Here Comes Trouble!

After several sermons in a row in which I challenged the congregation, I was ready for a lighter sermon last week. It was not to be. Through Luke 12: 49-56, the Holy Spirit seemed to push me to address white privilege with even more vigor than I had just after the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Click below to hear the words that crossed my lips.

If you prefer, download the file here or read the prepared (not delivered) text of the sermon below.

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Where does Jesus get off? Where does he get off calling us hypocrites? It’s not like he’s Mister Perfectly Consistent!

First, we get all this lovey-dovey “love your neighbor as yourself” crap and then he starts into this “I’ve come to divide.” Then he has the gall to call us hypocrites!

If he wanted trouble, he’s got it. Consider:

The prince of peace that we were so excited about at Christmas is all grown up but something must’ve gone wrong because he says,

 “I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49 CEB)

Oh, yeah. That’s peaceful! That’s kind. That’s loving. Mister Consistent Peace-man wishes the earth was blazing in fire.

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled! (Hark, the Herald Angels Sing)

 Reconciled? Reconciliation? Then why does the all-grown up Jesus say:

 “Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53 CEB)

That. That doesn’t sound like reconciliation to me.

<SIGH>

I don’t mean to diss Mary. She was a cool enough Mom. She was young and I’m sure she did her best.

And from what we can tell Joseph — who by the way didn’t even have to be there — it wasn’t his kid — did the best he could. He took that poor fatherless child in, raised him as his own.

But sometimes, no matter what you do your kid makes some serious wrong turns. Your child doesn’t turn out like you expected.

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord. (O Come, All Ye Faithful)

I was right there with y’all last Christmas. I was right there adoring the baby as he slept in heavenly peace. But I’m done.

I’m done with this savior gone wrong.

I suppose I’d feel more empathy for adult Jesus if he was trying to be a peacemaker. He’s unapologetic about how he’s turned out.

He seems, well, almost like he’s proud of being a troublemaker. Did you hear what he said? This cocky, unapologetic Jesus says,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division.” (Luke 12:51 CEB)

***

[PAUSE]

On its face, today’s gospel reading from Luke seems extremely inconsistent with everything we know about Jesus from our holy scriptures. But what Jesus is really saying is not that he wants division but that — as a result of his ministry — “Here comes trouble!”

Writes scholar Audrey West,

…It is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parents, or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes engendered by Christ’s work. (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13026)

In other words people may resist. People may divide themselves.

In the modern church, we’ve forgotten that to follow Jesus means that things will get stirred up. But we like the status quo and the status quo doesn’t like to be bothered. The status quo defines peace as, well, as things staying the same.

In the modern church of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we want things to be happy. We want peace without conflict. We want joy without pain.

We want growth without growing pains.

But as scholar Richard Carlson writes,

“Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed. Such social realities and values have a propensity to seek a harmony that favors those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless and expendable. Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)

***

Let me tell you a story. This is a human story. It takes place within the democratic education community in the United States but it is happening within other groups in other places as well including churches. This is a story among the folks at the US version of the international conference at which I recently spent a week.

About four-years ago I noticed that the old-guard, the folks who I affectionately called “old hippies” were feeling threatened by the younger teachers and leaders coming up within democratic education.

At the annual conference, which, incidentally, my son incidentally, a young African American man from Chicago, Matthew, was the keynote speaker. Some folks got very upset when Matthew suggested in his keynote talk that many democratic education schools were elitist in the sense that not just anyone could attend.

“Well, we don’t keep anyone out!” was the protest.

“Yes, you do,” Matthew replied. “Those of you who are private schools keep most brown and black people out because of money.

You need to do more if you want to be truly democratic.”

His point? Democratic education is not accessible to all. It is not democratic in its availability.  It is largely a white, upper middle-class phenomenon. When those who support democratic education abandon the public schools to create their own system, they are abandoning the poor, people of color, and other marginalized children.

A big brouhaha broke out in the ballroom with folks lining up for their turn to speak at the mic. I would summarize the message of many of the “old hippies” this way:  “I’m not a racist.”

Matthew could have described his role at the conference in the words of Jesus:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. (Luke 12:51 CEB)

Matthew challenged the systems of racism that allowed many white, middle class children to participate in democratic education while brown and black children were left behind in public schools.

He suggested that the well-intentioned “old hippies” were part of the problem when they abandoned the public schools.

[pause]

The trouble with racism is, it’s not just about personal racism. It is about a culture that privileges some people over other people.

I consider myself a fairly enlightened guy but I have benefited because of the color of my skin. You have as well. You didn’t ask for it. I didn’t ask for it. We didn’t ask for that privilege but it’s real.

This is the kind of thing — though not specifically racism — that Jesus is talking about in today’s reading when he calls the people hypocrites. I think Jesus might have been feeling a little frustrated at the willful ignorance of the people.

Jesus also said to the crowds,

“When you see a cloud forming in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain.’ And indeed it does. And when a south wind blows, you say, ‘A heat wave is coming.’ And it does. Luke 12:54-55 CEB

I can imagine people listening shaking their heads saying to themselves,

“Yeah, we can tell when a storm is coming in.” Then, as they’re shaking their heads feeling pretty good about themselves, Jesus shouts:

“Hypocrites!” (Luke 12:56a CEB)

Are you blind to what else is going on? If he was talking to us he might say, do you not see that a few powerful people control the economics of this country?

Do you not see that brown and black people do not share in the privileges that you have? Even those of you who are less well off have advantages not afforded most brown and black people?

For those of us who are white and those of us who are relatively well off — some in this room do struggle financially by the way — but as long as we’re white, we can ignore the problems of race and class in this country and world.

We can take the easy path and ignore what the racial profiling of people means. We can ignore what Hal, an African American man who works in a state level job in Vermont told me. Hal told me that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has the resonance of a Challenger explosion or the Newtown shooting within the African American community.

Within that community it is another example of the dehumanization of their young men. It is another example of our culture considering their children as expendable.

And in Condon and other white communities across the nation we had our opinions about it. We may have even talked about it for a week or so but then we began the “forgetting about it” process.

We looked the other way and suggested it was an aberration, a tragedy that doesn’t happen every day.

Unfortunately, it does.

Unfortunately, while we’re looking at the sky, interpreting dark clouds as meaning rain is on its way, we fail to interpret other signs around us.

According to Bible scholar David Schlafer, our ancient kindred, those Jesus was talking to, failed to take responsibility,

“for learning from the rich and readily available tradition of Law and Prophets that would enable them to identify commonwealth resource mismanagement  — what we’d call economic injustice — and its inevitable negative repercussions in God’s economy.” (FOTW, Year C, Vol. 3, location #13138)

We fail to take the responsibility to learn from social science, from our history, from a little ol’ thing called the Bible, and from the experiences of our contemporary sisters and brothers.

We fail to learn about and work to eradicate the racial, economic, and class injustices in our country and world.

In terms of race, we say we want Martin Luther King’s dream but we don’t know what to do or…OR…we’re not willing to do the hard work it will take to finally reach it.

And, so, like those Jesus calls hypocrites, we know how to interpret weather conditions but somehow we’re oblivious to racial and economic injustice.

We are the twenty-first century version of the hypocrites Jesus is calling out in the twelfth chapter of Luke.

***

The Good News is God created each of us as growing and learning human beings. The Divine’s loving, creative power does not give up on us. We have a choice.

The extravagant and relentless love that overcame death at the cross, forgives us and keeps calling to us to be a part of the unfolding realm of God on earth.

The unfolding realm of God’s abundant, beloved community is an expanding circle of burning love for one another.

The Good News is that the fire Jesus came to cast upon the earth has begun to burn within our hearts.

It is a fire that cleanses without incinerating, and drives us to be God’s loving hands and feet of justice in a wounded world. It is a fire that will unite the oppressed, the marginalized, and even the oppressors together as one human family.

May we be the people God created us to be. May we actively listen to God and expand the circle of love and justice outward until all are truly welcome in this place.

May we give up hypocrisy, pull our heads out of the sand, for the good of others.

Amen.

Careful What You Wish For

A woman I know likes to characterize us this way: “We play well with others.” Like me, a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), she emphasizes the denomination’s ethos of ecumenism [1 See note below]. Disciples have been at the forefront of the movement for church wholeness throughout its history.

This, despite two Restoration movement splits which resulted in three streams of the Stone-Campbell movement [2]. Initially growing as one at its inception on the American frontier, a primary difference between Disciples and the other two streams is our work with other church bodies (e.g.; Methodists, Catholics, etc.) wherever possible. Disciples tend to interpret the Restoration principle that “We are Christians only but not the only Christians” as a mandate for ecumenism.

Juxtapose this with the Disciples’ traditional laments that,

  1. We have an identity problem.
  2. Disciples who move from one community to another often change denomination becoming Baptists, Presbyterians, or UCCers.

While I recognize that some of these laments are shared by other Christian denominations, as a multigenerational Disciple, I wonder. Why should we be surprised – or disturbed – that folks who relocate do not necessarily end up in another Disciple church? Do we or do we not believe that “We are Christians only but not the only Christians”? Perhaps, our ecumenism and work for wholeness of the church has been at least partially successful. Maybe the Holy Spirit moves in the world, nudging you, encouraging me, and whispering in someone else’s ear that denominations need to fall?

Careful what you wish for, you might find it coming to pass.

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[1] Ecumenism refers to cooperation and collaboration within Christianity. Ecumenism is sometimes confused with interfaith, which refers to cooperation and collaboration between faiths. For example, a Thanksgiving service  conducted by Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Disciples is an ecumenical gathering. If Reformed Jews and Buddhists joined the Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Disciples at the same Thanksgiving service, it would be interfaith rather than ecumenical. At an ecumenical service it is appropriate to pray “In the Name of Jesus Christ”. This would not be appropriate at an interfaith service.

New friends, now friends, & old friends

The family reunion continued today as I greeted, hugged, and talked with long-time friends, friends I see at home, and I met new friends. One of the old friends I greeted, Kathryn, was accompanied by a new friend, Elizabeth. Kathryn spent a year with me at LTS in several of my classes. Elizabeth and I discovered that she knows my son. Other new friends include one of the regional ministers in Oregon where I will be living soon. Friends I see at home included a family from my church in Wheeling. At times I felt conflicted and overloaded as texts, phone calls, chance meetings, and hugs competed with one another for my attention. You know? That’s a great and joyous kind of overload to experience.

There is joy when friends reunite to be strengthened, challenged, and renewed for striving for God’s Realm (kingdom) of Belovedness.

Location:Brick Church Pike,Nashville,United States

Ahem, friends, we don’t own Jesus…we FOLLOW Jesus

The second day of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) ended, at least for me, with a powerful worship service. Holly McKissick’s preaching inspired, confirmed, and reinvigorated. She reminded folks that we are in the business of following Jesus. We do not own Jesus.

How do we “own” Jesus? We own Jesus when we imply that our understanding of his life is the only correct understanding. We own Jesus when we define Jesus’ message of love as one about insiders and outsiders. You’re on the inside when you adhere to narrow definitions of behaviors and beliefs. You’re on the outside when you don’t fit my standards.

We “follow” Jesus when we live our faith, striving to live a life of servanthood to all God’s people. We follow Jesus when we reach out in love to those like us AND those unlike us. We follow Jesus when justice, when the well being of the least of these, takes priority over our own comfort. We follow Jesus when we choose to err on the side of love and charity.

Location:Brick Church Pike,Nashville,United States

Family Reunion

We’ve arrived in Nashville for Disciples every two year family reunion. It was literally a family reunion as we met up with my dad. He traveled from St. Louis today. Next we met up with Rev. Judy Bennett and her husband Fritz from Wheeling. The five of us had a pleasant evening meal talking about strengths and failings of the church. Good conversation, tasty food, and laughter are a pretty good way to begin the Disciples’ family reunion. More to come in the next few days as we learn, laugh, and worship.

Location:Brick Church Pike,Nashville,United States

Reflection: A Preamble & A Ministry

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of the American frontier in an era in which the suspicion of institutions was growing. In that respect, it is not unlike our current era. As people of faith our founders were suspicious of creeds that served as tests of faith. This rejection of tests of faith is a critical ingredient of our identity as a unique part of the body of believers and followers of Jesus. It is typical for Disciples to joyously share pews with others who have come to different conclusions about some specifics of the faith. We are stronger because of this divergence of opinions. We are a people living into a recognition that we need all parts of the Body of Christ.

As a lifelong Disciple, I approach even the Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church with suspicion that it may be a little too creedal. Yet, it is an accurate statement of what Disciples believe in common. As I reflect on the different parts of the Preamble and how they inform my ministry, please know that these are my thoughts and not necessarily representative of all Disciples of Christ.

Reflecting
 
The Preamble begins with a confession. This is significant not only in content but in form. We have all failed to live fully into the people God dreams we can be. I confess to God and to humanity that I have failed to live into that dream. I am too self-focused, too frightened, and too controlling to trust the Divine as fully as I am called. It is only through grace (undeserved forgiveness) that I am the recipient of God’s extravagant, unconditional love.
It is through Jesus that I, along with other Disciples, find the living God. For me, the image of a living God is the One who is active in the world, nudging us and luring us on the path toward the Kingdom. As our United Church of Christ sisters and brothers remind us God is Still Speaking. The living God feels our joys, our sorrows, and our frustrations deeply. 
It is the living God who cajoles me, pushes me, and lures me toward ordained ministry. It is the living God who demands of me that I share the joy, the contentment, and the restlessness for justice in witness and service to humanity. As the form of my ministry evolves, the profound pain, the deep woundedness of my fellow human beings demands that I express the living God’s extravagant love. This begins with confessing sins. I am called to confess personal sins, sins of my ancestors, sins of the Church, and sins of my generation. 
 
        Confession of sins is but the first step. The Creator’s covenant of love binds my ministry to others. I am not only bound to my fellow Disciples, or even just to fellow Christians, God’s covenant of love binds me to all of God’s Creation. I am bound to all of humanity, to the whole people of God. My call to ministry is bound to all who seek the Divine, by whatever name they call the Divine. My ministry is to those whose lives have been particularly severed by sin. (Sin is that which separates us from God and from one another.) The sin that separates them from the Divine and from others may be their own sin. The sin that severs may be my sin, it may be someone else’s sin, or it may be the systemic sin in which we all are entangled.
For Disciples, it is through baptism into Christ that we find newness, a life of re-presenting the Kingdom. It is as a follower of Jesus that my ministry finds Divine guidance and offers a glimpse of God’s emerging realm.  Yet, I acknowledge that human flaws require the saving acts of Christ. I am not alone. I am joined together with other Disciples, with other Christians in the universal church, and with others following different paths provided by the Divine One. Within the communion of the Holy Spirit I am joined by the whole people of God to bring healing, to bring a glimpse of God’s realm.
 
As I seek to yield myself to God, I perceive a special calling to those who have been wounded by the Church and to those who have never known or felt the abundant love of the One. As a follower of Jesus, my ministry, when true to the Holy Spirit’s prodding and coaxing is a witness and service to the whole people of God. As a follower of Jesus my ministry, when true to God’s abundant, unconditional love provides a glimpse of God’s healing of a fragmented world and what God dreams we will become.
Blessing, glory, and honor
   be to God forever. Amen.