"PICTURE THIS!" from Bishop Kusserow -
April 27, 2017
This bird was built to fish in shallow water. Is that a fair description of what every feature of the Great Blue Heron is obviously made to do?
From the stilt legs and patient gait, to the harpoon beak and spring-loaded neck, this bird is built to fish – and specifically in still water a couple of feet deep.
What is the single purpose for which you were built? I use the word “built” because it has a note of intention to it, rather than haphazard coincidence. And the word, “purpose,” too, is by design. It’s not just a matter of what you can do, but what you were made to do; not just who you happen to have turned out to be, but who you were meant to be.
Do you have answers for questions like these? Purpose questions are worth spending time pondering, I believe. For the more we know our purpose, the more every part of our life falls into place. When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he declared his purpose fulfilled (Luke 2:29). When Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, her purpose was clear enough to Jesus that he pointed it out to Martha (Luke 10:42). When Jesus finally did answer Pontius Pilate, it was with his own statement of purpose (John 18:37).
What say you? What’s the single purpose for which you are perfectly built?
April 13, 2017
Tomorrow we tip into the Three Holy Days, the Triduum. In the holy observance of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil we celebrate with solemn joy that which is most central to our shared faith: God’s self-giving love for our salvation. Nothing binds us closer to each other than our life together in Christian community that is created by this Gospel Word.
Today the called synod staff gathered to keep you in prayer. By name. Every congregation and ministry site of our synod; every pastor, every deacon. Those under call, and those retired. Those on-leave and those with a continuing disability. We remembered our synod support staff, our widows, and our ecumenical partners. We rejoiced with you in prayer for the joy you find in the Gospel, and we grieved with you in prayer for the heavy burdens you carry.
We began our day of prayer with Conferences One and Two, inside the fellowship hall of St. Paul, North Park. As the morning warmed, we found ourselves on the front steps of the church praying through Conference Three. We spent the afternoon in North Park itself, just a stone’s throw from the boat house, where we prayed through Conferences Four, Five and Six. Ending our discipline of prayer for you with the last several yellow pages of our Bulletin of Reports, we found that we had modeled an appropriate pattern of Christian life: moving from the church building, out the front doors, and into the public square.
The events we celebrate in the Triduum began in an upper room, but quickly moved outside and into the general view. May our faith ever move us in this direction: inside-out for the sake of the world God loves so much.
March 31, 2017
In joyful commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Pastor Scott Bryte has finished an oil painting of Dr. Martin Luther in his study in the Wartburg. The painting is on permanent loan at the synod office. It hangs on the wall that you see when you come in the front door, in that space we fondly call “Carol’s living room.” Come and see it.
And while you’re here, come in a little farther, take a right, and stroll down towards my office. There is a framed collection of Luther stamps on your left that is really quite remarkable. Around behind Sandy’s work station to your right is a picture of a young Luther – not as familiar as the Cranach depiction of Luther that has become something of the standard image of the great Reformer.
Pastor Bryte’s portrait of Luther presents another unique view – Luther as the Augustinian monk who found such joy in the discovery that the righteous shall live by faith.
Come by the synod office and see these fine works of art. And if you are inclined to lend us a Luther portrait you could part with for this anniversary year, we’ll put together a timely collection under the title, “Luther is in the house!”
February 27, 2017
Rejoice! You who keep the discipline of praying weekly for our companion synod’s president by name will be glad to know that he goes by “Modeste,” and not by his family name, RAZAFIMAHATRATRA!
Our small delegation has returned home from a challenging visit. I will share more as time allows, but for now, please do keep the Tulear Synod of the Malagasy Lutheran Church in your prayers, and their new Synod President Modeste (the accent is on the second syllable, so it rhymes with “request”). The synod is very poor, and seeks genuine self-reliance – a challenge made all the greater because of a long history of transactional charity from European and American partners.
Our synod faces similar challenges of sustainable ministry, even though by comparison to Madagascar, we are very wealthy. Faithful stewardship may well be the way forward for us, and for our national and international partners, as we seek together in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation to proclaim the Gospel and care for our neighbors.
February 16, 2017
We are in Madagascar visiting our companion synod. Although our companion synod is in Tulear, Pastor Heather Lubold, Pastor Brandon Johns, and I have begun our visit in the capital, Antananarivo. We are joined by small visiting groups from three other ELCA synods, who together with us are attending to the wider relationship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with the Malagasy Lutheran Church as part of our observations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Today we toured the Women’s Center. When we were introduced to the current and past General Secretaries of the Women’s Association (like the national expression of the Women of the ELCA), and the current and future directors of the Women’s Center (not unlike a social ministry agency of our synod), it struck me that these four Malagasy Women reflect the face of the Lutheran reformation movement as it exists globally, 500 years after Wittenberg.
We may feel like we have more in common with people named Luther and Melanchthon than with people named Mananeto Toromare, Rabaonirene Esther, Ralivero Helene and Myriam, but to hear these women articulate the faith and mission of the church that is so familiar to us, we could well be mistaken. They confessed that the Word of God drives all their work, and that it has two wings, like a bird: preaching the Gospel and attending to human need. We say we are about stewarding the Gospel and caring for our neighbors. Our shared faith clearly speaks the same language.
The 500 year-old revival that began in Germany finds full expression these days in the global south. This anniversary year calls us to widen our imaginations, and to spread our wings with everyone formed by the Word of God, that the Gospel may preached with authority, and that people of every place may be made whole.
January 31, 2107
“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
Who might say something like this? And why?
I found this sign stuck into the front yard of the campus of Philadelphia Seminary on Monday. Close readers of the Post Gazette may also have seen this sign on the front page of Monday’s paper, where it showed up among the crowd that gathered at the baggage claim of Pittsburgh International Airport. In both of these settings, it seems likely that people who enjoy positions of power and privilege have chosen to say this so that people who don’t may hear a word of welcome.
For a completely different angle on this same phrase of welcome, consider Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). In this story, these words seem to fit particularly well in the mouth of “the man who fell into the hands of robbers.” Left for dead by the side of the road, he was glad for a neighbor, no matter where that neighbor might have come from (even Samaria!).
The Gospel that we preach calls us always to see ourselves as the ones in need of God’s grace and mercy. Can we speak words of welcome to all our neighbors as equally from a position of need as from a position of power?
January 12, 2017
You can’t see all the words on this worship bulletin clearly enough in this picture, so I’ll write them out for you:
at the Close of the Last Meeting
of the Board of Directors
of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
It was Tuesday of this week. On Wednesday, the Board of Directors of United Lutheran Seminary held its first meeting. Rev. Mark Oldenburg, dean of chapel and a member of our ministerium, reminded us that for ages, Christians have sung Evening Prayer at the close of the day. And also that the Hebrew Scriptures understand evening as the start of the new day.
And so it was, like so many significant moments in our lives turn out to be, that Tuesday evening was both a solemn farewell to what lies behind us and an expectant welcome of what lies ahead.
Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening!
January 3, 2017
Deacons exercise a threshold vocation: one foot planted firmly in the Church, one foot stepping out into the world.
On Sunday, January 1, five of our synod’s sixteen deacons gathered together with me for worship at Bethlehem, Glenshaw, to mark the day on which our church brought Associates in Ministry, Diaconal Ministers and Deaconesses into one Word and Service Roster with the title of Deacon.
I believe the future into which our church is moving will be blessed by the active ministry of deacons, serving alongside ministers of Word and Sacrament, keeping our congregations connected to their communities. In a Post-Christendom world, the Church will look more and more like it did in its earliest years: people of Word and Sacrament and Service serving as salt and light in the places they live.
See you there!
December 1, 2016
Over the last two or three weeks I have been asked by a number of people if I will provide a public word about the election. I have been reluctant to do so, thinking that the public proclamation of the Church is at its best when it points to Christ rather than when it provides opinions about matters of the kingdom on the left.
But the texts of Advent II, on which I preached at today’s Ministerial Eucharist, so lent themselves to such a word as some in our ministerium had waited to hear, that at their request I have decided to post the sermon and quote it ever so briefly here:
“Paul, leaning on the Septuagint and interpreting ever so slightly declares: The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope. (Romans 15:12) ... The stump of Jesse, a hope lying between root and branch, has endured through the rise and fall of [many] earthly kingdoms ... that have come and gone. ...
How might we prepare the way of the Lord? ... [Perhaps] by refusing to give any earthly kingdom the ultimacy that it desires. No earthly kingdom can save the world, or separate the world from the saving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, for that matter. Preparing the way ... might well be a refusal to be either enthralled or deflated by any earthly kingdom!” The whole sermon may be found below (or you may wish to download the document).
Perhaps as important a public witness to Christ is the gracious hospitality that our ministerium received from the Sisters of Divine Providence, making the chapel of the Kearns Spirituality Center available for our use. My hope would be to add our voices to all those in the Body of Christ who cry every Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Ministerial Eucharist with Region 7 and 8 DEMs – December 1, 2016 (Sermon)
The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus be with you all.
Listen to this. Listen to this! This is what the coming administration will be like:
Defending the cause of the poor,
giving deliverance from oppression. (Ps 72:4)
Judging with righteousness and equity. (Isaiah 11:4)
Bringing back the abundant prosperity of the earth. (Ps 72:3)
Delighting in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:3)
Ending all hurt and destruction. (Isaiah 11:9)
Bringing world peace through diplomacy. (Isaiah 11:6-8, 10)
The Isaiah text is all about this coming administration. The Psalm is all about this coming administration. Even the Epistle is about this. Paul, leaning on the Septuagint and interpreting ever so slightly declares:
The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope. (Romans 15:12)
Now, I realize that my vote on November 8 was not about this coming administration. Neither has any American presidential election held the promise of establishing this coming administration. This is because this coming administration is bigger than what happens in America.
The root of this coming administration is deeper than the civilization that built the pyramids in Egypt. And its promised branch reaches out to the end of time itself. Between root and branch sits the stump of Jesse, the picture of a hope that seems clearly to have failed.
And yet, a hope that has remained active in the hearts and minds of people for a very long time. A hope that has been taught and learned, treasured and handed on, while empires have come and gone.
Listen to this! The stump of Jesse, a hope lying between root and branch, has endured through the rise and fall of the Late Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and the Third Reich, just to name a few of those earthly kingdoms most familiar to us that have come and gone.
And all the while, the root held its place, and the branch held its promise, and the stump sat there, a sign of what had been, and what was not, now. But also a sign of hope, a sign of what is yet to be.
Because for those who have eyes to see, there is already a shoot growing out of that stump. A tender sprout there, in the very place and from the very form that most clearly bears witness to failure, to an ending. That promised shoot sprouted long ago, in the incarnation of the Son of God.
So, leaving aside metaphors for the moment, and turning to the purely historical, the reign of the sons of Jesse, King David and his son, King Solomon, was just like every other earthly kingdom. Glorious for a moment. And in that moment human civilization flourished in a particular time and place, and also real people in the same time and place suffered in very real ways. The kingdoms of this earth are like that. Their glory comes at a price paid by the poor and by the outsider.
So also, when the kingdom of David and Solomon weakened and divided and grew weary and fell, it was just like every other earthly kingdom. A catastrophe. A terrific loss of good and beautiful things, and a deep sorrow for real people, living in a particular place and time. But also a victory and a new day for another people, from a different place, whose national glory found a timely occasion to rise in the untimely falling of another earthly kingdom.
This is the pattern of earthly kingdoms. They rise and fall, and each, in turn, glorifies its own people, its own way of life, at the expense of the other.
But there is something different about the stump of Jesse. There’s something eternally compelling about the residual memory of this particular earthly kingdom. And that is that it bears within itself a character and a nature that belong to God, the eternal, the heavenly, that which rises and does not fall, a day after which no night follows.
The thing to which the Church bears witness is the curious claim that within the historical narrative of a certain people and their particular way of life is embedded an eternal, heavenly story that belongs to all people of every time and place. The Christ was born to Israel. That’s our curious claim. And the long-cherished metaphor for this confession is the stump of Jesse with a new shoot growing out of it.
What makes this heavenly reign different from all the earthly Empires that have risen and fallen around it?
For one thing, its character. Listen to the language of the Scriptural witness to this coming administration: this is a kingdom of righteousness, of equity, care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, delight in the fear of the Lord, and peace among those as different as wolves and lambs are.
Earthly kingdoms reach for these things, sometimes, or claim that they do, but in the end they cannot manage them. Earthly kingdoms, in the end, serve “our way of life” at the expense of the other. This coming administration is not like that. It is different. Its holy character sets it apart.
And secondly, it is an administration that belongs to all nations. Earthly empires extend the influence of one people over many others. This heavenly reign draws all peoples together into one community of peace. And inasmuch as the coming administration can be epitomized by the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, it is a heavenly reign that offers the self for the other, a new kind of life that finds its own life in the life of the other, springing up precisely from the place where the life of the self was brought to an end by wickedness of the other.
This is the polar opposite of childish bullying or adolescent dominance or a subtle and polished exertion of power over the other. This coming administration gives the self for the sake of the other, and from that gift springs life from the very stump of wrongful death.
Advent is a celebration of this coming administration. And it is an invitation to participate in preparing the way for its coming. How might we do that? How might we prepare the way of the Lord?
John the Baptist tells us: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” So, we might understand that to mean that we should pursue righteousness, equity, care for the poor, welcome for the stranger, delight in the fear of the lord, and peace among people as different as wolves are from lambs. Who could argue with that?
Or, we might prepare the way for the coming administration by refusing to give any earthly kingdom the ultimacy that it desires. No earthly kingdom can save the world, or separate the world from the saving love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, for that matter. Preparing the way for the coming administration might well be a refusal to be either enthralled or deflated by any earthly kingdom!
But I think there is another bit of wisdom that John teaches us, that we might take home with us today. John declares, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (MT 3:9) Just as surely as God can bring forth a living shoot from the age-old stump of Jesse, so also from subjects as unlikely as stones can God provide children to Abraham. Preparing the way of the coming administration may best be accomplished by confessing that we are, by our own wisdom and strength, no more likely than stones to usher in world peace! And then in faith suitable to those redeemed by Christ, to live and work firmly convinced that even in and through a people such as us God’s purpose may yet be fulfilled.
In our day, and in our time, as the Empire to which we belong rises or falls, we teach and learn the hope that is embodied in the metaphor of the stump of Jesse. We treasure it and we hand it on, so that the hope of all the ages may find faithful stewards in us, in this place and in our time, until that shoot branches out to all the world, to the end of time, to bring to all people that peace which the world cannot give.
This is our prayer and our confession of faith. A shoot shall rise from the stump of Jesse, and all people shall find in it their hope and their peace.
November 17, 2016
Yesterday’s newsflash reads: “The Rev. Elizabeth A.
Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
participated in a ceremony Nov. 15 at the Lutheran School of Theology at
Chicago at which the seminary returned a rare 9th century Greek
manuscript of the complete New Testament to the Greek Orthodox Church.
... His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Exarch of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate in the United States, received the manuscript from the Rev.
James Nieman, president of LSTC.” Our Bishop Emeritus, Don McCoid, on
the far left, provided me with this picture of the event.
Think with me about where the world was in the 9th century, when this Greek New Testament was written! Rome had fallen about 400 years before, and Germany was only just being evangelized. It was a time we now call the Dark Ages.
And yet, even in dark ages, the witness to Jesus Christ, the light of the world, was proclaimed and preserved for future ages. 1,200 years later, living members of the same Body of Christ gather around an icon of their Lord Jesus in a context of joyous light. Our faith teaches us that in the long view, Dark Ages have no staying power!
October 20, 2016
Ah, Donegal Lake! When Wednesday morning’s chilly
rain gave way to a warm and sunny day, my hopes to kayak on the way home
from the Theological Convocation looked to become a certain reality.
But then I saw that the lake had been drained, and my hopes dried up
too. Oh, Donegal Lake!
I got out of the car and stood on the dry gravel of the boat launch ramp to get a closer look. But instead, my mind flooded with thoughts about people whose dashed hopes are so much more profound than a lost afternoon. When a lifetime of hopes and dreams suddenly or slowly turns into a dry lake bed, human spirits experience a dry and weary longing of Biblical proportions.
I know individuals, families, and whole communities who live with faint hearts of the kind that Psalm 63 describes: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” What refreshes this kind of thirst?
The psalmist calls this thirst a yearning for God, but I wonder if we do well to think of the thirst also as the yearning of God. The One who is true, eternal refreshment, took on our nature and our lot and cried out from the cross with us and for us, “I thirst!” Perhaps genuine refreshment is only ever found in the joyful reunion of God and humanity.
October 13, 2016
If Church bells ring, and there is no one there to hear them, do they make a sound?
Sorry, I couldn’t resist! The weather was so perfect yesterday on the campus of Gettysburg Seminary that I had to take this picture on my way into chapel. Looking at the picture later, I saw that there were no people in it! That made me think about the classic “tree falling in the woods” conundrum. (Ten minutes later, the yard was filled with a grade-school class listening to a Civil War interpreter.)
The book of Ecclesiastes tackles the perplexing questions and curious realities of life. I don’t think it takes up the question of whether trees falling or bells ringing make a sound when there is no one present to hear, but there is an insight in chapter 9 that provides a reliable compass to guide our lives of faith, even in the most perplexing times:
How might your congregation change lives by speaking quiet words to those ready to hear them?
October 10, 2016
Behold the Praying Mantis, who “preys” without ceasing! Can this intriguing insect teach us about our faith?
I Thessalonians is likely the oldest of Paul’s letters. In chapter 5 we find his exhortation, “Pray without ceasing.” This instruction comes in a string of imperatives that give primal shape to the Christian life. They can feel like a heavy burden of obligation. But what if we imagined our praying to be as critical to our survival as this mantis’ “preying” is to its survival? Would these commands then sound inviting to us? Delicious even?
What is prayer, after all, but joining our life to God’s coming kingdom in hope and faith? We pray for God’s kingdom to come. Let us do so without ceasing.
September 22, 2016
“The wall,” a year later. And to my
astonishment, there is a very large toad rather completely at home on a
little shelf of the wall that results from each higher course of stones
being set back just a bit from the course below it for strength and
longevity. Who’d have thought? I built more than a wall last summer: I
created an ecosystem.
Suddenly, it became clear that we probably do this all the time, whether we mean to or not. We set about to build one thing, and it becomes an environment for things we could not have imagined. This insight is probably true both literally (as in the case of this wall), and as a metaphor for relationships within a community.
Which makes me wonder about our life together in the Church. What are we working hard to build together? Communities of safety and faith? Places of welcome? Mission centers where the name of Jesus is at home? I think so. As we do so, I wonder what else finds a home in the things we build. It might be worth looking closely once in a while to see.
Looking for a prior "PICTURE THIS"? Go to the "Picture This" Archive HERE.