Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Pop Quiz

Thanks to Transpozsing, I forward a link to a nifty little quiz on Eucharistic Theology. I scored 100% on the Orthodox scale and only 84% on the Lutheran. Is it time for a change, say what?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Matthew and the Advent Season

Many of my friends know that I am not a great fan of the theology of (what one of their disciples winkingly calls) the Gnesio-Lutherans at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. Nevertheless, I try to keep an open mind and heart, especially with respect to my fellow-travelers in the tradition of Martin Luther. So in that spirit, let me pass on a very nice and helpful guide to the Advent lections assigned for Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are penned by that pillar of the Luther Gnesio-Lutherans, Jim Nestingen, and appeared in Luther Seminary's journal, Word and World, a long time ago (1992).

Any preacher can read Nistingen's analysis to his or her benefit, and any sermon-hearer can benefit from the preparation for the season, too. One snippet to whet your appetite:

[With respect to Mt. 3:1-12, Advent III:] Repentance is a correlate of freedom. The tearing away that takes places in detachment is only possible because a deeper, more powerful and superior attachment has come: the attachment of faith, the grip of the kingdom. ... Jesus' repentance is a reflex of the gospel, a detachment that is the result of his attachment to us in grace. (pp. 409, 410)

To which I can only say, "Amen." Follow the link; it's a good article -- and a sermon in its own right (as all good theology is!).

And my thanks to Paul, my brother in the faith, who insists on trying to make me eat every word in which I contradict or criticize his mentors -- with more or less success, I note!

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Coincidence on Money

After I posted my diatribe against "fair share" stewardship, I roamed around my blogroll to Greg Boyd's. Greg is an evangelical pastor here in the Twin Cities who has become a sort of Wunderkind fuer Christ because he refuses to subvert his solid teaching about Jesus by aligning it with a political agenda -- whether of the right or the left. While he has lost a lot of the members of the congregation he founded, he still preaches to a "megachurch" -- and by preaches, I mean he goes over an hour on occasion. (Clearly, he is not a modern Lutheran.)

His post today deals with greed as a danger inherent to capitalism. On this he speaks irrefutably. What troubles me, and proves a point I made in the last post, is that he begins the post with the claim that it's "difficult" to argue with the claim that capitalism is the best economic system derived in the world -- better than socialism (my pet) and all the others. And my question is this: If for the Christian, greed represents one of the major evidences of a lack of faith (after all, we only store up for ourselves "riches on earth" because we don't believe that God will keep his promises to provide for us), why is an economic system that is premised and built on greed the greatest economic system imaginable? Why will we not go what seems a logical step from the Beatitudes and resist the system that requires that we act on our greed? And if we do so, are we really admitting that capitalism is the best economic system in the world?

I know that socialism is in disrepute (primarily, I'd argue, because communists, Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, and the like have highjacked the name -- though not the fundamental approach), but I cannot look at such places as Norway or Sweden, which are pretty socialist countries (perhaps, democratic socialist is a better term), and feel that the people living there are being oppressed, denied, or anything like that. And, God knows, as countries, they are far better than the models of capitalism when it comes to caring for their people who are in need -- both native to their lands and those from without -- and to giving aid to the rest of the world's needy.

Is maybe part of the problem that capitalism has been identified with Christianity in some sort of perversion of both, and that's why Christian ethical thinkers seem unable to take it on with any verve?

The last think I want to do is to take on a new discipline, but I may have to take up a study of economics to make my point.

Church $$$

This post is about money, so I know that I’m going to sound airy-fairy: I have never been able to get well grounded in finance. Like Hauerwas, I think it is hard to have money and be a follower of Jesus. I am critical of the way the term “stewardship” has been co-opted (yes, yes, not in every place) by those whose concerns are money. I think capitalism is as great a challenge to the believer as war – and more seductive and, hence, dangerous. Nevertheless, a few thoughts:

It’s “stewardship” season in our congregation, and we take it pretty seriously. (To be accurate, this is money stewardship month; we have earlier focused on time and talent ministries.) And we do it up right: The pastor wove the lessons into a homily about stewardship and announced how much he had pledged; pledge cards collected near the altar as people left their pews following the mass (at least we didn’t collect them is some sort of special rite); there was a gourmet-quality meal to serve as the setting for announcing how much had been pledged by the congregation (about half of what we budget, by the way), including a very nice South African red wine. (At Mount Olive, we don’t “do” events without wine -- and maybe beer, too. Toto, we’re not in Pietism any more!)

It seems from the pastor’s sermon that a new idea is being promoted in ELCA leadership circles about how to calculate how much one will contribute to the work of the Church. (I recognize that that very phrase is problematic from a theological point of view: If the Church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is God, and if God is creator and provider of every good, and if I have been provided money, then that money already belongs to God and the larger question is how much I am holding back from God. But I’ll let that slide for now.) I gather from the pastor’s sermon that the idea, which he got at the Bishops theological conference featuring a theologian from one of the ELCA seminaries, is called “fair share” giving, and it is a departure from the “proportionate giving” that has been the only orthodox calculus for decades. The latter concept is illustrated by tithing – where I give 1/10 of my income (net, of course; not gross income!) to the ministries of the Church.

Fair share calculations are determined this way: I take the budget of the congregation (which has been determined by minds much wiser than my own, so I can take their word that the budget is a fair, efficient, and laudable portrait of how much money it takes to run the parish and to provide benevolent support to other ministries – e.g., the synod and national church). Then I divide by the giving units of the congregation (or alternatively, by the number of members in the congregation). The result is my “fair share” of the obligation. That is my pledge amount, and then I will give as I am moved by gratitude and by the availability of other funds. (This does not forestall giving until it hurts – or until it feels good.)

Now the progressive Christian in me sees two problems with this approach. First, it seems legalistic. Second, it is anything but fair, but is instead a regressive tax on poorer members of a congregation.

On the legalism problem, I realize that all kinds of motives accompany pledging money to the ministry of the congregation. Some of those motives are purer than others: If I give out of a sense of eucharist and a desire to serve the purposes of God through the support of a congregation, I am giving for the right reasons – and I probably don’t need a calculus to help me determine how much to give. If I give out of a sense that I have to give something and the fair share (or even proportionate) method for calculating gives me a sense of what I have to give, then I am giving for the wrong reasons. To see benevolence and financial contribution as a requirement of our live together may be the sound basis for a secular tax system, but it’s a lousy justification for financial planning for ministry. (Of course, if my giving is symbolic – say a oner or a fiver a week, just to have something to put in the plate – then nothing much can be said. That is about as effective as a symbolic presence of Jesus in the eucharist – but I digress.)

The fair share posits a kind of “minimum” that is expected of me, and that seems legalistic. It is legalistic in the sense of imposing a duty on me that seems linked with my faith. It is legalistic in positing a calculus for involvement in church at all. And, related to that and to my progressive concerns, it legalistic because it is unfair (contrary to its misnomer).

It is unfair because it imposes a greater burden, proportionately, on the poor and encumbered than it does on the well-off. Whether I calculate it on the basis of “giving units,” which I’ll describe next, or members, it disadvantages those of lesser means, by imposing on them the same absolute burden as that borne by those of substantial means. I imagine that a “giving unit” may be defined in various ways: In my case, my wife and I plus our child might be a giving unit, since we are one family; or we may constitute two giving units in our family – my wife and I as one and our confirmed daughter (who gets her own offering envelopes) as another; or we may constitute three giving units, because we are all confirmed.

Now we are not poor by any stretch of the imagination (regardless of what we moan to our daughter). But if our income is put up against that of some of the other individuals or families, it’s like nothing. So it is “fair” that we and they take on responsibility for equal “shares” of the church’s budget? From the one to whom much is given is much demanded, right? And laying the kind of guilt trip on me that says that I’m not doing my fair share to support the congregation, and doing so in the context of preaching and teaching, is just plain heresy.

The old leftist in me wants to see all kinds of conspiracies and to highlight the consistencies with rapacious capitalism, which always – yes, always – favors the rich. But instead, I want to encourage proponents of “fair share” to think harder about what they are suggesting – and if I have misperceived what their project is all about, to speak more clearly. As I have cruised around the internet looking at various congregations’ attempts to institute or promote “fair share” giving, I have seen no gospel. One Episcopal rector noted that those households in the parish that do not pay their $3700 annual fair share are on “scholarship,” paid for by the giving units that pay more than $3700 per year. Well, the last time I checked, we are all on “scholarship” from our Lord, so to suggest anything less is hogwash.

The church does not know how to deal with money: That, it seems to me, is incontrovertible. Picking up someone else’s bad idea is hardly progress for the Church.

OK, now let me have it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Update on the Study of Matthew

We've been off to rather a slow start on our study of Matthew: introductory material, Art's talk on the structure of the Gospel, and a slog through the begats have prevented us from racing. But that's OK. we intend to take our time. I'm personally gratified that a signficant number of people are sitting together and talking together (and not just sitting to take things in) to hear and absorb Matthew's good news. I have a tendency to pontificate (no surprise there), but I am both aided and limited in that tendency by the willingness of other people to kick in ideas based on their own insights and questions. It's going well.

Here is an outline of my opening summary for next Sunday of what we have been discussing, as we prepare to discuss the "slaughter of the innocents" and events that follow in the Gospel.

We have seen or I have tried to convince the group of a couple of things about this Gospel: For one thing, Matthew has carefully structured his Gospel not only to state his message but also to act out or demonstrate and imply that message.

Matthew sees the importance of Jesus in both so-called religious terms (Jesus is Son of Abraham) and so-called political terms (Jesus is son of David).

On the religious side, I have suggested that as Son of Abraham, Jesus is (to use Matthew’s term) the “fulfillment” of God’s purposes in electing Abraham’s heirs as his holy people. God’s promise to Abraham was that by Abraham’s heirs “all the nations of the world will bless themselves” – which I take to be a way of saying that the Jews would be both a signal of and the yeast for the re-making of the world, reconciling the world, according to God’s intention (as we began to explore that in Genesis last year).

And so Matthew spends a lot of time drawing parallels between the life of Jesus and the history of the people of Israel. First, in the begats, Matthew traces Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham, to demonstrate (in a way not always to the satisfaction of your modern, legal eyes) that Jesus is both the physical and the spiritual son of Abraham. Last week we saw him bring Jesus into Egypt, where he sojourned for his own protection for a time, so that he could later return to Galilee and pursue his mission. At least in part, Matthew’s concern to demonstrate the “fulfillment” of Jesus’ Jewishness is to reassure his own community (this is not just my theory, but it is my operating theory) that they were not disloyal to the One True God by following Jesus, even though many of them were Jews and even though they numbered among themselves Gentiles, too.

On the political side, Jesus is the son of David, the great unifying king of Israel who functions in Jewish theology as both a realization of God’s will for the earth and a kind ofeschatological model for the final kingship of the Lord. Jewish thought about the Messiah, the anointed One, the Christ involved hopes for the restoration of the rule of God in a political state, with Jerusalem at the center of the running of the world, to the banishment of or reconciliation under God’s rule with all Israel’s (which is to say, Israel’s God’s) enemies.

The list of ancestors is a list of earthly kings – a strong suggestion that the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah is very much “of this earth.” And no less a figure than Herod the Great recognized this: When the magi came searching for the “king of Jews” (using Herod’s own title to refer to the infant Jesus, to whom the star was guiding them), “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” And thus, because of Herod’s distaste for challengers to his throne, the holy Family was driven into Egypt for a time.

As we shall see as we look at the sojourn in Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents, the overtones of the Exodus experience of God’s people ties together the religious and political – and that is paralleled ("fulfilled" and recapitulated) in the life of Jesus.

A Communion Prayer

A Communion Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

I stand before the gates of thy Temple, and yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts. But do thou, O Christ my God, who didst justify the publican, and hadst mercy on the Canaanite woman, and opened the gates of Paradise to the thief; open unto me the compassion of thy love toward mankind, and receive me as I approach and touch thee, like the sinful woman and the woman with the issue of blood; for the one, by embracing thy feet received the forgiveness of her sins, and the other by but touching the hem of thy garment was healed. And I, most sinful, dare to partake of thy whole Body. Let me not be consumed but receive me as thou didst receive them, and enlighten the perceptions of my soul, consuming the accusations of my sins: through the intercessions of Her that, without stain, gave Thee birth, and of the heavenly Powers; for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Real Pre-Halloween Scares

If you want to scare yourself, check out this site. You will be able to compare the cost of the occupation of Iraq to various public-well-being projects.

What is also really scary is that these occupation costs are being paid with borrowed money.

It is time for the Christian Church to turn to the prophetic writings: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah chief among them. This misuse of public money for programs that Our Lord clearly declared out-of-bounds for his followers (read the Sermon on the Mount with an open mind, if you doubt my assertion) is a matter of the most compelling importance for Christians.