Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mark's thoughts: "Children's sermons" and Childrens catechesis

A pastor I know recently shared in a Lutheran discussion group that he was being pressured to introduce a “Children’s sermon” into the Sunday Divine Service.  He asked about how other pastors had handled this.  The overall response to children’s sermons in the discussion was very negative, and if one believes what the Book of Concord has to say about worship and the forms used for it, this is really not hard to understand.

As Lutherans, we recognize that in the Divine Service, God serves us with His gifts of the Means of Grace by which He forgives sins and strengthens faith.  The liturgy of the Divine Service is all taken from God’s Word and it has been built around the Means of Grace.  It has been constructed in a way that highlights Baptism, Holy Absolution, the reading and preaching of the Gods Word and the Sacrament of the Altar (consider how the Word of Institution are framed by the Preface, Proper Preface, Sanctus, Pax Domini and Agnus Dei).

Not only is the liturgy made from Scripture and put together in ways that emphasize the Means of Grace, but it also teaches the correct faith.  This is important because the way we worship shapes and forms what we believe.  The things we do, say and hear every Sunday determine what we believe.  What a church really believes can be learned from how they worship on Sunday morning.  The weekly use of the liturgy as found in the settings of our hymnal helps to form and shape us in the one true catholic and apostolic faith.

In this process the repetition of the liturgy in the Divine Service is a powerful tool for learning. The repetition of hearing and singing the words of the liturgy each week teaches us the catholic and apostolic faith, and shapes and forms the way we think about the faith.  This is a process that begins with the smallest child and continues all throughout our life.  It is not a process that ever ends or is finished because the words and phrases, movements and actions invite ever deeper understanding as we grow and mature as Christians. In this way, the liturgy also helps to preserve the faith as it keeps us believing the catholic and apostolic faith in the midst of a world that seeks to draw us away from Christ.

During the second half of the twentieth century an idea developed in American Christianity that has also implanted itself in the Lutheran church.  This is the assumption that there really isn’t anything in the service for children.  They can’t get anything out of it because it goes “over their head.”  What was needed then, was something that was aimed specifically at children.  And so "children’s sermons" were born as they were inserted into the service for the purpose of meeting this need and providing “something for the children.” 

During the last twenty years or so this belief has been pursued to its logical conclusion as churches have removed children from the service altogether and instead have them present at a separate “children’s church.”  If there isn’t anything in the service for children, why leave them in that setting?  Rather than the half-measure of a children’s sermon, it is better to remove them from the Sunday service and instead provide a “service” that is tailored for them.

This way of thinking of about children and worship errs completely in its understanding of what the Means of Grace and the liturgy do for children, and so with good cause many Lutheran pastors view children’s sermons negatively.  There are additional reasons as well.  In principle it is always better to use the settings of the hymnal as they stand (“do the red, speak the black”) instead of adding and changing.  Such activity arises from the pastor’s ego (“I know better”) and places the congregation at the mercy of the liturgical whims of the pastor. Many pastors also object to the way that children’s sermons make the children the object of attention (“They’re so cute!) in church.

I would agree with all of the objections that have been listed thus far.  However, pastoral ministry does not occur in a vacuum.  Instead it occurs in the setting of a congregation where prior practice and teaching have often shaped expectations.  Very soon the candidates who received calls this week at the seminaries will find themselves having to negotiate the interaction between their training about how things are to be done based on what we believe and the reality of how things have been done in their parish.

This was the situation I found myself in ten years ago when I accepted the call to my current parish. The congregation had a long standing tradition of children’s sermons. As I understood it, in some cases they had been done by lay people.  During the vacancy they even had puppet shows at this time in the service.  While I didn’t like them, I also didn’t believe that I could come in and eliminate the children’s sermon.  After all, they are children’s sermon and congregation members' emotions do funny things when children are involved (this also part of the reason why the request for children’s sermons is difficult for a pastor to deny).

I decided to keep this element in the service prior the Hymn of the Day and the sermon.  However, there were going to be changes.  In the first place, only the pastor would be doing them.  God had given the Office of the Holy Ministry to administer the Means of Grace, and so the one placed by God (Acts 20:28) to serve in the Office in that place would teach about God’s Word in the setting of the Divine Service. 

The second change dealt with the content and approach because I believed that it was possible to make this into a time of teaching that shared in the content in the Divine Service – something that was organically and naturally related and not a alien element injected by foreign presuppositions.  It should go without saying that “object lessons” were out. Even a basic understanding of child development made clear that small children could not learn from this.  In addition, anything that did not come directly from the Scripture lessons for the day, the day or season of the church year, or the liturgical setting of the Divine Service was out. And yes ... puppet shows were out.

I began doing this for a year or two before I changed the name, but the name captures the shift in focus: Children’s catechesis.  Catechesis shapes and forms people in the Christian faith.  Of course it involves new knowledge and information.  However, of equal importance is the fact that this involves new habits and practices as life is shaped and formed by God’s Word and the catholic practices that confess and teach the faith drawn from God’s Word.

Children’s catechesis at my parish always makes use of one of these three things: 1) Scripture reading for the day (usually the Gospel) 2) Church day or season 3) Liturgical setting (ceremonial, ornamentation of the church building, etc).  There is almost always some visual item used. Frequently appearing are:

1. The Gospel reading is repeated in summary form using a picture from The Story Bible or an item in the story like bread.
2. A special day or new season of the Church is taught and explained using the color of vestments and paraments that is now different on Sunday.
3. The furnishings (altar, font, pulpit, lectern) and ornamentation of the church (banners, windows, pictures, etc) are explained or used to teach when they are related to the Gospel reading for the day.

Key words and terms are emphasized by asking the children to repeat them at the beginning and again at the end (e.g., “Today we are beginning the season of Advent. Can you say Advent?”).

After ten years I can report that this has worked remarkably well in teaching children.  It does not appear as an element foreign to the Divine Service because it is always about the Divine Service.  It is the very thing the children are hearing, saying, singing and seeing.  And of course, it is not just the children who learn.  The opportunity to catechize adult members on a host a topics has been a great benefit.

One can still object that it is not something that is part of the rite as found in the settings of the hymnal.  This is true, but new elements have arisen and disappeared during the history of Lutheran worship.  One searches in vain for the cantata of Bach’s 18th century Leipzig in the first 16th century Church Orders, and we no longer have it today.  The reading of the Small Catechism in the Divine Service was a common practice among 16th century Lutheranism, but it certainly is not present in our hymnals today.  However, these were all things that were consistent with what Lutherans confess about worship.  I suggest that Children’s catechesis can be understood in a similar way.

It is true that people enjoy seeing the children and there is attention on them. But over time I have learned that at Good Shepherd this is not so much about the “cuteness” factor, but rather that the congregation loves her children and enjoys seeing them learn about the Christian faith as it is experienced on Sunday in church.

The opportunity to interact with the youngest children in the congregation has also been a great blessing.  I am able to begin to develop a relationship with them as their pastor who teaches them the faith at a very early age.  The time when kids decide they are "too big" to come up for Children's catechesis usually occurs at about third grade.  Yet this is the very time when children in our congregation can begin catechesis in Learn by Heart in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of the Altar prior to confirmation.  Opportunities for catechesis flow from one liturgical setting of the Divine Service into another in the Service of Prayer and Preaching (Lutheran Service Book, pg.. 260). 

It was not originally my wish to begin Children’s catechesis.  But a decade later I am thankful that the circumstances of pastoral practice prompted something that has been very beneficial for our congregation. 

To pastors who have grudgingly inherited Children's sermons or are being pressured to introduce them, I suggest that there is a way things can be done which fits with the Divine Service and provides a wonderful opportunity for catechesis of the children and congregation.  To pastors who reject Children's sermons as a matter of course, I express that I understand the reasons.  But I also suggest that perhaps there is another way to do it that is worth thinking about. To pastors who have the classic Children's sermon, I suggest that there are reasons to ponder the message that is being sent to members when this is done. "Children's church" (something that is beginning to appear in LCMS parishes) is the logical conclusion of Children's sermons.  There is a way to do it that better integrates with what we claim to believe. 



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist

Today is the Feast of St. Mark, Evangelist.  St. Mark was the author of the second Gospel.  Also known as John Mark, he was originally from Jerusalem where the house of his mother was a center of the early church (Acts 12:12).  Paul and Barnabas brought Mark to Antioch (Acts 12:25) and he accompanied them on the first missionary journey.  Mark left them during the journey (Acts 13:13) and later Mark was the cause of the parting that occurred between Paul and Barnabas when Paul wanted to take Mark along on the second missionary journey (Acts 15:37-40).  Later, Paul and Mark were reconciled and Mark assisted Paul (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11).  Mark also later worked with Peter (1 Peter 5:13).  Tradition indicates that Mark helped to found the church in Egypt (Alexandria) and that he was martyred there.

Scripture reading:
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.  For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:5-18)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You have enriched Your Church with the proclamation of the Gospel through the evangelist Mark.  Grant that we may firmly believe these glad tidings and daily walk according to Your Word; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God,  now and forever.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Commemoration of Johann Walter, Kantor

Today we remember and give thanks for Johann Walter, Kantor.   Johann Walter (1496-1570) began service at the age of 21 as a composer and bass singer in the court chapel of Frederick the Wise. In 1524, he published a collection of hymns arranged according to the church year. It was well received and served as the model for numerous subsequent hymnals. In addition to serving for 30 years as kantor (church musician) in the cities of Torgau and Dresden, he also assisted Martin Luther in the preparation of the Deutsche Messe (1526). Walter is remembered as the first Lutheran kantor and composer of church music.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of Your salvation mystery is now revealed and made known to all the nations. Grant that this mystery of salvation, as confessed by Johann and all those who now rest from their labors, continue to guide Your Church on earth as we wait for the day when You come from heaven one last time and usher in the new creation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter - Quasimodo Geniti - Jn 20:19-31

                                                                                                Easter 2
                                                                                                Jn 20:19-31

            Today is the Octave of the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. Like the word “octagon,” octave makes reference to the number eight.  In this case, it designates eight days.  Each of the major feasts of the church year are celebrated over the course of eight days.  One Sunday isn’t enough.  The full week following Sunday is part of the celebration, and then it spills over into the next Sunday.  That is why today we pray not only the Collect of the Day for the Second Sunday of Easter, Quasimodo Geniti, but also the Collect for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord from Easter Sunday.
            Our Gospel lesson for the Octave is a perfect fit.  On Easter morning last week we heard the first verses of John chapter 20 as Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early on Sunday morning, when it was still dark.  Now on the Octave we hear from the end of John 20 about what happened on Sunday evening.
            We learn that on the evening of Easter, Jesus’ disciples were gathered together.  They had locked the doors because they were afraid of the Jews.  Now of course, they too were Jews.  But in the way John uses this term we see that a change has taken place.  We believe that John was probably the last Gospel written.  He uses this word in a way that clearly distinguishes between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not.  It is a division that would take place in the decades after Jesus’ ascension as it became obvious to all that Judaism and Christianity were different religions.  Yet while people didn’t recognize it yet on Easter Sunday, the change had already occurred.  Jesus had changed everything.
            The disciples were gathered gather with the doors locked because they were afraid of the Jews.  It’s not hard to understand why they were afraid.  The Jewish leadership in Judea had done everything in their power to pressure the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, into crucifying Jesus. And they had succeeded. They had viewed Jesus as a threat and had used every means at their disposal to eliminate him.  Now with Jesus dead, it wasn’t hard to imagine that they would come after Jesus’ followers in order to wipe out any lingering danger.
            Yet their fear must have been about more than just this.  That morning, Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb and found that the large stone had been rolled away.  She went to Peter and apparently John and told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Peter and John had run to the tomb and had discovered the linen cloths in which Jesus body had been wrapped, and the face cloth folded and placed in a different spot.
            After they had gone home Mary Magdalene had encountered a man she thought was the gardener.  Yet in their conversation she had perceived that it was in fact the Lord Jesus!  He had sent her back to the other disciples to share this message: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and told them what he had said.
            What was one to make of all this?  Fearful of reprisal from the Jews; anxious about what exactly was happening, they were gathered together with the doors locked.  Fear and apprehension often describe our lives. Sometimes we truly do fear what the next lab report will say or what will happen to our job. At other times we encounter gnawing apprehension, worry and uncertainty about what is going to happen in our lives or the lives of friends and loved ones.
            Now fear and worry do not arise from faith.  The only fear that does is when we fear, love and trust in God above all things.  Instead, this fear and worry is prompted by sin.  In fact, it is sin.  Now it’s not as if we want to fear and worry. It is instead evidence of how the Fall – the old Adam – continues to hinder us and works against the new man within you created in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. But all the same, it is sin because it is a failure to trust in God.
            The disciples were locked up with their fear and worry. 
And then Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus appeared with them in the midst of the locked building. The New Testament teaches us that in his resurrection Jesus’ body was changed so that it can never die again.  It is the same change he will work in your body through the Spirit on the Last Day. 
            However, it doesn’t seem to be the case that the cause of this extraordinary event is to be found in the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body.  Instead, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is also something you and I are not – he is true God.  In the Gospels, during his ministry, Jesus used his power as God to serve others. He does great things, but they are always helping and serving others. Yet now as the risen Lord who has completed his mission, we start to see him manifesting his power in new and dramatic ways.
            Jesus appears in their midst and the very first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.”  The disciples are fearful and apprehensive.  Jesus appears in their midst and imparts peace.  His words, “Peace be with you,” are not a wish. They are not a hope.  Instead, they do what they say because Jesus the risen Lord stands in their midst and speaks to them.
            This connection is emphasized immediately as we are told, “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  Jesus showed them the marks where nails had been driven through his hands to affix him to the cross.  How showed them the mark where a spear had been thrust into his side in order to make sure he was dead – a thrust that brought forth blood and water.
            Jesus appeared in the midst of fearful disciples. He said, “Peace be with you.”  He showed them the marks of his crucifixion and demonstrated that he, their Lord was alive. He had risen from the dead! And John tells us, “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  This is actually a rather lame translation.  Better yet is, “they rejoiced” when they saw the Lord. Jesus the crucified and risen Lord drove away their fear.  He brought them peace.  He brought them joy.
            We gather this morning to hear this Gospel lesson so that Jesus can do the same thing for us.  Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the One in whom the saving glory of God was revealed in the world.  John begins his Gospel by saying, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
            Jesus revealed this glory through the miracles that he performed.  After Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”  The signs revealed Jesus’ glory and they called forth faith in Jesus.
            All of the signs in the Gospel point to the single action by which Jesus accomplished his saving work for us.  During Holy Week Jesus said, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  And then John adds, “He said this to show – literally ‘to sign”’ - by what kind of death he was going to die.”
            The signs point to the cross.  Jesus went to the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – who has taken away your sin.  But Jesus was clear that this sign would not end in death.  He had said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.”
            Jesus appeared in the midst of the disciples and showed them that he had risen, just as he had said.  He had conquered sin, and so in our text he imparts the gift of Holy Absolution – he gives the authority to forgive sins in Jesus’ stead. The risen Lord had conquered death. Because of this the disciples now had peace.  And because of this, we now have peace.  On the evening of his betrayal Jesus told his disciples, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
            In our world we do have tribulation.  We see it in all of the messed up circumstances of this fallen world. We see it in the ways that the old Adam in us continues to drag us back into fear and worry. And that is why we need Jesus to continue to drive away drive away fear and worry. We need him to give us peace and joy, just as he did to the disciples. 
            The risen Lord is doing that right now through his Word.  His resurrection appearance to the disciples was a sign that revealed his saving glory and gave them peace.  John concludes our text by saying, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
            You see the sign this morning through Christ’s Spirit breathed word.  It is the risen Lord who speaks through this word and says, “Peace be with you.”  He reveals his risen body that bears the mark of his crucifixion.  He is the crucified and risen Lord who has conquered sin and death for you.  And so today, like the disciples, we rejoice because we have seen the Lord. We give thanks because the risen Lord comes to us this morning and says, “Peace be with you.”