I attended an ordination today of Rev. Steve Mueller at St. James Lutheran Church in Quincy, IL. Steve and I got to know each other when he vicared in Quincy at Lutheran Church of St. John. During the evening meal following the service, I had the pleasure of sitting next to some folks from Ascension Lutheran Church in St. Louis, where Steve had done his field work. The gentleman sitting next to me asked me at one point during supper, what I thought was the most surprising thing I encountered getting into the parish. Great question!
My answer was two-fold, which I will give briefly, and then get on to my real point. The first thing that struck me was the colossal mess that existed in so many families in the church. By mess, I mean people on their third marriages, grandparents adopting and raising grandchildren, and so on. Certainly I knew coming out of the seminary that there would be challenges, but I guess I was not completely prepared for the complexity of problems that people had. I remember thinking that there is no way to go back to square one with them. There was no way to clean up the mess. You had to deal with it as it came. I think it was then that I realized that the ministry is no place for a perfectionist! (Okay, so this is not so brief)
The second thing I noted was that I was not prepared for the spiritual apathy that I encountered in the parish almost immediately. I was eager to teach and preach, but few were eager to receive it. It was a shock, but one that I should have seen coming had I listened to the Bible more. And the apathy isn’t just spiritual, it is characteristic of the area in which we live, it seems. This was and still is a source of frustration, but should I be surprised? Has there ever been a time when everyone was hungry and thirsty for the wholesome loaves of God’s Word? Why are we so surprised, we pastors, when we encounter disinterest and apathy, or even hatred towards the ministry? Isn’t this what we ought to have expected? Isn’t this what Christ himself experienced when he became incarnate? “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”
We talk about the “Theology of the Cross” but then when we actually encounter the cross we act as though it were the oddest thing in the world. We get frustrated and even angry at God that the people don’t respond with shouts of joy at our heavenly wisdom. Perhaps what we should be surprised at, as my friend David Petersen has often said, is the fact that anyone shows up at all on Sunday to hear a sermon or attend Bible class or receive the Sacrament. I remember a guy at sem in Pastoral Practice Forum getting all bent out of shape over the fact that the seminary doesn’t make sure that the parishes we are going to are ready-made havens of liturgical and confessional doctrine and practice. I think I even chastised him in class because of this, pointing to the fact that Christ never promised such things of the Church. What he did say was, “anyone who does not take up his cross cannot be my disciple.” (Or something like that)
So I guess I’m saying to myself, and to anyone else who is reading: Buck up, preach the Word, and don’t expect it to be well received by everyone. Instead, expect to be mistreated, maligned, and ignored, but don’t be bitter about it. Just do your work, trust in Christ, pray your Psalter, and remember that they hated Christ first. They ignored him first. They made light of His Word first. What we preach is foolishness in the eyes of men; no wonder the whole world doesn’t flock to it.