10/14/19 Sermon on Neighbor-Centeredness

October 14th, 2019

A sermon preached in chapel at Augsburg University on 10/14/19. This is the first in a series of sermons preached by the Augsburg University religion department on the core theological tenets of our department.

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Iowa Tri-Synodical Conference Handouts (September 2019)

September 21st, 2019

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Pathways in Public Theology – The Augsburg Podcast

June 25th, 2019

In Season 2 Episode 8 of the Augsburg Podcast, Jeremy Myers, Associate Professor of Religion, explores how early encounters with the wonder and mystery of faith led him to his work with youth, current coursework in public theology, and involvement in the Riverside Innovation Hub. Click on the image below to hear the interview.

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A Sermon on Ezekiel 47:1-12

May 28th, 2019

Ezekiel and the Public Church: Everything Will Live Where the River Goes

September 17th, 2018

The Riverside Innovation Hub is convinced of two things.

First, we are fairly certain young adults do not want to be targeted by efforts to win them back to church. They would much rather be participants and leaders in efforts to target pressing issues impacting their neighborhoods and the globe.

Second, we are fairly certain innovation, theologically understood, is not the creation of new, shiny programs. Rather, it is best understood as vocation. It is that thing that happens at the intersection where we are simultaneously aware of our neighbors’ deep desires, our deep desires, and God’s deep desires. Innovation happens when we are responsive to God’s call to be in life-giving relationships with and for our neighbor.

We believe the Public Church Framework offers us an effective way to engage young adults – and all people – in that life-giving work. This post seeks to explain the Public Church Framework and the biblical imagination that serves as its engine, specifically Ezekiel’s vision of God’s abundance.

The Public Church Framework

The Public Church Framework is based upon three presuppositions. First, the Triune God is present and active in our world working to create a future for God’s creation. Second, God calls God’s people to join God in this work of co-creating a future for God’s creation out in the world. Third, most – but not all – of these places where this work happens are places of suffering. Douglas John Hall defines the practice of theology as the work a Christian community takes on when it is seeking to proclaim good news that will actually displace bad news, or suffering. He says,

“Theology is that ongoing activity of the whole church that aims at clarifying what ‘gospel’ must mean here and now. . . The good news is good because it challenges and displaces bad news . . . Gospel addresses us at the place where we are overwhelmed by an awareness . . . of what is wrong with the world and with ourselves in it. It is good news because it engages, takes on and does battle with the bad news, offering another alternative, another vision of what could be, another way into the future.”

Displacement does not always mean elimination, but it does always mean the suffering no longer has center stage, it is now accompanied and challenged by a hope which changes the nature of the suffering. Therefore, the Christian community’s call is to proclaim good news that challenges bad news, simultaneously discerning and proclaiming both incarnation and vocation – how God is at work in the world and how individuals, faith communities, and institutions are called into this work.

The Public Church Framework is a method for doing this work. It is descriptive rather than prescriptive in that it describes a natural rhythm or method many undertake when aiming to clarify “what gospel must mean here and now.” It is an approach to Christian formation and discipleship that begins with a movement out into the public square rather than beginning in church doctrine. The framework walks faith communities through four movements, or artforms, designed to move the faith community into their neighborhood’s story, into God’s story, into their own story, and into a time of discerning how God might be calling them to be proclaimers of good news into their neighborhood and with their neighbor. These artforms include:

1. Accompaniment: The movement into the neighborhood in order to hear the neighbors’ stories. In this movement we learn to engage and listen to the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake.

2. Interpretation: The movement into God’s story and the faith community’s core biblical and theological commitments. In this movement we learn how our core theological commitments shape our understanding of our neighbors’ stories and we learn how our neighbors’ stories shape our understanding of our core theological commitments.

3. Discernment: The movement into the space between our neighbors’ stories, God’s story, and our story. In this movement we learn how to listen for who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do in light of the present reality and God’s promises.

4. Proclamation: The movement back into the neighborhood, this time prepared to proclaim good news in word and deed with our neighbors. In this movement we learn how to boldly speak the truth of Jesus Christ in ways that challenge the way people in our neighborhoods are suffering.

We believe the good news is always Jesus Christ, but we also believe this good news of Jesus Christ will look and sound differently depending upon how individuals and neighborhoods are experiencing bad news. Young people, actually all people, will be drawn to a faith community actively engaged in proclaiming good news and challenging bad news in its neighborhood. The Riverside Innovation Hub’s Innovation Coaches will be guiding faith communities through the artforms of the Public Church Framework. Ezekiel’s vision of the abundance of God’s creative love as it flows away from the temple provides us a compelling image for this work.

Ezekiel’s Vision (Ezekiel 47:1-12, NRSV)

1Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.

3Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. 4Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. 5Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. 6He said to me, ‘Mortal, have you seen this?’

Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on one side and on the other. 8He said to me, ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. 9Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. 10People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 11But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. 12On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’

Ezekiel had trained to be a priest in the temple but ends up living his adult life in Babylon, exiled around 598-597 B.C.E. In 589 B.C.E. he receives word the temple and all of Jerusalem have been destroyed. True to the Hebrew prophetic tradition, Ezekiel sees the destruction of the temple as a direct result of the peoples’ unfaithfulness. Therefore, he begins to share these visions as he prophesies against the temple, but it is a vision and a prophecy of hope, not despair. In this vision, Ezekiel encounters an enigmatic figure who, after touring him through the temple, takes him beyond the walls of the temple in order to show him exactly what happens in those places where the water flows when it leaves the temple. Many biblical scholars connect this river in Ezekiel’s vision to the river that wells up and waters the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2:8-14. The temple cannot contain God’s creative force. In turn, the temple becomes a source of blessing for the entire land, rather than a fixture intended to serve its own purpose.

In a move very similar to Hall’s understanding of good news as that which challenges bad news, Elsa Tamez claims the river in Ezekiel’s vision to be a metaphor for God’s jubilee. A jubilee that can only be proclaimed if it becomes specific in ending actual suffering.

“When one speaks of the jubilee, it is essential to have before one the concrete situation that one is experiencing: debts, poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination, exclusion, conflicts, sorrow, dehumanizing consumerism, the lethargy of the churches. For the jubilee is the good news that supposedly puts an end to that reality of suffering and dehumanization. . . If we speak of jubilee in a generic sense, the injustice is hidden, and the jubilee loses its power and ceases to be jubilee.”

Therefore, Ezekiel’s vision becomes an invitation to follow God’s jubilee as it flows into the world and makes everything live where it flows. The Public Church Framework provides faith communities with a way to do this, to become blessings for the entire land on which they are rooted rather than existing to serve their own purpose. We are Ezekiel, following the enigmatic divine tour guide along the river as we learn to see the breadth and depth of God’s love flowing away from the temple and into the world.

  1. Accompaniment: Mortal, Have You Seen This? (vs. 1-6a) – The river flows out from the temple and towards the desolate places. We are called out of our temples and our comfort zones to follow this river and to stop and notice how wide and deep it becomes. As we hear our neighbors’ stories, we become aware of how God’s deep and wide love and mercy are at work in their lives. We learn to hear and see so that when we are asked this question – Mortal, have you seen this? – we can answer with a yes. Accompaniment is the practice of learning to see and hear God’s love bringing life to our world.

  1. Interpretation: The Water Will Become Fresh (vs. 6b-8) – As the jubilee river flows it brings fresh water into salt water. This fresh water desalinates the salt water and makes it fresh. The jubilee water dwells in, with, and under the salt water and makes it able to support and create life. The same happens to us as the stream of God’s story flows into the streams of our stories and our neighbors’ stories. God’s story begins to dwell in, with, and under our stories and our realities. This brings hope to stories that were at one time hopeless. Interpretation is the practice of learning how God’s promises (the fresh water) change the way we look at suffering in our world (salt water) and how those sufferings change the way we look at God’s promises.

  1. Discernment: Fishing and Spreading Nets (v. 9-11) – The living water brings about diversity and abundance. The fishing is good along this riverside. We have now seen the fullness of this river and we now have some choices to make. Is it time to fish? Is it time to dry our nets? Is this a place to fish? Is this a place to gather salt? There is work to be done along this riverside and we are invited and equipped to do it. Discernment is the practice of learning to hear God’s call and to know when, where, how and why to act on that call.

  1. Proclamation: Fruit for Food, Leaves for Healing (v. 12) – Ezekiel walks the riverside and notices the trees on both sides of the river and the harvest they produce. The trees are growing fruit for food and leaves for healing. The gifts of these trees create a future for God’s people. These trees do not only produce seeds that ensure the future of the trees themselves, they produce leaves and fruit for the world. Proclamation is the practice of producing and presenting our world with our gifts for the sake of the world, not for the sake of our own propagation. Christian faith communities re-engage their neighborhoods with fruit for food and leaves for healing – gifts to be given away that create a future for God’s people.

God’s creative, life-giving, jubilee river flows out from the temple and into the world. Our call is not to dam up the river and keep it in the temple. Our call is not to expect our neighbors to come to the temple to experience the life-giving water of the river. Our call is to follow the river as it deepens and widens and makes all things live. As we learn to do this – to see, to fish, to spread nets, to grow and harvest fruit for food and leaves for healing – we will find ourselves in the midst of innovation. Our innovation will be the work of co-creating a future for God’s world with God and our neighbor along the riverside. Our young adults will be drawn to this work. They are not looking for the temple, but they surely are seeking what they can find at the riverside. They are looking for others who are eager to bring the fruit for food and the leaves for healing to their neighbors.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which of the four artforms gets you most excited? Why? Which one do you think your faith community will struggle with the most? Which one do you think your faith community will have the easiest time putting into practice?

  2. What are some examples of how your faith community is currently proclaiming good news that challenges the bad news of your neighborhood? What are some examples of where your faith community has failed to challenge particular bad news in your neighborhood? Where is there good news happening in your neighborhood beyond the current reach of your faith community?

  3. What part of the Ezekiel text do you find most inspiring? Where do you have a hard time connecting with it or understanding it?

  4. What would it look like for your faith community to follow the river of God’s living water out into the neighborhood away from the church building? Who are the guides that might accompany you on that journey? What might happen?

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Here & Again? Rally Day & Brokenness

September 8th, 2014

Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar Piece

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37)

I was at a low spot in my ministry – lacking self-confidence, burned out, and on the verge of hopelessness. These verses from John’s gospel were read as the text during a lectio divina exercise at the retreat I was attending. I, of course, was hoping for some inspiration that would put the wind back in my sails as a new programming year was starting. The only word I could hear in this text was “again”. Again?!

But this word made my ears tingle. I didn’t want to do all of this . . . again.
Rally day . . . again?
Recruiting volunteers . . . again?
Convincing the congregation to invest in their youth . . . again?
Convincing youth and families to invest in the congregation . . . again?
I didn’t want to do any of it ever again! Read the rest of this entry »

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Public Ministry is Experiential

March 11th, 2012

The father of experiential education, John Dewey, presented the world with his most concise and compelling vision of what experiential education could be in his classic, Experience and Education in 1938. It has some valuable lessons for those of us who work in the area of children, youth and family ministry.

Dewey was writing to critique both the traditional and the progressive approaches to education. The traditional approach was primarily content-driven and didactic. The instructor was the source of knowledge and the student was an empty vessel waiting to be filled with all the knowledge the instructor could impart. The progressive approach was primarily student-centered and unstructured. The assumption was students would only learn through freedom and a hands-off approach. This was a naïve understanding of both freedom and learning. Learning will not happen unless there is some structure and intended outcome working in partnership with freedom. In his critique, Dewey claimed that not all experiences are educative. These are words to heed for those of us working in youth ministry. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rebranding Youth Ministry

March 3rd, 2012

In the six years I’ve taught Youth and Family Ministry at Augsburg College, I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of students in our program. However, I’ve also seen an increase in the number of students across the college who are interested in and involved with youth ministry in some form. These students want to work with youth in the context of a faith community, but have no interested in earning a degree in youth ministry. In fact, many of them don’t see themselves serving professionally in youth ministry in the traditional sense.

This is both troubling and inspiring. The problem is not a lack of interest in ministry with youth. The problem, I think, is linked to the branding of our profession. Read the rest of this entry »

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Workshops & Webinars

February 13th, 2012

This past weekend I had the honor to gather once again with many, many, many youth ministers from across the ELCA. These folks are volunteers, part-timers, full-timers, rostered lay-leaders and ordained clergy. They are young and they are old. They are liberal, moderate and conservative and it is beautiful!

Best of all, these folks really, really love the kids they are called to serve. There is no doubt about that.

I led two workshops at this event on Lutheran theology and Lutheran interpretation of scripture. Many of you wanted links to the webinars so I thought I would share those here. Read the rest of this entry »

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Public Ministry is Vocational

December 12th, 2011

Emmanuel! God is with us, in the vocations of our youth!

Vocation is the most critical issues youth ministry faces today. If we cannot help young people listen for and discern God’s call in their lives, then they will find little reason to stay engaged in the community of faith. When we claim that God is at work in the life of a young person, we claim that biology and culture are not the only factors in human development. From a theological perspective, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-Ecological Systems Theory is incomplete. We would also want to add one more system, the kairos system.

Kairos is God’s time. God shows up and God does God’s work in God’s time. Culture and biology shape our physical, cognitive and social development but God also works on us in kairos moments.

A few years back I conducted a research project in which I listened to teens across the country discuss moments/ experiences in which they thought God was particularly present or active; kairos moments. The language they used to describe these moments was vocational language. They described moments in which they experienced a deeper sense of responsibility for people or creation. They described moments in which they experienced a deepening of their relationship with God. They were describing vocation – kairos moments in which they were being called out of themselves and into deeper relationships with God, others and creation. Read the rest of this entry »

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