The following is an older blog post that reworked for an essay series on same-sex marriage. For the last few years, GLAD Alliance (Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples) have sponsored an Easter writing project. I took part in it this year and what I wrote appeared on the GLAD blog on May 1.
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.
Ruth 1:16-18 Common English Bible
On my wedding day in 2007, we had a reception for family and friends at our house. I remember Daniel and I were getting things ready for the event. Daniel kind of gave me an order to get something done. I looked over to a friend who smiled and said, “you’re stuck with him now.”
A few years later, we had another ceremony with family in Western Minnesota. A month earlier, same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota and like a lot of my friends who were coupled, we had a small ceremony. It was at this event that we signed our marriage licenses. If I wasn’t stuck with Daniel before, I now had a state document proving that we were truly stuck.
The movement for same-sex marriage has been in high gear since the Supreme Court rulings in 2013. More and more challenges in different states mean that at some point in the near future, same-sex marriage could be the law of the land.
As the push for legal recognition continues, the church is left wondering why should we care about this issue. In the debate over same sex marriage, there has been a lot of talk about the weakening of marriage or about the freedom to marry, but there has been little talk of what marriage does to the people in question, or at least what it should do. Read More…
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 27, 2014
First Christian Church
About fifteen years ago, I was down in Louisiana for my uncle Joe’s 80th birthday party. I remember sitting in the dining room of Uncle Joe’s house when my cousin, Joe’s oldest son also named Joe and his wife Barabra got out something they had been working on for years: the family geneology. The two looked through court records and we able to patch together the story of the Sanders family. They went to county courthouses throughout the South and you see in this family tree how my ancestors made their way to Louisiana from South Carolina.
If know American history, then you know why South Carolina is the starting point for me and countless millions of African Americans. South Carolina was known for its slave markets, where farmers would purchase slaves who came off the boat from their African homes. I don’t know this for certain, but I can imagine part of the journey of my family from South Carolina to Georgia, then Mississippi and finally Louisiana could have been because my ancestors were bought and sold to different plantations over the years.
The look into my past brings up a few conflicting emotions. There is something cool about seeing all the generations who came before you. I could see that I belonged to the Sanders family. But it also brought some sadness and unpleasant feelings because those many of ancestors were treated as nothing more than property; a commodity to be bought and sold. We were stripped of our heritage and given Christian names including my own last name. More than likely we were given the name Sanders because it was the name of some plantation owner.
Maybe it was because of that earlier history that my mother made sure that I learned about African American history as I grew up. I remember reading books about famous African Americans, inventors, doctors and the like. I remember in elementary school that we had days were we had to dress up as a famous person. In fifth grade and sixth grade I dressed up as the inventor Elijah McCoy and Dr. Charles Drew, the discovery of plasma. Mom wanted me to remember that African Americans were more than just slaves; we were survivors, acheivers. I was told I belonged to a people with a rich heritage.
Today’s passage in Romans is one where Paul is excited. He tells the church at Rome about the wonders of belonging to God. We had a God that prays for us, taking our grunts and sighs to heart. We have a good that is with us not only in the good times, but in the bad times as well. When Paul tell the Romans that “ that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God,” he isn’t trying to be glib about tragedy. Paul is telling us that even when the unthinkable happens, God is with us. We belong to God and while evil is around now, it will never, ever have the last word.
Paul ends this passage with two wonderful sentences telling the Romans and us that nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” We are loved by God, no matter what.
Paul’s message was one of hope to the Roman church. No matter how bad it seemed, no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have in the bank, you matter to God; you belong.
The notion of belonging to something bigger than you seems even more important than ever. We live in a time where we are supposed to be liberated from, well everything. Whereas in the past, there were organizations like the Elks that helped define themselves in community, we are more likely to go it alone. On the radio recently, there was a segment of a program that was devoted to those parents who are dealing with their children living under their roof again after college. My husband Daniel wondered why this was a problem. In our past, family took care of each other, with several generations living under one roof.
The role of the church in this individualistic era is to tell people, all people that they belong to God. There is a world where people need to know that they are loved by God. That is what this congregation, every congregation is called to do. We are called to welcome people, no matter who they are.
This passage in Romans reminds me of baptism. We know that baptism is about the washing of our sins, but it is also about a promise; that we belong to God. In traditions that do infant baptisms, you might find the baptismal font just as you enter the sanctuary. It’s a reminder that baptism is what makes us familiy.
As I’ve said before, I was the Associate at First Christian Church in Minneapolis. These days they worship at the Springhouse Ministry Center in Minneapolis. SpringHouse is the collaboration of three congregations under one roof. First Christian shares the building with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale United Church of Christ. The old church building that was Salem’s was gutted and redsigned to include three sanctaries. In the fellowship space between two sanctuaries is a combination baptistry and baptismal font. Whenever someone from any of the three congregations is baptized, all the members of all three churches meet and begin their services with this baptism. It is a powerful reminder that we belong to something, someone bigger than ourselves.
This past week, our church was the focus of a special concert given by our own Luke Swanger and his friend Zach Peterson. About sixty people came to this place to hear wonderful music of piano and violin. We raised money for the Hope for the Journey Family Shelter in Oakdale. I think it was a great event. We were all excited about this because it was a way of telling people we live in this area. I think people knew as they entered our doors that we welcomed them and showed God’s love in our actions.
Church is not about going to a place to give money and see a performance. No, it is a place where we are reminded that we are loved by God and where we learn how we belong and how we can tell others in word and deed that they are loved by God.
I will remember my mom’s dillegence in helping me know that I belonged to a people of survivors. My ancestors might have been told they belonged to the slavemaster, but they knew who they were and whose they were.
The title of this sermon is taken from a 1987 song by the gospel group from Detroit, the Winans. They sang this song with fellow Detroiter Anita Baker. The song talks about how trouble will pass and while God isn’t mentioned, we do know that we have someone on our side that will get us through the hard times. I wanted to share some of the lyrics:
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
There’s a feel of nightfall
When darkness comes
And covers all of the day
Sometimes we feel pain
But there are some things
That we can change, just pray
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
You belong. I belong. We belong. Don’t ever forget that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
The following is a post written in 2012.
On the heels of what I wrote late last week on the pitfalls of Progressive Christianity, there has been a flurry of articles on the future of liberal Christianity. I want to start off with a piece by Allan Bevere who wrote the following last Friday:
In recent years evangelical Protestantism has been going through a soul searching, questioning some of its cherished political and hermeneutical positions that have become so intertwined with evangelicalism. An increasing number of evangelicals are re-evaluating some of their “sacred” views on Scripture and science and politics. I think that has been a good thing. But I must say, I have not seen that same kind of soul searching among mainline Protestants. It cannot hurt to wonder if we always have it right. It cannot be a bad thing to remember that perhaps our views are not always biblical, but rather the opposite side of the same modern coin we share with those who are evangelical. Perhaps Dennis and John are beginning an important self-critical conversation that we mainliners need to have. If this is the start, I welcome it.After all, the unexamined life, politic, and theology is not worth embracing… and it’s not good for the soul… or the church either. An adjective is meant to describe a noun, not get in the way.
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.
Douthat then expresses what he wishes to see Liberal Christianity do in order to revive itself:
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
The reaction to Douthat’s article among some notable (and not so notable) progressives has been…interesting. In some ways, it reflects exactly some of what Douthat said was of the denial taking place in liberal Christianity: a belief that somewhow we are the church of the future. Church Scholar Diana Butler Bass wrote a response to Douthat’s article that basically said that liberal Christians might save Christianity itself. I think in some ways she misinterprets what Douthat is getting at and instead responds with some worn rejoinders to the issue:
…Mr. Douthat insists that any denomination committed to contemporary liberalism will ultimately collapse. According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.
His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley’s argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition. This rendered the church irrelevant and led to a membership hemorrhage. Over the years, critics of liberal churches used numerical decline not only as a sign of churchgoer dissatisfaction but of divine displeasure. To those who subscribe to Kelley’s analysis, liberal Christianity long ago lost its soul–and the state of Protestant denominations is a theological morality tale confirmed by dwindling attendance.
That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America’s most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss. The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic. On the surface, Catholic membership numbers seem steady. But this is a function of Catholic immigration from Latin America. If one factors out immigrants, American Catholicism matches the membership decline of any liberal Protestant denomination. Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.
Douthat points out that the Episcopal Church has declined 23% in the last decade, identifying the loss as a sign of its theological infidelity. In the last decade, however, as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic “blips,” waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.
The real question is not “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?
The thing is, I don’t think Douthat was saying that conservative churches are doing all that great. In fact, he has been critical of conservative churches as well, not only in this column, but in his most recent book, Bad Religion. Butler Bass then goes into the standard but-the-conservative-churches-are-shrinking-too argument that is true, but covers up the fact that liberal churches are still declining. It’s a nice argument and one that makes those of us in declining mainline churches feel good about ourselves and kind of snicker at all those conservative churches. There are problems with conservative Christianity and there is a decline taking place there as well, that doesn’t erase the fact that we have a problem that has to be taken care of. My own take at a glance is that the two wings of Christianity are losing members for different reasons. Among conservatives it might be the problem of intolerance towards LGBT persons. Among liberals the problem seems to be that we have compromised the basics of faith (concept of sin, Christ’s divinity) and overemphasized social and political issues to the point that people realize that they don’t really need to go to church to care about the environment of gay rights.
I think Progressive Christianity has some great strengths. However, we do a crappy job of self-examination. We never allow ourselves to think that somehow what we do and how we do it might possibly be wrong. We are unwilling to think about what we might have done wrong and how to correct for fear that we will become some kind of clone of the Southern Baptists.
Self-examination doesn’t mean we have to stop being progressive Christians. It doesn’t mean throwing out everything. But it does mean seeing what might be hurting us and putting aside our egos to in order to see if we are the best church we can be. When liberal Christians start doing this, then we can be on the road to saving Liberal Christianity. Until that happens, we will keep whistling down the road towards irrelevance.
It’s coming up to a year since I’ve been at First Christian of St. Paul which is in Mahtomedi, MN. One of the things that was kind of hammered home to me in seminary is to learn to do ministry in a certain context. And with this call, context matters, at least to me.
I’ve shared before that I’m a city kid that grew up with an antipathy towards the ‘burbs. So as my mentor Bob Brite has said, “the Holy Spirit, the practical joker that she is” has me preaching at a church in the suburbs.
And I don’t think I’m prepared for it.
I’ve noticed over the year that our seminaries prepare students for one kind of context: cities. The urban context has long been what our seminary education has been based on. I can understand the need to focus on cities; it is where the majority of Americans live. But most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. In a blog post last year, I shared what an evangelical blogger wrote about the suburbs and it wasn’t a love letter. A fellow Disciples pastor has said that the only message we seem to have for suburbanites is how they are bad people for abandoning the city. Surprisingly, people tend to not be crazy to being called sinful because of where they decided to live.
A lot of the Christian antipathy towards suburbia mirrors the larger culture’s view of suburbia. Hollywood has long depticted the ‘burbs as a place of conformity and blandness. But the thing is, as I said in that posting from 2013, suburban America is far more diverse than we think:
Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs. They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs. Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis. I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit. I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay. I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world. What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.
But many Christian leaders seem to choose not to care about what is happening there. Instead, they brand suburban living as unChristian. This is what someone said on the Fare Foreward blog last year:
Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).
And this was my response after I picked up my jaw from the floor:
Notice what’s being said here. It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living. No, suburban living is unChristian, it goes against what it means to be a Christian. I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding. What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.
First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996. I’m pretty sure they aren’t planning on moving back. So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here is not the same as in the city or in a small town. But Christ is here. There are needs. Our church is involved in a coalition of suburban churches that staff a homeless shelter for families in the suburban counties east of St. Paul. A large Lutheran church down the road tries to help some of these same people get back on their feet. Suburbanites don’t have to go into the big city to do mission, it’s here at our doorstep.
I feel that seminary left me unprepared for how to do ministry in this context. It’s not urban ministry and it sure isn’t rural ministry. But how do learn to do church in this context? How can we preach the good news in words and in deeds in these places far from the urban core?
This is a little tip for seminaries: start thinking about what it means to do mission in the ‘burbs. Because an ever larger share of American society is choosing to live there. We have to find ways to help suburbanites join in the mission of God and not feel guilty because they happen to be in the wrong zip code to some urban-centric, snobby Christians.
The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 20, 2014
First Christian Church
I’m going to talk about my garden again.
Well, not about the flowers. No, what I am talking about is something that is a constant problem no matter what I do.
I’m talking about weeds.
For some reason, my garden has been targeted by the weeds. I’ve spent hours pulling them out by their roots, it doesn’t work. Both Daniel and I have contacted an old fashioned mixture of vineagar, soap and water that is supposed to kill the weeds and it does just that; that is it kills the plants that it comes in contact with, but it does nothing to the roots which means in a while the weeds come back.
I’m not crazy about using a pesticide like Roundup, but I am become sorely tempted. My fear though is that it could kill the flowers along with the weeds. Sure, I’d get rid of the weeds, but I would also lose the flowers that I’ve taken years to cultivate. So I’m not going to use Roundup. Maybe.
This Sunday, we find another agricultural parable where Jesus describes the kingdom of God. Last week, we talked about a sower who threw his seeds everywhere, not caring if they took root or not. This Sunday, we find Jesus telling a story about a farmer that planted a field. One evening, an enemy of farmer (farmers have enemies?) sneaks on to the field and plants weeds in the garden. A few weeks later as the wheat that the farmer planted sprouted, everyone saw that weeds were also planted alongside the wheat. The farmer knows who did this; someone that didn’t like the farmer and wanted to see him fail. His farmhands, who were distrubed by the weeds marring this harvest, asked if they could go and pull up the weeds by roots.
You would think that the farmer would have said yes and gladly join in. The weeds could choke his crop causing economic upheaval in his household. Instead, he says to leave the weeds where they are,lest they damage the wheat. The farmer tells his farmhands to wait until harvest. The workers can come in and harvest the weeds to throw them in the fire. All in due time, the farmer says.
Jesus later explains this parable to the disciples. The farmer was Jesus and the field represented the world. The enemy was the devil and the weeds are evildoers and all the evils of the world. Jesus tells them that for now the weeds will remain next to the wheat. But the harvest is coming, and when that happens, the workers will gather all the sin in the world, bind it and thrown into the fire. All in due time.
We live in a world filled with weeds and they have been present this week in the news. In the skies over Ukraine, someone shoots a surface to air missle, striking a passenger jet and snuffing out the lives of nearly 300 people, including a number who were going to an International HIV/AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. Families around the world are mourning the loss of a loved one and one nation especially, Maylasia, and the national airline are facing a second air tragedy in less than six months.
Palestinians and Israelis are at war again. It began with the death of three Israeli teenagers and then the death of a young Palestinian who was killed in revenge. Now there are rockets striking parts of Israel and the Gaza Strip. Because Gaza is so densley populated, there are more casualities on the Palestinian side, more cries of pain. Any hopes for some kind of peace settlement between the two peoples is shelved, again.
At our southern border, our nation is dealing with a massive influx of children coming from Central American countries where they are threatened. Their arrivals places stress on an already stressed immigration system. It has also for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, has lead to Americans protesting the arrival of these children who are in need of attention and need a place to stay as they are processed through our system.
In North Minneapolis, where I live, there happens to be an increase of crime in the area. The newspaper reports that even if there were a cop on every corner, the violence would not settle unless the community comes together to deal with some of the underlying issues of the perpetrators.
There are weeds everywhere. We try to pull one out and another one takes its place. We keep hoping this government program, that tough on crime measure, this peace agreement and so forth will stamp out the weeds of sinfulness once and for all. It’s been a century since the start of World War One. What was it called? The war to end all wars. Yeah, not so much.
If we only look at the weeds, if we seem them as intractible we can easily lose hope. News surfaced this week about a something a Methodist minister did last month. On June 23, Charles Moore, a retired Methodist pastor stepped out of his car in a shopping plaza in Texas, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He died hours later at a hospital in Dallas.
Why would someone set themselves on fire? For Rev. Moore, the purpose was to send a message. In notes left behind he was though his hometown and the nation had not repented of slavery. He expressed anger at the continuing policy in the United Methodist Church towards LGBT people. He was upset that the death penalty was still being used. Rev. Moore saw what he percieved as weeds and was upset that he wasn’t able to get rid of them. I don’t think suicide is ever a good thing, even in protest. That said, Rev. Moore is not alone in wanted to get rid of the weeds all by ourselves. I know of many people who are passionate about this or that issue and are always upset that the weeds remain.
For whatever reason, Rev. Moore did not have hope that things could change, that they would change. The parable of the weeds is at its heart, a parable of hope. The workers saw the weeds and wanted to get rid of them. The farmer was not so eager, because it wasn’t time. The farmer knew the wheat could get tangled and chocked by the weeds. The farmer knew that the weeds ran right through the wheat. He wanted to wait until it was time and then had a plan to get rid of the weeds.
God knows there are weeds in the world. Not only in the big actions taking place in our world, but the weeds that grow up around each and everyone of us. But we shouldn’t fear the weeds. We shouldn’t think it is up to us to get rid of the weeds. God has a plan. It was the plan that sent God’s son to Earth in the form of a baby, who grew up, healed the sick, died on a cross and rose again. In Christ’s death and resurrection, sin and death are defeated. It might not look that way on this side of heaven, but at the end of days sin and death will not have the final world. All of the weeds in the world will be taken away and burned.
As Christians, we are called to make disciples and help our sisters and brothers. We are called to tend the garden. There will always be weeds. That doesn’t mean we ignore the sin taking place in our world or try to alleviate the pain. We are called to do justice in the world. But that doesn’t mean it is up to us to get rid of the weeds. The hope we have in Jesus is that the weeds of war and voilence and sadness won’t last forever. They are defeated and just don’t know it yet. All in due time.
Maybe this afternoon I will take to the weeds in my garden. They’ll come back and I will still look longingly at that bottle of Roundup. All in due time. Thanks be to God. Amen.