“Multiple people dead in mass shooting near San Jose light rail yard.” This is the headline I read in a newsfeed just minutes ago. Another headline on Monday reported that there were 12 mass shootings across the country over this past weekend. (A mass shooting is defined as four or more people killed or wounded in one incident.)
Violence, including but not limited to gun violence, has become a regular, even predictable part of our culture these days and it only seems to be getting worse as we open up from the Covid-19 pandemic. We may not have as many of these type of incidents in Montana/N. Wyoming (yet) but that doesn’t mean that violence doesn’t affect so many of us where we live and work.
It seems that too many people believe that violence, against others or themselves, is the standard solution to whatever problem they are facing in their lives. Violence is the answer, they say, and with few other answers to the contrary shared in the public sphere, it’s considered more and more to be an acceptable answer by too many. In fact, the violence – physical, emotional, psychological, verbal, spiritual -- has gotten so prevalent that we are becoming numb to the horror it causes in the lives of too many people.
So what are we as Christ’s church supposed to do in the face of such violence? How do followers of Christ respond to the different forms of violence plaguing the world we live in? Do we hide from it? Do we fight against it with more violence? Do continue to offer our thoughts and prayers until it happens to us?
Often after these acts of violence, we hear people say, “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” But what should we be thinking and praying before, during, and after these events? Do we bother to pray to God at all or has it become one of those nice things we say but never really follow up on because we think that, since nothing is changing, God doesn’t care or isn’t planning to do anything about it?
As followers of Christ, we believe that God’s message to us in and through Christ is clear. The answer to the problems we face in life is not more violence. The answers to our problems are found in God’s good news to us in and through the cross: new life, resurrection, love, hope, faith, reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness and so many more gifts, all of which are non-violent.
But we also believe that God works through us in this world, that we are to be God’s hands, mouths, and feet, participating with God to create a more peaceful, non-violent place to live. It does us no good to pray to God to fix things if we aren’t willing to participate in God’s solutions.
So yes, first let us pray against the violence in the world. In faith, we know that God weeps and groans with us with sighs too deep for words in the face of such violence. And God responds to our prayers with divine power, the Spirit’s love, and new life in Christ.
Let us pray for the victims of the many shootings and other forms of violence, those who have died and who are still alive fighting for their lives. Let us pray for the far too many families and friends who are grieving the loss of their loved ones’ lives and those who are waiting by the bedside in the hope that their loved one will regain a life beyond their injuries.
Let us pray for all who have been traumatized by or live in fear of violence in body, mind, heart and spirit as well as for those who face violence and its consequences in their homes, communities, jobs, schools, streets, celebrations, and gathering spaces.
Let us pray for our leaders at the local, state, and national level to work with God’s Spirit to create change instead of choosing apathy, greed, grief, anger, or ignorance. May they respond actively and helpfully to seek the best solutions to this epidemic of violence.
Let us pray for ourselves in our own grief, anger, fear, apathy, or unwillingness that we may use the mouths, minds, hearts, spirits, hands and feet God gave us to honestly and lovingly think about, pray for, talk about and enact healthy solutions to our nation’s worship of violence as the solution to our problems.
And then let us live out those prayers, empowered by Spirit and renewed in the new life of our baptisms to continuously find Christ-centered alternatives to the violence that engulfs our nation and attacks our lives.
May God bless and keep us in these days!
What does it mean to be called by God? This is a season of graduations, whether from college, high school or kindergarten, and many seniors or their parents may be wondering about what is next in their lives. “Where is God calling me to go? Who is God calling me to be? What is God calling me to do?” These are questions our graduates as well as many of the rest of us post-pandemic may be asking as we move through transitions in life.
One misconception church members tend to have is that only pastors and missionaries are called. Or that God calls us to only serve the church on Sunday mornings and gives us the rest of our lives with which to do whatever we want outside of the church. We as Christians have too often separated our callings into Church (which God cares about) and the rest of life (which we mistakenly think doesn’t really matter to God). But that’s just not true.
Now don’t get me wrong. God indeed calls people to serve Christ’s Church and its mission in a variety of ways: pastors, deacons, LPAs, musicians, council officers/members, committee members, youth leaders, chaplains, Stephens Ministers, Bible study leaders, theologians, teachers, and the list can go on and on. I give thanks for each one of you who continue to serve faithfully in these callings across the church in the MT Synod and the ELCA. Your ministry is very much appreciated!
But we need more! The church is currently in great need of people to serve the church as pastoral leaders. In particular, the need for pastors and LPAs to serve congregations in the Montana Synod is overwhelming.
At this moment, we have far more openings in congregations than we have available pastors to fill those openings. And this is happening across the church in many denominations. We as church together are going to have to find innovative and creative ways to do ministry that might involve changing how we think about what it means to be church in order to fulfill God’s ongoing call to proclaim the gospel, equip followers of Christ, and serve the neighbor in these places.
But in the meantime, we need more people to listen for and seriously consider the Holy Spirit’s call to be a pastoral leader. There are so many ways to seek ordained ministry now, for example the three candidates who went through the TEEM program and will be ordained in the next two months. Congratulations Tim Tharp (Savage/Skarr), Wendy McAlpine (Sunburst) and Cheryl Muncy (Joplin) and thank you for your willingness to serve the mission of Christ’s gospel in the MT Synod!
There’s also the LPA program in the MT Synod which is going to start up again in the fall and will only be getting stronger as we prepare lay leaders to serve their congregations. Thank you to all of our LPAs who contribute to the life of the church in so many ways. We in MT wouldn’t be where we are without you!
In the end, though, Jesus’ call to follow him directs us out from the church into the world in which we live. In and through the church we are empowered to live as disciples -- “followers of Christ” – in every nook and cranny of our lives, no matter where we are, who we are, or what we’re doing.
The Spirit’s call does send us into our congregations to be nourished, equipped, encouraged and inspired by the gospel message of “new life in Christ for you.” But then we are called out of our congregations to bring Christ’s gospel into our communities, our state, our nation, and our world whomever we are, and whatever we say, think, feel and do.
So as we emerge from the limitations of the pandemic, think about what God may be calling you to seek, be and do with your lives to serve Christ’s gospel. And may the Holy Spirit inspire you always to follow Jesus’ call wherever it may lead.
God’s blessings be with all who are graduating this season as you transition into the next part of your lives.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” These words from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem are usually read as a romantic expression of love, a Valentine’s Day pronouncement of the sentimental heart to the lover’s beloved.
But what if we read them as a question and response to Christ’s eternal call to love our neighbor with the fervor of people who are so passionately loved first by God?
Love, though often sentimentalized by our society, is actually more attitude and action than feeling, at least in the way Christ call us to love our neighbors, God and self. And it’s grounded in the love that God gives to us every moment of every day.
This is the love that we are called and commanded to try and share with our neighbors, despite the obstacles of finitude and our bondage to sin. The love commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves both empowers and demands we seek the well-being of everyone else, even to the point of denying one’s self to live in holy friendship with all of God’s creation.
Now this love is justice; but this love goes way beyond justice.
Will we fail at this perfect love? Yes. Thank God for grace-filled forgiveness that empowers us to try again and again.
And who are we called to love with this love? Our neighbors. All of our neighbors.
And how do we love these? Let me count the ways…which are too many to name here.
But one easy way, right now in this moment, is to get vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus. This action shows love not only for yourself but also for your neighbor as we work together to stop this thing in its tracks, develop communal immunity, and come closer to fully loving each other.
I know from experience that getting vaccinated can involve a sacrifice – I got my second dose on Monday and it wiped me out to barely functional on Tuesday as the vaccine activated my body to empower itself to face the virus head on. But I’ve recovered – the miracle of the human body and the science that can support it never ceases to amaze me! Thanks be to God!
Getting vaccinated is one of the clearest ways we can express our love for neighbor and ourselves right now. So please get vaccinated. In this, you will truly be blessed and offer God’s blessings to your neighbors!
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Those are the first words that Peter proclaimed after a huge transformation to his life. Peter didn’t always believe these words. He believed that God was partial to certain people – Peter’s group -- and that meant that Peter could show partiality towards his own group too. And since Peter was a sinful human, he also interpreted that to mean that if God was for certain people, God was against the other people, the people who were not in Peter’s group. It took some serious fasting, praying and some outside intervention to show Peter he was wrong. (See Acts 10)
God does not show partiality; humans do. And when we do, we sin. (James 2:9)
From the moment humans began to walk the earth, no matter where on the earth we walked we’ve shown partiality and favoritism for certain people and against other people. We’re especially inclined to be partial to “our own kind,” people like us, and against people who are different, other, “strange.”
We’ve also claimed God for our own kind, that we are God’s favorite, while at the same time proclaiming that others are less favorite, even bad, in God’s eyes. After all, if God loves us, then God can’t love them or care about what happens to them, right? God might even despise them. That’s the oldest story of sibling rivalry in the book – God loves me more, and if I see a hint otherwise, I have to remove you from the picture. (As I write, my cat is trying to remove the computer from my lap because he’s certain I am partial to it rather than him!)
This belief that partiality, bias, prejudice is okay and even God’s desire has led to horrible consequences. Any honest study of world history shows that no matter the civilization or culture, it has built itself in some shape or form on partiality: we are good, they are bad; we are angels, they are demons; we are God’s favorites, they are God’s enemies or at least don’t matter as much to God as we do. And whenever we do that, suffering, destruction, abuse, violence and oppression follow. No matter what ideologies, theologies, philosophies, ethics or cultural beliefs and customs we try to couch it in, partiality kills, ruins, devastates human beings. And it is wrong.
God shows no partiality. Again and again, scripture states this truth.
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. (Dt 10:17-20)
God also demands that we who would follow Jesus show no partiality, no prejudice, no favoritism over and against one another:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels, I warn you to keep these instructions without prejudice, doing nothing on the basis of partiality. (1Tim 5:21)
But if God requires this, why does it feel to some of us like we are being asked to be partial toward some groups which leads us (wrongly) to think we’re being asked to be partial against our own group? Well, because we screwed things up. We’ve made such a mess of things by living out our partiality against some people that life isn’t equal anymore (if it ever was this side of sin). We have dehumanized, demonized, oppressed, and hated the human dignity right out of some groups of people, often in an effort to humanize, lift up and love ourselves and our own groups before God. Whether we knew it or not, whether we chose to do it or not, we’ve partialized some people over other people and declared it good.
But partiality is not good. And now we need to try make things right. We will fail, but we must try. And we can, participating with God, make things better. And that means standing up with those whom we or our ancestors deprioritized by accompanying, loving and supporting our siblings in Christ so that the “us vs. them” consequences of partiality can be torn down and we can all do our best to live together in a less partial, prejudiced, biased world. That’s justice!
God shows no partiality and, in Christ, God calls us to end our partiality too. (Prov 24:23) God loves the whole world and every person, group, and thing in it and God loves us so much that God chose not to condemn us but to save us from our own partiality. How? By sending Moses to teach us; by sending the prophets to remind us; by sending Jesus to save and redeem us; by sending the Holy Spirit to equip and empower us to live and love without partiality, the way Jesus did.
This is crucial to the message of the gospel: no partiality for any one group or against any other group. Instead, the gospel of love calls us to strive for equality before God and equity amongst humanity, lifting up every human being and ALL human beings as created in God’s image and having equal dignity and worth as we do. We are called to strive to bring about a wholeness that only God can construct in its fullness, yet striving for it nonetheless. And we are called to strive using repentance and reconciliation, in love, faith, and hope, doing compassion (suffering with), kindness and welcome.
No, God shows no partiality. But God does ask, through the command to love, that we all take on the responsibility together of cleaning up the mess that human partiality has created. And in so doing, we will be sharing the life-giving love of God that is ours already with all of our neighbors whom God already loves too.
So how many times have you cleansed your house since the Covid-19 virus arrived at your doorstep? Ten? Twenty? One hundred?!
There have been days when I felt like I was living in a petri dish with those tiny covid cells having a party on everything I touched, even though I hadn’t experienced any symptoms. And a couple of times I gave into the urge and just cleansed the whole house. I washed every item of clothing, bedding, and towel that had touched my body…with bleach when I could. I wiped down every counter, sink, knob and light switch in the house with bleach cleaner. And then I sprayed and wiped Lysol cold and flu killer on every surface I could find…computer, phones, keys, TV remotes, even my car. I felt like I was at war. But there was no way I was going to leave even one of those nasty little cells alive to infect me.
I wonder if that’s a bit like what Jesus felt when he entered the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover festival…like his house, his Father’s house, had been infested by a virus. Only in this case the virus wasn’t Covid or the flu, it was sin: coveting, greed, and idolatry as people were worshipping everything except God. (John 2) Greed and idolatry had infected the temple, God’s sacred house, the place where people were supposed to go to worship, pray to and praise the God who had saved them. Instead, self-centered profiteers were worshipping money and stealing power. And the religious leaders weren’t doing a darn thing about it. In fact, they were in on it, getting kickbacks and feeding their families off the profits.
Time for a cleansing! In fact, that’s what the story in John 2 is often called: Jesus cleanses the temple. In a fit of zeal --- an uncontrollable passion for what is right and good – Jesus makes himself a whip of cords and he begins to cleanse. He chases the cows, sheep and doves out of the temple like a rancher on a wild horse. He dumps over tables and pours money on the ground to be stomped on by the livestock. He shouts and yells at the people climbing over each other to get away from him.
“Take these things out of here!” Jesus shouts, waving his arms and throwing things. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Now that’s a cleansing! I’m envisioning those tiny covid viruses fleeing my house in the same way, running and screaming for their lives.
I’m guessing we don’t like this picture of Jesus very much. This angry Jesus who’s so passionate about fixing things in God’s house, even God’s kingdom, that he loses his temper. Jesus’ zealous cleansing of the temple is one of those images from John’s gospel we’d rather not watch. I mean, if a man came in screaming about our fancy church building or how we’re misusing God’s house, I doubt we’d listen. We’d probably call the police instead. This is not what we imagine when we think of Jesus.
But in truth Jesus does have something to be angry about. To him a Wall Street bank has taken over God’s sacred temple and is selling salvation. People, especially the poor, are being oppressed and taken advantage of by unscrupulous money changers. Too many people are more concerned about worshiping money or power or their ideology than worshiping God. No wonder Jesus is mad – these people are breaking most of the 10 commandments, particularly commandment number one. They are loving and trusting things before and instead of God.
What things or people are we loving and trusting other than the God of Jesus Christ? Money? Property? People in power or celebrities? What about our ideologies or platforms or politics? Even our self-interest over and against others can be an idol to us?
Thankfully, Jesus’ anger at the moneychangers in the temple is not God’s final word to us. Thankfully, in Christ we are loved, forgiven and called into new relationship with God again and again even as we stray towards the idols we fall prey to in our lives. Thankfully, God’s steadfast love in Christ endures forever with us.
But that love calls us into a life-changing relationship that is different than what the world demands. Our life-changing relationship with Jesus expects us to put the God of Jesus Christ -- the God of faithfulness, mercy, peace, patience, kindness, justice, hope, and generosity – at the center of our lives, first in all we say and do. That is to be our response to the baptismal cleansing we receive day after day. And that is the covenant the Holy Spirit calls on us to keep. So let us put aside our idols and follow Christ into the Kingdom of Love and New Life that the whole cosmos has been invited to enter, living out the gospel in all we do and say.
May God bless and keep you all in the grace of Christ!
“Return to the Lord, your God…” Joel 2:13
Ash Wednesday: the day of the church year (other than funerals and Good Friday) when we deliberately remember that we are finite creatures – dust and water molded together and created human by God. (Gen 2:7) “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words announce as ashes are rubbed on our foreheads.
Ash Wednesday is also the gateway into the trials and growing pains of Lent as we enter a wilderness of struggle and transformation into deeper faith. We often try to coax such transfiguring experiences out of Lent by giving something up or taking on a new discipline. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it falls flat.
I remember one year giving up chocolate for Lent only to get three boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints delivered two weeks into the season. I suffered but didn’t grow much in my faith besides learning to time my cookie buying more effectively.
“Return to the Lord, your God…” Perhaps this is what we ought to do for Lent this year: Return to God. Leave behind the anger, hate, and injustice, let go of the fear, anxiety, and blaming and “Return to the Lord, your God.”
The prophet Joel describes what he believes “returning to God” means: “fasting, weeping, mourning, rending our hearts and calling a solemn assembly in which the preachers cry out in front of everyone, ‘spare your people, O God.’” Certainly we could do with some prayer-filled lamenting over God’s perceived absence during this past year of suffering.
David in Psalm 51 returns to God through a deep repentance for sins he committed. “Do not cast me from your presence and do not take your holy spirit from me,” he cries. “Instead create in me a clean heart.” We too, if we’re willing to take an honest look at our behaviors, could benefit from sincere confession in these days of division and violence, trusting in the joy of God’s salvation and forgiveness.
Or perhaps “returning to the Lord, our God” this year means simply doing what God asks the disciples to do during the transfiguration on the mountaintop: “Listen to him!” From the heavens, God proclaims, “This is my son, my beloved. Just listen to him.”
“Returning to God” is certainly about listening to God. An active, consistent, deep listening that doesn’t merely hear words on Sunday and then ignore them at the council meeting or in the grocery store.
“Returning to God” is listening to Jesus’ call to love God with our whole self and loving our neighbors as ourselves. It’s listening to Jesus’ reminder to do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. It’s listening as Jesus tells us he wants us to love our enemies and welcome those who are hungry, thirsty, stranger, unclothed, sick, in prison, or vulnerable and oppressed in some way. (Mt 25:31-46)
And then “returning to God” is doing it. If we are truly going to return to the Lord, our God, we must not only listen and understand; we are called to actually DO IT. Returning to God means following Christ’s call to love and serve in all we say, think and do.
Take for example the governor’s recent statement regarding “personal responsibility” as he removed the mask mandate. For followers of Christ, this does not mean doing what the culture says about personal responsibility by saying “I have the freedom to be responsible only for me and mine; others can take care of themselves.” That’s the self-indulgence Paul warns us against. (Gal 5:13)
Jesus teaches a different kind of “personal responsibility” that is centered on the neighbor, not the self. And it’s actually what we’ve been teaching all along – loving our neighbors. Being “personally responsible” is being responsive to our neighbors’ well-being and personhood. It means using our ability to respond by taking care of them, loving them and serving them even if we have to wear masks until Christ’s Second Coming!
The season of Lent is not about self-centered actions that pile up treasures for ourselves in this world. No season of the Church is about that, even Christmas. Lent is about returning to the Lord, your God, to listen to God…for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
As we wander through the wilderness of Lent this year, let us return to follow Jesus Christ into the never-ending love and forgiving grace that God gives you and me on the cross. And let us return to the new and abundant life God gives in the “already, not yet” resurrection.
For though we may be dust, in Christ we are and shall be the resurrected dust of the universe, filled with the eternal life of Christ and God-beloved forever.
In Christ, Bishop Laurie
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod