A WALK FOR JUSTICE

On Saturday, July 12, some 500 people took part in an ecumenical Walk for Justice March in downtown Cleveland. The purpose of the march was to call attention to the need for immigration reform. A prayer service at St. John the Baptist Catholic Cathedral preceded the march. I had the privilege of preaching the homily at the service. In response to several requests, I am posting my homily below. Other sites that may be of interest are: 1) a summary of the day’s activities on the Dominican Sisters of Peace web site, which you can read by clicking HERE; 2) and on the Diocese of Cleveland web site from which you can link to a gallery of photos, see by clicking HERE.

 

Walk for Justice Prayer Service Homily

­­­July 12, 2014
Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Psalm 85; Hebrews 13:1-3, 5-6, 12-14; Luke 10:23-37

2014-07-12 Prayer Service at St. John the Baptist Catholic Cathedral

Photo courtesy of: Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

Grace and peace to you from God the Father Almighty and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Who is My Neighbor?”

As we just heard in our Gospel reading, the question is taken from Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer who and asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.

It is helpful to stop and reflect, as Christians, what our faith has to say. 

The person in need is our neighbor, to whom Jesus Christ sends us in response to his love, without regard to any wall of separation.

Our faith raises questions about our American standard of living in contrast with poorer societies.  When we react with fear to the presumed threat of immigration, we must ask ourselves what exactly is being threatened.  Is it our life or our luxuries? 

God’s gifts to us in this country have been abundant.  Yet even while we celebrate those gifts, we are entrusted with our stewardship of them, our management of God’s resources.  We continue to trust that God provides the resources for our service in Christ’s name.  God’s gifts are sufficient to carry out God’s purposes.

It is possible that questions raised about immigrant issues have a deeper source than we are willing to admit—not our needs, but our wants and desires, which lead us to be centered on self.  Our faith asks us to search our hearts for our inner motivations, keeping in mind the danger of turning God’s gifts into idols.  We can enjoy them, but not make our life dependent on them.

Because we believe that all people are made in God’s image and exist under the lordship of God, our faith teaches us that nations and borders do not claim our ultimate allegiance. 

Yes, we value the national identity that our borders give us, and we cherish the legal rights and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and laws to those who reside within our borders.  Yet we know that brothers and sisters who have crossed our borders without authorization are fleeing from desperate situations, from grinding poverty that threatens the lives and health of families.  Many die in pursuit of the dream of a new life.

More than 52,000 children, mostly from Central America, have arrived in the U.S. since last October, unaccompanied by an adult, in order to escape war, famine and violence. Families are separated in the midst of migration patterns.

From a faith perspective, compassion compels us to see these children, not as a illegal or undocumented immigrant—terms which I find equally offensive – no, compassion compels us to see these children and all immigrants as a brother or sister made and loved by God.

The Bible abounds with stories of immigration.  We could call it the ultimate immigration handbook. We know the stories well. From the very beginning we hear accounts of people moving from one place to the other, some with no known destination.

2014-07-12 Walk for Justice

Photo courtesy of: Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

Welcoming the stranger is the central theme of biblical hospitality. It is an inclusive hospitality that always makes room for the stranger. It also shows that no person is to be excluded. Christ calls his people—you and me—to respond to human needs without distinction, not just those persons who share our religious or ethnic ties.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

It is not just the Bible or Christianity but all our faith traditions that share a fundamental belief that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and that we must treat every person with dignity, for “the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

But some have chosen to make it a political issue, driven by divisive ideological views.

And so we also gather here this morning in the spirit of our Creator Lord Jesus Christ, not only to remember and reflect on the lives of our brothers and sisters who have either been detained or have died in their search for a better life. We have come here also to ask God for the strength and courage, that God will act through us as we call for justice.

We also ask for our Lord and Savior to bestow wisdom on our lawmakers so that they would not shy away from their moral duty and would show compassion to all those that they serve in their bid to create a just, fair and humane immigration policy. Immigration reform is more than a partisan issue, it is more than a political issue, it is more than an economic issue, it is more than a social issue; it is at its core a moral issue.

2014-07-12 Walk for Justice 2

Photo courtesy of: Roman Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

Immigration is not about numbers and statistics, it is about people.  Men, women, and children—human beings created in God’s image—who, for whatever reasons, have found it necessary to leave their countries of birth, their families and their familiar surroundings, and go elsewhere.

Through the power of our faith and in the compassion of Jesus Christ we ask that all human life be respected and that our brothers and sisters be no longer afraid, but rather that they feel the love; warmth and welcome of our great nation.”

Our struggle is a unified struggle. The parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as other parables Jesus told, teach us to include the poor in our circle of relationships; to be a friend of the poor; to share life with ‘seeming outcasts’. We are challenged to identify with the poor and the loss of privileges and social standing.

Upholding family unity; creating a legalization process for undocumented immigrants; and protecting workers, are principles that are rooted in our Holy Scriptures, our faith traditions and our sense of values.

And so we challenge our legislators to act with justice and show mercy. As the young lawyer in our encounter with Jesus learned. Our neighbor is the one who showed mercy. We challenge our legislators to follow the commands of Jesus and “go, and do likewise.”

Closing Prayer

God of compassion and almighty wisdom, grant us guidance to carry out your mission by being a voice for the voiceless, a champion for the victims of injustice and a welcoming hand to those who are afraid. Grant us too, O Lord, the vision to see your love and presence in all our brothers and sisters as we seek to create a fair, just and welcoming community. We ask this, O Lord, through your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Posted in Ecumenism, Faith, Immigration Reform, Prayer, Religion | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Visit with Children at the Border

pastorallende:

The issue of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. borders has raised a firestorm in recent weeks. Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, visited with some of these children and posted his observations on his blog. It is presented from both a humanitarian and theological perspective, and worth the read. So I repost here for the benefit of those who follow my blog and with thanks to God for Bishop Rinehart’s thoughtful reflection and call to action.
Peace,
Pastor Abraham Allende

Originally posted on Michael Rinehart:

“It was either this or be murdered.” Javier was one of nearly 100 kids in the cafeteria of the transitional facility I visited this week. I moved from table to table asking questions. What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from? What brought you here? How have you been treated? Where are your parents?

20140718-115122-42682090.jpg

The misinformation about unaccompanied minors is staggering. News of the surge of 60,000 unaccompanied minors since last fall makes people think that border crossings are up. In fact border crossings are down, way down. Border crossings in the 80s and 90s were over 1.5 million.

US border apprehensions:
2000: 1,675,438
2008: 723,825
2009: 556,041
2013: 420,789

So what’s going on with this surge in unaccompanied minors? Our group convened on the border to learn. We met with border patrol, an attorney, the children themselves, staff, social workers, pastors and others to understand the…

View original 1,364 more words

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GOD’S CURIOUS CHOICES

Again I break a vow not to post sermons on this blog. But I had wanted to share some of my reflections from the Bishop Formation Event I attended last week and, since I did so in the following sermon, I decided this was the best way to share them. I have made some edits to my original manuscript, otherwise it would have been burdensomely long. Enjoy!

June 29, 2014

Peter and Paul, Apostles [Year A]

Acts 12:1-11; Psalm 87:1–3, 5–7; 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 17–18; John 21:15-19

I’ve just spent a week in Chicago at what our Church calls its Bishop Formation Event. Among the people involved in the churchwide expression of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it is jokingly known as “Baby Bishop School” or “Baby Bishop Boot Camp.”

Baby Bishops 2014

Baby Bishops 2014

There were five of us who had been elected bishops for the first time – babies, in other words – and one who had been bishop in another synod, but now had been elected bishop once again somewhere else. We kiddingly named him Nicodemus, because he had been born again.

The purpose of this five-day experience was to give us some guidance into what we were getting ourselves into. Believe me, the amount of information we received over this time can be compared to drinking from a fire hose. It was long, tiring, exhausting, and overwhelming.

But the one great assurance we received during this time was that all the other bishops, as well as those people on staff at the churchwide offices, were ready to help us in any way they could. The one thing that every single person there stressed to us was that if we ever had any questions, we were free to call them at any time. I collected a lot of cell phone numbers – a couple of them we were told to have on speed dial. That’s how willing they are to help us. “When in doubt, call!” became the mantra for the week.

Several of you know how I’ve felt about this call to be bishop. I have had moments of extreme uncertainty, asking myself, “Why didn’t I drop out when I had the chance?”

I had my life pretty well planned out, at least for the next couple of years. But God had other plans for me, apparently.

One of the first things we did as a group was sit around a table and tell our stories. We began at the most logical point for all of us – at baptism. When were we baptized? How has our baptism informed our life and ministry? How were we involved in ministry before we were ordained? What did all that mean for us?

And the one thing about this exercise that left an impression on me was that all of us, all six of us, had more in common than I would have ever imagined. We were all filled with the same doubts, the same apprehensions, the same questions, and very similar experiences. Some of us had deep roots in the church, some of us had come to the church a little later in our earthly journey. Some of us were pastor’s kids, others had been part of an unchurched family.

I give you this long and overly detailed introduction to tell you this: that when God chooses you and Jesus calls you to fulfill God’s mission, who you are makes no difference.

Peter and Paul - El Greco

Peter and Paul – El Greco

We see that very vividly in the lives of Peter and Paul, whom the church commemorates today. When you learn a little more about the lives of these two men, you are left thinking that Jesus sure made some curious choices. But I stand before you today as flesh and blood proof that not only was God making some curious choices back in biblical days. God in Jesus Christ is still making curious choices today! This is not just something that happened a long time ago – it is still happening even now!

By human standards, if we were to pick someone – anyone – to lead the church today, it certainly wouldn’t have been either of these two men.

You’ve heard the stories of Peter and Paul often, but let’s hear them one more time and ask ourselves why Jesus would choose these two in particular to lead his church. I promise I will try not to make this sound like a history lesson.

First, let’s talk about Peter. We love to pick on Peter. He is such an easy example to lift up because he had the capacity to do wonderful things, and turn around and do the most wonderfully stupid things. He talked a good game at times, but when it came time to deliver, Peter was often nowhere to be found. He’s usually noted as the disciple who repeatedly put his foot in his mouth. And I would imagine he’s taken more criticism from the pulpit down through the centuries than any of the other disciples.

Peter was the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God. But he turned around and when Jesus was arrested, just before he was crucified, Peter – yes, that Peter – denied Jesus not once, but THREE times!

When I think about Peter I am always drawn to the last conversation he had with Jesus, our gospel reading for today. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out this conversation weighed pretty heavily with him too. What a conversation! Jesus asks him three times (there’s that number three again), “Peter, do you love me?”

Note that after the third time Jesus asks the question, our text tells us that Peter felt hurt. But we don’t hear Peter’s reaction when Jesus tells him what kind of death he was to die. He was told he would die a martyr and this time Peter didn’t protest to the Lord that it certainly would not happen the way it had back when the rooster crowed.

One thing we know about Peter is that after Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter gave one of the greatest and most powerful sermons ever preached. We just heard the story three weeks ago. As a result of Peter’s sermon – and I can’t help but say again, yes, that Peter! – three thousand people came to believe in Jesus that day. Imagine that! Three thousand people believed because of the words of this one time coward who denied the very man about whom he was preaching.

When Jesus told Peter that the day would come when others would lead him where he did not wish to go he was telling him that in order to follow him he must give up those very things that made him who he was. God created Peter with a unique personality that was good. But in the end he would have to lay it down. God would fill Peter’s life from that point on and use it to build up God’s kingdom.

Then there is Paul. Formerly known as Saul. We recall that Saul persecuted and even killed Christians. He was present at the stoning of Stephen. Let me read to you the words from the book of Acts just to show you what a ruthless man Saul was before he received His call from on high. Hear the word of God according to Acts, chapter 8, just after the stoning of Stephen.

And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. 2Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. [Acts 8:1-3]

Nice guy, that Saul. But then, as he was travelling to Damascus, the book of Acts tells us he was still breathing threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord, when at that moment a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” [Acts 9:3-4]

So Saul sees the Lord in the blinding light that darkened his eyes but enlightened his soul.

God uses all of Saul’s life, both the positive and the negative, to build him into the person he needed him to be. God took Saul, all he was, even the passion he had against Christians, God took all Saul was, reversed his direction and then made him into the man God wanted him to be.

Together, Peter and Paul became the two greatest apostles known to the Christian church. Together with the whole Christian Church on earth, we give thanks to God for Peter and Paul.

So what are we to take away from all this? Well, I’m glad you asked.

On this day when we celebrate these two pillars of the church, we are reminded first of all that God takes all of your life experience, thing events you are proud of and the things you hope no one will ever find out about, God takes everything in from your life, then reverses your direction and then uses everything that happens in your life to make you into the woman or man God wants you to be.

Don’t be ashamed of your background, or where you come from. Embrace it. You are who you are, very, very, specifically, so God can use you in His particular circumstance. All that has been in your life has molded you into who you are – and God takes advantage of your past. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

For us, it is hard to see how impossible it was for a man like Saul, to become a man like Paul. We read his powerful words and think that Saul was something other than the rest of us. But that is not true, Saul allowed himself to be used by God, and God in His turn took all that Saul was and great thing happened for the kingdom of God.

For anyone who was alive in Peter and Paul’s day, these two were perhaps the LAST persons who they would have thought would make a great impact for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They took a look at their backgrounds, they took a look at who they were and concluded that Paul and Peter were polar opposites of the types of people Jesus would want to serve him. But they were wrong.

One thing that counselors and therapists will tell you is not to allow yourself to be imprisoned by your past. Don’t allow others to determine your future. Jesus Christ has the power to forgive your transgressions and prepare you to become an instrument for God’s purpose.

Peter and Paul

Icon – Peter and Paul

And this is my second takeaway. Paul and Peter were both certainly different people with different temperaments. They both ministered to two mutually opposed groups of people – the Jews and the Gentiles. And, despite the embrace they share in the icon at the left, they both certainly had their differences, at one time even confronting each other face to face. (Galatians 2:11.)

In spite of this apparent tension, however, we see today within this feast an example of how we are to live with each other in the Church. Certainly, as people from all walks of life, we will have differences. We are all different people with different needs. However, today’s feast shows us that the Church is first and foremost a place where God’s love reigns (as the Lord said, the world will know us by the love we have one for another.) It is this love from God that enables us to overcome both our personal and interpersonal difficulties and it is this love that reminds us that with God all things are possible, and therefore, when Christ commands us to “love our enemies” it is with the full knowledge that it is His love and grace that will empower us to do so.

God doesn’t ask us to “like” our neighbors and enemies, He commands us to “love” our neighbors and our enemies, a task which is far greater and is not predicated on how we feel.  But it is a choice: it is a conscious decision on our part to will the highest good for everyone we come into contact with. Love is therefore a choice. It is how we choose to act/respond.

The great Saints Peter and Paul demonstrate to us that even if we are different and even if we have disagreements, we can still live and work together in the Church and we can find  reconciliation one to another through God’s grace and love, that is, if we are willing. Often times the only thing that stands in the way of us being truly reconciled one to another is a conscious choice to be humble and to say with heartfelt meaning to those who offend us the two words that literally BURN the devil: “Forgive me.”

And lastly, our third takeaway is that the readings today emphasize the presence of God in the work of his Church. Through the centuries, the Church has been battered and countless efforts made to wipe it out but it continues to benefit from Christ’s promise. Once in the grip of grace, Peter and Paul accomplished God’s purposes. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t suffer. They were jailed, shipwrecked, beaten and finally killed. But not before they made Christ known to thousands of people.

For you and me, it is the same. As we learn from our readings today, and all of Scripture for that matter. There is nothing that God in Christ Jesus cannot do with us, once we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter and Paul became great in the kingdom of God, because of Jesus, and we become great in the kingdom of God for the same reason, no matter who we are.

As we hear from Paul himself in his letter to Timothy, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it…The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever.

May it also be so for you.

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

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A TEACHABLE MOMENT ABOUT PUBLIC WITNESS

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

1 Corinthians 3:16

Every so often I am reminded of the responsibilities of this holy office I hold in powerfully forceful ways. My most recent lesson came just the morning of June 22 at the Akron-Canton Airport.

Anyone who knows me knows that air travel is my least favorite mode of transportation. I will be so bold as to say I detest flying! It’s not necessarily the flight itself – although the cramped and uncomfortable seats don’t help – but the drama that precedes it. It is having to take off shoes, belt, emptying pockets, and the rest of the performance one has to carry out in order to satisfy the commands of the Transportation Security Administration agents. They are the puppeteers and the travelers are the marionettes.

TSA Security Lines 2

TSA Security Lines

“Place your feet on the marks,” they bark out, “hold your arms above your head!”

It’s the one time in life that I’m thankful for my ample girth, lest my beltless pants succumb to gravity and produce more of a show than anyone bargained for.

My Sunday had already begun on somewhat of a disquieting note. With very few Sundays left at my current call at Covenant, I wanted to be in the pulpit this morning. But an early flight to Chicago for Bishop Formation (jokingly known as “Baby Bishop School”) made that impossible. When my routine is disrupted, my psyche is unsettled.

Then at the ticket counter I was told, “It’s $25 to check your bag. How will you pay for that?”

“Cash,” I replied.

“I don’t have any change,” came the retort, as I held out two $20 bills.

“Then I guess I’ll pay by credit card.”

So then I enter the line and begin to mentally agonize over the misery that awaits me. That’s when it happened.

A middle-age looking agent took my photo ID and boarding pass. While in line, I had been observing her interaction with the travelers. She was cheerful, friendly, and engaging. She seemed to cater to young children.

“Where are you flying to,” she would ask?

When the child would answer, she would feign excitement, “Well, I hope you have lots of fun!”

The cynic in me was sneering. “What a phony,” I thought. “I hope I get the other, calmer one.”

I hand her my ID without her having to ask. “Good morning,” came the seemingly artificial cheerful voice.

“Hello,” I replied nonchalantly.

Let me interject here that I’m dressed in rather nondescript attire – a blue blazer over an olive green knit shirt, tan slacks and deck shoes (they are not only comfortable, but easy to slip out of in the security line). My ID, however, betrays me. In the photo I’m wearing a very somber and official-looking black cleric, good for influencing law enforcement authorities when facing the possibility of a speeding ticket.

Upon looking at my ID she animatedly exclaims, “I knew you were a pastor!”

“How could you tell that,” I ask?

“You just have that look about you.”

“I guess there are worse things I could look like,” I cautiously remarked, proudly avoiding saying what I was thinking – that it was infinitely better than looking like a terrorist.

Then the woman totally disarmed me by asking, “Will you bless me?”

I was momentarily taken aback, but without making it obvious I asked her, “What’s your name?”

“Melanie,” she answered.

So I took Melanie’s hand, and prayed for her. I asked for God’s blessing on her, that God would surround her with love and protect her with God’s might. I asked that God would bless the work that she did (Wait a minute! I asked that?), and we closed with an enthusiastic, “Amen!”

We exchanged warm, heartfelt smiles, and I moved on to the next stage of my ordeal. But by that interaction, my entire attitude was transformed.

A few minutes later, as I slipped back into my shoes, tied my belt, and refilled my pockets, I reflected on what I had just done. I was utterly mesmerized by the fact that I had prayed for a blessing on a person who works for an agency whose mission in life is to torment me.

TSA Security Lines 1Thinking further about it I was woefully ashamed. After all, Jesus prayed for those who crucified him. Yet here I was, carrying this perpetual grudge against nameless, faceless, yet decent human beings who are only following directions in the course of earning a living by doing their job. I felt unbelievably humiliated, as if God were telling me, “Get over yourself, bud! It’s not always about you!”

The other obvious lesson to be learned here as well is the fact that as a pastor, my actions witness to the words I profess – even more so than others, because expectations are different. Had I behaved rudely, I would have failed to glorify the God that I serve. Though I would be readily forgiven, the guilt would still have been hard burden to bear. I could have very easily stuck my foot in my mouth. Grace alone saved me any further embarrassment.

Thank you, Lord, for helping me to see you in others, and allowing me to serve you in ways that glorify you. May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart always be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

Posted in Evangelism, Faith, Outreach, Prayer, Religion, Witness | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

THE RUSH OF A VIOLENT WIND – 2014 EDITION

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

[Acts 2:1-2]

It is said that a passage of Scripture speaks to each person differently every single time one reads it, and in no case is it truer for me than with the account of the day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts. I have been re-thinking this entire “Holy Spirit” phenomenon ever since the events of mid-May at the John S. Knight Center in Akron, where I was elected Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

festivals-pentecost-dove-fire-370x370I have preached nearly a dozen Pentecost sermons on the effects of that sound like the “rush of a violent wind” that filled the entire house where the disciples were sitting. On Saturday, May 17, 2014, at around 11:30 a.m., I experienced it. While the ballroom thundered with applause, I sat, stunned, amazed, and astonished, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Instead of tongues of fire descending on my head, I felt more as if a lead cannonball had unleashed the full impact of its visceral force into the pit of my stomach.

Those feelings, fortunately, are slowly receding into distant memory. But the reality of the task ahead looms large. As the disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages, I pray that the Spirit equips me with the ability to speak clearly to God’s people here in Northeastern Ohio. There is a new language to be learned, of sorts, my fluency in Spanish notwithstanding.

I hear Peter’s sermon to the sneering crowd in a new light. Peter, the Easter miracle, who denied Jesus three times, now stands and faces a collection of cynics and cuts them to the heart with his powerful proclamation without fear or concern for his own safety and well-being. As a result of Peter’s message, three-thousand followers were added that day. I wonder what will be the effect of my preaching as I travel to the various congregations across the synod.

Peter also quoted the prophet Joel: “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” David Lose offers a wonderful reflection in his latest blog post about creating a church of dreamers. I pray that not only our Lutheran congregations in Northeastern Ohio, but all churches can begin to look to the future in hope, so that, as Paul writes in Romans, “you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [Romans 15:13]

The faithful that I serve at The Lutheran Church of the Covenant have experienced that rush of a violent wind as I have. Though they don’t express it in similar terms, they are perhaps as bewildered and amazed and astonished as I am. I ask your prayers for them as they unexpectedly begin the process of transition and calling a new pastor.

Yes, violent winds are destructive. But they can also be a force for good. In my heart of hearts, from the force generated at the synod assembly, I hope – with the Spirit’s help – to build and develop new and fruitful relationships, to build bridges between the parishes and the synod office. To replace the sense of “us versus them” with a wholesome attitude of “we.” I stress the “we” because it can only be done together. Together we are much more effective than by individual effort.

May the winds of the Spirit of Pentecost blow violently in your direction, that you may also welcome the message of renewal and rebirth. May your prayer be that which was expressed in the words of the Psalmist, which were heard in the refrain from Psalm 104 in the Pentecost readings:

Send forth your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.

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BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH. AMEN!

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19:14 [ESV]

Since the bishop election nearly two weeks ago, it seems that more people than I could ever imagine are interested in hearing what I’ve got to say. At last count I had nearly 40 new Facebook friend requests during that brief amount of time. My twitter followers have doubled. (I didn’t have that many to begin with.) I receive congratulatory cards daily. And I’ve lost the battle of responding to my emails.

I also find myself talking to a lot of new people these days – a lot!

Chatting GullsAs an adult, I’ve always been a talker. After all, I was a broadcaster. But in the last two weeks, I sense myself to be talking virtually incessantly. Outside of my weekly sermons to the faithful at the Lutheran Church of the Covenant, I’ve never thought of anything that I’ve had to say as being all that important.

Obviously, as a pastor, I have serious discussions with people, whether it be a parishioner or a colleague. But those interactions are limited and very specific in nature. These days, I find my jaw going non-stop, like a food processor gone awry and not being able to find the shutoff switch.

The danger in this, of course, is that I don’t always remember what I’ve said – and I don’t have a recorder to remind me. The most helpful advice I’ve been given during this whirlwind that has been the last half month is: less is more. Keep your answers short and general in nature. Don’t elaborate. Avoid specifics.

That sounds a lot like the advice one would give a politician, not a bishop-elect.

Which raises another point. I’ve never been very fond of titles, or inclined to take myself very seriously. The words, “Bishop-elect” or “Bishop”, next to my last name still sound jarring. I hope that doesn’t change. Though I find myself in a new position, I am still the same person and I hope to continue to be that same person.

I don’t want to lose my sense of humor. I love to laugh. I love jokes. I find them disarming, especially in tense situations. Puns are my favorites. Dumb jokes rank a close second. Some of my friends have been known to run when they see me coming because they fear being bombarded with my silliness. “Knee slappers,” I call them. As an aside, for many years, my niece thought I was saying, “Niece slappers,” and would cringe when I started to tell a joke, thinking that she would meet with bodily harm.

So as I navigate, with God’s help, through this as of yet uncharted adventure into which I am now headed, I ask your prayers. Pray that I remain as unchanged as is humanly possible. Pray that humility will triumph over any sense of self-importance that may seek to rear its ugly head in me. And finally, pray that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart will serve to build up the kingdom of God, encourage the people of God in the Northeastern Ohio Synod; and, most importantly, that they be found acceptable to God, my strength and my Redeemer.

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I WILL NOT LEAVE YOU ORPHANED

I’m not in the habit of posting sermons for a variety of reasons. Chief among the reasons is that a sermon is written for proclaiming, not for reading. I’m convinced the reader will find my manuscript quite boring given that I tend to preach in the neighborhood of 18-20 minutes. An essay of more than, say 750 words is, to me, sheer torture to have to read. But in light of my election to bishop last week, I felt a need to share some of what I experienced with the people I serve at the Lutheran Church of the Covenant as well as with the merely curious. I’ve been blessed. I am humbled. And I present this sermon with a great measure of humility, hoping that you may find it meaningful to you in some small way. 

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“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

[John 14:18-19]

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

As you might imagine, the last eight days have been a whirlwind for me. Prior to last weekend, I had my future more or less planned out in my mind. The synod assembly was just one more event on my schedule. Oh, sure, my name was on the list of nominees for bishop, but that was just a mere formality. I felt totally assured that the voting members to the assembly would pick someone much younger, much more energetic, much more dynamic. My name would be eliminated off the ballot after the first vote.

Well, guess what? As each ballot progressed the possibility that my life, and that of my wife’s, would undergo a radical change became more and more of a reality. And on Saturday morning of May 17, somewhere around 11:30 a.m., it did. You can imagine the range of emotions that I experienced – shock, awe, terror, dread, and all its synonyms combined. To say that being elected Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was unexpected does not begin to describe it.

I admit to you that at some point I felt very hypocritical. Here I was, called to be bishop, and regretting that I had ever allowed my name to go forward. Thinking of the responsibilities that the office entails, and how inadequate I felt to fulfill them. The hypocrisy comes in when I thought of all the times I stood in this pulpit and told you that God doesn’t call you because you are smart, or rich, or young, or good-looking; God calls you because you are called – pure and simple. So now it was time to put into practice what I preach.

My thoughts, wildly racing by this time, also thought about having to stand in front of you and tell you that I would be leaving. I can’t speak for you, but last Sunday was among the most difficult days I’ve had to endure.

In our Gospel text for today Jesus tells his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” [John 14:18-19]

I will not leave you orphaned.

To set the scene for you, it is Passover. Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples knowing that in less than 24 hours, he’ll be dead – hung on a cross like a common criminal.

He had begun the evening by washing his disciples’ feet, demonstrating for them the love of a servant; but also showing them that their relationship is defined by God’s love. He then began to tell them what was going to happen – that he would be arrested, tried, convicted and crucified; betrayed by one of them.

This was an evening of significant distress for the disciples. Jesus is aware of that. You may recall that in the verses before today’s scene, which we heard last week, Jesus told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

But the disciples may have been thinking, “Oh, that’s easy for you to say!”

Their world was falling apart.They were highly dependent on Jesus, and the thought of doing without him was very threatening for them. They felt powerless and alone. We’ve all read and heard how incompetent and faithless they can be. In the presence of Jesus they were like “little children” – they relied on his love and comfort. In fact, Jesus occasionally addressed them as “little children”. So it seems clear that without Jesus they would indeed be like orphans – lost and hopeless; their past cut off, their future completely uncertain.

But Jesus assures them, “I will not leave you orphaned.

In other words, “I will not abandon you. Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine. Stop being so afraid as I know you are. Though it looks bad now, in the end, I will be with you in ways that you cannot imagine right now. This Holy Spirit, he really will help.  Through him you really will understand and you really will still be connected in a living way to me.  It’s gonna be OK. Really!”

So who is this Holy Spirit?

Holy-Spirit-Fire-in-RedWe are used to hearing about the Holy Spirit mostly around Pentecost. As a result, most of us have a very limited image of the Holy Spirit as the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire descending on people’s head and enabling them to speak in other languages. But the Holy Spirit is much more than that.

In our text, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as an Advocate or helper. The Greek word is parakletos. Translated literally, it means “the one called alongside” of another. Again, an advocate or a helper, one who brings help, consolation, comfort, and encouragement.

Jesus says in our Gospel reading that he will ask the Father and God will send another Advocate. So Jesus makes it clear that he was the first Advocate. It was Jesus who came to earth to walk alongside us and show us what it means to be loved by God. And it is in the support, the care and the encouragement that we show to each other that we might come to know and see the otherwise invisible God.

I will not leave you orphaned.

When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, they were a hurting, confused, and disoriented bunch. They needed the Holy Spirit.

How often in our lives do we experience the same feelings of hurt, confusion, and disorientation? Here are a few examples.

This is Memorial Day weekend. Since this holiday was first established after the conclusion of the Civil War it has been a time to acknowledge those we have lost to war. We take time to remember members of our family that have died. We place wreathes at the gravesides of parents and siblings. In recent years we have also increasingly recognized all who have fought and sacrificed, those who have lost limbs or returned from their service with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We have become more and more aware that the effects of war stretch far beyond the casualty list. Especially this weekend, we need the Holy Spirit!

There are a lot of hurting, confused, scared, and disoriented people in our world today. Some of them right here in our midst.

People who are feeling like orphans because they have a family member who is a deployed soldier.

People who are feeling like orphans because they have lost a loved one to accidents, illness, or old age, and are remembering that person today.

People who are lonely, scared, uncertain; feeling like orphans because a loved one, or even they themselves are facing illness and even death.

People who are feeling like orphans because they feel unloved, needing a guiding hand, wanting someone to know their pain.

huddleCLRMy sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus assures us that God wants no one to feel like an orphan. As people who are intimately related to each other through God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is a special and holy bond between each of us given to us in baptism. We are reminded that we have a special understanding – a responsibility, if you will – to preserve that bond and encourage one another in the unique relationship we have with each other. We are, as Martin Luther said, “little Christs for each other.”

I will not leave you orphaned.

Jesus’ words become our words to one another as people of God’s family, as we reflect the love and care of God into the lives of the people around us. Let Jesus inspire us to say to our fellow brothers and sisters, “I will not leave you orphaned. I will not leave you desolate, feeling deserted, alone, abandoned, unloved, hopeless, or futureless”.

I will not leave you orphaned.

And as we say these words, we remind each other that Jesus has equipped us to be his disciples, to follow his word, and to be a place and community where he and his Father dwell. And that community extends beyond the walls of this church building. You are one congregation but you are part of a much wider church. As Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is fond of saying, “We are all in this together.”

And if you need further encouragement, remember that you have a special connection to the office of the synod bishop. Believe me, I will remember you, and I’ll be relying on your prayers and encouragement.

Later on in this Eucharist, we will install the newly elected members of our Parish council. To this group, as well as those already on council, Jesus has entrusted the leadership of this church. They will the ones that will carry you forward in the search and calling of a new pastor. Whatever anxiety you may be feeling now, as you look upon these new leaders who will be installed, think of the words of Jesus:

I will not leave you orphaned.

These are words of hope for you and me. When we are feeling like orphans – feeling deserted, alone, abandoned, unloved, hopeless and futureless, remember that we have a Father who gives us his strength to keep on going, a Savior who whispers to us, “We are all in this together”, and we have the Holy Spirit who cheers us on and enables us to be helpers to each other. We are not abandoned because we have a God who loves us. He says to each of personally and individually, “I will not leave you orphaned”.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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WHEN THE SPIRIT CALLS

An astonishing event took place at the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly over the weekend of May 15-17, 2014 – I was elected Bishop!

140517 NEO Synod Assembly 2

Q & A Session on Friday, May 16

It is astonishing to me because never in a million years did I expect that would happen. When I agreed to allow my name to go forward it was purely a response to the leading of the Holy Spirit. I prayed, discussed it with my wife, consulted with colleagues whose opinions I value. They all said that I must remain open to the possibility. So I agreed, but it was an agreement entered into with the utmost fear and apprehension.

I will write more about my feelings during the process in my next post. I wanted today to share my acceptance speech, which I wrote just on the off chance that I would be elected. I wanted to be prepared. Here is what I said to those gathered at the John S. Knight Center in Akron on the morning on May 17.

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Our faith teaches us that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Church. The Spirit has spoken. I am humbled by this moment. I am filled with awe and reverence at the affirmation you have given me throughout this seemingly endless two days of discernment.

I thank God for all the candidates who were willing to go forward in this process. I pray that God will bless them as they continue to lead God’s people in the ministries that God has entrusted to them.

I am also thankful for all those who have had a hand in one way or another in this process. The bishop election committee, the staff at the synod office, those representatives from the churchwide office.

And I am especially grateful to Interim Bishop Marcus Miller, for the way he has diligently prepared all of us for this moment. I have had the privilege of observing him firsthand at synod council executive committee meeting and the very structured way he approaches everything.

Bishop Miller has been a blessing in my life going all the way back to when he was elected Bishop in 1995 and I was council president at St. James Lutheran Church, now New Covenant Lutheran Church in East Cleveland, and we were searching for a Pastor.

I spent a lot of time last night, answering a lot of texts, tweets, and Facebook messages. But most of all, I spent a lot of time in prayer. I also turned to God’s word for guidance, reading over and over the words of assurance he gave to the prophets.

I am especially fond of what God told Jeremiah:

5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

6Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

7But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” [Isaiah 49:5-8]

And of course, I never lose sight of the Great Commission Jesus Christ gave the disciples in the Gospel according to Matthew:

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19-20]

I pray that, as the Spirit empowers me, I will carry out the responsibilities of this call, trusting in God to provide me with wisdom to lead, vision to guide, faith to persevere, courage to love, and understanding to admonish. I accept this call and pledge that as insofar as I am able, I will make every effort to verify the confidence you have shown in my abilities to fulfill the duties of the office of Bishop to which you have elected me.

I ask for God’s grace to strengthen all of us as we go forward in faith.

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GOD’S NOT DEAD…HEAVEN IS FOR REAL

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Luke 17:20-21

When I was 13 years old, my father died suddenly. He had been ill for some time but was showing hopeful signs of recovery. Four years earlier, exhausted after working several double shifts in the steel mill, he collapsed at home and hit his head on the edge of the bathtub. He subsequently underwent three surgeries to remove blood clots from the brain, which led to epileptic seizures that eventually took their toll on his heart.

I was devastated. My father was everything to me. For years afterward, I was angry at God. How could a loving God have taken the one person that mattered most in my life at an age when most children need their fathers?

I lost interest in church and stayed away in a display of defiant rebellion. It took most of my teenage years to reconcile my feelings toward God. This was a defining moment in my life and has been a factor in every vocational decision I’ve made. It was one of the considerations that delayed my decision to enter the ministry until late in life, when most others have sights set on retirement.

I write this rather long preamble to put a real life perspective on my thoughts about two films I saw recently – God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real.

I’ll spare you the synopsis of the plots. You can read them for yourself by clicking on the titles which will link you to them. There are also innumerable reviews, both good and bad, elsewhere in cyberspace.

What I found compelling in both films were the struggles of the principal characters. Their faith was being tested in a variety of ways: illness, relationship, cultural/religious conflict, financial strains. As evidenced by my own personal story above, their challenges were somewhat believable.

But both films had a very obvious agenda, and that’s what was most disappointing.

God Is Not Dead-image5I had high hopes for God’s Not Dead when I read the previews, but it fell far short of my expectations. The central plot, the college freshman challenging his narcissistic atheist philosophy professor’s premise that God is dead, was somewhat implausible, but I was willing to endure it to see how it would develop. But then there are all these other dysfunctional personalities with all kinds of issues that created far too many more subplots than necessary. I was exhausted just trying to connect the dots.

One example is the pastor of a nondescript denomination and his visiting African missionary friend who just happened to be in the middle of everyone else’s dilemmas. But the two scenes which I found most blatantly reprehensible are the typecasting of a Muslim father who beats his daughter and disowns her because she is drawn to Christianity; and the Chinese father who rebukes his son for talking about Jesus. While incidents like these do take place, here, they came off looking more like predictable cheap shots against non-Christians. If anything, they reinforced the stereotype that Christians are a narrow-minded, judgmental lot.   Christianity is not without its share of fanatical fathers who commit the same heinous acts of abuse against their children.

Interestingly enough, I went into the other movie, Heaven Is for Real, with a bias. My wife had encouraged me to read the book and it sat on my study for months until she finally determined I wasn’t going to open it and took it back. I was prepared to be dissatisfied.

But this one left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. The four year old son of a Nebraska pastor has a near-death experience and afterwards describes heaven in vivid detail, to the astonishment of his family. His son’s imagination arouses the curiosity of the townspeople, and the discomfort of the church’s leaders.

The family is also going through some grim financial calamities, which add to the stress of trying to keep a lid on the controversy created by their son’s visualizations. It also generates a crisis of faith in the pastor himself, and a great part of the film deals with that struggle. Again, I related with his struggles because of the tragedy in my own personal life.

Ultimately, all is resolved and the move ends with a rousing church service in which the pastor explains that heaven lives in all of us. It is love, and that love is what gives us the hope to deal with this earthly life.

Although I would rate both these films Hallmark Channel material, I would encourage anyone to see both films and judge for yourself. I stated earlier that both had an agenda, but whereas I would categorize God’s Not Dead as shamelessly manipulative, Heaven Is for Real is the more tolerable of the two. Although both preach to the choir, God’s Not Dead shouts at us whereas Heaven whispers. In either case, the cynics will remain unconvinced.

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PALM SATURDAY

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”

Mark 10:33

At The Lutheran Church of the Covenant, we call this Palm Saturday. Though this is not the day’s official title, we use it as an opportunity for outreach to the youngsters in the neighborhood and surrounding community.

We invite them to do the usual secular Easter things such as create crafts, dye eggs, and, of course, we have an Easter Egg hunt.

clip_image002_thumb.jpgBut the highlight of the day is the time when we take them into the sanctuary and explain to them the reasons for Holy Week and why we celebrate Easter. We reenact the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, waving palm branches and shouting, Hosanna!”

We explain the last supper, Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. We experience the silence of an empty tomb and the joy of the resurrection that follows.

Robert Drummond as Jesus

Robert Drummond as Jesus

It never ceases to amaze me that in each of the four years we have celebrated this day, at least one youngster is hearing the story for the very first time.

The story of Easter is at the heart of our Christian faith. If there were no Resurrection, we would not have eternal life. The importance of this message is too valuable not too share with everyone and anyone, regardless of their age. One is never too young to know.

Posted in Evangelism, Faith, Holy Week, Lent, Outreach, Religion, Uncategorized, Witness | Tagged , , | 2 Comments