I recently had the privilege of preaching in a Christian congregation in Luzhou, China. Over the past few years, the ELCA has developed a growing partnership in witness and service with Christians in the Sichuan province.
Sitting in the sanctuary were those who, through the presence of the Spirit, kept faith alive during the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution. As I looked at their faces, I was overcome with a sense of awe and gratitude for their faith.
The balcony was filled with young people. They were leaning forward, many holding their cell phones, waiting to hear the good news of God's grace and mercy, and ready to text it to friends. They exuded a sense of expectant hope.
The following week in a question-and-answer session with leaders in the Rocky Mountain Synod, I was asked: "In 2017, what do you hope will be the same and what do you hope will be different in the ELCA?"
It is a question that deserves lively conversation throughout the ELCA as we approach 2017 and the observance of the 500th anniversary of the continuing Lutheran Reformation.
I began my response by saying that I pray we will be a church with high confidence in the Spirit at work in our lives of faith and through our ministries. Yes, it is important that we acknowledge our losses and be open to change. Yet equally important is to remember that God is at work in our lives, our congregations and the ministries in which we are engaged together.
In 2017 may we continue to be a church deeply rooted in Scripture, the confessions and in our life in Jesus Christ. Christ's word of forgiveness and the promises of God's steadfast love and mercy will sustain and renew us just as they strengthened those who gathered for worship in Luzhou.
We have a great opportunity to make an evangelical witness that I firmly believe so many are ready to hear and deserve to learn. Such a witness calls for our continued attentiveness to how we talk about the heart of our faith in ways that are accessible.
How do you share the grace of God in Christ with someone whose days are filled with messages that they do not measure up and who feel excluded rather than welcomed? How shall we talk about faith in a culture of mistrust and deception? In a world steeped in violence, how do we talk about the cross of Christ as the place that reveals both the depth of God's love incarnate and where Jesus' life for others is offered fully?
Where the culture experiences deep division and despair, a church with "a living, daring confidence in God's grace" can articulate a clear message of hope. We are called to be such a church.
As we look to 2017, that witness will be made in communities of increasing religious diversity and among those who claim no religious affiliation. With the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and the demonstrations and violence in the Middle East, including the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, together we must ask: "What is a faithful evangelical Lutheran witness in such a context?
It calls us to be engaged in sustained interreligious dialogue in communities throughout this church. We have an opportunity to bear witness to "the hope that is in" us (1 Peter 3:15), while receiving the witness of others in the confidence that such dialogue will deepen understanding, defuse tensions and contribute to building communities of mutual respect.
As Bishop Jeffrey S. Barrow of the Greater Milwaukee Synod said following the tragic violence at the Sikh temple: "As people of faith, I ask us not only to stand in solidarity with our grieving brothers and sisters in the Sikh community, I ask us to pledge to be part of a world where ignorance, fear, hatred and violence do not rule the day nor lower our expectations for what life should be. For me, it is a matter of practicing faithful Christianity to make that pledge."
Oh yes, what a marvelous opportunity we have to make an evangelical witness for the life of the world.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers