This issue of Let’s Talk is devoted to leadership in the Church. There is a natural temptation to look to models of leadership from social institutions because the Church is a society in the world that operates according to social, political, and economic “laws.” Pastoral leaders can be taught leadership skills that come out of sociological and political models. But as I read history (and I read a lot of it), the great leaders are those who projected a worldview, a vision of how things should be. The greatest leaders also had the political skills to get people on board with their vision. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon and Shuster, 2005) became so popular, I think, because it demonstrated Lincoln’s political skills in holding together a young and potentially contentious political party in order to help him hold the union together in its darkest hours. But these skills were all in the service of the worldview Lincoln projected to the divided nation in his remarkable addresses. Pastors have this opportunity week after week to draw a congregation together by projecting a view of reality that is admittedly at odds with the reality their people live in and experience all through the week.
This is something I tried to do throughout 44 years of active pastoral and teaching ministry. I boldly share an example with the readers of Let’s Talk: my last sermon as Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston and my last sermon before retirement. I provide it here as an example of projecting a worldview that gathers the church in a time of transition.
Last Sunday at Immanuel. June 16, 2013
After Pentecost Year C.
Texts: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
It seems like this “last Sunday” has been a long time coming. I think Pope Benedict retired the easy way. He gave two-weeks’ notice and flew off in a helicopter. I gave the congregation six months’ notice of my intention to retire. I felt that it was necessary in order to plan the budget and other things for 2013. But it seems like it’s been a long goodbye. It hasn’t been easy to go through one event after another knowing it was the last this and the last that. We started getting giddy about last things, and the humor helped, as it always does.
What should I say in my last sermon to a congregation I have served for almost 23 years? I could get nostalgic and take a trip down memory lane. But we will have opportunity for that in the lunch to follow the service. My task here is to proclaim the word of God. I have found that in whatever Scripture readings we have in the lectionary God gets his word inserted into our situations.
We have some great readings today. One might wonder how applicable they are to this leave-taking of pastor and congregation. King David has committed some gross sins and is called to account by the prophet Nathan. David was a greater sinner, but when called to account he confessed his sins and repented. I’ve come to believe that that is his enduring example to us, even if our sins don’t measure up to his.
Jesus is portrayed by St. Luke as one who scandalizes the righteous Simon the Pharisee at a dinner party by accepting the ministrations of a hysterical woman of the city and forgives her sins. Jesus’ openness to people of all walks of life always seems to challenge our self-righteousness.
St. Paul is into a major controversy with the Judaizers in the early Church who think that Gentiles need to become Jews before they can become Christians. Paul argues that if the Messianic Age has really dawned, the Gentiles being grafted onto the trunk of Israel must be real Gentiles. That means they should be uncircumcized. The return to the ritual law demanded by the Judaizing missionaries was not so much a step backward as a step off the path. God was reinventing Israel.
At first I thought I might gravitate toward this second reading. I could point out that Paul had come to see that the religion of Israel had to be reinvented in order to graft the Gentiles onto Israel. Or, rather, grafting the Gentiles onto the trunk of Israel caused Israel to be reinvented in spite of itself. That’s the way it is with us in our lives and with the church. We are reinvented when we respond to new circumstances.
I’m being reinvented by beginning my retirement ministry. I may do a lot of things during my retirement that are pastoral. My ordination doesn’t end at retirement; it ordinarily ends at death. But I will likely never again be the called pastor of a congregation. I will no longer hold a pastoral office. My ministry will therefore not be institutional; it will be charismatic in the sense that what I am invited to do will depend on the gifts I have to offer, not the office I hold. Imagine that: Pastor Senn is being reinvented as a charismatic!
Immanuel Lutheran Church has been reinvented several times during the course of its history, including during the twenty-two years I have been pastor. Immanuel is no longer a Swedish ethnic congregation. It has been reinvented as a downtown church open to all people. It will be reinvented again as you go through a pastoral interim and continue to respond to the changing circumstances in the society around us.
There’s a lot of talk today about churches, like businesses, reinventing themselves. But what goes through these readings today is the ultimate reinvention of ourselves and our community: the forgiveness of sins. And I think this is the word of God inserted into our leave-taking today, and it’s the word we must deal with. Forgiveness is really what makes the church the new community in Jesus Christ. It is the heart of the gospel. It’s a word worth considering in my last sermon. Because the forgiveness displayed in our readings today is really about a sense of restored community where it has been broken, and what it takes for a community of sinners to be held together and move on.
King David, because of his sin, is in a broken relationship with his community, the nation of Israel. He has broken not only the Law of God, but also the trust of his subjects who expected the Lord’s anointed to be a model of obedience to the Law by which Israel lived. But David has enticed a wife away from her husband. He has arranged the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, the honorable and loyal soldier Uriah the Hittite. And he has implicated the high command in his crime. The king has the role of passing judgment on criminal situations, but his own conduct could not withstand the scrutiny. It takes the word of the prophet to indict him and the word of forgiveness to restore him in his relationship to his people as well as in his relationship with God.
Only through forgiveness can relationships within the human community be restored. Jesus’ word of forgiveness to the woman of the city also includes reconciliation with the human community. The word of peace, of shalom, is the pronouncement of reconciliation which restores the sinner to communion with God and also to her community. If she is a forgiven sinner she must be accepted by the righteous members of the community as one in equal standing with themselves. That depends on whether she has been truly forgiven by God, who alone can forgive sins. Understandably, the Pharisees wondered about a man exercising divine authority. But Jesus could do nothing more to assert his divine status than to forgive sins. And that authority to forgive sins has been given to his community of disciples, the Church.
We confess to and forgive one another, as we did in the mutual confession before the beginning of the Service today at the baptismal font. I don’t know whether there are any outstanding issues between us—things I have done or left undone in my ministry at Immanuel that have caused offense. I know I have blundered and failed to do all that I should have done to care for the members. But whatever my failings, I ask your forgiveness just as I will forgive you any frustrations you have caused me. We will depart in peace. And we must then hold our peace.
The church hasn’t always lived up to expectation—God’s or ours. Paul’s principle that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Christ” was intended to create a community of both Jews and Gentiles in a renewed Israel. He obviously failed, since Judaism went its way after the destruction of the Temple, following the religion of the Pharisees in the synagogues, while Christianity went its way, proclaiming its faith in Messiah Jesus and setting aside observance of the ritual laws of the old covenant since they have been fulfilled in Christ. But the fact that a unified community of Jews and Gentiles failed to emerge should not convince us that this is the way things should be from God’s point of view. It is to our shame that Christians have treated their Jewish brothers and sisters so shamefully during our centuries of separation. It is to our shame that forgiven sinners have not been received as spiritual equals by the righteous. It is to our shame that the Church did not give equal standing to women down through the ages, who ministered so devotedly to Jesus. But God is still at work reconciling the world to himself, and has given the Church the high calling of being the agent of reconciliation and modeling a reconciled community in a contentious world.
This brings me to what I want to leave with you today on my last Sunday—not a particular agenda but a worldview, a worldview that is demonstrated in our liturgy. For in our liturgy we sinners gather in the presence of a holy and righteous God and confess our sins as boldly as David did. We then join together as forgiven sinners in the praise of God and the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. We hear of God’s saving acts in the history of his people and in the actions and teachings of God’s Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We confess our faith in God the Holy Trinity and pray for the world. We greet one another with the peace of the Lord—the same peace that Jesus extended to the woman of the city and to his failed disciples on the evening of his resurrection. And we celebrate in advance the meal of the kingdom in which we disciples of Jesus eat and drink together in communion with the living Lord Jesus Christ. We have been gathered as the first fruits of a new creation, as a holy people that does the world right by putting away from us all enmity and hostility and strife. That cannot be tolerated at the Lord’s Table. We must come to that Table in peace and depart in peace.
This is not pious theory; it is reality. The church has spent much time and energy in recent years trying to make our worship relevant to contemporary life when we should have been worrying about how to make contemporary life relevant to the reality we experience in the eucharistic liturgy. Here at this Table we experience reconciled humanity. Here are all sorts and conditions of people brought together into the fellowship of the Church sharing in the one loaf and the one cup. We worry about reinventing the Church. But the Church is reinventing the world in this fellowship of love and praise.
It is as witnesses to a reinvented world that we go forth from this assembly into a contentious world to bring forgiveness and peace in Christ to bear on its divisions and hostilities. Christ has made us competent to be witnesses of his peace by what the Spirit has effected here. Of this reality I have been a minister. Of this reality you have been made witnesses, inviting the rest of the world to come and experience this peace for itself. Please carry on, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.