The following is an excerpt from Bishop Ann Svennungsen’s sermon preached at the opening worship for 145 synod pastors at the 2017 Bishop’s Theological Conference at Cragun’s Resort near Brainerd, Minnesota, on October 8, 2017. The theme for this conference was “Your Next Bold Step: Faithful Leadership for a Time Such as This.”
My best friend in 6th grade was Bobbi Pierson. She was smart, funny, creative – always ready for the next adventure. She and her dad made us both a pair of stilts and we got pretty good at using them. We were quick to roam the prairie in search of gophers; ready to grab our sleeping bags and camp out in her backyard. It was with Bobbi that I tried my first and only cigar.
Sometimes I wonder if Bobbi enjoyed my company partly because I was gullible. I remember one day. We were walking home from school after a thunderstorm. A mud puddle blocked our path. Seeing a big piece of cardboard nearby, Bobbi asked, “I wonder if this could hold us if we tried to cross on it?” Of course, she thought I should be the one to try it. I can still see the mud stain on the coat I was wearing that day.
Bobbi opened my eyes to a great big world. And, taught me the pitfalls of gullibility – the wisdom of avoiding certain things – especially your best friend’s suggestions.
Sometimes, I think the world looks at Christians and thinks we are those folks who avoid things: swearing, gambling, drinking, same-sex marriage, engaging in the messiness of politics. If you avoid certain things, you’ll be a good Christian, holy and righteous.
“I know how to avoid swearing, cheating, stealing. I’m not quite sure how to stop gun violence or homelessness, how to dismantle white privilege and racism, how to prevent sex trafficking at the Super Bowl, …”
However, scripture won’t allow such a narrow interpretation of righteousness. Joseph Sittler tells a powerful story of what righteousness means. While in Israel, his car broke down. He took it to a mechanic, a native born Israeli. It took several hours to fix, but when Sittler came to get it, the mechanic was standing there smiling at a perfectly running engine. And he said, “sedeka.” Sittler asked him to say the word again and, when he repeated “sedeka,” Sittler knew he was hearing the Hebrew word for righteousness. Yes, that’s righteousness. He now had a well-functioning engine, each part working for the good of the whole.
That’s also the righteousness God envisions: Humans and all creation working in harmony – pistons, spark plugs carburetor – whatever your task, doing it right and well, involved and working for the good of all.
That takes engagement, involvement, even getting dirty. If the pistons decided they wanted to be set apart, to remain pure and clean and untouched, then the car wouldn’t run.
Rather, this active, dynamic work of righteousness sends us smack into the mud and grease of this world. Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” And the light isn’t put under a bushel. It’s not lit and then removed from everything – to protect it – to keep it pure.
Maybe Christians like to limit the definition of righteousness because, well, avoiding stuff is lot easier. I know how to avoid swearing, cheating, stealing. I’m not quite sure how to stop gun violence or homelessness, how to dismantle white privilege and racism, how to prevent sex trafficking at the Super Bowl (in one of the most Lutheran cities in the country), how to reach and exceed our clean energy goals, how to care for refugees in a crisis greater than anything we’ve seen since World War II.
Merely avoiding food in a holy fast isn’t enough according to the prophet Isaiah. True fasting includes both attending to God and attending to the neighbor. And that can get complicated, even messy.
SOMEHOW, SOMEWAY, I’VE surrounded myself with people with community organizing experience in the synod office. Our bishops’ assistants, John, Craig, and Deb, are all trained as community organizing. So are Bob, Emilie, and Jaddie. In fact, they form the basis of a whole organizing department, which also includes our awesome LVC volunteers – Grace and Emily.
Right now, they’re planning amazing congregation-based community organizing training week next January – for the whole synod. But, I think it’s partly a ruse to get me there and up to speed.
The truth of it is – I’m pretty excited about the training. It seems to me that now, as much as any time I can remember, the church needs tools – strategies – to work for justice and healing in the public square. We’re pretty good at caring for victims – shelters, food shelves, job training, after school programs. But what about addressing root issues – dismantling the systems that create oppression and inequality?
We’ve planned this conference believing that the tools of congregation-based community organizing can empower and guide us as we take the next bold step in God’s work for justice and the well-being of all.
To be sure, community organizing is not just a Lutheran or Christian enterprise. But, we do have some pretty incredible Lutheran theologians to guide us in this work. ELCA Pastor Dennis Jacobsen just published a 2017 edition of Doing Justice with a forward by both Pastor Grant Stevenson and Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellermann. Ray Pickett, New Testament scholar and head of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, our own Sue Engh, who serves as ELCA director for congregation-based organizing, and our guest speaker, Pastor Heidi Neumark, all provide exceptional wisdom.
“Congregation-based community organizers invite us to imagine the world as it should be in contrast to the world as it is.”
Congregation-based community organizers invite us to imagine the world as it should be in contrast to the world as it is. Oh, they weren’t the first to extend this invitation. Jesus and the prophets did a lot of that as well.
But that contrast – that gap between the world as it should be and the world as it is – doesn’t it feel as if it’s grown wider this year? Or maybe people feel freer to say out loud that they’re Nazis or white supremacists – attitudes they’ve kept hidden until now.
Whatever the case, it feels that Christians working toward “the world as it should be” will need greater wisdom, smarter strategies, and bolder courage.
WE WILL LOOK TOGETHER at the theological basis and the practical fundamentals of congregation-based community organizing. We will talk about power, self-interest, one-on-ones, the world as it should be, the world as it is, and how we can lead congregations to engage the public square.
In the 1940s Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “the church is the church only when it exists for others.” Self-preservation is antithetical to the cross of Jesus Christ. In the 1960s Martin Luther King reminded us that power without love is tyranny; but love without power is sentimentality. This power merged with love was the strategic brilliance of the Civil Rights Movement.
What is God calling us to be and do with our love and power – participating in God’s love and power – in the second decade of the 21st century?
Particularly, what are church leaders called to do? Jacobsen wonders: “Who takes the local church into the public arena if not the pastor? If the pastoral leadership of the local church is resistant to a public arena ministry even the best-intentioned laity will be blocked. Clergy reluctance keeps churches in the sanctuary.”
“What is God calling us to be and do with our love and power – participating in God’s love and power – in the second decade of the 21st century?”
So what’s your next bold step? What’s mine? Our time together is intended to help us wrestle with that question.
It will take a lifetime to understand the depths of the word “sedeka.” It was a word Luther struggled with for years. For years, he believed we humans must first become righteous to earn God’s love. Through his study of Romans, he discovered that God’s righteousness is an active and dynamic righteousness, a righteousness that reaches and fills us just as we are through faith in Christ.
God so wants to make things right in our lives and in all of creation that God became involved in the even the deepest of ways. God reached into the dirt to form human beings. In Christ, God entered the mess of sin and evil and brokenness; and though the Spirit, God enters each of our lives – even the depths of our souls.
God goes the distance for you, for me, for all creation. And God calls us to enter into this broken world, not to float over the mud puddles, but to get deeply involved, to sin boldly but believe more boldly still – working together so all may know God’s shalom.