Monday, December 28, 2009

What Child Is This?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2. He was in the beginning with God. 3. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4. in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13. who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-14

One of my favorite Christmas carols is the beautiful “What Child is This” which is set to the ancient English folksong Greensleeves. The rhetorical question the carol asks is of course the primary question of the season – What Child Is This? Surely after all of the drama of the story – angels, shepherds, more angels, wise men, more angels – this question was certainly on Mary and Joseph’s mind as well. “What Child is this” that has caused such commotion and turmoil in our lives? And as we move away from Christmas the same question comes back to us – “What Child is this” that would prompt all these annual decorations and the buying of presents and so forth. But even once those presents are unwrapped and the decorations are back in their storage bins for another year we are still left with the question – “What Child is This?” What difference does all of this make?

St. John writes - And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

This beautiful text from the first chapter of St. John serves to balance the Lukan account. And John answers the question for us – “What Child is This” well, this child is none other than the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, the God and creator of all that is incarnate – en-fleshed in this infant Jesus. And for me this means that God is not the remote, off in the distance creator who is unconcerned about the creation; God is not comfortably in God’s Kingdom not to be bothered by the suffering and self-destructive tendencies of the creation. No – God has entered into the human experience fully. And this means that God is here with us each and every day; God hungers when we hunger; God is with us as we struggle with our fears and stresses and doubts; God is in that hospital room with us; God stands right beside us as we struggle for justice and God is with us in death. Through Jesus, God has entered all of these profoundly human experiences and made them holy.

What Child is this?.... This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary!

Let us pray – All-powerful and unseen God, the coming of your light into our world has brightened weary hearts with peace. Call us out of darkness and empower us to proclaim the birth of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
Collect for Christmas Day - ELW

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Blessings!

May God bless you with God's presence and may you and your family experience God's Peace and Joy this Christmas season.
Painting by HeQui

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some thoughts on Advent IV - The Magnificat

What is your favorite Christmas Carol?

On the 4th Sunday of Advent we focus on Mary. Mary was a young peasant girl, living in a small village, but yet she is chosen by God to be the mother of God’ son, Jesus. She was taking a great risk, but yet she responds with openness to God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your will.” Shortly after this event with the angel (in the church we call this the Annunciation) Mary goes to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with John the Baptist (this is called the Visitation). When Mary arrives Elizabeth is overcome with joy and welcomes Mary with humility. Mary responds to all of these truly extraordinary events by singing a song. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…. This song is called, in Latin, the Magnificat and is perhaps the greatest Christmas Carol ever. For in this song is an outline, or (to use a term from Borg and Crossan’s wonderful little book “The First Christmas”) an overture to the Gospel and life of Jesus. God’s “agenda” is laid out in this song. If you are wondering exactly what is a Messiah all about and what is the Messiah suppose to do – check out the Magnificat. One other thing the verb tense of the song is unusual. The song looks towards the future and the birth of the Messiah – but at the same time all the verbs are in a version of past tense. The point of this: what God is up to with the birth of Jesus and the coming of the Messiah is nothing different than what God has been up to all along. God hasn’t changed God's strategy and is still using the same playbook. God takes what is of no consequence in the world, what is despised, avoided, disrespected and transforms it into God’s holy dwelling place. The Messiah, God’s son, is born of a peasant girl from a little village; and those in power who use their power to oppress or take from others, who use their power to take advantage or abuse others, well, they will be cast down; those who cheat and steal to acquire wealth and then use their riches to amass possessions which they hoard while others starve and suffer, well, they will find themselves with nothing.

For His mercy is for those who fear Him in every generation (fear here means awe and wonder); he has shown the strength of His arm; He has scattered the proud; brought down the powerful; lifted the lowly; filled the hungry; sent the rich away empty… according the promise made to our ancestors.

The Magnificat is truly the best Christmas carol ever as it lays out for us who God is and what God is about. God is about people and God is for people. The Kingdom which Jesus preaches is a Kingdom where God’s creation – people - will have what they need and will live in peace and joy. God’s son, Jesus reaches out to all people and goes about the job of building the Kingdom of God – through weakness, poverty and ultimately death. The Kingdom of God it turns out is not about fear - it is not about rewards, or even getting what you deserve; it is about God’s showering upon all the unmerited gifts of love and grace; it is about building community; and it is about hope and love.

Friday, December 11, 2009

John - For Crying Out Loud - Thoughts in preparation for Advent III

Last week we met John the Baptist who emerges in the wilderness preaching repentance and preparing the way for the Messiah – Jesus.  I spoke last week of the fact that repentance is not an attitude but it is action.  The Greet word for repentance is METANOIA and it literally means to go in a different direction. Frederich Buechner defines repentance in his little book “Wishful Thinking” like this: To repent is to come to your senses… True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry,” and more time looking towards the future and saying “WOW!”
This week John is still in the wilderness and different groups of people are coming to him asking what they should do to affect repentance.  These groups are primarily those who are at the edges of society – those who their contemporaries, the Pharisees, would consider to be outside the circle of God’s people.  But for Jesus and for God there is no one who is outside.  God reaches out to all; God pursues all, even and especially those who are on the edge, those who have been put outside by society, and they are all invited to active repentance.  

Below is my favorite paiting of John the Baptist.  It is from an altar piece by Matthais Grünewald - 1475-1528.  The painting is of the crucifixion of Jesus - which is clearly in the center.  But the the right, in red, there stands John the Baptist, holding the book of the prophets, pointing to Jesus.

Here at the beginning of the story, we need to be reminded that the cross stands in the center of our faith.   John the Baptist, Christmas, shepherds, angels - all of these point towards the cross.  Our calling is also to point to the cross.  Just when we think that everything is predictable, settled, established; just when we think that everyone is in their place then John comes along and points to the cross.  The ultimate symbol of God's annoying habit of turning things upside down.  John calls us to repentance - to action - in preparation of the coming of the savior to be crucified - for us.  May the image of the cross lead us all to some active turning around.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Advent Ponderings.....

The Kingdom has come - now into our midst in Jesus - ALREADY!  But it has NOT YET come into our midst in its fullness.  Advent is a time to reflect on the coming of the Kingdom - ALREADY and NOT YET.  And to that I would like to point you below to two other blogs which have words which are definitely worth reading and considering.  These are both in their way (very different) prophetic words.  Please read the letter from High School senior Katelyn on the Pretty Good Lutheran blog below; and then I invite you to read the "Open Letter from Jesus to Christian America" from Frank Schaffer.  Warning - Dr. Schaffer does not pull any punches, but then - neither did Jesus. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Check out this story at Pretty Good Lutherans....

Please click on the link and read this story. I think there is a lesson in here for all of us! As one of the comments noted, quoting Isaiah: "And a little child shall lead them."

Student Losing Hope to Hypocrisy 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sermon - Jesus is Coming - Advent 1C – 11/28-29/09 – Luke 21:25-36

The date was Tuesday, October 22, 1844 – The Rev. William Miller and his disciple Samuel Snow had carefully calculated and announced that this date would be the date for Jesus’ 2nd coming. As the date drew closer and closer a near hysteria gripped Miller’s numerous followers. A mix of fear, terror and excitement spread through the community. 1000’s of followers throughout the country prepared for this day faithfully – some had given away all of their possessions in anticipation. That night many climbed up onto their roofs to wait for Jesus. So when the sun rose on Wednesday morning, October 23 there was great anguish and disappointment – in fact historians call this event “The Great Disappointment.” Henry Emmons – one of Miller’s followers wrote the following in his diary:

“I waited all Tuesday [October 22] and dear Jesus did not come;– I waited all the forenoon of Wednesday, and was well in body as I ever was, but after 12 o’clock I began to feel faint, and before dark I needed someone to help me up to my chamber, as my natural strength was leaving me very fast, and I lay prostrate for 2 days without any pain– sick with disappointment.”

We have a fascination with end times. There is now a movie that has just been released – perhaps some of you have seen it – it is called “2012” and is based on some Mayan calendar’s prediction that the end of the world will occur in 2012. Others scour the scriptures and extract obscure verses here and there out of context to justify all kinds of strange and unusual end of the world scenarios. Some of these are pretty creative and have become very popular. For example, the theology of the rapture has become so widespread and popular that it has even spawned a series of popular books – despite the fact that it is completely unbiblical and even destructive. And in other cases we see groups and even individuals attempting to manipulate current events in the Middle East so that these events will at least mesh with their end of the world theories and at most so that they might induce God to usher in the new age.

But as the Rev. Miller discovered – God cannot be manipulated and God will act in God’s own time. This is an issue that Jesus had to contend with as well. In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus is addressing this subject in his teachings in the temple courtyard – shortly before the events of the passion take place. Now in this group of people listening to Jesus teach there would have been, in addition to his own disciples, groups of Pharisees and Saduceees and zealots and probably even a mystic group called the Essenes. All of these had one thing in common – they were anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. But they differed about how and in what manner the Messiah would come. The Pharisees and the Essenes both believed that God was waiting for Israel to return to following the law – and so they went to extreme measures to try to adhere to the law. The Pharisees, realizing that it was impossible for all Judeans to follow the law redefined who could be classified as a Jew – in hopes that by excluding those most likely to break the law they could induce God to send the Messiah. The Essenes went farther by completely withdrawing from society and creating a very strict commune in the Dead Sea region.

But Jesus, has little to no time for all of this. Jesus is constantly criticizing the Pharisees for their efforts to induce God to send the Messiah. When the Pharisees would criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath, or for eating with sinners and tax collectors, Jesus was not impressed or intimidated. I think sometimes when we hear these stories we do not completely understand the seriousness of these issues for the men who were the Pharisees – we are too inclined to turn them into paper opposition to Jesus. But for them this was serious. For them, Jesus was imperiling the future of Israel by doing these things; Jesus, in their view, was preventing God from sending the Messiah.

But for Jesus, these guys all had it wrong. Jesus’ attitude is – look, forget about dates – forget about inducing God to act – instead recognize that God has already acted and that God’s top priority is people. God loves people! The reason for breaking the Sabbath – was to reach out to care for other people in need; the reason for making oneself impure and reaching out to help someone injured or sick (like the Good Samaritan did) was that we are to care for people; the reason Jesus eats with Tax Collectors and sinners is that God loves people and wants to reach out and bring in all those have been scattered! The reason Jesus dies on the cross is that people are God’s top priority! And because of this - because we see people healed and fed and cared for and forgiven and received through love and grace – because of this we know that God’s Kingdom has already burst into our own time through Jesus. We don’t have to wait for Jesus to bring about the Kingdom of God at some far distant time in the future, because we are living in the Kingdom – NOW. It is ALREADY here – But it is also NOT YET come in its fullness – nevertheless it is HERE, NOW. And do you know how you can tell, Jesus asks? Well, can’t you tell that summer is coming when the leaves begin to appear on the trees. Well – look around – can’t you see the evidence of the Kingdom in your midst – people are fed and healed and clothed and loved and forgiven and God’s grace is evident in so many unique ways.

Those who would have us believe that God will come with violence and destruction – that God would throw away hundreds of thousands of precious lives do not understand the Gospel of Jesus. The Gospel is about hope and forgiveness and grace – that is what we celebrate during Advent. “Come Lord Jesus” we repeat throughout this season. “Come Lord Jesus.” These words are a prayer of hopeful expectation, of waiting and longing; but they are also an affirmation that God has ALREADY come into our midst. And so Advent is waiting – 1st we wait the celebration of the birth of Jesus in child who has come to us in the past; at the same time we wait and look for the 2nd coming of Jesus sometime in the future when Jesus will come and transform the world through the power of his love and grace. But ultimately and most importantly in Advent we celebrate that through Jesus, God has come into our midst, and we experience Christ NOW in so many ways. Lillie experienced the power of God’s grace through her baptism last night – those of us who witnessed this or affirmed our baptisms this morning celebrate the fact that we have all been received into God’s heart through our own baptisms; we experience God’s presence through the bread and wine of Holy Communion; God stands with us in our grief and pain; God brings light to our darkness and joy into the midst of sorrow. God is always present with us.

All of this – the sacraments of Baptism and Communion – the liturgy of healing – the opportunity to prayer – is evidence that God has come to us in the midst of our lives. God loves us and God is present with us no matter what. The word of the Gospel today is that as we look for the coming of the Messiah – past and future – we must always recognize that Christ is already come – NOW – into our midst. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pastoral Reflections - December 1, 2009

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…. The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. St. John 17:20, 22

I have been reflecting on the name of this parish in my last few newsletter articles. The name of the congregation is The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace – which we shorten to Peace Lutheran Church. So what is behind this name, I am asking. And so far I have reflected on the words “Peace” and “Evangelical.” If you missed them you can find those reflections on my blog (see below for the URL). This month – December – as we prepare for Christmas, I would like to share some thoughts about the word “United.”

The words above from what is called the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus’ in the Gospel of St. John ask God to make the disciples (and by extension all believers) one in Him. What does this mean? Does it mean we are to loose our individuality or that we are to have one mind? Does it mean that we all have to agree and that there can be no disagreement in the church? Does it mean that we are to conform to some kind of “Christian” model or expectation? The answer to all of these questions is no – a thousand times no. Being one in Christ is not about agreeing, conformity or the loss of our individual uniqueness. We are all unique creations of God, with unique gifts and insights and experiences. These gifts are of God, and we are called to share them in the community of Christ, the church.

But, conformity seems to be a spirit of the times. Our political discourse, in particular, has gotten so incredibly strident, and conformity with the status quo or the views of certain “experts” or media personalities seems to be demanded. How many times do I see on various television shows the host really lambasting a guest because the guest expresses an opinion which is divergent in some manner from the host’s beliefs. Even in the church there seem to be those who believe we must all hold the same beliefs and opinions about any range of issues and there is no patience for a divergence of opinion. Those who don’t agree are called names and branded as a non-Christian.

This is contrary to the Gospel, I believe. We are all unique creations of God’s, with unique gifts and insights and experiences. We have much we can learn from each other. To be “United” or to be “one in Christ” does not mean we all agree about everything. It means that we hold at the foundation of our lives and our faith a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and that we have all received the gift of God’s unmerited Grace and love and forgiveness through our Baptisms. We are saved by Grace – not by works, by our opinions, by our positions, - we are saved by Grace! God has reached out to us and brought us all together into this church and this congregation where we experience community and God’s love through each other; where we strive to reach out in this love; where we are regularly fed by the bread and wine of Holy Communion and where we continually struggle and study in order to learn and grown and follow Jesus. This is what it means to be one in Christ. And in this way we are one with each other here at Peace, in the synod and the ELCA, with those who have gone before us in this church through the ages – including the disciples. For, as Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians: “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4

Thursday, November 5, 2009

An open letter regarding the withholding or diverting of giving to congregations of the ELCA as a way of expressing dissatisfaction.

An open letter regarding the withholding or diverting of giving to congregations of the ELCA as a way of expressing dissatisfaction.

The decision by the ELCA churchwide assembly to open the clergy roster to those who are in a committed, publicly accountable same sex relationship has for some church members been cause to celebrate, and for others it has been upsetting. In passing these decisions, the ELCA has made allowances for those who disagree, but some members have found these allowances insufficient. A group (of mostly pastors I believe) who met in Indianapolis in late September is now calling on those who disagree with these decisions to withhold their giving to their congregations, unless the congregations discontinue paying their benevolence assessment to synod. Whatever their purpose in suggesting this action, the effect of it is to threaten the church's most vulnerable ministries, and those who depend on them will be hurt.

When we give as Christians, we are giving of ourselves – our time and our financial resources – out of a sense that everything we have and everything we are is given to us from God. So we give back to God what is already God’s so that the love of Christ can be proclaimed through the ministry of the church. The money I give to my congregation pays for the ministry of the whole church: for the hospital visits, the food pantry, the worship services, the bread and wine of communion, the Sunday school, confirmation. Besides funding our local ministry, a portion is sent to the synod as benevolence. This benevolence pays for Lutheran Social Services’ work of feeding and helping those in need; it pays for synod staff such as the new outreach coordinator who is now working directly with the Wartburg Parish; it provides resources to keep struggling congregations open and serving their communities in places where the need is great but resources are few – such as Trinity Lutheran Church in Kankakee; it pays for the First Call continuing education program for new pastors. A portion is also sent on to the ELCA, where it pays for churchwide youth events, disaster response, new congregational start-ups, campus ministry, Lutheran World Relief, and on and on. The money I give to my congregation each week does all of this! And this is possible only because my congregation is a partner with both the Central/Southern Illinois Synod and the ELCA. To stop giving is to imperil these ministries and risk hurting the most vulnerable programs and people.

It has been suggested that people and congregations who are unhappy with church-wide decisions can channel their giving to those programs that they approve of and thereby have more money to contribute to those programs. But Christian giving is not like donating to charity or an arts organization, where it is appropriate to single out only those programs that appeal to us. Christian giving is Stewardship. It is involving ourselves in the whole ministry of Christ. And this includes working together to resolve disagreements as we continue our larger ministry. Look at the variety and scope of the ministries which are supported by congregational giving and benevolence. There is no way to reach out in that many directions except through the congregation.

To those of you who have been diverting your giving or have stopped it altogether: I would respectfully and humbly ask that you prayerfully reconsider this move. Please prayerfully reconsider your calling to support the ministry of Christ through your home congregation. We must all continue to respect each other's perspective on this critical issue and maintain an open heart as we move forward in exploring the sincere disagreement within our church. But the ministry of the church must not be suspended as we engage in this discussion, and it cannot continue, either on the local or broader level, without continued support from you, its members. I respect that you disagree with this decision, but I would also respectfully suggest that this is not the most effective way of registering that dissatisfaction, for what you are doing is hurting the ministry of the church and those who depend on these ministries on the local, synod, and national level. For my part, I am proud to be a pastor of the ELCA, proud to be a member of an ELCA congregation and honored to be able to give to my congregation so that my money is utilized in so many varied, important and wonderful ministries.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections - November 2009

Jesus went throughout the Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. St. Matthew 4:23

“Extra, Extra, Hear all about it!!!” Such was the proclamation of the newsboys back maybe a century ago. Of course their “news” was a mixture of good and bad news from around the community, the state and the world. We too have something to proclaim, but for us Christians it is Good News – the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again.

Last month I began a series of reflections on the name of our congregation. While we usually refer to our community as “Peace Lutheran Church,” the official name is: “The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace.” Last month I wrote a few words reflecting on “Peace.” (You can read this reflection on my blog if you missed it – see below for the URL). This month I want to take a couple moments and write about the word “Evangelical.”

What comes to mind when you first hear this word? Does the word hold positive or negative connotations for you? For many of us, unfortunately, the first thing we think about when we hear this word “Evangelical” are people handing out tracts, pushy door-to-door visitors and television preachers. If that is what you think of, then probably “Evangelism” means primarily proselytizing or trying to convert others to our version of Christianity. But this is not what “Evangelical” really means. To be Evangelical – or to engage in Evangelism is not primarily trying to convert folks to our way of thinking. But this has become the image we associate with “Evangelism.” Perhaps this is why it is so hard to recruit folks to serve on the Evangelism committee in many parishes, because the impression is that it is all about proselytization.

But that is not what this word means. “Evangelical” means Good News. And as stated above the Good News is the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again. So to be “Evangelical” or to engage in “Evangelism” is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. But this doesn’t only mean talking, it doesn’t mean passing out tracts, going door-to-door or any of that. It might include that if done with care and grace and respect, but that would only be a tiny part of what being “Evangelical” is all about. Being “Evangelical” is really a way of being in the world. When we “proclaim” the Good News of Christ, we might sometimes talk about our faith – but the most important way we “proclaim” is in the way we act and relate to others. We “proclaim” the Good News when we are open to others; when we are kind, gracious and caring; when we reach out to others in service; and when we give of our time, talents and treasures. “Evangelical” is a way of being Christian in the world.

That our forebears have chosen to call this church “Evangelical” means to me that they understood this calling; that they understood that the members of this community of Christ would engage in “Evangelism” – reaching out in love and service to the community. Evangelical is a word then that defines all of the ministries of the this congregation – Worship, Music, Sunday School, Confirmation, Food Pantry, Wednesday All-Stars, Property and so forth. For in each of these ways we are proclaiming the love and grace of God through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Pastor S. Blake Duncan+

Monday, October 19, 2009

Winning The Prize - Sermon – Pentecost 20B – Mark 10:35-45 – Peace Lutheran Church

What follows is my "inaugural sermon" preached this weekend at Peace Lutheran Church during regular services. My installation followed Sunday afternoon

Winning The Prize - Mark 10:35-45 - Pentecost 20B

Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone grew up in the Italian town of Assisi during the 12th century. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant who had been very successful. Francesco, as his father called him, lived a privileged life as a child and a young man. His youth was given over to drinking and street brawls and the love of pleasure. Always looking for adventure he enlisted in the army of the Count of Brienne and during this experience of war and imprisonment something happened to Francis. When he returned to Assisi discouraged, and ill with fever, he was changed. He began to pray and study, he went on pilgrimage and began to have visions. His father was furious and finally dragged Francis before the bishop where Francis then returned everything to his father – including his clothing. Standing in the village square of Assisi, he removed all of his clothing and rings and returned them to his father. He rejected all of his possessions and embraced a life of poverty and service. We know him now as St. Francis of Assisi.

This morning brings to an end our series of readings on Jesus’ teachings about discipleship from the Gospel of Mark. It has not been an easy experience for the disciples and, quite frankly, it is going to get worse before it gets better for them. But a new stage of Jesus’ ministry is about to begin. Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for this new stage – but they just have not understood. They have fought with each other about who was to be the most important in the kingdom, they have argued with Jesus about crucifixion after the first passion prediction, they have gotten jealous of another who was healing in Jesus name, they have tried to keep the children away from Jesus and they have generally misunderstood the ministry which Jesus has invited them to participate in. They were looking for glory and power. After all isn’t that what a Messiah is suppose to be about? They wanted to be important – they wanted to win the prize! As Peter explained to Jesus last week, they had given up everything to follow him – shouldn’t they expect something in return? Shouldn’t they be in line to receive some kind of prize? Throughout all of this Jesus repeats over and over – look, we are on the road to crucifixion and resurrection; you must pick up your cross and follow me to Calvary; if you want to be great you must be least of all and be a servant of all; the last will be first and the first will be last; you cannot earn your way into God’s Kingdom, it comes as a gift which must be received with the innocence and openness of a child.

By the way, in case you have not picked this up yet – we are the disciples in these discourses. Mark is writing this specifically for us to see ourselves standing with the disciples. And it’s true isn’t it? We are just like the disciples – fighting over who is the most important among us, looking to be important, putting our own needs, wants, opinions and ambitions above those of others, looking to the church – Christ’s community to provide for us, instead of understanding that it is specifically a place which provides us with opportunities for service; putting conditions on our giving and service to the church; and expecting that Christ’s priorities are the same as our own. We are the disciples. We are the ones who are wanting to be served instead of serving, and who completely miss the point of Jesus’ teachings – just like those 12 disciples who walked with Jesus – just like Mark’s fledgling Christian community in the generation or so after Jesus – just like the congregations of Luther’s Saxony at the time of the reformation. These teachings are for us – we are Jesus’ disciples.

Understanding this then – let us review our Gospel text for today once more. The passage really begins a few verses ahead of where the lectionary reading actually started. Beginning at verse 32 (instead of verse 35) in chapter 10 St. Mark writes: “Jesus and the disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; the disciples were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Jesus took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." And then, immediately following this, James and John come up to Jesus and try to manipulate him into giving them a special honor or prize. “Teacher, we want you to promise to do whatever we ask you to do.” This sounds like something a child would say in order to get her parents to buy her candy in the grocery store – “if you really love me, you will do whatever I want you to do.” And the timing is so inappropriate as to be almost comical. Jesus has just told all 12 of the disciples where they are bound – in detail – “when we get to Jerusalem I will be handed over to the chief priests, condemned to death, mocked, spit on, flogged and killed and then I will rise again.” And the response from the Zebedee brothers? “Ahh… ok – but…. When you take over the kingdom could you put us in charge – give us positions on your right and left? Could we get our prize? Pleaseeeeeeeee.” Where have they been – are they really that insensitive and self-centered? What they don’t understand is that Jesus will be crowned – his throne will be a cross and his crown will be made of thorns and on his right and left will be crucified two thieves who will die with Jesus.

When the other disciples realize what has happened they get angry with James and John. It doesn’t say why, but Jesus’ response gives us a hint that it wasn’t because they thought James and John were being so inappropriate but because they, the other disciples are looking for glory too and were upset that James and John might have gotten a step ahead of them. But Jesus doesn’t get angry this time He is gentle but firm; he is loving and gracious and he again reminds them, and us, that our calling is to service; our calling is to give of ourselves in every way; that the prize we are all seeking is to be found in being least of all and serving others; the prize is God’s love – it is forgiveness – it is being received into the arms of God’s amazing grace!

I think we can understand where the disciples are coming from though. We also like to receive prizes – we like to be honored – we like to be considered important. And when our culture or society puts such a strong emphasis on this it is hard for us to compete with it or resist it. Nearly a decade after leaving professional basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decided to return to the sport he loved by accepting a coaching position with the Alchesay Falcons - a high-school team of mostly White Mountain Apaches. Now this is one of the greatest players in the history of basketball – he could have chosen any number of opportunities but it was this team of Native Americans he chose to coach. And he had to learn a great deal about his athletes and the tribe. He discovered surprising cultural traditions that made it difficult to coach the team. But slowly he grew in sensitivity to the special challenges faced by young Native Americans. And by working with these students and coaching them, Abdul-Jabbar moved from a historical appreciation for the Apaches as a people to a new understanding of them as individuals. Did he lord it over them as an NBA superstar? Not at all. He served them. He was first among them by acting as their coach, their teacher, their helper and their servant. In the end, he may have learned more than he actually taught during his season on the reservation. Abdul-Jabbar, a Hall-of-Famer considered great by the world, discovered that true greatness is found in an unexpected place - a place of service.

This is our calling as well – we are called to serve; we are called to respond to God’s calling for us to reach out to others in a variety of ways to serve – not in order to get praise, or win a prize or receive honor, or have our positions and opinions confirmed – but to serve. As we serve others we are serving Christ.

There is one other point I want to make about these disciples – who you remember are us. As I said earlier these couple chapters have been tough. We might have expected these disciples to throw in the towel and quit. They hadn’t signed a contract, they were not even bound by an oath of any kind. They were following Jesus because they had been called – in the same way we are called to follow Jesus. And when the going got rough they could have quit – returned to their homes and families – found another community – joined another church – found a different leader who preached an easier Gospel. They could have, but they didn’t. The disciples stayed with Jesus until the very end. Our Gospel today tells us that despite all of the controversies, the inappropriate lusting after power and glory; despite to intense desire to win that prize NOW, the disciples continued on the road with Jesus – the road to Jerusalem – the road to crucifixion and resurrection.

I began this sermon by sharing about St. Francis. Like many of the saints, St. Francis can seem larger than life. His public embrace of poverty is really dramatic. We could never do what he did and we are not called to do what he did. But yet, the life of St. Francis is best understood as a life of service – a life filled with simple acts of love and grace. For example, during the early years as his group of brothers were getting established they made an impression on all the people they encountered because, as they would hike through the mountains and villages they were said to be always full of songs and happiness – blessing all who they met in various ways. Later in life Francis traveled to the Holy Land and spent some time with the Muslim Sultan Malek-el-Kamel – this at the time when the European crusades were in full swing. But yet, in their conversations and debates Francis is said to have treated his host with graciousness, respect and even love, to the extent that the Sultan was deeply moved. For 100’s of years afterwards, from the late Middle Ages and to as late as the 17th century, as the fractured relationship between European Christians and the Muslim world continued to fester, the Franciscans alone were permitted to live in the Middle East and were permitted to establish hospitals and other avenues for service: all because of Francis’ attitude of service. This we could stand to learn from St. Francis. Instead of searching looking for what’s best for me – instead of looking for position – power – strength; instead of seeking after winning the prize – may we learn from St. Francis something about an attitude of humility and service.

Jesus said: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

And St. Francis prayed: “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon from 10/4/09 - Pentecost 18B – St. Mark 10:2-16 – Peace Lutheran Church – Marriage, Divorce, the Kingdom and the Cross

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.' "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

I wonder how many of you were a little uncomfortable with the Gospel lesson today. I was, I would have preferred a different text, at least for a few months. But here it is – Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus is rather blunt about what he says and it’s uncomfortable for us 21st century Christians. Let’s face it – divorce is a part of our culture. There is probably no one here today who has not been touched by divorce in some manner or another. And for the sake of full disclosure – many of you already know that I am divorced, so when I talk about this I am speaking from my own experience as well.

But we can’t get around the text – this is Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce and it appears in Mark, Matthew and Luke. So, as uncomfortable as it might be, we need to look at this text carefully – because there is Gospel here; there is Good news in this text as well as law.

Now, this text from chapter 10 is linked to the texts which we have had in the last few weeks from chapter 9. Most importantly these readings begin with a passion prediction – Jesus tells His disciples that He is on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified and raised again on the 3rd day; and that this is the path to the Kingdom. Now none of Jesus’ disciples understand or accept this. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching gets more and more blunt and stark and uncompromising as a result. Today Jesus is cornered by a group of Pharisees who begin to question Jesus – not because they want answers – but because they want to trap Jesus in some way. And so, they ask Jesus the question about divorce. This is where we often run into difficulty in understanding this text. In our society marriage is about love and relationship. Both men and women choose their partners based on love and compatibility. There is usually some kind of courtship involved and marriage is the culmination of all of that. This is, however, not the experience of men and women at the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. For them marriage was essentially a property transaction. Women were the property of their fathers who would determine the marriage partner; then the woman would become the property of the husband. These girls had no choice in the matter. And if a man decided to end a marriage – then it was his call and there was nothing the woman could do about it. And since women had value in that society only on the basis of their relationship to a man – either a father or husband – a divorce would be bad news for the woman because it meant poverty and homelessness. Women who were discarded in this way often would have to turn to begging or prostitution in order to survive.

It is then in this context that Jesus quotes the book of Genesis to these religious men. Now, these Pharisees were men who knew their scripture backward and forward and were very intent on following the law. “For this reason a man shall leave His father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.” But Moses allowed for divorce, you can hear them arguing back. Jesus is not swayed – marriage knits a man and a woman into one – “Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” Here Jesus is deliberately undermining the male prerogative by asserting that in God’s eyes these men do not have the right to just put their wives aside. Jesus appeals to the creation story and asserts that when it comes to marriage both the man and the woman are equal in the relationship. The disciples, as usual, are surprised and confused and they question Jesus about this later – “Can you be serious?” Jesus reiterates this point again for the disciples and makes it even more blunt – what is good for one is good for the other – both the man and the woman are equal in marriage. It is hard for us to understand how radical this would have been to Jesus’ audience at that time.

So, a couple of observations about what Jesus says about divorce: First, Jesus makes it clear that in God’s eyes marriage is not just another property transaction. God takes marriage seriously and both partners are equal in the eyes of God when it comes to marriage. One is not the servant or property of another. When we pray and ask God to join a man and woman and knit them into one in marriage God answers this prayer and husband and wife are knit together. Divorce is thus a ripping of this unity that God has brought about through marriage. Divorce is a sin – in that it is not what God desires and breaks the bonds God is creating. It is a breaking of the vows we have made to each other and before God. Finally, divorce hurts. It is painful – it hurts everyone who is involved. When you rip apart something that has been knit together it is going to hurt. I have never met anyone who said that divorce was no big deal – no matter how necessary and inevitable, it is painful.

But is that it? Should those of us who are divorced just slink away and hide? By no means! Divorce is a sin – but it is not the unforgivable sin. Sometimes divorce is inevitable; sometimes divorce is necessary; sometimes people break their promises, people are unkind, people get themselves into places in their relationships that they’re unable to set right again; they do things they shouldn’t, they hurt each other and themselves, sometimes severely; they misunderstand, misinterpret, misbehave; they’re too self-centered, or they’re too inattentive to their own needs; they give too little or too much; sometimes the trouble in our marriages affect just us; sometimes it extends to our children, our parents, and our wider families. We all recognize ourselves in these patterns of brokenness: we all have lots of experience of falling short of God’s vision for our relationships with each other.

But… Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. It is so common and tempting in our society to extract these passages of scripture – pull them out of their context and make new laws out of them. It is not hard to turn Jesus into a new Moses who brings a new and more severe law. Luther himself warned against this. Luther writes in an essay*: “Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples…. As if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings and laws.” For Luther, in order to understand the bible and specifically the teachings of Jesus we must always begin with the cross and the resurrection!! In fact, this passage itself is set in the context of Jesus’ 2nd passion prediction. Divorce is a sin; vows are broken. But is divorce the only sin where vows are broken? Is divorce the only sin that separates us from God and others? Is divorce the only sin which causes pain? No, we must guard against the temptation to judge divorce more harshly than we do other sins; we must guard against the temptation to judge ourselves or others. We are not called to judge. Rather, we are all invited to lay our sins – all of them, our divorces, our unfaithfulness, our tendency to judge, our selfishness, our disregard of others – we are invited to bring these sins and lay them at the foot of the cross. And we know that God will grant us all forgiveness; God will be present with us in the midst of our pain and struggle. And because of the resurrection we know that through Christ, God can bring new life out of death; that through forgiveness God will bring us new life, new love, new joy.

In the Gospel of John, a group of men drag in a woman who had been caught in adultery. Now this sin was punishable by death according to Mosaic law. The men are ready to stone her to death, but they ask Jesus what he thinks. After a pause he simply suggests that whoever is without sin in their lives may go ahead and cast the first stone. Slowly the men disappear and leave the woman alone. “Who condemns you?” Jesus asks her eventually. She looks around, “No one, sir.” “Well,” says Jesus, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Let me repeat these words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In these words of Jesus there is forgiveness; there is the promise of renewal and there is a call to responsibility.

We are all sinners. We are all guilty, but because of Jesus we are forgiven and renewed. May we all be able to forgive others, and ourselves – to accept the forgiveness with is ours in Christ and allow God to fill our lives with His love and grace. SBD+

* From A Brief Instruction on What to look for and Expect in the Gospels by Martin Luther

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections:

And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

The inscription on the cornerstone of this church reads that the church was established in1896, and that the church was built in 1935. And the name of the established church was Evangelisch Lutherische Friedens Kirche – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace. Somewhere along the line the word “United” was added so the congregation we lovingly call “Peace Lutheran Church” has a long official name: The United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Peace.

I would like to reflect a bit on this name over the next few newsletter articles and I am going to start with the word “Peace.” In our culture this word peace has the strong connotation of the absence of conflict. I suspect that our forebears who built this church in 1935 may have had this definition in mind at least somewhat considering that one great war had just concluded and in 1935 the world was moving quickly towards another. So Peace church was, I am sure, a place to pray for the end of and to look forward to the conclusion of this worldwide conflict; and a place to pray for those who were caught up in the conflict in some manner. This is one of the important places that the church holds in our society. We do need a place to come for support and to pray and to have a respite from the conflict of the world. This was true then, and it is true now. In this way Peace Lutheran church is there to meet this need.

But this also points to something else which includes but also goes beyond the church being a cultural place of respite. And that is the Biblical understanding of peace. The Old Testament word which is translated as “Peace” in English is the Hebrew word Shalom. This Hebrew word means much more than the absence of conflict. Shalom is a promise and a gift of complete well-being. Shalom is being in perfect harmony with God and with one another. And while we can choose to initiate the end of hostility and establish peace, Shalom is not something we can create for ourselves. It is a gift from God through Christ. We experience Shalom in all kinds of unusual circumstances. Sometimes when we least expect it God will give us a moment of grace or a moment when His presence is with us in a profound way – this is an experience of Shalom. We experience Shalom at times in our interactions with others, in times of deepest need, in the midst of joy, in times of loss, in times of laughter and in times of tears.

Most importantly we come to Peace Lutheran Church with the expectation and the confidence that there we will experience a taste of this amazing grace and peace which passes all understanding. As we sprinkle the water, take the bread and wine, pray, sing and reach out to one another in prayer, friendship and fellowship there we find God’s Shalom; there we are given a “Foretaste of the Feast to Come.” Praise be to God for this wonderful gift – which, like all of God’s gifts, is given unconditionally out of love.
Pastor S. Blake Duncan+

Monday, September 28, 2009

My sermon from 9/27/09 – Mark 9:38-50 Chop, Chop! Splash, Splash!

TEXT: St. Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

This is some text, but before we start pulling out our axes we should look carefully at this passage. The text is a continuation of the text from last week where the disciples are digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole and Jesus is getting more and more frustrated and angry with them – to the point where his teaching is becoming more stark and blunt. Can you imagine the shock and revulsion that must have run through this group of disciples when Jesus starts talking about severing limbs. We can hear just the whispers – “can he be serious?

Now if you remember from last week this whole episode begins with the disciples trying and failing to perform an exorcism. Jesus is really put out with the disciples as a result. Then Jesus repeats His passion prediction. Now the first time He told them that he was moving towards crucifixion it had not gone over well; but this 2nd time the disciples don’t seem to be paying any attention because they are too busy arguing about who is going to have the most honor and be the greatest in the new Kingdom of God. Again, Jesus reminds them that if they want to be great – then they need to be a servant of all; if they want to have honor they must completely give up honor.

This brings us to the text for this morning and what I’ll call the “copyright” dispute. The disciples have come upon someone who is successfully performing exorcisms in Jesus’ name. So what is the problem with that? Well, as far as the disciples are concerned this person is not qualified or authorized to do this healing because he is not one of them. The disciples are rather indignant about this – remember that this fellow was successfully doing what they themselves had failed at not so long ago. Our text tells us that the disciples told this guy to stop and it suggests that he basically ignored them, so they comes whining to Jesus, “We met this guy who is doing exorcisms in your name, but he’s not one of us, so we told he had to stop.” Jesus is not pleased. “Do not forbid anyone from doing good, from reaching out to others in my name,” he tells them. But as with everything else the disciples don’t understand, they don’t get it. “Doesn’t Jesus understand that His name is really powerful and we need to keep control of it – why so that it can benefit us and put us in positions of importance. You can’t just let anyone use your name!”

That’s why I call it a copyright issue – what is at stake in copyright disputes is control of artistic and intellectual property – which includes ideas, theology and brand names, which is where the disciples are heading with this. The point of copyright laws is that to help us control of what is ours, right? It doesn’t matter if it is a piece of music, a song, a painting, an idea, a belief or our names – we want to keep control of it.

And this is exactly how the disciples felt – Jesus, you must keep control of your name – don’t let others just use it without some kind of authorization. Your ideas and name mean power, and if managed correctly, well everyone would benefit. That makes sense – doesn’t it? Well, but not to Jesus. Jesus had just reminded His disciples that they were heading towards crucifixion – they were on the road towards giving up power and control completely – that this was the only path to the Kingdom of God. So in this way Jesus is re-defining the argument: for Jesus it was not an issue of copyright or control, it was an issue of priority. The question suggested by Jesus response is: what is important? What is important to you, disciples? For Jesus’ disciples the priority is clearly themselves: their position, their authority, their control, their honor and importance.

But for Jesus the priority is people; especially those people who are in need; especially those people in whom faith is beginning to bud (he calls them the “little ones’). What matters to Jesus in this situation is not control of His name, it is that people are being freed from whatever is oppressing them. If that is done by you disciples in my name, great; if it is being done in my name by someone who I don’t know then that is great too; because the important thing is reaching out and caring for and healing people.

So then, what about all this chop, chop stuff – severing of limbs and so forth. Where did that come from? It follows from what has gone before – Jesus’ priority is people, caring for and reaching out to people. The disciples are called to be free from the need to control every detail, free of the need to acquire power because if you are driven by control and power that then will take over as the most important thing in your life and consequently people become less important and the “little ones” get hurt. “If your priorities are such,” suggests Jesus, “that they are hurting the “little ones” then you would be better off if we hung a millstone around your neck and dropped you into the sea. If your priorities are such that they are hurting the little ones it would be better for you to cut off all the body parts that lead you to grasp for control and power. If your priorities are such that they are hurting the little ones, then you need to die!”

And that is it – That is the point! Jesus had started this whole discussion with reminding the disciples that they were heading towards crucifixion and death. Jesus will die and be raised; we too must pick up our cross and die with Him – in order to be raised with Him, in order to be freed and to completely live.

Splash, splash! There it is – right in front of me – the Baptismal Font! In Baptism we are buried with Christ, we die in Christ and we are raised to new life and freedom in our Baptisms into Christ. In Baptism the millstones are hung and disintegrated, and our bodies and souls are restored and renewed. The disciples don’t get it of course – not yet anyway, their time will come. We don’t always get it either, but God nevertheless has restored and freed us in our baptisms and called us to a life of making people priority number #1.

I will close with a story from the sports pages from a few years ago. It was a story about university softball finals in Oregon from a few years ago. With two runners on base and a strike against her, Sara T. did something she had never done before. She hit a home run. But then as she started to run around the bases, she missed first base. Realizing what she had done she started back to tag it but in the process of stopping and turning around she ripped something in her knee and she collapsed with searing pain. She crawled back to first base but couldn’t go on. Now the dilemma: She would be called out if her teammates tried to help her. The umpire said a pinch runner could be called in, but the homer would have to count as a single.

Then, the some members of the opposing softball team did something that stunned spectators. The girl who was playing first base asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Sara. The umpire consulted with her colleagues and then determined that there was no rule against it. So a couple of the infielders put their arms under Sara’s legs, and she put her arms over their shoulders. The three players headed around the bases, stopping to let Sara touch each base with her good leg. The three-run homer would count. But that is only part of the story. This act of sportsmanship and kindness by the opposing team contributed to their own elimination from the playoffs. There was a price for their compassion.

Of course! There was a price for Jesus, and for the disciples down the road as well. But it is our calling to open ourselves to God’s love and grace, allow Him to help us set aside our need to control, at least a little, and reach out of ourselves to “the little ones,” those whom God has set in our path. There is also a gift – we can expect God to stand with us throughout everything and to grant us a sense of His peace and love and grace.

Thank you to TextWeek for inspiring the title.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pastoral Letter - Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009 – Holy Cross Day
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ at Peace Lutheran Church,
I am writing to you to address some of the concerns that some have expressed regarding the actions taken at the ELCA national assembly in August.
The actions themselves are as follows:
1. The Social Statement on Human Sexuality was adopted by 2/3 of the assembly.
2. The church affirmed that in the future implementation of any changes and commitments adopted, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all. This means that nothing will be imposed on any synod or congregation that go against its understanding and will.
3. This resolution committed the church to finding ways “to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”
4. The assembly was asked whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.
5. The last resolution outlined the specifics of how this church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. Again, this means that we are respectful of each other and differences of understanding.

A couple comments and clarifications:
1. I think it is very important to note that the Social Statement on Human Sexuality was about more than homosexuality. It covered a full range of topics – including marital fidelity, sexual abuse and sexual slavery. These are topics that the church needs to speak out about, and about which there really should not be much disagreement.
2. It is also important to be reminded that the ELCA, along with many other denominations, have been ordaining gays and lesbians to serve as pastors for years. However, the expectation was that those whose self-understanding was gay or lesbian were expected to remain celibate. This has been the policy of the ELCA up until this assembly at least since the ELCA was constituted. The only thing that will change is that now a gay or lesbian pastor may enter into a committed, monogamous relationship and still be available to serve as a pastor if approved by a synod and if properly called by a congregation.
3. The resolutions make it very clear that nothing will be imposed on congregations or synods that disagree in part or on the whole. Bishops are to use pastoral discretion and congregations will be free to choose to call or not call any pastor presented to them during the call process.
4. I do not expect there will be much change for us here in Southern Illinois. There will be no immediate affect of these actions on the congregations of Southern Illinois and I suspect this is also true for of our Synod (see the attached email from Bishop Freiheit).

Personal reflection:
I have deep respect for the feelings and convictions of people on both sides of this issue. There is a strong feeling among some that this action goes against biblical understandings of marriage and sexuality. This is not a position that can be ignored and is an important concern which I deeply respect. At the same time folks on the other side of the argument point to the fact that the biblical injunctions are not always clear and that they are few and far between (there are only 7 verses that even remotely refer to this issue, and this is out of 66 books – far fewer verses than other issues such as heterosexual adultery and poverty.)
As your new pastor I would ask only that you prayerfully keep an open mind. Please do not pre-judge this issue or rush to conclusions. There is so much, especially in the media, that paints an incorrect picture of what it means to be gay and what the decisions of the ELCA assembly will mean. For example, it is not true that gays are predominantly pedophiles or child molesters; it is not true that gays are sexually irresponsible as a group. There are some who fall into all of these categories – just as there are heterosexuals who fall into these categories. My view is that these decisions will have no impact on us here in Steeleville at all for a very long time to come.

Please resist the temptation to over-react or to respond in a unilateral way. We only hurt ourselves when we do this. Leaving the congregation or withholding and diverting contributions are simply not helpful or appropriate ways of responding to this ELCA action. The only ones who will be hurt by doing this are those who are engaged in ministry here in this parish of Peace Lutheran Church. A better way is to remain engaged in dialog with the ELCA. You can call the ELCA or attend one the forums that are being planned. Also, we all need to be open to dialog and to learning. None of us have a complete and fully “correct” understanding of this issue. We need to be careful that we do not fall into the trap of thinking we are right and we have all the answers.

Finally, let us look to our Lord Jesus for guidance. When asked what rule or law was the most important Jesus was unambiguous: “Love the Lord your God, with all your mind and with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is what we are called to. We are called to love. We can debate and struggle with each other on various issues, we can disagree – but in the end we are to love each other and be willing to reach out of ourselves to love those who are different from us. This is our calling. It is up to God to judge – it is up to us to love. And we are called to trust: trust in the Lord to preserve and keep us and our beloved church through every storm. God has kept the church and sustained the church through all kinds of things in the last 2000 years. I believe that God will continue to keep us all in his hands; to strengthen, feed and sustain us through this and all future struggles. This is the promise of the Gospel:
On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!
Pastor S. Blake Duncan+

Sexuality in the Headlines - by Pr. Peter W. Marty - St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Davenport, IA

I found this (and everything) Pastor Marty writes to be very meaningful and filled with a profound understanding of grace.  He has agreed to let me share it....

Sexuality in the Headlines
By Peter W. Marty
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made headlines last week, and it wasn’t for its commitment to try and wipe out malaria in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015. It was for actions taken regarding the eligibility or fitness of homosexual persons who may have gifts for ministry. Specifically, the buzz emanating from the Minneapolis Convention Center revolved around Resolution 2: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”
The resolution passed 559-441. It was an affirmation that didn’t come as a surprise to many. For one thing, the church has studied and deliberated over the issue for years, much of it very considerate conversation. For another, all of us have grown accustomed to gay and lesbian people being a valuable part of our everyday lives. They deliver our mail, pilot our airplanes, and write the books we read. They are busy doing cancer research, teaching in our colleges and universities, and playing symphony violin. Why wouldn’t they also be in the church? There is yet another reason why many predicted the vote outcome. Celibate gay clergy have been a part of the ELCA for decades. No one wants to pretend that all gay Christians lack gifts for ministry; the issue in Minneapolis was clergy in same-gender relationships (of a monogamous and lifelong character). The vote tally caused many to rejoice, many to lament, and plenty of others to simply wonder, “Does this have anything to do with my life?”
Each of us has to decide what our response will be. Here is my suggestion for a St. Paul Lutheran Church response:
Over-reaction is not a virtue. A pastor friend emailed his disgust to me: “The ELCA has just broken with 2000 years of church history, ignoring every sound Biblical and theological principle.” Such words are inflammatory. If we are going to speak like this – which I don’t recommend – then we must also say that the church broke with 1850 years of Christian history and biblical interpretation when it finally stopped putting up with the Bible’s failure to condemn slavery. And, we should say that the church broke with 1950 years of Christian history and biblical interpretation when it finally determined that women had a place in society and church leadership equal to men.
Nothing is being forced on congregations. The actions of the ELCA assembly create options and opportunities for local congregations. They do not constitute high-handed decisions that demand change on a congregational level. 
The absence of a landslide vote is positive. It reminds us that it’s just fine for a church to lack consensus on any number of contemporary issues. In the ELCA, we are not a single-minded people who inhabit a church that has no room for others who differ. Jesus spent his last night on earth underscoring love – not agreement – as the most important thing in life. Our daily prayer could be: “Lord, help me be sure to love those with whom I disagree.”
Boundary markers provide a secure feeling, but Jesus detested them. Throughout his ministry, he smashed them every place he could. They may provide a neat mechanism for establishing a sense of moral superiority. We all imagine forfeiting our integrity as Christians if we’re not vigilant in keeping plenty of boundary markers up. But we’d be hard-pressed to call such demarcation “The Jesus Way.”
Let’s keep perspective on scripture and how we use it. In 66 books of scripture, only seven verses have anything to do with certain homosexual behaviors – behaviors that are equally condemned along with certain heterosexual ones. Seven verses pale in comparison to the larger biblical witness about heterosexual adultery, loving one’s neighbor, and injustice to the poor. Jesus never uttered a word about homosexuality. The Ten Commandments ignore the subject completely. Homosexual orientation was an unknown concept in Biblical times. At least, every Biblical writer skipped reference to it, if it was known. We have no idea, for example, if the Apostle Paul was gay or straight. If someone were able to prove he was homosexual, it’s hard to picture the church removing his letters from scripture as suddenly without authority. Also absent from biblical writing is any mention of what we know today as a faithful, loving, non-exploitative, and lifelong same-gender relationship.
Suitability for ministry is about giftedness and grace. As for “giftedness,” ministry had better not be primarily about the sexual elements of a pastor’s life (or other church professional). I certainly want to be known for attributes other than my heterosexuality. As for “grace,” if the church let me in, grace must be at work!
Wherever you find yourself navigating this whole matter, count on me to walk the journey with you. I’ll be there.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

GO WASH YOUR HANDS - My sermon for Pentecost 13 - August 30, 2009 - my last Sunday at St. Matthew's - St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I can remember any number of instances during my childhood where my mother used those words: GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! You are familiar with a similar scene I am sure: the typical kids outside playing, in my case me and my two brothers; mom calls us to supper at which point we would all just rush into the kitchen and sit at the table waiting to be served. GO, WASH YOUR HANDS! we would hear my mother order and we would rush to the bathroom, wash our hands and return for dinner. Now, there was never a sub-plot to this series of actions – as far as I know. It was about hygiene, I am pretty sure. I don’t think there was an undercurrent of “Go wash your hands, or I won’t love you anymore.” In fact, I am pretty sure that what prompted the order was love – I love you, so, Go wash your hands – so you won’t get sick.

Now, having come up with this clever little introduction I should tell you that this text from the Gospel of St. Mark is really not about hand-washing; it references hand-washing – but is completely not about hygiene. However, it is about love – God’s love for all of us, and the clever ways people come up with in order to categorize and qualify this love of God’s.

1st of all I want to point out that this text is pretty much right in the center of the Gospel. St. Mark has 16 chapters – but chapter 16 only has 8 verses. So this exchange with the Pharisees and the story of the Syrophoenician woman are right in the center of the Gospel, which means that this is pretty important to Mark; how Mark and his community sees the Gospel is revealed here. So, then, let’s look at this passage again. Now, the lectionary kind of slices up the story a bit so I will recount the story but put the excised part back in. This passage immediately follows some of the great feeding stories – such as the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus habit of dining with just about anyone who invited him, no matter who they were. So here we find Jesus with a group of religiously observant men (called Pharisees) and they ask Jesus why it is that he does not require his disciples to follow the purity laws as set forth in scripture and backed up by tradition.

One might have expected Jesus to turn to his disciples and say, HEY, WHAT’S WITH YOU GUYS? GO WASH YOUR HANDS. But instead he turns on the questioners. “You guys are such hypocrites.” He says, “you are so concerned about the rules and being externally pure that you have neglected to consider that inside you are not pure at all!”
I am sure the Pharisees were stunned by this response. “WOW. What is the big deal. It’s just something simple, right? – hand-washing for heaven’s sake…..” ahhh, But it’s not – Jesus continues, and in order to make the point crystal clear he adds an example: “You know the 4th commandment? Honor your mother and father? ---- ok ----- well, instead of honoring your mother and father you have managed to come up with all kinds of clever ways to get around this commandment. You have come up with loop holes, so you can justify treating your elderly parents in questionable ways and still remain technically in compliance with the commandment. And you are on my case about hand-washing?”

In other words, Jesus rejects – categorically rejects putting rules over people – even scriptural rules! He condemns these pious, religious folks for being so concerned about following the rules that they have put people, other human beings as being secondarily important. If it comes down to following the rule – or hurting other people, rejecting other people – well follow the rule, the Pharisees position is. To this Jesus says a strong and unequivocal NO. God’s priorities are people first and if the rules are causing hurt and misery and exclusion, then you either need to reinterpret or throw out the rules!

This is a radical statement! It is no wonder that Jesus made himself lots of enemies. There are vested interests in keeping society divided and maintaining divisions and fear and mistrust and even hate amongst people. Too often, we like to categorize and find ways of putting others down and lifting ourselves up. We human beings like to think that we are the chosen ones, but those others over there – those other Christians who understand and do things differently – well, they are not really one of us; so they are not really Christians. Jesus bluntly rejects this way of thinking – with his usual lack of subtlety.

But not only that, in order to make this point nice and clear Mark follows up this exchange of words between Jesus and the Pharisee with an incident which puts all of this into action. Now, what follows is the Gospel text for next week. I don’t really want to give things away, but I won’t be here next week to deliver part 2 of this sermon – so – here it is: Mark follows up this exchange with the Pharisees about hand-washing with the story of his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. Jesus encounters this Gentile woman who begs him to come and heal her daughter who had an unclean spirit. We would expect Jesus to go immediately, right – wrong – he doesn’t; he first engages in this little conversation with her. He tells her that healing this girl would be akin to throwing the children’s food to the dogs since he he Jewish and she is Gentile. Yes, she responds, but even the dogs may eat some of the scrapes that fall from the table. And he heals the girl!

This is a harsh exchange, but it follows directly the exchange over hand-washing. This woman was outside the community, she was unclean, she was unacceptable, she was considered a non-person by these religious folks. Jesus points this out to her (and to his disciples and followers) and then he reaches out to her and touches her and heals her daughter. Jesus is demonstrating through this action that people are God’s first priority! Human beings are the crown of God’s creation and it is people whom God loves. In another part of the Gospel Jesus says: “the Sabbath was made for people; not people for the Sabbath.” We could rephrase this: “the law was made for people, not people for the law;” or even “the liturgy was made for people, not people for the liturgy.” How many of us find ourselves from time to time siding with the Pharisees in exchanges and putting, or being inclined to put rules and tradition above people. How many of us find ourselves from time to time being willing to sacrifice a few people for the sake of our religious convictions? The word of the Gospel today is for you and me and any of us whenever we are tempted in this manner: God loves people; God reaches out to save people; Jesus was crucified for all humanity.

This is my last Sunday among you. You and this parish of St. Matthew’s have been a part of my life for 11 years. I will miss you all very much. But I will tell you that my returning to parish ministry would not have happened without you, as God gave me a renewed sense of call as a result of working here in your midst. I thank you for that. You will all continue in my thoughts and prayers, and I hope and pray the wait for a new rector will come to a happy conclusion very soon.

In closing let me also say that I pray that you will always remember that it is God who saves us by his grace and love and that this grace and love is big enough for all. For, as St. Paul puts it: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord; and all equally heirs according to His promise.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Bishop Hanson and other responses

I have been very moved by the beautiful words of our presiding bishop - Mark Hanson. These words were spoken immediately after the vote was concluded on the final resolution. Here is the link:

For those of you who may appreciate an overview - here is a list of the actions taken by the ELCA assembly last week:

1. The Social Statement on Human Sexuality was adopted by 2/3s of the assembly.
The church affirmed that in the future implementation of any changes and commitment adopted, it will make decisions so that all in this church bear the burdens of the other, and respect the bound consciences of all.
This resolution committed the church to finding ways “to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.
The assembly was asked whether, in principle, this church is committed to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.
The last resolution outlined the specifics of how this church can move toward change in a way that respects the bound consciences of all. In our discussions it is important I believe to understand exactly what the content of the resolutions are. I pray that we can proceed with love.

I would also like to share some comments by others:
1st the pastoral letter from our Bishop - Warren Freiheit:
A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Warren Freiheit, of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
The first question that was asked of me during the election process at the 2000 C/SIS Assembly was "What is your favorite Bible verse and why?" It didn't take me long to respond with Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God." Those words came to me this last week as we met at Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis , following the passage of the Social Statement of Human Sexuality and its implementing resolutions, together with the passage of the four rostering recommendations. That Bible verse has served as an anchor for me through much of my ministry, knowing that when I am overwhelmed it is time for me to be still, and listen to God as well as to others around me.

Many seem to be overwhelmed with questions and emotions following the Assembly as we recall a familiar phrase from Luther's Small Catechism that asks, "What does this mean?" It is my prayer that as we deal with this question and how it pertains to our lives, individually and corporately, that we do so by listening before we make far-reaching decisions. It is my fervent prayer that we proceed with love and respect for one another even though we may react differently to the decisions made by the Churchwide Assembly.

While in Minneapolis , I have been unable to receive e-mails and because of an ordination on Sunday, August 23, I will be unable to return to the office until Tuesday, August 25. I anticipate a great deal of correspondence once I return to the office, and I welcome your input as to how we may engage in effective dialogue in the coming weeks. Even though the resolutions have passed, there will be no immediate changes until after the Church Council meets and acts on these resolutions in November. It is my hope that we can use this time to address what the resolutions say, as well as to what they do not say. And it is my hope that we can also use this time to recommit ourselves to our mission and grow in our understanding of encouraging and loving our neighbors.

In light of Bishop Hanson's emphasis on prayer for the 50 days preceding the Assembly, I would like to encourage prayer for at least these first 50 days following the Assembly. I would encourage your prayer for the ELCA in all of its expressions, and for God's guidance as we proceed in our effort to Glorify God and serve God's people.

Bishop Warren Freiheit

and from Pastor Kay Richter, Minneapolis, MN

Personally, I think it is important for all of us to remain calm amid any storms that might arise. There will be grieving among those who disagree with the decisions. There will be rejoicing among those who feel that they are finally being welcomed after a long period of exile. And for congregations that include both the grieving and the joyous, we need to remember that we are all in this together. This is not "the church" turning against some among us, because we ARE the church. We need to carry one another's burdens and to be gracious and loving to one another in the midst of deep, deep emotional responses.

Because ultimately, we all find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross, confessing our own brokenness and begging for love and forgiveness from the one who died to set us free from sin and death. THAT has not changed. The ground at the foot of the cross is and always will be level ground. We are all broken. We are all saved by the one who was willing to be broken in our stead.

One emphasis of the Assembly was that although we disagree about these decisions, we AGREE about many more things! We saw report after report, statistics upon statistics, and videos and speeches that reminded us of the MARVELOUS things that are happening through the ELCA and our partners in ministry. We heard about a typhoon that hit Taiwan (I think) earlier in the week and within 24 hours received a report from Lutheran Disaster Response that help was ALREADY on the ground in that area. Even as a tornado touched down on the building where we were meeting, and damaged the church building where we would have other events during the week, the offerings brought in over $60,000 for the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, and that doesn't count the funds raised by the concert on Friday night. We were reminded of the powerful work being done through the HIV/AIDS initiative. We heard stories of flourishing ministries within ELCA congregations and new mission starts where the Gospel is being preached to those who had never heard it before.

Again and again and again, at the CWA (ELCA Church-Wide Assembly or CWA for those of you who might not be from the ELCA), it was emphasized that those who were debating were ALL being faithful to Scripture and listening for the voice of God calling them to certain actions. We prayed frequently during the debate -- about every 20 minutes. (There are pictures on the ELCA web site of the times of prayer ... some of the Friday pictures even include our ECSW voting members!) We worshiped daily and waited for the Holy Spirit to act among us. It is disconcerting when we disagree on important matters. And yet, we are a family -- brothers and sisters -- children of the same heavenly Father, and we need to find ways to disagree without condemning or despising one another. Jesus prayed that we might be one, as he and the Father are one.

The Holy Spirit can give us unity within diversity. "Unity does not require uniformity." And, considering how many different languages were spoken during worships and plenary sessions -- all from ELCA ministries -- it was easy to see that there is a great deal of diversity within our church body.

I think a very important thing to keep in mind is that for most congregations, in the most practical ways, very little will change. The call process still happens the same way -- no congregation will have a gay or lesbian pastor forced upon them. Congregations have their own choice about welcoming the blessing of a same-gender, committed relationship -- they will not have it forced upon them from "above" or "outside".

The CWA decisions give the congregations who WANT to call a pastor who is open about a gay or lesbian partnership permission to do so without discipline and congregations who CHOOSE to have ceremonies for blessing a same-gender relationship can now do so openly without disciplinary action against them.

And amid the interesting statistics, many synods had sent Memorials to CWA asking for a 2/3 super-majority to pass the Recommendations on Ministry, as was required for the Social Statement to be adopted. Three of the four recommendations passed with a 2/3 or greater majority vote. (The recommendation on ordination was just over 60% of the vote ... which is higher than the 57% received when the ordination of women was approved in the 1960's.) The Social Statement received *EXACTLY* 2/3 of the vote when it was passed.

As the Rev. Dr. Diane Jacobson said about the Book of Faith Jubilee, "We prayed and invited the Holy Spirit to be among us, and wouldn't you know it! The whole Trinity showed up!" I believe the same is true about CWA. When we gather in God's name, God has promised to be present. I believe God came and dwelt among us and within us during the Assembly.

I will post more responses as I find them. I am also writing a pastoral letter to my new congregation which i will post soon. I invite your feedback.