Monday, May 15, 2017

An initial reflection on Resolution 4: On Difficult Conversations

            The New Jersey Synod had our annual Synod Assembly, a gathering of ELCA members from congregations throughout the state of New Jersey. There we worshipped, attended break out sessions with useful programs and information to take back to our congregations, heard reports on what has happened in the Synod in the last year, and charted a course for the coming year.
            One of the thing ways we do this last thing is by passing Resolutions and Memorials. There were four total this year, including one by yours truly, which passed!
It reads as follows:

Resolution 4: On Difficult Conversations

Whereas, the 2016 Presidential election was very contentious;
Whereas, this partisanship has slipped into congregational and synodical life;
Whereas, we are called to love one another;
Whereas, in Christ there is no east nor west, north nor south;

Therefore Be It Resolved,
-the New Jersey Synod will continue to be a community for moral deliberation, navigating the present political realities as faithfully as possible;
-Congregations of the New Jersey Synod are encouraged to endeavor to be places where partisans may remain one in Christ;
-Members of the New Jersey Synod are encouraged to enter into difficult conversations with people with whom they disagree.

Submitted Pastor Chris Halverson, St. Stephen South Plainfield

            I’d planned on introducing it when debate over the Resolution began, but by then all 4 microphones were filled with people, so I just let things ride for a while.
            That said, if I had introduced it, I would have said something like the following:

            I introduce this resolution with a pastoral intent.
If you are a pastor here, raise your hand.
If your ministry has been affected by the 2016 election keep your hand up.

            The 2016 election has heightened partisanship to such an extent than nearly nothing is non-partisan today. This reality is deeply felt in the congregations of this synod as well; look no further than the memorials and resolutions before this assembly today.
-Over half a decade ago the ELCA passed a statement on Church in Society and we covenanted together to be communities of moral deliberation. Our social messages and statements call us to be a church engaged with the world as it is, in a public way. We are also called to engage with each other, even when we disagree. Having difficult conversations is not a new thing for us, we’re equipped for it. Our current political crisis calls for people like us to be who we are.
-I always remember the time my campus Pastor back in Eugene, Oregon, Pastor Kegel, smiled and actually kinda giggled while giving me Holy Communion. I later asked him what that was about.
I’d not noticed it, but the head of the College Republicans was kneeling not two feet from me, an active member of the College Democrats. We’d verbally jousted the day before in a ruckus campus debate, but then we both knelt at the same altar, fed by the same Bread of Life. Would that we always find our way to that altar, our baptism into Christ greater than any other identity we may have.
-What would it look like if we here in this assembly, and the congregations we represent, were to model difficult conversations to our neighbors? What if we could be salt and light—clarifying political beliefs? What if we could be seed, growing up through the hard ground of the present and bearing a fruitful future? What if we could be leaven, transforming the flatness of the present into a bountiful feast?
            What if, in short, we could be the Church for this time and place, repairing the breach that has so completely split our nation?

Sermon: Greater Works than these

          “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

          So, (Bill?) when was the last time you fed 5,000 people? (Barbara?) when did you last restore sight to the blind? Or you might well ask me, “Pastor, when did you last raise the dead?”
          Jesus preached good news, healed the sick, suffered, died, and saved us from sin.
          How could my poor words match the magnificence of Jesus’ parables in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or the spiritual heights of his discourses in John’s gospel?
          How could our actions echo our Savior’s—salve for the sick and salvation for the sorrowful? 
          Our lives and deaths, our eventual resurrection
—are these on offer?

          In short, how might we do greater works than our Lord? How might we glorify his Father and our Father?
Let us pray
          You will do greater works than these.
          What are the works of Christ?
          Well, right before this, Jesus has shown his disciples what kind of love he’s calling them to
—what kind of love comes out of following him, doing his works
—a kind of love that kneels at the feet of a friend and washes those feet
—love in humble action.
          Greater works than that… he’s kinda saying:
—look Church, you will embrace humiliation more fully than your Lord who was mocked in the midst of his torture and death…
          That’s a hard message, isn’t it? But it has always been part of the Christian message
—“the Blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” 
The true escape from humiliation is humility.
          Yet, there are more works of Christ than humility. 
He is a miracle man—but, save the feeding of the 5,000, he’s not into mass miracles—they are individual.
          Think about it, he calls the blind man by name
he seeks him after his expulsion from the city. This isn’t an anonymous healing
—a one and done
It is personal… Jesus calls him by name
And it is ongoing… when Jesus hears the Blind man is lost he searches for him and finds him.
          So too Lazarus—
Think of it, Jesus weeps, Jesus calls him by name when he calls him out of the tomb, he stays with Lazarus, even in his stink!
          Yes, these works of Jesus are ongoing, involve relationship, and are personal.

          So that’s a sense of what Jesus is offering we believers as our works
humble works, relational works, personal works, works that don’t end when the healing is done.

          Consider, for example, St. Stephen’s namesake.
          St. Stephen is known for two things, two works, to use Jesus’ word
—being the first Deacon
and being the first Martyr.
          Both of these works flow from, and follow after, Jesus’ works.

          St. Stephen was a Deacon… not in the sense that the assisting minister is a deacon in the service, but in the sense of someone who provides word and service.
          He gets his start when the Disciples are overwhelmed and unable to feed everyone who has joined the Christian community
—in frustration they say “we are not meant to serve tables, it gets in the way of serving scripture.” 
          And so Stephen steps in, feeding orphans and widows who are both residents of Jerusalem, as well as his own people—those who are foreigners who have entered into the faith.
He widens the circle of care in the earliest Christian community
—providing for people without regard to where they come from. 
Like Jesus he feeds those in need…
like Jesus he opens up relationships in unlikely places.
Like Jesus he goes beyond what the Disciples were ready and equipped to do
like Jesus he expands boundaries to reflect the boundless love of God.

          He also follows the mold of Jesus in the way in which he dies. He preaches all of scripture—goes on a long time, the 60 verses found in chapters 6 and 7 of Acts. And by the end he is stoned to death, and dies as Jesus did. 
He asks Jesus to receive his spirit, just as Jesus asked God to receive his own 
and he asks God to be merciful to his murders, just as Jesus asked the same from the cross
…the humility of it, even in death pointing to Jesus and found with forgiveness on his lips!

          I don’t know if this is a greater work than those of Jesus
—but I do know the works of Stephen were faithful, they clearly followed after Jesus
—they expanded Jesus’ message and mission, going beyond the parochialism of the Apostles by serving the unexpected, 
they followed Jesus all the way to the end
—to a humble death that defeated the power of his persecutor
humility defeats humiliation.

          And that’s all well and good for someone whose name now starts with Saint… 
who has churches named after him… 
but what about us?
           As I asked before, how might we do greater works than our Lord? How might we glorify his Father and our Father?

          On one hand, we can look at the massive outreach we are doing
—we are after all part of a larger church, the ELCA, and we do some amazing stuff
—1 out of every 15 people in the US and the Caribbean have been helped by Lutheran Social Services.
          In the last year ELCA World Hunger has undertaken 600 projects throughout the world
—from a men’s shelter in San Bernardino, California to assisting with secondary education in Zimbabwe to working on sustainable farming in China.
          The Federal government honors Lutheran Disaster Relief regularly, because when we arrive they know we’re not going to leave once the cameras and media attention have left.
          And before we start thinking we have to go big and go international to follow Jesus, remember the strange fact that the entirety
the whole thing, 
of Jesus’ healing ministry was done within a 7 mile by 13 mile area
—he never left his neighborhood and yet had this amazing impact!
          Our own Katie’s Quilters partner with Lutheran Disaster Relief to bring comfort to those in greatest need—that’s done right here every other week.
          We join with Cross of Life to feed hungry folk at the YMCA in Plainfield, and with St. Paul’s to do the same in Edison, and South Plainfield Social Services to do the same in right here. 
          We bring joy to people at the Lutheran Social Ministry’s senior housing down the street
…you get the point, we have an impact on our world that truly is the work of Jesus.

          On the other hand, we must not forget the small works that happen every week here at St. Stephen, works that are 
-friendships you won’t have, save this space imprinted with Jesus’ image
-times you learned to admit you were wrong, 
-or were allowed to forgive someone.
-having a space to wrestle with tough questions 
-or maybe just sit with them a while.
-A place to grieve
-a simple word, spoken and forgotten, yet planted in the heart and growing
-there is a greatness in the small seeds of this faith.

          The Resurrected Jesus promises, he is at the right hand of God, 
          Interceding on our behalf, building up our works,
Truly they are built on the rock of Christ
The grace of God already enough, 
Yet flowing from it,
 Works that echo throughout the earth
“Christ has triumphed! He is living!”
All of heaven resounding 
“Christ has triumphed! He is living!”
Works that repeat that glorious truth
“Christ has triumphed! He is living!”
All of it pointing to the life he gives us.
“Christ has triumphed! He is living!”