By Ross Engel –
With its proximity to my birthday, I have always enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day. As a kid it meant that mom would be making Corned Beef or Shepherd’s Pie for dinner and that the house would be decked with all sorts of green and orange. Sometimes mom would even use green food dye to add a hint of green to our water or milk. As I grew older, I was introduced to other celebratory measures for St. Patrick’s Day (also known as Paddy’s Day – NOT St. Patty’s. “Patty” is a girl, short for Patricia. “Paddy” comes from the Irish name: Padraig).
In high school, I sampled my first McDonald’s “Shamrock Shake.” In college, I was introduced to the University of Illinois’s “Unofficial” (St. Patrick’s Day), which featured a whole lot of green beer and “Kiss Me I’m Irish” shirts. In Seminary, we always managed to make it to the St. Louis city and the Dogtown Irish Parades. There is just something about Irish music, bagpipes, and Guinness that always piqued my interest. My wife and I still make the effort to attend a St. Patrick’s Day parade with our three kids, and often I find myself competing in Scottish Highland games the weekend before or after Patrick’s Day. It was six years ago, for my 30th birthday, that I actually found myself in Ireland for ten days, enjoying not only my entrance into my 30s (which seem to be vanishing quickly!) but also the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
While celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, my wife and I caught the Paddy’s Day parade (something they imported from America). What I recall about the parade is that from our spot on the route we stood in the shadow of two enormous Cathedral Churches. To the North was Christ Church Cathedral (above), and to the South was St. Patrick’s Cathedral (interior below). Both Cathedrals were amazing; their architecture confessed the truth that worship, and the receiving of Christ’s gifts, transcends all earthly things.
Ireland has these breath taking, beautiful churches and gorgeous gothic style cathedrals all over the place. But no matter what denomination those churches claimed, they all faced the same challenge: very few people are gathered there to receive our Lord’s gifts. The Naves of so many of these churches are now tourist stops, and the dozen or so folks who do come to worship do so in small chapels in the basement. Congregations and parishes that are hundreds of years old all stand empty, turned into museums, tourist traps, gift shops, restaurants, and even pubs. It was quite sad. The countryside is covered with Christian imagery, Celtic crosses, and stone depictions of the faith, but an actual faith that confesses Jesus was challenging to find.
Over 700,000 people lined the streets to see St. Patrick’s parade, millions of people a year visit the Cathedrals, and perhaps millions more pour their way through the various pubs in every city, town, and village, but on a national holiday dedicated to the Patron Saint of Ireland, a day dedicated to the churchman who proclaimed the Gospel to a nation of people, he only had a cameo in the parade, and a comical one at that. Of course, Jesus was nowhere to be found.
In Luke 18, Jesus is teaching parables. At the end of His parable about a widow who wears down an unrighteous judge, Jesus says these words: “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” – Luke 18:6-8
I often find myself wondering about Jesus’ words, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” I recall some years ago that we read this verse in Bible study, and someone responded, “Well Pastor, that all depends on how long He waits to return. If He waits too much longer, He might not find faith anywhere.” Looking around our own corners of the world, it often looks as though the faith and the faithful are diminishing and are harder and harder to find. That instills fear in the powers that be, fear in pastors, even fear in congregations. And fear often leads to bad decisions or bad practices.
Each year, I get the statistics from my nation church body and district that tells me how much shrinking is taking place in the church, with the prompting that I need to do something to help fix the problem. Usually the powers that be want me to buy a program and invest money. They parade “gurus” with all sorts of solutions, and there is always a catch or a gimmick that promises to keep churches from shrinking. Oddly enough, not too long ago I received a pen in the mail that came with the promise that it would grow my congregation. In rapid succession, the mailer told me this pen would: promote engagement on Sundays and attract new Members, aid as a tool in evangelism, and that if I bought a gross of them, they would improve the image of my church. What an amazing [sic] pen!
This “savior” of a pen sits on my desk, and while my congregation is growing, I don’t think the pen has done much, if any, of the work…
To be perfectly honest, it isn’t me that has done the work either. I don’t make the church grow or increase. I am not the savior of my congregation. No pastor is! In fact, when pastors view themselves as saviors, they often end up being the opposite! I find myself constantly needing to remind myself that God is at work through His Word and the Sacraments and that I’m just the guy who gets to deliver what Christ has already done. My call to the Office of the Holy Ministry is to Preach the Gospel, Administer the Sacraments, Forgive the sins of sinners, Visit the Sick, and teach the young and the old. God’s call for pastors isn’t to increase revenue or build bigger barns to hold greater numbers of people. It is to deliver Jesus to sinful people who need His forgiveness.
I know that I am often far too quick to judge the pastors who seem to have forgotten those tasks that God has called them to perform. Last week, I wrote about my need to repent of that quick condemnation and the desire to one day be a “Pastor’s Pastor.” After writing that article, a friend helped me realize that instead of just repenting of my quick judgement, it would do me well (and my brothers too) to be more active in caring for, supporting, speaking well of, explaining things in the kindest of ways, and encouraging brothers who may have forgotten their sacred charge from the Lord, in order to be a voice that encourages any and every pastor, to trust what God is doing through His preached Word of Law and Gospel and His precious Sacraments, rightly delivered.
When the Son of Man returns at the End of the Age, He may indeed find gorgeous empty cathedrals, crumbling steeples, and cruddy free pens that didn’t grow the church, but He will also find faith, for faith is a gift from God. The faith that He delivers to His people through Baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit is something He promises to provide until He returns. Until He does return, He promises to nourish and strengthen that faith through the Spirit’s work through the Word preached and the Sacraments delivered.
Despite our greatest and best efforts, or even our most shameful and cringe-worthy ones, the Church will stand until Christ returns. On that day, all the faithful will rejoice, for Christ, who knows His own, will gather His own, and they will see Him face to face as He comes to dwell with His people forever. That will be a parade worth being a part of!