This is the third year that the ELCA has sponsored an across the church Sunday of service to the community in September. Has your congregation participated? Do you have plans for September 13, 2015? It is not too late to start planning.
Service is what we do as Christians, in response to God’s love for us. Service is how we live our lives as followers of Jesus. Service does not make us any better than anyone else. It does not make us any closer to God. It is our natural response to the commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
People appreciate service. Thousands of Detroit residents looked on with wonder and gratitude as 30,000 Lutheran youth went out into the neighborhoods picking up trash, boarding up buildings, weeding lots, planting gardens, painting fences and more. Ten thousand Lutherans were sent out each day to respond to God’s love by serving neighbors in Detroit.
Service is the highlight of something like a Youth Gathering for many young people. As a matter of fact, when a traffic accident snarled traffic and prevented some of our youth from getting to their work sites, they protested until their leaders and Pastor Jason Asselstine contacted the local bishop to find some service for them to do. It is that important.
Campus ministry finds that students who don’t consider themselves to be religious are still drawn in by the opportunity to do service. Surveys of young adults who are not involved with religious communities find again and again that they are attracted by service opportunities. One of the goals of the ELCA’s Campaign is to increase opportunities for young adults to do service. This year the Young Adults in Global Mission program has nearly 80 participants, out of an even larger pool of applicants. This is nearly double the number we have had in recent years.
So, do you have some things in mind for God’s Work. Our Hands Sunday? Have you thought about enlisting your youth, not just as workers, but as planners? Our youth are dedicated and creative and want to serve. And they want to lead. I experienced that in Detroit, not just with the designated few who stood up in front of the 30.000, but with our Montana Synod kids. They are growing in their faith. They are our future.
At the Youth Gathering, amidst the thousands of bright orange T-shirts we all wore for our community service day, and amidst the hundreds of differently-colored synod T-shirts (ours was deep blue and read “Montana to Motown”), and amidst the congregational T-shirts that some folks brought, were the bright gold “God’s Work. Our Hands” T-shirts. Consider supporting a local business and making some T-shirts for your congregation as you go out and do community service. And don’t be afraid to claim who you are. Wear your congregation’s name boldly. We are a church that serves the world, especially the poor and those in need.
What am I planning to do for God’s Work. Our Hands Sunday? Susan Hedahl has me making a quilt top for Lutheran World Relief. As I travel around the Synod, I often bring scraps of fabric to quilters in the congregations I visit. Recently First Lutheran in Plentywood sent a photo of the quilt they made with those scraps. So when Susan asked whether I had some time to sew, how could I say anything but “Yes.”
God’s work. Our Hands.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
As you read this, over 30,000 ELCA Lutherans, most of them under 20, will be gathering in Detroit. Every three years the ELCA puts on a massive effort to bring together high school students from across the country into one location for an experience of service, community and witness. Two hundred fifty from the Montana Synod are there. Eighty decided to go on buses organized by Associate to the Bishop Pastor Jason Asselstine. Those two bus loads of students and their chaperones will have already bonded by the time they reach Detroit.
I have been asked, "Why Detroit?" Most of what we hear about Detroit is bad news-acres of abandoned housing, crime, bankruptcy, the art museum having to sell off masterpieces to stay afloat. Why would anyone want to go there? The answer is that God is present in Detroit every bit as much as everywhere else, and that Detroit is a place in need of an infusion of reminders about that love. The last two times the Youth Gathering was in post-Katrina New Orleans. People asked the same question: "Why New Orleans?" And the answers were the same. God has work for us to do there. And God has work to do on us there.
Like New Orleans, Detroit is a city under duress. We are not going there to save Detroit. But we are going there to do what we are called to do-accompaniment. "Rise Up Together" combines faith formation, inspiration, hard work and fun. During the day, participants are divided into three areas. On Thursday of this week, our Montana group will be participating in "Proclaim Justice." We will be deployed into the city of Detroit to serve neighbors there. Some will work with children, some will do construction, some will feed the hungry, some will care for the elderly.
On Friday, we'll engage in "Proclaim Story." We'll listen to one another's faith stories, have share Eucharist together. And of course we will be listening for God's story in the midst of all that we do. Saturday is "Proclaim Community," where we will spend the day doing interactive learning about ministries and ministry areas across the whole church. Evenings will be gatherings of the whole group with inspiring speakers, uplifting music, and the amazing sense of having sharing a faith with an incredibly diverse group of people, all under the same roof.
It is hard to imagine 30,000 people. That is more than live in most of our communities in Montana and Wyoming.
A Youth Gathering can be a life-changing event for young people and their adult chaperones as well. Please pray for our youth. And when they return, listen to them. They are the church. I look forward to being with them in Detroit.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
How might congregations respond to same-sex marriage?
In late 2014, same-sex marriage became legal in both Wyoming and Montana. And in June of 2015, the Supreme Court made it legal in all of the United States. Nothing has changed for people in Montana or Wyoming since last year. But the highly-publicized Supreme Court decision and reactions around the country have brought the issue forward again for many people.
It is important to distinguish between church and state. The Supreme Court ruling means that states may not discriminate. That is now the law. But the First Amendment is still in effect in the US. Neither the courts nor the states can force congregations to perform or host weddings for anyone. All the ruling means is that states can no longer refuse to grant licenses to same-sex couples. It does not force churches to do anything.
But since the issue is in the news again, some congregations are wondering what they might do in response. I have been asked what is happening in other states, particularly where same-sex marriage has been legal longer. I have consulted with colleagues in other synods, and thank them for their input. Here are some options that congregations have adopted:
Congregation A: has had respectful, intentional conversations at their Council meeting. Result: We will allow for same-sex weddings both inside our building and off-site, as the pastor sees fit.
Congregation B: We will not allow for same-sex weddings in our congregation. The pastor is unwilling, and that ends the discussion.
Congregation C: We will do what we have always done here-we will leave the decision of who to marry to the discernment of our pastors. We have never demanded names of couples who desire to be married to come to the Council, and we don't intend to start doing it. We'll have a congregational forum for further discussion.
Congregation D: We consider ourselves to be a congregation where differences of opinion are welcome. We will continue to allow our pastor to make decisions on weddings on site or off-site.
Congregation E: Yes, by vote of Council and by vote of congregation.
Congregation F: No, by vote of Council and by vote of congregation.
Congregation G: No, in our building. OK if off-site.
Congregation H: Do nothing and hope it all goes away.
Congregation I: Set a date to begin discussion.
There are no doubt many other options. And what your congregation decides now does not have to be forever. Do what you do with intentionality and integrity, don't trample on anyone, and remember to leave room for the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Jessica Crist
In June Pope Francis released a statement about the environment, about Christians' duty to care for creation, and to care for the poor. This statement was getting a lot of media attention even before it was released. The media folks have learned that with Pope Francis, you had better keep on your toes, because you just never know what he will say. Insiders call it "the Francis effect." It is true that Pope Francis seems to be cut from a different cloth from his predecessors. But what the papal encyclical actually says about the environment is not new. It may be new to people ill-informed about the long Judeo-Christian tradition of caring for creation. It may be new to people who think that we have to choose between jobs (people) and the environment. It may be new to people whose understanding of Christianity is deeply colored by a commitment to making money.
But it is not new to people who believe that God created the universe and everything in it. It is not new to people who believe that God so loved the world-the whole world-that God gave up everything for it. The ELCA is part of a tradition that values creation and sees a holy calling in the tilling of the earth, the care for animals, the preservation of rivers and streams, the protection of the air. We do not see care of creation as being in competition with justice for the poor.
Our Social Statement, "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice," (adopted in 1993) outlines biblical, theological and ethical perspectives on the care of creation. Among the provisions in the Statement are the following:
"We live within the covenant God makes with all living things, and are in relationship with them."
"Creation depends on the Creator, and is interdependent within itself."
"The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. No person or group has absolute claim to the earth or its products."
"The Sabbath and justice laws of the Hebrew tradition remind us that we may not press creation relentlessly in an effort to maximize productivity."
The entire Statement can be found on the ELCA website, www.elca.org/Faith/Social-Statements/Caring-for-Creation.
In 2001, Catholic Bishops in the Northwest United States released a pastoral letter on the Columbia River watershed, of which western Montana is a part. In late June of 2015, religious leaders from the US and Canada wrote to President Obama and Prime Minister Harper requesting modernization of the Columbia River Treaty. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote:
"According to Genesis 2:15, our role within creation is to serve and keep God's garden, the earth. This earth, all of creation and that beautiful part of it known as the Columbia River are a gift entrusted to us by God. And this gift is entrusted not just to particular countries or to a particular generation, but to all countries and to all of humanity. When we seek to make faithful decisions about the tending of then Columbia River or any natural resource, we must remember that it is not, nor can it ever be, just about us or just about now."
Supporting the religious and indigenous leaders, I wrote: "The Columbia River is the lifeblood of the tribes who have lived in its watershed from time immemorial. And rivers are the lifeblood of the planet. As a matter of justice and as a matter of survival, I join others across the watershed in urging the modernization of the Columbia River Treaty."
Caring for creation is an ongoing responsibility for all of us, in our actions-large and small-in our prayers, and in our advocacy. We join with Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, and all others in caring for the earth.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Jesus is speaking to a group of his co-religionists-a sympathetic audience. And he says, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." This sounds like a pretty reasonable thing to say. But the listeners push back. "What do you mean? We have always been free! What do you mean 'You will be made free'?"
I have always been a little puzzled by this interchange. Don't they remember the part of their history where they were slaves in Egypt for generations? Have they forgotten so soon? People bristle when they think their freedom is being threatened or questioned. People did in Jesus' day, and we do so today.
On the Fourth of July weekend we like to celebrate our freedom. Independence Day commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence-an eloquent and passionate document explaining why the thirteen American colonies no longer intend to be a part of Great Britain. We cherish our freedom, and even like to boast about it. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion-we depend on these freedoms and more, and become just as defensive as the people in Jesus' day were when we feel our freedoms are threatened.
Freedom can be a buzz word used to push all kinds of products and attitudes. Our society tempts us with all sorts of "cheap freedoms," like freedom from consequences, freedom from debt, freedom from pain, freedom from restrictions. In the end, all of those offers are pretty shallow, because no product, no lifestyle can give us deep freedom. That comes from somewhere else.
Jesus is talking about a different kind of freedom. "'Very truly I tell you, everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.'" The freedom Jesus is talking about is freedom from sin. And that freedom comes only through him. Because without him we are not able to avoid or escape sin. That's part of our human nature.
Note how our baptismal service begins:
"In baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are born children of a fallen humanity; by water and the Holy Spirit we are reborn children of God and made members of the church, the body of Christ. Living with Christ and in the communion of saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God."
What Jesus offers us is deep freedom, freedom from sin. But it is not cheap. And it is not shallow. Each week in worship we confess our sin corporately, and receive absolution. It is a meaningful part of our liturgy. Yet I wonder if the whole concept of sin needs to be re-articulated for our increasingly secular society. To many outside the church (and many within, I expect), sin is equated with wrongdoings, especially sexual and dietary. But sin is so much more than sex and chocolate! And we can hardly expect people to be seeking forgiveness for sin and to rejoice at absolution if their understanding of sin is so limited. Simply put, in order to teach forgiveness and freedom, we need to do a better job teaching about sin.
Jesus helps us with this with his way of turning things upside down, telling people that the way to gain their life is to lose it and vice versa. The freedom that Jesus embodies is the freedom to serve others.
In "The Freedom of A Christian," Martin Luther points out the seeming dichotomy he finds in the Apostle Paul.
"A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none."
"A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
In Christ we are free to serve others. That is freedom worth living for. That is freedom worth dying for.
"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA