BAPTIZED INTO NEW LIFE

The following is an edited version of the homily I preached at the Lutheran – Catholic Covenant Celebration at the Kent State University Newman Center on Sunday, October 26, 2014. With the Festival of All Saints approaching, I thought the baptismal themes expressed would be fitting for this day. The texts for the homily were Romans 6:4-11, and John 3:13-17. There are additional comments in the postscript.

*****

When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

With these words, we begin a Lutheran funeral liturgy. You will note immediately that they are the exact words of the Apostle Paul which we heard in our epistolary reading [Romans 6:4-11].

Each and every one of us, regardless of our economic or social status, our political leanings, our race, our religion, each and every one of us share two things in common – we were born, and we will all die.

I am reminded of this every time I turn on the news, especially in these last several weeks since the outbreak of Ebola in several West African countries. The stories have dominated the headlines. The relatively few incidents here in the United States have created a panic the likes of which this country hasn’t witnessed in years, despite the fact that only one person has died.

A handout picture taken and released on August 7, 2014 by the Spanish Defense Ministry shows Roman Catholic priest Miguel Pajares, who contracted the deadly Ebola virus, being transported from Madrid's Torrejon air base to the Carlos III hospital upon his arrival in Spain. (AFP Photo)
A handout picture taken and released on August 7, 2014 by the Spanish Defense Ministry shows Roman Catholic priest Miguel Pajares, who contracted the deadly Ebola virus, being transported from Madrid’s Torrejon air base to the Carlos III hospital upon his arrival in Spain. (AFP Photo)

What it points out to me is the tremendous grip that the fear of death has on our lives. When someone dies in a foreign country, as thousands have in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and elsewhere, it doesn’t seem to matter to many of us. But when it happens in our back yard, it becomes a crisis.

So we do everything possible to avoid death. Yet every attempt to avoid or to defeat death, is ultimately self-defeating. To underscore this, I would point out that 50,000 people die annually in these United States from the flu, and there are an estimated 32,000 gun violence deaths each year. What we do in life has consequences, some good and some bad.

In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul describes why all men and women are equal before God. He states that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Guilty by association, all of their descendants must suffer the punishment of a broken relationship with God, with one another, with Creation and finally the ultimate punishment-a physical death. We die because of sin. We are children of a fallen humanity. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Paul explains that both the Jew and the non-Jew are guilty of disobedience. The Jewish people have broken the law given through the prophet Moses and the Gentiles, the non-Jews, have broken the law that God had written on their hearts. The Gentiles have also, according to Paul, chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Both groups stand guilty before God and deserve punishment but God offers his grace through faith. Salvation is a gift not the reward for religious works.

While this argument may seem obvious to us, it was not obvious or logical to many. Paul’s opponents argued that if God forgive so easily what is going to keep people from continuing to disobey the law. Why would anyone want to go to the trouble, effort and inconvenience of obeying the moral code? His rivals also contended that if God likes to forgive and men and women like to sin, why not keep on sinning so God will keep on forgiving. To which the apostle responded with horrific outrage.

Paul’s vehement reaction was based in his understanding of the connection between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christian baptism. Death need not be the final end for us. We need not fear death. And the greatest defense that we have against death is our baptism. It is through baptism that we die to sin and live a new life in Christ.

BAPTISM AT COVENANTThe Christian life is a new life. We are committed to a different kind of life. We have died to one kind of life, and been born into another. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message: “we left the old country of sin behind…we entered into the new country of grace- a new life in a new land!”

Someone pointed out to me some time ago that your baptismal certificate is both a death certificate and a birth certificate! Death to the sinner! New life in Christ! I must admit I never thought of it that way. But that does present an interesting image. The first act of living the Christian life is to die to your past.

Somewhere in my preparation for this homily I read that in the early days of church history it was a common baptismal practice for those entering the water to lay aside their old clothes, depicting their surrender of the former life of sin and death. They emerged from the water like newborn babes – naked and innocent.

Once we have died to ourselves, we can then live to God. So Paul tells the Romans to consider themselves dead to all the things from their past; to treat every desire, every temptation, every old habit as if they were lifeless. Paul insists that the cross must be seen as more than Christ’s last breath, it is also sin’s last breath.

Of course, we are still tempted. We are still tempted to worship the gods of success, prestige, and money. We are still tempted to take what doesn’t belong to us. We are still tempted to cheat or to spread rumors. We are still tempted to lie to save face. We are still tempted but we don’t have to give in. We are not bound to a certain behavior.

Our Lord graciously invites is to live our Baptism each and every day.  In our Gospel reading from John we hear Jesus give us those words of assurance in verses sixteen and seventeen have the “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

We have Christ’s word that we are, by baptism, dead to sin. And we have Christ’s promise that we shall be raised from the dead with him into life eternal. Our true identity lies as close to us as our own experience of baptism. Those who are baptized have been incorporated into Christ and share his destiny. What is left is for the baptized to become what they are, living out the meaning of baptism in daily life. Amen.

*****

Personal Postscript

I write this with a heavy heart. On Tuesday evening, October 28, 2014, a dear friend, Abelino (Al) López died peacefully at Cleveland Clinic with his family at his side.

Al LopezI have known Al for nearly 40 years. We first met as members of the board of the Spanish-American Committee for a Better Community in Cleveland back in 1977. We cut our teeth on community service back then. Those were turbulent times and the meetings were often contentious. But the discord served to galvanize our friendship.

We played basketball, and shared an occasional lunch. And at the heart of our conversations was first and foremost, the betterment of the Hispanic community of Cleveland. It was his passion.

Al went on to help found Esperanza, an educational agency committed to providing scholarship for deserving Hispanic/Latino students in the Cleveland Public School System. Always an advocate for education, he served many years as a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College and was a mentor to many.

I am convinced that as he entered God’s heavenly embrace, the first words he heard were, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him. Amen.

 

 

ONE BODY, MANY MEMBERS

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

[Romans 12:4-5]

In my brief time as bishop, I have developed a new appreciation for the staff of our churchwide office. These are people who serve God by advancing the mission of the church, not only in Chicago, but all over the world. Many of these men and women sat in on most, if not all the meetings at the Conference of Bishops held at the Lutheran Center earlier this month. Then several of them flew from Chicago to Perrysburg, Ohio, to play an active role in organizing and facilitating the first Networking for Mission event for the Region VI synods, which include all three Ohio synods, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.

ELCA Networking for Mission Gathering, Zoar Lutheran Church, Perrysburg, Ohio. Final plenary session on Saturday morning.
ELCA Networking for Mission Gathering, Zoar Lutheran Church, Perrysburg, Ohio. Final plenary session on Saturday morning.

For several of the bishops from our region the concern was that the event seemed hastily put together and some of the staff admitted as much. But let me quote Bishop Marcus Lohrmann of the Northwest Ohio Synod, who offered the following impressions:

In the Conference of Bishops we have been talking about the need to break down “silos”.  This event did that.  Churchwide staff from a variety of areas (e.g. global mission, communications, mission interpretation, stewardship, churchwide campaign, world hunger), conversed, worshipped, dined with lay leaders, bishops, some synod staff in a manner that was both informative and energizing for all participants (these days I confess it takes a bit to energize me!).  One of the best parts was watching how our lay leaders connected/networked with our gifted churchwide staff (most of whom I have had little interaction in the past).  In my 16 plus years in this office I have not experienced an event quite like this one.

I echo Bishop Lohrmann’s thoughts. I was not eager to spend another two nights away from home after being gone for eight days. But this event was well worth it. I was more than thrilled that over 20 others from our Northeastern Ohio Synod, both clergy and laypersons, were present to interact with staff and with each other. Their concern for what we do as church together gives me a sense of hope that God will be served and we will continue to work faithfully for the mission of the kingdom.

Each bishop was able to gather with his or her synod for about an hour. It was not long enough. I would hope this time spent together inspires us to stay in conversation with each other.

Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod shared this paragraph about his synod gathering, which he wrote as part of a report for another organization:

One of our little [synod] group in the room was a pastor who confessed that he has struggled for years with whether to remain a part of the ELCA. Coming to this event was a sort of last chance in his discernment about leaving. Tears rose in his eyes as he spoke about how moved he was to be part of such a great church and to work alongside such remarkably committed and inspiring people. He wished he had worked harder to get some congregational members to the event and proceeded to initiate conversation with the others present from our synod about strategies for “getting this great story told in the congregations across the mission territory.”  Huddled together as a microcosm of our synod in that little room in a church basement, it felt like a mini-Pentecost had descended. I could see glimmers of fire in this pastor’s teary eyes, reflected in the eyes of his sisters and brothers around the table.

The bishops answer questions.  Courtesy of Pastor Julianne Smith
The bishops answer questions.
Courtesy of Pastor Julianne Smith

Bishop Eaton came in Saturday afternoon for a keynote presentation on the role of networks for the early church, in congregational contexts, and in our present situation. She kept this event on her busy schedule despite the fact that her father-in-law had died the previous Wednesday. In Bishop Lohrmann’s words, “Her presentation was winsome.”

After she spoke, Bishop Eaton and the four other bishops present sat down in front of those in attendance for a 45-minute question and answer session. An independent article on that session can be found here.

Overall, I came away inspired. Despite the many days away, the drive home was reflectively cheerful. My hope was renewed that at some point all churches will learn to look outside of their four walls and seek to learn from one another. It’s a matter of either striving and flourishing together or withering alone. The task won’t be easy, but we forge ahead, buoyed by the strength of the one who loves and upholds us, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

CREATED, FORMED, REDEEMED, AND CALLED

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Isaiah 43:1-3a

With the above text, we began the opening session of the second Bishop Formation Event, which I am attending as part of my first Conference of Bishops at the Lutheran Center in Chicago.

The formation leader, Bishop Michael Girlinghouse of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, asked us after reading the words, “How do these verses speak to you?”

The six new Bishops with formation leader Mike Girlinghouse, front center.
The six new Bishops with formation leader Mike Girlinghouse, front center.

Each of the six of us new bishops then voiced our thoughts, and that led into sharing with the others some recollections of our respective installations and reflections on our first months in office. I was surprised, as I usually seem to be whenever I’m in the company of the people in this group, by the similarity of our reactions and our experiences. Although there is a uniqueness to each of our stories, the common themes that run through our narratives are rather striking – the joy, the hope, the festiveness of our separate celebrations. These memories serve to bond us even further. That sense of unity will also be a source of comfort and shelter to each of us in the days to come. 

But the scripture verses above accomplish the same purpose. The words that leap off the page for me are four: created, formed, redeemed, and called.

In our moments of fear, in our moments of despair, in our moments of sorrow, these are helpful words to keep in mind. The one who created us, the one who formed us, the one who redeemed us, and the one who has called us, now tells us, “Do not fear!

In this text, the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, goes on to tell us in specific detail that neither water nor fire will harm us; we shall not be overwhelmed, nor shall we be burned or consumed.

As humans we have a natural tendency to be afraid, to feel overwhelmed. It is in those challenging times that we can turn to these words for refuge and for strength. God is with us. That is God’s promise to us. Keep in mind that God does not say that the problems will necessarily go away, but rather that God will be alongside us as we go through them.

God makes that promise to each and every one of you. Keep these words in mind. Guard them in your heart. Take them with you wherever you go – on the job, in the doctor’s office, in the hospital, whenever tragedy strikes.

A lighter moment, attempting a selfie.
A lighter moment, attempting a selfie.

They are also words to remember in times of pleasure. For the same God who is with you in the sorrow is the same God who is with you in the celebration.

But they are especially reassuring in the low times. It is then when we should hear them loud and clear: “Do not fear. You are mine. I am with you. I am the Lord.”

I don’t know what lies ahead during my time in the office of bishop. But I do know of one thing – God will also be in this office with me. And for that I say, “Thanks be to God!”

REFLECTIONS ON MY INSTALLATION

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Revelation 7:9

I’m still caught up in the euphoria of last Saturday (September 13, 2014) when I was installed as Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. Even though a week has gone by as I write this, the flood of memories still bring a tingle, a smile and a warm feeling that borders on feverish.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Akron.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron.

The sanctuary at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron was filled to capacity. Besides family, there were people present from all stages of my life, childhood friends, college friends, family friends, students from my teaching days, co-workers from my years in broadcasting, from my time in the Cleveland Indians front office, colleagues in ministry, and former parishioners from both congregations I served.

They came from all regions of the country; places near and far – Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The diversity, demographic, ethnic, racial, and denominational was wide-ranging.

And then there was the sea of clergy, all dressed in their white albs and red stoles. I was especially grateful for the presence of several ecumenical partners, who spoke and pledged their cooperation as we strive for that unity that Jesus prayed for us. It resembled the scene from Revelation quoted above.

It also very much resembled a scene from my ordination 11-1/2 years ago. Back then I cried uncontrollably. This time, although it called for a great deal of effort on my part, I was somewhat able to control my emotions. But it was a challenge.

As I processed into the sanctuary, I saw a couple of people and felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was then that I decided not to look either to the right or to the left, so as to avoid eye contact with anyone whose presence would make me begin to cry.

Installation 5As I distributed the bread during communion, several times at the sight of friends, family or parishioners, I alternately felt my throat tightening and my voice quivering as I said the words, “The body of Christ, given for you.”

These are scenes most people never experience in their lifetime. They mostly occur at a person’s funeral. I have been blessed to have witnessed this type of honor twice.

I thank God for all these blessings. I thank those of you who were there. I am also grateful for all the congratulatory wishes, the cards, the gifts, the emails, the phone calls.

Of course, it was not about me, no matter how much people made it out to be. It was about God in Jesus Christ, the church and the synod. It was an expression of joy and a promise of hope. As I repeated several times in the installation ritual as the Presiding Bishop questioned me, “I ask God to help me.”

2014-09-13 Bishop Installation September 13, 2014 099I ask God to help me be faithful in my office; to commit myself to this new trust and responsibility; to carry out this ministry in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the confessions of the Lutheran Church; care for the pastors and congregations of this synod; to love, serve, and pray for God’s people, nourish them with the word and sacraments, and lead them by my own example in faithful service and holy living.

All these and the other promises I made I confide that God will graciously give me the strength and compassion to perform them.

WEEK ONE

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen 

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 304 

I made it through one week of being bishop. I showed up on Monday, September 8 for week two. By my calculations there are 310 more to go before the end of my term. The prayer above has become an indispensable part of my morning devotions.  

So what follows are my observations after one week as synod bishop.  

It is as much joy as it is drudgery. As I heard one bishop say many years ago, “Without Jesus Christ, ministry is drudgery.” So the one constant companion that I have made sure to have in my life has been Jesus.  

I confess that there have been times in my life that I have put daily devotions aside, or try to squeeze in time somewhere during the day to take a cursory glance at my devotional reading; but this last week, the time for devotions has become a priority. And I have found that my refuge and strength. I would even add comfort. 

My mind has been going at a whirlwind pace. Even in the midst of sleep it has become a challenge to shut off the brain. In sports, athletes often talk about slowing the game down. It is a metaphor just as appropriate to this office. Life comes at you fast. I have to learn to slow it down.  

On my Facebook page last week someone commented that it was like the first day of school, except that I was the superintendent. However, I felt and still feel more like the student.  

DSC_0527I am learning something new each day. Each day it seems as if one or another staff member is educating me as to how things are done and enlightening me on their patterns and practices. I am adapting to the ebbs and flows of the office.  I am becoming acquainted with pastors I didn’t know very well; congregations I didn’t know existed. And, of course, there are the meetings. By the end of the day I welcome having the building to myself so I can spend some quiet time alone.  

Someone also mentioned to me that the complaints will begin the day after your first day. That person wasn’t too far off. I benefited from a Labor Day holiday, which perhaps delayed the onslaught, but sure enough, it didn’t take long for the dissatisfaction to surface. The grievances weren’t all necessarily directed at me, but I sensed a certain degree of expectation that I could fix what was wrong. 

I can joke about it now, but I confess that the first one stung just a little. I don’t hesitate to remind people that I am new at this. As I reflect back on things, I guess the expectations are perhaps a little greater for someone of my (ahem!) maturity. It may be true that with age comes wisdom but there is still a learning curve no matter how mature one is.   

One big difference I have noticed is that the emails in my inbox have proliferated. It takes nearly a half day to read through all of them. And yes, there are the phone calls. Time management is essential.  

cropped-140906-macholz-installation.jpgSo what did I do for fun? Well, I treated myself to a road trip. On Friday evening I travelled to Rochester, New York, to witness the installation of the Rev. John Macholz, Bishop of the Upstate New York Synod. It gave me a chance to observe what I will go through this upcoming weekend on September 13. It was a glorious day.  

On the way back I managed to stop in on the folks at Advent Lutheran Church in Cleveland as they took part in our national service day by packing bags of groceries for people in need. I wanted to visit more sites but time just didn’t allow it.  

And just in case you’re wondering, YES, I do miss parish ministry. I have not preached in over a month. I am eager to get back into the pulpit.

Advent Service Day 1I have not taught a Sunday school class since early May. However, I have made hospital visits and spent a little bit of time in what you might call counseling. But this feels different. It will take getting used to.  

In closing I promise this will be the only weekly summary I plan to give. I wouldn’t want to bore you. But I covet your prayers as this adventure continues. They really do bring me strength and comfort. I mean it. Peace. 

UP FROM THE ASHES

On Sunday, August 31, First Lutheran Church in Lorain, Ohio, worshipped outdoors. The backdrop of this worship setting was their historic, now charred building across the street which, three days earlier, had been destroyed by fire.

Courtesy of First Lutheran Church
Courtesy of First Lutheran Church

Just two weeks before, the Northeastern Ohio Synod welcomed its newest pastors at a grand and glorious ordination service inside their sanctuary. Now that sanctuary was in ruins.

There were a lot of tears on Sunday. The community was mourning a death. But the sadness was not to have the last word this day. Hope and joy would prevail.

First’s talented music director, Brian Wentzel, carefully crafted a liturgy that, through music and litany, word and sacrament, moved the more than 400 people assembled from sorrowful despair, to hopeful rejoicing; beginning with the despondent chanting of, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, and ending with the Easter hymn, Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia.

Pastor Jimmy Madsen led the congregation in a litany that accurately summarized the feelings of many that were there.

 

O Lord, when we cry out in fear and desperation,

Raise us up from the ashes and hear us.

When fire swallows up our hopes and dreams,

Raise us up from the ashes and help us.

When our lives and livelihoods are consumed by flame,

Raise us up from the ashes and save us.

When smoke clouds our hope and shrouds our joy,

Raise us up from the ashes and give us peace.

In Christ, life springs forth from the dust and ashes.

In Christ, our lives will be raised from the ashes.

In Christ, all things will be made new.

Amen.

The liturgy included a healing service that involved the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Many welcomed and took advantage of the opportunity. It, among several other additional elements, helped to extend the length of the worship to two and half hours! But, as I am fond of saying, no one complains when a football game goes into overtime. This was not a day to be concerned with going elsewhere. It was a day to reflect, remember and rejoice.

The television crews respectfully remained on the periphery throughout, unobtrusive in their coverage of what was going on in their view.

Pastor Jimmy Madsen preaching at Sunday's outdoor service.
Pastor Jimmy Madsen preaching at Sunday’s outdoor service.

In his sermon, Pastor Jimmy lingered on the history of the building. He didn’t want to move too quickly into the reconstruction. The people needed time to grieve.

What touched me in his sermon was the amount of outreach the church does in the community. This is not just a Lutheran church, it is a church for everyone, which is as it should be. The church is about mission, not maintenance.

In my last several months at Covenant, I would ask various groups the question, “if Covenant closed tomorrow, who would miss it, and why?”

I had put together a graphic pointing out the numerous outreach programs in which the congregation was involved. People were often surprised, mainly, I think, because they weren’t all that involved. They didn’t realize we had been pretty busy.

As bishop, I now want to pose the same question to all of the congregations in the Northeastern Ohio Synod, “If your church closed tomorrow, or if it were destroyed by fire, as in the case of First, who would miss it, and why?”

Do not wall yourself off from the surrounding community, but rather, become a part of it – not with the intention of putting more people in your pews, but to make God’s love in Jesus Christ known to everyone.

First Lutheran will be rebuilt. But in the meantime, it will continue to do mission and ministry in its surrounding neighborhood.

I ask that you hold them in prayer and offer whatever you can as they turn to you in their need. We are, after all, the body of Christ, the church together.

CHANGE IS COMING

Unless the LORD builds the house,

those who build it labor in vain.

[Psalm 127:1a]

Next Monday, September 1, is my first official day as Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Property & construction graphic 1 december 2013As a result, this is more of a nuts and bolts post to inform you of a couple of changes that will be coming to this blog. Although we are not totally rebuilding the house, we are undergoing a “makeover.”

The first will be a change to the title of the blog. Pastor Allende’s Blog doesn’t quite capture what I’m looking for. I haven’t come up with any clever thoughts or ideas yet, so if anyone with a creative mind can conceive a catchy title, please email or message me.

Here is my wish list: I want the title to reflect the office of bishop, the people I serve, and the gospel we proclaim. How’s that for a challenge?

The second change will be to the design. That, thanks to WordPress, is not very difficult. It will still be pretty simple, somewhat like a new coat of paint on the same house.

All my old blog posts will still be accessible through the redesigned site. The web address will also remain the same, so you need not worry that you won’t be able to find me. I know some of you have created links to the site through your church website and elsewhere. I am deeply appreciative of that and I hope to fulfill your wish to hear from me on a regular basis.

That brings me to my final point. I hope to be in regular communication with you. I am challenging myself to post regularly, at least once a week. I ask you to keep me accountable. If you don’t read something fresh from me at least weekly, let me know. As much as possible, I will try to post by Friday. There will be times when I will be out of town or otherwise occupied. On those occasions I will at least post something brief.

The content here will not be the same as what you read in the Bishop’s Newsletter on the unified mailing. This will be more random musings, sometimes personal, sometimes scriptural, but hopefully always relevant.

I eagerly look forward to serving God’s people in the Northeastern Ohio Synod and I pray that the words that you read here will serve to make Christ’s name known and build up God’s kingdom at least in this little corner of the earth. Peace and blessings!

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