Well, well, well. Today is a big day. Just a few minutes ago, I emailed off my approval essay to my the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. For my next stage in the candidacy process to be (God-willing) an ordained minister in the ELCA, I was asked to complete a 20 page paper on the topic of missional leadership. I wrote what I could. Starting to wrestle with this paper only a week ago was probably not the best idea – since my internship evaluation, project report, and a sermon were due as well. But it happened and I’m including it below for you to read if you would like. I’m not 100% a fan of it mostly because it doesn’t cover the wideness of my theological underpinnings nor do I quote any female or non-white theologian. It could have been more expansive but it’ll do. Please note that it is long, includes footnotes, and might contain poor grammar. If you notice any heresies, please let me know so I can correct that when I come before the faculty panel in October. I have included each question that I attempted to answer in the body of the essay itself (which was a requirement as well).
A. Name a particular formative faith community that has helped shape your understanding of missional leadership as described in the introduction of this essay. Identify those characteristics of missional leadership that were developed and strengthened by your experiences in this formative faith community and provide a few examples.
Within your response integrate scriptural insights regarding gifts for missional leadership.
Include a reflection on the positive aspects of the experiences you listed above and what you learned theologically and practically that will inform your future ministry as a missional leader.
B. 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.
Furiously typing away on a rented iPad at 10 in the morning is not how I typically start my day but during the first full day of the 2013 ELCA churchwide assembly, it seemed appropriate. The night before, while sitting in a dinner reception with 120 other young adults from throughout the ELCA, a parade of staff from Chicago waltzed through with words of support, encouragement, and hope that the millennials in the ELCA would take charge of the future of the church. The morning after, while looking at the proposed budget for the ELCA and the planned capital campaign, their words were ringing in my head when I saw the pitiful among of funds dedicated to lay youth and young adults in the churchwide organization. Annoyed, my fingers sped writing a complaint to post onto my person blog for all my dozen readers to read. Just by chance, as I flipped between my blog post, twitter, facebook, and the ELCA app, I noticed a new post on the Facebook group for the ELCA young adult/youth crowd. A gentleman from South Carolina had an idea. He wanted to know if anyone was willing to gather at lunch to talk about it. He noticed the same things I noticed. He put out the call, I and thirty other young people answered it, and a new temporary missional faith community formed.
For this section of my approval essay, that temporary community (a community with no name but, to save space, I will call NTMFC) is the community I would like to share with you, dear readers. Although the community continues to linger on social media, this NTMFC lived for only a few days, formed within a wider faith community – the gathered members of the ELCA for the churchwide assembly. The members were all committed and faithful Lutherans, church goers (to some degree), some with a long history in national and synodical Lutheran organizations, others were attending their first big Lutheran event. At first glance, forming a NTMFC in this environment should be easy since we are playing for the same team; the missional leader in a congregation wis not so lucky.1 Yet, in this temporary community is where the clearest examples of my missional formation found expression and use. I’ve been blessed be included in many faith communities – two seminaries, two congregations, two cities, and the many temporary faith communities that formed during CPE, within each seminary and congregation, and from my interactions with “outsiders” while interning at an urban church that kept its physical doors open. I believe that the future of the church rests in utilizing these temporary communities and seeing them for what they are ‚Äì communities of faith that can be nurtured, supported, and loved by the overarching structure of the wider church.2 Christ is the head of the church and we are baptized into the body of Christ; each human community in His name is3 temporary. Raising these communities up, forming them, nurturing them, and being intentional with them will, in my opinion, be where the church of the present time will be most effective in its mission to share the gospel of Christ to the ends of the earth.4
As the initial group of thirty grew to forty, by the end of that first day, I found myself thrusted into a leadership role. I quickly found myself utilizing gifts that had been formed throughout my seminary and internship experience. In the words of a trusted clergy collegaue who was a constant resource through this event, I was “shepherding” the group. I did not intentionally plan to be part of group yet when I encountered the raw energy in the initial stages of its formation, gifts I did not know I had came forth. As the only member of the group on the path towards ordination,5 I had an advantage that many of them did not. I quickly contextualized6 where we are and what we were doing, asking the right questions, to steer and dissect the raw energy that the group was feeling. The feeling of a need to address the pitiful lack of funding for young persons’ ministries in the ELCA was the general concern. My call was to diagnose that feeling, pull out its underlying themes, and throw around it a theological and contextual lens that truly spoke to the heart of the issue. And it just so happened that the theological context we needed was vocation.
When you live in New York City, every meeting with a new person usually involves the question “what do you do for a living?” It is one of those questions that just falls out of your mouth without thinking. The irony with the question is that it defines a person’s worth through their career or job choices yet the language used highlights the reality of the Lutheran Christian lens of vocation. An individual’s life is made of many different threads and many walks of life. Presently, I am called by God to be a son, a brother, a spouse, a father, a student, senior seminarian, staff work, human being, etc. Vocation is a catch-all term for the threads of life that intersect, change, evolve, and disappear that covers our duties and responsibilities in each individual’s life. A career is not someone’s vocation ‚Äì it is can merely be just one of the many vocations that God is calling that person to be in. And God’s call is essential to a Lutheran understanding of vocation. As a baptized Christian, my multi-threaded life is caught in the activity of God’s grace through faith by the work of the Spirit.7 In all my callings, from being a father to being a citizen of New York City, I am called to seek perfection8 and to be a Christ to all my neighbors.9 Vocations are not paths that I take so that I will be loved by God. Rather, because God loves us through Christ on the Cross, our vocations become paths to serve our neighbor, raise up the lowly, and truly love them because God loved us first. Pastors and plumbers share the same Christian calling as they serve in their different walks of life. For the young people in the NTMFC, this understanding of vocation ran headlong into a churchwide expression that seemed to be saying that the opportunities for faith formation of young people rested in seminaries or abroad as global missionaries. I was able to provide the theological lens to give the collective grumbling a ground to rest on. And, yet, I also pushed them. I knew that any missional stance that was geared to only our own experiences would not work. If the plan for action rested on a limited understanding of vocation and the expansiveness of God to only serve the young people gathered in that NTMFC, I would step aside. The Spirit was not calling us to only consider ourselves ‚Äì it must be directed to the young persons who have yet to encounter Jesus the way we had. The Great Commission said to “make disciples of all nations,”10 not those already on the inside. Doing something brand new needs to be inherently evangelistic and must be what this NTMFC is about. Otherwise, we are squabbling over an ever decreasing pie that is ignoring God who is active, out there, in communities we are being called to know, love, and become a part of. With that said, the group agreed on two specific proposals11 to raise funding for the development of a lay youth and young adult leaders and to a supportive network of resources to support them as evangelists in the world. With the vision set, the hard work began.
With a vision mapped out, equipping disciples, expanding the network, and being active evangelists became key. Throughout the next steps, prayer and a constant checkin with the Spirit became central to our development. We were engaging in work we had never done before working in networks, committees, and political structures that none of us engaged with before. We discerned that the Spirit was calling us to engage with this work and we plowed straight ahead. As my role shepherding role grew, I found myself engaging and focusing the energies and abilities of my fellow leaders. Through our mutual efforts, we expanded our network to include clergy, older lay adults, sympathetic voting members, and utilized our own connections to connect with ELCA churchwide staff, committee members, and any bishop we could find. I actively chatted with members of ReconcilingWorks, trying to learn their techniques and experiences. I engaged in honest conversation with clergy about their experience with certain leaders, utilizing their knowledge to contextualize and inform our behaviors. And, many times, I simply got out of the way and backed up the fellow leaders when they needed pastoral care or just a physical sign of support and assurance. A missional leader cannot assume that they are capable of doing everything by themselves or try and re-invent the wheel every time the Spirit calls them towards something new; no one has time for that.
As the network grew beyond the youth and young adults, I intentionally used social media and any other avenue I had open to me to keep the youth and young adults connected with each other and expanding their network to include the youth and young adults we had not reached yet. Social media allowed a very public method of expanding this conversation beyond the confines of the churchwide assembly. A youth came up with our hashtag #areyouwithus which we used to great effect on Twitter. I spent much of my time responding to questions from people within the assembly and without, sharing our conversation, story, and movement. A young adult came up with the idea to put the hashtag on t-shirts, turning each youth into a bulletin board while I made sure to make sure those youth and young adults appeared on the large TV screens and in the webcast of the assembly. Over 70 shirts were made and given out. I also met with youth and young adults in small groups to talk about how they can evangelize and share what it going on. I invited them to be honest with me about their feelings and thoughts. I asked them to provide feedback. I encouraged them to tell me their story and, if they were onboard, I shared with them how they can be good evangelists. I told them simply to tell their story, use I statements, and to be caught in the act of confessing their faith. If this movement didn’t listen to their stories nor invite them to tell their own, it was a movement not worth finding success. Like Luther, each youth and young adult was invited to be caught by their bishops, voting delegates, family and friends back home, and anyone else, in the act confessing their faith.12 And it was in that process, and now looking back, that was the real point of this NTMFC. This was more than just a call to support a budget resolution that would die in committee. The Spirit was calling them to tell their story, God’s story, and how God is active in their lives. And it worked! Myself, along with others, cold called bishops, stopped entire regions during lunch to tell them our story, and were incessant in telling our story. And when a youth convinced the newly elected presiding bishop to wear one of our t-shirts after I flagged her down to tell her about what this NTMFC I realized that this call for evangelism had worked.
As our resources and network grew, something curious happened: we ended up losing control of it. One of the terrifying things about missional leadership and the formation of these temporary faith communities is that they can grow beyond our own boundaries. Missional leadership and networks function best when they are let go.13 Traditional ways of organizing through voting meetings did not work and on the day for the vote of our capital campaign amendment, only the core leadership of the NTMFC showed up. I almost freaked. I was worried that we had worn out the passion, energy, and call that had energized all of us on that first day. Yet something amazing happened – when the amendment was brought before the assembly and young persons flocked to the microphones, I saw dozens of faces I did not recognize.14 The NTMFC had expanded and formed new ones. The act of equipping evangelists led to new temporary communities of faith being birthed. I didn’t know these young people but I saw the Spirit working through and in them. As I sat there, waiting for debate to be closed and the voting commence, I knew that missional work had been done. Above are just some of the lessons I pierced together from this experience. God showed me that I had unexpected gifts ‚Äì and showed the entire churchwide assembly that a missional network of faithful lay young persons can, and will, be the next generation of faithful evangelists. I am incredibly blessed to have been a part of it.
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 of missional leadership.
B. Describe how these key theological insights informed the missional leadership experience you described above in #1.
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?
“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel,”15 or, in a smaller paraphrase, “I believe that I cannot believe!”16 It might be a cop-out to start this section of my approval essay with a quote from Luther’s Small Catechism but that is where my understanding of missional leadership begins, in the incredible and awesome gift that is faith. And this awesome gift, for me, lives in a very passionate and emotional place. To merely say that I am rooted in the presences and activity of the Triune God isn’t enough. It is too stilted to truly describe how I experience the event that is God’s grace. For me, missional leadership17 starts in the act of confessing one’s faith, an act that is Martin Luther’s great legacy to the Lutheran flavor of Christianity. Through his written words, pastoral work, political intrigue, and life, we see a missional leader caught in the act of confessing his faith. The fact that God, through baptism and the gift of the Spirit, claimed me by name, chose me to be a part of the church, and sent his Son into the world to be raised up on a Cross – how incredibly unbelievable is that? This story, that God loved me, included me, lived for me, and continues to walk with and through me is a story that will never grow old and never get boring. God’s initiative through grace and the gift of faith ‚Äì a faith rooted in the promises and activity of God ‚Äì that is how I was grafted and welcomed into God’s story. Each baptized Christian, each person caught up by the Holy Spirit, each one claimed by God ‚Äì their numbers are huge and each one of their stories needs to be learned, shared, shouted, and highlighted. Missional leadership rests there, in the confession of faith, in telling the story of God’s story breaking into my story, and of Jesus who continues to walk and nourish me. A missional leader, in their most basic form, is a storyteller18 caught in the act of confessing their faith and equipping others to do the same.
Storytellers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and tell their stories through a variety of God given gifts. A written word or a creative story is just one medium that a storyteller can use. I have tried to create stories for my child at bedtime but I fail each time. Yet when I use words and images crafted by others to read to him at bedtime, I am living out my vocation as a father who is a storyteller. In the act of storytelling, I am caught living out and confessing my faith by sharing with him not only the stories of others, by my simple story through the act of love and devotion that God has graciously given me. Living out all of God’s ordained vocations is one way a Christian tells their story and confesses their faith to others. Yet the storyteller can never forget to name God in their stories (or the lack of God too). Keeping God hidden undermines a Christian’s ability to tell an honest and authentic story. All disciples are called to be evangelists, storytellers able to identify God active in their past and in their present. A well equipped disciples enters the wider world, listening to the stories of others, able to identify God active in the other’s story because the disciple has recognized God active in their lives. But this activity is not limited to experiences of transformation, prosperity or “good things.”19 God promises to be part of the complete human life, in all its heartaches, joys, despair, happiness, and tears. A life of Christian storytelling is a life of naming God in the here and now, illuminating God’s work in the past, and pointing to God promised future. This life is rooted in the presence of the Holy Spirit and is a life living in the paradoxical space that is human existence: being a saint and a sinner all at the same time.
This framework for storytelling is, I believe, one of the gifts that Lutheran Christians have that can find new life in an increasingly pluralistic and secular context. By shouting from every rooftop that I am saved because of God’s initiative rather than my own is an extremely empowering thing. The Cross is not a place of despair or a place of fear; it is the scene of Christ taking a risk on me and the world that we are worth being stood up for. This is a gift that is continually renewed through the work of the Spirit in my life. I fight it, of course, because in its liberating reality, I lose my own ability to put my trust in my own creations rather than in God’s promises. But when the focus is on God’s initiative, I am freed away from myself and thrown, head first, into the world of my neighbor. Since God has made everything all about me because of Christ, I am turned to live for my neighbor. Since I am known by God, I am turned to know, listen, and engage with the other. I am gathered into their community, forming a temporary faith community, that is a point of conversation, intersection, love, and hope. I am invited to be changed by them and watch God, through faith, change them. In the freedom of the Gospel, Luther writes that “a Christian is lord of all, completely free of everything. A Christian is a servant, completely attentive to the needs of all.”20 A pluralistic society doesn’t change this reality nor does it call us to pull in the drawbridge and deepen the moat. Instead, the walls are to come down, and God, who is active in all of creation, calls us to head outdoors, meet God out there, and to be God’s storytellers in God’s ongoing act of creation. The Lutheran Christian missional leader is a storyteller caught in the act of confessing their faith, to witness to God’s creative work in a world that God loves, embraces, and invites us to be full participants in since, through Christ, we are freed to know and love as we have been known and loved by God.
In many ways, my journey towards this theological understanding of mission and identity took years to form and only found a minor expression in my experience at the churchwide assembly. As a former member of the “not religiously affiliated,” I subconsciously have spent a lot of energy trying to assimilate into the pre-existing Lutheran cultural stories that I found around me. I’ve never listen to Garrison Keillor, I can’t recite camp songs off the top of my head, I’ve never been to Minnesota, and I haven’t yet made a casserole to bring to a church potluck. My formation through candidacy has been as much about discerning God’s call for my life as well as it has been trying to decode and learn the cultural context around me. Even though I’ve been honest about my life story, I struggled to integrate that story into my ministry. I found it easy to confess my faith to my peers in seminary or in an essay but not in a room full of Lutherans because I always felt my language was the language of a non-native Lutheran speaker. Contextualizing cultural goes both ways and I found contextualizing those Christians already inside the church to be more difficult than my fellow NONEs who are just outside our doors.
But I believe that it was the act of being a Christian storyteller rooted my involvement in the NTMFC at the churchwide assembly. The story of Christ in my life is a story worth telling. Evangelism, network building, and equipping other youth to be storytellers, all came from my experience of the Spirit in my life. The story of the young man from South Carolina is not my story nor is the story of the young woman from South Dakota mine either. But the beauty of Christ is that Christ is big enough to hold all our stories. Our group found their foundation in the telling of our individual stories that told a collective one. It identified and pointed to where, I believe, the church needs to head: to be a church centered on supporting and developing networks of evangelists who, caught in the act of confessing their faith, come up with new communities, experiences, and ways for the collective church to be a Christ to all our neighbors, especially the marginalized and rejected. Living behind walls or assuming only one kind of community or form of leadership will be the reality of the future is actually a very non-missional thing to do. Even this approval essay topic is caught up in a narrowing of the future possibilities by saying that “congregations today are a mission field.” Congregations are but what about those who are not or will never be part of congregations as we understand it? My story includes a history of being in a non-congregational presence but being connected to the church through temporary communities of faith that I did not recognize at the time. That experience, and others, forms my language, context, and even how I confess my faith. My confession is rooted in the power of temporary faith communities housed and tangentially tied to other faith communities. Yet rarely were these temporary faith communities intentionally identified or encouraged. When Jesus sent the 7021 and gave them words to follow, each set of disciples entered a different community and there, in the midst of telling God’s story through the ministry of Jesus, formed communities of faith. Although the text does not say that any lasting community remained after the 70 left, it was in the act of confessing their faith that these temporary gatherings were made. At the end of Luke, we hear of two disciples scattered and heading to Emmaus.22 They walked as two only to be greeted by a Jesus they did not recognize. There, a temporary faith community was formed. In the presence of Jesus, the disciples were taught, loved, fed, nourished, and identified Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They were sent, rushing back to the fellow disciples, to tell their story. It is in the encounter with Jesus that causes stories to be told, faith given, and new life shared. It is in the grace of God that these temporary communities enabled storytellers to live out all of their God given callings. As I stood at the mic, second in line to speak on the NTMFC’s amendment to the capital campaign, I told my story and confessed my faith. It was there that I witnessed my formation through this discernment process come to fruition. I saw my gift ‚Äì and the gift that all of us, as baptized Christian, are invited to share.
Candidates for Word and Sacrament ministries should respond to A. (7-9 pages total)
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 characteristics 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 and the theological convictions in this setting that informed the sermon.
Be sure to include a description of God’s active role in the preparation and preaching of this sermon.
Reflect on how your sermon interfaces with one or more of the characteristics of a missional leader.
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?
How does preaching as a missional leader impact the hearers’ expression of 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.
During the summer months, Advent Lutheran Church in New York City challenges the congregation by preaching on the semi-continuous readings from the Hebrew Scriptures each Sunday. It is a challenge to preachers to struggle with possibly unfamiliar stories and for the congregation to see the Hebrew Scriptures as a source of law and gospel, and as stories worthy to be heard, explored, and experienced. In 2013, I opened our series with Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel.
This text is a fun one ‚Äì vibrant imagery, a wonderful character prone to hyperbole, and a contest with national and spiritual implications. Elijah continually calls the people and king of Israel out, pointing them to the God who loved them, sustained them, and who continues to operate in their midst. The turning away from God to other gods, codified into the visible symbol of Queen Jezebel, is a travesty. Elijah has a habit of speaking up, running away, listening to God, going on adventures, and performing miracles. God’s presence crosses national boundaries and is active in the here and now. His battle with the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel is the bookend to to his wandering into Sidon and the household of the Widow of Zarephath. “The Lord indeed is God,” the people gathered at Mount Carmel say when they see God’s present activity manifested in the fire that consumed the burnt offering, wood, stones, and water in the trench. Yet even with the killing of the prophets, the challenge to God’s authority does not end here. There is a continual need throughout the story of Elijah, and the life of all people through to the present day, for God to break into this world, call prophets, and spread the gospel to destroy the old creature and raise us anew. The desire to form our own gods and to put our trust in anything other than God’s promises is the sinner that lingers even after the waters of baptism wash over us. We live our life as a saint and a sinner, living in that middle space where “the Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”23 The people gathered at Mount Carmel were changed that day but they needed to be changed again, and again, and again. Our God is a patient God, that is for sure.
A few months prior to the preaching of this sermon, I approached Advent’s church council with a plea of sorts. Throughout my internship, I ran into a constant influx of individuals, both members and new, looking for opportunities to serve. What I heard in their words was, after experiencing God through worship and community, they desired to be turned outward but didn’t know how. They wished this turning be framed within the lens of where they found nourishment and spiritual renewal, Advent itself. Advent’s two major volunteer opportunities exist in its monthly food pantry and community lunch, each serving people from the neighborhood who do not worship there. However, that wasn’t enough. I reported to the council my experience and asked that the council, as lay leaders of the church, to be missional by providing more opportunities for service. Another staff led movement wouldn’t be enough; the lay leaders of the church needed to take ownership of a project like this. As the time for my sermon approached, I felt drawn to the word Elijah spoke. His hyperbole and largeness as a character met me in my week of praying on the text, joining ecumenical partners in a weekly bible study, and sitting with the text as I went through my week. And this Elijah continued to speak to me through an experience immediately preceding the delivery of the sermon. On the Friday and Saturday prior, the Metropolitan New York Synod held its annual assembly. I saw through most of the presentation, especially the elements that told of the missional work our churches were engaged in were the same stories that were told the year before.24 The experience I brought before Advent’s council was mirrored in the larger church. As I sat to compose the sermon on Saturday night, I knew what the Spirit was calling me to preach.
I tend to preach sermons that say a lot about what God does rather than what we need to do. The gospel is a continual re-telling of the story of the work of Jesus on the Cross. It is through that experience, and our being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to “not live in ourselves but in Christ and in the neighbor.”25 The gift of faith, the wonder of God’s grace is a constant movement away from oneself and into the world that God made and loved. 26 Each sermon serves as an opportunity to re-tell the gospel story ‚Äì a story that never stops needing to be told. What I hoped was for the hearers of this sermon, specifically the lay leadership of Advent and those who God will call to leadership roles in the future, would see in Elijah’s story God’s constant story of renewing and redeeming the world. I wished to connect the event of Pentecost with the people in the pews, that their missional work as fire-bearers of the living in Christ in the world is intimately tied to the gift of faith and our own relationship with God. A missional life is intertwined and interwoven with God’s grace. I hoped this sermon would light a tiny fire that would find expression in the near future and long term life of Advent. The feedback I received was positive but limited because there was one minor issue with my plan: I preached at the beginning of the summer when the population of Advent plummets. On that Sunday, only a smattering of council members were in the two services. Although I know that at least one meeting was held to discuss this matter later, I will not know until at least the fall to see if any fruit comes from my initial plea and sermon. Timing, sometimes, can be everything.
Equipping and sending disciples into the world isn’t limited to just preaching a Sunday sermon and calling it a day however. A missional leader isn’t just standing in the pulpit or printing a request in the bulletin and waiting for everyone to jump on board. Preaching of the gospel “makes known the name of Christ and the Father’s mercy promised in Christ…the proclamation of the gospel produces faith in those who receive the gospel.”27 It centers the individual, re-identifies God being active in their lives with love, mercy, and forgiveness through the cross. Preaching, through the Holy Spirit, brings faith and ignites it and is a catalyst for the turning towards the neighbor. Yet, the question of “now what?” once one is activated is a valid one. From my experience, direction matters. The call to preach the gospel is constant for the missional leader and the call to build networks of mutual support, reinforcement, hope, and love, is a constant call as well. A missional proclamation of the gospel is the first step towards equipping and sending disciples into all of God’s creation. Nourishing those leaders through a missional network of support, just as God continually nourishes us through prayer, scripture, and the body and blood of Jesus Christ, is key as well. A missional leader who does not engage in nourishment beyond Sunday morning will leave their call half done.
Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, semi-continuous readings: 1 Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
Preached at Advent Lutheran Church, Manhattan.
Doesn’t the story from our first reading sound like an old fashion, god vs god, throw-down showdown? In the left corner, we have the God of Israel, YHWH, and in the right, we have the storm god known as Baal. This is a perfect thunderdome moment. Two gods enter, one god leaves. And the rules are simple. The prophets from each side will gather together ‚Äì and as Elijah says ‚Äì it is “the god who answers by fire” who “indeed” is “God.”
So that’s how we’re starting our five week exploration of the Hebrew Scriptures ‚Äì of the story of Elijah ‚Äì by answering the question which god ‚Äì Baal or YHWH ‚Äì will send an answer to the people of Israel with fire.
But why the question? And what is this fire that Elijah keeps talking about?
Our reading today has a little back story. It takes place on Mt. Carmel after the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel had split. King Ahab rules the north and Elijah is introduced by going up to the king, looking at him straight in the face, and saying that there will be no rain in Israel ‚Äì that there will be a drought in Israel until God decides otherwise. This, of course, doesn’t make Elijah lots of friends ‚Äì so Elijah runs. He hides ‚Äì and the drought happens. And it goes on. And on. And on. Then, finally, three years in, Elijah emerges from his hiding places, meets Ahab, and gathers the prophets of Baal, the king of Israel, and the entire people of Israel to Mt. Carmel where Elijah throws it down. He accuses the people of Israel of being unfaithful; of wavering; of putting their trust in something other than YHWH ‚Äì and thinking that something or someone or some other god could end this drought. So Elijah calls for a contest and the rules are simple: the prophets of Baal will do their rituals, prayers, and sacrifices and Elijah will do his ‚Äì and the god who answers with fire ‚Äì the god who can send down lighting ‚Äì the god who can actually make it rain and end Israel’s suffering ‚Äì that’s the god that the people should trust; the god they should devote themselves to; the god they should be faithful to. That’s the question here ‚Äì which god can actually help us. And the one that can ‚Äì all they have to do is just make it rain.
So the prophets do what prophets do. The prophets of Baal do their thing. They perform the rituals they know. They say the prayers they’ve been taught. They do everything they can to get Baal to notice them; to notice their suffering; to hear their case. I mean, bringing rain ‚Äì that’s just what a storm god does. Baal should have no problem with this simple task. And all the prophets of Baal need to do is activate their god, switch their god on, get their god to see them. And, they try. They really do. They do everything they know how to do ‚Äì even when Elijah mocks them ‚Äì they don’t stop. They don’t give up. They try everything to activate their god ‚Äì who they trust ‚Äì who they have faith in ‚Äì but it just doesn’t work.
So Elijah starts his rituals ‚Äì but he begins in a different way. He first gathers everyone together. And when they are close he takes 12 stones representing the tribes of Israel and builds an altar, digs a trench, lays down wood, and drowns the wood in water three times. And, as he begins the sacrifice, he does what I think is the most important part of the story ‚Äì he prays ‚Äì and he starts his prayer with these words: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”
Did you catch that? Did you notice what Elijah does different here? He doesn’t name God in the usual way. He doesn’t say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No, Elijah says Israel ‚Äì the name Jacob was given by God after Jacob spent the night wrestling with the Angel. Israel, the name Jacob was granted after he held onto the angel all night long, refusing to let go even as the day broke and the sun rose into the sky ‚Äì Jacob refused to let go until he was blessed. So the angel blessed him, giving him a new name ‚Äì Israel ‚Äì which means “he who struggles with God.”
That, I think, is the ace in Elijah’s sleeve. In this confrontation with the prophets of Baal ‚Äì he’s actually not confronting Baal. This really isn’t a god vs god boxing match. No, Elijah is doing something different. He’s there reminding the people of Israel who they are ‚Äì who they have been ‚Äì who has claimed them and what their true identity is. And in the reminding, Elijah is not trying to activate God. He’s not trying to get God’s attention. He knows he has God’s attention. He knows that God is paying attention to them because they are the heirs of Jacob ‚Äì they are heirs to being the people who struggle with God ‚Äì who live in relationship with God. This isn’t about saying the right prayer, doing the right dance, or performing just the right kind of good deed to get God’s attention. They are gathered not to activate God but to remember that God has already activated them. God has already given them an identity. God has already named and claimed them. God has already answered them with fire ‚Äì from the burning bush of Moses and the pillar of fire that lead the people as they traveled through Sinai on their forty year journey ‚Äì God has already answered them and continues to answer them. The contest on Mt. Carmel isn’t a real contest. It isn’t a throw-down between two gods. It’s a reminder of what it means to be the people of God and that this God has already acted in their lives ‚Äì in their very identity and history. Elijah is calling them to remember that God has already answered in fire ‚Äì and that they are the witnesses to God’s activity in the world; witnesses to God’s fire; witnesses to God’s answer to the world. They are, in a sense, God’s fire for the here and now no matter how unfaithful, unguided, and wavering they seem to be. They are God’s unlikely fire in the world.
Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Pentecost ‚Äì how the holy spirit descended like a mighty wind through the disciples as they gathered to tell the story of God and Jesus. And as they gathered, tongues of fire appeared over them. Tongues of fire. Tongues of fire so that the story of Jesus ‚Äì the story of the carpenter from Nazareth who traveled throughout Israel, who healed the sick, brought good news to the poor, saw the invisible, ate meals with the unwanted, and died on the Cross ‚Äì that this story could be shared to all, regardless of who they were, where they came from, or what they believed or did. And that’s still our present story ‚Äì our present calling ‚Äì to live out Elijah’s reminder that we gather to remember and witness God’s story and to be bearers of God’s fire into the world. Because our story is not about trying to live a life that gets God to notice us ‚Äì but to live in that place where God has taken a chance on us, in all our imperfections, to be part of God’s answer to the world. The Cross of Christ just doesn’t right our relationship with God ‚Äì the Cross of Christ activates us, gathers us, claims us to be living witnesses to the fact that God actually loves the world. Because we are part of God’s fire. Right here, on the corner of 93rd and Broadway, we’re invited to be like Jacob and live out what it means to struggle with God. We’re invited to share our story, to remind others of our story, and to live as God’s fire in the world. We’re invited to pack a bag of groceries for a neighbor in need or serve a hot meal to a stranger who might not get another meal that day. We’re invited to raise awareness of the maternal cost of racism, to fight malaria in Africa, to advocate against discrimination based on gender identity, and this is just a small sample of what we, as children of God, are invite to do. We’re invited to live out Elijah’s call ‚Äì to live out what it means to be a people who are activated by God rather than who try to activate God. Because that’s the gift of grace ‚Äì that this activation isn’t up to us. No, God has turned us on ‚Äì God has made us fire bearers – and we’re invited to live out God and Jesus’ story on this corner in New York City and throughout the world. Amen.
- And, to be honest, the church should never have assumed it would be so lucky. Sure, Paul wrote to an established community in Romans but he moved through a variety of communities who had not encountered”the Way” before his ministry arrived.
- One of the blessings/curses of living in New York City is watching how many temporary communities form and move on. Being the one who “stayed” means that I have many circles of friends or faith partners who have come into the city and left. The temporary community is always in transition but faith and ministry needs to be done in them. And when that community comes to an end, it needs to be shepherd, mourned, closed, and each of its members sent to be embraced/form new communities where they can find life, love, and the Gospel. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) – that doesn’t mean that individual communities are suppose to be too
- Matthew 18.20
- Matthew 28.
- I was also the oldest. The leadership team that developed consisted of me (31 years old) , a 25 year old from South Carolina, a 23 year old from a 22 year old from PA, a smattering of college students, and youth in high school. Age and experience has its advantages sometimes.
- One of the gifts of being an individual who did not grow up in the church (Lutheran or otherwise) and being a Lutheran in a non-Lutheran seminary is that I find myself quickly having to diagnose and understand cultural contexts that are slightly foreign to me.
- In all our walks of life we are to “fear God earnestly with the whole heart and yet also to have a sincere confidence, faith, and trust that we have a gracious, merciful God because of Christ.” Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, editors, “The Augsburg Confession,” The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 88.49.
- We are to “seek perfection…growth in the fear of God, in faith, in the love for their neighbor, and in similar spiritual virtues.” Melanchthon, Philip, “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 283.37.
- Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, trans. Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 84.
- Matthew 28:19.
- Although a third resolution would be drafted, derived from an internal conflict within the NTMFC unhappy with the vision that I laid out, that resolution would fail to reach the floor and I have yet to truly understand where it bowed out.
- Timothy Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechisms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 13.
- “Missional networks spread by losing control,” Lutheran Confessions, http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com/2013/04/missional-networks-spread-by-losing.html, accessed 08.28.2013.
- Mark 9:37-41 has a new meaning for me because of this experience.
- Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.6.
- Wengert, Catechisms, 60.
- And, like I said before, missional leadership is a call to all Christians, not just those in candidacy for rostered leadership. Leadership roles and gifts for each Christian is different but our calling to being caught in the act of confessing our faith is shared amongst us all, from the baptized newborn to the well worn old-timer.
- David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism (New York: Church Publishing, 2008).
- For example, Gortner is writing from an Episcopalian perspective where the incarnation is the start of the conversation. A Lutheran approach starts at Good Friday and sees God at work in the Cross. God is present through the sufferings and through the joy. To focus on one or the other is to shield ourselves and make the mistake of thinking that God does not completely know all of us. See Psalm 139.13 and John 1:48.
- Luther, Freedom, 50.
- Luke 10.
- Luke 24:13-36.
- Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Kolb et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 465.65.
- The one exception was our living through and response to Superstorm Sandy.
- Luther, Freedom, 88.
- John 3:16.
- Melanchthon, Apology, 264.32.
Gortner, David. Transforming Evangelism. New York: Church Publishing, 2008.
Kolb, Robert and Timothy J. Wengert, editors. “The Augsburg Confession,” The Book of Concord. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Luther, Martin. The Freedom of a Christian. Translated by Mark D. Tranvik. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism.” In The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Luther, Martin. “Small Catechism.” In The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Lutheran Confessions. “Missional networks spread by losing control.” Accessed 08.28.2013.
Melanchthon, Philip, “Apology of the Augsburg Confession.” In The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.