Category: lutherans

Repost: We Can’t Be Friends

First off, welcome to all the new visitors who saw my post on Freshly Pressed. Below is a post from last year. 

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.

For liberals, this is about equality. Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience. They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality. They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other. Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story? I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it. We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree. Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.

I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil. We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

“A Tale of Four Marys:” A Good Friday Sermon

This is a sermon I gave at an ecumenical service in 2010.

“A Tale of Four Marys”
John 19:25
Good Friday
April 2, 2010
Central Lutheran Church
Minneapolis, MN

 

When I was asked to speak on the three Marys, I have to be honest that nothing was immediately coming to mind.  What could I say about these women?  And then I realized something: my mother was also a Mary.  My mother, born 76 years ago in Canonvanas, Puerto Rico was given the name Maria, Spanish for Mary.  Her name reminded me of a time when I was in pretty bad shape.  I had just moved to Minneapolis a few months earlier and came down with the flu.  That flu turned into pneumonia.  My parents were back home in Michigan and Mom kept asking if they should make the 13 hour drive to Minnesota.  Well, when you are having trouble breathing, and you can’t keep anything down, you want your Mommy.  And I wanted my Mommy.  Mom and Dad came to Minneapolis in the dead of night during an icestorm and took care of me.  What I remember most of that time was on a Sunday night when I had a temperature of 105 and was in and out of consciouness.  Mom was wondering how to get the fever down and I remember telling her to pray for me, which is what she did.

A few days later, I was admitted into the hospital.  The thing that I treasured most were the nurses, both male and female who took care of me.  The doctors for the most part would come in, assess the situation and leave, but it was the nurses who made sure I was doing well, and when I finally got my appetite back, they were able to give me tons of orange juice.

It was remembering the Marys in my own life that I realized the importance of Marys of scripture.  We know a fair amount about Mary, the mother of Jesus and a little bit about Mary Magdalene, but nothing about the other Marys.  What we do know is that Mary of course, took care of her son, while Mary Magdalene was a women who helped finance Jesus’ ministry.  And we know that the women were going to tend to Jesus body after Passover ended.

Even though these women don’t have a big role in Scripture in the same way that Peter or John has, their role was not any less important.  They were the living examples of the servanthood that Jesus was asking of his disciples and of all of us.

It was the night before at a meal in an upper room that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  Peter was shocked that Jesus would stoop to such a lowly task.  But Jesus told him that this is what it means to follow him; they have to be servant like him.  The Bible doesn’t tell us that the Marys were there, but I’d like to believe they were since they were a part of his ministry.  I have to believe they got the message.  The next day, when most of the disciples had fled, it was those women who stayed with Jesus at the cross.  Even though it seemed pointless to do so, they were there with Jesus in his last hours.  That’s what a servant does; stay with the dying, tend to the sick and clean dirty feet. The men were a little slow in getting it; the women understood it.

On this day that we remember Christ’s death, we have to do more than simply remember the agony and the pain, but we must also remember what Christ was while on earth.  As the second chapter of Phillipians says, Christ didn’t take his role as the Son of God for granted, but became a servant and was obedient to death, even death on a cross. The women, understood.  They lived it out.  One has to wonder if Christ learned servanthood from them or visa versa or maybe a little of both.

Please understand, I am not making an excuse for “keeping women in their place.”  My strong Puerto Rican mother did not raise a son who disses women.  What I am saying is that women, both in the Bible and today, tend to understand what it means to be a servant to our sisters and brothers more than we men can.

My mother (and my father) were willing to drive 13 hours in bad weather to take care of their adult son .  Jesus had a mother and an aunt and countless other women who were there at the cross, standing by Jesus in his darkest hour.

That servanthood. They Marys got it.  Do we?

Sunday Sermon: “No Do Overs”

This is a sermon I preached in 2007 for the Baptism of Our Lord which is next Sunday.  I happen to be preaching next Sunday.  No, I won’t be using this sermon.

“No Do Overs”
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22
January 7, 2007 (Baptism of Our Lord)
Community of Grace Christian Church*
Minneapolis, MN

Did you ever have one of those experiences where you are playing a board game and you made some kind of mistake? Someone usually has pity on you and you get what is called a “do-over.”

I live for those moments.

Do overs can be great, I mean you get another chance. I really like them when I was playing some kind of athletic game as a kid. Since I was not blessed with physical prowess, this meant that I had another shot at getting it right.

Getting a do-over in say, kickball, is a good thing, but do-overs don’t work so well in the life of faith. In fact, they might do some damage.

Today is what is commonly called The Baptism of Our Lord. It is on this day, that we read about Jesus, the Son of God, the one who had no sin, coming forth to be baptized. Baptism has always been a touchy subject for me. As many of you know, I come from the Baptist tradition, so people tend to get baptized later in life than someone from a tradition that practices infant baptism. Baptists as well as Disciples believe in something called “believer’s baptism,” which means that the person usually makes a profession of faith before they are baptized. I got baptized in December 1976 at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. I was seven years old and didn’t understand everything that was going on. Anyway, I did get baptized and went on to grow up in the church and learn about God and about how God loved me.

As I got older, I started to have doubts. I would hear many preachers talking about making sure we were saved by God and I would fret about this. Did I really believe? It didn’t get any better when I was in college. Back then, I shared my concerns with my campus pastor. His belief was that in my case, I might want to get baptized again since I wasn’t sure. When I shared this with my mother, she looked at me as if I had just turned purple. I never went through with it and over time, I put my fears to rest. That was until about five years later when I was looking to join a Baptist church in Washington, DC. I was chatting with the pastor, and he asked if I had been baptized. I said yes “Was it a believer’s baptism?” he said. I tensed up. All the doubts came back. You see, he believed that the “believer’s baptism” was the only true way to be baptized and had “re-baptized” those who came from traditions where they were baptized as children. Despite my doubts, I told him I had been baptized. Continue reading “Sunday Sermon: “No Do Overs””

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner, Yada Yada Yada

“Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner.”
This is one of those cliches that Christians tend to use (or at least I’ve heard people use them, I don’t remember hearing someone say it) and one Christian in particular doesn’t like it.  Here’s what Christian Piatt (a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor) has to say about this:

This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focus on the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others’ sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.

Many Christians, mostly those in Mainline churches, hate the phrase and with reason: it’s been associated with how some Christians have viewed LGBT folks.  While I’ve never heard people say this, it is common for more conservative Christians to act this out and in some cases there’s been more focus on hating the sin than there is on loving the sinner.

Because of this tendency, there has been a move to basically be offended at this practice.  “Mind your own damn business!” Is the response from most people.

While I understand the tendency, I feel we are losing something in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Trevor Lee, an evangelical Disciples of Christ pastor in Denver wrote this in a post last week:

I need to be able to hate the sin while loving the sinner. I need my wife and kids and friends to be able to do it too, because I am a sinner. I want to be better than what I am. I hope my wife and friends want me to be more than what I am too. Not because I need to impress God or tilt the scales but because sin is destructive. It is not hating sin that is unloving.

Even more broadly in culture we embrace this at times. We long for our friend to stay sober, and hate it when he doesn’t, because we love him. We rejoice when a co-worker catches a real glimpse of the plight of the poor and turns from selfishness to generosity (and so we affirm that something is better in her now than it was before). We hate that a family member runs from one broken relationship to another, because we long for him to experience more. Yes, there are times when we hate the sin and love the sinner, even if we don’t call it that.

The Bible is replete with the call to leave sin behind and walk in love, peace, and righteousness. Jesus himself called people to change things about their lives–to walk in his way. This acknowledgement that not all things in their lives were as they should be was not an act of hatred but an act of love. He, more than anyone else, could and can see what people could be if sin were completely stripped away, and he hates the sin for what it does to the people he loves.

And this is what I wrote in response:

While it has been used against LGBT persons like myself, I still think the phrase has value because, well, it’s what God call us to do. We are to love one another, but that doesn’t mean we ignore sin- I think we have to be able to lovingly hold each other accountable. Too much of our culture has become about self-esteem (which has found its way into religion) and not about how we can lift each other up to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

Like I said in my response, I do think the practice has been misused.  And yet, the idea has some value.  As Trevor noted, Jesus did call people to righteousness as much as he reached out to sinners.  While I don’t think being gay is a sin, I am a sinner and I do think God calls me to repentance, not for being gay but for missing the mark of what God wants for me.

Is there a way we can hold each other accountable and yet not be judgmental and condescending?  I’d like to think so, but how do we practice that?  Christian Piatt is correct to bring up that Jesus told folks not to worry about the splinter in our neighbor’s eyes and ignore the plank in our own.  But does that mean we never to talk about what might be going on in another person’s life?  What did Jesus mean when he said this?  When is it right to “butt in” and when is it right to stay out?

As you can see, I am not totally settled either way on this.  What are your thoughts?

A Table, A Cross, An Elephant and a Donkey

Christ of the Polls by Stushie.

There was a time in my life when I really loved talking about politics. I come from a family where my mother talked about politics constantly and still does.

But these days, I don’t enjoy politics as much as I used to. I still enjoy and I still blog about politics, but something has changed over the years, at least within me.

I think I know why. It’s that people take politics way to seriously. So seriously, that we don’t know how to be friends with those we might disagree with. The 2008 bestseller, The Big Sort goes into detail how we have become a nation that has segregated itself into ideological ghettos where we never encounter those who might have a different political outlook than others.

While the larger story of how society has sorted itself is disturbing, what’s even more troubling to me is how Christians have segregated themselves into like-minded groups. Evangelicals started first, with their flirtations with the Republican Party and in more recent years, Mainline Protestants have become more explicit in their support of Democrats. This new segregation has made it very easy for Christians to be nasty to others. Since I’m a Republican that is a pastor in a Mainline denomination, I’ve seen how my fellow clergy, who can preach tolerance until the cows come home can say some of the worst things about Republicans.

I tend to think that it has to be the same thing only in reverse in evangelical circles. Either way, the idea is that the other side is filled with horrible people who run over dogs and cats and take candies from babies. While all of this postering and fearmongering makes each team feel better, I wonder what its doing to the Body of Christ. Both liberal and conservative Christians think they are doin’ the Lord’s work; standing up for family values or caring for the poor. But frankly, I don’t think either side is doing a lot to further the cause of Jesus, they are just whoring themselves for their masters.

I can’t say anything about what happens in evangelical circles, but I can speak to my own tribe and I have this to say. Stop it. Just stop it. I’m tired of all the political mudslinging in the name of Christ. You see, I am one of those horrible Republicans you talk about and the fact is, some of the people in your churches are Republicans too. You have the right to share your opinions, but remember that there are others who believe in the same God you do and have very different opinions on government and society. That doesn’t make them wrong, it just makes them different.

But this really has to be about more than partisan politics; it has to be about being the church- the Body of Christ. In my Disciples tradition, we place a lot of emphasis on the Table. It’s at the Lord’s Table that everyone is welcome and everyone is equal. Distinctions end when we come to God’s table. I tend to believe God isn’t asking for party affiliation when we come to have communion.

My Lutheran friends remind me that the Cross is also a great leveler. We are all sinners, all of us. We are all in need of grace and love. We are all damned by the cross, but it is also in the cross that we are saved and made whole.

So when we read or watch the latest “outrage” on Fox or MSNBC and you are ready to hit the “send” button and share your two cents on how bad the other party is, I want you to stop and think for a moment: how is this building up Christ’s body? How is it showing that we Christians are different? Do we really need to dress up our partisan leanings in God talk to make it look pretty? Can we find a way to remember the Table and Cross as much as we hold fast to Donkeys and Elephants?

“A Glimse of What Is Possible”

The word is getting around about SpringHouse Ministry Center (that’s the new name), the new building where First Christian is moving to and working with a UCC and a Lutheran congregation.  I’ve shared about how First Christian came to join this partnership and now here are some words from Geoffrey Black, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.  He was in Minnesota recently and toured SpringHouse.  This is what he had to say of this new venture:

What I saw was three Minneapolis churches that are about to move into one building and share life and ministry. They call the new building the SpringHouse Ministry Center. These churches are not merging—and that is an exciting element of their story. What they have decided to do is take the largest of their respective buildings and refit it. The building will now serve three congregations, thus reducing their aggregate carbon footprint. The new facility will provide each congregation with an accessible facility where they can live out their distinct identities while sharing in Christian formation, community and mission.

Lyndale United Church of Christ, Salem Lutheran (ELCA) and First Christian Church (DOC) are the churches that have come together to embark on a new life in the edifice that was once the sole home of Salem Lutheran. The building will now house three sanctuaries, classrooms, offices, community space and a full-service kitchen. One interesting feature of this arrangement is that the congregations will rotate their use of the sanctuaries, giving each the opportunity to experience the unique features of each worship space.

This is a good news story, and it may give us a glimpse of what is possible and what the future might look like for many churches. In this instance, the churches coming together have ecumenical ties since the UCC congregation has a full communion relationship with both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. While the Lutherans and the Disciples do not have this kind of relationship, I’m sure that this living arrangement will enable these two congregations to discover a way toward oneness that might be a gift to their respective denominations. Of course, the presence of the UCC in the SpringHouse might just be the ingredient that makes it all work.

I’m proud of the step of faith that First Christian has taken.  Actually, I’m excited that all three churches have decided to follow where the Spirit leads, which of course will be someplace pretty awesome.