Pastor Jonathan Linman

Rev. Pastor Jonathan Linman, PhD.Pastor Jonathan Linman begins his fourth decade of pastoral work with his call to lead and to serve as pastor of Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church. Ordained in 1989, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the inner-city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2001, he became Director of the Center for Christian Spirituality and a Professor of Ascetical Theology at The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. In 2009, Pastor Linman began his work as Assistant to the Bishop for Faith and Leadership Formation in the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Week of the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Dear Friends in Christ:

January 18, the Confession of Peter, begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2022. What started as a small prayer movement among Episcopal Franciscans and Catholics in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City in 1908 has over the decades become an international observance embraced by millions and sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an octave encouraging daily prayer observances, begins on the commemoration of the Confession of Peter and concludes a week later on the day of the commemoration of the Conversion of Paul, an octave bracketed by the celebration of two major figures of the Christian tradition who represent different strands of our faith tradition. Peter was one of Jesus’ disciples who was among the first-hand, eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, and who became one of the twelve original apostles, and a central figure among the twelve. Paul, on the other hand, as Saul, a persecutor of the early Christian movement and its believers, had his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and thus came to this new movement in a way very different from the twelve original apostles. Paul struggled to have his apostolic authority accepted during the days of his public ministry.

These differences could have taken Christianity in very different and divided directions. But the basic rapprochement between Pauline and Petrine factions in the early days preserved early unity in the emergent church even amidst its sometimes-conflicting diversity. There is an icon in the offices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican that features Peter and Paul embracing each other. That is an image which captures the unifying spirit of the ecumenical octave of this week. It is indeed appropriate that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity should begin and conclude with commemorations of Peter and Paul, a celebration of and aspiration for unity in diversity.

Each year materials for marking and celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are developed by different ecumenical councils in various regions of the world. Materials for 2022, published nationally by the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute in New York, were crafted by the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut, Lebanon. This year’s theme is based on Matthew 2:2 – “We saw the star in the east, and we came to worship him.” Here is further elaboration on this theme from the website of the Graymoor Institute: “Today, more than ever, the Middle East needs a heavenly light to accompany its people. The star of Bethlehem is a sign that God walks with his people, feels their pain, hears their cries, and shows them compassion. It reassures us that though circumstances change and terrible disasters may happen, God’s faithfulness is unfailing…. The journey of faith is this walking with God who always watches over his people and who guides us in the complex paths of history and life. For this Week of Prayer, the Christians of the Middle East chose the theme of the star that rose in the east for a number of reasons. While many Western Christians celebrate Christmas, the more ancient feast, and still the principal feast of many Eastern Christians, is the Epiphany when God’s salvation is revealed to the nations in Bethlehem and at the Jordan. This focus on the theophany (the manifestation) is, in a sense a treasure which Christians of the Middle East can offer to their brothers and sisters around the world.”

Here is a link, should you wish to participate in a live, online observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It begins at 12:00 pm (Noon) Eastern on Wednesday, January 19.

And here is a link to official Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2022 materials to support your daily prayers for greater visible unity in the church.

As I have written to you before, I am a devoted ecumenist and am committed to promoting the greater visible unity among Christian churches, and this for the sake of our witness to the world rooted in Jesus’ prayer recorded in John’s Gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21) I, therefore, see ecumenical work as central to the mission of the church and not as an optional, extra thing to engage in if we have time and inclination.

Ecumenical involvements, ranging from local to national and even international initiatives, have consistently been key features of my public ministry for over three decades. Thus, it’s been a disappointment to me that Arlington has no apparent current, active, formal ecumenical association of churches and church leaders. I would otherwise be an active participant in such a group. Thus, I will continue to endeavor informally to reach out to colleagues in neighboring congregations in future months, pandemic permitting, seeking to build some meaningful ecumenical relationships locally. Nationally, I continue to serve as the Lutheran co-chair of the Lutheran-Methodist Full Communion Coordinating Committee.

Additionally, I am heartened by Resurrection Church’s own history of and current expressions of ecumenical commitments. My predecessor, Pastor Scott Ickert, is a committed ecumenist, well-known for his involvements synodically and nationally. And we have a number of members whose current professional and personal passions include involvement in various forms of ecumenical work.

Meanwhile, Resurrection families, like many Christian families today, embody their own versions of ecumenical commitments and realities. We have several mixed church families, especially Lutheran-Catholic, and it gladdens my heart that these families find ways of honoring the other spouse’s own churchly commitments by participating in activities of their spouse’s churches. And it’s especially delightful to me that some of our most active participants at Resurrection are officially members of other churches!

This is perhaps an expression of what is known in ecumenical circles as “spiritual ecumenism,” that is, when commitments to the greater visible unity of the church are lived out in personal and practical ways at local levels.

Thanks be to God for such witness to the unity we in fact enjoy in Christ Jesus, an embodied fulfillment in part of our prayers for Christian unity this week and throughout the year.

Praying along with our Lord that we may all be one – for the sake of the world,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Epiphany 2, John 2:1-11

I’m sure that you’ve attended your fair share of weddings and wedding receptions. And I have no doubt that some of those wedding festivities are more memorable than others for a host of reasons.

As a pastor, I could tell you some tales of unusual experiences at wedding banquets. The pulpit is obviously not the place to do that!

But today we have the story of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, its own compelling and usual tale. According to the gospel writer John, this is the first event Jesus attended just days after he began his public ministry. Jesus was there with his new disciples along with his mom.

In John’s telling we have this fascinating exchange between Jesus and his mother at the banquet. I can picture Jesus and Mary off to the side observing the proceedings and making comments to each other in the familiarity of a mother-son relationship:

Mary: “They have no wine.”

Jesus: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Then Mary to the servants [sensing perhaps what might happen next having pondered in her heart the mysteries about her son for his entire life]: “Do whatever he tells you.”

This could easily be played as a humorous moment in the gospels, a comedy duet, but the exchange also sets the stage for the first of Jesus’ public signs which revealed his glory, namely, when he changed water into wine after the bridegroom’s wine gave out.

We’ve all known those disappointing parties where there’s not enough food and drink. Or the eats and drinks are of poor quality and not very satisfying. Or there’s enough of the good stuff to make a good first impression and then an abundance of cheap food and drink to get people drunk so they don’t notice or care much about the poor quality. And on and on.

Bear with me. This is not a sermon about social etiquette and good party planning, but about Jesus Christ and how he addresses the human condition with good news.

Here’s the thing. The way of the world is the way of the banquet which runs out of wine. That’s the human condition. In our finitude and mortality, it’s the way of scarcity and limited resources. And in our sin, we seek to hide the realities of our limitations.

Sometimes we engage in anxious deception of the kind that the late 19th Century economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen (an alum my alma mater Carleton College) termed conspicuous consumption, that is, acquisitively flaunting luxury goods and services as a way of showing status in overstated and impractical ways – theologically speaking, a sin of pride.

Surely our overstated, relentless pursuit of consumer commodities masks our fears of our limitations, our ultimate poverty when it’s all said and done. The fear weighs on us and is a source of what ails so much in society, as we consume ourselves to oblivion, perhaps extinction as a species. Eventually we’ll run out of wine…. Our pandemic supply chain struggles reveal the reality of our limits in un-nerving ways.

But this is precisely the reality Jesus addresses when he changed water into wine, something common into something extraordinary. Despite his hour having not come, as John reports Jesus having said, Jesus enters the scene of the wedding banquet by providing abundance, the best of created goodness, more wine to replenish the supplies.

The miracle of Jesus turning water into wine is described by John as a sign. The Greek word shares the root for the word and thing and practice, semaphore, a system of sending messages by code. A sign is a distinguishing mark, or token, or portent that points beyond itself to different reality, in this case, transcendent realities.

The sign that Jesus offered was quite something. I don’t know how much wine the bridegroom started with, but what Jesus did was produce anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine (six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons). That’s as much as perhaps 900 standard bottles of wine! That’s a lot of wine for quite the party. That’s abundance, not scarcity. It’s an amount that is not likely to give out.

And the wine that resulted from Jesus’ intervention was of an excellent quality and vintage, the best of God’s good creation. The steward said to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

This was the sign that revealed Jesus’ glory. Again, we’re not talking about Jesus and his mom going into business as wedding planners and consultants. Not at all. This wasn’t about the wine in and of itself. Nor was the sign about the miracle. Rather the sign pointed to Jesus himself and to a different time in his life, namely, when his hour would come, the hour when he would be glorified at the end of his life.

Here we have at the very beginning of his public ministry according to John a foreshadowing of the end of that earthly ministry. For Jesus’ glory in John ultimately is his being lifted up on the tree of the cross at that right hour, namely, the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life.

The sign offered at the wedding in Cana of Galilee occurred on the third day since the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry after he had called his first disciples. When we hear that phrase, with the 20/20 vision of post-resurrection hindsight, we cannot help but also hear “on the third day he shall rise again.” That’s when the real party begins, the feast which knows no end, the best wine saved for last that doesn’t give out.

It's noteworthy that John’s gospel does not explicitly recount the story of Jesus’ baptism. But here we have featured in this story six stone water jars intended to be used for the Jewish rites of purification. Is this not for us believers an allusion to the waters of baptism which purify us?

Further, John’s gospel also does not include an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper. John emphasizes Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the Last Supper segment of the story.

But that doesn’t mean that John’s gospel isn’t eucharistically sacramental. In the story of the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee we go from water to wine, metaphorically in some poetic, non-linear sense, from baptism to Eucharist, for the Eucharist with its good wine is likened to a wedding feast. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus himself is the good wine that does not give out, the very wine we imbibe at this our sacramental table conveying Jesus’ real presence, his real self.

This is good news that signals the reality of the eternal abundance of God’s good creation, the fruit of field and orchard. And it was and is glorious to behold. The revelation of Jesus’ glory inspires faith – “and his disciples believed him.”

Yes, it’s glorious also for us to behold. We see Jesus’ glory in baptism. We see Jesus’ glory in the Eucharist where the best wine, Christ himself, quenches our thirst and that of all believers throughout the world and for all time, endlessly. Amen!!

In this sacramental light, I invite you to hear portions of today’s first reading from Isaiah as a kind of invitation to the communion table: Come to the table, for “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her… for the LORD delights in you…. So shall your builder marry you, and as one rejoices in marrying one’s beloved, so shall your God rejoice over you” (cf. Isaiah 62:3-5). This kind of blessing is what this table of feasting is about!

And when we leave this foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet to return to our homes and venues of engagement with the world, in God’s generous abundance, we offer varieties of gifts, varieties of services, varieties of activities all inspired by the one Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of Jesus himself.

And to a hungry, thirsty, needy world, a world scared to death of scarcity and limitation, we give gifts of abundant wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles (that is to say, more signs to Christ), prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretation of the same – all for the common good.

Come to the feast, enjoy the best wine who is Christ. Leave in joy to quench the thirst of a dry and parched worldly landscape. Amen. 

Week of the First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Our Lord

Dear Friends in Christ:

A number of persons have recently asked me why we use the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer in our public worship on Sundays. There’s been sufficient energy around this topic that I am moved to write about it in some significant detail to offer a fuller rationale for using the translation of the Lord’s Prayer that we do on Sundays.

First off, I want to recognize and affirm the power of language that we know by heart. Most of us are more familiar with the older translation of the Lord’s Prayer that continues the use of “thy” and “thine,” more archaic expressions in English that do not generally appear in everyday speech. Knowing the Lord’s Prayer by heart in the version we have grown up with speaks to the power of particular language expressions to form us and to carry deep spiritual and theological meaning for us. We may embody decades of associations and experiences with particular formulations of language that continue to speak powerfully to us. Thanks be to God for the power of God’s word in our lives in the particularities and perhaps peculiarities of language expressions.

But God’s living word is not limited to particular translations. In fact, as you well know, the Lord’s Prayer did not come down from on high in King James Version English. The origins of the Lord’s Prayer date back to traditions prior to Jesus, namely, the Kaddish, a prayer of praise in the Jewish tradition that hallows God’s name. In Jesus’ day and in the very early days of the church, the Lord’s Prayer would have been offered in Aramaic, then the common vernacular. Even the New Testament gospels (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) render somewhat different versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English translations from the Greek, and the biblical versions of the prayer in English bibles are not exactly what we pray on Sundays.

Moreover, the Lord’s Prayer has come to Christian people also in the languages of the nations throughout the centuries. My forebears prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish. Your ancestors likewise would have prayed the prayer in their various mother tongues. All of this variety in translation adds to the richness of God’s living word; it does not detract from or diminish the power of sacred meaning.

Which is to say, human languages are not stuck in time. They change and evolve over the course of generations. Continuing to pray the Lord’s Prayer using a translation that continues some archaic expressions does not robustly acknowledge the fluid nature of human language. More significantly perhaps, continuation of older forms also does not fully acknowledge and honor that God’s word continues to be living and active, such that the timeless truth of the divine word is also expressed in new and renewed ways that make sense to speakers of ordinary language in our own day.

Recall that Martin Luther was passionate about proclaiming the gospel in the vernacular of ordinary people. Hence his turn to use German as the language of liturgy and not Latin. Likewise, passion for making the gospel available in everyday language informed his translation of the Bible into German. Our use of the version of the Lord’s Prayer that is more in keeping with current speech continues the Lutheran passion for vernacular expressions of the gospel, trusting that God’s voice is indeed living and active in the ordinary language employed in liturgy and in prayer.

To get to the particular points of the contemporary vs. traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, the differences in the translations center on the following points: your vs. thy/thine; sins vs. trespasses (or debts if you’re a Presbyterian); trial vs. temptation. Otherwise, the versions of the prayer are quite similar. On the question of your vs. thy/thine, I’ve already raised the question of the continued use of archaic expressions in the liturgy. The evolution of liturgical expressions in English was such that a more King James style of liturgical language was modified already at least half a century ago. For us Lutherans in North America, that focused on the introduction of the Lutheran Book of Worship in our circles in 1978. Which is to say, the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, developed by an international, ecumenical consultation on liturgical texts in English, has been around for fifty years. So, referring to the translation as contemporary is something of a misnomer. Many have been using this translation for the majority or all of their lives. Lutheran Book of Worship gave the option of either version of the Lord’s Prayer, the last hold out when all other liturgical language was revised from its more King James style orientations. Evangelical Lutheran Worship also gives the option of either version. At Resurrection Church, as your Pastor exercising my pastoral responsibility for the public worship life of the church and exercising my teaching office, I desire that our liturgical language be consistently in a vernacular of ordinary speech. Hence my decision as Pastor for our public use of the version of the Lord’s Prayer in ordinary but nonetheless dignified and sacred speech.

But there are other important points to be made to illustrate the importance of the common usage of terms. Let’s take up sins vs. trespasses (or debts). Most people arguably associate the word “trespasses” with transgressing property boundaries, as in “No Trespassing” signs. That’s not quite what we generally have in mind when we ask to be forgiven in the Lord’s Prayer. Likewise, if it’s “debts” and “debtors,” we associate those expressions with financial obligations. Thus, “forgive us our sins” is more immediately understandable to most people, especially those new to the faith, who may not have grown up in the Christian tradition, precisely the folk we would hope and pray will also populate our worshipful gatherings.

Now, quite significantly, consider the theological implications of trial vs. temptation in Lord’s Prayer translations. Asking God to “lead us not into temptation” has very different theological meaning than pleading that God would “save us from the time of trial.” First off, I believe that we would affirm together that a loving God whose will is for our well-being would not intentionally lead us into temptation. Luther himself acknowledges this in the Small Catechism and his exposition of the meaning of this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Luther’s explanation is this: “It is true that God tempts no one, but we ask in this prayer that God would preserve and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, and that, although we may be attacked by them, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.” If the meaning of this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is as Luther suggests, why not use a translation that more clearly expresses that meaning? Thus, “save us from the time of trial” is the more compelling and theologically faithful translation. “Save us from the time of trial,” also more faithful to the Greek, additionally roots the Lord’s Prayer in the eschatological concerns of both the early and contemporary church, acknowledging that we live and serve in the latter days between Christ’s first and final comings, a period marked both in the Bible and in our historical experience by the faithful enduring various trials for the sake of Christ and our Christian witness. Christians for centuries have questioned the translation “lead us not into temptation.” It’s noteworthy that Pope Francis has also recently asked that Christians not use the translation that prays “lead us not into temptation.”

So, this has been an exploration in some significant detail of the rationale for my decision as Pastor to use the vernacular translation that we do in public worship on Sunday mornings. You may be moved in your own devotions to employ the older translation. But our public use of the more current, vernacular version of the Lord’s Prayer, in sum, is in keeping with Lutheran sensibilities for proclaiming the gospel faithfully and in the vernacular; it’s an expression of our ecumenical commitments in that the newer version was developed in ecumenical consultation; and its use also has an evangelistic thrust in the spirit of loving our neighbors in making good news in Christ more accessibly intelligible to those who may not yet know the old, old story. I invite your generosity of spirit to acknowledge and celebrate the power of God’s living word in the varieties of ways and translations it comes to us.

Seeking to be kept steadfast in God’s word,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Baptism of Our Lord/Epiphany 1, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

A striking thing to me in today’s gospel reading, appointed for Baptism of Our Lord, is how Luke matter-of-factly narrates Jesus’ baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”

It’s almost as if Jesus’ baptism was an afterthought for Luke. Given Luke’s rendering of this event, mentioning it almost in passing, I picture Jesus simply as one among many in the crowds of people being baptized. Other gospel writers zero in on the singularity of Jesus’ baptism. Not so with Luke.

Thus, in Luke’s telling, I see in my mind’s eye the waters of the Jordan River teeming with people of all kinds, sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the rich, soldiers, and others. And there was Jesus in the midst of the hoi polloi.

That’s a great image to convey concretely the theological affirmation of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – in this case as a person in the crowd, standing in line with many others of all stripes to be baptized by John.

Again, in my mind’s eye, there they all were in the water together, bodies touching bodies no doubt, Jesus immersed in dirty waters without the benefit of chlorine.

It’s all so viscerally physical, embodied. Thus, it’s also striking that Luke makes a point to say that the Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove.

This happened after the baptism when Jesus was praying. Prayer is often understood as a spiritual, dis-embodied kind of activity. Indeed, prayer can be one of those points of contact between the immaterial and material when the heavens are opened to us.

But Luke insists that the ethereal Spirit came in bodily form amidst Jesus’ prayer.

How seemingly ordinary, if not profane, that the Spirit would take bodily form like a dove, one of the common, everyday animals that was among the teeming menagerie on Noah’s Ark during the flood and which Noah deployed in the service of determining whether or not the flood waters had receded.

But all of this is the point – Jesus with us among the crowds being baptized in the earthy, dirty water. And even the ethereal Spirt coming to rest on Jesus in bodily form. It’s all in keeping with John’s affirmation that the Word became flesh to dwell among us, to pitch a tent with us, full of grace and truth, even amidst unclean waters that somehow, by God’s grace, end up cleansing us.

And the striking features of Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is also in keeping with the earthiness of Luke’s narrating the whole story of Jesus. Luke, among the gospel writers, has a heart for the earthy, the sacred finding expression in the ordinary, the physical, the visceral, the lowly, even the unclean. Tradition has it, after all, that Luke was a physician, one focused on bodily realities.

The good news is that Jesus’ baptism among the crowds sacralizes our bodily earthiness, claiming in sacred ways even our dirtiness. Our baptism into him, into his earthy, physical, death and resurrection restores our earthen sacredness, the ultimate goodness of bodily creation, one of the main points of one of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis.

Think also of this: We just celebrated Epiphany and the Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the holy family. The gift of myrrh points to Jesus’ death, for myrrh was ointment for the anointing of dead bodies. There is nothing more visceral, and unpleasantly so, than a corpse. But Jesus’ death, which the gift of myrrh foreshadows, along with Jesus’ bodily resurrection, redeems, makes holy even our own death, even our own lifeless bodies.

Thanks be to God for those of us – all of us – who are weighed down, feeling the burdens of our broken, ailing bodies. This is all good news for us, we who also struggle to see the holiness of teeming crowds of ordinary people who these days can erupt too easily into violent, raging mobs.

Jesus was baptized to inaugurate a ministry with the crowds of sinners, which as Luke reports, John the Baptizer described in this way: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork is in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.” That’s the essence of Jesus’ ministry, according to John, separating wheat from chaff which is to be burned.

Thus, our being baptized into Christ means being baptized with fire not just with water. Baptism into Christ, our Messiah, means that we are blown with the winds of the Spirit that separate our wheat from our chaff. And it’s our chaff, our unusable husks, that are burned with unquenchable fire.

This fiery word sounds like a threat, and it is a judgment, our being held accountable for that which in our lives does not bear good fruit.

But the fiery ordeal of our baptism into Christ is also a promise, and good news, as suggested by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1b-2)

The Spirit’s winnowing of us, that is, the holy winds as at creation blowing onto us to separate the chaff from our wheat, that which is unusable, unhelpful, sinful from that which bears fruit, this winnowing is ultimately gospel grace that generates and continues to renew our faith, our trust in a messianic judge who also is the compassionate, merciful God of love.

Which is to say, when it’s all said and done, as the prophet Isaiah assures us, the fire does not consume us, the fire does not damage us, but rather purifies us, justifies us by grace. Yes, this may hurt, but it’s for our healing and being made whole once again toward becoming and bearing the fruit of wholesome grain to feed a starving world.

And when it’s all said and done our fruit is ultimately sourced in the fruit that was born on the cross, our tree of life, a tree watered by the dirty torrents of the River Jordan when Jesus was baptized among the crowds, among us, when the Spirit descended in bodily form, for our salvation.

And with all of this, God is well pleased. Amen.

Week of the Second Sunday of Christmas

Evening Prayer via Zoom on the Day of Epiphany, January 6

Join us for Evening Prayer via Zoom on the Day of Epiphany this coming Thursday, January 6, at 7:00 pm. A Zoom link will be distributed via Constant Contact. Here is a link to the bulletin for the service that you may actively participate in worship – consider printing this out or having access to it electronically along with Evangelical Lutheran Worship if you have a copy at home.

pdfEpiphany Evening Prayer for January 6, 2022

“Still Planning to Worship in Person, Indoors”

Dear Friends in Christ:

In response to the skyrocketing number of Covid cases in our region because of the Omicron variant, our congregation’s Reopening Planning Group met last evening to discuss the status of our current routines for assembling in person for worship indoors.

Ours was a long and thoughtful discussion, but the group reached near consensus to continue to worship on Sundays in person indoors with some modifications to our current practice.

First, here’s elaborating word on the rationale to continue worshiping in person even amidst the current surge in Covid cases. In terms of the dynamics of the pandemic, we are not where we were a year ago. That is to say, with vaccinations and booster shots and the promise of anti-viral pharmaceutical treatments, most vaccinated people (which seems to include the vast majority of our congregation membership) are not as vulnerable to serious cases of Covid that require hospitalization and may end in death. Moreover, the Omicron variant seems to result in comparatively mild cases of Covid for most people, affecting mainly the upper respiratory system and less-so and less dangerously, the lungs. Epidemiologists are now recommending that we pay more attention to hospitalization rates and numbers of deaths with less attention paid to the sheer number of cases of Covid reported. Thus far, hospitalization and death rates in relation to the Omicron surge are not yet catastrophic. These realities informed our resolve to continue to worship in person on Sundays.

Another dynamic that led to the decision to continue to worship in person is that attendance on the Second Sunday of Christmas (January 2) was 55 when many of us expected attendance in the 20’s or 30’s given the current Omicron-related surge in case numbers in our area. That suggested to our Reopening Planning Group that there is a critical mass of Resurrection members resolved to claim and continue our current routine of Sunday worship in person. The numbers of those committed to worshiping in person are such that the theological principle of Sunday worship reflecting the comparative fullness of Christian community is sufficiently honored, at least in our estimation.

Clearly, whether or not one worships in person in church on Sundays has a lot to do with one’s tolerance for risk at this point in the pandemic. Which is to say, we wish to honor those committed to risking worship in person. But we also want to honor those whose tolerance for risk, dependent on any number of complicated variables, precludes their worshiping in person on Sundays at this time of the Omicron surge. That is to say, no one should feel pressured to attend worship on Sundays, even those who may have leadership responsibilities for worship, including ushers, altar guild members, assisting ministers, readers, choir members, and more. Please know that we respect and honor decisions to refrain from attending worship at this time, and we’ll make due with those who are present on Sundays to lead our worship, even as we seek new volunteers to step forward to assist in leadership. If you’re with us in person on Sundays, consider yourself invited to offer yourself for various leadership roles!

If you happen to be unvaccinated, we strongly suggest getting vaccinated. If you have not yet had a booster shot, we encourage you to get one if you are eligible. Doing so indicates your commitment to the common good. If your moral discernment has led you not to be vaccinated, you may wish to refrain from public worship in person at this time, again, to honor the wider common good.

For those who must refrain from worshiping in person at this time, the livestreaming of our services remains an option (though there will be occasion on some future Sundays when we may not have the personnel to attend to the livestreaming needs). If you are in need of pursuing the livestreaming option, we ask that you at home participate as fully as possible in the worship, reading and singing the assembly’s responses, and not just watch a video.

So, that’s a summary of the rationale for continuing to worship in person at this time. Please know that the Reopening Planning Group will continue to monitor the most current news about the pandemic. We are poised to modify our responses and practices according to our understandings of the most current realities on the ground.

Here now is a summary of what will be our modified approaches to worshiping in person on Sundays:

Masks are still required. Moreover, we ask that you wear an N95 mask or double-mask with a cloth mask atop a surgical mask.

Please be mindful of the occasions when you need to remove your mask, especially during Communion, limiting the length of time that the mask is off. For example, you may consider receiving the bread and then the wine only to consume both with mask off when you step aside from the Communion ministers.

Physical distancing remains in effect. In fact, you’ll note that every other pew is again roped off to promote appropriate distancing. Please be especially mindful of maintaining space between each other.

Singing will largely be limited to the hymns for the time being.

Alas, coffee hour in the fellowship hall is suspended for the time being. While it is wonderful to socialize with each other, that has been the time when interaction has been physically closest and masks have been off when eating and drinking, a particularly risky combination. When the weather becomes more accommodating, we may consider having coffee outdoors.

We are hopeful that all of these modifications to our practice will be short-lived, as medical experts are at this point predicting the Omicron surge may reach its peak in mid-January, tapering off after that point. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, may God in Christ continue to lead us in ways faithful in this challenging season in the power of the Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Second Sunday of Christmas, John 1:1-18

Our Christmas worship thus far has featured the stories from Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus and then also the narrative of Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem at age 12. All of this has been in keeping with the character of Luke’s gospel, which promised to offer an orderly account of the events of Jesus’ life.

Today we turn from a more empirical accounting of events of Jesus’ birth and childhood to a more theological interpretation of these events featured in the prologue to John’s Gospel. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Jesus was and is in John’s understanding the very embodiments of God’s word which existed already and was part of the whole world’s coming into being at creation – this is admittedly a great deal more abstract than a baby in a mother’s arms.

But the point is that in these latter years of this thus-far two-thousand-year epoch, the eternal word of God came into this world of God’s creation to become one us in the fullness of both humanity and divinity.

All of this happened in and for this world. What were the characteristics and conditions of this world into which the word of God entered in the flesh?

According to Jeremiah in today’s first reading, the world that the prophet addressed was one characterized by exile in which there was much weeping and mourning and sorrow, stumbling along crooked paths. People were scattered. There was much languishing.

That’s the language the prophet Jeremiah employed to describe the condition of the exile of God’s people. But that chosen language also describes the condition of the world in which we find ourselves.

Of all the descriptive words, I am most drawn to the theme of languishing. Much has been written about this state of being during these pandemic days as we soon enter into the third year of this global upheaval, made still more intense and acute by the Omicron variant of the virus.

Languishing, according to those who have written about it, is not a state of diagnosable depression strictly speaking. And it certainly is not one of thriving or flourishing. Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term languishing as the opposite of flourishing. Languishing is characterized by apathy, restlessness, feeling unsettled, or having a lack of interest in life and activities that used to bring joy. Stagnation, monotony, and emptiness also describe languishing. Languishing sounds quite similar to ennui.

The Word who is Jesus Christ enters our languishing world to pitch a tent with us.

And yet, we may not even recognize this good and holy word, nor believe it. Indeed, the gospel writer John in today’s passage suggests the world into which God’s word was sent to become flesh did not know that word. And many did not accept the word. It was a world of shadows and night, bereft of the benefits of the light the word brought.

So, too, in the world of our day, as we languish in night’s shadows often without recognizing the ongoing, eternal word among us, failing thus to trust that word.

Even so, God’s word breaks into this world with good news, a salutary message, a gospel that makes for flourishing, the opposite of languishing.

Listen to the language of today’s scriptural readings that describe the nature of God’s intervention in this world by way of both the prophetic word and the divine word that became flesh.

“With consolations I will lead them back,” we hear in the reading from Jeremiah. The prophet continues speaking the word of the Lord: “I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.” “They shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” “Their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness instead of sorrow.” Even the priests will have their fill of fatness “and my people shall be satisfied with God’s bounty.”

That is not the language of diminishment and languishing. Rather, the opposite, again, that of flourishing. These are words of promise and return from exile.

Then listen to the language from Ephesians in today’s second reading. Let these words wash over you, we who live in a needy, diminished, languishing world: We are promised every spiritual blessing; are destined for adoption; and all of this according to God’s good pleasure and will, glorious grace, freely bestowed; with riches of grace lavished on us; occurring in the fullness of time, God gathering up all things in Christ; accomplishing all things according to divine counsel and will. (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14)

Likewise, John’s gospel offers language of flourishing and thriving beyond languishing. The word that takes flesh is full of grace and truth. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” “[And] to all who received [the word made flesh] who believe in his name, he has given power to become children of God” born of the will of God.

These are lovely, wonderful words. But what difference do these good messages concerning God’s good, fleshly word make? Has the world really changed since the word became flesh two millennia ago? What we know of and experience in the world is more in keeping with the prevalence and persistence of exiled languishing.

Perhaps the word becoming flesh is less about changing the world and more about introducing or revealing realities in this world that we cannot otherwise see.

The power and significance of God’s word is perhaps that this word guides us to perceive reality that our unbelief prevents us from seeing. The coming of God’s prophetic word and the word becoming flesh make for hermeneutic shifts giving us the eyes of faith to see reality as it really is from God’s perspective.

It’s the same world, but we come to see realities through faith that were otherwise hidden in our languishing.

Maybe we can say that it’s a matter of seeing is believing and then also believing is seeing.

Seeing Christ, we perceive God, and then come in faith to see how God sees. That makes all the difference. Or as John reports: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”

Consider our circumstances in Christian assembly here in this place. Water in the font is just that – water – in the shadows of the world’s darkness. But by word and the Spirit in faith, such water is integral to our becoming God’s children.

From the perspective of the world’s shadows in unbelief, words are mere words. From the perspective of faith, words accomplish what God intends in proclamation and in absolution, making us forgiven children of God.

From a merely worldly perspective, the bread we eat and the wine we drink at this table are just bread and wine. In faith, we apprehend that our sacramental meal contains the fullness of Christ’s presence.

And this change of perspective in seeing scared flourishing amidst languished diminishment can indeed make for real change in a real world when we become God’s word in deed in loving service to neighbors in need.

If the word was at the beginning in creation, that word is likewise living and active in creative ways in our own time, now through us – once again, God’s work, our hands.

To get a sense of how Christian perspective has changed the world, as a case in point, consider the radical idea of God’s word becoming flesh, central to Christian thinking. This theological affirmation introduced an equalizing dynamic in the world of ancient hierarchies such that we have come to affirm the sacredness of all persons, which was not the case in ancient thinking. We take it for granted that all are created equal. But this basic affirmation arguably has roots in basic Christian understanding of God becoming one of us in Christ.

In the word, dwelling with the word, we become the realities to which the word points, which the word signifies. This is yet another gift to all of creation at Christmas.

And all of this makes all the difference for the world into which the word became flesh. Thanks be to God. Amen.

First Sunday of Christmas C, Luke 2:41-52

Just yesterday we were celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. Today, at least according to our appointed lectionary readings, Jesus is already 12 years old. These kids, they do grow up quickly!

The story of the boy Jesus in the temple is the only account in the scriptures of Jesus’ childhood. This episode also conveys in striking ways Jesus’ humanity and that of his parents, Mary and Joseph.

As we heard in Luke’s gospel, Jesus stayed behind after the customary family trip to Jerusalem to observe Passover and he found his way to the temple where he engaged and was engaged by the teachers there.

Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was among family members heading back home. Then, to their shock, they discovered that Jesus was missing. Mary and Joseph headed back to Jerusalem and when they found Jesus, they had a poignant, but typically human encounter with their son. Mary said to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Jesus is 12. He’s an adolescent. And if we take his humanity seriously, and we must if we are to be faithful to our theological affirmation of the fullness of his humanity alongside his divinity, Jesus engages in some very normal behavior revealing self-differentiation from his parents.

Jesus said, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

This response baffled his parents: “they did not understand what he said to them.” Indeed, sometimes we simply do not understand our children. But differentiating from our parents is a completely normal and expected part of growing up.

Like all human children, Jesus was in formation to become an adult. Adolescence is that rocky road between childhood and emergent adulthood when hormones rage within us.

Jesus at 12 also knew the tumult of this period of life – again, we must acknowledge that if we take seriously Jesus’ humanity. To put it plainly, he was going through puberty. Maybe you’ve never heard a pastor acknowledge that about Jesus in a sermon before!

A crucial element of this rough and tumble of maturation to adulthood is to claim and be claimed by our callings to become who we are meant to be. And part of this involves separation from parents. It’s just the way things are for us human beings. All of us go through it. Jesus did, too.

Like the boy Samuel in today’s first reading, Jesus was being prepared for what lay before him when he took up the mantle of his public ministry at about age 30.

But here’s the thing about human parenthood: we don’t always want to let go of our children and our own particular visions of what we want them to become. Martin Luther’s dad wanted him to become a lawyer. Instead, Luther became an Augustinian Friar and studied Old Testament. Most of us can tell such stories.

Parents can hold on too tightly, though, often trying to live through their children, maybe trying to redeem themselves in their children’s achievements. The old sinful Adam finds its ways even into our attempts at parenting.

The long and the short of it is that the rough and tumble of formation toward what we will become is indeed a difficult road for children and for their parents.

It was true for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It’s true for us.

But here’s the good news: God is not absent from all of this. Indeed, we Lutherans affirm that God has a vocation, a calling, for each and every one of us.

This was certainly true in Jesus’ case. Mary and Joseph were getting major indications of this all along. According to Matthew, an angel visited Joseph in a dream telling him that Jesus to be born of Mary would redeem people from their sins. Gabriel visited Mary to announce the great things that would become of Jesus. The shepherds, too, reported the good news of great joy of the angels’ message to Mary. All of this served to reveal God’s vocation for Jesus, God’s only Son.

But it’s not just Jesus who has a divine call. Again, according to Martin Luther, God calls each of us. That’s a centerpiece of our Lutheran heritage. God has a vocation for all people lovingly to serve neighbors in need in many and various ways according to who they are in their unique configurations of gifts differing.

When we are drawn to embrace the particularity and uniqueness of holy vocations, especially those of our children, then we can begin to let go of our parental needs to control and we can more willingly abide in the mystery of the unfolding of our children’s lives.

Mary certainly came to this kind of embrace. Luke records that she more than once “treasured all these things in her heart,” in the case of today’s reading, Jesus’ time in the temple with the teachers. With this Luke reports that Jesus “increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor,” with Jesus’ calling unfolding according to God’s intent.

But even when Mary was treasuring all of this in her heart, this did not make the road any easier to travel. For when Jesus was presented in the temple years earlier than his time with the teachers at age 12, the old seer Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the intentions of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:24-35)

The sword piercing the soul is perhaps hinted at even in the reading for today when Jesus was 12 in the temple.

Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover – a foreshadowing, perhaps, of when Jesus, decades later, would keep the Passover with his disciples to inaugurate his own Passion, ushering in for us the paschal mysteries, his and our Passover from death to new, resurrected life, a set of events that most definitely pierced Mary’s soul.

And then there’s the reference in today’s gospel passage where Luke chooses language that also points us to Jesus’ Passion and ultimately the resurrection: “After three days [Joseph and Mary] found Jesus in the temple.” After three days. After three days, he rose again, his resurrected body becoming a new temple for us all. Yet another revelation of what would become of Jesus according to divine intent.

Thus, even on the First Sunday of Christmas during these twelve full days of celebration and feasting we have a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the telos, the culmination and fulfillment of Jesus’ divine and human vocation, his calling from God, the one whom he calls Father.

This Jesus, he who died, he who was raised by God, also forms us in our life-long callings – our children and ourselves – all of this undertaken in our communal life as Christians.

Even as Samuel wore the little robe that his mother made for him each year, we, too, are clothed with Christ’s love, as Paul suggests in our second reading for today. We are clothed with the garment given to us when still wet from our baptisms into Christ.

Thus, in Christian community, we, the chosen ones, holy and beloved, are clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” for the sake of bearing with one another and forgiving each other, the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts.

All of this made possible by our dwelling richly with the word of Christ in our worshipful and studied gatherings as we teach and admonish each other in wisdom and with gratitude as we “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God, ever giving thanks to God, the Father, through Christ. (cf. Colossians 3:12-17).

And all of this in service of our God-given callings lovingly to serve our neighbors in need in and for the sake of the world. Amen.

 

 

Christmas Eve, Luke 2:1-20

Think of it. Can you imagine the Christmas story without the creche and its figurines – Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in the manger, the animals in the barn because there was no room for them at the inn, the shepherds, the angels, the star of Bethlehem?

These are constitutive elements of the story recorded in Luke’s Gospel. They have been at the heart of Sunday School Christmas pageants for generations. [Even here today, the features of our beloved biblical Christmas story were made clear when our children lovingly placed the figurines in their proper places in the manger scene at the altar].

Moreover, the characters and configurations our manger scenes appear in the lyrics of so many of our beloved Christmas Carols – “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “What Child is This.”

I’m here to tell you this night that none of the features of the Christmas story would have been possible without the interruptions of a government bureaucracy in Mary and Joseph’s life. It’s true, a bureaucratic mandate made it all possible. Remember how the story in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

So, it was a government directive for a census that made possible all of the elements of our beloved Christmas story. If a registration, a census, had not been ordered, then Mary and Joseph would have had no reason to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem. Then there would have been no occasion for there to be no room in the inn. And no stable and no manager and no animals and no shepherds and no angels.

Our beloved Christmas story was made possible by a government directive. Imagine that! How profane. How devoid, seemingly, of the holy. But also how incredibly significant.

All of this reveals the radical contingency of our lives and our circumstances. So much of our life experience is dictated by circumstances beyond our control. And so much occurs by seeming happenstance.

I like to tell the story to my son, Nathan, that he and I would not exist if it were not for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad which had a steam locomotive maintenance facility where I grew up. My mother travelled from South Dakota to live in my Illinois hometown because one of her sisters was married to a steam locomotive mechanic who was transferred to work in Monmouth, Illinois. My mother went to live with them, and when my dad came home from WWII, he fell in love with the pretty young blonde from South Dakota who was singing in the choir of the Lutheran Church. The rest is history, and here I am. Without the railroad job of my Uncle Soren, I would not exist as who I am today, nor would my son.

You all can tell similar stories. And I encourage you to do so, for it’s a compelling exercise.

The radical contingencies our lives and circumstances can be frightening. It seems so random. If one little piece is out of place, our lives, who we are, would be entirely different, or we might not be at all.

But here’s the thing that makes all the difference: God enters into the particularities and peculiarities of human history, our stories, to advance the divine will.

So be it that all of the elements of the Christmas story which we hold dear came about because of a governmental bureaucratic decision about taking a census. God used all of that for sacred purpose, and when it’s all said and done, we would not have it any other way. Isn’t that right?

What otherwise seems random and beyond our control is used by God for God’s purposes, very much under God’s guidance and control.

This is a significant feature of the sacred mystery in the story which treasure and which we, like Mary, ponder in our hearts on this holy day.

Here’s another mystery. The baby Jesus grew to be the one who was lifted high on the tree of the cross for our salvation. His being put on the cross was the result of yet another governmental directive, an order of execution. And yet, God made good of that, too, by raising Jesus from the dead for the life of the world.

In all of the changes and chances of life, the message is that we cannot escape God’s good and gracious will for us and for all of humanity.

That’s one of the central meanings of the sacred story which we celebrate at Christmas and in all of our Christian stories. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom on Wednesday, December 22

Join us for Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom this coming Wednesday, December 22, at 7:00 pm when Grant Aldonas will offer reflections on hopefulness. A Zoom link will be distributed via Constant Contact. The bulletin is below. Consider printing this out or having access to it electronically along with Evangelical Lutheran Worship if you have a copy at home

pdfAdvent 4 Evening Prayer for December 22, 2021

“Luther and the Meanings of Christmas”

Dear Friends in Christ:

Recently in these midweek messages, I’ve been drawn to returning to Martin Luther to help shed light on the varied meanings of Advent. Now our focus is on Christmas as we endeavor to distill reasons for the season faithful to our inherited biblical and theological traditions. So, here comes more Luther. Returning to the theological charisms of Luther in these messages to reveal meanings of the Christ event is one of the ways I am living into one of our shared visions for mission in our congregation, and that is to proclaim gospel messages in unashamedly Lutheran accents intelligible to our 21st Century context.

We’ve explored Luther on the “your kingdom come” petition of the Lord’s Prayer in relation to Advent. And we’ve looked again at Luther on Mary, with particular attention to the Hail Mary. So, what does Luther say about Christmas? What follows are passages from some of Luther’s sermons which he preached on Christmas. After each passage, I’ll offer observations and elaborations.

In a Christmas sermon, Luther proclaimed: “When they [Mary and Joseph] arrived at Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant and despised…. No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable. God lets the large houses and costly apartments remain empty, lets their inhabitants eat, drink, and be merry; but this comfort and treasure are hidden from them. O what a dark night this was for Bethlehem, that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows utter disregard for what the world is, has, or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has, and does.” (Sermons for Advent and Christmas Day, Martin Luther, Hendrickson, 2017, p. 94)

This passage from one of Luther’s Christmas sermons reveals his characteristic “theology from below,” which calls us to look for God’s activity in ordinary places and people and occasions where, in whom, and when we least expect divine activity, at least from common human understandings. This “theology from below” – and also Luther’s “theology of the cross” – contrast with “theologies of glory” which direct attention to the more extraordinary and spectacular. In short, Luther might say that if you want to see God most active, look where you least expect the sacred, namely, that which and those who seem to be most humble, if not to say, apparently godforsaken.

When Luther uses the word “world” in this sermon passage, he is using the term in the sense of John’s Gospel to refer to ways of thinking and ordering human society which are antithetical to divine ways and wisdom. It’s not that Luther is constructing a “heavenly holiness up there” and “profane down here” never the twain shall meet kind of reality. Not at all. Luther is very much interested in affirming God’s work in the thick of earthly people and things right down here in the muck and mire of places like a stable with all its animals and feed and even animal waste. God in Christ is deeply present and finds a home in the child, God’s very word made flesh, in the feeding trough which we call the manger. That’s what the incarnation of our Lord at Christmas is all about, Emmanuel, God with us in the apparently lowliest of places and people, perhaps especially those most marginalized and oppressed.

Here’s another sermonic Luther passage for Christmas: “We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if they had themselves been born of Mary as was Christ.” (ibid., 98)

That God deigns to take human flesh in Jesus, son of Mary, son of God, and to be born in the way that all human babies are born has the effect of sacralizing all human birth, all human beings as children of God, created in God’s image. This view is consistent with the happy exchange articulated in Luther’s treatise, “Freedom of a Christian,” where Luther observes that in faith all that Christ is and all that Christ offers becomes ours in a kind of grace-full, nuptial exchange, the two becoming one shared flesh – even as Christ takes on everything that is human. Such a happy exchange also finds expression in Jesus’ birth to Mary, which makes holy, not by our merit, but by Christ’s, our human ways, including natural childbirth. Thus, by grace, we rejoice, even as Mary and Joseph rejoiced, pondering all these wonders in our hearts during the Christmas holy days.

This view that sacralizes, makes holy, human ways has enormous implications for Christian ethics in Lutheran accents. Which is to say, because Christ, born of Mary, makes us and our human ways holy, we are called to acknowledge and honor the holiness of all people, indeed, all creation, even and perhaps especially those most vulnerable to abuse and oppression, those most forsaken, those most despised.

Here’s yet another Luther quote from a Christmas sermon: “That there were shepherds, means that no one is to hear the Gospel for themselves alone, but everyone is to tell it to others who are not acquainted with it. For they who believe for themselves have enough and should endeavor to bring others to such faith and knowledge, so that they may be shepherds of others, to wait upon and lead them into the pasture of the Gospel in this world, during the nighttime of this earthly life.” (ibid., 106)

Luther suggests in this passage that proclamation of the gospel is a community effort, it’s not the sole domain of the heavenly angels. Indeed, the common shepherd folk share in the announcement of good news for all people that a savior is born to us. Which is to say, preaching the gospel is not just the responsibility of the pastors, the preachers, specially called to that ministry. Indeed, all of God’s people share in gospel proclamation – by standing to proclaim God’s word in song through the hymns of the day, in mutual conversation and consolation with siblings in faith, and by good deeds done in loving service of our neighbors. For when it’s all said and done, we are all beggars showing each other where bread can be found. In short, good news is meant to be proclaimed and shared in many and various ways by many and various people.

A final Luther Christmas sermon quote: “Thus Christ has always been the Life and Light, even before his birth, from the beginning, and will ever remain so to the end. He shines at all times in all creatures, in the holy Scriptures, through his saints, prophets, and ministers, in his word and works; and he has never ceased to shine.” (ibid., 133)

Here Luther makes reference to the prologue to John’s gospel which is featured as a gospel reading for Christmas Day – “In the beginning was the Word…” (cf. John 1:1-18). What is significant here, again in keeping with the sacralization that occurs in creation because of the incarnation of Christ at Christmas and for all time, is that the Light and Life of Christ are not limited to Jesus, but can be identified in all creatures (not just humans!), in the pages of the Bible, in the witness of all saints and prophets and ministers (not just those ordained!), all giving expression to Christ in word and deeds, God’s work, our hands. So it is that the Christly light of Christmas shines during these holy days, and always and forever.

With these hopeful, encouraging, and grace-filled thoughts in mind, may you all have blessed Christmas holy days indeed!

To keep some of the sabbath of these days, there will not be a midweek message from me during the week between Christmas and New Year’s when I’ll be spending time with my son and our family in North Carolina and Georgia.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – in Christ Jesus, God’s word made flesh,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:39-45

We live in an age seemingly dictated by the adages “bigger is better” and “more is always desirable.”

This all comes into bold relief during the Christmas holiday season when our focus turns to consumer spending inspired by long-standing traditions of holiday gift giving.

A national retail trade association suggests that holiday retail spending this year may exceed 850 billion dollars, which apparently tops the Pentagon’s budget by somewhere around 100 billion dollars.

That’s a lot of stuff. The pandemic has exacerbated some of this. In the absence of spending on services, people staying home are buying more consumer goods and products which has put pressure on international shipping logistics and has contributed to the highest inflation rates that we’ve seen in decades.

All of this consumer spending on retail goods contributes to higher quality of life in some respects, but it also creates enormous burdens. There are the personal burdens of responding to loved ones’ expectations of receiving particular gifts, goaded by advertisements and pressures to “keep up with the Joneses.” And then there are burdens on the environment – consumer by-products create enormous amounts of waste, especially plastics which don’t easily decompose.

There’s no real need to belabor these points about our society’s acquisitive energies to have more and more. Except to say that the Christian faith tradition, as evidenced in today’s readings, offers a very different view than that encapsulated by “bigger and more are better.”

In fact, the witness I see in our readings for today suggests the opposite, that less is more, and little is great and very holy indeed.

The prophet Micah proclaims God’s word in our first reading for today, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me the one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)

So it is that we sing, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! …yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Then the author of Hebrews in today’s second reading focuses on the immense significance of one body being offered once and for all for the sins and burdens of the whole world for all time. The Hebrews author concludes, “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)

Once again, the witness here is “less is more.” A single offering of Christ’s body does far more than centuries of countless sacrifices and burnt offerings.

Then there’s the witness of today’s gospel reading featuring the visit of Mary to Elizabeth who lived in a Judean town in the hill country, a little rural place of little worldly significance compared to the holy city of Jerusalem or of Rome, the imperial capital.

At the time of Mary’s visit, Elizabeth was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptizer. Luke reports that Elizabeth said that when Mary greeted her, the tiny little child in her belly leaped for joy.

Yet again, less is more, little is great, even the tiny movements hidden inside Elizabeth’s womb.

Then there’s Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which served as today’s Psalmody. Mary sings that God has “looked with favor on [her], a lowly servant.” Moreover, Mary sings that “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And “God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Still more evidence the reversals that come with the logic of God’s dominion, that less is more, little is great, small is holy, all in contradistinction to the dominant values of our wider society, a counter-cultural but grace filled witness against the burdens of “more and bigger are better.”

And there’s more to be said about less is more.

The cross of Christ is at first glance an inconsequential thing, a common form of execution in ancient Rome. Yet, look at what God did to make the cross the tree of life for the salvation of all people.

The empty tomb is an understated reality, but from it emerged resurrected new life that has changed everything.
Turning to our own routines here in this place, a small quantity of water poured over us at the font is akin to an ordinary bath. Yet we come out from the font a bit wet but as new creations in Christ, as adopted children of God.

Then there’s the tiny bit of bread and sip of wine at this holy table, a tiny meal that contains the full banquet of everything that Christ has to offer for our salvation.

Likewise in our assemblies here at Resurrection Church, fewer than one hundred people usually, small by megachurch standards – yet here, too, is the fullness of Christ in word and sacrament.

You see, again and again, Christian values and Christian practice extol the greatness of the small. Less is more. The ordinary is extraordinary.

That’s all good news in a world increasingly incapable of delivering on the seductive illusion that bigger and more are better.

And the Christian witness restores our faith not just in God but in ourselves, that we, in our seeming insignificance are also sacred vessels used by God in ordinary ways for sacred, extraordinary ends.

So it is that we leave this place trusting that God will use our small efforts to advance the heavenly, eternal dominion. Think of just this one example in our life together where a little goes a long ways: your offerings translate into gifts that benefit those in need in our local community and extend across the entire globe where Lutherans embody the saying, “God’s work, our hands.”

Once we see and embrace that “less is more,” that the tiny and modest contains God’s greatness, we begin to see more and more examples of the truth of such divine realities.

Thus, in this holy season, we embody in our ministry and mission the wisdom contained in the final stanza of today’s Hymn of the Day: “We are called to ponder mystery and await the coming Christ, to embody God’s compassion for each fragile human life. God is with us in our longing to bring healing to the earth, while we watch with joy and wonder for the promised Savior’s birth.” (ELW 258, “Unexpected and Mysterious, text by J. Lindholm)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Week of the Third Sunday of Advent

Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom on Wednesday, December 15

Join us for Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom this coming Wednesday, December 15, at 7:00 pm when Deacon Mitzi Budde will offer reflections on hopefulness. A Zoom link will be distributed via Constant Contact. The bulletin is below. Consider printing this out or having access to it electronically along with Evangelical Lutheran Worship if you have a copy at home

pdfAdvent 3 Evening Prayer for December 15, 2021

“In Advent, When Our Eyes are Turned to Mary: Luther on ‘The Hail Mary’”

Dear Friends in Christ:

As the church’s season of Advent deepens and draws closer to Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, the appointed lectionary passages turn our attention from John the Baptizer to Mother Mary, both of whom ultimately point us to Christ. This coming Sunday’s Psalmody on the Fourth Sunday of Advent features the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, and the gospel reading recounts the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptizer. It’s in the exchange between Mary and Elizabeth where we see part of the biblical foundation for the Hail Mary, long a popular devotional prayer especially for Roman Catholics in the Christian West. When Mary appeared at her house, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42).

Here is the whole text of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The first phrases of the Hail Mary derive from the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, when the angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) The second part of the Hail Mary, as stated above, comes from the exchange between Elizabeth and Mary. The third section of the Hail Mary consists of the request for Mary’s intercession for us.

Lutherans generally don’t have a strong devotion to Mary. Thus, Lutherans typically, in my experience, don’t say the Hail Mary. Indeed, much of the Lutheran reforming impulse from five hundred years ago involved the simplification of Christian piety and practice, stripping away layer upon layer of Medieval complexities, including praying to saints for their intercession – all of this for the sake of revealing the centrality of Christ, the essential embodiment of God’s mercy and grace. Thus, Lutherans, with laser focus on Christ, also tend to minimize devotion to Mary.

That said, Luther and Lutherans still hold the mother of Jesus in high regard as theotokos, or God bearer, whose willing yes to God at the Annunciation paved the way for God to accomplish the incarnation, the word of God made flesh in Jesus, Mary’s son, God’s son.

So, at this point in Advent when we focus on Mary beginning this coming Sunday, let’s explore a bit more about what Luther had to say about Mary with particular attention to the Hail Mary. Because of its popularity in the common piety of his day, Luther includes elaboration on the Hail Mary in his Little Prayer Book in which he sought to outline and comment on simple, essential Christian faith practices. That Luther includes the Hail Mary may suggest a place for this devotion in Christian practice, but with evangelical understandings. Here’s an excerpt from Luther’s Little Prayer book on the Hail Mary:

“Let not our hearts cling to [Mary] in faith, but through her penetrate to Christ and to God himself. Thus what the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you [Luke 1:28]; blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your body, Jesus Christ. Amen.’ You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor, just as in the first words of the Lord’s Prayer there is also no prayer but rather praise and glory to God, that he is our Father and is in heaven. Therefore we should make the Hail Mary neither a prayer nor an invocation because it is improper for us to interpret the words beyond the meaning given them by the Holy Spirit. But there are two things we can do. First, we can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we can add a wish that everyone may know and respect her [as one blessed by God].” (Martin Luther, “Little Prayer Book,” in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, Volume 4, Mary Jane Haemig, ed., Fortress Press 2016, p. 192-3)

First off, notice that in Luther’s articulation of the Hail Mary he does not include the final statements, the request for Mary’s prayerful intercession for us – “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Indeed, Luther does not see the Hail Mary as a prayer per se, but an expression of praise of God. Lutherans understand that we pray to God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, praying to Mary would not make sense in a Lutheran understanding of prayer.

A second point of significance in Luther’s understanding of the Hail Mary is that Luther’s omission of the request for Mary’s intercession means that what is retained in this devotion are only the biblical phrases found in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Here we see evidence of the faithfulness of Luther to what would become one of the Reformation’s rallying cries, sola scriptura, that is, scripture alone. Our prayer needs no other additions than what is firmly rooted in God’s word.

Moreover, Luther’s elaboration on the Hail Mary makes clear his perspective – one which contemporary Lutherans still uphold – that Mary’s significance consists of what God does through Mary via the Spirit as a willing vessel in making possible the birth of the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In this way, Mary, like all the saints, embodies a kind of transparency that points beyond herself to Jesus Christ. Mary is iconic in ways that allow us to see Christ. She is not an end in herself, but the willing servant of the Most High to whom her life witnesses and points. In the beginning and in the end, therefore, it’s all about Christ.

That said, in Advent devotion, we can, according to Luther, marvel at God’s grace given to the likes of Mary and by extension to us, thus honoring Mary, and all of God’s children, as vessels and servants of the merciful work of God who in Christ Jesus becomes Emmanuel, God with us, our sibling, our savior.

God in Christ bless you on your journey through the coming holy days in the power of the Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Third Sunday of Advent, Luke 3:17-18

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, has been known as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete, a Latin word, is an exhortation to rejoice. So, Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing. This was significant in liturgical practice when Advent had a more penitential quality, more like Lent. In former practice, Advent was also a season for fasting and restraint. Except that on the Third Sunday, the more solemn was set aside briefly for rejoicing.

You may remember that the color for the season of Advent used to be purple, like Lent. And some at Resurrection have recalled to me the use of three purple candles for the Advent wreath, and one pink one, the pink being for Gaudete Sunday.

In current liturgical practice and understanding, Advent is less a season for penitence and more a season for hopefulness – hence the color of blue for this season, including the four Advent candles, blue being associated with hopefulness. Some of you have shared with me how much you like Advent blue.

All of this said, by way of liturgical history lesson, themes of rejoicing are retained in the lectionary appointed readings for today. So it is that we hear from the prophet Zephaniah in today’s first reading, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies.” (Zephaniah 3:14-15a) And so the prophet continues with the good news of the promise of restoration for God’s people, all causes for rejoicing to be sure.

Then also, in today’s second reading, we hear from Paul, writing from prison, who exhorts the church at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5)

Then, in an abrupt reversal of mood, we have John the Baptizer remembered by Luke as having said to the crowds gathered about him for baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-8a, 9)

Where’s the rejoicing in that on Gaudete Sunday, a day for rejoicing? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Can you imagine if I began a sermon addressing you all as a brood of vipers? After such a sermon’s beginning, Council President, Glen Mason, might be directed by you all to call the Bishop’s office to have a word with her about your pastor’s behavior in the pulpit….
Luke concludes the passage appointed for today with these words: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18) What’s good about the news containing words that threaten judgment? Again, what’s there to rejoice at in that?

Well, there’s quite a lot of cause for rejoicing, actually, if we take a closer look at the passage. John’s threat of judgment provoked the crowds to ask John, “What then should we do?”

Luke reports that John gave some very specific answers. People who are blessed to have two coats are instructed to share one with another who has no coat. Likewise, people who have plenty of food are instructed to share their food with the hungry who have no food. Tax collectors, reviled and hated in ancient days, were instructed by John to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for [them].” For ancient tax collectors could extract from people any amount they could get away with. To the soldiers, John said, “Don’t engage in extortion by threatening or falsely accusing people.” Moreover, soldiers should be satisfied with their wages and thus not to resort to plundering and pillaging to gain the spoils of war.

What we have here in Luke is John giving instruction to the crowds that served to even out the playing field, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah we heard invoked last Sunday describing John the Baptizer, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:4-6 and cf. Isaiah 40:3-5) John’s instructions serve to level the playing field for all.

This evening out, this restoration of balance, is good news indeed for those on the short ends of the sticks. Those in want will be clothed with warm clothing and have plenty to eat. And the victims of extorting tax collectors and pillaging soldiers will have their day of reckoning to be victims no more.

But when it’s all said and done, the restoration of balance, of commonwealth, is even good news for the rich, those who have more than enough, and the tax collectors and pillaging soldiers. For they, too, suffer from the systems of injustice in their own ways.

Isn’t true that underlying the greed that leads to injustices of hoarding, and pillaging, and extortion is a deep insecurity and fear? Surely such insecurities and fears are a burden which seeks release, a bondage and captivity that yearn for freedom.

Think about it. Even the rich, the tax collectors and soldiers followed John into the wilderness to hear his harsh proclamation and to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that John offered in the River Jordan.

They may have discerned that the prophet John the Baptizer had good news for them, too – otherwise, why would they have been attracted enough to head in the wilderness to hear the word of judgment and to gain baptismal release from the bondage to their sins?

So it is that a harsh word of law spoken can have its own dimensions of good news – or certainly lead to the good news, which is the gospel of grace and forgiveness and freedom for burdened sinners that leads to restoration of justice for all people.

Which includes all of us (though I am not moved to refer to you all as a brood of vipers!). Rich and poor alike, all of us are sinners, yes – and that very much includes me.

The crowds wondered about John the Baptizer, and whether or not he was the Messiah. Luke reports that John made things clear that he was not the Messiah: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Think of the baptism of Jesus’ own death and then his resurrection which we symbolize with the new fire at the Easter Vigil, a fire usually larger than we’re accustomed to in worship, a little bit out of control, that lights the Paschal Candle, an eternal light, unquenchable fire that burns in the shadows of our nights.

Then John reports that the coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Think of the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit entered the room and tongues as of flame descended on each of the apostles enabling and empowering them to proclaim in the languages of all the nations God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead.

Think of our own baptisms when after the water bath and anointing with oil and laying on of hands for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a lighted candle is given to the baptized reminding us of the unquenchable fire of the light of Christ in our lives.

Moreover, think of the baptismal life, our life of faith, as a life-long process of purgation when Christ through the Spirit working in word and sacraments in our assemblies burns our chaff and preserves the fruit of the wheat of our faith and good deeds for the sacred granaries.

This purgation is not about some people being damned and relegated to eternal, unquenchable fires and others being saved for God’s granaries in heaven. No, it’s that the old, sinful Adam in each of us is winnowed away by God’s grace in the Spirit over the course of a lifetime, even as our good fruit in the Spirit is made available to the world in our works of loving service, a granary for all people and all needs.

All of this is good news indeed!

As if we hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah echoing again in our graced, faith-filled lives: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, and has turned away your enemies. The Sovereign of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more…. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; the Lord will rejoice over you with gladness, and will renew you with love; the Lord will exult over you with oud singing as on a day of festival.” (Zephaniah 3:15, 17-18a)

And so it is that the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus,” (cf. Philippians 4:7) as we heard in today’s second reading.

So it is, rejoicing at the grace of God given in the good news, we leave this place with spirits uplifted to give coats to those who have none, and food to those who hunger, seeking justice and commonwealth in our wider society, restoring balance and well-being for all.

People of God, Gaudete, rejoice in Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:8)

Week of the Second Sunday of Advent

Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom on Wednesday, December 8

Join us for Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom this coming Wednesday, December 8, when Eileen Guenther will offer reflections on hopefulness. A Zoom link will be distributed via Constant Contact. The bulletin is below. Consider printing this out or having access to it electronically along with Evangelical Lutheran Worship if you have a copy at home:

pdfAdvent 2 Evening Prayer for December 8, 2021

“Especially for Advent, Luther on ‘Your Kingdom Come’”

Dear Friends in Christ:

As we continue our journey through Advent, one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer may stand out from the other petitions during this season of waiting for Christ’s coming. Namely, the petition, “your kingdom come.” During Advent, our focused attention is on the ways in which God’s reign in Christ comes to us. What does it mean for God’s kingdom, or reign, or dominion to come? What are the signs of such coming?

Martin Luther’s wisdom may offer insights that address our questions about the nature of the reign of Christ and its coming. In addition to his explanation to the petition, “your kingdom come,” in the Small Catechism, Luther elaborates helpfully on this petition in his Little Prayer Book which he compiled as an evangelical aid to basic Christian devotion focused on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer – for Luther the basic sources for having an understanding of the essentials of Christian faith. Luther’s elaborations on the meanings of “your kingdom come” help us in our Advent devotional life, particularly in this season of life in nation and world when the evidence of the coming of God’s reign in Christ may at first seem remote.

Here’s an excerpt from Luther’s Little Prayer book on the meanings of “your kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. Luther writes, prayerfully addressing God, “Protect us from unbelief, despair, and from boundless envy…. Deliver us from discord, war, and dissention, and let the virtue, peace, harmony, and the tranquility of your kingdom draw near. Help us that anger or other bitterness may not reign over us, but that by your grace, genuine kindness, loyalty, and every kind of friendliness, generosity, and gentleness may reign in us. Grant that inordinate sadness and depression may not prevail in us, but let joy and delight in your grace and mercy come over us. And finally may all sins be averted from us and, being filled with your grace and with all virtues and good deeds, may we become your kingdom so that in heart, feeling, and thought we may serve you with all our strength inwardly and outwardly, obediently serving your commandments and will, being governed by you alone and not following self-love, the flesh, the world, or the devil.” (Martin Luther, “Little Prayer Book,” in The Annotated Luther, Pastoral Writings, Volume 4, Mary Jane Haemig, ed., Fortress Press 2016, p. 186)

Look again at the specific words that Luther chooses in this brief passage lest we conclude that the presence or absence of God’s kingdom is a complete abstraction divorced from our more common experiences.

Luther suggests that the absence of God’s kingdom in Christ is marked by: unbelief, despair, boundless envy; discord, war, dissention; anger, bitterness; inordinate sadness and depression; sin, self-love, the flesh, the world, the devil.

In stark contrast, Luther concludes that God’s dominion in Christ comes and is characterized when these conditions prevail: virtue, peace, harmony, tranquility; genuine kindness, loyalty, friendliness, generosity, gentleness; joy and delight in divine grace and mercy; good deeds; being governed by God in Christ alone.

Luther’s listings remind me of Paul’s indications of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:16-26. Here are the dimensions of the fruit of the Spirit according to Paul: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a) Where such fruit of the Spirit is seen, we might conclude that Christ’s kingdom comes and reigns.

Paul’s listing of the works of the flesh – understood not simply or reductionistically as bodily activity, but as a whole orientation of the old, sinful Adam – is similar to Luther’s word choices which reveal the absence of God’s kingdom (cf. Galatians 5:19-21). In fact, I wonder if Luther had in mind Galatians 5 when he wrote his reflections on “your kingdom come” in the Little Prayer Book since the word choices are so similar.

Here’s what I find to be a remarkable moment in Luther’s reflections on “your kingdom come” – Luther suggests that WE become God’s kingdom when, governed by God’s mercy and grace alone, our lives, individually and in Christian community, reflect the qualities of God’s reign in word and deed. Think of it – Christ’s reign comes and is manifest in faithful Christian community, in its life and witness. Thus, God’s dominion in Christ is no ethereal, otherworldly abstraction, but one known in real world experience even now, if we but look closely enough. The church’s witness to Christ’s kingdom is usually quite imperfect and clouded by human sin and brokenness, but there are those occasions in our loving service and witness when the light of Christ’s love breaks through the shadows, revealing Christ’s reign.

Indeed, while there is much evidence of the absence of God’s reign in church and world, because events are so often marked by such qualities as unbelief, despair, boundless envy, discord, war, dissention, anger, bitterness, inordinate sadness and depression, sin, and self-love, there are also and at the same time faithful persons who and communities which embody qualities like virtue, peace, harmony, tranquility, genuine kindness, loyalty, friendliness, generosity, gentleness, joy and delight in divine grace and mercy. Christ’s reign comes when such qualities are manifest in our life together, a reality made possible by the gift of Christ himself, whose presence in word and sacraments inspires our faithful witness in the first place. Thanks be to God.

May our Advent wakefulness and watchfulness open our eyes to see the signs of God’s reign in our midst now, as we become God’s kingdom in Christ by grace alone, even as we await Christ’s more ultimate coming as we ever pray, “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.”

In hope and expectation in Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Second Sunday of Advent

The gospel writer, Luke, begins his work by stating his intent to “write an orderly account” of the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, “after investigating everything carefully from the very first” (cf. Luke 1:1-4).

We get a good sense of this careful attention to detail in today’s gospel reading from Luke. Luke wants us to know in no uncertain terms exactly when in world history John the Baptizer began his work: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”

These names and places and timelines mean little to us in our day, but all the detail makes the timeless theological point that God’s word comes to us through God’s appointed messengers at very particular times and specific places in human history. God’s word is no mere abstraction in the ether, but is part of parcel of the nitty gritty circumstances where we find ourselves.

What I am most drawn to in this listing from Luke is the particular place where the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah. God’s word came to John in the wilderness in the region around the Jordan River. Wilderness was the place.

I’ve had occasion to be in the wilderness areas named in various biblical accounts, including the region about the Jordan. They are some very forbidding places, with the exception of the verdant areas near the river itself.

The wilderness can be the place of temptation, as we know in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. And wilderness can be the place of scarcity, extremity, and danger, even if these places offer up vistas of austere physical beauty.

Here are some words that describe and characterize wilderness: uncultivated, uninhabited or neglected or abandoned areas. Untamed. Undomesticated. Inhospitable. Desecrated perhaps. Apparently Godforsaken. Or we might also say that wilderness is a place of lawlessness and disorder, at least from human perspectives. Think of the old tales of the Wild West in US history. Moreover, wilderness can be the place of exile, where people are marginalized, forgotten, abandoned.

Wilderness is often typically understood as a place of physical geography. But wilderness can also be more metaphorical like a mental state that we experience within ourselves. Or wilderness can be social, as in the lonely crowd.

The bottom line is that on first glance, there is nothing particularly inviting or hospitable about places or states of wilderness. In short, wilderness may be those places or conditions or circumstances in which we experience the harsh burdens and suffering of our lives.

I daresay, we are living in a kind of wilderness as the pandemic persists and new fears about the omicron variant make us wonder if this particular wilderness journey will ever end. And each of us can name other ways in which we experience wilderness – literally, metaphorically, socially, and more.

And yet, the biblical witness is unmistakable: the wilderness in not ultimately Godforsaken. In fact, wilderness can be the place of intense divine encounter. Think of Moses called to the mountaintop in the Sinai wilderness to receive the Law. Yes, think of the holy angels ministering to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation.

And of course, we turn our attention on the Second Sunday of Advent to John the Baptizer in the wilderness around the Jordan where he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and fulfilled in his presence, proclamation, and baptizing the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of the Lord.’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John reportedly dressed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He was a wild man in a wilderness proclaiming a wild message about valleys being filled and mountains and hills being brought down to size and straightening out the crooked and smoothing out the rough places. In short, the message is about God upending business as usual in ways that even things out, in ways that restore balance, but in doing so also turn the world upside down.

We hear language like this as well in today’s first reading from Malachi, about God’s messenger being like a “refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” refining and purifying silver and gold (cf. Malachi 3:2-3).

The result of such proclamation is that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Let’s turn our gaze now to Christ, to whom John the Baptizer points. In Christ, all flesh, all peoples, all nations ultimately see God’s salvation in the wilderness, the wild place, that is the cross and the empty tomb. That’s the outcome of the story.

But at the beginning of the story, all flesh sees the salvation of God in the wilderness around the Jordan where John was baptizing and where John baptized Jesus and the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in bodily form like a dove (cf. Luke 3:21-22).

And now turning to the places of our assembly in these latter days, all flesh sees God’s salvation in the wilderness of our lives when we, too, are washed in baptismal waters with the word and Spirit descending on us as well.

And there’s more, of course, in God’s gracious abundance in the places of wilderness scarcity in our lives. The wilderness of wandering on the part of the people of Israel was the place where manna was given to the people who hungered for bread.

Such manna, such bread from heaven, Jesus himself being the bread of life, is rained down on us in our wilderness journeys right here at this table when we might otherwise be given to complaint and lament, and we find that the eucharistic bread of life is enough for our journeys.

And God’s word comes to us right here in our assemblies in wilderness conditions and circumstances just as the word came to John the Baptist around the Jordan, and just as the word came to Jesus in the wilderness of temptation when Jesus remembered the words of scripture to combat the attacks of Satan, the deceiver.

Thus, in many and various ways, God finds us in our places and circumstances and states of wilderness. Wilderness is, thus, not godforsaken at all. Thanks be to God.

God’s finding us when we are gathered around word and sacraments turns our wilderness worlds upside down bringing hospitality to inhospitable regions, the sacred dwelling with us as Immanuel, God with us, when we were otherwise abandoned. God finding us in our wilderness brings order to chaos, lavishes favor on us in the places of disfavor, makes sacred the apparently desecrated, and more and more.

God has planted the cross, the tree of life, in our wilderness deserts to make them places of luscious growth and harvest, even as vegetation is abundant in the immediate wilderness areas surrounding the Jordan River.

Thus rejuvenated and enlivened in faith here in this place, the Spirit then drives us back into the wilderness of our world to do as John did, to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and to introduce a taste of paradise in the wilds of our lives and that of the world, our God-inspired love overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight which produces the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God, all as suggested by Paul in today’s reading form Philippians.

For the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ – as God tames the wilds of our world and our days.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Week of the First Sunday of Advent

Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom on Wednesday, December 1

Join us for Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom this coming Wednesday, December 1, when the Rev. Dr. Lowell Almen, former Secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will offer reflections on hopefulness. A Zoom link will be distributed via Constant Contact. The bulletin is below:

pdfAdvent 1 Evening Prayer 2021-12-01

“On Waiting and Christ’s Coming”

Dear Friends in Christ:

Advent, the word, derives from Latin and simply means “to come.” Advent, the liturgical season, relates to the coming of the Lord. In this four-week season, we hear biblical stories that attest to the first advent, the first coming of Christ, the word made flesh born to Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. But some of the appointed scriptural passages for this season additionally point to a coming advent at an undisclosed future time when Christ promises to come again to complete in a second advent what was begun in the first. In this season, we also are attentive to the ways in which God in Christ comes to us even now in our present days in the power of the Holy Spirit working amidst the means of grace, namely, the proclamation of the gospel, baptism, eucharist, confession and forgiveness and the holy conversations among us that proclaim the gospel of grace.

What each advent – the past, present, and future coming of the holy one – holds in common is the theme of waiting, of watching. Waiting and watching are comparatively passive modes of activity. There is nothing we can in fact do to hasten the day or the occasions of Christ’s coming. Here’s a passage from a sermon by Martin Luther for the First Sunday of Advent in 1522 which drives home the point that Christ’s coming to us is the result of God’s sovereign action and not our doing.

Luther proclaims:

“Christ comes, comes to you. Yea, verily, you go not to him, neither do you fetch him. Christ is too high for you, and too far away. All your wealth and wit, your toil and labor, will not bring you near him, lest you pride yourself that your merit and worthiness have brought Christ to you. Dear friend, all your merit and worthiness are smitten down, and there is on your side nothing but sheer undeserving and unworthiness, and on Christ’s side is pure grace and mercy. Here come together humanity in our poverty and the Lord in unsearchable riches. Therefore learn here from the Gospel what happens when God begins to build us into the likeness of Christ, and what is the beginning of saintliness. There is no other beginning than that your king comes to you, and begins the work in you. You do not seek Christ, Christ seeks you; you do not find Christ, he finds you; your faith comes from him, not from yourself, and where he does not come, you must stay outside; and where there is no Gospel, there is no God, but sheer sin and destruction. Therefore ask not where to begin a godly life; there is no beginning but where Christ comes and is proclaimed.”
Luther’s words hit the nail on the head and Luther’s wisdom bids us, then, to wait and watch for those graced occasions when Christ comes to us unbidden as an unmerited gift, a surprise. The liturgical season of Advent is thus all about cultivating this spirit of watchfulness, which invites us to slow down and put aside our frantic busyness.

Yet, such slowing down, such cultivation of a posture comparatively passive receptivity, is the exact opposite of what our secular culture and its ways compel us to do in the weeks preceding Christmas. I write this message on so-called Cyber Monday, a day confected to devote time and energy and money to purchases online. This comes on the heels of so-called Black Friday, when we were bidden to enter the physical temples of consumerism to make our purchases in person, arguably an offering to material idols venerated in our current society. Then we have Giving Tuesday when we are exhorted to make donations to charitable organizations, a laudable directive, but one which nonetheless also contributes to the busyness of these days. The inundation of emails generated by profit and non-profit organizations concerning these secular holy days has been remarkable, each an attempt to goad us into further, frantic activity. Thus, the weeks of Advent, inviting less activity, compete with some of the busiest weeks of the year in our secular routines as another calendar year draws to a close.

Such busyness can be spiritually devastating in drawing our energies and attention away from the more receptive stances of waiting and watching. It may be that such busyness will cause us to miss the many and various ways that Christ already comes to us even now in the ordinary events of our ordinary lives, rooted in the means of grace. Thus, I invite you to claim the counter-cultural aspects of this season of Advent and to lay down some of the many extra items on your seasonal “to do” lists. Perhaps that’s easier said than done, but it can be a compelling thing indeed to claim in practical, routine ways that “less is more.”

That said, our more receptive states of waiting and watching will also not induce Christ to come the more to us! God in Christ still comes when God in Christ wills it. Moreover, God in Christ is more powerful than our busyness and to do lists and the distractions they can cause. Thus, it may be that God in Christ will find you, will come to you, will catch you off guard in graced ways, even amidst your distractions and busyness. Thanks be to God for such surprising gifts that come from outside of ourselves and our routines, graces that break through our defensive postures and reach our deep places for gospel healing and hopefulness and wholeness in God.

May it be so for you, and thus, we still pray, Come, Lord Jesus.

Pastor Jonathan Linman

First Sunday of Advent

Listen to this again: “There will be… distress among nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world….”

While it is true that there’s always been distress among nations, and the seas have forever in the human imagination been places of foreboding mystery and danger, maybe this passage from today’s gospel speaks in ways unique to our age.

Given the changing climate, sea levels are rising throughout the world, threatening the ever-increasing numbers of people who live in coastal areas. Moreover, hurricanes and other storms are gaining in intensity, also adding to the threat of the seas and the waves.

Increasingly, people report to those in helping professions that the threat of climate change is affecting their sense of well-being and even decisions about whether or not to have children, given the precarity of the world into which children will grow to adulthood. So, in a sense, more and more are perhaps “fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”

Our days, thus, can be filled with terror. We may be inclined to bury our heads in virtual sands, or to seek escape or ways to numb ourselves from the claims of impending stark realities. Some may want to stay in bed with the covers up over their hands.

I’ll admit to you that I no longer watch the news on TV. Yes, I read the news each and every day, but I find that watching it on TV is more than I currently want to bear. Reading about the news is one thing, and a step removed. Seeing it pictured in videos is quite another.

But these impulses to put our heads down and cower are the exact opposite of what Luke reports Jesus said in response to apocalyptic times. Immediately after talking about the distress among nations and the fear and foreboding, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up and raise your heads – this is not what I or perhaps most people are inclined to do in the face of distressed nations and the confusion of the roaring seas and waves.
Moreover, Luke reports that also Jesus said this: “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the dominion of God is near.” How on earth can the dominion of God be near when so much seems so very God-forsaken?

Jesus spoke of the nearness of God’s dominion in relation to his brief parable recorded in Luke about the fig tree and all the trees, about their sprouting leaves as a sign of the coming of summer.

When we see these things taking place, that is, trees coming into luscious foliage, then we know the nearness of God’s dominion. With the hindsight of reading today’s gospel through the vantage point of the Passion, how can we not but see the fig tree and all trees as anything but the cross of Christ, our tree of life?

Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the Passion story immediately follows today’s passage. So, today’s reading becomes yet another pointing to the cross and the empty tomb.

Moreover, as we begin Advent and approach Christmas, we catch glimpses of the cross perhaps in today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, a prophecy we associate with the Incarnation and Advent and Christmastide: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15) That branch, born to Mother Mary, grew to find his culmination on the cross, the tree of life. The little branch becomes the full, flowering tree to give new life, shelter and shade to the whole world.

Centered, and indeed carried on the cross, is all the distress among the nations, all the roaring of the seas and waves, all the fainting from fear and foreboding when the powers of the heavens are shaken. It’s all there on the cross.

On the cross, because of the empty tomb, we catch a glimpse of the Son of Man’s coming with power and great glory.

On the cross and in the empty tomb, God’s dominion is near and our redemption is in fact here.

In sure confidence of these bedrock realities, Luke reports that Jesus also concludes, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

And so it is to this very day, in this very place, at this tumultuous time in world history, Jesus words of promise echo through the centuries in our ears here and now.

But even with this wonderful assurance from Christ Jesus, these are not easy times to endure. It may be the challenges of apocalyptic times that motivated Jesus to say and Luke to record, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

Well, that’s exactly where many find themselves, namely, weighed down by dissipation, drunkenness and worry. Remember that dissipation is defined as the wanton squandering of our resources. Is such dissipation not on almost pornographic display in our new gilded age? And drunkenness, numbing ourselves through many and various means, is common. And so very many people are weighed down by worry.

In such states of mind and habits of behavior, the day of the Lord may catch us unexpectedly like a trap, as we hear in today’s gospel.

Thus, Jesus offers this exhortation, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son-of-Man.”

Stay alert and be on guard are some of the common refrains of this Advent season. “Wake, awake, for night is flying” so the beloved hymn has us sing.

How do we nurture the alertness to which Christ calls us? We cannot really do it ourselves, on our own. As always when it comes to Jesus’ exhortations, we need help. And the good news is that we have help from the very one whose words will not pass away. In fact, these eternal words are our help.

For God’s word, Christ’s word, comes to us from outside of ourselves to wake us up and enliven our faith. A well-said, salient word from our Lord emanating from the pages of the Bible, has that effect doesn’t it, to arouse us from our lethargy? The word sounds the alarm to rouse us. Truly, scripture is like that.

We are also jolted awake and made alert and on guard with a splash of bracing water from the font. Those baptized, are aroused to new life in a cold-water bath, with the word and the Spirit. When the presiding minister walks through the assembly sprinkling water on us for baptismal remembrance and thanksgiving, we may be startled and brought to greater attention, roused to renewed faith.

Likewise in preparation for the sacramental meal, at this very table in the dialogue between you the assembly and me as presiding minister, I intone “Lift up your hearts” and you reply in singing voice, “we lift them to the Lord.”

So, at this meal, our hearts are indeed lifted up and not weighed down, as Jesus warned against. And with hearts so lifted, we take into ourselves the bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Christ, and leave this place rejuvenated, made more attentive, in body and spirit, to a fearful world’s needs. A good healthy meal has that effect on us, doesn’t it, to make us more energetic and alert? All the more so with the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Thus, awakened in this place of assembly around word, water and table, alert, on guard, we are in a better position to fulfill Paul’s exhortation from 1 Thessalonians featured in today’s second reading, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

In such godly love for one another and for the world, we leave this place to engage in the mission that God has entrusted to us, waiting, enduring, but alert, on guard, and active as we serve our neighbors in love for Christ’s sake. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

 

Week of the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Reign of Christ

Dear Friends in Christ:

This past Sunday was the Last Sunday after Pentecost – Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday – which brought to a close another year in our church’s liturgical, seasonal calendar. This coming Sunday, November 28, is the First Sunday in Advent, which becomes a kind of liturgical “Happy New Year” for us as we embark on a new year of grace. In the three-year lectionary cycle, we now enter a year that features Luke’s Gospel on many of the Sundays of the year.

While we refer to the liturgical years as cycles, and that is true, as each year features the same festivals and seasons with lectionary readings appointed for a three-year repeating pattern, I invite you to think of our sacred time as spiraling, not simply cyclical. Yes, there are repeating cycles, but time also marches on into the future, namely, into God’s promised future when the divine promise is that Christ will come again to usher in the fullness, the completeness of God’s dominion even here on earth.

So, the cycles do not simply repeat themselves. While the festivals and readings do repeat, they offer the story of Christ and of God’s scriptural word in ever changing seasons and epochs of human and ecclesial history. This season of our life together in this world continues to be marked by the claims of the global pandemic. This season of our life together also features increasing concerns about climate change, as weather-related extremities are increasing in number and intensity from one year to the next. The timeless word will inevitably speak in new and poignant ways in relation to the particularities of our historical moments.

Because of the changes and chances of life, the appointed lectionary readings and the themes of the festivals that we observe and celebrate can take on new meanings for us. The timeless, changeless truths of God’s word erupt with nuances of meaning, renewed emphases on eternal meaning, which results in a freshness of the word in whatever season of history we enter into. In such ways, we come to understand anew that “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Considering Advent, it is perhaps my favorite season of the church year, for a major feature of its energies anchors us in our present time, while pointing us also to God’s promised future. That is to say, Advent is not simply a looking back, though it involves that to be sure as we hear again proclaimed the ancient words of the prophets and others who heralded Christ’s first coming. And yes, Advent culminates in the celebration of Christmas, a looking back to the birth of Christ, but this time also reveals the ways in which God’s word becomes flesh, incarnate, among us even now. That said, again, Advent speaks directly to our particular time now, the between times of Christ’s first advent and the promise of Christ’s ultimate advent to come again to usher in the fullness of God’s reign of peace, well-being, of commonwealth for all people and all of creation.

Our contemporary in between times can be fraught, as if we are caught in a kind of limbo between what Christ started some two thousand years ago and that future promised time shrouded in mystery about when and how Christ will return. And this two-thousand-year (so far) history can seem like a long time, especially when the earliest Christians expected the immanent return of Christ perhaps even in their lifespans. But as I have been fond of saying in Bible Studies and sermons, two thousand years even in the time of human evolution and societal development, not to mention geologic and cosmic and divine time, is but the blink of an eye. While we might claim delay, from God’s perspective there may be no delay at all.

And even amidst our already-but-not-yet epoch, we confess that Christ is fully present with us in word and sacrament, while the Holy Spirit continues through these means to guide us into all truth. Moreover, this is not wasted time, for God has been sending us on a mission for two millennia to proclaim in word and deed the good news of Christ in a world desperate for such good news.

Thus, as we continue to bask in Christ’s presence, and as we look to God’s promised future in Christ, Advent, finally, is a season of hopefulness, indicated by the seasonal color of blue which will be featured on the vestments that I wear and the cloth adorning the place of proclaiming the word. In Christ, we have abiding hope even amidst a seemingly hopeless time in the life of our troubled world. It is that spirit of hopefulness which makes the season of Advent so very compelling to me, and perhaps to you, too.

Here’s what you can expect programmatically in our life together as a congregation in the coming four weeks of Advent:

  • Wednesdays in Advent (December 1, 8, 15, 22): Advent Evening Prayer via Zoom at 7:00 pm featuring Resurrection members who will offer reflections on what gives them hope in a seemingly hopeless time in our troubled world.
  • Sunday, December 12 at 3:30 pm: A worship event for all ages, Parsonage outdoors, the Light of Christ in a season of shadows.
  • Sunday, December 19 at 10:00 am: Service of Lessons and Carols as part of our usual Sunday worship.
  • Sunday, December 19 after worship: decorating our church for Christmas.
  • Sunday, December 19 at 5:00 pm: Christmas Caroling and Worship outside the Parsonage, an opportunity for those unable to worship with us indoors to share in singing and worship in anticipation of Christmas.

With abiding hopefulness in Christ Jesus as we await his advent now and in future days and years to come,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Last Sunday after Pentecost 25/Lectionary 34B, Reign of Christ, John 18:33-37

Picture Pilate’s headquarters, the place where Jesus was summoned to be questioned concerning the complaints about him brought by the religious authorities. Pilate was the Roman governor for the territory of the Jewish people, an agent of an ancient superpower, the Roman Empire.

Given that, Pilate’s headquarters may well have been an impressive place architecturally, and no doubt outfitted with some very nice things. Roman ruins suggest some pretty opulent buildings.

To help your imagination, think of the many embassy buildings located throughout the District of Columbia. Such images might help you imagine Pilate’s headquarters.

Surely Pilate’s place came with all the trappings of power. Power in a worldly sense. Maybe there were mosaics adorning the walls, ceilings and floors that pictured the emperor or perhaps military conquests by Roman armies. Maybe chariots and horses were depicted. All symbols which suggest raw power, perhaps that conveyed through violence.

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday.

Thus it is that those who decided which biblical stories to include in the Revised Common Lectionary chose the story from John’s gospel for this day, the story about Jesus coming to Pilate’s headquarters to be questioned about being a king.

Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jewish people?” Jesus then queried Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate then revealed, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Then Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

The world in John’s Gospel cannot finally be reduced to the spatial qualities of ancient cosmology, with the world or the earth “down here” and heaven or eternity or the divine realm “up there.”

Rather, world in John designates particular qualities of power relationships and ordering of societies that stand in distinct contrast to eternal or heavenly or sacred qualities of such ordering. Remember that for John, eternal life is something that begins here on earth even now. Thus, God’s reign is on earth, as it is in heaven, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

So, when Jesus says to Pilate that his kingdom is not from this world, he’s saying that the qualities that mark the dominion with which he is associated are distinct from the ways of the world.

Jesus elaborates, revealing the ways of the world, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Judeans. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That is to say, Jesus seems to be implying that worldly ways would involve violent rebellion, insurrection to keep imperial hands off Jesus so that he might assert his own power over against that of Rome, fighting fire with fire, exchanging force with force.

Of course, it’s noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t directly admit to being a king. Pilate asked in response to Jesus seeming to imply he was a king, “So you are a king?” Jesus continues some evasion so as not to be labeled and misunderstood, and replies, “You say that I am a king.”

So, what’s going on here? How do we begin to make sense of this exchange between Pilate, the representative of empire, and Jesus who represents something quite distinct from empire?

The light of clarity begins to shine in the final half of the final verse of today’s gospel: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

“To testify to the truth.” That’s the opening to seeing what kind of kingdom, what kind of reign and dominion Jesus is associated with. The mission of this reign is to testify or witness to the truth.

“I came into this world to testify to the truth.” The Greek word translated testify here is the same word from which we receive the word martyr. So we might say that Jesus is to be martyred to the truth, or martyred because of or for the truth.

Which brings us directly to the cross.

I began this sermon by inviting you to imagine in your mind’s eye Pilate’s headquarters. What about Jesus’ headquarters, as it were? In Jesus’ kingdom, where does Jesus hold court? Where is his throne?

That place is Golgotha, a barren hill outside the city walls, a place of execution by Roman powers. That’s Jesus’ headquarters, if you will, a very different setting from that of Pilate’s place of power. The cross, then, is Jesus’ throne. Jesus holds court there offering words, final sayings from the life-giving tree of his throne, arms outstretched to take us all to himself, testifying to the truth about himself and about God:

  • To his executioners, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
  • To the repentant criminal hanging next to him, Jesus revealed, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
  • To his mother and beloved disciples, Jesus lovingly offered, “Woman, behold your son…. Behold, your mother.”
  • To the divine one whom Jesus called Father, Jesus pleadingly asked in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • Describing his condition, Jesus stated, “I thirst.”
  • Testifying to completion, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.”
  • Finally, again addressing God, Jesus says on his final breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

These are not statements from the worldly kind of king housed in the likes of Pilate’s headquarters. Indeed, Jesus’ realm is not from that world.

What happens to Jesus on the cross is his embodied testimony to the truth, the truth that God loves us and gives all for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave is only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Truth is a big word in John’s Gospel. The truth about Jesus’ identity has its fullest and most vivid display on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Jesus’ kingdom, his reign, his dominion is one of truth and truth telling, a truth that sets us free. Elsewhere in John, Jesus is recorded as having said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32)

All of this is indeed in stark contrast to the qualities of dominion in the kingdoms of this world, which are more often marked by death not life, imprisonment not freedom, hatred not love, lies not truth.

Fast forward to our own day. Where now is it that Christ reigns? How is it that this kingdom, this dominion comes about even now? Martin Luther helps us here in the Small Catechism and his explanation to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come.” Luther explains that God’s kingdom in Christ comes about “whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”

In other words, this kingdom is not located in a headquarters, but in the meeting place of assembly. Right here in this place when the Spirit assembles us around word and sacrament when the truth is testified to again and again right here in our midst, the Spirit generating our belief in God’s holy word, the Spirit birthing our godly lives here in time and ultimately in eternity.

This kingdom of Christ finds its way to us in the power of the Spirit, even entering into our night visions which are often night terrors as suggested by today’s first reading from the apocalyptic narrative from the book of Daniel which speaks of a throne of fiery flames, wheels burning with fire, and a stream of fire flowing from the One who sits in judgment of all people.

But in Christ, these night visions also reveal, as Daniel writes, “one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” To this one, Christ, was given a dominion that is everlasting, that will not pass away, a reign that will never be destroyed (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Thanks be to God that night terrors give way to the reassuring, calming presence of Christ, offering the peace of Christ.

It’s into this reign of Christ that we are baptized, the dominion of Christ finding its way to us in water and the word all wrapped up in the Spirit’s coming for our own personal Pentecost – thus fulfilling in small but powerful ways what appears in today’s reading from Revelation where we hear the truth that Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Christ is the one who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and father, Christ who is given glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (cf. Revelation 1:5-6)

Moreover, this reign of Christ also finds its way into our own bodies when we eat the bread and drink from the cup, becoming participants with Christ in his holy reign.

Finally, the reign of Christ finds its way to the wider world when we leave this place, fed and thirst quenched, to go back to that world bearing the truth of Christ the king in word and deed as we lovingly serve our neighbors in need.

This is what we celebrate and extol on this last Sunday in the church year, another day to honor Christ our King. Amen.

Week of the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

If you were at church on Sunday or have driven or walked by our church building, you have noticed that the Black Lives Matter banner has been removed. At its meeting on November 11, the Congregation Council voted to approve the removal of the banner to be replaced with a set of three new banners (currently in the process of final graphic design) which features the message of Micah 6:8, “Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God.” In addition, the banners will herald the name of our congregation, since there is no visible sign for our church on that side of the building. Moreover, the new banners will include the website addresses for our congregation, our synod, and the ELCA Churchwide organization, along with colorful logos related to each.

But it is essential to state that the Council decision is not just about the removal of one banner for the sake of a new set of replacements. The decision about this iconography is but one of several recommendations that the Council also approved. The Black Lives Matter signage fulfilled a purpose of provoking conversation about the persistent problem of racism in our culture and society. While the placement of the BLM signs on church property resulted in division within our congregation among those for and against such explicit public witness, it is also true that all of this was accompanied by conversational engagement in a small group setting with a book by a Black Lutheran pastor’s struggle with racism in the ELCA, statistically the whitest denomination in the nation. This group met monthly for a year via Zoom, becoming ever more willing and able to talk openly about the problems of racism in church and society. For the past year, there has also been Friday movie nights which featured films which opened up discourse about racism.

All of this is to say that our work concerning racism and our commitment to becoming a more open, inclusive and anti-racist congregation will continue. In keeping with the Council’s other recommendations, therefore, you can expect in the coming months further educational offerings and initiatives which seek to result in Resurrection Church becoming an increasingly open and diverse congregation with a more genuine embrace for all people. A Black Lives Matter sign was just a first step toward a much more involved and ongoing effort.

It is also clear from the experience of the division within our congregation that resulted from the Council’s decision well over a year ago to place Black Lives Matter signs on church property that we have work to do to nurture a deeper sense of community within our congregation. Some of this community building will involve improving the trust the wider congregation membership has in the Council. Some felt that the decision to place BLM signs on our property was of such a controversial nature that it called for wider consultation with the congregation before the Council’s decision. So, one of my intents as Pastor going forward is to establish occasions for and avenues toward wider conversation and consultation in the congregation, especially when it comes to controversial matters. Beyond that, we will be well-served to schedule community building events that bring our people together to restore and deepen relationships with each other as members of our congregation.

Another thing we have learned amidst this challenging year is that our congregation would benefit from more educational events which seek to elucidate particularly Lutheran understandings of the relationships between church and state. You can expect to see such educational opportunities in coming months.

All of these efforts will end up serving our aspirational commitments to live what the prophet Micah proclaims, namely, to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This simple phrase is profound, and it is precisely the kind of message we want to communicate to the wider world even as we seek to embody this same message in our actions, practicing what we preach. For I suspect you would agree with me that there are many injustices in our world that seek redress even as there is a distinct lack of loving kindness in much civic discourse these days, along with a significant absence of godly humility.

For your information and thoughtful consideration, I am including the full set of recommendations that our Council voted to approve at its last meeting. May God in Christ lead us faithfully to live convincingly into these commitments via the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Recommendations approved at the November 11 Congregation Council Meeting:

  1. That the Black Lives Matter banner be removed and replaced with a three-panel banner with our congregation’s name, statements from Micah 6:8, the logos related to our congregation, synod, and churchwide organization, along with these entities’ website addresses.
  2. That the removal of the signs and placement of new signage 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.

Pentecost 25/Lectionary 33B, Mark 13:1-8

Jesus’ disciples were understandably impressed with the temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding temple complex. “Look, Teacher,” one of them said to Jesus, “what large stones and what large buildings.” Truly, the temple in Jerusalem was quite a wonder. If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the temple remains and is a place of prayer. And yes, the stones are very large.

Such fascination with the human capacity to build grand places is not lost on us in our day. We love our skylines. My office in New York City looked out onto commanding views of Midtown Manhattan and its increasingly taller skyscrapers. Here, we marvel at our secular temples related to the federal government and museums of the Smithsonian.

Listen again to Jesus’ reply to his disciples’ wonderment: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Marks’ gospel was compiled and written after the fall of Jerusalem which occurred in the year 70, so the hearers of Mark would have understood the remembrance of what Jesus said in light of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Roman authorities in their attempt to quash a rebellion led by zealot fighters among the Jewish people.

And then we, twenty years ago, suffered the terrorist attacks that saw the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the extensive damage to the Pentagon right here in Arlington. Indeed, our great buildings have their endings.

In Mark’s narrative, the disciples were curious about when all the destruction would take place. Jesus used that query as the occasion to talk about the end times. Thus, we have a moment of apocalyptic predictions in Mark. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and country against country; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”

We hear similar kinds of language in the apocalyptic literature that characterizes the book of Daniel, a passage from which is today’s first reading. “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Daniel 12:1b)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s because, in human history, there have always been wars, and anguished conflict between nations and earthquakes and famines.
One way or another, we’re always living in end times and last days. End of the world themes come up at this point in our liturgical seasonal calendar as we approach the end of another church year. Next Sunday is the last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, and after that we begin a new year, a new cycle with Advent.

It’s crucial thusly to acknowledge the realities of end times. In our personal lives as individuals. Among our families. Among our human institutions. And among nations. People come and go, as do organizations, as do nations and even whole civilizations. People and human institutions have their endings in death and dissolution. That’s just the way things are. So, today in the church year allows for some of this reality therapy.

But here’s the thing. Our own age arguably presents special challenges. Given the ongoing specter of all-out nuclear war (that’s still very much a reality even though we don’t hear about it much these days in the news cycles) and given the realities of climate change, we may well be nearing more ultimate end times for our species and for the viability of habitable ecosystems on our fragile planet.

Early Christians expected the immanent return of Christ. From our perspective, we see delay. After all, it’s been two thousand years, a long period of history from a human perspective. What is God in Christ waiting for?

But two thousand years is but the blink of an eye in the larger scope of the history of human evolution and geologic time, not to mention cosmic time. In the grander scheme of things, two thousand years is a punctuation point.

One way or another, the point is, sooner or later, we cannot escape the reality of endings, individually in death and now maybe even more macroscopically with the possibility of ecosystemic collapse.

These are scary times. I have to wonder at the burden that our young people carry as they ponder what kind of life and world are before them as they emerge into adulthood. There is so much bad news.

But there is also good news embedded in today’s apocalyptic reading from Mark. The gospel writer’s recounting of Jesus’ bad news predictions about wars and conflict and earthquakes and famines ends with this saying from Jesus: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Birth pangs. They are the acute pains that are associated with being in labor for child birth. Intense agony perhaps, but the necessary forerunner of and herald for something great, that is, bringing new life into the world. Most mothers I know of say the birth pangs are worth it. Such pains never stopped human beings from having babies.

Jesus knew his own birth pangs on the tree of the cross, the labor he endured such that God would bring about resurrected new life from the tomb. This was a new kind of birthing – not just life from life, but life from death, the tomb being the womb from which resurrected life would emerge. This is the good news of promise for us that takes the edge off the burden of the pains of our various last days. Death and ending do not have the last word. Rather life and new beginnings have the final say.

And there’s more: we who are baptized have known our own birth pangs microcosmically in our personal lives when we are drowned in the waters with the sacred word only to emerge in the power of the Spirit as new creations in Christ.

Likewise, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we have a foretaste of the feast to come when God in Christ promises to birth in consummation and completion what was begun on the cross and in the empty tomb in ushering in the fullness of the divine reign.

Still more, when we receive the forgiveness of sin, remembering that we are baptized as we do regularly at our liturgy’s beginning at the font, we are reborn again and again, daily. There may be pangs of pain when we confess our sins, but certainly the release and freedom of forgiven life in the words of absolution.

In faith, nourished by our weekly assemblies in this very room, we cling to the realities of new birthing even amidst the pain of labor in a world in many ways seeming to come to an end.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews says it well in describing our lives of faith lived in the season of birth pangs and endings toward new beginnings. The author writes of our Christian life: “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that Christ opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:19-25)

Confidence to enter the sanctuary. Approaching God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Hearts sprinkled clean. Bodies washed with pure water. Holding fast to the confession of hope without wavering. Provoking one another to love and good deeds. Meeting together. Encouraging one another.

All of these wonderful qualities of the Christian life are made possible by Christ, by his birth pangs on the cross and in the tomb, giving us the gift of new life in Christ, that we may live the life of faith all the more as we see the Day of the Lord approaching.

May our life together be marked by the qualities enumerated by what we hear today in the letter to the Hebrews. Let it all be so as we are sent together in mission for the sake of the world enduring its pangs of labor, that all creation may know the new life that God has promised. Amen.

Week of the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Reformation Day is behind us, but the reforming spirit in Lutheran accents is ever with us. One of the key features of Lutheranism is a celebration of the centrality of God’s word – sola scriptura – and the invitation to be engaged by that word individually in our own devotions but also communally in our worship and in our congregation’s Bible studies. We currently have two separate occasions for group Bible study at Resurrection Church – every other week on Thursday mornings at 11:00 when we look together at one of the upcoming Sunday readings, and then also on Monday evenings at 6:30 when we engage various themes of justice revealed in the scriptures. Both of these Bible studies continue to be offered via Zoom. Also, in January of 2022, a new opportunity for Bible study will be offered when youth director, Amanda Lindamood, and I will co-lead intergenerational Bible studies for all ages. Watch for further word about these opportunities in coming weeks.

A common refrain has consistently emerged whenever we look at biblical passages together, and that is that we become keenly aware of the rich textures of meaning that are revealed when we let the Bible speak with its fullness and when we undertake such engagement together, communally sharing insights, asking questions, all of which deepen understandings. Very quickly we move beyond literal or simplistic first impression understandings of biblical passages, which are often more the result of what we read into the scriptures than what the scriptures actually say.

I also consistently observe in these studies how our time together dwelling with biblical passages is perhaps one of the ways that Jesus’ promise in John’s Gospel is fulfilled in our midst. Addressing the disciples, Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13a) In faith, we trust that the Spirit is guiding us today into such truth when deeper understandings of the scriptures emerge from our Bible studies.

Finally, continuing to extol the importance of Bible study in our life together, it’s also crucial to recall that Martin Luther was given the gift of the rediscovery of the centrality of justification by grace effective through faith when he was involved in rigorous Bible study. Thus, see below Luther’s description of his graced experience of discovery which made all the difference in the world for him, and for the church of his day and for the church in our day even now.

In short, Bible study is powerful stuff. It’s never too late to join in! Consider yourself invited once again.

Seeking to be kept steadfast in the word that is Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman


Martin Luther, “The Tower Experience”

… I had already during that year returned to interpret the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skillful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart [an allusion to Virgil, Georgics], but a single word in Chapter 1 [:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’” [Rom 1:17]. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory, I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which He makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which He makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. Later I read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to hope I found that he, too, interpreted God’s righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although this was heretofore said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God’s righteousness with which we are justified was taught. Armed more fully with these thoughts, I began a second time to interpret the Psalter…. (Luther’s Works, vol. 34. Muhlenberg Press, 1960, pp. 336-38)

 

Pentecost 24/Lectionary 32B, All Saints, Mark 12:38-44

Look at how I am dressed, where I am standing, where I sit, and consider what I do during this hour. How can I not feel indicted by the first part of today’s gospel reading? To reiterate and reinforce, here’s what Mark reports that Jesus taught about religious leaders of the day: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Ouch. That’s quite the indictment of religious leaders in Jesus’ day and perhaps many clergy today.

We religious leaders are not let off the hook and are cut little slack when it comes to the Jesus we see in the gospels. That’s the bad news, and I stand convicted in my own ways (I hope I’ve never had any part in devouring widows’ houses, though I have happily devoured a lot of home cooked meals from the skilled hands of widows in my thirty years as a pastor!).

But then there’s the good news in the second half of today’s gospel reading, also concerning widows, some of the least and the last and most vulnerable in ancient society. A widow put into the treasury two small coins worth a penny in contrast to the rich who put in large sums. Here again is what Mark reports that Jesus said to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The widow offered everything she had to live on. How did she do it? And where is the good news in this?

To help us understand, we can turn our attention to today’s first reading from 1 Kings, the story of yet another widow, but one who had a holy encounter with the prophet Elijah who asked of her something to drink and to eat. At first blush, Elijah seemed to be seeking to devour the widow’s house!

Her response to Elijah’s request for food and drink? She said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Then came the divine word, the good news, from the lips of Elijah: “Do not be afraid…. [Do not be afraid] The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

So, it was by the mercy of God working through Elijah that during a time of drought and famine, she and her household ate for many days, nor did they run out of provisions.

The widow in today’s reading from 1 Kings was empowered to respond generously to Elijah’s request and could offer all that she had left because a divine word of promise came to her from the prophet Elijah. In short, that sacred word evoked, called forth, the generous response in faith, in trust, even amidst the scarcity of drought and famine. That’s what God’s word does to us – it inspires faith and results in the fruit of generosity.

Perhaps the widow who put two copper coins into the treasury during Jesus’ day also had a divine encounter which evoked her faith, her trust in God’s abundance amidst her poverty.

Perhaps she herself had encountered the divine word in Jesus that made all the difference in her faith-full generosity.

Such radical, trusting generosity is a very different stance than that of the scribes, the religious leaders, and many clergy who seem to trust more in their own stature and works than in the promises of the word of God. And the widow’s generosity towers over that of the wealthy who gave out of their abundance, meaning that they had plenty left over to maintain their rich lifestyles. When you’re a billionaire, giving away even a tithe of your wealth is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things…

Today is All Saints Sunday, a day to remember with thanksgiving the unnamed, unremarkable by worldly standards, saints in our lives. The widows in today’s readings are such unsung heroes of the faith – of Judaism and of Christianity.

And what ultimately makes a saint a saint in the Christian tradition, at least from a Lutheran point of view? A saint is one who in faith points beyond themselves to Jesus Christ.

The scribes and religious leaders and the wealthy may well be named and remembered in the history books. But with their long robes and places of honor and long prayers, they may not be as transparent in pointing beyond themselves to the divine as the humble widows in our lives.

Indeed, think of the witness of the widow in today’s gospel. She put in, she offered, everything she had, all she had to live on. That self-offering foreshadows and points to Jesus’ own self-offering on the tree of the cross, where God ultimately offered all God had, namely, Gon’s only begotten Son, only child, our sibling, our savior.

Again, that’s what saints do; they point beyond themselves to Jesus. In offering all she had, the widow in her foreshadowing draws our attention to Jesus as he is referenced in today’s second reading, that from Hebrews which elaborates on Jesus’ offering of himself. Here’s what it says in Hebrews: “But as it is, Christ has appeared once and for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The generosity of God in Christ was of such an extent, that the loving self-offering needed only to happen once. It’s done, and in Christ, him dead, him raised, we have life and salvation. Thanks be to God. From the vantage point of the wider story, the widows’ generosity witnesses to God’s generosity.

And those who eagerly wait for the fullness of Christ’s appearing are the widows, the unsung hero saints of our lives who have gone before us and who rest in the nearer presence of God.

God uses their witness to inspire our faith. So it is that we, today, name their names, and will do so during the concluding petition of the prayers of intercession when the toll of a bell will follow the naming of each name.

Think about the saints like the widows. It is more likely the case that you and I have come to faith through the Holy Spirit working in the lives and witness of persons among our family and friends and church members who have never made it into Christian history books and listings of the official saints of the church.

It is these whom we celebrate on All Saints Sunday because they have pointed the way to God in Christ via the guidance of the Spirit working in them.

Thus, we come to this table with the widows, in the company of all the saints who have gone before us of blessed memory, to eat a tiny morsel of bread and drink a sip of wine, food and sustenance that will not fail or run out even in times of scarcity until the day of the Lord’s coming. Like the widow in 1 Kings with Elijah, like the widow in Mark, we, too, give in symbolic form all that we have in offering with thanksgiving bread and wine, the fruits of God’s good creation.

And in this meal, we discover that this food, these provisions do not run out. A little bit goes a long way – all the way to eternity – in giving us what we need for life’s journey in mission for the sake of the world.

Then, we leave this place fed in communion with Christ and with the saints to go out into the world to do as they all did – offering ourselves to others in faith, in trust that God is good, pointing beyond ourselves, we pray, to Christ, who is food for the hungry, and light to those who languish in the shadowy places, and life amidst so much death as the pandemic continues its plodding, ravaging way through all of humanity.

In due course, perhaps we, too, shall be remembered alongside the widows on some future All Saints Sunday….

In the meantime, thanks be to God for the widows, the unsung saints whose witness offers such a sharp contrast to that of the scribes, the religious leaders and the wealthy. Thanks be to God for the humble saints of our lives who faithfully point us to Jesus Christ. Amen.

Week of the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Christians have been remembering the saints since the very early centuries of the church’s history. The apostle Paul and others used the term ‘saints’ rather expansively as a reference to all believers in Christ. As the centuries of Christian history accumulated, methods for identifying saints became more formalized through the processes of canonization. In the Roman Catholic tradition, over 10,000 are officially recognized and named as saints of the church. Most saints are remembered on the day of their death, often the day of their martyrdom. Eastern Orthodox churches, along with protestant churches, also have their own listings of and calendars for the many saints.

Lutherans do not hold to an official process of canonization for one to be commemorated as a saint, or as saintly. In our Lutheran calendar of commemorations, over 150 of the faithful are remembered on particular days. Some Sunday morning, or if you have a copy of Evangelical Lutheran Worship at home, take a look at the listing of those whom we commemorate, beginning on page fifteen of the pew edition. You can learn a lot more in More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a volume crafted by our own Gail Ramshaw, which offers brief hagiographical narratives about those whom we commemorate, along with suggestions for devotional engagement on the days of commemoration – a great resource for daily prayer and for those charged with leading devotions for various occasions in our life together.

I include the commemoration of the saints in my usual daily devotions. Jesus and those saints named in the scriptures can seem remote. But many whom we commemorate in our Lutheran calendar lived and did their work in closer proximity to our time and place. This proximity offers a kind of accessibility to recognize that perhaps our circumstances are not so very different from the situations in life of those whom we remember. While there is an ordinary quality to many whom we commemorate, it is often the case that the over 150 on our calendar are quite noteworthy in their accomplishments. Many had extraordinary energy to accomplish in the Spirit extraordinary things or to offer profound and courageous witness in the life of the church and for the sake of the world. So, despite their accessibility, commemorating the named saints can also be a bit intimidating. Why haven’t I or we accomplished such noteworthy things in our journey of faith and Christian witness? This dynamic of judging ourselves by the standard of the great accomplishments of the named saintly ones is exacerbated perhaps in our culture which highly prizes the achievement of individuals. This can be discouraging at times, even as we give thanks for the great witnesses and leaders we name.

Which brings us to All Saints Day, the day on which I am writing this message, November 1. Today – and this coming weekend when we’ll observe All Saints Sunday on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost – is the day to remember all the saintly ones who are not officially canonized or named in calendars of commemoration. Remembering all the saints has been part of Christian practice for centuries, and the day for celebrating all the saints on November 1 has been in place in the Western church since about the ninth century. All Saints is a kind of catch all, especially for the unnamed. In fact, the tune for a favorite hymn on All Saints, “For All the Saints,” is named sine nomine, that is, ‘without name’ in Latin. In common practice among Lutherans, All Saints Day is fused with what is known in some churchly traditions as All Souls Day or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed on November 2. In any case, the constellation of days around All Saints (Halloween, by the way, derives from All Hallows Eve on October 31), is the occasion to celebrate, as it were, a people’s history of the church, Christian history viewed from the perspectives of common, ordinary, unsung believers.

While there are thousands of named saints in various Christian traditions who have their own particular days of commemoration, there have been literally billions of unsung-hero saintly ones throughout the two thousand plus years of Christian history. We, my friends, are named among those billions – we along with those whom we will specifically name and remember at the conclusion of our prayers of intercession this coming Sunday. This countless, unnamed throng, this host arrayed in baptismal white, is arguably the backbone, the foundational building block of faithful Christian assembly. While it’s important to remember the named leaders on their particular days of commemoration, it’s also essential to remember and celebrate the followers, the helping hands and the other less noteworthy body parts, members of the body of Christ, the church. These, too, are the saints. We have known them intimately among our family, friends, and other members of the church. And we have likely come to faith in the power of the Spirit working in the witness of those saints closer to our own homes, who are otherwise unknown in wider Christian circles.

Recall again that Paul and early others used the term saint expansively to refer to the believers. From a Lutheran point of view, what is it to be a saint? Rather simply this, a baptized believer in Christ, him dead, him raised, who in their life and witness manage somehow, often in fits and starts, to point beyond themselves to Christ, and Christ’s light of love and mercy, forgiveness and grace. A lot of us manage to make such witness at various points in our lives, and thus are appropriately remembered at least on All Saints Day or Sunday.

So, I invite you once again to share with me the names of those whom you would remember this coming Sunday, especially those among your family members and friends, and those members of our congregation, who have died in the past year. A bell will toll after each name is read in our liturgy.

With appreciative remembrance in Christ and in the communion of saints,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Week of the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Here’s what you can expect at church this coming Sunday.

To honor Sunday as the principal assembling of the faithful on the Lord’s day, we will use the readings appointed for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. But this coming Sunday, October 31, also happens to be Reformation Day – so you’ll note themes of the commemoration of the Reformation during worship on this day as well. And, as has been a custom at Resurrection Church to hold confirmation on Reformation Sunday, two of our youth, Christopher Bergman and Nathaniel Tsitsibelis, will affirm their baptism – which the whole assembly will participate in along with our confirmands, for together we are the body of Christ in and for the sake of the world.

Because Amanda Lindamood, our minister with youth, has been the primary confirmation teacher for Christopher and Nathaniel, and has journeyed with them for two years, I have invited her to preach this coming Sunday. As a concluding confirmation project, our confirmands have crafted this coming Sunday’s Prayers of Intercession under Amanda’s guidance.

But it is my privilege as pastor to preside at the rite for affirmation of baptism. Amanda and I have co-led two retreat occasions via Zoom with the confirmands and their parents, one last spring when I got to know them a bit better and one this fall when we focused on the rite for affirmation of baptism itself and its meanings so that our confirmands and their parents have a deeper understanding of what they will be undertaking this coming Sunday.

Following the liturgy, our confirmands will be honored with cake, congratulations, and conversation – along with an intergenerational event which will include prayer and the opportunity for participants, young and old and in between, to write their own theses to nail them to the Wittenberg door in the spirit of the church ever reforming as we make public witness to the world.

All of this is to say, please make a special effort to join us this coming Sunday for another significant occasion in our life together as a congregation.

In Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 22/Lectionary 30B, Mark 10:46-52

“Go; your faith has made you well.” We hear such words from Jesus recorded again and again in the gospels. Your faith has made you well.

Note that it’s not Jesus saying, “I have made you well,” or even, “God has made you well.” No, it’s your faith has made you well.

Alas, this phrase and ones like it have been mis-used and abused by so-called faith healers, ones, for example, we see on TV. When I served in Pittsburgh, friends and I took a field trip to visit a Friday evening faith healing event at Earnest Angley Ministries. Angley died this year at age 99. His operation was located in northeastern Ohio, not far from Pittsburgh.

Angley was a classic TV faith healer, often parodied by satirists. When we visited, it was actually moving to see the infirm and others seeking healing gather in the auditorium space. I felt the pathos and had empathy for those prayerfully gathering in silence. But then the show began. After a good bit of music to amp up the crowd, Angley appeared on stage, and this is what he said: “Tonight, you’re going to see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that exceeds even that of the first Pentecost. There will be healings and miracles tonight like you’ve never seen before. But God has no time for back-sliding doubters and those weak in faith. In fact, God will bulldoze you doubters over if you don’t believe and if your faith is not sufficient….”

For those who went home that night without experiencing a miracle cure, I wonder how they felt after hearing the threat that God would bulldoze over those weak in faith.

Abusive faith healers seem to blame the victims when their healing efforts don’t result in miracles. The implication is that because one’s faith is weak, one doesn’t receive the miracle one desires. This makes faith into a kind of work that depends on us and our natural capacities. This is not what Lutherans believe and teach about faith.

But how are we to regard our faith, its strength and endurance? Faith, in its essence, is trust in God and God’s promises. But we know from our own experience that faith, our capacities to trust, wax and wane. Sometimes we’re more trusting. Other times not so much.

In today’s story from Mark’s gospel, it seems that blind Bartimaeus, judging by his behavior, had in that moment of encounter with Jesus a pretty enthusiastic, energetic, robust faith. Mark reports that he was shouting out after Jesus – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – and when told by others to shut up, he cried out all the more. When invited to approach Jesus, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up to meet Jesus. This behavior seems to point to a faith full of enthusiasm, full of trusting expectation in what Jesus might do.

But was it the extent of faith and its exuberance that made Bartimaeus well? Is it a kind of math equation that the more faith you have the more miracles you’ll enjoy? Or was gaining sight – or insight – the result of just a bit of faith existing at all?

Because if healing and coming to see depend on the extent of our capacities for faith, we’re all potentially lost. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Again, we know that our faith waxes and wanes. Sometimes it burns brightly. On other occasions and in differing seasons of our life, faith can seem just like a flicker.

I confess to you that I am currently experiencing something close to a crisis of faith, much more so than I have ever known in my adult life. My son’s near fatal stroke, the second anniversary of which was this past Friday, his ongoing struggles with recovery alongside the upheavals of adolescence and the seemingly endless crisis of the pandemic along with all of the other troubles of nation and world – all of this occurring at the same time has pushed me close to the edge of a diminished life of faith. Perhaps this is what they call a dark night of the soul.

So, my cry these days is more in keeping with that of the father whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit recorded earlier in the gospel of Mark. When the father encountered Jesus, seeking his son’s deliverance, he said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (cf. Mark 9:14-29). Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

What about you? How is it with your journey of faith these days?

Quite helpfully and definitively, Jesus spoke elsewhere in the gospels of faith the size of a mustard seed. A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and yet it produces the abundance of a great bush, we are told by Jesus, which gives shelter and shade (cf. Matthew 13:31-32 and Matthew 17:20).

Here’s the thing: The seed of faith doesn’t exist within ourselves; it does not occur within our nature. Faith comes from outside of ourselves. Lutherans teach that faith itself is a gift, a gift that is planted in us by the Holy Spirit active in word and sacraments. Faith is provoked or evoked, called forth.

And all the while, as the Spirit is doing her work, Christ, our high priest, continues to this day to intercede for us. For as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states in our second reading for today, “Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently [Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) Jesus’ ceaseless intercession for us also does its part in calling forth our faith under the direction of the Spirit.

Today we celebrate a First Communion, that of Ethan Kramer. In a few minutes, he will come forward with his mother and grandfather to receive for the very first time the gift of Christ’s very self, Christ’s real presence given in bread and wine.

A little tiny piece of bread is like a mustard seed planted in Ethan and in us for growth in faith. Such that we are given the gift of sight and insight to know that we taste and see that the Lord is good.

Then we, like the formerly blind Bartimaeus, can cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on [us]!” echoing the shouts of the ancient Israelites as we heard in today’s first reading from Jeremiah: “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” (Jeremiah 31:7b)

Again, I am moved to make a similar point that the prayerful cry to Jesus did not well up in Bartimaeus of his own accord. No, it was Jesus’ presence in the vicinity that provoked and evoked the prayerful plea, “Jesus, have mercy on me.” Jesus’ physical proximity called forth the cry of faith. In short, Jesus called forth the faith, the trust.

Thus it was then. So it is now. Jesus’ real presence known in word and sacraments evokes our faith.

So, we are freed by Christ from the burden of thinking that the strength and extent of our faith depends on us and our efforts, blaming ourselves for any apparent lack of faith.

Trying to measure the extent of our faith matters not and ultimately makes no sense. When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter how I feel about my faith. Of course, our subjective sense of faith comes and goes; it blows hot and cold. That doesn’t finally matter. What matters is the source of faith in the first place, that is, Christ’s presence and the Spirit calling faith forth in word and sacrament. Christ, therefore, is the constant. That’s the objective, bedrock truth, which cannot be altered by our doubts and misgivings and fears of having too weak a faith. Thanks be to God.
I wish the people who attended Earnest Angley’s Friday night faith healing extravaganza years ago knew this truth that faith comes from outside of ourselves as a gift, and that a tiny seed planted by the Spirit goes a long way in giving growth and ultimately making us well in Christ, even if we are not healed in the precise ways we seek.

Thus, Ethan and all of you will soon come forward to gather ‘round this table to receive into yourselves the seed of Christ’s presence that makes for faith. And we will leave this table and this place to go back into our world which cries out for healing, for sight, for insight and wisdom, with the words of our wonderful, seasonal prayer after communion on our lips, in our hearts, and in our words and deeds:

Lord of life,
in the gift of your body and blood
you turn the crumbs of our faith into a feast of salvation.
Send us forth into the world with shouts of joy,
bearing witness to the abundance of your love
in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Week of the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

Even amidst the pandemic’s ongoing, persistent disruptions of our routines at home, at work, at school, and at church, we also persist in leaning into a greater sense of normalcy in our congregational life together. Today, I want to invite your reflections with me on some upcoming momentous occasions in our congregation of significance for particular members and families in our congregation.

Funeral for Martha Simpson

The funeral for long-time member, Martha Simpson, will take place at Resurrection Church this coming Saturday, October 23 beginning at 2:00 pm. A reception will follow in our fellowship hall. Martha’s family kindly invites Resurrection members who knew Martha and their family to be present to support them in this time of grief, but also thankful remembrance of life in the light of the gospel. A former pastor at Resurrection, David Schafer, will offer the sermon and otherwise assist at the funeral liturgy. It would be great if our members returned in number to see and greet one of our former pastors, along with Martha’s family to support them at this time. Funerals are occasions not just for family members of the deceased, but for our whole congregation as we remember a life, but also celebrate the good news of Christ’s ultimate victory over death and the grave. Please consider yourself strongly encouraged to attend the funeral this Saturday.

First Communion

On the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, this coming Sunday, October 24, Ethan Kramer will receive Holy Communion for the first. He will be joined at the communion rail by his mother, Abigail, and his grandfather. Again, this occasion is not just special for Ethan and his family, but for our whole congregation. A First Communion invites us all to consider the wonder and mystery and grace given when Christ’s very self is made known to us in the breaking of bread. I invite you even now to remember your own First Communion. How old were you? What do you remember about that day? How has your experience of the Eucharist changed or stayed the same of the course of the years and decades? Bring these reflections with you to the table this Sunday as we celebrate with Ethan.

Confirmation

A week later after on October 31, two of our youth will affirm their baptism in the rite commonly known as Confirmation. This will take place on the day that we will observe as Reformation Sunday, giving thanks for our own particular Lutheran heritage, but also praying for the day when Christ’s church will be visibly more united for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world. Here again, affirmation of baptism is significant not just for those making their affirmation, and being confirmed. This is an occasion of significance for our whole congregation, for it takes the whole Christian community to raise up persons in faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Together, with those affirming their baptism, we will all communally confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Together, we will promise to support those making affirmation and pray for them in their life of faith. Together, we will rejoice with those confirmed: “we rejoice with you in the life of baptism. Together we will give thanks and praise to God and proclaim the good news to all the world.” (Affirmation of Baptism rite in ELW pew edition, p. 236). Think about what you’re pledging to do with and for our confirmands in our communal life as a congregation.

And I invite to think about the day of your own confirmation, when you affirmed your baptism. I, too, was confirmed on a Reformation Sunday in 1976, the year of our nation’s bicentennial celebrations. It was a glorious fall day in my small, Midwestern hometown. The sun beamed brightly in the nave, and the stained-glass windows illuminated the red-colored altar and pulpit paraments in the brilliance and richness of their color. In that room multiple generations of my family were baptized and confirmed, married and buried. In my mind’s eye is see the link of continuity between my baptism, my confirmation, and my ordination to word and sacrament ministry which also took place in that space. You have your own confirmation stories to tell. Remember them. Tell them!

I also invite you to stay after church on October 31, when members of our Education Committee have a special occasion planned for our confirmands during coffee hour time to help them celebrate the day.

All Saints Sunday

I am told that All Saints’ Sunday has been a very special day at Resurrection Church, especially musically, when our usual excellence in worship music has been enhanced the more with special musical performances. While we will not enjoy any extra musical offerings beyond our usual musical routine this year, we will observe All Saints by remembering in prayer those who among our church membership and families who have died in the past year. Kindly offer names of those whom you wish to be remembered on All Saints’ Sunday, November 7 by emailing me: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Barbara Verdile, Our Regular Music Director!

Finally, it’s my privilege to announce officially that our Congregation Council voted at their October meeting on a search committee’s recommendation that Barbara Verdile be hired as our regular Director Music at Resurrection Church. Thanks be to God, and to Barbara who has accepted this invitation. While we have known Barbara and her musical gifts for two years now in her capacity as interim music director, the search committee did engage Barbara in shared discernment about the call we and she sensed for her to serve as our regular church musician. Indeed, we are thankful for this outcome, another expression of our persistence in claiming some normal routine amidst the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

With these vignettes, it should be clear that the usual momentous routines of our Christian life together proceed and insist even during an ongoing crisis season of challenge to those very routines that we hold dear. Thanks be to God for these normal, but profound occasions in our life together.

For Jesus’ sake,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 21/Lectionary 29B, Mark 10:35-45

James and John, sons of Zebedee, also known as the sons of thunder, came to Jesus with a bold, perhaps thunderous, request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

That’s quite something, but you know what? I applaud their shameless honesty. Because if we are honest with ourselves, many of our prayers can end up sounding like “Lord, please do for us whatever we’re asking you to do.”

Such prayers understandably emerge often from the circumstances of our acute suffering. If that’s the case, pray those prayers. God will sort it all out. But purely self-centered prayers can also come from our lesser angels, for we enter into the life of faith with many mixed motivations informed by the old, sinful Adam in us. We sinners are prone to a tit for tat kind of spirituality driven by what faith in God can do for us.

Again, let’s be honest with ourselves – some of what motivates our church attendance has a lot to do with our expectations of what we personally might get out of being here.

Pastors are not exempt from this dynamic. In fact, pastors might be more prone to self-serving professional motives than many. Given our fallen state, we enter into pastoral ministry and other forms of leadership in the church in part so that we can be personally fed and egotistically puffed up in one way or another. Religious leadership is very seductive in these ways and can attract a lot of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Which brings us back to James and John, among the circle of the closest disciples and leaders. Jesus asked the sons of thunder what they wanted. Again, they were shamelessly honest and asked something over the top in keeping with their nickname. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

That’s quite a request indeed, again revealing the glory seeking that is often behind the motivations to go into public religious leadership.

Jesus was also shamelessly honest in his reply to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus then basically asked them in response: are you able to suffer the things that I am about to suffer?

James and John offered an impetuous, unthinking response: “We are able.”

Jesus then prophetically responds in essence, yes, they’ll undergo suffering in Jesus’ name, but it’s still not Jesus’ authority to grant them to sit at his right or left in glory.

This whole exchange provoked the ire of the other ten disciples who took offense at James’ and John’s pompous request.

In response, Jesus then claimed another occasion to teach the disciples. He said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers are domineering and lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

Gentile rulers, namely the Roman emperors and their governors, were indeed ruthless in their exercise of raw power. They were truly tyrants. Jewish people in Jesus’ day knew this full well from their communal first-hand experience under Roman imperial oppression. Jesus knew tyrannical rule from his time on the cross, a tool of deadly humiliation by those in power.

We’ve seen tyrants throughout human history. And it’s shocking to me today to see how many people in populist, nationalist movements are attracted to authoritarian leaders, so-called strongmen – and yes, they are almost always men….

Jesus, of course, teaches about a different way of leadership. In contrast to the Gentile rulers lording it over their subjects as tyrants, Jesus says, “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Then in reference to himself, Jesus concludes: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many.”

What does this servant leadership look like in particular? In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this leadership has the shape of a cross. That Mark refers here to Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many is yet another pointing to the Passion, the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the atoning effects of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross in love.

But we also see poetic expressions of such servant leadership in the servant song in today’s first reading from Isaiah, passages made famous to many of us by Handel’s Messiah. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) Reading aloud these words, I cannot help but hear the music of Handel which adds to the depth, poignancy, and gravitas of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant.

The author of Hebrews, today’s second reading, also reveals the nature of Jesus’ servant leadership, conceived in terms of the priestly nature of Jesus’ ministry, where it reads: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7) Christ, as our high priest, a mediator between God and humanity, interceded and intercedes on our behalf, and did and does so with empathy, in suffering with us, expressed in loud cries and tears.

This is what it means for Jesus to exercise servant leadership.

But today’s encounter with Jesus in Mark does not end with what Jesus did. No, Jesus calls James and John and the other disciples – and ultimately us – also to the life of servant leadership.

Here’s what Mark reports that Jesus said to James and John: “The cup [of suffering] that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism [of martyrdom] with which I am baptized, you will be baptized….” These words echo through the centuries to us today, we who claim to follow Jesus.

Here’s the thing, engaging again in a moment of reality therapy: How can broken, sinful people who are still beguiled by the ways of worldly power and glory ever hope to be imitators of Christ in servant leadership in how we go about the business of leadership in the church and in the world?

We, of course, cannot do it on our own. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in Christ, we have help. Jesus endured the baptism of his death on the cross which was transformed into the reality of resurrected life. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus receive as a gift Christ’s power in en-Spirited sacramentality, to take up the cross to follow him. In short, Christ Jesus leads the way to and opens the door for the possibility of our servant leadership.

Moreover, when we drink from the sacramental cup, we take in what Christ did when he drank the cup of his own suffering. Because Christ drank this cup, we are emboldened to drink from this cup as well, empowering us when we suffer in Jesus’ name. Likewise, when we eat the bread, which for Jesus was bread of tears on the eve before his death on the cross, we receive from Christ what enabled him and us to persevere through a vale of tears.

Think about what happens when we eat and drink at our meals. Whether it’s meat or vegetable, we take into ourselves in dead form what was a living organism. We ingest all of its nutrients, everything that made for its life and vitality. We cannot live without consuming, eating and drinking, that which once also was alive, even if we are vegans. In meat and vegetable, we consume the energy of the sun in the form of carbon, the energies of which make all of life possible.

Eating and drinking, therefore, even commonly understood in our ordinary, everyday life experience, shares in dynamics that parallel and suggest death and resurrection.

How much more so when it is Christ’s very self that we consume. Christ is the cup from which we drink. In drinking from this cup, we take on the energy of the Son – not the solar entity, s-u-n, but the Son, s-o-n, of the living God.

Wow. That is quite something. So, we are not left without the means through which we can be empowered to engage in servant leadership in our ministry and mission.

Another way of putting it is perhaps this: We are what we eat. When we eat and drink Christ, we incorporate his very presence and power which makes it possible for us, even feebly, to offer ourselves to others in loving service.

Still more, that which is foreign to us, alien to us, apart from us, in drinking and eating, we take in, incorporating that otherness into ourselves to become what had been foreign to us, and then to do what is foreign to our nature, namely, to serve and not to be served.

In this sacramental case, it is God’s alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own, which is Christ’s gift to us, that which we eat and drink.

It’s a marvel. So it is that we proclaim, “for as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26)
Then we also proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Thus, through sacramental means in being bathed in the water of baptism, and in eating and drinking in Holy Communion, we can approximate becoming in fits and starts the servant leaders Christ calls us to be precisely because we take on, incorporate Christ’s very powers, his very dynamism, into ourselves so to do. Again, we are what we eat. Or we become what we eat – as Luther said, little Christs for the sake of the world.

Thus, in the length and breadth of Christian history, countless saints immersed in word and sacrament have offered to the world their servant leadership in Jesus’ name, servant leader saints like Martin Luther King, Jr, prophet for justice and martyr; Elizabeth Fedde, Lutheran deaconess who served the downtrodden in Brooklyn; Perpetua and Felicity and companions, martyrs; Oscar Romero, martyr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr; Jan Hus, martyr; Bartolome de Las Casas, servant of justice for indigenous people; Florence Nightingale, servant in nursing; Dag Hammarskjold, servant in diplomatic service – to name just a few of those whom we commemorate in our Lutheran calendar of commemorations, persons who offered themselves in loving service in Christ-like fashion.

Thus, too, in Christ, and in communion with countless servant saints, we go out into the world enabled, empowered by word and sacrament to lead in our own fledgling versions of serving. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Week of the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

I had indicated in my midweek message last week that there would not be a message this week because of my time in Phoenix with Nathan. However, our Congregation Council has directed me to communicate with you their initial support for a set of new banners for the Washington Blvd. entrance that would replace the Black Lives Matter sign. Before making a decision about placing new banners, the Council wishes to communicate this possibility to the wider congregation membership and to seek responses to this proposal.

You may recall that I shared with you in a recent midweek message a set of recommendations that I offered to the Council concerning our public witness as a congregation alongside our commitment to becoming an ever more welcoming and inclusive congregation community. Before acting on that set of recommendations, the Council wanted more time to reflect on them. Much of the concern had to do with the Black Lives Matter sign and what might replace it if we were to remove it. In response to that, I developed an amended set of recommendations which offered the suggestion of a set of new banners that would replace the Black Lives Matter sign. What follows is the narrative that I offered to Council at the recent October meeting.

The amendment to the recommendations is actually quite simple: to remove the Black Lives Matter banner from the second-floor windows at the Washington Blvd. entrance and to replace it with a set of three banners (approximately 3x5 feet each) preliminarily designed as pictured below:

mission statement banners

In descriptive summary, this set of banners:

  • Identifies our congregation on the side of the building at the main entrance that does not otherwise prominently name our church;
  • Expresses the biblical language of what I propose to become our congregation’s official, publicly-focused mission statement;
  • Features colorful logos and the websites of our ELCA’s three expressions of the church, that is, our congregation, our synod, and our churchwide organization.

Here are further rationales for approving this recommendation to replace the BLM banner with a new set of banners:

  • I sensed during the conversation at our September meeting a good deal of concern that if we take the BLM banner down, what does that say to our community? This alternative actually says a lot to the wider community about our self-understanding as a church and gives websites where people can go to find a great deal more information.
  • I am called to be Pastor to our whole congregation, which includes people across the spectrum of political viewpoints. My calling to attend to all members of our church is being made more difficult by the ongoing divide in our congregation that the BLM banner has provoked. This conflict has actually grown in some intensity since our return to worshiping indoors. The proposed alternative set of banners may be a compelling compromise to possibly unite people across the political spectrum.
  • Retaining the BLM banner does not necessarily advance our anti-racism efforts. In fact, keeping the banner up may be impeding what will need to be our capacity as a congregation to engage in frank, open, respectful conversation and education about racism and efforts to become anti-racist.
  • I believe that the BLM banners served an important purpose in provoking us to begin to deal with the problem of racism. Now is the time to engage the real work of antiracism formation and community-building as advocated for in the additional recommendations I offered in September. Thus, it may be that the BLM banner has outlived its useful purpose at this point.
  • It is likely the case that we will see membership loss because of the pandemic. Surveys reveal that up to a third of formerly active church members may not return to church at all. Given this, we cannot afford additional membership loss due to the banner controversy. RELC is in major transition as a congregation and is at a crossroads in terms of its future. We need to enter that future as strong as possible in terms of membership numbers and member activity and commitment.
  • Among our approved vision statements, the call to build a deeper sense of community in our congregation is listed as the first priority among the other vision statements. The divisiveness provoked in relation to the BLM banner does not at this point serve our work of deepening a sense of community among our members.
  • The phrase, “do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God” has a history (dating to the consultant process during the pastoral interim) of being well-received in our congregation as a summary statement of our self-understanding. I believe it communicates to the wider community the kind of message we want to send, inclusive of a passion for justice. Moreover, the phrase is biblical and thus less prone to partisan or ideological misunderstanding.
  • Identifying the websites of our congregation, along with our synod, and churchwide organization, is in keeping with my experience of our congregation as one which embraces our relatedness to the wider of church.
  • Moreover, websites are the new front doors to the church. It’s appropriate that our church’s various websites are named literally at our front door!

Therefore, I offer to you this amended set of recommendations:

  1. That the Black Lives Matter banner be removed and replaced with a three-panel banner with our congregation’s name, statements from Micah 6:8, the logos related to our congregation, synod, and churchwide organization, along with these entities’ website addresses.
  2. That the removal of the signs and placement of new signage 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.

Again, our Congregation Council wanted me to share all of this with you before they make a decision about a new set of banners. It is our strong desire to be more widely consultative in the exercise of leadership in our congregation, in keeping with recommendation 6 above. Your responses will inform the Council’s discernment and decision.

Thus, as your Pastor, and on behalf of our Congregation Council, I invite your responses to this set of recommendations which has as its initial focus the possibility of new banners for the Washington Blvd. side of our church building. You may This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or schedule a time to talk on the phone or in person one-on-one. I also invite you to share your responses in a more communal setting in person after the coffee hour after worship this coming Sunday, October 17 at approximately 11:45 in the fellowship hall.

May God in Christ continue to lead us faithfully forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Week of the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

This week’s installment covers some miscellaneous territory.

First, These Weekly Messages:

I have been writing these almost weekly columns for seventeen months at this point in our shared life together. It was the pandemic and the fact that we could not gather in person a year and a half ago that motivated me to offer these weekly messages. I understood this platform as a means to engage in outreach to you through the written word, in a fashion that perhaps parallels the letters that comprise so much of the Christian scriptures in the New Testament – not that my musings would ever achieve scriptural status! No, this medium has been a means for you all to get to know me better as your Pastor, especially at a time when our routines were much truncated. Moreover, I conceived of these weekly messages also as an expression of my teaching ministry as a Pastor.

What pertained seventeen months ago still pertains today in many ways. The pandemic continues to limit our life together, even if we are doing more in person, especially with our Sunday worship. There have been times when I have thought maybe I need not write these columns each and every week. Maybe I should transition to twice a month or monthly, or on an as needed basis. But then each week presents new topics that I feel drawn to address in ways that I cannot appropriately address in a sermon or in other forms of teaching and interaction. I keep an ongoing list of possible topics, and circumstances in church and world keep adding to that list. At first, I wondered if there were enough topics to keep me writing week after week. As it turns out, our life together these days supplies plenty to write about.

It occurs to me that these midweek messages are becoming an archival record of my pastorate at Resurrection Church. Thus, these written statements also become part of our congregation’s history at a strikingly unique time in world history. Moreover, these messages are additionally an expression of our public ministry in that they live online and are widely available to those who may find their way to them.

All of this said, I confess that I wonder how many Resurrection members are drawn to reading and engaging these musings on a regular basis. Nonetheless, I persist in affirming and claiming the importance of the midweek message as an integral feature of my current ministry here.

I also want to reiterate an offer I made months and months ago, and that is to invite you to suggest to me topics you would like me to address in coming midweek messages. True correspondence is best a two-way street. I would love to know what’s on your hearts and minds, questions you have about our life together, about our church’s witness in response to our wider world. Don’t be shy in suggesting possible topics to me!

Secondly, Office Hours:

Now that we have embarked on a new program year with something of a return to normal-seeming routines, Office Administrator, Monika Carney, and I have resumed more or less regular office hours when one or the other of us, or both of us, are in the church office in person. These basic hours are Monday-Friday, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, though there are occasions when meetings, contingencies, errands, or emergencies may take one or both of us out of the office. So, you may want to call or email us before stopping by to confirm that someone will be here.

That said, we welcome your presence in the church building on days other than Sundays. Such casual encounters often result in important conversations about our life together, and also find their way to becoming occasions of Mutual Conversation and Consolation, which I’ve written about previously, and which Luther named as one of the means of grace alongside preaching, baptism, eucharist, and confession and forgiveness as forms of the gospel. When you’re here in the building for whatever sets of reasons, we never fail to gain what I am fond of calling a Christian quorum – “for where two or three are gathered in [Jesus’] name, [Jesus is] there among [us].” (Matthew 18:20) This is the only numbers game worth playing in church…. Please know that I am available to you as Pastor when I am in the office, even as I am available to you as Pastor when I am out and about visiting you in your homes and with you on other occasions of our life together, virtually or in person.

Finally, My Whereabouts This Coming Week:

In order to seek to give faithful expression to my calling as a dad, I will travel on October 6 to Phoenix where I will spend time with my son, Nathan, during his fall break from school, giving us opportunity for quality time together. I’ll return on Wednesday, October 13. During this week away from Arlington, I will continue to attend to my pastoral work remotely, and will be available via email, Zoom, and by phone, working half days and claiming the rest as vacation time. On Sunday, October 10, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, we will welcome our member, Pastor Gordon Lathrop, as our preaching and presiding minister. Thanks be to God for Gordon’s willingness to serve us in this capacity.

Because of my time in Phoenix, I will take a break from offering a midweek message next week. But these messages will return, to be sure.

With prayerful best wishes to you all in Jesus’ name,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

Pentecost 19/Lectionary 27B, Mark 10:2-16

Today’s gospel reading does not give us any room to avoid saying something about marriage and divorce.

When asked by the religious leaders, the Pharisees, if it was lawful for a husband to divorce his wife, Mark reports that Jesus ultimately rooted his own teaching in what we heard in today’s first reading from the second creation story in the book of Genesis where it states that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage.

Listen again to how Jesus puts it, paraphrasing Genesis, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Then Jesus in Mark adds this zinger by way of conclusion about divorce: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In short, don’t get divorced.

That teaching hits very close to home for me. I think most of you are aware that I am a divorced man. The dissolution of our marriage, which we undertook carefully, in conversation with spiritual and psychological counselors and with our respective bishops and families, was what we discerned was the best course of action for us. It was an amicable separation that continues to allow for effective teamwork in the parenting of our son.

However, that said, the reality of our divorce weighs heavily on me to this day. In fact, there is not a day that passes that I do not feel the burden of the decision that we made, especially as it pertains to the added complexities of my trying to be a faithful father to our child.

My own particular expressions of human brokenness and sin fall heavily on my shoulders.

But when it comes to Jesus’ challenging teachings, there is not one of us in this room, or in any Christian or mortal assembly anywhere, that can escape the full weight of the divine law and its claims on us.

For several weeks earlier this year our Monday evening Zoom Bible Study engaged the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus’ teachings are relentless and leave no one off the hook.

Just to give an example, listen to this one from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) And it goes on and on like that for several chapters. The weight of the Law falls heavily on each one of us in our own ways according to our particular sins of commission and sins of omission.

Because of the difficult teachings of Jesus recorded in the gospels, I am so very glad that today’s gospel reading does not end with Jesus’ subsequent teaching that divorced people who remarry commit adultery!

Thanks be to God that the scholars who put together our lectionary readings included the verses about people bringing their children to Jesus so that Jesus might bless the children by laying his hands on them.

In the spirit of “children should be seen and not heard,” and assuming that children are at the bottom of the totem pole and the end of the line, the disciples spoke sternly to the people who were bringing their kids to Jesus.

The good news is that Jesus was indignant about the disciples’ seeking sternly to turn the people and kids away. I am heartened that Jesus’ indignation can ultimately be a source of good news for us, of gospel and not just law!

Here again is what Jesus had to say: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the dominion of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the dominion of God as a little child will not enter it.” Then Jesus took the little children “up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

At first glance, that only little children can receive the dominion of God seems like a proof text for our practice of infant baptism. But, of course, we cannot leave it at that.

For us adults, metaphorically speaking, what might it mean for us to receive and enter the dominion of God as little children? What might it mean for the dominion of God to belong to little children? What’s so significant about being a little child? Or being like a little child?

A couple of Sundays ago we first saw Jesus in Mark extol the virtues of a little child. Today we have an opportunity to go deeper.
Little children are:

  • Largely helpless on their own. They are radically dependent and need the loving care of parental others.
  • Immensely receptive, sponge-like in their capacities to learn loads of new information with innate curiosity. The German phrase that Luther uses in the Small Catechism, that is usually translated “what does this mean?” is was ist das? This German phrase is better understood as a child’s question, “what’s that?” – giving expression to the little child’s innate curiosity.
  • Resilient and strong – I remember my amazement when I first held my son, Nathan, as a day-old infant and just how strong he was when he arched his back.
  • Innocent, pure, uncomplicated, unburdened by decades of complexities and layers of things we adults add to situations, relationships, circumstances.

In short, when you add together all of their qualities, it seems to me that little children are quite capable of faith, of trust, in its most elemental and primal and visceral forms.

That is to say, Jesus teaches in Mark that to receive and enter into the dominion of God, faith, conceived as trust, is prerequisite, and little children are well poised for faith, to be trusting. It’s in their nature. And all of the qualities I listed about what it is to be child-like serve the ultimate end of faith, of trust.

Faith makes for the open door for our entry into God’s dominion, God’s reign. Or as we Lutherans are fond of saying, we are justified, made fit for entry into God’s dominion, by God’s grace as a gift, effective through faith. In short, it’s justification by faith.

Thus, adults are called upon to confess that when it comes to God and things divine, we never escape being little children. We are invited to acknowledge this reality in greater humility. We do well to allow the carefully constructed façades of adulthood be stripped away that we might become more child-like.

In fact, the process of growing older does a lot of that stripping away for us as we return more and more to child-like status. In my late father’s last years, when Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of vitality and capacities, he became more and more child-like, even to the point of enjoying the company of a stuffed animal whom he named “Buddy.” I saw this as charming, and not a cause for pathos, as dad was giving expression to the child-like qualities that make for receptivity to the dominion of God.

But even in years of health and vitality, Jesus, recorded in Mark, invites us to claim our status as little children in the eyes of God.

Again, I am much relieved that these grace-full verses about receiving the dominion of God in child-like faith follow immediately on the heels of the devastating-to-me- law-filled teaching about divorce. In acknowledging honestly my sin-stained frailty, I am freed by mercy to claim my radical dependence on God and God’s forgiveness and grace.

But there’s additional good news in today’s readings. The author of Hebrews, in our second reading, extols the virtues of Jesus Christ in language that sounds both like a hymn and a creed. “We do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)

Then the author concludes: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (Hebrews 2:10)

And here’s the wonderful, life-saving kicker: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters…” (Hebrews 2:11b) Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. Jesus is not ashamed to call us siblings.

Because Jesus is not ashamed of us – as divorcees, as sinners of all manner of other stripes – we are freed from being ashamed of ourselves, shamelessness being another quality of little children!

In Christ’s shamelessness for us we can claim without shame our own child-like dependencies and ultimately child-like faith in all humility, honesty, simplicity, and more.

What a healing gift for our shamed and shameful world, that we are able in Christ and by his Spirit, to engage each other in renewed child-like simplicity, receptivity, trust. Communities marked by such child-like qualities are leaven in the loaf of our wider society, inviting others also to rediscover their child-like qualities that soften the edges of our cruel, adult world. Maybe then we can finally learn how to play nicely together as all God’s children.

So, when you come forward to receive with thanks the Eucharistic gifts in bread and wine, Jesus’ very self, I invite you to imagine you’re being fed by our Mother Christ, as the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, would put it, appropriately, faithfully, offering female, matronly images for Christ. Claim the orality of receiving into yourself the sacred bread and wine as an adult version of the child at the mother’s breast to receive all the nourishment needed for growth and flourishing. Imagine yourself cradled in Christ’s loving arms with his hands laid on you in blessing.

And when you leave this room and pass the water-filled font, remember that this vessel with its water is the womb that gives us all birth as God’s children. And with that awareness go back into the world in renewed child-like faith to be leaven for the healing and thriving of all of God’s children. Amen.

Week of the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

I have previously written in these midweek messages about our congregation’s shared vision statements to guide our mission and ministry. A draft of these vision statements was first presented to you at our annual congregational meeting in January of this year. The Council then edited and prioritized the statements at their annual retreat earlier this year. That version was then made available to you as a congregation during this past summer. Virtual and in-person events were scheduled over the course of the summer to receive additional feedback about the vision statements. At its meeting in September, the Council voted to approve the current draft of the statements. Now we embark on the task of making specific, concrete plans to live into the statements of vision to chart a course for our life together.

The vision statements are intended to guide the planning and work of the Council, of committees, staff members, and me as Pastor. The eleven statements of vision are not intended for the wider public. It’s an internal document essentially. So, what about a simple statement of our vision for mission and ministry that is geared toward a wider public? That was one of the questions that came up repeatedly during conversations about the several vision statements.

Yes, I do believe that we need a simple, succinct statement that reflects who we are and what we intend to become as a congregation. And I believe that such a statement is precisely what we would offer the wider community, on our website, on signs or banners, and more. And I believe that we have the source for such a statement, one that is scriptural, namely, Micah 6:8, “[The Lord] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Distilling it down to a simpler form, this is the essence: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

This verse from the Hebrew prophet Micah was featured prominently in the congregation’s self-study reports that were generated as part of a process with a consultant during the interim period that preceded the process to call a new pastor. I am told that there was a good deal of appreciative energy around Micah 6:8 in that it seemed to sum up nicely Resurrection’s self-understanding as a congregation as well as its aspirations for its future.

I have been aware of the presence of Micah 6:8 in our life together during the many months of my pastorate with you thus far. But I did not want to rush our shared communal discernment to simply assume that Micah 6:8 would form the basis for our publicly stated vision. But the more I have lived with this verse in our life together in relation to what is happening in the wider world, the more I am convinced that Micah 6:8 is indeed an appropriate, straightforward guiding statement for us as a congregation. It says in a few words that which I discern is what we want to communicate to the wider world.

To ground our further consideration, here’s some brief, initial reflection and commentary on the three simple, but profound, statements.

Do Justice:

Any talk of justice among Lutherans needs to relate understandings of justice to God’s justification of us sinners, namely, that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift effective through faith, apart from our works, even of pursuing justice. Justice and justification share the same root in English, and they are related theologically. God’s justice is a merciful justice, motivated by love. Our seeking to do justice, to do the works that make for justice among people and nations, is rooted in and emerges from our having received with thanksgiving God’s merciful and forgiving justice to and for us. Thus, out of thanks for grace given, we get to do justice in serving our neighbors in love. We don’t have to do justice in order to get right with God. In true Christian liberty, which is a freedom for the other, we seek to do justice with no strings attached. Moreover, in Christian freedom, pursuing justice is wide open and can take many different forms depending on our social context, its needs and opportunities. This theological way of thinking about justice is not ideological. I sense in members at Resurrection a concern about social justice and the importance of this theme for our public witness and initiatives as a congregation. But I also recognize, affirm, and celebrate that there is great deal of opinion in our congregation about what specifically pursuing justice might mean, with varied opinions representing the spectrum of political views from right to left and in the center. We will discern together what it means to do justice, and to be forgiven by our just, but merciful God. For we envision Resurrection as a community of moral discernment seeking ways to make public witness to the calls of God’s justice.

Love Kindness:

Doing justice by itself can have rough edges – all law and no gospel. Thus, the importance of following the invitation to do justice with the plea to love kindness. Love. Kindness. Two magnificent words, theological and otherwise. Our love of kindness emerges from God’s loving kindness. We love because God first loved us (cf.1 John 4:19). God’s justice is merciful, and thus, kind. We are kind because God is kind and merciful to us. Love is passionate. Thus, we have a passionate love for kindness, a disposition in scarce supply in our wider culture, nation, and world. Loving kindness is therefore a marvelous witness to our unkind world. Kind people are leaven in the loaf of communities, helping them to rise to a kinder level of communal engagement. Importantly, I have experienced Resurrection as a kind and respectful community of people. Moreover, working to build an ever-deepening sense of community among us, the fruit of loving kindness, is the first prioritized vision statement among our set of visions. Loving kindness advances such community building efforts.

Walk Humbly with God:

Walking with God. God walking with us. This also captures central elements of our envisioned life together, rooted in and growing from the centrality of the Sunday worshiping assembly, our education and formation programs, our desired outcome for a rich spiritual life together. We are on a journey with God, and God is not finished with us – hence the central importance of ongoing education and formation our whole life long, God ever walking with us as we walk with God. And we endeavor to do all of this humbly. Humility is another disposition, like kindness, that is in short supply in our current nation and world. Despite the prominent worldly positions many of our members hold or have held in their careers, I experience Resurrection as a comparatively unassuming, that is to say, humble congregation. And we can endeavor to further this humility, again, in witness to a world in need of greater humility.

Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with God. In brief, these simple statements are descriptive of our life together, but they are also aspirational in that we do not live and abide perfectly in our capacities for justice, kindness, and humbly walking with God.

So it is that I offer to you my recommendation that Micah 6:8 would ground and guide our simple statement of vision that we offer the wider world in our various forms of public witness.

I’d love to hear from you, and to learn your reaction and response to this recommendation that we ground the summary statement of our life together in Micah’s call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Please don’t be shy about sharing with me your thoughts.

In Jesus’ name,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

 

Pentecost 18/Lectionary 26B, Mark 9:38-50

One of the gifts of the Bible is its realism, that its stories reveal so much honest truth about the human condition. Today’s readings are no exception.

In the first reading for today from the book of Numbers, Moses is burned-out by the burden of trying to manage an unwieldy rabble of a flock, the Israelites. Just when Moses is ready to throw in the towel and quit, the Lord instructs Moses to gather seventy of the elders of Israel to share with Moses the burden of leadership.

There were criteria for identifying these leaders and proper credentialing was needed. But Eldad and Medad did not exactly obey these instructions about who was eligible to gather and where, and they went about prophesying on their own apart from the tent of meeting. Joshua, son of Nun, an assistant of Moses, caught wind of this and reported to Moses, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

Thus, we see the honest truth about the all too typical and painfully human dynamic of the in group and out group. Who is included? Who should be excluded? Who has the authority to speak and who doesn’t? There are all kinds of permutations of this very human dynamic.

We see the in-group vs. out-group reality in today’s gospel reading as well. The disciple, John, said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Once again, it’s the us vs. them thing. During my years as an undergraduate major in anthropology, I was taught about the evolutionary importance for survival of a clearly identified in-group, a tribe, with clearly delineated rules for who procreates with whom, who can safely live in the confines of the village, and who would be excluded and considered the out-group, the other.

This ancient dynamic continues to this day. And while it has healthy functions, the in-group/out-group dynamic is also corrupted by human sin and brokenness.

Honoring the importance of tribe can easily devolve into tribalism. We see this manifest in the blowback reactions in many nations to the recent realities of globalism – especially populist movements of nationalism in many countries.

Tribalism easily becomes xenophobia, fear of the outsider, the other, and racism, and is a major locus of human sin, and the ills of society.
I marvel at how much of my current suffering revolves around the divisiveness of our age. We see the us vs. them energies on TV and social media and read about it in the papers. We experience divisiveness at school, at work, and even in our churches. These realities make for daily burdens that I carry. I feel their weight. You also undoubtedly know of such burdens.

Jesus, of course, breaks open all of this. Jesus says in Mark in response to John’s desire to stop the other casting out demons in Jesus’ name, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” And then Mark reports that Jesus offers that quotable quote that has found its way into popular discourse: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

In last Sunday’s gospel, we saw how Jesus welcomed the child in the midst of the disciples, children being at the bottom of the totem pole. This week we see in Mark that Jesus welcomes one perceived by John to be an outsider, the other, the stranger. Jesus makes a witness against xenophobia, fear of the other, the outsider, the one not among the twelve and others explicitly following Jesus. Jesus sees the perceived outsider as an insider. It’s all quite radical from a more typically human point of view.

But here’s the thing. Jesus is not the only one doing this. Moses offers welcome, too, in today’s story in Numbers. Concerning Eldad and Medad whom Joshua wanted Moses to stop from prophesying, Moses retorted, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

Reading the scriptures from a Christian viewpoint, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ’s teaching and ministry, the vision of the dominion of God is inclusive. It is multinational, multicultural, multiracial. It is ecumenical. It is unity in diversity.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the intersection where all of the world and its troubled peoples meet. In our human brokenness, the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross draw the whole world to himself and ultimately to God with focus on the pronouncement by Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Then the empty tomb three days later inaugurates a new reality in which the xenophobic us vs. them dynamic does not have the final word. Then on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to proclaim God’s deeds of power in the languages of all the nations, and this proclamation births a new order that is the church, a universal church that has come to include folk from all people across the globe.

In the waters of baptism, we share unity in Christ with all the baptized, a life-giving torrent that breaks down walls that divide. This is a unity that persists and insists foundationally, objectively, even as the gospel is proclaimed in a wide and wild diversity of languages and cultures and nations. Again, it’s unity in diversity.

[As an aside, I have this ecumenical fantasy that somehow all the churches of a particular city would share one, single place of baptism to signify this unity that we have in Christ. What a lovely witness that would be to our divided world!]

Indeed, us vs. them, the in-group/out-group dynamic is short-circuited by the unifying waters of baptism. But we also share unity at the holy sacramental table – one bread, one cup – which is why we Lutherans practice a generously open invitation to Communion.

But this side of the consummated reign of God, our communion is imperfect, our unity is not complete in our practice. There does indeed persist the problem of false prophets doing their thing in Jesus’ name, a reality which Jesus himself names. In final words of warning in Matthew’s gospel, it is reported that Jesus said, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Matthew 24:4-5)

So how do we tell the difference between those genuinely acting in Jesus’ name and those disingenuously? Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16a) You will know them by their fruits.

We get a good glimpse of the genuine fruit that comes from Jesus Christ in the marks of Christian community described in today’s second reading from James. There we read that the fruit of genuine Christian community includes: cheerful songs of praise; intercessory prayer for those who suffer; elders of the church who pray for the sick and anoint them with oil; confession of sins to each other with the assurance of forgiveness; reconciliation with those who wander from the truth. When we see these things happening in Jesus’ name, we can be assured of the authenticity of Christian witness.

But here’s another mark, another fruit of genuine Christian community: our wounds, our bodies, our selves, that are maimed in one way or another. Because of the ongoing struggle between tribalistic ways of the old Adam, and the radically inclusive ways of our being new creations in Christ, we suffer, we end up wounding each other and ourselves, and thus, we enter into life in the dominion of God wounded and maimed. At least that is what Mark suggests when he records Jesus’ admonitions that are central to today’s gospel passage: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” And so, too, with our feet and our eyes (cf. Mark 9:43-48).

Because of the ongoing claims of human sin and brokenness, we inevitably perpetuate the age old us vs. them problems and we get maimed. But the good news is that we enter into the life of God’s dominion even with our wounds, even as Jesus still displayed his own wounded hands and side on the other side of the resurrection.

Thus, in Christ, he who died and he who was raised, despite our trials and tribulations, our faith is awakened, quickened, renewed and strengthened such that we can seek to fulfill Jesus’ exhortation that concludes today’s reading from Mark: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” In our mission and ministry as a church, we get to be salty, seasoning and preserving the life of the world even as we seek peace with one another and pursue it.

In Jesus’ name, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are salty and seek to do the things that make for peace, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

Week of the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ:

As we have now embarked on a new year for Christian education and faith formation programs, I want to call your attention to an emerging new reality among us in our congregation. And that is that you can expect to see more programming that is intended to include persons of all ages together. This promises a more intergenerational approach to Christian education and faith formation.

Why this new, emerging approach? First off, Christian assembly is for all persons together. The Holy Spirit does not call us to affinity groups of the like-minded, or to interest groups inclusive only of those in similar circumstances or age groups. No, the Holy Spirit gathers all of us together at the same time and in the same place. This is what we attempt to embody in our single liturgy of Holy Communion on Sunday mornings. I believe that other programs, initiatives, and events of our congregation should emerge from, grow out of, and parallel our usual Sunday assemblies.

Thus, you will be invited to programs that formerly might have only been targeted to children or youth, but which now intend to draw persons of all ages – and not just the parents of the children and youth involved! You can, for example, expect to see more confirmation-related events that include whole families, and not just our confirmands. Moreover, you will be given resources intended for use at home – with your whole families, however they are configured. Martin and Katie Luther saw home life as domestic church, as Christian assembly in microcosm in ways that emerge from and parallel and reinforce life together in the whole church.

In addition to such approaches being faithful to and in keeping with our whole liturgical assembly on Sunday morning, there are other reasons for more intergenerational initiatives in our life together. Another is that nurturing a deeper sense of Christian community in our congregational life is identified as the first priority of our set of newly approved by Council vision statements to guide our mission and ministry together. Intergenerational approaches to Christian education and faith formation can serve to build community both here at church and in your homes.

Moreover, we live during a time when people are ever more increasingly subdivided into ever smaller groups until we risk being atomized and reduced to our radical individuality. We labor in silos in our places of work. Professional endeavors become ever more specialized such that experts may fail to see the forest for the trees. We risk becoming in our wider society collections of isolated individuals who are alone even if we are together, quite often with our faces glued to the blue-lit screens of our devices. Bringing people of all ages and all circumstances together can literally have healing effects for us physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually.

Another reason for an intergenerational approach to Christian education and formation is that it is just plain fun and life-giving. On those occasions when I have participated as an adult in activities typically designed for kids, I have found it liberating to, for example, get down on the floor with others to imagine, to play, to color, or whatever the activity happens to be. Play is not just for kids. And for children and youth, it can be compelling for them to see in adults the capacity for playfulness.

So, you see, there are many compelling reasons for us to offer programming intended to draw together persons of all ages and varied circumstances in our life together as a congregation.

Look in the announcements in coming weeks for news of such new opportunities.

Seeking deeper community in Christ,

Pastor Jonathan Linman

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.