Monday, December 06, 2010

A Sign in Times of Terror

(I wrote this sermon for the First Sunday of Advent several years ago. I speak specifically about children who witness and suffer from abuse, but this also applies to anyone who is being abused by those using their power to keep others in line through fear and intimidation. Sadly, that also includes leaders in the church who believe the authority of their office is a mandate for using strong-arm tactics to bring others "in line." That is wrong, no matter what side of any theological division one is on.)

"And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (Luke 21: 25-28)

Maybe it’s the sound of a door slamming, the car door perhaps, or the door coming into the house. Maybe it’s the sound of footsteps, the unmistakable sound of anger conveyed in every step. Maybe it’s the slurring of the words, or the voices becoming shrill, or the thud of a fist hitting a table. Children know how to read the signs of danger, of violence that is quickly escalating out of control. They know that when the grownups fight, you don’t want to be caught out in the open. It is better to hide--in the back of the closet, under the bed--to close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears. When things quiet down, then maybe it’ll be safe to come out in the open again.

Now this may not sound like the earthshattering signs that Jesus spoke of: the signs in the sun, moon and stars, distress among nations and the roaring of the sea. But what could be more earthshattering for a child than to hear the sounds of breaking glass, of blows being delivered again and again, of the shouts of anger mingled with the cries for help? What terror is as great as the terror of a child curled up on the floor, shaking under a blanket in the dark back corner of a closet? What betrayal is as deep as that of a child who has learned that a father or mother can be suddenly, unpredictably, filled with a rage that lashes out at everyone within striking distance? Children who live in a violent family know too much about the crucial need to “be alert at all times, praying for the strength to escape the things that will take place.” The children would tell Jesus that it isn’t safe to stand up and raise your heads when these things begin to happen; the only safe thing to do is to crawl under the bed, and stay there, and hope the angry grownups get tired and quit fighting before they find you.

Advent reminds us that all is not yet as it should be. For too many this world is a place of despair and terror. Too many find themselves caught in a descending cycle of anger and revenge. Scenes of manufactured violence fill our TV and movie screens, our gameboys and nintendos and computers. Bombings and shootings drive the ratings for news programs. At the same time as we decry the images that flood our culture, we slow down and crane our necks to see the fender bender at the side of the road. Our society prescribes anger management classes and interventions; adults who grew up in a violent household find to their own horror and despair that they are repeating the brutality that was once inflicted on them onto their own children. People who move to large cities learn never to make eye contact with strangers on the street, lest that incite someone to a violent confrontation. Thousands of public schools have metal detectors at their entrances, and armed guards patrolling the hallways. And parents everywhere worry how to protect sons and daughters from the random predator who targets the young.

The promises of Advent can’t be true just be for us grownups. They have to be true for the smallest and most defenseless among us. They have to be true for the children who are most at risk, in our world, yes, but even in our own community, within the families of people who are our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends. There are children within this building this morning who hide under the bed from the rage of parents or other family members; there are adults sitting here who once were children filled with fear. When the anger and the rage are unleashed; when the nightmare becomes real; who or what could have the power to take us from darkness and despair to light and hope? Where is that righteous branch that God promised of old, who will execute justice and righteousness so that God’s little ones will live in safety?

Jesus calls us to stand up and raise our heads, and look for our redemption that is drawing near. But sometimes people can’t do that. Children certainly can’t, not when they are the targets of adult violence. Adults who have been battered, physically and spiritually, can’t do that either; their spirit has literally been beaten into the dust. Some of us may find that we are being called to stand up for others: to be the watchman, the whistle-blower, the strong defender, the place of refuge. Teachers, law enforcement officers, social workers, health care providers, foster parents--you may be that righteous branch that God sends into the lives of those who are at risk.

But Advent calls us to a hope even greater than that. It is filled with the hope and the promise that God remembers, God sees, God cares. God has claimed every square inch of this world for his kingdom, and the Son of Man will bring justice and righteousness to all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, not the least of whom are the children who hide from the terrors of the night. Ultimately, the one who stands up in the face of the signs of earth and heaven being shaken is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He is indeed our hope, our righteousness, our peace and our safety. He will set his children free.

Friday, October 15, 2010

No More Suicides

I am not a stranger to the tragedy of suicide. As a pastor I have dealt with a number of deaths by suicide, ministering to the family and friends left to deal with all of the grief and unanswerable questions when a loved one ends his or her life. I have also dealt with suicide on a much more personal basis. Both of my parents ended their own lives, as major depression robbed them of the ability to see beyond the pain and left them with the belief that death was a better choice than life. I and others in my family have walked the walk of suicide survivors, asking the questions that have no answers, living with thoughts and emotions that accuse one's self in the middle of the night.

Suicide is always tragic. This is only magnified when the one taking such a step is a young person. The suicide of a child is devastating to parents and siblings. And beyond that, it is unbearable that those who are at the very beginning of life, with so much ahead of them, can be so devastated by the darkness of depression and hopelessness that they turn to self-destruction. Suicide in those cases physically kills the one who commits it, but spiritually and psychically kills those around him or her. The suicide of a young person leaves devastation in the whole community, and the wounds often never really heal.

In recent weeks there has been an outbreak of suicide of young people, picked up in the news media. And two things appear to link all of these together: those committing suicide were gay, or were involved with some level of homosexual relationship; and they were the object of bullying in one form or another. The bullying and shame they experienced were primary causes in why they turned to ending their lives. Their deaths have left their families and communities reeling. Others are speaking out, trying to reach out to other young people, in particular, and to anyone dealing with issues of their sexuality and orientation, that suicide is not the answer and their lives will get better, in spite of what they may be experiencing in the present.

All of us need to speak up, and out, in this time. Those who are recognizable leaders in the GLBT community are doing this, and their perspective and experience are a crucial witness to those so much younger. But those of us in the religious community, and in particular those who are in the traditionalist-orthodox Christian community, also need to raise our voices. The Body of Christ is not about breaking those who are slender reeds, or extinguishing dimly burning wicks, but about bringing the promise of life and grace to those who are weak and heavy laden with burdens too overwhelming to bear.

We also need to condemn the evil, wicked spirit that incites others to bully those who are vulnerable in the matter of their sexuality. That is a spirit that feeds on the darkness that lurks in all of us, that finds pleasure in making life a misery, that goads us to seek out victims who can be driven into despair and destruction. There is no place for that kind of shameful, bullying destruction of human spirits and human lives among the people of God, among those marked with the cross of Christ. We must all rise up and reject and condemn that kind of action. And we need to do it now, before another life is lost, before another child is driven to believe that the only solution to their pain is to die.

Wherever we stand on the issues regarding sexual behavior and same-gender relationships in our culture and in the church, this is a crisis that we all can respond to with the same measure of conviction. Whatever it takes, whatever we have to do, however we need to move out from our comfort zones in matters of sexuality, we must find ways to stop the bullying, and to show the love of God for all his children in how we treat young people who identify themselves as gay or lesbian.

Pray for those who are looking to choose death. Pray for those who are struggling with their sexual orientation, or with how to tell those closest to them that they are gay. And pray for guidance on how to better be "little Christs" to young people in those times. We need to talk about this. Silence is not a helpful tool in these times.
No more suicides. How can we work together to provide a future with hope?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Confession for Remaining Traditionalists in the ELCA

I have been very critical of the services conducted in San Francisco and in St. Paul for the reception of those previously ordained by the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. The center of my criticism has been on changes made in the liturgies (outside of the Rite of Reception itself) that remove all language such as "Lord" and "King", changes the wording of the Eucharistic dialog (the sursum corda) and Eucharistic prayer, offers "alternative" wordings for the Lord's Prayer in order to address the prayer to "our Mother", and the questionable use of some hymns. One of the liturgical elements that has upset me the most has been the wording of the confession that has come at the beginning of these services.

I have (and do) accuse these confessions as being written to confess the sins of others, rather than the sins of those gathered in those worship settings. In particular, I have written elsewhere that these confessions are more in the way of accusations against those such as myself, those who reject the 2009 CWA decisions and who continue to uphold the traditional Christian interpretation that same-gender sexual acts are sinful even when they are restricted to monogamous relationships. I am particularly concerned with the words of the confession used at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, the site of the first such service that was held by the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA.

But I am also able to give self-critique. I am indeed guilty of sin, and have need for confession. Through the long course of these matters being debated and disputed in the ELCA, I have at times spoken and written immoderately; and I have also learned much from others, including those whose views I oppose.

It is in that spirit that I offer this, a rite of confession for those of us remaining traditionalists, those of us still in the ELCA who continue to oppose last year's churchwide assembly decisions and the implementation of them that is occuring now. This is a sincere effort on my part to begin a process of being honest about my own sins, failures, and transgressions committed, especially against those who have been and still are a persecuted group in our society: those whose sexual orientation is other than clearly heterosexual. I owe a debt to the writers of the confession used at St. Mark's, as I have taken their framework and words and re-worked them. So here I offer my contribution to the ongoing debate in this churchbody:

A Confession for Remaining Traditionalists.

Pause for reflection and confession.

In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friends in Christ, as we gather, we seek to speak the truth of the difficulties we have witnessed in our church.
Our church of the reformation has been too long captive to bias and misinformation.
We have not remembered the life giving words of our own Confessions.

We have not respected the gift of sexuality, nor the joy, delight and vulnerability sexual intimacy creates between husband and wife.

We have not honored faithful and loving promises, marriages, and the gift and responsibility of children.

We have not reached out to those struggling with their sexual orientation with the life-giving assurance that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We have not acted quickly enough for some who have died and have not made it to this day.

We have not accorded all families with the dignity and respect they deserve.
We have not spoken up.

We have betrayed fellow members of the body of Christ because of cultural prejudice.
We have misused Scripture as a tool that we could manipulate and emend at will.
We have forced celibacy upon some, without supporting all in their vocation to faithful chastity whether single or married.
We have too often condemned the sinfulness of homosexual acts while remaining silent on the sinfulness of heterosexual acts: intercourse outside of the marriage bond; conception of children outside of marriage and the abandonment of such children by one or both parents, especially by abortion; and multiple divorces and remarriages.
We have ignored violent words and acts committed against our brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

We have encouraged silence and complicity.

We have promoted invisibility and dishonesty.

We have hardened our hearts with bitterness and despair.

Our actions have destroyed faith and have led people away from the gospel's call to repentence as the kingdom of God draws near.

(A bell is rung. A shofar is blown. Silence is kept.)

(Absolution is proclaimed in the words of the prophet Isaiah. Water is poured into the font.)

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, he who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.

Do not fear, for I am with you; I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,... Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Through Christ, God has indeed done a new thing and is continually doing a new thing through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Shower us with your Holy Spirit. Renew our lives, and our life as your people, with your forgiveness, grace and love.


(This was the rite of confession and absolution used at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco, in the service of Reception to the ELCA Roster, found here: I post it here in order to give credit to the source of my own work.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Warning from the East

This is a sobering presentation from the Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk of the Moscow Patriarchate . He was speaking in Lambeth Palace, the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowen Williams, the primate of the Church of England and leader of the Anglican Communion. The occasion was the Nicean Club, which has been dedicated to furthering relations between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox. For him to say what he said on such an occasion took courage, but I believe it also came from a desire to call the leaders of the Church of England to a full awareness of the dangers of this time for the Church. Indeed, this is the kind of warning that speaks to all of us, including those of us in the ELCA. Our divisions are not some localized anomalie. All of Christianity is involved in this growing division amongst us. Read the Metropolitan's words, and pray over their meaning and warning for all of us.
(And yes, I have read his words regarding the ordination of women. I encourage us to read them also. Can we, can I defend the decision to ordain women from Scripture? And if I were asked to forgo my own ordination and wait for the consensus of the whole Church to decide that this was the time to introduce the ordination of women, to truly act as a member of an interrelated body rather than as an autonomous independent unit acting alone, would I be willing to wait in service to those other members of the Body of Christ? It is a question worth pondering, and answering honestly.)


At the time of the Council of Nicaea, the Church was united in East and West. But at the present time, there is a multitude of communities each of which claims to be a church even though approaches to doctrinal, ecclesiological and ethical issues among them often differ radically.

Nowadays it is increasingly difficult to speak of ‘Christianity’ as a unified scale of spiritual and moral values, universally adopted by all Christians. It is more appropriate, rather, to speak of ‘Christianities’, that is, different versions of Christianity espoused by diverse communities.

All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’. Some Christian leaders, for example, tell us that marriage between a man and a woman is no longer the only way of building a Christian family: there are other models and the Church should become appropriately ‘inclusive’ to recognize alternative behavioural standards and give them official blessing. Some try to persuade us that human life is no longer an absolute value; that it can be terminated in a mother’s womb or that one can terminate one’s life at will. Christian ‘traditionalists’ are being asked to reconsider their views under the slogan of keeping abreast with modernity.

. . . Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture. . .

What can these churches say to their faithful and to secular society? What kind of light do they shine upon the world (cf. Mt. 5:14)? What is their ‘salt’? I am afraid the words of Christ can be applied to them: If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men (Mt. 5:13).

We are aware of the arguments used by proponents of the above-mentioned liberal innovations. Tradition is no authority for them. They believe that to make the words of Holy Scripture applicable to modernity they have to be ‘actualized’, that is, reviewed and interpreted in an appropriate, ‘modern’ spirit. Holy Tradition is understood as an opportunity for the Church to be continually reformed and renewed and to think critically.

The Orthodox, however, have a different understanding of Holy Tradition. It is aptly expressed in the words of Vladimir Lossky: ‘Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church – the life giving to every member of the Body of Christ the ability to hear, accept and know the Truth in its inherent shining, not in the natural light of human reason’.

Read the entire piece here:

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Gift of Being Found

1 Timothy 1:12-17 & Luke 15:1-10

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who here sees themselves as being one of “the lost?” Who sees themselves as being one of the found? Who sees themselves as the one who goes looking for what is lost, the good shepherd or the woman with the lamp and the broom, searching for the lost sheep and the lost coin? And who sees themselves as among those who stay where they are supposed to, who never go wandering and never look to greener pastures for excitement?

It is not unusual, when hearing these parables of Jesus, to try to place ourselves somewhere in them, to find our own fit, our role in those stories. But perhaps the question that really needs to be asked is this: who sees themselves as being the one who repents, in fact whose repentance is so great that the angels themselves rejoice wildly over us and our repentance?

Hmmmm.. . .not sure we want to claim that honor. For to be one that the angels rejoice over, means claiming the name of “sinner.” To repent usually means having done something wrong, something one needs to repent of. Straying sheep and coins that roll under the furniture aren’t usually thought of as having done something wrong. Repentance, however, more than implies that: it actually requires it.

Do I want the angels in heaven to rejoice over me? Yes, of course -- but as long as my repentance is on my terms. Can’t it be something I control, something I measure out in reasonable doses? Under those kind of terms, repentance needn’t be such a big deal. It sounds more like the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that has as its first stanza these lines:

I had a little sorrow born of a little sin.

I found a room all dark with gloom and locked us all within.

And “little sorrow, weep!” said I.

“And little sin, lay down to die,

and I upon the floor will lie

and think how bad I’ve been!”

If all repentance has to be is my dredging up some nice guilty feelings, perhaps some remorse, for my little, manageable sins, well, I can do that every once in a while. After all, isn’t that enough? Why would God need more than that?

But what if I am lost? What if all of us nice people sitting here on a Sunday morning, what if our real condition is that, each of us, is really, truly, hopelessly lost?

Paul was lost. Listen again to the words he uses to describe himself to Timothy: “even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Paul doesn’t know he is lost, of course. He is certain that he is about the Lord’s work, as he terrorizes his way from Jerusalem to Damascus. A man of violence: followers of Jesus fear him, with good reason; he has authority to haul them away in chains; he is shown at the scene of the murder of Stephen, and consenting to his death by mob violence. That is what is really happening in the 7th chapter of Acts. Paul is a perfect example of what the author Christopher Hitchens describes in his book, “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”, where Hitchens insists that religions are dangerous as the prime instigator of horrible and deadly violence all in the name of God. Paul thinks he is doing good.

Paul doesn’t know he is lost until Jesus shows up in front of him. Jesus comes and seeks him, and carries him home again, which is a place Paul doesn’t even realize he has left until he is brought to the realization of how far away he had wandered. Paul couldn’t have gotten back by himself; if Jesus hadn’t shown up, looking for him, Paul never would have repented of his blasphemy and violence because he never would have realized that he was committing blasphemy and violence! Repentance isn’t something Paul decides to do; it is something Jesus confronts him with, as he opens Paul’s eyes to see how far away from God Paul had actually gone.

How frightening it is to realize how far we can get away from God without even knowing it! In fact, even as we make our plans for how to reach others who we identify as lost, we ourselves might be going farther and farther away from God. How can we know? What can possibly come along to help us?

It is only that Jesus, the good shepherd, comes out looking for us, to find us in our ignorance and well-meaning destructive ways and bring us to a sense of reality, and bring us back home. In doing so, Jesus brings us to the knowledge that we must repent; our lives depend on it, to keep going in our own way is to go in the way of certain death. But that repentance comes from God, as the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of life in Jesus’ name and “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us” so that repenting comes as joy and relief, not shame.

And having received the gift of being found, and knowing the welcome of God in being carried into repentance and new life, like Paul we then are eager to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to find others who are lost, just like us, that they might be brought home, and know the joy of welcome, just as we have known it for ourselves.

Is that what church is supposed to be like: seeking and being sought, being welcomed in joy and in turn welcoming others in joy? Knowing that we are what God has been looking for, and that his face lights up when he finds us? And that God’s joy is reflected in our faces, whenever we see his other children, and turn the light on to guide them home? Can’t you hear the cries of the angels now, as they rejoice for you, and me, and for the world we are sent into?


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Devotion and Prayer for the ELCA

I wrote this devotion and prayer for the 40 Days of Prayer on the Lutheran CORE website. I am sharing it here on this day, one year after the Churchwide Assembly decisions. To pray is not about indulging in some sort of magical thinking. Rather, it is to engage in a work of trust in the Lord who tells us to ask, seek, and knock, promising us that our Father in heaven will not give us a stone in place of what we need.

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Devotion: One year ago today the ELCA Churchwide Assembly passed the proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, by an exact two-thirds vote. For some in this church body, this was the culmination of years of prayer and work, and was a time of great joy and hope for the future. For others, it was the dashing of hope and joy, and meant that supporting the ELCA, even remaining in her, would be increasingly difficult, if not impossible. The ELCA is not united behind the passage of this statement; indeed, the divisions within the body continue to cause pain, struggle, anger, and mutual renunciation. One question that is being asked by many who reject this action of a year ago is this: “Can a church body so divided over basic teachings regarding human sexuality still be a witness for Jesus Christ? Can the ELCA still fulfill the Great Commission, or must those of us who reject the Social Statement leave the ELCA in order to follow Jesus’ command?”

Different people in Lutheran CORE give different answers to these questions. But it is interesting to see that the group of disciples to whom Jesus gives the Great Commission are not united in their response to Jesus’ appearance to them. Some doubt. These are the eleven, the ones hand-picked by Jesus to be his disciples; but some of them doubt. Nonetheless, the doubters along with those who are confident are given the command to go, making disciples and teaching them to obey all that Jesus has commanded. How will they manage this? How can those who are faithful and those who are doubters fulfill this commission; how can they work together if their beliefs are not held in common?

We are not told the answer to this. The letters of Paul, the book of Acts, and other writings in the New Testament, as well as the writings and traditions that come to us after the close of the Apostolic age, will have to suffice as an answer. Some of us may marvel at how well the eleven, and those coming after them, managed to work together even when they were deeply divided over such matters as circumcision for Gentile believers. And others of us will see how quickly Jesus’ followers set off in different directions, and how their disagreements threatened constantly to undo the Great Commission.

Division in the church is not new. It existed even among the original disciples, even on a matter so central as what the appearance of the risen Jesus in their midst meant. But the command to go and make disciples in the name of the Triune God came then, and comes still, in spite of all our divisions, doubts, disappointments, and disbelief. The ELCA, as divided as it is, as wrong as many of us believe it to be, still stands in the tradition of the Apostles who received that command, and still can cling to the promise given by our Lord to his divided, doubting followers: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Prayer: Faithful Lord of the Church, we pray for your servant, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: Allow her, even in the midst of divisions and disagreements, to be your instrument for proclaiming the truth of your Word; enable those who question her decisions to serve within her with patient love and steadfastness; correct all within her that is in error; and strengthen all that is faithful to your command; for all authority has been given to you, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Day for Prayer: August 19

The divisions in the ELCA are not going away.

In spite of repeated cries that the current disagreements regarding blessing of same-gender relationships and GLBT persons in same-gender relationships serving in rostered ministry should not be church dividing, the ELCA is in fact divided. The number of congregations that are struggling with reactions among the members to the 2009 churchwide assembly decisions is, in some synods, very large, even if most of those congregations are not taking votes to leave. Pastors, regardless of their own stand on these matters, find that some members are voting with their feet, or with their pocketbooks, or both. And the financial shortfall in both synods and churchwide offices is taking a real toll. Those in the churchwide level are looking at yet another "restructuring," with probably layoffs (yet another round) ahead. Many synods are reducing staff, cutting hours, holding meetings on the meaning and purpose of monetary support of the ELCA, and trying to retrench and regroup. No one knows where bottom is in this financial freefall, which is caused by a combination of the ongoing economic problems overall and the redirecting of giving away from the ELCA synod and churchwide levels.

The ELCA is divided. Those who are rejoicing in and thankful for the measures passed at the 2009 churchwide assembly are in a different place from those who are mourning the same measures. Those who are mourning are also divided, as some believe there is no future in the ELCA and the time has come to "shake the dust off one's feet" and leave for other church bodies, while others believe just as strongly that this is a time to stay in place and bear witness in confessional resistance. At times the relationship between the "stayers" and "leavers" becomes quite antagonistic, as the reasons for leaving imply (or outright state) that staying is tantamount to compromising with heresy. Those who are staying are often struggling with what confessional resistance means in practical terms: does one continue to fight on to overturn the decisions of 2009, or does one build new alliances and focus on positive mission, ignoring the political machinations of the ELCA constitutional structure? There are no easy answers in this time.

So why aren't the leaders in this church body, the presiding bishop, the church council, and/or the conference of bishops calling for a day of prayer for the ELCA?

I have no way to answer that question. However, after pondering it for the past few weeks, I have decided to be bold and call for this on my own. And in looking at the calendar, I have found a good date for such a call for prayer: August 19, the one year anniversary of the day on which the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA passed, by an exact 2/3's vote, the Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

Whether you opposed the social statement or supported it, whether you cheered its passage or wept, this is a fitting day on which to pray for our ELCA, our presently divided church that is caught in disagreement and disarray in the aftermath of this decision. Despite calls for and proclamations of unity, we find ourselves not one in mission, teaching, witness, or service. Even if you are convinced that the negative fallout from the 2009 decisions is a minority reaction that will pass in time; even if you believe that the rejoicing over the reinstatement of pastors removed for being in same gender relationships is wrong in that it is rejoicing over sin being denied: the divided state of the ELCA cries out for prayer. Praying for God to heal and restore this portion of his church so that it might be a strong witness to the whole Gospel of Christ Jesus is one thing that we can all do, together, even if our prayers are for contrary ways of bringing that healing about.

August 19, 2010: A Day for Prayer for the ELCA. Mark it on your calendars. Encourage it in your congregational family. Suggest it to others, to those on both sides of the divide in our denomination. Pray for healing, for an end of divisions, for repentance, for guidance, for strength, for insight, trusting that God indeeds hears the prayers of all his children. The ELCA is in need of prayer. If there is any unity at all, let us claim our unity in praying for this church body, on August 19.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Reflections on the 4th of July

Fourth of July weekend, and celebration of independency (as John Adams sings it in the musical "1776"). I'm not totally independent this weekend: working today at my part-time retail job (how America really celebrates its major holidays!) and then preaching tomorrow (have a good vacation, Chip!), but this morning I have been baking blueberry muffins and finishing up the sermon and enjoying some quiet along with NPR. I pulled up some of my favorite bits from the aforementioned musical, continuing to be amused these many years after first seeing it with a singing, dancing John Adams. I am moved by Adams singing "Is Anybody There?" and giving his vision for what America and Americans will be; and by the beautiful duet between him and his wife Abigail. The scene that presents the song "Mama, Look Sharp" moves me to tears every time. (And I wish it was mandatory viewing for every President and head of state every day of their tenure.) And I also tear up at the final scene, when all the delegates come forward to sign the newly voted in Declaration of Independence. It doesn't matter that such a scene never really happened; this is the way it should have been, as the die is cast and they make possible the country that I enjoy today.

The most troubling scene, but also one I think is masterful, is the song "Molasses to Rum to Slaves." Jefferson states that he has decided to free his slaves, but of course he never does (with the exception of Sally Hemmings and a handful of others in her family); it is George Washington, unseen in "1776" but a constant presence of the reality of the war in the film, who does do that, in his will upon his death. But none of those fine men from the North can respond to the brutal truth that all of them are complicit in the slave trade, and in the "peculiar institution" that would lead to the most bloody war this country would ever fight. The work of the Continental Congress almost came undone in the War Between the States, but that conflict among other things accomplished the transformation from the "independent states" at the close of the declaration to the one United States, e pluribus unum that we became in that furnace. The new nation had miles to go before it could sleep, in 1776, and hopefully even now.

If this says anything to anyone in relation to our troubles in the church today, I leave it to you to put the pieces together. Today I am enjoying the freedom to reflect on what we have been as a nation: idealistic, pragmatic, flawed, optomistic, at times deeply wrong, and at times profoundly right. This is my country, and I accept all of this as my heritage, and hope that in my years as a citizen here I may help my corner of this land strive to do the right, as God gives us the vision to see the right. Lincoln said something like that, and I leave with the knowledge that between him and Washington we had perhaps the best leaders we could hope for in this fallen world.

Happy 4th of July to all. Go celebrate your independency!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

A Week of Witnesses

The way the calendar falls, this entire week is one of commemorations. From the Feast of the Holy Trinity on Sunday through this coming Monday, day after day allows us to reflect on the witness of Christians to the faith we are called to confess in the Creeds. Some of these commemorations are joyful, as in the story of the visitation of the Virgin Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth. Others call us to reflect on the efforts made to renew the Church, and through her the world. June 4th will bring us to the commemoration of Pope John XXIII, and two days later the commemoration of William Passavant, who established the first Protestant hospital in the United States and brought over the first Lutheran deaconesses in 1849. But the other days give us commemorations of martyrs.

These martyrs convey the scope of those who have witnessed to the faith, even unto death. Justin's martyrdom in Rome in 165 A.D. recalls the time of direct persecution in the first centuries of Christianity. He was a student of philosophy, and wrote his famous "Apology" trying to explain Christian teachings. The account of his trial and death show his dignified but steadfast approach to the charges brought against him. Another martyr from that same time is remembered the next day, June 2. Blandina was a slave, and a woman, who was tortured and killed in Lyons in the year 177. Her witness was no less powerful than Justin's, as she kept repeating over and over, "I am a Christian, and we do nothing vile." On Thursday the Martyrs of Uganda are remembered, 32 men and boys who were killed by fire when they held fast to the Christian faith. "In the months that followed, many other Christians died by fire or spear because of their faith. The king's attempt to exterminate Christianity was turned upside down by the example of the martyrs who went to their death singing hymns and praying for their enemies and so inspired many who saw these things to understand that Christianity was truly African and not simply a white religion and to seek instruction in the Christian faith."* June 5th brings us the commemoration of another missionary martyr from an earlier era, as it marks the day of the murder of Boniface, archibishop of Mainz and missionary to the Germans in 754.

A week such as this is an opportunity to remember, and give thanks, for those men and women who went to death trusting and hoping in the resurrection to life in Christ. It is a time to see what runs like a red thread through all of these stories, the conviction that what is done in and for the sake of the Gospel cannot be destroyed, even if one's own life ends before seeing the fulfillment of what one has worked towards. These witnesses, some of whom are known to us by name, others who are only remembered as the companions, the nameless "others," are connected to us through the mystical Body of Christ, through the eternal relationship into which we are baptized when we are claimed by the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, in the faith. Their work and witness allowed the Church to grow and take root in the lands of our ancestors, and their stories encourage us when threats and challenges come to us.

These confessors, martyrs, and faithful witnesses are the living icons through which the life of Jesus Christ shines; they are the broken earthen vessels spoken of by St. Paul, through which the power of God is revealed. The power of the Church is never found in the structures which we construct, as proud as we may be of them. Rather, the power of the Church is in the broken lives of those whose words and actions were "not thought wise," but who continually point to the Crucified One as the only source of life and hope, in defiance of death. In this week, may we also be strengthened in our own witness to the One who is Faithful and True.

*Page 257 from Pfatteicher, Philip A. New Book of Festivals and Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints. Copyright 2008: Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Language for Proclamation

(A sermon for the Feast of Pentecost)

The closest I have ever come to experiencing anything like what the people of Jerusalem experienced on that first Pentecost came at the death of the late Pope, John Paul II. Like many around the world, I tuned in through the televised broadcast to watch the huge crowds gather in Rome for the funeral in Vatican Square. It was with grateful surprise that I realized, “I understand the words!” My rudimentary high school Latin, augmented over the years with some church Latin in a rather hit-and-miss fashion, kicked into gear at hearing the words of the Mass.

“Dominus vobiscum.” “And with thy spirit,” I replied to the television set. Not exactly a miracle, and certainly not in the category of what happened on that early morning in Jerusalem; and yet I and countless thousands were joined as one through what is usually described as a dead language. Perhaps this is a needed reminder that, with God, what seems dead is improbably alive, and what is old and dusty in human terms can be made new in service to the eternal Word.

Whether it is the church speaking in one universally understood language, such as Latin, or the church attempting to speak in as many human languages as possible, the struggle to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, to all nations and languages and peoples is at the heart of this day. I often tell my students in confirmation instruction that each time the Bible has been translated, the impetus has arisen out of the need to bring the story of Jesus to more people in yet another language. From Hebrew to Greek, Greek to Latin, and then Latin into countless languages, the Holy Spirit has unscrambled the confusion created at Babel for the purpose of witness and proclamation. But unlike the construction of the tower, this single purpose and voice is to proclaim not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord: crucified, dead, buried, and then risen from the dead, now living and reigning to all eternity.

This work of translation and proclamation to all peoples in all places has not been without controversy, opposition and even danger. The history of the translation of the Bible into German, English, French, Spanish, and other emerging languages in Europe in the time of the Renaissance is one of daring as well as scholarship. Earlier, missionary bishops who traveled into the Northern reaches of the known world spoke the story of Jesus Christ to those who had not yet heard, often struggling to learn the native tongues of various tribes and peoples who as yet had no written language. Other Christians, finding themselves among those who had never heard the Gospel, took upon themselves the task of preaching the good news, and of translating this Word into words understandable for generations, even centuries, to come. A few days before Pentecost this year, the Church remembers just such a missionary, John Eliot, a Puritan emigrant to the Massachusetts Colony in 1631 who took up preaching to the Indians of New England, learning their language and translating the entire Bible into Algonquian, the dialect of the native people in his area. In 1663 this became the first Bible in any language to be printed in North America. This came at a time when many good Christians argued whether the native peoples in the Americas even had souls, and could become Christians at all.

Recently, I and others in the ELCA have had the experience of hearing the Gospel preached back to me from those who only a few generations ago were the recipients of missionaries from this country. The Oromo people of Ethiopia, a number of whom have immigrated to the United States, have become partners with those of us here in the ELCA. I have heard some of their preachers, both ordained and lay, proclaim the strong message of the good news of Jesus Christ, that death cannot stop him or his Advocate who comes bearing witness to the truth. They have told me their stories of courage in the face of persecution, of witness in the face of prison and death. They have learned my language in order to bring back to me a reminder of what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about.

At times it seems that the Church, rather than being a place of clear proclamation spoken with one understandable voice, is instead Babel reborn. Different denominations speak in a confusion of tongues, emphasizing matters that seem to run contrary to one another. All point to the one Lord and one Scripture, but the differing interpretations seem to bring many to increased perplexity rather than enlightenment. The Church seems to be obsessed with an inner dialogue, even argument, with itself, splintering over and over again in quarrels great and small, over matters at times gravely important and at other times gravely non-essential. We appear to be so embroiled in disputes among ourselves that the work of bearing the Gospel to the nations and peoples at times falls to the wayside; and in fact, in many places modern Christians contend that this type of proclamation is misguided, oppressive and just plain wrong.

But today, in my own language, I hear a different word. I hear it from the Oromo churches in Minneapolis and Saint Paul; I hear it from the Rosebud Reservation, and from the Woyotan Worshipping Community in Rapid City; I hear it from Pastor Natanael Lizarazo, ELCA pastor from Colombia; I hear it from Bishop Victoria Cortez of the Nicaraguan Lutheran Church of Faith and Hope; I hear it from Pastor Constanza Hagmaier, an ELCA pastor from Germany. I hear that the Word became flesh and dwells among us, and that his light shines in the darkness and nothing can extinguish it. I hear that the Advocate comes to bear witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that, in the words of Peter, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2.21)

The Advocate continues to blow the Word of God into and through the Church, sometimes in spite of the Church as an earthly institution, always calling the Church back to its true vocation as witness and proclaimer. Without his presence, we are still in the upper room, talking amongst ourselves. But Pentecost morning dawns once again, and a rumbling and a rushing sound of a mighty wind is coming: to us, through us, lifting us up and out into the streets and highways. The Word speaks again, using our voices, and we hear the voice of the Lord coming out of us, and out of you, and out of those whose languages we did not know. And with one voice we begin to speak: “In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

For the Record

Arresting people because they are gay or lesbian is wrong.

Sentencing anyone to serve time in prison, especially fourteen years at hard labor, because he or she is in or wishes to be in a relationship with someone of the same gender, is cruel and inhuman punishment.

Not speaking out against such miscarriages of justice is wicked.

Here is the story, reported by the BBC, as it has unfolded in Malawi:

Pray for these two men.
Write the U. S. State Department and encourage Secretary Clinton to use the influence of the United States to free these men.
Support the work of Amnesty International.

Don't just say you love the sinner, even though you hate the sin.
Do something.

Monday, May 17, 2010

What I Said

Since the name of this gathering this morning is "Steadfast in the Word: Toward a Renewed Lutheran Church," I thought I would begin with the Word. I will start my presentation with two brief readings from the New Testament.

From the 15th chapter of St. John: "I am the true vine and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

And from the 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor. . . . But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

Renewal in the Church begins with Jesus Christ. Renewal in the Church is always the work of Jesus Christ. Renewal in the Church is the gift given by Jesus Christ to those whom he has chosen to be members of his body, by grace, through his precious death and resurrection.

Renewal is not something we choose to do or choose not to do, as the fancy strikes us or as the moment may seem more or less opportune. Jesus Christ is always at work renewing his Church. Did we not hear in the reading from Revelation last Sunday the words from the One seated on the throne: "See, I am making all things new?" He will be renewing his Church without asking our permission to do so, without checking first with us to see if the moment is practically or politically expedient. He is Lord of the Church, and this is what the Lord of the Church does. He brings renewal so that the Church, his body, can be about the mission of living in the Great Commission. Insofar as the ELCA is part of the earthly, visible Church that confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Lord of the Church is working for the renewal of the ELCA.

So if you have come here today ready to wash your hands of the ELCA, ready to write off those who have made decisions that you believe are in error and go against Scripture, ready to give up and move on and away from a church body that you believe is sinful and unclean -- well, you are going to be disappointed.

What the Word tells us is that Jesus is about bringing renewal and new life, even when we are convinced that the body is dead and gone to dust. Jesus is about renewal and resurrection of those dead in their trespasses and sins.

Now, as a Lutheran, I must listen to that Word. And I am convinced that Lutheran CORE can serve that Word by continuing to be about renewal and reformation within the Lutheran expression of the Christian Church. And yes, that includes being about renewal and reformation within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

However. However, that renewal and reformation will need to take a different form, different tactics, than was the way of working for renewal and reformation prior to the Churchwide Assembly in August of 2009.

This where a lot of people are getting the wrong idea. What Lutheran CORE needs to turn away from is the idea that political reform, centered in the political structure of ELCA synod assemblies and churchwide assemblies and conference meetings and elections by quota and careful looking at the changing demographics and social structure of the secular culture to meet the emerging needs of the emergent church -- that all of that will somehow bring about the Kingdom of God.

Political work was tried. We did the best we knew how to do, and we tried to do that work honorably. And the votes last August went against us. Returning to assemblies over and over again, year after year, throwing more resolutions into the political constitutional system of the ELCA, only for them to get ground up and re-written and either defeated or passed in a form that none of us can recognize, and expect a different outcome from that process, is the definition of insanity. We now know that that kind of activity will not accomplish the reformation and renewal of the part of the Church of Jesus Christ that is known as the ELCA.

So what are we going to do? I believe we have three choices before us. One, do more of the same. (Some of that is happening this year in the synod assemblies.) Two, leave the ELCA. (And for some that is the right decision.) Or three, stay differently. Stay as a community of confessing Lutherans.

Lutheran CORE needs to focus on living the mission of the Great Commission, and on supporting and connecting those Lutherans who are committed to that mission of Jesus Christ in his Church, for the sake of the Word. Lutheran CORE will be that support, that connection, for those remaining in the ELCA, those who trust that the Lord of the Church is still at work renewing and reforming his Church, even if right now we can't see it.

But Lutheran CORE is also committed to coloring outside the lines of all of the Lutheran denominations going forward. Where in the first five years of its existence Lutheran CORE worked exclusively within the ELCA, to work with those traditional orthodox ELCA Lutherans working to defeat proposed policy and constitutional changes, now Lutheran CORE is committed to connect those traditional orthodox Lutherans regardless of which church body they find themselves in. Those within the ELCA will still, through Lutheran CORE, be able to maintain a connection with those who have left the ELCA for other Lutheran bodies, and also with those who may have never been in the ELCA but who see in the issues and struggle here a mirror of what is happening in other Lutheran bodies around the globe.

Lutheran CORE is not becoming a new denomination. But it intends to work with those in a number of Lutheran church bodies who find that what they confess together in this time of challenge (from those claiming that the Spirit is doing a "new thing") gives them a unity in Christ that cuts through the old denominational barriers. It is that community of support, of prayer, of mission, and of communication that will commit itself to learning from one another in order to be about the main thing, the mission of confessing Jesus Christ is Lord to the four corners of the globe.

Now I want to say something that we all need to attend to. One of the main temptations that all of us face right now is the temptation to make the decisions of last August, and to make the ELCA itself, the scapegoat for our own failure to live out that mission of confessing Jesus Christ is Lord to those who are outside of the Christian faith. Even in those instances where the news of the Churchwide Assembly has been received badly in one's own local community, it is too easy to say, "Well, we have to leave the ELCA or else we will cease to grow as a congregation; or we'll lose all our young people; or we'll lose all our good givers; or we'll lose the families that are the backbone of the congregation."

Each of us needs to be honest about our own short-comings. How many of us are tithers to the congregations in which we are members? How many of us have asked one person in the last year to come to church? How many of us have prayed with another person outside the walls of the church building, or have daily devotions in our own family, or told someone else of the hope that is in us because Jesus is risen from the dead?

If you aren't doing any of those things now, what makes you think that leaving the ELCA for another church body is going to make a difference for you? Even if that other church body is one that you are sure is closer to what the Bible teaches, how do you know that you will personally be changed? So don't blame the ELCA for your own failure to live as witnesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, risen from the dead, in your own community.

Now, things have changed. There is no going back to what things were like before last August. The ELCA has been changed, and we also are changed. We cannot go forward as if nothing has changed, or as if the changes don't and won't affect us.

Remember the reading from 1st Corinthians? We are part of the one Body, and we are inter-connected and inter-dependent on each other. That's a word we are hearing repeated a lot right now in the ELCA. Inter-dependent. The different expressions of the ELCA are inter-dependent, we are hearing said over and over. The constitution of this church is set up that way, so that congregations and synods and the churchwide level are all inter-dependent upon each other.

But it isn't the ELCA constitution that makes us inter-dependent. The constitution is the law, and the law (or Law) doesn't make us one. That's the work of the Gospel. It is Jesus Christ who has brought us into his body in an inter-dependent relationship with him, as he is in an inter-dependent relationship within the Holy Trinity, the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And this Triune God, who needs to depend on no one, especially a creature, has chosen to become dependent on sinful human flesh. That's the Incarnation, as God chooses to depend on human beings for everything to sustain life, even to giving to human beings the responsibility of bearing the Gospel to the world.

What is the main thing about being inter-dependent? It is that what happens in South Dakota matters and affects what happens in the body of Christ, whether in St. Paul, Minnesota or Chicago, Illinois, or in Florida or California or New York. And what happens in those places matters to us here. So what happens in a congregation in Atlanta, Georgia matters to us because we are all part of the one body, interdependent on one another. And so we must continue to express that concern for one another, even if on the surface it would seem that what a congregation in the Metro New York Synod does and who it might call to be a pastor would have nothing to do with what happens in a congregation in Huron, or Highmore, or Mitchell, or Sioux Falls.

It seems that, at times, those trying to hold the ELCA together are encouraging us to abandon the idea that we are one body in Christ, and that what happens to another part of the body is my concern, my business. Unity cannot be based on that kind of divorce of one member of the body from another. That is as schismatic and devisive as any action of any congregation to leave the ELCA for another denomination. In fact, I would argue that is more schismatic, because it is based on a false unity, a unity that is only on the surface, that urges us to ignore the disagreements that leave too many unable to support the work of their synods and their national church ministries.

Lutheran CORE, however, is living and promoting that inter-dependence that is spoken of by both Jesus and Paul. We need each other, in order to help each other keep the main thing the main thing. We need each other in order to not be consumed with focusing on the negative things that we see happening or that we believe are happening. We need each other in order to support and encourage one another to live in forgiveness and love for one another, abiding by Martin Luther's explanation of the 8th Commandment to defend and speak well of others in the ELCA, and to put the best construction on what others say and do.

Living as a confessional movement in the Church, being the change that we want to see happen in the ELCA; refusing to undermine the ELCA while at the same time resisting what we cannot agree to support as our consciences are bound to the Word of God; confessing our own sins and failure to be "little Christs" to others and to love our neighbor as ourselves: that is what we are called to in this moment in the Church's story.

It is not easy. But don't kid yourselves. It is NEVER easy. We are being challenged, not by the ELCA nor by those who have worked for the policy changes of this past year, but by the Holy Spirit witnessing to the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus among us, to live as witnesses to those for whom Christ died. We are not being called to re-shuffle the alphabet soup of denominational names, or to trade members among our various congregations and church bodies (some sort of "I'll send my liberal members over there and you send your conservative members over here" action). Rather, we are being called to travel the road of discipleship, telling others the story of Jesus and baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching others to observe all those things that Jesus has taught us. (Even as we confess that we have failed to observe all those things ourselves: Lord, have mercy.)

And we are being called to do this because Jesus gives salvation to us, and to the world, as a free gift of grace, undeserved by any of us.

This is the adventure that we are being called to live. Lutheran CORE is striving to enter into the renewal and reformation that Jesus Christ is bringing about in his Church. As you live in your own communities and congregations, the first question is not, "How can I leave the ELCA?" Nor is it "How can I change the ELCA?" It is instead, "How can I live in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ, and witness to his power in my life and in this community? How can the congregation that I am a member of be a place of mission and evangelism, calling those who do not believe to rejoice in the gift God gives us through the call to repentance and new life in Jesus Christ?"

Here are some practical ideas for living as a confessional movement in association with others concerned for the witness and teaching of their church:
Pray with and for others. Pray for your pastor, and for your bishop.
Don't repeat rumors. Don't have secret meetings. Don't believe the worst, or ascribe the worst motives to others. Check out what is going on before you leap to conclusions.
Spend less time on the internet and in chat-rooms and on-line communities. Be with those flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters involved in mission.
Stay connected to others who support you, and support others who are struggling in all of this. Resist the temptation to demonize and speak ill of those who are being reinstated onto the roster of the ELCA. Pray for them instead.
Volunteer to teach Sunday School, or to be a visitor to those who have come to your congregation for the first or second time. Ask God to send to you and the congregation you are in people who have never been baptized. Ask God to teach you how to speak to those who have never been to church.

And read either Romans 12 or 1st Corinthians 13 every day. In closing, I leave all of you with some of that chapter right now. Remember, that ultimately this love being spoken of is the love of Christ that he shows to us; without that, we cannot hope to have this kind of love in us.

"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

Friday, May 07, 2010

To Witness Through Love

Acts 11: 1-18
Revelation 21: 1-6
John 13: 31-35

There are five little words at the beginning of the Gospel text that are very important to understanding what Jesus is saying. "When he had gone out. . . ." Just who is this "he"? Well, it is Judas. Judas the betrayer. Judas the traitor. In the verses just before, Jesus dipped his bread in the bowl and handed it to Judas, saying, "Do quickly what you are going to do." Judas then leaves the meal with Jesus and the other disciples, and goes out to lead the soldiers and others to the Garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus will be betrayed. Judas goes out, and the Passion of our Lord begins.

So why is it that Jesus then says, after Judas has left, that "Now the Son of Man has been glorified"? Haven't you ever wondered about that?

Jesus is proclaiming he is now glorified because his work on the cross has begun. In the Gospel of St. John it is made clear that Jesus' glory doesn't come only at the time of his resurrection, as wonderful as that is. Instead, his time of glory comes when he is crucified. It is on the cross that John 3:16 is fulfilled, that God sends his only beloved Son to save the world. It is the cross that makes salvation possible; the cross that re-unites all of us fallen, sinful human beings with the perfection and holiness of the Father. Jesus isn't defeated on the cross! Instead, he rules from the cross, as he carries out the plan of salvation, the light that shines brightest in the darkness of the cross and the grave.

Now the rest of what Jesus is saying to his disciples, and later to us as his followers through the church, can be clear. None of us can do the work that Jesus has been sent to do. We can't save anyone, not those we hold most dear, not even ourselves. We can't take on the work of salvation, neither through the good things we do, nor by the suffering we may face. Only Jesus can do that. So we can't go where Jesus is going: to the cross, to the grave, into death for others. Jesus does that alone, and he does it accomplishing all that needed to be done. His final words from the cross are "It is finished," meaning that the work of salvation has been completed, accomplished, finished once and for all in him.

But now, having been saved by what Jesus did on the cross, we are called by Jesus to live as witnesses to others of what he has done. And what does Jesus say is the way we are to bear witness to him? To live in love for one another. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This love is both breathtakingly simple, and horribly complicated. Sometimes showing love means curbing one's tongue, swallowing one's anger, refusing to bear grudges and refusing to insist on getting one's own way. At other times showing love means standing one's ground, calling others (and one's self!) to repentance, citing the Law of God, and holding to standards and hard teachings.

Sometimes showing love means treating one another with gentleness and forbearance. Other times showing love means letting others experience the hard consequences of their actions, even rejecting the actions and decisions of others.

How is anyone supposed to know what is the proper way to show the love of Jesus to others in the church, in any particular situation? What does showing love to one another, to fellow disciples in Christ, supposed to be like?

And what if we disagree over this? What if we get it wrong?
Well, we will disagree! And we will get it wrong. That's a fact of sinful human life, whether inside the church or outside of it. Some will recommend the spirit of gentleness at the same time as others will recommend the Spirit of strength and reprimand. And sometimes it might be possible that both are right at the same time. Jesus asks for us to witness to him, and even he recognizes that he himself is a stone that others will at times stumble over. Jesus causes us to stop, and think, and question, in order to be led by the Holy Spirit sent from the Father to keep us in the way of the truth and the life. But Jesus is also the light, revealing always that it is not our love, or our faithfulness, or our getting this love right, that saves. Jesus saves. We follow and point to him in witness.

So Peter, a faithful Jew following the Law that God gave to Moses and his people at Mount Sinai, Peter is told to break that holy law and eat with Gentiles, eat their food, even eat unclean animals, in order to witness to the living Jesus among the Gentiles. Peter is called on the carpet for this, and has to explain that now showing love to those saved by Jesus will mean finding ways to welcome the Gentiles who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of the Bible, God comes to make his home among human beings, and the holy City of the New Jerusalem comes down to earth. God lives among us! God shows his love finally by dwelling among us forever!

In this time of Easter, in this time of synod assemblies, in this time of congregations looking for ways to live as faithful witnesses to the message of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, we go back to Jesus' words in the Gospel. He is glorified when the time of his betrayal and crucifixion had come. He is glorified when we live trying to show his love to one another, because Jesus has asked us to do so. We try to witness to that love so that others can see that, even when we disagree with one another over matters great or small, we continue to live and act and speak out of that love that Jesus showed to the world, and continues to show to us. His love was willing to go to the cross for the sake of a world that even betrayed and denied and killed him.

In our love for one another, are we willing to go so far? Having been saved by Jesus, even though we do not deserve either his love or his salvation, can we live with one another, showing the love of Jesus to one another? What will our witness be to the world outside of the church, outside of the walls, outside of our circles of agreement and support? What will others see and know from how we treat one another, and them? Will they know we are Christians by our love?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Southern U.S. Hit Hard: How You Can Help

The Southeastern Synod of the ELCA sent out an email alert this afternoon regarding the recent trio of disasters to hit in the past few days. From the ongoing oil spill along the Gulf Coast, to tornados in Mississippi last weekend, to the current flooding situation in Tennessee, especially in Nashville, the South is being hit hard. But Lutheran Disaster Relief is there. Here is information on how to contribute to LDR, as well as the other information contained in this news release. Please keep all those affected by these events in your prayers, and give of your treasure if you are able. Because of my own connection to this area, growing up in Tennessee and with many friends and family members still in this region, I plan to be doing both for some time to come.

Southeastern Synod Disaster News

Photo by John Partipilo (The Tennesean) View from above looking out over First Avenue in downtown Nashville, TN as flood waters continue to rise on Monday morning, May 3, 2010.
Nashville flood

On Saturday and Sunday, May 1 - 2, middle and west Tennessee areas were inundated with water, 10-15 inches of rain in two days. Interstates 24 and 40 were underwater at places both east and west of the city; Opryland Convention Center and the Second Ave area in downtown Nashville were flooded as the Cumberland River escaped its banks. The Bellevue area in West Nashville was particularly hard hit with many people evacuated from their homes in boats.

Area Lutheran churches are all secure but most received some minor water damage. Many church members had to be evacuated from their homes. Holy Trinity is in the Bellevue area. Pastor Gretchen Person was unable to get there yesterday and we have no word yet today. Further west at Rauwood, a Middle Tennessee Lutheran Camp and Retreat Center, major damage was suffered with their log cabin washed away and much damage to other structures.

For up to the minute news, go to or

Donations may be sent to the Synod Office or to Lutheran Services of Tennessee.

ELCA-Southeastern Synod
100 Edgewood Ave., Suite 1600
Atlanta, GA 30303
note "Tennessee Flood" on memo line

Lutheran Services in Tennessee
P.O. Box, 60597,
Nashville, TN, 37206-0597.

Tornadoes in Mississippi
The path of destruction left by severe storms in the southern United States begins in Yazoo City, MS, where a massive tornado touched down last week and traveled for more than 100 miles. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed or heavily damaged, and at least 12 people were killed. Affected communities are now beginning the process of recovery, and Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi (LESM) and Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) are both playing vital roles in that work.

Sandra Braasch, Lutheran Disaster Response coordinator with Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi, serves as president of the Mississippi Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), and in that role, she works closely with partners in various faith-based, secular and governmental disaster response organizations.
In coordination with local emergency response personnel, LESM has been involved in assesments on the ground and debris removal, and is currently working to help set up an on-site volunteer camp.

Lutheran Disaster Response has issued an emergency grant of $10,000 to Lutheran Episcopal Services for use in these early days of response. Additional funding, and non-financial resources, may be available as the full scale of need becomes more clear. A press release from the ELCA News Service, which details this grant and shares additional information about the unfolding response in Mississippi, can be found

For information on how to make a gift to support the recovery efforts click here

Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

As oil from the sunken Deepwater Horizon platform continues to spread across the Gulf of Mexico, we lift up in prayer those whose communities and livelihoods may be impacted. Volunteers are needed to help with oil cleanup should it come ashore, but those volunteers need to be trained. Interested persons should go, to find a link to sign up for training.

Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi (LESM) has offered 2 camps in the area--Mission on the Bay, Bay St. Louis, MS, and Camp Victor, Ocean Springs, MS--as locations to house and train volunteers. More information will be forthcoming.

For the latest information on the containment of the oil spill, visit the Deepwater Horizion Incident Unified Command Website, .