Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

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

Click here to listen to the audio.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Advertisements

Questions on the Disciples and the Local Church

Disclaimer: I have to start this blog post off by saying that the following criticism is not directed at any one person.  It is NOT a personal attack on anybody.  This is a critique of a larger system that people might be a part of, but again my beef is with the system and not any person.

church-you-can-see-through-10I think congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are in trouble and parts of the  General and Regional Church bodies are not prepared to deal with it.

They aren’t ready because they are not geared towards helping congregations as they are focused on their own agendas and a less corporate spirituality.

They also aren’t ready because in the past, the churches were doing well.  In the heyday of the Disciples, the churches were full and sent their monies to the various ministries.  Not every church was great, but churches were not dealing with the massive change they are now so whatever issues there were might have been easily solvable.

None of this was intentional.  I don’t think there are folks in Indianapolis sitting around finding ways to destabilize local churches.  That said, I think churches are struggling to be relevant and sustainable in this new century and time of being church and the various agencies of the denomination are not responsive enough to the changing mission field.

They also aren’t ready because the current structure of the denomination, now nearly 50 years old, isn’t designed to help congregations of the 21st century. I’ve said it a few times before, and it bears repeating now. According a video shown at the 2013 General Assembly, only 18 percent of Disciple congregations are considered sustainable according to 20th century standards, meaning the ability to pay a full time pastor among other factors.  I said in a post a year ago, that my current congregation is not considered susatainable according to these standards.  Which means we have to find a new standard.  What makes a congregation sustainable and vital?  That’s a question that people at the General church and the Regional church have to answer.  I think there are a lot of churches like First Christian-St. Paul that are not considered sustainable according to the mid-20th century standards, but they are still places filled with vitality.  How is the wider church reaching out to them and helping them with resources?

How are we handling churches that decide to close?  Are we working with the leadership to look at using the sale of buildings to further ministry?  Are we helping them “die with dignity?” Do we offer pastoral care for the members?

How do we help congregations understand their ministry context?  How is Regional staff working to help these churches do ministry in this post-establishment era of mainline churches?  Is there a way for churches to share their best practices?  In the past, tools that help churches understand the demographics of their neighborhood were available in the Region.  A few years ago, it seemed that Hope Partnership could do this but for a fee.  Can this be made free again so that churches can access this resource?

Here’s a basic one: do we even know why we need congregations?  My take is at times we don’t know.  It could be why new church ministry languishes in some regions. Speaking of new church, are Regions working on ways to have staff support for this endeavor? Do we understand how these churches can introduce people to a loving God?  Do we understand that churches are small examples of the kingdom God is bringing forth?

That’s just some of the questions I have right now about Disciple congregations.  I’m curious to know if others have the same questions or even if they have questions.  I’d like to hear from fellow Disciples on this.

 

 

What Is Mission First All About?

 

At the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio, those gathered heard about a new initiative being rolled out called Mission First.  Mission First seems to be a way to retool the denomination for the 21st century.  A central part of this initiative is to have Mission Gatherings in 2016.  My region is having its Mission Gathering later this month.

While the website for Mission First has some background on the idea, a certain question keeps coming to the fore: what is this all about?

I get that this is kind of a churchwide visioning process, but what is the endpoint?  What does this mean for churches?  What is the theology behind it?  Does this mean a refashioning of our agencies and regions?  I’m not sure.  How does this inspire the local church in its own mission and ministry?

This is how Mission First is described on its website:

It’s likely your faith community has done some visioning in the last few years. The general expression of the Church is doing the same. As the year 2020 nears, it is time to listen for God’s continuing call and to seek together where God is calling Disciples next in our shared mission and ministry.

Addressing the 2014 General Board, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins set out a challenge:  “The time has come to lighten our load and tighten our focus – on mission!  I am inviting our church, in all its expressions, to join in a conversation on God’s mission for Disciples today.

Okay, but why are we doing this? Is it because it’s time have a new one? And what are things weighing us down?

It seems that Mission First is trying to outline some new priorities:

Mission First! addresses the need to find a new shared focus in mission. We are not setting aside pro-reconciliation/anti-racism, new and transforming churches or leadership development. Mission First! seeks to help Disciples identify the next mission priorities God has for us as we move toward the year 2020 and beyond.

And it is also listening to what is going on in the churches:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

But it also seems to call for some reorganization:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

So, we have a few objectives going on here, but it feels to me somewhat disjointed. I think this is about developing a new vision, and mission priorities and quite possibly restructure, but it never feels like these objectives are linked.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is also going through a visioning process. Called Forward Together in Christ  is the name of their initiative and this is how it is described on its homepage:

The ELCA is a young church at only 28 years old. It is a good time to take a look at where we are as God’s people and try to understand what God has in store for us. And we think it is an exciting time to be looking forward together as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

We want to create a vision for the future ELCA – as a church with solid foundations sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and making a difference in the world locally and globally. And as a church that we can be proud to pass on to our children.

We want to discover how we can continue to faithfully serve God’s mission in the years ahead and reach a shared understanding among church leaders about the ministries that are most important.

And we want to assess whether the structures that were set up for this church are right for the future, and as part of this consider how we use our resources in the best possible way. There are many challenges.

This description seems far clearer of what they are all about and where they are headed.

Now, I think Mission First is needed. The Disciples are a denomination for the 29th century and needs to be retooled for the 21st century in how it spreads the gospel. It’s been nearly 50 years since Restructure and it is probably way past time to have the church reflect our present age and not what church was in the late 1960s.

But I think the execution has not been focused and at times seems very light on theology. Do people in the pews understand what it means for the church in mission? What does this have to do with how the Disciples started, out on the then-frontier?

Hopefully, I will learn more about this process later this month.  Maybe I can get another view that I’m missing.

Fatalism and the Disciples of Christ

Does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) deserve to live?

Fatalism2I’ve been talking with folk about the current state of the denomination. We agree that all is not well in Disciple-land.  But in all of the conversations I’ve had, there is the belief that the tradition is dying.

And that’s where the conversation ends.

I agree with them in someway that the movement that was born two centuries ago is dying.  What is so odd is that at least among some people there isn’t any drive to do something to preserve the tradition.  There seems to be a creeping fatalism that just accepts what will happen, instead of seeing it as a wake-up call to take stock of where we have been and where God is calling us.

I know that all things come to an end. I understand that things (and people) die and we shouldn’t avoid death.  But I wonder if in this case, it is premature to give up, to start performing last rites.  Especially in Mainline Protestant churches, we have become accustomed to accepting the death of programs and churches, so why should the denomination be any different?

I think some people have decided that nothing can change and just accept that this denomination will go away.  Maybe that’s the best course. Just accept that things can’t be changed and that all good things must come to an end.

But what if this isn’t the end?

What if God still has a lot for Disciples to do in the world? What if this dying can become resurrection? Why is there this prevailing mood of fatalism?

I’ve shared some of the structural problems that are facing the Disciples. But there are deeper problems that need to be solved like the need for more effective leadership when it comes to church planting and church renewal.  Too much focus on political agendas and not enough on resourcing churches to more effectively preach and teach the gospel. More and more focus on telling people what they should think about social and political issues and not enough on giving people the tools to think through issues themselves and come up with solutions the bring for God’s peaceful kingdom.

I could go on.  The point here is that it is not time to give up and live a life of quiet resignation.  I think this tradition means too much to me to just not care.

It’s time for change.  Maybe that change will come from the inside, as people in Disciple institutions see the need for renewal.  Or it could come for outside, where independent affliliated groups model a different way to be church that can influence the whole.

There have been times I’ve wanted to leave the Disciples for greener pastures, but I’ve decided to stay because I don’t think God is done with us yet.  If the case is that we are dying and nothing can be done about it, then let’s just shut it down now. There is no sense in letting the corpse shamble on like a zombie.

I think it’s time for a reformation of the Restoration.

The Landscape for Mission (and Theology)

One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church.  An initiative, the  Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do.  I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.

Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology.  I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words.  I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology.  Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances.  We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus?  What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross?  What does it mean that Jesus was raised?  What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age?  Even more basic: What is a Disciple?

Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern.  In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:

In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.

To which Cornwall adds:

If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God.  Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk.   After Constantine, we left it to the experts.  While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.
Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions.  The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.”  That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology.  Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
Cornwall and Hall didn’t write this with the Disciples in mind, but it rings true.  As a denomination we don’t even look to the thoughts and musings of one of it’s well-known founders Alexander Campbell to even have some understanding of the Disciples views on mission and ministry.
I know that I will get painted as a naysayer, but I think one of the reasons the Disciples are in the situation they are currently is because we haven’t really taken the time to think theologically.
Maybe, the Landscape for Mission will foster more ongoing discussion and theological conversation.  I want to believe that.

Salvation Will Not Come from Indianapolis

chalicedls

The 2014 Yearbook of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came out this week and I guess the numbers aren’t good at all.  Two Disciples, Beau Underwood and Derek Penwell gave what I thought were some of the best takes on mainline decline: honest and hopeful.  Things aren’t great in our small family, but we have hope in Christ.  Here’s a sample of what Underwood said which spoke to me (or kicked me in the butt):

Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.

We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.

But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish.

And now Penwell:

1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” isn’t saying that you shouldn’t ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can’t stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme, and you get a whiff of that fresh batch of deep fried goodness that’s just come out, with all the gooey (What is that stuff? It’s not really frosting, is it? Icing?) slathered all over … Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, fear.

2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can’t resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.

 

Read their blog posts, especially if you are a Disciple.  I think they have started a good and honest discussion about the Disciples and where God can lead us.

We Call Ourselves Disciples

My wife Jan and I have been members of First Christian Church of St. Paul for nearly 20 years.  We love the congregational focus.  We particularly embrace the dedication to the principles of wholeness and inclusiveness of the Disciples of Christ, that welcome everyone to the Communion Table with no exceptions.  We have recently rededicated ourselves to mission based activities.  Our work with food banks, homeless shelters, and job programs is very important to us.  If we are making sandwiches for the homeless, staffing a homeless shelter, packing food for the hungry, or just raising money for local support organizations, it helps us realize our goal of furthering God’s plan and Christ’s love in our communities, local and world wide.  When someone asks about our church we say, “Open, active, and loving.”

-John Paulson, member of First Christian-St. Paul.

IMG_1294This past weekend, First Christian-St. Paul did something we’ve never done before: took part in the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Joining two other Disciple churches in the area, we shared a booth and handed out fans and information to the passersby. It was great to see our little church on the hill take part in this joint effort.

But we were doing more than just handing out fans. I mean, yeah we did hand out fans; but it was for a far greater purpose than getting our name out there. What we did in Loring Park on a warm weekend in June was an act of evangelism, telling the good news of Jesus to people passing by.

Evangelism is something that tends to scare people, especially those in moderate to progressive congregations. We fear it because of the stereotype that plays in our mind’s background. We envision someone yelling at people and making them feel bad. I get that. The actions of a few have kind of ruined that work for many.

And yet, we are called to evangelize. Actually, we are called to make disciples, followers of Jesus. Handing out fans at a gay pride festival doesn’t seem like evangelism, but in God’s economy it most surely is.IMG_1292

You see, to be an evangelist is to be someone that tells the good news: the news that Jesus is with us and worked to set things right through his life, death and ressurection. We tell the good news of a God that loves, because we have seen it in our own lives and want to see it in the lives of others.

Some of the people who passed by the booth might have kicked out of their church after admitting they were gay. Maybe they were told that they were going to hell or something. Our handing out brochures and fans helped them to see that this God that they thought hated them, welcomes them to the Welcome Table. The body of Christ is truly for them.

We small d- disciples are called to live like Jesus and sometimes that meant being in places we haven’t planned for. Disciples of Jesus are called to share the love of God with others and remind them that this Jesus who lived, died and rose again is concerned about YOU. This is a God that loves everyone and we called to make more people become disciples of a loving and caring God.

I don’t know if we will get people to come to church. That would be nice, but that’s not what mattered. We are called to do more than that; we are called to love the other as if he/she were our only kin.

Evangelism isn’t about getting people saved (though that does happen). It is about relationship; about knowing that this God of the universe does truly love us.

I say to those who volunteered, thanks for letting God speak through you. We aren’t done yet. We have more work to be done to show people God’s kingdom.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Crossposted at the First Christian Church of St. Paul website.