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.

An Opportunity for Resurrection: A Reformation Sermon

November 4th, 2017

Bishop Ann Svennungsen offered this sermon during the Reformation worship of the Ministerium gathering of the Minneapolis Area Synod and the Saint Paul Area Synod at Christ the King Lutheran Church in New Brighton, Minnesota, on October 31, 2017. 

I’ve been thinking about what Luther would say if he were here today. How does his message from the Middle Ages translate into the 21st century?

So much has changed. Are his words even relevant? In the 16th century, the church was at the top of the triangle in a well-arranged hierarchy of church, empire, and household. It was illegal not to be a Trinitarian Christian. Jews were given some leeway, but if you were Jon Hus proposing that people receive both bread and wine – and that scripture be translated into their language – you could be burned at the stake.

The legal and social compulsion to be a Christian was as high as it ever was. Compare that to today: Just 50 years ago, it was assumed a good citizen was also a member of a faith community. Now, even those cultural expectations are gone – not to mention any legal pressure.

Most of my daughters’ friends don’t go to church. They are remarkable people; I like them all. Most are social activists; they teach in impoverished school districts, work for legal aid, or volunteer in free medical clinics. But the encouragements felt by their parents to be church members are not there for them.

Oh, I don’t have any desire to return to the Middle Ages. I believe the death of Christendom is actually an opportunity for resurrection – the rising of a church centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But how do we create that present day reformation? What would Luther say to us? What would he say to the people who aren’t looking for a gracious God – but wondering if there’s a God at all? And who ask, if there is a God, how does that even matter in my own, personal life?

 

INTERESTINGLY, ONE OF THE THEOLOGIANS who has helped me with this question isn’t even Lutheran. Douglas John Hall clearly states that he’s not a Lutheran, never has been, never intends to be, … but, he says, “I wouldn’t have become a theologian (perhaps I wouldn’t have remained a Christian) had I not been introduced to Martin Luther (this splendid, bombastic, impulsive, and deeply honest human being).”

Hall’s book Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant Establishment has helped me grapple with the Reformation’s relevance today.

Just like Luther, Hall’s greatest lament is the way we also confuse law and gospel. Oh, the law we proclaim is not about buying indulgences; but it is about exhortation and imperatives. On one hand, we preach about moral improvement; offer strategies for personal growth – and think that is Gospel. On the other hand, we ask folks to work for justice, peace, and the environment; to fight racism, sexism and homophobia; and think that is Gospel. Oh, Hall says, “let me be clear, I am not asking for less activism. Christians who act for justice and peace are truly “not far from the kingdom of God.”

“I don’t have any desire to return to the Middle Ages. I believe the death of Christendom is actually an opportunity for resurrection – the rising of a church centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And yet, exhortation is not the good news. The law is not gospel. And fulfilling the law is always beyond our grasp. To love neighbor as self is not just about acts, but also about heart, about motivations. And purity of thoughts and motives is always beyond our grasp. Luther knew this well.

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach,” he wrote, “I felt I was a sinner before God. I could not believe God was satisfied by my penance. Indeed, I did not love, but hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, I was angry with God. I said ‘is it not enough that miserable sinners are eternally lost and crushed – without also having God add pain to pain, threatening us to be righteous as God is righteous.”

In the midst of that dark night of the soul, Luther was transformed by his study of Romans. “At last, he writes, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Born again. When was the last time someone told you they felt they’d been born again? That is the work of the Gospel. Something more radical than all our exhortations can ever produce.

 

IT IS ALSO POSSIBLE THAT mainline Protestant preachers don’t hear about people being born again because we only preach about the healing of society. We forget the anguish of individuals. Or, we leave the healing of hearts and spirits to therapists, counselors, support groups, prescription providers. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I am the first to recommend counseling, treatment – all the gifts of God given through medicine and psychology. Still, what about “both/and” rather than “either/or?”

I was recently asked to recommend a counselor for someone dealing with depression. I thought long and hard about therapists I knew; sent out some email inquiries; took time to report my ideas. But, did I ever suggest that the person visit with their pastor for prayer? Did I ever wonder if weekly communion might just be part of the road to new life?

“Fulfilling the law is always beyond our grasp.”

We know it takes courage to speak to social ills like unchecked capitalism, racism, patriarchy – but it also takes courage to speak to the heartbreaking, subtle, often unrelenting problems in someone’s personal life. Each person has their own story of sorrow and pain – some more public than others. Indeed, we mostly carry our struggles in private.

Yes, we can work to change social ills – but within each social ill is a person whose pain goes deep. “Is there any reason for me to hope for a future? Is anything meaningful I can do?” Even God seems to ask – in the flood, in the prophets – can a creature as fragile and self-conscious as a human survive? We are finite, fallible, and mortal. Not even the best social science can address those 3 a.m. thoughts that remind us of our mortality and insignificance.

And, what is more, we are surrounded by cultural expectations of success, having it all together, staying upbeat and positive. There’s great pressure to appear content, to seem in charge, … even when we’re not.

I recently spoke with Kate Welton Reuer, our ELCA campus pastor at the U of M, and she shared a concern being expressed across all our college campuses. In this country, estimates are that one third of college students suffer from depression. One third. Could this be related to the expectations we have? Students wonder: “Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I strong enough to meet the expectations I, my parents, and others have for me?”

“Am I enough?” It’s a question with power to plague us our whole lives long. It was Luther’s question – it’s also ours. Am I enough?

The law won’t address that question. All the exhortations, social analyses, calls to justice – essential as they are – can’t address this fundamental angst of the human soul. And left to our own internal conversations, even our most positive and consistent self-talk, we will not be able to set ourselves free from whatever prison we find ourselves in. It is Gospel that addresses our deepest yearning. It is God’s love in Christ that has the unique power to proclaim, “Yes, you are enough. You are loved. You are forgiven.”

With undying love and unconditional commitment God comes to you – right where you are – and says that you are beautiful, whole, enough. This is Gospel.

In his interview with Krista Tippett, Martin Sheen talks about his own experience of conversion/rebirth. I know there are enough West Wing fans here to know that I’ve got your attention. (I think Bob Hulteen has watched the series 13 times). Sheen says, “I was searching for that elusive thing that all of us search for. Most of the time we’re not even conscious of it, but we’re searching for ourselves in an authentic way. We want to recognize the person we see in the mirror, and embrace that person with all the brokenness and lackluster, all the things that only we are aware of in the depths of our being. … I came back to Catholicism, and it was the single most joyful moment of my life, because I knew that I had come home to myself. In deeply personal ways, this satisfaction has lasted all these years. I’m still on the honeymoon. Go figure. The love that I longed for, and I think all of us really long for, is knowing that we are loved. A knowingness about our being that unites us to all of humanity, to all of the universe. That despite ourselves, we are loved. And when you realize that, … it makes all the difference. … You know how, so often, people say — and I said it, too — that ‘I’m looking for God.’ But God has already found us, really. … And when we find that love, that presence, deep within our own personal being — that love is overwhelming.”

“We can’t manufacture beloved-ness, it needs to be proclaimed.”

When Tippett asks him how prayer works for him, he says the central energy of prayer is that communion at the Eucharist. “For the most part, I’m just so stunned and so joy-filled that … I just pray ‘thank you.’”

Like in the Eucharist, the gospel comes from outside of us. We can’t manufacture beloved-ness, it needs to be proclaimed. Luther talked a lot about extra “nos” (outside of us). The good news comes from outside of us. The righteousness of Christ – outside of us – becomes our very own through the grace of God.

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. And freed in the gospel, born again, assured we’re enough, we will be free to engage the work of justice, to throw ourselves into the healing of all creation.

A Time to Take a Step

October 11th, 2017

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.

Conflict-Averse Christians

September 18th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

All things being equal, I’d rather avoid conflict. If you asked me when pastoral ministry was most challenging, I would immediately think of times when the congregations I served were most conflicted. I suspect that is true for most rostered leaders. I still remember a vivid dream the night before a tense congregational vote three decades ago.

Sometimes I think Lutherans – especially those of northern European descent – have a rather simplistic interpretation of Scripture around issues of conflict. We’ve come to believe that a sure sign of God’s favor is when our congregation is free of conflict. Yes, God seeks the unity of the church. And, yes, there are texts that affirm Jesus’ desire that we “might all be one” and Paul’s prayer “that there be no dissension in the body.”

“Avoidance of difficult conversations can be a significant impediment to true community.”

Still, the witness of Scripture is more honest and nuanced than a simplistic notion that if you have enough faith your congregation will be blessed with peace and tranquility; that disagreement and differing opinions are a sign of God’s disfavor. Indeed, I think our avoidance of difficult conversations can be a significant impediment to true community and the discernment of God’s way forward as a congregation.

 

SCOTT PECK TALKED ABOUT conflict-free communities as “pseudo-communities.” Patrick Lencioni argues that “fear of conflict” is one of five things that make for a dysfunctional team. Oh, this can be frightening territory. I am as conflict-averse as the next person. Conflict, in and of itself, is not holy – even though there can be holy conflict. Sometimes conflict is just the result of people feeling grumpy. Conflict “for conflict’s sake” is not the goal.

But if we in the church are to talk about God’s call to radical generosity, about racial justice and white privilege, not to mention the radical, countercultural news that all are sinful and set free by grace alone; we may need to learn some new ways to welcome difficult conversations.

“Conflict, in and of itself, is not holy – even though there can be holy conflict.”

A good place to start is the ELCA Moral Deliberation document or the Minnesota Council of Churches Respectful Conversations. It takes lots of prayer, the building of trust, a shared covenant of love and respect, and a willingness to try, to fail, to forgive, to try again.

Already in chapter 15 of Acts we find the first Christians in a heated conflict about the way to welcome Gentiles into the community formed by faith in Christ, crucified and risen for the sake of the world. Praise God they had the courage to engage – and praise God for their discernment that made for a new way into God’s abundant future.

Ensuring Church as a Safe Place

September 11th, 2017

By Bishop Ann Svennungsen

Healthy relationships matter. Human flourishing is irrevocably tied to the health of our relationships – with family, friends, co-workers, teachers, classmates.

Healthy church relationships matter, too. Indeed, unhealthy church relationships can be destructive in uniquely painful ways.

Tragically, the church has often done a poor job preventing and addressing misconduct in parish relationships. When I was in grade school, a pastor who admitted to sexual misconduct was given some weeks in “therapy,” and then transferred to another congregation where the abuse continued.

“The church should be a safe place for everyone.”

From the start of the ELCA, our denomination has been intentional in developing strong and clear guidelines for preventing and addressing misconduct – thanks, in large part, to the work of the Commission for Women. In 1996, Safe Connections: What Parishioners Can Do to Understand and Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse was developed. In 2002, the Minneapolis Area Synod published Policy and Procedures for Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct by Rostered Ministers.

 

THE CHURCH SHOULD be a safe place for everyone – a place where people can worship, learn, work, love, and receive care in a manner that is free from boundary violations, emotional abuse, sexual harassment, or misconduct. When safety is violated, the resulting pain can last a lifetime. And, the relationships that suffer are not only human. If a pastor – called to share God’s love – violates the trust of another, it is not hard to imagine the experience affecting the victim’s trust in the God the pastor was called to represent.

Our synod policy seeks to provide for compassionate and resolute response to those wounded by clergy sexual misconduct and appropriate discipline for those who offend. We encourage each of us to report concerns:

  • If you do not feel safe in your church, contact Dee Vodicka, the Executive Assistant to the Bishop, at 612-230-3317 or d.vodicka@mpls-synod.org.
  • If you suspect sexual misconduct, reach out to the synod or the ELCA via the website or phone at 800-638-3522, ext. 2699.
  • If you aren’t sure what is happening but it’s making you uncomfortable, call us.

“Tragically, the church has often done a poor job preventing and addressing misconduct in parish relationships.”

When our office receives such a call, it gets my complete attention. I personally meet with victims to listen to their allegations, affirm my and the church’s care for them, and refer them to an advocate if desired. I also review all allegations of clergy sexual misconduct and administer appropriate discipline, a process that may include the guidance of an advisory or consultation committee. (It should be noted that the synod may not be able to assume primary responsibility for addressing all allegations of sexual misconduct. For example, law enforcement authorities would have responsibility for investigating and addressing criminal allegations, while congregations would have to deal with accusations of sexual harassment by the congregation’s employees. Nevertheless, the appropriate synod office should be notified of all cases of inappropriate sexual behavior in the congregation.)

Healthy relationships of trust and respect are essential to the mission of the Gospel and for the flourishing of all God’s children. May we carefully and resolutely attend to both the prevention of and healing from sexual misconduct in our faith communities.