June 6, 2021

About the Gloria hymn

The hymn “Glory to God in the highest” is familiar to (and maybe memorized by) anyone used to Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal or other so-called “liturgical churches.”  But do we really ponder what we’re singing?

First, a little history: this “Gloria” is one part of the western, medieval (and later) mass, which classical music lovers know goes from the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) to Gloria, Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).  Traditionally, these were sung in place of what we now usually think of as hymns (like Amazing Grace or Be Thou My Vision).  During the earliest centuries and outside the West, different music or texts were used.  The Gloria originated as a hymn for morning prayer and when it was first used at Mass, only the Pope or bishops could sing it (priests could sing it only on Easter).

To sing those words – “Glory to God” – is to take a break from cynicism.  So often during the week we feel let down by people.  Our role models and leaders and neighbors turn out to be not so glorious.  Indeed, we have issues with and complaints against God.  “Glory” may not be what I’m feeling, but a song I overhear and join in.  The Gloria is also known as the “Hymn of Angels,” because the first verse is what the Shepherds hear the Angels singing on Christmas: “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth.”  And the Angels, we imagine, they see clearly God’s full majesty, beyond the struggles that cloud us.  By taking up their song, we want to open ourselves to see and feel that glory and beauty more clearly.  It’s doing what Paul says: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (from Philippians 4)

Notice also how the Gloria is full of political language, king, lord, high places, and the throne of God in each of the three parts (Father, Son and Trinity):

  • FATHER Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.
  • SON Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.
  • GODHEAD/TRINITY For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Updates of the Gloria remove this language, I think because we don’t want to associate God with what’s oppressive and authoritarian.  But with any metaphor, there’s an “is” and an “isn’t.”  Jesus is a lamb in that he’s gentle but he’s not fluffy and four-legged.  God isn’t an oppressive patriarch; but in some ways, I think we still need to say God is Lord.

A key line is “you alone are Lord.”  We’re not just cynical, we’re afraid: of the people at the top, with powerful weapons and unimaginable wealth, of white supremacy, seductive violence or hatred, depression, disease and death and whatever we’re addicted to.  Sing “you alone are Lord.”  None of those so-called lords can stand against the only true Lord!  In a world under the foot of demonic and Roman oppression, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God.  The Gloria is a pledge of allegiance to this kingdom and a song not just of hope but of victory, to give us courage no matter what.

Our king is an anti-king; he’s the Lamb sent not to beat back his foes by superior military might and lift up the privileged few; he’s the self-giving One who wants nothing more than to take the wrongs and sin away from the villains and the heroes, the whole world, bringing us together in peace and awe and worship.  Thanks be to God!

Pentecost 2021

Worship in-person and online

The season is changing in more ways than one: Pentecost is past, Summer is coming, we’re getting vaccinated and pandemic restrictions are lifting! Pastor Kate and I want to bring up some thoughts and plans for worship in the coming months, in hopes of getting some conversation going.

A few thoughts: first, we’re not all in the same place when it comes to in-person worship – even literally! How do we continue to welcome and support worship participants we’re used to seeing on zoom who don’t even live in state? Even among those nearby, feelings vary: some truly yearn to ‘get back,’ others are anxious about going too fast or being left behind. Some are vaccinated, others aren’t. How can we be attentive to each other’s needs and journey together as a whole community?

Also: of course we’re thrilled about the lifting of pandemic restrictions. But let’s notice that there will be losses. I’ll bet each of us is feeling this in certain ways: maybe it was nice having fewer places to go all the time. In worship, most (not all!) of us managed to get on zoom together. It was quite the bonding experience (the Centennial, two Holy Weeks, Mother’s day photos) and when in-person worship starts, we won’t be together in the same way. Some churches are going to try and have in-person services that are simultaneously zoom services with people in the sanctuary interacting with people on big screens. But this sounds complicated and may not make for a great in-person experience (too much equipment and technology present) or online experience (feeling left out, hard to interact). So the council is leaning towards separate times for online and in-person worship. We’ll lose some of the unity we’ve had, but may be able to regain it in new ways.

We request your patience! It’s a lot of behind the scenes work planning for worship changes with all the above considerations, as well as county and state guidelines that can be hard to decipher and implement! Normally, June would be a time in the church year when we rest and take a deep breath. There’s other stuff going on too, such as the need to figure out facility rentals and new ministries.

So what’s the plan?

This Summer: the State and County currently strongly encourage outdoor (vs. indoor) gatherings, masked, socially distanced and with minimal singing. (On June 15 in California these restrictions may be lifted, but it’s not clear yet what that will mean). Every Sunday this Summer, we’ll have an online zoom service, planned for 9:30am. In addition, starting in June there will be opportunities to worship outside (in addition to non-worship events like picnics). These will be full but very brief services with scripture, prayer and Holy Communion (not much singing but a little string music perhaps) in the backyard, under shady awnings, near lovely trees and flowers, followed by fellowship. We’ll try it at 5pm on June 6, 10:30am on June 20 (again, in addition to regular zoom services on those days). We may need you to register so we know we have enough space. We’ll see how it goes, get your feedback, and make plans for July and August.

The Fall, more long term: based on recent surveys and council discussion, our sense right now is that instead of going back to two in-person Sunday services (8:30 and 10:30) we go to one in-person and one online service. The online service is obviously nice for people who live far away, but can also be helpful if you’re on vacation, or you’re close by but not feeling well or you sleep in but don’t want to miss worship altogether. As for service times and formats, these are open questions. If we had an in-person service early on Sunday (say, 9:30am), we could record some of the music and use it for singing with the online zoom service (say, at 11am). Or maybe the zoom service would be earlier (8:30am) or be at 5pm and structured as an evening prayer / vespers, on Sunday or even a weeknight for those who can’t do Sundays? How many would want to attend both in-person and online services if we made them different? What times, worship experiences would and wouldn’t work for you?
Keep in touch and let us know what you think!

Lutherans against meritocracy?

by Pastor Bernt

Since Lutheran Christians like to talk about Paul’s “saved by grace apart from works,” it’s interesting we don’t speak out against meritocracy.  I recently read “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good” by the philosopher Michael Sandel – who’s Jewish – and was struck by what he says about Martin Luther: “Luther’s stringent doctrine of grace was resolutely anti-meritocratic. It rejected salvation by good works and left no room for human freedom or self-making” – well, I think Luther was saying self-centered ambition just isn’t true freedom – but anyway, Sandel continues: “And yet, paradoxically, the Protestant Reformation he launched led to the fiercely meritocratic work ethic the Puritans and their successors would bring to America.” (pg.39)  Meritocracy, says Sandel, is itself somewhat religious, with roots in how some of those ‘other Protestants,’ the Puritans, viewed prosperity as a sign that you were among the true saved.  And even today when we say “nothing is impossible if you try” or “I deserve this success because I earned it,” aren’t we making statements of faith? (Sandel brings up the Book of Job – which FLC recently studied as a congregation – as taking a contrary position: the good aren’t always the ones who prosper).

Sandel isn’t saying that rewarding merit is always bad: it’s best to pick the most qualified candidate for a job, to reward hard work and initiative, to be able to freely pursue dreams.  But meritocracy has a dark side and has become something of a tyrant, in several ways:  If I believe my success is my doing and not luck or grace, I’m tempted to be prideful, while those on the bottom don’t just feel unfortunate but humiliated.  Think of the contempt, resentment, mistrust in our society (hesitancy to take a vaccine made and promoted by elites).  Also, our meritocracy doesn’t reward what should be rewarded.  Why should Wall Street gamblers earn so much more than school teachers?  And obviously, it’s just not the case that most people on the top are there because of merit.  Wealth, race, gender and our natural abilities or lack thereof mean that we’re not really competing on an “even playing field.”

Meritocracy feels like a hot topic these days.  But isn’t the Lutheran view on grace and works really about something else? Final salvation, heaven and hell?  I’ve been pondering what I read once from German Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer.  Bayer points out that in the Catechism we all use in Lutheran confirmation, in Luther’s explanation of the Apostles Creed, mention of merit doesn’t come up in the articles about the Son and the Spirit, but in the first article, on the Father and creator:

“I believe that God has created me together with all creatures; he has given and still preserves for me body and soul; eyes, ears, and all members; reason and all senses; in addition: clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and child, fields, cattle, and all goods; he richly and daily provides me with all necessities and nourishment for this body and life; shelters me against all danger; guards and protects me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, all without my merits and worthiness.  For all of this I am responsible to thank and to praise, and because of this to serve and obey him.”  (italics mine)

So that’s clothing, food, house, family and goods, safety  – “richly and daily” provided – “all” of it, everything, a gift of God apart from my merit and worthiness.  To say “I trust in” this God, it seems, does seem to put us against the claims of meritocracy. “I didn’t deserve this, neither did you.”  At a most basic level, says Bayer, Christian faith believes that “ life and what is necessary for life has been given to me,” even when we don’t yet have these gifts but must wait and reach for them. (Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: a Contemporary Interpretation, pg 100).

I just finished Sandel’s book and I have a lot to still think about here – provocative stuff!  (I’d be interested in how criminal justice and mass incarceration fit in to the big picture).  One other theme I have to mention: Sandel talks about the need for “distributive” justice, everyone having enough money, but also the overlooked need for “contributive” justice: that people find dignified work and other ways to contribute to the common good (lack of this dignity for people, he says, is a big part of what led to the rise of Trump and deaths of despair).  Sandel doesn’t mention that this is another key Lutheran theme: that of vocation.  In his own time, Luther challenged the idea that religious and monastic vocations were superior to ordinary jobs like being a parent or a farmer.  In our time, as Sandel puts it, the jobs that require advanced degrees are those considered superior, while the two-thirds of Americans who don’t have college degrees are looked down on.  “Learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.” (pg 191)

This was quite a book to read in Palo Alto, a real center of meritocracy.  How might a church challenge meritocracy in some way, or offer a “grace-ocratic” alternative?  How can we show grace to people in high pressure situations, such as in academics, competitive jobs or in the high school college application process?  What about connecting with and lifting up people who don’t have sophisticated credentials?  Sandel talks about solidarity and the common good.  What about recognizing with Paul the forgotten excellence of love itself, which bears faults, accepts and nurtures the gifts each person brings?

May 9, 2021

April 25, 2021

Story, Vision, Institution

I’m always going back to the most basic question: “what is this whole Christianity thing about?” What should be our focus?  And why should anyone care?

I’m intrigued by little books that present a version of basics, like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. New Testament professor C. Kavin Rowe, in his book Christianity’s Surprise, brings up three ways Christianity seemed surprising and new to the world when it first appeared: first, in the kind of overarching story it told about everything; second, in its vision of what humans are; third, in its institutions.  We discussed his ideas in some recent adult forum classes.

First, says Rowe, Christians have a story: not just a collection of bible fables and sayings to believe in or reject, but a shared “this is who we are” story that gives us a place in this world -a  ‘why we’re here’ and a ‘where we’re headed.’’ Think of how your grandparents told you how they got through the Great Depression, adding “you too can get through what you face.” Our story is hopeful: as Rowe emphasizes, it’s centered on Jesus’ defeat giving way not to disaster but surprising new life, resurrection.

Many would say the most basic thing about Christianity is its ‘message’ – but that word makes me think of a sentimental one-liner on a greeting card or tweet. ‘Story’ sounds more grounded, personal, open-ended, adventurous. The ELCA recently said the goal is to tell lots of people the story of Jesus, but maybe what needs to be told are stories, plural: my story, your story, and his- all connected, going somewhere together.  The theologian John Webster said Christian hope involves looking backward and forward, at promises made in the past that we can trust and act on as we enter the future.  It seems like that kind of hope is what Christians are after.

People do DNA tests; they try to find their ‘tribe,’ they need roots and a story.  As Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas (5 and 1/2 minutes in or so in this sermon) and others say, we too often learn that ‘freedom’ means being autonomous and detached.  “My story can only be the story I choose for myself.’  I cut myself off from belonging and from obligations to others (as one class participant observed, people say ‘I’m not racist’ while ignoring the history and systems of racism we’re implicated in).  Christianity is about being gifted with a story and roots we didn’t know we had.  The baptized get to spend their days learning what it means to be children of God and to belong to one another.

Which gives us to Rowe’s second theme: Christianity’s vision of the human.  What makes us human?  Why are we of value? Again, it’s not the life we’ve created for or the story we’ve told about ourselves or anything particular about us, such as our ability to use reason or to be moral agents or some status we have. We’re human in that God has identified with us; we’re part of Jesus’ family, ones for whom Christ died and was raised.  Indeed, we can say Christ is the human.  To be in Christ’s presence is always to be drawn deeper into the human family: with the incarcerated, the poor, the sick and those whose value as humans seems questionable to this world (see Matthew 25, which Rowe discusses).  I felt this chapter was a little underdeveloped, but it reminded me of a passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes a most intimate unity with this … While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human … In the human Jesus Christ the whole of humanity has been judged; again this is not the uninvolved judgement of a judge, but the merciful judgement of one who who has borne and suffered the fate of all humanity.  Jesus is not a human being but the human being.  What happens to him happens to human beings.  It happens to all and therefore to us.  The name of Jesus embraces in itself the whole of humanity and the whole of God.  (from pg84-85 of new hardback Fortress edition).

Class participants seemed to be of the opinion that the most basic element of Christianity is love.  I think Rowe here is getting at what’s lovable about people and how love transforms the way we see each other.

Finally: the third aspect of Christianity that was new and surprising, says Rowe, were its institutions.  Isn’t that what’s wrong with religion?  When it gets institutional, and isn’t just a free-flowing social movement? Obviously, we need some level of institution, like meeting places, times, who’s in charge of what. Says Rowe, we need institutions to maintain the story and vision and practices of the church.  Hospitals where any human would be cared for were first created by Christian bishops and monastics, Rowe claims.  I recently heard Henry Louis Gates Jr. talk about the vitality of the Black Church as an institution during slavery: if you were a child and your parents were suddenly sold, you at least have a somewhat consistent church family that will support you; songs and stories that keep you going. The question is, what institutions does Christianity need today?  How can we keep alive the story, the hope, a sense of being connected to all of humanity?

Rowe’s framework is very intriguing. One big remaining question is whether these aspects of Christianity really set it apart from Judaism, let alone other religions.

 

Good Friday 2021

The cross is upside-down

Sermon for Good Friday, based on the passion story of St John

I probably watch more horror movies than most Lutheran pastors – not so much the gory as the spooky ones.  Rosemary’s Baby: maybe that’s the first horror movie with an upside-down cross as a prop?  Many folks have seen it: about people who seem like respectable Manhattan apartment dwellers – but really they’re Satanists.  They force the main character, played by Mia Farrow,  to bear Satan’s child.  When he’s born, three Satanist wise-men visit, like an inversion of the Epiphany story, and one of the gifts they bring is an upside down cross (intended as a sort of anti-Christian work of art, I guess to hang on the black wallpaper in your nursery.)

Believe me: since then it’s been in lots of horror movies – an evil spirit enters the house and Grandma’s nice gilt cross swings upside down on the wall.  The forces of badness spoil the nice, good, clean values of Christian living.  It’s taken up by Heavy Metal bands as a symbol: one such band is actually called “Deicide.”  Hmmm.  The upside down cross is an earring worn with black eye-shadow and studded leather, all Goth, to raise your parents’ blood pressure.  It’s Rock’n’roll, rebellion and I’ll do as I please; shadows and sin, dark alleys: an obscene gesture against the suburbs.

But here’s the thing: the upside-down cross is kind of a good symbol for – well, the cross!

As we heard in a recent children’s sermon, when you look at the cross we use in processions, a Greek cross,  in all four directions it’s of equal length, like a plus sign.  Turn such a cross upside down you get –  – the same cross.  And no matter its particular design, the cross of Christ is already, always upside down!!   A symbol of rebellion, criminals, deals made with the devil in dark alleys, pierced flesh, defilement, and badness.  For St. John, the poisonous snake you look at to live.  St Paul’s words are: “scandal.  Foolishness. Curse.”

And yet used by God, made to show God’s glory.

The cross shows God’s glory.  When in John 12 Jesus faces up to his coming trial and crucifixion – we hear that it’s about “glorifying” – you could say “hallowing” – the Name of God, and glorifying the Son of God.  Glory: in Greek, “Doxa” – can mean visible splendor, honor, reputation. We want to know not just that there IS a God – but why this God would be worth our attention.  Why get involved with God?   What is it about this Christ, that we should trust him?  What glory does God have, that we would give him our hearts and minds and time?

When we think about Christ’s “moments of glory” we may think of the times he healed people – or his wise teachings – his resurrection.  Wasn’t the cross just this dark valley he had to go through to bring about the brighter moments?  Well, in John’s Gospel – being lifted up on the cross IS Jesus’ moment of glory. When he dies he says “it is finished” – as if he’s put the last bit of paint on his masterpiece, to show us the visible splendor of majesty.

But how could this be?  Crucifixion was the ultimate anti-glory sort of torture and execution.  It was a public display meant to show not people’s splendor but their ugliness.  It was about degrading people, shaming, dishonoring them. A crown of thorns – a body exposed to the elements, nude – a sarcastic inscription: “King of the Jews.” A punishment fit for slaves and insurrectionists, to show you’re a nothing and nobody.  It was a kind of satanic symbol: this is what the Devil, the powers, the Ruler of this World, likes: to humiliate and destroy people.

And yet, God’s glory: because God – in love – wouldn’t let even this stand between us.  Jesus had come for everyone on the scene: for those on the margins of society, the criminals on crosses hung on either side.  Christ also came for the cruel soldiers who whipped him, for the mob hoarse with shouting, Christ came for the privileged, for Pilate at his safe distance, for the high priest, Peter and Judas and the most cowardly disciples.  He came for all those who are completely lost, in Satan’s grip, without any hope whatsoever.  Satan can try his worst, turn the sacred symbol upside down, but there’s nothing he could do to break God’s love for us.

You could say the cross was always upside down.  We think of it as a religious symbol – but it’s really a symbol of religion defiled.  I don’t know how accurate John’s portrayal of the priests is here – it seems pretty bitter – but as the story is told: they want Jesus executed, but can’t do it themselves, it will defile them before celebration of the Passover. And in Israelite law – Deuteronomy – it says no corpse was to be left on a tree overnight, or it would defile the whole land.  So the priests want it removed quickly.   Jesus’ body was this pierced horror to be rid of, if we were to bring back peace and sanctity.  And yet, as Jesus was always saying, “the Father and I are One.”  In his very flesh and blood the Holy One was present for our healing and hope.

I imagine most of us have felt we’re really outside of religion in some way.  We may not be the type of people who listen to the band Deicide and sport satanic tattoos – I mean, here we are at the Good Friday service (curious that during this very service on zoom, we were zoom bombed with offensive language and images, thus the need to post my sermon as a blog entry!).  But some of us do feel we “defile” religion in some way: even just in our doubts – we don’t know what we believe – “I’m not really as Christian as people think I am.”  Well – the glory of God for you is the cross.  God doesn’t wait for you to step forward and meet him halfway – but goes to where you are, to give and forgive everything – not to put on the pressure or guilt, but just to set you free.

Maybe our struggles aren’t so much against faith as against religion itself.  Too often it seems at odds with Jesus’ teaching.  All status quo.  Too often concern for those at the margins is all talk and intention, not action.  Too often, church is not really a place for criminals, soldiers, governors, priests, betrayers and deniers – but only those who seem to measure up or fit right someway.  Again, the glory of God for you is the cross.  Christ disrupts our status quo, and leads us by way of the cross into the dark and oppressive and at times beautiful world God so loved that he gave his only Son, that anyone who trusts him may not be destroyed but find life eternal.

One more thing about the upside down cross: as you may know, way before Rosemary’s Baby it originated as a Christian symbol.  Very early on there arose this tradition that when St. Peter was crucified by the Emperor Nero, he asked to be hung upside down by choice.  It was supposed to be about humility: he didn’t want to presume to suffer the same death as Jesus.  It’s not in the New Testament.  I’m not sure how I feel about it.  Yes – Peter, Jesus’ disciple, failed Jesus – denied knowing him, three times.  But God’s love for him on the cross is given without regard for our deserving.  What kind of humility is called for here?  Is it only saying “I’m not worthy?”  Or also, “by Grace, I am?  What you give, God, is fully for me, too.”

I am drawn to the image.  We can’t turn the cross upside down: whichever way you turn it, it’s already a scandalous – subversive symbol.  But what God did that day is about turning us upside down.  As Mary the mother of Jesus prayed: “you have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” He came in love for you, such as you are – in your doubts and struggles, your hopes and failures, to redeem and to heal you and make your life new.  Thanks be to God.