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.

Mistakes, I’ve Made A Few

spelling-mistake-1

The email said it in clear words. I had made a mistake.  And people weren’t too happy about it.

Making a mistake in my world can be a big deal, at least in my mind.  It brings up fears and shame.  I start to worry that I will lose my job (something that has happened) and I feel incredibly stupid.  No one else makes mistakes, I say to myself.  You 47 years old and you make mistakes like a 12 year old. Get it together! Says another voice.

It has always been funny to me how we talk about mistakes and how we actually feel about them.  People talk about mistakes as the thing that makes us human and helps us to be better people.  But when mistakes actually happen, they are treated as serious breaches of protocol.  Because I see this disconnect in how people handle mistakes, it makes me even more rigid and hyper-sensitive in trying to not make a mistake, because when that happens, people don’t take it lightly.  They get angry and at times look for ways to get rid of you.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of being autistic.  It’s easy for someone with autism to view a mistake as a world-shattering event. A lot of writers try write advice on how to calm people down and see that mistakes happen. While that’s true I’d love if there were a blog post on how to deal with mistakes as an autistic when your neurotypical boss gets angry because you included the wrong information in an email or when you forget to check the voicemail message that day.

I’ve always been someone that hated mistakes.  If I had a low grade on a quiz, I would turn it over because I didn’t want to see it.  I would spend hours on a journalism story in college making sure every fact was correct.  I don’t like mistakes, and it’s hard to calm down and accept that I do make mistakes (sometimes because of being autistic), because sometimes there are severe consequences for making a mistake.

Sometimes what I wish is that someone come and tell me things will be okay and that I can learn from this.  Sometimes I want to be told that I am still worthy and loved even when I mess up, especailly when I mess up big time.

I’m going to have to find a way to accept that mistakes will happen and learn to live with the mistake and how to correct it.  And to let go of a certain amount of perfectionism.  But I think it will take a while to deal with the ongoing fear, because the worst did happen.

Sometimes life for someone with autism is not just difficult, but downright scary.

Preach the Gospel. Use Words.

When I was in seminary, I learned one of those ten dollar words that mean something to the art of being a pastor.  That word is proclamation or its even more fancy Greek version,κήρυγμα or kerygma. Kerygma means preaching.  When a pastor gives a sermon, he or she should be participating in proclaiming or kerygma.

But while preaching is kerygma, it isn’t everything.  Kerygma has a larger meaning; it’s about telling a story, telling a specific story.  The ethical teachings of Jesus had to be placed in a context.  The early Christians found a way to tell the story of Jesus and they called it, the proclamation or kerygma. This is how theologian C.H. Dodd described it:

According to the evidence of the New Testament, the earliest exponents of the Christian religion worked out a distinctive way of presenting the fundamental convictions of their faith, in a formula which they called “the proclamation. The Greek word here is kerygma. Our translators of the Bible commonly render it “preaching” but in its current implications at the present day the word is misleading. Kerygma properly means a public announcement or declaration, whether by a town crier, or by an auctioneer commending his goods to the public, or by the herald of a sovereign state dispatched on a solemn mission, to present an ultimatum, it may be, or to announce terms of peace.

The Christian “preacher” thought of himself as an announcer of very important news. He called it quite simply “the good news,” or in our traditional translation, “the gospel. ” It was this “good news” that was embedded in the “proclamation”, the kerygma. It was essentially a public announcement of events of public importance.

Dodd goes on to say that the proclamation could be recovered from the New Testament and the proclaimation had a purpose; to be confronted by the living God:

The form and content of the proclamation, the kerygma, can be recovered from the New Testament with reasonable accuracy. It recounted in brief the life, and work of Jesus Christ, His conflicts. sufferings. and death. and His resurrection from the dead; and it went on to declare that in these events the divinely guided history of Israel through long centuries had reached its climax. God Himself , had acted decisively in this way to inaugurate His kingdom upon earth. This was the core of all early Christian preaching, however it might be elaborated, illustrated, and explained.

The preacher’s aim was to convince his hearers that they were. indeed confronted by the eternal God in His kingdom, power, and glory; that they, like all men. stood under His judgment upon what they had done and upon what they were, and that this judgment was now immediate and inescapable; further. that those who would put themselves under God’s judgment would, through His mercy. find an opportunity open to them to enter upon a new life; that actually, as a result of these facts which they proclaimed, a new era in the relations between God and man had begun.

Those who responded to this appeal and placed themselves under the judgment and mercy of God as declared in Jesus Christ, became members of the community, the Church, within which the new life could be lived. These members were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life. This course of instruction in morals, as distinct from the proclamation of the gospel, is covered by the term “‘teaching,” which in Greek is didaché.

This order of approach, first the proclamation, then the beginning of instruction in morals, first kerygma, then didaché, seems to have been thoroughly characteristic of the Christian mission; it is precisely this order, first kerygma. then didaché, which we have seen to be general in the New Testament writings.

So proclamation wasn’t just saying something to say something. It was about telling a story, THE story and connecting it to the lives of those around them.

So proclamation is about speaking something. It isn’t something that can be achieved without words. Which means that the old saying attributed to St. Francis (but really isn’t his words), ““Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary,” might not actually make sense.

Now, most mainline Christians love this passage for one simple reason: you don’t have to talk about Jesus to people. You don’t have to look weird or like those evangelicals down the street. But as evangelical theologian Ed Stetzer said in a 2015 article, preaching the gospel is about preaching about the saving work of Jesus. Since Jesus is the gospel, we can’t really “live out the gospel,” but instead have to announce the gospel:

The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

He goes on to say that proclamation is the central task of the church (which means it isn’t just the job of the pastor):

It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.

So, why am I talk about proclamation at this moment?

Because it has implications for some of my work outside the pulpit and because this is a major weakpoint of mainline churches.

Communication, about who we are and what we do is not a very prominent mission within mainline churches.  There are some bright spots among the Lutherans and Episcopalians, but for the most part the task of communication is not considered very important.

About 10 years ago, things were different.  The birth of social media breathed new life into the task of communicating. Positions were created that were communications-focused. Conferences were held to help churches become more tech savvy.  But then, all of this stopped.  It might have been the Great Recession, but all of the sudden, it wasn’t so important to have a good website or effective social media presence.  Positions created a few years prior were cut with churches and middle judicatories putting the task of communications on already burdened administrative assistants or volunteers.

The thing is, mainline churches have long thought what was important is what we do, not what we say.  Except, if we don’t tell people why we are feeding the homeless or why we are taking part in this protest, then people don’t know we are doing this because we follow Jesus.  They will assume you are just nice people.

The fact of the matter is that we are called to preach the gospel. NOT be the gospel; that’s something onlyJesus can do. NOT live out the gospel, because again, Jesus.  We are called to preach the gospel and since we don’t possess the power to speak telepathically to people, we have to say something.

In a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Communicators Network meeting in North Carolina in 2008, I said that being church communicators mean looking out to see what God is doing in the world:

Whether we are communicators at the church, presbytery, synod or General Assembly level, this is our charge: to find out what God is up to in the world, to be empowered by the Spirit to tell the story of healing and love to a world that desparately needs to hear it.

But most churches and middle judicatories don’t act as if this is such an important task. Most churches ask an admin to do it, if they have the skills. The same might go for middle judicatories.

Evangelical churches have tended to be light years away from mainline churches when it comes to communications. But they also tend to be better at proclaiming the gospel. I might not agree with how it is done at times, but they do show they have the skills to make sure their social media sites, webpage and newsletters are proclaiming the gospel message.

Historically, mainline churches weren’t very strong with communicating the gospel, because culture was soaked enough with the faith that we didn’t have to. But those days are gone and it’s time to focus on how to learn to preach the good news through communication as well as other methods.

Because we have to preach the gospel and we need to use words.

Should We 86 2016?


I wrote the following for the church website and I’m cross-posting it here.
“Let’s 86 this year.”

That’s something I heard a lot about 30 years ago in 1986, especially in the days following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger some 73 seconds after liftoff.  A number of events took place early in the year that made people want to just get the year over with.

Three decades later, I’m hearing a 21st Century version of 86-ing.  Go on Facebook and you will see a number of people saying that 2016 was the worst.  The reasons we see this passing year as a dumpster fire ( a very 2016 phrase) is because of the election and the deaths of several well-known celebrities, including David Bowie, Prince and most recently, Carrie Fisher.  We want 2016 to be over and done moving on to the next big thing in 2017.

But was 2016 really the worst?  Well, it really was the worse for those living through the Syrian Civil War.  It was the worst for people in Venezuela who see their economy melt down and find it hard to purchase food.  It was the worst for people living in parts of Chicago who are dealing with a rising number of homicides.

2016 did see an unusual number of high-profile deaths and for the fans of musicians and actors it can be a little heartbroken.  I for one will be watching Episode VIII of Star Wars with a hint of sadness, seeing Leia and knowing Carrie Fisher is no longer with us.

But 2016 doesn’t have to be the worst.  Whenever I couldn’t sleep, my mother would tell me to read Psalm 121.  This psalm is one that could be used as a blessing before car trips to Louisiana to see relatives.  In fact it was used many times before we pulled out of the driveway. “I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?”  We know the answer.  The psalmist tells us that no mater what we do, God is there with us.  None of this means bad things will never happen, but it does mean that we never face them alone. God was with us through the election.  God was with us as some of our favorite artists passed from the scene.  God was with us when a parent or grandparent died.  No matter what, our help comes from God above, meaning that the world can throw its worst, because we know God is there to help us face down the powers that seek to oppress us.

Was 2016 the worst? Before I answer that, let me tell you a story of a death that many of you might have forgotten.  The death of Bob Ebeling.  Most people wouldn’t know Ebeling.  He wasn’t a singer or actor, but an engineer who worked on the Space Shuttle program.  On January 27, 1986, Ebeling and four other engineers made a plea for the shuttle launch scheduled for the next day be cancelled.  The knew it was going to be very cold the next morning and they were worried that the O-rings on the fuel tank would fail causing an explosion.  NASA didn’t listen to the engineers and on January 28, the Shuttle exploded.

Ebeling blamed himself for the disaster and carried that shame for the next 30 years.  As he neared the end of his life, he shared this pain with the listening audience. Because of this people from around the nation wrote in to give Ebeling encouragement.  But what really lifted his spirits was when officials from his old company and NASA absolving him of any blame.  He died a few days later, but without the burden of shame.

Was 2016 the worst?  I don’t know. It didn’t seem that way to Ebeling. Yes, he died, but he did without the guilt he carried for decades.

But I do know that God was there even during the “worst times.” I do know that no matter what might be thrown our way God will not leave us abandoned.

I hope 2017 is a better year.  But everything is good when God is the author of our faith.

My help comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Dennis Sanders
Pastor

Progressive Christian and Trump Voters

donald-trump-votersThe first day or two after the election I decided to contact friends and acquaintences of mine  who had voted for Donald Trump.  I wanted to apologize if I said anything off-putting to them.  To a person, all of them were gracious and even told me why they considered voting for Trump.  I took their responses to heart.  I didn’t always agree with their reasons, but I was glad to hear them and to give Trump voters are more humane face.

What’s been sad is that most progressive Christians haven’t been willing to sit and talk to Trump voters.  Like their secular counterparts, there is more interest in talking about Trump voters instead of talking with them.

Most of the criticism against Trump voters have come in the form of saying that they know that Person A who voted for Trump is a racist, but that they knew who they were voting for.  An example of this is a post by John Pavlovitz in mid-November.  He starts by saying that he understands the reason people decided to vote for the Donald, but they were aware of the dark sides as well:

I know you had legitimate reasons for voting for him; things that either real or imagined, genuinely moved you to your decision and that you wrestled with these reasons greatly. But I don’t care about those reasons; not because I don’t care about you or value you or want to understand you or because I don’t respect your road, but because those reasons can’t help those who are hurting right now—only your response can.

You see, regardless of why you voted for him, you did vote for him. Your affirmation of him and your elevation of him to this position, came with what you knew about him:

It came after hearing the horrible, degrading, vile things he said about women.
It came after hearing him encourage his supporters to be violent with protestors.
It came after he advocated for Muslims to be expelled and profiled.
It came after he made fun of a man with physical disability.
It came after he framed the BlackLivesMatter movement as criminal and subversive.
It came after he personally criticized the appearance and weight and sexual activity of women opponents.
It came after he chose a Vice President who believes gay people can pray away their gayness.
It came after the KKK and the neo-Nazis endorsed him.

These were all things you had to weigh to cast your vote, and by whatever method you used, you declared theses things within your morally acceptable parameters. You deemed these part of the “lesser of two evils”. In voting your conscience—these things made the cut.

This is kinda a passive-agressive way of saying these folks are wrong and maybe morally suspect. People make decisions when they vote and sometimes things are ignored because of higher concerns. It’s not something I like or would do, but people don’t vote for saints. There is the same kind of backhanded contempt in this video by Sojourner’s:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FSojournersMagazine%2Fvideos%2F10154160665307794%2F&show_text=0&width=560

The problem with these responses is that they treat the people who voted for Trump as either racist or indifferent to persons of color. It’s less about reconcilation than it is about shaming.

The thing is for those of who are Christians and didn’t vote for Trump, we need to be able to listen to Trump voters. Why did they vote the way they did? How can the church respond? How can we show voters there is an alternative?

Sometimes the people who voted for Trump did so for economic reasons. That’s been considered false by opponents, but I think there is a lot of truth to the claim. Writer Morgan Pheme says we should try to understand those voters and listen with some empathy:

Over the last week I have heard far too many of my fellow progressives dismiss Trump’s voters as racists, misogynists and fascists. While there are certainly a depressing number of them that deserve these characterizations, to brush aside the more than 61 million Americans who cast their ballots for Trump as mere hateful idiots is to perpetuate the liberal elitism that helped fuel Trump’s success and to disregard the economic and social problems plaguing our country.
There was a reason that Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s cries for economic populism intermingled to a discomfiting degree during the campaign season: America is in thrall to corporate interests at the expense of blue-collar and low-wage workers; both parties were complicit in giving Wall Street a pass in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis; Democratic and Republican administrations have both driven disastrous deregulation in service of the donor class.

But we must also acknowledge that when hard-working people cannot support their families, when they suffer the loss of their dignity, when they can’t see a path for their children to have a better life than their own—the very crux of the American dream—these are conditions that can both unleash the ugliest elements of human nature—and propel people to throw caution and reason to the wind for the simple promise of hope and change.

There are Trump voters in our congregation. Instead of shaming them, maybe we need to seek them out and listen. We don’t have to agree with them, but we need to take the time to listen. If Christianity is about reconcililation, then this is a good opportunity live that out.