Thursday, June 18, 2020

Twenty Years a Steward of God’s Mysteries

June 18, 2000 was Father’s Day, and it started out right: with the 8am service at my home church, St. Mark Lutheran in North Tonawanda, New York. I was there with my parents and with Pastor Kim Scharff and his wife, Mary. Kim and Mary had left their seven children at home to be with me on one of the most important days of my life: the day I would be Ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. It was appropriate that my biological and spiritual fathers were both there. I learned from Alan and Kathy what it means to be a Christian; I learned from Kim and Mary what it means to be a pastor and serve God’s people in the Holy Ministry. (It was also one of the last times I would see my maternal grandparents.)

That afternoon we gathered again at St. Mark. A small group of pastors gathered together along with friends and family and members of St. Mark. This collection of saints had seen me grow from childhood, supported me when I was still studying to be a Lutheran high school English teacher, and had the misfortune of hearing the first sermon I wrote during college. Fortunately, I was a much better preacher by the time I was placed there for fieldwork during my final year at the seminary. 

Pastor Scharff preached the sermon—I’ll include it at the end of this post. Pastor Doellinger, who was serving St. Mark at the time, administered the Rite of Ordination. And then I took over, celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time as the Officiant. A little over a month later, I would be Installed in my first parish. But June 18, 2000 was the beginning.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 years as of today. I’m right around middle age for a pastor, and I can feel that in the aches in my body and the increased confidence I have in using the gifts God has given me to serve His people. There are many joys in being a pastor—baptizing newborns and adults, teaching young people the Christian faith, delivering God’s gifts to His people (this is not an exhaustive list)—and these are rich blessings from the Lord of the Church. Still, it is not an easy path. The four years and seven months I spent without a Call, not to mention the two years leading up to that, certainly attest to this reality. The trials of the Ministry can be heartbreaking, and that heartbreak wears on a man. I love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I wouldn’t mind If God were to help me to be able more fully to enjoy the wonders a little more often and to endure and focus less on the sadness. That I do not always live and serve this way is my failing, not His.

This anniversary is just a touch bittersweet. As I thought about this day over the past few months, I’d planned to call Pastor Scharff and thank him once again for sharing that day with me. I can’t make that call; Kim is no longer there to answer. The Lord has given him rest from his labors. But I learned from Kim to be a pastor, and I wouldn’t have made it to this day—or even to that day 20 years ago—without him. 

So...here’s to another twenty years. At least. To God alone be the glory.

____________________

Here’s the Ordination sermon preached by the Reverend Kim Scharff. How right and fitting that he should share his wisdom with me once again. This is just as relevant today as it was twenty years ago.


What is a Pastor? What Can He Give?

In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ours is a cynical age. What do you mean, pastor? Do we even know what “cynical” means? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “cynic” as “one who has little faith in human sincerity.” And so, again, ours is a cynical age. Isn’t it true that we tend to assume, as often as not, that people just aren’t being truthful with us? What do you think when a politician tells you something? Aren’t you just a bit skeptical about whether or not he is telling the truth? What about the newscaster who peers at you through the television monitor; don’t you wonder just a bit about whether or not he is telling you the whole story? I think it was Mark Twain who said that he did not believe anything he heard and only half of what he could see. That’s just healthy skepticism, some would say; a good thing. But, is it a good thing? Is it a good thing over against the things of God? Is it a good way to approach the Office of the Holy Ministry?

Just a little over a hundred and fifty years ago, our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was born in the midst of cynicism over against the Office of the Holy Ministry. If you are not aware of this fact, you really should do some reading on the early years of our Church; you will find it interesting and enlightening. Some have even questioned, justifiably in my judgment, whether or not we have ever really gotten over those particular birth pains of our church body. Is there cynicism out there in the Church now about the Office of the Holy Ministry?

The words of our Lord Jesus Christ, from St. Luke’s Gospel, address this issue straight on. “He who hears you hears Me…” --- What is a pastor? If we are going to avoid being cynical about the Office of the Ministry, then we need an answer to this question. How does Jesus answer it? “He who hears you, hears Me…” The Office of the Holy Ministry is the voice of Jesus Christ in His Church. A pastor is the man God has put in His Church for the specific purpose of carrying out these words of our Lord: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (St. Matthew 28:18,19)

When our pastor faithfully speaks God’s Word to us, we are hearing the voice of Jesus. When he baptizes and offers us the body and blood of the Lord, his hands are the hands of Jesus. When he hears our confession and speaks the words of absolution to us, it is the voice of Jesus that we are hearing. Now, some would suggest that this is being a bit presumptuous. Jesus faced the same criticism when He told the paralytic not only to rise and go home, but that his sins were forgiven. They said of Him: “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (St. Mark 2:7) St. Matthew offers this commentary: “When the crowds saw it they were afraid, and they glorified God who had given such authority to men.” (St. Matthew 9:8)

But, again, some would say that this is rather presumptuous. And yet, isn’t this precisely what we believe and confess? Listen to the Small Catechism on this matter: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and, again, when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself.” --- Admittedly, this is a position that gives some people trouble. If a pastor is merely a “man among men,” then what he says and does carries no more weight than anyone else; it is only his opinion in the midst of many other opinions that bear equal significance. But, if the pastor is the voice of Jesus Christ; if he truly is the one God has put there to forgive the sins of the penitent and to retain the sins of the impenitent; if he is the one who is there to speak God’s words of life and hope; if he is, in fact, the one whom God has given to feed His people with the blessed Word and Sacraments, then we dare not take a cynical attitude toward what he says and does. “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” This is what is at stake in our view of the Office of the Holy Ministry.

Now, you may say: “But isn’t it true, pastor, that there are some who abuse the Office of the Ministry by their teaching and by their actions?” Of course, that is true, and those who would abuse the Office of Jesus Christ in such ways are not fit for the office and should not hold it. Indeed, they should be removed from it, if necessary. But, at the same time, we need to be very careful that we do not cynically assume that every pastor will do this, if given the chance. Faithful pastors are a great blessing from God, and we can never honor that office highly enough because it has been given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, out of His love and mercy toward His Church.

So, this is what a pastor is. But, there is another question, of equal significance, for which we need an answer if we are to avoid being cynical towards the Office of the Holy Ministry. What can a pastor give? The Augsburg Confession, which we believe to be a faithful exposition of the teaching of Holy Scripture, says: “In order that such faith may be obtained, God has instituted the Office of the Ministry, for the preaching of the Gospel and administering of the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where He pleases, in those who hear the Gospel…” --- I remember one of my seminary professors telling us that the preaching and teaching of God’s Word and administering the Holy Sacraments, is a full time, and more than a full time, vocation. Any pastor, He said, who does this work faithfully and fully will have neither time nor inclination to do much of anything else. After nearly two decades in the ministry, I think I am beginning to understand what he meant, and it goes right to the heart of what we are discussing. --- The Lord of the Church very carefully prescribes what a pastor can give. And I use the word “prescribe” purposely, because there are limits that have been set. Creating and sustaining faith is the “business”, if you will, of the Office of the Ministry. “In order that such faith may be obtained…,” the confession says.

What do we expect of our pastors? What expectations will the members of St. Paul and St. Peter have of Pastor Kornacki? If our expectations fall beyond the boundaries of Word and Sacrament, then they are expectations we really should not have. I am not speaking here about questions of morality and ethics; that is an issue unto itself. I am talking about the work of a pastor. It is not the work of pastors to try and solve all the world’s problems, though it is their task to apply the healing balm of the Gospel to the problems of the heart and soul. It is not the work of pastors to build the communities in which they live into little “divine fortresses,” though it certainly is their work to build up those committed to their care that they might, in turn, bear a righteous witness among the neighbors. It is not the work of pastors to “fatten” the church’s bank account, though it surely is their work to hold before the people of God that wonderful generosity of the Father in heaven, who not only provides all that we need to support our bodies and lives, but who also gave His own dear Son into suffering and death as the sacrifice for our sins; the price of our redemption. --- “In order that such faith may be obtained, God has instituted the Office of the Ministry, for the preaching of the Gospel and administering of the Sacraments…” That is all, but, surely, that is enough! It is enough because, in the end, it is all we really need. It is enough because, in His wisdom, this is the boundary that God Himself has set for this office He intends to bless.

In the eyes of the world, the Church is a strange enterprise. The same can be said for the Office of the Holy Ministry. Success and validity in this world are measured by what and how much you produce. What do you have to show for what you are doing? What’s your “bottom line?” Or, to put a more “religious” cast on it, how many new members did you gain last year? How many converts have you had in the last five years? When that is the standard by which both Church and Ministry are measured, we will, most often, to quote (or should it be misquote) the prophet Daniel, be “weighed in the balance, and found wanting.” But, what if someone had come to Jesus after His “Bread of Life” sermon in John 6 and asked Him about how His following had grown? What could He have said? His followers were leaving Him like rats leaving a sinking ship. Only twelve remained, and, no doubt, some of them were weighing their options. And yet, that may be precisely what happens when the Church and the Ministry are saying and doing what God has given them to say and do.

The Kingdom of God is hidden; it is hidden behind the cross of Christ. May we never forget that the blessed Gospel, which we hold so dear, and to which we cling with all our might is, at the same time, the greatest offense the world has ever known. It insists that as man is helpless, so God reigns supreme. As man can do nothing to save himself, so God can and has and will do everything. And therein lies the cynicism of the world over against what you and I, as pastors and as the people of God, believe and do. We walk by faith, not by sight, and that is something which a cynic, whether inside or outside the church, can never accept. --- And yet, this is just what moves us to rejoice on this day! We give ourselves over into the hands of God, convinced of His love for us and His intention to bless us. As the Church, we rejoice that the Church’s Lord has called and now sends another man to serve in His holy office. And you, brother, rejoice in that same certainty that it is the call of the Lord of the Church that you have heard and now will answer. The time has come to lay aside whatever doubts and fears we may have. The God of all grace lives and reigns forever and ever. He gives His people faith in His lovingkindess and tender mercy. And He places into the hands and hearts and voices of His pastors the Word of life. “He who hears you hears Me”, to which we joyfully give answer, “Thanks be to God!” In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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