21 October 2008

Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer

Speaking of Saul and his jealousies. There is this young David encamped in a nearby fortress by three rivers, who with his five smooth stones threatens to bring down giants. What am I to think of this, and what then shall I say?

By various circumstances and connections, my life and my parish have for several years been connected to Redeemer in Fort Wayne. This is a good thing, and I am really very pleased and thankful for it. True confessions, though: there was a time when I would get restless and grumpy at hearing good things about Redeemer and its pastor, the Reverend David Petersen. For a while, it felt like every time I turned around, someone else was telling me how wonderful Pastor Petersen was, and how perfect Redeemer was; and, honestly, I wanted it to stop. Instead of rejoicing in my neighbor's faithfulness and fruitfulness, I was envious of him and defensive of myself. My ego would much rather hear nice things about me and my own congregation than anything good about anyone else. For shame, I know, but it's the truth.

I'm not sure what it was, precisely, that helped me to get over it. I knew better, surely. I would regularly repent of my covetousness, and confess it, and proceed by faith in the forgiveness of my sins. But still, there was this petty King Saul reigning in my heart that recoiled a bit at every chorus of "David has slain his ten thousands." As though it were a contest or a competition. How pathetic! Why is it so hard, sometimes, to recognize our friends from our enemies? There is no good reason to envy the brother in Christ who preaches faithfully and well. Why, then, could I not simply revel in that blessed fruit of the Gospel, and give thanks to God for the vitality and vigor of His Church on Rudisill Boulevard in Fort Wayne? It is sinful pride, plain and simple, and by God's grace I had to let it go.

At some point it dawned on me that, instead of feeling threatened by or jealous of Redeemer in Fort Wayne, it would behoove me to learn something from that congregation and its pastor. It is clear they must be doing something right. Redeemer isn't a large congregation, nor is it affluent, but the members of Redeemer are devoted and passionately loyal; what is more, they are pious and faithful folks who demonstrate an obvious love for Christ and His Church and the Word of God. Since a number of those people are very dear friends of mine, and among them are my own daughter and son-in-law and unborn granddaughter, how shall I not give thanks for the good gifts they are given in that place? In fact, those personal connections were probably a decisive factor in getting my head on straight and my heart set right toward Redeemer. Yet, that should already be the case in view of my brothers and sisters in Christ in every Christian congregation, my fellow members in that blest communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. But knowing that my children are well-served by the Gospel makes a difference. It is among the foremost blessings in my life, for which I regularly give thanks.

Still, there is more. There is something compelling about Redeemer and its life in the Gospel. It has an attractiveness about it that is far from simply superficial. It has a reputation for being "high church," and assuredly it is that, but that is not yet the heart and substance of Redeemer. There is indeed a care and concern for the rubrics, rites and ceremonies of the Liturgy, but all of this so clearly animates out of an underlying passion for solid theology. So, too, with the music, which sings at Redeemer with the vibrant voice of faith. There is a confidence at work, which is not merely an expression of Pastor Petersen's personality, nor a function of doing things strictly "by the book," but a confidence that stands upon the strong foundation of Christ and strides forward in the bold freedom of faith. Of course, such things are what all of us are about, what all of us desire and aspire to, but they are in evidence at Redeemer in Fort Wayne. That is what draws the attention and interest of students, for example, who are eager and hungry to learn these things. Every pastor, and every future pastor, wants to know how to get his bearings and proceed in such a way so as to give the Gospel free course. We all have a good example in Redeemer. I'm past being envious and jealous of that, and I'm far more interested in learning from it.

What is the key? The Liturgy is inseparably a part of it, but not the outward jot and tittle of the ceremonies as the starting point. The adornment of the Liturgy at Redeemer is not imposed upon it from the outside, but emerges from within it in a boyish enthusiasm, if I may say so, for the things of Christ. It is a hunger and appreciation for the body and blood of Christ, for the forgiveness and life and salvation that He bestows from His Altar, which emerges in the frequent celebrations of the Holy Communion. Sometimes elaborate and ornate, sometimes very simple, spoken and straightforward, there is a deep reverence expressed from a heart of faith in the Word of Christ. The outward actions and the way they are conducted are confessions of that faith, bowing before the Lord our God in godly fear, love and trust. That is what I have witnessed at Redeemer, and I believe that is what others see, as well.

You can't manufacture that piety and devotion by following the instructions in a book; though a delight in the Liturgy will prompt one to read and study. Reverence doesn't happen automatically when you put your hands together in prayer; though one who desires to be faithful will surely pray without ceasing. A passion for Christ and His Gospel will not run roughshod over His people, in a hurry to build a "high church" reaching to the heavens, but pastoral care will lead the flock through the green pastures of His Word, alongside the steady waters of Holy Baptism, unto the Table He has set with His life-giving body and His overflowing chalice of salvation.

The key, as I have said before, is in the preaching of the Word. That is perhaps the number one thing that I have learned from the faithful pastor of Redeemer in Fort Wayne. He and his congregation may be known far and wide for their liturgical practice, but the heartbeat of the Liturgy there is the preaching of Christ. I have met more than one person who were drawn to Redeemer and "stuck it out," despite a resistance at first to the ceremonial, for the sake of the preaching. To say it straight and simple, Pastor Petersen has a gift for preaching the Law and the Gospel, and he also works at it, constantly striving to preach faithfully and well. His good example in this regard, as well as his sermons, have been instructive and helpful to me; so that I am a better preacher, now, than I would otherwise have been. When I have spoken and written on the place and purpose of preaching, I have had no better model in mind than the one I find in my brother in Christ at Redeemer. It is not primarily the eloquence and art of rhetoric; though these have their place, and Pastor Petersen puts them to good use in his preaching. It is rather the way he unleashes the Law and proclaims the Gospel, each as the very Word of God.

My point is not to suggest that Redeemer alone has gotten things right; nor that Pastor Petersen alone has got the "right stuff," which the rest of us should endeavor to emulate. That would not be the right way to proceed, nor would it work. Each pastor and each congregation has a unique personality, unique circumstances, unique gifts to deal with and use to the glory of God. My point is simply to say that jealousy of brother pastors and sister congregations is not only sinful but counterproductive. It really is like King Saul throwing things at David and Jonathan. When we find ourselves unable to rejoice in the life of the Church, whether in our own congregation or another, then we have not the mind of Christ, nor His heart, nor His Spirit. More than that, we forego the opportunity to be sharpened and strengthened and sustained in our own service. The servant entrusted with one talent can learn from the one who has been given five or ten to use. If David has slain his ten thousands, shall we not give thanks for the sake of God's Israel, and be steeled for the fight against the twenty or two-hundred or two-thousand who stand before us? Really, I am glad for any champion of ours who can bring down Goliath, so that I am free to engage the battle with guys who are more my own size. If there are brothers in arms with faithful and compelling practice, I'd far rather learn from them than turn away from them. It should not be among the armies of the Lord that soldiers are thrown into confusion and turned against their comrades. Kudos to Redeemer for holding up a standard that helps me keep my bearings in the midst of battle.


organistsandra said...

the members of Redeemer are devoted and passionately loyal; what is more, they are pious and faithful folks who demonstrate an obvious love for Christ and His Church and the Word of God...

Not surprisingly, my observations have been more from this lay angle - specifically how the folks at Redeemer relate to one another. What has struck me is that they seem more connected to the church and to each other than is typical. The people from Redeemer whom I've had contact with don't seem like people who all happen to go to the same church, but like people who belong to the same body.

The ceremonies do reflect the richness of the Gospel and the reverence for the Divine things. And they celebrate the Holy Communion ALL THE TIME - like we do at Emmaus. I think that teaches people to be generous in love.

Anonymous said...

What a striking contrast to the view of high church liturgy presented here:
What is your take on this snippet by Sasse?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Nicely put, Sandra. I appreciate both of your points, and I really like the way you have phrased these observations. "Belonging to one body" and "generous in love," as a consequence of participating in the one body of Christ. Just as St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for you observation and good question, Pastor Palm.

Who could not have great respect for Sasse? Surely we owe him a debt of gratitude for his faithful confession and tireless efforts on behalf of the Lutheran Church. On this point, however, I would have to disagree with him to some extent. Not with respect to his concern for the doctrine of justification; surely that is fundamental and definitive. But he seems to speak too much from his own personal experience, and so he evaluates "High Churchmen" on the basis of those particular men he has encountered.

A Lutheran does not evaluate the orthodoxy or faithfulness of a pastor or a congregation on the basis of how few or many ceremonies are used. Where the doctrine is right, not only on paper but in preaching and practice, there the rites and ceremonies of the Church are taken up (whether in whole or in part, whether simply or elaborately) as a confession of the Word of God in Christ. Where the doctrine is not right, that is, to be more specific, where the preaching and teaching are off the mark (whether false or foolish), there no amount of ceremony, be it little or a lot, will rescue the ship. The faithful practice of the Liturgy (which is not yet to speak of the number of ceremonies) will help to carry the day and sustain the confession of the faith when a sermon now and then is lacking; but the Liturgy will hardly survive, nor will it be able to save the church, apart from the steady preaching of the Gospel.

Really, I'm not a fan of this "high church" terminology. It is too ambiguous, too confusing, and has too much baggage attached to it. On the other hand, one can hardly avoid it; and since it is often leveled at my friends as a pejorative, I'm inclinded to take it up positively and defend it. If it describes nothing more nor less than a lot of elaborate rites and ceremonies, it isn't very useful; and by itself, it doesn't really say anything of decisive importance. There are so many factors that come into play, in determining what may be done and how it should be done. Among other things, that is one of the reasons that we should not condemn one another on the basis of ceremony.

In my experience, it is not the so-called "liturgical nazis" (sic) who criticize other pastors and congregations for their number of ceremonies. These men are not inclined to question a lack of ceremony, but they do question the replacing of the Church's orthodox traditions with idiosyncratic and faddish novelties. By contrast, there are many who will criticize the use of ceremonies, as though they were inherently contrary to the Gospel. Such critics are the real "liturgical nazis," when they presume to wrest away the freedom of faith to receive and use what God has not forbidden, and when they insist upon a stylistic kind of practice and approach that God has not commanded. There seems to be a rampant inability to discern the difference between that which is fundamental and that which is free. I'm not laying that at Sasse's feet, please understand, but I think his critique of the "High Churchmen" he knew lends itself to an erroneous criteria.

If we are going to speak of someone as "high church," I would rather use this terminology to describe an attitude as opposed to a particular measure of outward practice. That is to say, the attitude of reverence and courtesy, which thinks very highly of the Church as the body and bride of Christ our Lord, and which takes seriously the presence of God in the Divine Service. Such reverence will demonstrate itself differently in one place or another, whether in simplicity or in elaborate ceremony. It will proceed in humility and the fear of God, either way.

Justification by grace through faith is foundational and central, such that everything else hinges and depends upon that declared and imputed righteousness of Christ. That justification does not exist merely in theory or in rhetoric, but it lives in the preaching of the Gospel, in the administration of the Sacraments, in the absolving of sinners. To approach worship apart from justification is to get things very badly. But to approach "justification" apart from the Liturgy (that is to say, apart from the Ministry of the Gospel in the Divine Service of preaching and the Sacrament) is to forego the justification of Christ for the self-righteousness of man. More or less ceremony will neither make nor break the situation. But at it's best, and rightly used (where circumstance permits), the ceremony will help to confess the righteousness of faith in the Gospel.