Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines: Transfiguration 2021

Jesus draws back the curtain and shows us the whole picture.

One of my pastoral colleagues raised two Ethiopian boys as foster sons. Their home had been engulfed in civil war and famine. The boys ran cross country in high school and track for the University of Nebraska.

The foster sons never lost touch with their Ethiopian parents and family. One of the boys got married to an American woman, and the couple had a baby. My colleague asked if I would have the baptism. I said an enthusiastic yes!

Ten minutes before worship, my colleague introduced me to one of the Ethiopian grandfathers. He was a small, unassuming and very serious man. He was also the president of the Mekane Jesus Church in Ethiopia. This was the fastest growing Lutheran community in the world, with nearly seven million members.

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I was about to baptize his first grandchild.

I am not easily rattled when leading worship. But that was an exception. It all went very well. It went well because the grandfather was a kind, gentle and gracious man. We all rejoiced in God’s grace that day.

Two weeks later, I saw him on television. He had addressed a meeting of international political and church leaders and received a standing ovation. That was when I really began to sweat about my preaching two weeks before.

On television the curtain was drawn back for a moment. I saw the power and wisdom, the courage and strength of the man who had sat in our pews.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. That’s my first thought today.

Today we remember the Transfiguration of Our Lord. We see the full glory of Jesus, the Messiah. Along with the disciples, we might be scared witless. The Greek word for “terrified” means “to be beyond ourselves with fear.”

Jesus is God’s beloved and chosen Son. In Jesus God launches the project to take the world back from sin, death and evil. So Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the Lord of All Creation. He is the human face of God, and the Divine face of humanity. In him, as we read in Colossians 1, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. Through him, God speaks words of grace and mercy and hope to a world enslaved to law and vengeance and despair.

For a moment, we get to see Jesus in the light of his glory. This prepares us for the Lenten journey back into the Valley of the Shadow. We get this vision so we can go forward, not so we can stay put.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain.

This is a preview of Easter. But this preview is about encouragement, not entitlement. I once stood in the crowd waiting for the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The geyser is supposed to erupt on a strict schedule. Apparently it was some seconds later this time. The man next to me glanced at his watch.  “It’s late, Mabel,” he said in disgust. “Let’s get a postcard and go.”

The Transfiguration isn’t a preview for our convenience. But it is about encouragement. Jesus shines with the light of God’s grace and love. That light is given to us in our baptism. It comes to us as a gift. We have the privilege of letting that light shine through us to others. “Let your light so shine,” Jesus says to us, “that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain.

He does that in our Gospel reading. And he wants to do that through you. He wants to do that every time you serve someone with his love. He wants to do that every time you speak his name to someone in despair. He wants to do that every time you invite someone to be part of your church family.

The Transfiguration is the last Sunday in Epiphany. “Epiphany” means that something or someone has been revealed. We see Jesus for a moment as he really is. We are invited to follow him on his journey into the world.

When the Big World crashes into our little worlds, we have two choices. We can retreat in fear. We can make our little world (and our little god) even smaller. We can stop the journey and pitch a tent. That is Peter’s choice on the mountain.

Or we can let the world (and our God) get bigger. We can allow Jesus to enlarge our empathy. We can engage in compassion practice. We can go down the hill and back into the world.

Will we satisfied with things as they are now?  Perhaps we want God to just shut up and be satisfied. Will we just pitch our tents on the Mountain of Mediocrity? Or will we go back down the hill? Will we pull in and close the flap? Or will we push out and dare to be great?

The tent is a slow and sleepy end, but it is death nonetheless. The adventure passes through a cross, but on the other side is the New Creation. Will we choose the tents or the trials? Will we choose rest or risk?

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. And he wants the light to shine through us.

Some years ago we hosted a visitor from Tanzania in our home for a weekend. Frederick Shoo was an assistant bishop in one of the smaller dioceses in the Lutheran church in Tanzania. He preached at worship and spoke at our adult forum.

We spent the following Monday afternoon hunting souvenirs for his family. He was headed back on Tuesday, and his shopping was far from finished. Frederick had specific orders from his wife, Janet, and his teen-aged daughters, to return with some nice American shoes. My spouse was working that day, so we were on our own.

Off we went to the Kohl’s in south Lincoln. Frederick pulled out a pair of purple pumps and said, “What do you think?” What I thought was, “You’re asking me? You can’t be serious!” What I did was call my spouse to seek expert fashion advice. After a few additional phone calls, we sent Frederick home with fashionable footwear for the family.

This is my clearest memory of my friend, Frederick Shoo—two bumbling males, lost in the wilderness of feminine footwear. Now let me tell you who Frederick really is. The Reverend Doctor Shoo is the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, with a membership of over six and a half million.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. It’s important to see the whole picture.

With the disciples we watch as Jesus is revealed for who and what he truly is—Messiah of Israel, Redeemer of the Universe and Lord of all Creation. We hear an echo of the words spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.

God says, “Pay attention. Look deeper. See the whole picture.” This is who and what Jesus truly is.

The Transfiguration is a renewal of Jesus’ baptismal vocation. But wait–there’s more! Now the words are directed to his disciples (and anyone else who might be in earshot. “Listen to him.”

Soon we’ll all head back down the mountain into the murky mundane. On Wednesday we begin our Lenten journey together. It’s good to get renewed, re-called. It’s good to get a peek at the peak!

Now we come down the mountain for the deep and reflective journey of Lent. I look forward to that time of reflection and prayer with you. And I am grateful for this peek at the peak that launches us into the journey.

In his transfiguration, Jesus draws back the curtain. It’s important to see the whole picture.

Let’s pray.

Text Study for 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Transfiguration B 2021 (part two)

Part two: Shining with Resurrection Light

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, N. T. Wright comments on this passage and 2 Corinthians in general, from the perspective of the Resurrection. He notes a shift in that perspective from 1 Corinthians to 2 Corinthians. “But whereas in 1 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the future, straining towards the resurrection and discovering what needs to be done in the present to anticipate it,” he writes, “in 2 Corinthians the movement is primarily towards the present, discovering in the powerful resurrection of Jesus and the promised resurrection for all his people the secret of facing suffering and pain here and now” (page 300).

Wright reminds us that when Paul uses the “new covenant” language in 2 Corinthians 3:4-6, he is taking us back to Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. God’s new covenant is not written on stone tablets like the first covenant. Rather it is, as the prophets promise, written on human hearts. Those hearts are not made of stone themselves but are rather the soft hearts of flesh.

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The first covenant, the “ministry in service of death” as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 3:7, was “chiseled in letters on stone tablets.” The new covenant is written by the Spirit on human hearts – on the hearts of the Corinthian Christians. Paul tells them in verse three that they are “a letter of Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (NRSV).

So, Paul is a minister of the New Covenant. That covenant has a different kind of glory, a glory unlike that on the face of Moses as he received and transmitted the first covenant. It’s not that the first covenant had no glory but rather than the New Covenant outshines the first in its brilliance. Paul’s argument, Wright suggests, “is that his ministry has ‘glory’ even though it does not look like it.”

It is not like the glory of Moses’ ministry because it “involves life rather than death, justification rather than condemnation, permanence rather than transitoriness” (page 304). That glory is the reflection of the Messiah who is both crucified and risen. That glory shines in and through the Jesus follower in life-altering ways. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror,” Paul writes in 3:18, “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

The word Paul uses for “transformed” here is the same as Mark uses to describe the change in appearance the disciples witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration. That’s another reason why I think it is best to read the text beginning at 3:17 in our worship services. These verses offer a powerful and enthralling description of what we should expect in our lives as Jesus followers. We should expect transformation, or as Wright notes, New Creation from the same Spirit who wrought Creation in the beginning.

“The god who said ‘let light shine out of darkness,” Wright proposes, in other words, the Genesis god, God the creator – has shone in our hearts, [Paul] says, to give ‘the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus the Messiah.” It’s to clear to Paul and to us that some cannot (or will not) see this glory because they have been blinded by “the god of this world.” But, Wright notes, that is no fault of Paul or Paul’s gospel. Instead, it is a failure of vision on the part of those who cling to appearance rather than reality.

The Transfiguration is a far more important event and text in the Eastern Church than it is in the West. This is because of the Eastern emphasis on salvation as “theosis,” which can be translated as “deification” or “divinization.” The classic statement of this doctrine comes from Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation. Athanasius, almost in a throwaway line near the end of the book notes that “God became human in order that humans might become gods.” The Western Church has an allergic reaction to that idea since it might lead to either the idolatry of the human or some sort of collapse in the distinction between the Creator and the created.

Yet, we can find this notion in Paul’s conversation about our transformation and glorification. On the Mountain of Transfiguration, Eastern theologians tell us, we can see the humanity of Christ radiant with divine glory. And we can see the divinity of Christ shining through his humanity without defacing or destroying it. In fact, the glimpse we get on the mountain is not merely of glory. Rather, in this Eastern line of thought, what the disciples see is the fulfillment of the Image of God – a revelation of how God intended humans to exist from the moment of Creation. The Transfiguration reveals, therefore, not a detour but our destiny in Christ.

This understanding of the Transfiguration is not far from the thought of Martin Luther, even though that strand of Luther’s theology has often been discounted, ignored, or even rejected as an aberration. I have become a “fan” of the work of the Finnish school of Luther studies led by Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa. His work, and that of his colleagues, is brought to us in large part in the translations and expositions offered by Dr. Kirsi Stjerna. I would recommend that readers consider studying Mannermaa’s work – particularly his book, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification.

We Lutherans know God’s justifying grace as a declarative reality – that God declares us in right relationship with God for the sake of Christ. The Holy Spirit invites us to accept and embrace that declarative reality and to actively trust in that reality by the Spirit’s power. But Luther has more in mind when it comes to justification. In particular, Luther often talks about the “wonderful exchange” – that Christ takes our bondage to sin, death, and the Devil, and gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Mannermaa demonstrates, in Stjerna’s words, that “Luther can talk about righteousness as a human being becoming one with God through a real exchange of attributes between the sinner and Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 113-114). Justification is not just a change in “legal” status (the declarative understanding). Rather, justification is a change in our being human, our ontological makeup and experience (the performative understanding).

Mannermaa argues that Luther’s understanding of justification has much in common with the Eastern Church’s doctrine of theosis. Stjerna suggests that Mannermaa “argues for and centers on Luther’s radical insight about justification being a godly act of divinization that changes a person’s relationship with God ontologically. Arguing in light of the Orthodox teaching of theosis,” she continues, “Mannermaa proves through systematic reading of Luther that the idea of divinization, which happens because of Christ and in faith, is at the heart of Luther’s theology” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Locations 153-155).

What are the benefits of life with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit? In his catechisms and elsewhere, Luther uses the language of “benefits” to talk about what justification produces in the life of the believer. It’s a grand thing to know that we have been declared righteous and that at the last day we shall have our sins set aside for the sake of Christ. My internship supervisor’s wife often teased him by saying, “Your reward will be in heaven, honey.” He would tease in return, “Yes, but I want it now.”

Paul says, if Mannermaa is correct, that we get it both ways. Not only are we declared righteous by God’s favor, Mannermaa says, we are made righteous by God’s gift. This helps us to make sense of Paul’s imagery at the end of 2 Corinthians 3, that we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Salvation is not only a legal declaration, Mannermaa argues. “Salvation is,” he concludes, participation in the person of Christ” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 319).

It is certainly not the case that Christ followers are immediately transformed into the full divine image. If we follow Paul’s argument further in 2 Corinthians, we shall see that we carry this treasure in the clay jars of our humanity. Even though that is the case, however, if anyone is in Christ, there is New Creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). The One who shines light in the darkness shines that light into our hearts and through our lives. “Faith communicates the divine attributes to the human being,” Mannermaa writes, “because Christ himself, who is a divine person, is present in faith” (Christ Present in Faith, Kindle Location 393).

I find this perspective exciting and energizing for at least two reasons. The first reason is the hope for real transformation in this life here and now rather than the formalism of forensic justification. I long to be and strive to be a “contemplative theologian of the cross.” Union with Christ is not a metaphor but rather an actual thing that I can expect to have concrete impact on who and what and how I am in the here and now.

The second reason is that this transformation is unlimited and unending. We can expect in the New Life to continue being transformed from glory into glory. We cannot exhaust God’s gracious and creative potential for us and for all of Creation in the cross and resurrection of Christ. We will never say to God, as Rowan Williams notes, “Oh, now you’re repeating yourself.” Our transformation is and will be never-ending.

I won’t try to unpack all of Mannermaa’s work here. But I hope the reader might consider pursuing this line of thought and research if it is new to you. And I pray that you will find it as refreshing and encouraging as I do.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Kim, Yung Suk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-5

Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malcolm, Lois. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-4

Mannermaa, Tuomo, and Stjerna, Kirsi Irmeli. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-3

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

Works, Carla. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-2-corinthians-43-6-3

Dealing with Demons: Shut Up and Go to Hell

Please read Mark 1:29-45 for background.

And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Mark 1:34 NRSV

Demons do their best work in the darkness. Demons crave anonymity. Demons seek to control and dominate others by outing them in some way. Demons isolate their victims, cutting them off from help, healing, and hope. Demons weaponize Otherness and make enemies out of neighbors. Demons show up even at times and in places we wish were safe and holy. Demons are parasites that can only live within human hearts in communities that sustain their presence with some combination of fear and allegiance. The more demons are tolerated and embraced, the more their power grows.

I think you can substitute “bullies” for “demons” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white male supremacists” in that paragraph, and little would change. I think you can substitute “white nationalist cultural Christian republicans (WNCCRs)” in that paragraph, and little would change. I am not competent to label any bullies, white male supremacists, or WNCCRs as demons. That’s well above my pay grade. But I am certainly willing to suggest that such people are open to and under demonic influence.

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How does Jesus deal with demons? Jesus tells the demons to shut up and go to hell (Mark 1:25). Jesus does not allow the demons to hide in the dark. Jesus does not allow them to go unnamed. Jesus does not allow them to control and dominate him by saying his name. Jesus does not surrender to their attempts to make him Other and Odd and Out of bounds. Jesus is not surprised to find them in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus cuts off their source of shape and sustenance. Jesus confronts and expels them.

Jesus does not engage the demons in theological dialogue. Jesus does not treat them as having one opinion among many in the crowd. Jesus does not permit any kind of equivalence between the work of the demons and his work of help, healing, and hope. Jesus does not give the demons a platform, a microphone, or a vote. The burden of proof is not on Jesus to show that the demons should shut up and go to hell. It’s either that, or people are in bondage. There is no compromise, no meeting of the minds, no mediation, or adjudication.

Be silent and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). Shut up and go to hell.

The bullying behavior of WNCCRs infects a number of “mainline” white Christian congregations and denominations in the United States. Not only are these congregations infected with this ideology, many of the opinion leaders and elected leaders in such bodies now openly advocate for this ideology. The ideology is not new, but the visible nature of the debate is. It’s not that WNCCRs have suddenly found a voice. That’s never been the issue. Instead, what is new is that there are people in those congregations and denominations (and outside of them) who are now pushing against this centuries-old system of power.

For five centuries, for example, few people actively suggested in such places that white supremacy is a bad idea, bad religion, and bad politics. The system of power had no need to defend itself. Now that has changed a bit. And some leaders in congregations and denominations ask with a straight face, “What exactly do you have against white supremacy?” If we try to answer the question, we have immediately stepped out of bounds. That is simply not a legitimate question for Christians to ask. The only responsible reply is to order the questioner to shut up and…sit down (we’re generally not in the “go to hell” business these days).

That response will be met with gasps of horror and protests that this isn’t fair. Legal procedures are always the fallback position when the system of white male supremacy is under attack. I worked for some years with conflicted congregations. I learned that when someone approached me with a highlighted and annotated copy of a congregation’s constitution (especially the section labeled “Church Discipline”) that things were not going to end well for someone. Demonic power embraces legalism when it serves that power – and abandons it the moment it does not.

When someone asks, “Pastor, what exactly do you have against white supremacy?” the community must tell that person to be quiet. If the community will not do that, then it is time to wipe the dust off one’s feet and move on.

Now, some will protest that this is not pastoral. This response lacks compassion. This response does not allow for or believe in the possibility of repentance and amendment of life. The biblically alert will point to Jesus’ words in the parable about digging around the roots, adding some fertilizer, and seeing what happens in the next growing season.

This is a misapplication of Law and Gospel (in good Lutheran terms). Allowing more time for amendment and growth is appropriate in the presence of repentance and a desire for such amendment. That’s Gospel. Making a clear break with bad behavior (with the hope that such clarity might provoke real reflection and repentance) is appropriate in the presence of a commitment to continue on the current course. That’s Law.

Behaving as if systemic racism in a congregation or denomination is one theological option among many to be considered requires application of the Law.

We always risk the remedy of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.” He knew well the price of appeasing the demons. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession,” he wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Some will protest that the people in power need time to adjust to the new reality. Perhaps we can moderate our language or tone. Perhaps we can use vocabulary and categories that are less offensive and abrasive. Perhaps we can have dialogue, conversation, study, and even prayer, as we wait for the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of those in need of conversion. If any of that would work in this case, one might think we would have seen some results over the last few centuries.

Ijeoma Oluo says it well. “How often have you heard the argument that we have to slowly implement gender and racial equality in order to not ‘shock’ society,” she asks in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “Who is the ‘society’ that people are talking about? I can guarantee that women would be able to handle equal pay or a harassment-free work environment right now, with no ramp-up. I’m certain that people of color would be able to deal with equal political representation and economic opportunity if they were made available today. So,” she asks, “for whose benefit do we need to go so slowly?”

The answer to her question is obvious. The system of white male supremacy in our congregations, denominations, and country drags its feet in hopes of wearing out the opposition. The argument is that any other strategy will “shut down the conversation.” Oluo’s final question hits the bullseye. “How can white men be our born leaders,” she asks, “and at the same time be so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?” (pages 7-8).

When pleas for patience and process fail, the final refuge is the raw exercise of power. Someone may threaten to withhold offerings and starve out the pestilent pastor. There may be systematic campaigns of intimidation through emails, letters, rumors, and ugly meetings. Sometimes the intimidation is physical – in the form of death threats and physical confrontations. What we see writ large in our political system, as WNCCRs attempted a coup d’état on January 6, 2021, is writ small in numerous congregations every month.

Over the years I have participated in efforts to resist such power structures in our white, male, supremacist congregations. We’ve won a few and lost too many. In the few wins, one result was that the bullies went elsewhere and took their marbles with them. In the losses, one result was that the victims went elsewhere, or (much more often) simply went nowhere. In my experience there is no healthy solution that maintains the membership status quo of a congregation or a denomination.

Bullies must be outed, isolated, confronted, and corralled, or they must go. Demons must shut up and go to hell. I’m not optimistic that this will happen in most places. With James Baldwin, I fear that most of us have been white too long to be able to change. But I know that some white mainline Christian congregations and denominations are led by courageous and capable people who are at least up for the fight. And I will do what I can to help and support that fight.

No matter how it shakes out, we will see losses in membership, participation, and funding in such congregations and denominations. If I had to guess, I’d say the losses (if we make anti-racist progress) will run to about twenty percent. I suspect the losses will be the same if we double down on our white male supremacy. I make that estimate based on attitudes in the general population – attitudes that come with us to worship in our congregations.

I wish it weren’t so, but I fear that this is the bill outstanding for centuries of complicity. I have hopes that at least some in the Church are ready to pay up.

Throwback Thursday Books – The Penguin Principles

In 1985 Lyle Schaller wrote that “one of the most urgent problems facing Christianity on the North American continent is the product of a severe imbalance in the population.” Not biblical illiteracy. Not theological incompetence. Not good old-fashioned mendacity, greed, and lust for power. No, Schaller wrote, the population is out of whack.

“Our culture includes an excessive number of people who enjoy making others feel guilty and too few adults who can laugh at themselves and their foibles,” Schaller continued. “The most highly visible dimension of this imbalance,” he concludes, “is the overabundance of adults who gain considerable pleasure out of a huge variety of efforts to make their pastor feel guilty about being less than perfect.”

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Thus Schaller begins his introduction to one of my all-time favorite books, The Penguin Principles: A Survival Manual for Clergy Seeking Maturity in Ministry. David Belasic and Paul Schmidt published this hilarious, wise, and insightful little gem in 1986.

I was ordained and began serving a parish in 1984. So, the book came out just at the time I was experiencing the first of numerous cycles of disillusionment with pastoral ministry, with the congregation, and with myself as a pastor. One of my seminary professors recommended the book to recent graduates as a salve for our pastoral souls, a needed infusion of humor, and a plea for perspective from pastors who take themselves all too seriously.

“Perhaps the audience that will benefit most from the wisdom contained in this volume,” Schaller wrote, “will be the recent seminary graduates who have the opportunity to study it during that journey between departure from seminary and arrival in the first pastorate.” I got my prescription for this vocational medicine a little later than that but certainly early enough in the process for it to do me a world of good. It’s easy to read the little book at one sitting, and I did that – each year for nearly every year of my active parish ministry.

Now, I come back to it from a perspective I could not appreciate earlier. “Another audience for this book,” Schaller continues, “is composed of ministers nearing retirement, who, as they look back over their years of faithful and devoted service, are still puzzled over why so often things did not turn out as anticipated.” Once again, I’m a bit behind on the calendar, but not fatally so. “The book will enable them to reflect on their pilgrimage,” Schaller assures the reader,” with insight, laughter, and new satisfactions.”

Quite right.

But why, the authors ask in their opening pages, the “Penguin” principles? “Penguins seem to have that unique dignity that many people expect of the pastor. Yet,” they write, “as dignified as penguins seem to be, they look so ridiculous as they waddle around on the ice.” Belasic and Schmidt note that penguins are sensitive to heat. They have very treacherous enemies. They are relatively small and defenseless beings. They have a powerful homing instinct. And “No matter what happens to penguins, they keep their heads high.” Pastoral penguins, the authors suggest, have an “alien dignity” from God.

It is worth noting the Penguin Principles here. While you can get the gist of the book in five minutes, the stories, insights, and self-deprecating humor are worth the full read. The principles are:

The Five Percent Principle: “Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group of people in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other ninety-five percent is asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

The Inverse Insight Principle: “Most of the time, in the world of the church, things are not what they appear to be.”

The Ecclesiastical Friction Principle: “There is a friction in the church that burns up enormous energy, consumes endless hours, smothers creativity, impedes progress and often creates quite a little heat!”

The Creative Ignorance Principle: “In the ministry it is better not to know some things, even if you have to forget them forcefully.”

The Tweaking Principle: “They’ll only do it to you if you let ‘em.”

The Pastor Principle: “The ultimate principle for pastors is a ‘tough love’ that looks beyond the irritation of the moment and in the strength of Christ loves people as they are.”

These principles are a clever compilation of wisdom from our theology, psychology, and sociology of church life. We church folks do not check our sin at the door on Sundays or any other day of the week. People are complicated and often don’t even know their own real motives for doing what they do. It’s easier to say no than yes, and once a position is assumed it will usually be defended to the death. With knowledge comes responsibility. Good boundaries make healthy people, healthy pastors, and healthy parishes. Following Jesus and pleasing people rarely take the same path. When those paths diverge, following Jesus is the path less traveled but the one we must take.

Even if you know all the principles by heart and have had them pounded into your head by hard experience, the book is so worth the one-liners. Some are painful proverbs from the public domain. For example, “if the temptation to give advice is irresistible, the ability to ignore it is universal.” Or the classic from Luther – the one “who desires the public’s ear must endure the public’s mouth.” Never in human history has that been truer than now.

Pastoral penguins flourish when we accept the genuine humanity of our parishes and people, when the “ideal church” is not understood as the adversary of the “real church.” We do best when we look in the mirror daily and embrace the humility enforced on us by the mysteries of the human heart, human community, and God’s grace. We will survive better if we make allowances for self-delusion (ours and that of others), conflict, sloth, and all the other of the seven deadly sins. We are best served if we hold our desires for success and approval lightly and our trust in Jesus tightly.

I have often reminded myself of the words of Winston Churchill in this regard. Following World War II, someone was commending him on his success and the marvelous turnouts for his speeches and other events. Churchill noted drily that whenever he was impressed with his own popularity, he remembered that approximately twice as many people would likely show up for his hanging! That’s the spirit of the Penguin Principles.

Each principle gets a chapter of wry observations and rueful stories of pastoral adventure and misadventure. The chapters conclude with Items for Reflection/Study/Action.” In these sections, the writers take their tongues out of their cheeks and invite the readers into some serious vocation work, rooted in biblical witness and solid theology.

I hope you will not conclude that this is nothing but a cute little book filled with snarky sniping and dark inside jokes for parish professionals. Each of the Penguin Principles has its “law” side (in good Lutheran theological categories) and its “gospel” side.

For example, as we reflect on the Five Percent Principle, thank God for the five percent! The Inverse Insight Principle trusts in the guidance of the Holy Spirit because our own understanding is often wrong. The Friction Principle is not absolute but allows us to see growth in the midst of the struggle. The Creative Ignorance Principle depends on and reinforces the vocation of the Priesthood of All Believers. The Tweaking Principle reminds us that “even a mighty oak was once only a nut that held [its] ground.” The Pastor Principle reminds me that God is God, and I am not – and that’s the good news!

The book is written from the perspective of two white, male, mainline pastors who served in congregations when Christendom was far less frayed and fragmented than it is now in the United States. So, it has numerous cultural limitations. It is written from a clear Lutheran framework in theological terms, although it doesn’t make a big deal of that. That doesn’t make it irrelevant to other traditions, but it is a reality in the book. The matrix for the principles is an established, old-line Protestant congregation which for the most part no longer exists or is on life-support. That’s all true.

Yet, much of the wisdom in this little book still “works” for me. I was the target audience for the book, so that’s not surprising. And as Schaller noted in his introduction, I’m still the target audience as I reflect on four decades of life in professional church leadership. Much of that journey is shrouded in the mists of memory and the mysteries of human interactions. In retrospect, I wonder how anything productive ever got accomplished along the way.

“Precisely!” Belasic and Schmidt would say, I believe. “Remember the Penguin Principles,” they conclude, “and waddle off into the fray!” Fair advice for life in any time, place, or vocation.

Text Study for 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (5 Epiphany B 2021): In Praise of Persecuted Preachers

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? That seems to be a question that bothered some of the earliest Christians – and not in a helpful way.

The section leading up to this text (1 Corinthians 9:1-15) responds to the Corinthian question about why they should pay Paul to proclaim the Good News to them. In this section, Paul makes clear to his readers that he’s not doing it for the money. Instead, he begins that section by declaring his freedom as an apostle, which is rooted in his firsthand encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:1): “Have I not seen the Lord?

This bone-deep sense of vocation is hard for most contemporary readers either to believe or appreciate. I have had conversations with a number of parishioners over the years who simply could not accept that I was doing something that – if it had been up to me – I would not be doing. We live in a culture where personal choice is paramount (at least for the privileged). To do something under compulsion seems to most people at best stupid and at worst immoral.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not a career path for Paul. He had chosen the opposite path, as he himself describes. He was working as a persecutor of Christians, not a proclaimer of the Gospel. He notes this directly in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and in Philippians 3:6. If it were up to Paul, he’d be doing something else. Instead, a necessity has been laid upon him. This necessity is of such power that he says he would be miserable if he didn’t respond to his Divine vocation.

In my experience, people who enter the ministry of the Good New of Jesus in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are often deeply disappointed. I find it analogous to the vocation of having and raising children. People who have children in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are routinely disillusioned.

It’s not that Christian ministry is a source of unrelieved misery. Nor is it the case that parenting is an awful burden. Each vocation offers joy, meaning, purpose and satisfaction. But anyone who enters either vocation learns quickly that the heart of ministry is putting aside self for the sake of loving service. Truth be told, if it were up to most of us, we’d be doing something else.

But we can’t. Not won’t. Can’t.

Following Jesus leads us on a path of “downward mobility” as Katherine Grieb puts it. This emphasis, she writes, “is particularly needed in Corinth, where the Christian communities have become persuaded that success in church leadership means a high salary package, impressive credentials, and dramatic miracles. Paul insists instead,” she continues, “that the marks of a true apostle (someone who has been commissioned by the crucified and risen Lord) are evidences of suffering for the gospel and the power of enduring love in the face of rejection and misunderstanding” (page 159). So much for prosperity preaching!

If Paul were doing it for the money, that would be his reward. Instead, he knows that he has been entrusted with a “commission.” It’s hard to translate the word accurately here, but perhaps a better translation would be “office” or even “stewardship.” He uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “Think of us in this way,” Paul writes, “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” That verse should be kept in mind as we read today’s lection.

Nor is Paul doing it for the acclaim or honor, quantities which might have been even more valued in first-century Greco-Roman culture. “If I proclaim the gospel,” Paul declares, “this gives me no ground for boasting.” In Galatians 6:14, he makes it clear that there is only one thing about which Christians can rightly boast. “May I never boast of anything,” he says, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We don’t know the background complaints for the section in detail. But I can imagine what they might be. People who have no money are unlikely to complain about having to pay Paul. The pushback likely comes from the same wealthy patrons who will draw fire in chapters 10-13 for eating all the best food at the Corinthian love feasts. Why, Paul, should we pay you to criticize us and how we live? Keep that up, and we’ll cut off your allowance!

Parish pastors know that conversation well. There is often the veiled threat – only rarely spoken – that straying outside the lines of establishment acceptability may result in an abrupt change in employment for the preacher. As I have said elsewhere, I am at least as guilty as the next pastor of self-censorship, soft-pedaling, vague generalities, and outright avoidance of confrontation in order to maintain my income, home, and career. Sometimes that might have been the course of wisdom. Sometimes it was certainly the course of cowardice. Retirement is an incredible luxury for which I am grateful to the Church daily!

Paul chooses to be unencumbered by any obligations to interest groups or entitled agendas. He proclaims the gospel “free of charge” so that he can make full use of his authority in the Gospel. In theory, at least, that is the only authority that ministers of the Gospel possess (and in theory, at least, the only authority they need).

That authority, rooted in the Word of the Gospel, apart from any institutional power or leverage, is rarely understood or acknowledged these days. It is even more rarely respected – in the Church and out. It is comforting, I suppose, to know that Paul had the same issues with entrenched and entitled power and privilege in the earliest congregations as well.

Richard Lischer was concerned nearly twenty years ago that the Church was “cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God.” In place of the word were lodged a bland professionalism and a fuzzy pluralism. “Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates,” Lischer notes. “Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor’s calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister,” Lischer says, “is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation” (page 168). Lischer remembers the memorable title of Joseph Sittler’s essay in this regard – “the maceration of the minister.”

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? I think pastoral leaders need to offer a message in answer to that question at least once a year, and perhaps more often in this secular age. “The pastoral office is God’s way of helping the church to discover its true vocation in the world,” writes Lischer. “It is God’s gift to the church. The office of pastor was never meant to create a hierarchy of privileges in the body of Christ,” he continues. “It is not that sort of gift…The most fundament mark of the office of pastor, then…is the special gift by which it enables the people of God to discern their call.”

Paul may be free from extraneous encumbrances, but he is not a free agent in his ministry. He is “free from all” as he writes in verse nineteen, but he has enslaved himself to all for the sake of gaining some. He puts this another way in 2 Corinthians 4:5 – “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul has an inescapable vocation, given by the Lord firsthand.

Grieb expands on Paul’s imagery in a useful passage. “To understand the force of Paul’s image,” she writes, “we must recall how the institution of slavery functioned in the ancient world. The labor of the slave’s body provided leisure…for the owner. Paul is arguing,” she concludes, “that the service of the leader functions to create freedom for the community as a whole” (page 160). In Corinth, this means that the privileged, the positioned, and the powerful must make room for the rest. Paul will not settle for less.

Paul describes his efforts to reach those outside the congregation “by any means possible.” That likely produced additional complaints from those already on the inside and in charge. Paul, we’re the ones who are footing the bill. So, stop spending all your time and energy on those unworthy poor people who don’t have two pennies to rub together. Remember which side of your bread is buttered and who is holding the knife.

Paul may be a slave to the Gospel, but he won’t be a hostage to the privileged, powerful, and propertied. In his commentary on workingpreacher.org, Frank Couch writes that Paul “speaks helpfully to a present-day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people,” Couch continues, “and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often,” he laments, “we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.”

Lest you think I’m stretching a point here, let’s look at the categories of people Paul chooses to embody for the sake of proclaiming the gospel and gaining some. Jews, lawful people, lawless people, and the weak – Paul says he has become “all things to all in order that from all I shall save some” (my translation). We might expect one more element paired with the “weak,” that is, the “strong.” But they are not mentioned. The omission is pointed and precise.

This omission takes us back to the opening chapter of First Corinthians. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” he writes in verse twenty-six, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many were wise or powerful or noble-born, but some were. These appear to be the members of the community who are making a stink about a variety of issues impinging on their perceived privilege. Paul does not become strong in order to gain the strong. Instead, we read in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

So, Paul, why do you do it? No one is completely selfless, after all (perhaps this was a murmured comment by some of Paul’s detractors). You don’t get all the moral high ground, Mr. Apostle. There must be something in it for you too.

Quite true, Paul seems to reply. I am doing it all for the sake of the Good News. As I do it, I find that I am a joint partner in the faith, hope, and love the Good News produces in me and in my listeners. It’s no accident that the word the NRSV translates as “share in its blessing” really is yet another form of the Greek word koinonia. Even as Paul benefits from the Good News, he does not do so alone. It is only in the partnership of the Gospel that Paul finds a reward.

Paul is not naïve about the potential costs of preaching the Good News in ways that afflict the comfortable. He knows that a cross may stand in the middle of such a path. Grieb quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in this regard. “Christianity has always insisted,” King wrote, “that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Preachers of the Good News need not seek out suffering for its own sake. Resistance, rejection, recrimination, and retribution will find us often enough.

We live in a time when bishops and pastors get emailed death threats for speaking the Good News of reconciliation in Christ across boundaries of race, gender, orientation, class, and nation. We live in a time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hijacked by white supremacists and pseudo-Christian nationalists to serve violent political agendas. We also live in a time when some Christian preachers are exhibiting courage in public in ways not seen perhaps in this country since the years leading up to Civil War – at least not in white churches. We know this is a way of life in Black, Brown, and Asian churches, but perhaps some of us are finally catching up a bit.

For that proclamation and for those preachers, I thank God. And I pray for their safety, sanity, and security.

If such preachers were doing this for money or notoriety, or even for safety and job security, they would certainly pick a different message. But they cannot. Woe to us if we do not continue proclaiming the Good News!

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-4

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Couch, Frank. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-916-23-3

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Grieb, A. Katherine. “’The One Who Called You…’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 154-165.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Lischer, Richard. “The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 166-175.

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-2

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Text Study for 5 Epiphany B 2021– Mark 1:29-39 (40-45)

When the Word Gets Out

I think I would read verses forty through forty-five of chapter one as well on this Sunday. The healing of the leper in Mark 1 is read only in those Epiphany seasons that make it at least six weeks. It’s clear that the healing brings this section of Mark to a small conclusion. The text has some things in common with earlier parts of the reading that should be mentioned.

The people in Capernaum were certain of the connection between illness and demon-possession. In verses thirty-two through thirty-four, those who were sick and/or demon possessed are mentioned nearly in the same breath twice. Illness and demon-possession hold victims in bondage and alienate them from the community. They are both signs of the old regime of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus brings the Good News of God’s reign, and the agents of the old system flee in terror from his power.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up. He stretches out his hand to the leper, touches him, and makes him clean again. Jesus’ touch gives healing and hope, life and love.

In the case of the leper, Jesus has compassion on the suffering man and responds to his suffering and alienation. A few manuscripts state instead that Jesus was moved with rage or wrath in the face of the illness. There is a confusing similarity between the Aramaic words for having pity and being enraged, Metzger notes in his Textual Commentary, that might account for the confusion. Those scribes might have connected the leprosy to the invasive and alienating power of demon-possession. But the reading of “compassion” is most likely closer to the original report.

Jesus “raises up” Simon’s mother-in-law. The NRSV translation obscures this Greek verb, which is also used to describe what happens to Jesus after death. Early in Mark’s account we get a foreshadowing of the great victory to come. Jesus’ healing raises the woman up from a likely death and back into life.

Remember that Marks tells us this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has proclaimed that the Reign of God has come near. We are invited to repent and trust in that Good News. We see Jesus making that Good News a reality in his ministry. We know that this Good News is really about the Resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil.

We can see this Good News at work in ways that the people in the story cannot – yet. What they see is a demonstration of Jesus’ authority over the powers of sin, death, and evil. The word, “raised,” writes Sarah Henrich in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “suggests that new strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world. That’s where,” she notes, “the second interesting verb comes into play.”

Some commentators correctly worry about the stereotypical work to which Simon’s mother-in-law returns. The fever disappears. She leaves her bed. And immediately she is waiting tables. That doesn’t sound like much of a transformation for the mother-in-law.

Other commentators point out the way in which the verb “to serve” is applied in Mark’ gospel. Jesus applies that verb to himself in Mark 10:45 – “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus contrasts his own leading by serving with the self-serving ambitions of the Gentile worldview, a worldview apparently shared by his disciples. Serving is not, by definition, a sign of subservience.

“It is ‘to serve’ rather than ‘to be served’ that characterizes the Christ of God,” Henrich notes. “It is also ‘to serve’ that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life,” she concludes. “Rather she is the first character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.”

Stories like this have been used too often to keep oppressed people in their “places.” Isn’t it lovely, someone might say, that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law so she could return to her former, subservient role? No, it isn’t. That would be, as someone pointed out to me recently, a misapplication of Law and Gospel. If one is in bondage in some way, the Gospel frees that person for full and authentic humanity. If one is an oppressor in need of correction, the Law leads that person to repentance as the path to full and authentic humanity.

Clearly, Simon’s mother-in-law is set free from the bondage of her illness. It cannot be the function of the Gospel to return to her another kind of bondage.

Henrich helps us to see how this works in the text. “It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home,” Henrich writes. “Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling,” Henrich reminds us, “a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.”

Simon’s mother-in-law is, therefore, an example and role model for our imagined baptismal candidate who hears Mark’s gospel in its entirety, perhaps at an Easter vigil. The healing touch of Jesus raises the disciple up to the new life – a life given to worshiping God by serving the neighbor rather than oneself.

Simon’s mother-in-law is the first disciple to respond in this way in Mark’s gospel and does so without coaching or encouragement. The men Jesus calls are still debating the nature of leadership in God’s Reign in Mark 10 and are nowhere to be seen in Mark 15. That’s important to keep in mind as we continue to read Mark’s account.

Luther describes this reality of serving in The Freedom of the Christian. “This should be the rule,” he asserts, “that the good things we have from God may flow from one person to the other and become common property. In this way each person may ‘put on’ his [or her] neighbor, and conduct oneself toward him [or her] as if in the neighbor’s place.” Jesus raises her up to serve as he serves. That honorable role is confirmed near the end of Mark’s gospel account.

The verb is used in Mark 15:41 to describe the women who stand as public witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion. They are described as those who “used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee…” Again, the NRSV translation tends to hide this connection. The verb “provided” is really the Greek verb for serving – diakoneo. The words Mark uses here may be an indication that Peter’s mother-in-law, one whom Jesus had raised from her death bed, was one of those standing as a courageous public witness at the foot of the cross as he died.

Word gets out, and Jesus’ notoriety spreads rapidly. “Everyone is searching for you,” the anxious disciples report when they find Jesus praying in “a deserted place.” Everyone is seeking Jesus. Sometimes we church folks forget that. They may not know what they want, but they seem to find Jesus attractive. When the Word gets out, people want to hear more. When the Reign of God takes hold, people won’t keep it to themselves.

It’s clear that reports of Jesus’ activity are spreading rapidly – perhaps too rapidly for his comfort at the moment. He “sternly” warns the healed leper against generating headlines on the local gossip network. But the man “began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” Mark uses the verb for proclaiming or preaching the Good News, but the man is more likely emphasizing Jesus’ wonder-working powers rather than the presence of the Reign of God.

The other verb Mark uses in verse 45 is also interesting. It is translated as the act of making something known by word of mouth. Here it means to spread the news widely. Jesus creates one of his many public relations officers, and this accounts for the fact that people came to him “from all directions.”

Even though Jesus wants to restrict the spread of such notoriety, this is another proper response to the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In this regard, I’m reminded of the recent aspirational suggestion from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton regarding the future directions for the ELCA. What if ELCA folks issued a million invitations to be part of our lives, our worshiping communities, and our mission? Given the fact that ELCA folks invite someone in such a way about once every fifteen years (or whatever the figure really is), this seems to be a bit of a stretch goal.

Today’s text might lead us to wonder two things in this regard. To what are we inviting people? And why are we inviting them? For folks in the gospel reading, the answers are straightforward. They have been healed and/or released from bondage. They issue invitations in joy and gratitude. And they are inviting people to a new way of life and hope.

In his little book, The Invitational Christian, Dave Daubert writes it this way:

“In a healthy ministry, people sense that it is life changing. The teaching, spiritual support and guidance, and the impression that being in the congregation will actually deepen their spiritual lives; all transform church into more than a social or religious activity. When people participate in congregational life, they feel more connected to the God who calls them, and they have more awareness of the intersection between their life and the work of that God.”

If that is in fact the experience people have in our faith communities, then perhaps people will come from every direction. As long, however, as we remain in bondage to our whiteness, our maleness, our allergy to constructive change, our loyalty to our real estate, our love of money and possessions, and our unquestioned centering of ourselves, we will have nothing of interest for people who are, in the words of the ELCA future priorities, “new, young, and diverse.”

The Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe the Good News.

References and Resources

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

Small Steps on a Large Journey

3 Epiphany B, Mark 1:14-20

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed.

“What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?”

The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

We can smile at her predicament.  But wait.  What is that massive, overwhelming pile of worry that blocks your path?  What is that giant load of doubt that paralyzes you?  What is that task too great to even contemplate?

If you think about those questions, then you are ready.  You are ready to stand next to Jesus’ first disciples.  You are ready to hear the Master’s voice.  You can begin to see the large journey of small steps.  For that is what it means to be a Jesus follower.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus announces that God is on the move.  The Kingdom of God is at hand!  And Jesus is the one to make it happen.  So he recruits followers.  They are the foundation of God’s renewed people.  They are the evidence that things are changing.  They will cast God’s nets to rescue a world drowning in sin, death and evil.

Notice the invitation.  “Follow me!”  Jesus invites them to take the first small step on a large journey—just the first step, nothing more.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

In college I spent time as a dedicated atheist.  The result was days of drunkenness, disorder and despair.  I considered putting an end to such a miserable, pointless existence.

At that moment God spoke three words to me.  “There is more.”  I listened and took a small step.  Then one day, God spoke three more words to me.  “Go to seminary.”  Again I listened and took a small step.  I had no vision or command or destiny beyond that one step.  At that moment, one small step was a huge effort.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So the first question is this.  What is your next small step?  It likely doesn’t involve seminary, although for a few of you that may be a waystation on the journey.  More likely, the call is to much smaller steps.

Who is the person who needs to hear my apology?  What is the regret that needs repair?  Which habit must I change?  Which service may I offer?  What risk should I embrace?  What dream shall I trust?

What is the next small step on your larger journey?

Timing is important in such questions.  Sometimes the next step means waiting.  The first disciples were the latest in a long line of waiters.  God’s people had looked for the right Messiah for centuries.  Pretenders and posers had come and gone.  Some people had stopped looking, stopped hoping.  Expecting turned into emptiness.

 Then Jesus appeared.  “Follow me!” he said.  The waiting was over.  Waiting is preparation for acting.  When the time is right, disciples take the next small step.  Hesitation can derail the journey.  Failure of nerve can foil the plan.

So here is the second question.  What are we waiting for?  If we are waiting, then we must be preparing for the next small step.  It can be hard to wait, but sometimes it’s necessary. As I write, for example, my beautiful spouse is painting our kitchen cabinets. They are so beautiful. But it takes time for drying between coats, sanding, touching up, and re-hanging. She can see the end in her mind, but Reality is taking its own sweet time.

What are you waiting for? Sometimes the best counsel is, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” At other times, the best counsel is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Discerning the time is one of the most important things we can do. So waiting always requires patient and humble prayer. There are moments when God’s reality takes its own sweet time.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out alone.  He says, “Follow me.”  Where we are going matters less than who is going with us.

The one who goes with us is the Master of the journey.  He has been to the cross and back.  He has entered the tomb and burst free from death.  He took the worst evil could offer.  He exhausted sin and death, and sent Satan packing.

That’s our travel guide.  He goes ahead of us to clear the way and guide our steps.

At our best, we listen for his large words to shape our small steps.  So here is the third question.  Will Jesus guide your small steps on the large journey?  That’s why prayer and patience, worship and study, matter so much.  How can you take the trip if you won’t read the map?  Jesus shows us the next small step—if we take the time to listen.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Of course, direction matters.  Most people are lost—but they’re making really good time.  Life works best when we walk toward God’s goals.

That’s what we take from that biblical comedy called Jonah.  Jonah runs in the wrong direction.  And his life becomes a shipwreck.  So it is for us.

God’s direction is always away from selfishness and toward service.  God’s direction is always toward compassion and away from hatred.  God’s direction is always toward love and away from fear.

The more we focus our energy and efforts on the needs of others, the better this church business gets.  There are those moments of almost effortless service.  There are those moments when we seem to get it right.  Those are the moments when we are moving in God’s direction.  That’s what it really means to be blessed.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So here is the final question today.  Where is God trying to bless you as you follow Jesus?  Where is God trying to bless us as we follow Jesus?  The Holy Spirit calls us in our baptism to seek the answers to those questions.  That’s where the blessing is.

One of my favorite prayers is a from the ELW service for times of travel.  Let’s close with that prayer.

O God, our beginning and our end, you kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, you led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star you led the magi to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide us when we travel. Make our ways safe and our homecomings joyful, and bring us at last to our heavenly home, where you dwell in glory with our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Weathering the Whitelash

Today I am grateful for my colleagues in congregational leadership who are bravely leading their congregations out of Jim Crow Christianity and into the light of real discipleship. The verdict has not yet been returned, of course, in many white Christian congregations. Which “JC” will we choose – Jim Crow, or Jesus Christ?

Dr. King noted that our Christian worship services represent the most segregated hours in American life. That was true when he said it sixty years ago, and it is still true now. In many parts of this country, that segregation has worsened rather than improved. We continue to harvest that bitter crop week in and week out as Christians remain divided by the color line.

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“White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit, writes Robert P. Jones in White Too Long, “rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6). Jones wonders, as James Baldwin asserts, whether some of us Jim Crow Christians have been “white too long” to do anything different.

That’s not a matter for past history but rather for current policy and practice. “Even after the last white American who grew up in Jim Crow America has died, the legacy of white supremacy will survive because, after hundreds of years of nurturing and reinforcement, it has become part of our culture and institutions, Jones notes. “Sometimes it lies dormant, but until it is excised, it remains potentially active in overt and subtle ways” (page 224). This legacy is active and overt in the voice mail and email boxes of a number of white mainline parish pastors today.

I can hear between the words of sermons in the past few weeks (and sometimes quite clearly) that a number of mainline pastors have been hammered for expressing their honest scriptural and theological views of the events of January 6th, 2021, and related realities. They are experiencing what some writers now label as the “whitelash” – the aggressive response by the system of white, male, supremacy to any public challenge.

Some of my colleagues have been cancelled by local media and other platforms. Some have been threatened, covertly or overtly, with removal from their pulpits. Some have been accused of making their congregations and worship services “unsafe” for what is either veiled or open white supremacy.

This last bit is just the church-ified version of calls for political “unity” and for “moving on” from sedition. This “nothing to see here” perspective assumes that racial justice talk in the Church is new, suspect, and likely heretical. That is hardly the case. Mainline preachers know that many of us have censored ourselves for years, decades, centuries, in deference to a particular structure and expression of white, male, hegemony in our churches. The change is that some of our pastoral leaders can no longer keep silent.

Some white preachers have spent lifetimes of un-safety while the white, male, supremacists have ruled without question. I found that every week I needed to weigh something I would say against whether it would generate dissatisfaction that might lead to complaints and ultimately removal. I confess with shame that in most cases I excised or soft-pedaled or camouflaged the “objectionable” parts of the message so my voice mail and email would remain relatively untroubled. I am in some measure of awe at those active white preachers who choose the path of courage at this moment.

I can hear, as well, between the words of those who cannot or will not take the risk. There is the studied avoidance of any mention of racial justice, repentance, and repair. There is the focus on the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Those disruptions are very real for the vulnerable (most of whom are Black and people of color and women), but for many of us those disruptions are simply minor inconveniences. The Pandemic and the normal flow of everyday difficulties provide more than enough cover, however, for those of us who would really rather change the subject when it comes to race.

Many white preachers experience congregational ministry to some degree as a hostage situation. The hostage takers still seek to maintain control, but that control is slipping. So, they feel “unsafe.” For the privileged, however, equity always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, sharing power always feels like a loss. For the privileged, however, equal protection and opportunity and access, always feels like a loss. The Good News of Jesus Christ always makes power, privilege, and position feel unsafe. You don’t get crucified by the state for being too nice to people.

Some members will leave our Jim Crow congregations as a result of honest and courageous preaching. Some of them will make a dramatic exit in order to punish the offending preacher. Those folks will find a “safe” space. There are lots of Jim Crow Christian congregations and preachers happy to embrace them and their money.

The Church has spent centuries underwriting white supremacy. In fact, we had a large hand in inventing it. Rejecting and abandoning that role will not be easy or pain-free. But we must be communities of conscience, not of comfort. “In short,” Jennifer Harvey writes in Dear White Christians, “transformation will come when white people hear well enough that we actually get it and realize that moving to anywhere new will require letting it cost us something” (page 236).

One protest will be that this is not a “loving” response. I think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Then Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give the money to the poor, and to come and follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure in heaven. The man goes away sad because he’s unwilling to part with his possessions. Jesus doesn’t stop him. And he doesn’t stop loving him. Those actions are not contradictory but rather are two sides of the same coin.

This is hard for some people, and some pastors, to take in. We mainline pastors have been “therapeutized” over the last fifty years or so. Our increasingly secular culture can’t figure what in the world we are good for as theologians. So, the culture has given us the only role that makes sense – spiritual counselor. We pastors have willingly accepted that role because it’s good to do something the world sees as useful.

As we have become more therapeutic, we have lost our public voices. People see us almost exclusively as comforters and counselors. When we step out of those roles, people are often confused. If counseling is our primary role – making people feel better about themselves and their lives – then every hard word is experienced as an error or a failure. In Lutheran terms, we have abandoned the “Law” part of the “Law/Gospel dialectic.” Unfortunately, when the Law goes, so does the Gospel.

The whitelash falls, in my estimation, disproportionately on mainline women pastors. By definition, these pastors are suspect in systems of white, male, supremacy. Add to that the demand that women always are to be nurturing, comforting and quiet. The white, male, supremacist stew becomes triply toxic. Many women pastors serve small to medium sized parishes. These are highly relational and easily dominated by a few families with money. Thus, the hostage-holding power of these households is multiplied and magnified.

When all else fails, in my estimation, there is the weaponizing of white women’s tears. If push comes to shove, one of the matriarchs shows up in my study to weep about how hard things are and how mean I am as a pastor. The males in that system are honor bound to defend the women and avenge the offense. It’s the trump card which is often played in church council and congregational meetings to devastating effect.

I don’t know if the white mainline churches will be able to weather the Whitelash of the present moment. When the whole armor of white, male, supremacy lands on a parish pastor, it’s often time to move on. If it happens enough times to enough pastors, they will find their way to early retirement and/or alternate employment. And the system of Jim Crow Christianity will be sustained and reinforced.

Abandoning our Jim Crow Christianity and embracing Jesus Christ requires self-examination and confession. It requires repentance and repair. That’s hard and painful work, but it beats going away sad and unchanged.

So, pastoral leaders, I’m praying for you today – for you to have energy and hope, courage and calm, perspective and perseverance. I’m grateful that you aren’t giving up. We need your leadership and love. And there are still thousands of knees unbowed to the Baal of Jim Crow Christianity (let the reader understand…).

Harvey, Jennifer. Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity Series (PC)). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Appreciative Inquiry Tool: “A Night to Remember”

As we come out of The Pandemic, we will likely find ways to re-gather intentionally as a congregational community. Most of us have been physically distanced from one another for months, and we’re anxious to re-connect. It’s probable that we will come together as a community around food and fellowship. Such a gathering or gatherings can provide the ideal framework for beginning the process of Appreciative Inquiry in a congregation.

I have used an event called “A Night to Remember” in a number of congregational planning and visioning processes over the years. You can find the model for this event in Oswald and Friedrich’s book, Discerning Your Congregation’s Future. This is a sense-making event that can help congregation’s craft the story of their experience during The Pandemic and use that story to begin to discern the strengths of the congregation which can carry you forward into a healthy and vital future.

I will describe the event and point to why it’s useful and important. I’m assuming a time when it will be safe to gather and pretty early in the weeks and months of our reunions.

First, schedule a group gathering for your congregation (if practical) or a series of group gatherings (if you have a larger congregation). It’s best if the event involves food but preferably not a full meal in order to have more time for processing and discernment. A dessert party or ice cream social work well for this purpose, and any leftovers are much more fun to manage!

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The group members will share stories and memories from the Pandemic time, both personal and congregational, as they feel comfortable. It’s best to have an outside facilitator, if possible, so that congregational leaders can participate fully and also not unduly influence the input. This isn’t a complicated facilitator role. In my experience a person with moderately good group facilitation skills can pull this off with just a bit of orientation.

Of course, I’m glad to offer coaching to anyone who’d like to give this a try. Just reply in the comments below. I’m going to talk now somewhat from the position of a facilitator as well as consultant and coach.

If the food and fellowship begin at 5:30 p.m. (for example) it would be well for the discussion to begin by about 6:15 p.m. Ideally people will be seated at round tables, but that’s not a deal-breaker. It’s best to have no less than four and no more than eight people at a table.

Be sure that you have some sticky notes at each table and reliable pens for the participants. I would cover a wall with one row of newsprint in preparation for the event. And I would divide that newsprint by the month, beginning in January of 2020 and ending with the month in which the event is held.

I know there are other more hi-tech ways to record and maintain feedback. If that works in your setting, you should use it. I like my gadgets as much as the next person, but when it comes to facilitation I find that “old school” still works the best for me.

It’s also important to have a least a couple of sheets of newsprint at the end of the timeline for input that isn’t tied to a particular date. In addition, the facilitator will need separate sheets labelled “Losses” and “Learnings” and a place to put up sheets that will receive large group input. The sheets are intended to be visible and available for prayer, reflection, and comment for at least two weeks after the event.

Begin with a centering prayer. Then the facilitator can take no more than ten minutes to explain the purpose of the evening – to spend time together re-connecting and sharing our Pandemic stories with each other. In addition, a goal of this gathering is to help us as a congregation to make sense out of our experience and to move forward in a healthy, constructive way. The facilitator should give people permission to get up for more refreshments and/or to use the facilities because there won’t be an official break in the schedule before we adjourn.

Making sense out of our experience and moving forward in a healthy, constructive way doesn’t mean that all the stories need to be positive or that all the endings need to be happy. Some of the stories don’t work that way. If we need to grieve some things together, that will be part of the process that leads us toward health and growth. If we notice positive things in the midst of our losses, that’s to be expected as well.

It’s not necessary for everyone to agree on “the facts,” because we have had quite different experiences of these months, and we’ve seen them through different eyes. The story of the congregation is the accumulation and interconnection of all our stories, so no one story will be the “right” or “official” one.

The facilitator now invites people to share in their table groups about their experiences during The Pandemic. Ask participants to go around the table and take up to two minutes each to share one thing that was hard during The Pandemic. If it was a particular event, ask participants to try to put a date or at least a month to that event. Ask the person to the left of the story-teller to write a summary (with the date, if available) on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Tell the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

From my experience, there can be a problem here. Some people have handwriting that’s hard to read. Others may have some trouble writing because of personal situations and differences. Facilitators need to tell folks that if they don’t feel comfortable recording for someone else, for whatever reason, they are encouraged to ask another person at the table to fill in for them. This can save some unnecessary discomfort for participants.

The facilitator then asks participants to go around a second time and take up to two minutes to share one thing that was a learning or discovery or surprise during The Pandemic. Again, if there’s a date, try to attach that to the story. And repeat the process where the person to the left of the story-teller writes a summary of the story on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Remind the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

This sharing might take up to forty minutes. The Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to respond in each round. When the groups are finished, participants will have their personal sticky notes in front of them. Ask the participants to keep their personal notes for now.

Then ask each group to appoint a recorder who will jot down the notes for the next phase of the discussion. You might suggest that it’s probably the one with the most legible handwriting! And it’s important to note that the recorder will read the answers from the table group to the larger group in a little while. So, the recorder needs to be someone who is comfortable with that or is able to recruit another group member to do that.

Ask each group to reflect together on their conversation and to answer two questions. The first is, what are least three significant losses the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. The first round of sharing focused on personal stories. This round focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The appointed recorder can jot down a summary of each of the “losses” on its own sticky note. Groups can take up to twenty minutes to respond to the question.

The second question is, what are at least three significant learnings the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. Again, this question focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The recorder can jot down a summary of each learning on its own sticky note. Groups can take another twenty minutes to respond to the question. Again, the Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to participate as they wish in the discussion.

At the end of the time, the Facilitator asks for a brief report from each group. Remind the reporters that several groups need to report, so there’s not time for a lot of commentary. Even if there are duplications in the reports, each group should have each note reported. Be sure there is an appropriate microphone or other amplification available, especially for those who might be hearing impaired.

The reporting will likely take about thirty minutes. The Facilitator should ask participants to hang on to any comments, questions or observations that may come up during the reports.

The final discussion is for the large group. The Facilitator needs to have additional newsprint or another visible recording medium available for writing responses and probably should have someone else do the recording at this point. The Facilitator begins to help the group frame their stories and observations as opportunities. In particular, I would suggest a conversation about the following questions.

  • What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic?
  • How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?
  • What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation?
  • Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?
  • What has the Holy Spirit taught us about ourselves and our mission in the last year and how can we put that learning to work in the future?

For the best results, these questions could be printed on response sheets available to each participant. Some folks will be comfortable speaking to the group. Others might wish to write their responses and turn them in at the end of the evening. Some might wish to take the questions home and reflect on them before responding.

All feedback is information. If you provide feedback sheets, be sure to have a central place to receive those responses. Remind participants that it’s not necessary for them to put their names on the response sheets. It will be necessary for someone to put those response sheets up on the appropriate newsprint as they come in.

The Facilitator brings the conversation to a close with words of thanks for those who made the gathering possible and to all the participants. All of the sticky notes will be attached to the appropriate places on newsprint and will be available for viewing, reflection, and prayer for at least a couple of weeks.

The Facilitator will note that following a closing prayer, participants can put their notes up on the newsprint if they are comfortable in doing so. If the story has a date to it, the participants can put the story under the relevant month. If the story isn’t related to a particular date or event, they can put the note at the end of the timeline.

Some participants won’t wish to walk from their tables to the timeline, so encourage other participants to offer to take those notes up for their neighbors. The recorders will take the “losses and learnings” notes and put them on the appropriate newsprint as well. And remind folks to put their response sheets in the appropriate receptacle if that’s an option you chose.

“A Night to Remember” can be healing and instructive as a stand-alone event. It is most useful, however, if it is part of a larger move toward Appreciative Inquiry as a vehicle for making the most of this traumatic chapter in congregational life. Whether it is part of a larger process or not, a team or committee should be recruited to collate the information into a single or a few documents for the church council, board of directors, or an Appreciative Inquiry team or work group.

If this is part of an Appreciative Inquiry process of discernment, you have developed and have access to a rich set information for developing additional questions and processes that are part of such an inquiry. And even if you don’t do one more thing with this information, you’ve had an experience that offers the healing of memories and a positive focus on the future.

Resources

Please see my previous post entitled “What the Hell Just Happened?

Roy M. Oswald and Robert E Friedrich, Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.