Bishop Clements’ Sermon for June 21, 2020

Sermon text: Matthew 10:26-39

Greetings, beloved, of the Northern Illinois Synod…

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thank you for welcoming me into your home today. My name is Jeff Clements and I serve as your bishop. I specifically chose this weekend to share a message with you because this would have been the weekend of our synod assembly. We have postponed this year’s assembly until next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I miss being with you in person and I am looking forward to that day when can safely gather once again.

First, allow me to offer a word of thanks to you for your continued and generous support of your congregation. By helping to keep your congregation strong and fully funded, you help keep us strong as a synod and as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Even though we have not been able to worship together in person, we have continued to worship online, and we have maintained ministries to help our neighbors. I commend you for your creativity, innovation and faithfulness. We are indeed walking together. You have been and will continue to be in my prayers.

To allow enough time for your congregation to incorporate this message into its worship for June 21, I am recording this sermon on the morning of Monday, June 15. I do so with a bit of trepidation because so many significant events have taken place in recent weeks, it is quite possible that something else of local, national or world importance may have occurred in the intervening days. If I fail to acknowledge something, please forgive me. Oh, and Happy Father’s Day!

In recent days, I have seen more than a few Facebook posts from pastors who are celebrating ordination anniversaries. There are many such anniversaries that occur during the summer months. My own is in August. Ordination anniversaries are important dates to remember because they serve as reminders of the sacred vows that we make. Promises that we make to God and in your presence, in the presence of the assembly, or said another way, in the presence of God’s Holy Church.

You have heard the following questions if you have ever attended an ordination service. They begin in a most serious manner with the bishop speaking these words to the ordinand:

Before almighty God, to whom you must give account, and in the presence of this assembly, I ask: Will you assume this office, believing that the church’s call is God’s call to the ministry of word and sacrament?

That sets the stage, doesn’t it? We are accountable to God.

The next question is this: The church in which you are to be ordained confesses that the holy scriptures are the word of God and are the norm of its faith and life. We accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. We also acknowledge the Lutheran confessions as true witnesses and faithful expositions of the holy scriptures. Will you therefore preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures and these creeds and confessions?

The ordinand is then asked:

Will you be diligent in your study of the holy scriptures and faithful in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people, nourish them with the word and sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?

And finally:

Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all that you do?

If you have ever wondered what motivated your pastor to do the things that pastor does you may start here with these promises.

And do not forget this question that is asked in the pastor’s installation. Will you carry out this ministry in harmony with the constitutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?

Wow! Do you realize what that requires? This is a direct quote from our constitution:

Every minister of Word and Sacrament shall speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.

The reason I remind you of these promises and quote this expectation is that these are very difficult days for those who hold leadership positions in the church. Two weeks ago, in the weekly Zoom meeting I have with pastors, deacons, SAMs, vicars and interns, a pastor of this synod was talking about what he was going to preach in light of the death of George Floyd and the massive protests that followed. He concluded his comment with, “Bishop, I may be submitting my mobility papers soon.”

He was joking; or was he? Is it the pastor’s job to preach only what will make the congregation happy? Consider our current situation. It is no easy task to speak publicly to the world. Everything, everything is so polarized.

Look at this pandemic. Every pastor I have spoken to has had someone say, “It’s time to open up our church. This is all a hoax.” And, every doctor I have spoken to has said something like, “You can open up the church, but I won’t be there. Not yet.” Why are we polarized when it comes to disease? Is it because we are tired of being inconvenienced? Is it because we hate wearing masks or because no one in our family has been sick? Is it because we have listened more to politicians than to medical experts?

Here is an even more difficult and divisive topic. If I say, “Black Lives Matter,” it will immediately be countered with, “Yes, but ALL lives matter.” Or, “What about blue lives?” Well, yes, of course, but right now we have to focus on black lives for reasons that have been obvious for a long time, but we have failed to see.

Preachers have been hesitant to mention the names of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, even as protests and demonstrations have risen up all across this country. We have even questioned whether it is right for our pastors to walk in a protest march even though we require them “to speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”

And, this year, as we in the ELCA, for the first time, commemorated the lives of the Emanuel Nine who were murdered five years ago in their church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young white man who had been confirmed in an ELCA congregation, we have been reluctant to repent for our part in the oppression and privilege and white supremacy that have brought us to this day.

We must say those nine names too.  Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Lee Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Martyrs all.

Of course, you know that it is not only the pastor’s job to speak in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. It is who we are and what we are to do as God’s Holy Church. And, you may be as hesitant as your pastor to peacefully protest or to speak out. Jesus’ words are for you today. Here is today’s Gospel Reading from The Message:

Matthew 10:26-39

[Jesus said,]“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.

“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.

“What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.

“Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven. If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?

“Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

“If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

Hard words to hear and even harder to act upon.

I had the privilege of participating in a rally for racial justice on Saturday, June 13. It was a very fine event held on the campus of St. Francis University in Joliet. One of the speakers was Judge Vincent Cornelius of the Will County Circuit Court. He also happens to be a past president of the Illinois State Bar Association. In his talk he issued a call for us (as white people) to commit ourselves to standing in solidarity with his humanity in five specific actions. Today, I am asking you to heed his call. He asks us to see, speak, stand, stay and study.

See: See skin color. He said, “I cannot afford for you to be colorblind.” See the beauty and the burden of his being black.

Speak: He said, “Do not retreat into the safety of silence.”

Stand: Stand with the black community in sincerity when it is in danger.

Stay: He asked that we stay by his side and continue even when the protests have ended and the TV cameras are gone.

Study: He asked that we understand what “systemic” racism really is.

Judge Cornelius concluded by quoting the prophet Habakkuk. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help?”

See. Speak. Stand. Stay. Study. We can do that. It is what Jesus would have us do.

In a variety of ways, over the past four years, I have asked you to join me in this journey. Today, I am wondering if you will join me in study. Will you read a book with me? The book is called White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. It is a best seller and unfortunately in short supply right now. However, I want to read and discuss this book with you later this summer. We’ll gather by Zoom a few times and we will learn together. Would you be willing to engage in a study like that with me? (Information will be posted in the future on the synod’s website and on social media.)

In the meantime, let us seek God’s will and recognize that every human being is created in God’s image. Every life is valuable. Every breath is sacred. And, we are called by God to be in solidarity with the oppressed.