Take Heart

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:1-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

For two days in a row now, I have walked around feeling very much like Elijah.

For two nights in a row now, I have gone to bed feeling very much like the disciples.

For 48 hours, I have been afraid. I have known fear. And so we’re going to talk about fear.

Fear is generally defined as a rational, unpleasant feeling that is a response to a perceived or real threat to a person. It is one of our most very basic emotions, a primal response to stimuli in our surroundings, that causes us to either try to escape from the danger, confront it, or freeze.

Rational fears help keep us alive by keeping us out of danger. Irrational fears are called phobias, and they are responses to stimuli that aren’t dangerous, but are still perceived to be. The fear of getting shot when someone is holding a gun to your head is a rational fear. The fear that your goldfish is going to hurt you is an irrational fear, a phobia: and it even has a name, ichthyophobia.

Fear permeates our scripture readings this morning. Elijah is running away because he’s afraid. It’s a rational fear: he has every good reason to be afraid. He has just executed as many prophets of Baal as he could, prophets loved by Queen Jezebel, who also worshiped Baal. And he has just received a message from the Queen basically saying, “I swear on my life: because you killed my prophets, expect that by tomorrow, I will have killed you, too.”

I don’t know about you, but if the leader of my country sent me a message saying that they were going to use all of their power and authority to have me killed by tomorrow, I’d be terrified too.

In response to this well-founded, rational fear, fear for his life, Elijah runs. He runs for over forty days, so far away that he ends up in the desert, at the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb, where God met the Israelites after liberating them from slavery and formed the covenant with them. Here, he hopes he can finally be out of reach of Queen Jezebel and her vengeance. Thinking himself the only person left in the kingdom faithful to God, he hopes that here, God will keep him safe.

The disciples, too, experience their share of fear. They have gotten into a boat, on a lake, and are caught in a storm. Now, I’ve never been in that exact situation—perhaps some of you have, and can attest to the horror of it. But my wife is a big fan of Deadliest Catch, and I’ve seen clips of their boats caught in storms, and it is the last place I’d want to be.

I once made a hobby of studying the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—the real event, not the song. I know the names of ships like the Carl D. Bradley; or the Argus, and the Henry B. Smith, just a few of the 19 ships destroyed and 19 ships stranded during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, resulting in the loss of more than 250 lives. Being on the water during a storm is a terrifying experience, and a very rational fear.

It’s no surprise then that the disciples, caught in this perilous situation, think that the sight of Jesus walking towards them across the water is actually a ghost. And it’s no surprise that they cry out in fear. It’s a rational response to the danger they found themselves in.

Of course, we know that fear is alive and well in our world today. It’s been brought into sharp focus over the last 48 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia, so much so that I, too, am afraid.

Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches, intentionally calling to mind images of hooded KKK members marching with their torches in the heyday of the Klan, marched on the campus of the University of Virginia. They shouted “Sieg heil!” and “Blood and soil!”, two slogans of the Nazi party. They shouted “White Lives Matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They fought with counter-protesters, and the police had to break up the fights.

They surrounded St. Paul’s Memorial Church, where the Charlottesville Clergy Collective held a prayer meeting and had set up a station to help care for people wounded during the protest, and the people inside held each other in fear that the hatred shouting and marching past their door would burst through it at any moment to attack those hiding inside.

Yesterday morning, hundreds more white supremacists marched on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. They waved Nazi flags, the symbol of one of the worst perpetrators of genocide in modern history. They waved Confederate flags, symbols of an army whose sole purpose was to fight for the right of white Americans to own Africans and African Americans as property, as slaves. They came armed in camouflage body armor bearing assault weapons, claiming to be militias sent to “protect the peace.”

In an act of domestic terrorism, a car drove straight into a crowd of people opposing the white supremacists, killing one and injuring nineteen others. More than a dozen others were injured in skirmishes across the day. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared a state of emergency so that he can mobilize state resources to deal with the crisis.

People are afraid. They are terrified. And they have good reason to be. The KKK used to wear hoods to hide their identity when they burned crosses on people’s lawns and lynched them. Now they and other white supremacists who share their ideology of hate walk and chant openly, spewing their hate and bigotry with pride. They have been empowered and emboldened to share their hate. And they are acting on it.

Like Elijah fleeing in terror because the one with all the power sought to use that power to hurt him; like the disciples caught in a storm that they alone couldn’t resist, the targets of the hatred of these white supremacists—of this evil—are afraid: genuinely, rationally, in fear.

And I am afraid–afraid of the truth that my own silence makes me complicit. That our own silence allows this to continue. That we as white Americans have a lot of work to do, and most of us are unwilling to do it.

Contrast that with the phobia—the irrational fear—of the white supremacists. A friend of mine, a deacon in our own ELCA, reported last night that one of his wife’s students in Ohio expressed that he was afraid of black people because he was taught that they were violent. He’s in the first grade. It doesn’t take long for the hate of white supremacy to take root when it’s being taught to our children.

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because white supremacy has in the past, and continues today, to be supported by perverted interpretations of the Gospel. Yes, people still use the Bible to justify white supremacy. When Christians do not speak up against hatred and evil like white supremacy, our silence speaks for us. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we don’t want to offend. Even and especially when we’re part of the problem. Despite a supposed dedication to diversity, the ELCA is the second-least diverse church in the country. Thirty years after our formation as a church, we are still over 96% white. Why do you think that is? We need to speak out against sin and evil, especially when it’s this important.

And it is important. It’s important because, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, which we read this morning:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

The only way the good news of Jesus Christ will be heard is if we speak up. Is if we shout it. Is if we confront the ways in which it is warped, perverted, and twisted to serve sin and evil.

But why here? Why today? Why do we have to talk about it today? This isn’t Virginia. This is Wisconsin. We don’t have any connection to those folks over there, do we?

But we do. Just as Paul reminds us, “the same Lord is Lord of all”. We are Christians. We are part of the church that exists beyond our walls—which is where the vast, vast majority of the church exists.

We do, because the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

This is the same Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of… racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, ‘These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ Yes, I love the church… but oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect.”

Because it is true, what the eminent theologian the Reverend Karl Barth once said about preaching: that it is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting current events through the lens of Christ. And Christians need to stand up to white supremacy just as much now as they did when the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer did during the Nazi regime, and was martyred for it.

Because if we do not speak up and proclaim the Gospel, who will? If we do not speak to those living in fear, like Elijah and the disciples were, who will?

It is up to us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling to be lights in the darkness, to be the cake baked on hot stones and water that strengthened Elijah; to be the great wind, earthquake, fire, and sound of sheer silence that draws attention to God’s presence; to be the voices that calm the storm and remind those living in the grip of such terror that, like Elijah and the disciples, they are not alone; that there are other voices that stand with them.

…That God is present with them.

…That we worship the same Jesus who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…That following the example of Jesus Christ, Christians have spent millenia standing up to oppression and injustice, for just like preaching, what good is the Gospel if it doesn’t affect people’s lives?

And that’s exactly what people have been doing—affecting their lives by bringing the kingdom of God with them. As many white supremacists as there were in Charlottesville this weekend, there were many more people there to stand up to them, including hundreds of Christians, lay and clergy, from all across the country. They gathered there to dispel hatred and fear, to stand up to oppression. They prayed. They sang. They marched. They worshiped. They healed–literally, physically helped the injured get well. They stood between different groups of protesters to shield them from harm. They spoke.

They put the good news of Jesus Christ into action. They lived out what it looked like to be the kingdom of heaven here on earth. When we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, this is what we pray for. This is what we mean. Like a song by the Rend Collective goes:

“Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire

Build your kingdom here.”

And you know what? The people of Charlottesville, Virginia–they heard. They saw. They heard the voice of God in the voices of hundreds of Christians as they sang and prayed. They saw God’s work in the hands of counter-protesters as they dragged the wounded out of the way, huddled with the afraid in the church, locked arms together to form barriers to protect those targeted by bigotry and hate.

They brought salvation with them this weekend. They proved that the ones in fear were not alone. They became angels, messengers of God, bringing word from all across the country that they were not alone. That thousands of voices—our voices—were with them. That our prayers were there. Our support was there. They brought comfort and peace to the heart of the storm.

Today, we too raise our voices in the name of peace. We too recall the salvation our Lord brought to the oppressed and the captive. We too stand in the way of sin and evil. We too acknowledge that we have a long way to go, and that the road before us is long, hard, uncomfortable. We too stand with our siblings in Christ as we proclaim to those in fear, all those in fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Featured Image: “Congregate Charlottesville Contronts Unite the Right 20” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It depicts some of the counter-protesters, including clergy, who stood against the hate groups that were holding a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It’s Hard

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we.

This post originally appeared as an article in Faith’s Foundations, the monthly newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

It’s hard. I know it is.

It’s hard to experience what we all experienced these past couple of months and still remember that we worship a God who is Sovereign and Lord.

We watched in horror as 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded in a shooting spree at a gay night club. We couldn’t believe our eyes when two black men were shot to death by police, one with no real motive at all. We cried in sorrow and in fear when five brave police officers were assassinated in the line of duty during a peaceful protest, and again when three more were killed just a few days later. We kept a tight grip on our seats as bombs continued to go off in France and the middle east, including more than one that killed over 80 people, and one wounded over 300 more. And we sat in shocked silence when we heard that a priest had been stabbed and had this throat slit during morning Mass in France, which brought up comparisons to the murder of Archbishop Óscar Romero.

I also know it’s been hard to hear me preach on these events. Oftentimes I think we wish preaching in church could be all about love and happy things, how great God is, how wonderful it is to be a Christian, and all that.

The past few months have been a stark reminder that we live in a broken world in which, for some, God feels so very far away. It’s important to know that. It’s important to acknowledge that. It’s important to wrestle with that like the psalmists do, who ask God, “Why do you sleep, O LORD? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44), and “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13). Not everyone’s experiences are the same, and we do injustice when we filter or judge another’s story or experiences through our own to determine their validity.

And yet, we are a people who are bound by something else. A few weeks ago I presided over a funeral for a woman who died suddenly and without warning. I sat with the family in their numbness and shock, trying to figure out what they needed to do next and how they were going to move forward. And then we read from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

This is what makes the Christian life livable, even in the face of national tragedy, international terror, martyrdom, and sudden loss. This is why those same psalmists who cried out to God in lament could end their psalms, “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love,” and “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” This is why we as children of God can confront the evils we see and experience in the world around us. We have the courage to both wade into the pain of people suffering—including ourselves—and bring not a message of woe, but a message of hope. That God is present during our sufferings. That God hid with the hostages in Orlando, and was there to care for the wounds of Alton and Philando, and held the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in God’s arms after they were shot, and dug through the rubble after the bombings across the world, and wept as Father Jacques Hamel took his last breath.

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we. In this newsletter you’ll find letters from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You’ve heard me mention her many times over the past few months, and there’s a reason for that. I want you to know something else about us as Christians: that we never face life’s trials alone. We are part of a wider community than just our congregation. We part of a regional synod and a national church. We are part of a global tradition of Lutherans and a community of saints that extends into the past and will live on in the future. When the world groans in pain we groan with it, together. When tragedy strikes, we respond together. When any one of us is in need we act out of love together.

And when it seems like we can’t go on, when the weight of the world crushes down on us, we lift each other up together.

It’s hard. I know it is. But we will face the evils in our world together, and together, the message of hope will be shared for and through us.

The letters and messages from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, can be found here.

Featured Image: “Mystic Still Life – Tribute to Fr Jacques Hamel” by Daniel Arrhakis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Please, Stop Dismissing Bi-Vocational Ministry

The church is smaller and less financially equipped than it was half a century ago. So why do we still assume that full-time ministry is the only ministry that matters?

This month’s Living Lutheran magazine (which I highly recommend every Lutheran should read) included an article titled “When making a living and living in service intersect: Bi-vocational ministry a gift, challenge for ELCA church workers.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, “bi-vocational ministry” is a term used for pastors who are not full-time ministers and who work one or more other jobs. This is usually because a congregation cannot afford to support a full-time pastor. Bi-vocational ministry has a long history in the church: the Apostle Paul was a tent-maker or leather-worker and plied his trade in the markets to support himself. The article lifted up four wonderful stories about pastors splitting their time between congregational ministry and other jobs: one is a Starbuck’s barista, another is a pharmacist, another is a substitute teacher, and another is a nanny.

You may wonder why it would be necessary for pastors to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, and the article addresses that as well: weekly worship attendance in the ELCA has declined by 38% (and it has declined in all Christian traditions). With fewer people supporting a congregation, there’s less money, and supporting a pastor is a big chunk of a congregation’s budget. In the face of this reality, many congregations are relying on part-time pastors who are in turn relying on other sources of support for their livelihood.

Bi-vocational ministry is becoming more and more prevalent in the church, and I’m glad Living Lutheran has focused on it recently. What I didn’t appreciate was this statement:

Though bi-vocational ministry has its strengths, Louise Johnson, president of Wartburg Seminary, said her ‘hope for our church is that this is an exception and not a rule. By and large we all know too well that ministry is full-time work.

The rest of the article was very well written. But this idea, which has appeared in many places outside of the Living Lutheran magazine, really bothers me.

Look, I get it. The church is used to having it easy. We’re used to having large congregations full of members who gave abundantly, who supported large, expensive buildings meant to draw people in. We’re used to the corporate mentality where the church is a thriving business, where we’re judged by the sizes of our rosters and budget.

Such a church was tailor-made for full-time ministry being conducted by one person whose only job was the maintenance of the corporation. Such a church was able to support this minister, who bore sole responsibility for almost everything that happened in the congregation: full-time work. But for the most part, that church doesn’t exist anymore, as these reported numbers show:

  • 50% of all congregations in the ELCA have an average weekly worship attendance of 75 or less.
  • 78% of all congregations in the ELCA have an average weekly worship attendance of 150 or less.

A large majority of congregations in the ELCA are small. Using the four classic categories of church size, three-quarters of all ELCA congregations are either Family or Pastoral size congregations, many of which remember when they were Program or Corporation size. And people are financially worse off now than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago.

The church is smaller and less financially equipped than it was half a century ago. So why do we still assume that full-time ministry is the only ministry that matters?

In a time when congregational participation and resources are dwindling, we shouldn’t continue to insist on a model of ministry that is more and more expensive every year. Congregations are finding that they simply aren’t able to support a full-time institutional model of pastoral ministry, and it doesn’t look like that trend will change any time soon. They’re either resorting to yoking together in a multi-point parish model, keeping their own buildings and staff while sharing a pastor; or they’re calling bi-vocational pastors.

Neither is particularly attractive to the old way of doing church. Congregations that have to call bi-vocational pastors are stigmatized by the idea that a “real” or “successful” congregation is one led by a full-time pastor. This is the expectation congregations work under (and the one the church actively endorses), so it’s difficult to accept anything less.

But the church needs bi-vocational pastors. It needs pastors willing to serve in places that don’t have the luxury of people with enough disposable income to support a full-time pastor. It needs to recognize the gifts these talented individuals bring to our communities of faith.

Are there dangers and pitfalls to bi-vocational ministry? Absolutely. The Living Lutheran article rightly points out that time management is challenging. Congregations that are used to full-time pastors may expect full-time work for half-time pay, leading to burnout. Others argue that bi-vocational ministry diminishes and degrades the institution of ministry.

The truth is, though, that until the church can figure out how to make full-time ministry sustainable again it needs bi-vocational pastors. So let’s stop diminishing them and the work that they do, and instead support, encourage, strengthen, and empower them.

Featured Image: “St. Paul receiving Communion” by Ted is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.