Jesus is born!
After reading Just Mercy several years back, my daughter Else decided that restorative justice is her jam, her thing, her calling, and so she’s pretty much thrown herself into All Things Related.
So on Twitter a few days back (no idea what I’m going to do with my post-Elon Twitter account these days, as an aside) when I saw an event with this title, “Transformative Justice Seeks the Healing of All Parties,” and all the moreso when it was plugged by David Dark, it was maternal catnip and vocational clickbait all rolled up into one.
Dark publishes his blog “Dark Matter” (catchy) here; he’s a dabbler in many things, but a good dabbler, and a righteous one too. He cares deeply about justice, and always from the vantage point of faith, service, vulnerability, and hope for reconciliation and transformation.
It’s that latter word “Transformation” that caught my eye in the title of this conversation he was hailing and having with Rev. Stacy Rector. She’s a Presbyterian pastor who directs Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, sadly, an organization that our society has made necessary to be.
In his blurb for the event, Dark wrote this:
“If policy is liturgy writ large, what do the liturgies of retaliation, incarceration, and killing tell us about ourselves?”
“If policy is liturgy writ large…”
I have not been able to shake that phrase off, and immediately sent the passage off to my daughter and to my husband, whom I love and who loves me in part because we both like provocative thoughts and rabbit holes.
It wasn’t just that phrase, though, but the following one: “…what do the liturgies of retaliation, incarceration, and killing tell us about ourselves” that sucker-punched me.
In a righteous way.
Transposed, it seems like one could also read that sentence like this: “if our politics and consequent policies are the way that we reflect our selves, our valuation of one another, and our worship of God to the broader world, what do our politics and consequent policies say about our view of ourselves, of each other, and of God?”
I mean, ooof, people.
“If policy is liturgy writ large…”
If this phrase doesn’t keep you awake at night, especially just days before the midterms, what meds are you taking and can I have some?
A couple of years ago, I was invited by the ELCA Youth Ministry Network to reflect on ministry in a time of a pandemic. You can find the whole article here, but this blurb of Mr. Dark’s called certain parts of the gist of it to mind.
In writing that piece, I learned what should have already dawned on me, namely that that both pan-demic and epi-demic spring from the Greek word ‘demos.’
Demos means people, as in ‘demographic,’ and, well, ‘democracy.’
I mean, I knew that, but I hadn’t really thought about it, but the more I got to thinking about that, the more I cocked my head like my dog Gimli does when he’s confused, which is most of the time.
Because if demos means a people, what about laos, another Greek word, from which we get liturgy, a word that literally means ‘work [ergos] of the people?’
What’s the difference then between the laos of liturgy and the demos of pandemic?
Turns out that there are a couple of answers, and also I can hop through rabbit tunnels like no hare ever did.
The ancient Greeks used the term laos to refer to ordinary people, the regular joes and jolenes, the folks you run into at the corner olive and baklava shop.
But more than that, the laos lived together as a demos, a collective and geographically connected community with one another: the laos shared a common language, government, culture, and mores, which defined them as a demos.
Relatedly, here’s a bit of trivia for you: the word ‘liturgy’ as we associate it, namely as a form of ritual worship, didn’t show up until the 1590s.
This is most certainly true.
Sure, you can find the word in the New Testament: leitourgia. But the sense of it means a service, or a ministry, rather than an order of worship.
In fact, [and get this] the word originally referred to the work, namely the business, service, and donations that privileged people in Athens and beyond offered to and for the well-being of the people of the community.
Moreover, it was considered a mark of pride and privilege (in the best sense) to offer from one’s plenty to those who had little to none.
There was no resentment about it: there was thanksgiving for it.
In its original sense, then, and the key take-away and upshot here is this: liturgy is work done by the laos on behalf of the well-being of all the demos.
Officially, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1, but in the liturgical calendar of the Church, we remember the saints on the first Sunday following.
That would be tomorrow.
I find it terribly moving that two days following that, namely on Tuesday November 8, we have Election Day.
See, with this calendar coincidence in mind, behold words from the late Jewish writer, theologian, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who in this interview spoke (as he often did) about memory, and about the sacred duty to remember the generations who have come before us:
In memory you are not alone.
You are surrounded by people.
Those who are not here anymore, naturally, but they are there in your memory.
And you hear them and you speak to them.
And when you need a presence it’s their presence.
Of course, it’s a dead presence, but still it’s a presence.
The presence of the dead is also a presence.
And without memory, then what is worse than to live without a future?
It’s to live without a past.
And I think memory is that past.
We are, that is, not primarily individuals, Wiesel wants us to know.
We are instead part of peoples, laos who are connected to those who have come before, those found in our memories (and, perhaps he would agree, those whom we have forgotten?), and we are likewise connected to those present to us now, and to those in our futures.
We are saints shaped by saints, and we will bequeath what we have received and who we are to the laos and to the demos yet to come.
To use the concept of Mr. Dark, our liturgies—religious and political—shape and will shape laos and demos long after we’ve gone.
As we stare down Election Day, this is the kicker, right?
We dare not forget that our collective liturgy—the ergos (work) of the laos (common people)—will decide the fates of the demos.
Our vote in a demo-cracy is the kratos (strength and power) of the demos (people who live in the same geographical space).
In other words, our leitourgia on November 8 is a form of service and ministry to all the saints.
In still other words, if you want to see who someone is, see what they do.
It’s basic Beatitudes stuff, conveniently one of the texts assigned for All Saints Day, which is celebrated the day before election day, which should preach.
The best liturgies shape what happens when we aren’t in active worship.
So do the worst, by the way.
With that in mind, spurred to think about it in this way thanks to Mr. David Dark and Rev. Stacy Rector, let us not pretend that there isn’t a liturgical ritual of election day.
You show up to the polls, you enter the stall, you make your mark, and you leave, one in a long line of people coming to the altar of democracy, of sorts, to give what they can offer, and make your mark on what happens next in the lives of All The Saints.
Christians are the laos of God, of course.
But we’re also the demos of the US.
And in that voting booth, the liturgies of both collectives coincide: we cast our vote informed by the faithful collective who have come before us (laos), and we cast our vote to inform our collective political present and future (demos).
Make no mistake, then: your vote is a liturgy, an act of worship, and a reflection of who you are, and whose you are.
Remember who you were, and are, and are promised to be.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
(1 Peter 2:10; Hosea 1:10, 2:23)
Remember those who have come before.
Remember who you are thereby.
Share the mercy.
Be God’s laos.
Do the leitourgia of God in the demos.
“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Romans 3:28
“Be still, then, and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10.
Sunday, October 29 is Reformation Sunday, a High Feast Day of sorts in the Lutheran Tradition.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Last week, I was invited to do a Zoomed text study with a group of rostered leaders in Wisconsin. WHAT a great group.
Although we Lutherans like to think he did, Luther never used the phrase “priesthood of all believers.”
The thing about redemption is that sometimes, we don’t actually want it.
Most of us know Hitler’s perpetrated evil against the Jews, the Romani, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political adversaries, and resisters as “the Holocaust.”
“As I listened to their emotional testimonies, I reflected on the human superpower that is empathy, the superpower that racism tries to choke off. Empathy led these innocent bystanders to wrack themselves with guilt following Floyd’s killing.“ Heather McGhee
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Matthew 13:34
Christians (Lutherans perhaps especially) like to talk all the time about forgiveness.
We love love love forgiveness.
And as an extra bonus, we can even talk about forgiveness in polite company.
But unless we’re reading those super uncomfortable Advent texts featuring John the Baptist (that wild-haired, wild-eyed, wild-mannered guy in our lectionary about whom we’re always a bit embarrassed, looking at each other with wide eyes whenever Sundays in December come around, knowing that this strange man got in our scriptural tradition somehow, and so apparently the right thing to do is to figure out how to welcome him into our lecterns, even though we all know we’re not so sure we’d even let him into our pews, and definitely not our pulpits), this man who wields the word ‘repentance’ all the time (much to our chagrin), we have (in stark contrast to ‘forgiveness’) gotten away for far too long without talking about repentance so very much at all.
But this is good, we think.
To tell someone to repent, you see, is awkward.
It’s even insulting.
It’s definitely conflictual.
And Christians aren’t supposed to make people feel awkward, and we are not about being impolite, and we shouldn’t insult, and of course we ought not cause conflict in the name of Christ, no matter what this John the Baptist said and did.
But on this tragic, grief-ridden day of the Emanuel Nine, a day that is bundled into other days that have spilled into weeks where our nation has begun to name and claim our racist underpinnings and undertow, it is precisely a moment, in fact a very, very, overdue moment, to speak directly about repentance.
You see, as unwelcome as repentance is as coffeetable, let alone pulpit, discourse, to indict someone by announcing that they must repent…well, arguably, you can’t really get more Lutheran.
Because telling someone to repent means that we are Calling A Thing What It Is.
Martin Luther used this phrase in the 21st Thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, a series of propositions he presented to his Augustinian Order after he caught a little attention the prior year by nailing some 95 other theses onto a certain door in Wittenberg.
Point is, in this particular thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation, the 21st, he wrote this:
“The theology of glory calls ‘evil’ ‘good,’ and ‘good’ ‘evil.’
A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
Telling someone that they need to repent simply calls a thing what it is.
White people, and we as a nation, and we as the ELCA, must repent of our racism, and we can’t do that unless we call it what it is.
Today we mark the Emmanuel Nine, and we say their names.
Reverend and Senator Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd
Mrs. Susie J. Jackson
Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Reverend Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders
Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.
Mrs. Myra Singleton Quirles Thompson
These black children of God died because Dylann Roof, a 21-year old far-right white supremacist and member of an ELCA congregation—and, lest we forget, also a child of God—sought to incite a race war by massacring black people whom, he believed, were “taking over the world.”
Somehow his online far-right radicalization held more power over him than did the call—if one was uttered clearly, or loudly, or at all?—to repent of it.
It is overwhelmingly poignant that the commemoration of this horrific crime falls just weeks after George Floyd was murdered and our country—even including the NASCAR community (!!)—is beginning to notice our entrenched, latent, systemic racism.
That’s the first step, of course, to Calling A Thing What It Is.
But we can’t notice, really, unless things are pointed out, unless things are named.
Only then do we have a chance to engage the holy act of repentance.
Rostered leaders are called to be pointer-outers, to be name-ers, to be Calling-A-Thing-What-It-Is-ers.
They are called by the Church at Large and then are called by specific congregations to steward the gospel which, contrary to a pretty decent share of Lutheran understanding, is not that your sins are forgiven.
The gospel, instead, is that Jesus is risen.
So when you invite someone into your community to a ministry of Word and Sacrament or Word and Service, you are calling them into your community to preach, teach, and live out the gospel.
That latter part, of course, this living out the gospel thing, isn’t just their professional vocation, but is their—our—baptismal one too.
The thing of it is, of course, is that the gospel would be positively irrelevant and in point of fact unnecessary if everything were fine, fine, just fine.
There is no need, that is, to pronounce life if life abounds for all anyway.
But the thing of it is, the gospel is precisely relevant because there is still death, and an abundance of it.
And be not mistaken: death is present not just of the six-feet under kind, but of the kind that steals hopes, and spirits, and possibilities, and even our very humanity.
Racism is a tool of death.
And we need leaders of and in the Church to Call That Thing What It Is, because they are called—by all baptized Christians, including you!—to be theologians of the cross, to know that where there is death, precisely there is where there can be possibility of life.
If you want a theology of glory, if you want to be told that all is well when it is not, if you want a (self-proclaimed) leader who says “Peace, Peace,” when there is not peace, go MAGA (and look up Jeremiah 6:14 and surrounding verses).
MAGA puts babies in cages, and separates children from parents, and builds walls, and removes rights, and calls the KKK good people, and after violently forcing peaceful demonstrators off of the streets uses a holy church as a mere backdrop to score a political point with an upside down Bible held by a man who neither opens the book nor enters the building, and MAGA calls all such evil good.
(The leader of that Church’s synod, by the way, Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Called a Thing What It Is about all that nonsense, I’ll tell you what.)
But if you want a pastoral leader whose primary vocation is to proclaim the gospel, which means announcing life, you also called a leader who, inherent to that very call, needs to announce death.
So sit tight, then, because leaders are themselves becoming all the more aware that we all have some repenting to do.
That means it’s about to get awkward, and impolite, and insulting, and conflictual.
We can now appreciate how the crowds who heard John the Baptist felt.
But perhaps unbeknownst to them, and even to us, it is also about to get life-out-of-death-y too.
As it turns out, of course, it’s not just the primary vocation of a pastoral leader to announce and engage in repentance: it’s the primary vocation of any baptized Christian.
Pick up your cross, says the one who was himself baptized by, of all people and inconveniently, John the Baptist, yes, the one and the same, this wild-eyed, wild-haired, wild-way-ed man who at most every turn announced repentance as a mark of the reign and way of God.
“Be willing to die to all that is not of God, and follow me,” says Jesus.
Don’t follow MAGA.
Don’t follow racism.
Don’t follow white privilege.
But follow, rather, Jesus.
Repent, you see, repent of all that is not of God.
Let that die, so that you and others may live.
All of this is true.
But what is also true, on this tragic day five years ago, is that righteous people, faithful people, sisters and brothers in Christ people, died so that racism, rather than righteousness, could live.
Today, that is, there are nine six-foot-under deaths—nine of them—which need to be recalled.
Their deaths matter.
Remember their deaths, and remember their names.
And then in their honor be willing to also name the death-dealing ways of racism and our unwillingness to call it—on personal, congregational, denominational, national, and systemic levels—what it is.
And then repent.
If we can find the courage to hear racism be called what it is, namely not of God, not good, and in fact evil, we will discover that John the Baptist, as wild as his hair and his eyes and his ways were, was right.
Repent, he said, for the Reign of God is, indeed, near.
Privilege is super wily.
It can skillfully drape itself in righteous speech, all the while really cloaking its comfortable and contented status.
But privilege also cunningly hides, even from the people of privilege themselves, death-dealing anxious determination about maintaining societal advantages.
So with that said, and as a shining example, I bristle, truly I do, when I hear rostered leaders talk about needing to “meet my people where they are.”
I just heard it in a couple of private and distinct conversations the other day, as a matter of fact.
“I’ve gotta meet my people where they are.”
That’s the phrase, right there.
Now it -sounds- good.
It sounds righteous even.
It certainly sounds pastoral.
It definitely sounds like what a leader of a specific community is called to do, namely meet their people where they are.
And I do believe that for the most part, rostered leaders mean well when they say it.
But I’ve come to decide that there’s a decent shot that actually, it’s -not- always good, righteous, pastoral, or what at leader in a community is called to do.
Thing is, when we decide to “meet ‘our’ people where they are,” we can’t help but simultaneously (albeit cloaked in that wily-privileged way) leave -other- people, the very people who need the -rest- of us to move from where -we- are, well…we can’t help but leave them where -they- are.
So when we hear the phrase “I need to meet my people where they are,” I think what we should actually hear, especially these days, is less even-the-best-of-intentioned pastoral move, and more the hidden message—hidden even to the leader, I do believe—that we’re supposed to be ok with that, down with it, content with it, because those are not ‘our people,’ they are not ‘us.’
They are ‘other.’
The wretched thing of it is, -nobody- is where they are supposed to be.
Moreover, the white rostered tendency to want to meet people of privilege where they are is precisely what keeps the status quo, which is precisely that which keeps everybody where they aren’t supposed to be.
I will say again and again and again that the pastoral is the prophetic, and the prophetic is the pastoral.
Insular preaching and teaching, that which is offered to meet privileged congregants and congregations where they are, protects White Lives from knowing about and caring about Black Lives.
It shields White Lives from knowing about and caring about -and- -rejecting- -in- -the- -name- -of- -the- -Gospel- the White System of Privilege which contributes to the injustice, poverty, inequity that Black Lives endure.
It buffers White Lives from knowing and caring about the names of people who have died at the hands of their White Privilege, that which congregations and congregants, under the rubric of meeting them where they are, have been led to believe affords them the luxury of not knowing, because the time is “just not right.”
“They’re just not ready for that yet.”
“We have to meet them where they are.”
In the complicated book of Hosea, Israel had forsaken God by falling into a cycle of normalized lying, and murder, and violence, such that even the land and sea and the creatures upon and in it suffered.
After a long enough period of waiting for this situation to turn around, God’s response, albeit conveyed in troubling metaphor, was finally to call Israel Lo-ammi: not my people.
Remember, of course, that we hear God say, “I am your God, and you shall be my people” in any number of texts, like Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12, and Isaiah 5:15-16.
But no longer, says God.
What you have done, God says, is enough.
The relationship is severed.
And what had Israel done?
Among other sins, Israel had opted to align themselves not with God, but with Baalistic culture, which included a nasty habit of placing economic success for the few at the expense of the many, and of the land.
So God abandoned Israel to its enemies, and to the consequences of their unfaithfulness.
Note that it was -they- and -their- actions which terminated the relationship; -not- God.
God did not decide against them.
The ones formerly known as the people of God decided -against- God, and -for- other gods.
It’s possible that in the same way, now, in our streets we are seeing the consequences of -our- unfaithfulness.
We have, of course, tolerated a corrupt, malicious, and weak-spirited president, and political leaders who abide, aid, and abet him, and the agendas which they push at the expense of others.
Some Christians have even voted for them.
But we have also aligned ourselves with other gods, including those in the headlines of recent days, most especially that of White Privilege.
And we as rostered leaders have all too often opted to align ourselves with the god of Meeting People Where They Are, which has enabled and unleashed many an evil thing at the now normalized expense of People Who Are Not Where They Should Be.
So back to Hosea, it turns out that God’s disassociation from Israel was temporary—not inconsequential, but not permanent.
God opted, and even in the very next verse of this judgment, to make us God’s people again.
The message of Hosea is of judgment, but judgment that sends us into a way of repentance -and- -then- -restoration.-
The ironic thing is that the same phrase which has allowed rostered leaders to dance around dicey subjects can in fact throw them right into the whirl of it all:
Meet your people where they are.
If you’re the leader of a white congregation, that’d generally be a life of white privilege at the expense of black lives which do, in fact, matter.
So go ahead.
Meet them where they are.
And when you do, meeting them where they -really- are as opposed to where they -think- they are, you help lead your people into repentance, you announce the possibility of restoration to -all- the People of God, and you help bring -all- the People of God to where everyone ought to be.
Do you ever find yourself with a tune in your mind?
You’re not even conscious that you’ve got a song going on your soul, and then suddenly you hear your lips hum, your mouth sing, or even your fingers tapping out the rhythm of the beat.
I’m willing to admit that it happens to me, but I am not willing to admit how often.
On occasion, when I discover that I’ve got some notes and lyrics in my mind…and others external to me are noticing…it’s because a certain apparently random tune was in fact triggered by a word or a phrase or an event: when I’m standing before an open fridge, an exasperated, “I’m all out of milk,” becomes “I’m All Out of Love,” or while making stew I discover myself singing our family favorite lullaby “Little Potato,” or (back in the days when my beloved baseball was actually played), when I’m looking for the weather radio to take into my garden so I can hear the Minnesota Twins play (sigh), I discover that I’m humming “Brown Eyed Girl,” which, by all informed accounts, is the best song ever, and while it may have overtly nothing to do with a baseball (though I’m sure that the ‘stadium’ which is mentioned is obviously one built for baseball and no other) has everything to do with baseball, not to mention young love, the best of which has to do with baseball.
But the other day, I woke up with Tracy Chapman in my head.
Straight away, at 5:37, eyes opened and there she was.
But because it was 5:37, it took me about 15 minutes into the day and a couple of sips of my coffee to realize that she was singing me into the day, and quite possibly into a new world.
About two years back, the State of Minnesota paid for our home to made more accessible by way of a track-run hoyer lift for my son…and for my back, as it turns out, because Karl’s way heavier now at age 18 than when the accident happened at age 3, I will tell you what.
Two weeks ago, I began a new position at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary as an adjunct professor.
This past Saturday, I was very honored to be the speaker at this year’s Excellence in Preaching event sponsored by St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.
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