Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trivializing the Significant

William Willimon noted in his book Peculiar Speech how typically we trivialize baptism.  His words are especially trenchant for Lutherans.  What do we say about baptism?

What is Baptism?--Answer.
Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God's command and connected with God's Word.
Which is that word of God?--Answer.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew: Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

What does Baptism give or profit?--Answer.
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are such words and promises of God? Answer.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

How can water do such great things?--Answer.
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.

What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Where is this written?--Answer.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

This is what we say.  Baptism is about power, life, death, and new birth.  By water and the Word God calls, claims, kills, and saves -- but who would know it from what generally happens at the baptismal font? 

"Cooing babies, grinning parents, droplets from rosebuds, rosy faced" smiling preachers who make every aspect of baptism a cause for humor have stolen the reality of the image from the reality of the theology of what is really taking place.  Parents are more worried about a fussy baby embarrassing them than about the death and new life of their children.  The folks in the pews have learned to see this as Kodak moment instead of Kingdom moment.  Pastors ad lib as if this were an audition for America's Got Talent instead of God literally moving heaven and earth to bring one more lost and condemned sinner aboard the ark of His Church.

But we trivialize preaching in the same way!  Children's sermons hardly ever treat the real concerns of children.  Our object lessons and moral prods with props seem designed instead to entertain adults.  We have chosen the trivial over the weighty, the cute over the Truth, preaching "sermonettes by preacherettes for Christianettes." (p. 54)

And then we wonder why the pews are filled more with the curious than the committed, why we find more spectators than followers, and why folks are more disinterested than disciples on Sunday morning.  I do not like the way we trivialize God's most serious gifts in the means of grace.  It is not that I do not want to do it -- I do and I expect most Pastors do.  But the liturgy constrains me (except in the pulpit).  In the pulpit I must exercise my own personal discipline and, hopefully, the discipline of the people there will hold my feet to the fire.  Every cutsie thing we do and every ounce of cotton candy truth that passes for the pound of Gospel we are to preach only tears down the Church and becomes an enemy of God's work and His kingdom.  

At some point I pray we will awaken to realize that faithful confession means little if what we do in practice is in conflict with or trivializes what we say we believe... It is for this reason that I began this blog... first for the sake of my own church body and then in hopes that others too will hear and heed the call to Truth and Life in Him who is its way, its voice, its power, its source, and its fulfillment...


Paul said...

Perhaps a first (baby) step might be to do away with "childrens' message." I've never understood the point of that or of dismissing children for kidz church.

Anonymous said...

Yeah,that even do that in Roman parishes! Who'da thunk!

The kids are dismissed at the "Liturgy of the Word" (once called the Mass of the Catechumens) and brought back after hearing the readings explained at a level they can understand. Which is not really all that bad, come to think of it.


Anonymous said...

Many LCMS parishes have used the
"children's sermon" as an opportunity
to give their Director of Christian
Education more visibility to their
members and to help justify their
employment. In one parish the DCE
was asked to stop giving the children
sermon because they were so
embarrassing to everyone. Another
DCE was really into object lessons
with props and eventually the goal
was to make everyone laugh.

When pastors give the kids sermon
they usually play to the adults
and use it as an intro to the
regular sermon. Some pastors have
actually asked the adults questions
and forgotten about the children.

The best solution to this bad
situation came from Thomas Long
or William Willimon: Read a Bible
story to the children without any
commentary. Just read a story
from the Bible and let the children
listen without any comments.
It would be called a Children's
Lesson and not a Kid's Sermon.

BrotherBoris said...

Or better yet, get rid of the so-called "Children's Sermon" altogether. There is no rubrical authorization for it in the first place. Its nothing but a Kodak moment that dwells on the cuteness of children. Even most children don't like it, and few kids will complain it if is abolished. A good Sunday School teacher can do a much better job at reaching children at their appropriate age level than a thousand cutesy Children's Sermons ever could. The so-called "Children's Sermon" needs to be consigned to the garbage bin, and put in the same place with liturgical dancers, puppet shows, clowns, balloons, and polka masses. Get rid of it.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Dear Pastor Peters, two quotes from Dr. Willimon in as many days? Careful now, someone might think you're a closet Methodist!

Seriously though, I appreciate his writing, and have enjoyed his occasional interviews on the White Horse Inn. My favorite thought from him is when he asks his homiletics students if Christ must die on the cross in order for their sermons to work.

Anonymous said...

Today our guest Pastor (LCMS) preached with his text Jesus walking on the Sea and Peter before the Sanhedrin. He noted the difference between the Peter whose doubt caused him to sink into the water and the confident Peter who defended his faith before the authorities. On the way out I asked him, ”Why is it that we Lutherans are never told what made the difference in Peter from a doubter to a confident confessor?” He was confused. “What do you mean?” he asked. I said, “Something must have made a difference, or was it jus the time he spent with our Lord?” “It was the Resurrection,” the Pastor finally said. “Wrong!” I responded. He was shocked. “Well what else could it have been?” “The Holy Spirit, Whom the Apostles received on Easter Sunday,” was my response. I don’t know what the Lectionary has appointed as readings for today, so maybe the real important problem is that he preached on the wrong texts.

Most Lutheran pastors would have given the same response. I suspect that one reason for that is that they all learned that “water and the Word” are the agents in Baptism, not “water and the Spirit” as our Lord taught.

The two most important things about Baptism are that in it we become new creatures who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us (“a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost” does not really say that), and that we are transferred from the kingdom of the Devil into the Kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit is hardly mentioned in the Confessions and the Catechism in connection with Baptism. You have to get to the sections on Infant Baptism before indwelling of the Holy Spirit is mentioned. As to the Kingdom, we hear even less. So we trivialize Baptism right from the start, before anyone else even gets their hands on it. But God still accomplishes what He wills in it.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

A couple things I did like about the children's sermons at my former RC parish -- before the kids left the sanctuary to meet with their teacher, the priest would bless them and they would make the Sign of the Cross together -- a practice that is so rarely seen in the Lutheran church today it is really sad. One of the children would also carry an candle representing the Light of Christ to connect to the Word they were about to hear.

Kids really do appreciate what symbols can teach them.