Approval Essay

Since I previously posted my Entrance essay and my Endorsement essay on my blog, it seemed a shame not to post my Approval essay.  Fair warning: it is loooong (23 pages double spaced in Word).  I think there’s some good stuff in there, though!  Enjoy!

1.PERSON IN MINISTRY
A.What is your understanding of God’s mission in the world? Describe your faith in the Triune God and how your Trinitarian faith has informed your understanding of God’s mission.

          When reflecting on what God is up to in the world, the words that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19 often come to mind: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Just as Jesus’ reading of this text left his hearers flabbergasted, God is continually working in the world in ways that surprise, delight, confound, and even mystify us, working liberation and healing and reconciliation in unexpected ways, through unexpected people and places.  God’s mission is a slow invasion of love in a broken world, a kingdom that conquers with gentleness, heart by heart.  God’s mission is to bring us to life, despite our determination to cling to the ways of death, liberating all of us from the oppressive systems that we have created for ourselves, beginning in the margins with those most harmed by injustice and violence.  God’s mission is to reconcile all creation to Godself, to bring all things to wholeness in God, making peace with God’s recalcitrant people through the cross of Christ.
          God’s love for creation, for humanity, is unearned, unfailing, and unending.  God is love.  Love is the very nature of God’s being.  St. Augustine’s description of the divine Trinity as “lover,” “beloved,” and “love” gives much fodder for reflection in this regard.  Far from being some kind of changeless, monadic, solitary deity, our triune God is a dynamic community of persons, a living, divine relationship whose wild love spirals out to encompass the entire cosmos.  God is love – a transitive verb, an action which bespeaks community, family, and relationship, while at the same time binding together in unity.
          It’s no wonder then that Jesus’ answer to the question about the greatest commandment is that we are first and foremost to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; nor is it surprising that the second commandment – bound inextricably to the first – is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We experience God’s love and express our love for God through worship and praise, through attentiveness to how God encounters us through the living Word and the sacraments; and we also find this same experience and expression of Godly love in the ways we love our neighbors.  Spreading the good news, working for justice, peace, and liberation, serving our neighbor’s needs – all these are ways that we show love for neighbor and love for God, and all are ways that God’s mission is carried out in the world.

B. What community of faith helped shape your understanding of God’s mission and your gifts for missional leadership? Identify missional leadership gifts that were developed and strengthened by your experiences in this formative faith community and provide a few examples.

          With deepest gratitude, I must recognize that there have been many communities of faith over the years that have both shaped my understanding of God’s mission and shaped me as a person of faith.  If I may, I would like to lift up not one, but three, communities and some of the gifts that were developed in and by each.
          Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln, NE, is where I first began to discern a call to ministry.  I was a freshly Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and Grace was a congregation just entering redevelopment, and it soon became apparent that many of the project development skills that the Peace Corps had taught me could be put to good use in the church.  One of Grace’s redevelopment goals was to find ways to reconnect with their surrounding neighborhood, and as a young adult who lived in that neighborhood, I was bursting with ideas.  With the support of the pastor and the congregation, I helped develop an interfaith young adult faith discussion group that met weekly at a local coffee house. In cooperation with our social ministry team, I also developed a partnership with Lincoln Literacy that saw literacy classes for refugees and immigrants start up in our spaces, and I also helped spearhead our resettlement of two refugee families with Lutheran Family Services.  By allowing me to pursue these ministry ideas and supporting me, Grace revealed in me a passion for creativity, innovation, and imagination in ministry, especially for finding ways to build bridges between congregation and community. Grace, true to its name, is also the community that taught me the most about God’s grace.  I was raised in a very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “the Lord helps those who help themselves” kind of atmosphere: attitudes which were often implicitly (or explicitly) linked to faith and what it meant to live as a Christian.  Grace Lutheran was the first place where I learned that my passion for social justice and for working to ensure the well-being of others, and my passion for following Christ were not at odds with one another, but rather, perfectly in tune.
          St. Andrew Lutheran Church / Iglesia Luterana San Andrés in West Chicago, IL, was my contextual education site during my second year of seminary.  As an originally Anglo congregation that decided to become bilingual in light of their community’s changing demographics, St. Andrew taught me a lot about the challenges and pitfalls of bilingual ministry.  This experience underscored that being bilingual is much more about culture than about language, and that fundamental assumptions about aspects of ministry like stewardship, preaching, faith formation, worship planning, and others must be carefully articulated, examined, and opened to transformation by the Spirit through encounters with the other in order for multicultural ministry to succeed.  I got to stretch my ministerial legs in this regard through planning an evangelism training as my ministry project, carefully designing it in a way that would be effective in a multicultural context, and discovering along the way that my experiences living and working in the midwest, in Latin America, and in immigrant communities are an invaluable asset for working in multicultural ministry.
          Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM, is my current internship site.  This time at Peace has taught me so much about stewardship – both stewardship of physical/financial resources and stewardship of relationships in and among a community of the faithful.  My internship supervisor has particularly strong gifts for administration and development, and I have been trying to soak up as much of his wisdom as I can about the logistical realities of managing and funding congregational ministry, through participating in our stewardship campaign, as well as meetings of the finance committee, mission teams, and council.  Internship at Peace has also given me the opportunity to engage in sustained pastoral care relationships – in contrast to the short-term nature of hospital chaplaincy – and to gain a sense of what it’s like to keep tabs on and care for an entire community of people, and to empower them to take part in caring for other members of the community.  Interestingly, Peace is a Reconciling in Christ congregation that nevertheless has a number of members who identify as more socially conservative and do not feel altogether comfortable with the congregation’s RIC status.  Learning more about how to preach and teach and minister to people with a sometimes widely varying array of thoughts and opinions has been an invigorating challenge. And practicing reconciliation with those who hold different views from me has been a humbling and rewarding experience.

C. As an outgrowth of your personal gifts for missional leadership, envision how you will nurture and empower others to serve as missional leaders through their vocation and participation in the life of the church. Within your response integrate an expression of a Lutheran understanding of vocation.

          Recently, a young woman from the congregation who sought me out for pastoral counseling experienced an incident that made her feel unsafe in her home. As a pastoral act, I suggested she gather some friends and that we do a house blessing.  I brought water from the font at Peace to bless her living space, and explained that the water by itself was not special, but rather that it was a symbol of the continuity between our life in Christian community and our life in the world, that the promises made and the call received in the waters of baptism are like a river that flow from the font and through our whole lives.  Vocation is the living out of our baptismal identity in daily life.  It is doing the work that, as Frederick Buechner wrote, “is the kind of work that you need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”  Everyone is called to some kind of vocation, whether directly related to the church or not.  As a community of the faithful serving God together, we support one another in our vocations, encouraging others to respond to that calling as faithfully as they can, to remember their baptismal identity in all moments of life.

2.CORE THEOLOGICAL COMMITMENTS
A.What key theological insights have been influential in your development as a missional leader in the Church as it participates in God’s mission in world? Include distinctive biblical and Lutheran theological building blocks which you have used to construct a theology of mission that informs your current understanding.

          Incarnation is very much at the center of a lot of my theological understanding.  I love the idea of a God so in love with creation that she willingly took on flesh and walked the earth on two feet.  For me, the incarnation resoundingly reaffirms what God declared about humanity at the dawn of creation: that humanity is very good.  The God-given goodness of human lives and human bodies is often missing from discourse in this world, which is overwhelmingly preoccupied with things like whether bodies are the right color, or the right size, or the right age, or the right gender, or whether a body has the right abilities or loves the right people or speaks the right language. Humans have devised numerous ways and systems to decide who is in and who is out and to discriminate against and oppress those who are “out.”  Jesus Christ, God made flesh, chose to become human among those whom the world declared “out,” among those on the margins.  He allowed himself to be tortured and mocked and hung on a cross, and in so doing, he revealed the failure and corruption of the systems that humans have built for ourselves for what they are.  And by his resurrection, he showed that God is greater than our sin and stronger than death itself.  Our incarnate God entered into the deepest depths of human suffering and depravity and still found a way to redeem us.  God continues to enter into our darkness and to be present with us in the midst of suffering; and as part of our vocation, we are also called to be present with those who are suffering, to be the body of Christ incarnate among the marginalized.
          As God’s baptized and redeemed people living in a material world, our lives are filled with paradox.  We are dual citizens: citizens of God’s kingdom of justice, love, and peace, and (in a North American context) citizens of a consumer-capitalist society.  God calls us to be responsible citizens of both, and so it is our daily challenge to navigate the tension between the demands of these two citizenships.  I find this requires a lot of trying to follow Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 10:16 to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”  For me, this tension is at its most challenging when talking about how to fund our participation in God’s mission for the world.  Money is perhaps the most worshiped idol of this world, and so on the one hand, delivering it into the service of God rather than into the service of self can be a powerful statement of faith; and yet I feel tension about the fact that many churches are sitting on considerable material resources – and/or expending considerable material resources on buildings and internally directed ministry – when the poor and the homeless are at our door, and when other ELCA congregations in impoverished and multicultural contexts struggle with a severe lack of resources.  I suspect that this is a tension I will always feel in my life in ministry, because while I feel this discomfort, I also understand the wonderful things that generous material resources enable a congregation to do, and I especially appreciate what such resources enable congregationsto do together as synods and as the ELCA.  This work is the paradox in which we live: that we have been freed already to live into kingdom lives even in this broken world, and that we are called to be active participants – co-creators – in the in-breaking of the kingdom.
          The freedom in which we live comes to us through God’s gift of grace.  God created humans as very good.  At the same time, our free will allows us to make decisions that are sometimes, well, very bad.  Over and over in the history of God with God’s people, we see the myriad depressing ways that humanity has failed to live up to God’s hopes and expectations for us.  God came to earth to be among us, up close and personal, and what did we do?  We mocked, tortured, and crucified her, just as daily we participate in systems that humiliate, kill, and cause the suffering of other people.  We are undeserving of the redeeming love and endless mercy which we receive from God. And yet it is ours, without price and without exception.  The sacraments are our daily reminder of this unending, unearned love and grace.  As Lutherans, we confess that it is God’s action, drawing near to us, that gives the sacraments their power.  Through our baptism, God daily claims us and cleanses us from all that separates us from him; we daily die to our sinful selves to be raised anew to life in Christ.  At the table, we are met with the extravagant abundance of the eucharistic feast: the God of the cosmos willingly broken and poured out for the nourishment of all, a self-giving God whose indomitable love overpowers our resistance and sin and wraps us up into the one body of Christ.

B.Describe how these key theological insights informed the missional leadership experience you described above in #1.  

          The incarnation calls us to be present with our neighbors in a way that I think both Grace Lutheran and St. Andrew were working to do.  As a church in a neighborhood populated by many young adults – especially college students – and immigrants – especially refugees – the decisions we made together at Grace about the kind of ministry to pursue made excellent, incarnational sense: to open our church to those seeking to learn English and integrate themselves into the community, to leave the walls of our church to engage in conversation and relationship with young adults in their lives and faiths, and to extend warm hospitality to those fleeing violence and seeking to make a new home in our neighborhood.  Likewise, at St. Andrew, the decision to become a bilingual congregation was a direct response to the surrounding community.  The ongoing efforts to create community and to help members be present to one another in this congregation present their own incarnational challenge; that is, in a congregation made up of upper-middle class Anglo people, mostly undocumented Latino people, former Roman Catholics, religious skeptics, and a host of others, we must wrestle with the question of how to accompany neighbors from very different backgrounds through our joys and through our struggles.
          Peace Lutheran, as I experience it, sits in the heart of paradox: a welcoming, servant-hearted church that is nevertheless essentially an upper/middle class, white, midwestern, Lutheran church plunked down in the majority-Latino borderlands of New Mexico, where Lutherans are pretty scarce on the ground. Through my internship project, I have been introducing bilingual ministry elements to the congregation, and it has inevitably raised the question of how we understand our Lutheran identity.  The ELCA’s status as the whitest church in the nation reveals how closely many Lutherans tie their religious identity to their cultural identity; bilingual ministry confronts congregations with the need to discern the theological from the cultural and to wrestle with the question of what makes us Lutheran Christians in a multicultural context.  Peace has also been wrestling with the tensions around stewardship and money I wrote about above.  We were guinea pigs over the last year for the “Stewardship for All Seasons” program that the Rocky Mountain Synod has started, and many members felt uneasy with the marketing techniques and commercial-seeming fundraising approaches that this process entails.  Stewardship of our financial resources challenges us with the question of how to conduct the business of the church effectively and efficiently while never forgetting that the church is not a business.
          God’s grace and love and sacramental generosity undergird all of the ministry undertaken by these three communities.  God’s love engenders love that leads us to seek relationship with our neighbor, and God’s grace reminds us in the midst of challenge and tension that we have already been redeemed and empowered to help carry out God’s mission with God’s gracious help.  One clear and tangible way that this “theological insight” manifested itself in the community of Peace Lutheran was during one of our midweek Lenten services. In the middle of Lent, a season of repentance and remorse, we were suddenly surprised by “An Invitation to Abundant Life” from the 55th chapter of Isaiah:  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  Deciding to take Isaiah at his word, we spread the eucharistic table with a feast of rich food – olives, honey, nuts, cheeses, chocolate, and of course, milk and wine – and invited the congregation to come and eat.  It was a beautiful sign of God’s abundant love and extravagant generosity, flowing from the communion table, surrounded by God’s people in fellowship with one another, and a rich reminder that the goal of repentance isn’t shame or self-castigation, but rather the restoration of relationship with our madly loving God.

C.What are the distinctive contributions of the Lutheran theological tradition for both (1) the Church’s discernment of and participation in God’s mission in the world and (2) the formation of disciples for mission in a pluralistic society?

          One of the blessings of serving in a place where most people have never even heard of Lutheranism is the opportunity (and the need!) to articulate what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.  With gratitude to Bishop Jim Gonia for his succinct articulation of our “Lutheran DNA,” three of the most important contributions of the Lutheran theological tradition are: cross, paradox, and grace.  These parallel the theological convictions I wrote about above.  The message of God’s free grace and boundless love is one that begs to be shared with the world, especially with those who have experienced rejection and discrimination, or the bitter disappointment of their own failings and brokenness.  For example, one way that Peace Lutheran does this is by choosing to uplift and affirm LGBTQ people by being a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Both Peace Lutheran and Grace Lutheran also host groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, veteran support groups, and divorce support groups.  For people wrestling with addiction, trauma, and broken relationships, God’s grace is a life-giving – and sometimes literally life-saving – word that we are called to share.
          Walking the way of the cross means walking with Jesus among the suffering and the marginalized.  Lutherans, as theologians of the cross, are called to accompany our neighbors in all walks of life, especially the oppressed, the sick, the lonely, the poor, the grieving, and the dying.  This gives rise to ministries like food pantries, health clinics, Alzheimer’s groups, the Border Servant Corps, which Peace hosts, and a multitude of others.  We are called to emulate Christ’s self-giving love, and – as written in one of my favorite eucharistic prayers – “to give ourselves away as bread for the hungry.”  This self-giving also goes beyond the direct service that many congregations perform; especially as a church made up of mostly privileged people, we are also called to give of our time and resources to advocate and organize with and on behalf of the people we seek to accompany.
          This advocating and organizing is also rooted in the paradox of our dual citizenship in God’s kingdom and in the material world.  We are God’s “both/and” people living in an either/or world. God’s kingdom is characterized by a love of justice and a concern for the well-being and thriving of all people and all creation that often stands in direct challenge to the ways of this world. As Lutherans, we live into this tension, and bear witness to the better way of God’s kingdom, as we strive to live into it in the here and now.
          Lutheran familiarity with paradox also makes us uniquely suited to minister in a pluralistic world – something that enables our unequaled ecumenical partnerships and our interfaith collaboration.  Our understanding of humanity’s universal need for grace and of God’s unconditional love for all frees us to love our neighbors of all faiths and all walks of life without feeling the need to judge or “save” them. And our focus on walking the way of the cross, which calls us to the service of our neighbor, paradoxically aligns our goals with good-hearted people of all faiths (and no faith) who likewise feel called to service.

 3.MISSIONAL LEADERSHIP

  • Based on your responses to the previous two questions, especially your theological constructs above, how has your understanding of yourself as a missional leader been shaped by your personal faith in the Triune God and your key theological building blocks?
  • Within your response integrate scriptural insights regarding:
    1. God’s mission in the world
    2. Missional leadership
  • Include a reflection on the positive aspects of the life experiences you listed above and what you learned theologically and practically that will inform your future ministry as a missional leader.

          Most of my days begin and end with praying the divine hours, part of my personal spiritual practice as an oblate of St. Benedict.  In thinking about myself as a leader and generally about the call to pastoral leadership, some words from the morning canticle of Zechariah spring to mind: “You, my child, shall be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”  While it feels a bit presumptuous to liken my ministerial calling to that of John the Baptist, there is undeniably a prophetic aspect to ministry that I endeavor to embody.  I understand myself to be a leader called not only to proclaim the kingdom, but to be a co-creator of it with God’s church on earth, especially by proclaiming God’s grace and forgiveness and love through both word and sacrament.  This proclaiming and co-creating carries with it a responsibility to name the ways this world fails to live up to God’s vision for creation, and to work together with others toward enacting God’s justice, love, and peace.  This prophetic vocation also calls me to embody God’s grace and forgiveness and love by accompanying “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” – those who dwell in the shadow of the cross.
          In being called to the ministry of word and sacrament in the church, I have also discerned that I feel most particularly called to minisry in multicultural and bilingual contexts.  In ministry work at San Andrés and other Chicago area congregations and in bilingual project work here at Peace, I feel a deep sense of wholeness and purpose and passion.  This is the feeling of vocation, the feeling – to invoke Buechner once again – of the place where my “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  This, to me, is kingdom work, the work of the church. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit sweeps through the nascent church with wind and flame, and the earliest Christ-followers begin speaking in the native languages of all those assembled.  What a glorious vision of the multicultural kingdom of God!  We live in a beautifully diverse world, people of all nations, races, genders, abilities, sizes, colors, and religions all made in the image of our loving, triune God.  The church is called to embody this diversity as the body of Christ.  Reflecting this diversity has been one of the ELCA’s goals since its inception, thirty years ago, and one it has struggled to accomplish. This church needs leaders with gifts for building bridges between congregations and their changing communities, who can help the church loosen its grip on Anglo-European Lutheran culture while also celebrating the riches of Lutheran theology, history, and tradition. I feel the Holy Spirit moving me to be such a leader, to build bridges and build hope by lifting up the things that give us life.
          All this being said, I fully recognize that this kind of ministry requires time, patience, and a great deal of the love and grace I wrote about above.  The bilingual project work I have engaged in at Peace Lutheran has firmly underscored just how demanding this work is.  This work has also underscored for me that multicultural ministry must be rooted in relationship – the loving relationship of the divine Trinity – relationship in and among members, as well as with the broader community.  For this reason, while having a leader come in to start building bilingual ministry in this church might feel to some like Jesus marching into the temple and flipping tables, in my own heart, I have actually been reflecting a lot on Paul’s writings to the Corinthians.  I preached a sermon back in January on a text from 1 Corinthians 8 in which Paul addresses the debate raging in Corinth over whether to eat meat, and the text has stayed with me.  What I admire about this passage is that, while Paul clearly has an opinion on the matter, his primary concern is preserving and encouraging loving relationship within the community.  Multicultural ministry is vitally important, but if we barge ahead and accomplish it by alienating most or all current members of the church, then we have missed the whole point.
          Learning to be an effective leader in diverse and disagreeing communities of people has been an enormously formational part of the experiences I referenced above.  I have learned and grown and been stretched in so many ways over the past five years in candidacy.  Through these experiences in ministry, I have felt my whole self welcomed into the church; and I have discovered with joy that the call to ministry is one that enables and invites me to make use of all the variety of gifts that God has given me. As a “second career” seminarian, and as someone who has, frankly, never totally felt like she fit in anywhere, the gift of being able to be fully myself in the church is a blessing beyond words.  This call somehow knits together a life that otherwise feels sometimes like a disjointed series of random episodes.  I have been able to put to use my extraversion and love for people in building new communities, like I did at Grace, and I have been able to use the project development and intercultural skills I learned in Peace Corps in nearly all of the ministry contexts in which I have worked.  I have found lots of opportunities to make use of my previous experience as an educator – especially in multicultural contexts – working with adults, adolescents, and children to build up the church in knowledge and in faith. I have thanked God on innumerable occasions for the insight a music performance background has given me for planning worship and collaborating with parish music directors and musicians.  I have discovered that a sense of humor is essential to pastoral ministry – without it, one might miss the delightfully absurd moments of life in community, like when members of my liturgical Spanish class at Peace discovered that the phrase, “light the flame of your love, Lord” – enciende la llama de tu amor, Señor – could also be translated, “light the llama of your love, Lord.”  Even seemingly trivial gifts have found their expression in my ministry; a love for crafts, for example, is one I share with many members of Peace and has been a means of building relationship and sharing joy.
          I love this life.  I love this vocation and this church.  And most of all, I love the loving God through whom all this has been made possible. I am so grateful for all of it.

4.PROCLAMATION AND CONTEXT
A.Select and submit a sermon you preached during this past year that highlights your role as a missional leader who participates in the formation of disciples.

  • Include a brief description of the context in which the sermon was preached that had a direct effect on the crafting of this sermon.
  • Describe the core biblical claims in the text, the approach you used in exegesis of the text, and the theological convictions in your chosen context that informed the sermon.
  • In light of your exegetical engagement with the biblical text(s), what did you hope would happen to the hearers as a result of hearing this sermon? In what ways did the feedback you solicited and received match your hopes? How might you amend the sermon to equip the hearers’ missional role?
  • Include a description of the Triune God’s active role in the preparation and preaching of this sermon.
  • How does missional preaching impact how the hearers live out the faith in daily life
  • What do you envision your role to be in that process? Include in your response specific ways you would carry out this role.

          The following sermon was composed and preached for my internship congregation, Peace Lutheran in Las Cruces, NM, on the Sunday nearest Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Peace Lutheran’s membership is of mostly Anglo-European descent and boasts an interesting mix of retired folks (many midwesterners), university faculty and students from NMSU, and LGBTQ-identifying people drawn to our open and affirming RIC community.  I know many members struggle with issues relating to the body; many are elderly and/or disabled, several are currently battling cancer, and several attend the “Overeaters Anonymous” groups that meet at the church and worry about their weight.  As a majority white congregation, Peace struggles to form meaningful, personal relationships with our majority Latino/Hispanic context beyond contact made through community service and vicariously through the Border Servant Corps ministry.
          This is not the sermon I initially set out to write.  When I first read the texts assigned for this Sunday, I was immediately drawn to the call narratives of Samuel and Nathanael in the first reading and the gospel reading, respectively.  I even chose my hymns on Monday – all related to call and vocation – feeling confident that this was the direction the sermon was heading.  I had hoped to avoid talking about the text from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he goes on at length about fornication and prostitutes.  So, naturally, that was exactly the text that God kept drawing my attention back to.  Incidentally, this is the way most of my sermon preparation goes. I start out with an idea of what I need to say, then God preaches her own sermon to me through the text, and I do my inept best to recreate that sermon for the congregation.
          As will be evident in the sermon text, I found Psalm 139, with its tender images of creation – God knitting us together in our mothers’ wombs, intricately weaving us in the depths of the earth – to be enormously helpful in illuminating this text from Paul.  It helped me to read between “fornication” and “prostitute” flashing out from the text like neon signs to see that Paul’s admonishments about sexual behavior are punctuated by phrases like, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” and “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”  I remembered from my class on Paul that the Corinthian community had wandered into a dualistic understanding of the body which engendered all kinds of problematic behavior that Paul addresses especially in his first letter to the community.  In this light, I read Paul as one who is drawing attention to the immense value of human bodies (meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body) in God’s eyes, echoing themes present in Psalm 139.
          I had lots of goals for this sermon.  Through this sermon, I hoped to tackle and clarify a difficult text that I knew had probably been used in particularly hurtful ways against the LGBTQ members of the congregation, several of whom come from fundamentalist Christian backgrounds.  I also wanted to highlight – somewhat emulating Paul – the stark contrast between the way the world in which we live views and treats human bodies and human lives and the way that God views and treats human bodies and human lives – this is very much the heart of the sermon.  I wanted to bring in themes of call and vocation, tying in the gospel and first reading (and the hymns I’d chosen), and also to relate somehow to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but these ended up being not nearly as developed as the rest of the sermon.  If I had the chance to preach again (which I constantly have to remind myself  I will in three years!), and if my hearers didn’t mind a 20+ minute sermon, what I would really love to do is bring in more of the gospel text, to talk about the relationship between seeing and knowing and calling, as Jesus immediately knows who Nathanael is when he sees him under the fig tree, and identifies him and calls him by name – seeing and knowing which is, again, is echoed in Psalm 139.  I think that making more use of this text in this sermon would have better solidified the connection between the reflection about bodies and the turn to call and witness.
          Ideally, the preaching moment helps hearers to make strong connections between the texts, our life together as a faith community, and our daily lives in the world.  A good sermon draws out the deep meaning of God’s living word and helps to translate it into the context in which the hearers live.  In Lutheran terms, sermons communicate both law and gospel: the good news of God’s free grace and boundless love for all people, and instruction and invitation for living in response to God’s love toward us.
          I envision my role in this process to be the one in the pulpit!   As a preacher, I do my best to exegete the biblical text, the assembly, and the context in which they live, at a personal, local, national, and global level.  This means knowing my people and what’s going on in their lives, and also staying informed on goings on in the community and in the news on a broader scale. I do my best to interpret the word before me faithfully and to privilege the experience of the assembly, preaching the gospel in ways meant to resonate with hearers and their experience and to help them connect meaningfully with the text at hand and to grow in faith and in zeal for discipleship.  I continue to read commentaries and to revisit seminary textbooks and to spend time in devotional and reflective reading of the word, seeking to grow in my own faith and in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures, and to open myself to what God may be saying to me through the word.

Sermon: “Mirror Mirror
Texts: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; (1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:43-51)
January 14, 2018 – Martin Luther King Jr. weekend

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          We have three wonderfully rich readings to dive into this morning: the call of Samuel and his faithful response, Paul’s somewhat difficult word to the Corinthians about fornication and the body, and the call of Nathanael to follow Jesus. So, naturally, with so many great texts to choose from, I actually want to start out by talking about the one text we didn’t read this morning.
          The psalm assigned for today is Psalm 139, which actually happens to be my favorite psalm (though that’s not why I want to read it). I want to start there because of the way it draws out some of the themes I want to highlight in our readings for today. Psalm 139 reads:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when as yet none of them existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

          I am so moved by the intimacy of the relationship between Creator and creation that this psalm reveals. I love this image of human beings being knitted and woven together by God’s hands. And I know I’m not the only crafter in the congregation – many of you know the preciousness of holding something you made with your own two hands. Just like God, you know every stitch of it – not to mention where all the flaws are! God knows our sitting down and our rising up, God knows the words that we speak and is “acquainted with all our ways” – because the things that we do matter to God. Our lives and our bodies are precious and holy in God’s sight, because we are God’s own beloved creation.

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          I find that reading this psalm also sheds some helpful light on our second reading – which is a kind of uncomfortable text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about fornication and the body. I think the only topic that’s harder to talk about from the pulpit than money has got to be sex! And that’s because, sadly, the church has done a lot to shame and moralize about sexual behavior, especially with regard to the LGBTQ community. But I think Psalm 139 comes close to expressing what Paul is actually saying in this text. Paul isn’t writing to shame anyone for their sexual behavior; rather he is writing to remind them of the preciousness of their bodies in God’s sight. The Corinthians had come to believe that the resurrection from the dead was only a spiritual resurrection – so it didn’t matter at all what they chose to do with their bodies. “Hey, all things are lawful for me!” Paul is writing to tell them that nothing could be further from the truth. He emphatically stresses the value of human bodies to God, saying to them, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” and that “the body is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body.”
          Paul also writes: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” This is that same intimacy with God that we saw in Psalm 139! This Christ is the same God who wove us together by hand, who wants to get up close and personal with us. Paul warns against sins against the body because he knows that God doesn’t want anything to get in the way of relationship with us. For God, human bodies and human lives are just too valuable.
          I’m really glad that these texts were assigned for this week; because I think they are full of good news that speaks directly to a lot of what is happening in the world right now. To start off with, we’re in mid-January. Right about now is usually the beginning of the end for a lot of well-meaning new year’s resolutions about going to the gym and eating “right” and losing weight. And a lot of us will respond to my saying this with sort of a rueful chuckle, thinking about gym memberships we aren’t using and calories we aren’t counting. And you might even expect me to stand up here and urge you to get back on those resolutions, because by golly, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that temple needs some serious maintenance!

But I am absolutely not going to do that.

          Instead, I can only express how profoundly sad it makes me that this is the time of year that we have all been trained to look in the mirror – and hate what we see. It’s such a common cultural attitude that it’s easy for us to joke about it. But in reality, it’s deeply sad that we have been taught to feel shame about the bodies that God has so lovingly created, that God’s Spirit continues to inhabit. We are taught in so many ways to be constantly critical of our own bodies and of the bodies of others.

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          It’s an attitude that pervades our culture far beyond the scope of new year’s resolutions. Our evaluation of the worth and morality of ourselves and other people has everything to do with bodies. We marginalize and isolate people whose bodies are older, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on anti-aging products, acting like aging is some kind of a disease, and not a sign of an amazing body that has successfully survived for many decades. Our language is full of slurs against people with disabilities, words like “dumb” and “lame” and “crazy.” The #MeToo movement over the past year showed how many women have to come forward and say something before anyone will actually believe them. And systemic racism is clearly alive and well when the president of this country feels entitled to complain about refugees from “shithole countries” – turning away people fleeing violence in places like El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, because their bodies are the wrong color and they speak the wrong language.
          Our country is still full of the kind of discrimination against minority bodies that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought against over half a century ago. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the effects of segregation and slavery continue to linger: they show up in the vast inequality that exists in income, housing, health, and education. These effects show up in the disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned or killed by their own government every year. And here in the borderlands, we are keenly aware of the discrimination faced by immigrants from Latin America, especially asylum-seekers and DACA recipients. These are folks who have come seeking safety from violence or just seeking a better life. They make the long journey to get here, only to be arrested and immediately demonized as criminals and rapists, and treated inhumanely by a government that refuses to help them.
          The sheer scale of discrimination against people of color and other marginalized communities can leave us all feeling angry and helpless. The oppression and shaming of bodies everywhere – including our own – should make us feel angry. We feel the grief that I imagine God feels over the way that human bodies and human lives are systematically devalued and destroyed. These feelings leave us longing for God to raise up another leader like Dr. King to stand up and fight for justice. We long for leaders who aren’t afraid to challenge the systems of this world that seek to rob all of us of the value that God has given us.

image 3

          And it’s in those moments of longing that I think that we need to go back to our mirrors, to look in them and see – not our failures in need of fixing, not an endless litany of flaws – but faithful and capable servants of God who are being called to stand up and say something. I think that if we listen for the quiet voice that called Samuel in the temple, we may hear that it is calling our names. Or if the voice is too quiet, maybe we can just listen to the hymns that we’re singing in worship today and notice that there’s kind of a theme going. (haha)
          We are called – like Paul, like Samuel, like Philip, like Nathanael – to be bearers of God’s message of justice and love for the world. The God who lovingly knit us together in our mothers’ wombs calls and equips us to share this divine love with others. Our Creator calls us to share this love with a world of bruised and broken bodies that desperately need it. We are called to affirm the goodness and holiness of human lives and human bodies, to push back against the narratives and the systems that try to teach us to hate others and to be ashamed of our selves. We are called to bear witness to the tender, intimate love that our Creator has toward all humanity.

image 4

          So I invite you today, when you go home; look in the mirror and first bear witness to yourself this wonderful news: you are not a project to be worked on and your body is not a problem to be solved. You are a precious child of the Creator, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted by God. You have been formed and equipped with gifts to help spread God’s love and justice in the world. God’s Spirit is calling to you, just like it called the prophets who came before you. So listen for that voice, and when it calls again, you shall say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

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