Weeds and wheat; refusal and refuge

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The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest (Matt 13:28b-30a)


This week’s gospel lesson struck home in new ways as I encountered again Jesus’ ancient but timely instruction to slow down our haste to play God in our judging, and to put our energy into bearing fruits rather than ripping roots. While Jesus certainly does not ask us to stand idly by in the face of injustice or evil, he seems pretty clear in reminding us that it is God who has the last word, and that our role is to be the good grain that we were sown and gifted to produce. Because let’s be honest – at any given moment, our glance in the mirror might show us a weed just as likely as a stalk of wheat. That mixed-crop field isn’t just the human race; it’s the human heart. Good and evil, right and wrong are ever present within as well as around. God’s grace alone lets us “grow until the harvest.”

This teaching is true and eternal, but struck me as timely this week as we continue to hear of the confusion and conflict resulting from the increased number of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge along our southern borders, and the responses, passionate and compassionate, that this surge is provoking. The human impulse to respond to new developments with fear, to strangers with suspicion, is a strong one and an impulse that scripture is forever encouraging us to overcome. This week’s gospel is a case in point. “Let anyone with ears listen!” As good seed, as those bearing grain, as those with ears (doubly meaningful in a corn-growing state), we are to listen carefully to the call to resist judgment and put our efforts instead into good.

Immigration in this nation is a complex and emotionally-charged matter, and citizens have every right to communicate, educate and advocate about their concerns. But believers have an added duty to practice compassion wherever suffering is encountered. Attention to policy is essential. But attention to people is critical. While the policies are wrestled with, people still suffer. As a church, our priority is addressing the suffering, quite apart from judging who gets to stay and who must go. To that end, we are active in ensuring that those who await immigration determinations are housed in adequate, safe, clean and hospitable facilities, and that access is available to needed services.

The media are filled with competing voices whose clamoring provides much more heat than light. I am grateful for trusted colleagues, sisters and brothers in Christ, who are actively present to witness, listen and act. Because he serves as bishop of the ELCA synod in which so much of the current activity is taking place, because he is a perceptive observer, because he is fluent in Spanish, knowledgeable of life along the border and articulate in sharing his reflections, I am especially grateful for the communications of Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, and I commend to you his blog posts, particularly this one from a few days ago.

Weeds – events, situations, people, temptations to react hastily – are a certain feature of life until the end of time, when God will set all things right. Until then, our call is to bear the good grain for which Christ has sown us, in hopes that such a yield might of its own choke out the weeds that threaten.

“Let anyone with ears, listen.”

This is why Tri-Faith matters

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Since 2012, the Nebraska Synod has been a partner with the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska in developing a worshiping community as part of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, a unique campus on which will stand three houses of worship: Jewish, Christian and Muslim.

This is an exciting opportunity for a host of reasons. Yet, even more than an opportunity, this is a call to witness. This week’s horrific shootings in Kansas City remind us of the hatred- and violence-drenched world in which we live; of the reality that prejudice has power, and its extreme expressions are lethal. Tragically, much of the extremism practiced here and throughout the world is rooted in religious intolerance.

Joining the Tri-Faith Initiative isn’t just a theoretical practice of interfaith dialog. It’s a concrete expression of the faith that includes the instruction to “love your neighbor.” This is a daring put-up-or-shut-up move, intended as a witness to a world increasingly suspicious of and opposed to religious belief, precisely because of the intolerance and violence we have witnessed yet again.

It is good and right that leaders of all faiths are today in prayer for all affected by Sunday’s carnage, and that expressions of condolence continue to flow. Yet it’s not it enough simply to react to these senseless and violent acts. Our faith compels us to be not merely reactive but boldly proactive, standing against intolerance before it spews its caustic venom. Being on the Tri-Faith campus lets us stand literally side-by-side with others too often targeted for such violence – not in denial of our own faith tradition, but in a confident expression of it, an expression that we can differ greatly, even fundamentally with our neighbors, and still recognize them as neighbors, as humans created in the image of God.

In this Holy Week of Jesus’ denial, death and resurrection, we are again inspired by his example not only to pray but to act. So we pray for the victims, the community and the perpetrator of the tragedy in Kansas City. We pray for the peace of the world. And we act, letting our partnership in this unique opportunity be our public witness to our faith in the one who died for the world God loves, and who was raised again to proclaim that love trumps hate, and life triumphs over death.

Remember that you are dust . . .

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How could I forget? Doesn’t seem to matter how well-intentioned or hopeful the day, my dusty nature makes itself clear fairly early on. Yet Ash Wednesday’s yearly reminder isn’t only about our sin; it’s about who we are, and about what that means.


Too many surveys tell us that “unaffiliated” adults–those who aren’t necessarily unbelievers but who really have no interest in the Church–have an overwhelming sense of believers as “hypocritical.” Well, we are. And so is everyone else. What I suspect is meant in that charge is that we’re a little too quick to judge others, and a little too slow to get our own house in order. Too quick to label something sin, and to label others sinners.

One of the things that makes me permanently (and perhaps desperately) Lutheran is this tradition’s insistence I am always and perpetually a sinner–and simultaneously a saint, thanks to God’s grace. That’s not a label, it’s a simple reality.

The late Walter Bouman, an American Lutheran theologian, commented that sin isn’t about morality, but about mortality–the recognition that every one of us is going to die. But death doesn’t win. We’ve already died in baptism, and everything else is secondary. So now that you know you’re going to die, and that that’s not the end, what are you free to do? How will you “sin boldly” for the sake of the world God created, and the people God loves?

That’s the message of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent. “Remember that you are dust.” That your body and all the stuff you cling to so tightly will eventually return to the earth. The dying part is all taken care of. What will the living be about? How will these forty days of discipline help us overcome our love for so much that is dust, and set us free to live whole and holy lives–Easter lives? If we could communicate that more boldly and broadly, the world would hear good news, and might see beyond the excuse of hypocrisy to the reality of grace.

You and I are dust. And that is good news, on Ash Wednesday and always.

Jesus Christ the same . . .

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“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”—Hebrews 13:8

Foursquare Gospel

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this wonderful verse wielded as a weapon, a sort of catch-all against any change in the Church or its members. As though because Jesus is changeless, the Church should be too.

But if the Church is changeless, then Jesus can’t be. Because Jesus Christ came into the world to “seek out and save the lost,” to call sinners to repentance, to ask us to change–daily! If we (and the Church made up of sinners like us) stop changing, then Jesus has changed–the One who is eternally the same, persistently calling us to be ever more like him, ever different than we were yesterday, ever open to the moving of the Spirit–can only let us stop changing if he changes. But he doesn’t. And that’s good news–because it means we can change, even when we’re not particularly excited about it.

It’s no revelation that the pace of change continues to accelerate. That’s threatening to some of us most of the time, and to all of us at least once in a while. Who can keep up? When things change so fast, there is less and less that we feel in control of, less that we can count on, less we can cling to for security. The world shrinks and intrudes ever more into our lives. There’s no keeping it out! Only a few decades ago, we (or at least we who were not marginalized by our race or income level) could easily control what media came into our homes, where our children went to school, how our medical care was handled, whom we let into our neighborhoods, who got to see our personal information . . . the list is long. Our control over such things is diminished or lost altogether. We can argue over whether that’s good or bad, but regardless, it’s real.

There is however one place where we can continue to exert a great deal of influence, even control. Our congregation. That’s a blessing. And a curse.

If we show up with enough enthusiasm, trust and relationships, we can move a whole congregation into new mission and ministries. If we use just the right threats, talk to just the right people, say just the right things, we can put a stop to just about anything–especially change. Change just for the sake of change is foolish. Opposing change only because it’s change is more foolish still. But we cannot not change. Where would be the faith in that?

How is change handled in your community? Is it discussed, avoided, feared, embraced? How can we call on the Christ who is indeed the same yesterday and today and forever–to make sure that we aren’t the same but are ever deepening our faith and growing our witness?

Lousy election. Great call.

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The recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh was historic in many ways. Most noted in the larger culture was the election of Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop-elect of the ELCA. Too many news outlets wrote of it in the only terms they understood–as an election, a contest with winners and losers.

They don’t understand Church, and they don’t know Mark Hanson or Liz Eaton.

From the perspective of a reporter covering an election, the events in Pittsburgh were interesting to say the least–a presumed front-runner receives a smaller portion of the initial vote than most anticipated, and his number of votes continues to dwindle. A candidate further back in the “pack” continues to grow in support, until she “wins” and the incumbent is “defeated.”

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton at her installation as a synodical bishop, applauded by others, including Mark Hanson.

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton at her installation as a synodical bishop, applauded by others, including Mark Hanson.

For those of us who attended, however, and who are oriented toward the movement of the Spirit through ecclesiastical ballots, this was not a contest, and it wasn’t about winners and losers. No one framed that better than Bishop Hanson himself, who spoke of the honor and joy of serving in what he has called “the best call in the ELCA” for 12 years–12 often tumultuous, difficult years. He also spoke of the Spirit’s work in the call of Bishop Eaton, and she used similar language in speaking of what happened. Both exhibited great grace and the kind of solid leadership with which the ELCA has been blessed throughout its 25 years.

Some who watched the live streaming spoke of not understanding what was happening in the process. To be there at the assembly, though, was to perceive something tangible in the unfolding of events–a true sense that the Spirit was moving and calling us to a new day, a new direction and a new presiding bishop. That is definitely NOT to say that the assembly in any way rejected the leadership of Bishop Hanson. The persistent and nearly unanimous expressions of appreciation, support and congratulations for him were warm, frequent and sincere. No one who attended the assembly as a voting member would have said that Bishop Hanson was “defeated.”

So what does this mean for the ELCA? In truth, it’s way too soon to tell. I think we saw over the course of the election and in comments afterward the kind of leader Bishop-elect Eaton is likely to be. She speaks directly, passionately and with a keen wit. She values the unique contribution of the Lutheran Confessions to the Church as a whole, and sees preserving that heritage as an important element of being a good and true partner in ecumenical and even interfaith efforts. She has called attention to those whose “bound conscience” puts them squarely in disagreement with some of the decisions and actions of the ELCA as a whole, and has called us as a church to be mindful that, as in this election, there are no “winners and losers” in decisions of the church–only redeemed sinners who occasionally disagree, sometimes quite passionately. I am guessing that people who have felt the ELCA has become too “liberal” will find hers a more “moderate” voice, as unhelpful as those labels usually are.

I have no particular insight into Bishop-elect Eaton’s intentions, but I would be very surprised if there are any sudden or drastic changes within the ELCA. She is a thoughtful, intentional leader, and I believe changes in priorities, programs or personnel (most of which aren’t solely the prerogative of the Presiding Bishop) will be unrushed, thoroughly vetted and well-communicated.

Personally, I can tell you that Liz Eaton is “good people.” She is witty, honest, fun, thoughtful, self-deprecating and respectful. When you have the opportunity to meet her (and we will be getting her into the Nebraska Synod as soon as her schedule permits!), you will enjoy her.

More thoughts on the Churchwide Assembly are for another entry. For now, let it be enough to say that we are blessed to be part of an effective, Spirited and graciously imperfect church. Our leaders have consistently reflected that reality, and continue to. Please keep Bishop Hanson and Bishop-elect Eaton in your prayers.