Tuesday, August 23, 2016

So when can you eat the meal Jesus instituted, and who serves it?

Lately I've been chatting with colleagues in my denomination about our theology of the Eucharist. Or maybe I should say our ecclesiology of the Eucharist, because more than we have a theology of what the Lord's supper means, we seem to have a structure around who can preside at it.

In this post, I'm going to try and describe why I have a "radically adjacent" ecclesiology of the Lord's Supper compared to my denomination and many colleagues. On the one hand, this is going to go deep into the weeds of church practice, so move along if that doesn't interest you. On the other hand, I'm not going to go out and try to quote everything about this from other sources.

You can find a ton written about the sacraments. I mean, there are shelves and shelves of books just on the Supper and Baptism. But for the purposes of this blog post, you probably just need to know that our denomination has a statement on the sacraments called the Use of the Means of Grace, and we have some things written about the sacraments in our book of confessions. The most central of these are articles X and XIII of the Augsburg Confession, but the one pastors most frequently debate (and the one actually most congregations really practice) is Article XIV (Of Ecclesiastical Order).

Plus, Jesus said some stuff about the meal, so there's that.

So, here's my basic set of theses on the Lord's Supper:

I. Jesus instituted this meal when he said, after distributing wine and bread as his body and blood, "Do this in remembrance of me."

II. He really meant it, both in the sense that this really is in some way his body and blood present in bread and wine, but also that we should do it in remembrance, and often (because he also said, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this wine..."

III. That's about it. So, when any community gathers that is centered in Christ, they are commissioned to share this meal. 

IV. By necessity, they'll have to come up with some way to share the meal. One very common way for that to happen is for the community to say to one of its members, "Hey, could you bless this meal for us?" So then that person does it. 

V. This meal is and signifies many things, but at root its doing in a meal what it is in actuality--the embodying of Christ in the world, faithing the people who have faith in it.

VI. Was Christum treibt--it's a motto of Luther's worth contemplating. We need more of doing Jesus as we together see fit, and the enforcement of bourgeoise forms of church on the denomination as a whole simply isn't working well.

A lot of complications have crept in around this meal that go way beyond what I've outlined above. As just a few examples, most churches now believe you have to be or should be "ordained" in order to "consecrate" the meal. And diverse denominations and communities aren't always sure they can "recognize" each other's ministries, which in the end means they aren't sure that the other communities are really sharing the Lord's Supper or not.

Almost all of these arguments (and they are legion) revolve around WHO can preside. Even most churches (at least churches in my denomination) would be reluctant to share communion without an ordained pastor presiding.

I am the called pastor in my church, so most weeks I preside. If I'm gone on vacation, we bring in ordained clergy either from within our own denomination, or from full communion partners. In my case, this typically means retired ELCA clergy or local Episcopalian clergy.

I don't "gate" the meal and the presidency of the meal, but I'm kind of under the impression this is the piety of my parish. On average, they probably want an ordained pastor to preside.

Additionally, and here's where things get really tricky, I'm ordained in "apostolic succession." This means there were certain conditions on the presence of bishops and such at my ordination that made my ordination more authentic and easily recognizable by other denominations. In my case, I'm ordained into at least three forms of apostolic succession (Anglican, Latvian Lutheran, and Swedish Lutheran).

Most of my congregation probably doesn't care about this part at all. But our ecumenical partners do, and our denomination does.

Why does all this matter to me, and why do I suggest, often with considerable zeal, that we should throw the floodgates open and let anyone preside at the meal?

For me, it's about mission, and a better sense of the community trusting that Christ is present among them.

Here's what I think, if I'm being REALLY critical. I think our current ecclesiology implies that Jesus is only present when the bishop shows up.

I know I know, people are going to say that isn't what we believe. And they're right. But our practice implies it, because you can only consecrate the Lord's Supper in our tradition if you've been ordained, and you can only be ordained by one of the bishops and become "rostered," so in practice, if you're really strict about it, we only let Jesus show up under the hands of bishops.

But what I think we actually believe as a church is something more along the lines of real presence in every community. That is, Jesus shows up wherever two or three are gathered. Which led me to post this a while back:

"Wherever two or three are gathered in my name." "As often as you eat and drink, do this in remembrance of me." 
That's Scripture. 
"Wherever there are enough households able to build a church building and afford a pastor with benefits, there am I in the midst of them." "Whenever you can find an ordained pastor, do this in remembrance of me."  
That's not Scripture.

Obviously, this is an over-simplification. But I think it's a simplification with merit, because honestly, we've started to operate as if the second quote, which isn't Scripture, actually is. The proof would be: Does the average ELCA member receive communion regularly outside of a church building, or in a community with a pastor who isn't on the church payroll?

I bet not. And they don't because nobody is imagining alternatives. Not only that, but some pastors are so territorial, they'd be bothered if Eucharists just started happening in their churches without them. And some parishes have such strong pieties around the Eucharist that they'd be uncomfortable with small groups or families gathering to share the Lord's Supper apart from the Sunday morning assembly with the ordained, consecrated pastor in apostolic succession presiding.

It's about this time in the conversation that clergy-types will bring up some funny things. They'll mention "good order" (because that's in our confession) or they'll mention ecumenical agreements (we have a few). And they're right, there's language in the confessions about the sacraments being presided over in "good order" and we need to make sure we're being good neighbors with the Episcopalians.

But what does that mean? For example, whose good order? Does good order mean a structure for ordination and training pastors? Or might good order mean "organized in such a way that people are sharing Jesus all over the place"?

What if the average parishioner in an ELCA congregation was equipped by their pastor to preside at communion? You know, the Bible did say pastors "equip the saints for the work of ministry." So is that just supposed to be making coffee for the narthex after worship, or might it be serving communion themselves in their small groups, at nursing homes, at prisons?

What if the meal Jesus instituted was established not to be guarded by a priestly class, but carried out by all disciples of Christ to be a priestly presence in the world?

There are a ton of ways to slice this onion, and one way is to imagine that all pastors (by which I mean, the kind like myself who serve congregations large enough to hire them as full-time employees) are actually bishops, and our responsibility is to ordain the people of God to preside at the meal Jesus instituted.

Perhaps I haven't done a good job training my people to be presiders at the Eucharist. In actual practice I'm pretty old school. My people get communion when they come on Sunday morning, and I speak the words and lift the bread and hand it out. But what if the mission of God is more living and active when the pastor stands in the midst of the assembly in persona Christi, and says, "Now go out and share this meal with others. You be the pastors."

This is not an either/or. We organize at all kinds of institutional levels, and I'm quite sure we'll always have synods and denominations, and bourgeois congregations with full-time staff clergy. If we can do a both/and approach, we can imagine lots of ways presiding at communion can be isomorphic rather than hierarchical.

But we can do a lot better job of recognizing the presence of Christ in households, small groups, and mission sized communities, and recognizing that they have everything in their midst to share the Eucharist--a group of people, a bit of bread and wine, and somebody, or a few, they can ask, "Would you offer the blessing?"

Addition: Perhaps one could say the difference between my proposal and the traditional proposals is that I locate the meal primarily in an event, whereas the traditional approaches locate the meal under the presidency of a person. So, is it the meal Christ instituted when the right person under the right hierarchy presides, or is it the meal Christ instituted in its happening among those who have heard the command? This doesn't have to be a complete either/or, but it does center things for us a bit.

In other words, I'm for things like mutual discernment, community, and apostolic succession: I just want to move the goal posts on what that looks like.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Give Refugee Children the Opportunity of an Education

Dear Clint,

It's the time of year when summer is coming to a close and school-aged children are preparing to return to the classroom. Many children are excited to be going back to school and looking forward to seeing their friends and sharing their tales of summer fun.

We have the special honor of helping refugee children find not only a safe place to call home, but a safe environment where they can learn. But we can't do it without your help.
Give children
a safe place to
live and learn.
Donate today!
So many children we serve come from countries where education services are erratic at best, or from refugee camps where their schooling has been put on hold for years. Children from Central America are unable to attend school every day due to violence, and if they are girls, they are not able to leave the house to attend school without an adult male or private car which is unaffordable for most.

Enrique*, a refugee child who was unable to attend school in his home country of El Salvador because of threats to his life by the gangs, broke down in tears when he found out that here in America he would be able to register and get support in attending school. His father came to the United States in the hopes of offering his son a better opportunity; he also became very emotional when he learned Enrique was going to be able to go to school and fulfill his dreams for a better future.

An education put on hold is not unique to Enrique, it is the experience of hundreds of thousands of refugee children searching for peace and safety.

As the school year begins, please be generous and support Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). Your donation today in support of Enrique and children like him, can ensure those most vulnerable will be cared for and have the future they deserve.

In Gratitude,
Linda Hartke
President & CEO

P.S. Your generosity at the start of this school year can provide LIRS the momentum it needs to give children a safe place to live and learn. Thank you in advance for your support!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Gulf Coast Flooding

Lutheran Disaster Response
Gulf Coast Flooding

"Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by." – Psalm 57:1
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Historic floodwaters have required tens of thousands of people to be rescued and even more have been evacuated as rain sweeps across southern Louisiana. Floodwaters have affected communication, overwhelmed streets and highways, and damaged or destroyed more than 40,000 homes. This flood comes on the heels of several other floods that have hit the Gulf Coast region, starting earlier this spring.

Entire neighborhoods and communities still remain under water, and the full extent of the damage has yet to be realized. We know that it will be a long road to recovery, and Lutheran Disaster Response will be there to assist through every phase of this disaster recovery process.

Gulf Coast Flooding
Your gifts are needed to help respond to the Gulf Coast flooding. Your gifts through Lutheran Disaster Response will bring God’s hope, healing and refuge to those who are affected by these devastating floods. Lutheran Disaster Response coordinators are actively present, collaborating with local community leaders and officials to begin planning the proper responses, particularly the long-term recovery efforts. We will respond and walk with survivors in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, for as long as we are needed.

Gifts designated for “Gulf Coast Flooding” will be used (100 percent) until the response is complete to help disaster survivors recover and rebuild their lives. Your generous offerings of prayer and financial support will help address the many needs, especially the long-term recovery efforts of those affected.

Join me in prayer and partnership, and use this bulletin insert in your congregation to help spread the word and support those who need rest.

In service,


The Rev. Daniel Rift
Director, ELCA World Hunger and Disaster Appeal
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Thursday, August 11, 2016

4 ways you can save the church now (and they're not what you think)

Walter Benjamin worked thirteen years on Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), beginning in Paris in 1927 and still in progress when he fled the German Occupation in 1940. A friend, George Bataille, "hid the manuscript away in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France during the second world war and then retrieved and delivered it to New York at the end of 1947"!!!

It is a work literally dug up and recovered from the rubble of war.

Benjamin called this project "the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas." It is a giant mess of a book, designed to undermine the bourgeois ideological mask that typically overlay historical presentations of the 19th century.

It gave birth to something new: history from below rather than from above. It looks to the rubbish of history, the conquered, the suffering ones, as the center for history. The world has typically told its history focused on the victors.

It's very style is illustrative of its substance. One commentator said it "induces in the reader a secular oneiric attention, a sort of watchful dreaminess--even a sort of illuminating boredom" (Mark Kingwell).

Illuminating boredom. History from below. Creativity from the ash-heaps of history.


I've been pondering this while looking at highly creative projects I've seen emerging this summer from Lutheran friends. The first one was planted, quietly, on our church driveway, and has spread like a strange kind of food desert fire through neighborhoods and social media. Jessica McClard, our council president, together with friends, erected a Little Free Pantry on our property.

You can find all kinds of articles about The Little Free Pantry online, because it has blown up in social media. If you want to listen to an interview with Jessica, I recommend the one we recorded two weeks ago.

The Little Free Pantry is not a big thing. It holds less pantry items than one cupboard in a household kitchen. But it's had immense impact "from below," changing the lives of givers and receivers alike, perhaps even undermining the traditional patron-client narrative that dominates 21st century charitability.


Then there is Rev. Jason Chestnut (together with his ecumenical colleagues Rev. Jennifer DiFrancesco and Rev. Sara Shisler Goff) at The Slate Project. The Slate Project is a new kind of Christian community that gathers both on-line and face-to-face in Baltimore, Maryland. They are committed to following the way of Jesus together, into their local and digital neighborhoods and discerning in community how to be the church in the 21st century.

Jason gets "theology from below," and the Internet memes he posts illustrate such theology well.

Jason is leading our denomination in doing church 'from below' in the social media arena. It's a lot of work to minister in digitally-mediated contexts, and much of it gets buried in the rubble-heaps of inattention. Jason and his colleagues are working in the theater of struggle and ideas, in particular emphasizing the theology of the cross as it plays in a strangely mediated world.


Speaking of plays, I've also been paying attention to a project Daniel Maurer has been rolling out. Of course, Daniel is mostwell-known, and deservedly so, for his books and graphic novels, the most recent of which is a spectacular graphic novel about Martin Luther as a dad.

But he's also been at work developing a resource of downloadable progressive church plays and dramas, funchurchplays.com. He calls the site Arches 'n Bells, and it is the first website—ever—to focus on producing thespianic awesomeness for progressive mainstream churches and faith communities.

Before I get into an analysis of drama and progressive Christianity, I should mention that many church members (and clergy) may not realize that there are resources online they can download and use. Or they don't know how to unzip a file, or navigate a web site. So a big barrier in publishing today sometimes is simply helping people be aware of what's out there, and how to navigate it.

I'm not making fun (okay, maybe a little... but then if you know how to install bathroom fixtures, go ahead and make fun of me, because I run away scared), but it's indicative of a general fear or lack of engagement we're seeing from some of our denominations' members online. 

Church-plays in and of themselves aren't really all that high tech. Daniel writes, "The problem I'm having is that the evangelicals seem to be kicking ass with online resources for church drama, and no one has yet capitalized on the need for theologically progressive congregations to take advantage of the resources that are already out there. (More importantly, resources and technology that is already making inroads on the secular side (like Pokéman, et al.))"

So, it's not the skits and plays themselves that is scary technology—just the medium on which I'm offering them.

Well, skits and dramas are their own kind of technology, and they take their own kind of steel nerves to do well. But Daniel's right when he observes that "kids, youth, and adults respond to theatrical productions and they hold people's attention." Some chancel dramas I saw as a child are still stuck in my memory banks, as are the crazy skits we made up at church camp. Drama has staying power.

It's just that, if you're a progressive Christian of some kind, a lot of dramas (like a lot of contemporary Christian music) falls outside the kind of faith you want to teach. Thus the need for a resource like Daniel's. Unless you plan to write your own. Which you can do, but it's a lot harder than you might think to do it well.

Which is where Arches 'n Bells comes in, because their team writes great plays. My favorite right now is one title "Peter Defends God's Acceptance of the Gentiles." It leans in on a significant moment in the story of full inclusion, and illustrates God's grace admirably. It's also funny.

Personally, I've been looking for something to integrate into our worship this fall that would add a new dimension and depth, and I'm spending time reading through the skits on his site right now, aiming to perform some of them beginning the Advent season. 


Finally, sometimes the church has to be saved from itself, and the movement in our own denomination aiming to do just that is #DecolonizeLutheranism. http://decolonizelutheranism.org

Their inaugural conference is coming up this October, and registrations are already open. My friend Francisco Herrera, together with a whole host of folks, are planning to decolonize Lutheranism, but his way of doing it may not be what you expect.

It of course includes the post-colonial critique, trying to separate the cultural accretions many assume to be Lutheran (lutefisk, organ music, jello) from the core message of the Lutheran faith. But Francisco tends to focus attention on the positives, the foundations, that can unite us rather than divide us.

Two of the firmest foundations for Lutheran life and identity are the liturgy and the Confessions - especially the Augsburg Confession. Francisco writes, "When we come together in October, the main question we will be asking each other is "What does it mean to be Lutheran?" Sometimes it will be tied to things like tradition and family, other times the ways that we talk about God and Jesus and that ever-sneaky Holy Spirit, still other times the writings of Luther and company and all who have worn the mantle of "Lutheran" over the centuries, in whatever the land or language. Hence, the liturgy and the Augsburg Confession are two prime places to begin all serious conversation on Lutheran identity - fertile earth from which something new and exciting and inspiring always springs."

Sometimes you don't know who you really are until you build a pantry. Sometimes you learn your own faith by designing a meme. If you want a theological challenge, try writing a play that illustrates your theological convictions in a story well-told and well-acted. If you want to find your center, ask those outside your center what real center you both share together (and maybe sit down for a meal of lefse AND injera).