What Are We Being Inclusive For? (Revisited)

 

Note: Most of following post was written exactly five years ago, when First Christian became an official open and affirming congregation.  I’ve added a few additional thoughts.

There has been something that has been bothering me for a while.  Usually when people start talking about gay ordination or same-sex marriage, someone on the pro side will say something to the effect: “Jesus was inclusive,” or “Jesus welcomed everybody.”

Now, I’m all for welcoming people into our churches in the way that Jesus did.  I’ve been fighting for LGBT inclusion in the church for years.  But when someone says something like the sentences above, I get a weird feeling, like something isn’t right.

Recently, after reading a blog post, I finally understood what was bothering me.  In the contemporary liberal church, the highest goal, the highest good is to be “inclusive.”  As I’ve said, being inclusive matters to me.  But should our faith be only about inclusion?  What are we including and why?  Why are we being inclusive? What are we being inclusive for?

Rod Dreher linked to an article from Slate on the controversy brewing among Catholics in San Francisco.  The bishop wants to make sure that teachers working in Catholic schools don’t say anything that contradicts church teaching on issues such as homosexuality.  Needless to say, this has bothered a lot of people.  But the problem is less the bishop’s policy, but the response to the bishop.  The protestors want the church to be nonjudgemental- something that Will Saletan from Slate believes is impossible:

The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop’s behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn’t forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can’t explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It’s clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society’s mistakes—and their own.

Saletan isn’t a conservative, he agrees that the bishop is wrong.  But he thinks that many of the liberal Catholics don’t understand their own faith, ignoring church teaching and thinking the highest goals in Catholicism are inclusiveness and tolerance. He argues:

The dictionary says churches are supposed to teach doctrines. But the campaign against Cordileone says they shouldn’t. Students at one Catholic school “are very upset” by the new policy, says a teacher. “They’re afraid it’ll lead to indoctrination.” A statement signed by more than 200 opponents of the policy says Catholic leaders should follow their flocks: “Most U.S. Catholics believe very little of what is in the Archdiocesan document and actively reject much of it. The role of the bishop is to articulate the faith of the people.”

In place of morality or doctrine, the archbishop’s critics preach acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity. An online petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, says his proposed rules violate “Catholic values of inclusion and diversity.” “By forcing morality clauses, you’re taking away all inclusivity and diversity in these schools,” adds a supporter on Twitter. Haider-Winnett says students need “affirming environments.” The campaign’s hashtag is “#teachacceptance.”

Of course people can argue against church teaching.  And teachings change over time.  But it’s one thing to argue that teachings must change, it’s another to say that things like doctrine have no place in the life of faith.

Which gets me back to why we need to be inclusive.  What is the theological reason for this?  I think we should, but why does it matter that churches have to be inclusive and diverse?

I tend to think that in many liberal churches (the tribe that I hang with) gay and lesbian inclusion and indeed, all inclusion is based on moral therapeutic deism (MTD), the defacto civil religion in the United States.  Writer Damon Linker explains what MTD is all about:

1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”

2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”

3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

I think this is what drives inclusion these days.  Now there are some outliers, liberal Lutherans have enough classical Christianity that they still talk about sin, cross and grace.  But this what my side of the debate on LGBT issues tends to believe in, which I think is pretty thin gruel.

The church should be open to people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.  Church should be tolerant of differences. But if we want to include them into the life of the church, there has to be some there there.  We can’t just talk about being inclusive, because Christians are supposed to be nice. Inclusion should then lead people to discipleship, to learning about who Jesus is and allowing Jesus to change us.

Churches can and have become places where all that matters is to be nice and tolerant, but I wonder.  Is this what we fought for?  I think people sacrificed a lot for us to join a church that simply teaches one to be nice.

The thing is, inclusive churches don’t have to give up orthodox belief in order to be inclusive.  In this blog post from 2014, an Episcopalian priest named Matt Marino noted that he is getting a number of calls from gay Millennials that are looking for a place where they can talk about Jesus, resurrection, evangelism and the like.  They were in churches where such talk was not cool and longed for community that talked about a faith worth having.  Here’s what one such gay Christian said to the priest:

“Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.

Marino continues wondering why such “inclusive” places are not so inclusive to those who they don’t agree with:

Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality.  In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.

My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?

I can understand back in the day that one might want to tone down on the sin talk since many gays were coming from places where they were considered sinful, if not damned to hell.  I can understand the need to talk up the love of God more than God as Judge.

But I’m beginning to think that many LGBT folk are yearning for a more robust faith, something that asks of them.  Yes, they know God loves them for who they are and they want to share that love with others.

Last fall, Lutherans were abuzz with an article entitled “Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?” The article explained what was going on within the ELCA and other denominations like our Disciples.  What can stop the slide in among mainline Protestants?  It’s basically about getting back to the basics:

Too many churches are cluttered with all sorts of programs and activities that aren’t really designed to form Christian identity and practice. Many of these are holdovers from previous eras. They may be meaningful to legacy members but not transferable to newer generations or diverse neighbors. We need to rediscover and reclaim the simple practices that Christians have always done–prayer, scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, hospitality, etc.–and make these the center of congregational life. Such disciplines must be expressed in forms ordinary members can practice in daily life throughout the week as they discern and join God’s leading in their neighborhoods and spheres of influence.

They add that churches have to move to a more participatory spirituality:

Faith cannot be primarily something performed by clergy or staff for people to watch or consume; it must be something that everyone is equipped to practice in daily life. This means creating pathways for simple, accessible spiritual habits and disciplines that can be adopted by everyone. 

For LGBT folk and their allies, it is time to move beyond MTD to something stronger.  Jesus didn’t call us to simply be tolerant, we are called to be disciples.  Inclusivity is a very important first step, but it is not the only step. Inclusivity is about welcoming LGBT folk to become disciples of Christ or at least it should.

That’s why we should be inclusive.  That is what being inclusive is for.

Photo by Matt Meltchley.

 

Delis and Supermarkets

Daniel and I in front of Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.

In early September, Daniel and I flew to San Diego to visit a friend. The next day, we drove up to Los Angeles to visit a world famous car museum and other various sites in the City of Angels.

That evening we had dinner at a real Jewish delicatessen that looked like it could have been in New York and not Los Angeles. We had the most fatty sandwiches and decadent desserts you could ever have. There was an odd juxtaposition of having a deli in the land of clean living where people eat in open air restaurants. But this deli was able to stay in business because of the good food and a place of community. You could hear people speaking in Eastern European languages as they ate their corned beff sandwiches.

Presbyterian pastor Jack Haberer wrote back in 2007 about the difference between delis and supermarkets. Delis were small places that had produce that came straight from the farm. But the delis were put out of business by the growth of supermarkets which provides a large selection of items from everywhere. He then relates this to small churches like ours. First Christian is a deli church. We are not large in space or in size. Harberer notes that at times small churches look at the larger “supermarket” churches that offer a bevy of programs and think they can’t really do what they do.

He states one idea: small churches could become places of spiritual formation. But to do that, we have to expect more:

One thing we can do is to turn our churches into universities of spiritual formation.  

We Presbyterians are smart. We are avid readers. We equip our leaders with high quality educations to instruct us in the faith. Some of us are squandering that great asset. I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: “You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.”

What those churches are trying to avoid are too many programs, too many costs, and too many classes to attend. Sunday school? That’s for kids. We have no kids? Then we don’t need Sunday school. Ah, no teachers to recruit. No curriculum to buy. What a relief!

We Disciples are also smart avid readers. Our heritage is one where the congregation was expected to study the Bible for themselves.

But as Harberer notes, small churches tend to think because they don’t have the money or people to do things start to not expect much from themselves or their pastor.

Small churches can at times think they really can’t do anything because of their time. There is some truth that a small church can’t do everything. But are we selling ourselves short? More importantly, are we selling God short? Do we not see how God can work even through the small and weak?

Haberer uses an example when he was a young pastor at a small congregation:

Churches that sleepy are few in number, but like Joe Gatta, many a church leader watches out the narthex window as the population drives by en route to one of those other service providers.

This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was the one who commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” and many in our nation are hungering to live into that commission.

Can that be done in smaller churches? Karen DeBoer, a developer of small church children’s curriculum, says it can be done (article link). I asked her, “How can small churches become magnetic?” She responded with force and enthusiasm, “The biggest thing is for leaders to treat that program big even though it’s little. Whether you have five kids or 50 or 250, you give it the same effort because God led that child through the doors for you to minister to.”

If only to humor my youthful enthusiasm, the elders on the Session and members in the congregation rose to the challenge. They developed more programs and recruited more classes — for all ages — than ever conceived before. Our weekly calendar soon filled like that of churches three to four times our size. We stretched our resources, financial and human, almost to the breaking point but, funny, they never did break. What we did do was to develop a reputation in the community for quality educational ministries for all ages. And we drew in new members at a rate that defied local population growth trends.

Too often what we do is hope and wait that we can get enough people to do programs that will allow us to do all the things we want to do. But why do we need to wait? As I said in last week’s reflection, God gives us what we need to do God’s work. What if we looked at our children and youth and create a program even though we don’t have many kids? What if we had other people besides the pastor leading Bible Studies? What if we used the downstairs to host a community meal?

There really isn’t a silver bullet to help a church grow or become a strong church. What makes the difference is taking a risk, a leap of faith, trusting that God will be with us as we take the leap.

My guess is that deli in LA is doing such good business because they provide great service and great food. Churches need to be doing the same. We have to trust that God will be with us walk together in mission and ministry.

It Really Is the Little Things

“We are so small.”

When you are the pastor of a small church that belongs to a small denomination that happens to be small in number in Minnesota, you will hear this phrase over and over. We are so small.

As Americans, we don’t like small. We live in a big country in size and third in population in the world. Most of us don’t like to talk about how big we are, but we still live large. We like big cars, we want to live in big houses, we just like big.

I’m not here to knock bigness. As someone over 6′ tall, I’m kind of use to being big. But our love for big things at times comes at the expense of the small. Big is viewed as being good. Being big is a sign of success. Being small, on the other hand, is viewed as failure. We see that in the area of faith, a big church is viewed as a successful church. A small church is seen as week and dying.

When a church is small, there is a temptation to think you really can’t do anything because you don’t have enough people. I get that to a point. Having more people makes a difference. Believe me, I would love for this church to have more people to do things.

Churches in America, especially mainline churches have been dealing with shrinkage for years. Denominational leaders become pessimistic, believing that they can only manage the resources that grow smaller by the day. Everyone wishes they could be bigger. We all think we could do more if we were large.

But I have to remind myself that while this congregation is small, we can be used by God for great things. In the book of Judges, we are introduced to one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible: Gideon. He considered himself the lowest of the low in Israel and he was a bit of a coward. But God still called him to lead the Israelites. God wanted him to lead an army to defeat the Midianites. He starts with 10,000 men which seemed like a good-sized army. But God has other ideas. Time and time again, God tells Gideon to cull the army until he is left with 300 people. God tells Gideon he will be victorious and you know what? They were! With nothing but horns and pots, they were able to confuse the Midianites who ended up killing each other. Three hundred people were able to defeat a massive army all because Gideon placed his trust in God.

As we head into the holiday season, our church is looking to get ready for the season. But that is usually when we feel that smallness even more. But what if we stopped looking down at ourselves and we started to see how God can use us? What if we took a step in faith like Gideon did? What if for a moment it doesn’t matter how much money is in the bank or how many people are on the church rolls, but all that matters is that we trust God as we go out in faith to take part in God’s mission. A few years ago, I preached about a small congregation that made a difference in the world.

Border Methodist was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown (Minneapolis). At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway. This could have been where the story ends; the church closes. However, it doesn’t. A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church. Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers at Border. Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin. What was the big deal of this invite? This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated. Whites went to one church, blacks to others. What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal. Things like this just weren’t done.

The display has articles from the New York Times about this event. This was huge. There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display. On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused. As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members. A cup of cold water made the difference.

Border was small church that could have been ignored. But they were noticed by a larger congregation and they were willing to join this small church in mission because of their witness and for a greater good. I continued by talking about one of our first visit to the Gay Pride festival:

This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.  Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today.  The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray.  As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”

I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay.  It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God.

First Christian is a congregation that believes in diversity and welcome and we have done that through our witness at Pride. One retired pastor said upon visiting that this congregation was a Beloved Community. That’s something.

First Christian-St. Paul’s better days might be behind us, but with God we might be headed towards our best days.

This church and countless other churches that think that they can’t do much should take comfort in knowing that God has always used the things that might seem insignificant to do God’s work in the world. When God came in the form a human being God chose to come in the form of a baby; a helpless child. Could anyone think this tiny babe would turn the world upside down?

So, let’s move forward in faith, taking risks. Let us remember that while we are few in number, like Gideon we are backed by a mighty God.

The Church of Tomorrow

What is church all about?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for some time. It kicked into overdrive when I read the Interim Regional Minister’s monthly column. Churches in my region were worried. Would they continue? What can they do turn things around?

My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) describes the local congregation in our Design of the Christian Church. It states:

Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The statement is pretty clear. The local church is physical place where people are “brought into the saving grace of Christ.” It is the place where people are baptized, nurtured and receiving communion.

The words seem clear, but at times it feels at least in our denomination that we are all confused why the local congregation exists. Why are we here? Why do we matter? Do we matter? Those congregations in Iowa wonder, how long will they be around. They are dealing with a changing culture and are unsure where to turn next.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m not a Regional Minister, I’m just a pastor in a small suburban church that is wondering how it will survive in a changing world.

And how the times are changing! We live in a time when the church is not so central in our culture. We also live in a time when anti-institutionalism is rampant in our culture and that way of thinking has crept into the church. How many of us have heard how Jesus didn’t care about the institutional church? It’s the belief that as long as we do good in the world, why do we need church?

So mainline/progressive churches need to ask what are churches for, and it is a question that has to be answered if congregations are going to have any future.

I think we need churches as places where people are formed as followers of Jesus. It is a communal experience where we learn from each other. We need places that are places where forgiveness is possible, there are people who long to be forgiven. That need for forgiveness is important, but mainline churches are not as comfortable of talking about sin. What they are comfortable doing is focusing on justice issues. Issues like the environment or racial justice are issues where the church need to give voice, but as Christians we understand these issues belie the fact that we are in bondage to sin. Heidi Havercamp looks back to her great-grandfather to relearn the Calvinist belief in total depravity. She writes:

In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin…

Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.

Eric Thorson, who was a classmate of mine at Luther Seminary, understands that people are hungry for a place where they can experience forgiveness:

My work as a pastor came at a pivotal time in American Christianity.  Inclusion was the most pressing thing to be talking about.  The ideas and words we had spoken about people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender were not adequate to the reality of these people’s lives.  The ministry of the church had driven these people into hiding, hurt them, divided their families, and provided cover for the selfish hatreds people have toward those who are different.  I fought and preached and agonized over how to get the church to recognize the full equality of these beloved children of God.

My church, the ELCA, is trying to prove its relevance at a time of great unrest in society.  So many things have gone wrong.  So many wrongs have been championed in the name of religion.  How can we show we are not part of the problem?  How can we resist the tide of loveless brutality that sweeps through our society?

And yet, coming to church as a stranger, as a person merely seeking mercy and forgiveness, sometimes I have seen the basic message of the Christian faith drowned out by the struggles of the moment.  Yes, it is important to know the difference between good and evil, sin and righteousness, and yet, we should not forget that we are not good or righteous.  We need grace and mercy and life from One greater than ourselves.

I have met so many people these past years who are afraid of the church not because it fails to be inclusive, but because they believe their sins cannot be forgiven.

There is a truth in coming to the table as a beggar, to eat and drink life unearned and undeserved.  This truth should not be lost.

I think if I were to talk to those congregations, it is to tell them that there isn’t a special program that will turn their church around. Instead, I would tell them that they recover the lost lessons found in the Design. They need to be a places where people are formed into becoming followers of Jesus. They need to be places where they know that they are forgiven by God and experience the grace that has been denied to them for so long.

Finally, they need to be places where they are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God. The cover story in a recent edition of the City Pages focuses on Peace Lutheran church. A small congregation found on the edge of St. Paul. The church dwindled down to about 20 members and there was maybe about a year of finances left. It was then the church decided that if they were going to close they would at least do it with a bang. They opened the doors to the community and death was postponed:

“Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.”

A church that wasn’t open much through the week was now the first place people looked to if something went wrong.  Strangers decided to donate to the congregation keeping it afloat. The little church kept going out being servants to their community.  The church is growing because the people decided to risk, to serve.

Local churches in big cities, small towns and suburbs are places that are a local example of the wider church. If people are going to see real live followers of Jesus in action, it’s going to be at the church. It’s a place where they can see God in action through the lives of everyday people. If they are going to experience grace in a world where that is in short supply, it’s going to be at the local church.

That’s why churches exist. In a time where we think it’s all about me, the church says you are you because of community. In a time where the stranger is shunned, the church opens its door. In a culture where the meritocracy pushes people to be perfect, the church says we aren’t perfect but we are forgiven.

This is the message mainline churches need to recover. We need churches. Not because we love institutions, but because 2000 years ago, small churches in the dusty corner of an empire were able to turn the world upside down. We did it then and with God’s help, we can do it again.

The Parallax View

parallaxWe can see different things according to our viewpoint.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of parallax. That’s when it looks like a difference or displacement of an object when you view it from two different lines of sight.  If you go to the Wikipedia page on a parallax, you see a diagram looking at an object from two different viewpoints.  In one view it looks like the object has a blue background, but from another view, it’s in front of a red background.

I’ve been thinking about myself and the church I serve at in terms of parallax. My church is a very small church, with a shrinking budget in a broken down building.  Looking at this from one point it appears the church is ready to close.  But if you look at it from another vantage point, you would see a church that is active, a church looking at what it’s future can be.  Two vantage points.  Is one the real choice or are both true?

My own take is that both can be true.  The church looks vulnerable and it is.  If the boiler blows that could spell doom for the congregation. But the other view, where there is still hope for the future is also true. I don’t think it has to be an either/or, I think it can be a both/and.

(I could have used my other physics think piece which is my favorite- Schrödinger’s cat.)

I think about Disciple congregations in Minnesota that have closed.  Now, there are a lot of reasons why churches close.  But I have to wonder, did they get to a point where one vantage point was no longer visible?  Did they get to a point where there was no other way to look at the longevity of the church? What does it mean that First Christian- St. Paul can still see things from two places?

I’ve been thinking about parallaxes because of a sermon by Disciples pastor Doug Skinner.  In his final sermon at First Christian Church in McAllen, Texas he writes about the state of the denomination and its state right now isn’t very great.  He notes when he was ordained in 1979, the Disciples were 1.2 million strong.  Forty years later, the denomination numbers 450,000. This is just par for the course for what is happening to churches across America, but it’s happening faster in the DOC.  He then shares an interesting story about the pastor of a “big steeple church:”

I knew a minister in one of our tall steeple churches back in the day who, when his church was building their annual budget, after all of the pledges had been calculated, and all of the revenue streams had been fully taken into account, and they had a good fix on their projected income for the coming year, insisted that another 10% be automatically added to the bottom line.  He called that extra 10% “the faith quotient.”  He liked to say that he didn’t become a minister to raise churches’ budgets but to grow people’s faith, and he said that the added 10% “faith quotient” was just a concrete way of reminding himself ,and his people, that God was able to do things in them, and through them, that they couldn’t even see yet.  So, what do you think?  Was this a foolish or a faithful thing for him to do?

Did his “faith quotient” make sense?  I think it did.  As Doug shares, this pastor wasn’t interested as much in growing budgets as he was in growing the faith of the members.

I’m not as interested in the quotient as much as I am in the role of the pastor.  He took what was a common everyday thing, a church budget and used it as an instrument to grow people’s faith.

Sometimes we pastors get caught up in things like budgets or building maintenance, or political action.  We get caught up in all these things…things people do.  What we don’t do as well at times is having faith.  Faith is in many ways parallaxed: if you look at things from a vantage point that is only focused on what we see, we can see things one way.  But if we stand from another vantage point, the vantage point of faith, we will see things in a different way.

I sometimes wonder in many churches if we have forgotten that congregations are supposed to be places where faith is formed.  Someone once told me that in many Disciples churches the congregations have become clubs and not communities of faith. Pastors are trying to grow people’s faith and the people in the pews are not thinking about faith. We see things from only one vantage point.  I’m as much caught up in this way of looking at things – worried about how we can afford the church budget.

I want to be the kind of leader that wants people’s faith to grow, to want my own faith to grow and to trust where God might be leading.  Not in an uneducated way; but in a way that is knowledgable and also faithful.  One where we can see where God is leading and follow even if we don’t know the entire journey.

I hope to God we can be church that looked at things from the vantage point of faith.

Love Don’t Live Here Anymore

2019-General-Conference-Logo-2070

Well, the Special General Conference for the United Methodist Church is done.  For those of us who are LGBTQ and allies, the result was shocking and hurtful. I want to share some observations about the event and what it means for the church as a whole.

 

A few caveats:  I’m not Methodist, so this is an outsider’s perspective. But, this issue matters to me as a gay man, an ordained minister and most importantly, as a Christian. Second, people will not like this post for various reasons.  This is not a blog post trashing one side, there are a lot of other blogs that can give you that. What I want this post to be is a way how church in many ways is ceasing to be church. Just as the wider culture has become polarized, with no middle ground, the church is showing those same sides.  Instead of being an example of unity in the midst of diversity, we are simply following culture and what happened in St. Louis is Exhibit A.

 

One more thing. My underlying point here is that we, the church have to learn how to have hard debates in ways that respect one another.  What happened in St. Louis is just a microcosm of what is going on in the larger culture. Beyond all the nice words, we really don’t respect one another and we feel that the other side is evil.

 

I say all of this not as someone who is above the fray but as someone that has “picked a side.”  I am gay. I am married to a man. I do believe the church is called to welcome folks like me. I saw what happened at the General Conference and felt sadness and shock.  So yes, this is personal.

 

But I am also a Christian that is called to love even those I might believe are my enemies. I know that there are people who I strongly disagree with on this issue who are good and faithful people. I know this because I’ve met them and engaged them.  I know that this is also a personal issue to them. So how can we talk about this important issue and still be church? How can we be an example, a witness to the wider society?

 

With that, here are some of the salient points:

 

The Traditional Plan Sends a Clear Message.  It was quite telling that of the four plans that were offered, One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan, the one that was approved was the only one that did not allow a place for LGBTQ Christians in the church.  I know that there are those who will say that gays are welcomed in conservative churches and I do believe that. But the enhanced penalties that are now in place against gay clergy and same sex marriage send a message that conservatives might not think they are sending: the message that any LGBTQ Christian is not really welcome in churches.  That sense of not being welcome is born out in the fact that conservatives didn’t seem to even want to be in the same denomination with LGBTQ Christians. Nevermind that some of these plans allowed both sides freedom to do their own thing; there was no desire to even have to deal with LGBTQ Christians. It’s hard for me to believe that I would be welcome in a church when you can’t even think of having me in the same denomination.

 

A Gracious Exit that Wasn’t So Gracious. This is an issue I am most familiar with.  I worked for the local jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for seven years.  In 2011, the denomination approved allowing gay and lesbian Presbyterians to become ordained and serve in PC(USA) churches.  This was not something that more conservative Presbyterians could support. Presbyteries worked hard to draw up “Gracious Separation” plans that allowed some path that would allow for dissenting churches to leave with their property. It makes sense to have some kind of plan that dealt with the separation of dissenting churches because it would lessen the chance that church bodies would end up in court against departing congregations. This is what happened to the Episcopal Church after the consecration of a gay bishop in the early 2000s. The plan that was approved by the Bishops, the One Church Plan, didn’t have an exit plan.  I don’t know why and there didn’t seem to be much talk about adding a plan. The Traditional Plan did have what is called a “Gracious Exit.” On the surface this seems like offering more progressive churches room to leave if they can no longer abide by the rules. It seems compassionate, but I’m starting to wonder how gracious it really was. It feels more like what is being said to moderate and progressive churches is, “here’s the door.” It looks like they are the good guys in offering dissidents a way to leave, but it could also be interpreted in a negative way.

 

The Bishops lost authority. The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan.  In an earlier time, the delegates to the General Conference would take that endorsement to heart and would probably pass it up the bishop’s recommendation. But General Conference basically ignored the Bishops’ advice and passed a plan they didn’t endorse.  I’ve heard that Methodist bishops are more powerful than bishops in other Protestant traditions like the Anglicans. However, after this vote, the bishops have lost any authority. The General Conference not only passed on their recommendation, but they picked the plan that was the exact opposite of the One Church Plan. Will the bishops be listened to in the future? I don’t know.  But any illusion that they have power is now gone.

 

We don’t know how to talk about social issues. Why is it  that when it comes to issues like homosexuality we don’t know how to talk about them without wanting to go our separate ways? In the early 1990s I attended a Baptist church in Washington, DC.  At the time it was an odd church; it had both liberal and evangelical members. An ordained pastor who belong to the congregation was called as a part time Associate Pastor, but there was a catch, she was an LGBTQ ally. During the debate, an evangelical member spoke in favor of calling her. The two had a relationship and she might have disagreed on the pastor’s stance, but at the end of the day, they were friends. That’s an example of how to disagree and yet be united.  Unity was some kind of afterthought to the opposing sides. Conservatives thought the One Church Plan enforced a fake unity. Progressives never didn’t seem to see conservatives as people they should respect. As fellow Disciple minister, Douglas Skinner noted, progressives never listened to theological conservatives. No one was interested in talking in a way that respected the other. Instead, people talked at each other.

 

False humility. I remember seeing an image of a tweet written by a Democrat on election night 2016.  The person wrote thinking, like many people did, that Donald Trump would lose the election about the need to come together and all of that.  A few hours later when it became certain the Clinton would lose and Trump would become President her attitude changed. The next tweet was angry at conservatives swearing up a storm.  

 

I remembered that when I read retired Bishop William Willimon’s article after the vote.  I’ve always respected him and love reading his blogs and books.  But his writing after the vote was like the second tweet, a mask of civility fell revealing a sense of rage. He asks God to smite the other side and exhibits what I think is a rather racist attitude when he says that the global Christians who voted for the Traditional Plan will have to deal without that money from American Methodists which provided the income for the denomination.  His advocacy for LGBTQ people is admirable, but the attitude towards fellow Christians tarnishes his support. He displayed some a kind of false humility because he believed his plan would win the day. When it didn’t that mask fell revealing his true face.

 

Listen, don’t come talking about wanting the Spirit to move and then get mad when it seems the Spirit didn’t go your way. Willimon had a false kindness that was only based on his side winning. It’s hard to see someone I have respect seem to be so petty and shallow.

 

The Global Church was heard…and Progressives and Centrists didn’t like it. The United Methodists are different from most American mainline churches in that they are a global denomination and not just limited to the United States. That means there were people at the General Conference from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.  In most of these places the view regarding LGBTQ people is…well, not as affirming. But they deserved to be listened to. One of the problems that progressives have is that they don’t know how to deal with Christians in Africa and other places. Either they speak down to them or they think they are the unwitting tools of American conservatives.  What became very clear in the aftermath of this debate was the underlying racism coming from progressives. Both Willimon and another Methodist I hold in high esteem, Adam Hamilton, have written blog posts that basically assert that American Methodists are the ones that fund the church, which is basically saying that American pay for the church so the Global Church should be grateful.  I’m sorry, I respect both Willimon and Hamilton, but such assertions can’t be described as anything but condescending to persons of color. It reminds me of what happened in the Anglican Communion during the Lambeth meeting where Bishop John Shelby Spong, a progressive bishop in the Episcopal church called African Christians “superstitious.” For some reason, that didn’t go over well, with African Anglicans.  I want to believe Willimon and Hamilton were speaking out of the immediate hurt and anger and that this isn’t what they really think about people from outside America. People have every right t to be angry; but don’t patronize your sisters and brothers from outside the States in doing so. Progressives have to come to terms to the fact that Christians in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe probably don’t share our views.

When we think of Africans we tend to think they are being deceived by evil evangelicals here in America.  They have come to their own beliefs on their own. They have their reasons for why they believe how they do.  Disciples pastor Jeff Gill explained why at least Africans might not want to relax sexual standards:

 

…Africans are not interested in relaxing standards on sexual activity from where they’ve been. For this, they’ve been demonized in social media and by advocates of the changes proposed; perhaps worse, it’s been repeatedly implied they’ve just been manipulated by cash and propaganda from American conservatives. When I read this stuff, I ask myself “have they actually ever met and talked to any African bishops?”

I have. I had a series of life-changing conversations with one, in this country, in 2005 and have kept up with him, and alongside him some mission and ministry partners in North Katanga on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What they have said repeatedly is this: our society does not have any guardrails. Next to none. Polygamy is common, exploitation rife in our cities and villages.

Christian preaching is often the first message many men in Africa have heard, I am told, about the need to treat women with respect, and to live their family lives as something other than a series of conquests. This is, they tell me, still an ongoing struggle. The boundaries of their church are pretty much all the guardrails they have for defining family and relationships in any form other than through power and force as their defining qualities.

So the African Methodist delegates are not interested in relaxing any standards right now. And I hear them. I also see the conflict in this country perhaps more clearly than they do in Africa, and I acknowledge the pain felt by those who see our society making lane changes and resetting some road markers, opening up acceptance and support of same-sex relationships, but then seeing some churches, perhaps their own faith tradition say “we are not making those shifts.” Not now, maybe not ever.

 

You don’t have to agree with this viewpoint, I don’t. But you need to understand it. You need to know why Africans other international members think the way they do. Progressives need to engage these people and also realize that the black and brown people that they admire don’t always see eye to eye on this issue.

 

And to borrow a tired phrase, Progressives and Centrists need to check their privilege.

 

Where do we go from here?  There are some people who think that things will remain the same.  Since the Traditional Plan has to go through a judicial process, it might be rejected outright.  But I think a line has been crossed. Both sides came to St. Louis, not to have a conversation, not to find unity amidst diversity; no to listen to each other.  They already had divorce on their minds. As the old saying goes, it was all over but the shouting.

 

My guess is that by the time of the next General Conference which is next year in Minneapolis, the United Methodist Church will not be whole.  My guess is the Progressive and Centrist factions will split from the main church to create something news. Adam Hamilton has said there will be a big meeting at Church of the Resurrection after Easter to talk about the future of Methodism.  

 

I would also keep an eye for what is happening with the Western Jurisdiction of the church.  This includes all the Annual Conferences in the Western United States and it tends to be the most liberal.  I could see the Western Jurisdiction becoming the basis for a new denomination. There is no desire in the church to try to heal fissures. For LGBTQ Methodists and their allies, the passage of the Traditional Plan was the last straw.  There is no going back. That’s probably the best option for the sake of LGBTQ Christians. But I think the Methodists missed a chance to show the world how to deal with difficult issues and still remain united.

 

I am reminded of the song, “Up on A Cross” by 80s Contemporary Christian group, Degarmo and Key. It’s a song about all of the different flavors of Christianity and how they are divided.  The last chorus ends with an extra line that sums up what is behind some of the division:

 

Up on a cross, He died for sinners
Up on a cross between two thieves
Up on a cross, He died for you and me

I heard the Devil’s voice today

 

I feel somewhere the devil is laughing.

Why I Can’t Give Up the Mainline

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A recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune got attention nationwide.  It focused on the closing a rural Lutheran church this coming summer in particular and about the Mainline Protestant Church as a whole.

The long decline of the Mainline denominations is nothing new. It’s been happening for decades, but it’s speeding up.  Over the years, I’ve agreed with some that the Mainline churches tend to at times de-emphasize the gospel to the point that the church offers little to the general public. Anyone who has read this blog over the years know that I have issues with my own denomination and the mainline church and I think those grievances are legit.

But even though I sometimes feel adrift where there is a strong focus on social justice but very little at times on the spiritual, even though there might be churches and denominations where I could find a better fit, even though there might be churches where the theology is sounder and not feel like its being tacked on to whatever cause, even if there are places where I feel like evangelism is viewed as important as social justice, I will stay in the mainline church for one very important reason:

It is the only place where I can worship God openly and safely as a gay man.

This is something that sets me apart from other people who might be evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional (ECOT). They can happily leave, but I can’t.  Because even though there might be places that have the “correct” theology, they are not places of welcome for me or other LGBT people. For example, I’ve always been impressed by the Evangelical Covenant Church, especially in how the deal with racial justice (there is a very good interracial church in Minneapolis focused on racial and ethnic justice), but it is not ready to accept any church that is openly welcoming of LGBT people. A lot of the more conservative churches are places where I could never be a pastor, and in some cases not even be a member.

Paul Moore, a colleague and Presbyterian minister, is also familiar with decline.  But he has also been involved in revitalizing one church and planting another, in a time when the Mainline is declining he has been a planting seeds of revival.

As someone who helped redevelop a Presbyterian church and who started a new Presbyterian church virtually from scratch, I live and breathe the question(s) of how to build a church ministry from a Mainline perspective that is appealing to the wider community.

Do I think it is possible to build a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation in 2018?  Of course I do!   I’ve seen it happen in the two contexts I’ve served.  And more importantly God hasn’t changed in the last 18 years; the stories of Jesus haven’t changed in the last 18 years; the possibility of individuals and the wider community having their lives transformed in the last 18 years haven’t changed either.

I don’t think that the path to building a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation is easy. And the ways to do this are many.

I do believe that one essential way to growth is to adapt continuously.

One of the strengths of liberal, Mainline churches is that they have been willing to welcome those that have in the past been banned or restricted. Not just gays, but allowing women to become ministers and be able to fully listen to their call. It was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, helping the nation finally live up to the promises it said it followed in the Constitution.

What has made Mainline churches go into decline is not liberalism. Instead, it is what a pastor I know has said: mainline churches are no longer good at communicating the gospel, let alone explain the role faith has in their lives. This is where evangelicals shine, because they know what they believe in. What I think needs to happen is that pastors in mainline congregations have to begin preaching the gospel, Jesus Christ and merge that with it’s social liberal outlook.

So, I want to stay to build up the lost vital center in mainline churches. We have to find ways to be strong on social justice and evangelism. We have to help people know what they believe and use their faith to preach liberty to the captives.

I believe the mainline church does have a future. It has to, for my sake. I remain, hoping to help change the church for the better, because it is the only faith home I have.

With all the problems it has,with all the ways it seems out of step with my faith, I want to stay in the mainline church. I want to stay to reform it, since at the end of the day, it’s my only home.

The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, help us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: Looking for Loopholes

 

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

Click here to listen to the audio version.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.