The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

By now, everyone has heard about the ruckus that took place at Middlebury College in Vermont when conservative scholar Charles Murray came for a discussion.  It is a very disturbing story and seems to point to  coarsening culture where different viewpoints bring out fear instead of tolerance and questioning.

One of the most interesting voices that arose during the aftermath is Alison Stenger, a professor at Middlebury, a self described liberal and the liasion to Murray during his time on campus.  While she was trying to protect Murray from the protestors, she was yanked and thrown to the ground resulting in concussion and a neck injury.  Writing in the New York Times, she saw the event as a microcosm of a larger problem:

In the days after the violence, some have spun this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, our coddled youth or intolerant liberalism. Those analyses are incomplete.

Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.

It used to be that our culture was one where ideas were brought up and debated. But increasingly, we are becoming less tolerant of any view that deviates from what we consider the norm. As Fred Bauer writes in the National Review essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” denying those deemed racist or sexist the right to speak is becoming the norm.

And this behavior seems to be making its way to the church.  Recently, Princeton Seminary invited Tim Keller to the campus to recieve an award.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  But Princeton is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant body while Tim Keller is a minister from the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Protestant body.  Keller is know in church planting and evangelistic circles for his planting of a PCA church in New York that has become a megachurch, with locations throughout the Big Apple.

But there are problems.  The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative body that doesn’t ordain women and has what could be called “traditional” views on marriage and sexuality.   The PC(USA) allows for women clergy and within the last 10 years, allowed gays and lesbians to be pastors.

I tend to think it is a good thing that Princeton is reaching beyond its liberal comfort zones to welcome and honor a fellow Christian with whom they might disagree with on some issues.

But the reaction to Keller receiving this award has been one of shock and anger.  Alumni from Princeton Seminary are appalled that it would even consider granting Keller an aware because of his views on ordaining women.This is what Presbyterian pastor Traci Smith has to say about this:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

Another blogger and Presbyterian pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, goes even further. She doesn’t get why Princeton would give an award and the space to talk to someone who support complementarianism which she believes supports the abuse of women:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complimentarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Now let me be clear: I support the ordination of women. I am not a complementarian. That said, I don’t think that means that people who are complementarians or are against the ordination of women should be banned from a seminary. Because if we start not welcoming people because of differing views, that make us no better than when conservatives do the same thing.

And yes, I’m pretty sure Keller thinks homosexuality is a sin.  But I’m not offended by that or fearful- it’s one person’s viewpoint and having him come to give a speech doesn’t threaten the rights of gays and lesbians.

This is part of a disturbing trend that I am seeing among the Left and within Progressive Christianity- the tendency to not listen to dissenting views.  The views themselves are deemed harmful to people and some believe that progressive churches shouldn’t allow those with views like opposing the ordination to even set foot on a seminary campus to give a speech.

We live in an age that is far more tribal.  People draw sharp lines to demarcate who is in and who is out.  We sit afraid that someone will say something that we don’t agree with and will reign down havoc along with the end of all that is fair and good.

People are (rightly) offended when Donald Trump talks about building a wall on our southern border, but he is simply showing what is going on in American society these days; the erection of walls to protect us from those who are different than us.  We can’t really say boo to Trump for building a wall when Americans are doing that with their friends and neighbors.  Trump’s wall is just a symptom of a larger problem.

I would like to believe that we can learn to trust each other and be willing to open ourselves up to alternate views that might make us uncomfortable.  But I think we are heading towards a new Dark Age where Christian belief in loving our neighbor or our enemy is being set aside for something far more harsher. It is an age where we might even believe that conservative Christians aren’t even real Christians.

It used to be common among more progressive Christians to hear talk about the need “to stay at the table” or to work on healing the bonds of community.  There was a belief that people of differing opinions need to stay engaged with each other and that even those who had the “losing” view were part of the community. Such language seems absent these days. Maybe it was because of some of the great sucesses that we have seen in the area of gay rights.  Maybe people started to think that it wasn’t necessary to bridge differences.

Seminaries like other institutions of higher learning should be places where we have our beliefs challenged and where we learn that the other side is just as human as we are.  But academia has become a place where only certain views are tolerated.

What bothers me more and more is that Progressive churches are becoming places that are more Progressive than they are Christian.  Like Charles Murray, there are things about Keller that I disagree with.  But we should be more willing to welcome a fellow Christian and listen to what he has to say and offer our own views.  He needs to hear other views on the role gays and women in the church, but you don’t learn that by trying to bar someone from campus because their views don’t match yours.

Seminary President Craig Barnes is doing his best to be honest to where Princeton stands on gay inclusion and women’s ordination, but he is also taking a stand against a kind of censorship.

It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

As I said before, as a gay man, there is always a bit of apprehension around those who might see what I do as a sin. But I am reminded that we follow the One who allowed himself to be vulnerable to suffer for the salvation of the world. If Jesus can do that, we can sit and listen to those we might disagree with. Because God is with us and has been through this before.

That is, if we have the grace to take a step in faith.

Not Bible-Believing, but Jesus-Believing

 


Every so often, someone will visit the church and they will say they are looking for a “Bible-believing” church.  I’m always curious just what it means to be a Bible-believing church.  If someone came up to me and asked if First Christian is a Bible-believing church, I already know what my answer would be.

The answer would be no.

Keep reading…

Sermon: Looking for Loopholes

 

Luke 10:25-42
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio version.

Supposedly the commedian W.C. Fields was reading a Bible one day. Fields was known for his kind of outrageous lifestyle of drinking and mistrisses, so having him reading a Bible seemed a little out of character. When asked why he was reading the Bible, Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

Today we are looking at one of the most well-known parables, the tale of the Good Samaritan. Even people who have never set foot inside a church know about this story. People look at this tale and see it as a morality play, that tells people how we should live good and ethical lives. But the parables had bigger plans than just being about being good. Parables give us a peek into God’s kingdom; it shows us what it means to live under the rule of God.

Before we go into the play, let’s get to know about Samaritans. The Samaritans are people of mixed heritage. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, many Jews were taken to Assyria and Assyria sent many of its citizens to the Northern Kingdom. They started to intermarry with the Israelites who remained and over time, they gave up their worship of idols and picked up the practices of their Jewish heritage. Jews were not crazy about Samaritans because they were not considered pure. So Jews and Samaritans don’t get along.

Which might explain that time that Jesus was not accepted in a Samaritan town. In Luke 9:51-55 Jesus starts his journey towards Jerusalem and his ultimate death. Jesus sent some of his disciples ahead to a Samaritan town in order to find accomdations. But the townsfolk were not interested in welcoming Jesus at all. We aren’t given a reason why the town didn’t welcome Jesus. Maybe they saw him as a troublemaker. Maybe it was that he was simply Jewish and they didn’t want their enemies in town. This is ironic since in the next chapter we will hear a story of a welcoming man that was a Samaritan. But this might be an example of the fraught relationship between the two peoples.

Today’s text open with a lawyer or Pharisee coming up to Jesus with a question. He asks Jesus: about what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus answers back by asking him what is written in the Torah or law. The layer responds, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly.

Then the lawyer asks another question. “Who Is My Neighbor?” Some versions say he is asking this question to justify himself. What this means is that he was wondering who had to be considered a neighbor. In essence he was looking for a loophole. Who were the people he was supposed to love and who were the people he could ignore?

This is when Jesus goes into his famous tale. He challenges the lawyer by setting the story up with several characters that the lawyer or Pharisee would find hard to love. The Samaritan, in addition to being considered a heritic, would probably have been a trader. Traders were also despised by the Pharisees because they were considered dishonest and because they had to deal with people from all walks of life, didn’t follow religious laws closely. We don’t know much about the man, but he would have also been frowned upon because of his state. Being injured and left for dead on the roadside meant that he was ritually unclean. The innkeeper also wasn’t considered pure because they provided shelter to traders. And we know the robbers weren’t heroes in the Pharisees eyes either.

So Jesus has set up this tales with a lot of people who would be considered ne’er do wells in the eyes of this lawyer. But Jesus also included two people who would be considered politically correct in his eyes, the priest and the Levite. But here is the interesting thing: these two people who would be considered faithful to the law, saw the injured man on the road and they passed him by. These were men who knew they law. They knew what could make them unclean and also they knew they were to love their neighbor. Their faith was such that it left no room for love of people.

Jesus is smart here. The lawyer or Pharisee wants to be able to use the theology he has learned to get out of caring for a stranger. So Jesus decides to tell a story that is so stark, so urgent, that it shows how small the Pharisees faith really is. Because when you say that these folk are not worthy of love, it means ending up with situations like these where supposedly holy people leave a person dying on the side of a road.

The thrust of Jesus story is not who is our neighbor. Jesus never bothers to answer the Pharisees’ original question of Who Is My Neighbor. Instead he asks who was the neighbor. The lesson here is that we should be neighbors to those we meet. Which means not just loving those near and dear to us, but those who are alien to our way of living.

The theme for Lent here is “Who Is My Neighbor?” Of course, the answer here is that we are the neighbor and being a neighbor means that we exhibit the love that Jesus would want us to show. We live in a time when we live in fear of the other. We have people who seek to say we should be loving, but not to these folk. We love everyone, but not these Muslims. We love everyone, but not these Mexicans. We love everyone, but not these Trump voters. Just like the lawyer, we are all looking for the loophole, for the thing that tells us we don’t have to care for those who are different or do things we don’t agree with. In essence, we are saying that there are people beyond God’s love.

But in God’s kingdom, love is boundless. God loves even at the risk of self. Note that Samaritans also practiced ritual purity, so touching the injured man meant making the Samaritan unclean. But the Samaritan was willing to do this because God’s love doesn’t stop at the borders that we place in our lives.

A moment here. I’ve said that parables are not morality tales and it’s easy to see the Samaritan as a role model, someone we should aspire to be. You have to see this in the context of first century Palestine where Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. To understand what this parable is saying you have to put in an analogus modern context. The theologian Debi Thomas makes it clear:

An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.

How can First Christian be a good neighbor in Mahtomedi and beyond? How do we reach beyond our comfort zones to extend active love to someone? In God’s kingdom, people are neighbors to those who are alien to them as well as those who are similar. In God’s kingdom there is no boundary that walls us off from certain people or tells us certain people are beyond love. That is a hard thing to accept, because as humans we all try to decide who is not welcomed, who is beyond redemption. But there is are no loopholes in the Bible. We are called to be good neighbors to everyone.

In 1996, the Klu Klux Klan held a rally at the city hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When people in the area heard about the rally, about 300 people came to counter-protest the meeting of the Klan. The Klan rally only garnered 17 people total. During the rally, someone spotted a man in the crowd who had a tatoo of the dreaded Nazi SS wore a confederate flag t-shirt. This was basically the equivalent of waving a red cape in front a raging bull. The anti-klan crowd began to chased the man. The crowd started to hit and kick the man.

In the crowd at the time was an 18 year-old African American woman named Keisha Thomas. When the crowd started to attack this man, she placed herself in front of the man who was now down on the ground. There are a series of now-iconic photos of Keisha shielding the man and trying to fend off the angry protesters. The reasons those photos still resonate today is it recorded something so odd: an African American woman protecting an alleged white supremacist. This sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But this is exactly what it means to be a neighbor. In the moment the crowd started to attack the man, she saw this man as someone worthy of love, even though he had done nothing to deserve it. Keisha knew there weren’t any loopholes that would exempt her from being a neighbor and so acted in love to protect someone that today we would consider “unclean.”

Who Is My Neighbor? We already know the answer: we are the neighbor and we are the ones to love those around us no matter who they are. Jesus told the lawyer and tells us today to follow the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise.”

So church, “Go and do likewise.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Borrowed Time

“Borrowed Time”
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Click here for the audio version.

pixar-borrowed-timeA man leaves home to head into New York City and work in one the city’s tallest buildings. It’s the morning of September 11, 2001, and the man’s family never saw their husband and father again.

On that same morning, a husband drops off his wife at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. He kisses her, expecting to see her when she returns a few days later. The woman is on a flight that is hijacked and later plows into the Pentagon. Before that happens, his wife calls from the plane and tells her husband that she loves him one last time.

In August 2007, a woman calls home to tell her husband and daughters that she is leaving work and will be home for dinner. She leaves downtown and heads on the freeway during rush hour. She usually takes a different route, but tonight she decides to take the freeway. She wades though traffic as it crawls across a bridge over the Mississippi River. Out of nowhere, the bridge collapses, tossing cars and trucks into everywhere even into the river. The woman’s car is plunged into the river and she never comes home.

In December 2015, a man drops off his husband at his workplace in California. The man heads home and a few hours later sees a breaking news report of a mass shooting at his husband’s place of work. He calls his spouse over and over, and no one ever picks up the phone. After a frantic day and night of trying going to hospitals to find his partner, he gets a phone call. What he feared has come true; his husband lost his life in a mass shooting.

Tragedy seems to happen out of nowhere. One day it’s a normal day and the next moment things are changed forever. We might not have things happen like they did on 9/11 or the Minneapolis Bridge collapse, but tragedy does happen. More than likely we will get that phone call late at night or early in the morning where we learn that love one has died.

When these things happen, we are left wondering where God was. We wonder if God had a role in this. Others will be less charitable and believe that the person who died or someone else did something that displeased God and so this was their fate. No matter what, tragedies have us wondering what went wrong for this to happen.

In our text today. A number of people are chatting about the big news today. The news is that there were some Galileans on their way to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. Pilate, the governor of the area, went on a rampage and a number of these Galileans were killed in the process. It’s hard to think they did anything to deserve this, other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was a common belief in that time period that if something bad happened to someone, it was because they or someone close to them had sinned. We see this in John 9, when Jesus heals a blind man. Before he does this, his disciples wonder if either this man or his parents had sinned to make him blind. Jesus learns about this tragedy involving the Galileans and decides to respond. He never directly tackles the issue of whether or not God was involved in this suffering. He also for reasons we don’t know doesn’t try to defend God, either. Instead he challenges the crowd with a question of his own. “Were the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hands more sinful than every other Galilean?” The people don’t answer. Jesus responds to his own question: “No, they didn’t. But unless you repent and keep repenting, you will end up just like them.”

What Jesus was trying to get at is to focus on what it means to live our lives. Jesus was telling those around him that it didn’t matter if someone did something for bad things to happen. He was telling them to not focus on the lives of others, but to focus on how we are living the life we have left. How do we treat those around us? Do we care for those poor and the weak? Are we a neighbor to strangers?

To make the point clearer, Jesus talks about a tower in the town of Siloam that fell killing 18 people. He asks, are they more sinful than the average Galilean? No, and if the crowd doesn’t change their hearts and lives, they will die as well, meaning time will have run out, with no chance of constantly seeking to follow God’s ways.

Jesus then tells a parable of a fig tree that had not produce any fruit for years. The owner of the tree and the vineyard thinks it’s a waste of money to care for this plant and that it should be thrown out. The gardener looks at the owner and says, give me one more year. I will do all I can to make this tree produce fruit. If in a year nothing changes, than we can throw it away.

In this tale all of us are the fig tree. Sometimes we don’t produce any fruit. Now, we might think God is the owner, but that would be wrong. Jesus didn’t come down to earth to appease an angry God, but to stand in the place of humanity, to give us a second chance. God (and Jesus) are the gardener, asking for a bit more time to do what can be done to help the tree produce figs.

We live on borrowed time. God is there ready to work and help us to be fruitful people of God. God has given us the gift of life and calls for us to repent. Repent means to turn around or to see things from another view. It means that we are always striving to be better people with God’s help and that comes through discipleship, by learning from Jesus how to be people who are grateful that God has given them this life to live, no matter how long or how short it is.

Last year, two animators from Pixar studio made a short animated movie called “Borrowed Time.” It was nominated for best animated short at this year’s Oscars. The story centers on a grizzled sheriff,a man that looks as if he has lived thousand hard years. This is a broken man that carries within him the shame of what happened on the last day of his father’s life. His father who was also a sheriff and the young man were riding a stagecoach through the American west, when they are besieged by robbers. In the ongoing chase, the horse and carriage crashed and throws the father off of the coach and over a cliff. The son realizes his father is missing and looks for him and finds him-alive- hanging on for dear life on the side of the cliff. The son tries to reach for his father’s hand, but can’t reach it. The father takes out his rifle, so that the son can pull him up. The son keeps pulling his father up and up and almost gets him on to solid ground. But you see, the son was pulling on the butt of the gun which meant he was near the trigger. As he gives on great heave, he accidentally shoots the gun which was pointed at his father at close range. The father is shot and falls down the cliff.

He carries that pain for decades and we see the now adult son as man standing at that same cliff, unable to shake off the sadness of losing his father and the horror of knowing he was the cause. He looks as if he is going to leap of the cliff to his doom, until a glare catches his eye. You see all those years ago, his father gave him a watch, and in the rush it got tossed to the ground and lost. The man picks it up and sees a picture of him and his dad. It was at that moment he was able to shake off the guilt he carried with him all those years. It wasn’t a happily ever after kind of ending, but it was the beginning of something, maybe a sense in some way of starting anew.

Jesus comes to give life to the fullest, as he says in John. In Christ,we can live for something, live a life knowing we are forgiven and seek to have a heart that forgives and loves very much.

But we only have so much time. How will we live the life that we have? Will we waste it away worrying about others and wondering if they are bringing damnation on themselves or we will we repent and live a life turned around for God?

We live on borrowed time. How are you going to live it? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: The Day After

Luke 7:1-17
Mission First: Gathered Series
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
February 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

You can listen to the sermon by going here.

On November 20, 1983 a major television event took place.  It had been talked about for weeks leading up to the broadcast and in many ways seemed ripped from the major headlines of that day.  If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the the TV movie, The Day After, which talked about how a fictional war between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact turns into an all out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The film focused on the lives of people living in Kansas City, Missouri and nearby Lawrence, Kansas. The movie was probably one of the hallmarks of the 1980s.  The estimates are that over 100 million people watched the two hour movie and it gave Americans a window on what would happen if the United States came under nuclear bombardment.  This was a movie that definitely spoke to the times.  1983 was a year when the Cold War was close to being hot.  In September of 1983, the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner as it crossed Russian airspace. Only a few weeks before the broadcast, NATO held a war game that the Soviets initially thought was an attack. That peak into the apopcalyspe also had an impression in Washington.  The Day After was screened in the White House on November 5, 1983.  President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary after seeing the film that it left him “greatly depressed” and that it was “very effective.”  Reagan also said that it changed his mind on the prevailing view of nuclear war.  When an Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty was signed with the Soviets four years later, Reagan said The Day After made a difference.

dayafter-png-crop-promo-xlarge2It was a memorable event for a lot of people, except me.  You see, I didn’t watch the film. I couldn’t.  I couldn’t watch the film because week or two before I was watching 60 Minutes which was doing a piece on the upcoming film.  It showed a clip that lasted maybe a minutes or two and it was enough to scare me.  It showed people in Kansas City running in panic as the missles near the city. A man is in his car listen to the radio which was carrying the Emergency Broadcast when the bomb hits and you see the sky turn an ugly orange with a mushroom cloud just down the road.  

That clip was enough for me.  As a young kid living during the “warm” part of the Cold War in the early 80s, this was all too real for me.  The fear of a nuclear war kept me from sleep for a few nights after watch that clip.  

Stories about the apocalypse always leave me with my stomach in knots.  It doesn’t matter if the method is nuclear war, or a lethal virus, the breakdown of society and mass death leave me unsettled.  It is a sign of life out of control and with no sign of hope.

In our two texts today, two people are dealing with their own little apocalypse.  In one story, a Roman soldier is dealing the illness of a loyal servant who is near death.  In another story a widow is getting ready to bury her only son leaving her defensless in the world.  In both cases, Jesus comes and brings healing, show that God has authority even over death and we are given a taste of what it will be like when death is no more.

But let me back up a second.  A few weeks ago, we talked about Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth.  He gets the crowd into a frenzy when tells them the stories of the Widow of Zarapath whose son was restored to life and the healing of Naaman the Syrian general.  They didn’t like that he was willing to heal the enemy in the same way he healed his fellow Jews.  But here in this passage it seems like these two stories are being updated in real life.  Jesus meets some people who are coming on behalf of a Roman general.  This man was a good man that had even built the local synogogue.  Most invading armies wouldn’t have such caring military officers and to see one of the hated Roman actually doing good was surprising.  Jesus heads in the direction to the centurion’s when another group of friends come and tell him to not come and see him.  The centurion didn’t feel worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.  We don’t know why he feels this way, but he does.  Notice that the first set of friends tell Jesus he should heal this man’s servant because he has done a good thing.  And then notice that the centurion didn’t believe he was worthy to be in the presence of Jesus, but asked that Jesus just say the word and heal his servant.  Jesus was amazed at his faith and healed the servant.

This acts shows that Jesus has authority over all, even death and even from this solder from an occupying army.  

Now the second story.  Jesus is coming to a town called Nain where he sees a funeral procession. He learns that this is a young man who was the only child of a widow.  In this ancient culture, having a husband or a son was insurance to take care of you.  But now she has lost both ways of having security.  Jesus has compassion for this woman and brings this young man back to life.

This woman had lost everything and now Jesus had given this widow her son again.  

But there is a fly in the ointment when it comes to both of these tales.  The widow’s son was going to die.  Maybe not that day, but someday.  Same goes for the centurion’s servant.  When they say that the only thing constant is death and taxes, they weren’t joking.  Death was still going to come for them.

So what is the point here?  

On this side of heaven, people die.  But what these stories show is that in Christ, these deaths are not meaningless.  Death wins for the time being, but it is under Christ which means that death will not always get the trophy.  In funerals, we pastors are to preach of the coming resurrection when the dead in Christ are raised. We believe there will be a day when those that have died will be raised and death will be defeated.  We have hope that death is not a final word, but more like an ellipsis.  

As Christians, we will still faith death.  I wish that weren’t so, but it is.  If even Jesus couldn’t escape death.  While the young man had received a second chance at life, we all knew one day he would still die.  But Jesus resurrection, that which we preacher preach about at funerals, tells us what is no ahead of us.  In Christ being raised from dead, we know death is not the end.  Widows and generals will cry for now, but it is only for a time.  Death will be defeated.

It’s been interesting to start hearing from folk the same talk and fears about nuclear war.  After several years of not worrying about such a fear, it has crept back into conversation, with people afraid that our nation, our world will face a literal trial by fire.

Such talk always still leaves me nervous.  I still think I’m too beautiful to die, at least right now.  But there is not much I can do other than know that I am loved by God, that in Christ death is not the end and stand in the hope that death will not always have the last word.

It’s been thirty years since The Day After first aired and I still haven’t seen the movie and probably never will.  But I do give thanks that no matter what happens in life and in death, Jesus has shown us a taste of the kingdom where death will be defeated.  And that makes me sleep much better.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church in the Trump Era

What does it mean to be church in the era of President Trump? What does this mean for Mainline/Progressive Christians?

I160903105945-donald-trump-protesters-outside-detroit-church-00000000-large-169n the days following the Inauguration, I was less worried about the new President.  It doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned: but he was chosen in an election and should be allowed govern.  It might be the same as giving him a chance, I don’t know.  But I didn’t want to fly from the reality that Donald Trump won the election.

But I was always waiting if he would cross a line that would be unacceptable.  Would he do something that seered my own conscience?  When would he do it?

The line I was worried he would cross was how we deal with refugees.  I think it is a good thing for America to welcome those fleeing from horror.  I believe we have a stringent vetting system that could help make us secure and allow those who need shelter to find it here in the US.

Well, I now see that  Trump did cross that line.  He has issued an executive order that would suspend entry of immigrants from seven countries, stops the US from accepting refugees for 4 months, and permanantly keeps Syrians refugees out.

The protests have been swift and the actions of the EO have been devastating.  Church leaders accross the spectrum are condemning this order.  Demonstrations have taken place at airports around the nation.  Immigrants on their way to the US or just arriving have been blocked from entering.

Meanwhile my Facebook feed is filled with people who seem to freak out about everything the new president has done, some of which isn’t that unusual from what other presidents have done.  Some progressives are going after Trump voters and it’s not to give them a hug. It’s to call them out, to shame them for voting for a man that has said so many racist, sexist, and every other -ist in the world. It’s to state that one can’t follow Jesus and support Donald Trump.

It’s suffice to say that Trump is keeping us all on our toes.  But how does the church respond in this new era?

I think the first thing is to realize what we are dealing with.  Progressive Christians like to talk about the concept of Empire and it has at times left me rolling my eyes.  But the role of “empire” in theology does have a place in our discussions about church and state: if we are willing to apply to all of our government and not just when the government doesn’t agree with us or is not from the same political party. The question we don’t ask, at least not when Democratic Presidents are in power is how the church should relate to Empire? Presbyterian Michael Kruse wrote back in 2010, about the totalizing agenda of an empire and it is the same no matter who is in charge:

The defining feature of Empire is its totalitizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how and empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.

Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?

Not long before being elected senator, Obama talked of a Second Bill of Rights … channeling FDR. It is a common mindset shared by the left. The original Bill of Rights lists “negative” rights, telling what the government will not do. The Second Bill of Rights would be “positive” rights guaranteeing everyone a home, health care, education, recreation, and so on. In other words, government moves from being a referee for free and virtuous people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities to government being the direct or indirect provider of every aspect of our basic existence. Every sphere of life … business, education, medicine, compassionate care … becomes an extension of government management used toward government’s guarantee of positive rights. All institutions and traditions in our various spheres of life are made to serve the Empire.

Yes, President Trump is lifting up the agenda of Empire, but so did President Obama. Sure it might have been for Obamacare instead of immigration restrictions, but both work to being all spheres of life under the Empire.

None of this means we exit society and stop voting.  It does mean that we need to be aware that both an executive order banning certain people and a health care bill providing universal  access can be tools used by the Empire to pledge total allegiance.  We always need to be aware in our dealings that our first allegiance is always to Christ and that sometimes the two things don’t always sync up, especially when we agree with today’s “Ceasar.”

But screaming “empire” has a way of legitimizing your political agenda, while demonizing the other side.  It also has a way of airbrushing inconvenient truths about our favorite Ceasars.  Have you ever noticed that progressives will talk about the internment of Japanese Americans, but never talk about the fact that Franklin Roosevelt signed the order that made this happen? Roosevelt is a hero of the left and is airbrushed out of the history of this sad chapter in American life.

To be church in this era means being willing to challenge all Caesars not just those we don’t like.

The second thing we need to do is to find ways to seek and dialogue with those who voted for Trump.  Unless your congregations are made up of just one political party, they are probably in your congregation or they are your friends and family.

But for some progressive Christians, that might be easier said than done.  There is a lot of anger out there for people who voted for Trump.  Every article that I’ve read in this vein, tends to list Trump’s sins probably in an attempt to say that it was so obvious that this was a bad man.  I’ve shared what John Pavolvitz said shortly after the election. Zack Hunt also brings up the list to hold up to Trump voters, especially evangelicals:

He said his personal motto is “eye for an eye.”

He unrepentantly declared he doesn’t ask for forgiveness.

He said he wants to bomb half of the Middle East until there’s “nothing left.”

He proposed a tracking system to monitor immigrants.

And a wall to keep them out.

And laws to keep more of them out.

He exploited the poor to build his empire.

He pathologically lied.

He said it was fine to consider his daughter “a piece of ass.”

And bragged about his ability to sexually assault women.

None of that is reconcilable with the Christian faith.

And that was just the campaign.

Yet, none of these deeply anti-Christian things stopped 81% of evangelical Christians voters from casting their ballot for Donald Trump.

In trying to defend their spiritual adultery, they told us – shamed us would probably be more accurate – to give him a chance as if we were just supposed to ignore literally everything he had said and done before the election, as if a vain, temperamental, 70-year old demagogue would magically and radically change who he is, how he behaves, and what he believes the moment he was sworn into office.

We did not owe him a chance, but even if we did, he’s proven after less than a week in office that he didn’t deserve it.

The problem with this kind of article is that it doesn’t even bother to get to know why some people voted for Trump.  They tend to act as if they know these people and view them with contempt, seeing them as wild-eyed nationalists bent on making this world worse off.

But there are a lot of reasons people voted for Trump, such as economic issues.  Read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to understand what life is like for the white working class, the group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

But there is another issue that makes sense and is important during the era of Trump:  the church needs to be united.

I am not saying the church must have one mind, but it must be a united in that we are grounded in Jesus Christ.  In some of the books like John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel and Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy,  the church is the “model home” of the Kingdom of God, a place where the world can see God’s kingdom in action.  If it is a taste of God’s kingdom, it should be a place where people from different backgrounds and viewpoints will come together, maybe to show a way in this divisive time how all of us can come together in Christ.  Maybe if the church was a place where people from various racial and ideological backgrounds joined through the observance of communion, it might be an example in our current context how people can come together in spite of our differences.

Finally, how the church should live in the Trump era calls on the regular practice of church life.  Writing in the magazine First Things, Reformed Scholar Carl Trueman writes about the importance of maintaining the regular acts of church life even in the midst of a changing world:

As I drove back from visiting the elderly congregant, I thought about how all of the recent changes in wider American society will affect my ministry.  Yes, they might make it financially harder and they are already making it socially less acceptable – but they will not really change it at any deep level.  Regardless of SCOTUS or the 2016 election, as long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.

None of these things will change, even if they do become financially and perhaps legally harder.  The world around may legitimate whatever sleaze, self-indulgence and self-deception it may choose.  It may decide that black is white, that up is down, and that north is south, for all I care.  The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my of spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer.

This might seem pointless in a time when we have a president that seems to cause chaos with every step. But things like communion are there to prepare us, to stregthen us as we enter the world and join the fight. Disciples pastor Doug Skinner wrote recently:

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

The Trump era is going to test the world in ways it has never been tested. It will bring disruption. It could bring terror attacks. It could get the US involved in a war.

But in all times and places, the church is called to be the church. We are not to be wedded to the power structures of the world, we are to be agents of reconciliation and we will continue to do the work of the church day in and day out, so that our people will have the grace needed to work for justice in this uncertain time.

Sermon: “When the President Comes to Church”

Luke 4:14-30
Mission First: Gathered Series
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 15, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

If Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in? Just hold that thought for a bit.

A few years ago, I was involved in helping the church I was at in sponsoring a refugee family.  We worked with the Minnesota Council of Churches which has a good record of helping people from around the world settle here in Minnesota.  We learned that we were going to sponsor a family coming from Somalia.  This is not unusual; Minnesota has been a leading destination for refugees from Somalia, which has been dealing with a civil war for almost 25 years.  Now, most of the people who come from Somalia are Muslim.  This tends to be the dominant religion in that part of the world.  I didn’t think much of this fact until I got an email from a woman who was a member at the church.  She was upset about us helping these refugees.  It wasn’t because they were African.  She was upset because…you guessed it, they were Muslim.  As much as I and the Senior Pastor tried to talk about the need to help these people who were simply looking for a home, she was resolute she thought these people could be trouble.

 

Now, we did go ahead and sponsor this family and helped them acclaimate to American society.  But I was dumbfounded that someone was more worried about a person’s faith than they were about helping a family find a safe place to make a life.

 

Another story.  About 20 years ago, I attending a Baptist church in Washington, DC.  Back then, the church was made up of both liberals and evangelicals.  A minister that had been involved with the church was asked to serve on the pastoral staff.  She was more than qualified for the position, but there was an issue: she believed in the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.  In the 1990s this was still a controversial issue in this Baptist denomination.  During a meeting to discuss the issue, another woman rose to talk.  She was from the evangelical faction of the congregation. She admitted that she and this pastor didn’t agree on this issue.  But she also had a relationship with the pastor and counted her as a friend.  She urged the congregation to call this pastor and they did.  Here were two women, who were on different sides of an important issue and yet they maintained a relationship, they respected each other.

These are two examples, one positive and one negative.  There are those who are willing to reach out to those who are different backgrounds and beliefs, and there are those who think that there are good people and those who seek to harm others. It seems at times that we as a society are less willing to be friends of those who are different from us.  Our society has learned to segregate themselves into groups where we can be with others that think just like us.  We start to think that the other side is not simply wrong; but somehow dangerous to the very social fabric.  

 

Churches are no less different than the wider society. It’s becoming less and less common to see liberals and evangelicals in the same congregation.  Both sides look at each other as apostates, not really Christians.  We see ourselves as doing God’s work and the other side?  Well, not so much.

 

I’ve not done such a good job at spelling out our current sermon series which is based on gathering.  The church is a gathered community.  It is gathered by God.  But what does it mean that we gather?  If it is God who gathers us in, then who is part of the community? Who is not?  

 

Today’s text has always been an odd one for me.  Jesus is back home in Nazareth and he’s asked to read scripture at the town synagogue. He gets up and reads from Isaiah 61.  This is Jesus way of announcing his ministry and his mission statement. He tells the crowd that he is the Messiah, the Lord’s annoited.  He is here to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the imprisoned and the oppressed and to give sight to the blind.  

 

Now, the people didn’t really get that he was connecting himself to this passage, until he adds to the passage that what was promised in Isaiah is being fulfilled as the people are listening. Everyone is astounded at what they have heard.  Some were proud, some were questioning.  One the surface, we think this is about what they had just heard.  But Jesus could sense people’s hearts.  Something wasn’t right, the people were missing the point.  He knew they were more interested in him performing more miracles than they were about taking this passage to heart. So, that’s when Jesus took what could have been a nice experience and pushed it a bit further. He tells them that he knows they want him to produce the signs that took place in Caperneaum. But he warns them by telling two stories.  First he talks about how the prophet Elijah helped to feed a poor widow and his son in the town of Zarapath.  If you can remember from a few months ago when we learned about this passage the town of Zarepath is outside of Israel.  Jesus is saying that there were other widows who were dealing with hunger because of the draught, but Elijah was sent to help this foreigner.

 

Then he shares another story.  The prophet Elisha healed a Syrian general named Naaman from leporesy even when there were others in Israel who suffered from leporsy.

 

All of this riled up the people and they set to push Jesus down a cliff to his death.  Jesus is able to slip away, but it seems like he would not be coming to Nazareth for the holidays anytime soon.

 

So, why were the people so angry?  What made them so enraged that they wanted to kills Jesus? These were not unfamiliar stories, so what caused them to go mad with anger?

 

Just as Jesus was telling them that he was the Messiah, he was telling the crowd that this Messiah wasn’t coming just for the Jews, but for everyone.  Those tales were nice to say that God could care for some outsiders, but Jesus was pushing them.  God wasn’t just being nice to Gentiles, this was part of God’s plan.  No one group was special, which is how the people in the synagogue saw themselves.  But Jesus is going farther than this.  Jesus is not playing favorites.  Mary sung that things were going to be flipped upside-down and here is the proof.  Those that felt they were special, that they were God’s favorite, were no longer sitting so pretty.

 

Jesus would end up living out what he preached that day.  He would meet with Samaritans and Roman soldiers and a host of other folk that probably wouldn’t be welcomed in that synagogue.  Jesus was on a mission and he wasn’t going to be boxed in.

 

It’s easy to look at this and think that luckily we aren’t like these people in this passage.  I hate to tell you, but we are.  We aren’t any better than the townsfolk of Nazareth.  We might say we welcome everyone, but there is always someone that we don’t want coming into the doors of our churches.  We don’t want people of other ideologies in our churches or maybe someone from a different social class.  We say we have open arms, but too often we act like bouncers for the kingdom of God. Jesus was called to be servant to all, not just the people of Israel.

 

As I said earlier, it is God that gathers the church.  It is God that gathers this church. What does that mean for us and are we ready for who God gathers to this church?  I’d like to believe that I would be able to welcome all, but would I welcome everyone.  Would you?

 

The church is called to be light in the world.  God is building God’s kingdom with us.  What the world needs to see in this church and in all churches are communities that are willing to reach out to people regardless if they are not of the right group.  We need to be able to come together in prayer and worship with people that we might not always agree with.  

 

So, I come back to the question I asked at the beginning: if Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in?

 

There is a church that is actually dealing with that question or something like it. The Washington National Cathedral is hosting the inaugural prayer service for the President-elect.  The Cathedral has a history of hosting inaugural worship services, so this is keeping in line with that tradition.  But the idea of allowing Donald Trump into the doors of the grand cathedral has upset many people around the nation.  The Cathedral is part of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington has tried to explain why they are hosting this service at this time.  I want to share what Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said about opening the doors of the church to the next President:

 

First, I want to acknowledge the anger and disappointment that our decisions have engendered. And to say that I’m listening, because the spiritual principles that move many of you to protest are essential for the work that lies ahead. While I do not ask you to agree, I simply ask you to consider that we, too, acted on spiritual principles. Those principles, while they may seem to conflict with yours, are also essential for the work that lies ahead.

The first spiritual principle, which always characterizes the Episcopal Church at its most faithful, is that we welcome all people into our houses of prayer. We welcome all because we follow a Lord and Savior who welcomes all, without qualification. Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize. We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in the need of prayer.  

The second spiritual principle that informs my decision is that in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all. I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways. Nonetheless, I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals. As President Obama said in his last speech, our nation’s future will be determined by our resolve to “restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” I ask the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to join me in dedication to that purpose, in faithfulness to Christ and as ones who cherish the gift of democracy.

 

Jesus’ mission on earth was to minister to everyone.  While the crowd in the synagogue thought God was just for them, Jesus was pushing the boundaries and saying that the love of God is for even those we deem outside of the love of God.  If we are honest, we will admit that this is a hard teaching and one we’d rather ignore.

 

Would Donald Trump be invited here?  That’s a question you need to wrestle with so I’m not going to give you an answer.  I pray that we can be like Christ, to get outside of our comfort zones and welcome everyone to God’s kingdom.  Even when we find it difficult.

 

Would Donald Trump be invited here?  Thanks be to God. Amen.