Sermon: How Many Lights Do You See?

Acts 2:37-42
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sacraments Series
August 13, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon here.

The 'Unite the Right' rally in CharlottesvilleGood science fiction should be able to talk about a present issue dressed in futuristic garb. Star Trek has been able to do that for most of its 50 years of existence.  There is an episode in the sixth season of Star Trek: the Next Generation, where the captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians, a humanoid race that had uneasy relations with the Federation.

He is taken to an interrogator named Madred.  Madred is adpet in the uses or torture and manipulation and it is used to its bone chilling intent in this episode.  He uses physical torture, but Madred also used tricks of the mind to get a prisioner to break and that is what he wanted to do to Picard, to break his will.  Early in the episode, Picard meets with Madred and the interrogator calmly asks him to look up to the lights in the celing.  “Tell me, Picard,” Madred says.  “How many lights are there?”  

Picard is confused, because it was quite obvious that there were four lights.  So, he answered that there were four lights.  It was the wrong answer.  There were five lights. Madred sends him back for more torture.  This wicked game happens again and again.  Towards the end of the episode, he is asked one more time how many lights there are. Picard by this time was beaten and battered and it looked like he was going to comply with Madred and tell him there are five lights, to admit that he had been broken by Madred.  But just as Picard is going to say something, the session is interuppted; the base where Picard was had recieved word that he was free to go.  Picard stands up ready to be head out of the room and away from his captor.  Then he stops and turns around. He looks at Madred with fury and states in a loud voice, “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!” and then leaves.  

Later when Picard is aboard the Enterprise, he confides in Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor that he was so beaten and broken that to make the pain stop, he was willing to say there were five lights.  

Today we are going to talk about baptism and we will be doing it this week and next.  We will focus on the story of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and set upon the heads of Jesus’ disciples.

When people around them started to question them, Peter tells the crowd about Jesus. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death and is now raised from the dead.  The people knew about Jesus, but they saw him as someone the Romans put to death.  It was another troublemaker that was stamped out by the Romans.  But Peter tells them that this was not the whole story.  He starts by sharing a passage from the prophet Joel and links that to Jesus.  Peter tells them God’s redemption story and that leads the people to ask what needs to be done.  

They had one view of things, but now there was a different view.  Where they might have seen themselves as if nothing was wrong, now see they are in need of help.  Peter tells them to change their ways and be baptized as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness of sins or salvation of creation.

We think of baptism as an act that takes place with a little or a lot of water and it is that.  But in many ways, baptism is a break from the reality we knew into something very different.  Those first converts had a certain view of life that they grew up with.  They thought they knew who Jesus was, but Peter shares with them a radically different view, one that actually pricked their hearts. Peter had shared with them something different and baptism was the sign that something had changed, someone had changed them.

But the thing is, those first converts all the way up until today, are sometimes charmed by other voices.  Those voices tell us that 2 and 2 isn’t four, but five or they tell us that there are five lights instead of four.  There are always people who lure us away from God’s truth who are able to alter reality into something else that seeks to separate from God. As 1 Peter 5:8 states, “ Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

As I was reading social media and the news sites yesterday regarding the goings on in Charlottesville, it’s easy to see how we can believe a lie.  For whatever reason, the people waving those torches this weekend were decieved into believing that there are acceptable people based on skin color and race.  Yes, the distrubing pictures of angry white faces are people who have given into evil, but they are also faces of those that have been tricked into thinking that their belief system will bring them salvation, when all it will give them is damnation.

Baptism isn’t something that we do to get on God’s good side.  It is something that happens because of what God has done.  God chose to love humanity despite the many ways we broke God’s heart.  God became human in Jesus in and in Jesus lived and suffered and died seeking to do God’s will in the world.

While baptism is something we do for God, it is something that should change us.  Peter called for his listeners to repent, to turn around from their ways of doing things and live into the new reality that they have been introduced into.  Knowing Jesus from a different standpoint meant seeing life, our life from a different standpoint.  Repentance and baptism meant that these new Christ followers spent their days in the temple worshipping, sharing with each, especially when one had need.  Later they were the ones that cared for people who were ill, at time when others would leave people to die.  Repentance changed a slaveowner named John Newton to give up his old life and end up writing one of the most well known hymns, “Amazing Grace.”

How has baptism changed us?  How do we see life differently?  

In most baptismal liturgies, there is the following phrase that takes place as the child or adult is being baptized.  It is part of that person’s baptismal vows. This is one example that is used in Disciple congregations and it goes like this:

Do you renounce evil, repent of your sins, and turn to Christ?
I do.
Do you confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and
do you accept and proclaim him to be Lord and Savior of the world?
I do.

The Methodists are bit more verbose on this and I want to share it as well:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
I do.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

At this time in our nation’s history and in light of this weekend’s actions, I don’t have answers into how we should respond.  I’m not here to give a firery sermon.  But I am here to remind you of our baptismal vows.  Let us learn to renounce evil, or as some versions state, the wiles of the devil.  Let us be focused on living for Jesus, to living life in a different way and guard ourselves against the sirens that seek to lure us away as it has those white protestors in Virginia.  And let us live our vows that call us to resist evil, and battle injustice and oppression. Let us confess who we are and whose we are.  May we be a living witness of God’s love and share that love with others.

How many lights do you see?  Don’t let the devil trick you.  See the reality around you and live it out in a world that so needs to see it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Eugene Peterson and the Age of Shibboleths

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I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become a walking, talking shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or custom that signifies who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.  Think of it as an old fashioned version of virtue signaling.

Now, I didn’t personally become a shibboleth, but the fact that I am gay and in a same sex marriage does make me shibboleth in our neverending culture wars.  How one views same sex marriage either makes your virtuous or a sinner.

This past week, the pastor and author Eugene Peterson was interviewed this past week by journalist Jonathan Merritt.  Peterson is a well-known author and is most known for his version of the Bible, the Message.  During the interview, Merritt asked Peterson about his views on gays and lesbians in the church and if he would perform a same sex marriage.  Here’s what he said (the words of Merritt are in bold):

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

EP: Yes.

This set off alarm bells among evangelicals who are some of his fans and it caused people to speculate about his motivations. Writing in First Things, Samuel James thought his change of heart was about trying to be accepted by a changing society:

Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?

The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?”

He continues rather pointedly:

What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

Russell Moore wrote a more softer article expressing disapointment, but also seeing that good that Peterson has brought to his life.

His statement was could have cost him literally. Lifeway, the national Christian bookstore chain, was ready to stop selling Peterson’s books in their stores.

The rancor made him retract his words a short time later. He wrote:

“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

He might have been recieved back into the good graces of evangelicals, but now he pissed off progressive Christians who saw him as greedy, feeble-minded or uncaring. Rachel Held Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community for Peterson’s reversal.

Another writer said Peterson was selfish and greedy:

A man who wrote one of the most popular interpretations of the Bible said my son and his peers are equal. So equal that he would perform wedding ceremonies for them. A bookstore chain run by a Christian denomination says it will cost him money. When he realizes it will cost him money, my son’s life does not matter.
Equality does not matter to him. Civil rights does not matter. Bullycide does not matter. Suicidal ideations, increased violence and sexual assault to LGBTQIA youth does not matter. What matters is the bottom line of the bank account.
Now, let’s take a look at who runs this bookstore chain? The SBC was founded in the 1840’s to protect their precious Bible from the threat of abolitionists. That’s right, to them slavery was biblical. More recently the SBC made the news because they had controversy over an issue. That issue? Should they condemn the actions and philosophies of the alt right.

The SBC is the nation’s largest protestant denomination. Historically founded to fight for slavery as a biblical principle. This same group had to discuss the merits of condemning white supremacists. They are also anti LGBTQIA. And they own a chain of bookstores.

This is who Eugene Peterson relies on to sell his Bibles. He needs their money more than he needs the strength of conviction to say my son is equal.

As a gay Christian man in a same sex marriage, I have to call bullshit on both sides.

For conservatives, it seems like people are willing to love and adore a pastor’s teachings- as long as he adheres to their viewpoint. If he doesn’t he is to be treated as if he said Jesus was equal to Bozo the Clown.

But Progressives don’t fare better. They loved this guy the moment he said his initial statement, but when he retracted, people were swearing to never use the Message Bible and deem him a greedy SOB who doesn’t care LGBTQ persons are dying.

This is why I say I am now a shibboleth. How you look at me and my marriage determines whether a group will love you or condemn you.

Would I have like him to stick to his guns on same sex marriage?  Yes.  Am I dissapointed that he retracted? Yes.  But that’s one flaw in a person that has a lot of good to share.

As gay rights move forward in our society, we aren’t learning to live and let live.  All of the knives are out and we are looking for someone to say anything that is against their views and getting ready to punish that person.

To conservative Christians: what does it say that you seem to be willing to just dump someone because of one paragraph in an interview?  Is it more important that he follow toe the line on this issue than it is to judge his whole character?

And now progressive Christians:  What happened to grace?  What happened to praying for someone like Peterson, for courage and strength?  Are you going to stop reading his books for one stupid loss of nerve?

It feels like people on both sides are playing for keeps and there is very, very little room for love. Peterson stopped being a flesh and blood and imperfect human being and became the latest pawn in the culture wars. As a tweetstorm said this week, “We see people as collections of beliefs and ideas, which makes it easy to avoid seeing the whole person.”

In the real world, I know people who I know think I’m engaged in sin.  And I think they are very wrong.  But I still keep relationship with them because it is important to see them as more than their view on this one issue.  There is a lot that we can agree on beyond sexuality.

No matter if we are evangelicals or mainline Christians, we are called to love one another.  And that means loving people even when we disagree.

Love doesn’t excuse sin, but it should make us look at each other differently. Let’s put down the shibboleths and learn to love one another.

God Mend Thy Every Flaw

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One of the ironic things about me is that two of my favorite holidays are civil and not religious: Independence Day and Thanksgiving.  In the circles that I run in, those two holidays are also the most fraught because of America’s ….complex history when it comes to the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans. As an African American, I get that.  I can’t see America without its darker sides, because to do so would erase my own history.

An article from Reuters talks about how persons of color can see the 4th of Julybout how persons of color can see the 4th of July:

As many in the United States celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, some minorities have mixed feelings about the revelry of fireworks and parades in an atmosphere of tension on several fronts.

How do you celebrate during what some people of color consider troubling times?

Blacks, Latinos and immigrant rights advocates say the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, recent non-convictions of police officers charged in the shootings of black men, and the stepped-up detentions of immigrants and refugees for deportation have them questioning equality and the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the United States.

In light of the recent acquittal in the death of Philando Castile and some of the threatening rhetoric coming from the White House, and well looking at America’s racist history it would be easy for me to say that this day means nothing to me and just accept that this country is not simply flawed but malignant.

But the thing is, I do love this country.  Now as a Christian, my love of country can’t be greater than my love of God, but I do have an affinity for this nation, even with its warts.

As Christians we believe that we are sinners saved by grace.  We are sinners who mess up, but we also seek to live justly.  America is a place where we talk about freedom and liberty and it is also a place where we sometimes don’t grant our fellow Americans either.  But the words in the Declaration of Independence are still true, even though America hasn’t lived up to those words.  Martin Luther King believed in the what the founding fathers said.  He believed them even though those beliefs were not always lived. He believed them so much that he demanded that America start practicing what it believed.  Here’s what he said in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech:”

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

In spite of everything, King believed in America, in its promise. He believed in it enough to call America out to live up to those words.

Fellow Disciples pastor Doug Skinner addressed the paradox that is America in a recent post.  He notes that growing up in the 1950s offered an America with god-like heroes like Washington and Jefferson.  Today, we have gone to the other side and look at America with a cynical view, one where the entire American project is suspect.  Skinner uses a number of writers to show that, echoing Martin Luther, America is both sinner and saint. He starts by sharing a recent television special with the cast from Hamilton.  Hamilton of course, follows founding father Alexander Hamilton during the early days of the nation.  The cast is made up of mostly African Americans and Latinos playing roles of people like Washington and Jefferson.  A question was asked about how to reconcile the greatness of these men while they owned slaves. The answer is interesting:

A while back I watched a PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.”   For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days.  My favorite part of this particular special were the interviews with the actors, most of them people of color, who play the roles of our Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white, and slave-owners to boot.  At one point in the special, the actors were taken to some of the historical sites where the story that they dance and sing on stage each night actually took place.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home, standing in what would have been the slave quarters of the Father of our Country, the actors were asked to reflect on their feelings about being there.

George Washington became a slave owner when he was just 11 years old and his father died leaving him ten slaves.   When he died 56 years later, George Washington owned 317 slaves.  And he wasn’t unique in this.  At least half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.  Slavery was America’s Original Sin, that and the wholesale extermination of the America’s original residents.

Playing people who were responsible for doing such things on stage, those “Hamilton” actors confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism, and genius of these historic figures.  But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, the ignorance and the evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators.  “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr.  And their response was simple, direct, and spiritually profound – “They’re both true”  – they said.

Skinner then starts talking in theological terms about how all of us, from people like George Washington to you and me, are sinners:

Instead of lines being drawn that divide us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank argued that what we probably should be drawing instead is a great big circle that takes us all in as sinners, and that positions us all squarely under the umbrella if God’s grace.  And this is precisely what I see Jesus doing in the familiar story of the woman taken in adultery that only the Gospel of John tells  (John 8:1-11).  The Pharisees drew a line.  Jesus drew a circle.  The Pharisees wanted to exclude the sinner. Jesus wanted to forgive the sin.  The Pharisees saw the situation in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.   Jesus looked at the women, and at her accusers, and what He saw instead was what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would much later call – “Simul justus et peccator” – the fact that we human beings are “simultaneously just or righteous, and sinful or pitiful.”  From the perspective of Reformation theology, the cast of “Hamilton” got it exactly right when they looked at the nobility of the ideals of our national founders and at the depravity of their actions as slave owners, and concluded that “they’re both true.” 

This is the kind of realism that needs to characterize the way that we as Christians both think about ourselves and look at others. The Bible harbors no illusions about human nature. It names both our potential for greatness and our capacity for corruption quite clearly.  The trick, it seems to me, is hanging onto these two parts of ourselves as human beings at the same time.

One my favorite patriotic hymns is America the Beautiful. The lyrics were actually a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates for the Congregationalist magazine in 1895. Church organist Samuel Ward add the music was added in 1910. Many artists have sang this song and I tend to believe the best version was by Ray Charles, but that’s just me.

The reason I like this song is because it mixes in the beauty of this nation, but it also seeks help from God to be a better nation than it is. The third verse is the one that I want to share:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

America is not a perfect country. It hasn’t just made a few mistakes, it has endangered the lives of African Americans and Native Americans. It treated Japanese Americans as traitors because they shared the ethnic heritage of an enemy. Racism is a part of the American experience.

But it is also a nation that believed that everyone was equal even when they weren’t practicing it. That sense of equality has powered people to make America a better place.

I love America because of it’s ideas and because we try to live up to those ideas. We stumble and fall all the time. But I think we are trying to be better, fairer and more equal.

I need to love this flawed republic because I think some of the ideas that those founders believed in are under attack. You can’t challenge those who seek to weaken our cherised values if you don’t care about this country.

America isn’t God and it should not be worshipped. But when I flash my passport after coming in from travelling abroad, I pull it out with pride. I belong to a nation that believes that all of us are endowed by God by certain unalienable rights and this little books proves I am an American, that I believe in these ideas and will keep fighting for them for all who live in this crazy place called the United States of America.

I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes that talks about his country and how he belongs will strive for this:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I too, am America. I look to God to keep working through me to mend America’s flaws, so that everyone can say that “I, too, am America.

Happy Fourth.

The Trouble With Normal

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One of my favorite cartoons growing up was the 1975 television special based on Maurice Sendak’s books with songs by Carole King.  Really Rosie was the name of the special and the song that I remember the most is “Pierre, the Boy Who Doesn’t Care.”

Pierre is a little boy that seems to go through life not allowing himself to feel for people and events that happen in his life.  The climax of the song and the story has Pierre willfully getting into the belly of a lion, not caring what happens.

I’ve started a new job that supplements my pastoral gig.  I think it will be a wonderful fit, but as the first day approached, I was filled with anxiety.  It’s an anxiety that I think has to be common to persons on the autism spectrum; that fear that you are going to mess things up and get people to be dissapointed in you.

The thing that I’ve learned over the years is that neurotypical people can never really understand those of us on spectrum even when we are honest about who we are.  They still won’t understand because it is not them or someone that they love.  They see slip-ups as a sign of being a bad worker or even worse, someone who doesn’t care.

An article from a Gwendolyn Kansen explains the challenges people on the spectrum face when they enter the job market and why it can be a challenge to have a full time job:

You start out upbeat. You were excited about this. You got through the interview just fine because you were so happy to be there. They might have even called you a good communicator.

You chat with your coworkers. People compliment your work. You might miss a few things, but you’re doing such a good job that they forgive you for it. People help you when you can’t do something.

For a while, you’re golden.

Then it gets harder.

As the work piles on, you start making mistakes. You lose something. You send a poorly-worded email. You realize that everyone is working faster than you are.

The multitasking is killing you. You ask your supervisor for help. You’ve been asking her that a lot by the way. Especially with sequential tasks. And she’s getting annoyed. She says you need to “work more independently.”

If you do your work without help, she says you need to “show more initiative.”

Either way, you are clearly not handling this well.

You don’t make small talk anymore. You don’t have the energy for it. Those people who were so nice to you at first are now starting to avoid you. The important assignments are now given to somebody else.

You know you look disinterested. And vaguely creepy. But you also know there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

None of this means my new job is going to head south, but there is always that fear that my little brain won’t be able to keep up.

None of this is better in the church world. Churches are supposed to be places of grace and mercy, but since its a human institution, it means that people don’t understand you and your “shortcomings” even when you try to explain it to them.

Which is why “coming out” to your employer is not always the best thing. Even when you tell them, they don’t seem to understand and they get angry when you miss something during your work.

I think that’s because person with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism appear normal.  That means, people can’t see our disability.  What they see is a person that seems normal enough doing a poor job on whatever project out there and someone that seems to not care.

You yourself know you are trying, but it seems lost on others.  They may have given up on you, believing you are utterly hopeless.

This then leads to you wondering if maybe they’re right.  Maybe you start to believe you really did something wrong.  Maybe if you were better, tried some trick to remember tasks, learned to smile more and kept your head down you wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe it means being more…normal.

But there’s the rub. You aren’t normal.

Yes, you can mask some of your idiocyncrasies, but at the end of the day, you are going to be you, and those things that place you on the spectrum are going to come out.

What I’ve come to learn is that in the workplace, you have to do a few things. First, you have to accept you aren’t normal and never will be. And that’s okay.  This is who you are, who God made you.  Therapy and medication can temper some of the behaviors, but you are still going to do things that will piss off your coworkers.

I’m a pastor on the autism spectrum. I’m a web content specialist and on the autism spectrum.  This is who I am and it won’t change and I don’t want it to change.

Second, we need to urge people around us in our workplaces to learn more about autism.  But don’t expect that they will get to learn.  People think they know what autism is, and they don’t really bother to learn about how autism can show itself in people. But keep telling them.  Maybe it will sink in to folk.

Third, learn from your mistakes.  You are going to make mistakes in the workplace.  When you make a mistake, learn what you did wrong and correct it. And know you will make another mistake again. And you will learn from that.  People might not like that you make those mistakes, but they are the only way we learn.

Fourth, we have to learn to have a thick skin.  Because people think you don’t care, because for some reason you make them angry, people will say some things that will sting.  You have to learn how to not allow it to control you.  It’s easy to let those words ruin your whole day, but you have to be able to do your work even with the pain.  As I’ve said before, people don’t understand, so as hard as it is to admit this, you can’t expect sympathy from people.

These are just a few tips I’ve learned over time.  Following them doesn’t mean your job/vocation will be smooth sailing, though. People will always notice that something is off.  They will always notice you aren’t normal.

But we don’t have to be normal.  We can’t be normal.  Just do what you can for the glory of God.

 

Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

Galatians 1:13-17; 2:15-21 and Luke 18:9-14
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Losing My Religion Sermon Series
May 21, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio.

It’s been about two years since our congregation voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we openly welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered persons into the life of our church.  I think that’s a good thing, but over the years even long before our vote, I’ve been wondering about the quality of the pro-inclusion argument.  Whenever I’ve seen people argue in favor of LGBT inclusion, the main thrust goes like this: Jesus hung around undesirable and marginalized people and so should we.  

 

I get what this message is trying to say, but it feels sort of a flippant answer and not really delving into the question.  Too often, people cherry pick Scripture to find some verse on inclusion and maybe throw in that the rest of society is more accepting of gays and so should we.  But the thing is, it really doesn’t answer the deep questions that issues like this bring up.  Who belongs to God?  And why?  How are we accepted by God?

 

In today’s text, Paul is teed off.  Something is taking place that has hurt the Gentiles who came into the faith.  A leading founder of the church was exhibiting a two-faced behavior.  A delegation from Jerusalem is stirring up dissention.  Paul has to say something to put things right.

 

The problem here is similar to what we talked about last week.  A group of Jewish Christians have come to Antioch to persist that any Gentile Christian must be circumcised to be part of the faith. In some way they are being pushed by events in Jerusalem.  A nationalist movement is coming to fore in Jerusalem and demanding people follow a strict interpretation of the law.  This group is causing trouble especially with the church which had started welcoming Gentiles.  Peter who was in Antioch, knew what was going on back home. He had made it a habit to eat meals with the Gentile Christians.  Eating a meal with someone is a sign of a close relationship.  When, Peter sees these Jews from Jerusalem urging for purity, Peter decides to stop eating with the Gentiles.  Peter probably believed he was doing this to keep the Jewish Christians back home safe from persecution.  But he did it at the expense of the Gentiles who now made to feel like second-class Christians.

 

Paul is seeing all of this and he is mad and calls Peter out.  He rails against what Peter has done and how it led to other Jews to engage in the same hypocrisy.  This is when Paul goes into sharing what really matters in the faith.

 

Now in the past, this passage has been seen in a very simplistic terms.  Pastors tend to see this as Paul repudiating the Torah and saying that all we need is to just believe in Jesus.  In this view, it sets up Judiaism is the wrong faith and that Christianity is the good faith.  But at this point, the church was still a sect within Judaism. Paul and Peter and others didn’t see themselves as starting a new church, but probably more as reforming Judaism.  Paul’s words in chapter one shows he was a faithful Jew and didn’t see himself as leaving the faith.

 

So Paul isn’t arguing for a new faith, but and expansion of the old faith.  Paul is talking about covenant.  If you can remember way, way back to last September, God establishe a covenant with Abraham and the whole Jewish people.  God and Israel would be in a covenant relationship.  So in this way, the covenant was focused on one specific people, the Jews and these Jews would perform works like circumcision. These works were not done to please God, but were a sign to show that they belong to God.  So when Paul says in chapter 2, verse 16 that righteousness doesn’t come by following the law, but faith in Christ, he is not saying what you think he is saying.  The law was a way to mark you as a Jew.  But Christ’s death on cross means that this mark is no longer needed.  Righteousness was no longer limited to nationality, but was for everyone.  

 

When Paul talks about faith, it is again tempting to believe this is about mental assent.  If you really believe in Jesus, then you’re in.  Believing in Jesus matters, but the real nugget is what Jesus has done, not what we have done.  Yes, we should believe, but it is not about beliving in Jesus as much as it is to realize that God in Christ has already done the work.

 

Paul is talking about freedom.  We are not bound to a covenant that is only for one group, but a covenant for everyone. We are not bound to believe enough in Jesus to be saved, but realize that we are saved by God’s actions through Jesus on the cross.

This is why Galatians is called a book about freedom.  We are freed from the different barriers to be able to live as community who realizes it is free in Christ.

 

So, if I was going to talk about LGBT inclusion today, I would say something like this:  they don’t have to give up their sexuality in order to show they belong to God.  Instead, they are free by faith, not mental assent, but realizing that God has already done the work to make them, to make me belong because of what was done on a cross on a hill a long time ago.  Inclusion in Christian terms is not about trying to be hip or trendy or being on the right side of history.  It is about knowing that we, all of us are free. It is knowing and trusting that God has done the work of inclusion because of the work done on the cross.  This is why we are Open and Affirming.  

 

Our second text from Luke, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You see how the Pharisee comes before God.  He stresses he has done all the things that show that he was a faithful Jew.  Then we see of the Publican or the Tax Collector.  He doesn’t really want to be there.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven and pleads for mercy.  If you remember, tax collectors were not seen as upstanding people because of their work with the Romans and because they could rip people off.  The publican can only rely on the grace of God.  Unlike the Pharisee, he couldn’t talk about all that he had done.  He knew he didn’t have anything that could make him righteous accept the mercy of God.

 

In a few weeks, we will be gathered at Loring Park in Minneapolis with our fellow Disciples churches, First Christian-Minneapolis and Plymouth Creek Christian Church.  We go there not to show how hip or “woke” we are, but to witness to a God that loves all of us, that God became like us and died on a cross for us.  Because of this means everyone is welcome.  I am welcomed, you are welcomed because we place our trust in God and we share that good news with others.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Shirts & Skins

Politics is not as fun to follow these days.

When I was younger, people got into arguments about politics left and right.  But then you would move on to other things.

That’s the thing; there were other things in life to do.  Our lives were not drenched in politics. But these days you can’t watch sports without it referring to politics.

Facebook and other social media have placed us in self-selecting bubbles and our views become more intense.  It’s been interesting to see fellow pastors say things about those with other opinions that at times makes me wonder if people of different political beliefs would ever be welcomed at their churches.

In the days following the passage of the American Health Care Act, I’ve seen a lot of anger coming from the Twitter and Facebook streams.  I’ve had problems with this health care bill and I’m not afraid to share them, but some of the things I’ve seen are welcome beyond simple criticism.  There is a fury directed at the other side that is venomous.  Each side thinks the other is impure and they must be utterly defeated.

In the midst of all this, I came accross a Facebook post by Disciples Pastor Doug Skinner.  In his post he brings up to important names: Hurbert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen.  Humphrey was of course the Senator and later Vice President to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dirksen was the long time minority (Republican) leader in the senate. I want to share a few of those words here:

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.

That quote got me thinking. I looked for a photo of the Democratic Senator and later Vice President with the Republican Senate minority leader. I found one:

senate-supporters-at-close-of-civil-filibuster

Dirksen is seated on the left side, while Humphrey is seated next. They are celebrating together, the end of the filler buster for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That isn’t the only picture of the two together.  The quote makes you think the two had a relationship.  They disagreed on policy, but their friendship  was strong.

Washington of the 1960s dealt with some major questions that this nation had to answer, Civil . There were disagreements.  Yet, there was still friendship at the end.

When I look at social media feeds in light of the healthcare vote, there wasn’t a sense of being  able to argue an issue and still remain friends.  There was a lot of anger and venom expressed towards anyone who might have a different opinion on the issue.  One blogger even hoped for hell for those who voted in favor of the American Health Care act.

Like I said, there are legitimate reasons for not supporting the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  But I choose to believe that people who think otherwise are not callous monsters.  I can see them as mistaken in their beliefs, but they aren’t necessarily horrible people.

How are Christians to act when it comes to public policy?  How do we handle differences, deep differences? How do we remain in community?  How do we show grace to each other?  How do we witness to the wider world a different way of being?

Maybe the problem is pride.  I sometimes think that the belief in “justice” is so strong that it makes us self-righteous. We start to think that we are on the “right side of history” and to hell with those who don’t agree.

I think what is happening in the church is that we are worshipping a golden calf, but we think we are worshipping the real god.

I stumbled across this entry from the Daily Keller website, based off evangelical pastor Tim Keller.  In this entry he explains who American Christians have made politics into an idol and that has profound changes on the body politic.  Have you every noticed what goes on the day after a major election, how the losing side speaks in almost apocalyptic terms:

When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.

If we the losing side experience something akin to a death, it also means the other side is veiwed in very dark terms:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, ‘It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.’ After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.

I think that’s what is going on right now with American Christians. When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, I could see how evangelical Christianity succumbed to gods of politics. I grew disgusted by this and thought that I could find solace in the mainline/progressive church. Just as evangelical Christianity got in bed with the Republican Party,mainline Christians have jumped in bed with the Democrats. When we started to make alliances with each political party, God became a tool to advance the interests of whatever party. God became pro-life and supported health savings accounts. God supported single-payer health care and $15/hr minimum wage. And when we make God the cheerleader of our politics, that mean anyone with a different view is not simply mistaken; they are evil. When politics becomes god it means pastors can call out people from the other side, telling people that all are welcome, except Republicans or Democrats.

Maybe the to put it to a fine point, I think we are living in an extremely graceless age.  We talk about justice, but without a sense of grace, justice becomes a cold instrument of punishment.

Presbyterian pastor David Williams wrote in the Christian Century last year an article with a provocative title: “Why Social Justice Isn’t Christian.” He writes about the dark side of justice:

…justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around. Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity. It is about the balance of competing interests in a society. It’s a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order. Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword. Social justice is about power dynamics.

That doesn’t mean, not for a moment, that both noting and resisting oppressive structures is wrong.

Because systemic injustice is fundamentally devoid of grace, the abnegation of grace, a repudiation of grace. Grace recoils at hatred and oppression. Grace shudders at our gleeful embrace of violence. Grace finds wealth in the face of another’s poverty an embarrassment. Grace does not stand idly by. Grace is the enemy of both individual and collective self-seeking.

As such, it is the both the ground of justice and the method by which justice is created.

And it goes deeper than that. In the absence of a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will either shatter or calcify a soul. It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue.

I think this is what is taking place right now. Justice is being offered with no grace. The result is that our souls are becoming calcified, becoming brittle. Too many pastors have become numb to those around us. We don’t see those accross the isle as children of God, but children of darkness. We get involved in the struggle for justice, but without grace, our actions become twisted, where we see others as nothing more than a threat.

I wasn’t around when Dirksen and Humphrey roamed the walls of the Capitol, but as I look at that picture and read Doug Skinner’s quote about these two Senators, I have to think there was more grace back then, more of a willingness to listen and not seek to shut the other side down.

In a recent interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, he talks a bit about how our current culture is sorted out like shirts and skins.  I tend to agree.  Shirts and skins means that there isn’t anything we have in common with the other side.  Senators Humphrey and Dirksen trusted each other and shared things in common.  In the church, we need to find a way to go back to being grounded in Christ.

For that to happen, those of us in the church have to be reminded that we are grounded in Christ.  When we see someone who might not be in the church, we are grounded in the fact that everyone is a child of God.

It’s time for the church to start to model a society where all truly can come to the table.  We have to learn to keep someone at the table, even if they are different. We need to stop aping the world and become centered at the communion table.

May we learn to work for justice with grace.

Attention (Former) Kmart Shoppers

firstkmart

The original Kmart in Garden City, Michigan in 1962. From the Detroit Free Press. This store was closed in early 2017.

I wrote an article about the demise of Kmart over at my Medium blog. I talk about its heyday and what has happened under Eddie Lampert who seems to be sucking Sears and Kmart dry. Here is a sample:

Other news outlets, such as the New York Post report the same thing: Lampert is stripping the company of its assets and also making sure he makes something off the demise of Sears and Kmart.

I don’t want to say that Kmart would be doing well had it never been purchased by Lampert; as I’ve said already, Kmart (and Sears) were already struggling. I would go further and say that the two retailers probably would have closed up shop anyway without Lampert. But Lampert is killing off the two stores by a thousand paper cuts, little by little. The stores look shabbier and shabbier and more and more stores close, and more parts of the company are sold off. It would be better if the stores just closed all at once, but that would probably not benefit Lampert. So what we have is this slow death, where Kmart especially has become a zombie, shambling through the retail market, slowly disintegrating.

 

 

Give it a read.