Loving Jesus, Hating Church?

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I gave up church because I can no longer make the trade-offs between worship, theology, mission, and community that I have made for years. My congregational options usually seem to consist of historically Black church settings with prophetic preaching and action on issues of racial and social justice, but that reject women’s call to pastoral leadership; predominantly white churches that profess gender and sexual inclusivity, but are experienced as oppressive by people of color; and multiracial churches whose preaching, worship, and leadership are oriented to the comfort of white, middle-class Christians (which is, incidentally, an act of white supremacy). I gave up church because fitting into any of the spaces required me to conceal or contort too much of my womanist self. I gave up church because I cannot seem to find a place where I can worship God with my whole being. And I am not alone.

These are the words from a recent post by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor at McAfee School of Theology. Her post is about her leaving the church because it is not prophetic enough. I want to be sensitive and not be dismissive of her complaints. Churches are not perfect and they are filled with racism and homophobia and misogyny. I know that churches have treated people of color, LGBT community, women and others poorly. I have been treated as such.

But there is something in this post that bothers me.  It’s something that I’ve seen in other thinkpieces over the years.  Usually someone will say how the church doesn’t do X and because of this, they aren’t in church anymore.  If the church took part and offered X, then maybe they would return to church. This is what former Millenial pastor Steve Austin has said about his generation and why they gave up church:

We’re desperate for honesty. We are hungry for conversation. We want to show up at church with our success, failure, vulnerability, questions, and what’s left of our deconstructed faith. We have shifted away from and sifted through the excesses of man-made religious constructs. We have grown up and read the Bible for ourselves. And we are passionate about the overarching theme of the life and lessons of Jesus: that love comes with no strings attached. Anything else is just a loan.

We are choosing to step away from the in-fighting that happens too often in the name of God. We’re sick of petty fights over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or the volume of the music. Deeper than that, we’ve had our hearts crushed because our friends aren’t welcome in certain sterilized churches. We’re convinced that Jesus was serious when he said, “Love one another.” But much of what my Millennial friends and I have witnessed from institutions that operate in the name of God is pain and abuse. We were once baptized by well-meaning people in fear, shame, and guilt. But we aren’t buying that any more. We are coming up from those muddied waters, looking for new life.

Like Walker-Barnes commentary, Austin’s piece brings up some important themes that should be taken seriously. But there is also could be something else taking place at the same time; a sense of seeing the church not as a place where the imperfect people of God gather and to work to keep including people at God’s table, but as a consumer good that should be made to a person’s desires and likes. It’s like taking the old slogan of Burger King, “Have It Your Way,” and make it how the church should operate.

I know that some will think I don’t take seriously the cry of those who feel hurt by the church. I think we should work to make the church more receptive to women, to gays and especially to be more willing to take on the topic of race. But I don’t think Walker-Barnes is talking about churches that are preaching against LGBTQ individuals or preaching for racial purity.  What I think is happening here is that the churches aren’t where she is on these issues.  The churches aren’t where she is, so she decides to not go to church.

No one should stay at a church where you are being abused or condemned from the pulpit. But what this seems like is a sense of consumerism.  The church isn’t made-to-order to her expectations and so she walks.

But the church is never going to be up to our own standards and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it is to our standards.  The church has to be to God’s standards.

As for dealing with racism, we have to remember that God used people who at times didn’t get it.  In Acts 10, Peter is called by God to preach the good news to  Cornelius, a Roman, which is another way of saying “not a Jew.” God schools Peter by telling the disciple that the gospel is for all.  But after Peter’s epiphany there was some backsliding as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians.

11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

-Galatians 2:11-13

The thing is, there have been many throughout the history of the church, Christians have arose hearing the call of justice. Think Martin Luther King. Or the Freedom Riders. And there are times when the church went silent in the face of evil. Church is a mixed bag because it is filled with humans who aren’t perfect.

And for that reason, we need Jesus.

But I wonder if the people who say they love Jesus and not the church realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus inugurated the church. It seems at time that these people want a Jesus that is more like Che Guevara- a revolutionary Jesus. But the Jesus was read in Scripture is the one that gathered the disciples and prepared them to lead the church .

Jesus does care for the poor and Matthew 25 is a good example of what happens when we ignore those in need. But Jesus is not just a social justice figure. Jesus is also the son of God who comes to die for us, to set us free from the bonds of sin.

In the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are given an understanding of what the big C church is as well as the little c church. This is what is has to say about the church:

Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.

The Design continues:

Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.

The emphasis is on the word “covenant.” Church means that we are connected. It means we are responsible to each other. It means loving that person that you think is stupid for support that tax policy or who supports a $15 minimum wage when you think its madness. It means being in covenant with the guy that think women can’t be ministers even when you want to walk away. None of this is about allowing or enabling abuse, but it is about being willing reach beyond what is comfortable to see that person on the other side is your sister or brother in Christ.

I want to share one more quote from Chanequa Walker-Barnes as she explains why she’s given up church:

We are people who take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 25 when he stated that the test of true discipleship was solidarity and service with the “least of these.” But rarely can we find a church that makes solidarity and service its central focus. Instead, we encounter churches that endorse such hate-filled and theologically vacuous declarations such as the Nashville Statement opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage; that refuse to engage anti-Black police violence, mass deportations of immigrant families, and unjust prison systems; that shun, silence, and demonize leaders that it deems too outspoken on matters of justice.

I don’t know what churches she’s gone to, but I know a lot of churches that do take justice seriously. But I wanted to contrast this with something written by pastor and writer Lillian Daniel six years ago. It got her in trouble, but it helped distill what church is really all about. In some way she responds to Walker-Barnes about the church and what it is made of:

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

I served at a church that had two members who were interesting. One of them was developmentally disabled and he would use his outside voice and blurt something in the middle of worship. The other was schizophrenic and was always struggling to deal with the voices in his head. But he could draw some of the most wonderful drawings of futuristic worlds.

What does this have to do with church? Everything. These two men come to church on a regular basis because they need church. They need the community that will pray for them when the voices are too loud. They need that community because they need a place where they can speak up in the middle of worship and know that they still belong.

I need church because  I don’t need to learn about his life lessons or teachings but because I want to meet him in the Word that is preached and in the sacraments that are shared.

Church is not perfect.  It doesn’t always do the right thing.  But it is the only church we got.

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Awesome God

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Lake Superior.

This past Sunday, the text in the Narrative Lectionary was the Binding of Issac found in Genesis 22.  It is one of the most disturbing pieces of Scripture that there is in the Bible.  Having a father ready to sacrifice his son has to rank up there as most horrific thing about the Bible.

As I put together the Bible Study and prepared for Sunday,  I was all set to focus on the the distrubing aspect of the Abraham wanting to off his son, but I felt that I was giving this passage the short shrift.  I remember hearing something years ago from a professor about how people are hungry for the good news.  “Give us gospel,”she said.

“Give us gospel.” People want the good news.  But is there good news in this passage?  A lot of progressive Christians would say no and move on to some other passage, one focused more on justice, one that didn’t show a god asking a father to off his son.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in 2014 about her misgivings if God is actually doing such atrocities:

God is God. 

When people say this, what they seem to be saying is that God is power. And if God is power, God gets to define love however God pleases.

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. 

Among mainline/progressive Christians, there is a question on how to deal with passages like this.  More often than not, we want to ignore these passages or try to give them a meaning that feels more comfortable to us. But I don’t think we can just ignore some of these stories just because they are disturbing.

When mainline/progressive Christians encounter passages like the Binding of Issac, we tend to say to ourselves, “If God is like this, I don’t want to worship God.”  When we ask those kind of questions it gives away how we are looking at the Bible.  Methodist theologian David Watson wrote in 2014 how where is the starting point for studying the Bible. In the 20th century the question progressive Christians were asking dealt with theodicy, why a good God allows the existence of evil.

Many mainline Protestants will immediately object, “Why did God act in one instance, but not in another? If God behaves as you suggest, then God is unjust.” I think they would respond—and I would agree with them—that we are not the judge of God. God judges us, but not the other way around. There are simply things about God that we cannot know or understand. Suffering is heartbreaking, but this does not mean that God is an absentee landlord.

What we tend to do when we encounter troublesome texts is that we start to judge God.  If God acts a certain way, then we can’t follow God.   While I get this in some way, we are in essence trying to judge God.  We want to see if God is worthy and not the other way around.  What if we were able to read these texts in a different way?

This past week was the 20th anniversary of the death of Christian artist Rich Mullins.  One of his signature songs is “Awesome God,” which is found in his 1988 album, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth.” Some have seen the song as not as meaningful as his other songs, but I’ve always liked it because Mullins was able to talk about the “good” and “bad” of God. This is the second verse:

And when the sky was starless 
In the void of the night 
(God is an awesome God) 
He spoke into the darkness 
And created the light 
(God is an awesome God) 
Judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom 
Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross 
I hope that we have not 
Too quickly forgotten that 
Our God is an awesome God

The God that created the world, also destroyed it. The God that sent wrath on Sodom, showed mercy on a cross.

It’s easy to think that the awesome in the song is about how cool God is, but I think it is really about standing in awe. God is not understandable. We are left with questions at time. Maybe what we take from these stories is not about seeing if God is really good, but about learning to appreciate this God we serve and understand how this God works in our lives. I am reminded what Will Willomon wrote about the binding of Issac:

How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.

I think sometimes, we are so wanting God to bend to our wills that we forget to actually meet God. To see the awesomness of God in the way that one does when seeing the Grand Canyon or the ocean. When you realize that there is something much bigger than you that rearranges how you think about your life.

Our God is an Awesome God. We don’t always understand this God, but God is bigger than us, God’s ways are not our own ways. Sometimes we need to stop judging God and just take in God’s awesomeness.

Me and the General Lee

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A few weeks ago, as we as a nation were dealing from the fallout of Charlottesville, I wrote an article on Medium about the Civil War, confederate statues and grace.  Here is an excerpt with a link to the Medium article.

Twenty years ago during a family reunion in Central Louisiana, my cousin shared the geneology work he had been doing on our family. It was fascinating looking at what had been a years long project. Through records, he was able to show this history of the Sanders family from probably not long after we came to America in chains to the present. You could see how the family moved from South Carolina to Alabama and Mississippi and finally settling in Louisiana. It was fascinating because that movement was one that took place when my ancestors were slaves. We even found a name for one of the slaveholders, a gentleman who was originally from Northern Ireland. Know I descended from slaves is one thing, but seeing there in yellowed papers is quite another.

When I was a kid, one of my most favorite televisions shows that wasn’t a cartoon was a the Dukes of Hazzard. Growing up in Michigan where my parents were autoworkers, I had to love a show about cars. Friday nights were special as I would sit and see Bo and Luke Duke try to outrun the inept and corrupt Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane and the head of Hazzard County, Boss Jefferson David Hogg. But of course, the star of the show was the General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger painted in blazing orange with the Confederate Flag on the roof. The horn played Dixie when it was pressed.

I share these two stories, because they are a part of me, and yet they seem so diametrically opposed to each other. Here I am, the descendant of slaves watching a TV show in the late 1970s, that could be seen as a celebration of the Confederacy. I am a walking contradiction.

In the wake of last week’s ghastly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of one counter protester and when we finally saw our president become the cheerleader for white nationalism, there is a frantic push to get rid of any statue or plaque that might look kindly on the old Confederacy.

Mentally, I think this is a good thing. A lot of the monuments that went up around the South were placed there decades after the Civil War in order to assert who was in charge to African Americans. They are paeans to a movement that sought to break the United States apart. It could be seen as rewarding people who are nothing more than traitors.

And yet in my gut, I feel that something is off. I wonder if we are moving too fast, too quick to try to brush away the bad in our history. I wonder what affect it will have on understanding the Civil War. I wonder if all of this purging will stop with the Confederacy or will it move on to other figures in American history who owned slaves. I worry this is being done out of fear and anger and maybe a bit of punishment than it is to write past wrongs. As a Christian, I wonder if we are leaning too much on judgement and not on grace.

I wanted to write more specifically about race relations after the horror of Charlottesville, but I feel the need to address this issue and more importantly how we as Christians should deal with it. I’ve hesitated talking about it, because it’s such a fraught issue and when it comes to dealing with controversial issues, I am a bit of a coward. I really, really don’t want people yelling at me. But I am more and more bothered with how this issue is being addressed especially by those who are in favor or removing the statues. The issues that are brought to the fore, race relations, the uses of history and even how we deal with past enemies are things that must be dealt with carefully and in a spirit of love and reconciliation. But what I am witnessing in the aftermath of Charlottesville is more about settling scores than it is about doing justice, about right thinking than it is about reconcilation.

As a rule, I’ve come to the conclusion that Confederate statues should be removed or at the very least recontexualized. I do understand that many of the statues revering Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson were not put up in the immediate years following the war, but sometimes decades following the conflict, in the early 20th century and later in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s. I also understand why they were put up: in most cases to send a message to African Americans about who was in charge here. So I get that the statues are not placed with noble intent.

But I worry how we are going about removing statues. In some cases, it is being done in a rush with no thought other than wanting to get rid of anything that reminds people of the Confederacy. But how we remove some past vestiges is also a matter of grace. How do we extend love in this situation? How do we show ourselves as following a better way?

Read the rest of the story.

Sermon: The Far Side

Genesis 21:1-8 and 22:1-14
Fifthteenth Sunday of Pentecost
A New Thing Series
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966When I was in college, I read the comics daily.  One of the comics that I loved to follow was the Far Side, a one panel comic that ran from 1980 to 1995. What was so engaging about this comic was that it’s creator, Gary Larson loved to show the absurd and bizarre.  Today’s text is just such an absurd text.

What can we say about this text?  Well, there’s a lot. We all look at this text in some sense of horror.  Abraham is going to kill his son and even though Issac was spared, we can’t erase the fact that Abraham was going to sacrifice Issac in order to follow God.  This reminds me of those stories you would hear from time to time of an old retired man who emigrated from Europe decades  ago and is found out to be a guard at Treblinka or Dachau or some other concentration camp during World War II.  People wonder why the government is going after an old man who was only a guard at the camp. Usually the response is that simply following orders is no excuse.

I think about that when I read this passage.  Was Abraham just following orders?  When God calls him to take his son to be sacrificed, he says nothing in response.  This is odd, because Abraham had talked back to God in the past.  In Genesis 17, when God establishes the covenant with Abraham, he wonders to God how he will have a son, since he and Sarah were well beyond childbearing years.  When Abraham was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city  in order to save his nephew Lot.  He was not afraid to question God in the past, but in this case, he says nothing.  Why? We don’t know.  All we do know is that he obeys God and takes his only son.

God also seems to drive the point home when he tells Abraham to “take your son, your only son, whom you love.”  God was asking him to take the one thing that meant anything in the world to him and throw it away. God had promised him to be the Father of a nation, but he was called to get rid of the one thing that would make that dream come true.  When Issac finally speaks noticing that there were all the things for a sacrifice save a lamb.  Abraham mumbles that God will provide.  He had to believe that God would provide; maybe provide another child to fulfill the promise.  He was probably hoping God would stop this insanity and just stop the exercise, but nothing was happen.  Later we find that Issac is bound and placed on the altar.  Anraham has the knife in his hand and he raises it and just as he plunges the knife, which would end the life his son, God intervenes. “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me,” God says.   A ram appears that Abraham uses to offer a sacrifice to God.

It’s hard to not look at this story with a sense of horror.  What would cause Abraham to go and do something so radical?  If he had done this today, someone would have called the police to arrest Abraham. In preparing this sermon, I encountered one theologian that asked why God was so willing to spare Issac, but not the daughter of an Israelite leader found later in the book of Judges. Jepthath is the judge of Israel and pleads to God to let him win a battle against his enemies.  If God allows him to win Jepthath vows to sacrifice the person that appears in the doorway when he returns from battle.  When he returns home, the person that is in the doorway is none other than his daughter his only child.  In the end he sacrifices his daughter to keep the vow.  God didn’t intervene here.

What we want to do is ignore this text because it isn’t the God we know.  God is a God of love. God would not ever ask something like this not even as a test.  Maybe another god was muscling in try to temp Abraham to do the wrong thing.  It has to be another god trying to deceive Abraham. The God we know, wouldn’t even joke about this, right? God wouldn’t commit divine child abuse, right?

Right?

I have to admit that it was hard to figure out what was the word of the Lord in this text.  But in studying the text and listening to the text I think there is something this story can tell us about faith and what it means to be a disciple for Jesus.

This is not one of those story where you are asked to go and do likewise.  Common sense should tell you that the lesson here is not that God is up for an occasional child sacrifice now and then. But there is a lesson here if we are willing to look at the text and all of its uncomfortableness.

This is as hard as it might be to see it, a story of faith.  It is a story of believing in God even when it makes no sense, not to you and definitely not to others.  

We want a God that is above all else, reasonable.  It is much easier to Bible Stories where God is helping us to live better moral lives.  But faith isn’t simply about being better, moral people. It is about being a faithful people, and sometimes that means doing things that make no sense.

The God that we worship wants all of us. The God we worship asks us to follow, and that following will cost, sometimes so much that it will hurt. Sometimes it will look like you’ve gone crazy to others and maybe to yourself. I’m not saying we will start sacrificing people on altars, but we will be called to do things that will demand a price all for the glory of God.

One of the things that is so prevalent in mainline Prostestant churches is how we don’t tend to step out in faith.  I remember a while back asking someone if they were every interested in planting a church. The person said no, saying something related to the fact that there wasn’t any financial security in it.

I thought about that. Having been part of mainline churches, something that seems to be a big concern at least among pastors is that if so and so is going to start a church, they need a good salary and benefits package.

I’m not saying that pastor and other church leaders should not be paid. What I am saying is that in many cases, we aren’t so willing to take a step of faith, in planting churches and in the funding of church plants and planters.  

Several years ago, I remember reading a blog post from a pastor, Bob Hyatt about planting new churches when you don’t know where your pay check is coming from.  Here is what he said about his attempt at planting a church:

But we had to decide, my wife and I, that if taking this step cost us our house, set us back financially… that simply wasn’t too big a price to pay for God’s kingdom. If we did what we felt we needed to do, and there were financial costs, so be it. We’d rather see people come into relationship with God than have a house. We’d rather see those who have given up on church find community again than have a new car. We had to ask ourselves “What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if we do this?” And when we really started looking at it, it just didn’t seem like that big a deal.

God may not be calling us to do something like planting a church, but God is calling us to step outside of our comfort zones, to be challenged, to have our nice ordered lives upturned by a God that gave all on the cross and expect nothing less from us.

As we continue our series on A New Thing, I’ve told you that we have to see what new things God is doing in our lives and in the world.  But for us to see that new thing, we have to be willing to not play it safe with God.  Seeing the new thing means risk and it means faith, it means trusting in God even when life doesn’t make sense.

I think that God is calling this church to step out in faith.  We come to worship and learn, but what is God calling us to do?  Is God calling us to move out of the comfort zone we’ve establish to reach out to the wider world in a different way?

God is about more than morality.  It is easy to worship a God that just wants us to be nicer people.  Not that there anything wrong with being nice, but the end of religion isn’t about being better moral people.  Being moral people doesn’t require risk. Being faithful people does.

I want to end with a story from the Methodist preacher William Willimon.  He recounts a time when he went over this story and the surprising reaction he got from the crowd:

But what does this old story mean to us?” I asked. “I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that God would ask anyone to sacrifice his child like this. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”

“God still does,” interrupted an older woman, hands nervously twitching in her lap. “He still does.”

“How?” I asked.

Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree, and he got involved in a fundamentalist church. He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our baby, too.” She began to sob.

The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church.”

“What?” I asked in astonishment. “Why?”

“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”

Willimon continues:

How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.

What Abraham did was shocking and upsetting.  But it was also the sign of a man willing to go out on limb because he had faith that God was faithful.  If this congregation is to move to the next stage, to grow and be an active presence in this community, we will have to discard the Rotary Club God and go to the Wild Side.

Thanks be to God. Amen.                     

Sermon: SyrophonecianLivesMatter

The following was preached in 2015.

Mark 7:24-37
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

When I was in high school I was cross country for two years.  I enjoyed running, but I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world.  I was less a gazelle than I was a gazelle that was limping.  Anyway, this mean that I was usually more often than not, I was in the back of the pack, a long way of saying I was dead last.  

canaaniteSo one day after school, we went meet in Swartz Creek, a small town about 10 miles from my home town of Flint.  My school was going up against Swartz Creek high.  The race starts and as usual, I was last.  We were running at a local park and some of the route circled back on itself.  I’m running probably thinking when is this hell going to end, when I started hearing voices.  Off toward the side a number of white teens, not much older than me had gathered.  I realized that the voices were directed at me and they weren’t nice.  I heard the word “nigger” more than once, as well as references to me liking watermelon.  I was shocked by the language, but I kept on running.  When I made a second pass, the voices started up again with the young men hurling racial slurs again.  It was at this time, that I saw a lanky African American running towards the boys.  It was Troy,a senior and the only other African American on the team.  He had finished his race and must have seen me being harassed.  I learned that Troy stopped at a distance and just stared at them.  It did the trick, because the boys left.

As I crossed the finish line, last, of course.  It was there that a number of the parents of my teammates asked if I was okay.  I said yes, and I was okay.  I’ve known since I was a kid that people would look at me differently because of the color of my skin.  That said, I had never been called “nigger’ before.   Having that hurled at you is something you don’t easily forget and I haven’t.  It’s been a little over 32 years since that happened and it still feels like yesterday.

When something like that happens, it sends a message: that you aren’t welcomed in these parts.  I don’t think the entire town of Swartz Creek is out to get black people.  I think there were good people in that town in 1983 and even more so in 2015.  But those boys had learned from someone that people who look like me were not welcomed in this town.  

In this past year, we have heard a lot about an issue that we had hoped was becoming less of a concern and that the issue of race.   Several high profile events have taken place between African Americans and white policemen.  In June we were shaken by the deaths of nine people inside of a historic African American church, by a white man that they had welcomed to join them in a Bible Study.  It seems that even though we have an African American is president, we have more African Americans in positions of power, even though all the whites only or coloreds only signs have been taken down, racism is still an issue; African Americans are still being held back.

When we started hearing about the situation in Ferguson, MO a phrase started to catch on.  It started as a Twitter hashtag and then it became a phrase all on its own. That phrase is “Black Lives Matter.”  Some people don’t like that phrase, thinking it excludes others.  But the phrase isn’t around to say that white lives or Asian lives or Native lives are not as important.  Instead it is the lifting up of an uncomfortable truth: that even with all the advances that we as a nation have made in the last 50 years when it comes to race, still doesn’t value black people as much as others.  If you don’t believe me, let me share this story from earlier this summer.  A pool party was taken place in McAllen, Texas a suburb of Dallas.  Someone called the police and they came.  Now the pool party was a mixed affair with black and white teens partying together.  BUt when the cops came, they only went for the black children.  There is an image that went viral where a white police officer grabbed a young African American girl in a bikini, threw her to the ground and placed a gun to her head.  The officer in question was fired from the police force, but there it was in black and white, blacks lives didn’t mean much.  The cop probably wasn’t consciously racist, but something in his unconscious saw this young girl in a bikini as a potential threat.

I think some of the reason for the pushback against “Black Lives Matter” is that no one wants to see themselves as a racist.  We all have the image of the guy in the bedsheet or the racist southern cop.  People know they aren’t like that.  But they don’t want to face that they have something that all of us have regardless of race: an unconscious bias towards people like us and a distrust of people who are “other.” And right now that unconscious bias is leading towards the harassment of African Americans by people who have sworn to protect all people.

Just like it’s hard for people to confront their own biases, today’s text is a challenging one for us because it causes us to see Jesus in a different way.  We have learned that Jesus never sinned.  We see Jesus as someone who welcomed the outcasts.  Jesus is the guy that broke barriers.  Jesus is the model of what it means to be tolerant and loving towards all. The Jesus we see here, smashes every preconception about Jesus we’ve had.

Jesus was in the region of Tyre and he was trying to keep a low profile. You would think he would know that being the Son of God meant that he wasn’t able to ever be incognito.  A woman from the area had heard about this Jesus and she believed he could heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.  She comes and asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

This is where the story gets interesting.  Jesus refers to her as a dog.  Some have said that his calling her a dog was really calling her a cute puppy, or that Jesus was testing the woman.  But both of these have problems. Dogs were not the pets we see in 21st century America.  In many of the cultures of the day, dogs were basically vermin.  Others have said the Jesus was testing the woman, to see if she really believed.  But Jesus doesn’t do that anywhere else in the Bible and that would just seem mean.  “Hi, you’re daughter’s ill? Sure, I can heal her, but first let me ask you this question!”  I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t do that.

Which leaves us with the last explanation standing: that Jesus really did mean to call her a dog and didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. Now that’s hard to hear. We are told Jesus never sinned and well, here it is.  Why was Jesus being so prejudiced?

The thing is, we won’t ever totally know why.  Some think Jesus didn’t yet understand that this message of salvation is for all.  But what was interesting here is not just what Jesus said, but what the woman said in response.  She believed that Jesus could heal her daughter.  She had heard the stories and believed that Jesus could expel the demon and she wasn’t going to let Jesus stand in her way.  She believed in Christ even when it seemed Christ didn’t believe in her.

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said. “ Even if you don’t think much of us, Lord, we still want some healing from you and we believe you will do it. I matter. My daughter matters.”

It was this woman’s faith that healed her daughter.  Jesus was astounded by the woman’s faith and tells her that her daughter is healed and when the woman got home, she saw that the demon had left her daughter.  

Most of us don’t like to think that we have a bias.  White people don’t want to think they have biases against black people; straight people don’t want to think they have a bias against gay people; Americans don’t want to think they have biases against foreigners. We don’t want to think we only like certain people and are suspicious against others, even though that has been an issue since time began. We want to believe that all of our problems with race or diversity or gender were settled a long time ago. We want to believe we would welcome anyone into our homes or churches, when in reality we can be hestitant to welcome others not like us.

Which is why it’s a challenge for Christians to read this passage.  We want to see Jesus in a perfect light and if Jesus isn’t perfect, then it stands that we have some problems as well.

But Jesus who is both fully human and fully divine reminds us that we are not that innocent.  If Jesus, the Son of God has a bias, then so do we.  We are not more perfect than Jesus.

I was reading a story last night about how some of the most politically progressive cities, places like Madison, Austin, Portland, San Francisco and our own Minneapolis are places where people of color live segregated lives apart from their white neighbors.  Many of these places have folks who are on the “right” side of issues and think that race is a problem for conservatives or those folk in the South.  There is no problem here.  I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and I can tell you: y’all have a problem.  Lots of African Americans are locked out of the thriving economy here and they face harsh treatment from the cops. Their children face more suspension and expulsion than their white counterparts for similar offenses.  But in the same way we don’t want to talk about a faulty and prejudiced Jesus, we don’t want to talk about the ways we can unconsciously make life for persons of color harsh in so-called progressive cities.

The amazing thing about the Syrophoenician woman was her faith. She believed that her daughter was going to be healed in spite of Jesus words.  Maybe she heard the stories of how God defeated Pharaoh or something.  She just knew God would heal her daughter.

And so it is with us.  We believe in a God that can heal us of our biases.  We believe in a God that does smash barriers and we believe in a God that will smash the barriers in our hearts so that we can work for God’s reconciliation in the world.  

I don’t know why Jesus tried to ignore this woman anymore than I understand why those kids taunted me all those years ago.  What I do know is that God shows up to bring healing, sometimes in a woman who believes Jesus can heal her daughter, or in a lanky runner coming to the aid of a fellow runner.  God is a God that works towards healing.  Are we ready to join God? Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

img_0515

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.