Pentecost 17/Lectionary 25B, Mark 9:30-37

Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples were walking on the road, passing through Galilee on their way to Capernaum.

Jesus spent some of this time teaching them, again saying to the disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark reports that the disciples did not understand any of this, but were afraid to ask Jesus for still greater clarity.

Picture the scene: Jesus and the disciples walk along on the road. In my imagination, I see Jesus walking ahead of the disciples, who were following him as a group, perhaps at a distance. I imagine long periods of silence.

But then I hear eruptions of disputes among the twelve, maybe in hushed tones so that Jesus would not hear exactly what they were arguing about.

Once they reached the destination in Capernaum, Mark reports that Jesus asked them what they were conflicted about. They were silent in response, but it seems that Jesus discerned rightly that they were disputing among themselves about who among them was the greatest.

All too typically human. But competitiveness about greatness seems to be a particular scourge of our own day and age in our society. We live in a celebrity culture. Cultural lore focuses on the achievements of great individuals with exceptional gifts, or over- the-top chutzpah. Often, in our heart of hearts, we applaud and even unconsciously aspire to such greatness in our own ways. On social media we clamor for likes and thumbs up emojis.

At least I confess to that at times. Maybe striving for notoriety was part of what drew me to working in the bishop’s office in New York City. The desire for public recognition is part of what motivated me to publish a book.

Indeed, celebrity culture finds its way into the church. We have our TV preachers, and our prominent pastors who get a lot of notoriety. The modest pastors of local mom and pop shop churches cannot compete, even as members may hold them to higher performance standards because of the preachers they see on TV or now the internet.

The explicit and more often implicit pressures to achieve status – even in the church – create a huge burden to carry. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing.
When Denmark was named the happiest country on earth a few years ago, 60 Minutes did a segment and asked Danes what advice they had for their striving, competitive American counterparts. The advice they gave was lower your expectations! Then you’ll find greater satisfaction in life!

The letter of James, today’s second reading, explores the spiritual psychology of the passions about greatness and their ill effects: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 3:16; 4:1-2a)

This aptly conveys the striving, craving human condition. Then in the time of James and now.

What is the antidote to all of this? What waters can put out or at least diminish or control the fires that rage within and among us?

Here’s how Mark reports that Jesus addressed the disputes among the disciples about who was the greatest. In the house at Capernaum, “he sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” (Mark 9:35-37)
Picture the scene. I have no idea where Jesus got the little child…. But he put the child among the disciples. And then Jesus cradled the child in his arms. It’s a lovely image. Intimate and compelling and inviting.

The child for Jesus becomes the incarnate illustration of one who is last of all. In ancient human hierarchies, women and children were at the bottom, the last in line. Which is exactly where in line Jesus instructed the disciples to locate themselves. (By the way, I hate standing in line, especially when I’m last, and I am not proud to say that I expend too much energy in the Safeway grocery store finding my way to the checkout with the shortest line… It’s a sinful game that I play….)

But Jesus instructs the exact opposite, using the child as the embodied example.

What does a child convey? Vulnerability. Radical dependence. Direct, unfettered, uncomplicated access to basic human needs without all of the encumbering ways in adulthood we find to make what we need and desire more complex and hidden.

And we’re instructed to welcome such children, a welcome that Jesus embodies by taking the child in his arms. Again, picture the beautiful scene.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” Jesus said in Mark.

We’re months away from Christmas, but recall that we are presented with Jesus as a child, the Christ child, born of mother Mary. In this child is the vulnerability of God. God placed the Christ child into our midst in ancient days and still does so during our liturgical Christmastide.

The vulnerability of the God-child has the effect of getting us in touch with our own vulnerability and is thus an antidote to the striving fires that rage within us. The presence of a child in a room tends to draw all eyes, taking people out of themselves at least for a moment, thus, calming the greatness-seeking cravings within us.

Thus, as the prophet Isaiah prophesied, “A little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

So, it’s a powerful image when we baptize infants and children, vulnerable, dependent beings who can only receive in the most primal, visceral ways the grace given them at the moment of baptism, pouring water over them that puts out or at least diminishes our raging fires in and among us.

Picture the scene: every infant and child we baptize becomes a little Christ to us, if you will, a re-incarnation of Christ as we are baptized into him, into his death and resurrection. Think of it! Picture it. Every child at the font is the Christ child in the manger. Each baptized baby is in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. We usually think of the priest or pastor as the stand in for Christ – but in baptism it’s the children in our midst.

As we witness these sacramental mysteries, we also can see ourselves as infants, as children, as vulnerable, radically dependent and in need of being taken into loving arms, as Jesus did with the child in the presence of the disciples, as Jesus does with us at the font and in our lives in Christian community. What is our striving for greatness but a longing for love? In Christ, we receive that love!

So it is that we also cradle Christ Jesus in our uplifted palms as we receive the bread at the sacramental table. Then in the act of taking that sacred gift into ourselves, the cradle we offered in our uplifted palms to receive the living bread becomes the occasion for Jesus to cradle us, embrace us, with sacred, loving, real presence.

Picture the scene – no, let us re-enact the scene in a few minutes! But I want to recall to you one of my elderly, homebound members in the congregation I served in Pittsburgh. I’d visit Joe in his home to offer Holy Communion, and he would present me with his upturned palms in such a way as to communicate his deep desire for Communion with Christ, the desire for Christ’s sacramental embrace. I shall never forget the way his hands expressed so clearly and vividly a faithful posture for our humble, needy reception of Christ’s very self. It was beautiful. Picture the scene. Recreate the scene here!

As beautiful as this all is, our sinful selves still too often crave the uglier scenes – of envy, strife, competition, war, the very scenes played out again and again in the world as seen on TV and social media and more. The enemies of the prophet Jeremiah, as indicated in today’s first reading, devised schemes to “destroy the tree with its fruit” cutting the prophet off from the land of the living, so that his name would no longer be remembered. (cf. Jeremiah 11:19b). And so, too, enemies of the divine commonwealth seek its destruction still today.

But in Christ Jesus, it would not be, and will not be. The tree of the cross bore its fruit and birthed in the harvest that was the empty tomb life everlasting, carried by a name that is above every name that is still remembered and extolled and praised, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

With our raging fires under control, if not extinguished, by Christ in the word and in the sacraments, our cravings for greatness are relativized and calmed, and we can more willingly take our place at the end of the line in patience and humility, and then can present ourselves as “servant of all,” as Jesus instructs as recorded by Mark.

And in this is true freedom, genuine liberty. Remember Luther’s paradox that a Christian is a perfectly free sovereign, subject to no one, but also a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. We are freed by Christ from our strivings to be for the other, to welcome the other into our midst, to cradle them, especially those most vulnerable and dependent, the children and the child-like.

In this Spirit we devote ourselves to welcoming all the world’s children, and the childlike realities in all who are find themselves at the end of the line. And in this we all discover healing in Jesus’ name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

The remaining Black Lives Matter banner on our church property continues to generate controversy within our congregation, with some members of the congregation passionately supportive of this public witness, and some members passionately opposed to its presence, and others somewhere in between.

At the July Council meeting, President Glen Mason and I were directed to form a working group tasked with developing protocols and criteria to guide discernment and decision-making about the kinds of public witness we make as a congregation, which would include the question of signage on church property.

That working group, more fully described in President Mason’s article for the coming issue of Steeplelight, convened on August 18. As a result of a heart-felt and thoughtful conversation, I made several recommendations which summarized the sentiments of the working group’s conversation, and offered these ex officio as Pastor to the Council for its September meeting. Here are the recommendations:

  1. That the signs expressing stances related to social issues be removed from church property.
  2. That the removal of the signs be accompanied by communication overseen by the Pastor to the whole congregation clearly expressing the rationale for removing the signs as well as stating a commitment to engage in intentional inclusive community building initiatives in our congregation.
  3. That the Council be directed to make plans for activities that serve to repair, renew, and deepen our communal life together as a congregation.
  4. That the Council furthermore be directed to make plans for activities that also serve to make our congregation more inclusive of the wide variety of races, ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities increasingly represented in the greater Arlington area.
  5. That the Pastor and others engage in teaching in the congregation about the nature of the relationship between church and state from Lutheran perspectives rooted in scripture, the Creeds and the Lutheran Confessions.
  6. That all of these efforts would be inclusive of the widest possible representation of congregation members reflecting and honoring the diversity of opinion that exists in our community.
  7. That amidst and informed by these educational and formational efforts, a policy/protocol statement be drafted in due course that outlines criteria for moral discernment and decision making about the nature of our congregation’s public witness to our moral commitments.

Council members were generally quite supportive of recommendations 2 through 7, but there continue to be sticking points on the first recommendation to remove the Black Lives Matter banner. The Council desired more time to thoughtfully consider these recommendations, especially the first one to remove the banner. The Council also, in a spirit of transparency, wished for me to share this outcome of the September meeting to the wider congregation membership – hence this topic as focus for this week’s Midweek Message.

I believe it is important to state again why the Council decided to put up the Black Lives Matter signs in the first place. To summarize the Council’s rationale, here is a salient paragraph from a letter sent to congregation members in the autumn of last year:

“The Council views the Black Lives Matter signs as a Christian statement that while all lives matter, at this moment Black lives are most at risk. The BLM movement was spurred on by the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and has grown into an organization with chapters in cities across the US. As stated in the ELCA Black Lives Matter document: ‘The movement seeks to help people recognize that Black lives matter no less than other lives, and to expose how Black people have been and continue to be dehumanized and considered insignificant, expendable prey in our society… When we say Black lives matter, we are promoting and protecting human rights and living out God’s commandment to love our neighbor.’ We know that we will never reach absolute consensus about sensitive decisions like these. In this time of Black people’s vulnerability to prejudice and harm, we feel called by Christ to announce our support publicly for Black safety and security, and our opposition to racial injustice.” Here is a link to the full text of this letter.

The Council will take up again the proposed recommendations at their October meeting. In the meantime, I invite you to pray for and engage in conversation with members of the Council, Resurrection Church members whom you elected to exercise leadership on your behalf. I also invite your conversations with me and with Council President, Glen Mason.

Even if the banner is taken down, the issues of racial injustice and other social concerns are not going away. Nor is the church’s call to make public witness advocating for a vision of God’s justice in which all people are honored, respected, and given full opportunity to thrive in communities of holistic well-being. Thus, we as a congregation, one way or another, will continue to engage the pressing issues of our day in Jesus’ name, informed by the scriptures, and the theological sensibilities of our Lutheran tradition, along with the commitments of our wider church.

Occasions of actual engagement with each other in our congregation about all of this thus far in my experience have been thoughtful, passionate, and, so importantly, respectful. My prayer is that such a tone would continue as more and more people in our congregation engage in discourse so that the widest possible variety of views may be shared, heard, and honored. Such engagement will make us stronger as a congregation, and will enhance the faithfulness and integrity of our gospel witness to our wider communities.

May God in Christ continue to lead and guide us all in the power of the Holy Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 16/Lectionary 24B, Mark 8:27-38, 9/12/21

Jesus’ question recorded in Mark’s gospel echoes through the centuries: “Who do people say that I am?”

As we are in the midst of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and right here in Arlington, how we answer the question about Jesus’ identity says a lot about how we engage and endure our troubled times. We continue to suffer the effects of what was unleashed in nation and world 20 years ago.

“Who do people say that [Jesus is]?”

The answers given by Jesus’ disciples were these: John the Baptizer; Elijah; or one of the prophets. Jesus as the return of John the Baptizer makes some sense in relation to Herod’s paranoia that the one whom he beheaded had returned. Elijah was expected to come again to usher in the messianic age. And certainly, Jesus’ teaching ministry had resonances with the prophets who went before him, the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and so many others.

The question has been asked throughout the centuries – who do people say that Jesus is? In 1985 the late, great and formerly Lutheran scholar at Yale, Jaroslav Pelikan, published his classic tome, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. In 18 chapters, Pelikan explores how Jesus was viewed in different ways depending on the epochs of Western culture. Century by century, here are Pelikan’s designations for Jesus according to how each century of Western culture viewed Jesus: Rabbi, Turning Point of History, Light of the Gentiles, King of Kings, Cosmic Christ, Son of Man, True Image, Christ Crucified, Monk who Rules the World, Bridegroom of the Soul, Divine and Human Model, Universal Man, Mirror of the Eternal, Prince of Peace, Teacher of Common Sense, Poet of the Spirit, Liberator, Man who Belongs to the World.

It’s quite the exhaustive listing. Each century has tended at least in part to create Jesus in its own image – or at least to emphasize attributes of Christ consistent with cultural themes.

Think also of the myriad images of Jesus portrayed in art, each portrayal emphasizing certain aspects of Jesus’ identity in attempting to visually portray who Jesus is.

But then Jesus poses a second question to the disciples that is piercingly personal: “But who do you say that I am?”

This question, too, echoes through the centuries to this very room on this very day. So, I ask you, who do you say that Jesus is? Seriously, reflect on that for a few moments – especially taking into account our very troubled present time. [Pregnant pause for reflection]

Here are some possible contemporary contenders for summarizing who Jesus may be to some: Friend; Role model; Coach; Cheer Leader; Cruise Director; Co-pilot; Object of Romantic Attraction; Muse; Companion; Sibling. And on and on this list could go. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s true that we have a tendency to imagine Jesus the way we want him to be.

In Mark’s narrative, it’s Peter who offers an answer to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am.” Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah.”

This seems to be the right answer, but even so, Mark says that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

It seemed for a moment, the window was opened and the lights turned on, only to have the window slammed shut and the lights turned off again. A flash of insight, but then mystery again.

Jesus, according to Mark, understood the Messiah, the anointed one, in a particular way when Mark reports that Jesus taught the disciples that “the Son of Man [there’s another designation for Jesus!] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Messiah means the one anointed with oil, just as Hebrew priests and kings and prophets were anointed with oil to mark the beginning of their leadership and service. But Messiah as one who suffers and dies would not have been in the popular imagination. Nor is it, perhaps, in ours.

With Jesus as Son of Man, as Messiah, but one who suffers, dies, and is raised, the window of insight is open again, and the lights are all on. For Jesus “said all this quite openly” in contrast to how Jesus’ words and deeds are otherwise shrouded in mystery and silence elsewhere in Mark’s narrative.

Here’s where we see the beacon shining on the end and outcome of the narrative, the culmination on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Again, this was not a desired or hoped for understanding of being the Son of Man, the Messiah.

So, it was natural for Peter to rebuke Jesus, saying in other gospels, “God forbid, this must never happen to you.”

But then Jesus rebukes Peter, with more revealing insight in the familiar words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

But who wants Jesus to have to go through such suffering?

And it’s not just Jesus who will suffer, but also those who follow Jesus! “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark reports that Jesus concludes the discourse in today’s gospel reading with these searing words: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Ouch. The burden weighs heavily on our shoulders. Who among us can be a faithful disciple – especially when the going gets rough as we are experiencing today and have been for some twenty years or more?

Where does this leave us? Jesus in Mark brought some clarity about the nature of who he was and is as one called to suffer and be killed, promising a similar fate to those who follow, and then we have the warning from James about the dangers of what we say and how we say it.

Does it all end with paralysis, and non-redemptive suffering and misery in mystery?

It’s interesting that I usually find the good news in the New Testament gospel reading appointed for the day. But today, I find the good news in both the first reading from Isaiah and from the day’s psalm.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is among the prophetic passages about the suffering servant, about whom we Christians cannot help but see attributes of Jesus, the one who suffers, dies and is raised.

This suffering servant has been given the “tongue of a teacher who knows how to sustain the weary with a word.” (cf. Isaiah 50:4) Sustaining the weary with a word – that’s exactly what we need in times like these. And this is the exact opposite of the teachers that James warns us about.

The suffering servant of Isaiah can teach in helpful, life-giving ways because the suffering servant has God’s help: “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced… and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” (Isaiah 50:7-9)

The good news is that Christ, God’s and our suffering servant, is for us, is our help, Emmanuel, God with us, suffers in companionship with us, our salvation – and precisely what we need now in a world ravaged by tumult.

Thus, we’re back in the light of day and can see with clarity. And in this light, the light of Christ, the one who suffers, is rejected, dies, but who is raised by God, in this light we are liberated, freed from our deadly paralysis and what ails us.

In Christ, into whom we are baptized, and whom we consume in bread and wine, we thus burst into song, a song of praise extolling our God in Christ:

1I love the LORD, who has heard my voice,
    and listened to my supplication,
2for the LORD has given ear to me
    whenever I called.
3The cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me;
    I came to grief and sorrow.
4Then I called upon the name of the LORD:
    “O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”
5Gracious is the LORD and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
6The LORD watches over the innocent;
    I was brought low, and God saved me.
7Turn again to your rest, O my soul.
    for the LORD has dealt well with you.
8For you have rescued my life from death,
    my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling;
9I will walk in the presence of the LORD
    in the land of the living. (Psalm 116:1-9)

We who are enduring times like these need a divine savior like this.

And with this song of praise and deliverance on our lips, we engage in God’s work, with our own Holy Spirit-aided hands, of lifting our neighbors up out of the pits they have found themselves in and we see the truth of Jesus’ wisdom in Mark that “those who lose their life for [Jesus’] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Who do we say that Jesus is? The anointed one who suffers, is rejected, is killed, but who is raised again from the dead to usher in the power of God that makes for the healing of our broken world – exactly the kind of Jesus we need in these troubled times.

May our words and deeds faithfully and consistently proclaim this kind of Christ during this season of remembering and making sense of the tragedies of 20 years ago. Amen.

 

Week of the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Rally Day. Gathering Sunday. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a day commonly observed among many protestant churches to mark a return to a new program year in the church which coincides with the beginning of a new academic year in our nation’s schools. Thus, Sunday worship on September 12 will include a blessing of backpacks and prayers for students, teachers, and schools as part of our sending rite as we are propelled by the Holy Spirit back into the world to do the educational and formational work that God has entrusted to us. Prayers will thus also include our Sunday School, its teachers and students, and other Christian education and faith formation initiatives. It’s a day to recommit to our ongoing education and formation in the faith. That is to say, Rally Day is not just for kids. It’s intent is to summons people of all ages into more intentional discipleship. What is a disciple, etymologically speaking, but a student of Jesus Christ? We are all life-long learners on this Christian journey. Thus, if you are not currently active in an education or faith formation initiative of our congregation, I invite you to join in one of our programs. Currently, there’s available to you the Zoom Bible Study on Monday evenings and a Thursday morning Bible Study and Fellowship time, also via Zoom. There’s also the monthly Friday evening film series and discussions. Look for more intergenerational family events this fall led by Amanda and me. And I am open to planning and scheduling other such educational and faith formational initiatives according to your interest. Share with me your thoughts!

September 12 is also “God’s work, our hands” Sunday throughout the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It’s a day when we partner with our siblings in our wider church throughout the country by participating in local initiatives to benefit those in need in our communities, an opportunity to give public witness to our faith through programs of loving care of our neighbors. This year, we at Resurrection Church will share in “God’s work, our hands” by collecting items of practical benefit to setting up house for refugees from Afghanistan who will settle in our area. Note this week’s announcements for specifics on how to participate in this endeavor.

“God’s work, our hands” on Rally Day 2021 also coincides with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon right here in our own backyard, and with the downed plane in rural Pennsylvania. Twenty years ago. Those who are old enough will likely remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on that fateful day when terrorism claimed the lives of so many, and altered our ways of life to this day. Indeed, it’s as if all hell broke loose on that day in September twenty years ago, and we in nation and world are still suffering the ill effects of what was unleashed on that day.

So it is that our modest efforts this coming Sunday have an added poignancy. Intersecting crises continue to confound and trouble us and make life unsustainable for the most vulnerable. Thus, activities after worship during our coffee hour will include opportunities for some letter writing – thanks to first responders to disaster and in managing Covid 19, and advocacy for Afghani refugees settling in our area, for climate justice, for tenant rights, especially those facing eviction. And more – again, please note this week’s announcements for further details. This Sunday is also our usual bi-monthly in-gathering of food items to benefit the hungry and food insecure in the Arlington area.

Still more, Rally Day also begins our attempted return to more usual programming and activities in our congregation. Beginning this Sunday, Worship will begin now at 10:00 am rather than 9:30 to accommodate Sunday morning choir rehearsal since our choir is coming back after their summer break. This week also marks the return of regular hours in the church office. Beginning on Monday, September 13 church office hours will generally be Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Monika Carney and I will engage our onsite, in person work during these times. But before you stop by, it may be wise to call or email us first in case one or both of us is called out on an errand, meetings, or emergency. Our Congregation Council this fall will also begin the task of discerning and deciding how in particular and concrete ways we will endeavor to live into our new vision statements for mission and ministry in our congregation and community. God’s work, our hands, to be sure.

Finally, Rally Day 2021 occurs amidst the ongoing claims of the pandemic. Thanks be to God this year that we are worshiping in person and indoors, and that our building is generally more available for use. But, because of the claims of the Delta variant of the coronavirus and the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, programming for children and youth will continue online or in person outdoors with masks. Other meetings and activities may continue to occur via Zoom, also because of the vagaries and twists and turns of the coronavirus. We will be patient and flexible as we live into whatever our new realities will be.

This raises the question of who will rally with us on Rally Day. Who and how many of our members will regularly return to our congregation’s activities? That remains to be seen, and is a matter of concern. But whoever joins in will constitute the assembly of believers that makes for church who will have a share in God’s loving work for the world. God uses our own hands for this work. That’s a marvel to behold.

Thus, may God in Christ lead us into this new program year faithfully and with courage and hope in the power of the Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 15/Lectionary 23B, Mark 7:24-37

The Bible’s stories in the gospels consistently reveal that Jesus did amazing things during his earthly ministry. But the Gospel of Mark also consistently suggests that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know about the great things he did.

This effort to diminish or obscure Jesus’ deeds of power is a unique feature of Mark’s Gospel compared with the other Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.

Just look at the obscuring secretiveness in today’s reading:

  • “[Jesus] entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.”
  • In attending to the deaf man, [Jesus] “took him aside in private away from the crowd…”
  • After Jesus healed him, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one…”

But in reaction to Jesus’s command to tell no one about the healing, Mark reports that “the more he ordered [the crowds to say nothing], the more zealously they proclaimed it.”

It strikes me that Jesus’ command in Mark to tell no one about the amazing things he had just done may be an excellent reverse psychology evangelism strategy. If we order shy Christians who are reticent about proclaiming Christ to keep silent, maybe then they’ll tell everyone they know!

What’s going on in Mark when it comes to Jesus’ many exhortations to his followers to keep silent about his miracles and wonders? Why does Jesus do this?

Maybe Jesus knew well our human psycho-spiritual make up. For the finite, broken, sinful Old Adam in us is inevitably drawn to the shiny objects of impressive deeds.

As we heard for several weeks this summer on John 6, humans tend to hunger for the bread that goes stale rather than longing for the bread that makes for eternal life. And as we’ll hear next week, when Peter rebukes Jesus for predicting his coming suffering, Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33b)

But when it’s all said and done, the good news for us is that Jesus’ mission is not about the shiny objects of impressive feats to which we are drawn. Put another way, the good news is that Jesus is not, in fact, a Marvel comics superhero!

That Jesus’ mission is focused in more transcendent directions is abundantly clear in the trajectory of the narrative in Mark’s Gospel. Most everything about Jesus in Mark’s narrative remains obscure and hidden until the revelations about the cross and the empty tomb. With the news of Jesus’ resurrection that’s when everything else begins to make sense.

Which is to say, the miraculous healings are not ends in themselves. Rather, they ultimately serve to point to Jesus’ resurrected life beyond the cross and the tomb.

Thus, in the light of the resurrection, we see ourselves in the Gentile woman in today’s gospel who proposes to eat the crumbs from under the table of the chosen when we are given the little piece of sacred bread as gift for our healing from the sacramental table.

So, too, from a resurrection viewpoint, we see ourselves in the story of the man who couldn’t hear or speak, but whose ears were opened and whose tongue was unleashed. Just as Peter’s mute silence was ended on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit unleashed Peter’s silent tongue to give birth to the proclamation of the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the dead, we, too, are given the ears of faith and the power to use our liberated tongues to proclaim the gospel.

When Mark reports, “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly,” so, too, we are liberated to proclaim resurrection life in Christ and not just gossip about the great all you can eat buffet we just enjoyed.

Moreover, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can recognize that the prophecy from Isaiah in today’s first reading is fulfilled: in Christ, “Here is your God.” In Christ, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy.”

Isaiah then continues with words that from the vantage point of Christ’s resurrection evoke themes of our baptism into Christ: “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

Further still, because of Christ’s death and resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit given us thereby, we can begin to fulfill James’ instruction about keeping true religion. “What good is it… if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you say to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

In Christ, in the power of his resurrected life given to us by the Spirit in the means of grace in our communal life together, we are liberated from our captivity to sin to begin in fits and starts a living faith active in works of love for our neighbors as James would have it.

Indeed, it’s true that faith without works is dead. But it’s also true that faith without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is also dead in a way, and reduced to social service that can easily lead to burn out without the energies of the Holy Spirit propelling us on. That is to say, when it’s all said and done, faith without Christ cannot do good works for very long at all until we run out of our own steam, leading to paralysis and deadly inertia.

So it is that week after week we enter this room, passing by the font of water that calls to thankful remembrance the baptismal waters that broke forth in the desert sands and wilderness of our lives. When we dip our fingers into that pool, we tap into the sacred energies of renewal in our burned-out lives.

So it is that we turn the attention of our unstopped ears of faith to this spot where the tongues of our readers and of our preachers are unleashed to tell of the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the dead. And thereby, our faith is renewed for our loving works in and for the sake of the world.

So it is that we come back to this table again and again to eat the sacred crumbs that make all the difference for renewed life and energy in serving our neighbors.

So it is that we share in God’s work of revealing the enlightened clarity of resurrection promise in a world obscured by the shadows of sin and death.

So it is that our works of mercy clearly reveal God’s love in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Throughout the pandemic, I have written repeatedly that our practices of restraint – mask wearing, physical distancing, and earlier, refraining from worship indoors – emerge in our Christian freedom, a freedom understood as a stance taken in love for our most vulnerable neighbors.

Recall Martin Luther’s take on freedom understood from a Christian point of view in his treatise, “Freedom of a Christian” – “a Christian person is a free sovereign, above all things, subject to no one. A Christian person is a dutiful servant in all things, subject to everyone.” That’s the double-sided paradox of Christian freedom.

In the popular imagination of many in current American society, it seems that the understanding of freedom is limited to the first part of Luther’s paradox, that each of us is a free sovereign, above all things, subject to no one – full stop. Concerning the refusal to wear masks, freedom is frequently invoked, but it’s a liberty understood as a freedom from restraints, constraints, laws, and mandates. There are genuine flash points – sometimes fisticuffs erupting on flights in rebellion against federally mandated mask wearing requirements.

In my view, understandings of freedom reduced to freedom from constraints is more aptly described as licentiousness, a term often used to refer to sexual promiscuity, but more broadly can refer to a kind of reckless abandonment of and disregard for any kind of limitation or restraint on behavior. Quite frankly, such reductionistic views of freedom can be dangerous and can literally lead to the death of innocent people. Thus, Lutheran understandings of freedom are called for in our current societal debates.

We are all sick and tired of being sick and tired of the pandemic. Adding to the struggles, scientific views shift as scientists acquire new understandings and knowledge – and then public policy shifts as well provoking confusion and frustration. Should we wear masks or not? Should we get a vaccination booster or not? It’s all so bewildering.

Certainly, as we make plans for the beginning of a new program year on September 12 – Gathering Sunday on the ELCA’s God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday – we anticipated greater freedom from restraints in our life together. But the Delta variant and its effects have reintroduced a renewed sense of caution, and a return to mask-wearing in a lot of places and circumstances. I am weary of it all and confused.

And in this weariness, and its attendant frustrations, it could be tempting to abandon or sidestep our loving Christian discipline and backslide into a one-sided view of our freedom as a licentious freedom from constraints.

Moreover, notions of freedom can be philosophically and theologically abstract on their own and sometimes far removed from our personal experience, especially when we who are privileged may not have personally known many who have suffered from the ravages of covid and the pandemic’s effects.

Thus, it’s important to bring all of this close to home and to introduce a personal dimension to the debates tearing at the fabric of our society. So, I offer here a personal testimony, a word of thanks from one of our own members, a testament of appreciation for the loving restraint of many of our congregation members in their response to the safety concerns of Sandy Lindamood, who continues to struggle with the complexities of recovery from recent major surgery, and who thus is among those most vulnerable to Covid.

Here is the note of thanks I recently received from Sandy’s mom, Judy Hughes:

Pastor Linman,

 

In trying to count my blessings during this crazy time, I’ve been reflecting again on Christian freedom, the freedom of a Christian to love one another and do the right thing. As I've acknowledged Sandy's situation and the need for us to be around only fully vaccinated, masked people who limit, as much as possible, their own exposure to the unvaccinated, to a person, no one in our RELC community has been negative. Members have been supportive and affirming, individually and collectively. Our RELC unvaccinated children are a concern for all of us, of course. I received a loving email from a mother that I serve on a committee with who offered to not attend something so Charlie and I could! Unnecessary, but I so appreciated the loving embrace. Anyway, hope this lightens your day. Faith in action.

 

God is Good,

Judy

May this personal testimony close to home put the winds of the Holy Spirit back in our tired, worn sails to redouble our efforts in Christ, helping us unwaveringly to do the right and loving thing in seeking to be dutiful servants in all things, subject to everyone.

For God in Christ is good indeed,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Pentecost 14/Lectionary 22B, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel reveals some of the classic problems with religion.

First off, there’s the tendency in religions – all religious traditions – to be preoccupied with purity. The Pharisees and the scribes, that is, the professional religious authorities, noticed with grave concern that some of Jesus’ disciples ate food without first washing their hands. Of course, we know this to be best hygienic practice, but it’s also true that Jesus’ disciples were violating religious purity laws by eating with defiled, that soiled, hands. “For the Pharisees, and all the Jewish people, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” (Mark 7:3)

A religious preoccupation with purity has caused untold damage to humanity. Because if you maintain a notion of what is pure, you necessarily also define what is impure, unclean, defiled. The pursuit of purity quite easily devolves into a rooting out of impurity, of those who are deemed unclean. Then you get heresy trials and inquisitions, witch trials, and tragically also, at the most extreme, genocide.

Given the gravity at what is at stake, Jesus was very good at confronting purity preoccupations, for example, when he routinely ate with tax collectors and sinners, that its, those considered unclean, impure. Here’s what Mark reported he said in response to the religious leaders’ objections: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Mark 7:6-7)

This brings us to another set of problems with human religiosity: the tendency to pay lip service to faith traditions and rituals, thus revealing a hypocritical disconnect between that which is taught and that which is lived, as well as the common human pitfall of mistaking human traditions for divine law. Because of our tendency to mess it all up, religious faith is ever in need of reform and renewal.

Every attempt at reform in Christian history has something to do with trying to retrieve true religion from the human tendency to pay lip service thus rendering our religiosity superficial, and making religion corruptible. Most all of the monastic movements and religious orders that developed through the centuries sought to reform corrupted spiritual practice. The Reformation in Europe that birthed our own Lutheran tradition was a movement seeking to recover true theology. And the list goes on and on.

But we humans never get it right, at least not for very long. Even reform movements end up needing reform. True religion always loses – hence the ongoing attempts at reform that have driven the story of Christian history. There’s a Latin saying that expresses this dynamic, this reality, appropriately: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church must always be reformed.

As usual, Jesus cuts to the heart of the problem. And the problem does indeed have to do with the heart.

The reality, as Jesus observes in Mark, is that the human heart is corrupt. That’s the law, the rule, when it comes to human nature and religion. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7:21)

In biblical understanding, the heart is the core of who we are, the seat of our will, the organizing and integrating principle of our energies and passions. And alas, as Jesus rightly identifies in Mark’s reporting, the human heart is stained by sin and thus gets us into trouble. So it is that Jesus offers a long list of sins of the heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly….

Because the sinful human heart gives rise to so much trouble, even within the church, the author of the letter James devotes the bulk of that letter to the call to practice what we preach. Here’s how it is stated in today’s second reading: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) Great counsel to address the problem of religious hypocrisy.

But how do we become faithful doers of the word when the sinful heart always cuts off at the pass our efforts to do good, to be faithful to religious precepts in our actions? That’s the problem with the letter of James for Lutherans – the author doesn’t explore the dynamics of how sinful humans can be doers of the word. The author only instructs that this should be so.

What James doesn’t talk much about is Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh who comes from outside of ourselves to redeem what is inside of ourselves. That there’s very little of Christ, and virtually nothing about the cross and the resurrection in James, is one of the reasons why Martin Luther was tempted to exclude the letter of James from the canon of scripture.

When it’s all said and done, in order for there to be any movement toward faithful and true religious thought and practice, our hearts of stone need to be broken open. That’s what Christ does.
In fact, Christ breaks our hearts. That’s what the cross does. That’s what the divine word does to us in revealing our brokenness. When that happens, God in Christ has something to work with.

With broken open hearts, God in Christ draws us in the power of the Spirit more deeply into God’s word in communal worship and the sacramental visible words that the divine word may dwell with us, abide in and among us.

That’s the communal, sacramental, word-soaked, word enriched environment in which we can learn the sacred word by heart. When we learn holy words and stories by heart, when we memorize them, for example, we incorporate those texts and stories into the very core of who we are, that is, in our hearts, which also means in our bodies. Then, in the power of the Spirit, we can draw on these words and stories in the heat of our lives when the going gets tough, thus opening up greater possibilities of practicing what we preach.

In this, in Christ, dwelling, abiding with the word, is our only hope of being doers of the word and only in the power of the Spirit emanating from the means of grace.

Thus, we Lutherans commonly sing our prayerful song at the time of the offering, when we present our gifts, ourselves, quoting Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”

Thus, in fits and starts we continue in the Spirit-led work of reformation of human hearts. Always forgetting, ever corrupting. But in Christ, remembering baptism, being fed at the table each week with Jesus’ very self, ever starting anew again every day.

This is crucial work when it comes to the integrity of the witness of the church to the world. For the human capacity to corrupt religion drives people away in droves. The failure to practice what we preach is the anti-evangelism strategy that keeps many from even considering church.

Thus, seeking to be doers of the word in and for the sake of the world is central to the mission that God has entrusted to us. That’s part of the divine wisdom revealed in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “You must observe [the statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
May it be so among us in our imperfect ways, that others may see some consistency between what is preached and what is practiced – for Christ’s sake and for the healing of the people and nations. Amen.

Week of the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Despite the fact that he was not able to join us on Sunday, I nonetheless am moved to share with you the sermon which the Rev. Lowell Almen, former Secretary of the ELCA, intended to preach among us this past Sunday morning. Drawing on long and abiding associations with and deep respect for the clergy who serve as military chaplains, Pastor Almen relates poignant stories and experiences to Sunday’s second reading from Ephesians concerning our being clothed with the full armor of God.

Many thanks to Lowell for his willingness to offer to us his sermonic recounting and reflections. May God bless you in the reading of this proclamation.

Pastor Jonathan Linman

“From Down Range to New Hope”

For Resurrection Lutheran Church, Arlington, Virginia
By the Rev. Lowell G. Almen
Copyright ©️ 2021

Hear again from Ephesians, the sixth chapter: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of the Lord’s power. Put on the whole armor of God…, so that you may be…ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”

I had just arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Command Chaplain Gary Garvey was giving me a brief tour of the base. He served for a quarter century as an Air Force chaplain.

Throughout the 20 years that I served as the ELCA’s first secretary, I met with the Lutheran military chaplains at their annual conference. I found them to be an amazing, dedicated group of pastors – pastors focused clearly on the work that they had been called by the church to carry out as chaplains.

At one of those conferences, Chaplain Garvey told me he had just been assigned as command chaplain at Ramstein. He urged me – sometime when I would be in Europe for ecumenical meetings – … he urged me to add a couple of days to the trip to visit Ramstein. I was able to accept that invitation in late August 2005 – 16 years ago this coming week.

When Chaplain Garvey was giving me a tour of Ramstein, there was a sudden change in plans. He received notice that a plane was coming in with wounded from “down range” – in that case from Iraq. The driver turned the van in the direction of the airfield to meet the plane.

The C-17 Medevac aircraft taxied to a stop on the tarmac. The plane’s side door opened quickly. Chaplain Garvey stepped onboard. I followed him. What I saw amazed me: Stretchers stacked four deep in two rows down the center of that large transport plane. Walking wounded filled the side benches the length of the plane.

Chaplain Garvey greeted individually each of the wounded on the stretches. Then he helped carry the stretchers to awaiting vehicles. Soon, they would be on their way to the nearby Landstuhl Hospital. There they would be evaluated. Some would be treated at Landstuhl. Others would be prepared for flights to Walter Reed here in Washington, D.C.; others would be sent to facilities in San Antonio.

I learned that each Medevac flight – sometimes six or seven or more a day – was met by a chaplain. That pattern had been started in late 2004. It began as the fighting in Iraq became intense, especially in the 2004 Battle for Fallujah.

As some may remember, Fallujah is a strategic city in Iraq that is located about 40 miles west of Baghdad. During the early days of the Iraq War, the fight for that city began in the spring of 2004. In months of ferocious house-to-house fighting against well-armed insurgents, many Marines were killed. Many, many more were gravely wounded. By the time the planes with those wounded Marines from Fallujah were arriving in Ramstein in 2004, the wounded would be regaining conscientious. They had been put into a drug-induced sleep at the start of the flight. In their intense pain and confusion as they awoke on the plane, they would strike out and fight the medical personnel tending to them. Amid their fog of pain and medication, they were terrified. Some thought they had been captured by the enemy. They did not know where they were. But one day when a chaplain who happened to be at the airfield stepped onto the plane, a discovery was made. The wounded on the plane became quiet. They settled down. They knew they were safe. How? They saw the cross on the chaplain’s uniform. By the sign of the cross, they realized that they were in safe hands. By the sign of the cross, they understood that they were with people ready to care for them.

Many times a day during the Iraq War, C-17 Medevac planes would land at Ramstein – day and night. The planes were carrying wounded from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Sometimes there even would be wounded civilian contractors on board.

Throughout the years of continuing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands upon thousands of wounded arrived at Ramstein. Awaiting on the tarmac for each plane was a chaplain – a chaplain ready to climb on board as a symbol of hope and compassion.

Those soldiers that I saw that day in August 2005 were all on a journey, a journey from downrange to new hope – a journey with the help of chaplains, medical doctors, health-care workers, stretcher bearers, and others. And, by the sign of the cross, the church was there through the presence of the chaplains.

Most of us have not experienced what those Marines faced in the Battle of Fallujah. Most – perhaps all of us – never will. But we face our own challenges and struggles – some deep within us, others maybe around us. We, too, can be reassured by the sign of the cross. That sign means God is at work in us. God is at work bringing reconciliation amid division. God is at work bringing healing amid pain. God is at work bringing hope amid discouragement.

In many ways, we have our own journeys from down range to new hope. For those journeys, today’s reading from Ephesians offers guidance.

The Letter to the congregation at Ephesus is attributed to St. Paul. But it actually was written about a quarter century after St. Paul’s martyrdom along the Appian Way just south of Rome. The writer clearly knew of Paul’s actual writings. Indeed, the writer echoes Paul’s profound sense of the church … Paul’s conviction of our unity in Christ reflected throughout the whole community of faith.

Ephesus at that time was an important city of commerce. Roads into and out of the city were active with traffic for goods. And the place had a significant seaport for shipping throughout the Mediterranean.

But a difficult time of persecution was underway. Those believers at Ephesus were called to battle –battle against the forces of evil … battle against the threats to the church’s unity … battle against all that would threaten them in the journey of faith.

Thus, we have that image of military equipment:

  • Put on the whole armor of God…
  • Be strong. Be strong in the Lord…
  • Keep alert…
  • Carry the breastplate – the protective armor – of righteousness…
  • Fasten on the belt of saving truth…
  • Take the shield of faith…
  • Put on the helmet of salvation…
  • And pray … pray not only for yourselves but pray for all of the saints … all those joined together in the church throughout earth and heaven.

Our journey from whatever is down range for us to new hope is always one of confession and faith. As we heard the Apostle Peter declare in today’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall be go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Under the sign of the cross, we move from down range to new hope.

Copyright ©️ 2021

Pentecost 13/Lectionary 21B, John 6:56-69

I had promised you someone else in the pulpit today. Alas, Dr. Lowell Almen, retired Secretary of the ELCA, sends his regrets. He was not able to travel because of an unexpected health issue. So you have me for yet another sermon on Jesus’ difficult teaching in John chapter six.

Throughout this chapter, John reports that Jesus has been making the case while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum that he is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and that this bread is his flesh and that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will live forever.

All of this is a challenge to take in and comprehend to say the least. Indeed, John reports that Jesus’ own disciples, not just the religious authorities, had objections. The disciples complained and said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

Jesus’ replied to them: “Does this offend you?” Jesus was aware that he did not have universal support among his followers, and was aware even then of the one who would betray him.

John reports that many of Jesus’ wider circle of disciples “turned back and no longer went about with him.” Then addressing the twelve, Jesus asked, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Jesus forced no one to follow him. If fact, relating to Jesus centered on the invitation: “Follow me.” Not a command, but invitation. People could choose to follow him or choose not to follow him.

Which raises the whole question of the nature of choice when it comes to religious faith. And behind that all of the philosophical and theological questions concerning human free will, and the extent to which human beings have free will.

One of the founding principles of our nation is freedom of religion – and perhaps freedom from religion. There is not an officially established state church or religious tradition in our country.

And freedom of choice is a flash point in the current political climate. When it comes to the pandemic, freedom of choice is invoked in relation to wearing masks or not. Then there are approaches to abortion rights couched in the language of “pro-choice.”
But the question of free choice is a complicated one when it comes to Christian faith.
Yes, in the religious climate of our nation centered on individualism and the freedom to choose, whole Christian traditions have emerged in this country that focus on individual agency when it comes to faith – as in, “I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

I happen to believe that the old sinful Adam is quite seductively active when it comes to social and religious perspectives that reduce human agency to individual choice, where it’s all about me and what I want apart from other communal and relational dynamics and considerations.

So, let’s delve into what today’s readings reveal about the nature of choice when it comes to faith, to choosing God, to following Jesus, who invites us to affirm that his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink.

Today’s readings suggest a more complicated set of dynamics related to choice in connection with faith than simply “I choose to accept.” There’s a lot more going on before we get to the point of assent.

In today’s first reading, Joshua had gathered all the tribes of Israel and presented them with a choice to serve the God of their ancestors or the idols of their choice. Joshua indicated that he would serve God. The people likewise gave their assent: “Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for the Lord is our God.”

Seems pretty simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? But let’s look more closely at the story. Before the people made their choice to serve God and not idols, they recounted their memory of all that God had done for them. Here again is what the people remembered: “for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. The Lord protected us along al the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who live in the land.” (Joshua 24:17-18a) Only after rehearsing out loud all that God had done for them did they reveal that they would serve God and not idols.

In short, their choice, their assent to serve God was based on and emerged from the activity and agency of God in their communal lives. It didn’t come out of the blue from their own individual proclivities.

So, too, in today’s gospel reading from John, the decision to continue to follow Jesus was more involved than simply individual free choice in the moment.
Recall that Jesus concludes about those who chose to follow him and those who went away: “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” That essentially repeats what John reports elsewhere in this chapter about the centrality of being drawn by God the Father when it comes to belief in Jesus and his teachings about his being the bread that comes down from heaven.

Thus it is that we have Simon Peter’s response to Jesus asking whether or not they also wished to go away. Simon Peter’s asked rhetorically, “Lord, to whom can we go?” Then Simon Peter concludes, based on the wealth of experience of encounter with Jesus: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

Simon Peter’s reply suggests a whole lot of story of encounter along the way before the decision – the dynamics perhaps of being drawn by the Father, belief granted by the Father. It’s as if Simon Peter was saying, “how can we help but say yes given all that we have experienced and come to know about you, Jesus?” “Lord, to whom can we go?” is not an expression of desperation but grace-filled clarity based on everything that Jesus had been doing in their presence.

The good news in all of these dynamics is that when it comes to faith, it’s not all about us and our choice, but about God and God’s agency and activity, that our assent, our yes, is an important part of the equation, but that our yes is itself a gift of God, a result of our having been drawn by the Father. That’s the good news.

The bad news, in fact, is that radically free choice, or the perception of it, can be quite the burden, causing anxiety, terror, even. What a relief to know that the burden of our choices is relativized by the sovereign realities of God’s grace and the claims of divine grace in our lives.

Many of you may have seen the classic foreign film from Denmark back in the 1980’s, “Babette’s Feast.” It’s based on a lovely short story by Isaac Dinesen. One of the main characters, a Swedish general, struggles with his life’s choices, but during the feast on which the movie centers, to me, a parable of the Eucharist, the General receives the gift of clarity and stands to make a speech before those gathered at the table. Here’s what the General says, and to me this speech reveals the point of the whole story, and it’s is a lovely expression of a Lutheran theology of grace:

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. [We], my friends, [are] frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble. We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace… makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

What matters is not our choice, but God’s gracious choice for us in Christ Jesus, the bread that comes down from heaven. How can we help but say yes? That’s my take as a Lutheran pastor, and as an anxious sinner, on the questions of freedom of choice when it comes to our faith.

So it is that we, too, drawn by God, confess as we come to the table of divine grace, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Thus it is that we are fed and clothed, too, well-protected by the full armor of God, and given gracious gifts with the coming of the Spirit in baptism. Here’s what we are given to echo the words of the author of today’s passage from Ephesians – we are clothed with: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the capacity to proclaim the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.

Thus, we are well-prepared to engage the sacred work entrusted to us in and for the sake of the world, the work of contending with the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) – all part of God’s ongoing mission to continue to choose God’s creation in grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. Amen.

Week of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

When it comes to the current state of our congregation, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that we have been worshiping indoors again for seven weeks now with a routine that honors both liturgical integrity and safety concerns about the ongoing claims of the pandemic. Our attendance has ranged from the mid-forties to the upper-sixties, a good critical mass of people, a genuine Christian assembly, reflecting a strong core of active membership.

The bad news is that these attendance figures are well below where we were as a congregation before the pandemic. It may be that some are claiming vacation time away, having put trips on hold earlier in the pandemic. It may be that some are not yet comfortable coming back in person, a concern heightened perhaps by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. It is also true that we’ve had about half a dozen active families move out of the Arlington area in the past year. But I also fear that for whatever sets of reasons, there may be members who will simply not come back. The pandemic has created the opportunity for us to take stock of our lives and routines and has given permission to alter how we spend our time and express our commitments. It may be that for some, church is no longer on the list of priorities.

The good news is that our congregation currently enjoys a solid financial position. With assets in reserve, and expenses generally running below budget, and with the ongoing faithfulness of generous people, we are holding our own amidst the tumult of the pandemic.

The bad news is that giving by members in total dollars has been down quite noticeably during most of 2021. If these downward giving trends continue, this will have serious implications for current and future budget plans and will limit the extent of our capacities for mission and ministry.

The good news is that Resurrection Church is blessed with a solid core of volunteers who give a great deal of time and energy and skill to the practical needs and opportunities of the routines of our life together. I have been consistently impressed with the high quality of our lay leadership across the board.

The bad news is that many of these volunteers wear many hats in the congregation, and some are tired and being spread too thin. Where are the reserves of people who are willing to step up to be worship assistants, readers, altar guild members, ushers, members of our hospitality team, and new to our life together, videographers? If we are to pursue even the current level of activity without risking volunteer burn-out, we need to increase the numbers on our various teams of leaders.

I could go on with additional good news-bad news scenarios, but the point is that we do not yet know what the emerging realities will be in our life together as a congregation as a new normal begins to appear on the horizon. Still, the fact is that we need to be prepared for the likelihood that Resurrection Church will not exactly be what it was prior to the pandemic. In fact, even before the pandemic, Resurrection was a congregation in a state of major transition after a pastorate of almost a quarter century, and with other significant staff changes, including our musician who skillfully served us for half a century. That the pandemic happened amidst major transition already underway only complicates matters further.

If you have observations about the current state of our life together as a congregation, I would love to hear from you. Your insights, which may differ greatly from mine, will serve to deepen understandings of Resurrection Church’s current circumstances, its challenges and its opportunities.

Indeed, we shall see what kinds of realities emerge, especially after Labor Day when a new program year gets underway. The Reopening Planning Group recommends that we continue with our current practices of worship indoors, maintaining universal mask wearing and physical distancing, as we journey forth together into the future.

But here’s the final proclamation of good news for which there is no corresponding statement of bad news: God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit remains present among us in assembly in word and sacrament when two or three gather in Jesus’ name. That bedrock reality cannot ultimately be taken from us, and that’s the solid foundation on which we will share in God’s work of building whatever congregational configurations and realities that are in store for us in God’s promised future.

Thus, onward with hopefulness in Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 12/Lectionary 20B, John 6:51-58

Let’s do a little thought experiment to begin. Imagine that you have no acquaintance with Christianity, that you are hearing today’s gospel reading for the first time. Imagine your gut reaction to these words of Jesus recorded by John: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

There may be a couple of words that come to your mind when you hear about eating flesh and drink blood: cannibals and vampires.

So it is that the radicality of Jesus’ discourse found in John 6 deepens in provocative extremity. Indeed, those encountering Jesus’ teaching back in the day raised the undeniably natural question: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Great question. Jesus’ teaching in John about flesh eating and blood drinking might be softened, depending on the Greek word used for flesh or body. I suppose the Greek might have been ‘soma,’ from which we derive the English word somatic – this is a word that might suggest body in a more philosophical or spiritual manner. But no, the Greek word in John is ‘sarx,’ that is, a Greek word that really does refer to flesh and blood in a literal sense.

The use of this particular Greek word makes Jesus’ teaching in John even more radical: how can mortal flesh, flesh that ultimately dies and decomposes, make for eternal life? How can such literal flesh be the source of living forever? How can such flesh be true food, and blood that is also made from ‘sarx,’ be true drink?

Moreover, mortal flesh is associated with sin, the law, the rule, of corrupt human nature. How can the locus of such sinful, broken mortality be the womb for giving birth to a resurrected life without sin and mortality?

Well, in Jesus Christ, the word of God became flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth. That’s the whole point. The word chosen in the Prologue to John’s Gospel is the word that has to do with mortal flesh, ‘sarx’. It’s not the spiritualized, philosophical word for body.

To help make the point, recall that Paul writes this in 2 Corinthians: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

God’s descent into flesh in Christ is the source of our liberation from the sinful, mortal claims of the flesh. In Christ, flesh is redeemed. In Christ, flesh finds resurrection. In Christ, mortal flesh finds eternity.

In eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood, sacramentally speaking, we also eat and drink Christ’s cross, Christ’s death, and Christ’s resurrection, incorporating into ourselves all that Christ is, all that Christ did, and all that Christ does.

That’s the divine truth that John focuses on, such that Jesus’ flesh is indeed true food, and his blood true drink.

Unredeemed mortal flesh wants a good lunch. In the resurrected flesh that makes for eternity in Christ, we get much, much more than good eats.

But it’s all so mind-blowing. Today, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, happens to fall on the day of commemoration of Mary, Mother of our Lord. Perhaps this coincidence helps us make some further sense of all of this flesh eating and blood drinking in today’s gospel from John.

Think of human pregnancy, giving birth, the bond between mother and child, the bond between Mary and Jesus. There’s a lot of sharing of flesh and blood in the whole wondrous process of pregnancy and giving birth. This is common human experience that’s not so very far off the flesh eating and blood drinking described in John’s gospel.

There’s a whole lot of orality in the early years of human life. The child at the mother’s breast involves in significant ways eating and drinking the flesh of their mother. What is mother’s milk, but the creation, the fruit of her flesh, her sarx? That nutritious milk finds its way from mother’s bloodstream into our bloodstream for our health and vitality and growth.

We don’t think of cannibals and vampires when we see the beauty of the enfleshed bonds between mother and child.

Our union with Christ in the Eucharist is more in keeping with the fleshy maternal bonds between mother and child than the sordid visions of horror films that depict cannibals and vampires….
All of which does indeed bring us to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, where we confess that we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Still a great question, the metaphysics of which Martin Luther never sought to solve or explain. Rather, Luther emphatically insisted on faith in Christ’s promise and its fulfillment: this is my body, this is my blood. Trusting this promise to be true.

So, we are left with the wonder of it all, the mystery, that in faith our simple meal at the sacramental table is the fulfillment and enfleshment of Jesus’ promises made throughout John chapter 6. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”

It strikes me that the first reading for today from Proverbs makes for a great invitation to Communion: Wisdom “has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant women, she calls from the highest places in town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’” (Proverbs 9:2-6)

Thus, we lay aside the drunkenness of mortal flesh and in Christ, in the Spirit, we are enabled, empowered, and moved to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [ourselves] singing and making melody to the Lord in [our] hearts, giving thanks to God, the Father, at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20)

Thankfully singing our songs, we prepare both sacramental and ordinary tables to feed a hungry world with the bread that still comes down from heaven, even Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, as we give birth to this divine word anew like Mary in our lives of loving service to our neighbors. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

This coming Sunday, August 15, is the day in our liturgical calendar set aside for the commemoration of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. In our worship, we will observe the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, honoring the central place of the Lord’s Day in our life together. That said, the commemoration of Mary is also a significant occasion that invites some focused attention. Thus, I here offer some reflections on Mary from a personal perspective, but also from my vantage point as a Lutheran pastor.

In my own piety and faith practice, Mary has never occupied a particularly prominent place, though I admit to having had some significant spiritual experiences in which Mary has played a central role. The place of Mary, or lack thereof, has been a feature of the kind of Lutheranism, or Protestantism more broadly speaking, that defines itself over against Roman Catholicism, the kind of negative identity that basically concludes that “I am Lutheran, or protestant, because I am not Catholic.”

However, it is important to acknowledge that Martin Luther himself continued to honor the place of Mary in Christian life as Theotokos, or God bearer, Mother of God. Here are Luther’s own words in his work on “The Magnificat,” and I quote at length to give you a good sense of Luther’s views:

“‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’ The ‘great things’ are nothing less than that [Mary] became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass [human] understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of [humankind], among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child. She herself is unable to find a name for this work, it is too exceedingly great; all she can do is break out in the fervent cry: ‘They are great things,’ impossible to describe or define. Hence [we] have crowded all her glory into a single word [Theotokos], calling her the Mother of God. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though [they] had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.” Luther’s Works, vol. 21 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 326.

The role of Mary in the Christian faith tradition arguably reveals more about God than it does about Mary herself. Indeed, one of the qualities of Christian saints is that they point beyond themselves to reveal God in Christ. What do we learn about God from Mary? In short, the God whom we confess, worship, adore, and serve is not a God who imposes divine will on human beings. This reality is a crucial feature of the Annunciation story, when the angel Gabriel visited Mary with the sacred word of Mary’s call to become pregnant with and give birth to God’s word made flesh in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation would not have occurred had it not been for Mary’s yes to the angel’s announcement in her willing assent: “Let it be to me according to your word” (cf. Luke 1:38). Thus, God calls human servants in such a way as to evoke their cooperation, their willingness to abide by the divine call. Moreover, the Holy Spirit inspires such willing cooperation when we cannot muster such assent to God’s will and call on our own steam. Thus, it was that “the Holy Spirit [came upon Mary], and the power of the Most High [overshadowed her]” (cf. Luke 1:35a). Then she was able to offer her ‘yes’ to God.

In addition to Mary’s role in pointing to God in Christ, Mary also reveals to us the nature of Christian discipleship. In crucial ways, Mary is the quintessential disciple of Jesus Christ. That is to say, as a follower of Jesus, her son, she herself at first was pregnant with the divine word and gave birth to that word who was Jesus of Nazareth. Mary’s discipleship began and was centered on her womb being full of the word and her giving birth to that word for the sake of the whole world. All disciples of Christ are called likewise to be pregnant with the word of God, to dwell in worshipful and studied ways with the word in scripture and in the sacramental life of the church, to internalize that word, to incorporate that word by the power of the Holy Spirit into the fullness of who we are, and then to birth that word in deeds of love of the neighbor and in witness to the God made known in Jesus Christ. In short, in modeling faithful Christian discipleship, Mary leads the way.

These perspectives on Mary may not add up to the kind of piety and devotion known in other Christian traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but they nonetheless suggest the crucial place of Mary in our Christian life together in terms both of what she reveals about God and what she demonstrates about the nature of discipleship of Jesus Christ.

With thanksgiving to God in Christ for Mary’s willing assent to the divine will. May we likewise be inspired to proclaim, “let it be to us according to God’s word!”

In Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 11/Lectionary 19B, John 6:35, 41-51

John reports that Jesus said this to the crowd – listen to these words again: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” And then Jesus concludes that whoever eats the bread that he provides will not die.

Taken literally and at face value according to a plain reading of the words, what Jesus says, what Jesus promises in John, is simply not true. Even believers in Jesus experience hunger and thirst. Some hunger and thirst periodically and in modest ways. Others in chronic and catastrophic ways. And then everyone without exception, even believers in Jesus, die. That’s the plain, literal reality.

Plain, literal interpretations of Jesus’ provocative sayings have a tendency to short-circuit our minds, to defy our sense of reality. How can Jesus make such outlandish claims which are clearly not in keeping with ordinary human experience of realith? It’s beyond our common comprehension.

Thus, if we want something other than an experience of mind-blowing, radical cognitive dissonance, it’s clear that we need to engage what Jesus says in John in ways beyond the plain and literal readings.

Recall that the sixth chapter of John begins with Jesus providing dinner enough for five thousand people with leftovers to spare. Stomachs were filled to satisfaction. But as the narrative in John progresses, as we are encountering in this series of Sundays focused on this one chapter in John, we see a shift from the bread we eat for routine meals to a different kind of bread.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.” If Jesus himself is the bread, and Jesus comes from the eternal abundance of God, then indeed those who come to him for this particular bread will never be hungry and those who believe in Jesus, the heavenly bread, who also gives himself as the fruit of the vine, will never be thirsty.

Jesus does not run out. Jesus does not become moldy or stale. Jesus does not run dry. Jesus is forever. Always. Everywhere. Jesus is made known by the Spirit that proceeds from the Father, and from Jesus’ own lips when he breathed on the disciples after the resurrection in the closed room imparting the gift of that same Spirit.

This same Spirit of Jesus is everywhere, all the time, reliably active in what we call the means of grace – the proclamation of the word, the bath which is baptism, and the sacred meal at the sacramental table, along with confession and forgiveness in our holy encounters and interactions with each other.

Thus, Jesus provides something akin to, but also transcending, what we heard in today’s first reading where Elijah went forty days and forty nights on the food given him by God. That’s remarkable. But Jesus offers more and for eternity, not just supplies for forty days and nights.

So, indeed, if Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven, then those who eat the bread and drink the fruit of the vine do not hunger and thirst, at least in the ways of our ordinary hunger and thirst at meal times.

But what about our ordinary hunger and thirst – especially those who suffer such hunger and thirst catastrophically in famine? What good is the bread of eternity if we don’t have bread enough for right now each day to satisfy our bodily needs?

With focus only on heavenly bread, we run the risk of reductionistically spiritualizing the words of Jesus reported by John, speaking of hunger and thirst only metaphorically. But remember that Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand provided an abundant spread of ordinary food. Remember, too, that the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his flesh. That is, Jesus does not denigrate or ignore bodily needs. Furthermore, remember that in John, Jesus is the word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth, which honors human embodiment and ordinary needs for daily bread, heavenly and otherwise.

So, we are called to have in mind not just sacramental eating and drinking but also our usual meal tables and how the grace given in the sacrament inspires Christian people to be about the literal feeding of the hungry, even as Jesus fed people in ordinarily satisfying ways. There is an intimate link between the table here in church and the food preparation tables at the Arlington Food Assistance Center in South Arlington where Nathan and I have been volunteering this summer. One table’s abundance leads to the other tables’ plenty.

Thus far, I’ve addressed Jesus’ promise that in him we neither hunger nor thirst. But what about death and the promise of Jesus reported by John that those who eat the bread that is Jesus will not die, but live forever?

 

Yet, we do die. That’s true. But Christian death, enveloped as it is sacramentally by baptism and the Eucharist, means that even in death we share in the life of the Trinity. Even in death we enjoy the eternal embrace of the living God in Christ in the power of the Spirit as we await the day of resurrection. That Jesus, we confess, descended to the place of the dead means that there is no place, even in death, where Jesus has not already gone before.

The eternal life we enjoy even now, according to Jesus in John, persists as gift of grace even in death. We are not forsaken. We are not left alone or orphaned. Even in death.

But you know what? This is all still quite mind blowing. Outlandish still according to human logic and standards and typical experience.

Then there’s also common experience of the failings of the church and of Christian people who persist in disappointing imperfection. Just look at the letters to the churches in the Christian scriptures, for example, the passage for today from Ephesians. That the author has to exhort the hearers to good behavior reveals between the lines that there was a lot of bad behavior in the early church. In today’s reading it’s clear that the church in Ephesus struggled with liars, those who had issues with anger, thieves, people who were bitter, slanderers, those who were unkind, unforgiving, who in short did not live up to the ideals of Christian love.

All of this diminishes our capacities to receive the truth of Jesus that in him we will neither hunger, nor thirst, nor succumb to the multiple ways of death. Thus, we might languish in cognitive dissonance. Or many simply leave the church and Christianity altogether.

However, the effect of having our minds divinely blown is for some not a turning from God, but a turning to God in faith.

And here, I cannot help myself but to turn to the end of John chapter six to what is the appointed gospel passage for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 22. Just a heads up: I am not preaching that day. We’ll have as our guest in the pulpit, The Rev. Lowell Almen, a dear friend who will be visiting me here and who was for twenty years the Secretary of the ELCA. I have it on good authority that he is likely to focus on that day’s second reading from Ephesians.

So, I feel free to go where we will end up in John 6. In this chapter, John reports that Jesus goes on and on about his flesh being the living bread that comes down from heaven and that when we eat his flesh and drink his blood we don’t hunger, we don’t thirst, and we live forever.

Religious authorities understandably disputed Jesus’ claims. Even the disciples exclaimed, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Some of Jesus’ followers departed, never to return to following him. Jesus then asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

That’s when Simon Peter gives the punchline, which also forms the basis of one of our sung gospel verse acclamations in the liturgy: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And Simon Peter adds, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (cf. John 6:56-69)

There is something about difficult teaching that can drive us into the arms of our merciful God in Christ.

Perhaps this is what Jesus refers to in today’s gospel as being drawn by the Father. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44a) It may be that the confounding logic of God draws us in.

Thus drawn, we feebly struggle with the law, the rule, of the logical confines of the human mind, even as we are drawn in grace and in faith to confess with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

And in that confession of faith we endeavor with thanksgiving for grace given to feed the world with the same bread that comes down from heaven, who is Jesus himself – even as we also seek to provide a good lunch to the world’s hungry people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

One of my parental goals when Nathan spends the better part of the summers with me in Arlington is to provide meaningful experiences of what our area has to offer. Visiting Smithsonian museums, naturally, tops the list. But this summer, I had the additional goal of seeking to cultivate in my child a spirit of volunteerism in offering community service. Thus, we reached out to Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC) to see if we could volunteer once a week in their program to feed the hungry and food insecure in our community. I am told that Resurrection Church was among the organizations that was instrumental in AFAC’s founding in 1988. We as a congregation have financially supported AFAC ever since, even as we have also provided regular in-kind donations of food items which we collect now every two weeks.

So it is that Nathan and I have journeyed to AFAC’s headquarters in south Arlington each week for 90 minutes of flesh-time volunteering. One day, we bagged servings of dry beans. On another occasion, it was transferring onions from 50-pound bags into smaller bags that contained a few onions for family use. On still another day, it was going through crates of sweet corn to place into smaller bags a few ears of corn for families in need. All healthy, wholesome, fresh food options.

I likened our efforts to the factory work that I briefly did as a temporary worker at the time AFAC was founded in 1988 when I was waiting for a congregational call as a freshly graduated seminarian approved for ordination. The factory-style work was physically rigorous for Nathan and for me. Our efforts were made all the more challenging because the manual dexterity needed to get the jobs done efficiently was hampered by the requirement, for hygiene reasons, of wearing gloves. This was honest labor, evoking in me a sense of thankfulness that I am privileged to have the kind of job that I do, and that I do not have to do physical labor eight hours a day every working day. Accompanying my appreciation for my spiritual vocation has also been thankfulness for the many people who do in fact do this kind of work that keeps us all fed.

Nathan and I were among a cadre of volunteers and staff members from many walks of life. Some volunteers were retirees meaningfully giving back to society time and energy. Some were likely people in the criminal justice system required to do community service. Others were college students doing community-oriented work on summer break. But there we were together in shared effort, motivated variously, to benefit those in need in our community. These were lovely occasions of togetherness, even if we did not have a chance to really get to know each other because we were focused on our volunteer efforts.

If you’ve not had a chance to visit the AFAC headquarters just off South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, I encourage you to pay a visit. It’s a large, clean facility, run efficiently, at least from my vantage point. And they are expanding their square footage in the renovation of an adjacent building for ever expanding social service.

As I’ve observed several times previously in my writing, teaching and preaching, I am heartened that a hallmark of our congregation’s ministry and mission is its commitment to financially support local organizations like AFAC. And as I’ve also said, I am hopeful that we as a congregation can grow in our capacities to put “flesh in the game,” as it were, with incarnate, in-person donations of time and talents to these same and other community organizations.

I pray that I have planted a seed of volunteerism in my child through this summer activity at AFAC. For when we offer ourselves in person, inspired by the generosity of our gracious God, we offer the world ongoing expressions of the divine word still being made flesh in diakonia, in service, extending in incarnate ways God’s love and mercy in Christ Jesus for the world’s most vulnerable people in need.

Thanks be to God in Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 9/Lectionary 17B, John 6:1-21

Today we heard the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus feeding about five thousand people using a grand total of five barley loaves and two fish and ending up with twelve full baskets of leftovers.

How did Jesus do it? Jesus playfully set up the scene when he asked Philip rhetorically, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip’s telling, realistic response was this: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Acknowledging that a child was in possession of five barley loaves and two fish, the disciple Andrew observed also with sober judgment, “What are they among so many people?”

Indeed, how on earth could Jesus make so much out of so little?

The Modern mind might be inclined to de-mythologize the miraculous nature of the feeding of the five thousand. Some have posited, for example, that the generosity of the boy in making available to Jesus his five loaves and two fish inspired the generosity of others in the crowd such that everybody ended up sharing enough so that everyone could eat enough to be satisfied. And the generous sharing was such that they ended up with leftovers.

Thus, we could easily reduce this story in John to what happens at church potlucks when members bring food to share – a dish to pass – among the whole crowd. Certainly, our common experience of potlucks is that there is usually more than enough to go around.

But I am not one to explain away this story, reducing it to ordinary experience. But it is also true that I am not inclined to zero in on the story as a miracle that reveals Jesus’ supernatural powers. I don’t deny the supernatural, or the miraculous, but at the same time, I don’t think the miracle is the point.

In fact, John does not refer to what Jesus did or other things he did in the gospel narrative as miracles. Rather, John refers to Jesus’ activity as signs. Healing the sick was a sign. Feeding the five thousand was a sign. And so it goes in John.

A sign points beyond itself to something else. A sign is not the thing itself, but is a signal alerting us to some other reality.

Week of the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

For a few weeks now, we’ve returned to the privilege of worshiping upstairs in our nave – again, I say, thanks be to God. But the rest of our building is also open for creative use as well. Thus, I want to share with you thoughts on a lovely event that took place downstairs in our fellowship hall on Saturday evening, July 17.

Throughout the time of the pandemic, our Christian Education Committee has been meeting almost monthly via Zoom to continue to plan events and programs for Christian faith formation in our congregation. Of course, most of these initiatives have been creatively virtual. Given the current waning nature of the pandemic in our area, we wanted to host an event for and with our younger members in person. The plan was to undertake activities outdoors on the parsonage deck, patio, and yard. Mother Nature had other weather-related plans last Saturday evening with the threat of rain.

Here’s what happened, then, downstairs in the fellowship hall: just over 25 children and adults gathered for grilled hot dogs, among other picnic-style foods, and then, once fed, we all formed an assembly line to decorate and fill 120 paper bags with comparatively healthy snack foods to support the Arlington Housing Corporation’s summer tutoring efforts with children of low-income families in our area. The snacks are provided to keep kids energized while doing their homework during in-person summer camp. Arlington Housing Corporation, by the way, is a non-profit developer of affordable housing for low-income families and individuals in our region.

This three hour or so (when you count set up and clean up) represents our beginning to return to normal and routine programming beyond Sunday worship in the life of our congregation. But here’s what else I see as your pastor, as one called to teach about the bigger picture of how God is active in our life together, how the varied ministries of the church hold together in Christ. The tables we set with food for participants and the tables that comprised the focus of the assembly line to fill snack bags were all extensions downstairs of the table set directly upstairs that hosts Christ’s presence under the forms of bread and wine in the sacrament of the altar. Thus, upstairs links with downstairs as an extension of the sacrament, as an expression of ongoing sacramental living, when we go from one table to the others and back again. To put it more simply, we are fed by Christ upstairs so that we are energized downstairs for the work of feeding others who dwell well beyond the walls of our church building.

This simple event that took place Saturday evening links our congregation with our wider community and its varied organizations, in this case, Arlington Housing Corporation. And through this organizational linkage, God’s people at Resurrection, younger and older, were linked with God’s people among the low-income children and families of our area. It’s a beautiful occasion revealing our interdependence with people in our wider communities, even if we’ll never meet in person those who benefit from our ministry of diakonia, of loving serving to neighbors in need.

Resurrection Church is consistently very generous in our financial support of a wide variety of community social service organizations. On Saturday evening, July 17, over twenty-five of us put some skin in the game, as it were, in volunteering time and energy in person to benefit others. I hope and pray that there will be other such occasions when our members can volunteer their time and talents in person beyond our financial generosity in sending donations to benefit those in need.

The activities on Saturday evening were fun. Our younger ones had occasion to interact with each other again, albeit while wearing masks. Adults got to connect with each other, too, in socializing conversations. And the generations interacted together, when a number of adults, myself included, sat at the tables decorating the brown paper bags and getting in line to fill them with snacks. Saturday evening became for me a kind of fulfillment of my vision for ministries at Resurrection – different age groups working together in fun ways to also benefit those in need in our wider community. And all of this flowed from the fact that we gather each Sunday at our table upstairs to receive Christ so that we can adjourn downstairs to other tables to do the work – God’s work, our hands – that makes a contribution to the sacred mission of feeding and healing the world, one small step at a time. Thus it is that the ordinary becomes extraordinary as normal routine and churchly activities reveal their holiness. I thought you’d like to know!

In Jesus’ name,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 8/Lectionary 16, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The disciples had just returned from casting out many demons and curing the sick. Jesus and the disciples were much in demand among the crowds, so much so that they didn’t even have time to eat.

So it is that Jesus said to the disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” A lovely gesture from a loving teacher for his beleaguered students.

The crowds apparently caught wind of Jesus’ plan to go on retreat with his disciples. The crowds anticipated where Jesus and the disciples were headed, and arrived en masse before Jesus and his followers did.

If we take Jesus’ humanity seriously, and we must if indeed we confess that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus must have experienced exhaustion and the depleting nature of overly demanding crowds.

Still, Mark reports that Jesus had compassion for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew’s version of this story adds that the crowds were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus’ compassion – a gut wrenching expression of mercy – was offered as a gift to the needy crowds despite Jesus’ weariness.

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this was a reality about which Jeremiah prophesied as we heard in today’s first reading: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and have not attended to them.” (Jeremiah 23:1-2a)

Harassed, helpless, leaderless crowds – this speaks to realities of our days as well.

Pentecost 7/Lectionary 15B, Mark 6:14-29

This is one of those gospel readings where I want to put a question mark at the end of the concluding acclamation: the gospel of the Lord? That is to say, where is the good news in this passage, in this horrible story?

  • The tale of Herod beheading John the Baptist and why he did it has it all:
  • Herod as an arrogant leader puts on a boastful show at a birthday party he threw for himself, but is tormented by his insecurities about a preacher, John the Baptist, whom Herod had arrested and put into prison, but who also secretly intrigued Herod.
  • The story includes what we would at the very least call a boundary violation, if not a kind of incestuous abuse of a stepfather being sexually attracted to his step-daughter.
  • Then there’s Herod’s wife who had a grudge against John the Baptist because he preached that it was against religious law for her to marry Herod, her former brother-in-law.
  • There’s also the exploitation of a young woman who danced publicly in salacious ways.
  • Next, probably a drunken and driven by lust, Herod outrageously promised to give his step-daughter whatever she wanted, even half of his kingdom.
  • And there’s the conspiracy between mother and daughter to have John the Baptist killed.
  • All of which resulted in the horrific image of a righteous man’s severed head on a platter.

Made into a movie, this story certainly would be rated R, if not to say a pornographic X.

But this story does reveal in graphic detail what human beings are capable of. It reads like some of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or those of Greek theater. Of novels and other artistic portrayals of the sordidness of the human condition. We are fascinated and repulsed at the same time.

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is also descriptive of where we find ourselves in today’s world which has many sordid features. The kinds of things Herod and his court did still happen among public leaders, celebrities and sometimes also in the circumstances of our own families and the families of neighbors and coworkers. It’s the broken, sinful human condition.

One of the side benefits of the pandemic is that for those privileged, we’ve taken something of a hiatus from more active, direct involvement in this messy, fraught world of ours.

But now that the world is opening up again, we are also compelled to re-enter the fray. Some are dreading going back to it all.

Now that we are worshiping indoors again, and becoming more active, the concerns of the world are again directly on our doorstep. How are we called to respond to and engage this world?

The long and the short of it is that the mission field for the church today is fraught, is difficult.

Again, I ask, where is the good news in all of this?

The focus of the reading from Mark, even though it may not seem like it at first, is Jesus Christ. The focus is not Herod or Herodias, and not even John the Baptist. It was Jesus’ preaching and notoriety about that preaching that provoked again Herod’s anxiety and guilt and the re-telling by Mark of the story of the beheading of the baptizer.

That is to say, the good news is that Jesus enters into the fullness of fraught, human ugliness and is present there with a word from God.

It was the ugly world of Herod, a puppet ruler of Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire, that Jesus entered preaching and teaching and healing and exorcising demons all while proclaiming in word and deed that the dominion of God has come near.

The good news for us is that Jesus continues to enter this world, our world of fraught-ness.

Jesus continues to enter into our sordid world with a word: Jesus’ voice echoes through the scriptures and across the centuries and the great expanses of the globe with words in the languages of the nations that convict us of our sin, but which also graciously forgive us, and entrust us with the ministry of reconciliation.

We have heard again Christ’s word today, here in this place.

Jesus continues to enter into our world with a baptism by water, word and Spirit that initiates us into a share in his priesthood to nurture the healing and making wholesome our X-rated world.

Here in this place, we re-gathered with prayers of lament and praise, around the baptismal font where we have been initiated into Christ’s priestly ministry.

Jesus enters into our world with a meal, very much unlike the banquet Herod threw for himself on his birthday, a meal that offers the gift of Christ’s ongoing, real presence: This meal feeds us that we may be strengthened for the work entrusted to us to feed with healthy, spiritual food a malnourished world.

Here, at this table, we celebrate the meal of Christ, an antidote to the over-indulgence of the buffets of our decadent world.

In short, Jesus enters our world to be for us the plumb line described in the first reading from the prophet Amos. A plumb line, you’ll recall, is the string held down by a weight, a bob, to determine and define a precise vertical line. Jesus, as our plumb line, is the one who makes us right, righteous before God by grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

In other words, as we are called to enter the worldly fray by virtue of our baptism, we don’t do it by ourselves. Through the means of grace in word, water, bread and wine, Jesus fulfills the promises he made – “I will not leave you orphaned” and “lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”

And we are given gifts to do the work entrusted to us to seek to nurture God’s dominion.

Listen again to the words of gracious promise from today’s reading from Ephesians:

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that before God, we should be holy and blameless in love. 5God destined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ; this was God’s good pleasure and will, 6to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace 8lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9God has made known to us the mystery of the divine will, according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)

As we have formally today re-gathered as a congregation, buoyed up by these words of promise in Ephesians, let us be about God’s work of gathering all people around Christ that all may know and enjoy wholesomeness and healing, that human feasting would be known for justice and holiness and not salacious over-indulgence.

In Christ, let it be so. Amen.

Week of the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

On July 4th, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, I had the privilege of welcoming home those of you present in our usual place of Christian assembly, the nave of our church building where we engage the greater incarnate fullness of our life together. This word of welcome for this homecoming occurred at the baptismal font, the place of our beginnings and our endings in church, in life, in faith. I said, “How good, Lord, to be here,” an allusion to Peter’s remark on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus appeared before the disciples in dazzling apparel and in converse with Moses and Elijah, a mountaintop experience, literally and spiritually.

This past Sunday’s return to worshiping indoors was a mountaintop experience for many of us gathered in that place – there were 69 in attendance. Prior to the pandemic, we might have taken for granted our routine of weekly Christian assembly for worship. For some sixteen months we fasted from those ordinary and most central of Christian practices. Lest we take for granted even our pandemic routines of worshiping at home in diaspora, think for a moment about how unprecedented this year-and-a-half has been in the full length and breadth of two thousand years of Christian history. There have been few times and occasions in all of Christian history when so many of the faithful in so many countries have absented themselves, by choice or necessity, from public Christian worship for such a length of time. In this season of our life together, we’ve been part of Christian – and world – history that is one for the record books, a season of intersecting crises which scholars no doubt will write extensively about in years to come.

Thus, given this wider historical context, it was its own transfiguring, mountaintop experience for us to return to our extraordinary ordinary practices. Indeed, as we sang the entrance hymn together, accompanied by our wonderful pipe organ played by our skilled organist, and the liturgical ministers proceeded down the center aisle, I was verklempt. Maybe some of you present were, too, at some point(s) during the liturgy.

It was, on the one hand, wholly ordinary for me as a pastor to do what pastors do in preaching and presiding. While it’s been an entire year and half since I’ve done indoors in a proper church nave what is so central both to my personal and vocational identity, and I’ve only preached and presided in our nave one previous time, the experience on Sunday was quite natural. Kind of like riding a bike after a long time of not doing so – you don’t forget how to do it.

Yet, on the other hand, our return to Christian normalcy had a transcendent quality as well because of our longtime hiatus, our extended period of fasting from our feasting. Our ordinary routine this past Sunday could not help but be extraordinary. Sacred, transfiguring, experience is like this, when ordinary routines are broken open with glimpses into the extraordinariness of transcendence in Christ. And in those openings, new, renewed, poignant holy meanings come flooding forth – from the pages of scripture, from the texts of hymns, maybe from the sermon, from the prayers, from the sacramental and other ceremonial moments. Old words and routine practices suddenly emerge as new and fresh, full of living, divine presence. This is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in, with, and under the means of grace which serve as the focal point of our worship. The intersections between the given-ness of timeless, revealed, objective truth and the changes and chances of our ever-shifting circumstances make for eruptions of holiness. Sunday was one of those points of confluence which made our routine time together more extraordinary, dazzling, illuminating in holy ways centered on Jesus Christ.

And like those on the Mount of Transfiguration, we descend back into the valleys of our lives, and our ordinary routines, despite the fact that Peter in the story wanted to make three dwelling booths so they could all remain on the mountaintop. But we cannot stay on the mountaintop. Again, spiritual life is like that, more ordinary and routine than extraordinary. But thanks be to God for the occasional mountaintop experiences. Thanks be to God that we’ve gone back indoors for worship to resume again the greater, three-dimensional fullness of our live together in person.

Our return indoors this past Sunday was conceived by our leaders as something of a soft return to our practice, occurring as it did on a holiday weekend when others may have been traveling or may have had other plans. Thus, we will more formally mark our return indoors this coming Sunday, July 11, with a rite for re-gathering at the beginning of the service. This rite, developed for use throughout our ELCA, will give us occasion to lament that which and those whom we have lost during the time of pandemic as well as to give thanks and praise to God for our return to our more usual life together.

Join us as you are able this Sunday – and in the weeks and months ahead!

In Jesus’ name,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 6/Lectionary 14B, Mark 6:1-13

That Independence Day falls on a Sunday gives us occasion to think about the meaning of this day, with special attention perhaps to the nature of power in our nation these days.

Alas, for many today, it seems, the theme of independence can be reduced to rugged individualism, that I as a lone individual am independent from anybody else and can press my advantage and exercise my own power over any and all others at will.

Moreover, as we reflect on the state of our nation, and that of other nations in the world, we see a rise in a kind of populism that seems to prefer leaders to be radical individualist strongmen (and they almost always are men…) who exercise power by sheer force.

Furthermore, there is a tendency these days to rely on military approaches to dilemmas sometimes to the exclusion of diplomatic solutions.

Today is a national holiday, but it’s also Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day of assembly for God’s people – and thanks be to God that we are doing it in person indoors in our more usual ways in our beloved church building!

Thus, we are beckoned also to turn our attention to the approach to power exhibited by Jesus as seen in today’s readings which bear witness to Christ and his ways.

To be sure, there is generally a human tendency to attempt to create Jesus in our own image. Even Jesus’ closest followers wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, that is, a political revolutionary who would assume power in traditional human ways, namely, by force.

Some Christians in our own day call for a muscular Jesus who reflects the mores of our current socio-political culture more than traits of a prince of peace.

Hence the importance of looking at the scriptures closely and carefully to see what they in fact suggest about Jesus’ approach to power.

Week of the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Our return to celebrating Holy Communion on the day of Pentecost was a momentous occasion on our slow road to the resumption of usual churchly activities as the pandemic continues, we pray, to wane. Another momentous occasion will be our return this coming Sunday, Pentecost 5 on July 4th, to worshiping indoors.

Why is returning to our church building such a big deal? After all, we have been assembling in person in Jesus’ name by the power of the Holy Spirit as church outdoors for several months now. As a Sunday School song of my youth puts it: “The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.” Indeed, for Lutherans, church is an event, a verb, as the Holy Spirit gathers God’s people in assembly, in community, around faithful preaching of the gospel, and administration of the sacraments according to the gospel (cf. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession).

Thus, church happened, at least in part, during The Three Days of Holy Week as we were assembled outdoors amidst our congregation’s Memorial Garden. And church has been happening on the parsonage side of the church building in our serendipitously well-equipped outdoor nave. Church even occurred live but virtually and partially when we gathered via Zoom for various occasions of Evening Prayer during Advent, Lent, and other festivals. So again, what is the significance of returning to worship indoors in our church building when God’s people can be assembled as church almost anywhere?

Quite importantly, buildings are extensions of human embodiment. The physical dwellings that become our homes gain significance when our own personal belongings furnish and adorn our dwelling places. I have shared with you previously how delightful it has been for me to make your house, the parsonage, my home with my personal adornments. And with our return to the church building, I can also begin to invite you into my home, your house, for social and spiritual occasions!

Likewise, a congregation’s building becomes an extension of our particular incarnate embodiment as a community of God’s people in this place, at this time. You bring with you to our church building memories of significant occasions in the life of your families – baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, ordinations, and more. It is common for congregation members to be devoted to beloved church buildings not necessarily because of the artistic significance of the architecture, but because of memorable, often sacramental, happenings, events.

Of course, devotion to church buildings can succumb to idolatrous dynamics, too. There is a saying among pastors that “the building always wins.” The way our naves, our sanctuaries, are furnished and configured can limit if not dictate the kinds of assemblies that can occur therein. Moreover, buildings are quite demanding of time, attention, energy, and financial resources. Just ask members of our Property Committee about that!

Thus, we are beckoned as we are on the brink of returning to our beloved church building to remember what ends our building serves. Our building is a vessel of servanthood; it is not an end in itself. In short, again and essentially, our building serves as a place of assembly of God’s people in the Spirit around the means of grace. As we mark a new beginning in our life together, let us not miss the opportunity to appreciate anew and afresh what end our building serves.

In this place, in our church building, are the fuller, richer, more enduring, incarnate symbols of what we are gathered around. In this place, in particular, is a large baptismal font, the place of being washed in the Trinitarian name of God, bathed in water, word, and Spirit to become children of God. In this place is the substantial table around which Christ gathers us in the Spirit for the meal of his corporeal presence. This place, our place of assembly, is furnished in a way that gives focal attention to where God’s word is read and proclaimed. In this place are musical instruments – pipe organ, piano, harpsicord, handbells, and perhaps more – which serve our singing songs of praise, the assembly’s share in the proclamation of the gospel. In this place is comfortable seating for God’s people making it possible more easily to attend to the central things of our faith without the various distractions we encountered outdoors.

Yes, we’ve had our sacred symbols outdoors – a glass bowl for baptism, an ordinary patio table that served as a sacramental table, a fence that has served as an altar rail, a brick patio as choir loft, a grassy yard surrounding our community garden as nave – but all of this has been temporary and less capable of showing forth the fullness of the symbols of the means of grace. What we have indoors, to reiterate, are the more enduring expressions of the central things around which we are assembled. But kindly remember: Our building serves these things, and not the other way around. The tail does not wag the dog.

Moreover, our building makes possible other features of our missional life together. Leading from the places of the bath, and of the word’s proclamation, and the meal are the other gathering places – classrooms for Christian education and formation, rooms for administrative meetings, a lovely hall for socializing, for communal meals as extensions of the Eucharist, offices for our staff members where two or three gather in Jesus’ name for holy conversation, rooms where community groups meet, and more, all flowing forth from and related to the more central things.

Thus, with our return to the use of our church building after some sixteen months of it being virtually unused, we reclaim the greater fullness of our life together, a three-dimensional expression of our incarnate life in person, in community, and not just a two-dimensional, virtual, partial expression of our churchly life.

To mark the occasion of our return indoors, several members of our congregation have been lovingly devoting much time and energy to cleaning and sprucing up our church building’s interior in preparation for our return. Others have gathered to talk and walk through the logistics of the movements of our assembly, keeping in mind the continued need for appropriate physical distancing. Thousand thanks to these persons whose devotion to our life together is evident in their volunteer hours.

In conclusion, I am quite curious to see what our three-dimensional life together will be like. Join me, join us, in this renewed adventure of return!

With thanks to God in Christ for this opportunity,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 27, 2021
Mark 5:21-43

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

21When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw Jesus, fell at his feet 23and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24So Jesus went with him.
    And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32Jesus looked all around to see who had done it. 33But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
    35While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” 37He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41Jesus took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We all have our varied experiences of crowds – at sporting events, festivals, political rallies, marches, clogged freeways in our cars, sometimes even church events.

And we all have our particular reactions and responses to crowds. Some find them exhilarating. Others can feel claustrophobic when confronted by so many people. And many points in between on a continuum.

After sixteen months of physical distancing because of the pandemic, being in a crowd, especially one where people are not wearing face masks, would probably feel very disorienting to many of us, myself included.

I invite you to recall an experience of your being in a crowd of people. Get in touch with your memories of the physical sensation of being there, perhaps especially the sensate overstimulation of it all.

Now let’s place ourselves in our mind’s eye in the story from today’s gospel reading from Mark. As you hear the highlights of the story again, feel the energy of the throngs of people and goings on.

Week of the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

I’ve always loved synod assemblies, even since the years of my youth. Early in my high school days, I attended the convention of the Illinois Synod of the Lutheran Church in America as part of the youth convo. Church geek that I’ve always been, I managed somehow to sneak out of the youth activities to attend forums for adult delegates on the introduction of what would become the Lutheran Book of Worship. I was thrilled, and hooked. Thus, I am one of those pastors, sometimes a rarity, who looks forward to and thoroughly enjoys the synodal assemblies of the wider church.

The Metropolitan Washington DC Synod held its 2021 assembly on Friday evening and all-day Saturday, June 4-5 – and all of this via Zoom due to the ongoing effects of pandemic restrictions! It took a great deal of effort on the part of assembly planners to pull this off. We had our own annual congregational meeting at RELC via Zoom, which involved excellent planning initiative of our own members. Pulling off a whole synod assembly via a virtual format was exponentially a much greater task.

Our Metro DC Synod did all the usual assembly things. We passed a number of resolutions, undertook a variety of elections, passed a new budget/mission spending plan, hosted keynote presentations, sponsored small group break-out sessions, shared in worship – all via Zoom. Here is a link to Assembly highlights should you wish to see the specifics in greater detail.

My sense is that we are in pastorally caring, prophetically challenging, and administratively competent hands under the leadership of Bishop Leila Ortiz and staff. On a personal note, at my first meeting of the Candidacy Committee when I was new to the bishop’s staff of Metro New York Synod, we approved Leila Ortiz for ordination. It is gratifying to see that someone who was formed under the care of Metro NY Synod has blossomed so fully and so quickly in leadership for our church.

Moreover, I am pleased with and impressed by the extent of cultural and racial diversity among those elected to various offices and positions at this assembly.

While I generally support the social issues for which our synod advocates, I long to see throughout all expressions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America a more deeply rooted and richly textured biblical and theological foundation laid to articulate why we advocate for the social issues that we do because we are a church, and not just another social service or non-governmental organization. There is so much wisdom to draw from, discover, and re-discover in our own Lutheran theological traditions which could make the case solidly for our prophetic advocacy and witness to the world for such a time as this. Not rising to this occasion is a missed opportunity in my estimation.

But what I missed most in this synod assembly via Zoom was in fact being church and doing church together in person, in the flesh. In the polity of the ELCA, a synod in assembly is an expression of the church, as is each of our congregations when gathered around Christ in word and sacrament, as is the churchwide organization in assembly. Let’s not overlook the fact that we are also in our wider church contexts Christ’s body as we are convened around and rooted in the means of grace in the assembly of God’s people brought together in the power of the Holy Spirit. The incarnate dimensions of folk assembled in person was for me a painful absence in doing synod assembly via Zoom. A crucial feature of being church together in assembly are the conversations and collegial interactions that occur in the hallways and over communal meals and drinks at the hotel bar – all potential eruptions of mutual conversation and consolation among siblings in Christ, a form of the gospel according to Luther. Virtually all of this was missing in this year’s Zoom assembly. The Zoom format also radically minimized the give and take of debate and deliberation that would also naturally occur in the context of in-person assemblies. Such mutual give and take is a crucial feature of what it means to be a synod, on the road together for Christ’s sake and our mission in and for the world.

It is an enormously expensive undertaking for synods and the churchwide organization to rent space in hotels, provide overnight accommodations along with meals and sundry other expenses. Registration and other fees don’t cover all the costs. I can see that meeting via Zoom would be a tempting alternative as a cost saving measure in lean times of our churchly life together. But for me it would be a sad day indeed when the wider church would opt to not meet in assembly in person. It is, in my opinion, worth the cost to be and to do the church together in person.

Thus, some reflections on this year’s Metro DC Synod Assembly.

As a final word, I am pleased at the extent to which people from Resurrection Church were represented at our assembly. They include our lay voting members, Maggie Mount, Leslie Nolen, and Tom Van Poole, and me as your pastor, along with Cindy Reese as a Synod Council member, Mitzi Budde as a rostered deacon, and Amy Feira as a pastor rostered in our synod.

May God in Christ ever lead us in ways faithful as a church together in the power of the Holy Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 20, 2021
Mark 4:35-41

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

35When evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Many years ago, I had a wonderful boat ride on a very placid Sea of Galilee while on a tour of the Holy Land with a group of Lutheran pastors. It was idyllic as we celebrated Holy Communion on the boat – a replica of ones Jesus and his disciples might have used centuries ago.

But we were told how storms could suddenly rage down the mountain valleys to turn a normally placid, shallow lake into a churning, dangerous sea.

That’s the kind of storm Jesus and the disciples found themselves in as reported in today’s story from Mark’s Gospel.

In the biblical worldview, the sea was a metaphor for a place of danger, of unknown, malevolent creatures and forces, a symbol of chaos and evil.

Thus, we can find ourselves in storming metaphorical seas on the boats of our lives individually, communally in the church, and in nation and world.

Week of the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Remembering the Emanuel Nine

The Metro D.C. Synod Racial Equity Team invites you to pause on Thursday night, June 17, 2021 at 7:00 PM as we commemorate the 6th anniversary of the massacre of the Emanuel 9, with a communal Bible study via Zoom. Mindful of the deep presence of God at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina, we will take the scripture that was part of the bible study in 2015, that night when Dylan Roof was welcomed as a stranger. Rooted in the Word and in small groups, we will ask what was God saying then and what is God saying now.

Dear Friends in Christ:

I am delighted, encouraged, and relieved to report that our Congregation Council has approved our return to worshiping indoors beginning on Sunday, July 4, 2021, almost sixteen months since the beginning of the pandemic’s lockdown. Thanks be to God.

Several factors contributed to our making this decision, including: recently revised and relaxed CDC guidelines concerning vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, the CDC’s official word that the risk of contracting the coronavirus is minimal with surface contacts, the extent of vaccinations among RELC members and persons in our wider communities, the fact that many neighboring churches are now also returning to indoor worship.

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost on July 4th, of course, occurs on a holiday weekend. Our leaders are considering this a kind of “soft” opening so that we can begin to get used to a somewhat altered routine indoors. We will have a more celebratory and perhaps poignant way of marking our return to indoor Christian assembly on a Sunday later in July when we will observe a “Rite for Re-Gathering” developed for use in congregations throughout our wider church.

Here is what you can expect upon our return to worshiping indoors. There will be one liturgy each Sunday beginning at 9:30 am. It will be very much like that which we are currently using outdoors – the full set of readings, communal hymn-singing, intercessory prayer, sharing the Peace of Christ in an appropriately safe way, Holy Communion in both kinds, using our usual baked bread dropped into uplifted palms, and wine offered from a pouring chalice into containers that you will continue to bring from home.

We still ask that you wear masks out of loving concern for and solidarity with younger children who are not yet permitted to be vaccinated and others who, for whatever reasons, have not been able to be vaccinated. Moreover, we will continue to practice physical distancing indoors with seating available in designated pews. Thus, we continue to err on the side of caution as has been our practice throughout the pandemic.

Some congregations are asking that worshipers pre-register to attend worship, observing strict maximum attendance numbers, as well as cordoning off sections of the nave for vaccinated persons in one area and the unvaccinated in another – and more such overly-cautious, in my opinion, measures. Such strictures, it seems to me, add dimensions of stress and anxiety to public worship, which otherwise is best offered in a more relaxed spirit. Moreover, some of the measures taken by other congregations are perhaps antithetical to the ideal of fully inclusive, non-exclusionary worship. Thus, Resurrection Church will proceed in a spirit of trust that worshipers will do the loving and responsible things of wearing their masks and being mindful of appropriately safe distance between people. I have full confidence, based on my experiences of our worship outdoors, that things will proceed among us safely and naturally. Our team of ushers and other worship leaders will also think through and practice our routines of movement indoors in advance of our July re-gathering. Our practice will undoubtedly evolve in nuanced ways as the coming weeks unfold.

It is also important to note that beginning on July 4th, the production of our weekly watch-through home worship video along with the home worship bulletins will be discontinued. In the meantime, as an alternative, we will begin the practice of producing video recordings of our worship indoors, making these available on YouTube and via Constant Contact messages for those still unable to join us for worship indoors and in person. This effort may also evolve to the practice of live-streaming our worship services. Discipline will be undertaken to limit video images only to those leading public worship in the chancel out of respect for the security and privacy of worshipers who may not want to appear on video. In this meantime, we will discern the appropriate and faithful nature of what our congregation’s digital life might be in the future.

The Council’s decision to return to worshiping indoors also paves the way for other groups to begin using our church building again – for committee meetings, occasions for socializing, group events of local community organizations, and more. These groups will need to decide for themselves how and when they wish to proceed to a return to indoor activities in our church building. It may also be that some of our congregation’s meetings and events will be hybrid in nature with some participants being present in person in the church and others Zooming in from remote locations. Time will tell what our “new normal” will be going forward.

The Council’s decision to return indoors also begins a new phase of our life together as a congregation. Who and how many will return to our fold in person with something resembling a more normal routine? How much activity and of what sort will our reconstituted congregation be willing and able to undertake? What, in fact, will be our capacities and energies for mission and outreach to our wider communities? What resources, financial and otherwise, will be available to us moving forward together? These are all crucial questions which don’t yet have answers. But again, time will tell as God in Christ leads us faithfully into an unknown future together in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In Jesus’ name, and thus, with hopeful anticipation,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 13, 2021
Mark 4:26-34

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

26Jesus said, “The dominion of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, the sower does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
    30Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the dominion of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
    33With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Many of you who are watching this sermon video or reading the text of this week’s sermon, for one reason or another, have not yet had occasion to be with us in our outdoor church for Sunday worship in person. This is just to let you know that it’s been quite something, a lovely thing, to be gathered again as God’s people and to do so outdoors around our community garden, our “Plot Against Hunger,” which harvests vegetables for those who are hungry in our community.

When we gather outdoors around our vegetable garden, we are a living parable, a parable in action, rather like the parables of Jesus recorded in Mark’s gospel passage for today – the parable of scattering seed on the ground and the beloved parable of the mustard seed. As I proceed with this proclamation, I risk allegorizing the parables – a “no, no” according to biblical scholars. Perhaps at my best, my musings will continue the parables’ expansive meanings.

Thus, I invite you to reflect with me. In our “Plot Against Hunger,” our congregation’s gardeners literally scatter the seeds – or plant the seedlings – and they go home to sleep and get up the next morning, and so it goes for the weeks and the months of the growing season.

This earth on our church property produces of itself, the stalks, the head, the grain in the head. Then comes harvest time when our gardeners gather the produce to offer it all to community organizations who then distribute it to those in need.

And even if we are well-versed in botany and all the natural sciences, there is still a good deal of wonder and mystery about how all of this fertile growth happens, just as the parable says. Of the growth, the parable in Mark reports, “the sower knows not how.” And yet it happens, thanks be to God.

Week of the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

I’m drawn again to the theme of the garden. The paradise of Eden from which our forebears were expelled in response to disobedience. Gethsemane, the garden of which was watered by Jesus’ tears and bloody sweat. Golgotha, which became the garden where the cross, the tree of life, was firmly planted to flourish for our salvation. Our Memorial Garden, which contains the earthen remains of so many of our loved ones, and which was transformed this year into a stage for the liturgical drama of the Three Days of Holy Week into Easter. And then also our more ordinary garden places – my fledgling plot for flowers at the parsonage, your own places of garden inside and outside of your homes and apartments. And finally, our garden planet Earth.

But my mind is most focused currently on our “Plot Against Hunger.” A year ago, I wrote about our congregation’s community garden, the produce of which is given to feed in wholesome, healthy ways those in need in our community. I turned the theme of gardening into a metaphor for our life together as a congregation during the pandemic period of dormancy or fallowness.

Right now, my imagination is riveted on the “Plot Against Hunger” as a centerpiece and focal point of our gathering place as a reconstituted worshiping assembly. It’s our nave outdoors, as I have shared repeatedly. In this place the seeds of God’s word are planted among and within us via a diversity of scriptural readings. In this place, we are fed with the harvest of fields of wheat and the fruit of the vineyard in our sacred, sacramental meal of Christ’s corporeal, real presence. In this place, the Spirit’s dew descends upon us as we are watered with baptismal remembrance and thanksgiving, as we sing our songs, when we uphold the world in petitions of prayer, and as we extend gestures of Christ’s Peace to each other.

But this place, our community garden which plots against a cruel world’s efforts to hoard garden blessings, depriving so many of just nourishment, this place is also a launching pad back into the world from which we were gathered. It’s an excellent place to hear the words of dismissal, “Go in peace, serve the Lord!” We serve, in part, by feeding those in need. Healthy produce is a central feature of our congregation’s social ministry.

Such sacred serving is undertaken by the loving, caring hands of persons who regularly make an appearance throughout the week to prepare the soil, to plant seeds and seedlings, to weed, to water, to erect protective barriers to keep away hungry rabbits in search of a salad buffet. There is clearly an infrastructure of dedicated volunteers who are quietly organized behind the scenes. They nurture the system of roots hidden below the ground which at harvest time also networks with the system of nonprofit organizations in the Arlington area with whom we collaborate to make certain that the fruit of our garden gets into the right hands and hungry mouths of those who need it most. Thanks be to God for the many who serve the Lord via their tender, loving care for our “Plot Against Hunger.”

But here’s the gospel thing. Like Paul and Apollos, we plant, we water, but God gives the growth (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Mostly, at least to the naked eye, our community garden just sits there without much human activity. Again, our volunteers appear only occasionally, though regularly. The season of growth unfolds in its own time, over the course of late spring, summer, and early autumn weeks and months. It’s unhurried, unrushed. This process does not succumb to the anxieties and urgencies of our days. Storms may rage about us. But the garden is still there, even if it be battered by the elements. And if it would become victim of drought or infestation (thankfully, the cicadas are comparatively harmless…), there are other gardens elsewhere to help fill the void.

It strikes me that our “Plot Against Hunger” is a lovely example and incarnation, therefore, of the link between contemplation and social action. In the case of the garden, the unhurried and unharried quality of the growing season will likely result in hundreds of pounds of healthy food that will benefit the hungry and food insecure. This being leads to doing, bearing fruit, the good work of feeding those in need. It is contemplative activity, a doing rooted in being that is ultimately grounded in God’s sovereignly creative initiative.

And this quiet unfolding that leads to fruit-bearing is a call to us as a church to root our activist ministry and mission in the contemplative grounding of our intentional, unhurried engagement with the means of grace in our communal spirituality, our being and our doing rooted in preaching, baptism, eucharist, confession and forgiveness, and the mutual conversation and consolation of siblings in Christ in the family of God – all of this is the soil in which we grow and flourish as persons of Christian faith, that we may freely give ourselves away for the sake of the world.

Thus, by God’s grace, mercy, and action, our garden place of contemplation of Christ in word and sacrament also bids us to slow down, breathe deeply, listen for God’s voice, standing firm in the ground of our faith, all the while trusting that God in Christ does in fact give the growth in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Think on these things the next time we are gathered for the fullness, the feast of our Sunday worship. In fact, we will have occasion intentionally to turn our hearts and minds and our bodies to our “Plot Against Hunger” this coming Sunday, June 13th when our liturgy’s sending will include a rite of blessing for this garden, for those who tend it, and for the people who will benefit from its fruits. Join us outdoors this Sunday at 9:30.

In Jesus’ name, and for Christ’s sake,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2021
Mark 3:20-35

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus went home; 20and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a dominion is divided against itself, that dominion cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against Satan and is divided, Satan cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
    28Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
    31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We were in fifth or sixth grade when my friend, Danny, introduced me to the verse from the Bible that appears in today’s gospel reading from Mark: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

I’m sure I had no idea of what blasphemy meant, but I certainly knew it was not good! Danny was not accusing me, but informing me, maybe giving me a warning. But I was a very scrupulous child and serious about the Christian faith, so it didn’t take much to ignite the flame of fear. The idea of an unforgivable sin set me on a real tailspin for a while. Had I somehow sinned against the Holy Spirit and thus would not be forgiven?
That question with its possible answer was un-nerving to me in my vulnerability as a child who was eager to do the right things.

And that’s exactly how evil works and what evil does – it accuses us falsely, and scripture is easily warped, misused, and abused in the service of evil and its false accusations.

Week of Holy Trinity Sunday

Dear Christian Friends:

For those of us privileged to live in a region where a significant percentage of the population is vaccinated against Covid-19, experts are suggesting that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the pandemic. In fact, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia issued Executive Order 79, effective May 28, which lifted state-mandated social distancing and capacity restrictions in accordance with recent CDC guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated persons.

Given these realities, our congregation’s Reopening Planning Group has been in conversation to make recommendations to our Congregation Council for their decision about returning to worship and other church activities indoors.

The long and the short of it is that in church and in the wider community, a return to a “new normal” beckons. After a year and more of physical distancing, social isolation, and truncated routines, what will this be like? What will we do and how soon? To what activities will we return? What discretionary things will we decide to no longer include in our routines?

Good questions, these. In the early weeks of the pandemic, I recall writing in these Midweek Messages about the opportunity in what has been our set of intersecting crises of the past year – racial injustice, the economy, the pandemic – to discern what is most important in our lives, and in our life together at church. A new normal should not necessarily be like our old normal if we truly claim the opportunities to assess what’s most important in our lives individually and communally.

And the transition to whatever will be is likely to be gradual – not like the on or off of switching on a light. A personal case in point: while I am fully vaccinated and have been for some time, I still wear two masks, not just one, to go to the grocery store – a matter of mere habit at this point. Also, one of my very favorite things to do in life is to dine at interesting restaurants, of which the DC area has an abundance. That said, I have at this point yet to venture much of anything except occasional take-out from a few trusted restaurants.

After fourteen months, we have gotten used to new routines. Some of the current routines are attractive. Many, though not all, for example, speak of a preference for working from home. Who needs to sit in traffic when you can spend more time with your family in comfortable surroundings? Other aspects of our current reality we would like to jettison sooner rather than later, such as the severe social isolation for many of us.

To state it again, it’s likely that whatever a new normal will be, we are not likely to go back exactly to things as they were. We’ve been having church administrative meetings via Zoom during the year and more of the pandemic. How many future, post-pandemic committee meetings will remain on Zoom? Or in hybrid formats, where some are present in person in the church, while others participate via Zoom? Likewise, perhaps for Bible Studies in our congregation. Numbers of participants in our Bible Studies via Zoom have been higher on that remote format than was the case when people met in person – at least according to the memory of some long-time members of our congregation. It may be that Bible Studies going forward will also be a hybrid format that will include a Zoom option.

All of this is to say that I hope and pray that in future weeks and months we fully and robustly claim the opportunity carefully to discern the particular ways in which we may be called to organize our life together in our congregation, informed by our emerging, shared vision statements to guide planning for our mission and ministry. What congregation activities, initiatives and ministries do we sense a call to reclaim with passion and appreciation? Which such initiatives and traditions might we set aside or lay to rest? What new things might we embrace? These are crucially important questions for our life together in this particular season. As your Pastor, I pledge to ground our coming, discerning conversations and decision-making processes in an understanding of what it truly and faithfully means for us to be and to do church, that assembly of God’s people gathered in the flesh by the Holy Spirit close to communal engagements with the means of grace. May God in Christ lead us in confidently faithful ways in discernment and decision-making in the power of the Holy Spirit.

With such prayer in Jesus’ name and for the sake of the ministry and mission which we share,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

The Holy Trinity, May 30, 2021
John 3:1-17

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the dominion of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the dominion of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
    11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son-of-Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son-of-Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
    16“For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
    17“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.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Last weekend, we returned to the fullness of our sacramental life as a congregation outdoors. On the Vigil of Pentecost, we celebrated the baptism of Axel Norwood Hedberg in the company of his extended family and some members from Resurrection. On the Day of Pentecost, we celebrated Holy Communion for the first time in over a year of fasting from our Eucharistic feasting.

Today’s readings for Holy Trinity Sunday help us make sense of what went on last weekend and what continues in our midst today as we celebrate the worshipful fullness of our life together.

Yes, today’s festival of the Trinity commemorates a doctrine, a teaching about God. But more significantly today’s festival celebrates the realities of the living God as we remember, acknowledge, confess and give praise to the God in three persons whom we’ve come to know through Jesus Christ.

So, let’s delve into today’s readings for the light that they shed on our sacramental life.

Week of the Day of Pentecost

Dear Christian Friends:

On the ancient day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit dramatically appeared, Acts reports that the apostles “were all together in one place.” Centuries later, at long last on the Day of Pentecost in 2021, a significant number of the members of Resurrection Lutheran Church were all together in one place in our outdoor worship space to receive the gift once again of the fullness of our worship life together – all of the lectionary readings, the communal singing of hymns, prayers of intercession for the world, the Peace of Christ, the Eucharist, and on Saturday evening at the Vigil of Pentecost, the sacrament of baptism when Axel Norwood Hedberg was made a child of God by water, word, and Spirit. Thanks be to God.

I have engaged the Acts account of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost innumerable times in my life as a preacher and student of Christian spirituality. And the report that they “were all together in one place” is a phrase that is easily glossed over and taken for granted. Not this year when we’ve been scattered from place to place, individually and in our familial pods, but not together in the fullness of Christian practice in person, in one place. For me as pastor, and I trust for you as members of our congregation who were present, it was an immensely moving time to be back together to engage again what we routinely do as church.

And what a place it is, our outdoor space for liturgy! When the features that comprise the church and parsonage yards were planned and constructed, no one envisioned this area as a place for liturgical worship. But the parsonage deck as chancel, and new brick patio as choir loft, and fence as altar rail, and the church yard as nave, the place of assembly – all of this configured to work well for the flow of the service, as we were gathered by the Spirit, to hear and engage the word proclaimed, to share in the holy supper, and to be sent back into the world in loving Christian service.

Then there were the particular, curious coincidences of our worshipful day outdoors. On that first Christian Pentecost, the Spirit made “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” For us, on Pentecost 2021, it was the fascinating cacophony of the once-every-seventeen-years cicadas. And also, a lovely breeze, indicative of the Spirit as wind, as breath, was moving among us. It was fun for me to watch you as members of the worshiping assembly situate yourselves in the shady areas of the lawn as the sun cast its hot rays on our place of worship, calling to mind the brilliant, divine light of Christ that can at times seem dazzlingly overwhelming. Our gathering hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” which we sang in the great outdoors where spring birds were making their vigorous song earlier in the morning as I was readying the area for worship. The concluding doxology of the prayer of thanksgiving at the table offered these words: “With your holy ones of all times and places, with the earth and all its creatures, with sun and moon and stars, we praise you, O God, blessed and holy Trinity, now and forever. Amen.” How lovely it was to thank God outdoors in the more direct, palpable company of, if not to say, communion with the whole earth and its creatures and sun and moon and stars.

Speaking personally as your pastor, it was deeply meaningful for me to move about in your midst, sprinkling the water for baptismal remembrance and thanksgiving which marked the beginning of our worship – which connected me with the memory of standing at the baptismal font in the nave of our church to preside at the rite of confession and forgiveness on March 1, 2020, the day when you voted to call me as pastor. Who knew it would take a year and more to return to that ordinary, extraordinary Christian practice of gathering in close proximity to baptismal themes and realities? And also, to move among you to share the Peace of Christ with bows and waves in place of handshakes was another highlight moment. Most significantly perhaps was administering to you the bread of Communion, as my relationships with you deepen even during this time of pandemic social deprivation. For our interactions at last to be grounded in the sacramental administration of Christ’s bodily real presence was its own profound homecoming. There were points during the liturgy which were marked by the nearness of tears – of joy, of relief, of reconnection to our deepest identity as Christians, and for me as a pastor in Christ’s church whose identity is most profoundly rooted in the fullness of word and sacrament. Even after a year and more of fasting from central things, the return to these holy realities felt completely natural.

I hope and pray that my reflections on our time of return to feasting on the fullness of holy things inspires your own musings on our time together – if indeed you were present in person last Sunday. For those who for whatever reasons were not able to join us, I pray that this message will inspire longing for your own return to the worshiping assembly when your circumstances and station in life permit it.

Thanks be to God in Christ in the power of the Spirit for the Day of Pentecost 2021!

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2021
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] 26“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, the Advocate will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.
    16:4b“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to the one who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Advocate to you. 8And having come, the Advocate will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
    12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth; for the Spirit will not speak out of the Spirit’s own authority, but will speak whatever the Spirit hears, and will declare to you the things that are to come. 14The Spirit will glorify me, taking what is mine and declaring it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, you will be guided into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13a)

I believe that this statement from Jesus recorded by John is among the most important in the Christian scriptures because it points to the evolving and unfolding qualities of the history of the church and of our understandings of the faith.

That is to say, the Spirit of truth has indeed been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for some two thousand years.

This Spirit guided the church into truth in the development of the canon of scriptures, the books of the Bible that we hold dear.

This Spirit was at work in the early and ancient Councils of the church that led to the articulation of the Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds, which are summaries of Christian truth that we still confess and to which we still adhere.

Which is to say, the Spirit of truth nurtured the church’s understanding of Christ as fully human and fully divine.

The Spirit of truth guided the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, one God in three persons, a focus for our time together next week on Trinity Sunday, and the name of God into whom we are baptized.

Fast forward a few centuries… I believe that the Spirit of truth was vocal in the dynamics in Christian life that led to the Reformation in the West when the centrality of the doctrine of justification by grace effective through faith was recovered.

Advancing a few more centuries, I also believe that the Spirit of truth helped pave the way for the ordination of women, and the inclusion in the church’s ministries of persons from the LGBTQIA+ communities.

And more. You get the point. These highlights of church history are very much a partial listing of how, I believe, the Holy Spirit has been guiding Christians in the church into all the truth for two millennia, just as Jesus promised as reported in John’s gospel.

This guiding light of truth we celebrate on this Day of Pentecost.

Week of the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Congregational Conversation for Input: Vision Statements for Mission

At the annual congregational meeting in January, Pastor Linman presented his proposed statements of vision to guide ministry and mission at Resurrection Lutheran Church. Subsequently, the Congregation Council at its annual retreat engaged the vision statements and suggested editorial revisions such that the statements begin to articulate a shared vision for mission and ministry. Now the membership of the congregation beyond its elected leaders is invited to offer their input into these statements to nurture a still wider embrace of shared vision. Toward that end, members are invited to another occasion for conversation about these vision statements. This will take place via Zoom on Wednesday, May 19 at 7:00 pm. The Zoom meeting link will be distributed via Constant Contact. If you are not receiving our Constant Contact mailings, then please contact the church office.

A copy of the current version of the vision statement is available below:

pdfShared Visions for Strategic Ministry and Mission (March 2021)

Returning to Holy Communion on the Day of Pentecost – Some Reflections

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Last week, I offered a detailed narrative account of what you can expect, logistically speaking, when we return to the celebration of Holy Communion this week, outdoors, on the Day of Pentecost. Today, in anticipation of this celebratory return, I am drawn to offer reflections of a more biblical, theological, and spiritual nature and quality.

I believe that it is significant and fitting that our celebration of the Eucharist will resume on the Day of Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is its own festival which marks the coming of the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. But liturgically, Pentecost also serves as a culmination of the fifty days of Easter which feature engagement with biblical narratives that recount appearances of Jesus after the resurrection.

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 16, 2021
John 17:6-19

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

You know me well enough as a preacher now to recognize that I am captivated by words, and how significant words in the appointed Sunday readings command our attention. Two weeks ago, it was the word “abide” that continued to echo. Last week, “joy” drew our attention.

This week, it’s the personal pronouns in today’s gospel reading from John: I, you, we, they, mine, yours, their, and on and on.

I have a sense that I have focused on personal pronouns in a previous sermon with you. But today, as far as I am concerned, we cannot escape attending to the personal pronouns in the passage from John, because according to my count, there are some 90 forms of personal pronouns in this comparatively brief passage of 14 verses. Generally, a word is significant if it’s used more than two or three times. Again, there are about 90 forms of personal pronouns in today’s gospel. That’s huge.

John records Jesus addressing God in prayer in this passage, a prayer he prayed in the presence of his disciples during the lengthy farewell discourse in John that occurred on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.

Listen again, briefly, to get a sense of the extent and significance of the presence of personal pronouns here: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (John 17:6)

And again, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

It’s normally pretty easy to overlook personal pronouns in discourse. In doing Bible study, pronouns may not be the first words one examines for discerning the meaning of a passage. But not in this reading for today with 90 forms of personal pronouns.

Evening Prayer via Zoom on Ascension of Our Lord, Thursday, May 13

Please join us at 6:30 pm this coming Thursday, May 13 via Zoom for Evening Prayer on Ascension of Our Lord. The Zoom meeting information will be distributed via Constant Contact. If you do not receive our Constant Contact mailings, please contact the Church OFfice.

pdfEvening Prayer, Ascension of Our Lord, May 13, 2021

“Holy Communion Outdoors – What You Can Expect”

Dear Christian Friends:

Throughout Eastertide, we continue to proclaim that Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

And now we are also approaching the Day of Pentecost, Sunday, May 23, at which time and outdoors we will also resume the celebration of Holy Communion. Thanks be to God! This is an outcome for which so many have longed for many long months. The last time I presided at a liturgy of Holy Communion was March 1, 2020, the Sunday you voted to call me as pastor. Loving concern for those most vulnerable to the coronavirus motivated our fast from central things during the pandemic, not least of which has been the Eucharist.

However, given the extent of vaccinations in our region, the decreasing numbers of cases, serious illnesses and deaths in our area, along with official word from the CDC that there is a very low risk of infection from contact with surfaces, leaders at Resurrection Church among the Worship and Music Committee, the Reopening Planning Group, and the Congregation Council have determined that it is safe to return to the Eucharist, albeit outdoors.

Several members have enquired of me what to expect in terms of the particulars of celebrating Holy Communion outdoors in ways that are appropriate, safe, and faithful to Christian tradition.

First off, we will still need to wear our masks – even those fully vaccinated. Likewise, we will continue to observe physical distancing. Hard copy bulletins with everything you need for worship will be provided to outdoor worshipers. In addition to worship outdoors, the bulletin for worship at home will continue to be available on Sundays along with the weekly watch-through video and individual video clips. This we pledge to do to accommodate those who do not yet feel able to return in person at this time, even if it’s outdoors.

Secondly, the Congregation Council has determined that outdoor worship will begin at 9:30 am each Sunday, beginning on Pentecost, May 23. This earlier time, when it is cooler in summer, reflects the reality that in coming weeks, worship at noon will be in the full heat of the day. 9:30, I am told, is also a time in keeping with Resurrection’s history of summer worship.

You can also expect a liturgy that more fully resembles the complete Sunday service we are used to. That is, what we’ll begin doing on May 23 will be substantially longer than the fifteen-minute truncated service we’ve been doing outdoors for several months. Which is to say, we encourage you to bring your own lawn chairs or picnic blankets since you may not want to stand the whole time for a more lengthy worship service! We will also likely provide a limited number of folding chairs from the church for those who don’t have lawn chairs to bring.

Moreover, beginning on Pentecost, all Sunday worship outdoors will be held on the parsonage side of the church. We will no longer meet on alternating Sundays on the Potomac Street side. This way, you won’t have to wonder where we are assembling. However, collection of food items every other week, twice a month, will continue to take place, but on the parsonage side.

In order to preserve the integrity of the Revised Common Lectionary and the diversity of scriptural voices it expresses, we will hear all of the appointed readings for coming Sundays. Additionally, there will be communal singing of hymns and worship songs, punctuating important parts of the liturgy. While I don’t plan to offer a lengthy Sunday sermon, my homiletical response to the readings will be more than the brief reflections I have offered in our truncated outdoor prayer services. We will continue to pray the full prayers of intercession each Sunday.

Yes, we shall also return to the sharing of Christ’s Peace – but alas, no handshakes or hugs at this time, please. You may want to bow to your neighbors in Christ, or wave to them, or offer some other appropriate, faithful, but physically distanced gesture.

As for the offering, that detail has not yet been settled on, but we are not likely to pass offering plates among those assembled on the church lawn. A more likely scenario is that an offering basket will be available at the fence separating the parsonage and church yards where you can place your offering as you come forward for Communion.

During the time of offering, a table, the one that resides on the parsonage deck, will be set for Holy Communion. A choir or ensemble may offer music during this time from their place on the new, brick parsonage patio. The assisting minister and I, as presiding minister, will cleanse and sanitize our hands prior to handling the bread and wine. And as I have written previously, the fence separating the church and parsonage yards will serve as a communion rail.

Which is to say, what will be the particulars for receiving the Eucharist? We intend to offer Communion in both kinds, the baked bread that Resurrection has normally used in recent years, and also the wine. A piece of the blessed bread will be dropped into your hands, palms up – with no physical contact occurring between presiding minister and communicants. The blessed wine will be administered via a specially made stoneware chalice with a pouring lip. The assisting minister will pour the wine into a receptacle, which for safety purposes, you will need to bring from home. For ease of pouring, you are encouraged to place your receptacle, such as a small juice glass, on the top of the fence – there is ample room and a flat surface for that. If you do not wish to receive the wine, you need not. You will receive the fullness of Christ’s presence in, with, and under the bread only. Gluten free hosts will be available as usual for those who need that option.

Ushers will help you find your way to the fence/altar rail in ways that are appropriately physically distanced. Couples and families may commune together as a pod, but separate from other individuals, couples and families, lining up, standing, at the fence/altar rail. Those administering Communion will work their way down the line at the fence/altar rail. When you receive the bread and wine, you can make your way, physically distanced, back to your place on the lawn. After all have communed, the liturgy will conclude in the usual way.

What about inclement, rainy weather? Bring an umbrella!

So, this is what we propose, beginning on Pentecost, Sunday, May 23 at 9:30 am. As has been our experience with worship outdoors in recent months, I suspect that our routine will evolve in ways that help us fine-tune the details. While we are trying to anticipate and cover all details, there will be inevitable glitches. Kindly be patient with us as we live into this new reality of the greater fullness of worship outdoors.

But most significantly, and to reiterate, thanks be to God that Christ will once again soon gather us to himself in the fullness of Word and Sacrament!

With such thanks to God in Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9, 2021
John 15:9-17

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in my Father’s love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This is a lovely saying of Jesus that John records in his gospel.

Who doesn’t want joy that is complete? I’ve noticed a lot of commentary in the things I read on those who research happiness, scholars trying to explore just what happiness is. Researchers conclude that happiness is an elusive phenomenon and very difficult to define and challenging consistently to experience.

Finland was recently once again determined to be the happiest nation on earth – much to the mystification, apparently, of the Finns who admit to being often rather melancholy.

It may be that happiness research is driven by the fact that we seem to live in a particularly joyless era, made the more so by the ill effects of this long-lasting pandemic. Thus, questions of joy, of happiness, of contentment are front and center in these days.

Just what do these terms mean? For example, is joy the same as happiness?

Week of the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

We recently celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, which inspired some musing on my part on the current state of seeking to shepherd, as pastor, the flock that is Resurrection Lutheran Church.

A year ago this month I took up residence in the parsonage, making my move from Phoenix and New York. I recall wondering then if I could find a convincing, helpful parable about a shepherd for whom the whole flock is scattered. There are such biblical stories about scattered sheep, and then there’s the parable about the shepherd leaving the 99 to seek the one lost sheep. What about the flock that is fully scattered, quarantined as individuals and families in their own homes throughout the area? How can one seek to shepherd a congregation that does not congregate in person?

That was then, and this is now. Which is to say, while we are not yet worshiping indoors, we are in fact now congregating in person every Sunday outdoors for worship and conversation and to give expression to our social ministry with those in need in collecting from members food items twice a month for distribution through AFAC. Sunday in these respects and in limited measure has become Sunday again, that is, the Lord’s Day that features the worshipful assembling of God’s people in person, in our case currently outdoors. This warms a pastor’s heart. Thanks be to God!

And shepherding initiatives as pastor also include the weekly sermon (video and text) and these midweek messages and our Zoom Bible studies, Evening Prayer during Advent, Lent and on festivals also via Zoom, virtual administrative meetings, care-giving via phone calls, emails, visits in person, and more. All such activities and the conversations that happen amidst them constellate to make for the work of a shepherd, a pastor. Thanks be to God.

At this point in our life together, I have a sense that solid pastoral relationships are building with the core of active members of the congregation. This number seems to be around one-hundred people and some more. But our membership records suggest that Resurrection Church has more than four-hundred persons on the books. Which is to say, there are still many members of the flock who have not yet congregated again, and that is a matter of concern to me. I have listed about one hundred additional persons named in our directories who have not been present for any of our in-person or Zoom gatherings.

Being a pastor, a shepherd, is deeply part of my personal, spiritual, and vocational identity, and pastors long to engage the flock. Not being able to connect with the fullness of the flock that is Resurrection Church disquiets me, unsettles me. So it is that I have been seeking the “lost sheep.” This effort centers on and is organized by reaching out to members on the anniversaries of their baptisms. This initiative has been quite revealing, resulting in some good conversations that allow me to better know both individuals and families. But it has also been true that when I call some of the phone numbers available to me, not infrequently I find that the numbers are no longer in service. Likewise, many emails bounce back indicating that we don’t have the most recent contact information for many. Moreover, some phone messages and emails are met with no reply at all.

All of this leaves me wondering about the nature and extent of our congregational flock. Who really constitutes this fold at this point? How many of the people I don’t yet know will return once we are worshiping in person in doors again? How best can I and we go about reaching out to the folks whom we know but who have not yet been present at our various pandemic-restricted events in person and online?

Toward generating creative responses to these questions and concerns, the Outreach and Membership Support Committee and I are convening a group to brainstorm about how to proceed in identifying whom we know to be missing in our gatherings and seeking the most up to date and preferred contact information.

In the meantime, you also can greatly assist in this effort by letting me know now members you are wondering about who have not been present in one way or another since the pandemic began. Kindly reach out to me so that I can reach out to them!

Finally, and most significantly, may Christ, the Good Shepherd, lead and guide us in faithfully tending the flock entrusted to us for the sake of our mission in and for the world.

Prayerfully, under the shepherding care of Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2My Father removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit my Father prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

If we took the time to read again this passage from John’s Gospel, engaging it slowly, savoring it, what words would stand out and continue to echo, reverberating in our minds and hearts?

Surely one such word is ‘abide.’ Listen again to Jesus’ words reported in John: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me…. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

The word, ‘abide,’ appears 8 times in this brief passage, clearly an important word in John.

Abide. What does it mean? If we allow our minds free play, other related words appear on our mental horizons which help reveal the meanings of abide – to remain, wait, delay, dwell, remain behind, survive, expect, to suffer, stay, continue, endure, last, pause, reside, sojourn, stand firm. And more perhaps.

Abide is an Old English word. And the New Testament Greek word also has many the senses of the words I just listed.

What’s striking to me is just how countercultural it is to abide. Abiding involves slowing down, staying in one place for a while.

Our fast-paced, multi-tasking contemporary world and its routines seem to demand the exact opposite of abiding.

We are today beckoned to live like humming birds in almost constant motion, flitting from one thing to the next.

Scholars and pundits and we in our common experience are beginning to become increasingly aware of the toll our multi-tasking busyness is taking on our mental and physical well-being.

Week of the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Dear Christian Friends:

Eastertide continues as we continue to proclaim that Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Our Sunday morning worship outdoors in person has been an admittedly modest diet of what our usual orders of worship offer. For the sake of the safety of erring on the side of caution, we have limited our worship to an order for confession and forgiveness, the Prayer of the Day, a single reading from the lectionary, some brief homiletical comments on the reading, the prayers of intercession, Lord’s Prayer and final blessing. All of this takes place in about fifteen minutes’ time, about a quarter of what is a typical Sunday morning service.

Now that we have a solid track record with the safety of these outdoor gatherings and given that the weather is moderating to make being outdoors more pleasant and comfortable, it is now time for us, I believe, to begin to engage the greater fullness of our liturgical assemblies. My conversations with many of you reveal that you also concur with this view.

In coming weeks, therefore, watch for a further evolution of our orders for worship outdoors – the inclusion of the full set of lectionary texts, more congregational singing of hymns, a more involved homily, safe ways to share the Peace of Christ, and most notably, thanks be to God, safe ways to celebrate Holy Communion.

We have had a long suffering fast from the central things in Word and Sacrament. This we did motivated by love for our most vulnerable neighbors. We still honor these commitments, but now with the knowledge that we can, in fact, undertake the greater fullness of our liturgical life outdoors safely and appropriately.

In fact, we need this greater fullness for the sake of our individual and communal well-being in faith. Just as fasting from food in our diets should not be a long-term venture for the sake of our physical health, we likewise benefit spiritually from what God in Christ has to offer in the full range of the means of grace. Moreover, we are beckoned to be more fully fed so that we may feed others in Jesus’ name in the power of the Holy Spirit. For the sake of the world, and the divine mission entrusted to us, our days of leanness should begin to come to an end.

Indeed, Eastertide is a season of feasting. Therefore, let us begin to return to keeping the feast! Furthermore, the Day of Pentecost approaches, that festival day on which the Holy Spirit’s coming birthed the new order of life in the church, where “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) We do well to pursue the fullness of our ordered Christian lives.

In addition to pointing to the coming of our more complete liturgical celebrations outdoors and in person on Sundays, I also want to speak to the “fellowship” dimensions of our times together on Sunday mornings. Yes, it’s lovely to socialize and to connect with each other again. But please know that we engage each other not merely as a social club, but as the body of Christ, we who are members of and therefore integral to that body. We greet each other and converse with each other in Jesus’ name.

I know from my growing experience with you that many of our conversations with each other on Sundays become occasions of Mutual Conversation and Consolation among God’s family. Remember that Martin Luther included such holy conversations among the means of grace alongside preaching, baptism, Eucharist and confession and forgiveness. Thus, it is a holy thing indeed to be in blessed conversation with each other. These conversations are not ancillary but integral to Christian community. Let us not miss or overlook the holiness of our ordinary encounters with each other in Jesus’ name when we gather outdoors on Sundays.

As your pastor, I cannot emphasize enough how crucially important these conversations are to me, charged as I am to care for you, members of the flock that is Resurrection Church. These conversations are central to my work as a pastor. Especially as I am comparatively new to you, our Sunday morning conversations in person are among the principle means through which we are getting to know each other. What happens in person is far richer and more nuanced than what transpires in email exchanges, on Zoom, or even during phone conversations. It’s also true that our conversations outdoors contribute to our spiritual and emotional well-being, especially during these pandemic days of social isolation. So it is that I am available to you about an hour before the time for worship, and then for some time afterward.

So, join us on the parsonage side of the church this Sunday for worship, first and foremost, in our substituted outdoor place of Christian assembly – where the parsonage deck is our chancel, the patio serves as choir loft, the parsonage yard fence functions as an altar rail, and the wider yard becomes our nave. In Jesus’ name, for Christ’s sake, in the power of the Holy Spirit active in Word and Sacrament, this place is holy ground indeed!

Appreciatively in Christ with hopeful anticipation,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2021
John 10:11-18

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said:] 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

This day in Eastertide is Good Shepherd Sunday. Hence the inclusion in today’s readings the beloved Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters….” And on this wonderful psalm goes.

It does sound wonderful, doesn’t it? To lie down in green pastures. Picture that in your mind’s eye, occasions when perhaps you have laid yourself down in a meadow on a bright, sunny, warm day genuinely to relax and to be at peace.

The language sounds so gentle. The image so compelling. To lay oneself down for a nap or a good night’s rest after a long, hard day.

But lying down has other not so pleasant connotations. As when our beloved ones are laid to rest after death. Or in my Pittsburgh days where and when cremation was not common and visitation in funeral homes was the norm to view someone “laid out” in the coffin. Enquiring about which funeral home to visit, members routinely asked me, “Pastor, where is he or she laid out?”

Another unpleasant connotation is when something or someone is laid off or laid aside, laid down to be forgotten.

Or take the bedtime prayer that I grew up with – and maybe you did, too: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Wow. What an early childhood lesson in mortality to pray that prayer every night…. When my niece and nephew were young, my brother and sister-in-law changed the “if I should die before I wake” part to this: “guide me through the starry night, and wake me when the sun shines bright.” That’s much more palatable to our sensibilities.

But in a culture that routinely avoids the subject of death, maybe childhood lessons in our mortality are not such a bad thing (but maybe not in a child’s prayer every night just before bed).

Week of the Third Sunday of Easter

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

“Mi casa es tu casa” – “My house is your house.” This is a phrase that expresses welcome and hospitality. But in my case, as your pastor living in the church’s parsonage, my house literally is your house. Resurrection Church holds title to the property. I am simply the privileged long-term guest in this great gift of a house. But this house has been made to become my home, and there is a distinction between house as a thing and home as a more existential quality of being.

Thus, it’s been my privilege now on two occasions – Easter Sunday and yesterday, the Third Sunday of Easter – to welcome you to the features of my home outdoors, namely, the deck, a new brick patio, and the yard shared by parsonage and church, along with our garden, the “Plot Against Hunger,” which is now sprouting new growth thanks to the ministrations of our gardeners.

As our response to the pandemic continues to evolve, we are now worshiping outdoors each Sunday – twice a month on the Potomac Street side of the church in conjunction with the food collections for AFAC to benefit those in need in our community, and the other Sundays on the parsonage side of the church. Thanks be to God for occasions safely to worship in person each week.

It’s not a perfect parallel, nor should it be, but it strikes me that there are aspects of our outdoor arrangement that are evocative of typical church interiors. The elevated deck is not unlike a chancel, where the table there could become something of an altar table. The new brick patio twice has served as a choir loft. The fence separating the parsonage yard from the church yard could be viewed as a chancel rail. And then the wider expanse of the church yard, centered in the garden, has served as the nave for the gathering of the assembly. Those who have shared in the recent worship events there have found the arrangement salutary.

Members and friends who have gathered at the exterior threshold of the parsonage have helped us to begin to live into the vision that I hold dear, and that is that your parsonage, my home, will be a place of hospitality for the congregation and for those traveling to and through Arlington from wider worlds. Indeed, our gatherings for worship have included occasions for hospitable conversations among those congregating, a wonderful way to stay connected safely and masked in person during these pandemic days.

I look for the day with eager anticipation when those who gather on the deck and patio and yards can enter the indoors of the parsonage where you will also encounter a place of beauty and hospitality, the “hearth” of the kitchen and dining area and a little “chapel,” which is a dedicated place for prayer, study, and holy conversation.

These worshipful and social occasions outdoors are beginning to make our life together feel more normal as we gain a track record demonstrating the safety of these gatherings, thus making some tangible progress toward returning indoors in due course.

There are still a number of you in our congregation whom I have not yet had occasion to meet for meaningful conversation. Our Zoom “Meet and Greet the Pastor” events were helpful some many weeks and months ago, but that format just didn’t gain traction perhaps because of people’s understandable Zoom fatigue. When I reach out to members by phone on baptism anniversary days, more often than not I find only an answering machine on which to leave a message. Thus, to those I’ve not yet had occasion to meaningfully engage, I extend a heartfelt invitation to you to join me and other congregation members on the parsonage deck and patio, or on the other AFAC Sundays on the Potomac side, for conversation in advance of our regularly scheduled outdoor worship services. I am present at least an hour before the service time. It would be great to make the most of these times to get to know you better!

Moving forward together in Jesus’ name,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Third Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2021
Luke 24:36b-48

The holy gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.

36bJesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
    44Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Just what is virtual reality? This is a question forced upon us by the necessities of the pandemic in concert with increasing availability of technologies which propel us into the realms of cyberspace for more and more of our waking hours.

Life online, our sharing in so-called virtual reality, is a huge elephant in our rooms demanding and commanding attention.

And there are attractive and perhaps even seductive dimensions to the commanding presence of cyberspace, even in the life of the church. Some congregations are reporting growth of participation online, in some cases far more than in person. Reportedly some congregations are receiving new members who have only participated in the life of the church online.

Thus, we are beckoned to begin to wrestle with the nature of virtual reality as it pertains to our Christian, communal life together.

Week of the Second Sunday of Easter

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It may be some combination of pandemic fatigue, more people receiving their vaccinations, and a more palpable sense that we are seeing light at the end of this very long and dark tunnel of the pandemic, but I am aware of a greater extent of conversational energy in our congregation around the question, “When is Resurrection Church going to open up again for worship and other activities indoors?”

In this week’s message, I offer my own observations on this question, informed by deliberations among our congregational leaders to date. I pray that my thoughts contribute to the ongoing conversation and discernment that will lead to our coming decisions. I offer this pastorally and not prescriptively, for there are many conversation partners, and major decisions in our life together are made communally and not by an individual. As your pastor, I will be among the many leaders that will ultimately make the decision to return to indoor activities.

Which is to say, in terms of our organization and process, conversations about returning indoors have been focused in an ad hoc group formed last summer, the Reopening Planning Group, which now meets monthly to assess where we are in the discernment to reopen in relation to the many complex, moving parts and twists and turns of the pandemic. This group, in its informal capacity, does not make decisions, but offers recommendations to the Congregation Council for their further deliberation and decision-making. It is ultimately the Congregation Council that will make the decisions that will determine the date when we will return to activities indoors in the church.

Taking up now my reflections, it strikes me, first of all, that the word ‘reopening’ is something of a misnomer. Which is to say, our congregation has never been closed. We’ve simply redirected our activities elsewhere than inside the building – principally online and in person outdoors. It’s the building that will be reopened for indoor use, not the congregation!

Second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021
John 20:19-31

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
    24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
    26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
    30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

They say that “seeing is believing.” This adage seems to apply well to so-called doubting Thomas’ desire to see Jesus first-hand. And seeing is the focus of Jesus’ response to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

For all of the decades that I have engaged this passage from John’s Gospel, I have generally focused on the physical dimension of sight, of seeing the risen Jesus first-hand.

This view is reinforced by other New Testament writings that focus apostolic authority on being eye witnesses to all of the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In fact, in the book of Acts, when the apostles seek one to replace Judas, a key criterion is that they need to select someone who also was a first-hand eye witness like the other apostles.

But this year, engaging the post-resurrection account that involves Thomas, I am struck by a wholly different dimension of the text which I generally overlook when I focus on sight.

If I were to give a title to what follows it might be something like, “Touching is believing.”

Easter Week 2021

Dear Christian Friends:

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

While we would have preferred to be indoors for the fullness of our usual routines for Holy Week and Easter, we were not lacking for rich worshipful encounters with Christ at home and outdoors during the holy days of pandemic year 2021.

Excellent and beautifully crafted resources provided opportunities for worship at home on Palm and Passion Sunday, on each of the Three Days, and on Easter Day, Resurrection of Our Lord. If you engaged the fullness of these bulletins and their outlines and contents for worship, you had what you needed for faithful observances of these Holy Days. I very much hope and pray that you claimed opportunities to explore the riches of these materials. Thanks so very much to Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw for again providing these resources to the people of God at Resurrection Church, but also for making them available for use throughout the wider church.

Home worship videos also framed our experiences on Palm and Passion Sunday and on Easter Day. Thanks be to God for, and our sincere thanks to, our readers, prayer leaders, singers, other musicians, videographers, and all others who share in the teamwork of putting together these videos for our worshipful edification.

Moreover, we gathered numerous times in person outdoors for worship. Here are the numbers: 30 braved the wet weather for worship outdoors on Palm and Passion Sunday. The combined attendance for the two Maundy Thursday services was 42, even with a cold, blustery wind. 38 braved similar conditions for the two liturgies on Good Friday. 20 were present for our Easter Vigil. And 95 filled the church and parsonage yards on Easter Sunday after a continental Easter breakfast – with thanks to all those who baked and otherwise put together this breakfast offering. These attendance numbers are respectable and encouraging.

But it’s not about the numbers. Rather, it’s about being gathered by the Holy Spirit to plumb the depths in liturgy of the core realities of the Christian faith. Resurrection Church’s nave was bereft of people, in its own way sepulchral and sad. In contrast, our Memorial Garden, more typically a lonely place, was full of life, well-peopled, and served as centerstage, as it were, for the liturgical drama of The Three Days. On Maundy Thursday it was the Garden of Gethsemane, when those assembled, including an ensemble of choir members, gave voice under Barbara’s leadership to Psalm 88, a psalm of lament, recalling Jesus’ prayerful agony in the garden. On Good Friday, the Memorial Garden was Golgotha, where a roughhewn wooden cross was planted after the procession, and worshipers lined up to place votive candles at the foot of the cross, a gesture of adoration of our Lord Jesus who suffered there. During the Easter Vigil, in our mind’s eye, we could see the Memorial Garden as the place of Jesus’ tomb, a place of resurrection.

These liturgical acts had the effect of consecrating in new ways our Memorial Garden, the place of repose for the remains of many of our beloved church and family members. It was most poignant for me to consider the Memorial Garden as a place of resurrection for those who rest there, when Christ returns at the resurrection at the last day to consummate the fullness of the divine reign.

We often take for granted liturgical spaces. But the pandemic’s strictures of forcing us outdoors help us to take a new look at the places where we worship. Recall that in the Gospels’ reporting, much of Jesus’ ministry took place in settings outdoors where the weather inevitably had effects on the goings on. Our nave is warm in the winter, and cool in the summer, that is to say, always comfortable. Then there was the varied weather this past week for our worship outdoors. On the days of greatest solemnity, focused on Jesus’ Passion, the weather was appropriately and fittingly bracing with precipitation and the threat of rain (and even some snow on Maundy Thursday), along with stiff, cold winds. As the fulcrum shifted in the course of The Three Days, when we arrived at the first celebration of resurrection at the Easter Vigil, the weather, again fittingly, had moderated – clear skies, more comfortable temperatures, and the absence of a bracing wind. Thus, we could sense in our bodies climatic conditions that matched the mood of the narratives of Jesus’ final earthly days that we were remembering and liturgically re-enacting.

Additionally, during the solemn silences of The Three Days, worshipers noted the songs of birds and the sounds of wind chimes on neighbors’ porches, providing another kind of accompaniment to our liturgies.

Also of note, we dared to sing again – “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” on Palm and Passion Sunday, Psalm 88 on Maundy Thursday, some chanted portions of the liturgies on Good Friday and at the Easter Vigil, and then the robust singing of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” on Easter Sunday morning. Indeed, how wonderful it was to give voice in song once again to gospel proclamation after a full year’s hiatus from this central Christian practice. Likewise, how wonderful to hear our choir again in person and live. As I have said, the videos of our choir which Barbara weaves together are quite fine. Choral music live, though, is such a more magnificent gift and aid to proclaiming the good news.

And then, on Easter Sunday, for the church and parsonage yards to be filled with the Resurrection faithful, enjoying coffee and goods baked by the loving hands of our members, was a sight for sore eyes. I’ve never before preached, nor led worship from a house’s outdoor deck, but that location made a fitting chancel for our day’s celebrations. Over the course of the days of Holy Week and Easter, we journeyed from the Memorial Garden on the Potomac Street side of the church to the ground on the Powhatan Street side that contains our “Plot Against Hunger,” our church’s vegetable garden, the donated produce of which benefits those in need in our community. Thus, with this shift in location, and in the joy of and thanksgiving for Christ’s resurrection, our attention was turned to the needs of the world which is our mission field in loving service to our neighbors.

The long and the short of it is that in my estimation, our worship outdoors was not lacking in aesthetic and spiritual poignancy and meaning. The outdoor contextualization in many ways allowed the familiar narratives we heard and re-enacted to speak with new, or at least nuanced meanings, meanings which may have remained hidden and obscure if we were indoors.

Here’s to the spiritual and liturgical silver linings in this year of pandemic deprivation!

In thanksgiving for these opportunities to give new expression to our proclamation that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Resurrection of Our Lord, April 4, 2021
Mark 16:1-8

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord.

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

On this Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord, I have something of a confession to make as your pastor: during my adolescence, I was an agnostic. It may have been the tumult of my teenage years, my need for self-differentiation from my family which was very serious about both faith and life in the church, the influence of my skeptic friends whose parents were on faculty at the local college, or my mother’s struggles with her health – or likely some combination of all of the above. But I was a doubter during my teenage years, from early high school into college.

I recall looking for signs and evidence of the claims made by the Christian faith. Chief among those claims is what we celebrate today: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

My brother, who also had his own versions of doubts but was older than I and came back around sooner than I did, put in my hands a book entitled, Who Moved the Stone? A Skeptic Looks at the Death and Resurrection of Christ. The book was written originally in 1930 by Albert Henry Ross, who was a British advertising agent and freelance writer.

Like many classic British empiricists, Ross examined the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Gospels, assuming them to be fully accurate accountings free from any authorial license, looking for evidence, if not to say, proof that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.

What Ross centered on was the stone at the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. In his reading of the accounts, he found no plausible or natural explanation for how it was that the large stone was moved from the entrance to the tomb.

On the basis of the stone being rolled away, Ross argued, if I recall his discourse accurately, that this was proof that something supernatural had happened and that, therefore, Jesus in fact rose from the dead.

While I found the book interesting, it did not convince me then as an adolescent, and it does not particularly interest me today. I’ve come to discover that faith does not need proof.

It’s a long story, which I’m happy to tell at some point, but many other things and people were responsible for my re-awakened faith – including biblical accounts such as the one from Mark’s Gospel appointed for today, namely, Mark’s account of the resurrection.

Holy Week Schedule

The Three Days (April 1-3):

  • Engage our bulletin for worship at home for The Three Days – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil: pdfThree Days Bulletin
  • Maundy Thursday – Outdoor worship at 11:00 am and 7:00 pm with Confession and Forgiveness
  • Good Friday – Outdoor worship at 11:00 am and 7:30 pm with the Passion According to John, Bidding Prayers, and Procession of the Cross
  • Easter Vigil – Outdoor worship at 7:00 pm with new fire, Easter Proclamation and Affirmation of Baptism

Easter Sunday (April 4):

  • Engage our bulletin for worship at home along with our worship video – links to the bulletin and videos forthcoming this weekend.
    A Continental Easter Breakfast begins at 9:00 am with serving concluding at 9:45 followed by Outdoor Worship at 10:00.

 

Holy Week’s Three Days: A Guide to Worshipful Devotion

Dear Friends in Christ:

In lieu of separate homilies for Holy Week, what follows is a set of suggestions for how you may worshipfully and devotionally engage features of the coming dramatic Three Days – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. The Three Days are actually a seamless liturgical drama that occurs over the course of the holy days. Here we journey with Jesus Christ to the Upper Room, the cross, and ultimately the empty tomb. I pray that this guide will be of salutary use to you for deepening your holy encounters with God in Christ in your worship at home and perhaps also in person outdoors at the church.

Palm and Passion Sunday, March 28, 2021
Mark 15:1-39

I am usually inclined on the Sunday of the Passion to let the Passion narrative, this year from Mark’s Gospel, speak for itself.

Thus, what follows is less a formal sermon and more homiletical or spiritual reflections on the Passion.

First, though, a question: Did God will that Jesus should be crucified? Certain theories of the Atonement, of our being made right with God, require such a sacrifice. A righteous God necessarily must demand a sacrifice to atone for human sin. Thus, if we cannot offer the necessary sacrifice, then Jesus could. Jesus’ death on the cross was thus mandated in this theological schema. That’s one view of the Atonement.

What I find compelling is that the Roman Catholic Church has not established an official dogma of the Atonement. That is to say, there are varieties of theological theories of the Atonement out there, none of which, from a Catholic Magisterial perspective, is definitive.

Thus, there is room for a variety of theological perspectives on making sense of Jesus’ death. I happen to think that the crucifixion was the inevitable outcome of the nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. Jesus was not afraid to speak the truth about God and how this truth would upend human business as usual. Thus, it was inevitable that what Jesus taught and what he did would get him into trouble with the various powers of the world who had the authority to put him to death.

But please note this in the passage from Mark and other versions of the Gospels: the crowds shout, “Crucify him!”

Many blame the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion, and such blaming has contributed to much Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.

Others will emphasize that the crucifixion was undertaken only by the authority and power of Roman imperial officials and armies.

But the Roman authorities bowed to the will of the crowds, the mob, who shouted, “Crucify him!”

Where does that leave us? Well, we’re in the crowds. And we are the ones, if we were present, may well have joined the herd mentality and yelled, “Crucify him!”

Week of the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Midweek Lenten Worship and Presentation, 7:00 pm on March 24:

A Zoom link for Wednesday's Midweek Lenten Worship and Presentation on Faith Informing Life's Work will be sent via Constant Contact. If you are not receiving our Constant Contact messages, please contact the church office.

Reflections on the Coming Holy Days

Dear Friends in Christ:

As our second pandemic Lent soon draws to a close, we are on the brink of observing and celebrating among the holiest of days in the Christian calendar, namely, Palm and Passion Sunday, The Three Days – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter – and Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Day.

As usual, we will provide resources for worship at home for Sunday of the Passion, The Three Days, and Easter Sunday. Included will be worship videos for Passion Sunday and Easter Sunday. But there will also be occasion for those who desire and are able to worship in person outdoors on each of these occasions.

In whatever ways appropriate to your circumstances, I invite your robust participation in these Holy Days at home and in person, again if you are safely able. For what these days hold forth for us are the central mysteries of our faith centered on the cross and grounded in the empty tomb. The liturgies for Holy Week and Easter make for our personal and direct participation in the sacred drama of these days both at home and outdoors in person, albeit in truncated ways.

We won’t be able to do all of the things called for in our liturgical enactments. Current pandemic protocols preclude, for example, unabridged readings of the Passion stories outdoors, the laying on of hands for individual forgiveness and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Likewise, the abbreviated and partial Easter Vigil outdoors will not feature the multiple readings, though the bulletin for worship at home will include a rather full complement of readings. Most strikingly will be the absence of the holy supper, the Eucharist, on the days we would normally celebrate it.

That said, there will still be plenty of holy liturgical features for our worshipful engagement outdoors – the blessing of palms and a procession with palms and the reading of the Passion from Mark’s Gospel on Passion Sunday; physically distanced individual absolution and the chanting of Psalm 88 at liturgy’s on Holy Thursday when otherwise we would strip the altar of its adornments; a reading of a portion of the Passion according to John, bidding prayers and procession with a wooden cross with opportunity to adore the wonder of this instrument of salvation on Good Friday; lighting of the new fire and Paschal Candle with Easter Proclamation, and Affirmation of Baptism at the Easter Vigil; a continental Easter Breakfast and worship outdoors along with an Easter Egg hunt for children on Easter Sunday. On each of these occasions, I will offer brief homiletical reflections on the readings and on the significance of each day. There may even be a small ensemble leading some singing on some of the occasions, all the while masked and physically distanced as is appropriate during these times.

For those worshiping at home, the worship resources provided for your domestic use will likewise contain as full a set of observances as possible for worshipful use at home. As usual, the Sunday Worship Videos will feature hymns and anthems led by our choir.

All of this, of course, does not add up to what we would do and celebrate in person in our beloved nave and elsewhere on our church property. But while abbreviated and incomplete, the coming holy days and their ritual enactments for our worship will be means through which the Holy Spirit will draw us more deeply into the holy mysteries, again centered in the death and resurrection of Christ. Our observances and celebrations at home and outdoors will be means through which the Holy Spirit will again generate, regenerate, and renew our faith, our trust in the Trinitarian God whom we see most intimately in the face of Jesus Christ whose last days of earthly ministry and mission are featured in the coming holy days.

May God in Christ bless our worshipful engagements in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world’s life and its healing,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:20-33

The holy gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
    27Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Spring has sprung. Officially, this year, March 20. This is welcome and good news after a wet, snowy, icy, slushy and cold pandemic winter. And the ground is springing to life – crocuses, daffodils, some first dandelions, and more – all part of the intricate ecosystem just beneath our feet in our yards and parks and greenspaces, a wonder of natural cycles that takes place each year. This is my first early Spring in Arlington, which you have promised me is one of the most gorgeous seasons of the year in this area. I am delighting in this season of renewed life.

What in fact is going on out of sight and under the ground in the soil? What happens to seeds when they are planted? My brief foray into some botanical reading suggests that the seeds we plant are living and they remain alive as they undergo the complex process of germination, of sprouting forth life in new forms which rise up from the ground. In short, seeds that bear fruit are alive.

But the gospel writer John reports that Jesus said this: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Neither John nor Jesus were botanists. Moreover, they did not benefit from modern scientific knowledge and understanding. Again, according to my reading, dead seeds cannot germinate. They are dead and remain dead and cannot offer life. Death is death. What’s going on beneath are feet are cycles of life that beget more life. New growth in spring is life from dormancy, not death.

While John and Jesus may not be good scientists from our perspective, they are trustworthy heralds of divine truth, namely, that John’s Jesus points to a different kind of reality beyond natural cycles. In the case in point, that is, in what would befall Jesus, the reality is new life from death, not from dormancy, a truth that confounds scientific wisdom about natural cycles.