Twenty-six years ago April 30, 1987, my husband Burton and I drove from Dubuque to Columbus Ohio, where we, together with 2000 other Lutherans from 3 church bodies attended the Constituting Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which would officially begin the following January 1, 1988. I was teaching at Wartburg Seminary; Burton was pastor of Grace Lutheran in East Dubuque. Burton and I wanted to be at the beginning of the ELCA because we had been part of all three church bodies over the years. We were part of the American Lutheran Church. The ALC was strong in the upper Midwest. While living in New England, where the Lutheran Church in America was strong, I had served an LCA congregation. And each of us had entered Lutheran Churches as teenagers, hearing the Gospel, through Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregations in Iowa and California. A schism in that church body in the 1970’s produced the AELC, the third predecessor church body of the ELCA.Preparation for the ELCA began in 1982. Many, many people would work together for years towards this new beginning. Over 11 years I would be part of four different tasks forces and commissions working on the New Lutheran Church. Today, 25 years later, we celebrate the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a church body with 4 million members and 10,000 congregations.
2 Cor. 5:17 is the anniversary passage So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed way; see, everything has become new!
It may be hard to imagine for some, or to remember, 25 years ago, most church conventions (what we called them then) were attended overwhelming by men. And the voices you heard most at the microphones were clergy. And rarely did one see a person of color. But the new ELCA adopted representational principles. At assemblies and on boards, commissions, task forces, we would have equal numbers of women and men. Lay and clergy voices would all be heard, and we would have people of color and whose first language was not English more represented. We needed to see and hear and learn from one another in new ways. And things changed overnight. Huge. But you know what? People didn’t become fearful. The opposite happened. We moved beyond the “token” stage, which in terms of race and gender and class is often more fear-producing. All of a sudden when we gathered, things now seemed “normal,” as though this is the way we were created to be, together in our differences, one body. That inclusion has grown. The challenge is to keep asking, “Who is not at the table? Who is not in our community?”
In the Gospel text this anniversary Sunday, September 8, 2013, Luke 14:25-33, large crowds were traveling with Jesus and he turned and spoke to them. Five challenging phrases.
1. Whoever comes to me, must hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life itself to be my disciple. Wait a minute. Isn’t Christianity all about loving people? Especially one’s family? Well yes. Christ is talking about the radical commitment of the call to discipleship. That fits with what we just said. We came together and come together not just as a family (In fact that term “family church” can sound exclusive) but from different histories and heritages with those who are different from “my family.” The verse preceding our anniversary verse from 2 Corinthians reads, “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view.” We are connected to one another in Christ. Not just Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Germans; as our new presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, said in a press interview recently, not just all flavors of Jello, but now with Latinos, Asians, national Africans, as a church body there are now different foods at our potlucks. And during these 25 years we have established new ecumenical partnerships and inter-faith dialogs. In a world of ethnic and national strife, often violent, the problem is hating the other’s father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and loving mine. My family, My school My neighborhood, my nation. As disciples of Christ, we are called to care about land, water, good education and medical care, for all the world’s neighbors, in Martin Luther King’s words, the Beloved global Community.
2. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Being a Christian is not about taking up the cross to lead a parade, or holding it higher than other religions. It is about bearing the crosses as they come. In the past 25 years we have seen joys, but also more suffering than we could have imagined. Picture some in your local congregation. Remember. And also in the systemic injustices of society. In Christ, together,we carry one another in the midst of a suffering world.
Being part of the ELCA means being able to help out in disaster relief way beyond what one congregation could do. Think over 25 years: Katrina, Haiti, the Malaria campaign. From the Suffering Christ comes the church of the resurrection. We are rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection,” said David Swartling, ELCA secretary, at our recent churchwide assembly in Pittsburgh. “We are a church of the reformation. And the reformation is not only an historical event; it is an ongoing process…We are a church of reconciliation. “Always being made new.” Our anniversary verse follows with: “All this is from God who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself…entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. This is a new calling every single day.
3.Whoever does not estimate the cost. Otherwise when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him. This, of course, can have a very concrete meaning a congregations who may be in a building or remodeling process. But the challenge is deeper still. With the foundation on Christ, disciples dare, wisely, courageously, collaboratively to be the building ones. Since the ELCA began 25 years ago, 435 new congregations have officially organized. Today there are 330 new starts currently under development, including 56 new starts in 2012. ELCA members kept their commitment that at least half of these new starts are in a “situation of deep poverty” or part of “one of our ethnic strategies.” Other group new starts are “Jesus and Justice Ministries.” Can we finish? Can we begin? The foundation is ready, Christ himself.
4. Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then while the other is still far away he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. This is way too realistic an image. We live in the world, these very days, where our President and the Congress, and all citizens across the land must think about the cost of war and the cost of the use of chemical weapons. What is our call to discipleship? How do we as individuals, as faith communities, as a church body, study Scripture, and carefully learn about and discuss world events together. It was not easy to be disciples in the world 25 years ago or now. We, you and I, each congregation, this church body are called into the world of church and state issues, and as disciples in any situation, to be very wise, praying, and thinking Christians.
5. So none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions. OK. This text calls us to have a Giving-up Day? Not a Celebration? No--again, there’s more to it. Jesus description of discipleship, on his way to the cross, is about who and what possesses us. Therefore, to be in Christ, where everything is new, we are freed to no longer be in bondage to our possessions. Alone we might say, “Just how much is enough, Lord?” Together in Christ we have been able to do more than any of us alone could have comprehended, imagined with our communal resources put to work in service and mission. Celebrating means accepting challenges.
Celebrating means challenges. ELCA adopted the Social Statement, “The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries” by an overwhelming 882-25 vote.The vote comes in the midst of recent national debate on racial inequities in the criminal justice system, racial profiling in stop and frisk policies, and mandatory maximum sentencing.
The ELCA has ordained 7,500 pastors since 1988, almost half of the active pastors on the clergy roster, and after the study of ministry, we now have hundreds of associates in ministry, deaconesses and diaconal ministers, many of whom studied at Wartburg Theological Seminary.
This weekend thousands of people in congregations across the ELCA will be engaged in service. God's work. Our hands.