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.

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Shirts & Skins

Politics is not as fun to follow these days.

When I was younger, people got into arguments about politics left and right.  But then you would move on to other things.

That’s the thing; there were other things in life to do.  Our lives were not drenched in politics. But these days you can’t watch sports without it referring to politics.

Facebook and other social media have placed us in self-selecting bubbles and our views become more intense.  It’s been interesting to see fellow pastors say things about those with other opinions that at times makes me wonder if people of different political beliefs would ever be welcomed at their churches.

In the days following the passage of the American Health Care Act, I’ve seen a lot of anger coming from the Twitter and Facebook streams.  I’ve had problems with this health care bill and I’m not afraid to share them, but some of the things I’ve seen are welcome beyond simple criticism.  There is a fury directed at the other side that is venomous.  Each side thinks the other is impure and they must be utterly defeated.

In the midst of all this, I came accross a Facebook post by Disciples Pastor Doug Skinner.  In his post he brings up to important names: Hurbert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen.  Humphrey was of course the Senator and later Vice President to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Dirksen was the long time minority (Republican) leader in the senate. I want to share a few of those words here:

Christians can and do argue about which policies best serve their values. Hubert Humphrey said that he and Everett Dirksen, his conservative Republican colleague in the Senate, hardly ever agreed on how to actually solve a problem like poverty, but that neither of them ever questioned that the other one was just as concerned about the problem as he was, or just as committed to finding a solution.

That quote got me thinking. I looked for a photo of the Democratic Senator and later Vice President with the Republican Senate minority leader. I found one:

senate-supporters-at-close-of-civil-filibuster

Dirksen is seated on the left side, while Humphrey is seated next. They are celebrating together, the end of the filler buster for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That isn’t the only picture of the two together.  The quote makes you think the two had a relationship.  They disagreed on policy, but their friendship  was strong.

Washington of the 1960s dealt with some major questions that this nation had to answer, Civil . There were disagreements.  Yet, there was still friendship at the end.

When I look at social media feeds in light of the healthcare vote, there wasn’t a sense of being  able to argue an issue and still remain friends.  There was a lot of anger and venom expressed towards anyone who might have a different opinion on the issue.  One blogger even hoped for hell for those who voted in favor of the American Health Care act.

Like I said, there are legitimate reasons for not supporting the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  But I choose to believe that people who think otherwise are not callous monsters.  I can see them as mistaken in their beliefs, but they aren’t necessarily horrible people.

How are Christians to act when it comes to public policy?  How do we handle differences, deep differences? How do we remain in community?  How do we show grace to each other?  How do we witness to the wider world a different way of being?

Maybe the problem is pride.  I sometimes think that the belief in “justice” is so strong that it makes us self-righteous. We start to think that we are on the “right side of history” and to hell with those who don’t agree.

I think what is happening in the church is that we are worshipping a golden calf, but we think we are worshipping the real god.

I stumbled across this entry from the Daily Keller website, based off evangelical pastor Tim Keller.  In this entry he explains who American Christians have made politics into an idol and that has profound changes on the body politic.  Have you every noticed what goes on the day after a major election, how the losing side speaks in almost apocalyptic terms:

When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.

If we the losing side experience something akin to a death, it also means the other side is veiwed in very dark terms:

Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken but to be evil. After the last presidential election, my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, ‘It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.’ After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion.

I think that’s what is going on right now with American Christians. When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, I could see how evangelical Christianity succumbed to gods of politics. I grew disgusted by this and thought that I could find solace in the mainline/progressive church. Just as evangelical Christianity got in bed with the Republican Party,mainline Christians have jumped in bed with the Democrats. When we started to make alliances with each political party, God became a tool to advance the interests of whatever party. God became pro-life and supported health savings accounts. God supported single-payer health care and $15/hr minimum wage. And when we make God the cheerleader of our politics, that mean anyone with a different view is not simply mistaken; they are evil. When politics becomes god it means pastors can call out people from the other side, telling people that all are welcome, except Republicans or Democrats.

Maybe the to put it to a fine point, I think we are living in an extremely graceless age.  We talk about justice, but without a sense of grace, justice becomes a cold instrument of punishment.

Presbyterian pastor David Williams wrote in the Christian Century last year an article with a provocative title: “Why Social Justice Isn’t Christian.” He writes about the dark side of justice:

…justice is the fruit of grace, not the other way around. Social justice is about rights, both individual and collective, within a broader entity. It is about the balance of competing interests in a society. It’s a matter of legality, of the application of coercive power towards the maintenance of social order. Justice, meaning social, secular justice, rests on the sword. Social justice is about power dynamics.

That doesn’t mean, not for a moment, that both noting and resisting oppressive structures is wrong.

Because systemic injustice is fundamentally devoid of grace, the abnegation of grace, a repudiation of grace. Grace recoils at hatred and oppression. Grace shudders at our gleeful embrace of violence. Grace finds wealth in the face of another’s poverty an embarrassment. Grace does not stand idly by. Grace is the enemy of both individual and collective self-seeking.

As such, it is the both the ground of justice and the method by which justice is created.

And it goes deeper than that. In the absence of a grounding orientation towards grace, the pursuit of justice will either shatter or calcify a soul. It will shatter a soul because the competing demands of justice are too damnably complicated. Pay for migrant laborers is The Issue. #Blacklivesmatter is The Issue. Transphobia is The Issue. Environmental degradation is The Issue. The impact of globalization is The Issue.

I think this is what is taking place right now. Justice is being offered with no grace. The result is that our souls are becoming calcified, becoming brittle. Too many pastors have become numb to those around us. We don’t see those accross the isle as children of God, but children of darkness. We get involved in the struggle for justice, but without grace, our actions become twisted, where we see others as nothing more than a threat.

I wasn’t around when Dirksen and Humphrey roamed the walls of the Capitol, but as I look at that picture and read Doug Skinner’s quote about these two Senators, I have to think there was more grace back then, more of a willingness to listen and not seek to shut the other side down.

In a recent interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, he talks a bit about how our current culture is sorted out like shirts and skins.  I tend to agree.  Shirts and skins means that there isn’t anything we have in common with the other side.  Senators Humphrey and Dirksen trusted each other and shared things in common.  In the church, we need to find a way to go back to being grounded in Christ.

For that to happen, those of us in the church have to be reminded that we are grounded in Christ.  When we see someone who might not be in the church, we are grounded in the fact that everyone is a child of God.

It’s time for the church to start to model a society where all truly can come to the table.  We have to learn to keep someone at the table, even if they are different. We need to stop aping the world and become centered at the communion table.

May we learn to work for justice with grace.

Attention (Former) Kmart Shoppers

firstkmart

The original Kmart in Garden City, Michigan in 1962. From the Detroit Free Press. This store was closed in early 2017.

I wrote an article about the demise of Kmart over at my Medium blog. I talk about its heyday and what has happened under Eddie Lampert who seems to be sucking Sears and Kmart dry. Here is a sample:

Other news outlets, such as the New York Post report the same thing: Lampert is stripping the company of its assets and also making sure he makes something off the demise of Sears and Kmart.

I don’t want to say that Kmart would be doing well had it never been purchased by Lampert; as I’ve said already, Kmart (and Sears) were already struggling. I would go further and say that the two retailers probably would have closed up shop anyway without Lampert. But Lampert is killing off the two stores by a thousand paper cuts, little by little. The stores look shabbier and shabbier and more and more stores close, and more parts of the company are sold off. It would be better if the stores just closed all at once, but that would probably not benefit Lampert. So what we have is this slow death, where Kmart especially has become a zombie, shambling through the retail market, slowly disintegrating.

 

 

Give it a read.

Sermon: Eucatastrophe!

Luke 24:1-12
Easter Sunday
April 16, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

I think people have a hard time accepting Easter.

 

People can get Good Friday.  We can get that good people get executed by the State, by religious leaders.  We’ve seen social reformers like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who challenge the status quo and meet a horrible end.  

 

We know how the world works.  People rise up to challenge the system, people who preach peace and equality.  The ruling authorities and their backers are scared to death of such change and are ready to find some time someplace, to get rid of this guy.  

 

That was the modus operandi for the movie Meet John Doe, a 1941 movie directed by Frank Capra.  A journalist makes up a person called John Doe who talks about what is wrong with contemporary society.  When the article is a smash, the publisher and the reporter have to find someone that can be John Doe and they find someone.  More articles are written and after a while a nationwide movement is born.  John Willowby, the guy that comes to be JOhn Doe comes to realize that the publisher is looking to use the movement to create a new political party and bring him to power.  When JOhn Doe finds out, the publisher outs Willowby and he is brought down.  

 

Or maybe it’s like Network, the 1976 movie where an angry newsman about to fired goes on a major rant about what’s wrong in society and becomes a massive ratings hit.  He’s not fired and instead becomes a media sensation with his own TV show..  But then he said things that started to make people uncomfortable and his ratings slide.  His show is “cancelled” when a terrorist group assassinated him live on air.

 

So we know this story.  People are always coming up and challenging the way things are and the Man or the Empire or what have you cuts the new movement off at the kneecaps.

 

We’ve become so used to this story that it has filtered into our own understanding of the Christian faith.  There are many people who believe what is said about Jesus.  They believe he cared for the poor and the least of these.  They believe he called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders.  They believe he had no time for the despots who ruled Judea.  They can easily believe that these forces came together and were able to persuade a frustrated follower to rat Jesus out and get him arrested.  They can believe that Jesus is then given a show trial and is then tortured by the authorities.  They can believe he was crucified on a cross, because that’s what happen to people who challenge the system.  What they have trouble believing is that Christ rose from the dead.  No one comes back from death.  So, to make things not a total loss they say the disciples finally got what Jesus was trying to say.  This was the resurrection.  But that seems a bit hollow to me.  It’s making the best out of a bad situation, but it isn’t gospel, it isn’t good news.

 

The women who were walking to Jesus tomb that morning were not kidding themselves.  They were going to the tomb to prepare the body for a proper burial. When they get there, they find the stone rolled away.  In some versions of the story, there is a fear that the body has been stolen.  That had to be in the minds of the women that morning.  What was going on?  It was then that two men appear from nowhere.  They tell the women straight: “Why in the world are you looking for the living among the dead?  He isn’t here; he’s risen!  Remember what he told you in Galilee?”

 

You can see the women looking at each other.  They remember Jesus told them this-more than once- but they didn’t pay much attention.  They thought Jesus was being overly dramatic, because no one can rise from the dead, can they?

 

The women leave the tomb and head back to the room where the apostles are.  They tell them this wild story and the disciples didn’t believe them. The text says the words of the women seemed like nonsense.  Because again, no one comes back from the dead.

 

Or can they?

 

Peter started to wonder.  What if the words Jesus said were actually true.  After a while, he got up and went to the tomb.  Everything is there just as the women had said. He is still unsure of what has happened.  All he knows is something has happened.

 

As Christians we believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  It’s hard for people to understand that concept.  None of the writers of the gospels really could put the event into words.  They could tell people that something happened and they believe it did happen, but it was hard to understand.

 

The resurrection of Jesus, where Jesus come back from the dead and leaves the tomb is hard for people to understand.  It goes against the laws of physics.  But something happened.  In a time when it seemed like hope had died again, something happened that changes the entire world.

 

Theologian N.T. Wright has a new book out called, The Day the Revolution Began.”  In it, he takes on the old belief that Jesus came to die for our sins and appease an angry God.  Wright looks at this from the standpoint of the gospel writers and sees a bigger plan.  Jesus did come and did forgive our sins, but there is more here that happens. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God’s power, God’s rule was usurped.  Jesus comes to overthrow the powers that had come to rule in the world.  Jesus’ death was a trojan horse, a way to make people think God is truly dead and evil has won.  But on Easter morning, Jesus rose to show that the battle has been won.  Yes, there is still death and evil and sadness.  But defeating death by being resurrected means that the evil powers days are numbered.  Because Jesus lives, everything has changed and we can live knowing that the victory has been won.  That is what gives people hope to change things now.  I briefly talked about a story involving Desmond Tutu last week.  

 

During the high point of the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s, Tutu was in a church that was filled to capacity.  Tutu knew there were undercover cops present.  Tutu playfully calls them out tells them that their side, the regime that divided people by race was destined to lose.  They might as well join the winning side.  Only someone who believes that Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil can be that bold.  

 

There is a world to describe what happened that Sunday morning.  It’s called Eucatastrophe.  The word comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings.  It’s the mixture of the Greek prefix eu which means good, and the word catastrophe.  It means the sudden turn of events that ensures the protagonist doesn’t mean a bad end.  Tolkien saw this in religious terms seeing the Resurrection as the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation of Jesus.  The best example in Tolkien’s words is during the climax of Lord of the Rings.  It looks like Sauron, the bad guy is going to win, but then Gollum falls to his doom with the One Ring, bringing down Sauron.

 

The Resurrection is a eucatastrophe.  Just when we think the powers are for certain going to lose, something happens.  Jesus is alive and the powers are defeated, the just don’t know it yet.

 

On Friday, some of you might have read a poem I shared with you and I want to say it here again because it describes this eucatastrophic moment when things turn around or will turn around.  It is by a colleague of mine, Kara Root who pastors a church in Minneapolis.  This is the poem:

 

I need the Resurrection

because my sister is sick

and can’t afford insurance,

because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,

“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”

because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street

so a robot could blow up a bag that could’ve blown up us.

because I’ve exploded

in rage

and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.

because evil is pervasive

and I participate.

I need the Resurrection

because it promises

that in the end

all wrongs are made right.

Death loses.

Hope triumphs.

And Life and Love

Prevail.

 

The resurrection is real.  I don’t know how it happened, but it did happen.  And it has changed our lives.

 

The first of many standalone tales in the Star Wars franchise came out last December.  Rogue One is the story of how the Rebels got the plans to destroy the death star.  It is not a happy movie because this is truly the movie where every main character dies.  The mission was a success, but those who gave their lives to get the plans did not live to see the results.  But in the midst of sadness, the main character says something profound.  Rebellions are built on hope.  Hope becomes the theme of this film even though there is so much death.  At the end of the movie the plans are given to Princess Leia who of course is the person who has the plans at the beginning of the original Star Wars 40 years ago.  A CGI version of the late Carrie Fisher takes the plans as an underling wonders what good could these plans bring.  She ends the movie with one word. Hope.

 

Eucatastrophe is hope.  It is believing that death and evil will not win and will never win.  It may come at a cost, but the world will be set to right.  

 

So, as we head towards Easter dinners let’s remember what this day is about at the end, what it was for the women and the disciples.  Hope.  Something that can change the world for the better. Christ is Risen.  Amen.

Sermon: Risky Business

 

Luke 19:29-44
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

Most of us here can remember seeing the first news footage of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall as it fell in November of 1989.  For someone of my age, this was phenomenal because as long as I was alive, there was a wall separating the former capital of a unified Germany in two.  On that night, people living in East Berlin were able to walk into West Berlin and take in the sights, something they hadn’t been ever able to do sometimes in their lifetimes.

 

But there would probably be no breeching of the Berlin Wall in November if it weren’t for what took place in the city of Leipzig, a city in the former East Germany in September 1989.  On Monday, September 4 in Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas Church.  Now the church was well known because it was one of the churches in town where the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the music director.  But on this late summer evening, St. Nicholas would be known for starting process that led to the downfall of a nation.

 

Throughout the 1980s, St. Nicholas held weekly prayer services.  The prayer mingled and mixed with protest; because this Lutheran church was a place where people who upset with the communist government of East Germany could come and talk..and pray.

 

On September 4, out of the prayer sprung peaceful demonstrations.  Citizens would take to the streets to protest and demand more rights, such the right to travel abroad and to hold democratic elections.  

 

Going to church became a risky endeavor.  No one knew if going to these Monday demonstrations would cause the police to react.  A woman commented that she would bring a candle and held it in her hands as a sign to the army and the police that she was unarmed. Protesting against the communist government, one that was well known in monitoring its citizens was bold and scary.  But those demonstrations that arose from weekly prayer services had an effect.  Other demonstrations took place in other East German cities. Back in Leipzig, the numbers of those protesting grew and grew.  On October 9, 1989 around 70,000 people showed up to protest- this in a city of 500,000.  A week later that number nearly doubled to 120,000.  Two days after this, East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. And the numbers kept growing to over 300,000 in late October.  It was this pressure that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By March 1990, the protests ended.  These demonstrations had resulted in democratic elections in the spring of 1990 and German reunification in October of 1990.  

 

All of this started in a Lutheran church in one city holding a prayer service.  But that was all it took to bring down a totalitarian regime.

 

Today, is Palm Sunday.  We get together, people start to sing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and we wave our palm branches.  We remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem knowing that pretty soon Jesus would face trial, torture and death.  If we were honest, we would admit that this day is a harmless day in the life of the church.  I’m mean Jesus is on a donkey for goodness sake. It’s the day when we might have kids marching around the sanctuary with triangles and cymbals and the like.  Palm Sunday is a nice day, a respite before we head into the heavy holidays of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

 

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at this.  Palm Sunday is not about a cute parade with a middle age guy riding a donkey. In someways, Palm Sunday is about challenging the powers of this world, to say who is really the King around here.

 

But if this is a direct challenge to Ceasar and all the other rulers, Jesus has a funny way of showing it.  Again, the donkey.  Why in the world would anyone ride a donkey.  They aren’t the most pretty animals, which is just fine because they were considered beasts of burden.  You used donkeys to carry loads, it was a real workhorse.  Some think the riding of a donkey was a sign of humility and peace.  Roman leaders would have rode horses which were bred for fighting.  When a Roman general won a decisive battle, he would ride into town with in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Around him were his soldiers as well as the deposed king of conquered territories.  The whole thing was an expression of the power of Rome.

 

So, having Jesus riding a humble donkey didn’t make sense.

 

So Jesus rides into town with people placing their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride. The disciples didn’t get that Jesus was about to die, but they did think Jesus was king and they led the parade proclaiming Jesus as king, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The disciples might have remembered what was prophesized by the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. “

 

All of this king talk was cool, but it was also risky.  Since it was Passover, the Romans were out in force.  Passover is when Jews remember how God led them out of Egypt.  This talk of freedom made the Romans nervous, so they were out in public to remind the people of who is in charge.  Maybe that’s why the Pharisees were telling Jesus to keep his disciples quiet.  It might be that the Pharisees were folk traveling with Jesus, so they might be telling Jesus to keep quiet of concern for him.  The Pharisees were trying to walk a fine line between keeping the peace on both sides.

 

The Pharisees want to play it safe and with very good reason.  The Romans were not above trying to put their boot down through active repression.  There had been many who sought to challenge the Romans only to meet a very bloody end.

 

But Jesus was willing to take the risk, to tell everyone that he is  different kind of king, one that is more powerful even than Caesar himself.

 

This is what makes Palm Sunday a risky and dangerous day.  It might seem that a guy on a donkey is’nt that much of a threat to anyone, but looks can be decieving. It was on this day when Jesus made his public decoration that he was king, greater than any other king out there, including Caesar.

 

Palm Sunday also has a message for us.  Are we willing to claim Jesus as our King, one that is greater than any modern Caesar, presidents and prime ministers?

 

Too often, we have made the Christian life one that is safe. We try to make Jesus fit into our political agendas of the left and right.  But if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the king of all, then it means we live at times in defiance to earthly leaders regardless of whether we like their agenda or not.  Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, not anyone but Jesus.

 

Holy Week is a battle between the pretenders to the throne and the real king.  The pretenders thought they had put the real king to death on Good Friday, but….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

This faith that we have can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.  It was that faith that started in Lutheran church in central Europe in 1989 that brought down the earthly rulers and changed history.  It was that same faith, that willingness to follow King Jesus that led Archbishop Oscar Romero to speak for the poor and it was what got him killed as he served communion.  It was the same faith that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak boldy against his opporessors in South Africa that the side of freedom will win so they might as well join his side.

 

Maybe we don’t have to worry of living in a place like East Germany or aparthied-era South Africa.  But we are called to place Jesus first to be able to say that it is Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

 

Jesus is Lord.  Caesar is not.  Jesus riding on a donkey might seem foolish, but so was having a prayer service deep inside the old Iron Curtain.   In the end, the man on the donkey will bring down the kingdoms of this world.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Repost: The Importance of Dandelions

Since April is Austim Awareness Month, I wanted to share this post from exactly a year ago.

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

 

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

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.