Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pro-Life??? My @#$%^!

Speaking of Nicholas Kristof (see last post), I thought he had a great column today about a Phoenix Catholic hospital which was stripped of its Roman Catholic affiliation because it terminated the pregnancy of a woman who most certainly have died without it.  Also, the bishop in question excommunicated a nun who serves on the hospital's ethics commission.  Way to be pro-life!  Not!

Two quotes from the column are worth repeating--the first is by Kristof:

To me, this battle illuminates two rival religious approaches, within the Catholic church and any spiritual tradition. One approach focuses upon dogma, sanctity, rules and the punishment of sinners. The other exalts compassion for the needy and mercy for sinners — and, perhaps, above all, inclusiveness. 

The thought that keeps nagging at me is this: If you look at Bishop Olmsted and Sister Margaret as the protagonists in this battle, one of them truly seems to me to have emulated the life of Jesus. And it’s not the bishop, who has spent much of his adult life as a Vatican bureaucrat climbing the career ladder. It’s Sister Margaret, who like so many nuns has toiled for decades on behalf of the neediest and sickest among us. 

The second one is from Jamie L. Manson, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter:

"Though they will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying.”

The Consequences of Living in Fear

Back on January 9, I preached a sermon entitled "Will You Find Joy or Fear in 2011?"  I was preaching on Matthew 2:1-12--the story of the Magi coming to the child Jesus.  In it, I contrasted the joy the Magi experienced as they searched and found God with the fear Herod experienced (and all Jerusalem with him) when he felt threatened by the birth of a new king.  Living in fear results in violence-both emotional/spiritual as well as physical.

As an example, I shared about NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's thoughts about the motives of war criminals.  He described meeting warlords and soldiers responsible for committing atrocities such as rape, mutilation and murder on large scales, and he is always shocked at how nice and hospitable they usually are towards him as a guest and towards their own family or clan.  His hypothesis is that when people perceive a threat, especially in a group situation, they act on that fear and violence results, often in horrific ways.

The interview is well worth listening to--it's on the public radio program Being, formerly Speaking of Faith.

From Self-Preservation to Self-Sacrifice (Dialogue Column 1.25.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

            At First Christian Church’s Administrative Board Retreat ten days ago, I shared with our church leaders an article about the changing religious demographics of America by church historian Bill Leonard.  The article noted that one of the fastest growing segments of people listed in recent surveys of religious affiliation are people who claim “none”—now at 17% of the total American population in one survey.  Previously people might have claimed to be a Christian, Jew or an adherent of another religion even if they were not regular practitioners, but now it appears more socially acceptable to say “none.”  Among the “nones” may be atheists, agnostics or others who consider themselves “spiritual but not religions”, but even though their numbers are relatively small compared to adherents of Christianity, the fact that they are showing up in the numbers they are is significant. 
            Commentators credit this rise in “nones” to any of a number of factors: general societal immorality, hypocrisy and partisanship among institutionalized religions (especially Christianity), and the failure of churches to adjust their evangelism to the changing times, etc.  What I liked about the article I shared with the board was that it did not offer simple explanations for this dramatic societal trend, but rather it offered questions for churches to ask themselves. 
  • What is our most essential calling and how do we actualize it in our community?
  • What does it mean to turn from self-preservation to self-sacrifice as a community of faith?
  • What are the most pressing needs around us and how do we address them even if some people choose not to join us in that response?
  • Does our witness in a given community foster energy for or indifference to the dynamics of the gospel?
If a church such as ours wishes to reach out to an increasingly secular culture, these are questions worth considering.
The second question stuck out at me in regards to First Christian Church: What does it mean to turn from self-preservation to self-sacrifice as a community of faith?  I believe that the work our church did last year through the capital campaign to repair our historic building and remain downtown, the work we will have to do this year regarding church finances and stewardship, as well as the many new members who have joined our church will ultimately not amount to much unless we as a church figure out a way to move from a position of “self-preservation” to one of “self-sacrifice.”
            Since we claim to follow Jesus, sacrificial living should not be a surprise to us.  I must admit, however, that even though I am the minister of FCC, I would much rather shirk the responsibilities of self-sacrifice that come along with being a Christian.  I much prefer life to be convenient, easy and inexpensive; who doesn’t?  Yet, that kind of life is not the Christian life.  There is a reason we have a cross in our sanctuary after all.
            In the Letter of James, the writer offers striking words that declare “faith without works is dead.”  I do not believe James is arguing that we must earn our salvation or do enough good deeds to merit going to heaven.  Instead, I believe James is arguing that faith, if it is real, results in acts of service to others.  If we claim to follow Jesus, then we will learn ways to sacrificially give of ourselves to others.  Perhaps then we will have earned enough credibility in our increasingly secular culture for our message to be heard.
            I know that many of our members give of themselves sacrificially in all sorts of worthwhile ways in our community and I certainly do not want to diminish any of that good work.   I believe, however, that one’s church should be one of the main ways, if not the main way, a Christian carries out service to others.  At First Christian, we have a number of opportunities to serve our community: Open Door Food Kitchen, Royal Family Kids Camp and Faith in Action, etc.  (In fact, I invite you to attend Faith in Action’s annual meeting this Sunday to learn about ways to serve people in need.  FCC still needs someone to organize our church’s work with FIA.)  If we wish to be a vital church in our community, then our theology of justice and service must match our actions.  In addition to the ministries we currently participate in, we must develop new ones.  Our goal should be nothing less than all of First Christian’s members involved in service to others; otherwise we may have to start checking “none” on the next religion survey that comes our way.

Grace and Peace,

Everybody On Board? (Dialogue Column 1.18.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.)

This past Sunday afternoon, I was privileged to gather with the members of FCC’s Administrative Board at the lovely home of the Tushaus family.  This group of church leaders is a wonderful mix of long-term and new members—half of the board is made up of members who have joined the church in the last four years!  I’ve said it before that a strength of this church is its willingness to integrate new members into leadership instead of rigidly holding on to control for control’s sake.  This new board had a great discussion about the current state of our church and where we hope to see it move in the future.  I want to share some of what was discussed with the larger congregation, so that as we move forward, we do so together. 
There is a common understanding by board members that we face some difficult challenges as a church, but thankfully we are not without resources.  The number of active members of FCC has decreased steadily over many decades, although the addition of new members in recent years has slowed that decline.  Perhaps the negative effects of this decline are felt most acutely in the current state of church finances.  If it were not for the income earned from the church endowment (funds left to the church in the estates of deceased church members), we would be in the position of cutting church staff and being unable to maintain our historic building.  Giving to the annual church budget continues to decline as we lose older members to illness and death, and thus far, giving by new members has not made up for that loss.  In addition to finances, the board also discussed the difficulties involved with maintaining a large historic building and remaining downtown.
(Before I go any further, let me reassure folks that there was absolutely no discussion of leaving our current building and location.  The minister and the board are both committed to providing on-going ministry where we are now.)
Despite these challenges, as I mentioned above, First Christian is not without resources.  Instead of focusing discussion upon what we don’t have, the board chose to take time listing our church’s assets.  The board drew up the following list of FCC assets: 
  • God is with us,
  •  we are a welcoming congregation,
  • we have an open-minded theology,
  • we value freedom of thought/belief,
  • we practice open communion,
  •  we are an “Open and Affirming” church,
  • we have a talented minister and staff,
  • we have a beautiful building that includes a kitchen facility, social room stage and recent capital improvements,
  • we have an endowment,
  • we have a traditional style of worship that is reverent but not stuffy,
  • we have vital outreach ministries like Royal Family Kids Camp, Open Door Food Kitchen, Fall Fun at First, etc.,
  • we have a strong choir and talented musicians,
  • we have lots of new members whom we welcome into leadership,
  • we have many prospects for new members,
  •  we have long-term members who remain committed to the church, and the number of children in the church has grown significantly in recent years. 
After listing our church’s assets, the board talked about concrete ways they will work to make use of these assets to address the current challenges of our church.  I am pleased to say that the board was in unanimous agreement that we must not fall into the trap of making our focus one of self-preservation.  Once that inward turn has been made, a church has lost its vision and its true identity.  Instead, our focus should be upon self-sacrifice: i.e. how can we give of ourselves as a community of faith to a city and world that needs what we have to offer?  As our church leaders seek to answer that question this year, I hope our entire church will support them in prayer and action.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, January 7, 2011

What is really "anti-Christian?"

I enjoy the writing of Candace Chewell-Hodge and this week she takes on the right-wing Christians who feel victimized by any effort to advance the rights of LGBT people or allow for religious pluralism.  She offers in turn a list of what in her opinion is really "anti-Christian."

Sales Tax Hurts the Poor

Earlier this week, FCC member Keith Evans had a great letter to the editor regarding the movement in Missouri to abolish an income tax and put an increased sales tax in its place.  He argues well that such a sales tax disproportionally hurts the poorest among us, because they spend a greater amount of their income on basic necessities than do people with higher income.  The less income you have the greater percentage of your income is spent each year, resulting in those who can afford it least being hurt the most.  Thanks Keith!

When Santas Attack

On Sunday, December 26 I preached on Matthew 2:13-23 which tells of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem by the troops of Herod.  The point of my sermon was that we humans are capable of great evils and we can't seem to help ourselves from distorting even the most beautiful things--Christmas, in my opinion, not the materialistic orgy of consumerism of our culture, but the self-giving of God provides us a way out of this cycle of conflict and violence.

I began the sermon sharing the story of a group of "real bearded Santas"--men who work as Santa Claus at department stores and other events each year and who have real beards--that degenerated into a nasty struggle for power and control.  I got that story from one of my favorite weekly pleasures--This American Life--which told the story in a recent episode.  As soon as I heard it, I thought, "I'm going to work this into a sermon somehow."  I feel quite sure that I did not do the story justice, so I highly recommend listening to it yourself.  For me, it is illustrative of how we humans can take even the most beautiful things and twist them into a cause for spiritual, emotional and physical violence.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reconciliation is the Ministry of the Church (Dialogue Column 1.4.10)

The word “reconcile” can be defined as “to bring into harmony” or “to settle differences” or “to make compatible.” In his second letter to the first century Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, Paul the apostle explained that through Christ humanity is reconciled (brought into harmony, made compatible or has settled its differences) with God. In turn, followers of Jesus have been entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation.”  He writes:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has be-come new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.

Throughout its history, the Church has been a means for God to reconcile humans alienated from God through their own selfish and destructive actions. Of course, often Christians have seen themselves not as tools to be used by God in this activity of grace but rather as the gatekeepers to God’s grace. Thus, the Church has abused a power never granted to it by God in the first place. This misunderstanding of its own role has left a swath of physi-cal, emotional and spiritual violence to stand alongside and often overshadow the works of healing, justice and rec-onciliation done by the Church.

In our time and place, Christians in America have engaged in many actions (and inactions) that have left many alienated from God. It is a sad irony that the community of believers charged with helping people to be recon-ciled to God is so often the cause of that alienation in the first place. The Church and the people who make it up are experienced as judgmental, exclusive, partisan and hypocritical. Whether it is silence in the face of sexual abuse, rampant pursuit of material wealth, hostility towards the advances in science and learning, condemnation of gay and lesbian people, serving as the proxy of politicians or a host of other sins, both churches in particular and the Church in general are seen as at best out of step and at worst criminally corrupt. As if human sinfulness is not enough in itself to lead people away from God’s love, the Church has driven many people away from God who otherwise would have been open to God.

The sad state of American Christendom in the face of hurting and alienated humanity breaks my heart. It is ultimately why I finally gave in and became a minister. It is also why I chose to accept First Christian Church’s call to be its minister. I felt like I could no longer sit on the sidelines complaining how awful the Church was; I had to see if I could do my part to help a church—just one church!—live up to its supposed beliefs. I felt like I could do that kind of work at this church, because there were people here who felt the same way. In my four years here, there have been times I’ve been disappointed, just as there have been times I have disappointed others. Yet, I am proud of the many times FCC St. Joseph has lived out its calling to be a tool for God to use in reconciling people to their Creator.

In the last few weeks, I learned of two cases worth sharing where FCC St. Joseph participated in the ministry of reconciliation. First, a family member of a faithful FCC member was in town for the holidays and came one Sun-day. He had rarely been to a church service since he was a teenager, having long ago thrown off the restrictive and harsh religion of his childhood. He shared later that when it came time for communion he was looking for an “out.” Perhaps he couldn’t partake of communion because he was not a member (nope—anyone can), because he didn’t believe certain tenets of the faith (nope-anyone can), because he didn’t agree with most Christians on certain social issues (nope—anyone can), etc. etc. He joked that the bread and cup was even delivered to his seat! He had finally found a church where he could in good conscience take communion, and I’m delighted to say that he did so—his first time in 40 years!

Second, I learned of a woman who attended our Christmas Eve service. Throughout her life, she had experi-enced only the judgment of the Church. As a lesbian, she had only known Christians as condemning and hostile. Despite having sworn she would never attend a church service, she came on Christmas Eve with friends and felt wel-come and loved. It was the first Christmas Eve service she had ever attended in her life.
These are only two examples of people in need of reconciliation with the Church and with God. How many more are out there? This is the work we are called to do as First Christian Church of St. Joseph, MO.

Grace and Peace,