Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.
In his book, Dynamics of Faith, theologian Paul Tillich devotes a chapter to symbols. He writes that symbols point beyond themselves to something else, and surpass language in quality and strength. In other words, symbols express what words cannot. They give voice to the individual or collective unconscious.
I was reminded of Tillich’s work in light of the recent furor over the removal of Confederate statues and monuments from public sites across America. These actions, and the visceral and violent public reaction, raised several questions in my mind. What is the point of getting rid of them? Why were they erected in the first place? Are these memorials reflective of the values which we uphold today, or merely vestiges of a bygone era?
In June of 2015, Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist, massacred nine African-American people at a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Shortly afterwards, the state of South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from the state house and other prominent locations. The flag has long been a symbol of bondage and oppression to those who were brought to this country as slaves.
Other states have followed suit in an effort to promote an atmosphere of racial equality, and suppress, if not totally erase, the memory of that disgraceful era. But in this haste to be on the right side of the history, others have felt spurned. It is that segment of society that has now risen to claim the voice they feel is being taken away. The ensuing debate has resulted in protests that sometimes turn tragic, as in Charlottesville, Virginia. This brings up a couple more questions – Which response gives voice to the predominant mood of our society? Whose voice deserves to be heard?
Let me be perfectly clear. I am unambiguously opposed to the presence of anything that symbolizes the superiority or dominance of anyone at the expense of another. It is incompatible with my sense of justice and totally at odds with my understanding of the message of the Gospel.
Yet I must accept the fact that those who support these representations, repulsive as they may seem to me, are also children of God, and therefore my sisters and brothers, whether they believe it or not. That is my struggle.
Two of the readings for this coming Sunday address the issue of identity. The prophet Isaiah informs us that we are all hewn from the same rock, the quarry of Sarah and Abraham. Isaiah’s advice to the exiles of Israel, to look back at their history, is also helpful counsel for us today as we struggle to make sense of the social, political and racial schism that has polarized this country.
To stretch the metaphor a bit further, statues and monuments are also created from rocks. Though inanimate, they also have a life span. To quote Tillich, “Like living beings, they grow and they die. They grow when the situation is ripe for them, and they die when the situation changes…They die when they can no longer produce a response in the group where they originally found expression.”
This gets at the heart of what is happening in our country today. One could argue that these statues and monuments in question have outlived their usefulness, if they ever had any beneficial use at all.
In the Gospel narrative from Matthew, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, extracting Peter’s historic confession of faith, which becomes the Rock upon which Jesus founded his church. In confessing Jesus as the Son of the living God, we claim our identity as God’s children. We’re reminded how much God dearly loves us. We need only to look at Christ and we see that God’s love is the most valued possession we have. More than any statue or monument, that is the source of our hope.
 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 41
 Tillich, 43
Last week I asked for brief reflections from those who attended the first-ever ELCA Rostered Ministers’ Gathering, which was held in Atlanta, August 7-10. The enthusiasm of the pastors who responded was evident in their remarks. Though they couldn’t contain themselves to the 3-5 sentence limit I imposed, I did very little editing of their comments. I would still love to hear from others, in case you missed my Friday deadline.
Pr. Chuck Knerem – First Lutheran, Strongsville
The gathering for rostered leaders was fantastic! Every Bible study was spot on and stimulating. The keynotes were inspiring and powerful, especially Dr. Forbes. He got to his 45-minute limit and the assembly was urging him to go on. The preaching was dynamic. I visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights and, while it was a sobering experience, I am better for it. It provided context for what became my sermon yesterday. It was uplifting to be with so many colleagues who are struggling with the same issues, and to hear many words of encouragement and thanks from Bishop Eaton. One of the best quotes came from Rachel Held Evans who said something like, “The church should not concern itself with decline. Empires worry about decline. We are resurrection people. Sometimes the church has to die so it can be resurrected.”
The gathering was, by far, the best conference I’ve been to in a long time. Glad to know they plan to do it every three years.
Pr. Jimmy Madsen – First Lutheran, Lorain
The days were filled with great worship, enlightening Bible studies, provocative speakers and opportunities for discussion in small groups. But there was also time for relaxation and the enjoyment of one another’s company. It was refreshing to spend time with colleagues without an agenda of things to accomplish except for our renewal. The fact that registration had to be closed early because of overwhelming response is a testimony to the need for this sort of gathering. Kudos to Bishop Eaton, Kevin Strickland and all who made this a reality. I came away from the event with the hope that our Church will do this again.
Pr. David Connor – St. Mark Lutheran, Tallmadge
I thought the tone was just the right balance of honest realism and hopeful idealism– about ourselves, our work, and the ELCA. Our challenges were not sugar-coated, but no sense of ‘woe is me’ was evident, at least to me. I was very encouraged to see the diversity of age, race, and gender in the group. By no means a bunch of old white men. I was particularly pleased with the presence of younger leaders (I have a feeling that the pre-convention gathering of younger leaders was very strategic). The keynote addresses and Bible study were solid, yet the highlight of the entire program was when each of several key leaders share a portion of their faith stories, including Elizabeth Easton, Chris Boerger, and Kevin Strickland. Amazing witness– and a great model for sharing and growing the Gospel. Finally, my table representing the Fellowship of Recovering Lutheran Clergy was visited by a lot of attendees. I was thanked for my presence and many said it was good thing that I was there. Many said this was the first they had heard of FRLC.
Saturday, I will be at Camp Mowana to visit with our synod’s candidates for rostered ministry. Each year I look forward to these conversations, to get to know the candidates better, respond to whatever concerns they have, and encourage them along their journey. It bears repeating that we are facing a shortage of leaders and I ask you to keep these candidates in your prayers. We passed a resolution at our Spring Conference of Bishops which I wish to share with you:
“As the Conference of Bishops, we call our worshiping communities to pray for raising up leaders for this church. We ask that the petitions of every worship service include a plea that new lay leaders, deacons and pastors be identified, invited, encouraged and supported in responding to God’s call to ministry.”
Sunday, I will be with the people of God at Trinity, Clinton, to preach, preside, and celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pastor Julie Thom’s ordination.
And for this week and always, may the God of our weary years, the God of our silent fears, who has brought us thus far on the way, who has by God’s might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray.
+Bishop Abraham Allende