2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the church. If you want to catch up with the latest app to go with the event check out these two:
Luther’s Small Catechism
This new app brings Luther’s Small Catechism to Android and iPhone for free. My favorite is that with one touch of the screen I can pull up the morning and evening blessings. What’s your favorite chapter?
2017 Luther Bible
The Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft just released a brand new revision of Luther’s iconic Bible translation. Until Reformation Day, October 31st, you can download it as a free app for Android and iPhone. This German edition allows bookmarks as well as notes. Grab it while it’s free.
This is the second sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find part one here.
How do I find a loving God? That’s a question that people have asked themselves and the world for quite a while. One of the most prominent ones who asked that question was Martin Luther. He was a young man following in his father’s trade and he just really wanted to be good with God and the world and justice and all those things. We’re in the middle ages here in our little story and this little boy was afraid of going to hell. That’s what they did back in the day because the church told him, if you’re not a good boy you’re going to hell. He thought of God as punishing, judging and putting the bad guys into hell and the good guys into heaven as if God were a machine that judges like, this is right, this is wrong, you’re going here, you’re going there. Of hell, he had this vision of a place of fire and burning and torture, like they did with the witches because you hurt bad people. That was the plan so God must hurt bad people too because that’s what we want. That’s our sense of justice. Then, heaven was just a place of fluffiness and love and happiness and light. And the good place is what you wish for your nice grandma.
Luther was really afraid of hell and really wanted to go to heaven and he really wanted God to be just in the middle of all of that. He was afraid and then came a very pivotal moment for him when he was working in the fields and a thunder storm came up. You may have heard that scene or seen it in a movie. A lightning bolt hit the ground right next to him and he’s super afraid. It’s starts raining and it’s dark, lightning and thunder all over the place and he drops on his knees and prays to God and says, “Please God, if I make it through this, I’m going the monastery, I’m becoming a monk, I’m devoting my life to you and we should be good then.” Eventually, of course, he makes it through and becomes a monk.
That in itself didn’t save him, but it certainly got the world into trouble because as that young boy was looking for a loving God, he then became that monk. Eventually, he learned to read and study scripture and guess what he found? He found that loving God! And in the Bible he learned that there’s such a thing as free grace. Free grace means that you’re not going to hell. God loves you. God gives you grace for free. That changed his world, that changed everybody’s world because all of a sudden this middle age concept that the bad guys are going to hell, the good guys are going to heaven was out of the window. All of a sudden, God was not a judge, but a loving father.
A few centuries later, we also learned that, that is not an easy concept to grasp because if God is really all that all loving, that means that in heaven we are going to see people that we don’t want there. The ultimate struggle that people usually quote is, “do you really want to see Hitler in heaven?” You can put any name there you want. That’s just a very famous one for being one of the bad guys, but the answer of free grace is: Yeah, that’s just how it works. God is that loving. God is that forgiving. Grace is really free.
What if our relationship with God were all good? What if God wouldn’t hate us? What if God weren’t to judge us anymore because that was already done at the cross? Oh wait, that’s exactly what it is. That’s exactly what happened. Our relationship with God is good. Nobody goes to hell. Free grace! That’s what Martin Luther discovered! That means that you are okay. You’ll be good. That also means that all your loved ones that already passed will be good. Everybody’s going to be alright. And again, that also applies to the ones where that is hard to believe. That drunkard of a brother that you have. He’s going to be alright. God’s love and forgiveness are bigger than our failures.
What Martin Luther did here is really turning our sense of justice upside down. He picked up a more ancient theme that was discovered long before him, and that is the concept of passive justice. Justice is not something that is given, passed out, but received. We receive justice from God. God declares us just, we are declared just by God. God says we are just, whether we do it or believe it or not. Justice is not something that we can do, we’re pronounced to be just. You cannot work your way to heaven, you cannot work your way to hell either. God calls us just no matter what. God puts justice in our hearts and our minds and declares us just. We are okay. This whole justice thing is not only about the hereafter, it’s not only about heaven or hell or whatever happens after here, but justice is also what happens right here, right now already.
Justice is uncomfortable. Justice calls out injustice because when we have the love of God in our hearts the way our scripture told us today, then we also know exactly what’s wrong. We can call out injustice and we’ve got to do that just like prophets always have. Prophets of the Old Testament clashed with the kings all the time over the causes of the widows, the orphans, and the aliens. When you think about it, those categories, we’ve always struggled with those.
Luther struggled with that, we struggle with them today. Widows, orphans and aliens. Prophets called out their kings like nobody else. In our election cycles speak this year, maybe it’s about women rights, funding for social services, and immigration. Maybe that’s our 21st century speak for widows, orphans, and aliens. You know what’s so remarkable about the widow, the orphan, and the alien? They’re the ones that don’t have a voice. They can’t speak for themselves.
When God puts justice in us, we need to use it. We need to use it to give a voice to those who don’t have one for themselves because the widow, the orphan, and the alien in ancient Israel, they were hardly people. A woman was only a full person if she was attached to a man and once that man died, she was a widow. A lost one that was eventually married by a brother if she was lucky, if not she was on her own without any family support. An outcast. Same for the orphans. If you didn’t have a family to belong to, you were on the streets. Eat whatever you find in the dirt. If you were an alien, you were not part of God’s people. You may not even have been a slave that was at least fed by his owner, but just like a dog in the streets. They couldn’t speak for themselves back in ancient Israel and they have a hard time still.
A woman doesn’t even need to be a widow to feel disadvantaged. For some reason or another, we still tell girls that they’re to dress pretty. As if that matters. We don’t tell boys that. We tell them they throw like a girl and by that we teach them how to do that. They don’t think about that themselves. We tell them what jobs we wish for them which just happen to be usually inferior to those we suggest to our boys.
When we went through church history in our confirmation class this week, I had three girls there and they rallied around one image, well it’s actually just a name on the wall, but that is Antoinette Brown. She was the first woman ordained into Christian ministry in the 1800’s. They rallied around that picture because it showcased for them that “yeah, women can really do great things and break through barriers and I want to be like that.” You can do anything you set your mind to as a widow, as a woman, as one who doesn’t have a voice.
Then in the guild this week, we learned about not the orphans per se, but about foster children. How they’re taken out of abusive families, they’re being put in the system and even then with all our progress and support they have, they’re still somewhat on their own. They still need advocates to speak up for them in court, they still need parents to pick them up out of that situation. They need advocates and resources that stand by them and speak for them, that are their voice because in the system they don’t have a voice for themselves. Still, to this very day, ancient problems are very alive.
When we look at the alien, I know that story all that well. I only finished being an alien a couple of years ago. Even getting resident alien status, a green card, that process took us three years and $9,000. Not everybody can do that. Not everybody has that kind of money and time just for a piece of paper that allows you to live the way you need to live. My immigrant story may have been hard and long, but for me it was just an investment. I was okay, but if you don’t have that kind of money and you’re just stuck and can never get your feet on the ground, always in the shadows, you got to hide in order to stay alive, that’s not how immigration is supposed to work.
Our response to the justice that God puts in our hearts by declaring us just, the passive justice that Luther learned, our response needs to be that active justice, that giving out justice, not the one that God has. God has passive justice, declaring us just, giving us justice in our hearts. The active justice that we dish out, where we judge, where we decide, where we do, we’re not supposed to use that to send people to heaven or hell with our morals, but to actually live up to the standards that God puts in our hearts. Our job is to live up to the justice that we were given.
Remember, God declared us just without any merit. Now our job is to respond by actively pursuing justice in our society and that is what Christianity in this day, as the emerging Christianity that we’ve become, does. The emergent church is profoundly shaped by justice work. The church of every age, and this age especially, is in the business of doing good. So the nagging widow that we heard in today’s story who keeps nagging the judge until he gives in, that’s our prototype for today. How can the church become a louder advocate for those on the margins? How can you learn to make such a noise for those who can’t speak for themselves, foster children, women, aliens? The key according to our parable seems to be that you have to be uncomfortable. If you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re probably not doing it hard enough. If you receive praise for what you’re doing, you’re not pushing the right buttons. We need to feel uncomfortable with ourselves doing what we do and we need to make others feel uncomfortable when we call out injustice, otherwise we’re just pleasing ourselves.
The widow keeps nagging the unjust judge while the judge stands for God. And Jesus says if even that unjust judge helps that widow, how much more will God be on your side? The widow stands for us. Keep nagging, keep scratching your fingernails on that blackboard, make some noise. Wow, that widow could nag God so hard that we are given justice for free. That’s how hard we ought to nag the powers that be to show girls and young women that everything is possible, to provide safe and nurturing environments for all children, to provide all immigrants with affordable and speedy options. Let’s be loud. Let’s be uncomfortable. Let’s speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Amen.
Banner in the sanctuary of St. Paul’s UCC
Long before my family considered a move to Texas we were looking at options for beach vacations. Corpus Christi made the top of the list. A couple of years later I accepted the call to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg, Texas. We were still living in Utah at the time. Our family of five used the occasion of the move for an epic road trip of the American Southwest. We came down through New Mexico. Before finally pulling into Rosenberg we spend a week at the beach in Corpus Christi, just like we had wanted for years.
This coming weekend I get to go back there. Not necessarily for the beach, the epic U.S.S. Lexington, or the Texas State Aquarium, but this time for the fall meeting of the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ. The various levels of our denominational structure remind us that the Body of Christ is much larger than just the local congregation. After all that is what Corpus Christi literally means: Body of Christ.
The name was given to the settlement and surrounding bay by Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda in 1519, as he discovered the lush semitropical bay on the Catholic feast day of Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is a day of catholic processions carrying the consecrated communion elements through town. Especially after the Protestant Reformation, Corpus Christi has become a demonstration of Catholic domination and power: We own the living body of Christ. We are exclusively the one true body of Christ. All you Protestant heretics who are not in our procession are not the true church.
That could of course not continue without significant backlash. In one of his homilies Martin Luther wrote, “I am to no festival more hostile than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment. Because He never commanded us to carry on like this. Therefore beware of such worship!”
It is kind of ironic that the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ meets in Corpus Christi. In the United Church of Christ we are all about unity in the body of Christ, yet this town was founded on the premise of the separation of true and false religion. Maybe that’s exactly why we need to gather there: To bring unity and healing. Our sister church St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Corpus Christi has provided a continuous presence there for over 100 years now. They make a point of celebrating Holy Communion every Sunday. Their town needs that: A reminder that Christ’s table is open for all. Or, as the Reverend Burton Bagby-Grose puts it: “I’m passionate about sharing with people that God loves everyone, gay, straight, pink or purple.”
This is the first sermon of my three-part series on being church in the great emergence.
Please find part two here.
Who remembers the good ol’ days? For one reason or another church people keep telling the story of a glorious past. And then usually follows a horror story of how everything has gone downhill since. Who remembers the good ol’ days when the church was at the center of the community? When it was chic to belong? When it was necessary and beneficial to belong?
People used to put down their roots. Nowadays nobody believes it anymore but there was a time when your first job was also your last. Some people stayed with the same company not for years but decades. That meant you either stayed in your hometown for decades or even if you moved somewhere else you usually moved there for an indefinite period of time. You put down your roots. You find a home. You get involved in the community. Back in the day that usually included joining the local congregation of your denomination. You made friends that you could reasonably expect to be around to grow old with. Investing in these kinds of relationships was worth it. Your neighbors, your coworkers, they did not have much turnover. Your church was not only for you but also for your children.
That was also the generation that was great at creating volunteer organizations. Manning a concession stand at a sports game or even the county fair gets harder and harder. Investing in the community is not commonplace anymore. Community is literally not what it used to be. Our congregation used to fire up the BBQ pits for a community meal. Then we had it catered. Now it’s just not happening anymore. We used to have a team in the church softball league in town. The whole league is gone. The church used to be at the center of most pastime activities. If you lived in a community you tied into the institutions that were there.
The prophet Jeremiah preached that exact message to the exiles. A whole bunch of Israelites was taken to the Babylonian captivity and Jeremiah tells them to assimilate to the community. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is the place where you are. Get attuned to it. Work here. Live here. Play here. This area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, all that is something people were supposed to assimilate to.
Part of that equation also used to be the church. Even Jesus sent the lepers to the priests. Now, usually Jesus is not a big fan of institutions. He challenges authority and the status quo wherever he can. But with the ten lepers he deals differently. To them he suggests what everybody would say, too: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Because the temple is the institution in the community where you find healing. Jesus sends the lepers to the religious establishment which later turns against him.
For the longest time church and empire have been walking in lock-step. Ever since the Emperor Constantine made it legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, Christendom became the normative power of what we call “Western Civilization”. In order to be a member of the greatest civilization the world had ever seen you also had to be a member of the greatest faith community the world had ever seen. Bishops appointed kings, kings appointed bishops. The good-old-boys club ruled the world.
The founding fathers of the United States did not like this accumulation of power and introduced the separation of church and state. But that was on paper only. Still for the longest time, the politics of the town where determined by the gathering that happened in the sanctuary on Sunday. That started to gradually change as diversity came to dilute to Protestant hegemony of the original colonies. Catholics and Jews shook up the mono-culture a little bit. But still the whole was based on Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Then came the 1960s. Here comes the revolution. All of a sudden institutions went out of the window. Here is the individual. All of a sudden Hinduism, Buddhism and Krishna were en vogue. All of a sudden you did not have to go to church anymore in order to be someone in the community. All of a sudden you could fight for all kinds of causes without religious baggage. The days of having to participate in any kind of organization are long gone. Since the sixties we no longer live in institutions but we are really all individuals on our own journeys. Thank God that you can move to an area with its culture, with its language, with its political leaning, and you do not have to assimilate to it but you can transform it.
When the 10 lepers came to Jesus he may have sent them to the temple like everybody else would have. But from that came great transformation. Let’s follow the lepers on their journeys. They go to Jesus to ask for help and they actually follow Jesus’s advice and go to the priests. As they went, they were made clean. They may or may not have arrived. The arrival is not the point but the going. The going is what the story is all about. All ten were made clean because and as they went. All ten got what they needed.
Only one of the ten went back to Jesus to say thank you. The most interesting point here is what is not said: He is not better than the nine. Jesus does not praise him for coming back. For us, this one leper is where the church is. He comes back to the place where his healing journey started. Jesus for him turns into an institution where you can share faith experience and giving thanks to Jesus. He wants to relive that moment and reconnect to what put him on the right path to begin with.
But he was only 10%. The other nine went their own way. They were healed and moved on. They did not look back. They did not say “Thank you, Jesus.” They did not connect with the community but they did their own thing. Again the most interesting point here is what is not said: Jesus does not say they are wrong for doing that. He let’s them do what they need to do, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey. They don’t have to perform a specific thank you ritual.
Thank God that they can move on with their own culture, with their own language, with their own political leaning, and they do not have to assimilate into a certain church culture.
Quite the opposite. As a matter of fact Jesus sends number ten off as well: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Do not hang around Jesus! Do not stay inside the sanctuary where your healing came from but move on into your own life! The church is not here to establish itself but to send people on their own way: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
The church is no longer at the center of town and that is a wonderful thing. Everybody can pursue their own hobbies. You can play all the sports you want, not only in the leagues the church used to be in. You can eat whatever you want and don’t have to sign up for the BBQ pit to volunteer. The church in this day and age is the place where Jesus comes to visit. Ask him where healing can be found! If you want, come back and say thank you. That’s it. And if you are one of the nine who did not come back right away, you may still remember down the road where it all started. It’s never too late to come. Or you just stay out there doing your own thing. “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
My Army unit recently lost a Soldier. He died in a car crash and we will have a memorial ceremony soon. Preparing for that as a Chaplain I work with non-commissioned officers. Tradition has it that I outrank them, even though they may have far more experience on the job. A lot of times their answer to me will be “Yes, Sir!”
That’s usually how the church sees itself in its relationship to God. God Almighty has the command and it is our solemn duty to answer with a prompt “Yes, Sir!” whatever God may say. Sometimes it goes even farther than that. Ancient middle Eastern texts aren’t afraid to use terms like servant and master. We are slaves to God, our Master and say “Yes, Sir!” Jesus tells the disciples a parable and instructs them to repeat after him: “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” When it comes to our relationship with God we don’t call the shots but all we can do is respond faithfully.
This past week I introduced our confirmation class to Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer who challenged the authority of the church and its hierarchy. Thanks to the reformation the church has learned to flip the hierarchical pyramid on its head. No pope rules over other Christians. In 1520 Luther elaborated on the freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
That is the Christian message in a nutshell. We need to say “Yes, Sir!” as promptly and sharply as we can when God calls. Human requests, especially those that fancy to come from a moral or ethical high-ground simply don’t have as much authority.
This election season all kinds of ideologies want to sway us one way or another and we absolutely have to do that. But the truth is that there is no absolute truth. We are totally free to make our own choices in life. But when it comes to our relationship with God there is no free will. The motto here is “Yes, Sir!” God has consistently called us to serve our neighbors and love our enemies. As God’s servants we are called to be everybody’s servants.
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” With the period at the end of that sentence it took Martin Luther 128 characters to express this profound concept.
Martin Luther’s message spread rapidly throughout the world simply because book printing just became more accessible and affordable. The great Reformation was really a social media event. In crafting brief, powerful quotes, Martin Luther followed the advice that the prophet Habakkuk had received from God over 2000 years earlier: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”
The words of biblical prophets and great reformers matter. You know why? Because they were clearly communicated and stood the test of time to reach us here today. We are hundreds and thousands of years removed from them. How do we make our words stand the test of time? How is your vision one that can inspire generations down the line? Well, you gotta write it down and put it out there. What God said to Habakkuk I now say to you: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets.” No really: The preacher just gave you permission to pull out your electronic devices during the sermon. Grab your phone or tablet – Habakkuk probably was talking about stone tablets – but I think our social media devices are okay, too. Then on the social network of you choice write your own plain vision on that tablet.
A few more rules:
– Please include the hashtag #plainvision.
– Make it plain, that means no frills, keep it simple and short.
– The basic question is: What’s your elevator pitch for your faith?
– How do you say what the Word of God means to you in a tweet?
On Twitter you have 140 characters. Now we have to deduct 13 for the hashtag symbol plus a space. That brings us down to 127. Remember Martin Luther’s message in a nutshell?
That takes up 128 characters. So we’ll have to lose the period at the end. That still works out okay, doesn’t it?
You can write a whole lot in 127 characters. Today we receive the Neighbors in Need Offering. This year’s theme is this:
That could be the gospel in a nutshell for you and only takes up 33 characters. At our church we have two major food drives per year but really we support hunger relief through donations and volunteer work year round. “No Child Should Go To Bed Hungry.” is actually a real good battle cry to represent a lot of what we stand for. 33 very powerful characters.
Also we celebrate World Communion Sunday today. This year’s theme is:
Wow, bringing together millions of Christians all over the world in just 56 characters. When Jesus invites all his disciples to gather around the table together regardless of denomination, race, gender identity or expression, then you know what unity is. “We are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” is a #plainvision that is so easy to forget. It’s so tempting to just do church with people that are like you, to worship with your own and stay in your comfort zone. Christian unity is about diversity in the body of Christ as it transcends our individual congregations. All God’s children are called to share these 56 characters “We are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Now it’s your turn. I checked Facebook and Twitter and here is what people put out there as their #plainvision
#plainvision a Christian is here to love. Not judge.
Come together to eat and drink without conflict to celebrate life as a whole in peace. #plainvision
United in spirit and in love. #plainvision
#plainvision Love yourself as you love your neighbor.
Love the life you live, live the life you love. #plainvision
Faith Hope Love #plainvision
#plainvision Be Kind Be Kind Be Kind
Be who you say you are. #plainvision
#plainvision We are one in the spirit in Jesus Christ. We are all God’s children and thus real family.
Whether your #plainvision is about justice, or Christian unity or freedom, the important thing is to get it out there. Family members, friends and coworkers of my dead Soldier and everybody who is hurting or grieving need shining examples of hope. “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” Tell of the love of God the way you understand it, so that that those who run away from fear and anger may see it.
“History repeats itself”, says a comforting adage. It means that what we do and what we don’t do, how we vote or speak really doesn’t matter in the long run. Things will sort themselves out like they always have. Sounds nice, right?
Phyllis Tickle challenged that view. She discovered a pattern in history, or at least in the history of the church that does not repeat but progress. Roughly every 500 years or so happens a major milestone that fundamentally changes how we do church and how we see the world. A good starting point is the year 1,000 BCE. Around that period the united kingdom of Israel and Judah experienced its peak consolidation of power under king David. Up to that point tribes had been fighting each other but now there is unity in the land. 500 years later, the people of God found themselves in the Babylonian exile. Here they learned to live their faith without any institutions: No king, no temple, just shared practice of Sabbath and circumcision. Again 500 years later came Jesus Christ and the beginning of the church. Now emerges a new community that is no longer from one ethnicand cultural group but spreads to the Gentiles as well. Around 500 CE the church has taken hold of the Roman Empire and ultimately shapes the thinking and culture of the “Western World”. 500 years later the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox split in the Great Schism, separating the church into warring factions. The Protestant Reformation starts around 1500 CE and challenges the institutional church by stressing the Bible as the ultimate authority for the teaching and practice of the church.
Around the year 2,000 CE, we are living through what Tickle calls “The Great Emergence”. Once again, everything is challenged, nothing stays the same. At the end of our 500-year-cycle the church will be vastly different from what it was before. For three Sundays in October I will explore three themes that deal with being the church in the Great Emergence:
October 9th, 2016: The Decline of Christendom. The church is once again not at the center of political and cultural power and influence. We have to grapple with our existence on the fringe of postmodern society. We have been there many times before. How is this one different?
Oct 16th, 2016: The Emergence of Justice
Emergent Christianity is profoundly shaped by justice work. The church of this age is in the business of doing good. How can the church become a louder advocate for those on the margins? How can you learn to make noise for those who cannot speak for themselves?
Oct 23rd, 2016: Postmodern Prayer
Spirituality is stronger than ever and people have more choices now than they have ever had before. Also prayer is more individualized than ever before. How do we shape our shared worship and corporate prayer in a way that connects with the need for individual devotion?
There ain’t no turning the clock back. We are emgerging. Let’s make the best of if!
This is not my story. It is a generic, aggregate story that includes aspects of my own and that of many colleagues. I am writing this because over the course of my ministry experience I have trained pastoral interns and helped people pursue their calls to ministry. Currently I am working with a couple of people who are on the edge between step 1 and 2 and another in the middle of 3. Whatever you are looking for in ministry, do not look for certainty. A lot of different folks become pastors for a lot of different reasons. I can only speak for my little corner of the world of mainline Protestantism. Our formation to ministry works something like this:
First, you feel called by God.
That can be because of your upbringing in church. You came up the ranks form Sunday school kid to youth leader. and you just stuck with it because church feels good. A lot of times feeling the call happens in defiance of your church experience. Your church rejected you for you who are and you thought God was as cruel as they were. But then you discovered God to be different.
Second, you feel a good about that call.
You get excited and you start the official discernment process. You learn about educational requirements and church requirements. Eventually you decide to tackle the biggest hurdle and pick a school to obtain your Master of Divinity degree.
Third, your whole world comes tumbling down.
In seminary everything you believed in, everything you thought was right or wrong is turned upside down. You may have been a practical Saint like mother Teresa and in Step 1 and you felt the call to be just that for the rest of your professional life. Or you may have been a righteous thinker who can tell right from wrong and protect the truth and values of the Christian faith against heretics and atheists. Serious graduate level work will show you that your orthodoxy is worthless without a similar passion for orthopraxy. Whatever you came in as, you will come out changed and hopefully more balanced.
Fourth, you get your first call.
Usually you start out as somebody else’s associate pastor. The greatest danger here is a feel-good-experience. You may be sent to do children and youth ministry. That way you feel like you did when you first felt the call. You fall back into old uneducated patterns and have a jolly good time. You love your job and everybody loves you.
Fifth, it is time to grow up.
Eventually you will have to step up and become your own pastoral self. All of a sudden you are “the pastor”. The first year or so feels really good. In this honeymoon period you do everything for the first time. Your congregation feels the excitement of having your new energy among them. You learn to figure out who you are as a pastor. Roughly 10 years into the process you start to learn who you want to be when you grow up.
Sixth, ministry is hard.
On a practical level serving in ministry means working for a non-profit organization. If they are large, they may have a lot of politics going on, staffing issues, policies and procedures. If they are small, they may lack a clear vision of their mission, they may be happy with maintaining the status quo, or they simply do not feel strong enough to do anything meaningful at all.
Seventh, you succeed and fail.
In some ministry settings you may be able to leave a lasting legacy or make a big impact. Some you may have sustained for a few years and then moved on. Others again you may have profoundly hurt.
It is okay and necessary to be excited about the initial call.
It is okay to explore faith practices that have sustained you in different periods of your formation.
It is okay to be constantly evolving.
Just make sure to keep an open mind for the next step of the wild ride that God is sending you on. It never looks like anything you could have ever imagined.
The games in Rio are still in full swing. China dominates the medal count followed by Great Britain and Ukraine. Team USA currently ranks fourth. Just yesterday U.S. swimmers won three gold medals and smashed two world records.
Wait what? Ukraine in the top three of the medal count? Team USA only on four? Maybe we should take a closer look at our three gold medalists from yesterday:
Rebecca Meyers has Usher syndrome and has been deaf since she was born.
Bradley Snyder was blinded after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving in the U.S. Navy in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Michelle Konkoly woke up paralyzed from the waist down after she fell out of her dorm room window at Georgetown University.
By now you may have gathered that I am talking about the Paralympic Games. The first organized athletic day for disabled athletes that coincided with the Olympic Games took place on the day of the opening of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom. Since 1960 the Paralympic Games have been a world class event in their own right.
Back to Rio: All these athletes perform at levels where regular Joes like me do not even have to think we could compare. What exactly do we mean when we classify them as “disabled”? Obviously they are more able to perform than I would be. So by performance standards I am more disabled. Is it the looks of an amputated leg, mannerisms, or just a random perception of normalcy? In most sports athletes are segregated by gender and / or weight. Why is “disability” a label that totally disqualifies you from the Olympics and puts you in a whole different event? The truth is: There is no normal. Everybody is different and everybody has his or her own level of ability.
You could rudely begin the story about yesterday’s gold medalists by saying, “A cripple, a blind, and a deaf jump into a pool.” Mainstream culture is so used to treating differently-abled people differently. Unfortunately there are stories where Jesus is used to reinforce a sense of “normal” versus “abnormal”. When Jesus heals the blind man in some Gospel stories he does so just because people pointed him in that direction. The blind man was comfortable in his life, had his daily routine down, had everything he needed. He never said we wanted to see. He never said he wanted to “be healed”. Why does Jesus impose his sense of normalcy on this poor man? Now he is totally on his own, will no longer receive the support he needs and has to start over in life. He is push into the position of a teenager even though he is a middle-aged man who had life figured out. Now he is truly disabled.
The Gospel authors want Jesus to heal everybody. But when they tell stories like that in effect they make Jesus commit the Sin of Ableism. Then he pretends there is a normal that everybody has to abide by, a standard of health, ability or aesthetics that you just have to match in order to be acceptable. Bekah Anderson warns to not use our Paralympic heroes for Inspiration Porn. Instead she advises to engage with persons beyond labels, “My challenge to the preachers, writers, and storytellers among us, including myself, is this: Stop telling stories for a moment, and listen. Listen, even though the voice speaking to you is slurred. Listen, even though the voice comes through an ASL interpreter or a computer. Listen, even when the voice has been effectively silenced, and honor that loss. Our voices and our silences are sacred. Pray with me that they may all one day find the sacred space they deserve.”
Mother Teresa has always been a saint, that is in the public opinion. Her selfless service to the least of these has inspired generations. The world officially granted her the status of a “civil saint” when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. It does not get better than that. In the truest, most literal church-sense of the word, as Protestants, we would have to say she received her saint status at Baptism. That was the day after she was born. She had not helped anyone then. Sainthood is not something we can earn but a gift from God. Saints are those called by God to be God’s people.
Imagine the world had no images of her with suffering little children. What remains of Mother Teresa, when you take away the millions of dollars raised over the course of her career? What if her wealthy father had not died when she was only eight years old? She may have stayed in her native Balkan region, never even making a trip to India. But he did, and she did, and that changed the world. Mother Teresa has been celebrated – maybe even venerated – by people of all faiths or no faith at all. She served as a perfect example of faith bearing fruit.
But then she also ran an international organization – Missionaries of Charity – with various clinics, hospitals and hospices. As of 2012 more than 4,500 nuns worked in 133 countries supporting 710 facilities. The moment you get involved in an organization of that size you lose the innocence of just gathering a handful of faithful around you. Every saint is always also a sinner. Mother Teresa is no different. There has been constant criticism of sanitary conditions and religious practices. Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name they are bound to mess up. That is the risk you have to take whenever you do something significant or holy.
So last Sunday it happened that the Bishop of Rome agreed with the world and finally called Teresa a Saint, almost 20 years after her death. There is a lesson to be learned from that process: Do not wait to understand yourself as a saint. You are a saint right now. You can go out and do good right now. You do not need to wait for any authority’s approval or recognition. You may just gather a few people and do a one time project, or you may establish a world-wide network impacting millions. Whatever you do: Do not delay and do not wait for the approval of some perceived authority. You will mess up. You will be criticized. You will be a sinner. That is what being a saint is all about.
I am a white, straight, male pastor in the United Church of Christ. From 2008-2014 I was the only one in the entire state of Utah. All the other UCC pastors were female, minority or LGBTQ. Among UCC ministers it is not unusual that the white, straight, male is the odd one out and I enjoy the ride very much. If you are uncomfortable by now, you know I am writing this for you. The important issue of skin-color and race I will have to address another time. Lately I have had multiple people ask me about “the gay question”. Sometimes it’s worded, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?”
My initial reaction is usually: “The Bible” doesn’t say anything. Because the Bible is not a book but an entire library with dozens of books in it. They were written over the course of 1,000 years in three different languages on two different continents. The Bible has contributions from nomadic peasants and highly educated scholars. There is no way they all can possible give one and the same answer to a single question.
Overall biblical authors are not very interested in questions of homosexuality. There are a few examples that are told in a matter-of-fact way without raising an eyebrow: King David addresses his lover Jonathan saying, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26) The author of the Gospel of John tells of his affection for Jesus, “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him.” (John 13:23) Yes, the Bible tells stories of men loving men without question.
Then there are negative voices from times when God’s people were under attack. The Holiness Code commands, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) And the Apostle Paul mourns, “And in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27)
The Holiness Code was written by priests who were deported during the Babylonian Exile. God’s people were afraid they couldn’t keep their cultural identity alive. It is during this period that circumcision and the Sabbath become identifiers of the Jewish people. Deviation from the norm seemed scary because those were anxious times. Similarly, when the earlier church was a minority in the largely hostile Roman Empire, Paul warned to not live like the Romans. Instead he asked the early Christians to remain distinct in their practices.
Today in North America God’s people are not under attack. We are not in a situation where we need to be afraid of the culture that surrounds us. We don’t have to hide our worship services in the Roman catacombs but can be open about our Christian faith. We don’t have to develop a rigid corporate identity because religious freedom is protected. Literally hundreds of times the Bible says: “Do not be afraid”. The Bible says that we need to tell stories of all kinds of love and celebrate them.
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