Just catching up on things after failing to post on the blog in a while. Here is a sermon offered during the Opening Worship of the 2021 Western North Dakota Synod Assembly.
2021 Synod Assembly • June 4, 2021 • Matthew 22:34-40
Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
To this year’s voting members – either joining us in person in Minot or via our digital community – and to everyone else joining us via the livestream, I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, 10’s of thousands of brothers and sisters serving together in the western two-thirds of our beautiful state of North Dakota; I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, around 3 million brothers and sisters serving together across the United States and Caribbean; and, I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters in the Lutheran World Federation, of which our denomination of the ELCA is the only representative of from the United States. LWF connects 148 Lutheran denominations, over 77 million children of God, in 99 different countries who, together, are sharing in God’s ministry and mission around the world.
Those greetings have become repetitive and second nature for me as I’ve traveled across our synod in these first few months serving as your Bishop. They are greetings that I believe are appropriate and important to offer every time I speak on behalf of the church or proclaim the gospel good news in worship.
I think they’re important, because often times we get stuck believing God’s work is only happening through the church when we can actually see it with our own eyes in our little corner of the world.
I also think those greetings are important because so often you and I live out our faith as Jesus commands us to do in today’s gospel by putting greater importance one part and less importance on other parts.
Jesus commands us to love God. Love people. Love self.
Love God – you bet – I get that.
Love self – absolutely – after all, you have to look out for number one, right?
Love neighbor – eh – if I have time or feel like doing it someday, I might get around to that one.
I’m not sure if this is only a condition for people who live in extremely affluent parts of the world like we do or if it’s just a part of the human condition in general.
Our love of self is always comes above everything else. Or, maybe I’m the only one who gets stuck in the darkness of the sin of self more often than I will admit in public. Maybe you never experience that.
I mean, you and I are okay with loving God – as long as God is the god we think God should be.
And, if we have the energy or time, we’ll love our neighbor.
But they better look like me. They better vote like me. They better have the same viewpoint about masks and covid-19 that I had. As long as they _________, you insert whatever you want…we all place conditions on what it means to love our neighbor.
Notice, Jesus’ doesn’t place any conditions or restrictions or qualifications on what loving our neighbor is all about.
If you’ve paid attention to anything I’ve written or spoken since September 1, 2020, you know that Jesus’ commands to us in the gospel of Saint Matthew have become kind of a theme verse for these early days serving in the Office of Bishop.
I’m not sure if they will always be central, but they will always be part of who I am – or at least who I’m trying to be – as a child of God who has been called into this holy and mysterious vocation of Bishop.
Let’s face it, these are easy words for us to hear. And at the same time, they are incredibly difficult words for us to live out. Maybe we could think about it like this…living our lives as Jesus commands us to live…takes practice.
After all, practice makes perfect, right?
Back in the early ‘90’s, psychologist Anders Ericsson conducted a research project. His research involved examining distinctions among piano students of differing abilities, including those who performed at elite levels and those who were merely average. His research suggested that the key difference between a musician capable of performing at Carnegie Hall and one who just plays as a hobby was the quality and quantity of practice.
I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit this or not yet, but one of my former teachers may have been right. Her name was Norma McNamara. She was my guitar teacher as a child. She loved to say to me “practice makes perfect. And, Craig, it’d be great if you could spend a little more time practicing this week.”
Now, Dr. Ericcson’s theories have been challenged and fine-tuned over the past three decades. Additional scientists have taken a closer look at elements of performance in music, athletics, language acquisition, etc. What they’ve discovered is that things like memory, physical characteristics, age of learning certain skills, and even how people deal with their mistakes can contribute to high achievement. What they’ve also discovered is the truth that repetition and careful practice remain critical elements. [www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/October-20-30-a-matthew-2234-46]
Here’s the thing with repetition and careful practice as it relates to our faith journey and Jesus commandments in today’s gospel – Jesus’ words are not simply a moral saying or something that Jesus is okay with us only doing if we ever get around to feeling like doing it.
Embracing our faith and allowing God to work through us in the ways Jesus commands, takes practice – scripture study, worship, service, prayer, giving of ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially.
Jesus doesn’t give us a free pass, if we choose to ignore God’s commands to love God, love people, love self.
As Christians, practice focused on these things is at the core of who we are as followers of Jesus – especially if we look at it from the Lutheran branch of the Christian family tree. Don’t believe me – take a few minutes over the next few weeks and review the promises made in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as just one example.
Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was asked the question “Why Lutheran?” at an event in 2010. Part of his answer to that question was, “To be Lutheran is to always define ourselves in relationship to others, not what sets us apart from others. We will relentlessly define ourselves in how we’re related to you, not what sets us apart from you.”
Bishop Hanson went on to say, “To be a Lutheran is to understand that the God who has named me and claimed me, called me by name in the waters of Baptism, has not chosen to develop a relationship that’s just with Mark Hanson, but is so gracious, that God always is restoring me to community.”
As we begin this journey into a world and a church that is quickly moving, and unfortunately forgetting, about the global pandemic that we’ve been through over the past year, let’s not move too fast.
Let’s take time to reflect on how God is restoring us to community.
And to get there, I believe we need to take time to confess – individually and communally within each of our local faith families.
To take time to confess the many ways we really didn’t care about being in community with others during this pandemic.
Confess the times when we really didn’t care about our neighbor – especially when we found out they voted differently than we did or because we disagreed on how society addressed the pandemic or because the other person Jesus thinks I should love has a different skin color than me or a different sexual orientation or gender than I am, and because of those things, not even Jesus can make me be loving toward them.
Notice, again, this isn’t how Jesus teaches us to behave as his followers – in these verses or in any other verse in the gospels.
In fact, if you can show me one verse of scripture when Jesus teaches us that we can pick and choose who our neighbor is, and how we do or don’t care from them, point that out to me – I’ll buy you lunch!
I’m pretty confident I won’t have to do that anytime soon.
At least not for that reason.
During this season of the church, maybe words from the 20th century church reformer and activist Dorothy Day can be helpful.
And maybe sting just a little too.
Day is often credited with saying, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, take all the time…take all the time you think you and your congregations need in this season. But, I beg you, do not ignore taking time for the work of confession.
Receiving God’s unconditional and unmerited grace in forgiveness is the only way that we will move forward as children of God, as a church, as a human family.
Love God. Love people. Love self.
I believe this holy ritual of confession and forgiveness will be one of the grounding pieces that can help us move forward as followers of Jesus; unite us once again as communities of faith across the western North Dakota synod; renew us as one of the sixty-five synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and restore us globally and eternally together as children of God in the one body of Christ; commanded by our savior to love God, love people and love self.
And finally, it is my hope and prayer that the 2021 Western North Dakota Synod Assembly provides each one of us with an idea or two – a little spark of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration – that will empower us to love God, love people, and love self in ways we’ve never dreamt of experiencing before.
Theologian Brian McLaren closes his most recent book, Faith After Doubt, with a blessing. I close my first sermon before a Synod Assembly with McLaren’s words.
Blessed are the curious, for their curiosity honors reality.
Blessed are the uncertain and those with second thoughts, for their minds are still open.
Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful.
Blessed are those who question their answers, for their horizons will expand forever.
Blessed are those who often feel foolish, for they are wiser than those who always think themselves wise.
Blessed are those who are scolded, suspected, and labeled as heretics by the gatekeepers, for the prophets and mystics were treated in the same way by the gatekeepers of their day.
Blessed are those who know their unknowing, for they shall have the last laugh.
Blessed are the perplexed, for they have reached the frontiers of contemplation.
Blessed are they who become cynical about their cynicism and suspicious of their suspicion, for they will enter the second innocence.
Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods.
Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.
Whether you are in Minot or online for this year’s Synod Assembly, I’m glad you are here. May God bless our time together and keep us wrapped in the unconditional love of our savior Jesus.
Love God. Love people. Love self. Amen.
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