Monday, July 30, 2012

Politics & the Church

It's unsurprising to most who know me that I am thoroughly engaged with the necessary interaction between faith and politics.  Since so much of our lives are controlled by legislation, policies, and social pressure, it seems natural to me for faith to play a major role in determining our political decisions and the way we use the power which has been given to us.  The danger for me, and probably each of us, is that I feel called to be an advocate on a select few issues which makes me sound like a broken record.  I could go into the issues that drive my advocacy, but I think I'll leave that for another day (at least in this venue).

Let's start with the "what".  The "what" of politics, and specifically advocacy, is Power.  Most of us have a vague, innate sense of what power is.  That's fine, but I want to be clear on what I mean when I use the word "power" in this discussion.  Power is the ability to act.  Power can be used over someone, which is usually an abuse.  Power can be used for someone, which is often charitable but can also be used as a controlling mechanism.  An unpolished (and therefore unpublished) entry for this blog talks about charity, when we give what we choose to give and walk away.  It could be spare change, or it could be a great sacrifice, but charity is almost always a short-term engagement; charity is a means of giving without serving.  The power for which I hope we strive is power with someone.  Power with someone requires a relationship, learning stories and contexts, sometimes giving what is asked and sometimes giving something different as discerned through the relationship.  Becoming a servant requires knowing the one being served well enough to anticipate needs and begin acting before the request is made.  Power with someone means staying in dialogue and continuing to discern needs as relationships grow and change.

The "who" of politics, in short, is "me".  Yes, it's "me" the author, but more accurately and more usefully, it's "me" the person who is reading.  I could say it's you, but in order to facilitate your thinking about yourself as an agent (more on that soon), I want you to say (out loud, if you dare), "The person involved in politics is me!"  I hope this isn't news for you, but if it is, welcome to the arena.  An "agent" is a person who acts.  Clearly, if you are acting, then you have the power to act.  What power do you have?  Well, I can't fathom the variety of people who might read this, so I'll use myself as example and hope you can do the same work to understand your own power.  The following list is neither exhaustive nor humble, but it is, I hope, an honest evaluation of qualities which give me power in my societal context, whether we like it or not.
  • white
  • male
  • middle class
  • American
  • well-educated
  • Protestant Christian
  • clergy
  • straight
  • married
  • a parent
  • outspoken
  • employed
  • homeowner
  • tech-savvy
  • relatively young
  • able-bodied
  • physically large / strong / tall-ish
  • alive
  • human
And these are just the ones I managed to spout off the top of my head in a few minutes.  You might find the last two a bit silly, but they are both true and important to the point I'm making.  What I hope you noticed is that about half of these qualities are items over which I have no control, and I would argue that even more of them were not presented to me as options despite my actually having control (religious denomination and education among them [and sexual orientation NOT among them]).  I have been given power by my existence, and so have you.  The amount of power and the factors contributing to it may vary, and the degree to which it can be safely exercised definitely varies depending on context, but everyone has power and choice and agency.

Some of the questions are easy to answer: When? Now, of course!  Power is only effective when exercised over time; every moment I wait to act is a moment my power does not benefit anyone, or worse, a moment my power diminishes to no effect.  Where?  Here, of course!  Our neighborhood is ever expanding thanks to myriad means of communication, and I endeavor to use every means possible to be an agent of change, but relationship (the means of power with) is best built where I have the most contact.  In my case, it's face-to-face conversation; for your context, the most useful "here" might be on Facebook or Xbox Live, over the radio waves, via semaphore flags, or in Morse code.  Wherever you build strong relationships, that is where you are being called to exercise your power with others.  How?  Civilly and lovingly and regularly.  Agents are called to act for the good of all, even when such acts might trade power for justice.  We cannot maintain all our power when some of it is given without cause and is maintained at the expense of others.

Which leads us to the most challenging question: why?  Put simply, because we must.  If you're not a person of faith, then the Golden Rule applies: treat others as you want to be treated.  If the tables were turned, and you found yourself without much agency, how would you hope those with power would work with you?  If you are a person of faith (speaking specifically of Christians here), how can you not exercise your power in the political realm?  You have been given power by God.  You have been claimed by God.  You have been saved by grace from working tirelessly to achieve your own righteousness, and you have been given the faith which convinces you of this truth and allows you to avoid spinning your spiritual wheels ineffectually.  You are a beloved child of God, and the grateful response to which you are called is to love one another as you have been loved.  Jesus, God-with-us, made it possible for you to love your neighbor and used the performative language that you should "be not afraid".  You have been given power and freedom, and now you have been called to work with God to bring about the not-yet-fully-realized reign of God.  And after all, what is working toward someone's reign but being political?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Stepping Out in Faith

Having been the pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church (SSLC) for eight months and a week, I am starting to see a pattern emerging.  Whether it's my own personal pattern, or that of St. Stephen, or perhaps some synergy happening in our relationship, I don't know.  What I do know is this: we have been required on a number of occasions to step out in faith, out into unknown territory when the planning hasn't seemed quite to get us all the way.

The first occasion is what led me to become the pastor of SSLC.  Having agreed with the bishop to take part in the Delaware-Maryland Synod's first group ordination, the planning was already underway for the 18 September 2011 event.  My call sermon and the Congregation Meeting to elect me as pastor was scheduled for 28 August with three weeks to spare before the ordination service.  Hurricane Irene had other plans.  Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were without power on 28 August, the heat was pressing heavily on the region, and emergency resources were called in from all over the region to help those in need of medical attention and relief from the dangerous conditions.  SSLC decided to cancel worship for that Sunday.  The earliest the worship and vote could be rescheduled was three weeks later, 18 September.  The synod staff and I decided to trust in the Holy Spirit and move ahead with my name in the ordination service bulletin, confident that our patience with the process and the mutuality of excitement between the SSLC Congregation Council and me were promising of a positive vote.  We were not disappointed.  The worship went forward as planned (the second time), the vote took place and was overwhelmingly positive (I am told), and a mere three hours after receiving the good news, I was vested and processing into my service of ordination.  St. Stephen, the Delaware-Maryland Synod, and I had stepped out together in faith and been met by the uplifting presence of God.

Though other faith-stepping moments have happened between then and now, I want to highlight two events from this weekend which are the reason I decided to write this post.  The first was our first SSLC Community Flea Market and Bake Sale on Saturday.  On Sunday, when we had to make the call whether to go ahead or not, we only had a few tables (two?) booked for sellers, one of which was our bake sale table.  It wasn't promising, but efforts had been made at advertising, and I feared that canceling would have made any future prospects much more difficult to manifest.  So we moved forward.  We borrowed a giant canopy-tent from a member's employer, I spent two days knocking on neighborhood doors and distributing flyers, and we stepped up our promotion on Craig's List.  Much to our surprise, in just a couple days we had collected ten sellers.  And then an unexpected derecho swept through the region.  The tent was destroyed, power was lost to half a million customers in our area alone, and roads were blocked by fallen and broken trees in every direction.  The question was raised whether we ought to go ahead, and again we pressed on.  No one knows what would have happened without the challenges, but we raised $150 that day for our local food pantry (S.W.E.S.) and the ELCA Malaria Campaign, and we began our work to let the neighborhood know that we are a community resource for everyone, that they are invited to come and experience a relationship with God.  SSLC and the shoppers from our neighborhood stepped out together in faith and experienced an outpouring of generosity from God and our neighbors.

The next day was Sunday, and power was still out in the neighborhood.  We did not cancel worship this time, both because reaching all those who might make an effort to come for worship is unfeasible and because the Church is to be a resource to strengthen God's people, and when might we need strength more than when we are struggling?  To everyone's surprise, we had more than twenty people in worship that morning (about half our regular attendance in recent weeks).  God gathered us in the midst of this trial to share camaraderie and experience the soothing grace of God.  In the still, hot air of our Fellowship Hall, to the sound of an acoustic guitar and our rarely-played piano, lit by the mid-morning sun streaming through our high windows, and abbreviated from the printed bulletin on the fly, the faith community of St. Stephen Lutheran Church worshiped our Lord Jesus Christ in recognition of and gratitude for our many blessings which we all-too-often take for granted.  Sweating together and enjoying each other's company over a cup of water and the zucchini bread made from the first produce of our starter garden, we stepped out in faith and were overwhelmed with the endurance, perseverance, and dedication of our fellows in our beloved St. Stephen Lutheran Church.

The path is not yet straight, and the mountains are not yet plains, but God accompanies us every step of the way.  St. Stephen Lutheran Church is relearning endurance and trust in God's providence.  We pray for what we want, for the solutions as we see them, but we are being reminded that God answers prayer in the ways that we need to be upheld.  With God before us and behind us, above us and beneath, within and always beside, we will continue to trust that we can accomplish that which is given into our care.  We will build endurance as we take each next step, always stepping out in faith.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Paying Attention

One of my seminary professors said something which has stuck with me: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."  It's a difficult line to walk, anger.  I sometimes find myself getting angry when I don't know the whole story: when someone drives in a reckless fashion; when I hear an off-handed, careless comment; or when I see litter dropped within yards of a public waste bin.  But maybe that driver is a distracted father who has left work because his daughter was sent to the hospital after a fall at school.  Maybe that comment is an inside joke, a term of endearment between two longtime friends.  Maybe it's as simple as the waste bin having been ransacked by a squirrel.  There are many occasions when I have been angry, but better knowing the one at whom I was angry would have inspired compassion instead of anger.

But anger isn't always uncalled for.  Anger can be a totally appropriate and just reaction.  Saint Augustine of Hippo said, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."  Where war has raged for days and weeks and months and years and factions push against each other just to feel a fabricated sense of security.  Where mutilation of women is commonplace and used as a tool of oppression and fear.  Where people are judged and excluded because of their innate identity, facets they are unable to change.  Where the powerful use their resources (often borrowed or extorted) to settle grudges against those who question their authority or policies.  These are just a few examples, and the Spirit may be speaking to you differently about some of the things I consider to be unjust, but that's where community comes in.

God wants us to know each other and be a part of each others' lives; if we were all the same, there would be no reason to be in relationship!  Jesus is human because God wants to be in relationship with us in the same way that we are with everyone else.  Human relationships are of the utmost important to God, so much so that Jesus had all our vulnerabilities and surrendered to our desire to crucify him!  But Jesus was resurrected, and so shall we be.  Our relationships are eternal: with ourselves, with God, and with each other.

So patience is not enough where injustice is found.  We cannot simply ignore the horrible things that are happening to our neighbor (near or far).  We are in eternal relationship with other people, all God's creatures, and all of creation.  They will not simply forget their suffering, and we are freed by God's love to be justly angry at the injustices they experience.  As Saint Augustine wrote, our hope that God's love will reign everywhere should give us courage to speak out, to act on behalf of those being treated unjustly.  If only we would pay enough attention to the relationships with which God has blessed us, we would have no end of cause to love, to hope that God will make manifest the humanity for which Christ surrendered his life.  Are you paying attention?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Who do you say that I am?

I was reflecting last night during a long stretch of highway on Holy Week, sad that I would be missing the Maundy Thursday service this year.  I thought about liberation theology, some adherents of which find the center of their Christianity in Good Friday because their experience is one of oppression and suffering; they don't want to get to Easter yet because, frankly, it's not something with which they can relate at all. The same subject came up again in a conversation with my wife this afternoon, and we reminded each other that the foci of our motivations for being pastors – indeed, for being Christians – are totally different parts of the Gospel accounts, yet we come around to the same place with the same goals (and tensions between those goals).

The center of this discussions is this: how do you answer Jesus's question, "Who do you say that I am?"  Christians answer this question differently, as did the disciples.  Of course, Peter's answer, "You are the Christ," is highly praised by Jesus, but he is soon after chastised with "Get behind me, Satan!"  We are in the same boat (if you'll excuse the expression): we are totally in sync with Jesus one minute and totally headed in the wrong direction the next.  It's the brokenness we experience because of sin which makes walking with Jesus so difficult, but it's God's love which turns our heads again to look at our Lord.  But I digress...

If we're honest, we can think of one singular moment in the stories of Jesus's life that exemplifies the way we best associate with Jesus.  For me, it's in the darkness of Maundy Thursday at the garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus knows that the tide has turned from his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and that he will soon be taken prisoner.  He is tempted to take upon himself the godly powers which can save him, but that would betray the way he has lived his completely human life and the purpose of his ministry.  In his moment of weakness, Jesus pours his heart out to the Creator and begs for the strength to withstand what is coming, for the strength to be the man he wants to be in the face of terrible adversity.  Jesus is fully human and cannot do what he needs to do by himself; he needs the company of the Creator to stay resolute.  This moment is the center of my faith, why I know that Jesus is completely human and died a horribly painful death to display God's love for us.

Each person has a Gospel moment which is their "favorite," their own answer to the question, "Who do you say that I am?"  We know, of course, that Jesus is all of these things, that part of the reason God became human is so that we could better relate to our creator.  Our human experience and Jesus's human experience cross in lots of ways so that everyone could find some way to cling to that man and through him become familiar with God's love.  I would argue that our answer to Jesus's question doesn't particularly reveal a whole lot about who Jesus is, but rather that it reveals a great deal about who we are and how we view ourselves.  It's not for anyone else to say what our answer says about us, but it's certainly something to think about as we seek for a closer walk with God.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


In my WE! reflection, I mentioned in passing that the word "them" is one of the most destructive, divisive words we know.  Such a statement certainly deserves a bit more explanation.  Now, it is certainly true that without the plural third-person object pronoun, our language would be far more unwieldy; it's not this utilitarian use to which I'm referring.  Rather, I mean to minimize the objectifying use of the word "them" (and "they," by extension).

They say, "They're just words," but "they" never seem to have a face.  For instance, if I say the word "Muslim," I'm willing to bet you have a reaction.  These days, it's pretty hard to simply have an intellectual understanding of the word, namely, that it refers to an adherent of Islam, one of the three faiths claiming to have Abraham as its founder.  No, it's far more likely either that you know one or more Muslims or that they are a completely foreign group to you.  Now, I chose Muslims simply because they have been in the news lately, most notably in relation to the hearings called for by U.S. Rep. Peter King, but you could just as easily substitute any number of groups in any number of settings.  For instance, I feel like I sometimes need to defend Christianity in conversation; I've heard things like, "Don't they hate gay people?" and "They are so judgmental."  It only takes a small but incredibly loud minority to paint an inaccurate picture in the public's mind.

"Them" is the most whitewashed name a group can get, and it's an incredibly small cage for what is usually a vast diversity of individuals.  When you can manage to cram everyone into a cramped space like "them," it becomes much easier to slap labels on the group, to point "over there" and say "I am not like them."  It becomes much easier to say words like "extremist," "judgmental," and "hateful," but it is also tempting to point (perhaps at ourselves) and say "open-minded," "loving," or "peaceful."  There is danger in making any kind of general statement, and that danger is in losing perspective on the unique qualities of individuals, be they admired or feared.  Jesus turned over the tables of the temple's legal moneychangers and told the parable in which the master chastises the servant for safely burying his gold, but Jesus also defended the woman accused of adultery and promised the convicted thief that today he would join him in paradise.

One of the many things to be learned from the Gospel accounts of Jesus's life is that individual people deserve individual consideration, and each person needs to be loved in a unique way.  God loves you because God knows you, has been with you every moment of your life, and wants to be in a relationship with you.  Your relationship with God is different from every other relationship because you are not exactly like anyone else and God loves you in all your wondrous uniqueness!  Because we are already loved, we can turn our pointing fingers and arm's length barriers into welcoming embraces, making our "us" and "them" into a "we" where we get the privilege of knowing each other as siblings in God's diverse family.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


Hebrews 11.1,29–40

The shortest sermon I ever heard may have been the most formative, so it's worth repeating.  Ready?


Like many sermons, this one requires commentary.  "I!" is not a sermon, and it's not a particularly Christian word; in the eternal company of Christ, there can only be "we."  "Them" is also not a good sermon, and I submit that it might be one of the most destructive words we use.  Rather, the shortest possible sermon is "we," and it is defined by looking around us, for this specific "we" will never exist again.  Whether this group of individuals is ever gathered again is irrelevant, for we will have been exposed to new experiences which will have changed us; time changes who "we" is.

Moses changed his "we" from Egyptian royalty to Israelite slaves.  Joshua changed his "we" from apprenticing under Moses to leading the Hebrew people.  Rahab changed her "we" from servicing the citizenry of Jericho to a member of the nomadic Israelites (and consequently to a many-great grandmother of Jesus).  The writer of Hebrews then zips over the entire history of Israel, the ever-changing "we" which defines how the writer views himself and his audience, and it is full of outstanding successes and devastating suffering.  So it is with us, the "we" of the moment in which we find ourselves.  There are accomplishments to celebrate and pains to comfort; some are open and known to all, and some are secret and held tightly inside.  Like the Israelites, we have not fully received the promise: they the land of milk and honey, and we eternal life.  There is no peaceful land where the Israelites may stay and bask in God's unadulterated goodness, and we suffer the pains and losses of human life, knowing that death inevitably awaits us.  Fortunately, like the Israelites, we have the constant presence of a loving God in our travels, in our celebrations and in our commiserations, and we have yet another gift, the evidence of God's faithfulness to us in Christ, the proleptic* promise of eternal life which is to come.

Jesus defined "we" in an ever-present moment.  His "we" included Pharisees, prostitutes, and tax collectors; disciples and friends, family and strangers; Samaritans and Gentiles and Jews (and even Romans!).  Jesus promised paradise to a crucified thief and healed a soldier who was injured while taking him captive.  He even asked the Creator to forgive those who were crucifying him.  At every turn, in every Gospel story, Jesus is opening his arms to welcome a new member of his "WE."

We get to choose what to care about, and because we are gathered together here, I think I can safely say that we choose to care about our relationship with God.  God wants us to choose to care about things that help those who are in our "we" right now, be they Christian, Muslim, or atheist; immigrant, homeless, or next-door neighbor; parent, child, or spouse; old family friend or complete stranger.  God also wants us to choose to care about things that honor those who have come before us; here at Good Shepherd, you have the benefit of an archival wall of photos to remind you of who you have been.  God wants us to choose to care about things which pave the way for those who will come after.  Who do you hope "we" will be?  Who do you think Jesus would want "we" to become?

Like the Israelites, there's a lot to keep in mind as we think about where we have come from, who we choose to be now, and who we hope to become.  But we can take as our examples those who have been counted faithful in scripture and in our own lives.  With many celebrations and commiserations, though they had not yet received the fullness of the promise, they all had one thing in common: they moved forward, taking action in faith, for faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.

* Proleptic means "already, but not yet."  It's one of my favourite theological words about God's reign, and it's well worth knowing.  God has walked among us and surpassed death, but we still have to die in this life before we can experience resurrection life.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What is your Isaac?

Hebrews 11.1,8–22

Preaching this reflection was particularly challenging; it was my first non-occasional sermon in almost two years, and it was in a congregation which I had never visited in a corner of the state to which I had never been.  It was fairly off-the-cuff and hard to piece together again after the fact.  During the soup supper before worship, I got the chance to briefly talk with a few members about the church community and about their concerns for the world.  They helped to shape my reflection for the evening.

After a brief summary of my story, of my several cross-country journeys, I shared my perceived inadequacy to speak to the concerns of the community.  I shared some of the concerns I had gathered over dinner, including poverty; the growing tragedy in Japan and around the Pacific from the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis; and the growing population of people without homes in a nearby community.  Then I began to comment on the scripture.

It seems to me that this pericope focuses on the reality that living faithfully is about taking risks.  The Book of James tells us that true faith results in loving acts (or works); show me your works, the writer says, and I will show you your faith.  Jesus says something similar: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  In essence, act in ways that you know will please God, even when you might not want to, and your faith will grow (is concurrently growing?) to match your works.*  Abraham took huge risks, leaving behind his ancestral home based on God's promise, and taking his son, Isaac, up the mountain to sacrifice him.  Even though Isaac was the link between Abraham and the fulfillment of God's promise, God asked Abraham to kill him; in the end, Abraham didn't have to let go of his beloved son, but he was willing to do so to serve God's inscrutable purpose.

So, returning to the concerns I had gleaned from the congregation, I submitted that if it occurs to you to be concerned about a particular issue, then you may be called to assist in ministering to that cause.  So many feel inadequate to the monumental issues about which they feel concerned, but like Abraham, the equipment i gained along the way.  Isaac was born on the long journey to the promised homeland, and the sacrificial animal was gained on the mountaintop.  It could be argued that Isaac was Abraham's most precious belonging (not that people own people anymore, but that was the mindset at that time), and he was willing to give up what seemed like the fulfillment of a promise to be obedient.

So, what is YOUR Isaac?  Where are you called to go, and what precious things are you reluctant to give up to follow your call?  What gift from God do you cling to more than obedience to God?  I'm not suggesting that you have to give up the things that are precious to you, but are your priorities in order?  God gives to us in order that we might live an abundant life, but do you have an Isaac that blurs the line between abundant life and greed?  Set out to fulfill your call from God, and you will be given (and have already received some of) what you need for abundant life along the way.  For it is not sufficient to simply hope that things will get better; we need to take action in faith that God will use our works for godly purposes.  It is faith that makes our actions meaningful, because faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.

*Martin Luther would cringe.  He called James a book of straw, but it's hard to deny the truth of what the author is trying to say.