In today’s Gospel, we hear a prayer that Jesus prays to his Father before his death. It’s a prayer that recognizes that he will die. Jesus is still in this world, but prays in anticipation of his death, resurrection, and ascension. His disciples keep on in his absence. They will continue in his glory.
The book of the Acts of the Apostles has not ended. As Christians today, we continue the mission of the Church. God still moves among us. With love for neighbor, with life in community, and with forgiveness for our enemies, we are witnesses of Jesus’ message. God’s work; our hands.
Jesus says, “Protect them with the power of your name, the name that you gave me, so that they can be one, as you and I are one.”
Jesus hopes that his followers can be together in unity. Jesus is Lord of all, not only of one special group. The love of God is immense; God’s mercy is great. Jesus prays for unity: to be together in mission, together in identity, and together in spirit.
Jesus prays for the unity of his people, but he also recognizes the unity that Jesus has with the first person of the Trinity. There is unity and connection. They are of the same divine identity. Many times, there’s confusion about Jesus’ identity. In fact, for centuries. The ecumenical councils of almost two millennia ago tried to respond to the question: Who is Jesus—human being or God? What we confess in the Creed is the grand mystery of the faith. Jesus is completely human and completely divine at the same time. So then, we are mistakenly redundant when we say things like: “God and Jesus love you” because Jesus is God. The Father is God. The Holy Spirit is God. There is unity between the three persons.
I know that the feast of the Holy Trinity is not today, but rather June 11, but this theological doctrine is important to help us understand well what Jesus prays in this high priestly prayer in today’s Gospel: “that they may be one, as you and I are one.”
I love the description of the Trinity according to Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian who has thought and written much about what the Christian message means through the lens of the liberation of those who are poor and oppressed.
According to Boff, the Trinity is community. The three persons of the Trinity dance, function, and work together as a family in community: sharing and moving in harmony. The three parts are a symbol of unity and equality. The three parts—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are all God. One is not more important than the others—Holy Trinity Holy Community. I realize this language is very masculine. The point, for me is not the maleness of God, but rather the relationship of community of God.
In Genesis, in the Hebrew Bible, during the first story of creation, the human beings are created in God’s image. If we, then, are created in the image of God, then we are created in the image of community. To live in community—sharing and moving together in harmony, is to live in God’s image.
However, many times people in the Church prefer to fight instead of reconcile: Disagreement instead of collaboration. Jealousy instead of friendship. Gossip instead of affirmation. So then, to live with so much injustice and division is to live in contrast to our own image and identity. It’s not who we are. As creations created by God in God’s image, our true identity is one of community: equality, justice, and love.
I’ve seen here at San Lucas behavior opposite the Christian message. It’s ugly and wrong. I’ve participated in Synod gatherings that don’t include Spanish-speaking or Mexican Lutherans. I know that there are still congregations, even in our own denomination, that, sadly, do not accept the true leadership gifts of female pastors or LGBTQ leaders. There is no unity. There is no agreement.
But, in the midst of all this, there are hopeful signs of ecumenical cooperation, that is, cooperation between different denominations. Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), officially has full communion agreements with various other denominations. This means that the sacraments of these churches have the same validity as the sacraments of ours. A pastor of these denominations can serve in an ELCA congregation, and vice versa. We have official agreements with the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Reformed Church, the United Church of the Christ, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church.
This Lent, we tried to put some of this ecumenism into practice with Holy Week services together with Redeemer Episcopal Church here in Eagle Pass. The Episcopal priest preached here at San Lucas for Maundy Thursday, and I preached at Redeemer for Good Friday, processing with Stations of the Cross at San Juan Plaza. I know it is a first step, but I hope that we can have more opportunities to be together in unity.
There’s an old joke: Somebody dies and goes to heaven. There they see the grand diversity of humanity—people of every language and race, every culture and denomination, celebrating together. However, in the corner there is a group of people in a circle, focused only on themselves, ignoring all the rest. “Who are they over there?” they ask. The response: “They’re Lutherans. They think they’re the only ones here.”
As Lutherans, we don’t have a monopoly on God’s grace. We aren’t the only one God loves. The Christian life is more diverse and tremendous than we can imagine. The love of Jesus is for us Lutherans, but it’s also for Episcopalians. It’s for Pentecostals and Roman Catholics. It’s for people we love, but it’s also for our enemies. Christian love is immense and inclusive.
As Lutherans, we have our own beautiful perspective. We teach a theology full of grace and abundance. We celebrate a tradition of reformation. We don’t want to lose that. But we humbly recognize that we aren’t the only Christians. We recognize that God moves in ways we don’t understand. We find unity in the midst of so much diversity.
Sometimes, we need to be uncomfortable so that the other person can be comfortable. Sometimes, we need to focus on the needs of others instead of our own desires. Sometimes, we need to remember that we don’t have a monopoly of God’s grace.
Jesus prays for unity. Jesus shows a hope that his followers may live in the unity of the Father and the Son. Jesus trusts his people into the power of God—God of incredible love and transformative reconciliation.
We are men and women and transgender people, but we are one in Christ. We are Mexicans and Germans, but we are one. We are Namibians and Norwegians, but we are one. We are Republicans and Democrats, but we are one. We are PAN and PRI, but we are one. We are little kids and wise elders, but we are one. We are Lutherans and Episcopalians, but we are one. We are citizens and immigrants, but we are one. There is difference and disagreement, but we are one. We are one in Christ. Amen.
[Preached in Spanish on May 28, 2017, at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas].
Grace and peace to you in the name of Christ. Amen.
Gracia y paz en el nombre de Cristo Jesus. Amén.
On behalf of the congregation I serve, Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, I bring greetings on this festive day. San Lucas is a Spanish-speaking congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America located near the United States-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas. It is a ministry of welcome and faith formation and life together in the midst of poverty, injustice, and border uncertainty. Eagle Pass is right across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. With many families on both sides of the river, it is a community bound by bridges. In many ways, it is not unlike my hometown of the Quad Cities, except you don’t need to show a passport or a visa to armed agents in order to go to Bettendorf.
It is an honor for me to be back here with you today “by the Mighty Mississippi.” I realize that when I started as a first-year student here at Augustana, most of the seniors graduating today would have been in kindergarten.
I’m filled with nostalgia of my time here as I return to campus. Augustana formed me in many and various ways, crystallizing a curiosity for learning, connecting me with a tradition of scholarship and discovery, and strengthening me with a community of faith and service.
For you getting ready to graduate today, it’s probably too soon for nostalgia. It’s more likely relief, or accomplishment, or fear and excitement as you imagine what comes next. Augustana is a part of your story. You are a part of Augustana’s story. It is all a part of God’s story.
I remember a storied piece of Augustana lore told to me by my late father, James Bailie, class of 61. According to Dad, a few prankster students got some feathers, and put them into the pipes of the organ on this stage here in Centennial Hall. You can imagine what happened next. You can imagine when the organist strikes the first chord: Piles of projectile plumage. Everywhere. I tell this story, not to promote collegiate mischief, but as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit.
A pastor I work with in Texas, when talking about the Holy Spirit, often says, “Look for the feathers.” In Christian tradition, the presence of God’s spirit is often symbolized by a bird, floating and maneuvering amongst us. “Come Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” Birds sometimes leave behind feathers as signs that they were there. So too it is with God. We can’t always see God among us, be we can see signs of the Spirit’s presence: Lives transformed. Families welcomed. Communities impacted. Feathers. Our lives become piles of projectile Spirit-signs: lessons learned, friendships cultivated, dreams inspired.
In today’s Gospel from John 14, Jesus promises the presence of the Holy Spirit. In his farewell discourse, Jesus prepares his disciples for time without him, after his death. They are in a liminal state, in-between, unaware of the future without their teacher, without their friend. In their uncertainty of what happens next, Jesus promises that they will not be abandoned. He will send an Advocate, a Comforter, a Guide, a Spirit of Truth, so that they will not be alone. And so it is with us. We are not abandoned. We are not alone.
The time around graduation is a liminal in-between time. You might not know what happens next. There’s anticipation and expectation. Farewells and finals. Sometimes our lives might feel strewn out like a stage full of feathers. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes our plans don’t happen like we want them or how our families want them. Sometimes the Holy Sprit surprises.
I remember the day that I went to the Register’s office to undeclare my Spanish major. “When will I ever really use this?” I wondered. Now I function in Spanish almost daily as a pastor on the Mexican border.
God’s spirit surprises and changes us. My time after Augustana has led me to a variety of places and contexts: Seminary in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, an internship in a bilingual and multicultural congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and now parish ministry in Texas.
Two years into my first call as a pastor after graduating from seminary, I was serving a congregation in suburban San Antonio. The bishop’s office called me seemingly out of the blue saying, “We’d like you to interview in Eagle Pass.” “Where’s that?” I asked.
Eagle Pass is 140 miles west of San Antonio, across vast open spaces of cattle ranches, mesquite trees, and rattlesnakes. Sometimes it is 45 miles between gas stations. It’s 120 miles to the next closest ELCA Lutheran congregation. Ministry is meaningful and the people are welcoming, but the location can is remote and can be isolating.
I distinctly remember, as a geography major here at Augustana, being firmly admonished by Professor Norman Moline to never use the phrase “Middle of nowhere.” Every place, he told us, is somewhere for somebody. Even the smallest town is home for those who live there. Even the places uninhabited by humans are still somewhere for somebody. They are part of ecosystems and watersheds. Everywhere is somewhere.
And so it is with God. Every place is someplace as the Spirit of God abides. No corner of the universe, no path untrodden or peril unknown, no parents’ basement or entry level position is away from God’s presence. God’s Spirit is with you.
My six years on the border have taught me that God’s presence has no boundaries. We try to build walls, but God’s love transcends our human divisions. In whatever language, God speaks.
God shapes us and forms us. God challenges us and guides us. God is present in the mess and the mystery. God’s Spirit is present in us and with us. Jesus says, “This is the Sprit of Truth.”
In another piece of Augustana lore, I invite you on a scavenger hunt this afternoon during Commencement. Take a look at the banner used in the procession. There’s a Greek word on it. Aletheia. It means truth. It’s the word used here in John’s Gospel.
As you celebrate your graduation from Augustana, the truth is with you. In the liberal arts tradition, we celebrate truth. Truth in classroom. Truth in the laboratory. The truth of creative art. The truth of life together in community.
Students of Augustana, family, friends: Today as we give thanks to God for the gift of education and the blessings of learning, we celebrate truth. We celebrate the truth of God’s love for each and every person here. We celebrate the truth of God’s abiding presence. The Comforter, the Advocate, the Guide is with you. You will not be abandoned.
The Good News for us today is that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. You are not alone. We are not alone. However the feathers of your life may fall, God’s Spirit of love has been with you. God’s Spirit of peace is with you right now. The Spirit of truth will be with you forever. Amen.
This weekend, the Southwestern Texas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is gathering in San Antonio for its annual Synod Assembly. It is a time of worship, fellowship, and decision-making for the sake of ministry. As a pastor of the synod, it has been a way for me to keep connected with colleagues and mission partners.
However, this year, I decided not to attend Synod Assembly for a variety of reasons: 1) The registration fee of $180 per person is hard to manage for a congregation in a community of poverty that already struggles for everyday ministry expenses. It basically becomes an ecclesiastical poll tax. 2) I was already planning to be gone several Sundays this spring and didn’t want to be away from worship too many times. 3) Increased fear about Border Patrol and ICE presence makes some parishioners nervous about traveling.
Perhaps I am being a colonialist gatekeeper pastor myself, but I don’t want this to be my Spanish-speaking congregation’s experience with the wider Church. When parishioners have attended Synod Assembly in the past, it has not always been a safe space or a pleasant experience. Spanish translation, if available, is not always the best quality. Micro-aggressions abound. In my eight years in this synod, I’ve long felt the unspoken rule that one must be German before being Lutheran. It has improved slightly, but it still feels to me like an ethnic insiders club. Polka music and sauerkraut are not uncommon. There is nothing wrong with honoring German heritage. The problem comes when that culture is assumed to be normative, to the exclusion of others.
I know that by not attending Synod Assembly this year, I am disenfranchising the congregation and am avoiding collegiality with other leaders, but I am also avoiding the physically-draining geographical commute of five hours round trip across desolate Texas backcountry, as well as the emotionally-draining cultural commute.
My decision to not attend was reaffirmed when I saw the bulletin for worship on Saturday morning. I think a polka service could be fun every once in a while. I think it would be a great opportunity to reflect on the mixing of cultural influences that has happened in the course of Texas history. The accordions and oom-pah rhythms that I hear on the local ranchera stations have roots in the musics of the German and Czech immigrants of a century hence.
I understand the desire to honor heritage. I realize that German was the primary language of San Antonio in 1870, but it is not anymore. There are people in our synod who speak German, but I imagine that they also speak English very well. German is not a survival language. There are people in our synod who only speak Spanish. Including Spanish is a matter of hospitality and welcome. Including German is a matter of grasping onto nostalgia.
My discomfort comes from the litany, “Thanksgiving for Our Heritage.” It’s not all our heritage. If the author were to read it himself during worship, that would be one thing. However, goading the congregation to respond, “May Jesus Christ be praised” at the end requires worshippers to affirm words that are not necessarily theirs. The litany celebrates Biblical heroes—women and men—as well as reformers and European immigrants. It seems to assume that those present share that German heritage or those other White heritages from “a more civilized North.” This is not the heritage of the Spanish-speaking Lutherans in places like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and San Juan. This is not the heritage of the “incredulous faces” of the Coahuiltecan, Karankawa, and Comanche whose lands the synod’s territory claims. This is not the heritage of the African Americans whose ancestors picked cotton on plantations in our synod’s territory. This is not all our heritage. The #decolonizeLutheranism movement is not about denying European culture. It’s not about pretending that German immigrants didn’t exist. Rather, #decolonizeLutheranism is about recognizing other parts of the story. It is about celebrating a theological identity based on God’s grace instead of a cultural one based on our human divisions. I long for a day where there is not this disconnect, where I don’t have to exude so much energy to deal with all the layers of cross-cultural mission.
In my absence at Assembly, I know I will miss out on the opportunity to be collegial. Parishioners will miss out on the chance to meet folk from other congregations. I don’t want to spend my congregation’s precious financial recourses perpetuating the ELCA Marriot culture where decisions happen in expensive hotel ballrooms. I’m skipping Synod Assembly this year because I don’t want to culturally commute to a context where “all are welcome” doesn’t always seem to include me and the parishioners with whom I serve.