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."

1 comment:

James Gustafson said...

Thank you for your service in Christ Pr. Wolf. I appreciate your efforts and I pray for the Spirit to always be plentiful with you.

You always turn the best possible light on to these troublesome situations and it's a blessing. Although I sometimes wonder why this branch or that branch gets cut off or just trimmed, it is heartening to remember that Christ is the Gardner, not us.