if first communion were at first grade, and there was no incentive to endure or demand what is now confirmation instruction.

I know, it is the parent's responsibility. (That takes a load off my pastor's head.) I am all for admitting those who are ready to the altar - meaning those who understand what the Supper is, and are capable of examining themselves. But let's not set a bad rule in place. I think the age should stay where it is and exceptions be made when individual Christians demonstrate that they are ready.

That's my $.02 worth.

Anne Rice

The author of the Vampire stories professes a change to being a Christian. I hope for her sake that it is true. Still, on her blog, Anne, she still tries to defend her artistic vision when writing An Interview with a Vampire, and the subsequent books. Okay, perhaps I can swallow that.

Now she is taking the position of being a pro-life Christian, who is a Democrat, and most admires Hillary Clinton as a candidate for President. This stance is way too much for me. I understand political devotion, but it is not consistent to be pro-life and support a strongly pro-abortion candidate. Then she says that she believes that the only hope for pro-life positions is with the Democratic party. That is the party that has made pro-choice (meaning pro-abortion) the litmus test.

Politics aside, these positions are not intellectually consistent.

A Small Aside: As I typed this post, with Anne Rice's site in another window, suddenly "Ave Maria" began in the background. Surely this woman cannot take her political stance as a serious Catholic?