Needed: A Modern Luther
Last night after the New Concepts for Living dinner I attended, I was called to visit a friend of a member of Holy Trinity who was at the hospital. Before I received that phone call, I was actually trying to get around the after-effects of those heavy thunderstorms that struck our area last night. The Garden State Parkway was at a standstill; Route 17 was a flooded joke. After turning on the TomTom app on my iPhone and getting the traveling advice to take Route 46 to Interstate 80 because there wasn’t traffic on those roads, I set off for home.
But those thunderstorms – heavy rain accompanied by lightning (and I think a lot of hail) – it caused me to pull over to the side of the road for a while. I returned a phone call I promised to make when I got home; speaking to a brother pastor, who was my former pastor from Yonkers, provided me with a little venting time and helped clear my mind. As the rain let up, we continued to talk for a bit. At around 9pm, we said our goodbyes and I started back on the road.
And then the phone rang and I turned around and headed on back to Passaic.
At the hospital, I ran into a fellow clergy person who is actually a priest from out west in California. We had a pleasant talk about clergy dress (he was surprised that I was wearing a clerical since most Lutherans don’t wear them where he is from), the bible (I couldn’t believe that I actually saw a Roman Catholic priest carrying a New International Version, typically mocked as a Protestant bible), and the true meaning of the Reformation.
Father Tom made an interesting comment, one that I’ve heard from other Catholic priests over the years: He wishes that there was a Martin Luther in the Catholic Church today. He said his concerns over the top-heaviness of the governance structure is outweighing the need to show acts of compassion and love to God’s people. The church, he explained, is more worried about money and where they need to spend it shoring up the hierarchy. And he said something rather dramatic — he wished there was a Luther to enliven the Gospel in the hearts of Catholics.
That last point surprised me a lot. Of course, for a Roman Catholic priest to talk about the need to have a modern day “Luther” rise up in that church is nothing new. But the idea that the Gospel needed to be refreshed, enlivened, and espoused was something that I never expected to hear.
He explained that when the church is more concerned with hierarchical structure, the primary preaching of sanctification and the mandate to show love to others, and with the giving in to modern ideals within the church, Father Tom said that the church has lost its way. That’s why they need a Luther to shake things up.
To reform them.
And it got me thinking about my former vicarage supervisor Rev. Harry Schenkel. One of his greatest strengths was his laser-like focus on the office of the ministry. He wanted to bring the Gospel to God’s people, to those who were placed under his pastoral care. He always expressed the important point that when I would be called into a parish, my only goal was to be a pastor. It wasn’t to start building a political power base to gain recognition within the Synod. It wasn’t to make a name for myself with other pastors by being a super-confessional commentator. And it definitely wasn’t to get involved with the “inside the LCMS” gossip lines.
My one and only focus was to be a pastor.
It was and is to bring God to God’s people. It is to bring the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, and God’s overwhelming love to the troubled heart.
And as Father Tom talked last night, Harry’s words rang in my ears.
See, there are times when pastors lose sight of the Gospel themselves. We end up getting entangled in pastoral “back room” issues or very non-pastoral church related issues that take our eyes off the importance of the Gospel message. During the past few weeks, this has happened to me. My head has been wrapped around issues that are not related to spreading the Gospel. Even in my sermon on Sunday, as I reviewed it in my head this morning, the Gospel was primarily secondary.
Last night, Father Tom woke me from my Gospel slumber.
In the early days of my vicarage, outside of being nervous, my heart and mind was basically in the same place where it was last night. Harry noticed it right away and very quickly re-focused my thoughts on the good things of the Gospel. As the first weeks progressed, I joined him on a number of visits to members of Saint John’s, and I noticed something about how he conducted himself. Unlike the strictness of the visitation rites we were taught in seminary, Harry sometimes didn’t read Holy Scripture at bedsides. Instead, he let people talk. He allowed them the opportunity to put their concerns on the table so we can talk about them. And then he prayed, holding their hands, and speaking of the love of God.
Nearly every time, we left the sick with a smile on their faces.
One time as we left a hospital, he said to me that is what a pastor does – he brings God to God’s children. The reason the sick smile is not because we pastors are entertainers, but because we brought God to them. They know that they aren’t alone.
I learned a lot about the pastoral heart on vicarage. I became less judgmental, less “hard nosed” in how I taught the theological life of Lutheranism. But most importantly, at least to me, I learned that getting the Gospel message out, whether through preaching, praying, reading, or teaching, is the true pastoral mission. It is bringing the love of God to God’s people.
Harry was a “Luther” type to me. He zapped me early on and refocused my pastoral heart to be guided by the Gospel, guided by the Holy Spirit.
I needed Father Tom to remind me a bit about why I am here.
When I look around our Synod, it is not a very comfortable place, and it hasn’t been so for a while. Pastoral and internal church politics overrides plenty of what we are called to do. Our hearts are not geared towards keeping the Lutheran liberals at bay — it is to bring the Gospel. It is to confess Jesus Christ as Savior; it is to bring that loving message of salvation to the hurting, the sinful, and the needy. It is to show mercy and love to those who long for it.
That is the Gospel.