Don’t you just ‘love’ Caesar?

April 17th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Did you get your taxes done? Perhaps, the storm gave you time needed to finish. Perhaps, you just got your Form 4868 done early (and if you’re not familiar with Form 4868, kudos to you). Perhaps, you plan for a big refund, so you mailed your tax return as soon as your W-2s arrived.

Whatever your situation, I think Christians should stop and say a prayer as they drop their tax forms in the mail or press “send” to submit their electronic returns. If you look at the programs and people our taxes support, it’s easy to make connections with the purpose of the “tithe” in Scripture.

Biblical tithing refers to the practice of giving one tenth of one’s income to God. “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field,” it says in Deuteronomy 14:22. “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord,” according to Leviticus 27:30

The tithes were used to support God’s work to care for the poor as well as support the community of faith. And, beyond the tithe, God called Israel to practice gleaning, Sabbath, and remission of debts – additional ways to serve the poor. As God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

 

CLEARLY, SOME OF OUR STATE and federal taxes serve the vulnerable among us: Medicare for those over 65, supplemental social security for those who are disabled, education for all ages, health care for adults and children in poverty, food stamps, tax credits. We may disagree about when tax-funded programs are the best way to serve the poor or about the proportion of our tax dollars going to social programs versus defense spending. Part of faithful stewardship includes our advocacy around such priorities.

Yet, at the end of the day, we can say a prayer as we pay our taxes – asking that the contributions we make will do good work for the sake of our neighbor, especially the neighbor in need.

So, do we tithe before or after taxes? My response: Just start somewhere! We tithe because we care about the world and the church’s proclamation. Paying taxes is no substitute for faithful giving to and through our communities of faith. It is no substitute for sacrificial generosity. Everything we have comes from God. It all belongs to God. Discipleship is not just about 10 percent. It’s about our whole lives – 100 percent.

Luther wrote “Mammon is the most common idol on earth.” How can we support and challenge one another to look more honestly at our relationship with money – and to know the grace and freedom to risk even greater generosity?

I close with a few words by beloved former Bishop Margaret Payne:

There was a young lady of God
Who thought tithing excessively odd
But she let out sigh
And she gave it a try
Now she thrives on nine-tenths of her wad.

The joy of having resources that are already set aside for giving, the delight of selecting which part of God’s work to support, the freedom from the endlessness of always wanting more — these are some of the pleasures of tithing. When we see this, … then we can tithe, and go beyond a tithe, with gratitude and grace.

From a Distance

March 26th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

When I was serving a congregation, I often felt that the pace of Holy Week was similar to that of college finals. Three research papers were due (read: sermons) as well as four oral exams (read: leading worship services). Sometimes I felt like it might simpler to pack a sleeping bag and stay in the church that week.

It’s the center of the church year – the days we enter the great mystery of the God revealed in the suffering, dying, and risen Christ. It’s not an easy story. Mark’s gospel tells about Judas who betrayed, Peter who denied, disciples who fell asleep in the garden, and all the disciples who deserted Jesus and fled. And, one of the most haunting phrases speaks about the women “who looked on from a distance.”

“Yes, it’s important to honor and remember this event – but it has become something out of which we expect no more surprises.”

Oh, there’s no doubt that our lives are littered with words like betrayal and denial and falling away. But, it’s the phrase “from a distance” which may most accurately describe our interaction with the passion of Christ. We’d just as soon look at this day, this week, these events, standing “at a distance.”

Oh, we name the week differently than society does. Some call it “spring break” or “March Madness.” We at least call it Holy. Yet, we’re still tempted to keep our distance. And, that’s not just a function of school schedules or keeping up with our brackets.

 

CRUCIFIXION IS NOT something we want to see up close. Easter preparations can become a distraction. Yet, there’s something else, I think. Perhaps, we use our timelines, our linear view of history, to keep us safely detached. We focus on looking back to something way behind us, something distance from our current life. Yes, it’s important to honor and remember this event – but it has become something out of which we expect no more surprises.

Lutheran theologian and professor of divinity Joseph Sittler writes:

It was all so long ago, and far away;
Each Lent reminds us in word and hymn and sermon.
And we are reminded, too, that point of the remembering
Is not simply, in pity, to remember.
The point of remembering and prayer and work is
To bring together the past and present,
Our predicament and an everlasting Passion.
The connection must be made because
Christ made it.
And thus became God for us and God with us.

God’s power is beyond time, beyond our linear view of history. The life, death, and resurrection is full of surprises, full of power – power enough to change your whole life, to put your sin to death and raise you up to new life in Christ. The Passion is now, for us, for you, even in this moment, full of grace and love.

‘Leading us forth’

March 12th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

During our March 5 plenary of the Spring Conference of Bishops, those gathered issued a statement in solidarity with surviving students of the Florida school shooting and supportive of the March for our Lives rally on March 24 in Washington, D.C.

March for Our Lives is an initiative calling for legislation to effectively address gun violence in the U.S. The initiative has been taken up in “sibling marches,” with close to 700 events planned in hundreds of cities nationwide, as well as in Canada, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

The ELCA Conference of Bishops “offer our support, partnership, and prayers for the March for Our Lives, its satellite city events, and our children and youth who are leading us forward as peacemakers.”

I invite you to read the statement as a replacement for my blog this week.

 

In Solidarity with Our Children and Youth 

 

Our children and youth are like a young Jeremiah prophesying to the people: ”‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Recently, the students, faculty, and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida experienced tragedy. Seventeen people — students and teachers — were killed by a 19-year-old shooter. In response, students have invited their teachers, families, and allies around the nation to join with them for a March for their Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC; calling our country into a deeper conversation about school safety and second amendment rights and responsibilities.

We recognize this incident is the latest in a long list of tragic shootings in our country and young people have been calling for protest and change for many years. Some of those young voices have been ignored or silenced because of racial and economic injustice. We cannot let that reality keep us from acting now.

Some of those young voices have been ignored or silenced because of racial and economic injustice. We cannot let that reality keep us from acting now.

Adopted in 1994, the ELCA social message on Community Violence remains sadly relevant today. The message speaks about the causes of violence as complex and pervasive, and of how violence breeds violence. In proclaiming the forgiveness and love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church addresses the root of violence while being committed to social actions that respond directly to violence and the people it affects.

From the Social Message: In the face of violence, God’s resolve for peace in human communities is unshakable. Deliberate acts to harm or kill innocent people violate God’s intention for human community. God’s commandment is “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). In proclaiming God’s law, we declare that all people are accountable before God and the community to honor and respect the life God has given. Christians, as salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) and light of the world (Matthew 5:14), are called to respond to violent crime in the restorative ways taught by Jesus (Matthew 5:38-39), and shown by his actions (John 8:3-11). We are empowered to take up the challenge to prevent violence and to attack the complex causes that make violence so pervasive.

According to Lutheran theology, society is to be ruled by the civil use of the Law. Government is responsible under God for the protection of its citizens and the maintenance of justice and public order. As citizens in a democracy, we have the responsibility to join with others to hold government accountable for protecting society and ensuring justice for all, and to seek changes in policies and practices toward these ends.

That social message was amplified by a social statement, For Peace in God’s World (1995) which, as part of its adoption, offered concrete implementation actions, including: To call upon the members and leaders of this church to support our youth in their struggle to define their identity and vocation as present and future peacemakers…

We, the undersigned members of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in solidarity with our children and youth, and in response to our common baptismal vocation: living among God’s faithful people; hearing the word of God and sharing in the Lord’s Supper; proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serving all people following the example of Jesus; and striving for justice and peace in all the earth; offer our support, partnership, and prayers for the March for Our Lives, its satellite city events, and our children and youth who are leading us forward as peacemakers.

[This statement was passed by the Conference of Bishops on March 5, so the names of the undersigned bishops is not included here.]

A conversation for Lent

February 27th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

My father liked to hunt pheasant in Montana. My son-in-law grew up hunting deer in northern Minnesota. Though I can’t imagine shooting a gun, I can imagine the suspense and even excitement of waiting in the bushes for a bird to come into view. And I am well aware that the pheasant shot by my father is no different from the chicken I ate last night killed by a local farmer.

But all of that is profoundly different from what happened on February 14.

In the wake of the school shooting in Florida, Peter Marty, ELCA pastor and publisher of The Christian Century, takes a provocative stance on guns: We’re “in golden calf country here, elevating a loyalty to the gun over a fidelity to God’s desire abundant life.”

“Protect Minnesota’s website states ‘We are not anti-gun; we’re anti-gun violence.’”

With 15,592 gun-related deaths last year and no federal legislation in response, Marty may have a point. And his article continues: Our idolatry isn’t only manifested by the reality that it’s “harder to obtain a passport or buy pseudoephedrine than to purchase an AR-15 magazine-fed rifle,” it is revealed in the powerful sway that the gun lobby has on our legislators.

Ten U.S. senators have received millions of NRA funding during their careers (between $1.7 million and $7.7 million to be specific). As Marty laments, “what started for many of them as a respectful decision to cherish one understanding of Second Amendment rights has morphed into a colossal idolatry of lethal weapons, including rapid-fire assault rifles.”

 

CLOSER TO HOME, ELCA Pastor Nancy Nord Bence serves as executive director of Protect Minnesota, an organization whose mission is to promote a culture of health and safety for all Minnesotans by preventing gun violence through effective laws, policies, and community education. Its website states “We are not anti-gun; we’re anti-gun violence. We support common sense legislation that will keep guns out of the hands of dangerous and suicidal individuals, and prevent the unintentional injury and death of children. We believe gun ownership should be ‘well regulated,’ the way car ownership is.”

“Peter Marty, ELCA pastor and publisher of The Christian Century, says we’re ‘in golden calf country here, elevating a loyalty to the gun over a fidelity to God’s desire abundant life.’”

Protect Minnesota suggests congregations, synods, and denominations consider passing a resolution which includes the words “BE IT RESOLVED, that (Name of congregation or denomination) urges our congressional representatives and state legislators to support gun-violence prevention measures.

Although not a Lutheran, Abraham Lincoln was a trustee at one of our colleges (Carthage in Kenosha, Wisconsin). At a debate about slavery in 1858, he said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently [the one] who molds public sentiment goes deeper than [the one] who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. [They make] statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

 

AS LUTHERANS, WE KNOW there is no perfect public policy, no unambiguously good civic action. But, the cries of 15,592 people killed by guns last year challenge us to ask if there is more we can do. One way to begin is to have intentional conversation in our communities of faith. I suggest we use the resource is “Can We Talk about Guns? A Conversation Guide.”

Another possibility is to contact the Minnesota Council of Churches to facilitate a “respectful conversation” on gun violence in Minnesota.

In this Lenten season, may we all be prayerful about the violence in our country and world – and be prayerful about how God may calling us to act in response.

When the dead stump flowers

February 13th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen 

“The mark of ashes is one of the few honest words in a culture of illusion.” So began an Ash Wednesday sermon I preached in the early 1990s. Perhaps, the words are even more pertinent today.

We hear about fact checking, truth-o-meters, fake news. Well, this week we enter a season of deep truth-telling – a season that begins with ashes on our brows.

Perhaps, in a culture of illusion, we might turn to the Biblical prophets to guide us. Like the others, the prophet Isaiah minces few words in naming what he sees. Though God had tenderly cared for the people of Judah, they had not born the fruits of faithfulness and justice. Orphans were forgotten.
Widows neglected. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. To satisfy their greed and anesthetize themselves from the cries of poor people, the well-off spent their time at drunken feasts; they spent their money on clothes, perfumes, and trinkets.

“We were created from the dust of the earth; we will return to the dust of the earth; and we live with the dust of sin on our hands.”

But those efforts weren’t strong enough to block out Isaiah’s message. “Instead of perfume, there will be a stench; instead of beautiful hair, baldness; instead of rich robes, a binding of sackcloth. … You who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, surely your houses will be desolate, large and beautiful houses without inhabitants.”

Because of its sin, Judah would be cut down like a mighty oak. The people’s only hope is this tiny branch, this shoot from the stump of Jesse. It is from that dead stump that flowers one of the most beautiful pictures of justice in all of scripture. The Messiah, the one who comes as a descendant of Jesse, will reign with righteousness, not judging by soundbites or hearsay, but by equity and truth. The forgotten who have no advocate will have no need for one, for the Messiah will come to their defense, establishing a justice never before experienced.

 

PERHAPS, IN THIS SEASON OF Lent, in these days when we wonder “what is true,” we might consider reading the Biblical prophets as a Lenten discipline.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The sooty cross which will soon cling to our skin reminds us of at least truths: we were created from the dust of the earth; we will return to the dust of the earth; and we live with the dust of sin on our hands. We live dependent upon God – for life, for forgiveness, and for life beyond death.

“The mark of ashes is one of the few honest words in a culture of illusion.”

And, then as we journey through Lent, a season of repentance, we open our eyes to see our sin: our petty thoughts, our complicity with sinful structures, our attempts to anesthetize ourselves from the world’s pain, our failure to believe God has gifted us to make a difference.

It is in God’s grace – and because of God’s faithfulness – that we can courageously examine our lives. Confident that God’s promise is not fake news, we can courageously work for the shalom God seeks for all.

All

January 30th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

A few weeks ago, I was humbled to preach at the funeral of Erik Flom, the 25 year-old-son of Pastor Matt and Nora Flom. In learning more about his life, I found this story from a classmate. She wrote,

“Erik was an indescribably magnetic person. People practically orbited around him. He was always at the center of a group of smiling, laughing people. I was quieter in high school, so I usually just orbited around him at a distance. BUT, whenever I approached a group he was in, he would ALWAYS make space for me, ALWAYS welcome me, ALWAYS make sure I was included in the conversation.”

What a beautiful image – not just for Erik, but for God. God is always making a space for us – for you and me. And there is such a graciousness about Erik’s welcome. It isn’t “hey so and so, why are you standing on the outside of the circle. Come on up here.” But rather, a quiet, respectful, deep expression of welcome. Not calling attention to the fact that you feel on the outside. And no matter who we are, there isn’t a one of us who doesn’t feel at times like we’re the outsider. You wonder, is there a space for me? Am I included – just as I am?

 

IRONICALLY, IT SEEMS that many think of the church as less about welcome and more about expectations, rules, and the consequences of falling short. The church talks a lot about sin. And sometimes that can confuse us. But, at its core, the forgiveness of sin is one of God’s most radical signs of welcome.  You know how it goes. The preacher says, “God loves you.” And you think, “Oh, if God only knew my real thoughts, my resentments, my fear; if God knew what I did last night, last week; I’m sure God wouldn’t say that. God’s love can’t be for me.”

“No matter who we are, there isn’t a one of us who doesn’t feel at times like we’re the outsider.”

And, that’s the radical, amazing power of forgiveness. God knows you in the very depths of your being, better than you know yourself. And God’s love goes deeper still – forgiving, cleansing, making new. This is radical love. Radical welcome.

We are created in God’s image, claimed as God’s children, and, in Christ, God stopped at nothing – not even death – to show God’s love. All are welcome.

A Moral Example

January 15th, 2018

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

“It was during a time of personal prayer and fasting that I received the news I would play the part of King in the movie Selma,” David Oyelowo told the crowd gathered for the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. It seemed to him that God had called him for this role. However, that didn’t make it easy. For the three months of filming, Oyelowo did not get out of character. And, even the threats that King faced began to seem like threats to the actor himself.

There is little doubt that Martin Luther King, Jr. sensed that God had called him as a prophet. But, that didn’t make it easy. Oyelowo tells about King’s anguish as he faced death threats during the Montgomery bus boycott. Sitting with his coffee in the parsonage kitchen, King prayed: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, King writes, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’”

 

I WAS PRIVILEGED TO visit King’s parsonage kitchen as part of a Civil Rights Tour in 2016. It felt like we were in sacred space, on holy ground. The scene actually comes to me often – the linoleum table, the metal chairs, the white cupboards – and gives me courage and faith as I do my small part seeking justice and the common good.

“Though we may not fear violence or death threats as King did, we all need the kind of faith and courage that King sought from God.”

Oweloyo received special applause for his remark: “in this country right now, when it comes to race, we are in a place we do not want to be.” Given the events of Charlottesville, the disparagement of Haiti and Africa, and the rise of white supremacist groups, his statement may be more of an understatement.

And, though we may not fear violence or death threats as King did, we all need the kind of faith and courage that King sought from God. (Seasons of prayer and fasting as modeled by Oyelowo would also be good.) Our call to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) is threatened more by the frequent – even daily – stories of bigotry and division. We become numb to the horrible truth if our only act of resistance is watching the reactions of late night TV hosts.

Yesterday, along with the powerful voice of Oyelowo, we also heard recently discovered footage from a 1967 King speech given at the University of Minnesota. Now, 51 years later, I hope we can join King in sharing the vision he shared then: “I personally decided to tell America the truth, because I love America so much. And I want to see our great nation stand as a moral example of the world.”

The Magnificat and the Blues

December 5th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

The garment I will choose for Mary will be deep blue – blue like the ocean, like the endless night sky. Enough of this pale blue – as if the only thing that matters was that she was a virgin, meek and mild, pale and fading from view. No, we will use a color that is deep and strong.

For according to Luke’s gospel, Mary appears as a disciple with courage like Simon Peter, a prophet with the fire of Amos. The blue colors of Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, are a fulfillment of the prophecy of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” That’s the blue of a deep, rushing stream.

Mary is really the first disciple, the first to hear the good news of Jesus, and the first to believe.

The remarkable Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, notes that Mary is really the first disciple – the first to hear the good news of Jesus and the first to believe. “Let it be done according to your work,” she says.

She’s also the first to live out her discipleship. And, she does this in two distinct ways. First, she runs to tell Elizabeth the good news. Disciples don’t just keep the word to themselves; they share the good news with others. Second, Mary interprets the good news in her song, Magnificat. She doesn’t just say “the Messiah is coming,” but she tells us what it will mean.

 

THE ANGEL TOLD MARY who Jesus is, namely, Messiah and Son of God, and Mary believes. But she also translates this identity in terms of what his coming will mean for the world.

Mary is anticipating the gospel of her son who announced his ministry as good news for the poor and hungry, blessing for the sorrowful and lowly, woe for the rich and proud.

Mary interprets the good news in her song, Magnificat. She doesn’t just say “the Messiah is coming,” but she tells us what it will mean.

In a way, our baptism is like that greeting from Gabriel. To Mary, Gabriel says, “Fear not for you have found favor with God.” Likewise, in baptism, God greets us with divine favor and love. And in those blue waters, we’re invited to carry Jesus in our lives – not a womb for nine months, but in our hearts, our minds, our whole being, for all eternity. We are greeted with the grace and favor of God, who chooses to dwell in us. God makes a home in us, and, upon entering, God says, “This home is good – this home was made in my image and is now being conformed to the image of Christ.”

Gabriel’s greeting changed Mary’s life – forever. And so it will change ours. We see things differently through the waters of baptism. It’s like being given the prophet’s royal blue lenses. We are less enamored by worldly definitions and power and status – and more aware of the poor and of the joy found in accompaniment.

Seeing Through a Glass, Clearly

November 20th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

When my father started his optometric practice, he borrowed $2,000 from a local farmer to purchase equipment. When I asked how far $2,000 went in 1952, he said, “Not far. We spent most of it on the phoropter. You know, the instrument for testing vision, the one with all the lenses. After we bought that, we only had enough for second-hand chairs and desk. But we were in the business of helping people see.”

Once a year, we spend a lot of money, time, and energy in hope that we might see things more clearly – so we recognize anew the abundance of God’s provision. We call it Thanksgiving.

 

THE TRADITION IS AS old as the ancient Israelites. “When you come into the land that the Lord is giving you, take some of the first fruit, set it down before the Lord. Then, with the Levites and foreigners, you shall celebrate all the bounty that God has given you.”

It’s about the gifts. It’s about the Giver. But, something else comes into the focus during this feast. Look again at the table set in Israel. Strangers and foreigners have a place. When we see God as the Giver of everything we have, we recognize anew our place in God’s world. It’s not about me and all I’ve done. If I have resources, talents, wealth – that’s not ultimately my doing. It’s about God and what God has done.

“When we see God as the Giver of everything we have, we recognize anew our place in God’s world.”

And this same God seeks fullness of life for all creation. It’s like my father’s phoropter. Once the right lens is more clearly focused on the goodness of God, the left lens comes into focus as well – revealing the neighbor, especially the neighbor who lacks the fullness of life that God intends.

Walter Brueggemann writes that, in the faith of the scripture, you can’t say “God” without also saying “neighbor.” I hope and pray that as I gather with loved ones this Thursday, I will see just a bit more clearly that all I have is a gift from God and see more vividly the Christ who dwells in the stranger, the oppressed, the forgotten – my beloved neighbor. I pray the same for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Showing Up

November 6th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Every Memorial Day, my mother made her way to the cemetery to place flowers on her parents’ graves. For me, All Saints’ is the day I feel a similar need. Our son, John Amos, died at the age of 30 on May 2, 2015. He is interred in the columbarium located intentionally next to the baptismal font at Edina Community Lutheran Church. My mom’s potted geraniums don’t quite work there as they did in a cemetery – but lighting a candle in that space and saying a prayer are meaningful alternatives.

This year, I’m remembering especially how much our son loved the Lutheran church. I can’t remember a single time he objected when we said, “It’s time for worship, time for youth group.” He couldn’t wait to go. John was the most positive church person I’ve ever known.

Giving thanks for John this All Saints’ Day has reminded me again how “showing up” matters. The older I get, the more I realize how showing up is often the most important thing we can do. We may not have the right words; we might be late or dressed all wrong. But, our authentic presence often means more than we could have imagined.

 

LUTHERANS SHOULD HAVE LITTLE trouble understanding how important it is to show up – especially to receive the means of grace. Luther talked a lot about how the gospel comes to us “extra nos” (outside of us). The righteousness of Christ – outside of us – becomes our very own through the grace of God. When we show up for worship, God meets us there; and through the means of grace, we receive Christ’s forgiving and healing presence. We are reminded of who we are: beloved children of God and followers of Jesus Christ.

“Our authentic presence often means more than we could have imagined.”

The world is so effective at proclaiming the religions of consumerism, division, individualism, entertainment, and greed. Worship, for me, awakens and reorients me in the reign of God, empowers me to participate in God’s work, and grafts me once again into God’s alternative narrative of justice and mercy.

Showing up matters. Kathleen Norris, who writes honestly about the journey of faith and doubt, talks about showing up in worship even when she struggles to believe. “I learned to be patient in my doubts and questions, she says, to be vigilant and attentive – not absenting myself from church, but participating even more.”

The Spirit calls us through the gospel – again and again and again. We need preachers to proclaim that word; we need a community willing to pour the water, share wine, break bread, and offer it as gospel to all of us who await with empty hands.