Monday, February 28, 2011

The God who does not multi-task: Sermon for the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany

So due to a rampaging illness that left my wife and oldest child incapacitated for a day, I had to stay home caring for them instead of being at church hanging out in the pulpit. In addition I was not feeling all too well myself, so I was not sure that I would not succumb to this intestinal disaster myself.

So I forwarded my mostly done sermon to my congregation's president and she passed it on to my lay assistant that day, who performed very well in reading it.

I am putting forward my sermon's text as it was read (read it here or in the box below).

The only thing I wish is that I had had more time to develop the notion at the end that Christ was not a multi-tasker, but remained singularly focused on God's desire. That is the good news after all, as we contemplate the Sermon on the Mount. That the demands of the sermon are based on the person giving them. The devotion he calls for is the devotion he lives. In our union with Christ in the waters of baptism, our old selves die so that the new self might be raised up and live in the power of Christ as he calls us.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Loyalty and the Facebook Effect

A colleague of mine who serves a campus ministry and I were having lunch one day, when he recounted the experience of two college students who went to a retreat for young adults considering the possibility of going to seminary. Both had had positive experiences, but there were two moments that had us both raise an eyebrow. Well, technically, only one experience had us raise an eyebrow. The other one was all too common for us even react to anymore. One of the attendees, a newcomer to the Lutheran family, had an opportunity to ask a theologian a question in a forum-type setting. No one had any questions so he finally put one forward. He asked about the right administration of sacraments and who might be excluded from the sacrament. Later in a small group, someone ranted about the guy who asked that question, without realizing that “the guy” was sitting in the small group. Anyway, the notion that some people might be excluded from the sacrament was offensive to the one, but this attitude is nothing new. “God loves everybody” is the defense. That is not in question, but deeper reflection about the nature of the community and our union with Christ in the waters of baptism and hence the nature of God’s love for us is required.

Anyway, the experience that got our conversation moving was when the other student merely inquired about the possibility of attending a non-Lutheran seminary. His experience was that he was given dagger stares from other participants. This puzzled the both of us. While we are great supporters of the Lutheran seminary system, we do think there are times when folks could attend other schools, either because they want more of an academic track or because of some other restriction. No problem (as long as they attend their Lutheran year at a Lutheran seminary, but this requirement is likely to sidetrack the following discussion so I will let it lie).

We puzzled over the strong loyalty shown to Lutheran seminaries. After all, everything we read about the millennial generation is that denomination loyalty is ebbing. Why this strong reaction? (I will grant that the reaction was only perceived and did not actually reflect the reality of the situation, but I trust this young man’s perception usually so I will trust him here.) My colleague wondered if the situation of the millennials was misread in some way or perhaps this is a subset of the generation that does not actually follow the general trend. I disagreed. I wondered if it was not something more akin to what I dubbed at the time a “Facebook effect.”

Loyalty passed down from a communal system is possibly of less value to millennials than a self-selected loyalty. The issue then is not that millennials are not loyal but are fiercely loyal to something of their own choosing, such as when folks hit the “Like” button on Facebook. Now on Facebook people can hit “Like” on a great number of things very easily so everything they like is not necessarily a fierce loyalty. However some of the things that people “Like” will be very close to their sense of identity. And as my pastoral care professor (at a Lutheran seminary no less) said, “the closer something is to our identity, the more emotional people are about it, the stronger the reaction toward it…” For a group of pre-seminary students making the choice to attend seminary would I imagine be close to one’s identity as it will be a defining mark of one’s service and formation for years to come.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Preaching and Being Called

In the February 8, 2011 issue of Christian Century, Wil Willimon wrote an insightful (as if he might write anything else) article, entitled "Voice Lessons", on preaching. He relates his experience of preaching and teaching others how to preach to the movie The King's Speech. The two situations are analogous. Willimon writes about the task that Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who help King George, is charged with.
Logue helped George to see that a nation desperately needed its king to say the right thing in the right way. We who are preachers speak because we have been enlisted, because no one else can say what must be said, because we are called to serve God through words.
The task Willimon reminds us is not to "speak what's on our heart" but to speak the Word of God. This task is where faith is built. Over the past seven years, week in week out, I have wrestled with this task of proclaiming the gospel. I preached in the pulpit. I left the pulpit. I had manuscripts. I went without them. I tried preaching somewhat didactically. I tried being more story-oriented. Now, after seven years, I find myself somewhere near where I started but not quite. I have returned to the pulpit. I have re-acquired the manuscript. I focus more on kerygmatic sermons. And I take the task more seriously, because I heard some blessed voices that challenged me to take the preaching task more seriously. Willimon's article is a blessed reminder for me still. Willimon writes:
We preachers speak not because we need to get something off our chests but because God wants to say something to God's people.... Left to my own devices, I might say what I'm really thinking--but the church could care less about what I'm thinking. The pressing question: "Is there any word from the Lord?"
It is a task that we preachers are called to. I routinely tell young adults who are considering serving in public ministry that there are times I know God called me because I never would have chosen it. Sometimes this comment is met with laughter, and it is funny, but it is also deadly serious. It is not without fear and trepidation sometimes that I climb up into my champagne flute pulpit. Or with butterflies in my stomach as I descend, because I recognize that something has happened. The Word of the Lord came to me... and the congregation I serve in that sermon. It is not a task I would routinely choose. I might choose to get up and tell stories and entertain. But this task is something else. To encounter the gospel and its connection to the world that my parishioners inhabit is something I am compelled by being called.

Willimon's article is a good reminder for all of us, lay and ordained alike, but mainly for those who are called to the task of preaching. To stand before a congregation and proclaim the Word is a gift given to us by God in which God is made known and present.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Lutheran Chronicle

I love that there are sites which serve as nothing other than compilations of blogs. I discovered a new one when I was looking through my stats. If you have a blog and don't have a blog counter that collects some stats, I would highly recommend it. I have used two and Both are free and help show where people are coming from.

And the other day I saw The Lutheran Chronicle pop up on my stats. I checked it out and it is fantastic. This compilation of blogs is very broad. Solid Lutheran blogs from across the Lutheran spectrum -- ELCA, LCMS, WELS and others-- are presented. Nice presentation of the blogs too. A regular updating of the blogs shows the masthead of each blog and the first few lines of each new post. The Lutheran Chronicle is easy to scan and read topics that interest you. If possible, each blogger is identified as to which family of Lutheranism it stems from. Some are not identifiable and so have no notation.

The Lutheran Chronicle is not just a feed of blogs though it has some other nice features, like Lutherans on Twitter and in its own words "the only single searchable database of WELS, ELCA, LCMC and LCMS churches in the United States." Being the only Lutheran church in our county, I am glad to see such a database.

I am convinced that while significant differences separate the various Lutheran branches, we could all spend some time reading what they have to say. It can only help us keep the Eighth Commandment, because I find much of what others have to say edifying whether I agree with them or not.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Power Failure Over at Lutheran Confessions (a review)

The best book reviews always seem to make me want to read the book being reviewed... or avoid it entirely. Sure I am trusting in the reviewer's sense. So the best reviews require that I have engaged in some sort of conversation with the reviewer and not just take swallow whole his or her word. This conversation is not always a direct face-to-face conversation. Reading the person's works for a while help, I think, give a sense of where he or she is coming from.

So I have a deep desire to pick up Power Failure by Albert Borgmann, which Clint Schneckloth reviews over at Lutheran Confessions. He has a great sense of Lutheran identity and theology. I trust his review because of the writing that I have read. Ironically, his writing and our subsequent conversation is done via the very medium that is being critiqued, the technology and subsequent manifestations of social media. But as he points out the technology is not to be rejected outright, nor overcome by a frontal assault to transform it, nor embraced without reserve. There is a call to develop practices around technology and social media. As a virtue ethicist, I am all for it. I want to read Borgmann's book. And I want to keep reading Clint's work too... including the second part of the review which is yet to come.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

What Is It About the Church and Sexual Malfeasance?

The folks over at Church Marketing Sucks tweeted a statistic, and linked to a blog that had the link to the full article, that claims an astounding percentage of laypeople in the United Methodist Church (UMC) have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or misconduct. The survey done by 6000 United Methodists claims the following.
  • Half of all laywomen and one-third of laymen witness or are victims of some degree of sexual harassment or misconduct in their congregations, from inappropriate comments by the pastor or laity in leadership to physical assault and stalking.
  • 77 percent of United Methodist clergywomen and 50 percent of clergymen say laity have violated their boundaries through unwanted sexual behavior or comment.
  • Half the people who make sexual misconduct complaints at the local church level say the pastor or laity in leadership routinely “trivialize” their concerns.
Now there is something that makes me wonder about how well a study that polls 6000 members truly reflects the approximately 8 million member UMC. In addition I have no details on how the study was carried out, nor have I seen the questions that were asked. Clearly there are issues that might be going on here that could invalidate the reliability of these numbers. And that would be a shame. For if these numbers are even remotely accurate, any discrediting of the study could harm the basic message: the Church harbors some severely messed up people and we all need to pay attention.

In light of the Roman Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, I have had numerous conversations with people who feel excessive pride in being protestants without all of the problems that the celibate priests cause. In fact, I tend to think that a number of people eye the priests as oddities before any sex abuse issues are spoken of because the notion of celibacy just seems so unnatural. Then when the sex abuse scandal breaks they feel vindicated because clearly these problems would not exist if the Roman Catholic church would just allow their priests to marry and have sex. But if the UMC study is right, the problem is NOT priestly celibacy. I have argued that looking within the general Protestant category, the percentage of those who harrass or abuse is likely the same as in the Roman Catholic church. Many scoff at my assertion. They point to the numbers of priests who were shown to be moved around and placed time and again in positions of trust.

In this case, I am thankful for such a hierarchy that maintains an adequate bureaucracy so that records exist. Many Protestant bodies have no hierarchy at all to which they are accountable. If a pastor abuses someone and feels the heat, he or she is free to pick up and move before anything comes up. Then of course the pressure from leaders in the congregation kicks in. Rather than seeking justice, they want to avoid shame or guilt and all the negative publicity that might come about because of it. So they try to sweep it under the rug or "trivialize" the incident or any myriad of ways of avoiding dealing with it.

After a person is harmed by a leader, rather than work through it like the body of Christ should, we too often burden the victim with questions of "What about grace?" or "Aren't you supposed to forgive?" Of course grace and forgiveness are important. But so is repentance and justice. The short term gain of avoiding the issue and keeping up the facade of everything being perfect will sooner or later make way for the long term loss of the witness for what kind of community we are.

I do hope the numbers in this UMC study are valid. Not because I want there to be that big of a problem. I want them to be valid so that our eyes are opened and we can begin to look at the beam in our own eyes. I want Christians to acknowledge the power of sin in the world and in our own churches and realize we participate in the system of brokenness just like every human being does. Don't think the devil only prowls around like a roaring lion over there, but be aware of the lions here in our midst.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer and Discipleship

As I was preparing for last Sunday's encounter with the Beatitudes, I read Hauerwas' commentary on Matthew. He drew so much from Bonhoeffer that I turned back to Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. I know I read it in seminary, but that was about ten years ago. I am reading it differently this time, or at least new things are popping out at me. Bonhoeffer's insistence on the Sermon being about the community called and gathered around Jesus is challenging and freeing for Jesus does not proscribe what we must be, he simply describes us.

Commenting about the upcoming gospel reading about the community being the salt of the earth, Bonhoeffer writes:
"Ye are the salt." Jesus does not say: "You must be the salt." It is not for the disciple to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they received. Again, it is: "Ye are the salt," not "Ye have the salt." By identifying the salt with the apostolic proclamation the Reformers robbed the saying of all its sting. No, the word speaks of their whole existence in so far as it is grounded anew in the call of Christ, that same existence which was the burden of the beatitudes. The call of Christ makes those who respond to it the salt of the earth in their total existence.

Of course, there is another possibility--the salt may lose its savour and cease to be salt at all. It just stops working. Then it is indeed good for nothing but to be thrown away. That is the peculiar quality of salt. Everything else needs to be seasoned with salt, but once the salt has lost its savour, it can never be salted again. Everything else can be saved by salt, however bad it has gone--only salt which loses its savour has no hope of recovery. That is the other side of the picture. That is the judgment which always hangs over the disciple community, whose mission it is to save the world, but which, if it ceases to live up to the mission is itself irretrievably lost. The call of Jesus Christ means either that we are the salt of the earth, or else we are annihilated; either we follow the call or we are crushed beneath it. There is no question of a second chance.
-Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1995 Touchstone Books, pp. 116-117

Challenging words for a tradition so hyper-sensitive to notions of works righteousness. Images that Bonhoeffer uses there at the end distress us. Given his situation when the established church accommodates itself to the prevailing culture and then ultimately gives in to Nazi control, whatever the disciples thought they were, by attaching themselves to something other than Christ, adhering to cultural and social mores, their salt had been leached out. They had become something other than salt.

But our saltiness is not supported by our own effort. If it is the call of Jesus that makes us salt, then the community gathered around Jesus will never lose its saltiness completely for Jesus sustains it. We must place our hope in Christ and trust in his preservation of us. Even in the midst of Nazi control, the Church never departed from Germany, the salt remained, giving us the witness of the Confessing Church. Some portion of the community remained to give witness to Jesus and therefore BE salt. Wherever Jesus is, his community will be, and there, we will taste salt.