Well, a funny thing happened to me when I was going on sabbatical and it’s taken me a while to come home. We’re still living out in Oregon, Carolyn and me, my beloved. And, we’ve got a house out there, and we are going to come back at the end of August. She’s going back to work, and so I was very happy to accept this invitation, among other things, to get a chance to see so many of you who are old friends and former students and colleagues, friends of my dad, and my brother. It has been an absolute joy to be here and buoyed me no end. So, thanks so much for your hospitality. As they always say, sinners find one another sooner or later. I figured I tumbled into a bunch of them here.
As evident as it may be, there is something deeply mysterious about the gift of faith. Though sometimes disputed, the facts of the case, if we can call them that, are fairly well known. So, Article V of the Augustana, the Augsburg Confession, when it speaks of handing over the goods, the transmission of the faith from one person, from one generation, from one culture, to another says this: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry; that is, provided the Word and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, . . . he works faith.” Thus, biblically, and confessionally, we can say right from the start, “Faith is a product of God’s work.” The Word and faith belong together. It is out of God’s speaking that we are brought to fear, love and trust him above anything else. With that, we can speak of the community that gathers, sustains us, and holds us. As Luther once said, “With His word, God gives us the new birth, and places us on the belly of our mother, the church.” So, we can speak of the Word and the community, the calling and the gathering. Together they are the means, Word, and sacrament, through which faith happens.
Yet, Augustana V cannot finish without acknowledging the mystery that always hangs around the edges: “To obtain such faith, God has instituted the office of the ministry; that is, provided the Word and the sacrament. Through these, . . . he works faith when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” This when and where he pleases is, of course, the frustration of it all. When I first started teaching over at Luther 30 years ago, and started traveling the church, I often ran into a question that was sometimes asked in an attempt to default the Word and sacrament but was oftentimes asked out of sheer anxiety. What about somebody who has heard the Word and received the sacraments and doesn’t believe it? I soon learned to recognize the agony that fielded the question. Because, of course, it’s my question, too.
All of us have members of our families that have heard the Word as we have heard it, received the sacraments as we have received them, been laid on the belly of their mother, the church, and as soon as they could get legs enough to go, have gotten up and left. So, we can speak of sisters, or brothers, or children who we have brought up in the way they should go, and have seen toddle off into some form of emptiness in which, finally, they have found themselves at rest. It’s enough to drive you crazy. The people that you love the very most, who are the fruits of the loins that bore you, who are the fruits of your own loins, and there they are, hankering after some stupidity, unable, unwilling, to hear the Word. Of course, the temptation in the face of such frustration is to run to the imperative. You better believe this! That’s what my dad told me when I was an atheist in college. You better believe this! And, of course, it does about as much good as the amount of air it uses in the declaration. It makes the speaker feel good – “I really told him.” There’s a little bragging on the pillow at night. “I finally said it.” But, of course, the emptiness returns. We know this about faith – the law’s not going to do the trick. The law’s not going to do the trick. So, we’re going to do two things this morning. First of all, we’re going to talk about how faith happens. We’ve already done that a little bit. We’re going to do a little bit more of it, and then we’re going to talk strategy. We’re going to talk about the fishing.
That’s one of the nice things about Oregon – I traded walleyes for steelhead. I served my first parish out there, and I never was quite able to leave, and it was the fish. Of course, now the Bush administration flooded the Klamath River with potatoes, so potatoes cost $600 per ton and salmon cost $60,000 per ton but they figured the spuds were worth the votes. So, they’ve closed the salmon fishing season on the whole coast of Oregon. I mean, I might as well live in St. Paul, for crying out loud! I am a little frustrated, as you can tell.
The good Lord has plans and purposes for everything, so we’ll take it from there. So, we will talk about how faith happens, and then we’ll talk some fishing. We’ll talk strategy, the old Lutheran strategy, and some suggestions for a different strategy that we might speak of for giving the gift of faith to those we love.
First of all, God has provided the Word and the sacrament. To obtain such faith, that is, to give the gift, to hand over the goods, God has provided the Word and the sacrament. Now the first and most important thing we have to say about the Word is this. Because Christ Jesus is the Word, it is never merely information. Of course, you can get all kinds of information from the Word. You can learn, for instance, about the miracles that Jesus did, and you can learn about what he expects of you, and you can learn about the gifts he has given to others, and you can learn the Sermon on the Mount, and you can learn about the forgiveness of sins, you can learn all kinds of things. But in the end, in the end, the information is always preparatory. It’s on the way to something else; just as your conversations in the family, while they convey information, are on the way to something more decisive – the expression or your love for one another, your joy in one another, your delight. So, I suppose marriages and families are made of small talk. There are all kinds of routine information that gets shared.
Carolyn and I are talking on the telephone everyday. We’ve got the same cell phones, so it’s free. So it doesn’t stop. You know, I keep talking to her all day long, even 2000 miles away, and she tells me about the weather, and she tells me about our dog, and who’s sick, and she tells me about her secretary who is visiting and what they’ve done, and I am very interested in that information. But, the magic always happens late in the conversation, and I know enough to wait for it. She expresses herself to me, and I express myself to her.
You see, that’s how love works. Love takes possession of the details. Love takes those little clichés, the minutiae of the day and turns them into gifts. All of a sudden, out of the routine, out of the small stuff, Christ Jesus is breaking loose in the words. So the information, while it is helpful and essential, is really preparatory to this…your sin is forgiven. I’m going to raise you from the dead. No power is going to ever hold you. There, Christ Jesus is making love to you. He’s speaking his Word to you. He’s breaking loose again, you see, he is saying it. And that is what the Word does. The fundamental characteristic of the Word in Christ Jesus is its power.
So I’ll bet dollars to donuts that when you start talking about your faith, you will talk about some particular person or some particular relationship, and then you will talk about what they said to you. You will tell of their talents. You will tell about how they encouraged you and how they comforted you, and how they sustained you from difficulty, and how the Word just seemed to be perfectly timed, and how it bore such gifts. That’s the Word. That’s not an accident. That’s not an accident. It’s always fun in the Gospel – so many people get converted by rumors.
Like that Syrophoenician woman, you know, who showed up. I just love her. But I love Luther’s sermon on that text even more. That’s one of the great sermons ever preached, the sermon on the Syrophoenician woman. You remember. She heard about Jesus. Her daughter was sick so she showed up at the border. She figured he’s a man of the borders, he’ll be there. And so she showed up on the border, and there he came, disciples and the whole business.
She wasn’t prepared, though, for the churlish way in which he treated her. Here Luther says that Christ Jesus is pursuing faith like the hunter, driving up a pheasant in the field. He’s playing with her but he’s playing hardball, and he goes right for her neck. That’s just like him. I mean, he is so nasty that way. He should be polite and reduce it to an appeal. He should drop back and honor the free will right? You know how that would work! If he had relied on appeal, she would have gone home in her unbelief and died. That would have been the end of that.
But what happens? This magnificent woman has been brought to faith on the basis of a rumor. That’s all she’s got to go on. She has not taken any seminary classes. She has not read any commentaries. She hasn’t even gone to church, but she has heard the Word. And what happens? She comes along the border, and she tries to get through to him, and he answers her not a word. As dear Uncle Roy Harrisville used to say, “He who is speaking fills up 66 books and didn’t have a word for her.” Not one word. Not one word.
So she makes a pest of herself with the disciples. I mean this woman knows how to get through. I mean she stood and waited for authorities before. She knows how this works. You get them through the underlings. And so she goes to work on them. And she pesters the disciples until finally they are good and irritated, and they go to Jesus and say, “Why don’t you take care of this woman? She’s a nuisance. Get rid of her.” Jesus says, “That’s not right to take what belongs to the children and give it to the dogs.” He could get turned in to the state of Minnesota for talking like that. The prophets of political correctness would have him up against the wall in two seconds. I mean, good night! It’s a slur. Racism. Right?
Oh, he’s on his way to something better. Yes, Lord Jesus. You hear her? She knows who he is. The rumor has brought her. Yes, Lord. Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table or from the children’s table. There she is. That’s faith. That’s faith, and Jesus says it now. You know, I love this story. You can imagine Jesus embracing her. You can imagine Jesus taking her in his arms. “Oh woman, great is your faith. Great is your faith.” I mean, she stood through his harsh treatment of her and wrestled the blessing out of his hands, and now he rejoices with her. The Word has this power. The Word has this power when it gets loose.
Whenever I think of this text, I think of old Vernon Toso, who was a missionary to Madagascar for all those years. Dear old Vern. He came back, and got sick of being home. He was in Wolf Point, Montana, and he wanted to go back to Madagascar. He went and had his physical, and they found a tumor on his liver the size of a lemon. So he resigned his call in Wolf Point and moved into a house they bought south of Manning’s Cafe. I know most of you don’t know where Manning’s is but you can look it up; it’s in the phone book . . . over in southeast Minneapolis. So he moved into that house and he got more and more jaundiced. Duane Olson was his pastor and beloved friend. Duane went and called on him. I went over several times myself.
When it was getting close, I took a pile of Luther books with me. I had marked all of these wonderful passages where Luther addresses death directly. It’s just fabulous. You know, Luther says things like this: “To be sure, O death, you will have me. But Christ will shove his fingers down your throat and force you to vomit me up.” You just gotta love that. So I went over to Vern, who was a man of some considerable color, and his wife took me into the room. I sat down beside him as he was lying in his bed, all yellow. I said, “Vernon, I know who your pastor has been all these years, and how Luther has served you, so I brought him along. And I’m going to read these passages to you. And we’ll just let Luther preach to you.”
So I read a couple of those passages and then I started into the sermon on the Syrophoenician woman text. Vernon sat straight up in bed and recited the whole thing from memory. It was glorious! Here were a couple sinners right on the edge of death, and there was old Vernon, singing his heart out. He got the whole thing out and then collapsed, and his wife about kicked me out of the house for stirring him up. He told Duane when he died he wanted to be cremated. And at his funeral the ashes should be placed in the baptismal font. There you go…that’s faith.
Well that’s what the Word does, you see. That’s what the Word does. It creates faith. It’s got such power to create faith that you can be had by a rumor. I mean you can overhear the Gospel and it will take hold of you. I mean it can be walking by like Jesus along the border and then all of a sudden, bang, you’re dead. And being raised to newness of life, that’s the Word. That’s how it works. That’s what it does. It’s the power of salvation. It’s the power of salvation. Because the Gospel literally does what it says. So listen to old Luther. “The law says do this, and it is never done. The Gospel says believe in this and it’s done already.” It’s done already.
Now, so we speak of the power of the Word and, of course, we speak of the power of the sacraments, of baptism, our beginning, our new birth, the last judgment let out ahead of time and as affirmative – the Word bearing in on us in some water to give us the new birth – and the Lord’s Supper.
One of the things that has helped me the most this winter has been the words of institution. “On the night in which he was betrayed…” When I stood up to administer the sacrament the first time after it was all done, I said it like this: “On the night in which he was betrayed,” because, of course, he entered into the deepest betrayal. As Steve said last night in that beautiful sermon, they all showed him their fannies. In fact, one of them literally did. He was in such a hurry to get away that he slipped right out of his equipment. Tell that to the people who write Visions and Expectations. Don’t you know how to behave? Some pious committee all would summon themselves up to their greatest heights and say that we hear you were running away naked the other night. Good night. You know, you’re in such a hurry that not even clothes matter.
On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it and gave it to his betrayers and said, “This is my Body, given for you.” On the night in which he was betrayed he didn’t say, “I’m gonna get you bastards.” On the night in which he was betrayed he didn’t say, “I’m finally gonna catch up with you.” On the night in which he was betrayed he didn’t say, “You’ll get yours in the end.” On the night in which he was betrayed he took bread and he broke it. He who was broken beyond all measure, he broke it, and breaking it he said, “This is my body, given for you. Given for you, betrayers, every last one of you. This is for you.” He took the cup and blessed it and said, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you and for many.”
There you go again. You turn him loose, he can’t help it. The Gospel just starts to spill. It just starts to spill. And so, he’s expressing himself in the bread, in the wine, breaking loose again to create faith, to make a believer out of you. To take your sins upon himself, joyfully, freely. So that you can’t get it back again.
And so too the keys. So too the keys. Remember that story. We had it again a couple weeks ago. The only way Jesus could get in the room after the disciples betrayed him was by absolving them twice, going through the wall and absolving them before they had a chance to fight back. I mean, he knew what would have happened if he had knocked on the door. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” Nobody would have answered. I mean it would have been ten bodies piled against the door, and there would have been a laundry bill. They weren’t gonna let him in. Go ahead and knock. I hear you knockin’ but you can’t come in. Don’t come back! What happens? Oh it’s so beautiful; it’s just so great. Just listen to him. He comes right through the wall because that’s the only way he can get in. When he gets in there, the first words out of his mouth are these: “Peace be with you. Please be with you.”
Well, who is he talking to? Well, there are ten there anyway. Judas is dead, and Thomas, who always had, in the end, for unbelief, is off fishin’ or something. He’s not there. Might as well go to Jerusalem with you. There’s no other show in town. Now he has gone to Jerusalem and found out for sure that that’s not much of a show either – it’s death. So he is gone. So Jesus comes in to those ten. “Peace be with you,” he says. “Peace be with you.” The betrayers, again, sought out by the risen Lord, breaking out of the spandex, as old Don Juel used to say, tearing it wide open, getting loose. There he is, bearing down on them. Before they’ve got even a chance to say hello, he has their heads tipped back, is breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
This is the church you know. A bunch of betrayers gathered together and the Christ Jesus sending his Spirit to break loose on them, tipping their heads back. As Ernst Käsemann liked to say, “The church is always created out of material, which is in and of itself unusable.” It always gives evidence of the resurrection of the dead. So that when it looks dead, you know it looks good, because then you know Jesus is likely to show up. That’s just how it works. So, he breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit, and this is what he says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Right? First thing the resurrected Lord does is to turn loose the word of forgiveness so it can be spoken freely and openly and joyfully to any and all. Your sin is forgiven. It’s happened. It’s happened. So, he expresses himself in these powerful ways. Thus, faith is always as the Apostle Paul says, a product of the Word.
But now Article V of the Augustana, having spoken of this, the power of the Word, the Small Catechism spells it out a little bit further. “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” These are the most beloved words in the whole catechism. Quoted over and over again by people who have long forgotten the rest of it. But basic to the whole thing, I believe that I can’t believe this. Were it left to me, if the Gospel were simply an appeal, if that’s all it was, was some tickling of my will to enlist me, there’d be nothing but unbelief. That’s the natural state. That’s the default position of the human self. Flat-out wanton unbelief, rejection, betrayal. You hit the button it just reverses to that position. That’s how it goes. It’s not that unbelief is an alternative to us. That’s who we are. It takes Christ Jesus to flush that confession out of us.
I believe I can’t believe this, but what? “ . . .the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightening me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith. In the same way, he calls . . . “ – and hear are the words we want – “. . . gathers. . .” Gathers.
When you tell the story of hearing the Word, you immediately speak of it on the lips of another. The Word never approached you abstractly. The Word came to you embodied in a relationship. The Word came to you embodied on the lips of somebody who loved you. The Word came to you from somebody who cared enough about you to stop and say, “There’s something better than this. I’ve got it for you.” The Word came to you in a relationship, so there is no calling without the gathering. And the gatherings exist for the sake of the calling. The Word gets loose, and the Word gets loose on the lips of another, and that other is the beginning of the gathering. So Jesus did not say, “Where there is a minimum of 50 and they follow the model constitution.” Jesus did not say, “If the plant isn’t producing, close it.” Jesus didn’t say, “We are looking to locate congregations in growing communities and, therefore, we’re not interested in you rejects.”
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name. I can’t help myself. I mean if there are just two or three, I’ll be there. Because, if there are two or three, we can start a conversation. I’ve got another chance to give myself away.” That’s him, spilling over with goodness, gracious beyond any measure, giving himself. “Two or three, that will do. Just give me a couple. I’ll take two. If you can get three, so much the better.” Of course, you know what would happen if Chicago got a hold of that. Well now, two or three. Let’s see. There’s the President and there’s the Vice-President, and there’s the Secretary. And, of course, the President better be in succession, because I mean we don’t want the Gospel getting loose. Faith might happen. Come on! You have to do all things properly and in order. The anal retentive’s view of the Kingdom of God. You just wish somebody would break loose like Jesus did at the Temple and bust something. Just for the joy of a little chaos. It’s too much fun.
So, there is a gathering. It’s a gathering of sinners. It’s a gathering of sinners. And that gathering of sinners is critically important, is critically important. My faith is never my work. My faith is the Holy Spirit’s work through my neighbors. Jesus knows better than to turn us over to ourselves. He’s got enough experience with us to know that’s a nonstarter. He knows where that road’s going to go. He went there. And he hung there. What we’re going to do is deicide all over again, and then we’re going to congratulate ourselves on how pious we are in the process. “I only did this because I had to. I really liked Him, you know. I could affirm a lot of what He was doing, but in the end, in the end – untrustworthy. You never know when he’ll raise the dead. He comes to town and miracles start breaking out. We’ve got to regulate this a little bit, get it all in a row.”
It doesn’t work that way. Jesus comes to town, and he is calling Zaccheus out of the tree, and looking down on the paralytic who has been lowered to him through the roof. Can you imagine? What do you think he thought when he was looking at that parade coming down through the roof? Good night. He comes to town, and the blind receive their sight; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the poor have good news preached to them; and he is looking for some more to do the same thing. Faith gathers a community and, through that community, sustains faith in the other.
When I was editing for Augsburg Publishing House, I edited a book written by Richard Koenig, a wonderful friend out east. The book disappeared in about five minutes. I think it is about the finest book I ever edited. It’s called A Creative Minority. You couldn’t even find that book on e-bay, but my copy is just about worn out. Koenig argues in this wonderful book that the critical point of faith for children is what he calls secondary reinforcement, or secondary confirmation.
What happens? You bring up a child in the faith. There is the Word; there is the gathering. The critical point comes when the child starts to leave home. In the traditional family, you know who provides the frame of reference. In the traditional family, it’s the uncles and aunts – all of the authority and none of the responsibility. The people that teach you to play. When you start having questions about the old man or your mother, you go to your uncle and say, “What in the world is going on here.” And, your uncle tells you that they have been having that problem for a long time. And then quietly reinforces. That’s the vocation of an uncle or an aunt, to provide confirmation for what’s happening within.
So, this was the genius of the early Lutherans in this country. They recognized that being a minority in a new world, there had to be this secondary confirmation. And you know where they provided it? The old Lutherans were really good at three things. They were good at orphanages, better than you can ever imagine. You go along the south shore of the Great Lakes and there is one orphanage after former orphanage after another. Lutherans taking care of the young. At one point Lutherans owned one-third of all the nursing home beds in the whole country. We’re real good at that, taking care of the elderly.
The original Lutherans in this country recognized something else, this secondary confirmation, that the children, in leaving home, needed to have a place in which they could explore their faith and receive it back again. That was the original vocation of the church colleges. Among other things, they were breeding grounds where the Lutheran buffalo went to meet other Lutheran buffalo. That was a wonderful feature of them. They didn’t like to advertise that but everybody knew that was one of the important things they did. Nice girls. Trustworthy boys, at least according to the myths. The church colleges did that for us as a church first, till about the 1960’s, late 60’s, early 70’s, when things started to move. The faculties joined the academic unions and told the church to shove off. It’s a long time since that happened. There are still some heroes of the faith that had served in those schools, though generally in other departments – political scientists, biology teachers, Greek teachers. They provided this. It is very important.
Now we have enough on the table here, we can talk about strategy. On the basis of this understanding of how faith happens, the original Lutherans worked out a strategy for handing over the gifts, for passing the faith, that worked superbly, and continue to work superbly in traditional cultures. Luther’s catechism, the Small Catechism, was commonly called in the sixteenth century, the layman’s Bible. Of course, this was a time of limited literacy so that people didn’t have scriptures available like we do. They had Luther’s catechism, it didn’t replace the scripture by any means, of course, but it provided a sum or a key, the commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and provided those working elements of the faith with the sacraments in simple explanations that were keyed to the rhythms of everyday life.
So Luther is reading Scripture, and he is reading the shape of life out in front of him. And the catechism emerges out of this meeting. And so we’ve got a document for handing over the faith – the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer; the most basic elements of Christian faith are there. And in a form where they can be used.
Elizabeth Eisenstein, who is a historian of print at Columbia University, in a wonderful article on the catechism, points to the second characteristic of this strategy. With the catechism, Eisenstein says, the Lutherans move the altar from the chancel into the kitchen. They moved the altar from the chancel into the kitchen. By providing the basic form of the Word in this simple and expressive way, the Lutherans provided a means of instruction for the parents to use in bringing up their children in the faith. That was the strategy, to have the parents teach the children, and to have the parents and the children teach the pastors. So you’ve got a Small Catechism and a Large Catechism, the strategy being to get these overlapping layers of the Word so that the Word is being spoken to the children at the table, in the most intimate and challenging relationships of life. The Word is there, at the table, so the catechism was originally printed on poster board, to be hung in the kitchen. There’s the altar. The congregation’s table becomes the family table, and the family takes responsibility.
Now, one of the most interesting things about this is the way that what Koenig refers to as secondary confirmation of the Word takes place. Lutheranism was born in a situation very much like Iran. I was impressed last night. I snuck in the back and was listening. I love Harry Wendt, and I love to listen to him. He is one of the great teachers of the church, that guy. I love Stephanie, his daughter, even more. I think she is the greatest announcer I have ever heard on the radio. She was just fabulous, until St. Olaf went and closed WCAL, may they burn forever for having done that. That was a sin against us all. I hope that late president got it just for that. I don’t know. At any rate, if you haven’t heard Stephanie, you missed a real peach. She can give you an education just like Harry can. Harry will give you the Word, and she will give you the music to go with it. That’s just fabulous.
I enjoyed Harry’s reference to 9,000 priests. That was the situation in 16th century Germany, too. You couldn’t walk across the street without stumbling over a syphilitic monk. You couldn’t go downtown to get your groceries without meeting a Franciscan begging on the corner. That’s the way it was. The church just permeated; it was pervasive.
So, the Lutherans, the original Lutherans, are anti this kind of domination by the church. They’re looking for participation. They’re not like John Calvin. They’re not going to take the world over and transform it. They think of themselves as salt, as light, as leaven. They’re going to make sure the Word is there, and they’re going to make sure the family is taking care of it, but they’re going to rely on the public life to provide this secondary confirmation.
And it worked, basically. It worked. Most of us, I think, came to faith this way. Most of us over 55 anyway, or 60. I think the breakdown took place some place right between my brother and my youngest sister. It is right in there some place. It’s between 55 and 50. I think that’s where the whole traditional structure started to fall apart. And when it started to fall apart, it broke down at every level.
You remember what it was to grow up in a small town. Your faith was everybody’s business. Your faith was the business of your congregation. They were watching you, but you couldn’t go downtown without having your faith reinforced in one way or the other. The neighbors were all looking after you. There was this secondary confirmation out there. But when it broke down, it all fell apart at once. I’ll tell you. When it broke down, it broke down at every level.
Most families no longer eat together. Public life, with all of its attractions, has become so absorbing of time that there is simply not a schedule where families stop. When Mommy and I were raising our three boys, we negotiated with them for some time that would be available to us all. You know when it was? Twenty to seven in the morning. That was the only time of the day we could find to have devotions. Because everybody had some schedule at every other hour of the day. That’s the way it works. Most families don’t stop to eat, they graze. The microwave goes on and off as various degrees of commercially-prepared food is warmed up. So that you can go on to the next thing, your favorite TV show, or bowling, or the library, or to rent a flick, or whatever.
So, when the family doesn’t meet, lots of things start to go wrong. Lots of things start to go wrong, and the first is faith. This morning, I’m staying with Grandpa and Grandma, of course, and this morning we had devotions at the table. When I was listening to Grandpa pray, I thought of all the voices who are praying with me when I pray. I can hear my great-grandpa’s voice, and the voice of both my grandparents, my grandfathers and my grandmothers. I can hear my dad’s voice, and I can hear my mother’s voice, and I can hear my brother’s voice. There is a whole community. That community is the gathering in which I was called, and it is the gathering that has sustained me in faith.
So that lots of times when I’m lying in bed and can’t sleep, I remember my grandma and her prayers. Interminable. But now I can’t get enough of them. I tried to rehearse them in my mind because they were so beautiful. That’s how most of us were shaped in the faith, us older types, retired types. But for younger people, think of it, they don’t even hear the voice of their parents in prayer. So oftentimes, with my advisees over at Luther, I would ask them early, “Have you ever prayed with an adult?” “No.” Lots of times the answer was no. “Did your parents pray with you?” “No.”
Well, what happens when you take away that embodiment of the Word? Screwy things start to happen. What happens when you take away uncles and aunts? A lot of fun disappears. What else? The secondary confirmation starts to go, you see. What happens, I mean I was impressed with Harry last night talking about the big picture, the big narrative. What happens when the big narrative is taken over by the advertising companies and the mass media? They don’t want to tell you a story that ends on a cross in death. That’s a downer. They want to tell you a story where there is no death, it’s all resurrection. You just buy their product, and you will be carried beyond the realm of death into the realm of life forever. They tell a different story than we tell. We tell a story of death and resurrection. They tell a story of unlimited resurrection for sale at a price. And they have taken over. They have taken over so that the biblical narrative which, for centuries, has formed the warp and the weft of our public life has disappeared and been replaced by a commercial, an exploitative narrative.
If you think I’m over speaking, just listen to the radio. Listen to the music your kids hear. That’s what’s happened. So you take away the family, and you take away the overarching narrative, and you take away the secondary confirmation in our public life, so that the Word that you speak to your children is not being reinforced as your children move out into public life. It is being challenged and undermined. It’s no wonder, then, that we, as Lutherans, are commonly described as having lost two generations of our young and being on the way to losing a third. I think probably the third is gone. I went to a Luther League Convention and got adapted to the socially upwardly mobile, which is the primary function of Luther League Conventions. I never got anything reinforced.
How can we talk about another strategy then? I want to talk about just two things. First of all, tending the narrative. I love to tell the story because I know it is true. Tending the narrative means telling the story. Setting out the narrative, the big picture, as Harry called it. Setting out the gifts. Tending the narrative means keeping the story out in front of ourselves and those we love. Keeping the story out there, that means, for instance, Bible study. It means family devotions. It means prayers on arising and sleeping. It means living in the biblical story.
We fell into a tremendous congregation out in Oregon. They have sustained us this year. It’s been just fabulous. We go to Bible study every Friday morning with the old saints of the parish. It’s just incredible to listen to them, listening to Scripture. We have been reading Jeremiah. So we’ve gotten a good kick in the shins and other parts of the anatomy on a fairly regular basis. And they hang right in there wanting that Word, that’s tending the narrative. The Word is there. There’s going to be no faith if the Word’s not there. There’s going to be no faith if the Word’s not there. Tending the Word means speaking it. Saying it to your nieces and nephews. Saying it to your children. Saying it to the children of your friends. It means tending the elemental connections with the Word, making sure that it’s there. Making sure that it’s there. Telling the story.
You know, that reminds me…Mike Rogness loves to tell about a convention up at Kabekona Lake, not a convention, but an annual meeting of all the pastors. Old Loyal Tellakson stood up and said, “We will now recite Psalm One.” Every pastor in the group stood up and recited it from memory. You know, tending the Word. Tending the Word. That’s being in range. Speaking it, hearing it.
Secondly, it seems to me that our strategy is simply out of whack with what’s happened. You know what we do now? Pastors complain that people call them up on Saturday night and want their kid done, and then do it anyway. And express their confidence in the future by setting out an imperative that found its way into the green hymnal – “You better take care of these kids!” That’s not the job of the pagans who are interested enough to call and ask for baptism. That’s our job. And that’s our joy. We tend the Word, and that means tending the relationships, looking after the relationships.
I remember old Kent Knutson saying this in a class years ago, “If somebody calls you up and asks to have their kid done, say why sure, bring’em over.” But then say this, “You know that child belongs to us now. If you don’t place in the child’s hands the Holy Scriptures, we will. If you don’t bring him to services in God’s house, we’re going to be dropping by. We’ve got a couple of frustrated grandparents in our congregation that love nothin’ better than lookin’ after kids. They want to tell your kids Bible stories. You go out Saturday night, we’ll come by and take care of them.”
You see, what’s happening? We have thought like a privileged majority and we have said faith is a gift, and we have talked about how the wheel doesn’t work and so on and so forth, but we haven’t taken the next step. We haven’t caught on yet. We’re a minority. We’re not only a minority, we’re a minority under siege. As a minority under siege, we don’t trust the Word to somebody else, we’re going to say that, thank you very much. We’re not going to depend on some two-bit television evangelist who is soaking the congregation for money and doesn’t have a thing to hand over. We’re going to speak the Word. That’s our job. We’re going to speak the Word. And, when we speak the Word, we’re not just going to kiss and tell. We’re going to stay there and tend the relationships. When we do that, then tending the relationships, we can begin to talk about confirming our witness with our children.
Here’s a suggestion. Let the congregation appoint godparents for every child baptized, and that the godparents appointed by the congregation take responsibility for carrying the faith to those kids. They have two responsibilities – to speak the Word to those kids, and to show up at their ball games. Right? Two responsibilities. To be there when they are graduating from high school, with the Word again. What’s happening there? We’re replacing in our congregation the community that’s disappeared. You know that could be a lot of fun. That’s evangelism. This is not the kiss and run kind of evangelism where you challenge somebody and take off. “Nice to talk to you. See you later.” This is evangelism that stays. That speaks the Word and stays.
With that, families, get far better odds. A couple kids against two parents is a losing proposition. Grandpa and Grandma have to be there. If they’re not, the congregation should provide them. Uncles and aunts have to be there. If they’re not, the congregation should provide them. Because bringing up a child in the faith amounts to this: handing over the goods, that is, bestowing the gifts of Christ Jesus and hanging in there to the point of crucifixion and resurrection. You know that could be a lot of fun.