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Jul 4, 2015

Obergefell v. Hodges

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“Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,’ they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.”
In his dissent to the Supreme Court Decision to establish marriage equality in the entire United States, Justice Thomas quotes the Declaration of Independence. How, from that quote he comes to opposing equality is beyond me and the majority of the people in this country as well as its Supreme Court Justices.

I have made it my habit to read the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. Usually this old document has something to say that is relevant today:
In 2012 pushing for immigration
In 2014 keeping Texas clean.
In 2015 celebrating marriage equality.

What exactly are those rights again that all men are equally created with?
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness!

Who are those men that were created equally?
“Men” have been substantially redefined since 1776: The term now is understood to mean women and people of color as well.

How does one pursue happiness?
Marriage is one way in which my wife and I pursue happiness. All Americans have had that right since 1776.

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Jun 24, 2015

Celebrating church life in huge crowds

I am fixin’ to attend the United Church of Christ General Synod 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio, June 26-30. Every two years delegates and visitors from all over the country convene for the business and celebration of our wider church family. A reunion of sorts representing 1,000,000 people. Like many attendees I will post regular updates using the hashtag #GS2015. Back in Germany the national setting of the church has a similar event that just concluded a couple of weeks ago. Here is a report that has been shared via the World Council of Churches:


Tens of thousands of people from Germany and beyond have converged on the city of Stuttgart for a five-day festival of faith, debates, music, worship and culture. Open-air services in different parts of the city marked the start of the German Protestant Kirchentag, or church convention, which began on 3 June and continues until 7 June.

The event is Germany’s biggest Protestant gathering, taking place every two years in a different German city. It brings together tens of thousands of participants, including personalities from political, economic and national life. The Kirchentag was founded in 1949 by Protestant lay people to strengthen democratic culture after the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War. The Kirchentag also serves as a major forum for debates on such matters as nuclear power, climate change, and the financial crisis. Alongside such discussions, it offers opportunities for worship, music and culture. The event features 2500 individual events in Stuttgart.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, German President Joachim Gauck underlined the role of the Kirchentag in motivating people to tackle the major issues of the time. “Poverty, injustice, lack of peace, intolerance and environmental degradation affect people in many parts of the world,” said Gauck. “Those who live by faith do not want only to be spectators in the face of such developments. They are looking for responses that will help them to act.” Gauck was a Protestant pastor in the former East Germany and became active in the 1989 protests against communist rule that led to the unification of Germany the following year. Alongside Gauck, Chancellor Angela Merkel and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan are scheduled to address the gathering.

Almost 100,000 people are registered for the whole of the five-day meeting. The assembly takes place this year under the biblical theme “That we may become wise,” based on a verse from the book of Psalms (90:12). The president of the 2015 Kirchentag, Andreas Barner, underlined the need for wisdom in “how we deal with each other, how we deal with our natural resources, and with our world.” At the same time, he said, “The sustainability of our society depends on the extent to which we develop the ability to create and to preserve peace.” Barner, a Protestant layperson and business leader, referred in particular to the continuing reports of people drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to reach Europe from North Africa. Such deaths must come to an immediate end, he said.

The Kirchentag has strong ecumenical links in Germany and beyond, with more than 5000 international guests at the Stuttgart meeting. They include a high-level delegation from Korea and large groups of participants from Indonesia and Nigeria. On 6 June, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, will take part in a day of events linked to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, launched by the WCC following its 2013 assembly.

May 31, 2015

The Great Flood

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We have houses evacuated in our city of Rosenberg and the Brazos River still threatens to endanger lives and property. Whenever the National Weather Service issues a flood watch or a flood warning people are sure to compare it to the situation with Noah. It so easy to compare any inconvenient water to that which killed almost all life on planet Earth. Not only natural disasters trigger that comparison but also the reference to the sin that presumably caused it.

Any natural disaster will have some preacher up in arms proclaiming the end is near because you-know-who did this-or-that. I am writing these reflections in a much calmer situation: The weather forecast looks dry for the next week. The crest of the flood is here and turned out less disastrous than originally expected here in Rosenberg. And most certainly has nobody preached of fire and brimstone denouncing the sin that led to our flood warnings. So in a very stable situation after the flood has passed, the rainbow is out and we are all safe and dry, let us take a sober look at what actually caused the Great Flood for which Noah built the Ark. That story is to be found in Genesis 6:1-8:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

Yes, you read that right: demigods roaming the Earth, Sons of God having babies with human mothers, just like it was the case with Jesus and Mary. Only in this early incarnation God did not approve and vowed to undo that.
The Flood was not caused by human sin!
The Flood was caused by demigods abusing their power.
Let that sink in for a minute:
God is not in the business of punishing people!
God is in the business of making amends for what his sons messed up!
God is a loving parent cleaning up after his kids!

May 12, 2015

Jesus’ Father’s Day

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Thursday May 14, 2015, is Father’s Day. At least in my book. Since I live both the US and German cultures I get to celebrate two Father’s Days on different dates. This upcoming German variety has a powerful customary expression: A bunch of dads going on a hike without family – basically taking a day off from fathering. Instead they pull a little red wagon full of beer and get wasted in public places. It has been a tradition for over 100 years. Honestly I have never celebrated that way but it is a cultural icon you should be aware of.

All this daytime drinking is possible because German Father’s Day also happens to be a national holiday. The way most of us think about German culture it is totally within the realm of possibility to dedicate a national holiday to drinking beer in the park but actually it is a major Christian holiday: Ascension Day! Yes, churches do have a hard time filling the pews on a holiday where the guys prefer hiking. But at least the theme for the worship service is pretty clear: “Jesus goes back to his heavenly father”. So Ascension is truly Jesus’ Father’s Day. That’s the way it always has been. For almost 2000 years!

Then I moved to the US and this whole connection is gone because in America we don’t join those two celebrations. So I had to look at the more serious implications of Ascension. How do you celebrate Jesus going back to heaven when it is not linked to a Father figure waiting for him up there?

Jesus Christ is no longer among us. He is not dead, he is risen after all. But he is still gone, ascended into heaven. How do you maintain a long distance relationship like that? Ascension poses a challenge: There is this huge gap that remains between God Almighty, creator of the universe and us little creatures down here on Earth. For a brief time in history we had Jesus walking among us, preaching, and teaching, and healing. Then: Ascension! Pouf! He disappears just us quickly and unexpectedly as the angel had appeared to Mary announcing his birth to begin with. God’s presence among us is fleeting at best. Maybe that’s the takeaway from Ascension Day: God the Father will always be hiking through the Garden of Eden whether we see him or not and he’s got our back no matter what.

Apr 21, 2015

Denominational Church

When I bake bread I use 1 1/2 cups of water. The bread turns out just right with a yummy crust when I follow my simple recipe that I developed a few years ago. Like any good recipe it doesn’t work if you don’t follow the measurements. You need to understand what 1 1/2 cups are. A half a cup is a fraction of a cup. The bottom number is called denominator. Of all the fractions the denominator tells you which numerators belong together.

Churches are the same way. We are all one and the same body of Christ that starts with water: the water of Baptism. After that things got messy and we divided ourselves into different “churches”. Ultimately we are all numerals on the same scale but we set ourselves apart.

Luckily we in the United Church of Christ hold on to the concept of the denominational church. We share a common denominator, a shared family name for all our more than 5000 congregations: United Church of Christ.

As the body of Christ is symbolized in a loaf of bread so the church is carefully crafted with a recipe that has worked from day one: Be in covenant with one another and have structures in place to live out that covenant. A local church works closely with its sister churches in the same Association – in our case the Houston Association. The Associations work together as a Conference – in our case the South Central Conference. And we all share in the missions and ministries of the National Setting. Every “level” of church life has its unique flavors and responsibilities but ultimately we are all numerators of the same denominator.

douglasandersOur Conference Ministry, the Reverend Douglas Anders, ministers to our churches in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. He will be giving the Sermon next Sunday, April 26 in our 10 am service at St. John’s United Church of Christ. Ultimately being part of a denominational church is about relationship: recognizing kinfolk and sharing time, talent and resources to make the world better as a whole. Because ultimately that’s where the whole thing is headed – that one day there won’t be separate denominators anymore but the one Body of Christ: 1/1

Apr 20, 2015

Pastor’s Weekly Links

Preparing for Sunday Services leads me to the following seven websites every week. Maybe you also will find it handy to have them all linked in one spot:

SAMUEL
A sermon preparation resource designed for use with the Revised Common Lectionary.

Worship Ways
Lectionary-based services for Sundays, festivals and special ecumenical or UCC observances.

Textweek
A wide variety of resources for study and liturgy based on the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle.

Laughing Bird
Liturgical resources for the coming weeks.

Oremus
The Oremus Bible Browser.

Enter the Bible
A wealth of resources from Luther Seminary to help you grow in your faith, add depth to your Bible studies and truly discover the people, places and events of the Bible.

Academic Bible
The leading website for academic Bible study. It provides free access to the original Bible texts in Greek and Hebrew, published by the German Bible Society, in addition to English and German Bible translations.

Apr 13, 2015

A God Budget for Tax Day

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

Today’s emperor is the Congress with its power of the purse and the IRS enforcing the rules. Your CPA or software tells you exactly what you owe them. They will want that this week. Paying your taxes is about paying you fair share but like with any institution federal and state budgets are mixed bags. My biggest complaint would be that we have not had a federal budget for the longest time. And even once we do everybody will find things in it they want to support. And of course you will find things that you don’t want to support. That’s all politics and politics are about the process. You don’t have to love the results but you have to honor the process. “Give to the Congress what the tax code tells you.” is Jesus’ straight-forward message.

The second part of that verse is a little more complex: “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
As a pastor I am not your spiritual bookkeeper that tells you how much you owe and there isn’t a software for that either. But I can suggest one mathematical approach nonetheless:
What do you owe God? – Everything!
In numbers that would be infinite. Because ultimately all of creation, all the blessings we receive in life are given and sustained by God. Ultimately we don’t own anything but are mere stewards in God’s vineyard. There is no hard and fast deadline for the giving Jesus is talking about here. Neither is it clear what should be included on that balance sheet. Maybe a good starting point would be to track your expenses and then as a second step you could become intentional about adjusting your “God Budget”. Here is a simple worksheet to get you started, not just financially. But please also include the time and the talents that you invest:
God Budget

Apr 7, 2015

He washed my sins away

Sister Act film poster.jpg
Sister Act film poster” by Source. Licensed under Wikipedia.

“Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!
When Jesus washed, oh when he washed, he washed my sins away”
I admit it: I just love Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act. When that energetic, loving nun turns around that run-down neighborhood, her songs are an inspiration. Bringing Aretha Franklin’s tune to a broader audience also helps spread the message of Easter. The lyrics really contain everything you need to know from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, from Jesus’ death on the cross to his glorious resurrection. Have you stopped humming yet?

The image of washing our sins away with Jesus’ blood is somewhat disturbing because it sounds so archaic but hey, that’s what you get for basing your faith on ancient texts like this one:
“If we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
(1 John 1:7 –Watchword for the Week of Sunday 12 April 2015)

That’s what Holy Week is all about: He washed my sins away!
And actually that extends well beyond that one special week, because I will sin over and over again and I will need cleansing over and over again. It is literally the original vicious cycle.

But not only that: The song as well as God’s purpose for us don’t stop there:
“He taught me how to watch, fight and pray, fight and pray! And living rejoicing every, everyday!”
Remember how Jesus asks the disciples to keep watch while he goes out to pray? – They keep falling asleep! They don’t fight their inner laziness and they fail to pray when it is so crucial. And rejoicing every day? – That sounds so hard because some days are just so hard to bear that nobody would want to rejoice. My hope would be that, when you have one of those days, when rejoicing sounds like too much to ask, that God may send you a sister Mary Clarence who may rock your world and teach you to sing “Oh happy day! Oh happy day! Oh happy day!”

Mar 31, 2015

Easter Eggs

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Once you dye the eggs for Easter they don’t contain any cholesterol anymore, or so goes the saying, right? Well, I don’t know about the nutritional value of Easter eggs but I do no that Easter is almost the only time of the year when I eat hard boiled eggs. It’s just something I usually don’t enjoy but since it matches the season and makes sense within Christian tradition I will crack open quite a few that Easter weekend.

So why have Christians adopted the egg for Easter? – It is a dead rock that comes to life!
An egg looks a lot like a rock that could be rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb. But when you give it some time eventually it will give way to life: When that baby chick manages to get its beak through the shell, when it eventually cracks it open all the way and makes its way out: Here is you symbol for resurrection that follows a time of death in that “rock”.

Eventually people fell in love with the egg for Easter and they started making them prettier: From simple finger paint to Fabergé eggs you can spend pennies or thousands of dollars on your egg collection. That’s where things get trickier: What does that have to do with the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior? Isn’t that pure pleasure that does not match this solemn season? – Well actually, the solemn season of Lent is precisely over on Easter: For the first time since Mardi Gras, tradition allows the consumption of eggs, for the first time in seven weeks joy is the reason of celebration and chocolate eggs makes perfect sense. Christ is risen! Can you think of a greater joy? – It makes sense to take an ancient symbol and transform it into something fun, fresh, beautiful and yummy.

Mar 24, 2015

Expectation Management

The first official announcement for the 2016 presidential ticket of a major party is now on the books. Campaign season has officially begun. And like always we will hear a whole slate of people announcing their candidacy for their party ticket. And every single one of them will promise to do better than anyone else. They may promise to do away with whatever a predecessor may have done or they may promise to continue down the same path. “With me things are going to get a lot better.” They all have to say something to that effect because in the highest government executive office, we the people want someone who can get things done.

Israel had a lot of expectations for their new leader as well. For generations the land had been occupied by the Romans. There had always been revolts trying to cast off that yoke. Uprisings were commonplace and there was a lot of hope that some day a great strong leader may emerge and kick out the Romans once and for all. Somebody yelling: “With me things are going to get a lot better.” A strong leader who can get things done, who can fight and win our wars and restore liberty and justice for all. Maybe this concept of ancient Israel still applies today: Candidates still want to be the Messiah who saves the day. That’s why they promise heaven on earth if you just vote for them.

Well, here is what happened back then: Jesus was nominated to be the new king of the Jews. The media of the day had high expectations of this new and upcoming star. They wanted him to be the mighty warrior to restore King David’s Empire. They wanted him to lead the people into battle and free Jerusalem and restore Israel’s independence. News reports came in that he may join the Passover festivities in the capital this year. So reporters lined up along the main drag that led into town, vendors set up their booths with fan memorabilia, excitement was building. The people got curious: What’s going on? Who’s coming? What is this all about? Oh – a rally against the Romans? – Sign me up! Finally his presence was announced: Jesus has entered the final stretch and will be visible soon! What’s he gonna look like? Heavy armor? A mighty horse? Troops following behind him, well trained and equipped to march into the fight? Maybe even before the festival is over? Can he get this done swiftly and forcefully? Go Jesus! Go Jesus! Go Jesus!

Then he turns around the corner so everybody can see him in all his glory – sitting on a donkey!? And all of a sudden everybody starts realizing that their expectations had been off. When King David sent his son Solomon to his accession to the throne he had him ride on a donkey (1 Kings 1:33): No war machine, no military parade. The king of the Jews has always been a king of humility. What if our 2016 candidates announced like that: “Don’t expect too much from me. I’m not bringing anything special to the table. Things will not get a lot better because of me. I would just like to play my part in the system.”

What if we would manage our exceptions in a way that would enable us to live the life we have?
What if would would hope for fulfillment in our current situation without radical transformation?
What is life weren’t always all exciting but sometimes just hard work that never seems to end?
Because let’s not forget that the same crowd that yells “Hosannah!” today is bound to yell “Crucify him!” in just a little while.

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