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Bishop Erwin’s Christmas and New Year’s Letter

Christmas, 2016

To the People of God in the Congregations of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

Grace to you and peace, in our Lord Jesus Christ!

Challenging times call us to ever greater courage; conflict and tension in society call us to deeper love and solidarity with others. As I write these words of Christmas and New Year’s greeting to you, I am very conscious of the anxieties and pain many of you wrestle with: some, because of personal struggles, illness, or grief; others, more out of a sense that we live in a world where, increasingly, truth is devalued and human dignity disregarded. Where is God in all this? How do we make sense of what we are being called by God to do? How can we best follow Jesus and benefit our neighbor?

Today I join many in our city and the world in mourning tragedies of large scale and small. From Aleppo and Syria to the attack in Berlin, our interconnected world makes even distant conflicts a matter of local, even personal concern. Our own communities and our congregations have in them cherished members who have come to us as refugees from violence in Central America and war in the Middle East. Even in the relative safety of our California communities, some live in ongoing fear of deportation because of their undocumented status. Other neighbors fear personal attack or rejection because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. However different from us, all of these are truly neighbors to us, and as Christians we share responsibility for their well-being.

Followers of Jesus should long to help those in need, to stand in solidarity with those who are threatened, and to protest and decry prejudice and discrimination wherever it is found – whether from people on the streets, on the internet, or in the corridors of power. The year ahead may yet further sharpen the political divide in the United States that the recent presidential election has helped bring to light. But whatever happens going forward, we Christians know that our ultimate trust is not in governments and leaders but in the God who loves us and who came to us in Bethlehem – Jesus, the Word made flesh. Christians must defend what we believe to be right and good for our neighbors and ourselves, and we are called just as firmly to resist all that dehumanizes others or deprives them of basic care and sustenance.

As Christians, we remember that our first allegiance is not to nations or races or symbols or laws, but to each other as human beings – all alike children of God and heirs of God’s promise. We serve one another with news of God’s good will toward us: as announced to shepherds on a hillside in Palestine over two thousand years ago; as proclaimed from our pulpits every Sunday; as lived out in our actions and lives today.

As your bishop, I invite you – in this holy season and the year ahead – to renew your commitment to support your neighbor’s well-being. Specifically, I urge you to both speak and act on behalf of those who in our system are powerless: the undocumented, the homeless, the poor, and the refugee. I charge you with the duty to defend your neighbor of a different race or religion or class or sexual orientation or gender identity as you would defend yourselves. I propose that you join together with others to do this, by joining groups that provide information with accuracy and which spur their members to action with integrity. “Truth” and “love” in this world are not debatable abstract concepts, but realities lived out in honesty and faith and self-giving care. Live your truth – and show your love – in action that benefits your neighbor.

Only by relying on God and the lessons of our faith can we resist the inborn urge to protect ourselves and our own comfort in the circle of those most like us, and learn instead to put others ahead of ourselves, especially those different from us. This is not natural and it requires effort. But this is precisely the effort to which God calls us, by coming among us as one of us, declaring in Jesus’ Incarnation that our humanity is worthy of divine love and that we are heirs of God’s kingdom.

So to the usual Christmas greetings and blessings let me add another word from Jesus: “Be not afraid.” Do not fear – because the God who loves us is greater than the human cruelty and hate that frightens us and makes us anxious. The God who created the universe is more powerful than our human ability to destroy it. And in our human frailty, we have Jesus – friend, brother, Savior -with us and among us, bringing light into our darkness and renewed life in the face of death.

May the blessings and joy of Christmas fill your hearts, and sustain you in the new year ahead! Amen.

+ Bishop Guy

Please share Bishop Erwin’s Christmas and New Year’s Letter with your congregations – download a printable PDF here.