The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Sermon for 2019 Conference Assemblies at Augustana Lutheran, West St. Paul
Matthew 28:16-20; 22:35-40
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Living and Holy God. AMEN.
I am a Christian. I am a Christian and by your presence, here, on a snowy February morning, I’ll bet you are, too.
We are Christians, living in a world marked and increasingly divided by identity politics. Not only in this country but around the world people are dividing themselves by tribal loyalties. Race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, generational attitudes, political and economic perspectives — these are the distinctive identities by which we show up in the work place, on social media, and in the public arena.
Now, there is something rich and deep and life-giving about those identity markers. We rejoice that indigenous peoples are claiming their voice in Minnesota and around the world. We all learn from those who bring wisdom and insight out of the black experience, from the Hmong and the Latino communities, and from the diverse African and Asian immigrant groups that are a part of the Twin Cities in this century. Millennials elbow Baby Boomers for their rightful place at the table. Gen Xers and the rising Z’s give voice to their own experience in their own fashion. LGBTQ+ and transgender people widen our sense of family life and gender. Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, redefine the normative religious landscape and teach us how to speak our deepest convictions even as we listen to those of others.
But identity politics and tribalism are not simply natural and enriching. There is a brittleness and anger that accompany too narrow a definition of tribe, that draw the circle too tight so that outsiders are feared and hated. White supremacy, ethnic exclusion in parts of the world, and massive forced migrations are also consequences of seeing ourselves through a single, focused lens.
We are Christian and that brings a particular complication to the way we define our identity. Beyond all the other interests and loyalties that shape us, in the church we have all been called to live out who we are in Jesus Christ. Not even a denominational heritage as rich and lovely as being Lutheran out-trumps our identity as those called into a singular community in Jesus Christ.
I am a Christian. You are a Christian. And that identity, given to us by God in baptism, is the bedrock beneath all the other ways we learn to define and express who we are.
It’s been my custom to choose one Biblical text each year to share with you as a synod. This year I have chosen two. You heard them read as our lessons this morning. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment. We need to hear both of them, friends, and hear them together, because the God, who calls us in Jesus Christ, sets both mandates before us.
Evangelism and care of neighbors. If we took time and created a spectrum around this room — with the passion to invite others into life in Christ at one end and the passion to work on changing the world by addressing issues like hunger and homelessness and racial equity on the other — I imagine most of us know where we would head to line up on that line. That is part of the giftedness with which God has blessed this synod. But for 2019 I am asking all of us to work on both ends of that spectrum.
To be honest, I suspect that inviting others into life in Christ — the Great Commission — is actually the harder muscle for most of us to use. As Lutherans, we have not had as much practice nor positive role models for evangelism as we have had opportunities to care directly for our neighbors in need and to be advocates for justice in the public square. We more likely belong to a welcoming congregation, where those who show up are greeted — at least nominally — than to belong to an inviting congregation in which we actively move beyond the doors to invite others to join us in a living faith.
Now, maybe it’s true that others don’t crave what we find of value in the church anymore — people to surround us on our bad days as well as our good ones, the preaching of a Living Word of hope and grace that off-sets the loneliness and the weariness of contemporary life, an opportunity to learn across generations and work together on projects that matter, a community in which to praise God as a fundamental desire for us as humans. It could be that fewer and fewer people desire any of that these days or it might be that we have not listened well enough to know what our neighbors long for in this American culture.
And let’s admit it — these days, more of the neighbors who live around our churches look less like those of us who attend our churches. The face of our congregations is changing, but, as your bishop, I know that every congregation and mission start in this synod has to move from grief that there are not more members just like us — yes, we need to move from grief and loss into to a sense of surprise and joy about the new sisters and brothers God has prepared for us.
The future God gives is always like that. A barren woman gives birth. Refugees find a home. Hostile enemies become life-long co-workers in the Gospel. Those who are as good as dead are raised in Christ to new life. Every time, out of grief and loss come hope and a fresh beginning. How could it not be the same for us as the church in 2019?
In the second lesson this morning we hear the Great Commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, NRSV) Or as a contemporary translation puts it — “with all you’ve got.” (Ellen Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word, page 49). Here Jesus quotes the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 — the daily recitation of the Jewish community from ancient times to today.
You see, our faith story begins not with us but with God; with the Holy One, who gives life and strength and grace sufficient for our needs. And the basic human response called for is simply to love the one who first loves us. With heart and soul and all we’ve got.
Friends, Lent begins in about 10 days. I want to invite you to join me in a personal discipline. Do this in addition to everything else you are going to do in your congregation, because I know the Lutheran community still takes these 40 days seriously as a time of renewal and re-grounding in the Christian life.
What I invite you to do is simple. Two steps. Every day read the texts we have heard this morning. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment. And then pray this simple prayer — God, where can you use me? It is the servant’s prayer. God, where can you use me? Read and pray.
Even before we are together again at the Synod Assembly, I trust that God will be stirring your heart, your mind, your soul. Tell your pastor where God is prodding you to engage more deeply in your life in Christ. Send me an email, if you like, to tell me, too.
This is what we long for. We long for God’s future, which is that gift of hope and grace and renewal in whatever surprising form it takes — for us, our congregation, this synod, for the world. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
Bishop Patricia Lull
Saint Paul Area Synod, ELCA