God Mend Thy Every Flaw

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One of the ironic things about me is that two of my favorite holidays are civil and not religious: Independence Day and Thanksgiving.  In the circles that I run in, those two holidays are also the most fraught because of America’s ….complex history when it comes to the treatment of African Americans and Native Americans. As an African American, I get that.  I can’t see America without its darker sides, because to do so would erase my own history.

An article from Reuters talks about how persons of color can see the 4th of Julybout how persons of color can see the 4th of July:

As many in the United States celebrate the Fourth of July holiday, some minorities have mixed feelings about the revelry of fireworks and parades in an atmosphere of tension on several fronts.

How do you celebrate during what some people of color consider troubling times?

Blacks, Latinos and immigrant rights advocates say the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, recent non-convictions of police officers charged in the shootings of black men, and the stepped-up detentions of immigrants and refugees for deportation have them questioning equality and the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the United States.

In light of the recent acquittal in the death of Philando Castile and some of the threatening rhetoric coming from the White House, and well looking at America’s racist history it would be easy for me to say that this day means nothing to me and just accept that this country is not simply flawed but malignant.

But the thing is, I do love this country.  Now as a Christian, my love of country can’t be greater than my love of God, but I do have an affinity for this nation, even with its warts.

As Christians we believe that we are sinners saved by grace.  We are sinners who mess up, but we also seek to live justly.  America is a place where we talk about freedom and liberty and it is also a place where we sometimes don’t grant our fellow Americans either.  But the words in the Declaration of Independence are still true, even though America hasn’t lived up to those words.  Martin Luther King believed in the what the founding fathers said.  He believed them even though those beliefs were not always lived. He believed them so much that he demanded that America start practicing what it believed.  Here’s what he said in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech:”

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

In spite of everything, King believed in America, in its promise. He believed in it enough to call America out to live up to those words.

Fellow Disciples pastor Doug Skinner addressed the paradox that is America in a recent post.  He notes that growing up in the 1950s offered an America with god-like heroes like Washington and Jefferson.  Today, we have gone to the other side and look at America with a cynical view, one where the entire American project is suspect.  Skinner uses a number of writers to show that, echoing Martin Luther, America is both sinner and saint. He starts by sharing a recent television special with the cast from Hamilton.  Hamilton of course, follows founding father Alexander Hamilton during the early days of the nation.  The cast is made up of mostly African Americans and Latinos playing roles of people like Washington and Jefferson.  A question was asked about how to reconcile the greatness of these men while they owned slaves. The answer is interesting:

A while back I watched a PBS special about the Tony award winning Broadway Musical – “Hamilton.”   For some reason I find myself really interested in Broadway Musicals these days.  My favorite part of this particular special were the interviews with the actors, most of them people of color, who play the roles of our Founding Fathers, people who were mostly white, and slave-owners to boot.  At one point in the special, the actors were taken to some of the historical sites where the story that they dance and sing on stage each night actually took place.  At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home, standing in what would have been the slave quarters of the Father of our Country, the actors were asked to reflect on their feelings about being there.

George Washington became a slave owner when he was just 11 years old and his father died leaving him ten slaves.   When he died 56 years later, George Washington owned 317 slaves.  And he wasn’t unique in this.  At least half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners.  Slavery was America’s Original Sin, that and the wholesale extermination of the America’s original residents.

Playing people who were responsible for doing such things on stage, those “Hamilton” actors confessed to being awed by the nobility, heroism, and genius of these historic figures.  But as people of color, they also admitted to feeling deep in their bones the ugliness, the ignorance and the evil to which these historical figures were culpably blind and willing perpetrators.  “So, how do you reconcile this?” the interviewer of the Hamilton cast in this PBS special kept asking the actors who play the parts of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr.  And their response was simple, direct, and spiritually profound – “They’re both true”  – they said.

Skinner then starts talking in theological terms about how all of us, from people like George Washington to you and me, are sinners:

Instead of lines being drawn that divide us into good and bad categories, Doug Frank argued that what we probably should be drawing instead is a great big circle that takes us all in as sinners, and that positions us all squarely under the umbrella if God’s grace.  And this is precisely what I see Jesus doing in the familiar story of the woman taken in adultery that only the Gospel of John tells  (John 8:1-11).  The Pharisees drew a line.  Jesus drew a circle.  The Pharisees wanted to exclude the sinner. Jesus wanted to forgive the sin.  The Pharisees saw the situation in terms of right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.   Jesus looked at the women, and at her accusers, and what He saw instead was what the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would much later call – “Simul justus et peccator” – the fact that we human beings are “simultaneously just or righteous, and sinful or pitiful.”  From the perspective of Reformation theology, the cast of “Hamilton” got it exactly right when they looked at the nobility of the ideals of our national founders and at the depravity of their actions as slave owners, and concluded that “they’re both true.” 

This is the kind of realism that needs to characterize the way that we as Christians both think about ourselves and look at others. The Bible harbors no illusions about human nature. It names both our potential for greatness and our capacity for corruption quite clearly.  The trick, it seems to me, is hanging onto these two parts of ourselves as human beings at the same time.

One my favorite patriotic hymns is America the Beautiful. The lyrics were actually a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates for the Congregationalist magazine in 1895. Church organist Samuel Ward add the music was added in 1910. Many artists have sang this song and I tend to believe the best version was by Ray Charles, but that’s just me.

The reason I like this song is because it mixes in the beauty of this nation, but it also seeks help from God to be a better nation than it is. The third verse is the one that I want to share:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

America is not a perfect country. It hasn’t just made a few mistakes, it has endangered the lives of African Americans and Native Americans. It treated Japanese Americans as traitors because they shared the ethnic heritage of an enemy. Racism is a part of the American experience.

But it is also a nation that believed that everyone was equal even when they weren’t practicing it. That sense of equality has powered people to make America a better place.

I love America because of it’s ideas and because we try to live up to those ideas. We stumble and fall all the time. But I think we are trying to be better, fairer and more equal.

I need to love this flawed republic because I think some of the ideas that those founders believed in are under attack. You can’t challenge those who seek to weaken our cherised values if you don’t care about this country.

America isn’t God and it should not be worshipped. But when I flash my passport after coming in from travelling abroad, I pull it out with pride. I belong to a nation that believes that all of us are endowed by God by certain unalienable rights and this little books proves I am an American, that I believe in these ideas and will keep fighting for them for all who live in this crazy place called the United States of America.

I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes that talks about his country and how he belongs will strive for this:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I too, am America. I look to God to keep working through me to mend America’s flaws, so that everyone can say that “I, too, am America.

Happy Fourth.

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The Trouble With Normal

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One of my favorite cartoons growing up was the 1975 television special based on Maurice Sendak’s books with songs by Carole King.  Really Rosie was the name of the special and the song that I remember the most is “Pierre, the Boy Who Doesn’t Care.”

Pierre is a little boy that seems to go through life not allowing himself to feel for people and events that happen in his life.  The climax of the song and the story has Pierre willfully getting into the belly of a lion, not caring what happens.

I’ve started a new job that supplements my pastoral gig.  I think it will be a wonderful fit, but as the first day approached, I was filled with anxiety.  It’s an anxiety that I think has to be common to persons on the autism spectrum; that fear that you are going to mess things up and get people to be dissapointed in you.

The thing that I’ve learned over the years is that neurotypical people can never really understand those of us on spectrum even when we are honest about who we are.  They still won’t understand because it is not them or someone that they love.  They see slip-ups as a sign of being a bad worker or even worse, someone who doesn’t care.

An article from a Gwendolyn Kansen explains the challenges people on the spectrum face when they enter the job market and why it can be a challenge to have a full time job:

You start out upbeat. You were excited about this. You got through the interview just fine because you were so happy to be there. They might have even called you a good communicator.

You chat with your coworkers. People compliment your work. You might miss a few things, but you’re doing such a good job that they forgive you for it. People help you when you can’t do something.

For a while, you’re golden.

Then it gets harder.

As the work piles on, you start making mistakes. You lose something. You send a poorly-worded email. You realize that everyone is working faster than you are.

The multitasking is killing you. You ask your supervisor for help. You’ve been asking her that a lot by the way. Especially with sequential tasks. And she’s getting annoyed. She says you need to “work more independently.”

If you do your work without help, she says you need to “show more initiative.”

Either way, you are clearly not handling this well.

You don’t make small talk anymore. You don’t have the energy for it. Those people who were so nice to you at first are now starting to avoid you. The important assignments are now given to somebody else.

You know you look disinterested. And vaguely creepy. But you also know there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

None of this means my new job is going to head south, but there is always that fear that my little brain won’t be able to keep up.

None of this is better in the church world. Churches are supposed to be places of grace and mercy, but since its a human institution, it means that people don’t understand you and your “shortcomings” even when you try to explain it to them.

Which is why “coming out” to your employer is not always the best thing. Even when you tell them, they don’t seem to understand and they get angry when you miss something during your work.

I think that’s because person with Aspergers or High Functioning Autism appear normal.  That means, people can’t see our disability.  What they see is a person that seems normal enough doing a poor job on whatever project out there and someone that seems to not care.

You yourself know you are trying, but it seems lost on others.  They may have given up on you, believing you are utterly hopeless.

This then leads to you wondering if maybe they’re right.  Maybe you start to believe you really did something wrong.  Maybe if you were better, tried some trick to remember tasks, learned to smile more and kept your head down you wouldn’t be in this mess. Maybe it means being more…normal.

But there’s the rub. You aren’t normal.

Yes, you can mask some of your idiocyncrasies, but at the end of the day, you are going to be you, and those things that place you on the spectrum are going to come out.

What I’ve come to learn is that in the workplace, you have to do a few things. First, you have to accept you aren’t normal and never will be. And that’s okay.  This is who you are, who God made you.  Therapy and medication can temper some of the behaviors, but you are still going to do things that will piss off your coworkers.

I’m a pastor on the autism spectrum. I’m a web content specialist and on the autism spectrum.  This is who I am and it won’t change and I don’t want it to change.

Second, we need to urge people around us in our workplaces to learn more about autism.  But don’t expect that they will get to learn.  People think they know what autism is, and they don’t really bother to learn about how autism can show itself in people. But keep telling them.  Maybe it will sink in to folk.

Third, learn from your mistakes.  You are going to make mistakes in the workplace.  When you make a mistake, learn what you did wrong and correct it. And know you will make another mistake again. And you will learn from that.  People might not like that you make those mistakes, but they are the only way we learn.

Fourth, we have to learn to have a thick skin.  Because people think you don’t care, because for some reason you make them angry, people will say some things that will sting.  You have to learn how to not allow it to control you.  It’s easy to let those words ruin your whole day, but you have to be able to do your work even with the pain.  As I’ve said before, people don’t understand, so as hard as it is to admit this, you can’t expect sympathy from people.

These are just a few tips I’ve learned over time.  Following them doesn’t mean your job/vocation will be smooth sailing, though. People will always notice that something is off.  They will always notice you aren’t normal.

But we don’t have to be normal.  We can’t be normal.  Just do what you can for the glory of God.

 

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.

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.