Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 11 Remembrance

by Margay Whitlock
Pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Rahway, NJ and Chaplain of the Rahway Fire Department

Delivered at the Rahway Fire Department on September 11, 2010

People often ask me what I think of the Cordoba Project –the Cultural Center being proposed near Ground Zero.

• My first thought is I wish people would get as worked up about how we as a people are taking care of our First Responders, and all those who worked on “the pile” during the aftermath. That they have had to fight to have their medical bills taken care of is a travesty. Let’s put as much energy into taking care of our own.

• The next thing that occurs to me is that we have a hard time telling the difference between mainline Islam and the religious extremists. Clearly it’s not OK if practicing your religion means you fly airplanes into buildings. But let’s face it, we all have extremists in every faith tradition. Pastor Terry Jones who had been planning to observe September 11 by burning the Qu’ran in Gainesville, Florida, has managed to generate so much hatred toward America that General Petraeus noted it was putting our troops in danger.

• The third thing that occurs to me is that speech by Martin Neimoller. He was a Pastor of the “Confessing Church” during Hitler’s rise to power.

“First they came for the Communists,” he said,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.

“Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
“Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
“Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.”

Oddly, both “sides” are using this quote. Both sides are saying it is necessary to stand up and be counted. Both the side that says “It’s too close, it’s too raw,” and the side that says, “If we deny them, we will have lost one of our basic American freedoms.” People that are not from around here don’t have the same memories that we have:

• The absolute knowledge of people in our midst who were affected.
• The smoke rising from the pile of ashes, for days, weeks, months….
• Every lamppost downtown turned into a kiosk….
• Families desperate to find their loved ones…..
• Families who fear if this project goes ahead, Al Qaeda will have “won.”

And then there are those who believe if we say no, then Al Qaeda will have really won, because if people are not allowed to practice their religion what is next?

Even in our dialogue on this issue, the danger is that we become polarized, and demonize the opposition.

On its best days, this is what the “church” can be: a community of moral deliberation -- not mowing down people with whom we disagree, but opening our hearts and minds to understanding.

A couple of scripture references come to mind, but I will share with you one from the book of Acts. One of the rabbis speaks up at a council meeting: “If this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5: 38b-39)

• I think one of the very first responses we have before us is to become more diligent in the practice our OWN religion. How can you help contribute to and strengthen your own congregation?

• I think the next thing to do is to get the facts before we jump on the bandwagon. This is harder than it looks. It turns out that the Al Farah Mosque was founded in 1981 in lower Manhattan. A building at the site of the proposed cultural center is already handling the overflow from a Mosque whose existence pre-dates that fateful day by 20 years. There is already worship going on at the site. From what I can gather, these Muslims are from the Sufi tradition –mystics, who are into dance and meditation.

• Which brings up the next thing to do: begin to realize that all Muslims are not the same, just as all Christians are not the same and all Jewish people are not the same. Every religion has fanatics on both the left and on the right. It is vital for people of good will to distance ourselves from the extremists of every stripe who would pit us against one another rather than have us work together.

This week, leaders from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic Faith traditions met together in an emergency Interfaith Summit and issued the following statement:

As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation’s capital to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community. We bear a sacred responsibility to honor America’s varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all. In advance of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we announce a new era of interfaith cooperation.

As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we are grateful to live in this democracy whose Constitution guarantees religious liberty for all. Our freedom to worship in congregations of our own choosing, to give witness to our moral convictions in the public square, and to maintain institutions that carry out our respective missions—all of these are bedrock American freedoms that must be vigorously guarded and defended lest they be placed at peril. The United States of America has been a beacon to the world in defending the rights of religious minorities, yet it is also sadly true that at times in our history particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.

In recent weeks, we have become alarmed by the anti-Muslim frenzy that has been generated over the plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque at the Park 51 site near Ground Zero in New York City. We recognize that the vicinity around the former World Trade Center, where 2,752 innocent lives were cruelly murdered on 9/11, remains an open wound in our country, especially for those who lost loved ones. Persons of conscience have taken different positions on the wisdom of the location of this project, even if the legal right to build on the site appears to be unassailable. Our concern here is not to debate the Park 51 project anew, but rather to respond to the atmosphere of fear and contempt for fellow Americans of the Muslim faith that the controversy has generated.

We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship. We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans. The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Qu’ran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11. As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today.

We are committed to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet. On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor—something condemned by all three of our religious traditions—is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a “cult.”

We call for a new day in America when speaking the truth about one another will embrace a renewed commitment to mutual learning among religions. Leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness and respect about other faith traditions. The partnerships that have developed in recent years between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, and churches and mosques should provide a foundation for new forms of collaboration in interfaith education, inter-congregational visitations, and service programs that redress social ills like homelessness and drug abuse. What we can accomplish together is, in very many instances, far more than we can achieve working in isolation from one another. The good results of a more extensive collaboration between religious congregations and national agencies will undoubtedly help to heal our culture, which continues to suffer from the open wound of 9/11.

We work together on the basis of deeply held and widely shared values, each supported by the sacred texts of our respective traditions. We acknowledge with gratitude the dialogues between our scholars and religious authorities that have helped us to identify a common understanding of the divine command to love one’s neighbor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all see an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of neighbor; a neighbor who in many instances is the stranger in our midst. We are united in our conviction that by witnessing together in celebration of human dignity and religious freedom; by working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and by cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society, all of us will demonstrate our faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments.

We are convinced that spiritual leaders representing the various faiths in the United States have a moral responsibility to stand together and to denounce categorically derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country. Silence is not an option. Only by taking this stand, can spiritual leaders fulfill the highest calling of our respective faiths, and thereby help to create a safer and stronger America for all of our people.

For a listing of those in attendance, please see.
http://www.isna.net/articles/News/Beyond-Park-51-Religious-Leaders-Denounce-Anti-Muslim-Bigotry-and-Call-for-Respect.aspx on the Web.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Civil Religion vs. Christianity

By John Page

When I first read the book of Judges, I marveled that the Israelites kept turning to Baal in a recurring cycle of apostasy, tragedy, repentance, deliverance, and back to apostasy. It was so obvious to me what their problem was, having the benefit of a carefully edited narrative specifically designed to drive home the point. Why couldn’t they see as clearly as I could that turning to Baal had disastrous consequences? And why turn to Baal anyway?

God had rescued the Israelites from Egypt and led them to the land promised to them. For 40 years, these people had been wanderers and herders, and understood that God was responsible for protecting and providing for them during their sojourn. When they took possession of Canaan, they no longer needed to wander, and farming became necessary. But, how would wanderers and herders learn to farm? Well, by asking those who already knew the art, the indigenous Canaanites.

If we could ask a 13th century BCE Canaanite farmer for guidance in growing and harvesting crops, we would be told that the life and passions of Baal were indispensible to producing a bountiful harvest. Baal was “lord” of the land, and only by his successful victory over his nemesis and sexual union with his beloved could the land produce its bounty. This is what the newcomers, the Israelites, would have learned.

Many Israelites would not have seen a problem with worshiping both the Lord of their rescue, wandering, and military victories, and the lord of the land, Baal. The two “lords” presided over different realms, as it were, and what would be the harm in honoring each in their respective realms? In modern parlance, we might say that they “compartmentalized” God, effectively placing limits on God’s reach and claim upon their lives.

Of course, compartmentalizing God is something we’re very good at in our own generation, and recognizing this human tendency helps explain the cycle, beginning and ending with apostasy, which we observe in Judges. It also invites us to be aware and cautious as we ourselves navigate life through “realms” of our own arbitrary construction.

Civil religion presents our generation with a tempting invitation to compartmentalize God, as Baal worship did in the 13th century BCE. Once God is compartmentalized, civil religion is free to lay increasingly greater claims upon our lives, our commitments, and our conduct, until the will and purpose of the living God is supplanted by the will and purpose of the lesser god of civil religion. The god of civil religion may even be able to successfully masquerade as the living God.

So, what is civil religion? Historically, secular rulers appeal to “higher powers” to legitimize and sanctify what are otherwise personal or parochial ambitions. A mythology is constructed that links the self-interests of individuals or communities with divine purpose. Once linked, self-interest becomes divine will. Caesar worship and the mythology of Rome is an obvious example from antiquity, and it played an important part in the persecution of Jesus and the followers of Jesus’ Way.

Roman authorities correctly understood that the Way of Jesus challenged the absolute claims civil religion made upon Roman citizens and subjects. The apostolic claim that “Jesus is Lord” implies that there can be no other lords before Jesus. The apostolic claim is much more than the compartmentalizing “Jesus is lord of my life”; the apostles asserted that Jesus is Lord of all creation, to whom all other lords must be subordinate. Clearly, those other lords would not be happy about this, and persecution followed.

Despite the persecution, Christianity spread and became more popular (not so much because of the brave witness of those tortured and murdered by Roman authorities, as romanticized Hollywood films present it, but because of the risky self-sacrificing service that Christians offered to those in need, especially during pandemics that ravaged cities of antiquity). Persecuting Christians lost popular support, and Roman rulers adapted to the changing political reality. So did civil religion.

The old civil religion of the Roman pantheon gave way to a new civil religion, popularly known as Christendom, which incorporated elements of Christianity. A mythology of Christendom was constructed linking political and social ambitions with divine purpose and will. A wholly secular program of self-serving conquest and control became a holy mission. And of course, violence, injustices, neglect, and atrocities that attend such holy missions were excused and justified by citing divine will.

Christendom, like any other civil religion, is not the Way of Jesus. Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Whereas civil religion pursues an entirely self-serving agenda, the Way of Jesus demands self-sacrifice for the benefit of the vulnerable and those in need. Whereas civil religion promotes the interests of a distinct community at the expense of others when necessary or expedient, the Way of Jesus regards all of humankind as God’s own and expects self-sacrificing love for friend and enemy alike. Whereas Christendom glorifies war, might, and conquest in pursuit of self-interest masquerading as holy mission, the Way of Jesus glorifies peace makers willing to sacrifice themselves and their own self-interests for the sake of Christ, the Lord.

Christendom is all around us in the United States. Scan news headlines over the past few weeks and consider the role that Christendom and its self-serving mythology play in the angry and hateful words and conduct surrounding discourse over the Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, over the persons and intentions of our elected leaders, and over aliens living among us. What “god” is being worshipped in all this? Where is the Way of Jesus in this? How has Jesus’ lordship been compartmentalized and constrained, even among those claiming to be Christian?

Friday, August 27, 2010

God Is My Source of Love And Strength

By Luann Albanese

There are times when my mind wanders away from my passions and spiritual journey and I ask God to pull me back and show me where He wants me to be and to use me for His purpose. There are so many needs and suffering in the world around me and within the lives of people that I love most in the world. Most times, I ask myself, where do I begin and what if I fail trying? It is during these times I realize how important support and encouragement means in our lives. I have learned and I am stilling learning to trust that God is the only source of my strength. When God’s support and encouragement comes to me, it comes in the feeling that I can do anything I put my mind to. I feel stronger when I focus on God walking and working right along with me.

Since I am human, there are times, even knowing that God is walking and working with me in which I find myself in need of support and encouragement from people who are closest to me on earth. Although friends and loved ones, church family, etc. are a good source of support and encouragement, they are all human, and are not always capable of recognizing the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ. I think this is because sometimes people just get caught up in the politics of the church and the differences of opinions of those whom they do not agree. I think everyone, including me is guilty of this at one time or another. For me, the closer I feel to God, the less all of that means to me. I understand that People become distracted with these things instead of focusing on what we are really put on this earth for and that is to love and care for one another, support and encourage one another in all that we do. This is what I pray for. I have sought it out and have found it in one way or another, but there are those times when I have felt alone and let down in. Then of course, I allow the feelings of discouragement to set in and then the world gets to me. It is the enemy then, who feeds on it and comes after me full force trying to break down my shield and steal my joy. But thanks to God’s Saving Grace, it isn’t long before the Holy Spirit intervenes and saves me from myself once again reminding me that I can rest my mind and my heart as God loves me and is always with me. Yes, one way or another, through a kind word from a friend, something I may hear in a sermon, at bible study, a hymn, or a dream somehow the Holy Spirit shakes me up and gets me back on track.

I want to serve God where He wants me to serve and where I am needed. That is my goal and my priority in life which is why I spend the majority of my time within and beyond the church and with those who are in need of my support and encouragement and even simply spending time working closely with his creation in gardens. I am still learning that the only way for me to achieve this goal is to continually pray for God to be with me in all I do in His name, to protect me from being led astray. It took me a very long time to understand who I am in God’s heart. I know He loves me and I trust Him to keep my spirit safe.

Thank you God, for sending me your Holy Spirit to guide me and put me back on track when I fall off. Help me to be strong in my faith and to rely on you for strength when my journey becomes challenging.
I ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Jesus Is My Life’s Gardener

By Luann Albanese

I used to feel intimidated about tending to plants and flowers, but a friend of mine gave me all sorts of information and websites to read on plants and flowers.

Last year I planted several perennials and was unsure of what would become of them after I cut them back and pruned them.  Well, to my surprise, they came back bigger and more beautiful than the year before. Watching them slowly peeking through the soil these past couple of month has been a joy for me.  I will love and nurture them with water and fresh soil, removing weeds to give them room to breathe and grow.  This made me think of us humans and Jesus being our gardener. When we are feeling lost, sad or dead inside, Jesus comes to us, as imperfect as we are, and nurtures us with his Love and Grace and we are alive again through Him.Tags:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Report from the 23rd Annual Assembly of the New Jersey Synod (ELCA) May 7-8, 2010

By John Page

Zion, Rahway sent three voting members to the Synod Assembly this year: Pr. Whitlock, Anita Waldron, and John Page.  The Assembly met at the Brunswick Hilton in East Brunswick, with business sessions from 9:30am to 9:30pm on Friday (May 7) and from 8:15am to noon on Saturday (May 8).

Meetings of the Assembly typically include worship and music; presentation of reports; debates over resolutions brought by individuals and congregations of this synod; greetings, and sometimes requests for action, from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson or his personal representative; elections to various offices in the Church; topical hearings on current events or initiatives of the Church; sharing a common meal together with a special guest speaker; and by God’s grace, a celebratory reception of new congregations to this synod.  In what follows, I’ll only touch on a few of the many events and reports that made an impression on me, but the full collection of reports delivered to the Assembly may be viewed/downloaded at the Synod website.

This year, the two-man band Dakota Road – the people who brought us the Kyrie we’ve been singing during Lent and Easter – led us in song throughout the Assembly.  As we know from their Kyrie in ELW setting 8 of Holy Communion, their music is contemporary and accessible to singers of any skill or experience.  Their lyrics are firmly rooted in the Lutheran understanding of God’s love and grace, and in the ELCA’s particular understanding of the consequences of God’s love and grace – our call to be faithful stewards of all that God has entrusted to our care, and to be reconciled with one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, loving and serving all of our neighbors in their needs with the same self-sacrificing love that Christ modeled for us. 

Bishop Riley’s report focused on the topic of the “identity” of our Church in the midst of change and uncertainty.  He referenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem Who Am I?, written in the midst of the martyr’s own struggle with identity under adverse and deadly circumstances.  Just as Bonhoeffer concluded, so too Bishop Riley called us to acknowledge that our identity is always rooted in God’s claim upon our lives.  God’s claim establishes who we are, and we share a common identity with all whom God has called by name in every generation and in every place.  We articulate our identity by confessing our faith in the Triune God, in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and in the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe; by affirming that we receive the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ (the Word incarnate), in the proclamation of God’s message as both Law and Gospel, and in the written witness of that message in the inspired Scriptures, which provide the authoritative source and norm for this Church’s proclamation, faith, and common life.  We profess the faith of the ancient church, recorded in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and we embody our faith when we gather around Word and Sacrament for worship and nurture, to be empowered, equipped, and sent for service to this broken world. 

Knowing our identity has practical consequences.  We are uniquely gifted for ecumenical fellowship with diverse Christian traditions, embracing in fellowship and full communion sisters and brothers from the Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, and Moravian traditions, and earnestly pursuing dialogue and deeper understanding with Christians in the Roman and Orthodox traditions.  We are committed to ministry with children and youth; to public witness as a worshipping community and as advocates for justice and peace; to theological reflection, discernment, and education; and to the Christian vocations of every baptized member of the body of Christ. 

As a Synod, we continue to support mission initiatives throughout our state: Pilgrim Journey in Elizabeth (Portuguese/English-speaking outreach); Santa Isabel in Elizabeth (Spanish-speaking outreach); Nava Jeevan in Kendall Park (Tamil/English outreach); Waterfront in Jersey City (outreach to young adults in an emerging church form); God With Us in Jackson Township (a new start); a Cranford-based outreach to differently-abled persons and their families; Spanish-speaking outreach by St. John in Passaic; Asian Indian outreach in partnership with St. Paul in Jersey City; and the ongoing strategic mission to the city of Camden in partnership with Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey, the Camden congregations of Grace, Christus, and Bridge of Peach, New Visions community services, and key suburban congregations in Camden and Burlington counties.

In the midst of change and uncertainty – when some are wracked by anxiety and lash out in frustration – when our detractors presume to define our identity with disparagement and contempt – when some seek to rend this church in pious outrage – we are called to remember who we are in Christ Jesus.  St. Paul reminds us that even when the whole creation groans in labor pains, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)  “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)  We know that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39)  We know who we are because of God’s love; and in our faith, proclamation, and deeds, we embody the good news of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.

The Rev. Wyvetta Bullock, the ELCA’s Executive for Administration, brought us greetings from Presiding Bishop Hanson and introduced us to the ELCA’s Living Into the Future Together (LIFT) initiative.  This initiative invites all of us to intentionally think about the ELCA’s call to mission in light of our identity and the changes we see happening in our mission environment – our local communities, states, nation, and world.  The Presiding Bishop, the Church Council, and the Conference of Bishops collaborated to appoint a task force to work on developing and recommending options for the future of our Church.  The LIFT Task Force will engage congregations, synod meetings, and other gatherings of the church in conversations, and will invite us all individually to participate using 21st Century social networking tools as well (Facebook, Twitter, websites, and email).  Two specific questions will guide the conversations: What is God calling this church to be and to do in the future? What changes are in order to help us respond most faithfully?  More information is available at the LIFT website.

This year’s Assembly offered five different topical hearings: Namibia and New Jersey Lutherans Walking Together; Book of Faith Initiative; American Images of Muslims; Children of Bosnia; and Poverty in New Jersey, State Government, the Church’s Voice.  I attended the hearing Book of Faith Initiative, hosted by the Rev. Paul Lutz of Prince of Peace Church in Princeton Junction and our synod’s Book of Faith Advocate.  We participated in an exercise demonstrating a “no preparation necessary” method of reading, digesting, interpreting, and discussing passages from Scripture.  This is but one of many different ways groups of people might approach Scripture which does not require that the participants have any particular background or expertise in biblical studies (notwithstanding the expression no preparation necessary, the facilitator of the group study is prepared to facilitate conversation, but need not teach, per se).  The whole idea of the Book of Faith initiative is to help ALL people in the church become more fluent in the first language of faith, the witness of Scripture.  Beginning with Martin Luther himself, Lutherans have always maintained that we meet Christ in the witness of Scripture; dwelling in the Word of God means dwelling in the presence of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, as we receive the written Word of witness.  Here at Zion, we participate in this initiative through weekly Bible study and by our congregation’s enrollment in the Book of Faith Forum online.   

Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey may be one of the best kept secrets of our church’s mission and ministry in this state, but the work we do for our neighbors in need through this inter-Lutheran agency has extraordinary and far-reaching consequences for peoples’ lives.  In 2009, LSMNJ served nearly 5,000 people through a diversified social ministry program, including community outreach, adoptions, immigration and refugee programs, homeless shelters, residential services, special needs housing, affordable family housing, senior housing, senior health care, and a continuing care retirement community.  As part of the LSMNJ report to the Assembly, we watched the short video Heroes of Hope, a compelling and inspiring documentary of an amazing accomplishment and ongoing services to the people of Camden.  Additional information and videos can be found at the LSMNJ website.

Cross Roads Camp & Retreat Center reported that their new adult retreat center, The Christ Center, will open this summer and already has booked guests.  This new facility is specifically designed for adults who prefer more comfortable and private accommodations, and features 16 private bedrooms with baths (accommodating up to 30 people at a time), three spacious meeting rooms, three outdoor decks, and a common kitchen.  Located in Lebanon Township, NJ (about an hour’s drive from Rahway), Cross Roads is a welcoming, ecumenical retreat center and camp of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and the NJ Synod of the ELCA.  We are invited to visit the facilities and participate in their annual Volunteer Day on May 22 from 10am to 4pm (lunch provided).

For three consecutive years, the New Jersey Synod has welcomed a new member congregation.  This year, Elect Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hamilton joined our family.  This congregation began as a Pentecostal church in Trenton under the leadership of Pr. Agnes Gbardoe, with a mission to serve Liberian and other West African immigrants.  In 2001, the congregation established a mission in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana with a current membership of over 150 persons.  In 2005, they established a second mission congregation in Liberia, and in 2006 they founded the Martha C. Johnson Little Saints Orphanage, also in Liberia.  Pr. Gbardoe approached the New Jersey Synod expressing interest in joining the ELCA, and in 2007, Elect Saints became a synodically approved worshipping community of our synod.  Their congregation has about 125 members worshipping in their current home in Hamilton, but through their mission work, they count over 2,000 baptized members globally.  After years of study, reorganization, and preparations, Elect Saints Evangelical Lutheran Church was welcomed as a full member of the New Jersey Synod on Saturday, May 8.  Their reception was accompanied by enthusiastic singing and sustained applause!  Their proven record of committed mission work and outreach is an inspiration to all of us.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Welcoming all people, as Christ has welcomed us!

The following Welcome Statement was adopted by Zion’s congregation council on February 18, 2010.

Welcoming all people, as Christ has welcomed us!

We, the congregation of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway, NJ, affirm with the apostle Paul that despite the diversity of our persons and our gifts, we who are baptized into the body of Christ are called by the Holy Spirit to live in harmony with one another and to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed each of us, for the glory of God (Romans 15:5-7).  Indeed, in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28).  Christ has made us one in Holy Baptism, and we welcome to the membership of this congregation all people who seek to be disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, without regard to distinctions among persons.  “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Therefore, we publicly declare:
-        that all persons are loved by God, without partiality (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9);
-        that all persons are welcome to become full members of this congregation through the sacrament of Holy Baptism or upon making a public Affirmation of Baptism, according to the teachings and practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
-        that all members of this congregation are expected and encouraged to fully participate in the sacramental and communal life of this congregation; and
-        that all members of this congregation are expected to live together in mutual love and service to one another and to our neighbors, as commanded by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Abounding in Steadfast Love

By the Rev. Margay Jo Whitlock

Ash Wednesday 2010
Joel 2:1-2; 12-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Mathew 6:1-6; 16-21

I was thinking about giving up sandwiches for Lent.  But, then, I thought about the prophet Joel.  “Rend your heart and not your garments”, says Joel.  Or in my case “your menus”.

Joel is one of the so-called Minor Prophets, meaning his book doesn’t take all that long to read.  Joel writes about the fallout from a plague of locusts.  Alas!  There are no grapes to make the wine.  There is no grain to be harvested to make the flour.  Blow the trumpet!  (Not a modern trumpet, but a ram’s horn – a shofar.)  Summon the people!  Gather together for a fast.

Well, that’s interesting… gather together for a fast.  So, it’s not about what I am going to give up; it’s about what we are going to give up.  There’s also some irony here: a fast is called, but what would they eat anyway?  All of the crops had been destroyed.  Talk about a downturn in the economy!  This is serious business.

When you come to church, you are supposed to remember to bring your envelope.  But, Joel says, don’t worry that you can’t bring your proper offering.  Who knows?  Maybe the Lord himself will provide the offering.  Instead, think of what you can give – your heart.  And no, not your “achy breaky heart”.

In Joel’s time, the heart was thought to be the seat of the will, as opposed to the seat of emotion.  Joel is telling us to break our wills to God, to offer our broken agendas to God.  “Return to the Lord your God”, says Joel.  Turn around.  Face God.  Proclaim a fast.  A fast that’s not about giving up sandwiches, or chocolate, or alcohol, or whatever…  This is a communal fast, meaning we are called to come together as a congregation and to give up the dividing walls between us.

How are we going to do this?  By relying on the steadfast love of God.  This Hebrew concept of the steadfast love of God is in essence the same thing as Lutherans talk about when they use the word gospel – as in law and gospel.  God’s word comes to us in two ways: the law tells us what God wants us to do – return to the Lord, call a fast, come to church – and the gospel tells us what God does.  God is gracious and merciful.  And because God is gracious and merciful, we have courage to repent.

If our main concept of God is that of a judge dangling us over the pit, we’re not going to want to go there.  But, because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, we are given the necessary motivation to turn back and face God.  The Law is what we do, or are supposed to do.  The Gospel is what God does.

One of the problems of being human is that we like to pretend we are in charge.  So, we like scenarios that fool us into believing we are in charge and that we can earn God’s love.  If I act in this certain way, or if I don’t act in this other way, then God will love me.  This is the human way of thinking.  But, here is God’s way of thinking: because I love you so much, therefore, you will return my love.  As Christians, we see God’s steadfast love in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  As followers of Jesus, we join together with other followers of Jesus to radiate his steadfast love to everyone we meet.  We are called to welcome all people as children of God, and to love them as God loves us.

There can be no mistake.  If it comes down to the law versus the gospel, the gospel will always win.  Yes, the law is there for a reason – two reasons, actually: to keep good order in society, and to drive us back into the arms of Christ.  So, you see, the gospel always trumps the law.  And even though you are dust, and to dust you shall return, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Abounding in steadfast love.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

American Areopagus

By John Page

It always seems odd to me when I observe people trying to “evangelize” others by quoting Scripture at them.  There’s a presumption that the content of Scripture is recognized by non-Christians as somehow relevant to them.  But why should that be?  Why would people who do not see themselves among the people of faith from whom, about whom, and to whom the Scriptures were written, consider the witness of Scriptures to be meaningful to their own lives and experiences?

St. Paul seems to have recognized this point himself.  During his missionary journeys, according to the Book of Acts, he routinely visited the Jewish synagogues to worship and witness to Christ, pointing to the Jewish Scriptures to argue that Jesus was the Messiah the prophets had long anticipated.  At that time, Christianity was still understood as a Jewish sect, and it made perfect sense that Paul would worship among fellow Jews and communicate with them in the context they understood and found meaningful.

But when Paul visited Athens, and stood in the Areopagus among people who were neither Jewish nor Christian, he took a different approach.  Arguing his point from the witness of the prophets would not have been very meaningful or compelling to pagan Athenians, for whom the Jewish prophets were total strangers, and the narratives of Israel’s people and their historical experiences with God were of little or no import.  Instead, Paul appealed to what the Athenians already knew.  Starting with the common experiences of all people, as it were, Paul was able to make the particular experiences of one people more relevant. (Acts 17:16-34)

Some time ago, I read that America is becoming an increasingly pre-Christian society.  Pre-Christian implies before Christianity became widespread and commonplace, as distinct from the term non-Christian, which simply implies that one is not now Christian, even if one may have been at some time.  There was a time – a time in which many of us alive today actually lived – when most Americans could reasonably assume that everyone around us had some knowledge of and experience with Christianity, even if they weren’t active church-goers themselves.  But that assumption is no longer valid.  Surveys in recent years suggest increases in the percentages of people who have never been Christians, have never received any instruction in the Christian faith, and whose experience of Christian worship – if it is worship – is limited to the occasional wedding or funeral of an acquaintance.  What these people may know of Christianity is largely what they observe in the popular media, which may well explain why Christianity is in decline; the headline hogs don’t typically offer flattering or accurate depictions of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth.  While the percentage of pre-Christian and non-Christian peoples increases, the percentage of Christians in America declines.  We are more and more likely to find ourselves today, and in the near future, in St. Paul’s position in the Areopagus.

So, how might we witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in the American Areopagus?  Here’s my go at it…

We are Christians. 

We believe that there is one God who created all things, and that God’s love is the sine qua non for understanding the relationship between God and creation.  God created humankind in God’s own image, to bear God’s love in the world as both stewards of creation and beneficiaries of creation’s gifts and God’s abundant peace.

This was, and is, God’s vision and intention.  But realistically, we all know how far removed the world is from that vision.  Strained relationships, violence, poverty, sickness, greed, injustice, and indifference abound.  No one completely escapes the consequences of our present circumstances; people, all living things, and the earth itself suffer.  Even natural disasters testify to the magnitude of the chasm between God’s vision and the reality of our condition.

We recognize that much of what we and all of creation suffer is the consequence of our own human actions.  We bear responsibility for what we do and what we leave undone, and all actions and inactions have consequences.  The consequences may affect us now, but may just as well affect generations to come.  We may see the cause-and-effect relationships clearly or not so clearly.  We may even willfully turn a blind eye to the relationships to disingenuously deny our responsibility.

As people of faith, we understand that we must own up and accept responsibility.  Strained relationships, violence, poverty, sickness, greed, injustice, and indifference are not the consequences of loving relationships; they exist because we become indifferent, or even hostile, to love as central to creation’s order.   Whether by accident or design, in abandoning love, we have effectively rebelled against God and God’s vision. 

But God does not abandon what God loves.  We know this from our long history of recognizing God active in our lives and in the lives of our ancestors in faith.  God’s love is willful and intentional; time and again, God reaches out to humankind to set our relationships right.  God is determined that God’s vision will be our reality.

From among all the peoples of the earth, God called a wandering Aramean named Abraham to serve God, promising that from him and his wife Sarah a particular people would be the instruments of God’s reconciliation with all of humankind.  Some two thousand years ago, that promise came to fruition when God came into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, one of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents.  That singular event in history inaugurated the process by which God puts all things right by God’s own decisive action.  God calls all people to be recreated in God’s image, specifically in the image of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, who, sharing our humanity with us, draws us back to God and makes us the people we were meant to be from the very beginning.  This is what we mean when we say we are to “put on Christ”.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ: God loves humankind and always will, and through the person of Jesus, God assures us that God’s peace will be a reality in this world.  Through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God recreates us to be God’s image-bearers in the world, commands us to love all as we have been loved by Christ, and commissions us to share this good news with everyone by word and by deed.

And this, by the way, is why we at Zion summarize our own mission with the words: Love God, Love your neighbor, Tell the world!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Responding to Need in Haiti

We serve Christ by serving those in need.  I encourage anyone looking to make a financial donation to support relief efforts in Haiti to consider the ELCA’s International Disaster Response - Haiti Earthquake ReliefOne hundred percent of your donation will be used for the relief efforts in Haiti.  ELCA Disaster Response ministries have a long history of faithful and responsible service to people in desperate need.

Presiding Bishop Hanson of the ELCA has written an open letter to the members of this church summarizing this church’s response to the disaster, and encouraging all of us to give generously to those in need and to encourage others to do so as well.

To make a donation online, visit http://www.elca.org/haitiearthquake.  This site also provides information for mailing checks and money orders.

-John Page

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Good Ideas Have Legs

By John Page

“Good ideas have legs” says JIM DWYER of the NY Times in his article Where Unsold Clothes Meet People in Need.  The article provides an example of how a single person can make an enormous difference in the lives of thousands of needy people.  He briefly describes how in 1985, Suzanne Davis asked the president of Phillips-Van Heusen if his company had any excess (unsold) inventory that could be used by homeless men.  That got the ball rolling, and the following year, she organized the New York Clothing Bank, where unworn garments, which might otherwise have been destroyed, are recovered and given to the needy.

While many clothing manufacturers or retailers have gotten on board with this, or similar, efforts, many still destroy unsold inventory.  As Dwyer says, “the reasons are complex.”  There’s a fear of competing with one’s own garbage.  There’s concern that the millions of marketing dollars spent on creating brand images may be wasted if the “wrong” kinds of people are seen wearing brand-name garments.  No doubt there’s also a good measure of indifference and ignorance as well.  When Dwyer reported that a graduate student at City University recently discovered that a branch of clothing retailer H&M was slashing and trashing unsold garments, it triggered an avalanche of responses, including emails from people who knew of retailers all across the U.S. who routinely destroy unworn clothing.

Stories like this illustrate for me the tension between Christian discipleship and the way of the world.  On the one hand, I understand perfectly well how a healthy economy works, how the expectation of reward or profit encourages creativity and risk, and how creativity and risk can lead to advances in knowledge and quality of life.  I understand why people want to minimize risks – risks like competing with one’s own garbage or undermining brand image.  And I understand that some people just can’t be bothered to think too hard about it.

On the other hand, I understand that Jesus of Nazareth expects self-sacrificing love from his disciples.  Our neighbors in need – the least among us – are to be of paramount ethical concern for us.  Our neighbors in need are Jesus in need. (Matthew 25:31-46)  Professing “Jesus is Lord” is completely disingenuous if we treat our Lord with contempt or indifference.  Christian disciples must live in and navigate through this world, never forgetting to whom we owe our lives and everything else we possess.  Our neighbors in need are to be the beneficiaries of our debt.

Christian disciples typically want to be both faithful and pragmatic, which can lead to tension.  We are to be wise and clever in the ways of this world, but we must not be disciples of the ways of the world.  We must render to Caesar what properly belongs to Caesar, but never forget that all things, including Caesar, belong to God.  We are to be mindful of the “powers and principalities” that appear to govern the world – economics, physical sciences, human nature – but we must never permit them to become our lords.  Whatever authority God has given to individuals or to the natural mechanisms of creation, God has not relinquished God’s own authority.  Our Lord stands over and against all other pretenders.

Good ideas are not always pragmatic, but Christian discipleship requires that we sometimes act more faithfully than pragmatically; that we sometimes give up some benefit or advantage for the sake of others, especially for those in need.  This is not so much the way of the world, but the Way of Jesus.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Singing Church

By John Page

In a recent blog post, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the demise of congregational singing in many churches.  LutheranChik also observes how anemic congregational singing can be in churches these days.  Both consider the reasons for this development, especially in churches which historically encouraged enthusiastic singing from the pews.

Both critique the trend to professionalize music in our culture.  Singing seems to have become an exclusive art in peoples’ minds, for which some have the appropriate talent and some do not.  Those who suppose they “do not” mute their voices or don’t bother to move their lips at all.  So many people seem reluctant to sing out with joy and vigor, even when familiar hymns are sung.

But, singing is NOT an exclusive art.  Singing is a normal way for all people to express themselves; it is built into our human nature.  And communal singing has long been a way for whole communities to remember, tell, and celebrate their common experiences.  When Martin Luther wrote hymns set to the music of well-known tavern songs, he did so specifically to encourage EVERYONE to sing in worship of God.  One did not have to be a professional or trained musician to make the music of worship; the music of worship is meant to come from us all.

During the first of our two Christmas Eve services this year, the choir began singing a descant over the third verse of Silent Night, expecting the assembly to continue with the verse; instead the people in the pews fell silent and all that could be heard was the descant.  Ooops!  During the second service, the organist increased the volume for the third verse, in hopes that the people in the pews would be encouraged to continue singing.

So, how might we encourage confident and enthusiastic singing from the pews?  That’s a question well known to worship and music leaders.  Some churches ban instrumental accompaniment, and insist on a cappella music only.  Some church musicians have been known to stop playing instruments during some verses of hymns to emphasize the singing.  Personally, I’d like to get away from choir anthems during worship, precisely because “performance pieces” during worship seem to feed the idea that the music is for passive consumption – entertainment – and best left to the “professionals”.  Instead I’d like to see choir and instrumentalists intentionally find ways to encourage, enable, and facilitate singing by everyone in the worshiping assembly.

As Luther might have said: Sing boldly, that grace may abound!