Saturday, September 30, 2023

Baptismal Promises, Confirmation Promises

I am part of the leadership team (a very small part) for the Confirmation Camp retreat/week-end at Luther Springs this week-end.  Last night, in our first session, we talked about the promises that are made at a person's baptism, promises made by family members, promises made by the church community.

Here is what ELCA Lutherans promise when we baptize; we will help/guide/direct the baptized one to do the following:

·       Live among God’s faithful people 

·       Hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper 

·       Proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed 

·       Serve all people, following the example of Jesus 

·       Strive for justice and peace in all the earth 

Last night, we had each small group take one of those promises and talk about how we could fulfill this promise outside of the church building.  It was interesting to see what these middle school age confirmands came up with.  For example, in the justice and peace area, the confirmands talked about ending bullying, which wasn't a topic that was widely discussed, back in the late 1970's when I went through the confirmation process.

Some of the confirmands had some trouble paying attention when we presented information as a large group, but when we broke into small groups, every confirmand became intensely involved.  I haven't always seen that dynamic in adult settings.

We ended with our group leader reminding the confirmands that at the end of this process, the confirmands will take on these promises as a commitment for themselves.  She reminded us that we've taken a great first step in thinking of ways we could do that.  It was a great overview of what is coming as part of the process and a good way of working through that transition.

It seems that this process could be a great retreat exercise for an adult group too, a great reminder of how we begin our life as Christians, a great way to think about what we're doing well in our faith journeys and where we might want to think about a course correction.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Michaelmas or The Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels

If we lived in an earlier culture, a time more marked by the agricultural shifts of each season, we would celebrate Michaelmas today. It's one of the harvest holidays, one of the quarterly celebrations that kept people rooted to traditions of the seasonal cycles.

I am more interested in the idea of a hinge holiday, the way we shift from one direction to another. In Holidays and Holy Nights, Christopher Hill explains, "In summer we celebrate our at-homeness in the world. Michaelmas balances that feeling (for) in autumn we feel our not-at-homeness, the sense of wanting something else, something we can't name. We feel like wayfaring strangers... Summer is static - in Latin, solstice means 'the stationary sun'" Summer is the sacrament of natural harmony with God... while autumn we fall away from the dreaming paradise of summer back into the conflict of light and dark" (pp. 36-37).

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma and Grandpa who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Some of us cope with the scariness of death by marking the seasons--we're entering the autumnal season marked by many holidays that remind us that death is unavoidable and perhaps nearer than we'd like:  Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, and Día de los Muertos.  In some ways, today's constellation of holiday and feast day is a start to that season, that shift towards a much darker time of the year in terms of less daylight, at least in the northern hemisphere.  

Let us take a moment and notice as the light lingers.  Let us mark the shift.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Systematic Theology and Church History

A few thoughts about my seminary Systematic Theology class and how it weaves throughout the week.  

--Much of the class circles back to the Nicene Creed, and each Sunday when we say the Apostles Creed, I think about the other creeds that have shaped Church policy and history.

--Our class has spent more time than you can imagine thinking about the word "begotten" and what that means.

--I continue to be annoyed by the idea that Mary was simply a vessel for Jesus.  If her DNA didn't matter, why bring the Divine into the world this way?

--And why do I focus on Mary's DNA?  Why is that aspect so much more important to me than other aspects of the incarnation?

--We are reading a lot of Jurgen Moltmann, and I do have to wonder if he's the best systematic theologian to focus on.  Is he representative?  If so, no wonder so many people find theology incomprehensible.

--But then, when I'm reading him, I occasionally find a chunk that stays with me.  This week it was the part in The Way of Jesus Christ where he talks about martyrdom, both the historic kind (Bishops Polycarp and Ignatius) and three that were more recent (Schneider, Bonhoeffer, and Romero).  Moltmann claims that our current time, we're seeing "a wave of martyrdom such as has been seen in hardly any other century" (p. 197).  I've continued to think about that claim.  Do we have more Christian martyrs in the 20th century, and now the 21st, than in most other centuries?

--Moltmann talks about the killings happening in Latin America and notes that in these situations, it's Christians killing other Christians, unlike past martyrdoms.

--And then my brain goes to what I was writing a year ago, about Perpetua and Felicity and their martyrdom for Church History.  I claimed that the earliest Christians championed martyrdom as a way of making the inevitable martyrdoms more palatable:  "Why does the Church glorify martyrdom? Perhaps the Church glorifies martyrdom because it is powerless to stop it."

--My Church History professor HATED that paper.  So far, it's the lowest grade I've gotten on a piece of grad school writing (both currently and for my MA and PhD in English).  Happily, I was able to pull my grade up.

--I just reread parts of that paper, and I still don't agree with my professor's assessment.  But he did make valid points, so it wasn't worth arguing with him.  The paper didn't do all that he wanted it to do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 1, 2023:

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-8 (Psalm 25:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

Before we dig into today’s Gospel, let’s situate it in the timeline of the life of Jesus, according to Matthew. Earlier in the 21st chapter, Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem in an event we’ll celebrate as Palm Sunday. It’s a triumphant entry, followed by Jesus throwing money changers out of the Temple.

In short, it’s becoming clear to those in charge of all sorts of societal institutions that Jesus will cause trouble. So the beginning of our Gospel shows the leaders of the Temple trying to determine what they should do. If he’s truly sent from God, we imagine they might take one path; if he’s just a scruffy vagabond preacher type, they might take another. But how to know?

They ask a question about Jesus’ authority, and in classic form, Jesus responds with a question. He asks them about the baptism of John, and in doing so, some Bible scholars see him as aligning himself with John and prophets like him. He certainly doesn’t look to the Temple elders for authority.

Here, as in other places, the questions of Jesus are seldom about coming up with the right answers. Jesus asks questions to make the ones who hear the questions think about transformation. And here, as in other places, Jesus offers a parable to help us think further about the questions.

In today’s Gospel, we have another parable set in a vineyard, which those Temple authorities would hear as a story about Israel, the people and the land, since several ancient prophets used that language. For us, listeners in the 21st century, it may be the language of two sons that feels familiar.

Think about how often we have stories of two sons in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, the Prodigal son and his disgruntled brother. It’s tempting to approach these parables with the air of a detective. Which brother is the one who is doing the right thing, the good thing? Which one should we cheer for?

Here, as with many a story of siblings, the answer is neither one. Both sons are wrong. Both have acted in a less than upright way. More important, we have been both of these sons. We will be both of these sons.

This parable reminds us, though, that ultimately our actions are important. It’s not enough to say the right things. Action is required.

This idea may fly in the face of what we believe to be good Lutheran theology. What about the idea of grace? Many of us were taught that we're such dreadful humans that there's nothing we could do to justify the gift of salvation. God swoops in and redeems us, even though we're fairly hopeless people. That was the message I got from many a church event, Lutheran and otherwise.

But as a grown up, going back to revisit these passages, I'm amazed at how often God requires more of us than just saying we believe in Christ, more than just accepting Christ as our savior, more than just having faith. In the words of Luther, faith should move our feet. In the words of James, faith without action is dead. We don't confess belief in Christ so that we can say, "Our job here is done." We don't confess belief so that we can collapse and snooze on the sofa. We confess our faith and go to work in the vineyard.

The good news is that the invitation to do the work is ongoing. We may disappoint God—by saying yes and not showing up, or by saying no thanks. God remains steadfast, offering us opportunity after opportunity to be part of the kingdom team.

The end of this parable makes clear that the stakes are high: we may think we’ve already done the work. We may think we’re part of God’s team. We might be rather self-righteous about that. At the end of this parable, Jesus reminds us that the last shall be first. And when we look at that list, it’s clear that those who would be last in the hierarchical society of Jesus would also be last in our time. Jesus tells us that these people on the margins might be the ones who recognize the Good News before the rest of us do.

We have time to recognize the truth, the truth told to us by people like John the Baptist and Jesus. We have time to change our minds. We have time to think about our own claims to righteousness and to change course.

When we look at the totality of Jesus’ teaching, we hear a more complete good news. Even when we fall short, God will still love us. If we've said we'd do the work, and we fail to do it, we have other days when we can show up. God will still welcome us.

There's plenty of work to be done: weeding out the thorny vines of injustice, tending the seedlings that can grow to produce good fruit. We can each do the tasks that are ours to do. God invites us to be part of a much grander vision. Let us say yes to that invitation today and every day. Let us say that we will do the work, and then, let us do it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Knotting Our Way through a Children's Sermon

 I had made a variety of plans for God's Work, Our Hands Sunday on September 10, and they all revolved around quilts.  I decided that the easiest approach would be to bring some quilts from the local church near my Lutheridge house, Lutheran Church of the Nativity, and set them up so that people could work on them.  I decided that it might be easiest for me to do the initial part of the knotting, drawing the thread through, and leaving the strands for people to knot.

I was sick with COVID, a mild case but one which needed me to stay away from church on September 10.  For a different God's Work, Our Hands project, the children made cards, and I was touched when one arrived in my mailbox (after first going across the mountains to Knoxville, and then back across the mountains to my house in Arden).

I had the quilts that needed to be knotted in my car, and when I thought of Sunday's Gospel about workers in the vineyard, I had an idea for how to use them in my children's sermon this past Sunday.  I got to church early, and set the quilts up in the front pew where the children sit for the children's sermon.

When they came up, I told them about knotting quilts and about how Lutheran World Relief collects these quilts and sends them around the world.  I invited them to start knotting, and they did.  I rolled out my version of the parable:  if I offer to pay you $20 to sit here and tie knots through the whole service, and I offered you fair wages to make knots starting at the sermon, and I offer you fair wages to make knots after communion, and you show up right at the end of the service and tie a knot--if I give each one of you $20 for your work, is that fair?

They all agreed it wouldn't be fair, and then we talked about how God is generous, not fair.  I invited them to stay and keep tying knots through the service, although I wouldn't be paying them.   And to my surprise, several of them did, and they got both quilts knotted.

What was even more wonderful was that one of our visitors had been to a hospital in Israel where he saw Lutheran World Relief quilts on the beds, quilts like the ones we had been knotting.  He stood up to tell us this during the announcement time that comes at the end of the service before the last hymn, after I had thanked the children for finishing the quilts.

In some ways, stretching God's Work, Our Hands across the month worked well.  Faith Lutheran does a great job of having various service projects, so it wasn't something alien to them.  I was glad to see that the children really got into a rhythm doing the knots.  And sitting in the front, knotting and listening, may have been better than what usually happens, with the children returning to their seats in the back, fussing and fidgeting.

Monday, September 25, 2023

A Deeper Look at a Family Reunion

If you follow this blog, you know that I have a 9 month appointment as a Synod Appointed Minister (a part-time appointment) at Faith Lutheran Church in Bristol, Tennessee.  Long ago, my grandfather served 5 parishes in Bristol, Tennessee, and they have merged through the years; one of the merged churches is Faith Lutheran.  Here's a picture of one of the older churches that my grandfather served:

The members of my grandfather's generation have died.  Here's a picture of my grandfather (on the left) and my grandmother's youngest brother, Jim Crumley; both men served the Lutheran church in a variety of ways.

Here's a picture of my grandmother Mary 

And here's one of her only sister, Martha (there were 2 other brothers, but I don't have pictures):

Yesterday, the children of that generation came to the front of the church for communion.  As I handed each one the bread, I felt this spookiness.  Their faces looked like the faces of the people in the pictures above, the faces as I knew them when they were older, not in the pictures.  And of course, I am not the young woman that I was when I first met many of them, at a long ago family reunion in 1977 I'm in the lower right corner, to the left of my mom who is wearing a striped shirt, with my little sister sitting between my mom and dad):

Here's a picture of Saturday's family reunion, held just down the road, at the Faith Lutheran's picnic pavilion:

And here's a picture that I snapped of the church at sunset, a sunset made more spectacular by tropical storm Ophelia to our east.

I thought it captured a sense of liminal space, that sense of something passing away even as other things remain.  The family remains, as does the church, as do the mountains that surround the church and the farms, some of which have remained in family hands, some of which have not.  The news delivers a steady drumbeat of reports of challenges ahead--so many challenges.  But that would have been true for the people in those old pictures above, the pictures in this old album of pictures of people who are gone now.  

My grandfather went off to seminary in the early 1930's, even after the seminary sent him a letter encouraging him to stay on the farm where at least he would have food to eat, but if he was determined to come to seminary, he was welcome, even though the church wasn't sure of job prospects at the end.  My mother was born in 1939, a year filled with bad news and worse news to come.  

And yet, the sun rose and set, the lights stayed on, forces of good prevailed, and so did forces of evil.  I try to take a longer view of history, although it doesn't come naturally to me.  Every generation has had struggles, and we are no different.  I hope we continue to gather as humans, in groups large and small, to tell the stories, to be nourished in so many ways.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Family Reunion

 A quick note to say that this is what we did yesterday afternoon and evening:

Hurrah for family reunions held at the old family church, Faith Lutheran!  Yes that's the church where I am currently the Synod Appointed Minister.  The weather was gorgeous despite tropical storm Ophelia to our east.  We were able to gather in the picnic pavilion on the church grounds and walk up to the building to use the kitchen and rest room facilities.

We ate barbecue on buns (the sliced meat kind with a great sauce), amazing watermelon (so sweet and in late September!), other fruits, cut up veggies, and wonderful homemade cookies.  I haven't had a snickerdoodle in years, and these were mighty fine.

Some of us will return to church today for worship.  I'm trying not to feel nervous.  But some of these people (and not just my parents) have known me since I was a little girl.  

Yesterday I created this Facebook post:  

"Happy autumnal equinox! We are headed to Bristol, Tennessee for a family reunion, and then tomorrow, a lot of family will be at Faith Lutheran to worship. I will preach a sermon to people who have known me since I was young and reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and trying to learn those pioneer life skills from my elders--hope they like my sermon! It won't have much to do with little houses on prairies, but it will have to do with life in God's abundant vineyard."