Beginning Again.

“And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.

(Mark 13:21-23, NRSV).

I have returned, as I do annually, to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the main character, spends a whole book looking for love in all the wrong places — and in all the wrong ways. He looks for love in the attentions of a girl trained from infancy to break the hearts of men. He looks for love in the benefaction of a bitter woman who can give only rage and recrimination from her pain of rejection. He looks for love — well, acceptance at least — in the company of the well-born to which he aspires.

Pip wouldn’t know real love if it smacked him in the head — or wrapped its arms around his shuddering shoulders. He cannot see, except in retrospect, the love of Joe Gargery, his de facto father who is a source of shame and embarrassment to the barely conscious social climber. He cannot see, except in regret, the love of Biddy, the one woman in the whole book with her feet on the ground and her heart in the world. He cannot see until almost too late the love of his true benefactor — one who horrifies him and frightens him with his commonness.

Pip pursues approval and eschews love. He seeks to rise in the transactional world that understands power and privilege, but knows nothing of grace and giving. It is only through the rearview mirror of suffering that he can see all that he missed.

In the words that lead to the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus warns his disciples that many will promise to offer what we want. Many will pretend to be the one anointed by God to make everything right. Of course, none can deliver. Regardless, we willingly pay the price and are once again left devastated and disappointed.

Donald Trump is the latest installment in this saga of broken promises. Many have accepted his offer of messianic finality. Some still cling to that false hope. Once we have invested in a messianic pretender, it is hard to let go. The sunk costs fallacy is more than an economic reality. It is an emotional and political one as well. Good money chases after bad, as do good hopes and dreams. Looking for love in all the wrong places costs us dearly — whether we are the ones looking or not.

I sense an almost equal fervor on the part of some who look forward to the Biden-Harris administration. I would not suggest that the President-elect seeks this adulation. Far from it. But the temptation to raise up another messiah is profound, especially in a time of such disruption and despair. If only someone, somewhere, could have the answer.

I pray that the new administration will have great success, especially when it comes to serving those in greatest need among us. I believe that some progress toward the good will be made. I am sure that some progress toward evil will also be made. That is the nature of the real world, no matter what our hopes.

We Christians are always called to train our vision — to look for the love of God in the last place we’d expect to find it. We begin the new church year with a reminder of the end of the world as we know it. The end of the world as we know is the end of power and privilege, the end of vanity and violence, the end of transactions and trauma. All of that ends in the cross and resurrection of Jesus — the last place we expect to look.

That’s why I often pick up the story of Pip at this time of year. It is a reminder to look elsewhere, to look deeper, to wait and watch while the struggle goes on. What we see is often not what we get, especially when what we see is power as the path to peace, violence as the path to victory, lies as the path to love. When we look to all the ways that we can control and contrive our acceptance by others, we are — I am — looking in all the wrong places.

So, friends, I begin a new church year with eyes trained in another direction (whenever I can remember to do so). I pray for the grace to look for God’s love in the places where it truly is.

What I Want to Hear on Sunday

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-resilient faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. David Lose writes, “they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

Lord, make me a sheep.

The sheep feed those who are hungry. The sheep give drink to those who are thirsty. The sheep welcome those who are the strangers. The sheep clothe those who are naked. The sheep take care of those who are sick. The sheep visit those who are imprisoned. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in the vulnerable, but they saw the vulnerable. The goats saw neither.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.” The good news is that we are on the receiving end of this unconditional love first. Christ is present in us in faith so we can be present to our neighbor in love.

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us,” Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.”

Who can do those things? Generally it’s not those who struggle with hunger and thirst, who are lost and naked, those who sick and imprisoned. The ones who can do all this good work are those who are better off! The behavior the Lord commends here is the work of solidarity with the vulnerable. The behavior the Lord condemns is the failure to do that work.

Lord, make me a sheep.

We live in a representative democracy. We can certainly respond to those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are lost and naked, those who are sick and imprisoned on our own. Personal acts of lovingkindness are part of the discipleship life. We, however, have far more power than that. We can work together for policies and practices that put in place public responses to the needs of the vulnerable.

There is no discussion in the parable of whether the vulnerable are worthy or unworthy. For Jesus followers that is not part of the conversation. We know that theologically if we understand the grace of God in Christ. No one is worthy — not even one. If worthiness were part of the equation, we’d all be screwed.

If that’s God’s standard for us, why should we apply a different standard to those God loves? Look, serving with the vulnerable is going to draw us into policies and politics whether we like it or not. Only the privileged oblivious get to avoid such concerns.

I’ve worked with those in prison. It took me about ten minutes of that work to start wondering about our corrections policies and practices. If you’ve volunteered to feed the hungry, it’s probably taken you about that long to wonder about our food policies. If you’ve had chronically ill friends or family, you’ve struggled to understand our medical system and health insurance practices.

In my experience, trying to live as one of the “sheep” has always pulled me into politics and policy issues. The only way to stay out of those issues is to look the other way. But that is “goat” behavior.

Friends, this is not just about “those people over there.” This is about us. Most of us are about one medical catastrophe from bankruptcy. Most of us are about one lay-off from disaster. Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from going hungry. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who worry about food has gone from 40 million to 80 million. Chances are that one in every four people you know is worried about whether they will run out of food before they run out of month. Maybe you are one of those folks. And many of those folks wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at the end of that month.

So this Sunday (and every Sunday) I want to hear politics from the pulpit. When we keep politics out of the pulpit, we’ve made a political decision. We’ve decided to support the people who benefit from the way things are. Those folks generally are not among the hungry and thirsty, the naked and strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Those folks are generally not much like you and me.

These days the truth is that a disproportionate number of the vulnerable are black and brown people in the United States. Race and racial conflict are tools used to keep people in their economic and social places. But lots of white people are among the vulnerable as well. Advocating for the least of these is a form of multi-racial politics that will make life better for all of us. When we are Christ to the neighbor, race, class, ethnicity, gender — they are all real, but they are not barriers to loving community.

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”

Lord, make me a sheep. Amen.

Backwards Again

Did you ever have one of those moments when a thought is out there in the fog of awareness, just beyond any clear vision? That’s my state of consciousness most of the time, but right now it’s a bit more pronounced.

I keep thinking about the ELCA plan for the future and the plan’s identified priorities for restructuring and renewal in the denomination. Just for a review, those priorities are:

  1. Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.
  2. Unite all expressions of the church (congregations, synods and the churchwide organization) into one church—together.
  3. Align decision-making, accountability and leadership where best suited.
  4. Operate in agile, flexible and speedy ways.
  5. Act based on data and measurable impact.
  6. Eliminate silos and divisions.

The only one that really interests me is the first one. If you play the “one of these things is not like the other” song, then #1 is the answer. Priorities two through six are all management issues. Number one has the potential to be a mission issue. But I think it fails in that regard (I hope I’m as wrong as I usually am). I find myself in a fog because just as this announcement came, so did several pods and articles that speak directly (at least in my little brain) to this issue.

“Throughline on NPR” features an episode called “The Invention of Race.” It’s an excellent and troubling reminder of how race, eugenics and class warfare combined in the early twentieth century to produce deadly consequences and how Franz Boas almost singlehandedly dismantled the “scientific” basis of structural racism.

See: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5ucHIub3JnLzUxMDMzMy9wb2RjYXN0LnhtbA/episode/M2Y4OGMwOWYtNjYzYy00ZmZmLTkzZDgtZTc3Mjk3MjU1MDA5?hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwi7pIaVqZHtAhVXWs0KHcjyDb4QieUEegQIKxAF&ep=6.

Of course, whiteness was invented long before the early twentieth century. In 1619 in Jamestown African and Irish laborers were treated as indentured servants. There was an immediate distinction between the “less white” Irish and the “black” Africans, but legislation took time to develop. The original system did not guarantee a steady flow of cheap and malleable labor for the wealthy landowners in Virginia.

By 1691, slave laws had been enacted in several of the colonies to remedy the situation. The slave laws had a dual impact. They insured a permanent supply of slave bodies to provide free labor to the wealthy. And they established a racial caste system that gave poor whites just enough status to keep them mollified. So rich people had plenty of free labor to hand and a cheap police force to keep the slaves in their place.

It was genius level social engineering through policy. That social engineering persists to this day. It has been one of the most significant factors in national elections in America since 1964 and Barry Goldwater. I would recommend the recent Code Switch podcast, “The White Elephants in the Room” for some background in this regard.

See https://www.npr.org/2020/11/17/935910276/the-white-elephants-in-the-room.

In 1619 the division is between landowners and indentured servants. It is a class division. By 1691, whiteness has been invented to accomplish two agendas — manage white peasants by promoting them to white and suppressing black peasants by rendering them subhuman. The strategy was to use the rage of the white peasants to police the slaves and to protect the wealth and privilege of the upper class.

I was introduced yesterday to the work of Ian Haney Lopez in this regard yesterday on Ezra Klein’s podcast (I feel so late to the party on almost everything important). The Ezra Klein podcast focused on what the Democrats got wrong with Hispanic voters. This leads into a conversation about Lopez’ fuller work. I would recommend the podcast. However, a youtube.com talk by Lopez gives a fuller exposition of the subject that really interests me — how the 1691 strategy continues to work today.

See https://youtu.be/GPnrgOMMqIA.

I will be interested to read his book, Merge Left. He argues convincingly that wealth and privilege use race as the wedge to divide lower economic classes who might otherwise unite around shared interests. So people of color and lower income whites are used to support the maintenance and expansion of concentrated wealth. Welcome to 1691…and 1876…and 1964…and 1984…and 2016.

Now to the church stuff. Jemar Tisby (author of The Color of Compromise), wrote a post entitled “Why Multiracial Churches Fail.” He comments on a Washington Post article. The article reports that the number of multiracial congregations has increased recently but that the price of that increase appears to be the continued suppression of black people within a dominant white church culture.

Here’s Tisby’s post: https://jemartisby.com/2020/11/19/why-multiracial-churches-fail/?fbclid=IwAR2ZCAzXI9yUXmPaQe8cGDQUU6VFyqZ8orCZ4UyRXLgIw8uSLyL9suDsjm4.

A few lines are most salient. “Multiracial churches fail,” Tisby writes, “because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.” I now refer to ELCA reorganization priority #1: “Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.”

Multi-racial churches fail in large part because they’re just white churches with spice. The only ones that succeed in becoming multi-racial do so as a byproduct of the struggle for social justice. “Churches that prioritize justice and equity for Black people and other people of color demonstrate their solidarity with those communities, “Tisby notes. This solidarity is not a recruitment strategy but rather a values commitment. “Yet when churches demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of an oppressed people by pursuing their uplift through policy and systemic changes,” he observes, “those congregations become sites of refuge and may see more racial and ethnic diversity in the process.”

If Tisby is correct (and I believe he is), then priority one may be getting it backwards. Seeking “new, young, diverse people” as a goal will result in replicating the pain of our own white privilege and systemic racism. Diversity is a byproduct of working for justice. But justice is precisely the language that is avoided in the restructuring proposal because such language will alienate politically conservative pew-sitters in the ELCA. If this is the case, then that priority will land on the same trash heap as the goal for the ELCA to be 10 percent people of color by…well, whenever that was.

Is it perhaps the case that embracing peasant solidarity is always central to the mission of the church? Jesus tells the rich man to join the peasants in order to be part of the reign of God. It seems that Zacchaeus makes a similar pledge to bankrupt himself in order to set things right. The Magnificat turns the great economic reversal into a hit song. Jesus makes it the game plan in Luke 4. Social solidarity in economic terms across class and ethnic divisions seems to be the plan in the New Testament.

I can see that in political terms. But what can it mean for being church? That’s the thought out there in the fog for me. Diagnosis is always the easy part…

Sample Sermon — Ephesians 1:15-23

This week I’m sharing a sermon on this text I preached a few years ago. It’s dated, but you deserve to see some of my own work sometimes. I have taken out the specifics of the situation in which it was originally preached and updated some references and implications.

No Powerless Christians

The late, great Jimi Hendrix said it well. “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” Today that sounds like just another hippy-dippy sixties bumper sticker slogan. In our time the love of power is the order of the day. The pursuit of power overwhelms all other projects.

Power is a major topic in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The overall theme of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is that God pulls it all together in Jesus. In worship God pulls us to the center of all life, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. God does that by sending us the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. Today let’s talk about how that power works in our Christian journey.

Love of power was a way of life in ancient Ephesus. In Paul’s time, Ephesus was second only to Rome as a seat of imperial power. Ephesus was home to a rich and entitled elite who controlled the government, manipulated the markets, and ran the religious life of the city. When it came to power, the Ephesian Christians were on the outside looking in.

Many of us feel like little people in big systems. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when all the power rests in the hands of others. Carried along by impersonal politics, mindless markets, faceless social forces—we know powerless.

So, it’s jarring to hear Paul’s prayer today. “I pray that…you may know,” Paul writes, “what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe, according to the working of [God’s] great power.” Paul is so intent to make his point that he uses three different Greek terms for power in the space of fourteen words. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul longs that the Ephesians will know that this power is available to them for their daily use. The Holy Spirit longs for us to know this as well. There are no powerless Christians.

Paul draws it all together in verses twenty through twenty-three. Let’s take those verses step by step.

Step One: All Christian power is Resurrection Power. That’s where Paul begins, and where we must always begin. “God put this power to work in Christ,” Paul tells us, “when [God] raised [the Messiah] from the dead…” God’s love looks like a cross. And God’s power looks like resurrection.

Step Two: Jesus is now the rightful Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth. God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. Jesus the Messiah is Lord of heaven and earth, right now.

Step Three: Jesus exercises that rule in part through the Church. God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The Spirit empowers us for loving service in Jesus’ name.

There are no powerless Christians.

Of course, there is power…and then there is power. There is “power over.” From this perspective, power is a scarce commodity available only to the privileged few. Power over is maintained by fear and violence. Power over treats everyone other than me as a means to my ends. Power over believes that power over is the primary goal of human existence.

And then there is power with/to/within. This power sees itself as multiplied when applied and is the property of everyone. It relies on connection rather than coercion. This power treats everyone other than me as ends in themselves. And this power believes that power is a means to an end. That end is human flourishing.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Brene Brown offers a good one-page summary that analyzes power in terms of how it is used. You can download that summary here: https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Brene-Brown-on-Power-and-Leadership-10-26-20.pdf.

The witness of the gospels, and of the whole New Testament, is that the power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. Power with/to/within is the power of vulnerable love. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” Jesus says in Mark 10:45, “and to give his life, a ransom for many.” The Incarnate Christ did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped and hoarded but rather emptied himself for the sake of obedient service, including death on a cross — as we read in Philippians 2. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. If we exercise power over, that’s not Jesus power.

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 can be framed in these terms. The question posed by the Lord is, “How did you use your power?” Did you use it to serve the least, the lost and the lonely without thought for yourself? Or did you use your power to pad your privilege? Do we use our power for others or for self? It’s not more complicated than that. If we use our power for others, that’s a sign that Christ lives in us and that we are responding to Christ in the other (see my post on Matthew 25).

Speaking of Matthew 25 — I was reminded by a podcast yesterday of Dolly Parton’s song, “Would you know him if you saw him?” Lyrics here: https://genius.com/Dolly-parton-would-you-know-him-if-you-saw-him-lyrics.

How do I use my political power in this representative democracy? How do I use my power to choose whether or not to mask up? How do I use my power to purchase ethically-sourced and cruelty free goods and services? How do I use my power to resist housing segregation and educational inequality when I think about buying a home? How do I use my power to be kind to my next door neighbors, no matter how irritating their Christmas lights are at two in the morning? How do I use my capacity to influence others in my life when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.?

How many of us does it take to make real change in a system or culture? The research is still developing. But it may be that it takes as little as 3.5% of a population to bring about systemic change, especially if that 3.5% chooses to be visible. See https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world. The other end of the research spectrum says 25%. In any event, change does not require a majority. It takes brave people who use their power for the sake of others.

For fun and inspiration, listen to how Dolly Parton uses her power as power with/to/within. Brene Brown interviewed her on the most recent edition of “Unlocking Us.” It’s definitely worth the time. https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5tZWdhcGhvbmUuZm0vdW5sb2NraW5nLXVz/episode/NDdjMjFjOWMtZmViNi0xMWVhLWIxZWYtZWI3ZjM5OTY5Njdk?hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwi22K7m347tAhXFF80KHaYPDQcQieUEegQIJRAF&ep=6

Church people use their power to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick, advocate for the imprisoned and defend the persecuted. This is worth cheers and hallelujahs. This runs against cultural currents flowing in the opposite direction. This is the power of the Spirit at work among us to put all the powers of sin, death, and the devil under the feet of Jesus the Messiah. This is Jesus, the strong man, binding Satan and plundering his household. This is real power.

Church people also use their power to defend their privilege, sustain racism, concentrate wealth, maintain abusive systems and hide from the realities of the world. We need to call out such abuses of power over in our own faith communities and in the conduct of other believers.

There are no powerless Christians. The power of the Spirit is power with/to/within. With Paul I pray that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” This is the hope to which God has called us—to make the power of love conquer the love of power. This is the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in us and through us. This is how God is pulling it all together in Jesus.

The world cannot see this power among us. The world is blinded by the love of power. That’s why it takes the vision of an enlightened heart. That’s why this is about the hope to which God has called us.

There are no powerless Christians. Of course, there is no power unless you plug in. The Spirit equips us to see where the power is. It is in God’s Word of law and gospel. It is in our worship. It is in our welcoming and loving community. Let’s pray…

For a list of refences and resources for this week’s texts, please see my November 16 post.

Reorganizing the ELCA…Again

The ELCA Church Council has approved a new design for the future work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can read about it in the official news release here — https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8083. I’m quite curious about this latest effort and deeply skeptical of its usefulness, given the history of past reorganizations. The initial information is going to receive a fair bit of critique — much of it justified, I suspect. In fairness, I must applaud up front the proposal to have innovation (research and development) as a major focus on the revised structure. I find that encouraging.

This post will have a sort of “inside baseball” flavor for non-ELCA folks, so I apologize in advance for that. I’ve spent my adult life loving and hating and loving this institution. I’d like to think I was part of something that matters. Of course, I don’t equate the “Church” with the ELCA. I have no worries about whether the church of Jesus Christ will continue. That’s not up to us. My home denomination — that’s another matter entirely.

The ELCA was conceived in the “original sin” of reorganization in 1988. I use that language humorously, because I don’t think the merger of the three predecessor church bodies (The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Lutheran Church, for those who may not quite remember) was more or less sinful than any actions taken by the institutional church as a human organization. It was, in fact, a necessary and prudent action taken by faithful leaders.

I do remember what I found most troubling in that experience — the absolute prohibition on calling this union a “merger.” After all, we were to be a “new” church, like nothing we Lutherans in North America had seen before. Even to mention any of the predecessor church bodies in certain settings was to feel like one had passed gas at the prom. Having committed all of the above transgressions, I know whereof I speak.

We got over the conceit of “newness” after a while. Even those in charge of the denomination could eventually refer to the union of 1988 as a merger. In fact, it was the first reorganization in a long line of reshufflings, realignments, reboots and re-starts. The reorganizing began almost before the ELCA hit the ground, as those in charge realized that the funding for all the grand plans was simply not going to materialize. The descending curve in denominational funding had driven the original merger. It has continued to drive the cycle of reorganization throughout the past thirty years.

I want to say clearly that in spite of downward trends in attendance, membership, participation and funding, the ELCA as denomination, judicatories, congregations and social ministry organizations has done some magnificent ministry. The creativity, the drive, the faithfulness, and the expertise offered in service of the gospel through this church has been and continues to be admirable and impressive. But none of that has interrupted the organizational descent and decline.

The ELCA is not an outlier in this regard. Christian denominations of every stripe have suffered humiliation and decay in North America in the last thirty years. The brief flourishing of some so-called “conservative” denominations was simply a re-circulation of disaffected members from so-called “mainline” denominations. That re-circulation has ceased to matter.

The various denominations have made policy and practice decisions that accelerated these trends. For the ELCA, intercommunion agreements were the first excuse for abandoning ship. The 2009 vote for inclusivity of LGBTQA+ people (in my book, absolutely the right decision) provided another excuse for the disaffected. In our current time, the racist (and other “-ist”) histories and agendas of many denominations are creating further rationales for leaving those institutional churches. Reorganization is, to coin a phrase, “pandemic” among American Protestant denominations.

For the ELCA, the concern is acute. Our own Office of Research and Evaluation (in my view, one of the unsung heroes of our denominational life — thank you, Ken Inskeep) projected in 2019 that the ELCA would for all intents and purposes cease to exist by 2050 (See “Will the ELCA Be Gone in 30 Years?” at https://faithlead.luthersem.edu/decline/). The author of the article, Dwight J. Zscheile, notes that efforts at more effective ministry have not succeeded in addressing the issue — not because they were bad efforts but because they tend to address the wrong problems. He writes,

For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show. That is because the cultural shifts underpinning this decline are largely beyond our control. To the extent to which we’ve tried to fix the church, we’ve failed. I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort. It’s not their fault. The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational system are much bigger. Something deeper is at stake.

The “something deeper” is the essential de-Christianization of North America and Western Europe that has been taking place for at least the last one hundred years. Some may protest that the United States does not currently look de-Christianized, given the political power of certain “Christian” groups and leaders. I would suggest that these elements represent a Gnostic, white-supremacist, neo-liberal last gasp of established Christianity in this country. This pathological nostalgia will not go quietly. But in the end it will go.

Dwight Zscheile concludes that reorganization, revitalization, and renewal are not going to derail this descending train.

The dismantling of the inherited congregational and denominational structures may be the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the devil, or just the byproduct of the end of the Age of Mobilization (when Americans organized themselves into voluntary societies to get things done) and the rise of the Age of Authenticity (when Americans looked inward to discover and express their true self). Trying to reverse it is pointless. It is better to get clear on what God’s promises in Christ are for us and for our neighbors and find simple ways to make those promises come alive for ordinary people in ways they can understand and embody.

I don’t know if his proposed solutions make any sense, but they are worth reading. Diagnosis is infinitely easier than either treatment or “cure.” I do believe that reorganization is a necessary and perhaps even faithful action in the short run for the ELCA. But it will not have much long-term effect.

I don’t think the current proposal goes far enough, even in the short run. I would encourage the reduction of the number of ELCA synods by half, for example. I would encourage the merger of ELCA seminaries with other seminaries or colleges until we have no more than three free-standing seminaries. I would encourage that we assist congregations in divesting themselves of expensive physical plants before the last member dies and forgets to turn out the lights. I would encourage us to see bi-vocational ministry as the norm for congregational leadership rather than a concession to necessity. But those are easy ideas, just rearranging the deck chairs after the iceberg has gashed the hull.

The ELCA may be on a glide path to oblivion. In the meantime, I hope realizing that fact might free us to do the things that would have made a difference forty years ago. If our congregations won’t serve the neighborhoods where they live, then some of us will move to congregations that do — led by BIPOC pastors. We will sit in the back rows and be good, supportive members. If we divest ourselves of our aging physical assets, a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Black community in this country and a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Native American communities whose lands we have stolen. The balance can pay off debts and fund hunger and disaster relief efforts.

Freed from maintaining institutions in order to pay the utilities, let us then focus on the ministry of reconciliation. That means racial reconciliation. That means class reconciliation. That means serving the underserved in our increasingly stratified and feudal economy. And it means serving the function for which Lutherans were designed — to be a movement in the church catholic that brings all Christians together in a common confession of Jesus as Lord in a world hostile to such a confession. The theology of Martin Luther is the perfect vehicle for such reconciliation — if only we’d give it a try some time.

Well, what do I know? Typing is easy. But there you have it.

Text Study for Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

In the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus is the King of the Universe. He is also managing sheep and goats. Thus, he serves as the Cosmic Shepherd. The image of “shepherd” is an Old Testament trope used to meditate on the nature of kingship, both divine and human. That is the case here in Ezekiel 34.

This text creates an important backstop for understanding the Parable of the Divine Judgment. The Divine Shepherd in Ezekiel 34 is the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. We need to keep that image in our minds as we read and reflect on the gospel text for this day. It is easy to lose track of the character of the king and the nature of the shepherd if we focus exclusively on the judgment aspect of the parable.

James Limburg titles the run-up to this section of Ezekiel, “The Failure of the Politicians.” That should get our attention immediately. “Put succinctly,” Limburg writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “Ezekiel the pastor to those in exile says to the political leaders of his time, ‘You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep.’ These leaders ought to be caring for the sheep, not exploiting them, and fattening their own lives. In these times that are a-changing, both world and church need politicians and pastors who will care for their people responsibly.”

If one of the roles of Christians in a polity is to maintain a critical distance and hold leaders accountable for doing justice (and it is), then this text is a real eye-popper. I know that most preachers won’t hold up any political leaders to this text and find them wanting. But that is exactly what this text encourages. You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep. The shepherds Ezekiel describes were likely collaborators with the Babylonian oppressors, lining their own pockets at the expense of the other exiles.

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29). I think the outgoing presidential administration fits this description somewhat securely.

Here’s the thing. Anyone who thinks that politics don’t belong in the pulpit simply has not read the whole Bible. The prophets are plumb full of political critique. The fact that we think we can keep that critique out of our preaching and out of our communities is simply a sign of our (mostly white, male, classist) political privilege. And, I would suggest, this reticence is a sign that we are much more in the tribe of the goats than that of the sheep in Matthew 25.

One of the privileges of retirement is the freedom to say things that would have gotten me in hot water with my “employers” in my previous life.

Carolyn Sharp speaks this element of the text clearly in her workingpreacher.org comments.

Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29).

Our own call to care for the vulnerable reflects the nature of the Good Shepherd, who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured and strengthens the weak (verse 16). These actions are more than individual altruism, however. They are the actions of the King – again whether divine or human. The punchline of Ezekiel’s text is the final verse in our reading: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Justice is always a political category.

Margaret Odell puts it this way in her workingpreacher.org comments. “Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd,” she continues, “viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.”

Leadership and the exercise of power – these are pretty contemporary issues, I’d say. For Ezekiel, the appropriate exercise of power is always power for the sake of the vulnerable and power with those who care for the vulnerable. It is not the power over others – the predominant secular model of power in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. Power comes from God for the sake of loving the neighbor. When power is used for any other purpose, we engage in idolatry because we worship power for its own sake.

Odell concludes with these thoughts.

The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking,” she notes, “how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.

I think we are witnessing some very disordered theology of power and freedom in our culture at this moment. The power that is often celebrated is the power over others that secures my certainty, security, and comfort. The freedom that is often celebrated is the freedom from the needs and demands of others – the freedom that puts me first and, in the center, and at the top. That is not Christian freedom (as, for example, Luther would have described it).

If we are made God’s royal and priestly people by virtue of our baptisms, then we have royal and priestly responsibilities. It would appear that those responsibilities include attending to the “least” of our sisters and brothers and to do so for their sake alone.

How does this impact our pandemic behavior as individuals and churches? Is my freedom to go maskless really of greater importance than the safety of those around me?

How does this inform our continued involvement in anti-racism efforts and causes? For example, are we working to remedy the horrific inequities in educational systems based on self-segregated housing schemes and the property tax injustices that result?

How does this inform our work in climate justice, which disproportionately affects the “least of these”?

Please see my post for November 16 for the resources for this Sunday’s texts.

Text Study for Matthew 25:31-46

My study of the gospel text for this Sunday is fairly long on its own. So, I think I will publish it today and put out more text study materials in the next few days. But first, a couple of related notes.

November is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s publication of The Freedom of the Christian. 1520 is such a central year for Luther’s theology and writing. I’m disappointed we haven’t celebrated his publications from that year a bit more (although we’ve had a few other small concerns to address this year). I reference this document several times below and encourage you to consider reading (and re-reading) Luther’s text in its entirety.

This is also fundraising time for our friends at workingpreacher.org. I plan to contribute to their work and I hope you will as well. They do a great service for preachers across the church, and that work should be supported by those of us who use it.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 serve as bookends for Matthew’s pre-passion narrative. But Matthew 28 serves as the capstone of the Gospel and ties the bookends to the larger narrative.

Most important for our text today, Jesus says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” The call is to disciple the “nations.” The Son of Man uses the same word in the Great Judgment in Matthew 25. Matthew assumes that the church has been engaged in that mission during the time between the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. The sheep and the goats are not completely in the dark, Matthew assumes, about the good news of Jesus.

A major theme of that good news in Matthew is that God is “with us” in Jesus. Jesus is named “Immanuel” (God with us) early in the gospel. The last words of the gospel, and of the Lord in Matthew’s account, are “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, we should not be surprised when we run into Jesus here, there, and everywhere. And yet, we are routinely surprised by the presence of the Lord in what we think are odd places.

Today’s gospel reading suggests that we are looking for God in all the wrong places. If you hear echoes of the Beatitudes from a few weeks ago, then your ears are tuned properly. We look for saints in all the wrong places because we look for God in all the wrong places. We expect to find Christ adorned with a crown. We resist seeing him hanging “in glory” on the cross.

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-free faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. “Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man,” writes David Lose (2014). “Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian (and several other places) Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.”

In Freedom, he writes, “Therefore, I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (Freedom of the Christian, page 524, my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. Luther says we are called “Christians” because Christ lives in us and works through us for the good of our neighbor. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us, Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 525).

I think it is important to emphasize how works “work” in the life of the Christian so that this text does not become a burden but is rather a joy. Tuomo Mannermaa writes, “When Christ lives in Christians through faith, love begins to ‘live’ in them as well, as Luther expresses it in the Heidelberg Disputation.” (Two Kinds of Love, Kindle Locations 1029-1030). Christ present in faith frees and equips us to see Jesus in the places we would not look on our own.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world, except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Loving the neighbor as Jesus loves me (us) happens through a particular way of seeing. “To those who desire to know God truly, Luther says, turn from what appears to be beautiful—all that is saturated in glory—toward that which is avoided and despised by the world, the cross and suffering,” writes Phil Ruge-Jones. “God is hidden in the cross of Christ and also in the crosses of those who suffer.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 2181)

Luther connects our way of seeing to our theological orientation. When we look for God in all the powerful places, we practice the theology of glory. When we do that, we will miss seeing God at all. Martin Luther gives voice to this conundrum in his theses for the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. It is useful to look especially at theses 19 through 22.

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

In Luther’s theology of the cross, God is always hidden under the form of the opposite. “The theologian of the cross in action must be the reverse of the theologian of glory,” writes Ruge-Jones, “preferring sufferings to works, cross to glory, the weak to the powerful, the fools to the wise, and universally that which is taken by the world as evil over that which the world lauds and pursues as good.” (Cross in Tensions, Kindle Location 3912).

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.” (Freedom of a Christian, page 530).

What are we to make of the “unconscious” (or perhaps “un-self-conscious”) responses of the sheep and the goats? The sheep did not act out of some sort of self-interest. Since they did not recognize Jesus, they did not act in order to impress him. There is no discussion or debate about whether those in need are somehow worthy or unworthy.

The sheep paid attention to the need and responded without extended reflection or calculation. Their faith informed and their love formed their actions. The goats did not respond accordingly. “Or to put it even more precisely,” writes Capon, “they [the sheep] are praised at his final parousia for what they did in his parousia throughout their lives, namely, for trusting him to have had a relationship with them all along.” (Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Kindle Locations 6635-6636).

This love by attention continues to be our vocation. “The victory of Jesus over the evil in the world is not simply a fait accompli which could be disproved by the continuance of evil to this day,” notes N. T. Wright. “It is a victory waiting to be implemented through his followers.” (Following Jesus, Kindle Location 1186-1187).

You may leave your listeners with several points to ponder this week. Who is “being Christ” to you this week? Who needs your loving attention this week? In what unexpected places and ways is Jesus showing up in your life this week? Where can you respond to those in need beyond your immediate daily activities?

Now for the “surgeon general’s warning” on this line of thinking. We could lead people to think we are affirming:

  • Co-dependent caretaking at the expense of myself – no, that’s not it.
  • White savior complex because we (white, male, European-educated, upper middle class) have all the answers to the world’s problems – no, that’s not it.
  • Colonization by evangelization – no, that’s not it (see the previous bullet point)
  • Power over the “needy” – no, that’s not it. Jesus power is always power with, to, and for the other.

It’s important to remember that the presence of Christ in us by faith produces the death of ourselves first (see Galatians 2). If serving in love makes us powerful in worldly terms, we are embodying the theology of glory and deluding ourselves.

Resources

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 6366-6368). Kindle Edition.

Online text of the theses for the Heidelberg Disputation — https://mbird.com/wp-content/uploads/sermons/HeidelbergDisputation.pdf.

Lose, David. “Christ the King A: The Unexpected God.” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/christ-the-king-a/

Wengert, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian: The Annotated Luther Study Edition. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

N.T. Wright. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Kindle Locations 1186-1187). Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 966-967). Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91) . Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition

Weil, Simone. Awaiting God. Fresh Wind Press.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24

Limburg, James. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-2

Sharp, Carolyn J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king/commentary-on-ezekiel-3411-16-20-24-4

The Word Abounds

It’s not good for Christians to be forced to sit at home, absent from one another when it’s time for worship. The only thing worse is to be part of the massive problem of spreading the Covid-19 infection. So we stay home from Sunday worship, and shopping, and eating out, and seeing friends and family, and…

I used to joke that the Holy Spirit called me to be a pastor because the only way I was going to be in worship every Sunday was if I got paid to do so. I’ve never been a worship junkie like so many of my colleague pastors and other rostered leaders. But I have to admit that this locked-in time has renewed in me the desire to be part of the body and especially to be fed by good preaching.

So, one upside of this locked-in time is the sermonic smorgasbord available in the digital diaspora. I could barely stand to hear my own sermons most weeks much less to take the time to listen to three or four others. But now, Sunday mornings include an online journey from the Omaha metro to places near and far for ELCA worship and preaching.

I’m grateful for the leadership, scholarship, wit, and clarity of my friend, Merle Brockhoff at St. James Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri. We were delighted today to hear about the tragedy of the grilled cheese sandwich amidst the piscatorial delights of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Check out his message on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StJamesVivion/videos/654999228505537

We were fed and nourished by our home congregation, Luther Memorial Lutheran Church here in Omaha. It’s been a tough stretch for our pastor and community with several funerals amid the skyrocketing numbers here in Douglas County. We’re grateful for Pastor Carm’s love and leadership. There were a few technical struggles as they work to upgrade their equipment, but we’re glad for their ministry. Here’s the worship: https://www.facebook.com/LutherOmaha/videos/2723425667919997

We dropped in on the wonderful worship and powerful preaching of Pastor Susan Friedrich at Bethany Lutheran (and their partner congregation, Emmanuel) in Elkader, Iowa. It’s nice to take a digital excursion to the Turkey River Valley and the beauty of Iowa’s Little Switzerland. Not only were we treated to the abundance of God’s Word in Susan’s sermon. We were also treated to an abundance of rooster crows as she preached in the barn on the Friedrich ranch. It was awesome! Here’s the video: https://www.facebook.com/Emanuel.Lutheran.Church.ELCA/videos/731609840803813/

We have been relatively anonymous guests several Sundays at the online worship of the Bethel AME congregation in North Omaha. I especially appreciated Pastor Vicki’s connection of an expired quart of chicken broth sitting unused on the shelf and today’s text about the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25. We deeply appreciate the music, the prayers, and the authenticity of the pastoral leadership and the congregational experience. They had a few technical glitches today, but it’s worth tolerating a minor issue here and there. I can’t get their worship link to work here right now. But if you search for Bethel AME Omaha NE, you’ll find them on Facebook and get to their service.

We didn’t get to some of our other favorites yet today. It’s always good to catch the message from Pastor Kris Bohac, north of Lincoln. It’s great as well to drop in on worship and preaching at Our Saviour’s in Lincoln, where Pastor Tobi White always speaks with clarity, courage, conviction and compassion. Maybe we’ll get to those spots later. You can catch Pastor Kris’s messages on youtube.com at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtKQroBFKNk5cKfkRnTIhmg

You can find worship led by Pastor Tobi at Our Saviour’s in Lincoln on youtube.com at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCN3hdQOCFmX6kdScjYTvf5g

It is indeed difficult to be apart, isolated and so much on our own. Yet, with very little effort, we can be part of a much larger church in this time of trial. There is lots of good ministry and lots of good preaching happening. And I for one am so very grateful to be able to access so much of it.

What online services and messages would you commend to us?

We pray for courage and steadfastness in this time of Covid that seems unending. We know it will end, of course, and look forward to that day. In the meantime, thank you, colleagues and fellow disciples, for sharing your lives with us.

Unburying Brokenness

Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, has dozens of stories of triumph. Stevenson and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative have advocated for and freed hundreds of people who were unjustly convicted and sentenced. Those stories are all deeply moving. But I was most affected by a story of failure toward the end of the book.

Jimmy Dill was wrongly accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was mentally disabled and suffered a significant speech impediment. Stevenson and his colleagues worked feverishly to have Dill’s sentence reviewed and his execution stayed. But all their attempts were defeated.

Stevenson narrates his last phone call with Mr. Dill, just a short time before the execution. Some of Mr. Dill’s last words to Stevenson were, ““Mr. Bryan, I just want to thank you for fighting for me. I thank you for caring about me. I love y’all for trying to save me.”[i]

As Stevenson sat at his desk, Mr. Dill was executed. Stevenson teetered on the brink of despair. He wondered why he did all this. “I can just leave,” he said aloud to no one but himself. “Why am I doing this?”[ii]

In a few moments, the answer came to him. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he wrote.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.[iii]

Bryan Stevenson was tempted to bury his brokenness in denial and despair. Fortunately for him, and for all of us, he was saved from that tomb.

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) tells the tale of a fearful slave who buries his brokenness and inters his insecurities. Jesus makes clear that this behavior is not consistent with what it means to be fully and functionally human. I can’t help but think about President Trump, buried in the White House in denial and despair. What little humanity remaining in that poor soul is draining away from him by the second.

What does the third slave bury? He buries his fear. He fears the punishing power of the master if he gets it wrong. So rather than risking failure, he tucks his fear in a napkin, lays it in a hole in the ground, and covers his anxiety. With his terror safely tucked away, he can get on with his normal life. Normal, that is, until the time comes for the accounting.

With his fear, he buries his sense of vulnerability. But if Matthew is right, it is the vulnerable who are blessed. It is not in the absence of vulnerability but right through it that we find blessings. We can be broken open by our suffering. Or we can become unbreakable. This is the choice the third slave makes. In securing his skin, he loses his soul.

With his fear, he buries his capacities for joy…and love. I return over and over to the words of C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in the casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven, where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[iv]

It seems that President Trump is simply refusing delivery on the reality of his election loss. The consequences of this refusal range from the comic to the consequential. I know most people are distressed but not surprised by his response. After all, walls are his answer to everything from immigration to protests outside the White House. He seems sure that if he simply denies the loss, it will eventually go away.

Passing judgment on this behavior is easy. But in his current actions, I think Donald Trump is the most American of presidents. After all, we have refused delivery on tragedy, loss, and accountability for much of our history. In this moment, Donald Trump and I are uncomfortably alike in our responses. Too often, Donald and I have believed that brokenness is best managed when it is buried. I know such a response is pathological, even when I do not resist the temptation. President Trump believes such a response is both normal and necessary. I feel sorry for him (a little bit).

What does Joe Biden offer that Donald Trump does not? He offers his brokenness. For me, the most telling line in his speech the other night was when he said he knows about losing. He wasn’t talking about election defeats. He was talking about a cherished wife and daughter, a beloved son. He was talking about how his losses have broken him open.

I do not have 20 years of income to protect and hide (does this refer to the third slave or the forty-fifth president?). I have not lost a national election. But ten years ago right now, I did lose my first spouse, Anne. Repeatedly, since then, I have struggled to keep my heart out of the hole that beckons for its burial. I have not been particularly successful in resisting, so I have a bit of empathy (for a few seconds now and then) for poor Donald.

This parable drives me every three years to another quote from The Four Loves. “If I am sure of anything,” Lewis writes, “I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt if there is anything in me that pleases [Christ] less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because the security (so to speak) is better?”[v]

I want to bury my brokenness. In the process I become unbreakable. That’s a living death.

The Christian good news is that God embraces our brokenness, finally and fully. That brokenness is wrapped in a napkin and put in the ground…for a little while. But it cannot stay buried. The brokenness of love always gives life. We Christians worship the breakable, and broken, God on the cross.

The third slave buried his brokenness because he did not trust the character of the master. He expected that failure would be punished, that the beatings would now commence. He did not know (or trust) that the master blesses vulnerability and makes risking holy. After all, Creation itself has always been the risk that Divine Love takes for the sake of relationship.

When we bury our brokenness, we lock up the very sources of blessing in our lives. It’s back to the Beatitudes again — poverty of spirit, mourning, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, peacemaking — in our fear we lock away precisely these pains. In the process, we make our hearts unbreakable. We make ourselves unblessable. That is what happens to the third slave. His fear makes him impervious to blessing, so the outer darkness is the only place that can accommodate him.

It is vulnerability which makes God fully human (if we can trust Paul’s words in Philippians 2). And we, who are created in God’s image, can only be fully human in our vulnerability. Becoming unbreakable makes us sub-human, inhuman, and inhumane. If we cannot unbury and welcome our own brokenness, we cannot welcome the brokenness of others. Instead we must punish them for their imperfections and failures.

That practice has been raised to the level of national policy and political philosophy.

As part of our morning ritual, Brenda and I read devotionally from a selection of Henri Nouwen quotes. A few days ago, we read this passage. “Your whole life is filled with losses, endless losses,” he wrote in Finding My Way Home.

And every time there are losses there are choices to be made. You choose to live your losses as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let these losses be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. The question is not how to avoid loss and make it not happen, but how to choose it as a passage, as an exodus to greater life and freedom.[vi]

Unburying my brokenness – that’s not a bad description for the daily path of discipleship. And it is my prayer that the current inmate at the White House might, miracle of miracles, discover a bit of his true humanity in the time to come.

Notes:


[i] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 288. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., page 289.

[iv] Page 121.

[v] Page 120.

[vi] Quoted in You are Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, page 343.