31 May 2007

May the Last

In the calendar of my life, the 31st of May is a biggie. I suppose that my birthday, my Baptism day, and my wedding day would be in the same orbit, and I don't know how or why I'd try to rank such stellar occasions. Well, okay, since Holy Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, that day wins. But today is way up there, anyway. It's the anniversary of my ordination to the office of the Holy Ministry, and also of my installation as the pastor of Emmaus Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Bend. That was in 1996, eleven years ago, which seems rather amazing to me. My wife and I will celebrate our twenty-second wedding anniversary in a few weeks; so I've been a pastor now for exactly half of our married life, and for slightly more than a quarter of my own lifetime. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it seems significant in any case.

My ordination didn't happen on the 31st of May by accident, of course. I chose the date because, in the three-year lectionary, it is the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord. I know there are folks who object to any changes in the historic lectionary (fair enough), but it makes a whole lot more sense to celebrate the Visitation prior to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), rather than after the fact (on July the 2nd). It is one of my favorite festivals, whenever it may be celebrated; and, actually, the Holy Gospel of the Visitation (St. Luke 1:39-56) also occurs at several other points in the church year, which is fine with me. It is such a paradigmatic text! There's dear St. Mary as a living Sacrament of Christ and an icon of His Church, bearing the Word-made-Flesh within her womb. And there's St. Elizabeth, receiving the Mother of God as the new Ark of the Covenant that St. Mary has become, and heeding the preaching of her son, St. John the forerunner, while he is yet in her own womb. What a great Word of God to hear in the midst of this culture of death. What a comforting Word of the Gospel for those who miscarry and mourn their unborn children. What a beautiful picture of the Church, of the means of grace, of life under the cross. Here, too, is the Magnificat, with which the Holy Spirit continues to open the lips of the Church to sing forth the praises of Christ to the Glory of God the Father.

My ordination was a glorious day. I was surrounded by my family, friends and loved ones from all over the place. In fact, that weekend was the last time I got to be with my Grandpa Stuckwisch in his lifetime on this earth. Colleagues were here from near and far, and several of my dear fathers in Christ. Dr. Just, who taught me homiletics at the seminary, preached a marvelous sermon on the Visitation of Our Lord, highlighting its many connections to the office of the Holy Ministry. Kantor Resch served as the organist, and that speaks for itself!

Of course, it is an awesome and humbling thing to be put under holy orders, to receive the yoke of Christ as a servant of His Gospel. To be a good and faithful pastor is an ongoing challenge, one that is utterly beyond my own feeble reason and strength. If we learn from our mistakes, then I guess I've learned a fair bit along the way; but if practice is supposed to make perfect, I've still got a lifetime of practicing to do. After eleven years, I'm more aware than ever of my weaknesses and shortcomings, and hopefully more reliant on the grace of God in Christ. I trust His Word and Spirit, His means of grace, to do and accomplish His own purposes. I am grateful for brothers in office who have assisted me along the way: for speaking Jesus to me, for patient conversation, and for good examples of faithful service.

Turns out the 31st of May was already an important day in the history of Emmaus. It was on that date in 1922 that a meeting took place at St. Paul Lutheran Church, South Bend, which led to the formation of Emmaus in the course of the following year. It's a case in point of the sacred tradition by which the Church lives and grows from one generation to the next. Christian congregations do not descend whole cloth out of heaven; nor are they spontaneous gatherings of like-minded individuals. They are gathered and formed by the Word and Spirit of God, in the Name of Jesus, through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It was the giving of those divine gifts at St. Paul that was then extended to Emmaus on the corner of Milton and Dale Streets. So does the Ministry of the Gospel continue.

The sacred tradition of the Gospel was continued in the Divine Service earlier this evening, in more ways then one. The Father continues to hand over His Son, to and for the world, hidden in the womb of His Church. The incarnate Son continues to hand Himself over to His disciples, especially in the giving of His Body and the pouring out of His Blood for us Christians to eat and to drink. Those whom He has called and ordained to the Ministry of the Gospel, hand over to the Church what they have first of all received from Him: the confession of His Cross and Resurrection, the proclamation of His death until He comes, and the rites and ceremonies of the Holy Communion. I know that orders of service and musical settings differ from one place to another, as they have over the centuries, but the Lord's Supper is the same: the taking, the giving of thanks, and the distributing, all with the Verba Domini, "Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink of it, all of you; this Cup is the New Testament in My Blood. It is for you, for the forgiveness of sins."

What I have received, I have also handed over. Tonight I had the profound pastoral privilege of giving the Holy Communion to Egon and Martin for the very first time. My sermons sometimes click, and sometimes they don't. I am bound to preach the Word of God, but I am an imperfect preacher. I am grateful that the Sacrament of the Altar does not depend on any creativity or ingenuity on my part. The Words of Jesus do not change, nor do the gifts He gives with those Words. It is an awesome thing to be a servant of such Words and such gifts. Less so than it was for St. Mary to conceive and bear the Son of God in her womb, but analagous to that, and awesome in its own right. There is but one thing to say to that: Let it be according to His Word.

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