From a Bishop's Desk

A series of opinion articles and essays from bishop's of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and ecumenical partners.


The Other Side

Apr 03, 2020

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, in the power of the Spirit. Amen


As we were leaving the office to begin working remotely… When was that? Six months ago? Oh, no. Only three weeks. Anyway, as we were leaving the office, not knowing when we would be together again, I said to my dear coworkers, “See you on the other side.” Some chuckled. Some frowned. I suppose their reactions came from what they imagined by “the other side.”


I only meant the other side of this virus, which at that point wasn’t a crisis (as far as we knew), just an inconvenience for us. And I had envisioned “the other side” being a continuation of life as usual, for the most part, once this disruption was over. These days I am thinking differently.


Not negatively. Not hopelessly. Just differently. As our need for isolation and extreme precaution is measured by months and not days, I think we can all sense the world changing. I wondered out loud to my wife the other day how long it would take us not to cross the street or hug the curb when we see another person coming toward us, measuring the distance in our heads and hoping we had achieved the necessary and magical “six feet.” Recently in staff and Deans’ meetings (All remote, of course!), we have been concerned about how healthy some of our more vulnerable congregations – and maybe all of our congregations – will be “on the other side.” While online worship attendance has been reported as really good by many, financial support can lag far behind the personal gratification of having needs met, free of charge.


We are all being changed as we confront this danger, as individuals, as families, as communities, as a society, as congregations and as the Church. I do not doubt Jesus’ words that “the gates of Hell” cannot prevail against our central confession that Jesus is the Christ. Nor can they prevail against the Body (the Church) that makes that confession. (Matthew 16) But the expression of this central confession must change to meet the changing world in which we make it! And our example, of course, is Jesus himself, who gave himself out of love for this world. Perhaps the most essential mark of the Church is our willingness to give ourself away for the sake of this same broken, beloved world. To serve as wisely and as creatively and as selflessly as we can, not worrying about tomorrow.


It is that wisdom and creativity and selflessness that I see in so many of you in these mean times, for which I am unspeakably grateful, even as I know I and you can do more, in the power of the Spirit.


I randomly (!) picked up a piece of paper to read this morning. It was an article I had floating around on Dr. King. It ended with these words that he preached the night before his assassination, words that are so relevant to us now: I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!


Dr. King had a powerful, sustaining vision for “the other side,” what he called “the Promised Land.”


I would like for this virus to be over. I would like for people to stop getting sick and for people to stop dying and for people to stop living in fear. I would like for life to a place so we can do the work we have been called to do.

I would like that, but most of that is not under my control. So I set my sights a little lower, my goals a little nearer. Like Dr. King, I “just want to do God’s will.” As we walk this uncertain journey, this thought brings me life and hope: However you define the other side, we know Jesus is already there. And so we press on, walking by faith and not by sight, knowing only what we need to know, together.


The Other Side, Part 2
It Has to Look Different on the Other Side

I would like to be clear about my use of the quote from Dr. King above, shared on the 52nd anniversary of his assassination, a detail I originally missed (but, apparently, the Holy Spirit didn’t).

I do not use Dr. King’s vision of the Promised Land to advocate for a return to life as usual post-virus. As you know, that is not at all the vision Dr. King had. It was for a world radically changed, a more just world, a world free of racism, a world where all God’s children were judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as he so movingly put it.

This virus and the subsequent responses and reactions to it have exposed once again deep fault lines in our society. Although the corona virus is non-discriminatory in that no demographic is immune, the ability to weather the storm in terms of health and economics falls in familiar territory. I have heard of “summer houses” now occupied as people flee the density of the city.  Well, at least those who can. But what about those who can’t? What about those who are not able to stay home and practice social distancing? And I am thinking here not just of those living and working close together but of hourly workers and those participating in the gig economy where so many jobs have dried up. I am thinking of those with no financial safety net who must go to whatever job they have, if any, often on public transportation, putting themselves at greater risk and thereby trying to choose the narrow path between economic subsistence and physical health.

I am thinking of healthcare workers. Not only doctors and nurses and technicians but those with lower paying jobs who clean the rooms and prepare the food. Of homecare attendants upon whom others depend for their health and well-being. 

I am thinking, too, of those who are incarcerated and in detention centers. And of Jesus’ words, “I was sick and in prison and you visited me.” Of the Gospels’ “preferential option for the poor,” as liberation theology rightly points out.

I am thinking of those who are discriminated against as a result of fear: people of Asian descent, the elderly, even New Yorkers just for being New Yorkers!

Dr. King’s vision of the Promised Land encompassed in its defiant challenge all these realities of discrimination which, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear, are being exposed again in this time of crisis.  Nothing about the Promised Land was status quo or life as usual. The Spirit-inspired vision was a radical one in which each person’s God-given identity was valued, respected and protected.

It was this vision that led to Dr. King’s life being stolen from him on this date 52 years ago, the ultimate act of rejection of his God-given identity.

I write theses reflections to you on the Saturday before Palm Sunday/The Sunday of the Passion. In these strange times, we Christians enter once again into the mystery and passion of Holy Week.  Though not in the usual way.  Maybe these strange circumstances open us to a new or renewed understanding of what these days mean. In light of these thoughts in particular, dare we say Jesus’ crucifixion was endured at so great a cost so we could return to life as usual? Was not Dr. King’s radical vision catalyzed by God’s own radical self-giving on the cross?

Not so that we could return to life as usual but so that, witnessing the injustice and the shame of the cross, the mind-blowing rejection and  theft of Jesus life and identity as The Father’s Child, we might see and understand all the “crucifixions” of daily life. And challenge them! In seeing, to be convicted and transformed!

My dear people, my dear church, if these events we remember and hold dear this Holy Week mean anything, life on the other side must look different. The often superficially expressed truth in these days - “We’re all in this together.” - must be radically incarnated in the way we of the Metropolitan New York Synod live out our belief that “we are church together.

Will we rise to this challenge? To be honest, I don’t know. It’s so easy, so tempting to get back to the familiar, the comfortable. That first Easter evening found the disciples back in the room, not knowing what to do in this radically transformed world in which they found themselves, until Jesus appeared among them and called them out.

In these times, Jesus is calling us out. To the other side. To the Promised Land here and now. To an Easter life of faith, grace, hope, peace, love and fearlessness.

I pray that we might, together, answer that call. I pray with Dr. King that “we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” I pray that, because of the Holy Spirit’s work through this Church, life might look different on the other side.

See you on the other side.

Yours in the rising and risen Christ,
Bishop Egensteiner



Update: This article was amended on April, 4, 2020.