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.

The Church for Today (and not 1955)

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

This morning at church, things are what they are on most Sundays. We had about 15 people who sang, prayed and listened to the sermon.  We talked about making sandwiches for the homeless in a few weeks time.

But something unusual did happen today.  For whatever reason, an elderly woman was dropped off at 9AM for the service held by a church that rents our space.  Their worship service was at 11.  The woman used a wheelchair.  And because our heater is on the blink, the church was cold, causing her to shiver.  The congregants fretted about leaving this woman in the narthex for two hours, so it was decided that we bring her into the sanctuary where we had some space heaters going.  The woman had to go to two services, but I think she enjoyed herself.  I know it warmed my heart when she was served communion along with everyone else.

This is a wonderful example of church in action.  But I think that if it were known to some denominational people, First Christian-St. Paul would be closed.

Why?  Well, we have a tiny membership that barely keeps things afloat.  They can’t afford a full time pastor.  The money is always tight.  If we were to judge this congregation according to the standards of say 1955, we would not be considered sustainable.  And in the eyes of some who still unknowingly follow those standards, we should have closed a long time ago.

One of the things that saddens me is when a church closes.  Now I  know all things must die, and no church lasts forever.  But sometimes I think in mainline Protestantism, we have lost the meaning of what is true church and because of this, we tend to pull the cord on congregations too early.  There might be other ideas available if people could get out of making churches what they were when Eisenhower was president.

In the 1950s, mainline Protestant denominations were a potent spiritual, civic and cultural force in America.  People filled the pews of churches, because of culture as much as because of faith in Jesus.  Pastors and churches were part of the community, acting as civic boosters as well as religious leaders.  National leaders listened to what we had to say.

Lots of churches were planted in that era.  They were planted in areas where there wasn’t a denominational presence and set up shop.  Usually these churches were planted in growing suburbs where people moved into new homes.  For the most part suburban churches were built and the people came in droves to be a part of them. An article from 2010 explains the important role Mainline Protestant churches had in our culture:

Historically, members of mainline Protestant churches were the leaders of American civic culture and institutions. Whether it was as bank president, town manager, local newspaper editor, or as the state senator and governor, mainline Protestant Christian commitments and values were both represented and reflected in the world view of public leaders – with the result that the United States was distinctly mainline Protestant Christian in outlook….Back when mainline Protestantism provided the worldview and values of the nation, mainline churches did not have to spend much organizational effort on teaching their values to their children; the culture reinforced their views. By contrast, African American churches, Catholics, non-mainline versions of Christianity, and non-Christian faith communities (notably Jewish groups) had to be intentional about teaching their views and values to their offspring. Non-mainline faith communities paid particular attention to three areas of church life: worship that clearly reflected and inculcated a particular view of God and humankind, religious education that intentionally articulated those worship values, and fellowship that provided social and cultural reinforcement for the community’s values, especially where they diverged from those of the dominant culture.

But fast forward 60 years and we find that mainline Protestantism is no longer the force in society it once was.  The ultimate insiders were now on the outside.  Churches lost members.  Some Denominational executives seem stymied as to what can be done. Others think it is time to face reality and begin closing churches can cutting staff to make ends meet. Our leaders in many ways are still in a mindset from the 1950s, which means that churches are viewed in that same light.  If a church has lost members or maybe has lost vision of focus and it’s budget has taken a hit, that church is a prime candidate for closure.  No one necessarily make a congregation close its ministry, but in my observation it is strongly suggested.

In some ways, when churches were planted in the 50s and 60s, they were planted in areas where say, there wasn’t a Presbyterian church in the area.  What this means is that congregations were viewed as franchises of a certain brand.  This is a different way of seeing congregations from evangelicals.  The language I hear about evangelical church planting is that they move into an area that might not have many people who identify as Christians and they want to share Christ with people.  The language used when some of the suburban mainline churches were planted were about serving a potential population of church goers.  It seems that in one example, the church exists to serve the people.  In the other, the church exists to extend the brand.

Companies like Target or Kroger close stores that are underperforming.  It doesn’t really matter if that area then has no location of their store, that location is closed.  I think inadvertently, this how we view congregations.  We keep the performing ones open and close the underpreforming ones.

But an underperforming church isn’t the same as a Target store with poor sales.  I’ve seen churches close that still had some potential for new ministry.  Of course the church would have to change, but the tools for a new or revived church were available.

Also, when a church closes, there very well might be ministries that can be harmed.  There are churches that are stuggling and yet are performing ministries to people around them, doing such things as helping single mothers in their communities or feeding the homeless.  If the church goes away, it might very well mean that the people served by the ministry are threatened.

When a church is struggling maybe what needs to be done is to assess what can be done in ministry.  Maybe they can’t afford a full time pastor.  Could they afford a part time one?  Could a leader of the church become a commissioned or licensed minister?  What ministries can be done by the church?  Are they able to do ministry with a small membership?

Again, I am not saying you should never close a church.  But I am saying that this should be the last resort, not the first.  A church with a small membership and small budget is not a failure.  But all of this means having a very different mindset when it come to churches.  It means grading churches with a different criteria than one from the midpoint of the last century.  It means understanding what the church means in the first place and how that is expressed in a local setting.  We have to understand what a church is for in a local community.  As the quote above notes, conservative and African American churches have a better understanding of the role of the church, especially when society runs counter to their values.  The problem with mainline churches is because we were at the center of American society, culture instilled and reineforced the values that were expressed in church.  Because culture did all the heavy lifting, we viewed churches like a local franchise.  Our culture no longer reineforces Christian values.  Church can’t be viewed anymore extending the denominational brand or judged on “performance.”  There needs to be more focus in seeing congregations as places where Christians are formed, where church values are taught.

The other thing that has to change is the concept of the pastor.  The standard in the past was that a mainline pastor had a full-time salary.  But many churches are not able to fork over the 40 to 50 thousand dollars to pay for a pastor’s salary, let alone pay for their health care and retirement.  This means that churches have to start looking at part-time pastoral help.  Pastors will have to consider becoming bivocational pastors instead of seeing the church as their sole place of employment.  African American churches have long been places where the pastor worked on Sundays at church and somewhere else during the week.  I think this change is going to be hard for mainliners because we have envisioned the pastorate as a professional akin to a lawyer or doctor.  But doctors and lawyers are paid by entities that can afford to pay high salaries for their expertise.  This means that we have to look at pastors more in terms of artists instead of lawyers.  An artist doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from their work. They do what they do for the love of it.  Sometimes I think a lot of mainline pastors are in churches for reasons other than the love of sharing the good news and caring for others.  Yes, pastors should make a just salary.  But if a church can’t afford to pay a pastor $40 or 50K, but could pay maybe $15 or 20K, they should not be viewed as a failure.  A part time pastor is not inferior to a full time one.

It’s time for mainline churches to be judge according to 21st century standards and not 20th century ones.  Churches of 2015 look different than churches of 1955.  Mainline church leaders need to start living in the present and not in the past.  Congregations are more viable than we think…but we have to use a different measuring stick.

The Invisibility of Progressive Christianity

Church-You-Can-See-Through-10Every so often, I’ve heard an argument that goes like this:  “the press only talks about the Christians vs. the gays as if all Christians are against being gay.  Don’t they know that there are Christians who support gays?”

The frustration comes from being ignored by the wider culture, especially the media.  When we think of Christians, we are more likely to think of evangelicals or Catholics, but never liberal Protestantism.  This has long been a problem.  Some, including former evangelical-turned liberal Christian Randall Balmer, think there is a conspiracy afoot inspired by groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

I will agree that liberal Protestantism does get ignored in society.  While groups like the IRD tend to go after liberals, I don’t think they have as a big as an impact as we would like to think.  I think that there is something else going on, something that we in progressive churches are doing to ourselves and it is this: I believe we are so uncritical of socially liberal society that we blend into the woodwork.  In essence, when you say the same thing the wider society says, you tend to cancel yourself out.

I’ve been think about that after reading Ross Douthat’s latest piece for the New York Times.  In this essay, he focuses on Pope Francis and the hopeful revival of liberal Christianity.  Could it happen?  Douthat says yes, but it has challenges:

But there are deep reasons why liberal Christianity has struggled lately, which a Francis-inspired revival would need to overcome. One is the tendency for a liberal-leaning faith to simply become a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes, until the very point of churchgoing gradually evaporates. (It’s not a coincidence that the most resilient of left-leaning religious communities, the African-American church, is also the most frankly supernaturalist.)

The other is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.

The first tendency is one that this pope’s example effectively rebukes. However “left” his political impulses may be, they are joined to a prayerful and devotional sensibility, an earthy, Satan-invoking zeal that has nothing arid or secularized about it.

The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.

I don’t agree with everything Douthat says here, but he is on to something.  Douthat says that religious liberals have sold out to the sexual revolution and that has cost it in many ways.

And I think he’s right.

Now before the pitchforks come out, I should explain.  Being gay, I am thankful of having a church and denomination that welcomes me.  The sexual ethics I grew up with was not something I would share with others, at least the ways it was taught.  The problem is this: liberal Christianity asks nothing of us when it comes to our sexuality.  It never asks how we should live as Christians when it comes to sex.  It never asks when abortions are necessary and when it is morally questionable, it just follows the line that comes from secular feminists.  It talks about same sex marriage as “love wins” but doesn’t ask what is marriage for as Christians.

I’m not urging that we create a lists of dos and don’ts when it comes to sex.  But like so much of the modern liberal church, we don’t think theologically about sexuality.  What liberal Christians have done is just tacitly accept what the wider liberal culture has accepted with out thinking about it critically.

So, if a journalist is writing a story and he or she has a choice to talk to either a liberal pastor who supports abortion on demand or the local abortion rights activist, they are going to go with the activist.  Why go to a pastor who will say the same thing when you have the real thing?

I will say it again: I am not advocating for liberal Christians to give up their support for a more liberal attitude towards sexuality.  What I am calling for is to start to think about the whys more often.  We  need to be thinking theologically and not culturally.

Having been trained as a journalist, I can tell you that writers want to get an interesting angle and we don’t have one.  And part of the reason is that liberal Christianity has lost or squandered it’s theological tradition.  In it’s place we have used culture-talk or politics, which make us sound like the Democratic Party at prayer.  If that is what we are, then I can see why people would rather stay in bed and get some extra sleep than go to church.

If mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity, especially the Protestant kind, wants to stand out more, then it needs to be a unique voice in society instead of an echo.

The New Orthodoxy and Me

rainbowcrossFor the last few years, I’ve been impressed with a growing number of writers and bloggers, mostly from Methodist circles, but from some other traditions as well who seem to be carrying the Neo-Orthodox/Post-Liberal banner that had seem somewhat dormant for a while. I’ve been attracted to this stream of Protestantism after finding both evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism wanting in different ways.  Writers like Allan Bevere, David Watson, the boys over at Via United Methodists and others echo some of the same feelings I’ve been thinking about God, Jesus and the church.  They show a different way of being within mainline Protestantism.  It is more focused on the importance of salvation, atonement, sin and grace which sadly has become a counter-movement against the spiritually relative ethos in the mainline (at least among the elite).

But while I am thankful for this small movement, I am also left with some wariness about this movement when it comes to the issue of sexuality.  Is there room for LGBT people in this movement?

I’m probably an odd duck: a gay Christian that has an orthodox theology. That’s not how it usually goes: most churches that tend to be gay-friendly, also tend to be quite progressive in their theology.  Many gays would tend to have a more liberal theology.  (Small-o orthodox doesn’t mean conservative.) But I’ve never felt comfortable with the standard liberal theology.  Post-liberal theology is a far better fit for me. ( I know that I’m not the only gay person that doesn’t fit the usual profile.)

But a good part of these writers haven’t said much about sexuality.  Some writers, like the late William Placher, were gay friendly.  But what about other bloggers?  I understand there is still disagreement on this issue and I’m not asking that this movement start excluding those who have different views on sexuality.  But I am wondering if there is room for me.  So, how does sexuality fit in this neo-orthodox/ post-liberal milieu?

I’m looking forward to your answers.

Sermon: One Bad Mother

Work of Christmas Series | Matthew 3:1-17 | First Sunday of Epiphany | January 11, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“…today’s passage reminds us that baptism isn’t all sweetness and light.  God wants people to live changed lives and when John baptizes these people, they are saying they will live a changed life. Baptism is a wonderful experience, but it’s also asking God to come into our lives and God wants it all.”

Read the sermon text.

 

This Matters.

church-for-saleAs Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One[a] has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

-Luke 9:57-62 (Common English Bible)

 

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article on Patheos wondering why Liberal Protestantism is dying.  The writer, Connor Wood, is not the usual writer that tends to look at the downfall of Mainline Protestantism as the fault of social justice or a more friendly approach to gays.  He actually sees a need for this species of Christianity and would like to see it preserved.

Wood wonders why Liberal Protestantism seems like its going down the tubes while conservative and evangelical Protestantism are at least holding its own or thriving.  He thinks he has zeroed in on the answer; Liberal Protestantism doesn’t do as a good a job of forming community as its more conservative brethren.

Before I go any farther, I have to say there is a lot of truth to this.  While there is a lot of talk against individualism in liberal churches (and castigating conservative churches for being individualistic), the talk is more focused on the role of government in society, not the spiritual community.  People are allowed to believe mostly what they want.  Wood explains:

Well, the first thing we have to realize is that conservative churches are almost always stricter than their liberal counterparts. They demand more investment, require their members to believe in more rigorous, exclusionary creeds, and don’t look kindly on skipping church four Sundays in a row to sleep in.

In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were – literally – right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?

According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements.

 I thought that was an interesting look at modern religion and I tended to agree with it.  I saw this article on Facebook and decided to share it with no comment.  It was interesting what the response was.  I think the respondents were focused on Woods use of the word strict, because most of them saw his prescription in negative terms.  I tend to think when liberal Protestants like myself see the word strict along with any mention of conservative or evangelical churches, we tend to think of a religion centered in works with no mention of grace.  The implicit thought here is that our churches are filled with grace and are not so ruled-centered.
Coming from an evangelical background, you can see in some place an emphasis on following rules over grace.  But I think my friends were not really looking deeply at what Wood was talking about here.  He is not saying that liberal churches should give up what makes them liberal to be like conservative churches.  What he is saying is that liberal churches have to be able to demand something from their members.  There is an old fancy word for this: discipleship.  Liberal churches tend not see their faith extending past the doors of the church or beyond the voting booth.  Conservative churches tend to see that all life is under God’s rule and we have to live up to those demands.  Does that mean there is no grace?  No.  I think conservative churches can be places of grace, of that unearned love from God.  Liberal churches tend to say they are based on grace, but I wonder if a grace that doesn’t ask or compel us to be better is nothing more than cheap grace.
Liberal churches tend to fear any change, thinking any change will be to make them a carbon copy of conservative churches.  I don’t think that has to be the case and it shouldn’t be.  We have to create our own unique way of discipleship, not just copy what has been done.

Volunteers Needed: Church Launch/Re-Launch Team

First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this Mainline Protestant congregation as well as launching a preaching point somewhere in the St.Paul area.

The Re-Launch/Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you know of someone who feels called to redevelop or develop a congregation, please pass this along.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact the pastor. We will contact you shortly!