Thursday, August 30, 2007

Matthew's Gospel as Legalistic?

As I've noted, I'm preparing to lead a prolonged Bible Study on the Gospel According to Matthew. (We're going to meet as long as it takes to complete reading and discussing the entire Gospel; no three- or four-part series, this. When I originally planned it, I did not know that the ELCA's bureaucrats were proposing programs to encourage Bible study in the congregations. I was apparently prescient: I saw the evidence that our congregation was becoming Biblically illiterate long before the bureaucrats realized that -- in large measure of their failure to attend to the real business of the Church -- that was happening in spades throughout the ELCA. But that's another post.)

As I've been reading, thinking, and talking about the study, I've been frankly amazed by the number of people who say that Matthew is their least favorite gospel. It's too legalistic; it doesn't present the Gospel as unconditional grace; it tells us what to do and links what we do to our ultimate disposition in eternity. Well, I'm frankly (and, yes, naively) surprised.

Now I am certainly no biblical scholar (my Greek has rusted nearly to the point of being immobile and my Hebrew is, I think, beyond redemption; my serious study of critical material took place in the[latter] days of Jeremias -- whom no one in seminary reads now, I'm told -- and his generation; my finger-tip access to Bible verses and stories is nil). The Matthew prep has been exciting and fulfilling in no small part because it has led me deeper into the Bible, into biblical theology, into Lutheranism. It has required me to put my "systematic" theology (such as it is) into the proper context -- i.e., to set it face-to-face with scripture, as it ought always to be.

But it has always seemed to me that if there is anything to Lutheranism, then we can't write off scripture passages and books as "legalistic" without calling into question the entire raison d'etre for the Reformation. On that point, Luther was clearly daft to refer to James' epistle as "straw" and the book of Apocalypse as of no relevance to faith. (Likely, he just didn't get them.) We are supposed to bend our theological musings to the teachings of scripture (carefully discerned, not just on our own, but in company with the Church of every time and place), not the other way around.

So why the great mistrust of or dislike for the Gospel of Matthew? Is it because it lays out a very clear connection between the in-breaking of the reign of God in Jesus and the shape of life (in community) that is meant to issue from that? I can't accept that. Oh, I expect it from the ultra-scholastic Lutherans who could at any point even consider as possibly orthodox the premise that not only are "good works" not required for salvation, but they are detrimental to it? (I still like the joke about the old Lutheran Herr Pastor who on his death bed proudly declared that he could not remember committing even one good work.) And I am old enough to know that pastors preach sermons on the Sermon on the Mount in which they pretty much say that Jesus was setting out ideals, not actual ways to live the life of faith.

But I am thrown that thinking, even liberal, Christians don't see -- on its face -- the grace-founded proclamation that Matthew reveals was embodied in Jesus. Of course, I try to follow in the footsteps of Stanley Hauerwas (who has just issued a new "theological commentary" on Matthew), when I can understand him, and that makes me prone to lean in a particular direction. But what I have always appreciated about Hauerwas (and Bonhoeffer, for that matter, because he's on the same team) is that he always sounds to me as though he's paraphrasing Matthew's Gospel.

As I go along, I'll have to continue to wrestle with this. I'm not very far into my research on Matthew. (Unfortunately, I'll probably end up being just slightly ahead of the class I'm leading -- something that isn't good.) But so far, I have found nothing that contradicts a quite conservative reading of the Lutheran confessions. Grace is all. But to hear the Good News is already to be changed, and so it's quite natural to ask "How, then, shall we live?". After all God has done, isn't it the witness of scripture to explore the "so what?" of the new state of affairs?

That's what Matthew does, I think. And I think he is neither moralistic nor legalistic (if there's a difference) in doing so. And I'm loving the book. And I love the idea that all the good grace-oriented pastors will be confronted with Matthew's witness as sermon fodder for the next liturgical year. Trust that I'll be listening carefully!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

God bless Harper Lee

The "Saturday book group" at our church spent this week discussing Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I haven't read it in a number of years, even though it has been among my favorite novels for (literally, alas) decades. I first read it, over the disapproval of my mother, when I was about 10 or 11 (not that young, as things go), and I have re-read it a few times since then. (Unlike my 14-year-old daughter, I was never required to read it for a school class.) But in recent years, I've harbored a cynical fear that it wouldn't live up to my memories of its charm, quiet eloquence, depth, and humanity. Have I grown more sophisticated so that what once thrilled, charmed, inspired, and daunted me would no prove "nice" but not much more?

I was wrong to fear: It does so live up to my memories, and I think no one in our group disagrees with that assessment. The lady wrote a daggone great book, and one can understand what must be her reluctance to risk writing a second that does not (for it cannot) measure up to the first.

One scene stands out for me (and I'll re-watch the movie to see how -- indeed, if -- it is portrayed in the movie, for the movie remains my number-one favorite film), from all the many touching, humorous, and scary scenes. In it, Atticus (who in the movies is played -- no, incarnated -- by the demi-god Gregory Peck) has gone to sit outside the town's jail, because Tom Robinson (a black man accused of raping a white woman) has been brought to town for trial and is spending the night in that jail. In his typical unflappable style, Atticus sits outside the jail door in an office chair, reading a paper, prepared to stay all night to defuse any nonsense that might try to develop. And nonsense does develop.

When Scout (his daughter), Jem (his son), and Dill (their friend) traipse downtown to look for him, they soon discover that a handful of seethingly mad men (otherwise known as a mob) has assembled and demanded that Atticus stand aside. Their unstated, but obvious, intention is to break Tom out of jail and to lynch him (or so I gather). The children stand in fear and incomprehension for a moment, and then Jem runs to his father's side. (It's just like a kid to try to help -- and in the process make matters worse, eh?) And the tension builds, because it seems that the mob will have little more concern about knocking the boy aside than they do knocking Atticus away.

But then there's the magical moment: Scout spots the father of one of her classmates, a Mr. Cunningham, among the rabblerousers. And she addresses him by name, babbling on to him directly about how she knows his son and about some of the Cunningham legal difficulties that Atticus has clearly discussed with her. (The lawyer in me cringed at Atticus' obvious violation of his duties of confidentiality, but one can't hold even such turpitude against such a mensch as Atticus!) Toward the end of the scene, she asks Mr. Cunningham to say "hey" for her to his son, Walter. And Mr. Cunningham bends down, looks her directly in the eye, tells her he surely will, stands up, and calls for the mob to leave.

It is something straight out of Hauerwas. (Why hasn't he written that scene up in some of his writing about peacemaking?) Scout has responded to the violence and threat of force against her and her family in the only way open to a Christian: She has addressed the threatener by name and established common humanity with him. She refused to pigeonhole her opponent as "enemy" (although to say that is to deny neither the fact that he was nor the fact that she was frightened of him as such). Rather, she addressed the co-child of God in him -- as did our Lord those who came to arrest him or those who hung him on high.

Now Harper Lee did not intentionally or self-consciously write a tract or a parable about living the nonviolent life, although her focal character, Atticus, treats all but a (literal) rabid dog with nonviolent forebearance, if not respect. (And in a sense that comes back to threaten, less him than, his children -- in the person of Bob Ewell.) But that doesn't deny its lessons to those of us who see in artists -- at least some of them -- the wafting of the Spirit's breath.

It is eminently clear that had Atticus -- even Atticus and a few colleagues, armed to the teeth -- tried to hold the mob off with violence (guns, bats, or the like -- you've seen that in movies, too), all that would have resulted would have been bashed heads, even more hostility, and (in all likelihood) a hanged Tom Robinson. To treat the "other" as "enemy" usually results in that, an escalation of violence. Check out the Bible: Israel lived like that and ended up in exile -- more than once -- at the hands and by the will of the Lord whose honor she was upholding. (Most lamentably, the current nation-state that bears her name has learned nothing from her namesake.) The scribes and Pharisees conspired with the Romans to eliminate their enemy Jesus, and we see how successful they were. There was a little matter of Resurrection that rather puts to shame the success of the Caesars (oh, that's right; they're gone -- replaced by Sylvio Berlusconi and his ilk!) and even the scribes and Pharisees (who, though they may have heirs in this day, are no more either).

One wishes that there were, in preaching and teaching, more encouragement and instruction in how to live as Christ without fear. Oh, we hear lots about living without anxiety, encouragement for loving ourselves just the way we are, sweet platitudes about seeing Jesus in the one we offer a (charity-riddled) cup of water. But then we complement that with talk of the just war theory, with conceal-and-carry laws (which allow one to carry a gun for the justifiable purpose of self-defense). And it all just washes over us.

Jesus' teaching and parables are so familiar that it is easy to place them in the context of all the conditions and limitations we have heard attached to them. Thus, to cite an example from my obsessive-compulsive study of Matthew for a Bible study I'll be leading, Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount, not to be taken literally, but to show us how we can't fulfill the Law of God and so we ought to just give up all attempts and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord. The Sermon is there to drive us to justification by grace through faith. For heaven's sake, don't think that we are to respect poverty or to pluck out eyes or to go extra miles; that's hyperbole.

Well, Scout remains for me an exemplar of the Christian -- the "little Christ" -- who hears in Our Lord's words direction and empowerment to live the new life he lived -- and died -- to bring. She was fearful, of course; "Have no fear little flock" may not have been the hymn on her mind at that point. (Check out Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane if you're inclined to blame her.) But the important thing is that she didn't allow fear to hold, guide, or control her. She gave herself over to humanizing action (i.e., to living as she was created to live with others) -- engaging the other at the level of common humanity. And in so doing, she embodied the mind of Christ.

Bravo to you, Miss Nell Harper Lee, for your magnum opus.

And so we move on to Frankenstein.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pastoral "Vocations"

Lurking on a couple of listservs, I've learned a couple of things about pastors and pastors-to-be in the ELCA (my hometown denomination). It seems that of the youngish people going into parish ministry, only about 5% will retire from that vocation. It seems, too, that increasing numbers of seminarians are unwilling to be assigned to small-town and small-state parishes. They prefer to be assigned to the Coasts, where salaries and property values are higher. They, according to commentators, are looking forward to their retirement, which depends on the salaries and investments they are able to pull down during their years of ministry. In what I say that follows, I think that I have the facts straight, but I would welcome correction -- along with citations to where to confirm the facts.

None of this surprises me, understand, but it provokes me to anger and frustration. And there's one issue that, as a born-and-bred small-town North Dakotan, I take special interest in. That is the issue of retirement benefits paid to pastors after their terms of faithful service. (I'm going to leave for now the issue of housing benefits -- tax-free housing benefits, something no other profession or career can allow. That's a thorny one for me, too. So, too, is disparity in salaries paid to pastors: I don't know the range now, but I remember that about 20 years ago, the salary range for pastors ran from about $10,000 a year to $125,000 -- exclusive of benefits. I haven't dared look since then.)

Under the defined contribution plan that the ELCA in its corporation-model-mentality has seen fit to develop, what one earns at retirement from one's "pension plan" (I think that's a misnomer, but I'll use it anyway) depends on what one has contributed during his employment period. (It's somewhat akin to Social Security, but that's another issue, too.) Thus, if one is paid a relatively small salary during one's ministry, one's pension income is relatively small. If one was lucky to pull down $100,000+ a year at some point, retirement income will be better.

It is, I think, simply a fact that salaries and benefits paid to pastors in small one-, two-, and three-point rural parishes are substantially lower than the same paid to pastors of large (usually urban) congregations (which are usually single-point charges). Some of that reflects local economy (as a rule, all salaries and wages are higher in cities than in small towns); some of it reflects differences in memberships in the congregations (more members in a congregation can -- but needn't -- translate into more giving units and more income from which to pay salaries and benefits). But the bottom line for older pastors and their spouses is that their incomes in retirement will be smaller than their peers who served larger parishes.

This is a gross injustice. And it's one I can't fathom the Church can't fix. I do not think that faithful servants should be punished for their willingness to forgo fancier settings, staff relationships, easier healthcare availability, less traveling around, more life amenities (of certain kinds, anyway). And the difficulty is compounded if the pastors who serve in small town ministries live all or most of their careers in parsonages: They reach retirement with no real estate within which to live in their so-called golden years.

Certainly, the current arrangement cannot be justified by a line of argument that these small-town pastors work less hard than their urban and large-congregation brethren and sisters. (It is often the opposite: I know of urban parishes were staff pastors alternate "night duty" by carrying a pager; their residential telephone numbers are unlisted to preserve their privacy and time off. I do not know of any small town pastors in multi-point parishes who have that luxury; all calls come to the parsonage.) Neither can it be argued that their needs in retirement are less than their peers: Indeed, I rather expect that, for example, their healthcare needs could be greater than their peers, given the likelihood that their preventive care was not as good in the "netherlands." And since many of them did actually always live in parsonages, their requirements for housing will be greater.

My question is a simple one: Why cannot the ELCA dedicate itself to care for its pastors? Cannot the retirement pay scale be adjusted to compensate faithful workers for their less-than-adequately compensated work? And if, as I doubt is the case, a retirement plan can't be developed to address the inequities, then why cannot the ELCA supplement contributions to the retirement plans of the lower-compensated clergy to ensure that there is more equity in the situations of pastors who retire? (NOTE: I am concerned here only for pastors who serve parishes. All the non-pastor clergy who work at secular while maintaining some legal fiction of being pastors win no sympathy from me.)

We learn in the Book of Acts that the earliest Christians "held all things in common." I think the reference is to more than the "things of faith." They looked out for one another -- the way our Lord commanded and demonstrated. Aside from the socialist implications that will drive capitalists crazy on merely ideological grounds (but with which I think no Christian should have a problem), there is no valid reason for treating people who have served the Church in this way.

Such a reformation in the structure for supporting pastors won't solve the serious problems I identified at the beginning of this post. If money is the issue determining for pastors where they are willing to serve, then they simply ought not to be pastors. Ministry is service -- and assignment and openness to going where one is sent is part of the game; getting paid properly ought not to be a part of the calculation. (Still, those who submit to the needs and wishes of the Church ought not to be penalized for the submission we expect of them out of misuse or misinterpretation of my thesis. As it is, however, we reward the gluttons and take for granted the sacrifices of the genuine servants.) On the other hand, I doubt that compensation is the major reason that pastors leave pastoral ministry. (The stories I could tell.) I think very few of those who are ordained have a reasonable and confessionally supportable view of what the "role" of ministry is in the world; thus, leaving out of a sense of dissatisfaction or of being unappreciated is not surprising.

And finally, I don't know what to do about the fates of small congregations within the ELCA. I was baptized into a small, rural congregation of the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, in northeastern North Dakota. It was a part of a three-, and eventually five-, point parish. The congregation eventually voted to close and merge into another of the congregations -- facing reality that all the congregations couldn't continue to exist, and being flexible enough not to model the resistance to consolidation that other congregations in the charge displayed. But that area of North Dakota is losing population all the time. Farms are growing because people are aging out of farming and leaving the area. A few congregations are absorbing many of the retirees. But many stubborn congregations insist on remaining open: You've seen the films of congregations with 10 people showing up on Sunday. All of this calls for some sort of conversation about how to deal with church structure and a host of other issues. If nothing else, the ecumenical movement may help us face a dire sociological reality. (Unfortunately, the ELCA seems to be dealing with the sociology without a serious theology of ordained ministry, and that's not going to help with the problem.)

As long as their are congregations that are allowed to remain open and to call pastors, the ELCA has a responsibility to require that the pastors who serve those congregations be treated fairly. It is not doing so currently. How can this change?