I wrote a while ago of the good sense and sound advice one of my mentors gave me. Pastor Charles Evanson warned over and over again not to take yourself too seriously but not to take lightly the Word and Sacraments through which God is at work in us and through you. It is advice and counsel that I think about daily and with even more urgency than every before.
We live in a time when there are those who see themselves and those who are glad to see them as the saviors of a lost and broken Christianity. Instead of custodians of the sacred deposit and stewards of the mysteries, they are the commanders who presume to know what God should be doing and who will do it even if God is not. They have abandoned the Scriptures as the one true voice of life and hope for a world in death and despair. They approach the Word of God with skepticism and speak it apologetically to a world in love with self-proclaimed truths and embarrassed by this God and His works and ways. They have turned the Church into a marketplace providing what the consumer desires and they measure success the same way business does -- with market share. They have no core values except the need to succeed, to build ever bigger monuments to their all surpassing greatness. They offer the world a new and improved gospel designed to provide happiness for the heart and desire without the messy business of morality -- certainly without the condemnation of sin!
We live at a time when truth is adjustable on the sliding scale of what people want, what they will flock to, and what they will support with their $$$. If people will not hear the Word of God, then they might listen to self-improvement plans designed to help them get what they desire without judgment. So church buildings are filled with people and programs that have less to do with the Word of the Cross than meeting the perceived needs of people. We tell them what they want to hear and we keep them from hearing the one thing needful -- the call to repentance and the message of the Gospel to redeem their lost and condemned souls. If the building is bustling on Monday but empty on Sunday we console ourselves by saying we are meeting the needs of our neighborhood. We say that this will lead them into the place where altar, pulpit, and font are center but even some of the greats of the evangelical miracle temples admit that it has not led to this. Still we drink the koolaid and look everywhere but to the Word of God to figure out who we are and why we are here and what we should be doing.
Even mighty Rome is not immune to this. They have a pope who enjoys the limelight and who wants to be liked more than he wants to be faithful. He seems willing to throw many things under the bus in order make the Church and its Gospel more palatable to a world convinced that if God loves the sinner, He must also love or tolerate the sin. He is accompanied by bishops who wear the purple and cardinals who wear the red but who resist holding those over whom they watch accountable or themselves accountable. They have decided that building a better world is more important than conveying the sacramental mysteries that build the Kingdom of God. Under those bishops serve priests who do cute things and ad lib the liturgy to make it more personal and at the same time less Christ-centered, who diminish the good and pious devotions of the faithful by treating the things of God as if they were ordinary.
George Wiegel put it this way in First Things:
A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.Lutherans should not snicker. We have our own porn priestesses like Nadia Bolz Weber. We have our own entrepreneurs who do church the way they think it will work because they have lost confidence in the God who works through His Word and Sacraments. We have our own pastors who wink at the historicity of the Scriptures, at the doctrine of Creed and Symbol, and at the practice of what we confess in those Creeds and Symbols. We have our own struggles to preach as faithfully the call to holiness and to delight in the Law as guide as to preach justification alone. We have those who insist that it is not your grandfather's church but they need to be reminded that neither is it your church to do with as you please. It is the great temptation to believe in one's self-importance but it is nothing more or less than narcissism -- the same one that led Israel to make a god instead of worshiping the One who delivered them from Egypt and gave them the land of promise. These are the sins that never go out of style and they are the reasons why churches grow smaller and the number of nones continues to increase. Perhaps they see through smokescreen of relevance and see what is really being offered -- the glorified me. Who needs religion for that? It is the thing that comes entirely natural to our sinful hearts.
As much as we hate to say it, the truest words for every bishop and priest, district president and pastor, clergy and layman are the words of John the Forerunner: He must increase; I must decrease. This is the work of God alone for no one chooses this path without the Spirit. I cannot by my own reason or strength, said Luther and he hit is square on. At best the clergy are temporary custodians of the eternal Word and the blessed Sacraments that do what they say and deliver what they sign. If only we were content in this perhaps the Church would fare better in this world. I know one thing that is my confidence and foundation -- Jesus does not need me to save His Church. He has already guaranteed that hell itself will not prevail. Every day I serve, I try to remember that fact. Some days I do better than others. It is our common lot as people on both sides of the rail to remember that and to find comfort and peace in this. It is enough simply for us to be faithful. God will do the rest.