September 12, 2016



Yesterday was “God’s Work Our Hands” Sunday in many congregations across the ELCA. For some congregations, other Sundays fit their calendar better. That’s fine.

At Prince of Peace, Latrobe, lunch bags for Meals on Wheels were decorated to add a personal touch of love and encouragement for those who participate in this valuable ministry. “Our Hands” are clearly visible in this picture. Can you see “God’s Work?”

My eyes see people, created in the image of God, first and foremost. That looks like God’s handiwork to me. I see sinners who have found life in the grace-filled story of Jesus. We confess that to be the work God’s Holy Spirit. And look, here are people freed to care for their neighbor in love and joy. God becomes visible in neighborly love like this!

Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29) How might our hands be about that work? I wonder ...

+Kurt

September 1, 2016

 

A once-familiar hymn declares, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.”  (Battle Hymn of the Republic, LBW 332, ELW 890)  We do not often sing that hymn these days, because of the dated militaristic references found both in its music and its words.  But even so, the hymn preserves the timeless hope of a reality that is not the product of war:  transfiguration.  

Three of the four Gospels preserve the narrative of the Transfiguration of our Lord.  But through all the witness of Holy Scripture, there flows a theme of the changing of things.  Swords beaten into plowshares, lions and lambs lying down together, prisoners given freedom, ruins being rebuilt, wastelands becoming habitable, dry bones made to live again, and enemies reconciled.  

The hymn cited above adds you and me to that list.  If offers no explanation of how or when the change might happen, except to attribute the change to the glory in Christ’s bosom.  The word, bosom, however, is as outdated as the hymn.  Today we might speak of Christ’s embrace, or even his radical hospitality.  Even so, in the words of any age, we find the same mystery:  when Christ welcomes us, we are changed.

 +Kurt

 

August 25, 2016

 

Thank you, Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, for your faithful support of the capital campaign of Bethesda Children’s Home! Today was the official ribbon cutting ceremony – the Grand Opening of the new building that will house a significant part of this ministry located in Meadville and Erie.

Bethesda Children’s Home has been caring for children in Western Pennsylvania as part of the wider Lutheran ministry of our church for 96 years. But today is a new day. Here’s what I see: each new generation of the faithful contributes in its day to the ongoing work of the church, caring for our neighbors with all the resources God has given us.

This will be a notable day in the history books. But for many children in need, it’s just the next day of having the neighborly support of the church – or not. Thanks again for your support today for many children in need!

+Kurt

August 12, 2016

Can you spot the communion chalice in this snapshot? It’s hard to see in this hastily-snapped picture of a press conference just about to begin, but it’s right there, on the table, between ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and Bishop Denis Madden, Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. That chalice was a gift, taken from active use in the daily Eucharists of our Churchwide Assembly, and given by Bishop Eaton to Bishop Madden, who received it as a sign of hope and anticipation on our way toward the sharing of the Eucharist between Catholics and Lutherans.

We’re not there yet, but we’re on the way. The ELCA Churchwide Assembly affirmed by a 99% majority vote the 32 statements of agreement found in Declaration on the Way. These common statements on Church, Ministry, and Eucharist, represent foundational affirmations of the faith that Lutherans and Catholics share, and encourage us to keep striving for the goal of sacramental unity.

Football fans in Southwestern Pennsylvania are familiar with enthusiastic communal chants of “Here we go!” It’s time for the baptized to set their sights on the prize and join the song that is eternally hopeful: “On the way, Christians, on the way!”

+Kurt

August 3, 2016

 

There’s an irony! A big, heavy, old-technology three-ring binder that declares freedom on the cover page! Or maybe it’s an oxymoron.

I collect oxymorons. I find their internal inconsistencies to be amusing. “Jumbo Shrimp” is a classic. And speaking of classics, can anything actually be an “Instant Classic”?

Some see the institutional church as an oxymoron – an internal inconsistency. How can the freedom of Christ and the bureaucracy of an organization hold together?

But Lutherans, finding truth in paradox, embrace the reality of an institutional church. Our bold witness is to an incarnate God, who gives life by dying. And our church does, indeed, bless many people with the freedom of Christ, even through the plodding procedures of a churchwide assembly. Imagine that!

+Kurt

July 22, 2016

  

Lutheran Day at Kennywood opened with Morning Prayer. The rubrics in the bulletin indicated “Silence follows the reading,” so after the Gospel of St. Matthew was read (the bit in chapter 5 about being salt and light in the world), we sat still and closed our eyes and kept silence ... except that we were at Kennywood, in a pavilion right up against the highway ... so the “silence” we observed was filled with roller coaster screams, heavy truck traffic, and a hundred other public noises.

We keep silence in church to help us focus. Monday’s “Kennywood silence” yanked our focus outside of ourselves, and punched home the point of the Gospel. “You don’t light a lamp to hide it! Salt is meant to be noticed!” Jesus said. Imagine that!

+Kurt

 

July 13, 2016

 

Ordinary time? Are you kidding? This ain’t no ordinary time! Look around: the world is falling apart! Our planet is perpetually at war. Civil discourse and human decency have been abandoned. Hate and anger and violence cling to us like the stifling air of a sufferable muggy day, and there is no relief. If ever there was such a thing as ordinary time, there is no such thing left in the world! We live here now:

Where armies scourge the countryside, and people flee in fear,
where sirens scream through flaming nights, and death is ever near.

Where anger festers in the heart, and strikes with cruel hand;
where violence stalks the troubled streets, and terror haunts the land.

No, I did not write these lines as an expression of the desperate agony of the events of last week. These are the words of a hymn, written decades ago. So why do these old words describe our life so well? For the same reason that the ancient psalms speak directly to our hearts today: because this is ordinary time. The ordinary time of human history is shaped by people, of whom Scripture declares, “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

It was not because humanity had momentarily slipped into some odd circumstance of hate and violence that our Lord Jesus came down from heaven, but because this had become the perpetual state of our fallen life. So, for us and for our salvation our Lord Jesus was born into ordinary time, and in ordinary time he suffered, died and was buried. But look! It was also into ordinary time that our Lord Jesus rose and sent the Spirit to create the Church, which on every day of ordinary time cries out its Kyrie, wrestles in intercessory prayer, and shares the peace of Christ, the peace which passes all human understanding. (Philippians 4:7)

The hymn mentioned above (ELW #700, Bring Peace to Earth Again) preaches the Christian hope as a prayer-refrain after each verse of agonized distress is sung:

O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again!

What shall we do in these extraordinary days? Let us hold steady to the refrain of ordinary time. Let us sing our Kyrie to the one who alone can save the world. And let us make an active work of intercessory prayer for the sake of our neighbors. And let us use here and now those words that belong to the new creation: Peace be with you; and also with you.
+Kurt

July 6, 2016

 

 Friday night at Lutherlyn ...
candles floating in the font ...
the current gathers them together ...
and now the blaze is too bright to look at.

This memory lives in the minds of hundreds of campers:
“My little light is part of that brilliant, blazing glory.”
Imagine that!

+Kurt

June 30, 2016

 

On Sunday I visited with the community of Abiding in Allentown to listen. One of the things I heard is that they fondly call this back-lit statue on the altar “Neon Jesus.” There is no question that this representation of Jesus, wearing a glossy red robe, flanked by bright-white woodwork, and lit from behind with a long neon tube, is the visual focal point of the 100-year-old worship space.


I also learned that there had recently been some concern about keeping this statue in the sanctuary, as it reflects Northern-European physical features and cultural sensibilities, while the neighborhood is now largely African-American. I asked how that conversation turned out, and heard a disarmingly lovely response: “It’s OK; we love Neon Jesus just as he is.” How about that for radical hospitality?


If you know all the verses of the Sunday School song, His Banner over Me is Love, based on the second chapter of the Song of Solomon, you will recognize immediately the astounding capacity of trusting love to bear a little silliness without being trite, or weak in faith, or sloppy in theology, or any of the other faults that we so easily find in others.


The risen Christ, pictured differently in every culture, holds out wounded hands to embrace a lost and hurting world in love. Those who have found that love find it to be more important than the hair style or clothing we put Jesus in. Imagine that!


+Kurt 

June 24, 2016

 

No, I did not take this picture on my new smart phone! I found it online. Isn’t it an excellent image? It’s like a visual song!

What I see here is the beauty of a flock of birds flying free in the clear air – and the mystery that they seem to have been created out of the remnants of a chain link fence that is coming apart.

Our faith is like this. Specifically, that the very creation, now subject to futility, will be re-created in freedom and joy. Or to put it another way, that the very people whom we presently understand only to be profound hindrances to life and freedom will themselves be the population of an eternal city of life and peace.

The Bible, which is the source and norm of our faith, harbors this curious hope. See, for example, Romans 8:18-25.

When you have some time (you really can’t do this quickly, in the middle of doing something else) read this passage from Romans 8, focus on this picture, and rejoice in the mystery of the Christian hope, that Christ “makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5).


+Kurt

June 1, 2016

 

Believe it or not, these lovely flowers grow just outside the doors of the synod office – or at least they did.  Tuesday morning I stopped to appreciate their beauty.  By the time you receive this, they may well be gone. 

 Flowers of the field are like that – “alive today and tomorrow thrown into the oven,”  as Jesus said.  (Luke 12:28).  This is not a judgment upon flowers of the field.  It’s a description of them.  The marvel is that even though they are so frail, their maker clothes them more splendidly than Solomon in all his glory.

 I wonder if Jesus’ phrase, “you of little faith,” is also a description.  What do you think?  Could these words be something other than a judgment –simply a description of the way people are?  “Of little faith?”  And is the wonder that God in heaven would clothe us with the righteousness of Christ, though our constancy is like the grass? 

 The good news of the Gospel is good news because it is God’s doing, and not ours.  Though my faith be as fleeting as the flowers of the field, yet God can make of it a thing of beauty because of Christ.  That’s a miracle, don’t you think?

 +Kurt

 

May 23, 2016

 

Proverbs 31 celebrates the industrious woman.  “Strength and dignity are her clothing,” Solomon, son of David declares.  He must have been acquainted with the Women of the ELCA!  Here is a group of women who represent many others in our synod’s congregations whose tenacious work on behalf of the Church, especially in its work of neighborly care, is legendary.

With their permission, I took this picture of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod Women of the ELCA 2016 Convention, held at the Bishop Connare Center in Greensburg.  I told them that I think of the women of our congregations as the backbone of the Church.  Here’s why:

The human backbone is a marvel of muscles, ligaments, flexibility and strength.  Its work makes possible the more visible accomplishments of arms and legs, shoulders and head.  In my view, the women of our congregations support and serve the Church with muscle, connections, extraordinary grace and perseverance. 

By way of example, are you aware of their 500th Reformation Challenge?  To learn more, contact Jennifer Schaefer at jenniferlyns@comcast.net. Or, check out the Women of the ELCA display table at Synod Assembly and their Newsletter, Friends Inc. on the Synod's website.

 With you in Christ, +Kurt

May 10, 2016

 

Thiel College’s 150th anniversary commencement was held on Mother’s Day:
• “Mother Nature” provided extraordinarily lovely weather.
• “Alma Mater Thiel” awarded Honorary Doctor of Humanities degrees to Pastor David Gleason and LaVonne Johnson, and an Honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree to Edward Bartko, along with undergraduate degrees to 219 students.
• Campus Pastor Jayne Thompson “mothered” a handful of students engaged in campus spiritual life through their leadership of a Baccalaureate liturgy that filled the David Glen Johnson Memorial Chapel to capacity and celebrated the relationship between the college and “Mother Church.”

The gift of life and nurture that a mother gives her child is so basic to human experience that we reach, naturally, for “mother” language to describe our most meaningful encounters and relationships.
• In Romans 16, St. Paul greets the mother of Rufus, and owns that she is a mother to him as well.
• Through the prophet Isaiah, our Lord God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)
• Our Lord Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

With you in Christ,
+Kurt

April 28, 2016

 

 No mixed messages here! This simple sign makes a bold promise. Can the people behind this sign deliver? Click here to find out: http://www.lssmn.org/cfcl/

I got to tour this amazing place in Minneapolis on Monday, as part of the LSA board meeting I attended. Lutheran Services in America is an astounding network of 300 social ministry organizations affiliated with the ELCA or recognized by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. (http://www.lutheranservices.org/) Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is one of the member organizations of LSA. This building houses more than a dozen ways that lives can be changed, from adoption to employment to refugee services. It even houses an ELCA congregation.

On its 100th birthday, Messiah Lutheran Church left its building and moved in with other partners to help create the Center for Changing Lives, trusting that “Spirituality comes alive where words become deeds.”

How might our words and our deeds be about changing lives where we live?

+Kurt

April 18, 2016

 

In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton wrote a sentence in a letter to Robert Hooke that has become as famous as his scientific work: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." But the little lamb pictured on the shoulders of Jesus in this icon is not standing.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, we do not so much acknowledge Jesus as the giant on whose work we build, but as the one who carries us from death to life. The third verse of that great hymn, The King of Love my Shepherd Is, (LBW 456, ELW 502) sings out that confession: “And on his shoulder gently laid, and home, rejoicing, brought me.”

Pastor Michael Ryan saw me studying this icon in the narthex of Faith, White Oak, just before Sunday’s liturgy, and pointed out what I had not yet seen: that the cross of Jesus is visible in the background. Looking with new eyes, it became plain that the lamb in this icon, by virtue of its placement on Jesus’ shoulders, is also precisely on the cross.

Our faith confesses that we are “on the shoulders of a giant.” We understand that to mean that because of Christ we have received the Gospel in all its fullness: dying with Christ and rising with him to new life.

+Kurt

April 14, 2016

It takes bold hope and real patience to believe the seedling marker’s claim of “white cabbage” when all there is to see is a tiny green sprout growing in a pouch of dirt. But do we doubt it? Not for a minute. So why don’t we bring this same kind of confidence to the work of planting churches?

This tiny green sprout is no more a cabbage than a kind word is a church. But the seedling marker declares the expectation that with time and care this little sprout may well become a cabbage. (I saw these little sprouts in the lobby of Valentine Hall at Gettysburg Seminary; they are part of the Ecology and Stewardship class.)

The seeds of church are faith and hope and love – an act of love for a neighbor, a word of hope for someone sunk in despair, a confession of faith in Jesus Christ at an opportune time. Our baptismal vocation calls us to plant church seeds with thoughtfulness, to water the sprouts that come up, and to tend the growing plants, expecting God to produce a harvest of faith out of them (I Cor. 3:6-9).

So fill your pockets every morning with church seeds, and plant them wherever you go. And don’t forget to place little seedling markers along the way to remind you where you have planted faith and hope and love, so that when you see little sprouts coming up you will know to water them and tend them, boldly expecting that in due time God may well grow church out of them.

+Kurt

April 6, 2016

 

Today my staff and I are taking a whole day to pray for you.  We know that you pray for us often, and that encourages us in our work. 

Our day of prayer will begin with the congregations of Conference One, and continue through each of our six conferences.  We will pray for each congregation and its called or interim pastor(s) and lay rostered leader(s) by name.  Then we will pray for all our retired pastors, associates in ministry, deaconesses, and diaconal ministers.  And for those in specialized ministry.  And for those on-leave from call, and for those with continuing disabilities.  Then we will pray for our Synodically Authorized Ministers, and for our ecumenical partners who are serving congregations of our synod.  And for our widows and widowers of rostered leaders.

My staff and I find these Days of Prayer to be Spirit-filled and exhausting.  We finish the day astounded by the bounty of God’s grace for this synod in raising up leaders for every kind of ministry, and we finish the day humbled by the challenges that our brothers and sisters face in daily life and ministry.  

Our Lord Jesus says that he knows each of us by name.  And that he calls us his own, and that he gives us his gift of eternal life. (John, chapter 10)  That great promise gives us all hope and courage to do the work we have been called to do.

+Kurt

 

March 31, 2016

 

Yesterday I had a meeting in Gettysburg. As I drove into town on Rt. 30, I was suddenly struck by the strange reality of being on a battleground during the first week of Easter: a place where 10,000 soldiers died – a week marked by the victory of life over death.

St. Paul’s words in I Cor. 15:19 came to mind, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” These words are the comforting promise of a life to come, an eternal life after death. But what I saw around me was not just the inherent sadness of a cemetery – it was the painstakingly preserved memory of an historic battle – and I wondered, “What might these words mean if we applied them to the way we live this life?”

Battles are epic fights. Fights are dramatic disagreements. Disagreements, even in their mildest form, are contests that set one against the other. One wins; the other loses. But our hope in Christ is not simply an eventual “win” over every loss, including the ultimate loss of death. No, our hope in Christ is for reconciliation, the restoration of relationships, the healing of wounds.

If our hope in Christ is for the next life only, and for the present we embrace winning, wounding and killing as necessary means to preserve what we call “our way of life,” well, that is also a pitiable thing. Our resurrection hope in Christ invites us to embrace a different way of living. Imagine living this life as though death in all its forms could no longer be used as a means of solving disputes. That would certainly change things!

+Kurt

March 23, 2016

 

 A stone-arch bridge is a marvel that appears to defy gravity. But, in fact, it is the very pull of gravity, combined with carefully angled cuts, that keeps the stones up there, so that they can bear the great weight of traffic safely across this stream. I saw this bridge from the window of my hotel room in Washington, D.C. Sunday evening. (A closer look Monday morning revealed a concrete structure with a stone façade, but it does illustrate the point, and it is a thing of beauty.)

The cross of Jesus is like this. Jesus’ gift of life, given to the world on the cross, overcomes death once-for-all. Does Jesus’ gift of life defy death? Not exactly; rather, it uses the gravity of death itself to bear the weight of the traffic that passes over it from death into life. The mystery of our salvation is like a stone-arch bridge; death is overcome by death, just as gravity is overcome by gravity – and a perfectly-cut stone.

So let me tell you about that stone! Psalm 118, quoted in Matthew 21 and again in Acts chapter 4, tells us, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

It is the marvel of Jesus’ life-giving cross that captures our attention and adoration every Holy Week. May you see in the cross this year more beauty than this stone bridge can ever hope to provide!

+Kurt

 

March 17, 2016

 

“Where did that come from?” my parents asked. “From our yard,” I replied. “Where? Down the bank?” “No,” I said, “from right outside our front door.”

We went out the door and leaned over the railing to look down at the real plant in front of us, lying in a barren bed of neglected mulch the way a dead groundhog might lie along the side of the road:

 

I explained how the new phone I’m fighting with has a feature by which you can see on the screen the thing you are taking a picture of. With this feature, I was able to hold the phone/camera down very low to the ground and see, as though in a mirror, the underside of this single flower in our truly disappointing “flower bed” outside the front door. It had been a really beautiful day, and the light was just heading into evening, so I took a picture of it.

Where did that come from? From looking up, I suppose, rather than looking down.

+Kurt

 

March 10, 2016

 

This illumination of I Corinthians 13 is one example of the extraordinary beauty and careful theological interpretation of the St. John’s Bible. You may learn more about the St. John’s Bible here: http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/

Holy Scripture declares that love is eternal; so is the city called the New Jerusalem and the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb, in Revelation 21:2 and 9. Politics, by its very definition, is the art of living together in a city. (The Greek word for city, polis, is the root of several English words, including politics, policy, and police.) Good politics results in living together in the city well, whether that is the eternal holy city of Christian hope or any of the temporal and imperfect cities, towns and rural communities we currently call home.

Good politics, like love, is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Good politics, like love, does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. In our country’s presidential campaign season, listen for words and look for actions that reflect good politics, for they result in living together well.

+Kurt
P.S.: In light of the shootings in Wilkinsburg last night, our pursuit of love as good politics is all the more urgent.

February 29, 2016

OK, so this is me being playful. This is our synod’s Executive Committee, and they posed for this picture, knowing that it would be accompanied by the caption, “YOU PEOPLE!!” They found this funny. I hope you do, too.

Among the things I have learned over the last several years is that:
YOU PEOPLE don’t understand;
YOU PEOPLE don’t care; and
YOU PEOPLE are all alike.

Let me introduce YOU PEOPLE. We are men and women, pastors and lay people, with widely divergent life stories, yet all deeply in love with Jesus and his church.

One of us is a member of a congregation in a ten-congregation cooperative. Another is a member of one of our fastest-growing congregations. One belongs to a congregation that called a part-time bi-vocational pastor. Another belongs to a congregation that nearly closed, but has found new life and hope. One is a member of a congregation that provides worship services for kids with autism. Another is a member of a congregation that has an amazing community garden. More than one of us knows the pain and joy of moving from one community of faith to another.

I might just note: YOUR PEOPLE understand. YOUR PEOPLE care. YOUR PEOPLE are just like you in their love for Christ and the church!

+Kurt

(Synod Council Executive Committee Members, standing, L to R): Bishop Kurt Kusserow; Jeannette Christensen, Synod Secretary; Pastor Ann Schmid; Pastor Ron Brown; Dennis Lane.

(sitting, L to R):  Holly Orbin Schmitt; Tom Beecher; Synod Treasurer; Brandon James, Synod Vice President.