Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Preparing for Our Next Pandemic

 

Things We’ll Do Better….During Our NEXT Pandemic



Although we’re still in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic, it’s not too early to start reflecting on what we’ve learned for the sake of being more prepared for the next pandemic.   In this blog-post I’m sharing eight thoughts that have come to my mind.  Please chime in with your own thoughts, hopes and dreams for how we might handle the next pandemic better than we dealt with the current pandemic.

 

Number 1:  We’ll be grateful that—after our LAST pandemic (i.e. the pandemic of 2020-2021)--we invested time, imagination, and resources in preparing for our next pandemic.    Examples:  strengthening our public health infrastructure, maintaining adequate inventories of vital tools (e.g. PPE, facemasks, sanitation supplies), “capturing” our learnings, etc.

 

Number 2:  We’ll recognize the critical differences between public health and individual health and thus share a consensus about the necessity of sacrificing individual freedoms for the sake of society-wide, global  responsibilities.

 

Number 3:  We and our elected leaders will trust science and expertise, and we’ll  all resist any attempts to politicize scientific findings and public health guidelines and recommendations.

 

Number 4:  We’ll willingly embrace short-term sacrifices for the sake of long-term gains.

 

Number 5:  We’ll support one another in cultivating patience and managing our anxieties.

 

Number 6:  We’ll understand that a pandemic is, by definition, a global epidemic that requires global solidarity and cooperation.

 

Number 7:  We’ll be mindful of and address the critical needs of our neighbors whose circumstances make them more vulnerable and “at risk” during pandemics.

 

Number  8:  We’ll pray for and generously support local faith communities and agencies that address human needs, in partnership with governments and pertinent non-governmental organizations.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Healing the Wound Lightly

 

Healing the Wound Lightly



In 1991 I transitioned from parish ministry to wider-church ministry on the staff of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA.   One of my chief duties on the synod staff was to assist the bishop in dealing with the problem of clergy sexual misconduct.  In preparation for this task I spent a week in Pennsylvania being trained by the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, whose ground-breaking book “Is Nothing Sacred:  When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship” (1989) was leading church leaders to rethink their whole approach to handling this grievous problem.

Previously too many churches dealt with ministerial misconduct by NOT dealing with it.   The focus, all too often, had been on salvaging the minister’s career in order to keep peace in the parish.   In the late 1980s, however, there was a sea change (thanks to persons like Dr. Fortune) that placed a premium on believing and pursuing justice for victims, even if that meant ending ministerial careers and shining the light of truth on congregations and other organizations where sexual misconduct by members of “helping professions” was happening.

Looking back on this era, it seems obvious that churches and other institutions started doing what they should have been doing all along.   But it wasn’t obvious.  Indeed some parish lay leaders resisted the new approach—finagling ways to retain the services of beloved pastors who had abused parishioners, while refusing to allow full disclosure of the misconduct in the congregation.  In her book, Dr. Fortune described this as “healing the wound lightly,” based on a striking passage in the Old Testament prophecy of Jeremiah:

“For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain;

and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely.  

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying,

‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.  

Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? 

No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. 

Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;

at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,’ says the LORD.” 

Jeremiah .6:13-15 (RSV) 

The phrase “healing the wound lightly” has kept coming back to me since January 6, 2021, as leaders of our two major political parties have haggled over the second impeachment of the former president—with many but not all Republicans declaring that it’s time to “move on” from the dreadful event on January 6.  

This week our nation has an opportunity to look at itself in the mirror and pursue the only kind of just peace that will bring long-term healing:   a peace that begins with fearless, full accountability for  the former president’s role in inciting the unprecedented violent assault on our nation’s Capitol.  

 On January 23, 2016 the former president, while campaigning in Sioux Center, Iowa, declared:   “They say I have the most loyal people — did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters …It’s like incredible.”[1]

This week I will join many Americans in praying that members of the U.S. Senate recognize and declare that no one—not even the President of the United States—is above the law.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Breaking the Silence

 

Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill, St Paul, MN

February 7, 2021 (recorded on January 30, 2021)

Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 2:22-40 (texts for the Presentation of Our Lord)

Baptism of Malachi Lawrence Haddorff



In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

At 11:56 a.m. on Monday, December 21st when the earth’s atmosphere hit his brand-spanking-new lungs, a tiny little baby uttered his own unique OMG”—oh my goodness, I’m alive, I’m here, watch out world—I’ve arrived!

What the adults in the birthing room actually heard were none of those words.   What they heard was actually a cry, a wail they’d been anticipating, an exclamation that brought relief and a few tears to the eyes of the medical team and a mom and a dad.

No articulate words—but communication, nonetheless.    And since December 21st this wee one has continued communicating in clear, unmistakable fashion….conveying messages like:   “I’m hungry!”    “I need to sleep” or “I need my diaper changed!”

He has yet to utter his first word, but he’s been communicating every day….and that’s a good sign that he’s already living up to his name:   Malachi, which is Hebrew for “my messenger.”

The shadowy biblical figure Malachi was indeed a messenger, God’s messenger….in fact, the last voice to speak in our Old Testament…and when this little-known messenger was done prophesying, there began a 400+ year period of prophetic silence….

 ….a desert of wordlessness that lasted until John the Baptist, the herald of God’s New Covenant, God’s New Testament came upon the scene to break that four-centuries-long silence…to proclaim the arrival of  Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed one, the Messiah…the Savior of the world.

Our gospel lesson for today narrates an even earlier episode in the breaking of that four-century-long silence, as a mother and father brought their infant son to the Temple in Jerusalem, to purify the mother after childbirth and to present their first-born son to God.

But they were interrupted, more than once, by other worshipers in the temple….strangers who spotted them and immediately broke the silence of that Holy Place to give voice to what God was now up to in this baby boy.

Like those old Busby Berkley Hollywood movies of the 1930s, in which actors and actresses suddenly burst forth into song and dance….here in Jerusalem’s Temple, bystanders step out of the shadows and break the silence of that Holy Place.

First there was a man by the name of Simeon, who had hung on for years, living on the edge of his seat, eyes peeled every moment—watching every day for the long-anticipated arrival of the Messiah.

Simeon makes a Spirit-led beeline to the Holy Family in the Holy Place….and—amazingly--the parents just hand over their infant son, entrust him to Simeon’s old arms so that he can break the silence and sing his swan song…a song that—millennia later, we Christ-followers still sing, most often after meeting and receiving our Lord in His Supper:  Lord, now let your servant go in peace, because I’ve seen all there is to see—I’ve beheld the Light that will never be quenched, a Beacon to the outsiders and the glory of the insiders, Israel’s stubbornly persevering faithful ones.”

No sooner does Simeon finish his song, than ancient Anna gets into the act. 

Having attained an incredibly old age, having lived twice as long as women lived back in the 1st century A.D.….old, wrinkled Anna—the original “Church Lady”!--who basically lived in the Temple…. Anna chimes in and prophesies—foretells and “forth-tells” to anyone who’ll listen as she trots around the Holy Place, breaking the silence with her exuberant, overflowing praise for baby Jesus who would redeem, liberate God’s people.

Imagine all that….four hundred years of silence….broken by a man finally ready for his own funeral, and by a frail old lady, who had doggedly held God to God’s promises…..now uttering her ”gloria hallelujah” all around the temple precincts.

It is not lost on us this morning, that most folks who are worshiping together via Zoom aren’t present here physically in this house of worship.  

This beloved, historic holy place—like thousands of church buildings across our world—has been silenced by the coronavirus pandemic….a plague—ironically!—that is spread by the movement of air—especially whenever folks are speaking, shouting, singing….or even prophesying!

We ardently wish for this seemingly endless, enforced silence to be broken…and we’re longing to be healed from all the other plagues this viral pandemic has either caused or exposed:  plagues of racial strife, economic injustice, civil unrest, and the despoiling of the atmosphere that surrounds planet earth—which, Pope Francis reminds us, is our common home!

All of which is to say:  we long for a breaking of the silence about everything that’s threatening us…especially that ancient unholy trinity:   sin, death and the power of the devil.  We pine for God in Jesus Christ to disrupt our wretched condition of being curved-in-upon-ourselves, we long for God in Jesus Christ to uncurl us and to open us up again to trust God completely, love our neighbors gracefully and care for this good earth unreservedly.

Taking our cues from Simeon’s sober warnings to mother Mary, we also acknowledge that our Lord Jesus will not make all this happen with the wave of a magic wand, but with his self-emptying life…his passionate self-sacrifice on a Roman cross…his bold assault on the gloomy house of death…his relentless defanging of the Devil,…and his rising from the grave to open up—for all his precious people--a bright, new future without end.

This whole drama of rescue that Simeon sang about and that old Anna foretold….this story of salvation will be played out again this morning… right before our eyes, in just a few moments, as we break the silence of this pandemic to baptize a little squirt named Malachi, God’s messenger.

My dear friends:  today as we utter the promises of God and pour out the water in the Triune Name and light a candle, let us all remember our own baptisms into  Christ….and let us remind our little ones and everyone else that they, too, are signs and instruments of God’s in-breaking strong but gentle rule over all things….and that even if we aren’t all named Malachi, we are nonetheless messengers of Christ, heralds of peace, and workers in the kingdom of God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 

             

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Reflections on Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo: Implications for Faith Communities


 

Last Wednesday evening, just before midnight, the Supreme Court of the United State (SCOTUS) released its decision in the matter of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York.  In this case the Court sided with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the Agaduth Israel of America organization by enjoining New York Governor Andrew Cuomo from restricting the rights of these two religious groups to hold congregate, in-person worship services, as a matter of public health during the pandemic.

Two things were notable about this injunction.    First, the Court reversed itself in terms of how it ruled in two similar cases brought by other religious groups earlier in 2020.   Second, this was the first case in which Justice Amy Coney Barrett (who had replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg) changed the outcome of this case before the nation’s highest court.

Not surprisingly, this SCOTUS ruling was greeted with praise by conservative pastor Franklin Graham who tweeted:   This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for President Trump’s appointment of 3 conservative #SCOTUS justices who ruled last night in favor of churches & against gov't overreach in the state of New York.”    Graham’s sentiments were echoed by the editors of National Review magazine who opined that, in its November 25th decision, “the Supreme Court got church restrictions right.”

Predictably, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, offered an alternative viewpoint:   “The Supreme Court’s order misuses religious freedom and endangers the public health of everyone in New York. With coronavirus cases spiking across the country, we should be heeding the advice of public health experts who recommend limiting large gatherings. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular gatherings; on numerous occasions, infections at houses of worship have led to major outbreaks in surrounding communities….”[1]

The attention given to this SCOTUS decision led me to look at the actual decision,[2] along with the comments of the justices who concurred with or dissented from it.   Doing so has left me puzzled and troubled about the implications this decision is likely to have across the United States.

First, Justice Neal Gorsuch (in a concurring opinion)  proposed the notion that anti-religious bias, not concern for public safety, was Governor Cuomo’s primary motive in this matter.   “Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?” Gorsuch asked, before concluding that  “the only explanation for treating religious places differently [from secular places]  seems to be a judgment that what happens there [in religious gatherings] just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces.”   

Gorsuch also seems to propose that Governor Cuomo personally (and capriciously?) decided to alter the pandemic “threat level” affecting congregations of the Brooklyn Diocese:   “The State has effectively sought to ban all traditional forms of worship in affected ‘zones’ whenever the Governor decrees and for as long as he chooses…..[And] just the other day, the Governor changed his color code for Brooklyn and Queens where the plaintiffs are  located….” (emphasis added).[3]

Surely, one would hope, Justice Gorsuch realizes that public health conditions during the pandemic are often changing as the coronavirus ebbs and flows!    Or does he?    It seems to me that the virus itself—not Gov. Cuomo or any other elected official—is the “culprit” here, in terms of determining when a geographical area is deemed to be a “hot spot.”

Justice Gorsuch also muddies the water when comparing religious organizations to non-religious organizations.   So he criticizes Gov. Cuomo for alleging that “it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike, or spend the afternoon exploring your distal points and meridians.”[4]    In other words, Gorsuch contends that liquor stores, bike shops and acupuncturist clinics are comparable to congregations of religious believers.    

Nothing could be farther from the truth!  As Justice Sonia Sotomayor (in her clear and thoughtful dissent from the decision) helpfully points out, “[state officials] may restrict attendance at houses of worship so long as comparable secular institutions face restrictions that are at least equally as strict.”      Sotomayor identifies such organizations as those that offer “lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports, and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time.”[5]

Now, gentle reader, you may be wondering why a retired Lutheran pastor living half-a-continent away from New York City would even care about these issues.   In short:  I’m passionately concerned that this decision by SCOTUS may increase the likelihood that the Coronavirus will cause more illness and take more lives.   That’s because all across the nation—including rural areas that make up so much of the Upper Midwest—we have local faith communities that are struggling to live by the public health measures (face-masking, social distancing, avoiding congregate in-person worship) designed to stem the tide of the pandemic.    Sadly, too many folks in these scattered rural religious communities struggle to take the coronavirus as seriously as is necessary, to safeguard the health and wellness of them and their neighbors.

I fear that reports about the Diocese of Brooklyn v. Governor Cuomo case could provide “ammunition” to religious congregants who are already pushing back on their pastors, church councils, and local governmental leaders as they seek to “be church” in the midst of this pandemic.    What everyone needs to be clear about is that a large group of people gathering, speaking, and singing in close proximity indoors for extended periods of time—an apt description of a “normal” congregational worship gathering--is one of the most dangerous settings for spreading the coronavirus.

I am deeply grateful for our nation’s constitutional commitment to the free exercise of religion—and I long for the day when we can again bask in this freedom, without needing to follow the difficult public health remedies that have been prescribed for us.    We must be clear, however, that the U.S. Constitution is not—in the immortal words of former Justice Robert Jackson—a suicide pact.  In other words, restrictions that may temporarily need to be made with respect to rights like freedom of religion must be balanced against the need for survival of the state and its people. 

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

November 29, 2020

 

 

 



[3] In the SCOTUS decision itself, the New York state regulation is said to “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.” (emphasis added)

[4] “Distal points and meridians” have to do with acupuncture.

[5] Ironically, by the time the SCOTUS issued its decision in this matter, the course of the coronavirus had already made it possible for the pandemic threat level in the neighborhoods comprising the Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America to no longer be classified as orange or red “hot zones.”

Friday, November 13, 2020

Pivoting to Our Next Hybridized "Normal"

 

Pivoting to Our Next Hybridized “Normal”



Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve been forced to reimagine just about everything in our world—and without the chance to do so at the kind of measured, thoughtful, cautious pace we’d normally prefer.   No wonder we’re exhausted as we feel the pinch of what renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm has labeled “pandemic fatigue” plus “pandemic anger.”

Such fatigue+anger is emerging because the pandemic doesn’t “stay in its lane” (whatever that might mean)—but relentlessly spills over into every facet of life.  No wonder it’s so hard to pause and catch our breath.

I’ve been pondering how the pandemic has been affecting churches in my part of North America.   I do so from the vantage point of having served on the staff of three “middle judicatories” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)—most recently as interim bishop of the Eastern North Dakota Synod, ELCA (from January 15 to October 31 of 2020). 

I had served in this temporary role for less than two months when the pandemic hit.  And shortly thereafter, in rapid succession, three other “pandemics” piled on:   civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, environmental chaos reflected in a staggering succession of “extreme weather events,” and an economic recession triggered by all four “pandemics.”

How have faith communities responded to this unprecedented cascade of crises?  Three phrases—questions, really--capture what I’ve been observing from my unique perch:

            Are we…

·       Pining for our old “normal” or pursuing our next “normal?”

·       Creating new tools or pivoting with existing tools?

·       Focusing on a singular mode of response or envisioning a “hybridization” of responses?

Old Normal…New Normal…or Next Normal?

Quite soon after congregations closed the doors of their buildings and made provisions for fulfilling their primary functions via “virtual” means I was struck by how quickly church members started articulating a desire to “return to normal.”  Such expressions of impatience with the conditions forced upon us by the coronavirus struck me as strikingly premature.

What surprised me even more was my own kneejerk response to such grousing:  “We won’t be returning to normal anytime soon—and even when that happens we’ll notice that the old ‘normal’ we hanker for no longer exists.”

As someone who usually avoids brash pronouncements, I asked myself why—in this instance, at least--was I going out on such a limb?  The answer:  glib talk about “returning to normal” seemed to be seriously dishonest.    Those who started complaining—so soon!--about the emergency closure of our church buildings appeared oblivious to the deadliness of the pandemic itself.

In short, many of us quickly came to regard March 11, 2020[1] as a date that would henceforth mark one of the great “continental divides” in world history.  Others weren’t so sure the pandemic was that big a thing, and some (as we learned during the election of 2020) even harbored the conviction that it was nothing more than a clever hoax.

So instead of pining for a speedy “return to normal,” some of us talked about anticipating a “new normal.”    We did so, convinced that the “normal” we once knew—the “old normal” in which the possibility of a viral pandemic never even crossed our minds--was gone for good.   Henceforth, whatever awaits us, we will live into a world that realizes viruses like Covid19 can appear out of the blue, at any time.

So when I heard persons wishing out loud for a “return to normal,” I started speaking in terms of a “new normal.”

And that lasted for about one day!....

….because if the vaunted “new normal” we longed for allowed us—even for a nanosecond—to lower our guard and settle into a fresh experience of stasis, such a “new normal” could prove to be as dangerous as our old normal.

It was at this point that I decided to speak, instead, about the “next normal”….a chance to catch our breath and recuperate until the next big global challenge comes along and calls forth the sorts of concerted, focused, imaginative responses that we’re witnessing day by day, all around us.

And such talk about a “next normal” applies not only to the public health issue of the coronavirus pandemic.   What about those other “pandemics” that have come after us this year?  If “returning to normal” means making peace with systemic racism, snoozing while global climate change takes its toll on our precious environment or looking the other way while economic injustice gets by with murder—then I want nothing to do with such an “old normal.”

And I trust that I’m not the only one who sees things that way!

So please, let us set aside all the silly talk about “returning to normal.”   Let us, instead, pray and plead and work for the next normal that will surely prove to be a gracious gift from God.

Creating from Scratch—or “Pivoting” With What’s at Hand?

When the news media began paying attention to the pandemic, reporters often stressed that we were facing a novel coronavirus, i.e. a new virus for which no treatment or cure existed.   The resulting terror that gripped us was compounded by the fact that this virus was airborne, making Covid19 astonishingly easy to contract.

Christian congregations were especially vulnerable, given the fact that, as Bishop N.T. Wright has noted, “Christianity is a team sport. It’s something we do together. Think of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, graciousness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). All of those are things we do together. You can’t be practicing them apart from one another.”[2]

As scientists were racing to create a new vaccine to combat a new virus, churches also hastened to create—seemingly “from scratch”--new ways of “doing church” under the difficult conditions created by the pandemic.  How could we still worship, extend care for one another, teach the faith, organize ourselves to serve God’s mission in a new environment in which simply being in close quarters could kill us?

As sobering as that challenge seemed to be, church folk responded with amazing speed and imagination.   As we did so we discovered that instead of “creating from scratch” the novel tools we’d need, we already had many promising resources in our “toolkit.”   We didn’t need so much to create, as we were being called to “pivot” with approaches that were already in use.

Case-in-point:   the rapid, widespread embrace of corporate worship using digital/electronic  means like Zoom, Facebook Live, YouTube, etc.   Fortunately we had many congregations that were already live-streaming their worship services, and these early adopters quickly became teachers and examples to the rest of us.    Better yet--some of our finest resource persons turned out to be younger believers—those in the first third of life!

In a similar vein, “virtual” meetings soon replaced in-person gatherings such as church council discussions, congregational meetings, and in eleven of the ELCA’s 65 synods, all-digital synod assemblies complete with elections of new bishops.

Hybridizing Ways of “Being Church Together”

As I write this blogpost Americans are basking in early, positive reports about potential vaccines for the coronavirus.   Such promising news not only cheers us up, but also points us ahead to a time when the coronavirus will no longer be first and foremost on our minds—when the pandemic will cease to cause sickness and premature death.

When that much-anticipated time comes, what will we do with the new tools for ministry that helped us weather the pandemic?   Tuck them away in mothballs, in case we ever need them again?

I don’t think so.   I foresee churches moving ahead with various “hybridizing” arrangements that wed familiar ways of ministering in-person with one another with the emerging remote or virtual tools that have helped us survive the pandemic.   For example:

·       Live-streaming public worship services will become more common, making it possible for those who can’t attend worship “in-person” on a regular basis—whether because of health concerns, inclement weather,  living in remote areas, tending sick family members—to still worship via digital means.

·       Deliberative bodies within the church will continue to “meet” in-person and/or via virtual means—reducing travel time and expense, drawing in members who maintain dual residences (e.g. “snow-birds” from the Upper Midwest who spend their winters in warmer climes), and not allowing inclement weather to postpone vital opportunities for corporate decision-making.

·       Opening up church-based classes, forums, discussion groups, or gatherings  for inquirers/seekers/religiously curious folks to be offered via both in-person formats and digital formats could actually attract persons to explore the Christian faith and consider joining a congregation. 

Above all, whenever this current pandemic is history, I pray that churches across the world will set aside time for prayerful reflection and earnest conversation about what we learned about “being church together” in the year 2020.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

November 13, 2020

Moorhead, Minnesota

Sunday, October 25, 2020

"But now..."

 

St Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Thompson, ND/Reformation Sunday/October 25, 2020 (online)

Affirmation of Baptism & Installation of Pastor Tawanda Murinda

Romans 3:19-28



 In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 This morning I have three different kinds of news for you.

 First, the bad news…but then the good news….and finally—wait for it!—I’ll share the best news of all!

     1.     First the bad news:   we’re stuck and we can’t get ourselves unstuck.

 We’re stuck—oh boy are we stuck!   This morning, as if we need to be reminded, most of us are stuck at home or wherever else we’re catching this online worship service.

 And the reason we’re stuck somewhere else than in our  beloved church home in Thompson, ND, is that we and everyone else in this world are stuck in a viral pandemic, the likes of which  we haven’t seen in a century!

 This coronavirus that has snaked its way across the whole globe is the freshest proof  that we live in a world that’s simply not what its Creator intended it to be….proof that the creation itself is groaning in pain and anticipation of the new creation God is preparing for us all.

 But for now, we’re stuck,  and we can’t get ourselves unstuck….and as if the pandemic itself wasn’t awful enough—our inability to come together, agree with one another, and take  some fairly easy steps that could defeat this virus—the fact that we human beings haven’t gotten our act together globally places the responsibility for our “stuckness” squarely on our own shoulders…

 …while also exposing all sorts of other ways we’re stuck and cannot get ourselves unstuck, like:

·       Being stuck in age-old prejudices over race, ethnicity, language and culture;

·       Or being stuck in economic systems that don’t give everyone a fair shake;

·       Or being stuck on a planet experiencing climate change at a frightening pace, marked by “extreme weather events”—wild fires and hurricanes, for example, that keep hitting us with astonishing frequency and force.

 And why are we stuck in all these ways?   It’s because we and the whole human race are stuck in sin:  sin, understood not just in terms of  unlawful or hurtful things we say or do, but in terms of a condition, a force with a life of its own, causing us to be “curved in on ourselves”  (as Martin Luther liked to say).

 Today’s bad news is that we’re stuck in sin and all the disastrous effects of sin—and we can’t get ourselves unstuck…which is why we hope for and cry out for a path out of this wretched situation.  It’s why we’re starving to hear even a shred of good news.

 2.     And--thanks be to God!--there is good news:   God has already opened up for us a path, a solution, a way forward to get unstuck!

 And you already know, I’m guessing, where this is leading:  which is to  Jesus, of course!

This good news has nothing to do with what you and I think or say or do.  It is, rather, simply bestowed on us—out of the clear blue.  It descends like gentle rain on parched earth.  It “happens” to us when we least expect it.

That certainly is how it happened for our Lutheran church’s namesake, Martin Luther, who was born in 1483.

Growing up in Germany during the Middle Ages, Martin Luther wrestled with his own brand of stuckness.   He was stuck in a feverish, desperate attempt to make himself acceptable to a God whom he feared more than he loved—a God whose church in that time offered 101 ways to “get right” with the Almighty.

If anyone could have pulled that off—it was Martin Luther.  Day after day he labored—performing good works, confessing all his sins, making amends for those sins. 

 Luther became so obsessed with “going to confession,” that one day his frustrated priest-confessor turned him away at the door into the confessional—commanding Luther not to come back until he had some real, serious sins to confess!

So instead, at the end of his rope, Luther dove deeply into the Word of God…searching, seeking, trying to find a way out of his stuckness in sin…

….until one fine day “that way out” found Luther!--right here in the words of today’s Second Lesson from Romans chapter three. 

God’s good news burst into Luther’s life through just two words:    but now!”

Those might be the two sweetest words in the whole Bible:  But now”—something new bursts forth, a turning point arrives…something other than “trying just a bit harder” to live our lives well.

But now—a path opened up that Martin Luther wasn’t even looking for.  It just appeared—taking Luther completely by surprise.

“But now,” sings St. Paul here in Romans chapter 3, “but now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Here Luther thought that being right with God, being aligned with God’s Kingdom, was something he had to pursue with every fiber of his being….

…”but now”—lo and behold!—it dawned on Luther that God’s righteousness had been pursuing him, all along.

Following in Luther’s footsteps, we 21st century Lutherans, have come to know and trust that God’s righteousness—that is, God’s way of making the world right again--is never our do-it-yourself project.  It is God’s good work, from start to finish.   It is God rescuing us—completely “free of charge.”

And here’s the best thing:  God delights in simply forking it over, letting it wash over us, covering all our sinfulness and waywardness with the saving water of our baptism into Christ Jesus.

This gracious water of Baptism into Christ sweeps away all obstacles in our path, pulls us out of our stuckness, and catches us up in the gracious current, the glorious under-tow of God’s Good News.

3.     Which brings us to the best news of all!   God’s way of making us and the whole world right again in Jesus Christ, isn’t just a bright idea or a  “live option”—an alternative God cooked up for us in the spur of the moment—a rescue plan that just might do the trick, if we’re smart enough to choose it.

No, the best news of all is that this way, Jesus’ way is what God has had in mind all along.  

As Paul puts it in our text, Jesus disclosed” what God has always been about.   Jesus discloses that God’s righteousness isn’t God’s possession—but rather, it is God’s modus operandi—God’s way of  being God for us, played out in real time in this world. 

God is, always has been, and always will be in the business of setting things to right—making you and me and the whole creation NEW once again!

God doesn’t come to us, hat in hand, to make us an offer he hopes we’ll accept.

No, but rather:  God rolls up his sleeves and goes to work in us, in order to open us up to this goodness.   God chooses to accomplish  this way in our lives.  It is our destiny!

Before the first star began to twinkle, God was thinking of you.  Before God created anything, God was already envisioning a Cross and an Empty Grave at the very center of human history.   Before the first sunrise ever took place, God had designs on you--to name you and claim you and never let you go.

That, my dear young friends—Ava, Reese, Kate, Zakary, Drew and Zane—it’s what the six of you are affirming today.   You’re saying your own Yes to the Yes God said to you when you were baptized.

And because all of this is God’s gift to you—you are free from everything that makes you stuck.  

In Jesus Christ, we’re simply set free:  free to float in God’s mercy.  

Years ago I got to know Raymond Lucker the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New Ulm MN until cancer stole him away.  In his last days Ray often visited a little farm place he owned near Renville, MN. 

One day a friend found Ray, sitting in a lawn chair in the bright sunshine of a Minnesota summer morning.  “What are you doing?” a friend asked.   “Nothing,” Bishop Lucker replied.  “I’m just sitting here, letting God hold me.”

Reformation Day is about floating on the sheer grace of God, living in the confidence that before you and I ever lifted a finger to do one good thing for God, God had already done all good things for us, in Christ Jesus. 

And where does that leave us? 

It leaves us free from all our “stuckness”…free to say thank you….and free to  live the life we were created for:  trusting God, loving our neighbors, and caring for this good earth. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen