Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Church of the Mercy Works

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has taken a new direction, sort of.  When he became the new president of the Synod, Matthew Harrison brought in the three-fold emphasis of Witness and Mercy and Life Together (Service).  A quick check of the Synod Website shows a significant emphasis on the mercy aspect, with mercy works reflecting by far the longest list of programs in the Synod today.  Recent publications have focused on the Christian duty of mercy, and on the rising tide of human care works in the church.  The Seminary publication, Concordia Journal, recently dedicated an issue to the topic, in connection with Valparaiso University, printing articles from a Symposium dealing with the issue theologically.  The LWF publications are suddenly appearing with regularity in my mailbox.  It is a new emphasis for the LC-MS as a Synod.

These developments are not surprising, considering the history of our president.  Both as a pastor of an urban parish deeply involved in neighborhood Mercy works, and as a synodical administrator in charge of the Human Care Ministries for over ten years, Matthew Harrison has demonstrated a laudable commitment to human care and works of mercy.  Nevertheless, the change in direction for the Synod raises a question.  The whole world of the church (and the ethical centers of the secular world) around us is heading in the direction of social service to suffering humanity.  The Humanist Manifestoes stated that the church would have to make that change, if it were to remain relevant in our modern age.  Of course, their assertion was based on an absolute rejection of God and of any savior or salvation coming for us.  The Synod doesn’t have that motivation, but we are following their script nonetheless.

  Please do not misunderstand what follows: mercy works are good things for the children of God to do.  But as a church body with hundreds of pastors displaced from their parishes, forced out of the work they trained to do in service to the synod, and with no help from that Synod, the current emphasis on mercy is, in my opinion, somewhat misplaced.  It focuses on care for the stranger and neglects care for our brothers.  These pastors struggle with debt for their education, and the simple task of surviving economically with the career they chose closed to them, often due to no fault of their own.  The Synod at convention was tasked by resolution with forming a task force to look into the issues of those on the roster without calls, including returning missionaries and chaplains.  This is a good start, but hardly sufficient in the face of the need – which exceeds the numbers reported in the convention materials.

The administrative divisions of the synod, known as districts, are often hostile to these men who have lost their ministry and their livelihood.  CRM is often viewed as a “death-sentence” for a career in parish ministry.   There seems to be no mercy for such men.  They are out of office, and often offered no assistance with life, and no opportunity to serve a parish.  When they seek assistance, they frequently encounter a cold shoulder and a deaf ear from those who are supposed to be their ecclesiastical supervisors.  Sometimes they encounter open hostility.

Mercy is most appropriate to the people of God.  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another, . . . By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”  Somehow, mercy appears to have come to be understood in our Synod as to be directed primarily to others rather than to “those who are of the household of the faith”.

These men took years of their lives and spent their fortunes to prepare for service to the Synod and to their Lord.  Many left school with significant debt, a debt which they reasonably expected to amortize during fruitful years of service in their ministries.  Suddenly, they find themselves on the outside.  Many of these pastors have been removed from their parishes by very questionable procedures that seemed to be most unchristian and unloving. They long to serve, in a church body that needs their service, and yet they are excluded most often for the “crime” of being a faithful Lutheran Pastor.  They are ignored, in want, and suffering.  Still, we, the Synod, serve the world and ignore our brothers and our neighbors.

We serve those in foreign lands, those afflicted with malaria, those who speak a different language and live in a different culture, and we should!  That is a godly thing to do.  We work to meet their needs – medical, food, shelter, – and these things are also very good.  It appears at times that these needs are addressed with only an occasional connection to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that limited connection is defended as good and necessary and appropriate to the work.  We do some of this service in concert with church bodies whose theological confessions many times fall short of being Christian.  We are presented a “theological” justification for this also – cooperation in externals, which we are assured is acceptable, and in certain circumstances may be so.  Although it doesn’t always seem sufficient.  The situation puts one in mind of what Jesus said, when He chastised the Pharisees for their outward, formal piety, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”  We have ignored justice and mercy and faithfulness toward those who are our brothers.

Our church body has millions of dollars to pursue works of mercy in the world around us, but we ignore those for whom we have the command of our Lord to care.  “Love one another” appears 13 times in the New Testament and 3 of those times from the lips of Jesus, according to John.  Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfil the law of Christ.”  We have the resources to help in physical disasters around us, but our brothers who have been removed, often through no genuine fault of their own, must bear their burdens alone.  I can attest by personal experience that the training required to be a pastor is not valued as preparation for many other tasks by the world around us.

The Word of God exhorts us, “Through love serve one another.” - Gal. 5:13.  I teach my congregation that love for one’s neighbor does not always mean love for the stranger in a distant land, although that is a good thing to do if we have the resources.  Love for the neighbor is first about loving those near you, family, friends, actual neighbors, the people you can see and touch and directly serve and affect.  It is in serving our neighbor that we serve God.  You cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brother, whom you have seen.  Serving the stranger in a far-away land and the distant alien is not serving God if we are, at the same time, ignoring our neighbors and our brothers.  It is, instead, the avoidance of the command of God as regards our neighbor, and, in effect, tithing mint and dill and cummin while neglecting the weightier provisions of the law.

That is not the part of the people of God.  Tertullian, in describing how outsiders saw the Christians in his day, wrote the following: "Look," they say, "how they love one another" (for they themselves hate one another); "and how they are ready to die for each other" (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).  One has to wonder if we would be seen in the same way.  The outright abandonment of pastors who have been removed or forced to resign, without Scriptural cause, is a synodical scandal of long-standing.  If we are going to talk about and pursue works of mercy and compassion, it is only right that we begin close to home.

Mercy works mean nothing if ignore those who are our brothers.  The standard excuse often given is that somehow the pastor enduring such treatment brought it on himself.  This is simply holding those who have been wronged as guilty and excusing those who did them wrong and supporting them.  It is sin, plain and simple.

So, Missouri, are you serious about serving God by serving your neighbor and loving one another, or are you merely clamoring for the approval of the ungodly world around you?  Let us take care of those who are truly our brothers before we pretend to care for others!

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