Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11
Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11
Thanksgiving Eve – Deuteronomy 8:1-10
Tonight is perhaps the strangest service that finds its way onto the church calendar each and every November. In some ways, it is the equivalent of having church on the Fourth of July, or Memorial Day, or Veterans Day. It is an awkward thing to gather here, it is an awkward service to prepare, it is an awkward sermon to write.
Why? Because we have not gathered here for an event in the life of Christ, rather, we have gathered here to mark an American national holiday. You can’t go back and see what the ancient church fathers said, because they all predate the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. You can’t find a Luther sermon for the occasion, because he probably never even heard of America. Nor can you really find anything by Walther for the day, because Thanksgiving really wasn’t even all that regular a holiday until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
But that’s ok; as with all times and occasions that we gather together for, we focus on Christ, not the American traditions. Jesus and the disciples may not have sat down and feasted on turkey and potatoes and stuffing and pumpkin pie, but the idea of giving thanks is present throughout the Scriptures, and we can without blinking an eye take this National Day of Thanksgiving and do what we do best as Lutherans: make it all about Jesus.
But that still does not remove the awkwardness of this service. As those who have dutifully studied and memorized the Small Catechism, we daily confess both in the First Article of the Apostles Creed and in the Lord’s Prayer, that all things are gifts given by God. We have traced back how the daily bread we receive, and our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all members, reason and senses, as well as clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all that we have are gifts of our heavenly Father, that He daily and richly provides us with to support this body and life.
You know that everything is a gift from God, and you daily return thanks to Him for it. That is in fact what we confess in the Creed and what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, thereby making giving thanks a part of not just this worship service, but every worship service. Whether the doldrums of Lent, the expectation of Advent, the monotony of Pentecost or the joy of Easter, we gather to give thanks for all that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has done for us in creating us, in redeeming us, and in sanctifying us. We gather, in the words of the meaning to the Second Commandment, to pray, praise and give thanks.
To give thanks is as natural a part of the life of the baptized believer as breathing. To give thanks is what draws us here each and every Lord’s Day, to give thanks for all that we have been so generously given to support this body and life, and most especially to give thanks for the gift of forgiveness, life and salvation that comes to us in Christ alone, and for the Holy Spirit keeping us in this one true faith.
Giving thanks, worship, is just as much an integral part of our daily lives as it was for Israel in our Deuteronomy text. Giving thanks not just for what God has done in the here and now, but also giving thanks for what God has done throughout the previous generations, and what He promises to do into the future.
And that is what makes this service so awkward, both for the preacher and for the hearer: we have gathered for the specific purpose of giving thanks, when giving thanks is something that comes as natural to us as any number of the Thanksgiving traditions that you will partake in tomorrow.
Why gather and give thanks, when we give thanks every time you bow your head for meal time prayer; when every time you confess the Apostles Creed or pray the Lord’s Prayer, you are giving thanks; when even the smallest measurement of rain, or the tiniest sign of improvement of health, warrants full blown prayers and the singing of the doxology?
Giving thanks is just what we do as Christians, and we would continue to do so even if there were not a specific day set aside for it once a year.
But that is what makes Thanksgiving so difficult for those outside the body of Christ. To whom and for what do they give thanks? In their minds, you are the ones who have earned everything you have. For what purpose do you give thanks? Is it just some mundane tradition passed down from one generation to the next? A moral law imposed on the culture once a year on the fourth Thursday in November? So much of life outside of the faith is about self-preservation and a solitary mindset; how do you give thanks for yourself?
And so what is the culture left with? It is left with a holiday from work to do little more than gorge oneself with food, and indulge in leisure, before going out and consuming even more than what they had before.
The awkwardness of Thanksgiving is not for the Church, but for the world, where is that so much of life has become separated from the practice of giving thanks, and the absence of a giver who provides for all that is needed.
And so the call of Thanksgiving is the same as the call that we hear each time we gather; repent. Repent of a lack of thankfulness; repent of rejecting God’s good gifts for you; repent of neglecting gathering for worship in the Lord’s house; repent of despising the Lord’s offerings to you in Word and sacrament. Repent of the awkwardness that you have foisted upon yourself by giving thanks for no reason at all, only to return to gross over consumption.
Repent. For the message today, as it is every day, is that Christ Jesus has died for your sins, even those sins committed on Thanksgiving. Christ Jesus has died and rose so that you might have His good and perfect gifts as you live as a holy and blessed child of your Father in heaven.
There is nothing awkward about that. There is nothing awkward about gathering to give thanks one more day of the Church Year, for in fact that is the story of the Church Year for it is the story of the believer.
Thanksgiving is just one more opportunity to do what you and I do all year long: give thanks for the all gifts we have, which have been given to us by God alone.
Recently, I put forth a proposal calling for congregations calling sole pastors to be given priority in receiving Seminary candidates as opposed to those calling assistant or associate pastors from the Seminary. One of the major objections to this proposal is that some of those receiving first calls still need some refining and mentoring before entering a congregation to serve as sole pastors.
My retort to this objection is that there is already a mentoring system in place throughout the entire Synod for pastors of all ages and graduating classes: the Circuit Winkel, a monthly gathering of local pastors for the purpose of fellowship, prayer and study, with the added bonus of a time of casuistry, in which pastors can discuss with other pastors particular matters that they are struggling with.
And of course this solution is met with the cry that so many circuits are broken, that pastors don’t attend, there is no fellowship, and the whole ordeal is nothing but a waste of time.
I would tell you that I have not actually spoken with anyone in a so called broken circuit, although I have certainly talked to people who find themselves in better circuits than others. Now to be honest, as soon as you read the previous sentence, I imagine my comment section will be flooded with people telling me that their circuit is the 3rd level of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, and their Circuit Visitor is a literal incarnation of the antichrist.
So let’s just go with that assumption that circuits are broken, and that relying on the circuit to mentor and develop new pastors is an effort in futility.
What needs to be done about it?
The answer is actually not that difficult. And no, I have not attached an overture for you to submit to your District Convention calling on circuits to behave because they have the job of mentoring young pastors.
The answer is simple: pastors need to demand better. Stop settling for a dysfunctional, broken circuit that refuses to meet, and when it does meet ends up in a food fight. Demand better.
Start by showing up. The biggest problem in all circuits is pastors who refuse to show up, who constantly manage to find some pathetic excuse about their wife needing them, or how it is Advent or Lent, or how they need to get ready for some big event; or even how they are just need a break, or just plain forgot. Winkels are not a surprise, they happen every month, the same time every month. Put it on your calendar and show up.
Next, once you arrive, participate. Text study works best when the group is actively involved. Put your phone on silent and turn off the wifi on your computer. Engage the group, be in the room physically and mentally. The group needs to hear your words on a text, or on any matter that is being discussed by the group. The group works best when everyone is involved in the discussion and shares their ideas. No one is going to change their mind and come over to your side, or you to theirs, if you do not open your mouth and share your ideas.
Finally, if all else fails, run for Circuit Visitor. If your circuit is a broken mess and everyone refuses to acknowledge it but you, run for Circuit Visitor. And when elected, demand better from the group. Encourage pastors to attend, remind them that their insights and opinions and views are needed, and that they should come.
And above all else: do not stop attending. Get up early, show up, and stay late and visit with others.
And if there is a new pastor in your midst, make sure to make him feel welcome, alert him to the value of the Winkel, and encourage him to be relaxed and open with the group.
And if you still don’t attend winkel, then look in the mirror, because you are the problem, not your circuit. You are the one who is broken, you are the one who needs to repent and hear the words of absolution.
Each and every circuit in the LCMS contains a variety of pastors with a variety of experiences and a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and they gather together once a month in the best possible forum to encourage one another. Young pastors remind the older ones of their passion for theology; older ones remind younger ones of what it means to be a servant of the Church.
Circuit winkels are not the problem, instead they are the solution.
At the recent Kansas District Professional Church Worker’s Conference, I presented a paper and a proposed overture for consideration and feedback. The overture will hopefully come before the Kansas District Convention in June, as well as other District Conventions as well.
In the paper, I argue that congregations calling sole pastors should be given preference over those congregations calling assistant or associate pastors. I believe the Church at large is best served by filling vacancies in as many congregations as possible, as opposed to filling a vacancy in a congregation that is already being served by a called and ordained servant of the Word. Neither the paper or the overture call for the elimination of assistant or associate pastors; merely limiting the number of candidates placed in those positions as their first call.
Rev. Michael Schmidt