Friday, September 26, 2014

ELCA Approval Essay Part 3: Proclamation and Content

Part 3: Proclamation and Content

This is a sermon that was preached November 10th, 2013 at First Lutheran Church in Bothell, WA.  I had been invited to do pulpit supply since their pastor was going out of town, with the help of Ryan Marsh presiding.  The text was from Matthew 25, where Jesus tells us that all of the things that you do for others, you do also for him.  The context of the day was Radical Hospitality Sunday.  First Lutheran was in the midst of discerning if they were going to be an R.I.C. congregation, and it was November - just before Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping/charitable season.   Pr. Berg had told me that he was clear about asking me, a Deaconess candidate, to preach on this particular text and Sunday, because he wanted the congregation to be able to hear a call to radical hospitality from the margins, and from a non-traditional voice.   I wanted to be able to define a bit about who I was and where I came from, as well as give them comforting yet bold reasons to be radically hospitable.  I found the text to offer a solid amount of challenge and grace, because while it calls us to service, is also reminds us of the times we have already done it.   I found it to be a clear text and context to preach law and gospel together, in a relatively clear way.  
This was my very first sermon ever preached.  I believe that God was active in the preparation, because it was so clearly contextual for both myself and the Bothell First Lutheran community.  I found myself writing it and not really thinking too much about it.  I was absolutely nervous, because I was not a part of this community.  I only knew their theme of the day, and I had never met Pr. Berg before he asked me to preach.  But my nerves weren't in the writing of the message, only in the thought of presenting it.   Once I began, I could feel the anxiety lifting as I realized that I was standing firmly in my own space as a missional leader.  
I wanted the community to hear my words as liberating.  As a missional Deaconess, I clearly feel called to proclaim freedom from fear, and the message of God’s love through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  I wanted the listeners to believe that they are freed to act, to engage, and to be radically hospitable.  Nothing stands in their way - not even themselves.  God uses the gifts they bring even when we don’t completely know we are willing to offer them.  And in the feedback I received, I absolutely believe that this happened.  For many, formative and radically hospitable changes have occurred at First Lutheran since the preaching of this sermon - not because of it at all, but perhaps in the larger scheme of things,  some of the freedom needed for these changes was sparked here.  
Sermon Preached at First Lutheran in Bothell on November 10, 2013 - 
Gospel Text was Matthew 25:34-40

“It’s so good to be here with you on this Radical Hospitality Sunday.  I am especially excited, because this kind of passage is what drives me as a candidate for rostered leadership in the church.  My name is Sister Liz Colver, I am an invested ELCA Deaconess.  You’ve likely never heard of a Lutheran sister or Deaconess before, and that’s ok.  I am the only one so far in our Synod.  The call of a Sister is a call to be the bridge between the world and the church.   She brings the concerns of culture and society to the church, and equips the people of God to meet the needs of their neighborhoods.  ELCA Deaconesses are known as Sisters, a title that encourages people to engage in relationship with them differently and more openly than a power title would.   The ELCA Deaconess Community is also an intentional community of women who offer vision, encouragement, and guidance to one another as we are all called to be prophetic voices in church and society. 
It’s the season we begin to really look at what it means to be hospitable, isn’t it?  As we prepare to hunker down and be thankful for our lives and our families, we can often become acutely aware of those who are without.  So it’s the season of sock drives, and food drives.  Many churches host giving trees – my own sending congregation has 5 different trees every year scattered all over the church!  Those of us who are parents begin to wonder how we might pare down so that our kids don’t grow selfish, and perhaps encourage the little ones to choose a few old toys to give away before they get inundated with new ones.   Many of us already give to charities, or purchase gifts at alternative giving fairs, and on and on.  I know I LOVE my TOMs shoes, and I have a really cute hat made by crochet kids that empowers Ugandan women to provide for their families and make a living wage.  
All these things are good – great even.  We are aware of our blessings, and want to bless others.  But I want to ask you a potentially agitational question.  What truly drives us to do these things?  
I don’t know about you all, but as a life-long Lutheran, I have heard this gospel passage many times and felt as though I was being told to be kind to every stranger I meet because they might be Jesus in “disguise.”  And you know what, that’s true.  But what is also true is this:  
Jesus tells us that WE are now the body of Christ here in the world.  
It is not enough to care for others just in case they are secretly special, or might pass the stories of our graciousness on up the ladder, but we ourselves are the body of Jesus, living out his incarnational, living nature here with and for the kingdom of God – which is yet to come, but is also already here.  
And we kinda suck at it.  
Our culture teaches us to do so that we can get.  
Give to receive.  
Share to be thanked. 
Say yes to that overly involved volunteer position so that you might run into that other influential so-and-so that could offer you “real” work.  
We want to feel good about ourselves – as though we are Lord and Lady Bountiful, showering the less fortunate with our abundance, and pretending to be humble about it.  You know this stance – when someone holds up a halting hand and says, “oh no no no, I do this because it’s right, not to get praise…” while the other hand invites the continued praise with a come here finger wiggle…
And this is not ridiculous – we DO live in this culture that affirms such things, and I’m convinced that God wants us to find joy and pleasure in our living, which calls for us to find the ways and means to subscribe to the culture.   
Our friend Martin Luther acknowledged that – culture is to be lived in, not avoided.  Jesus did too.  He lived into the culture and the non-traditional places the religious avoided because the kingdom of God is bigger than what we think about on a Sunday morning.  And Jesus was present in all the places and spaces that the people of God could dwell. 
What is it about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the marginalized that makes us uncomfortable?  When I was in seminary, the professors required each student to name as many of their unearned privileges they could list before they would speak in class for the first 3 weeks.   Mine went like this: white woman, in a heterosexual marriage, highly educated, American citizen, home owner, business owner, upper middle class, parent of 2 living children, 401k, etc.  I soon began to realize that these privileges, when un-noticed, had set up walls around me, and kept me separated from the realities of homelessness, hunger, poverty, racial inequities, and various discriminations.  And it was really easy to safely stay behind those walls, peeking over once in a while to see what might be needed, and tossing the “others” a few bucks or a pair of gloves.  
I can’t claim that I know why I felt so comfortable looking the other way, but I can tell you that this passage demands me to get over it.  Jesus challenges us here to see the neighbor with fresh and new eyes.  To leap over the walls and accompany them, open the gates and welcome them in.  
I am currently serving on my Deaconess internship in 2 different places – Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, and Trinity Lutheran College in Everett.  A few weeks ago, Trinity hosted an event called Socktoberfest.  A large community party where food was served, kegs of root beer tapped, live music played, and there were socks.  Literally hundreds of pairs of socks had been collected all over downtown Everett, along with about 250 pairs of shoes.  Guests came in and if they had brought socks, they dropped them off, and if they needed socks, they picked them up.  There was no distinction between persons of means and persons without.  All were welcome and all were guests.  I mention this because one of the pieces I got to do for internship was organize volunteers.  Community members from various places, and about 25 Trinity students who were offered some form of extra credit opportunity came to help out.  They gathered beforehand and sorted socks, set up tables, got things ready.  But nothing really prepared them for the impact it would have on them to engage in this celebration of sorts without being able to truly know who needed and who offered.  It was what I would imagine the kingdom of God truly looking like – a diverse and slightly unmanageable party with abundant joy and enough food and socks for all.
I wonder if this passage in Matthew is one of the ways  Jesus reminds us that his incarnation would lead to a new resurrected embodiment of the body of Christ – US.  
And it is our job to be what Jesus was himself when culture dictates otherwise.  

What excites me – as a Sister, about this passage is the unique clarity that appears around it when I consider the nature of our holy meal leading us into service.  In communion, we believe that we are engaging in a unique relationship with the body and blood of Jesus. 
We are gifted a regular encounter with Jesus that is baffling, startling, and challenging.  Christ calls us to remember him and all that he did and was and is whenever we eat the bread and wine in community.  Not only do we eat the body of Christ – we actively become the body of Christ.  
We are pulled into a community, a circle, a family ever wider and ever called to be free as Jesus was free.  Bold as Jesus was bold.  Loved as Jesus was loved, and lover as Jesus was lover.  What happens at the table when we take this body into us is that we BECOME the ACTIVE, ACTUAL, LIVING BODY of Christ in the world, and to the world.  
Therefore, when Christ tells us in this story that whenever we care for another who is hungry or thirsty or naked or imprisoned, we care for Jesus himself, we are also BEING Jesus as we are called to in the care of the other!  The understanding of serving others so that we might accidentally serve Jesus is completely irrelevant after communing at this table, because we ARE Jesus to that person, and that person is Jesus to us.  
We believe in an incarnate and resurrected Savior who is living and acting in the world, and who boldly calls us to join him on his campaign for compassion and wholeness, unity and salvation.  And you know what?  Any time you do these things, you are furthering the kingdom of God right here and now.  It doesn’t even matter if you are trying to – because Jesus claims us and uses us as co-creators with God in the kingdom both on earth and in heaven.  

So go ahead and serve others for thanks, because God will use it just as beautifully and marvelously as God uses the ones being served.  God’s love is so big, and Christ’s welcome so wide that both are unavoidable.  And when you eat this bread and drink this wine, you will be forever changed – for your eyes become the eyes of Christ, and when we see through God’s eyes, we too see Jesus in everyone we meet.” 

ELCA Approval Essay Part 2: Core Theological Concepts

Part 2: Core Theological Commitments 

WARNING: This section of the essay has been eluding me for a few weeks.  Mostly because, while Lutheran Confessions was one of my favorite classes in Seminary, I was baptized into the Lutheran church when I was 3 weeks old and have spent the last 33 years living and breathing as a Lutheran.  I know how I feel and what I believe, and while the documents affirmed this all to be Lutheran, I struggle with how to cite and specify how my doctrine lines up in reference style for this essay.  Therefore, I have decided to answer the prompts in my own words, and trust that they will unfailingly connect to the doctrine of my ELCA, because I AM a living Lutheran.
The key theological insights that have been influential in my development as a leader are as follows: baptismal vocation (diakonia), theology of the diaconate and diakonia (baptismal vocation), theology of the cross, and the priesthood of all believers.  I will now dive into each specific insight further.  
Baptismal Vocation/Diakonia:
I believe that we are all called to the engagement of culture, faith, and service through our baptisms.  In the vows made at baptism, we agree to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”  This is also, remarkably, the definition of diakonia.  In these words offered among a community of believers for and with either a child or adult at baptism, we are saying that this work belongs to the whole of the church. We are a community of people called to practice sharing the love of Christ through words, service, action, justice seeking and peace making.  All of us are given this vocation at baptism.  God clearly calls the church to be Christ in our various contexts.  Because isn’t this definition of diakonia ultimately what Jesus was?  He was a proclaimer of the kingdom of God, serving others, engaging the world in the struggle for justice and peace.  
Nourished and Changed by the Eucharist:
The table is where we come to receive the mystery of Christ.  When we eat the bread and wine, body and blood of Jesus, we are then told that we are forever changed, that we ARE the body and blood of Jesus.  We will never be the same because we have ingested the truth that is Christ and we are called through these baptismal vows to diakonia.  Without this nourishment, without this regular and transformative sustenance, we struggle to feel fueled enough to engage in the healing and co-creation of God’s world.  We cannot be sent without being nourished.  And to eat this communal meal without being sent out into the world anew is worthless.  
The most formative theological piece of my journey to rostered leadership has been understanding what the diaconate is.  Herein lies the distinction between diakonia and the diaconate.  Where diakonia is the mission and ministry of the whole church, the diaconate consists of those women and men who are called to equip the church for diakonia.  Where all are called to diaconal ministry because of our baptismal vows, our participation in the church, and partaking of communion, the diaconate is those prophetic voices that call the church to the places and spaces where servant ministry and justice are most yearned for.  Members of the diaconate serve as the bridges between the church and the world, bringing the needs of the world to the church, and equipping the church to meet those needs with the peace making love of Christ.  
As I have mentioned before, I have known from a very young age that I am called to engage those in the church, but it was always in ways of calling them out and preparing them to meet the needs of the world, but in ways that are different from the traditionally pastoral ways that church leadership accompanies congregational community.  Learning about the diaconate helped me to validate my call as something the church recognizes, yearns for, and needs that is not a pastor. I have been called to equip the priesthood of all believers to their baptismal vocation of diakonia.  Yay!
Priesthood of All Believers:
When Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers, he was maintaining that the plowboy and the milkmaid could do priestly work. In fact, their plowing and milking was priestly work. So there was no hierarchy where the priesthood was a “vocation” and milking the cow was not. Both were tasks that God called God’s followers to do, each according to their gifts.   As part of my internship, I was asked to teach a section of the freshman course titled “Vocation and Formation” at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA.  I was often able to help students differentiate between what their vocation (baptismal vocation as a beloved child of God, called to diakonia) and their place of service (the temporary way or means through which they live out their vocation).  Perhaps my understanding of diakonia is essentially the same thing as the priesthood of all believers.  We are all called to the creation and healing of the world with God, regardless of how we live that out.  
This also adheres to Martin Luther's desire for a less hierarchical system to be in place for church leadership.  If we understand that we are all given the same baptismal vocation, then the various natures of how we are individually called to do that are no more worthy or unworthy than another.  A pastor or deacon or bishop is no more important than a milkmaid, mail carrier, or butcher.  In fact, they are no less important either!  Additionally, the role of the pastor and bishop and deacon are equally valuable and important to the future of the church - one is not more worthy than the rest, just differently called.
Theology of the Cross:
Let me begin by explaining what I don’t mean by this: I do not mean some kind of atonement theory where God has to punish Jesus for our sins. In the Lutheran tradition, we understand the theology of the cross to mean something like this: that God heals and creates the world not by brute force or power over people but by joining humans and human community in its darkness and pain, and thereby bringing new life precisely there. 
I believe that the Lutheran church is a church of the cross.  We are called to not only follow Jesus, but to follow his lead as we are called to diakonia, and participation in God’s healing and creation of the world.  Death on a cross was not a dirty job that God required of Jesus, but rather the response of a culture of domination that feared the radical and prophetic way Jesus was engaging God’s way of mutuality - or the Kingdom of God.  
In my baptism, I was made to die to the ways of domination culture, to die with Christ, and I was re-born into the kingdom of God - into a freedom that offers me the chance to deny glory and accept my role as a co-creator and healer of the world with God.  I have been freed to dedicate my life to the liberation of creation and humanity, so that I may boldly walk in solidarity with human pain, vulnerability, and community.
This Lutheran understanding of the cross helped me to acknowledge that the suffering and heartache experienced by the world is not justified, predestined, or given by God to strengthen us.  That suffering and pain simply are.  Chaotic and unyielding, suffering is.  Yet no matter what, God is in that with us, knowing exactly how we feel because God has felt it before, and feels it in the moment, too. The cross reminds us that God yearns for us to join in the creation and healing of a world made broken by cultures of domination, and it will not be easy.  We will not become victorious unscathed.  
Yet, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are in the midst of holy community, and that we need one another.  True community is born here - at the place where we freely lay down our lives and pick up the cross of Jesus.  We do it as the family of God called to action.  For we are called to be like Jesus - bold, loving, compassionate and prophetic, in a culture that sees that as a worthless, unrealistic goal.  However, we know the end of the story - that God reigns and Jesus lives.  Here is where we can access the boldness we need to trust in God, and follow Jesus into his death and resurrection.
These theological insights contribute to the way that church acts as church-in-the-world in deeply formative ways.  If we were to organize these insights linearly, they would look something like this, “gathering, word, bath, table, sending.”  Or, in more formal words, ‘the liturgy.’  For thousands of years, the church has been attempting to follow this model of theology, living it out in our worshipping communities and spaces as a way to practice what Jesus calls us to engage in during the rest of the week.    We are gathered together because of our suffering and need for community.  We experience the living word of God through scripture that comforts us in our affliction and challenges us in our complacency.  We die in baptismal remembrance with Christ and are brought to new life with a renewed vocation to service and justice, healing and creation with God in the world.  We are fed with the body and blood of Jesus who changes us and makes us one with him.  And we are sent out into the world nourished and fueled to foster new relationships and engage in God’s way of mutuality and meaning-making in a world that is broken and worn down, and in need of engaged, accompanying people who know what it feels like to suffer and hope at the same time.    
The world needs this.  People yearn to belong - to know that they are accepted, that they were created with intention, that they are beloved.  The gist of what Lutherans mean by being church is what the world yearns for.   And yet, Lutherans still struggle with how to portray this message of hope and solidarity with the world.  The ELCA is striving to remedy this disconnect, specifically with the recognition of the diaconate (Word and Service Rosters).   The world is aching for allies in justice and peace making efforts.  Society wants to see religious institutions stand up and loudly proclaim Micah 6:8, and Matthew 28:19, and 1 John 4:7-8.  The ELCA is recognizing that the long standing method of sending called religious persons down the path to become clergy is no longer (nor ever truly was) the only relevant call to servant leadership.  The world is screaming for the diaconate to lead the church to fulfill her baptismal vocation of LOVE and ACCEPTANCE and JUSTICE and HOPE making movements in the world.  

I believe, with all of my heart, that the ELCA is getting ready to be the most influential, forward-moving, missional, and innovative denomination, because we have all the necessary resources at our fingertips.  We must be able to acknowledge the various parts of this church body and give them the space do what they are called to do.  If we can heed Martin Luther’s advice to be less hierarchical, and if we trust the priesthood of all believers and our communal vocation to service and ministry, we will be a church that not only grows, but thrives into the future of God’s world.  

ELCA Approval Part 1: Person(s) in Ministry

Yesterday I met with my synod's candidacy committee for the final piece of my candidacy journey - approval.  One of the major pieces of the approval process includes writing a large essay following prompts offered by the ELCA.  You can find the prompts here.  I was approved, and have been asked by multiple colleagues and friends to read my essay.  So I will post it here in portions.  The prompts are set up in 3 sections - Person(s) in Ministry, Core Theological Concepts, and Proclamation and Content, which is how I will break the posts up.  I welcome comments and constructive criticism (no bullying or mean-spirited comments please).

Part 1: Person(s) in Ministry

I am an intentionally engaged member of two formative faith communities that are not traditional church.   One is the Deaconess Community, and the other is the ELCA Organizing for Mission Cohort (OFM from here on).  The Deaconess Community (known as sisters) is a collective of women who are called and rostered by the ELCA/ELCIC to bear witness to the world and the church about what diakonia is and how the priesthood of all believers is called and equipped to engage God’s creation as co-creators of peace and justice, through servant leadership.  If you and I have had any conversation at all, you likely understand the draw this has for me!  The sisters engage in deep communal reflection on the Scriptures and how they connect and compel us to engage issues of injustice, marginalization, poverty, suffering, and advocacy around us because of God’s call in our lives individually and as a community.  Sisters actively believe in a theology that connects the context of scripture with the context of culture, and prayerfully discern as a community how we can be a support to neighbors because of our freedom in Christ. 
As a formative community, the Deaconesses equip one another with opportunities for continuing education, active dialogue about global/local issues, and generally support the varied and various ministries to which we as individuals are called as a part of this bigger vocation from within the church.  A big piece of what the Deaconess Community does is equip and send disciples into the world to live out their baptismal call fully and accompanied.  Sisters are accompanied by the community in their ministries of servant leadership, and the sisters accompany and equip the laity in their baptismal calling to diaconal ministry.  
The OFM cohort is a group of mission developers, redevelopers, and community organizers from in and around the ELCA who practice the arts of community organizing and support one another in active reflection and agitation around how we best theologically and contextually do that as church.  OFM has been a deeply formative community for me because we all see the future of church as a hopeful, living, engaged place for wonder and change.  Every single member of the cohort is a missional leader in their own context.  For, the formative understanding of the cohort is that Jesus himself was a community organizer, unafraid to speak truth into context and break boundaries of fear for the sake of justice.  A rich and well-articulated theology of the cross informs the cohort’s deep engagement with the issues of justice and advocacy issues that plague our communities and church, helping us to understand our calling to form leaders and communities that are aware of the uses of power that both hinder and assist the kingdom of God. 
As a woman called to ministry, I feel a strong yearning for intentional community.  With the sisters, I have been given a place to be challenged into quiet reflection on the scriptures as the source and soul of the strength and fire that rise out of me when I engage the terrors of this broken world.  What makes the missional nature of the Deaconess Community so unique is that we don’t shy away from heartache, but also, choose not to be defined by it. Rather, our trust in the mercy of Christ’s prophetically humble accompanying leadership is salve to a missional soul like mine.  What OFM offers me is a place to practice claiming my power as a leader, to practice using my prophetic voice, and to be accountable to the affirmation and agitation we give one another as educated leaders in and for the future of church.  I am challenged to identify individual and institutional realities on both the micro and macro scale that affect my ministry of praxis, and am renewed with a hopeful fire in my spirit that Jesus is with me in the ministry to which I’m called as a Deaconess community organizer.  
I believe that, through our baptisms, God calls us to live lives of participation.   God calls each and every one of us to be co-workers in the healing and creation of the world.  Often times, we as a church struggle to know who should be doing it, and how it should be done.  Accompaniment, service, community, and truth-telling are all ways by which the priesthood of all believers can affirm their baptismal vocation to diakonia - active service and engagement in the world. Each and every one of us is called to diaconal service, no matter what else you are called to do.  A hairdresser is called to diaconal service, and he lives that service out in the listening and caring for person after person sitting in his salon chair.  A lawyer lives her call to diaconal service in the ways she challenges the system to value the rights of her clients.  A pastor lives her call to diaconal service in her encouragement of the congregation to serve on committees to plan ways the community will be nourished and needs will be met.  A baker lives his call to diaconal service when he donates the day’s unsold goods to the food bank down the street.  Every single one of us is called to diaconal servant leadership, but every single one of us struggles to know or believe that we are actually doing God’s work when we are simply doing that which we love.  Yet these things we do, these things we love are ways God calls us into our greater vocation of diaconal service.  
My working definition of vocation is that which we simply cannot avoid doing.  It is what gives us life and sustenance in whatever we do wherever we are.  I like to think of vocation as a mission statement that is unchangeable for my life, that always fits into whatever I am doing - it is always true.  What changes is the call and the way I fulfill that vocation within it.  We all have two vocations - a vocation of diakonia, and a vocation unique to us.  The baker above is called to be a baker, because while he might not always be a baker, his vocation might be to feed people.  He could live that out as a teacher, a story teller, an entrepreneur, a bakery owner, or a delivery truck driver.  Yet he is called to live it out as a baker now.  His diaconal vocation is being lived out as he donates his unsold goods daily.  See the difference between vocation and call?

My personal vocation is to be an equipper to service.  As one who is called to the  Roster of Word and Service, my call is to the diaconate - those who are gifted with this vocation of equipping the church in the ways they live out their individual and communal diaconal vocations of servant leadership.  My vocation is to help others live out their vocations!  One way I am feeling called to do this is as a community organizer.  The church is full of people who are burdened by issues needing advocacy and change.  Being called to be an organizer fulfills my vocation because through it, I can help equip individuals, communities, and congregations to find ways that they can accompany others and meet their needs.  An organizer listens to, gathers together, facilitates, and equips communities to advocate for their own needs and make positive changes in the way things are.  As a diaconal organizer in the church, I can assist congregations in listening to their neighbors, and finding ways to meet and serve their communities - fulfilling their communal diaconal vocations, and growing the reach of the church as a loving, compassionate, advocating, accompanying presence.