Monthly Archives: July 2019

Choosing the “Better Part”

What would Jesus do?SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:42.

This text has often been used to elevate the “contemplative” life over the “active” life. A lot of sermons portray Martha as the one with the “to do” list and a dozen irons in the fire. She has little patience with people who want to “stop and smell the roses” or pray when there are toilets to be cleaned, rugs to be vacuumed and a meal to prepare. Mary, by contrast, understands that work is not an end in itself. Priority must be given to reading, marking, learning and digesting the Word of God. Only then does one’s path to action become clear. Martha would probably reply that this is all well and good in theory, but the roast is in the oven now and it’s not going to wait patiently for you to arrive at perfect inner clarity before burning to a crisp. What follows in such a sermon is a reflection on achieving the proper balance between care for the soul and responsible action.

I think, however, that all of this misses the point. There is nothing wrong with what Martha was doing. Hospitality ranks near the top of biblical values. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ ministry depends on the hospitality of people who support that ministry by receiving and caring for his disciples who carry it out. Luke 10:3-9. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews admonishes us to show hospitality to strangers because you never know whether the one in need of it might be an angel. Hebrews 13:2. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their abuse of strangers in need of hospitality which, unfortunately for them, turned out to be angels! (Trump & company take note).

Furthermore, Jesus does not denigrate Martha’s ministry. He does not suggest that Martha should have been sitting with Mary listening to him or that she ought to drop what she is doing to join her. This isn’t about the relative worth of what Martha or Mary were doing. It is about Mary’s choice of the “ better part.” Martha’s mistake was not in dutifully attending to the ministry of hospitality. Her error was in trying to override Mary’s faithful response to Jesus’ teaching by appealing to her own priorities. For Mary, at this time and in this place, faithfulness to Jesus called for listening to and engaging with his teaching to the exclusion of all else. That may or may not have been the case for Martha.

The most difficult church conflicts I have seen arise not over choices between good and bad courses of action, but over two seemingly good opportunities. A deceased member leaves a substantial amount of money “for the mission of the church” without giving specifics. Some in the congregation insist that the money should be spent making the sanctuary barrier free for persons with disabilities. Others argue that the mission of the church lies outside its doors. The bequest should therefore be spent on ministries to the homeless and hungry in the community. The barrier free supporters counter that the sanctuary, as it is, excludes a whole class of people from worshiping and engaging in the church’s mission and the very ministries it promotes. There are no pat answers to questions like these. For this reason, we are always in a posture of listening to Jesus and trying to choose in this time and place what is for us “the better part.”

For over a decade now I have seen tea shirts, buttons and bracelets bearing the acronym “WWJD,” that is, “What would Jesus do?” The problem here is the assumption that Jesus is long dead and we are left to speculate over how he would respond to one thing or another. Disciples of Jesus believe, however, that Jesus is very much alive and with his church “to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20. We don’t have to guess where Jesus is or what he is doing. He is with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked and the sick. Matthew 25:31-46. If we would follow Jesus, a good place to start is at our nation’s southern border. Another might be the many neighborhoods struggling with the effects of decades of racial discrimination, predatory banking practices and decaying infostructure. We can hear the call of Jesus from across our borders appealing to our consciences against the fascist screams of “America First.” Anyone pondering what Jesus would do should take a good look at where Jesus is and what his disciples are doing.

We have, I believe, arrived at a moment that demands our choosing the “better part.” In its recent history, my own ELCA has issued apologies for Lutheran silence and complicity in the Holocaust and for our church’s complicity and inaction during this nation’s years of slavery and Jim Crow. It is my prayer that a future generation of Christians will not be issuing apologies for the church’s failure to denounce as heresy the Christotrumpist evangelicalism preached by the likes of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Tony Perkins and Robert Jefferies supporting nationalism and white supremacy. I hope my grandchildren will not be embarrassed by the silence of our pastors, the inaction of our leaders and a paralyzing preference for peace in the ecclesiastical household over the justice of God’s reign. I pray that the machinery of institutional ecumenism will not become a barrier for the unity in Christ Jesus that we need so much in this hour. Most of all, I pray that we will not hear on the last day that haunting and damning indictment: “I was hungry, homeless, imprisoned, naked and thirsty…and you did not…”

Below is an ancient poem from the Book of Ecclesiastes. The book as a whole is attributed to King Solomon of legendary wisdom, referred to as “the teacher.” Though actual authorship of biblical works often differs from attribution, there is good reason to believe that some of the book’s material goes back to the royal court of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. The poem appears to be an independent source subject to extended commentary and interpretation by the teacher. Poems, of course, are never entirely exhausted by commentary. Thus, it is fruitful to consider this poem in its own right and apart from its immediate biblical context for what it can teach us about the contingent nature of our existence and the ever shifting circumstances calling for very different courses of action depending on the “time.” Jesus’ injunction to recognize the “signs of the times” gives the lines of this piece an added sense of urgency. Matthew 16:1-4.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Source: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

Jesus on the Grammar of Love

The Good SamaritanFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Good Samaritan” is one of those biblical allusions that, in common secular parlance, has come altogether loose from its biblical moorings. When the term is used to describe someone, it usually means no more than that s/he goes out of her/his way to help a stranger. That is admirable, of course, but hardly above and beyond the call of duty. We don’t prosecute people who drive past an elderly person on the roadside with a flat tire in obvious need of help. But most of us would probably think such behavior more than a little shabby. Neighbors should help neighbors. It’s the right thing to do and, besides, you never know when you might find yourself in need of a little neighborly assistance.

But then, of course, you have to ask the question posed by the lawyer prompting the parable: Who is my neighbor? Is a neighbor someone from my neighborhood? A fellow American? People who speak English only? Folks that belong to my church, my lodge, my party? Invariably, the question always comes down to this: “Where do you draw the line?” At our southern border with Mexico? Along the NATO alliance countries? Between legal and illegal residents of this country? And what about enemies? Do I still have to be a neighbor to the folks who want to kill me and people like me? We can debate these questions endlessly because you can always make good arguments for where you draw your lines. That is where the lawyer was trying to take his discussion with Jesus. He wanted to bait Jesus into a “Where do you draw the line” argument.

Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question. As he so often does, Jesus tells a story to help him ask better questions. We have gotten into the habit of calling this story of the compassionate Samaritan a parable, but I am not convinced that it was only that. It is different from most parables in that Jesus gives us some geographic details, such as the fact that this all took place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Why would that matter if this were only a parable? Furthermore, if this were only a parable, the lawyer might simply have said, “Nice story Jesus. But you don’t know Samaritans like I do. They wouldn’t cross the road to spit on a dying Jew. In fact, they would probably be only too happy to finish him off.” The lawyer, however, says no such thing. He doesn’t challenge Jesus’ account. Could that be because the story was drawn from an event that really happened? Could it be that this event become a parable only because Jesus used it that way?

Whatever the case may be, Jesus would have us understand that neighborliness is not a duty whose scope is a matter of interpretation. Neighborliness is a miracle that happens when the Spirit of God opens our eyes so that we can see, even in our enemies, the image of God and the object of God’s love. Jesus tells us that the Samaritan was “moved to pity” when he saw the victim of the robbers. Luke 10:33. But the Greek verb means a lot more than that. The Greek text expresses a kind of compassion that gets under the skin, a kind of caring that allows the Samaritan to see the world through the eyes of this man, this victim, this enemy and recognize in his suffering the call of God to act with godly compassion. Now a miracle like that might not happen very often. But even if it happened only once in all of history-it proves that such love is not humanly impossible. It proves that it is possible to love your neighbor, including your alien neighbor, your hostile neighbor and your enemy neighbor. As our lesson from Deuteronomy points out, it “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14. The opportunity for you to obey the law of love is as near to you as your needy neighbor. You can do it.

Jesus would have us know that this is not, as the lawyer assumed, a legal issue. It’s a grammatical one. “Your problem, son,” says Jesus to the lawyer, “is that you are focused on nouns and God’s commandments are all about verbs. If you thought about what it means to be a neighbor half as much as you fret over how to define one, we wouldn’t be having this silly conversation. Now let’s put a stop to this ridiculous bickering over how to define a neighbor and get on with the business of being one.”

It is our coldness of heart that leads us to limit the reach of our compassion and our duty of love along the lines of neighborhood, nation, family, race and tribe. “Our country is full, our area’s full, the sector is full. We can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry, can’t happen. So turn around, that’s the way it is.”[1] So says our president to families with their children fleeing violence and starvation to what our national mythology says is a land of promise. I have come to expect such sentiments in the halls of congress and in the White House. What is truly heartbreaking is having to hear them spoken in Christian sanctuaries and on the lips of those who would hold themselves out as church leaders. It is heartbreaking that so many of us seem to have lost the capacity for compassion.

On the other hand, there are also many parabolic miracles of compassion occurring each day to remind us that neighborly love is very much alive. Churches across the country are offering shelter and sanctuary to families in danger of deportation and separation. Lawyers, physicians and healthcare workers are donating their time and resources to address the deplorable conditions growing out of the culture of fear and intimidation created by our country’s immigration policies. Religious leaders of all persuasions are speaking out against the inhumane incarceration of children and separation of families at the border. These are living parables of hope.

Here is a poem by William Blake speaking of divine love as it is manifested in compassion that draws no lines.

The Divine Image

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is God, our father dear,
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine,
Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell
There God is dwelling too.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker. Though unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake eventually came to be considered an important figure in poetry of the Romantic Age. He was born in Soho, London and attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing. Blake considered himself a committed Christian, though he did not identify with the Church of England in which he was baptized and had little use for organized religion. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake. It remained a source of inspiration throughout his life. Blake met and married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was five years his junior and lacked formal education. Blake taught his young wife to read and write, however, and she assisted him in his artistic endeavors throughout the rest of his career. You can learn more about William Blake and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I recall how a little over a decade ago another Republican President, namely, George W. Bush, told the country: “I want to remind people that family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won’t do, to be able to feed their families. And I think there’s a humane way to recognize that…” That was before the Grand Old Party was overwhelmed by the howling lynch mob appropriately referred to as its “base.”

 

The Future of Ministry?

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.” Luke 10:3-7.

As a life-long member of the clergy, I find it hard to read this text without contemplating the current state of protestant ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United States. To say that we are facing a crisis is a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, our vocation is facing some significant challenges. The church and the culture in which we minister is changing. For reasons too numerous and complex to discuss in a short article, our churches are growing smaller, poorer and older. According to a recent article in the Christian Century, 37% of the congregations in my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have an average attendance of fifty or less on a Sunday. “What Pastors Get Paid,” Christian Century, June 19, 2019, p. 25. Unless these churches have a substantial endowment to fall back on, they find it nearly impossible to support a full-time minister with a living wage and benefits.

Our vocation has also changed. In the church of my youth, seminarians were all young men, most of them single. They discerned their call early in life and began their ministerial training at colleges with programs designed to prepare them for advanced seminary training. For the most part, these young men grew up in the church, many of them in parsonages. They had a clear understanding of the expectations of ministry having seen it from the inside. There was also a general consensus within church and society concerning the role of ministers and what was expected of them. Unless they chose to become missionaries or mission developers for new church starts, ministers in the church of my childhood were not expected to concern themselves overly much with growth and innovation. For the most part, seminary grads entered into well functioning churches run by a council of experienced church leaders and working committees that handled the work of running the day to day operations.

The ministers graduating seminary in the church of my childhood knew they would never earn more than a living wage and they accepted that fact. They knew they would spend most of their lives living in houses that belonged to the church-a notoriously capricious landlord. Their cars would always be second or third hand and in need of constant repair. Any woman willing to marry one of these young men was given to understand that she was marrying a role as well as a man. Often these hapless women did as much or more ministry than their husbands except without pay and with little recognition. The quid pro quo for all of this was a special bond of love and loyalty toward the pastor on the part of the congregation. However much my folks may have criticized the pastor’s sermons, shook their heads at the way his wife dressed, looked with dismay on the conduct of his children, he was, after all, our pastor. He was the one present when grandma breathed her last and he walked with us through the difficult grieving process as no other person did. He baptized us kids and put up with our antics in confirmation class. We knew that we could call him at any hour of day or night and he would be there for us. For that we loved him, warts and all.

By the time I entered seminary in the late 70s, that paradigm was on its last legs. Like the rest of the country, the church was caught up in the turmoil of the late 60s. Pastors were having to confront hot button issues like the Vietnam war, feminism, civil rights and changing attitudes toward sexuality. They were assailed by conflicting voices. Some urged them to hold the line against the tidal wave of change. Others challenged them to engage directly with the issues on. Pastors were increasingly expected to become experts in marriage counselling, addiction treatment and spousal abuse. The once well-defined role of parish pastor was becoming increasingly broad, blurred and conflicted.

Seminary life had changed as well. Women made up at least 30% of my seminary class. A good many of my classmates were older individuals with life experience, skills and maturity I lacked, but without the solid grounding in theology and biblical languages with which I came to seminary. Many of these students were married with families, struggling to balance the demands of their class work with the needs of their loved ones. The faculty’s response to all of this was mixed. Some professors worked hard to draw out the contributions of women, older students and the few people of color among us. Others went right on lecturing to young white men just as though no one else was in the room. One thing had not changed, however. Seminary was affordable. I was paying about $800 per quarter at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978. College costs were not insignificant, but still within reach for blue collar workers like my parents who wanted to give their children the education they lacked. Consequently, I graduated seminary penniless, but debt free.

Today a college education alone is increasingly beyond the reach of anyone unwilling to assume substantial debt. The cost of seminary education has similarly skyrocketed. It is not uncommon for seminarians to graduate with a student loan liability of $100,000 in combined seminary and college debt. In view of the staggering cost of preparing for ministry and the diminished ability of congregations to provide even adequate compensation, it is not surprising that seminary registration has dropped off significantly. Of course, declining enrollment strains the finances of seminaries leading many of them to close or merge with other institutions. Clearly, the current model of ministry is unsustainable unless something unforeseen changes the trajectory of our churches.

How does our gospel lesson speak to all of this? Jesus does not give us a silver bullet. He never does. But I think there is some valuable guidance here. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Luke 10:4. It is useful to remember that the church doesn’t need much in the way of material wealth to fulfill its mission. Give us a Bible, a bottle of wine and a little water and we are open for business. Everything we have that isn’t one of those three items is disposable wealth. From that perspective, we are crazy rich. We just have to get over our attachment to ivy covered buildings with bronze plaques bearing the names of ecclesiastical patriarchs, pews engraved with family names, institutions that live off the affection of their alumnae and lots of other stuff that could be put to better use. Scarcity of resources is not the issue. The resources are there. It’s just a matter of priorities.

“The laborer deserves to be paid,” Jesus tells us. Luke 10:7. The work of ministry is too important to be left to whoever shows up and has nothing more pressing to do on a Sunday morning. It belongs to those who are called, set aside, trained and compensated for that purpose. Jesus took great care in selecting his disciples and those he sent out. He fully anticipated that they would be compensated for their work-at least to the extent of being sustained by it. The church must value its ministers and their work at least as much as does Jesus.

For that reason, I am not a fan of part time ministry. I understand that there are circumstances where it appears necessary and some places where it seems to work. I have nothing but respect for those enterprising pastors that are able to make such arrangements effective. But I am not convinced that this is a healthy paradigm for the church as a whole. I believe that there is value in setting aside a member of the community whose vocation is solely to study and apply the Word of God, preside at the Lord’s Table, welcome members into the Body of Christ through baptism and bury the dead. To do these things “half time” is, in my opinion, to do them half assed. Whether a congregation worships twenty-five or twenty-five thousand on a weekend, it needs a pastor who is deeply into the scriptural text, attentive to the ebb and flow of congregational life and connected to all facets of the surrounding community. That is more than a full time job. The quantum of pastoral responsibility is never determined by the size of the congregation, but by the magnitude of the congregation’s mission.

Still, it remains true that the existing road to parish ministry is increasingly difficult for people of ordinary means, to say nothing of those coming from circumstances of poverty. We need a different way of preparing people for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I think we can all agree that an eight year educational commitment ending in a master’s degree from an accredited institution is not necessarily the only way to prepare individuals for ministry. It also seems clear to me that an overhaul of seminary curriculum is long overdue. But I believe that seminary training and experience is critically important, regardless of whether it is credited or unaccredited, preceded by a college degree or not. We don’t help ourselves by short circuiting that experience. Here is what I mean: conference call discussions, skype lectures and e-mail interchanges are an inadequate substitute for true community. Saving money, accommodating busy schedules and reducing overhead are poor excuses for eviscerating person to person contact that is at the heart of what the church is. “Virtual community” is a gnostic myth that should have no place in Christian education, least of all seminary. There is a reason the Word became flesh rather than “virtual.”

The most valuable education takes place when teachers and students sit at the same table and discuss issues over lunch. Spiritual growth occurs when students argue, discuss and joke about the Bible, church history, our confessions of faith and life in general in the hallway, in a coffee shop or over a beer. Whatever form seminary may take in the future, I hope it has a physical local where seminarians live together in community in some measure. Living in community is essential to preparation for ministry. That is, after all, the way Jesus trained his disciples. I am aware that this might require prospective seminarians to make some sacrifices. Some might well need to be told that they are not yet ready to pursue a call to ministry of Word and Sacrament. They might have to be led to the understanding that their calling lies instead with caring for their families, fulfilling obligations within their respective jobs and serving the communities in which they live.

Ideally, I would like to see my church reduce its numerous seminaries to one single seminary. I would like to see all our increasingly diverse seminary demographic living together, eating together and playing together just as they are learning together. In such a community it becomes possible to do the hard work of confronting our inbred racism and sexism, overcoming our blinding stereotypes and learning to hear one another’s stories. Such a seminary setting could prepare the next generation of pastors to lead our church into a new day of witness in a nation increasingly polarized along so many fault lines.

Though it has nothing much to do with the above, we will observe the 4th of July holiday this week. Pastors often feel the need to acknowledge national holidays in some way, shape or form. Here is a poem by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. It is a fitting meditation for Independence Day and a reminder that this day marking the birth of our nation is, for the Americans who were here before us, the beginning of the end of their nations.

America, I Sing You Back

for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
for Whitman and Hughes

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.

As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.

When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.

Source: Streaming (c. 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, pub. by Coffee House Press). Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (b. 1958) is an American poet and editor. She is currently a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. She was born in Amarillo, Texas and grew up in North Carolina, Canada and on the Great Plains. Hedge Coke dropped out of high school and went to work sharecropping tobacco and working fields to support herself. She obtained her GED at age sixteen and went on to study photography, traditional arts, and writing in community education classes at North Carolina State University. Hedge Coke is of mixed heritage, including Native American. She frequently addresses issues of culture, prejudice, indigenous rights and the environment in her writing and poetry. You can read more about Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.