Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

We’re All Temporary

The Third Sunday in Advent, 2020 — Isaiah 61; 1 Thessalonians 5

One of my favorite parishioners was a great teaser. She could always give as good as she got. When her husband dished out a particularly spicy zinger, we could always count on her stock reply. “You can be replaced, you know,” she’d say with a grin. It was a marvelous retort, in part, because we all knew her absolute and unending devotion to her spouse. But it also always had the function of putting him a little bit back in his place.

You can be replaced, you know. Of course, that’s true. We’re all temporary. Forbes Magazine reminds us that we’re all temporary workers, no matter what we pretend. At our house, we’ve moved enough times to know that at least some of our improvements and repairs will benefit the next owners more than they benefit us. Life has an expiration date, someone else reminds us. That great American philosopher, Hank Williams, puts it best when he sings, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out this world alive.”

Photo by judit agusti aranda on Pexels.com

We’re all temporary. But we spend most our time and energy pretending to be permanent. We act as if our jobs, our homes, our cars, our relationships, our institutions, our traditions, and practices will all continue without end. It’s a way to deny the reality of decline, decay, and death. But it really is just all play-acting. The Covid crisis makes that abundantly clear.

I can be replaced, you know. And I will be, sooner or later.

In this season of Advent, we’re reminded that we’re all temporary. Last week, the prophet bemoaned the inconstancy of life in this world. “All people are grass,” a voice cried in Isaiah 40, “their constancy is like the flower of the field.” Those summer flowers are in the yard waste bag and the compost pile – here and gone in the blink of an eye. And we are just like them.

It’s good, of course, that some things aren’t permanent. That brings us to the first reading for the third Sunday in Advent. It’s good that oppression, broken-heartedness, captivity, and incarceration are temporary. It’s good that mourning, destruction, and ruin come to an end. It’s good that tyrants and abusers and bullies can be replaced. The prophet proclaims an end to all those who traffic in deceit, domination, and death.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” the prophet announces, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the Year of Jubilee, first described in Leviticus 25. The Year of Jubilee – when all debts are wiped out, when all ancestral lands go back to their original owners, when wealth is redistributed, and when economic power is rebalanced. Sounds like a damned socialist conspiracy if you ask me! The whole idea seems just un-American.

Well, yes – that’s right. What’s your point? We’re all temporary, and so are all our schemes and systems. Even the “invisible hand of the market” is a human construction.

The purpose of the Jubilee Year was to ensure that there would be no permanent underclass in Israel. “The commission to ‘proclaim liberty’,” writes Elna Solvang in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication,” she proposes, “that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.”

But the real world of the prophet looks nothing like the vision. Reality was a disappointing parade of just one damned thing after another. It seemed that nothing had changed.

Disappointment with reality on the ground – the first reading once again seems to connect so deeply with events around us in the present moment. We expected The Pandemic (by now I think it deserves capital letters) to be long over by now. We expected, perhaps, that something, please God – anything, would have been concluded on the day after the presidential election – either the pandemic or structural racism or snarky tweets or political ads or pleas for money. In fact, the day has come and gone, and the ruins still surround us. If anything, the mourning deepens as the death tolls mount. The reality of life for many of us is nothing like we had hoped.

But we’re all temporary, and so is our disappointment. Paul knows this when he writes to the Thessalonian Christians, “Rejoice at all times.” Food insecurity grows by the minute. Unemployment payments will cease momentarily. Businesses board up, some never to re-open. Racist, xenophobic, and psychopathic policies still unfold. Climate havoc and disaster continue apace, hardly noticed amid the churn of all the other troubles. Rejoicing in the midst of this seems frivolous at best and criminally cruel at worst.

It would be cruel indeed if we believed that nothing could change. But I can be replaced, you know. So can all the systems and structures that loot and pillage the oppressed, including a president and his cronies who just don’t seem to know how to leave. John points to the first coming of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We live after that first coming and point to the second coming in how we live our lives.

Whenever Christ returns, we have time between now and then. So, we are called in positive terms to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. This is what is best for us in Christ Jesus. And we are called to resist the forces that would threaten us – to not turn down the living presence of Divine Holiness in our hearts, to not disdain new words from the Lord (when subject to appropriate testing), to not be dragged into the multifarious evils on offer from the world.

The Spirit of the Lord Jesus is upon us to proclaim and to live in the year of the Lord’s favor. We may all be temporary, but the Lord’s favor is everlasting. All that sin, death and the devil could dish out was concentrated in the cross of Christ and defeated in his death and resurrection. So, we rejoice in the temporary nature of the world’s brokenness and live into the light of the Lord.

We live in the Year of Jubilee. And we can take our cues from the prophet. After all, Jesus quotes this passage in his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. What does this look like?

The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like abolishing the death penalty and reforming our criminal punishment system (read yesterday’s post for more on that: https://wordpress.com/post/lowellhennigs.com/546).

The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like restoration of land to Native communities. Every Christian congregation should know whose land their buildings occupy and should make concrete efforts to begin to make that theft right.

The Year of Jubilee in our context sounds to me like racial reparations. We don’t know if the Hebrew Jubilee Year actually happened, but it was at least the ideal. And in some cases, it did happen in part. We white Christians think reparations at just too hard for us. But we haven’t really tried. In fact, our history is littered with times when we simply turned down the chance to begin the process. Not trying is quite different from failing.

The Year of Jubilee sounds to me like continuing work to remedy our housing and education segregation. Dominant culture people benefit every day from one hundred fifty years of systematic and legally enforced segregation. We don’t even have to work at it now because it is so intertwined with realities on the ground. We can start by understanding how it happened. And we can begin to disentangle ourselves from a system that continues to build on the ten-fold wealth gap between white and black households in America.

Remember, you can be replaced. I take that seriously. White churches in America are complicit in forming and sustaining systems and structures of organized and ongoing injustice, violence, and hatred. If we are unwilling to replace those systems, then I fear that we will be ones replaced by folks who take the Year of Jubilee seriously.

Fortunately, it’s not up to us by ourselves. We can trust that God will keep us sound, without blemish, and at peace in the midst of this good work. If the good news were simply up to us, something we worked to put together, rejoicing would be foolish and cruel. But the good news comes to us from God as a gift in the midst of the grieving, as light in the midst of the darkness. That gift will keep us whole in the end.

May we be worthy of our calling until our time is done. Remember, we’re all temporary. But God’s Word endures forever. Amen.

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.