What Is Mission First All About?

 

At the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio, those gathered heard about a new initiative being rolled out called Mission First.  Mission First seems to be a way to retool the denomination for the 21st century.  A central part of this initiative is to have Mission Gatherings in 2016.  My region is having its Mission Gathering later this month.

While the website for Mission First has some background on the idea, a certain question keeps coming to the fore: what is this all about?

I get that this is kind of a churchwide visioning process, but what is the endpoint?  What does this mean for churches?  What is the theology behind it?  Does this mean a refashioning of our agencies and regions?  I’m not sure.  How does this inspire the local church in its own mission and ministry?

This is how Mission First is described on its website:

It’s likely your faith community has done some visioning in the last few years. The general expression of the Church is doing the same. As the year 2020 nears, it is time to listen for God’s continuing call and to seek together where God is calling Disciples next in our shared mission and ministry.

Addressing the 2014 General Board, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins set out a challenge:  “The time has come to lighten our load and tighten our focus – on mission!  I am inviting our church, in all its expressions, to join in a conversation on God’s mission for Disciples today.

Okay, but why are we doing this? Is it because it’s time have a new one? And what are things weighing us down?

It seems that Mission First is trying to outline some new priorities:

Mission First! addresses the need to find a new shared focus in mission. We are not setting aside pro-reconciliation/anti-racism, new and transforming churches or leadership development. Mission First! seeks to help Disciples identify the next mission priorities God has for us as we move toward the year 2020 and beyond.

And it is also listening to what is going on in the churches:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

But it also seems to call for some reorganization:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

So, we have a few objectives going on here, but it feels to me somewhat disjointed. I think this is about developing a new vision, and mission priorities and quite possibly restructure, but it never feels like these objectives are linked.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is also going through a visioning process. Called Forward Together in Christ  is the name of their initiative and this is how it is described on its homepage:

The ELCA is a young church at only 28 years old. It is a good time to take a look at where we are as God’s people and try to understand what God has in store for us. And we think it is an exciting time to be looking forward together as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

We want to create a vision for the future ELCA – as a church with solid foundations sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and making a difference in the world locally and globally. And as a church that we can be proud to pass on to our children.

We want to discover how we can continue to faithfully serve God’s mission in the years ahead and reach a shared understanding among church leaders about the ministries that are most important.

And we want to assess whether the structures that were set up for this church are right for the future, and as part of this consider how we use our resources in the best possible way. There are many challenges.

This description seems far clearer of what they are all about and where they are headed.

Now, I think Mission First is needed. The Disciples are a denomination for the 29th century and needs to be retooled for the 21st century in how it spreads the gospel. It’s been nearly 50 years since Restructure and it is probably way past time to have the church reflect our present age and not what church was in the late 1960s.

But I think the execution has not been focused and at times seems very light on theology. Do people in the pews understand what it means for the church in mission? What does this have to do with how the Disciples started, out on the then-frontier?

Hopefully, I will learn more about this process later this month.  Maybe I can get another view that I’m missing.

Sermon: “Fight the Power”

Ephesians 6:10-20
Twelfth  Sunday After Pentecost
August 7, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

brzpw84cuaaz3rsOne of the earliest hymns I remember singing was “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  And I have to admit that I liked the song.  There is something peppy with the music, and yes, it has almost a martial beat to it.  For those of you who don’t know the lyrics it goes like this:

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads again the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!

 

I haven’t sung the hymn for several years, in fact I think it has been about 20 or even 30 years since I’ve sung the song.

 

Part of the reason is that in many churches, the song is considered too militaristic, glorifying war which contrasts Jesus’ nonviolent ministry.  There were moves in the early 80s to strike the hymn from the Methodist and Episcopal hymnals and in 1990 the Presbyterians were able to strike the song from their hymnal.  For many Christians, this is a song that distorts God’s action in the world.  Earlier this year, noted evangelical pastor Brian McLaren felt moved to re-write the hymn.  He had seen the Republican debates where there was talk about Islamaphobia, massive bombing and talk of Jesus all in the same debate.  McLaren worries that the use of the word “foe” is ambiguous and could be interpreted to go against people of a different faith or race. This is McLaren’s re-written first verse:

 

Onward, all disciples, in the path of peace,
Just as Jesus taught us, love your enemies
Walk on in the Spirit, seek God’s kingdom first,
Let God’s peace and justice be your hunger and your thirst!
Onward, all disciples, in humility
Walk with God, do justice, love wholeheartedly.

 

Now it is common in the church that when anything is changed, there will be pushback.  This time around, the push back came from Russell Moore, the head of the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Moore responds by saying that violent imagery is found not only in hymns, but in the Bible itself.  He notes that Jesus uses warlike imagery and so does Paul.  He says that the foe in the hymn is clear: it is the devil.  He goes on to note that we are peacemakers because we know the real battle doesn’t involve guns and tanks, but it is a spiritual one that is lead by Jesus against the powers.

 

Moore is I think closer to the truth here.  While hymns can be used to justify violence, they also can remind us what it means to live as a Christian: that everyday we face a battle, one that is bigger than anything we have faced.  We need Jesus to lead these armies to battle the foes that keep humanity apart from God and each other.

 

In this last chapter of Ephesians, Paul is giving the church in Ephesus some parting thoughts. Now Paul is writing this from a prison cell.  While he sitting in jail he tells the Ephesians that even while he might have to deal with Roman authorities, the real enemy are forces of cosmic darkness. Because we face powers that are beyond this realm, Paul tells the church to rely on God and be clothed by God to withstand the attacks of the devil.

 

I know that there are some that don’t believe in a devil.  We might find it a bit strange to be talking about a devil and a spiritual battle.  It’s more important to deal with actual problems than something that is made up.

 

But if you have ever dealt with someone dealing with an addiction, you can understand that sometimes evil can be a problem that is bigger than all of us.  Someone with an addiction can want to give up the alcohol or cocaine, but find it so hard to do so.  I’m not saying that serious issues like addiction can only be solved through prayer.  But sometimes evil can wrap us up into situations we never expected to be in.

 

Paul tells the church that faith is not a game.  It is something that needs to be taken seriously because we are in a spiritual state of war.  Paul calls the church to discipleship, to learn how to follow Jesus in order that they can stand against the wiles of evil.

 

We live in a world where we are in a battle where evil is wrecking lives.  I’ve shared this story before, but about 25 years ago, I was on a mission trip in Chicago.  It was in a poor neighborhood, north of downtown.  We spent a week at a Baptist church that was involved in the community.  I remember one evening we stood outside in the early spring after a youth meeting.  I remember we started talking to this one young girl who had to be about 15 or so.  She calmly explained that her mother had kicked her out of the house.  Here is this young girl that now has to look for a place to call home and she had to find it quickly.  This wasn’t just about a young woman dealing with housing insecurity. It was also about the powers that separated mother from child and forcing her to

 

There was a lot of poverty and homelessness in Uptown Chicago.  The powers seemed to rule.  But then came Sunday.  When the church worshipped, they worshipped.  It was joyous and it reminded me that even though life was hard, they believed that with God, the powers would be defeated.

 

Fighting the powers means we have to be prepared.  This is why Paul uses this military imagery about the things that we use to stand against the powers of evil.  The belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, the shoes of peace, the sword of the spirit are all the things that train us in the art of battle.  It’s easy to think that when injustice is in the land that it makes no sense to go to Bible Study.  But when we place the amour of God on us, it prepares us for the battle against evil.  We learn from the Bible in church to prepare us for the mission outside.  

 

Onward Christian Soldiers can seem like it is praising war.  And I don’t doubt that it has been used that way.  But what if it is expressing a truth: that all of us sitting here this morning are soldiers in a battle and it is a battle that we will win because God leads us. I think this hymn expresses the reality that this church lives in.  

 

In 1989, the director Spike Lee released a movie called Do the Right Thing.  A soundtrack was released and I remember there was one song that was associated with the movie: Fight the Power by rap group Public Enemy.  It’s a pretty bold song and Public Enemy tended to be a group that was provacative.  In reading the background of the song, I was reminded that the song was revealing of the racial problems taking place in American culture.  Some might think that things are fine and dandy, but the song reveals that things are not fine.  The whole song is an interupption to the status quo.

 

Onward Christian Soldiers might seem anachronistic today.  It could also be something that explains reality in a jarring way just like Fight the Power.  It might just remind us that things are not okay.  That we are in a battle.

 

Brian McLaren is right that we must spread justice and peace, but we are dealing with a battle between good and evil. We do that in love, but the stakes are high, this is not a test.  

 

So let us go out and love each other and love those outside of this church.  But let us know that we are also dealing with powers that aim to keep people down.  We might be small in number, but with God, we will be victorious.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

“Trouble in Lake Wobegone”
Luke 10:25-37 and Romans 14:1-18
Seventh  Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Sermon.

 

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The sign says, “I could be next.” The photo was taken by yours truly on July 7, 2016 in front of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul.

It could have been me.

That is what I thought early Thursday morning, as I groggily woke and checked Facebook.  There were some news reports of a police shooting near St. Paul.  As I became more conscious I started to realize this was big news.  It was another member of the police shooting a black man.

It was then I saw a post from Daniel my husband. It was frieghtening post.  He was already up reading the news and penned a heartfelt post…about me.  He wondered if this morning would be the last we had together.  He wondered if the cops pulled me over for a busted taillight, would I be next.  He wondered what might happen in the last few minutes of my life if I had been shot.  He ends the post saying he dreaded sunrise.

That woke me up.  It also left me helpless.  There was no way I could tell Daniel, that he was worrying over nothing.  As I read more and more about Philando Castile and his work at a local Montessori elementary school, I saw that if someone who seemed to be a good guy could get killed by the police, then there was no way I could tell Daniel that this odds were low that such a thing could happen.  Because they could happen.  Because I am black and because people see me and millions of other black men as a threat even before we open our mouths.

The thing that is so maddening about this is that for all intents and purposes, Philando was a good man.  He had worked for the St. Paul schools as a cafeteria worker.  He became a supervisor two years ago.  He got to know the kids of the primarily white elementary school where he worked.  This wasn’t someone with a questionable record, but someone trying to make a life, a good life. Yes, we are not the nation we were 50 years ago. Yes, we have a black president that was elected twice.  But even despite all of this a good man can get killed just after he honestly told a cop that he had a permit to carry a gun.  He had a constitutional right to carry a gun and did so according to Minnesota statutes.  But when that officer shot four bullets into Philando he made a mockery of those laws, telling us that you have a right to a gun, just as long as your’e white.

As I left for work Thursday morning, hearing the news of what happened in Falcon Heights and another police shooting in Baton Rouge a day earlier, I was fearful of being pulled over and that is a first.  I can remember being a kid in the 1970s and having the police come to school and teach us how to be careful around strangers.  Now, forty years later, I have to be careful around police.

And we haven’t even talked about what happened Thursday evening in Dallas. As protestors were ending a peaceful protest, one that where the police were there to ensure saftey, an angry man started shooting, killing five police officers- the most officers on duty dying at once since 9/11.

It could have been me.  It also has been me.

I’m not going to go into a long story, but there have been times when I was treated differently by the authorities because of the color of my skin.  I could talk about my experience with the American border guard at the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls.  And I’ve shared my experience at a credit union in Flint where some folks suspect thirteen year old me was going to cause trouble.  I don’t want to be known as the pastor who just talks about race, and I don’t want to make the pulpit a political platform, but you all need to know how African Americans are treated in this society and as a your pastor, I feel I need to let you know and together find out how we as followers of Jesus Christ should respond.

But it’s not just black men suffering, it’s also black women and children.  Did the officer realize he was shooting someone at close range with women and children present?  How many of us saw that video by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds as she calmly explains to viewers on Facebook how her boyfriend was gun down.  And why did a four-year-old have to witness this horror?

Racial inequality is still a problem 50 years after the civil rights movements.  African Americans still face unequal treatment in employment, in education and in the criminal justice system.  Minnesota has a reputation as a state with a good standard of living, but life for many black Minnesotans is terrible; in some aspects worse than Mississippi. There is trouble in Lake Wobegon.

Our texts today in Romans and Luke have to deal with how we treat others.  In Romans, Paul urges the church in Rome to respect the beliefs of others in the congregation and live lives for that other person and ultimately to God. “Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.”  We don’t live for ourselves, but for God and the other.  We don’t dismiss their way of looking of things, but respect where they are coming from.

In Luke we hear the well known story of the Good Samaritan.  A man is on the highway and beaten up by robbers left for dead.  Two Jewish religious leaders come by and they pass him by, fearful they might become ceremonially unclean.  Finally a third person comes by.  The audience might think he was another Jew, but no, he is a Samaritan, a people not well liked among Jews. The Samaritan comes near, bandages him, brings him to hotel to heal and then gives a substantial amount to the innkeeper to pay for the room and any expenses the injured man should incur. The important aspect of this tale is not who is the neighbor, but who is the neighbor.  

As good neighbors, we are also called to seek out those who are in pain.  The Good Samaritan sought out the injured man.  He sought out the injured man, not simply because it was the right thing to do, but because it was where God was.  We know of God’s love for us because of Christ’s death on the cross.  Where there is pain, God is there and as Christians we must be there as well.  If anyone has seen the images or the video taken by his incredibly calm girlfriend , we see him groaning in pain in his blood-soaked shirt.  As he takes what might have been his last breaths, God is there…and it is where we have to be as well.

But some of us need to be there more than others.  Because the only way these police shootings and other examples of racism will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up.  This is not simply my problem or Lisa’s problem or my mother’s problem, but it is all of our problems.  I’m not trying to guilt-trip the white members of this congregation, but this is a problem that affects us all and no one can afford to sit on the sidelines.  I don’t know what that means for you, but I implore you to figure out what you can do.  We cannot have a nation where a good chunk of the public is fearful of those who are suppose to keep the peace.  In the vein of the Good Samaritan, white Americans people can’t just go over to the other side of the road, you have to stop and help your sister or brother who is facing threats and more.

This means that there is more to this than being nice to black people.  Being a people of grace means that we must enter into the pain of others, understanding and seeking to remedy the ways African Americans and others have been held back because of who they are.

This week, there was trouble in Lake Woebegone.  We learned that it is not as idyllic as we thought it was.  The mask has been ripped away revealing the ugliness beneath.  But even as we have now seen the darker side of Lake Wobegon, there is also a light of hope.  If you were able to watch the video following the shooting of Philando Castile, you see Diamond Reynolds talking and then at some point a small voice says something.  The voice said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”  Those were the words of Ms, Reynolds 4 year old daughter, a child barely out of being a toddler and having to grow up way too fast.  But those words are important because it tells us that racial reconciliation is a difficult thing to do and that God is with us in this hard work.  This is not something we do by ourselves, but we do it with God and through God, the one who came to earth as a human to repair the breech between humanity and God.

Things can change to bring wholeness and healing in our fragmented world. May we as the church find ways to bring healing and wholeness.  May work for the day when no one will ever say, “It could have been me.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Life in Black and Blue

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don’t understand

-Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye

Screen-Shot-2016-07-07-at-5.25.05-AMFor the second time in two days we have heard of another police shooting of an African American.  Tuesday saw the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and last night Philando Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights.  While all of these kind of shootings have bothered me, the Falcon Heights shooting hit closer to home and not just because it was only a few miles from me.

What makes this one more real to me is that Mr. Castile could have been me.

What has been unnerving and infuriating is that as far as we can tell, this was a regular guy.  He worked in the lunchroom at a St. Paul Montessori school.  When he was pulled over for a busted tail light, he told the officer that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He seemed to be  doing the right thing.

And he still got shot.

From what we know, he did all the right things one should do as a concealed carry holder and as an African American and he still ended up dead.

My husband wrote an anguished Facebook post about the shooting and her fears that I could be pulled over and killed for no reason by someone this supposed to keep the peace.  The thing is, I can’t tell him not to worry.  I can’t tell him that as long as I am careful that nothing will happen.

The thing is, having Aspergers, I tend to miss social cues.  What if I miss a social cue and the officer draws a gun? Can I trust the police to do the right thing?  What will happen the next time I’m pulled over?

I never used to be scared of the police.  I can remember sitting in elementary school in Flint, MI back in the 70s and being taught that the police were there to help.  I’ve believed that since then, but the steady drumbeat of police shootings has eroded my child-like trust and replaced it with fear, and the police should not be the people I fear.

The sad thing is, these killings will continue.  Too much of white America doesn’t see this as a problem.  Many mistakenly believe that the shooting victim deserved it.  None of this means it can’t change, but until people can see the injustice happening, until it tugs at their own sense of fairness and justice, the values that we as Americans believe in, a lot of whites in America will remain unmoved to act.

Lord Have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

An Anxious Time

I’ve been wanting to write something about some problems my own denomination is facing, but I’ve never been able to focus on that.  I think the reason is that my brain is stuffed with anxiety about several issues.  One thing you have to understand about me is that anxiety has long been a part of my daily life.  Past experiences have made me feel anxious about the world around me.  At some moment, when I least expect it, something will happen that will throw me into the unknown.  Most likely than not it is the news that my job has been cut that put makes me anxious about the anxiety.

Since I deal with depression, I think anxiety comes with the package.  It means that I act like a scared animal, ready to leap at the slightest sound of danger.  It is not unusual to feel this sense of freight all the time.  At some point, something or someone will do something that will alter my life.

Mixed in with this is a sense of depression, a feeling that no matter what you do, the reality is you don’t matter.  It’s the feeling of not being wanted or feeling like the last one picked to play softball.  I know those thoughts are false and medication keeps them at bay.  But they are there.

The thing that has been in knots right now is looking for work.  As most of you know, I work very part-time as the pastor of a church and part time as the Office Manager of another church.  Both jobs together isn’t enough to pay the bills, so I look for a third part time position or freelance work or a position that could replace my current weekly job with more hours and pay.  I’ve been basically looking for work since I was laid off two days before Christmas in 2014.  Over the last year, I’ve had several interviews and it seemed like things went well, but in the end, the job didn’t happen.  The worst was having someone call me from a local nonprofit, noticing my ad in a church bulletin board.  From that phone call to an interview, took two months and it took another to tell me that they chose someone else.  It was quite maddening to have to be on hold for three months when you didn’t know if the job was happening or not.  (Please employers, don’t leave someone holding for more than a month.  It’s thoughtless to keep them in limbo.)  The other frustrating thing is trying to talk to other graphic and web designers for pointers and they never bother to respond back.

So, you keep looking and keep sending your resume and keep sending your portfolio in the hopes that someone will at least see budding talent.  But so far, no one seems interested and it leaves you wondering if there is something wrong with you.

Looking for work seems to be a constant in my life.  I hate being laid off because it means that it will probably take 2-3 years to find something close to what I was doing. I chalk it up to being African American; I know it’s going to take longer because I’m not the first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think communications or technology.

This job anxiety also makes it hard to do ministry.  It’s hard for me to focus on church when I feel I have to constantly keep looking for work.  I want to have time to focus on worship planning and outreach, and I’m focusing on tweaking my resume again.

And the job anxiety then leads to anxiety (and shame) about barely being able to keep up my share of the house bills with my husband Daniel.

The anxiety and depression can lead to a feeling of despair.  Not a despair like I’m going to take a bunch of pills, but despair that I have to give up on what I really want and just accept something, anything to pay the bills.  I don’t know how many emails and phone calls I receive about going into sales (something I am terrible at doing) or customer service (which I’ve done and consider something akin to the 10th circle of hell).

I will keep plugging away looking for work.  Something will come about someday.  Until then, I have to remember to take my medication, see my therapist and most importantly, talk (but mostly listen) to God.  It’s the only way I’m going to deal with this time of anxiety.

Sermon: Sanctuary

Romans 11:1-2 and 13-24
Fifth  Sunday After Pentecost
June 19, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

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I was in track in high school.  We would have practice after school and I remember going into the locker room to change.  Everytime I would pass by a training room that was for people who had injuries.  It always seemed to be filled with people who were messing around and having fun.  Being a shy person, I never went in.  Anyway, it was a room for people with injuries, not for people to hang out.

 

But one afternoon, I decided to go in and just hang.  I walked in and hopped up on one of the tables to sit down. What I didn’t realize is that it was the wrong time to be there.  One of the coaches was wrapping the leg of student’s leg and he looked up at me with a look of shock and annoyance.  “What are you doing here?” he growled.  Realizing that I had made a mistake, I tried to answer and I couldn’t remember what I said.  What I remember is the coach angrily pointing at the door and telling me to leave.  I wasn’t welcome there.  I left with a heavy sense of shame. I still wonder how those other students were able to hang out there, but I wasn’t.  All I knew, is that I wasn’t allowed there and I never went back into that room ever again.

 

We all want to be in a place where we feel welcomed.  We want to be in a place where we can be ourselves.  We want to be in a place where we feel safe.  We all long for safe spaces where we don’t have to worry if we will be accepted. Safe spaces have gotten a lot of ribbing over the past year, and sometimes for good reasons- people have talked about safe spaces as place where they don’t have to meet with people who disagree with them.  But we were reminded this week that there is a need for real safe spaces to protect people from real harm.  But we have also learned that sometimes even safe spaces can be compromised- invaded.

 

In all the discussion last week about the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, one world kept coming to the fore over and over- sanctuary.  We know sanctuary as a place in a church where we worship, but over the centuries, sanctuary has come to also mean a place of safety.  It’s not accident that church sanctuaries have become sanctuaries where people who faced persecution could enter and be safe from a hostile culture.

 

Gay bars have long been places of safety for the LBGT community.  They were places where gay people could go to be themselves and not have to face stares from a less than accepting world.  In a world where people had to keep parts of their lives private, a nightclub was a place of safety.  I read a number of stories of the last week about how a certain bar was a place of shelter and a place where they no longer had to hide.  Those stories were also my story.  I don’t drink much, but I did like to go to gay nightclubs when I was younger to dance.  It was a place of safety where you could meet other people like yourself.  

 

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a sanctuary for sanctuary for a subset of the gay community.  It was Latin night last week, and this was a place where LGBT Latinos could come and gather.  It is still a challenge to be gay in America, but even more so to be gay and a person of color.  One of the things that struck me personally, was seeing the listing of names and seeing how many of them were Latino.  Even more heartbreaking and striking close to home was that the majority of the victim were Puerto Rican.  So the shooting was a double attack to me since I am gay and Puerto Rican.  The sanctuary that was created there that evening was broken by the actions of an angry man.

 

This week is also the one year anniversary of the shootings at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.  For centuries, the church has been a sanctuary for African Americans, a place where they knew there were loved and accepted, even when the wider culture did not honor their full humanity.  But that sense of saftety was shattered on that June evening, when a young white man who was welcomed to join those gathered in Bible Study pulled out a gun and started shooting, killing nine people.

 

The world we live in is not a safe one.  We kid ourselves if think it ever was safe.  We live in a world of sinful people who seem to hurt others for whatever reason.  It is a human reaction to this that we want to find a place that is a shelter, a place where we are accepted.  It is also a human reaction to threaten those who are different from us, which is why places of sanctuary can be compromised and invaded.

In chapter 11 of Romans, Paul is trying to answer a question.  Many Jews had rejected following God and Christ especially.  Paul opens us the chapter by saying that God had not given up on God’s chosen people: Paul was a Jew, so God was still being faithful even to a remnant of the Jews. God had been in relationship with Israel far too long to just give up.  Israel might have chosen to give up on God, but God had not given up on them.  

 

Paul then turns to the Gentiles.  He talks about them as branches being grafted on to the tree. The Israelities were God’s chosen people, but the Gentiles were now being added on.  Again, God doesn’t give up on them.

 

Paul reminds us that no one, no one is disposable.  God wants everyone to belong.  God doesn’t give up on us…and as church neither should we.

 

This week tells us that no sanctuary is ever safe.  As one writer said even Christ, the son of God was put to death, so every safe space is always threatened.  But even when a physical sanctuary has been destroyed, God can create a sanctuary of the heart, a place where we know we are loved by God.  

 

The message for the church this week is that we, you and I must be willing to be sanctuaries for others.  As I’ve said before, LGBT folk need to have places where they are loved and accepted, a place where they are free from fear.  While there will always be a need for physical places of safety, all of us, you and I need to be living sanctuaries to people, especially LGBT persons and persons of color- because for us, the world is even after all the advances made we need to be a people who are willing to care for others, especially those who might be different from us.  

 

The theme for this summer is “A House of Grace.”  The question I have for you this morning is how can we show God’s grace to those that sometimes feel like outsiders? How do we tell them that God loves them?  It’s nice to be an Open and Affirming congregation that welcomes people of different backgrounds, but it is even more important that we live that out in our daily lives to make what was written on paper a living reality.

 

I want to end by saying that being a living sanctuary doesn’t mean agreeing with people; it means having a Christ-like heart to those in need.  In the hours after the shootings in Orlando, I was checking my Twitter feed and saw a tweet from Russell Moore.  Moore is a Southern Baptist minister and is the head of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention.  Southern Baptists tend to have differing views on LGBT issues, so one might expect a not-so-nice tweet from Dr. Moore.  Instead he tweeted the following: “Christian, your gay or lesbian neighbor is probably really scared right now. Whatever our genuine disagreements, let’s love and pray.”

 

Now, one could quibble that he wasn’t in agreement on LGBT issues, but I don’t think that’s the point here.  The point was that in the midst of the sadness there was a little safe space made, a place of sanctuary.

 

The other example is the story of a local Chick-fil-A restaurant in Orlando.  It opened up on a Sunday to feed people who had lined up for blocks to donate blood to those injured in the shooting.  Chick-fil-A never opens on a Sunday, because of the religious views of the founders, but it did this day to feed people who were giving blood to another group of people who were deemed by the world as outsiders.  A bit of sanctuary.

 

Next week, our church along with First Christian of Minneapolis will staff a booth at Twin Cities Pride.  A lot of people attending that event will be angry and hurt and scared.  Are you willing to offer a few hours of time to be living sanctuary for these people, to let them know that God has not given up on them?

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

When Does Grace End?

Social media is abuzz in the recent trial that convicted former Stanford student Brock Turner of the rape of a young woman.  What has everyone talking is the fact that the judge gave Turner a six month sentence and he might get out sooner for good behavior.

To pour more gasoline on the fire, Turner’s father wrote a letter urging for leniency for what he considered “20 minutes of action.”

Facebook is aflame.  Memes are going around with the young Turner’s photo calling him a rapist, others put him side by side with a poor white man who received a harsher sentence.  The pitchforks are out even among Christians.  Brock Turner is the most hated man on the internet.  There is no love for this person.

Part of the anger is that he ticks off all of boxes of privilege: he’s white, he’s an athlete and he seems well to do.  He is the perfect enemy.

All of this leads me to one question: where does grace end?

Yes, yes among liberal Christians we talk about grace all the time, about the fact that God loves us no matter what.

But we don’t really believe that.  I don’t care if you are a tough-on-crime conservative or a bleeding heart liberal, there are some sins we feel are beyond redemption.

A few months ago, there was talk in my church about a convicted sex offender that would be moving into the area.  People were up in arms and wondered why this person couldn’t live with a relative or something, just not near them where their children and grandchildren play.

These weren’t the kind of folks who were tough on crime, most were liberals.  But the fact is, crimes involving sex can make the meekest person into a fire-breathing zealot waiting to lock them up and throw away the key.

Brock Turner will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  His “20 minutes of action” will stick with him.  If you think as most do, that he got off easy, know that he won’t escape what he did ever.  It will follow him when he seeks a place to live, when he applies for a job and so forth.

But this all means that he will be in the public sphere. I don’t know if he ever went to church, but what if he decides to visit a church- supposed he decided to visit YOUR church.  What would you do? What would you say?  Would say yes, as long as there are safeguards? Would you say no, fearful for your daughter?

Where does grace end?

Another question following this: Where does God’s judgement begin?

Does God judge the guilty, those who commit crimes like this?  What is that punishment like?

It’s easy for mainline/progressive Christians to talk about how we should love everybody and that grace is for everyone, but I don’t think we really are good when it comes to living this out.  It’s easy to love someone that is part of your in group.  It is hard to love someone who is someone you wouldn’t like anyway.

Sexual crimes can put our theology of grace to the test.  Where does mercy fit in?  What about justice?  What is justice?  Is justice only for the victim or also for the perpetrator?

Brock Turner is not a sympathetic person.  His excuses, as well as the excuses of those around him are sickening.  But I am wary of how this has become the outrage of the moment on social media, because there are some important issues to deal with here that demand more attention than a few minutes on Facebook.

In our theology Turner is also a child of God.  And that should bother us.  Because, how many of us want to see him forgiven?  His victim has to live with the trauma he cause for the rest of her life.  Why should he be seen as one loved by God?

Maybe this is why the cross is called a scandal.

But we also believe in a God that believes in justice, one that gets angry when justice is denied.  God gets angry.

Can God be graceful and also one that establishes justice?  And what does that mean of God’s people?

I don’t have any easy answers.  In fact, all I have is questions.

Where does grace end?  Where does judgement begin?

I leave you with a snippet from a post from Zach Hunt in response to the martyrdom of 21 Christians by Islamic State:

It’s easy to talk about loving our enemies when their greatest crime is stealing your parking space or voting for the wrong candidate. It’s a lot harder to love enemies who would gleefully broadcast your execution to the world if they only had the chance.

It’s easy to embrace the radical grace of the gospel when you’re sitting in a warm sanctuary filled with well-dressed people who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. It’s a lot harder to swallow the fact that that same grace extends to cold-hearted criminals who thrive on executing the innocent…

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re angry with me for talking about extending grace and forgiveness to those monsters in the black hoods, believe me I get it. It’s not just rhetoric when I say I recoil at even the possibility that God could forgive, redeem them, and make them my neighbors in heaven.

That sort of grace seems so unjust to me.

And appalling.

So, I struggle.

I struggle with my own sense of justice.

I struggle with the idea that as a Christian, I must leave space for forgiveness even as I rightfully demand accountability for my enemies’ actions.

I struggle to accept the fact that believing in the radical transforming grace of God compels me to believe that grace abounded on that beach in Libya in ways I don’t comprehend or want to accept.

I struggle with the boundless depths of God’s love and forgiveness.

I struggle with the gospel.