Thursday, April 7, 2016

The philanthropic church. . .

Diakonia is not first nor primarily philanthropy.  It is a sad state of affairs that diakonia, service, has entered into its own as some sort of divinely sanctioned philanthropic purpose.  When and where this happened is too long of a tale to tell but as it has come to us today, the purpose of the Church is to do good and this service (diakonia) not only competes with the Divine Service centered in the Word and Sacrament but often displaces it as loving the neighbor reduces the need of the Christian to hear the Word, receive absolution, and eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Divine Service.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

First of all, the diakonia or service in which mercy works continue for those in need is not in competition with the service in which the Lord delivers to us His Word and Sacrament.  There can be no diakonia in the world without the Lord first serving us with the means of grace.  Second, the mercy work that proceeds from the gathering of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord does not overshadow what God does for us.  Cultus (worship) and diakonia are not choices.  Diakonia is the natural fruit of God's actions to us and for us in the cultus of the Divine Service.

There are churches, even Lutheran congregations, in which the people skip worship into to provide diakonia (service) to the neighbor in the community.  Some of these congregations actually cancel worship on one Sunday a month or so many Sundays a year in order to send out their people on Sunday morning to feed the poor, help those in need, and serve the neighbor.  The idea is that this is the more noble service and that what happens in worship is secondary to what happens in the neighborhoods and community.  People of all kinds have come to believe that the real service is what people do and that the service of the Lord's House is merely symbolic or at least less real.

As a Pastor I hear it all the time.  People who call up for money for gas or utility bills or rent or medicine or food insist that if the Church cannot help them with this kind of diakonia, the Church has nothing to offer them.  As a young Pastor I felt the guilt and shame of this condemnation and, although I knew it was a false condemnation in my mind, my heart felt guilty about the whole thing.  I am fairly confident that most Pastors feel guilty if they cannot come up with something to answer the need of the person who shows up at the church door or calls on the phone seeking help.

The folks in the pew feel the same way.  We received a note one time that said if we just stopped spending so much money on the church building and its appointments, we could do some real good in helping the poor.  At a Bible study I was lectured by one who insisted that Judas was correct -- if the expensive ointment had not been wasted on Jesus it could have done some real good for those in need.  One person suggested that we should not keep the eternal light burning because it cost us money, there was nobody in the church to enjoy it, and that money could be better spent in other ways.

The conclusion here is that the real work of the Church is philanthropic and what happens in worship is less important and less valuable that this philanthropy toward those in need.  What a scam!  The things God gives to us are devalued as not real or not making a real difference while the things we do for the poor are honored above all and seen as the highest priority for the Church.  The real truth is that the Gospel delivers the most precious treasure of all and that the philanthropic work of the Kingdom flows out of God's Divine Service to us.

Pastors do not fall into the trap of thinking that you have nothing to offer the people in need if you have only the Word of the Lord.  It is a terrible and destructive lie that turns our attention away from God and onto ourselves.  God's work, our hands.  Serving Christ by serving the neighbor in need.  They sound so noble.  In the end, they diminish God's work and only amplify our hands and elevate our service to others over God's service to us. 

When Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us, our Lord was not being callous or indifferent to the poor nor was He suggesting that they were of no concern to us or to His Church.  Instead He was reminding us forcefully that the best we can offer the poor is first of all the Christ whose suffering paid for their sins, whose death killed their death, and whose resurrection provided for them the hope of everlasting life.  What is the greatest treasure we have?  Scripture seems clear that forgiveness is the central gift from which life and salvation flow.  To preach this Gospel to those in need is not to ignore their earthly plight but to deliver them to that which moth, rust, and thief cannot destroy and steal.  Of course, this Gospel has consequences for the way we care for one another but it does not take a second place or a backseat to philanthropic work.  If we diminish what gifts God gives to us to forgive our sins and kill our death and give to us new and everlasting life, we diminish the real mercy work.  We cannot choose between but include both and yet we cannot do any philanthropic work without first being fed the bread of the Word, the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and forgiven of our sins. 

While this philanthropic work is certainly the domain of the Church as a whole, it is largely the vocation and work of the individual from the hope.  We have shifted this around to the point where the Church is given responsibility for what we are given authority to do as individuals in the home, from the home, and into the community.  It is really no different than paying taxes to the government so that the poor can be their responsibility.  If we make the Church the arena where good works are done, then we have conveniently and comfortably shifted both the vocation and its duties from us to someone who is paid to do it for us (with offerings).  Is this what the Lord had in mind?

The Church is uniquely posited with the task of proclaiming the Word of God and delivering the Sacraments -- no one else can and will do this.  Unless we do this, we apply a bandaid to the eternal needs of a people whose hunger in the moment may be averted but whose forgiveness, life, and salvation is in limbo.


Janis Williams said...

Felt needs have become a club in the hand of the self-centered. The references to the early Church having all things in common (therefore, you need to help me) are generally out of context. Maybe if we asked those seeking help to become part of the Church... Even the churches are so focused on this life that the next is discounted or even disbelieved. I am so guilty of being "now focused" no wonder those around me not of the Church don't look farther than their utility bills.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for priority adjustment.

Carl Vehse said...

"While this philanthropic work is certainly the domain of the Church as a whole, it is largely the vocation and work of the individual from the hope."

Or in the case of one LCMS-connected organization, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIaRS), it's an opportunity to gorge at the federal trough of taxpayer dollars while wearing the flimsy disguise of a philanthropic sheepskin and signing the open letter demand for more ISIS-infiltrated Syrians to be brought in the the U.S. and supported through more taxpayer dollars, as LIaRS lobbied for back in November.