WHERE’S THE PASTOR?

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
[Mark 9:38-39]

I begin this post with an apology for abandoning my post last Friday. I had a sermon to prepare and a couple of other writing assignments that took priority, and just did not want to spend more time sitting in front of a computer screen.

As much as I’ve tried to be faithful to my commitment of posting each Tuesday and Friday, on occasion I have to remind myself that I AM RETIRED.

This is supposed to be a fun enterprise, not an obligation. On those days that I’m not inspired or don’t have anything I feel worthwhile to share, rather than struggle, I just won’t write. I promise that I won’t stay away for long. I love writing too much to do so.

But there are days when the brain is fried. After feeling chained to my desk last week, I’d had enough.

I’ve been doing a little bit of pulpit supply the last couple of months. That’s what is called guest preaching in some church denominations.

I make that admission with some trepidation (see my all caps statement in paragraph two). I’m not looking for more work. So far I’ve been pretty selective, limiting myself to congregations with which I’ve had a connection in the past.

Of course, when I was in the office of bishop, I preached at a different congregation nearly every Sunday. I was, to some extent, a exalted version of guest, or supply preacher. The biggest difference was that, in most cases, the pastor was present. Nowadays, I’m there in place of the pastor. And that can sometimes be an adventure.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book, Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far from Home, is a collection of sermons she has preached at various churches she has visited. But what most grabbed my attention was the preface, in which she expresses her observations and feelings on preaching in places where she doesn’t know the people.    

The biggest takeaway for me was one sentence: “Always ask questions.”

Call it a stretch if you will, but as I read the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, the thought of supply preaching came to mind.

In the Old Testament reading Joshua pleads with Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying, because they were not part of the 70 elders. 

And in the Gospel, the disciples complain to Jesus because someone who was not a part of their group, was healing people in Jesus’ name.

Although I’m relatively new at this supply thing, I am aware that churchgoers are creatures of habit. When someone different shows up to lead worship, some people may become somewhat uncomfortable. Their level of anxiety with this unfamiliar person can hinder the message of the gospel they hear.

On the other hand, there are those who welcome a different voice.

But the guest worship leader, or supply pastor, also has some apprehensions. Just because they’re pastors doesn’t mean they don’t need guidance. And their level of discomfort with the people and the surroundings may limit the effectiveness of their leadership.

Preaching at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Avon
December, 2015
Photo Courtesy of Stacy Graeff Jantz

When I was in the parish, I prepared an extensive list of notes for a guest whenever I knew I would be away. I learned that from a colleague with whom I served during my first call. My notes went so far as to suggest things such as where to stand for certain prayers, whether behind, or in front of the altar; whether I communed my assistants first or last; and on which verse to begin recessing after the benediction.

The information may have been excessive, even neurotic, but I believe most of my replacements found it helpful. I am somewhat surprised that not everyone practices that. But, as I said, it may be OCD of me to think that.

Let me be quick to add that if any of you who are reading this are pastors in any place I have preached or will preach, please don’t read anything into this. I am not in any way disguising this writing as veiled criticism of your practices. These thoughts are just flights of fancy, my first reflections on the lectionary for this coming Sunday.

I will always ask questions about the things I feel a need to know. And whether I have a lot of information or a little, the Gospel will be preached, and the Sacraments administered. And as always, God will be glorified.

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SEPTEMBER 14 – THE HOLY CROSS

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
[Numbers 21:8-9]

“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.”
[John 3:16-17]

On September 14, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Cross.

The late Philip Pfatteicher, in his New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, writes that the cross of Christ was found at Jerusalem during the time of the emperor Constantine, somewhere around the year 350.

As with most Church festivals, this celebration of the Holy Cross, which began as early as the Fourth Century, evolved over time, and underwent several iterations, until becoming a fixture on its current date.

For Lutherans, it is a time that invites us to reflect on Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross,” and its significance.

The purpose of this brief essay, however, is not get into some deep theological discussion on that topic, other than to state that the cross is a sign of hope for those who despair.

It can almost go without saying that we are in the midst of turbulent times. The list is endless: a pandemic, climate change that is wreaking havoc on all the earth, racial unrest, political discord, economic disparity. It is the proverbial rabbit hole.

And the question that springs to mind for all of us is, where is God in all this?

The two scripture passages at the beginning of today’s post are from the assigned readings for this day.

In the Old Testament reading from Numbers (beginning with verse 4), the Israelites again display their impatience in the wilderness. They are sick of eating manna and complain again to God and to Moses. So God responds by sending poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of them died. When they realize their blunder, they repent. Moses appeals to God and God’s solution is the bronze serpent on a pole that heals.

The message of the story is reinforced in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in the reading from the Gospel [John 3:13-17]. God does not condemn the world, but through Christ, God saves the world.

Caduceus – Traditional symbol of medicine

One doesn’t have to be a theological scholar to draw a parallel between the poisonous serpents and our current COVID-19 crisis. We continue to flounder in this quagmire of controversy over mask and vaccine mandates, while many are unwilling or unable to realize that God is active in the world through the science of medicine, the research, the health care workers, and all those factors at work in an effort to heal us.

There is a quote by Luther that applies just as much today as it did in his time. He called John 3:16 “the heart of the Bible, the gospel in miniature.”

And Luther went on to say that if he were the Lord God, “and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world to pieces.”

We can thank God that Martin Luther is not God. God doesn’t need to condemn anyone, they do it themselves.

On this day of the Holy Cross, let us keep in mind that the message of the cross is grace – sheer grace.

The shame of it is, however, that not many people understand that message of grace.

Mural drawn by youth at the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston in 2019

So allow me to boil it down to this:

Everything God does is because God loves us.

Everything God does is done in love and with love.

Apart from love, there is really no other relationship we have with God.

That is the grace that we believe in.

That is the greatest gift that God gives us.

For many in our world, the church is an alien concept. Church buildings are curious but foreign territory. Many seekers are looking for God but are reluctant to enter the doors of the church, because they are bewildered by it all. For some, the closest they may get to the Christ and the cross is the Christ and the cross they see in us.

That is what it means to be a witness for the Lord – to make God’s love known by loving God and loving one another, and show others that we are disciples, by living lives of love and humble service.

FAITH OVERCOMES ADVERSITY – ALEXANDER CRUMMELL

Many will praise his understanding;
it will never be blotted out.

His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations.

Nations will speak of his wisdom,
and the congregation will proclaim his praise.

[Sirach 39:9-10]

Alexander Crummell

This Sunday, September 12, many Episcopal parishes will celebrate the life and legacy of Alexander Crummell, the first African-American priest to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.

The actual feast day is September 10, but Sunday gives the church an opportunity to also designate the day as Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) Sunday, to commemorate the racial justice ministry of this organization which was an outgrowth of Crummell’s advocacy.

The name of Alexander Crummell may not resonate with many, perhaps even within the Episcopal Church. But among the Church’s great cloud of witnesses, what sets him apart was his indomitable spirit and the belief that one can achieve anything, despite whatever obstacles one may face.

On numerous occasions, those obstacles come from right within the body of Christ – the church itself. And Alexander Crummell became well acquainted with barriers throughout his lifetime, chiefly the struggle against racism.

The Church – and this cuts across all denominations – is no stranger to racism and its effects. Crummell learned that lesson early when his aspirations to the priesthood were denied because of his race. He was dismissed as a candidate for Holy Orders in New York, denied admittance to General Theological Seminary, and forced to study privately. Yet, against all these odds, Crummell was eventually ordained in 1844.

Crummell then went on to study at Queens College in Cambridge, becoming the first black to graduate from that institution in 1853.

He spent 20 years in Africa, in a failed attempt to evangelize to the people of Liberia. Political opposition forced his return to the United States.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., he founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first independent Black Episcopal Church in the city. He served there until his retirement in 1894, and then taught at Howard University for the remaining years of his life.

Throughout his more than 50 years of ministry, Crummell identified with the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. He consistently opposed narratives about Black inferiority in his writings, sermons, speeches, and other literary works.

The noted scholar W. E. B. DuBois offers a sterling tribute to Crummell in an essay in his master work, The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois recounts meeting Crummell the first time. “Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world.”

The history of the Episcopal Church and racism – as with most church bodies that originated in Europe – is complicated. (I am quick to admit that I write from a Lutheran perspective, and we are just as guilty.)

Each Sunday, the multitudes who attend worship in many congregations confess that they are captive to sin and cannot free themselves. Over the past few years, there has arisen a glimmer of hope that its members are taking that confession seriously, as in our assemblies and conventions we have dedicated time specifically to apologizing and atoning for those egregious misdeeds of the past.

Looking back, it is astonishing to think that one man could have withstood all that sinfulness and still remain within a church body that repeatedly denied him his dignity, his humanity, his worthiness before God.

Yet Crummell did.

He resisted, as DuBois notes in his essay, the temptations of Hate, Despair, and Doubt, and shaped a vision of Life that allowed him to prevail.

Toward the end of his essay, DuBois writes of Crummell: “He did his work, –he did it nobly and well; and yet I sorrow that here he worked alone, with so little human sympathy. His name today, in this broad land, means little, and comes to fifty million ears laden with no intense memory or emulation.”

One of the assigned scripture lessons for this day in the Episcopal rite is from Sirach, from which two verses are quoted at the beginning of this reflection. These verses almost seem as if they were written with Crummell in mind, and would appear to refute that claim of his relative obscurity.

But on this day of celebration of the life and ministry of Alexander Crummell, we applaud the  efforts of the Episcopal Church to raise the level of awareness of this saint and his labors, and take comfort in knowing that, at the very least, his work on earth did not go unnoticed by his Creator.

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