Monday, January 25, 2010

1 Corinthians 12: Our Unity in Jesus Christ is Real

Paul talks about what true Christian unity is in his letter to the congregation in Corinth. Just as the political commentators today, Paul talks about unity because it is sorely lacking. The Corinthian church, rich in spiritual gifts and physical blessings, is turned in on itself in dissension, bickering and jealousy. And so Paul gives this sermon in his letter, a sermon that tries to call them back to what all their gifts and blessings are for at the basic, foundational level.

And this is important for us, just as it was then for the Corinthian Christians, because we also need to reflect on what our place is in the whole picture, the whole body.

Our unity is in being made members of the one body of Jesus Christ.

Let me say that again. Our unity is in being made members of the one body of Jesus Christ.

We don’t make ourselves members of this body. That is God’s work, through being baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the active agent of the Trinity in the sacrament of baptism, bringing us to faith in Jesus Christ so that we can receive him as the savior sent from the Father. The Holy Spirit is, as it were, the leading edge of the Holy Trinity, who always works in coordinated action for the salvation of the world, in each one of us. It is all of that Third Article of the Creed stuff, what Luther lays out so succinctly in the Small Catechism:

“But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith, even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it in Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

As Luther writes here, and as Paul reminds both the Corinthian Christians and us, this is not just about “me and Jesus getting saved.” Yes, it is personal, and individual, the Holy Spirit working in your life, and in yours, and in mine, so that each one can hear God calling by name as his beloved child. But it is also, always, by necessity, about us, about the whole Christian Church, about those who came before and who will come after, about the others in the pews along side us, and about those Christians who are in congregations and gatherings around the world. Some we know, some we don’t know, and occasionally some we wish we didn’t know!

And now, as in Corinth, there are differences. Disagreements. Oh, let’s be really honest: there are some real cat-fights in the church, feuds that would rival the Hatfields and the McCoys! Those are not things for us to be proud of, but they must be admitted, confessed to, before any kind of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation can take place. And sometimes that work of reconciliation takes a long time, even centuries. Fortunately, we are claimed by a God who takes the long view, and is willing to hang in there over the centuries.

In the midst of disagreements, disappointments, rivalries, and opposing claims to what is right and proper among Christians in the same congregation, church body, or tradition, Paul gives us a vision, a wake-up call, as to what is the purpose of all of this multitude of gifts and callings. It is to point to Christ. It is to build up his body so that the weaker members, whatever and whoever they might be, are clothed with greater honor; so that all members might have the same care for one another; so that we suffer together and rejoice together; so that the whole body together might be a witness to what Jesus Christ has done and how He has taken each one of us and at the cost of his own life, given his life away so that we might live.

Now, there are times when this unity seems, indeed is, pushed to the breaking point. There are situations, moments, even decades when it seems that Christians are better at snarling and biting at one another than at caring for one another; when emotions run so high that the mere idea of working together in one body is abhorrent. The difficulty of those times and situations are well known; and indeed, sometimes there are matters that are worth arguing and fighting about. Jesus himself at times seems to pick arguments with others; those situations emerge over the course of the Gospels.

But remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon. Our unity comes from being made members of the one body of Christ . It isn’t something we make happen, it is something that is done to us and for us. Our dissensions and even our separations are real, and sometimes get worse as we humanly struggle. Our prayers for Christian unity are sometimes more like whistling in the dark.

But our unity in Jesus Christ is real. He is the one who has brought us into his life, and while he stretches he doesn’t break. His unity exists beyond what we can see or know, in our limited human existence in this corner of the whole Church. His Holy Spirit binds us together in our baptism into his death, and we will rise together, to then know one another as we have been known by him. He brings us that good news, that being one isn’t up to us. He has accomplished it already, and gives it to us as his gift.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Support Haiti Relief: Give to the ELCA

I have been following the reporting on the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Like many, if not most of you, I have been praying for those who are caught in this terrible situation, as well as for those who are scrambling to bring aid and relief to the hundreds of thousands of survivors. And like many, I am proud of the reputation of Lutheran relief agencies in responding to this kind of disaster. We have "boots on the ground," through the Lutheran World Federation, Lutheran World Relief, and the companion synod relationships of the ELCA with the Lutheran Church in Haiti. I am also learning about countless other ways in which members of the ELCA have been involved in mission work in Haiti, and will continue to be involved far into the future.

Lutherans are generous people, not as a work of the law but as a response to the generosity God has shown to us in his Gospel. We have been given much, and we give much, especially when the need is so great. Already the ELCA News is reporting that over a million dollars has been given by Lutherans for the earthquake response in Haiti. And that is why I am going to make a suggestion, request, perhaps plea is the best word for it, now.

Send an offering to the ELCA Vision for Mission Fund.

Why? Because the main reason the ELCA International Disaster Relief Fund can dedicate such a high percentage of the offerings it receives to those who are most in need is because the ELCA Churchwide budget covers the cost of offices, lights, office machines, and staffing expenses. That is part of the mission work of this denomination. The Disaster Relief folks don't have to pay for that stuff, so their money can go to places like Haiti. (And the flood victims in Iowa, and the hurricane victims on the Gulf Coast, and the tornado victims in Oklahoma, and you name the places where the ELCA has been in the past 10 years.)

I am going to go out on a limb and say that right now it is not about the current church disagreement, as important as that is to me and I know to you. Right now it is about supporting the work of those who know how to help, first and best and immediately and long-term. And the ELCA is a vital member of that response and that work. If the Churchwide office is weakened, then our response is weakened.

If you disagree with me, I do understand. This isn't meant to guilt anyone into contributing to the ELCA Churchwide level. But think about it. Pray about it. And please give to help Haiti, whether it is to the ELCA Disaster Relief folks or to Lutheran World Relief or to the Lutheran World Federation.

But if you want to send a message to Chicago, then send a check, by mail, and include a note that because of the emergency in Haiti, you want the ELCA to be able to support the work of those responding in mercy to the least of these. Here's the address:
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Vision for Mission Fund
P. O. Box 71764
Chicago, IL 60694-1764

And tell them Lutheran CORE sent you.

In peace,
Pastor Erma Wolf
Lutheran CORE steering committee (but acting on my own)

Monday, January 18, 2010

To Be Named "Not-Forsaken"

For those who don’t know me very well, I am a news junkie. I often listen to my I-Pod while exercising, but what I listen to most often isn't music, but recorded podcasts of news programs and commentaries on recent events. But at times these podcasts might stay on my I-Pod for several days, even a week, before I get around to listening to them. So yesterday, I listened to a podcast from a news program from earlier this month. And suddenly I realized that this story featured Haiti. But it was a very different place from what we are seeing now. It spoke of the new possibilities of hope that existed, as programs for education and job creation were being ramped up, and jobs were being provided for the young adults in Haiti. Some of Haiti’s factories were back in business, for the first time in over a decade, as foreign investment in Haiti was returning to the struggling country. The program stressed how this was a time of new hope, for Haiti and for its people. And perhaps this would be Haiti's last chance; as one Haitian reflected, "People are getting tired of trying to rescue Haiti."

The program was dated Monday, January 11th, 2010. And all I could think of was how that hope had been shattered. How the factories, the schools, the programs, the lives, now lay in ruins. The earthquake of this week has changed everything.

What would it mean for Haiti to hear the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson for today? "The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by anew name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you." (Isaiah 62:2-4) You will no longer be known as forsaken or desolate; you will no longer be known as cursed or hopeless. Jerusalem was a place that had been cursed, abandoned, forsaken. Jerusalem was a pile of ruins, destroyed by the armies of the Babylonians, left as a warning to any who would think of defying the king of Babylon, and later of Persia. And when the exiles were allowed to return, they returned to a land that had been destroyed. Everything was in ruins. They had to begin over again, from nothing.

How does one rebuild an entire city? The destruction and despair of Port-au-Prince Haiti is not the first time this question has had to be asked. Countless cities and towns have had to ask that across the ages, as disaster, both natural and man-made, strikes, often with no warning. Often the response is guarded. Rebuild, yes, probably, but be practical, careful. Surely no one expects things to be like before.

But note what God says through his prophet. Jerusalem is to be rebuilt, restored, not only as good as before, but better. It will once again be the shining city on the hill. It will be the gorgeous crown of beauty in the hand of her Lord; the capitol city, the home of the throne of David. It will be as if all her sad, broken, ugly history had never happened, for that will be wiped out in what God will do for her now. No longer a broken, ugly, crime-ridden idol-pursuing harlot of a place, Jerusalem will be a beautiful bride for her husband, the Lord God of Israel.

Why does God promise this? Why is God so extravagant in what He will do for His chosen one, the people he is bringing back from exile? Because that is the kind of God he is. His love and grace is wider and deeper than Jerusalem and the exiles deserve or expect. It is as if Haiti were to hear: Your city will be restored, not to what it was before, but to what it was supposed to be: no more shanties and places of poverty and death, but the whole city a place of beauty and health and wholeness for all her people, a place that will be a shining light for the whole Western Hemisphere.

We hear this in all of the lessons this Sunday. From the promises God gives to the exiles returning to the ruins of Jerusalem, to the words of Paul to the congregation in Corinth arguing over which spiritual gift is really best, to the empty jars at the wedding where the wine has run out, we see how generous God is to his people, generosity that is overflowing, more and better than anyone expects, or even wants. “Why serve this good wine now?” the steward of the wedding asks. What Jesus has done is give better than was expected, a prime vintage to those whose palates have been dulled with inebriation. Do we really need all these spiritual gifts, the people of Corinth might ask, and we ask as well. Gifts of healing and prophecy: do we really want those, or are we embarrassed if they suddenly show up outside of where they are supposed to be. Healing is supposed to come from medicine, and by way of a doctor’s care, not from some spontaneous act of God. Wine is something one buys at the store, in carefully measured bottles, and drink modestly, soberly even. It isn’t supposed to suddenly show up, running out of the tap where the water should be, in such amounts and excellence that one is tempted to drink with abandon.

God’s generosity and extravagance embarrass us. We are much more comfortable with reasonable generosity; gifts that are appropriate, in good taste, and modest. We don't’ know how to handle a huge gift of overwhelming value and generosity. What are we supposed to do with that? What kind of obligation do we owe if we accept such a gift?

Each one of us has already been given such a gift, a gift of such beauty and priceless extravagance that it takes our breath away. That gift of Jesus Christ himself, our Lord, our Savior, revealed in all his beauty and glory and love as the one who comes to restore us as his Father’s favorite child. Each one of us is given this gift, and more as well: the gifts of the Holy Spirit, poured out on you and me so that we each can participate in the proclaiming to a world that is broken and forsaken that Jesus Christ is Lord. His kingdom will bring about the healing of the peoples, most profoundly those who are most abandoned, hopeless, and desperate in this world. Even places such as Haiti, the poorest, most afflicted country in our hemisphere, God is there proclaiming good news, healing, and hope.

Last week we heard in the story of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan the words of the Father’s welcome to him: You are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased. This week we hear that those words are for us as well. Not because we deserve it, or because we have worked hard and have earned the reward. Not, as Paul told the Corinthians, because they are wiser or more advanced in knowledge. And not, as we learn in the Gospel, because we are so much better prepared than others for any and every contingency. But we receive this gift because we have been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, the beloved Son of God; because in baptism we have been immersed into his bloody death and raised in his resurrection, and our lives are no longer our own, but his.

God pours out his life blood, his riches, his forgiveness and grace upon the barren emptiness and dry places in our lives, and in our world. And then his Spirit moves us to witness to that gift by giving it away to those who are dying for lack of water, bread, shelter, and hope. The empty stone jars and the ruined city is not the end. God gives us more than we ever deserve, and blesses us in our giving away to others in trust that God will never let us run dry.

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

Monday, January 04, 2010

Augsburg Fortress Announcement on Pension Fund

If you haven't already heard the news, you can read about it on "Pretty Good Lutherans"
( Augsburg Fortress Publishers has told its employees and retired workers that it is ending its pension fund. Seems it has been underfunded for the past nine years. And the ELCA leadership sees no qualms with deciding that there is no legal obligation to help AF provide for its retirees.

"Gift and Trust" anyone?

Please, keep the workers, current and retired, of the publishing ministry of the ELCA in your prayers. This winter blast just got a whole lot colder, and crueler, for them.

And how about letting someone know what you think about this? A bishop, Church Council member, or the folks in Chicago? There has to be a better way to deal with this. Someone, please, come up with a better way, and convince the folks in charge that we can take care of those who have worked for the mission and ministry of the ELCA in its publishing ministry.

Otherwise, don't ANYONE in the ELCA talk about "justice" or "social statement" ever again.