Monday, July 20, 2009

Another week in the life of a part-time steward of the mysteries

"Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." -- I Corinthians 4:1

A few weeks ago I posted about my adventures preaching for a "black congregation" and what some would call a "high church" congregation. That went so well that I thought I would do it again, only this time running from Sunday to Sunday.

On July 12, I was at St. John Lutheran Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the second consecutive week. I had helped serve the congregation during their vacancy, and they welcomed me back when their "new" pastor, Pastor Ken Babin, took some well-deserved vacation time. It was wonderful to see the people again, especially the young child I'd baptized two years ago now and his family. (And the mother is pregnant again!) The Bible study, which was supposed to be based on the readings for the day, ended up being an extended tangent about past, present and future persecutions of the Church. In relation to that we discussed the legal ramifications of the seal of the confessional in a state (like Minnesota) that requires doctors, counselors, and pastors to disclose cases of child abuse. When I said that I could not in good conscience divulge what was said to me in the process of confession and absolution, even under pain of prosecution, it seemed to raise a few eyebrows. Such a decision is not an easy thing to have to live with, especially when a child is in danger, but pastors make solemn vows at their ordination (and repeat those vows at their installations), and those vows are binding to the extent that the divulging the sins confessed to me would be grounds for me to be removed from the ministry altogether. Thanks be to God that I have never been put in that situation. By the same token, should I be there, God help me to remain faithful to vows I have made.

The most draining part about all the preaching I do down here is the driving it takes to get to these churches. On average I drive about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the churches where I preach, and that's just the trip there. The trip back, after I'm drained from the preaching and the inevitable heat exhaustion, can be a miserable experience, one in which I often find myself stopping for a bottle of Mountain Dew so that I can stay awake for the the whole ride. (I make these trips enough where the minivan could probably find its way home on its own, but Faith doesn't like it when I try to find out.) It's one thing to get up at 5:15 AM when you've got a ten minute ride to the church and can then sit at your desk for an hour before worship and Bible study. It's another to get up at 5:15 and have three hours of driving packed around the divine service and Bible study. Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to start turning down preaching opportunities because the drive is too long. (Down here, that would mean I'd NEVER get a chance to preach!) But it would be nice to get back into a situation where I get to get up, take my time getting ready, and then head to the church where I could be still and climb into the Word before the festivities begin. I do miss that down time.

I struggled with my sermon for today for most of the week, juggling sermon work with the kids and the full-time job at the Rec. It's weeks like this where I wish I had pastoral visits to do, as it always seems like visiting with parishioners helps to sharpen my homiletical focus. Sometimes the discussion even leads to a sermon idea. But I also had the extra looming pressure of preaching at the church where I've preached most frequently since I moved here. The people of Mt. Olive in Metairie, Louisiana, don't put any pressure on me themselves other than their hunger to be fed with the Word. Nonetheless, Mt. Olive has been a second home to me during a time when I desperately needed somewhere to belong, and . . . well, I put a lot of pressure on myself on their behalf. Anyway, the sermon came out in the end, and, as always, the people fed voraciously on the Word as though they'd never heard it before, despite the fact that they're faithfully served by their own undershepherd, Pastor Brad Drew.

The one sad part of the day was that I found myself having to exercise my office as steward of the mysteries by enforcing the Scriptural practice of Closed Communion. I won't go into specific details about this person, except to say that this individual is a member of a Disciples of Christ congregation. The Mt. Olive congregation has a statement in their bulletin which states that the congregation as part of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod and in faithfulness to Holy Scripture practices Closed Communion. When it was revealed to me that this individual was not a Lutheran and yet desired to receive Communion at this congregation, and me not their regular pastor, it was still up to me to execute the practice of the Church. I gave this person the same blessing I give to children who come to the altar. After the service I spoke with this individual, and they accused me of "shunning" them. (Yes, I know I'm using bad grammar, but to maintain the anonymity of this person I'll sacrifice my grammar snooties.) That was probably the high part of our conversation.

The exercise of Closed Communion, much like the exercise of excommunication, is not an occasion for joy. In the case of excommunication, it is meant to bring a sinner to repentance. In the case of Closed Communion, it is meant to keep an individual from receiving the body and blood of Christ to their judgment. This is not the first time I've had to execute my office of steward in this fashion, but being the "fill-in" pastor, it was certainly the most awkward. I pray that God brings true unity through the Word and the Spirit to the Church on earth. I look forward to the day when all the faithful, many of whom will not be members of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, will gather together as one at the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. In the meantime, God grant me courage and love to exercise my office as steward faithfully, no matter how painful it may be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As you know, I'm not a church-goer in any religion, organized or other-wise, but I have attended a few services in several faiths.

One of my most memorable experiences was in a Catholic Church at a wedding mass. Obviously a joyous time where all were welcome. The Priest and family asked that during Communion time at the Mass, that EVERYONE come up to the altar and those who took communion would receive it, those who didn't could put their hands together and the priest would deliver a blessing. In a setting like that, it was a most beautiful and inclusionary act. If I understand you correctly, that was what you did for the person who was coming up for Communion.

I think you did the right thing, and I'm disappointed that the person didn't honor the tradition and rules that the church has in place.

My grandmother takes her faith VERY seriously, so much so, that the last time I attended a Catholic Mass with her she yelled at me for attempting to assist her in walking up for Communion because she thought I was going up for Communion. She's 94 years old and quite shaky on her feet. I was going to walk her up there and she became very angry and created a little scene.

The priests and nuns were very understanding, but I felt horriby that someone might mis-understand and think I was trying to take Communion. I didn't want to dis-honor their traditions, or anyone to think that I was. Gram was just a little confused, and eveyone seemed to understand.

Stand by what YOU believe, as hard as it is sometimes, you're doing the right thing.