So, what is your pastor, SAM, and/or LPA called to preach to you from the pulpit during these interesting days?
The answer to that question seems easy on the surface but in fact, when we dig a little deeper into the response, we might not like the answer we hear. But nonetheless, according to scripture and the Lutheran tradition, your preacher has been called and ordained/licensed to speak particular things to you and it isn’t always what you might want to hear.
The simple answer to the question of what your preacher is called to preach is God’s Word. The preacher has been called first by God and second by the body of Christ represented in your congregation/ministry to preach God’s Word. Seems simple enough.
But what is God’s Word? Often when we hear that phrase, we think “Bible.” And we’re not wrong. The Word of God preachers are called to speak includes the Bible. But it is not only the Bible. In fact, God’s Word goes beyond the Bible and starts not with words on a page but in the fullness of a person.
God’s Word has three interconnected and incarnate forms. (There’s that three-in-one thing again!) The first form and the criteria for all the other forms of the Word of God is discovered in the Gospel of John, Chapter 1:1 -- “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is the central way we understand the Word of God as Lutherans: as Jesus Christ!
Jesus Christ is the Word of God, made flesh, who dwelt with us, ministered to and taught us, died because of and for us, and rose again to give us new life. Everything Christ said, is and did is the fullness of God’s Word. And in Christ who lives, God’s Word is and always will be a living Word. Ultimately, Jesus – all he has done and all he calls us to do -- is the Word of God who your preacher is called and expected to proclaim.
The second form of God’s Word is Scripture. Scripture too is God’s living Word, inspired by the Spirit, written down by ancient preachers and proclaimers who were called by God to preach the Word. Scripture is God’s Word as it proclaims Jesus and the new life Christ brings out of death.
The third form of the Word is the proclamation from your pastor, SAM and/or LPA on Sunday mornings as well as the Word you hear in devotions, Bible Studies, prayer, testimonies of faith from your neighbor, creation and so many other ways. God’s Word is made real and present every moment of every day when we open our mind, hearts and spirits to him (Christ) through the words, experiences and lives of our fellow human beings and in creation.
When you hear the Word of God proclaimed, whether in Christ, in Scripture or in preaching, it comes to you in two ways: Gospel and Law. Both are necessary and useful to the life of the follower of Christ and the body of Christ in which they live.
First, the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation of the good news of what God does for you, directly, as a gift. You, singular and plural, only receive. You do nothing except open your self to the gift of love God pours into you.
In God’s Word as Gospel, God proclaims Jesus Christ who is the deep, abiding, agape love God has for the whole world and for you. The Gospel tells you: “God loves you. God accepts you. God passionately desires to be in life-giving relationship with you. God forgives you. God saves, redeems and reconciles you.” The Gospel is never what you do or think you should do. The Gospel is always what God does. And God has already done and continues to do everything you need or could want. (See Luther’s explanation to the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism. http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php)
But there’s another part of God’s Word, a part that we don’t like to hear very much, at least not to apply to ourselves in this day and time, though we do enjoy applying it to other people. This second part of God’s Word is the Law. God’s Law. God’s Law spoken first and foremost to me, myself and I for my life here and now, not simply to someone else back then. And this is the part we resist when we come face to face with it.
In the Lutheran tradition, we believe that God’s Word comes to us as both Gospel and Law; neither should be forgotten, neither should be ignored. And God’s Law is all about what God calls, asks, and commands us to do and be; it describes how God wants us to live with each other in this world. The heart of this Law, the law that governs all of God’s Law, is of course to love and serve others – everyone. “…through agape love, become slaves to one another. For the WHOLE law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor.’”  (Gal 5:13b-14)
Why does God insist this Law of Love be preached? Well, first because we still sin. We still turn away from God at every turn and we still try to be god over others. “If we say we’re without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8) And so we need protection from our own sin and one another’s sin. God gives us the Law of Love to help us order our lives in the safest way possible in the midst of sin.
But the Law also functions on us another way, whether we want it to or not. It points out to us when we are not following God’s Law and invites, pesters and demands that we follow it.
And we don’t like to have the things we’re not supposed to be doing but do anyway (or the things we are supposed to do but don’t) pointed out to us, do we? We get defensive, feel guilty, push back because we think we’re pretty good people. And we are…in and through Christ. But alone we turn away from God into our self-centered ways and into sin.
This is the Word of God, the Law and Gospel that the pastor, SAM and/or LPA is called to preach to you. So before you get mad at the preacher for saying things you don’t want to hear, stop and ask yourself if they are in fact are proclaiming God’s Word by calling upon you to love and serve your neighbor – all your neighbors -- even when you don’t want to hear it or do it.
And if that’s the case, then don’t get mad. Instead, listen. Because they are doing exactly what God and the body of Christ has called them to do: proclaim God’s Word in both the Gospel and the Law, given to you in Christ, inspired by the Spirit, and guided by the Scriptures. For it is through listening to God’s Word in Christ that the Holy Spirit will transform you into who God calls you to be.
And then say “thank you pastor, SAM, LPA for reminding me that as a follower of Christ, I’m called to love everyone. And thanks and praise be to God that Jesus died for me and rose again so that I can be forgiven in grace, turn back to God, and live the life of agape love God wants me to live.”
In Christ’s love,
 Get used to me harping on this love thy neighbor command. God, Jesus, and the Spirit never stop harping on it so neither will I.
So how has the praying gone this week? In last week’s newsletter, I called upon you to pray a 500 Mississippi’s Prayer each day asking the Spirit to transform your life, asking God to open your eyes, ears, hearts, bodies, minds and spirits to the real suffering of our indigenous, brown and black siblings in Christ.
As you read that, you might have asked, “what about my own sufferings? I have sufferings too. Can’t I pray for God to relieve those?” Of course, you can. Placing our own sufferings before God is one part of our prayer life. But it is not the only part. Another part is praying that God will end the sufferings of your neighbor…and a part of that is praying that God will use you and me to do that difficult work. And in order for God to use you and me to help change the world so that people of color and the poor and the marginalized can live and breathe and seek the fullness of abundant life that God has promised for them too, we pray that the Spirit will transform us to be people of compassion, empathy and love.
But this isn’t just any love we’re called to be transformed into living. This is agape love. “Agape love your neighbor as you agape love yourself.” Whenever Jesus and Paul talk about loving God and loving neighbor as the core of all the law and prophets, the are talking about agape love. In fact, agape is actually the Greek word for love used throughout the New Testament. Whenever you see “love” in the NT, think agape.
What is agape love? It is selfless love, lose your self for others love, stand in suffering with your fellow human beings love, limit my rights and take on the responsibility Christ gives us to lift up the rights of those who suffer love. We as followers of Christ are called to agape love our neighbors no matter who they are. And today especially we’re called to agape love those whose rights aren’t being respected, especially those who aren’t being treated with justice, especially right now our indigenous, brown and black brothers and sisters. Agape love is the core of following Christ and is seen most fully in Jesus Christ who suffered and died selflessly so that the whole world might be saved from our sin and its never-ending consequences.
This agape love stands against the voices in this world who are telling us that selfishness – focusing only on “me and my own” – is a virtue. These voices of selfishness tell us that our only responsibility is to care for our own selves and our own lives. Other lives are to come second, if at all, and are there for me to use for my own gain. These voices tell us that life is one big game of King of the Hill for scarce resources and that helping and loving others is a waste of our time unless it serves the self.
But for followers of Christ, selfishness is never a virtue. In Christ we are called to self-less love. As Christians, we cannot follow both the voices of selfishness in our culture and the voice of Jesus Christ calling us to agape love at the same time. For these voices are going in opposite directions. As followers of Christ, we listen to Christ’s voice and follow him away from the bandits who would tempt us with selfishness and toward the agape love of our Good Shepherd (John 10). “And I lay down my life for the sheep,” Jesus proclaims in pure, selfless, agape love. That is the love we are called to live.
Even for ourselves we practice a self-less self-love that lives in the promise that each and every person is God’s beloved, created in God’s image. In that knowledge and truth, we care for and love all whom created, redeemed and empowered, other selves and our own, so that we can take this knowledge of God’s love of us to heart and turn it around to love our neighbors.
I close today with an old parable. Jesus was giving a woman a tour of heaven and hell so that she could see the difference between the two. First, they went to a room where a large group of people were sitting around a big table. In the middle of the table sat giant pots of delicious smelling soup. The people around the table had long spoons attached to both of their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t bend them to reach their own mouths. As Jesus and the woman watched, the starving people bickered, yelled and screamed, raged and fought, bashing each other again and again with their spoons, demanding entitlement to get the delicious soup for themselves without caring about anyone else. The suffering, weeping and gnashing of teeth was horrible to watch. “This is hell,” Jesus told the woman.
Then Jesus took her to another room. A large group of people were sitting around a big table with big pots of delicious smelling soup down the middle. Each person had long spoons attached to their hands, so long and straight that they couldn’t reach their own mouths. But these people were happy, well-nourished, and filled with joy, laughing with each other and singing songs and celebrating life. “This is heaven,” Jesus said.
The woman said to Jesus, “I don’t understand. Why are the people here so happy while the others were so miserable when everything in both rooms is the same?” And Jesus said, “Ah, that’s simple. Here they learned how to feed each other.”
That is agape love. Blessed week to you all, Bishop Laurie
Eight minutes and twenty-six seconds. That’s over 500 Mississippi’s. Count them out…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi…all the way to 500. Now imagine a knee on your neck as you count, each attempted breath one of those Mississippi’s, each breath harder to suck in than the last. Imagine that knee on the neck of your child, your parent, your friend as they try to breathe…1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi. Imagine.
That’s what happened to George Floyd – a son of God, a brother in Christ created in the image of God, a human being worthy of dignity and respect -- last week. A knee pressed George’s neck against the unforgiving cement of a Minneapolis city street not far from where the Mississippi River runs through and George died, another black person murdered by a white police officer while other officers ignored George’s cries for breath and the pleas of the bystanders watching.
It's hard for those of us who click the Caucasian/white box on our census form to understand the experience of George Floyd and other black, brown and indigenous human beings. It’s hard for us to understand being consistently singled out, stereotyped, threatened, and attacked for having a different skin-tone. It’s hard for us to understand why George Floyd might fear for his life as he is approached by four police officers in a city already known for the systemically permitted abusive behavior by some of its officers. It’s hard for us to understand Ahmed Aubrey’s experience of jogging in a middle-class neighborhood ten minutes from your home and being attacked and shot by two men who think you a criminal simply because of the color of your skin. It’s hard for us to understand the experience of indigenous women like Hanna Harris or Ashley Heavy Runner and their families in our state who are murdered, go missing or are routinely sexually assaulted in a social system that seems to want to do little about it.
It’s hard for us to understand. But we must try. We must imagine. We must do our best, even a little, to put ourselves into the shoes of these fellow human beings who, like us, are also beloved children of God. We must try to imagine what life is like for them. For that imagination is the heart of following the Golden Rule – to treat people of color as we as Caucasian/white people want to be treated…and probably already are.
This attempt to step into another human being’s shoes and feel their suffering is called empathy and for some reason it’s easier for human beings to do when the person looks, acts, thinks, and experiences life like we do. It’s much harder to empathize with those who we deem different, “other,” not like us. And yet such empathy and its partner, compassion, are an exercise in love.
Yes, I’m going to talk about love again.
Why do I and other Christian leaders keep harping on love all the time? Because love is the core of following Christ. To be a Christian is to love. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.’” The whole law – all of it. Every law, rule, command, value, virtue, moral norm, guideline, social system, policy and way of living falls under God’s command to love. If it doesn’t love, it’s not a law from God.
What does this love look like as a response to the deaths and oppression, ignoring and ignorance, apathy toward and forgetting of our indigenous, black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ? For starters, I encourage you to go to the call to love by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop the Episcopalian Church.
In this brief essay, Bishop Curry reminds us of what love can look like during this time of unrest and violence, anger and destruction, peaceful protests and riots (those are not the same thing). For example, participating in peaceful protest by and with people whose suffering has been hidden, ignored and forgotten is one way to love for it exposes the sin at the heart of their suffering that we are so unwilling to see. However, riots, violence, destruction, and purposely creating chaos to serve an agenda that has nothing to do with ending racism – that is not love. An unjustifiable act does not justify more unjustifiable acts.
But for many of us who check the “white” box, even what Bishop Curry speaks about love may be hard for us to hear. So I will propose that the Christian community’s love for people of color, and for all people similar or different than us, actually begins with prayer. Yes, prayer. To reject prayer as a part of our response is to reject the power of God’s love working in the world. Always remember who we are praying to: the God of the impossible, the Savior who brings life out of death, the Spirit who pours love into us and the world.
Now of course we pray for others: for people of color and their families who experience violence and the real threat of it every day. For those whose lives and livelihoods and places of daily life have been burned and destroyed by the rioting. For those shoved under the weighted knee of oppressive social, economic, cultural and political systems who cry out again and again to be able to breathe and seek the life, liberty, and happiness we all yearn for. We are always called to pray for others, to lament with and for them, to ask for God’s abundant life to be poured fully upon them and their communities so they can know God’s shalom.
However, even before we pray for others, we need first and foremost to pray for ourselves. Not in a self-centered “help them see that I’m right and they are wrong” way. Instead we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to transform us into the people of agape love, compassion, empathy and hope that God calls us to be. We need to pray for the Spirit to:
· open our eyes so that we can see the suffering of our black, brown and indigenous siblings;
· open our ears so that we will hear their cries for release so they can breathe;
· open our minds so that we can escape our ignorant not knowing about the depths of sin at work in our
· open our hearts so that we can step into empathy and compassion, and truly love our siblings of color in
· open our hands and feet and mouths so that our bodies can do the required-by-God’s-law work for
equality, equity and fairness for all;
· open our spirits so that we can be transformed into the image-of-God-in-Christ people God created us to
be, filled with the Spirit and empowered with forgiveness and grace to love beyond our sinfulness.
Conservationist John Muir once wrote this about seeing the landscapes around us in new ways, “All that is necessary to make any landscape visible and therefore impressive is to regard it from a new point of view, or from the old one with our heads upside down. Then we behold a new heaven and earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land and had become new creatures with bodies inverted; the scales fall from our eyes, and…we are made to see…new.
Ultimately, we who are white need to pray that God’s Spirit will help us see our social and cultural landscape and our suffering brothers and sisters of color from a “new point of view, or at the least with heads upside down” so that we can be born again into new creature with bodies inverted. But the only way such transformation will happen is if we ask the Spirit’s help and guidance to transform us the same way the Spirit changed those first Christians long ago, from a scared, anxious people with tendencies to complain, deny, betray, and crucify to the Spirit-filled new creation God wants us to be who lives and loves Christ into the world in all we do and say.
So, if you’re wondering what you can do in response to the struggles against racism happening around our country, I invite you to pray. Even if you don’t want to do anything else, I ask you to pray. And start by praying for yourself.
Pray a 500 Mississippi’s Prayer for eight and a half minutes each day that invites the Holy Spirit to fill you with God’s unconditional love that will transform you into God’s new creation, a follower of Christ who is willing and able to not only empathize but actually change your life and your corner of the world into an love-filled for your neighbors of color to live as beloved people of God. And then, as you are transformed by the Spirit, go out and live that love as the Spirit calls.
 John Muir, “John of the Mountains”