To the people, deacons, and pastors of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and to all to whom these greetings may come, in the city and the world:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
Grace and peace to you in the Name of Jesus! This familiar blessing is meant to remind us of God’s love and protection, and it is especially nice to hear it as the our first word of Scripture for the new year of 2018—for it this passage from Numbers is the first lesson assigned for The Name of Jesus, the first day of January.
Those in ordained ministries, our pastors and deacons, know what a joyful duty and a powerful feeling it is to bless God’s people with God’s own words of blessing. In it we hear from human mouths these ancient words, and all of us are bound together in the speaking and hearing: God, whose blessing it is; the person set apart to speak the blessing; and all those hearing it—together we are pulled into a community of blessing.
As we cross the calendar threshold into a new year, let us remember our call from God to gather in such communities of blessing. In doing so, we not only feel the blessing of God on us again, we also strengthen and empower ourselves to be a blessing for others. This means three principal things: continually interceding for others before God in our worship; holding others in regard and respect as God’s people in their variety; and living and acting in our lives in ways that help and support others, especially those in need of our help.
In the year 2017, much of the imaginative energy of the Lutheran church has been focused on remembering, reconsidering, and re-engaging with the teachings of Martin Luther and the Reformation era of 500 years before. We have done this with joy and energy, finding in it fresh appreciation of our theological heritage and basic beliefs, renewed commitment to reform within our own church family, and a clearer sense of the Lutheran community of faith as living and moving within the larger Christian family and alongside the world’s other great faiths.
This year, though we may joke that we are moving “beyond Reformation,” our challenge is to take these reforming and renewing impulses and put them into action. “What does it mean?” was the basic question Luther asked of every Christian teaching; for us today, the question might better be “What does it matter?” How does being a Lutheran Christian today prepare us to live in the society in which we find ourselves, as people shaped by our beliefs and ready to act according to them? Or even more simply: how does our believing make us a blessing?
For me, being a Christian means being part of a group of people whose lives are shaped by and lived through a set of radical ideas, the most basic of which is that there is a God, ultimately unknowable in human terms, but whom we can know reliably through Jesus the Christ, whose teaching and living (and dying and rising) are the ways God gives us to know God—to know a God who already knows us completely and loves us more than we can ever understand. The message of God to us through Jesus is that our lives mean more (and will be more) than just the days we spend between our physical birth and our physical death, and that each of us has a part in God’s larger, ineffable life—a divine life that breaks the bounds of time and space.
To believe this is to be able to live with less fear of the anxieties this life will bring—and be better equipped to manage and withstand the challenges we inevitably face, especially our own mortality. This is a death-defying faith: one that refuses to acknowledge physical death as the end of our story. To believe this means to learn to love what is lasting more than that which passes away. This means in turn to love kindness, and seek mercy, and live in humility. To believe that our lives are lived in God is to have the power to take risks for love’s sake, and to work to manifest love of neighbor in our human society: through justice and respect in our common work and joy in our diversity and difference.
But though our faith equips us to face this life’s adversities with confidence in a larger life in God, we Christians also have a deep respect for our physical humanity here and now. Through our belief that God became manifest in humanity—in the child Jesus, the Word made flesh—we know that should never despise or de-value the bodies in which we live our physical lives. They, too, are bearers of divine intention and dwelling-places of God through Christ. We trust in a God who became flesh for our sake; our very existence as God’s creation, both in this life and beyond, is an embodied life; and our ultimate hope is to live that life in a new creation in God.
I reflect on these basic ideas today because I believe the health and strength of our faith depends on them, and the new beginning that a new year offers us is an invitation to return to what is most important to us. Nothing that we do together as a church is as important—or as necessary to our existence as a church—than to cultivate a community of believing so that it may become a community of blessing. Much of what takes up our energy in “being church” in our congregations—questions of income, property, and personnel—though useful in themselves, are not of the essence of being communities of belief and blessing.
I invite you in 2018 to a renewed focus on your own personal faith and that of the community to which you belong, and I hope that you will find in it both a blessing for your own life and an opportunity and desire to bless others with your care. I invite the congregations of the Southwest California Synod to join me in thinking about our mission to be communities of belief that are a blessing to our neighbors as much as to ourselves. And I invite everyone who hears these words to a fresh trust in God: the One who made us, who was revealed to us in the manger and on the cross, and whose life is our life, now and always. Amen.
With my blessing for this day and the year to come!