Sermon for September 30, 2012

These lessons have a hard edge to them. To us they can come across as difficult or even jarring. They are not very nice. In Mark 9 we have one of the few references in the New Testament to hell and we have all that cutting off of limbs that cause us to sin. In James there is one line about singing when we are joyful, but the rest of the lesson is about suffering, illness, and the need to confess and be forgiven. The story from Numbers is about the continued grumbling of the people in the wilderness, God’s anger, and the leader Moses throwing up his hands in despair. These lessons have a hard edge to them.

But despite their sharpness, their difficulties, their edginess and demanding nature, the lessons are helpful for us as we make our way through the wilderness of this world, building our Christian faith along the way.

For there are those times in life when we do hit hard edges, when things are not so nice, when grumbling seems to be the main theme of all those around us, when we face suffering, when our lives seem more ill than whole, when forgiveness for wrongs done seems desperately needed.  When faced with the more difficult edges of life these lessons provide some practical advice worth listening to.

First, notice how in the later verses in Numbers, after Moses throws his hands up in despair; the result is the realization that the people need to get organized. Up until this chapter, it all depended on Moses, but here in these verses, we see the beginnings of a society organizing itself to address the rough edges of life.

When we face a challenge or one of life’s sharper edges we may be wise to get organized as well, assembling our resources and matching those resources to the challenges at hand. And notice how in even this earliest organized community in Numbers there is not unanimity in the organization. There is dissension, but that does not stop the overall plan from working.

Second, in James, the second lesson, when we need healing and forgiveness, the writer refers to prayer as an important source of healing. Prayer changes things in James. It’s almost like sandpaper on those rough edges. In our own time we may not think that prayer can bring miracles. And yet I know of some of those cases in my own experience.

Even in our own cynical times, we know that prayer and meditation and all such spiritual practices have a positive effect on the body and the mind, change our body chemistry, and contribute to our overall well being.

We also know that our attitude affects our health. When we have a positive attitude about our state, our illness and health, and our ability to overcome this; we will heal more quickly than if our attitude is negative.

We also know from contemporary studies in sociology that people in hospitals who are prayed for generally do better and recover more quickly and fully. That is why, as James suggests, we try to visit and prayer for people who are ill. Whether this improvement has to do with spiritual things or social resources is hard to
tell. But that hardly matters.

Numbers reminds us when we face the hardness of life, we need to get organized, get our lives together. And James reminds us that prayer changes things, smoothing those edges.

Mark suggests that there are those times when life comes at us with its hard edge and we need to let go of something. Even if it a very difficult thing to do, we may to set a boundary, say no, or just let go of this thing that is plaguing us. In our lives we want to hold onto so much. Sometimes we just need to let go, cut away that which is too difficult to handle, and live as we can in the present.

There is something else in the Mark passage that is important for us. The first paragraph indicates Mark is written not at the time of Jesus but at a somewhat later time when there were various Jesus groups and movements. It appears in verses 38-41 that these groups sometimes competed with each other in the urban ministries developing in the Roman Empire at the time this was written.

Despite all the harshness and cutting language of this passage, there is an understanding that other groups following Jesus are good, even if they differ from us.  Whoever is not against us is for us, he says. We can cut away and cut off. We can stand for our own right. But we still can recognize that others who different from us can claim the name of Jesus and do God’s work. And when we work together we can do so much good.

These lessons are for the harder times of life. And at first they themselves appear sharp and edgy. Yet they remind us that in hard times we need to pull things together. In hard times we are called to prayer. And in hard times we may need to just let something go, even as we respect those differing from us.

May we, in our struggles, pull it together, pray and visit one another, and be willing to let something go when needed. Amen




Initial Draft Response of St. Johns to ELCA Social Statement on Criminal Justice

I.  Introduction

In reviewing the statement, the congregation at St. John’s met in the spring of 2012 to conduct an initial review. Over the summer months, members of the congregation studied the statement, and two additional congregational meetings were held in September of 2012 to consider the statement further as well as to draft these remarks.

Throughout October of 2012, members of the congregation reviewed and edited this draft of the remarks by trading e-mail messages with each other. A final version of these remarks was reviewed and approved at the October 2012 council meeting for the congregation.

II.  Scope and principles

The statement begins with a theological discussion of justice, forgiveness, and civic life. It strikes an appropriate balance between faith-based concerns for a living gospel and sectarian reform efforts.

As explained:The United States understands its justice system in light of the nation’s constitutional mandate to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare.” This church believes that there is significant evidence that the institutions of justice in the United States are in urgent need of reform.

* * *

Not possessing special insight into matters of reason, this church does not presume to instruct the public authority how, concretely, the justice system should be shaped. This church does, however, urge the development, implementation and assessment of criminal justice procedures and criminal law on the basis of human reason and principled, evidence-based practices, and laments the absence of such critical reason in many areas of the system.

(Statement, p.9, ll.220-8, and p.10, ll.251-6).

The statement then sets forth some of the basic criminal justice problems in: law enforcement; the judiciary; corrections and reintegration; the racial patterns and discrimination in the criminal justice system; and assistance to victims of crime. The statement also acknowledges that housing and immigration issues have increasingly been decided in the context of criminal justice matters in ways that frustrate concerns for assisting victims of crime and getting offenders reintegrated into their communities.

The statement continues its theological discussion with specific references to basic Christian principles and texts and shows how a forgiving God encourages forgiveness and compassion for both offender and victim. The Christian response, as stated,

is directed toward those in need who have been harmed by injustice, including victims of crime, those whose family members have been incarcerated, and many others. The gospel empowers those it touches freely to reach out in wise, creative, justice-seeking love to those in need.

(Statement, p.22, ll.609-12). In other words, these sections concisely and credibly set forth the issues that must be addressed in any faith-based examination of the criminal justice system.

III.  Application and proposals

The statement begins its discussion of how to respond to criminal justice concerns by recalling for all of us the importance of loving responses to others and how that priority should guide us in criminal justice matters.  “When the victim of crime is helped to speak about her experience, when the inmate is visited simply for the sake of developing a friendship, and when a family is supported in their struggle, the righteousness of the gospel is present” (Statement, p.30, ll.871-3).

This message serves as an important reminder to all of us, and it is to be applauded.

The statement then moves to some of the obvious outcomes of this position.  For example, care should be taken to not victimize the families of offenders. Furthermore, the negative correlation between incarceration and community ties shows that lengthy incarceration accomplishes little in actually reducing crime.  And, the statement makes important contributions to the discussion of criminal justice concerns by including those charged with implementing these policies, namely police, parole, and correction officers, court staff, and the social workers and others.  As noted in the statement, any reforms by themselves will have limited impact if not accompanied by efforts to reach out and support these individuals who are charged with carrying out criminal justice decisions in their daily work.

At times, however, the details are so packed together that it is difficult to ascertain what is actually being said.  For example:

Citizens and taxpayers also cry out. U.S. drug policy has led to massive increases in the budgets of law enforcement agencies and prisons to house those convicted of crimes. An increasingly litigious society has sent legal costs skyrocketing and diminished the system’s efficiency.

Unequal access to legal representation contributes to a sense of “justice for sale” to those with the means to pay for the fullest imaginable legal defense. Further, some criminal justice procedures seek to promote fairness, but in doing so often overlook relationships involved, erase individuals, and silence their cries to be recognized as unique individuals.

(Statement, p.30, ll.856-63).  Each sentence here is itself a subject of countless articles in law reviews and the criminal justice literature and are simply too general to know what is actually intended.  For example, what does a “litigious society” mean in criminal justice matters?  Is this reference intended to criticize prosecutors who overcharge crimes so as to have increased leverage in plea-bargaining?

Or, is the reference an indictment of overzealous defense attorneys who let the guilty walk free?  Or, is the statement here contending that the rush to sue in civil matters has flooded court dockets and led to criminal matters not being prosecuted?1  The last sentence, in particular, cries out for specific examples of what is meant by how a criminal justice system intended to promote fairness does not actually accomplish such a goal.  Based on prior observations in the statement, guesses can be made here about the intended meaning.  But, in a subject as important as a faith-based response to criminal justice issues, readers should understand exactly what is being said in all parts of the statement.

The description of the kinds of hospitality that can be undertaken is excellent. There are valuable reminders here about providing healing opportunities, giving offenders access to job training and placement, advancing social and economic support to the families of offenders, mentoring those employed within the criminal justice system, and showing a willingness to discuss the difficult issues of crime within our communities. But, there needs additional detail about what kind of specific support the church can provide those who work in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the invitation to welcome offenders seems hypocritical when that welcome is limited for those guilty of financial crimes and sex offenses (see Statement, p.32, ll.908-11, and elsewhere).

The blanket cautions expressed here imply that certain crimes do indeed mandate second-class status. Surely, the point is not to allow the church to disregard entire classes of individuals who commit certain crimes but simply to acknowledge that any response should be careful not to enable or create the kind of environment that might tempt offenders to commit crimes again. As the statement itself acknowledges, many “features of the present [criminal justice] system seem simply irrational” (Statement, p.34, ll.981-2), and so the statement should be careful itself not to create categorical answers that are blind to the actual circumstances that people find themselves in. Both offenders and victims often find themselves involved in deeply emotional and conflicting positions when trying to assess how to move on in their lives. As a result, the kinds of support that can be offered and which will be accepted can vary from person to person and as events and feelings in these individuals’ lives shift over time.

The statement also needs to acknowledge that at times the process of how reforms are carried out is just as important as the reforms themselves. Victims rights — an important criminal justice development over the past few decades — is incomplete when the processes to safeguard those rights are absent or incomplete. For example, a victim’s right to be heard before a district attorney in regards to sentencing recommendations is hollow if the district attorney disregards those concerns and leaves the victim isolated.

Finally, the statement needs to acknowledge that many of the reforms being discussed intersect with questions of federalism. State-based initiatives, for instance, cannot change federal housing laws that prohibit those with criminal records or their family members from living in public-housing programs (cf. Statement, p.53).

A.  Finances of reform

The financial cost of reform is an important concern that undergirds the various efforts to changing current criminal justice practices that is hardly touched on at all in the statement. There is a large push in the current political climate against governmental expenditures of all kinds and a cry to make government smaller. Many of the reforms and concerns at the heart of the statement call for and require greater government involvement and expenditures. The addition of social workers, prison chaplains, and counselors will cost monies that are in short supply in the economic climate of today. Even when the reforms will save money by reducing reliance on our jails and prisons, there is still a great deal of concern over who will pay for these alternative programs.

As a result, in many states electronic monitoring, work-release centers, and diversion programs, are only available when the offender covers the costs of these efforts him or herself. The transitional support called for in the statement, while vital for getting offenders reintegrated into their communities, provides no examination of how these programs will be financed. A call that criminal justice expenditures be “driven by reliable research” (Statement, p.55, ll.1530-1), is insufficient to indicate how monies should actually be spent, especially since there is a great deal of debate over what research is actually reliable or not.

The discussions over rehabilitation, incarceration alternatives,re-entry programming, and restorative justice also need additional information about how these efforts will be financed.

The discussion of prison privatization, on the other hand, demonstrates convincingly how short-term efforts for saving money run against any sense of justice that seeks something more than punishment.  This section shows how privatization efforts are wholly inadequate for actually accomplishing hoped-for savings and provides excellent instruction about the pitfalls of this alleged “financial” reform.

B.  Sentencing reform

The statement puts forward common-sense reforms regarding alternatives to incarceration and the reduction and modification of mandatory sentences. These reforms are linchpins for addressing concerns for racial disparities and for redirecting valuable resources in the prosecution of drug-related crimes.2

The statement’s excellent discussion of juvenile sentencing and the concern about juveniles being treated as adults provides an important caution about current trends in juvenile criminal matters. But, the statement also needs to acknowledge that there are different levels of juvenile offenders and that some juvenile offenders need protection from other juveniles. As a result, some transfers of juveniles to adult correctional facilities are done for the purpose of protecting other juveniles. This legitimate reason needs to be acknowledged.

Sermon for September 23, 2012

Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37

Churches can get embroiled in conflicts of all sorts. I recall a congregation from my past in which there was an argument about what color to paint the walls of the parish hall. Some wanted it painted off-white. Others wanted it to be beige. The conflict involved most of the people in the congregation.

There were hurt feelings as the off-white people and the beige people began to exchange remarks about the character and faith of the other side. It seemed that the off-white people were considered sticks in the mud. It seemed that the beige people did not understand how important it was to honor the tradition of the church. Some of the families had rather heated debates as brothers and sisters could not agree on this issue. Several thanksgiving dinners ended in a huff over this matter. As the discussion swirled and the feelings festered, it appeared that it would not be possible to ever resolve this disagreement. Some of the groups in the church decided that it was best if they never talked about this issue again. But that only worked for awhile. The pastor stayed decidedly neutral on the matter, and made the mistake of suggesting that this was actually trivial. Eventually the congregation decided that such a pastoral judgment was clearly not informed. Both sides asked the pastor to leave.

The new pastor was more skilled at conflict resolution. Recognizing the gravity of the color selection process, she worked for a new solution, a third possibility. After a couple of years of heavy consensus building, and endless committee meetings, the congregation decided to paint the walls a color called Swiss almond. So they painted the walls. The congregational eventually liked the color so much that it became the color for the hallways, entrance and offices.

And everyone was happy, at least until the walls needed to be repainted two decades later. I was there for a funeral awhile ago. At the table for the luncheon in the fellowship hall, someone noted that it had been now thirty years since the hall had been redecorated. Very, very carefully a couple of the people at the table wondered out loud if it was time to paint the walls again. Oh, my.

Churches can get embroiled in conflicts of all sorts: things like paint, ways to serve communion, decorating, bulletins, outreach ministries, parking lots, whole or skim milk, wedding plans, behavior in and out of church, liturgies, purging the church rolls, whether people can have sex or not, hymn selection, gluten, use of the building by outside groups, the budget, cookies, flowers, hymnals, Christmas eve schedules, alcohol at wedding receptions, pastors’ personalities, Easter lilies, bake sales, and keys to the various rooms.

Oh my, in the church we can argue about so many things. And what is true for congregations is true for our families, too. We can get embroiled in our conflicts regarding schedules, finances, priorities, openness, celebrations, caring for parents and children, and feelings of all sorts as we try to assemble life together at home and in our extended families.

And what is true in the church and our homes is also true in our public life. We are a publically contentious people. This is so true, that it becomes trite. We fight and argue and struggle with each other in some many ways and in so many arenas.

In these lessons from Jeremiah, James, and Mark, we sense the wisdom we need to come to terms with all this struggling that we do, with the contentiousness in our own heart and the hearts of our neighbors. And it would be good to take some of this to heart as we face our frictions.

First, even a petty contention usually involves something deeper. Our fighting is actually an opportunity to learn what is valued. Often we struggle because we are afraid of losing something or because we hold a passion for something. Our fears and passions can be difficult stuff, hard to surface, so they leak out in disputes. That is the psychological insight of the second paragraph of the James lesson today. When we find ourselves so embroiled, it is time to look for the deeper stuff, the harder stuff, the stuff we don’t want to face but need to. When we know more about our passions, values, hopes, and fears, we come closer to being able to communicate those in love instead of insisting on our own way.

Second, in these struggles, we can be too sure of our own right. Sometimes we need to honestly and humbly listen to the voice of our neighbor. In the story from Mark, we discover that church disputes are as old as the disciples and they usually involve our egos and questions about who is most important. James calls for a gentleness of spirit and a willingness to yield. Jeremiah discovers that he must entrust his anger at his detractors to God.

It is hard to listen to, love, and accept the one who disagrees with us. After all, we know we are right! And to back down is to give in! But for me, the first step in the recovery of gentleness and humility of spirit is to pray for my adversary and my enemy, asking God to bless this person abundantly and to love this person deeply. These prayers change things at least in my own heart. Prayers asking God to change the other person’s mind usually get answered in awkward ways.

Finally, there is this sense of entrusting it to God for resolution, letting God make things happen. In his struggle, Jeremiah entrusts his angry feelings to God. It’s all right to let go of our anger. It’s all right if things don’t go our way. It’s not our way that matters. What matters is the way of all creation back to God. Unless we become like children in our simple trust that God will take care of this, our worries will blossom into fears and our delights become consuming passions that will cause us to rage within ourselves and against one another.

Should we paint it beige or off-white? The conflict raged. They began to sense that they were talking about the deeper issue of what kind of church they wanted to be as traditions were challenged by the changes of society.  But both sides began to sense that something fresh was needed that blended new with the old. As they faced the matters in their hearts, their hopes and fears, they discovered they liked this new thing called Swiss almond. Giving up on their previous positions, like confident children, they gently moved to a new color for their faith, and found themselves liking each other a whole lot more, as God painted their lives with a new coat of grace.


Announcements for September 16, 2012

—–Coffee Fellowship follows worship this morning. SLP begins as well as confirmation and a high school group is organizing in the conference room of the office following coffee.

—–The Wolobah’s from Liberia could use some help practice driving. David now has his learner permit and can take the test in October but needs some practice time behind the wheel of a car. If you can help with that, see him or me. Driving would allow them to take jobs away from the bus routes.

—–The Congregational Council meets on September 18, 7:00pm.

—–Thursday Morning Bible Study begins on September 20: We’ll begin at 9:30 am in the gathering space, and continue our look at the letters of Paul in the order in which they were probably written. This fall we will be working in Corinthians.

—–Adult Forum begins on September 23: We’ll begin with two sessions on the ELCA draft social statement on criminal justice before we begin the October series by the Outreach team on anti-bullying.

—–Please join our team, “Walk to Remember” for the Alzheimer’s Walk on Saturday, September 29 at Warner Park.  Sign up at the Welcome Center and pick up a brochure.  Call Marcia Williamson to find out who else is on the team.

—–Notice of a Congregational Meeting Called for the Purpose of Considering a Refinance of the Construction Loan, October 7, at 10:45am in the Gathering Space at St. John’s Lutheran Church: The purpose of the meeting is to refinance our current commercial construction loan. Please attend both worship at 9:30am and this meeting on October 7.

—–Help us send bath soap to Lutheran World Relief. We will be collecting bars of soap to send to LWR. Any brand in its original wrapper will be accepted.  Please drop off your donation at church by October 7th.

—–Boxcars for Lutheran World Relief quilts, bath soap School Kits and Baby Care Kits will be loaded on Saturday, October 13, starting at St. John’s at 9:00 a.m. We need volunteers with larger vehicles to haul boxes to the train cars.

—–Time for us to begin thinking about a fall retreat for confirmation, families and youth. Last November we went to Bethel Horizons for a wonderful weekend. Should we do something like that again? If so, we should begin our conversation now.

Sermon for September 16, 2012

Isaiah 50:4-9a, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38 

It is fall in Wisconsin, and school has begun. Some of us in this room go to grade school; others middle school or high school. Some of us are involved in the university. Some of us are starting preschool. Some of us have connections with Madison Area Technical College. Some of us are teachers. And we all live in a community that is highly engaged in teaching and learning on all levels and in many different ways. It is fall in Wisconsin, and school has begun.
Perhaps we are thinking about learning and teaching these days because of the teacher’s strike in Chicago. That strike this week has brought to the surface many of the issues which face students, families, teachers, and communities these days. It lifts to the surface the importance of teaching for the well being of the community, the social contract that undergirds all schools, the challenges school systems face in a time of shrinking resources, the importance of community support for both students and teachers, and the personal commitment that is so important to excellence in teaching.  These are challenging times for teachers and all public servants.
Perhaps we are thinking about learning and teaching because we are beginning another year of learning ministry at St. Johns today. Like so many congregations, we are starting up Sunday Learning Place and confirmation. A small group is meeting later this morning about high school activities this fall. We are installing our Sunday Learning Place leadership this morning. Caden, Kelsey, and Annika are receiving their third grade Bibles today. Next week we begin adult forum. And this coming Thursday, at 9:30 we resume our Thursday morning Bible study. We think of ourselves as a congregation dedicated to serving those in need, and we are. But this is also a place where we engage in faith formation and the nurture of our wisdom at all stages of life. Growth in faith is a lifelong thing for many of us.
Perhaps we are thinking about learning and teaching this morning because we are sensing a new chapter in learning ministry in the Lutheran Church. Frankly, the hay day of Sunday School in most Lutheran churches has been over for some time. Traditional programs for Christian Education are on the wane. Confirmation ministry nationally has been in decline as well.
But recently there has been a fresh wind in learning ministry. There is a shift away from the details of dogma to be taught to a desire to engage people in activities and reflection that will cause faith to deepen and quicken. There is a shift away from imparting content in a prearranged curriculum to helping each person shape and reshape their vision of God as we attempt to share God’s love in the world. There is a shift away from teaching stuff to helping the person whatever his or her age form a faith that will make a difference in the world.
We’ve moved from Christian education to faith formation in the Lutheran church, and that fresh wind causes us to think about teaching and learning. Today’s teachers, including our own, use a variety of contexts, resources, research tools, search engines and approaches to coax and coach people into new visions needed for enhancing human life. Some of these teaching tools are as new as an i-pad. Some are as ancient as Socrates shaping a conversation between two people.
Or perhaps we are thinking about teaching and learning because it is one of the central themes in all three lessons today. And each of the lessons from the Bible say something important about teaching and learning the lessons of life. We began with Isaiah, the ancient prophet of God who sees himself as a teacher or instructor: the Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher. Isaiah sees teaching as a divine responsibility given to the person. Teaching is a divine calling.
What is the purpose of teaching for Isaiah? He sees the role of the teacher as this: to sustain the weary with a word. Teachers, mentors, coaches, and advocates help us along the way with words of insight, challenge and encouragement. Every learning process has its times of discouragement when teachers help us make it through. That is what teachers do.
How is this teaching accomplished? For Isaiah the most important thing about teaching is not the talking, not the lecture, but the listening, listening to God and to others: morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear. At the heart of all teaching is this ability to listen in a deeper way to all of the voices around us.
And for Isaiah, teaching is not a particularly pleasant activity. There is criticism, insult, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and contention in this field. And Isaiah sees the teacher not as one who strikes back, but who has the intestinal fortitude to stand for the right. One of my favorite lines of Kipling is: if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, and make allowances for their doubting too.
     But to be a teacher can be a challenge. At least James thinks so in the second lesson. It’s so much of a challenge that he says: not many of you should become teachers.  Why? Well, for James in the second lesson, teaching is not only about listening to God and others; it is also about the challenge of knowing what to say. It is very hard, especially these days, to know what to say about the complexities around us. Mistakes and misstatements can be made all too easily, and those mistakes in what we say can lead people down the wrong path, create the wrong impression, cut off a growing idea, end an argument too soon, sustain an untruth, or stifle a fragile ambition.  We live especially in a most sensitive time. It is often difficult to know what to say, and yet teachers are those who must say something.
In Mark today, Jesus takes on the role of the teacher. In verse 30 we read: then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering. In Mark we see the different settings of teaching ministry. Sometimes it is a small group, as in verse 30. Sometimes it is larger groups as in verse 34 when he teaches a crowd. Sometimes it is the personal conversation, as with Peter in verse 32.  Sometimes teaching involves challenges to the learner; sometimes it takes the shape of an address, sometimes it feels like a small group discussion.
But the material in Mark shows something else about teaching ministry. It has a point. Inevitably the best teachers among us point to something important about life. The point Jesus teaches today is about suffering. Jesus, the Son of Man, God suffers just as we do. The center of Jesus’ teaching is this problem of suffering. Now we usually like to avoid suffering. There is nothing wrong with that. But when we do suffer, we have this teaching of Jesus: that God also suffers with us, that the suffering draws us near to the deep purpose of God, that through suffering we become wise, that in suffering we know the suffering of others as compassion grows, that the suffering will end, and that in that end we will be united with God.
This week, at work, at home, in school, in hospitals, in corridors, in private conversations, and in public discourse, we will experience not only teaching but also suffering: our own and the suffering of others. God does not make that suffering go away. But God does transform that suffering into a pathway to hope. And that is the lesson we want to learn as we form our faith around the cross of Christ. For it is fall in Wisconsin, and school has begun.