Saturday, August 06, 2022

Sermon: Unexpected God

        On my vacation last week, Lisa and I visited Philly and we stopped in at my seminary; I got to chat with two wonderful professors and show Lisa around the campus… 

and she was blown away by the artwork all around
—a painting of Christ by Sadao Watanabe, 
an etching of Christ’s head by Albrecht Durer. 
Now, if you don’t know who those artists were—don’t worry, I didn’t either…

         And that was just it… that campus was the center of my life for four years… and I never once noticed these famous images of Jesus Christ… 

I wasn’t alert to them.

         Today, I want you to hear two things:

         Be alert—know thyself and,

Be alert—don’t miss what God is up to.



         The scroll of Isaiah has a starling start to it
—in the midst of the Assyrian siege of the nation, 
Isaiah of Jerusalem begins his Word of the Lord with a discussion about worship
—that there are worship practices that do not honor God. In fact, God rejects worship without ethics.

         He is saying, in effect, “Don’t give me ceremony, instead cease doing evil.”

         He is warning his community
—and all of those who see ourselves as within his tradition
to be alert, be alert so that our worship doesn’t hide our sins.

Modernizing Isaiah for a moment he might write about worship like this:
“Gather to do Good. 
Read God’s Word in order to transform your deeds. 
May the Holy Meal move you to share. 
You are sent out from worship in order to seek out the least, last, and lost.”



         The reason we begin worship with either confession and forgiveness or Thanksgiving for Baptism—is so that we don’t kid ourselves, we don’t pretend like our intentions are always honorable, like we’ve went a week without fault or foible—like our lives aren’t one ongoing return to the font and Jesus’ promise there. 

         One of my favorite morning prayers begins, “forgive me for the sins I have so labored to hide from others that I have hid them from myself.” I love it because it is so true… 
we humans are really good at putting the best construction on our actions, and the worst on those of our neighbors.

         Be alert, Isaiah warns, so that you don’t use worship to hide from your sins and the sins of your society.

         Be alert, as well, Jesus warns, in Luke’s Gospel, that that you don’t let your possessions possess you. 
Don’t let markers of success in this world, wealth and padded purses, persuade you they are your Master, 
or lull you into a false sleep of materialism, and you stop following Jesus!

         Be alert so that you know yourself as you truly are, warts and all…


         Be alert, but, don’t be afraid.

         Ultimately, God calls us to be alert
not to catch and punish others, or ourselves
but so that we can see what God is up to! 
So that God’s forgiveness and salvation and sustenance
—might be real for you
real for us.

         Be alert, because God is an unexpected kind of God
—God is going to show up in ways we’d never anticipate…


         I’ve been reading a biography of the Civil War general Ulysses S Grant… now he and General Sherman, eventually won the Civil War preserving the Union… but only after every other general had had their crack at things
—neither general was an expected kind of war hero, 
neither was the kind of leader anyone in the Union anticipated… 

The powers that be thought West Point Professors, and “Self-Anointed North American Napoleons”, and General McClellen who asked to be referred to simply as “Little Mac,” were what would win the war… 
but it was Sherman, who dealt with mental illness, 
and Grant, who struggled with addiction all his life
—who won the day.

(as a side note the two formed a beautiful friendship, on account of their mutual struggles… Sherman went so far as to write, “Grant supported me when I was crazed, and I supported him when he was drunk.”)


         Just as they were unexpected leaders, 
God is an unexpected kind of God.

         After all, the idea that a god would forgo worship… 
that’s bizarre… 
ethics before devotion… not the most common religious tradition in Isaiah’s day…
that’s why you gotta be alert and watch
watch for the God who shows up, 
not only in bread and wine, water and word, 
but also in the midst of our daily choices, 
our roles and responsibilities, 
when we’re at our best 
and when we’re at our worst. 
Be alert!


         Be alert, because our Lord Jesus will seem strange to us as well… 
just as I missed these beautiful, famous, images of Jesus
for 4 years! 
So too, we can miss Jesus among us. 
After all, the way Jesus describes his arrival among us, frankly, breaks the mold!


Jesus says he’s going to show up as a Shepherd (this is sometimes a way people talk about Kings in the ancient world)… 
a Shepherd… who gives away his kingdom! 

In other words, a Prince, a Shepherd, who pushes away fear, 
whose father—the King—finds pleasure in giving us his Kingdom, 
giving us the riches of the Kingdom of God! Be alert!

A Master, who, finding us awake and aware of his joyful return from the wedding feast
—a Master who then serves the servants… 
this is Maundy Thursday kind of stuff
—Jesus kneeling to wash the Disciple’s feet, even the feet of Judas who would betray him… be alert!

A Thief, who is the Son of Man… 
an exalted figure found in the book of Daniel… 
a Thief, let us confess, who takes what is ours, and gives us what is his… 
who takes our worship
—always ambiguous, even when faithful
—takes that which possesses us and stupefies us, 
so that we do not know the goodness of God… 
takes all of that 
and gives us the stores of the treasury of Heaven
—his inheritance is our heritage
—goodness and justice, 
rescue and defense, 
encouragement and help
—forgiveness, salvation, blessing, 
mercy and love!

Be alert
because God is strange and wondrous

Be alert
the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour.
Amen and Alleluia!

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Sermon: How, not Who

Today, Jesus is asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 

How do I live a life that transcends the ages? 
How do I live faithfully? 
How do I live a life that matters?

Jesus, responds with his own question, “What does it say in scripture? How do you read our tradition?” 

         The Lawyer’s response is not unusual, he thinks back to the second verse of the Jewish morning and evening prayer known as the Shema:

         “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord, is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” 
         To which he adds from Leviticus, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
         And that could have ended the discussion right there. Jesus answers, 
“Yup. Love is the shape of a human life… 
So go on and love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Everyone gets to go home early!

         But, the Lawyer insists upon asking the who question. 
“Who,” he asks, “is my neighbor?” 
“Who,” he asks, “must I love as myself?” 
“Who,” he asks, “must I love to gain eternal life?”

         He is looking for the geography of love, borders, sides, 
lines compassion ought not cross…

         But, when it comes to the question of a life of love
—the question of Christ’s command to love… 
we must ask how questions, 
not who questions. 


Let us pray

Jesus takes this question about eternal life

—this who question

—and takes it out of the abstract

—he solidifies, 

“love your neighbor as yourself,” in the form of a story.

After all, “Once upon a time,” is a more effective instructor than, “thou shalt not,” or even, “thou shalt.”

         He takes this lofty concept and lowers it onto a road

—the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho. 

This road winds and twists, gets narrow, and is an easy place from which to ambush someone.

Travel was a dodgy business back in those days and Pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem was especially harrowing; 
the zealots financed their war against Rome with ill-gotten gain from the very people they were said to be protecting…

This road, was a dangerous road, and a deadly place to ponder the meaning of life.

Jesus answers the “who question” the Lawyer had very clearly and very concretely. 
         -Who? The bloody carcass of a man mangled on a dangerous road—he is your neighbor.
         -Who? A man stripped naked, so you can’t tell if he’s your kin or not—he is your neighbor.
         -Who? A man without any means to repay you—he is your neighbor.


Acting merciful in the midst of death and danger
—think of those scenes of panic after any number of recent shootings, showing compassion at times of intense need
—that’s how Jesus answers the eternal life question and the who question. 

When you can’t even tell who it is you’re helping and you help them anyway

—that’s when you know you’re loving your neighbor. That’s the fruits of a meaningful life.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. 
He then turns to those who ask the who question, 
and shows how the who question leaves persons stranded and dying on deadly roads.

You see, the Priest asked the who question, 

Who is that there, is he dead? 

Who is he? A Zealot pretending to be hurt, waiting to ambush me?” 
The Priest then decides that he’ll go to the other side, to be on the “safe side.”
         The Levite asks the same questions—the who questions. And he too decides to go to the other side, in order to be on the “safe side.”

         Both these men were people the injured man would have naturally seen as his kin
—as his neighbors, 
yet they passed by.

         Perhaps both of these men they were simply numb, no longer able to be moved by the horrors of this world. 
Perhaps their souls were no longer awake to his humanity, they simply couldn’t see him as a fellow human being.

Then—to add insult to injury—the man who helps the injured man
the man who doesn’t ask the who question
—is a Samaritan! As close to kin as the Levite and Priest were
—this man was not…


We just can’t hear the scandal of this today—after all we know this story as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But in Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.

The enmity Jesus’ people had toward the Samaritans was old… 
In the year 722 the people who would become Samaritan were first introduced to the region of Galilee. 
Centuries of festering ill-will…

The hatred Jesus’ people had toward the Samaritans was religiouscultural, and ethnic.

Samaritans were the ancient enemy, the wrong religion, the wrong culture, and the wrong race.


Jesus doesn’t mess around when he tells a story! The hero of Jesus’ story—the one that doesn’t ask who—is a Samaritan.

This Samaritan asks a different question, he asks how.

How am I going to help this man?”

         And his actions answer this question loudly. He becomes personally involved. 

He personally binds up wounds, he gives of his oil and his wine, he puts the wounded man on “his own beast” and gives of his own monies.
         When confronted by someone broken by the conflicts and snares of this world

—by banditry and by pain

—he did not ask who is that? 

Is that person worth helping? 

Is he someone of my religion? 

From my nation? 

My race? 

My social standing?

         He asked, “How can I help him?

What resources do I have, or do I know of, that can help that person!”

He was not numb, or asleep, or in anyways uncompassionate to this man’s plight.

He was moved! (Literally moved in his inmost parts—physically overcome with pity and empathy).


And once Jesus finished up his parable, he asked another question of the Lawyer. Because the Lawyer was so busy asking who is my neighbor?

So Jesus asked a different question—
“Which of these three was neighborly to the man who fell among the robbers? Which one was neighborly to his neighbor?”
         Sheepishly the Lawyer must admit, “The one showing mercy on him.” 

That is, the one who is moved in the gut, so that they are forced to move with hands and feet, moved to minister and give aid!

         Jesus isn’t concerned with who the neighbor is

—he’s concerned with how we treat the neighbor. 

He is concerned with showing mercy in the midst of death and danger!

Concerned that we are awake to our neighbor in need, 
Concerned that we are creating a community of love.

Concerned for All God’s Children!


Saturday, July 02, 2022

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians Retold for Modern Ears


Dearest Siblings,

            If you hear nothing else in this letter I write to you, hear this, you are God’s Children.

            Do you know my story? I was a zealous Jew—a fundamentalist you might call me… a violent extremist even. You see, I had heard that some Jews had declared that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah—the Chosen One of God sent to make all things right. This Jesus, who was crucified on a cross, who his disciples claimed was raised from the dead and ascended to God’s right hand—they declared “Jesus is Lord.”

            Now, I’d read my bible, and knew Deuteronomy—there it is written, “All who hang upon a tree are accursed.” I had my proof text, so I knew they were lying about God.

So, being a violent extremist, I did the logical thing, I rallied around the stoning of Stephen, harassed and harried the church in Jerusalem until they fled; I did all I could to oppose these so called “people of the way.”

            And then I met him—their resurrected Lord.

            I was wrong—the Blessed One received the curse of the cross, and in so doing short circuited all curses, so that all may be blessed, so that all may be God’s Children.


            After this shock, I went back home for three years and looked at everything in light of the earliest Christian creed, “Jesus is Lord.” Then, Jesus’ disciples called me to preach that Gospel to the non-Jewish world. All went well, until, a disaster occurred at my home congregation in Antioch.

While I was away, strangers came, and sewed division between the Jewish Christians and Non-Jewish Christians there—the central point of this conflict was at the meal table—they became dis-united at the com-union table. The interlopers claimed the non-Jewish Christians were outsiders to the Gospel, that they were of a different family, who God only partially embraced. By the time they got done with the community Christians were treating one another like strangers, instead of fellow Children of God. 

The reason I wrote this letter to the Galatians is that the same thing was happening among them, divisions, divisiveness, and disowning one another. May it never happen among you!


            The root of this division was that they preached a different Gospel. A False Gospel. They preached a Jesus Plus Gospel… but the Gospel is Just Jesus.

            They preached a False Gospel, that claimed that the Kingdom of God has second class citizens… That there are multiple tiers to trusting Jesus. 

(For example, if you look at the pietism movement within Lutheranism, it is a reaction to the idea that the clergy are above lay people—that’s why the ELCA defines their clergy as set apart or aside, not set above)

            They preached a False Gospel, that claimed that before you put on Christ as your baptismal garment, you have to put on other cultural or religious garb… That before God can save you, you gotta save yourself. 

(For example, this was part of St. Augustine’s big question in his book City of God do you have to be a good Roman before you can be a good Christian?)


So hear this: Jesus Christ plus anything is less than Jesus Christ

-Jesus plus the Law is less than Jesus Christ. 

-Jesus plus circumcision is less than Jesus Christ. 

-Jesus plus hierarchy is less than Jesus Christ. 


            Here’s the Gospel, the True Gospel.

            The True Gospel is that God shows no partiality, the Promise of Jesus is meant for all. You’re a Child of God.

            The True Gospel is that if God sets you free, you’re free! You’re a Child of God.


            What God did in Jesus Christ, wasn’t window dressing, it was substantial. 

The Gospel is not a renegotiation of some rules; it’s God’s invasion of an enslaved world, the overthrow of all wickedness, the emancipation of all who are captured by sin, adopting us as Children of God.

The Gospel is the promise that God is transforming the entire cosmos through his Son, Jesus. God is recreating everything, and the Church gets to be part of that!


So, don’t get twisted up in the type of games that they were playing in Antioch. If God is recreating everything, those easy categories we use to make sense of the world, become stumbling blocks for embracing Jesus and being his body in the world together with your fellow believers. 

In fact, in my days, it was assumed the universe was created and held together by something called antimonies—pairs of opposites “Air and Earth, Fire and Water, Flesh and Spirit, Slavery and Freedom” and so on. So, most people believed that these divisions were REAL, were the actual bricks used to create the world… but God’s making all things news—recreating the world, and the only category that truly matters is belonging to God.

Gender, indebtedness, criminal records, social status, race, country, and culture and all that comes with those categories…These dividing lines, these categories we use to construct our world, melt in the waters of Baptism. You are God’s Children.

I write this letter leaning on a single question that I pray that Christianity will continue to wrestle with, even long after I, Paul, am dead. “Who occupies you?”


In case I’m being obtuse, or a certain level of rugged individualism has clogged your ears to what I’m asking, let me try to state my question a little more clearly—Who occupies y’all? Or maybe, “you’se” or “You’uns” or “you folk” or even just “the congregation?”

While every individual is precious, and that truth must not be lost—our life together as Christians, as the body of Christ, is of utmost importance to my question today “Who occupies you?”

I pray that the ages will not neuter my question, tame it, make it into a question of private morality or some sort of spiritual hobby.

Because this is about all of us, how we live as freed people, how we are Christ for one another. “Who occupies you?”

Have you noticed there is a vicious, silent, enslaving, invasion going on? In the seeming plainness of our lives there is a war going on. This power holds us down, has occupied the lives of so many, has enslaved so much of the world.


In my letter to the Galatians, I called this occupying power, this enemy, “The Flesh.” 

It saddens me to hear that many have taken this word to deal with human bodies, and has led some people to feel great shame for being an embodied human being. This was not my intent, in fact if you read my letters carefully you will note I make a distinction between The Flesh, this thing that has pulled one over on us and has captured us, and The Body, which is part of the good human thing we’ve been created to be


So, perhaps I could come up with a way to re-name this power, for all your sakes, so that you might more easily understand what I’m saying,

What then shall I call it?... This occupying power is Sin. This occupying power is Self-obsession. This occupying power is Neighbor-Destruction… You get my point now, don’t you? We are occupied by, self, by being turned away from our neighbor and fixated on MEEEE!


That’s what I mean when I say “we are occupied by The Flesh.” That’s what I mean when I say that The Flesh is at war against us, intends to take us prisoner, and enslave us. “Who occupies you?”


Like any occupation, there are those who resist. Those brave groups of people who fight back, who escape, who will not cooperate with the enemy, no matter what.


One way of resisting, a force used to combat the occupation, a good one, a godly one even, is The Law. Yes, The Law, a set of rules we can follow to stop hurting our neighbors, to quit seeking after selfish things, to resist Sin, resist the Flesh. 

The 10 commandments, the stories of God’s acts for God’s people, community rules, at their best basic, the rules governing society, are put in place to restrain evil and make good neighbors.

I repeat, The Law is a good solution, even one given by God. Yet it, like us, has been enslaved by the Flesh, infected even, not allowed to act as it ought.

It’s proper use is to help us love our neighbor, but it can be made to be exclusive and can keep us immature. The Law creates insiders and outsiders, those who follow it, and those who do not, and that separation has a way of coming back at you like a boomerang. You start defining yourself as not a lawbreaker, and soon enough you are defining yourself as not like your neighbor—soon enough you build a wall between you and your neighbor and you start to care about only those on your side of the fence of the Law.

Isn’t that wild, the very thing that is supposed to help you love your neighbor, can be tricked into making you hate him!



Think of those disciples of Jesus who enter into a Samaritan village, the village of a people who keep a different law than they do—and these disciples, people who’ve been toddling after Jesus like a flock of ducklings behind a mamma duckeven they wonder if they should ask God to destroy the village! After all it’s not theirvillage, it’s not their people! Not their laws…

Yes, The Law, both scriptural and secular, transformed by The Flesh, can create exclusionIt can also keep us immature, it’s like a helicopter parent who won’t let us grow up.


Think of it, there are many ways to love your neighbor, fixating on a single way, because it’s the rules, can make you miss out on all kinds of good ways to show God’s love to people.

Take something as simple as tying your shoe. When you first learn the rules to tying a shoe you learn the rhyme: 
Over, Under, Around and through, Meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.

But if you repeated that song every time you tie your shoes for the rest of your life… you’d get funny looks at the office, and for that matter, you’d never learn a double knot, or that knots can hold together hammocks and sails and many other things, not just shoes. So too, learning from The Law is wonderful, and regular refresher courses are great reminders of how to love our neighbor, but if it is the beginning and end of the way we love other people, we’re missing out!

“Who occupies you?” The good news is that there is another way to fight the Flesh. Christ has freed us, and we hold onto this freedom and resist the power of the Fleshby being captured by one another.

            Get that?

We’re going to be captured by something, so it is imperative that we are captured by each other, captured by the love we share with one another. Every other option ends up with us eradicating each other.


This loving way—bound to one another in liberty—is the way of the Spirit, the way Jesus continues to move us into freedom. The Spirit liberates us and puts us to the work of loving one another.  We can be occupied by The Spirit, instead of The Flesh.


“Who occupies you?” When we look at our life together, do we see the Spirit or the Flesh? We’ll know, at least in part, by the fruits that we produce. Are we as a community: sexually exploitative, spiritually suspect, a public embarrassment, and a fractured family? Or, are we as a community filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control?

Together we struggle against sinful-selfish-neighbor-hate—the Flesh. We resist it with The Law, but find it wanting. We cling to the freedom given to us by Christ by clinging to one another in the Spirit of love. Let us live in the Spirit, let us carry out our life together under the guidance of the Spirit. 

            By way of closing this letter, let me remind you of the two things I’ve written to you previously. 1. Keep living in the Spirit. 2. The Gospel is just Jesus.


            Because we live in the Spirit, let us carry out our daily lives under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We’ve been freed from the Flesh—unhealthy self-interest—and we’ve been freed by the Spirit for our neighbor. Everyone needs to be occupied by something, so let us be occupied by the Holy Spirit, occupied by love of each other.

            What’s that look like—living in the Spirit?

-Well, if someone falls, restore them with gentleness (that’s a fruit of the Spirit, isn’t it?), after all, you too could just as easily be tempted as they were.

-Bear one another’s burdens—that’s how the Spirit’s gift of patience is lived out in community… that’s how you lovetoo—and love fulfills the Law of Christ.

-Give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt, while taking responsibility for your own actions—that’s the essence of the Spiritual gift of self-control. Think about it, while we human know our own innermost thoughts and intentions, we don’t know those of the person next to us.

-Embrace generosity, by working for the good of all, especially those who are members of the Family of God. 


That’s a few examples of the fruits of the Spirit lived out in concrete reality
—I think you are hearing what I’m saying…

Those Fruit of the Spirit, and sadly, the Works of the Flesh that you as a community are planting… they will come to bloom—that’s both a warning and a promise; so, in this planting season, let’s plant pleasant seeds of community, not wicked seeds of selfishness. Keep living in the Spirit.

            As I come to a close, I write one final time, in big ol’ letters, about the main issue in the community in Galatia 

You are members of the family of God because of Jesus, whether you’ve been marked in the flesh by circumcision or not.

Do not boast in the flesh, boast only in the Cross of Jesus.

            As I wrote previously, Jesus Plus anything, is less than Jesus alone… for he alone is the one who is transforming all things… 
the message about him saving us, is the only thing that is Gospel, the only thing worth boasting about.

            Remember my story—I was so sure that the early church was wrong, I had proof texts and everything, “Everyone who dies on a tree is accursed.” The cross was the ultimate dividing line between me and them; a division worth killing over, certainly worth boasting about… 

But now I say to you: Boast because the Blessed One was crucified, on a cursed cross—and that changed everything! All the divisions of this world are scattered, every distinction that separates the blessed from the cursed, is now gone—because a new creation, a new world, is here! That alone matters! 

            Trust that this is true, dear friends! It is a blessing of peace and mercy! It is the grace of our Lord Jesus, the anointed of God, saturating our spirit, making us siblings. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Intended Unintended Consequences of War

               When I was a Freshman History major at the University of Oregon, I took an introductory course on the History of War. This was during the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, so I heard everything the professor said in light of the upcoming conflict. One of the main lessons I remember from this course was that wars have unintended consequences, and often lead to radicalization of goals and national identities.

              An example of unintended consequences: The Napoleonic Wars led to the creation of Germany as a unified state. When France invaded and captured territory of the Holy Roman Empire they consolidated the tiny little principalities into larger administrative states (many of them that still exist to this day). This made it much easier for Prussia to consolidate them all into a single country.

              An example of radicalized goals: At the outset of the American Civil War the Union’s goal was its preservation, returning the Southern states to the Union. As the war drug on, battlefield choices were made regarding freeing slaves to undermine the war fighting capacity of the Confederacy, and frankly the average Union soldier saw slavery up close instead of through the eyes of newspapers and Southern songs. In a variety of ways this strengthened the hand of the abolitionist cause, and eventually moved Lincoln to shift the goal of the war from the moderate goal of returning slave states to the Union, to the radical goal of the eradication of slavery on the continent.

              Another thing I remember is the professor saying that there are people whose job it is to game out possible unintended consequences of war. In other words, to discover unintended consequences of an action and make them intended consequences. This brings me to the current war in Ukraine. I wonder what unintended intended consequences and radicalization might be hoped for by people whose job it is to think about these things.

              I imagine Russia chose to escalate the war in Ukraine (because they’d been in a proxy war there for some time) as they did, with the hope of destabilizing the post-Cold War world order. They invaded so that “the West” would make choices that undermined their place on the world stage and bolstered that of BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Additionally, they likely hoped to draw BRIC nations closer together, at this point their main commonalities are rising economies, not alliances. I have noticed India is rather muted in their criticisms of Russia’s choice to go to war, and both they and China are buying Russian oil now that Europe and America have lessened their purchases.

              On the other side of the coin, Europe has responded more forcefully than expected. Russia may have singlehandedly re-armed Europe. Russia’s choice to invade may have prompted the European Union to seek a policy of knocking out their potential rival in the East out of contention as a regional player on the world stage as we move to being an increasingly multipolar world. Traditionally neutral-ish countries like Sweden and Finland are formally joining NATO, Ukraine might join the EU. There are reports that Russia has depleted its stock of some types of missiles, even as Germany is gearing up to create more such weapons as a deterrent.

              There is also a radicalization going on within Ukraine. From reports I’ve read, even the most pro-Russian mayors and governors are sounding like Churchill: they’ll fight Russia on the beaches, they’ll fight them in the forest, they will never surrender! If Russia’s assessment that Ukraine wasn’t a real state that they weren’t a real people, was true, their choice to go to war has radicalized “the” Ukraine, and it is now and forever only Ukraine. If they believed there were a bunch of Russians next door to them, who just happened to be living in a geographic region known as “The” Ukraine, now they have no choice but to acknowledge that their neighbors are Ukrainians.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Reconstituting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Reconstituting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

I forget about it sometimes, but the ELCA’s three expressions of the Church are rather fascinating, and I think, beautiful. At root there is an assumption that no matter whether it is the local, regional, or national church, each revolve around the same basic structure and pattern of life together. We gather for worship (and service of neighbor as able), holds announced meetings regularly (every six months, once a year, every three years, whatever) with all the folk who had gathered in worship, in order to make major decisions about our life together, elect people to oversee that work until the next meeting, and then those elected folk organize themselves to do the tasks the whole body agreed to do.

This happens most obviously, as least to my eyes, on the congregational level; but ideally Synod Assemblies and Churchwide Assemblies flow in this same way. Sometimes Synod and Churchwide Assemblies can feel more political, and like you’re a representative of particular interests, instead of a member of a worshipping community, but at their heart those assemblies are nothing more than congregations that happen to be at an event center and meet for multiple days.

              There is currently some buzz going into this upcoming Churchwide Assembly around rethinking the ELCA’s constitution. The ELCA was formed in 1988; the merger of three Lutheran Denominations that each had their own understanding of Church and ways of doing things. After intense negotiations these three church bodies dissolved themselves and became something new. Aside from the three expressions of the ELCA mentioned above, some major differences between the three previous denominations were left unresolved in our constitution. There was an assumption that we would “live into it” and that the very worshipful and practical way these three expressions function would deal with the differences over time. And, I think, to some extent they have, but a lot has changed in the world and in the church in the last 34 years. The sun belt has grown, the rust belt has shrunk, the internet exists, and the Soviet Union has fallen; the ELCA has contracted numerically, we’ve finally decided what to do with seminary trained non-ordained folk (now we ordain them and call them Deacons), and the two feuding Pennsylvania seminaries have merged. So, it might be time to reconstitute the ELCA to better fit our present reality.

              What follows are a few thoughts and reconfigurations that are rattling around in my head, and I feel might be grist for our dreams and visions as a denomination.


Some Thoughts on Language: What are Congregations?

              So, one of the awkward things about the ELCA is that we have organizations called SAWCs, Synodically Authorized Worshipping Communities, and we have Congregations. Often times SAWCs are seen as second-class congregations, since the goal of the SAWC is to transition into an ELCA congregation. SAWCs are sometimes served by Pastors who are called irregularly, and their purse strings are held by larger forces than their own.

But, SAWCs acknowledge, in their name, that the primary focus is Worship and Community, which is the way the ELCA’s constitution describes a congregation. What if all expressions of the church in the ELCA were described as Worshipping Communities? Congregations would be Locally Authorized Worshipping Communities, the Synods would be a Regionally Authorized Worshipping Community, and Churchwide would be the Nationally Authorized Worshipping Community.


What about Service?:

              But wait, one of the other actions done by Church in the ELCA constitution is that we not only worship, but we also serve. What if we created a second type of community, Authorized Service Communities? These could be spaces where Deacons are especially called to practice their ordination to the roster of Word and Service.

In fact, what might happen if we work to re-designate a third of ELCA congregations as Local Authorized Service Communities? What if we also offer a smooth path for Pastors to transfer from the roster of Word and Sacrament to the roster of Word and Service? How might that shift our mission as a denomination and put to rest the idea that the ELCA “doesn’t know what to do with Deacons.”


Decenter the National Church:

              In the last few years, we’ve been forced to admit that it is zoom’s world now, we all just live in it. People can work from anywhere. As such, what if we moved the national church into the 7 seminaries?

What if each seminary houses a specialized unit of the national church? For example, what if the seminary in Chicago houses our International Mission arm, since it boasts an exemplary international airport? What if Luther in Minneapolis houses our publishing and communications arm, since it is close to Augsburg? United Lutheran could house the experts on urban and rural ministry on their respective urban and rural campuses. This would make the national church a tad more accessible, shielding it from common criticisms that always begin “Higgins Road” (the street the national church is located on). It would also connect the national church with fire-in-their-belly seminarians and connect the seminarians with those who the seminarians see as being “in the room where it happens.”


A Few Statistics:

The ELCA currently is made up of:

7 Seminaries,

89 Camps,

180 College Campus Ministries,

285 Lutheran Health and Human Service Organizations,

and 8,900 congregations.


Synod Reorg Idea 1: Every Camp a Cathedral:

              One of the most common ways people stay connected with the ELCA through their teenage years and into young adulthood is via camp. The ELCA wants to grow young. Well, camp is one of the places where our young are growing.  Additionally, the ELCA has some pretty solid commitments to good ecological practices and care of creation. A way to care more deeply for young people’s faith lives and refresh our ecological chops, would be to center the Regionally Authorized Worshipping Community at Lutheran Camps.

There are 89 ELCA camps and approximately 8,900 ELCA congregations. In this reforming of the ELCA, instead of 65 Synods, there would be 89 Regionally Authorized Worshipping Communities (RAWC).

Each RAWC would be in relationship with:

- 100 Congregations

- 3 Lutheran Health and Human Service Organizations

- 2 Campus ministries


Synod Reorg Idea 2: The 300, Think Locally, Think Interdependence, Think Deacons

              As I asked above, what if there were a bunch more Deacons and about 1/3 of present ELCA congregations became Local Authorized Service Communities? Additionally, it is worth noting the smallest Synod in the ELCA contains 30 congregations.

              In this reforming of the ELCA instead of 65 Synods there would be 300 Synods. Each Synod would be centered around 1 Campus Ministry or Camp and 1 Lutheran Health and Human Service Organizations. The Lutheran Health and Human Service Organizations would have a Synodical Deacon attached to it and the Campus Ministry or Camp would have a Bishop attached to it. Both would be elected every 4 to 6 years at an annual Synod Assembly.

              Instead of congregation, there would be triads, consisting of 1 Locally Authorized Service Community and 2 Locally Authorized Worshipping Communities. Each triad would be served by at least one Deacon and one Pastors.

              There would be 10 Triads (consisting of 30 communities) in each Synod.

              The Synodical Deacon would spend much of their time connecting the 10 LASCs to the Lutheran Health and Human Service Organization to which the Synodical Deacon is attached, and providing assistance and oversight for service work in the region. The Bishop would spend much of their time connecting the 20 LAWCs to the Camp or Campus Ministry to which they are attached.

              This sounds needlessly complicated, but here’s an example of what it might look like in practice:

              Synodical Deacon, Thomas Zimmerman, is connected to Lutheran Social Ministries of Wyoming. He serves as the liaison between the Service Communities in his region and Lutheran Social Ministries, finding ways how they can partner well with one another, and also finding ways to connect the 10 Service Communities with one another. Bishop Alice Carpenter is connected to Lutheran Campus Ministry of Beetlecreek College. She is in regular contact with 20 Worshipping Communities and their Pastors. She helps the communities in her region see themselves as partners with the Campus Ministry. Together they run call processes when Triads wish to call new Pastors and Deacons. They contact the National Authorized Worshipping Community found at Southern Seminary, to get candidates, since the Candidacy process is run out of that seminary.

              Pastors Becky and Deacon Hellen serve a Triad of St. Paul’s Worshipping Community and Grace Worshipping Community, as well as a Homeless Shelter called Grace Place, which is run out of Grace Worshipping Community’s old parsonage. Deacon Hellen’s focus is running Grace Place and Pastor Becky’s focus is on St. Paul and Grace. Most of the time Pastor Becky leads worship at both Worshipping Communities, but in the summer months both St. Paul and Grace choose to change their worship time to 8:30am, so Deacon Hellen and Pastor Becky alternate between congregations. Members of both Grace and St. Paul’s support Grace Place financially and with ongoing in-kind donations.

Deacon Hellen is in regular contact with Synodical Deacon Thomas and connects guests from Grace Place with Lutheran Social Ministry. Bishop Alice recently invited students from Lutheran Campus Ministry to worship at Grace Worshipping Community; afterwards they helped power washed Grace Place’s siding and shared a meal with the families there.


Reconstituting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 34 years from now

              Again, I hope this is grist for the mill, as we dream about the next 34 years. Then perhaps the ELCA will need to reconstitute again, because we have just established the first Worshipping Community on the moon, the ELCA is known for our Deacons, we’ve established ecumenical relationships with not 6 Full Communion Partners, but 16, and each of our seminaries are known as hubs of innovation.

Saturday, June 04, 2022

Sermon: Glimpses of the Paraclete

             Who is the Holy Spirit?

            Some names for them include the “Shy Sovereign,” Dove, Breathe of God, and the Spirit of Adoption. 
Or look at those that show up in our hymns today: 
Sun of the Soul, 
Wise Counsel, 
Root of Life, 
Eternal Vigor… 

            In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is named “The Paraclete.” Literally: 
The One Called Alongside… 
often translated: 
Advocate, Companion, Comforter, or Helper.

            Yes, the Paraclete.

            This name might be hard to get our heads around, 
each time we seem to grasp Paraclete it slips through our fingers, 
but let’s try to catch a glimpse…


You might not have heard of The Paraclete before.

But, I bet you have heard of Paradise
The space where one dwells in the presence of God.

            One of the ways the Church Fathers understood God was that:
The Father is the Lover, 
The Son is the Beloved, 
and The Holy Spirit is the Love Between Them. 

Think about that…
The relationship between the persons of the Trinity is the third person of the Trinity!!!

For that matter, in John’s gospel, this relationship between Father and Son… 
AND between The Son and those who follow Him 
!(including us today)!
—is continually describing as Abiding
—the act of a child laying on their parent’s bosom…

…Have any of you ever fallen asleep in the back of the car when you were a little kid? 
Or perhaps in the passenger seat next to a close friend or spouse?
—you felt safe back there, 
trusting the love of the driver… 
Wasn’t that paradise?
You were abiding! 

The abiding of God with God’s self, and also God abiding with God’s people… 
The connection within the Godhead and God’s connection to us… that is the Paraclete.


You might not have heard of The Paraclete… but you may have met a Paralegal before
someone who works on behalf of a lawyer, whose work the lawyer is responsible for.

            Luther writes that the Holy Spirit, “calls, enlightens, makes holy, and keeps” the whole church for Jesus’ sake.

            In other words, the Paraclete makes us into paralegals for Jesus. 
We work on his behalf, 
keeping his commandments
the greatest of which is Love.

Yet these works are ultimately Jesus’ responsibility and his doing
—they flow from him through the Spirit. 
-Whenever our trust in God moves us to follow Jesus…

-Whenever we practice an active faith…
-When we love and live in Christian ways, 
that’s the Paraclete.


You might not have heard of The Paraclete but you remember parallels from geometry, or maybe you just watched Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness and are thinking about Parallel timelines.
Side by Side—a person similar, or analogous, to another.

            Did you know the Father is sending us Another Advocate, Helper… Paraclete.

            The Spirit will act in ways that Parallel the works of Jesus Christ.

            If you were a computer programmer, you might call this parallel activity “Jesus 2.0.”

            The Spirit is not doing something UTTERLY new. 
The Spirit’s work among us is NOT a break with Jesus’ ministry

It is a continuation of it, 
parallel track with it. 
In fact, some traditions call the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit of Jesus.”

            To make it plain for you all
—if Jesus called the Church to be Mets fans, 
the Spirit would not now be empowering us to be Yankees fans…

            The works of the Spirit parallel the works of Christ
—Personal, humble, relational, work
—when that happens among us, that’s the Paraclete’s doing.


You might not have heard of The Paraclete, but you probably have been asked to write a paragraph before
A distinct section of a piece of writing.

            The Spirit’s message is a distinct message for us
—we ought not attribute every little coincidence to the Spirit
—instead the Paraclete writes a particular paragraph in the book of our life
—teaches and reminds us of the message of:
 God’s Abiding Love, 
the Kingdom of God drawn near
—in fact present with us… 
the message of our Resurrected Lord is the Paraclete’s message.


You might not have heard of The Paraclete, but the meaning of Paramedic, and Parachute is probably perfectly plain to you.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus assures his disciples (both then and now) that he’s not abandoning them… 
abandoning us…
            Jesus promises the coming of the Paraclete to the disciples 
-right after one has betrayed him 
-and right before the other denies him.

            He is telling them, “I won’t leave you as orphans.” 

The Holy Spirit is a Paramedic of the soul. 
Just as a Paramedic walks with us through our emergency, 
often times literally beside our gurney, 
the Spirit will walk with them through the trauma and confusion of the Crucifixion and out into the world on Pentecost.

            The Holy Spirit is a Parachute, catching the Church as it is in free-fall, 
leading up to Pentecost,
offering us peace.

Be not Afraid
—it isn’t as scary when you know the Paraclete is with you.

            Paradise, Paralegal, Parallel, Paragraph, Paramedic, Parachute
—all glimpses of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.


Now that we have glimpsed the Holy Spirit, let us pray for the Paraclete’s presence among us:

Sun of the Soul, sanctify us—make us holy—so that we might abide in the Holy Love of God.

Wise Counsel, enlighten our faith and empower our works, so that both may reveal God. 

Root of Life, graft us into the True Vine, gather us around Jesus Christ.

Eternal Vigor, call us again and again to the Gospel.

Wisdom of God, keep and guard us in your peace. Amen.