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!

LITTLE IS MUCH WHEN GOD IS IN IT

Sunday, August 3, 2014, I preached and presided for the final time at The Lutheran Church of the Covenant. Again I offer my sermon as a blog post rather than write a separate reflection on the event. Perhaps at a later date I will summarize the range of emotions I experienced that day. But for now, here is what the good people of God at Covenant heard last Sunday morning.

August 3, 2014

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 55:1–5; Psalm 145:8–9, 14–21; Romans 9:1–5; Matthew 14:13–21

2014-08-03 FINAL DAY AT COVENANT 036I don’t have to tell you that this is the final time I will be in this pulpit as your pastor and of all the sermons I’ve written this one was the most difficult and will perhaps be the most emotional. I struggled with writing it and I’m not really sure that it says everything I would love to say to you today. So even though I seldom do so, at some point I may go off script if the Spirit moves me.

The next time I step into this pulpit will be as your bishop, and hopefully, to install your next pastor.

Another factor that makes this a tough preaching assignment is the question of what do I talk about?  How does a Pastor go about summarizing his thoughts as he leaves a congregation he has served for five years; and in the course of that sermon, how does he go about saying goodbye to the people in this congregation that he has come to know and dearly love over that five-year span of time. My role as a preacher is to preach the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Knowing that and holding in tension all those other things I’ve mentioned makes for a tough assignment.

Anytime a Pastor leaves a congregation to serve another, there are a range of emotions that go through the members of that church.  Please keep in mind that it was the work of the Holy Spirit that led you to call me as your pastor back in 2009. In a similar manner, at the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly last May, it was the work of the Holy Spirit that led the people gathered there to elect me as their next bishop. I wrestled with that. But the wrestling is over. God won, as God does all the time. Some of you are still hoping for a do over of the results. But in the end, I’m not the one who is in charge of my life, where I will live, or what congregations I will serve, It’s God’s call, not mine, not yours. 

One great piece of advice I received was, above all, to make sure the final sermon I preach points people to Christ and not attempt to resolve personal or congregational issues through the sermon, that is unless you want to have the people point the pastor to the door.

And today’s gospel text on the feeding of the five-thousand is, in my opinion, one of the richest passages in all the gospels if not all of scripture. It is so full of teachings and truths that it cannot and must not take a back seat to whatever desire I might have to take a trip down memory lane with you today. This will not be a revival the old Ralph Edwards television show, This Is Your Life.

But the single most wonderful element I found as the common link between this text and the one outstanding characteristic of this congregation is – FOOD!

All summer long we have been gathering with the Lutheran Church of the Master for our Wednesday Picnic and Praise where we study the readings for the upcoming Sunday after we have shared a meal. 

On Thursday evening the Lutheran Church of the Covenant served some 60 people at our monthly Covenant-Hope Community Meal.

On Friday evening, at the closing celebration of Camp Covenant we closed with a meal.

During today’s liturgy we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and following the liturgy we will gather once more for a time of fellowship and a meal.

And today’s text has as its central topic the feeding of five thousand men, in addition to countless women and children.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here?

The love of FOOD is not an attribute that is the exclusive property of Lutherans. Even in Jesus time the table was central to people’s daily life as well as their life of faith.

There are a couple of things I think we need to focus on in this text.  The first is what happens when Jesus sees the multitude of people gathering to see him.  Matthew says that he had compassion on them.

Hear those words again.  He had compassion for them. Jesus, who has just learned of the death of John the Baptist, is dealing with his own sense of grief and loss, but he had compassion, not for himself, as he had every right to have, but for them – for others before himself.  Jesus meets the needs of others in his life of obedience to God even if it meant giving up his own desire for solitude.

How do you feel when you watch the news and you see time and time again reports of people starving? How do you feel, when you hear that congress refuses to act on legislation that will extend tax credits to the millions of America’s working poor? How do you respond to their plight?

It is compassion that orders Jesus’ relationship with humanity.  It is compassion that directs him to care for those who seek him.  It is compassion that prompts him to ask the disciples to figure out how they were going to find enough bread for the people to eat.  He wants to meet their needs, and he wants to see those needs met.

This feeding miracle encourages us to look not only at the ministry of Jesus but also at the ministry that we share as the Church – the body of Christ.  Like us, Jesus’ disciples also struggled with the enormity of the problem and suggested to Jesus, “Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (v.15).  The disciples are being very practical here.  The people need to eat, and they are all in the middle of nowhere. 

And that brings us to the second point that we should focus on and that is the words of Jesus to his disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (v.16)

YOU give them something to eat.

This command is often missed when people read this story, and not many people get the point that Jesus makes here.

First of all, contrary to popular belief, Jesus does not feed the crowd.  He tells the disciples to feed the crowd. What did Jesus see that the disciples couldn’t?  If we could see a visual of this situation we would see looks of confusion on the faces of the disciples. “What?” they say. “Jesus, what do you mean?  We can’t do that.  We do not have enough.  All we have between us is five loaves and two fish.”

How familiar does this sound to you?  You can hear words like this just about any time, especially when there is a social or political problem that requires an infusion of resources.  Or, to bring it closer to home, when our church is challenged to test our faith—when we are challenged to believe in God’s power to do the impossible in the midst of the reality of the situation that surrounds us.

There is no way the disciples can feed such a large crowd.  They barely have enough food for themselves!  WE barely have enough for ourselves without taking on the struggles of the hungry in the world.  And so they remind Jesus, “We have nothing here.  Look, we’ve got five loaves and two fish” (v.17).

“We have nothing.”

How often is that the human response! “I can’t do that. I don’t have enough money. I’m not smart enough. I’m not talented enough. I have nothing.”

Jesus tells them to bring him what food they have.  Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks them, and what happens next is astonishing.  Jesus provides abundance – more than what is needed.  In fact, there are 12 baskets of leftovers!  All in the crowd were fed, and there was a huge amount left over, even after more than five thousand people had eaten!  Jesus had once again provided for God’s people in their time of great need.

The reason for the disciples’ resistance is that they don’t have the physical resources to feed the crowd.  They weren’t necessarily being cold-hearted in their refusal to feed the crowds, but they just didn’t see how it was possible.  Jesus reminds the disciples to bring all that they have to him.  It is only when the disciples bring their loaves and fish to Jesus that the miracle takes place. 

How many times in the life of the church do we look around, and all we see is what we don’t have?  We look at our meager resources and think, ‘we don’t even have enough here for ourselves, much less anyone else’.  The disciples had 2 loaves and 5 fish, but couldn’t see any possible way that God could use that.  And yet they forgot that God created the world from far less than that.

What little have you got to offer the world or to offer God?  What little do we have in our church to offer?  Humanly speaking, you and I have very little to offer, far too little to make any difference anyway.  Our faith is imperfect.  Our leadership skills are imperfect.  Our ability to see others’ needs is often poor.  Our compassion is not what it could be.

And just look at our hungry world! Look at the people in our own community who are desperate and lost. Look at the generations of kids in our community who do not know Jesus Christ and have not heard the Gospel!

These needs are huge! We can’t cope with all this. We can’t do it – we don’t have enough – enough people, enough time, enough courage, enough money, enough energy, enough love. “It’s not good,” we say. “It’s just not in us. We can’t do it.”

It is tempting to hold our hands shut and say that we need these things for ourselves.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that unless we have enough to start with then we can’t help.  Our whole existence as church is by faith, so let us not base our ministry on anything but faith.  If God presents us with an opportunity, let us look for ways that we CAN do it, rather than looking at what we’ve got and then decide whether or not we can do it. 

It’s a big difference.  But it’s the difference between a church stepping out in faith and a church that just exists.  Jesus says to us, no matter how meager our resources, “Bring them to me.”  What we have might not be sufficient in our eyes, but Jesus can take what we offer and produce a bountiful harvest. 

Last Sunday the kids from Camp Covenant stood on this chancel and sang their little hearts out for you. As I walked among you during the sharing of the peace, several of you stated to me how wonderful you felt after hearing from the children. My response to several of you was that, “All we did was open our doors.”

All we did was allow the children the opportunity to enter our building for seven weeks and learn about Jesus.

And not only that, we FED them with nourishment for the body as well as the spirit. And that extended to more than two dozen people daily, non-campers from the surrounding neighborhood who came at lunchtime. As Sister Sharon Steward told you in her presentation, and I quote: “This church is a light in the community. I see it when I stop by on Saturday and see the Farmers’ Market, the rummage sale, and the [monthly] community meal. Little is much when God is in it.”

Little is much when God is in it.

I want you to take these words to heart and remember:  that’s the reason God worked through the call process in the spring of 2009 to bring me into your lives. Remember how you fretted about whether you had enough to pay a full-time pastor? Remember how you focused on what you lacked instead of what you had? Yes, the congregation was aging and attendance was declining – it still is. But what you are doing with so little is a testament to the faith that you have demonstrated at least during the time that I have been with you.

Little is much when God is in it.

I feel that God called me here to proclaim to you two things every time I stepped into this pulpit: 1) How much God loves you and forgives you, and 2) to invite you to listen and draw closer to God, through reading and engaging in God’s Holy Word.

Little is much when God is in it.

2014-08-03 FINAL DAY AT COVENANT 057That promise was for each and every one of you who believed in Jesus Christ, and turned to Him in repentance and faith. 

That was the reason God allowed our paths to cross these past five years, so that you would hear that message from the Word of God each week.  So that you would be able to hear of God’s great love for you.  I wasn’t the one giving the forgiveness, I was merely the chosen instrument God called to bring this about so that you would be strengthened in your faith in Christ.

And it has been a great joy to see many of you grow in your understanding and faith in that time.  It has been a privilege to bring that comforting message of the Gospel to you in good times, and bad times.

2014-08-03 FINAL DAY AT COVENANT 049At the baptismal font, on a wedding day, or by the graveside of one you loved who had died in the faith. 

So remember on this, my final day with you, that God loves you with an everlasting love.

Then the second thing I want you to remember going forward is that you are instruments of God’s love for others.

When we hear the words of Jesus to the disciples, we hear those words as though they were addressed to us also: “YOU give them something to eat.”

And when we say, “We don’t have enough,” Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook so easily as we would like. However. He says, “Bring what you have here to me.” He takes them into his hands, and blesses what little we have and multiplies it. A loaf to Lutheran World Relief; another loaf to the Southeast Clergy Hunger Center; another loaf to Meals on Wheels; another our Covenant-Hope Community Meal; another to Lutheran Metro Ministries; yet another to LAOS; to Calvary Lutheran Church, and on and on.

Our Lord gathers all what little we have in his hands, blesses them, and gives them through us, his disciples, along with a multitude of others who have heard the “YOU” in this text and along with many other resources for a multitude of other causes and associations and institutions and humanitarian societies addressing the distress of the world, to thousands and even millions.

So our poor little loaves and fish nourish and support and shelter thousands upon thousands of nameless and faceless people spread across the face of the earth. Our little is multiplied beyond our comprehension. “We have only five loaves here and two fish,” we say. “It is enough,” Jesus says.

This miracle reminds us that Jesus calls us into the ministry of God’s work in the world.  We see this when Jesus gave the food back to the disciples.  Jesus didn’t distribute the food.  The disciples were his hands and feet.  And by their faith they shared in the blessings that Jesus provided with all who were seated in the grass that day.  They had leftovers – more than what they had begun with. It is God’s work, but it is done with our hands.

So today, as I end my ministry in your midst, please remember that you, the people of God at the Lutheran Church of the Covenant, with the whole church, are still called to be the hands and feet of Christ and share in the abundant blessings of God.

2014-08-03 FINAL DAY AT COVENANT 088May we respond to needs of the world with compassionate hearts, offering all we have to Jesus, that he might bless it for us to share in the ministry of God.

It has been a privilege and an honor to have been your pastor. I thank God for you and wish you all of God’s blessings. In the name of the Father, and of the (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

ALL WE DID WAS OPEN OUR DOORS

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

[Matthew 13:45-46]

On Sunday, July 27, nearly 60 kids from Camp Covenant along with their parents visited our worship service. Following the Hymn of the Day, Sharon Steward, camp director, gave a brief presentation to our regular worshippers as to what Camp Covenant’s ministry is and what the kids experienced over the course of the seven weeks.

The children sing.
The children sing.

Then the kids came up to the chancel to sing a few camp songs. That’s when the Holy Spirit went into high gear. Their performance was enough to win over even the toughest cynic. To watch the enthusiasm of these youngsters brought tears to the eyes of many of our mostly elderly congregation. If you weren’t moved it was because you didn’t have a pulse.

Shortly afterwards, as I walked down the aisle to share the peace, I heard more than once how wonderful the kids’ program left people feeling. I came up with a response which I repeated several times during my walk, “All we did was open our doors.”

Yes, all we did was open our doors.

Five years ago when I was called to Covenant, it was with the intent of building bridges between our mostly white and aging congregation, and the surrounding community, which in the past several years had transitioned into a mostly African-American neighborhood. All the previous efforts to connect had sputtered and eventually disappeared, and I didn’t come with any real solid vision as to how to do anything different.

Then I was approached about using our building for camp ministry. I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Camp Genesis, as it was then known, operated out of a neighboring Baptist church that was looking to expand the camp and needed a satellite location. We were the perfect spot. It was a no-brainer.

Our leadership gave its blessing when I proposed the idea. But although they were receptive, they didn’t exhibit any tremendous enthusiasm about becoming involved, Other than allowing the camp to go on, there was not much interest in doing anything more. But

Vince Besednjak demonstrates different kids of peppers.
Vince Besednjak demonstrates different kids of peppers.

a couple of our parishioners, one who still lives in the neighborhood, provided a glimmer of hope by coming around and teaching the kids about gardening.

For three years the camp grew. But for a variety of reasons, the director had to suspend the camp in 2013. I was personally devastated. I perceived it as another failed effort. But, oh me of little faith. I failed to realize that God wasn’t done with us yet. Last November, camp director Steward approached me again, and again I didn’t think twice about saying yes!

Art of Camp Covenant
Art of Camp Covenant

Camp Covenant, as it was renamed, is now no longer a satellite, it is THE primary site. Some 60 kids have shown up each morning since June 16 and take part in daily Bible stories, a weekly children’s church, recreational activities, and field trips. This year, two more of our folks got involved in doing crafts with the kids. The children’s art work now hangs in the hall of our educational wing. Another member gave a generous monetary donation which allowed ten kids to attend camp. Yet another volunteered to help out in the kitchen. Like yeast in dough, the Spirit is rising.

And, of course, the kids eat. A state sponsored nutrition program provides the youngsters with a hot breakfast and lunch. But here’s the best part. The meals are open to non-campers as well. So in addition to the campers, about two dozen or more neighborhood kids are also being fed. These kids don’t make the connection between the meals and the camp—they see it as “the church.”

As Sister Sharon told the congregation on Sunday, “This church is a light in the community. I see it when I stop by on Saturday and see the Farmers’ Market, the rummage sale, and the [monthly] community meal. Little is much when God is in it.”

What an affirmation of our church’s outreach efforts!

So Sunday, all these little bodies invaded our space to help us learn about Jesus and to feel the love of Jesus. I preached on Pearls of Great Value from Matthew 13. But the kids were the sermon. The Word of God shone through them. We saw the kingdom of heaven in the faces of these little ones.

And all we did was open our doors.

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.

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…

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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

Reflections, thoughts, ideas on ministry and the Norhteastern Ohio Synod of th eELCA

Michael Rinehart

Bishop, Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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