Thursday, May 29, 2014

Summer Project: highlighting the revised common lectionary, part I

Inspired by a project that my friend Cara completed the summer after she graduated from seminary, I have decided to take an older Bible (from my freshman year religion class at College) and highlight all the passages that appear in the 3 year lectionary cycle.

Then I will make a note of what passages DO NOT appear in the lectionary.

What might we be missing?

By way of a basic primer, the revised common lectionary appears in a 3 year cycle. Year A (which is what we are currently in) has passages mostly from Matthew's Gospel.  Year B has passages mostly from Mark's Gospel.  Year C has passages from Luke's Gospel.  Readings from John's Gospel appear during the season of Easter and at other random times throughout the three year cycle.

There is another lectionary that is gaining some traction among clergy-types, it is called the Narrative Lectionary.  It comes out of Luther Seminary, and is intended to boost biblical literacy and tell more of the biblical story.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both lectionaries.  Perhaps I will explore the narrative lectionary at another date.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Holy Spirit is not your personal electric blanket…a sermon on John 14:15-21

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the resurrected and living Christ who will never leave us orphaned.  Amen
In today’s Gospel text we have Jesus sitting around with his disciples on a Thursday evening.  He knows that he will be crucified the following day, Good Friday, and he has spoken this painful truth to the disciples.  He has already foretold his betrayal by Judas and his denial by Peter. The weight of impending loss crushes all the air out of the upper room. This Gospel reading comes from a portion of John’s Gospel called the Farewell Discourse.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his death.  He says that the Spirit of truth will be with them, even after he is gone.
However, this text is not a systematic development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  It is a word of comfort spoken into a community that is already feeling crushed by grief. The word used in the Greek text for this Spirit of God is Paraclete, which translates to “advocate” or “one who stands alongside”, and has legal overtones, such as a advocate that stands beside you while you are being accused by a powerful judge. The disciples and other followers of Jesus were part of a marginalized group living in a time of imperial rule. The far more powerful Roman Empire perpetually put the Jews, and other disenfranchised groups, on trial.  The description of the spirit as an advocate would have provided tremendous comfort for those who were repeatedly stripped of their most basic rights.
All of this historical explanation is to frame this sense of communal liberation by the Spirit of truth. It is very easy for us to hear preaching about the Holy Spirit and immediately think of warm, personal feelings of security and comfort with God.  We want to think of the Holy Spirit as sort of our own personal electric blanket. We want to think that when we are feeling sad or distant from God, we can just turn on our access to the Holy Spirit and before we know it, we are warm and cozy and we feel better.
But that is not the Spirit that we hear about in today’s text. This spirit is not our therapist or best friend, this is a Spirit that comes in Love, but also comes with fire.  This spirit burns away all that is false in this world and leaves behind newly forged truth. This spirit exposes injustice and oppression and demands and orchestrates change out of pure love.  This spirit wants to burn away all that which keeps us from God, that is, sin and death. This Spirit is ANOTHER advocate.  Jesus himself is the first advocate, working in community, present and active in the world. Crossing the hurtful boundaries that we erect between ourselves and others, and building bridges of reconciliation.  This Spirit continues the liberating work of Christ.
We so often want to confine the Spirit to Pentecost.  It seems to be less messy that way.  None of this talking in tongues or being slain in the spirit business. The Spirit gets her one Sunday of the year, and then is put back into the box of church doctrine.  But aside from the unpleasantness and chaos that comes along with the Spirit, I suspect we might have an even deeper motive for containing the spirit.  The Spirit exposes the painful truths about ourselves that we wish would stay hidden. Because I fear that we as Americans are much more like the oppressors in the Roman empire than the oppressed. 
But we need to see what the Spirit reveals to us about ourselves. The work of Jesus, and indeed the work of the Advocate that comes after him, is to continually be forming and reforming the people of God.  To strike down the walls that we build to separate us from one another.  To liberate the oppressed from their oppressors.  To liberate the oppressors from themselves. To bring us all to new life in Christ.
At first reading, today’s Gospel text appears to be full of divisions.  The disciples receive the Spirit, but the world cannot.  The world will not see Jesus, but the disciples will continue to do so. There seems to be a group that is “in” with Jesus, and a group that is “out.”  But if we place this text into the whole of John’s Gospel, we understand that the world has been forever changed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  The world cannot simply remain “the world” after Jesus has been in it. For the world to receive the Spirit means that it is no longer simply “the world.” It is a place that has been changed by love.  It is God’s world.
It is this incredible promise that makes the disciples feel the impending loss of Jesus so acutely. Loss is a universal aspect of the human condition. Loss is something that afflicts us whether rich or poor, young or old, man, woman, child.  Just by living and loving we are open to the pain of loss. The disciples felt the love of God in Christ and were transformed by it.  To imagine losing that sense of belonging and belovedness was too painful to bear.  This is why Jesus speaks the promise, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  And he speaks it to us too.
Jesus is not our personal savior, but rather, the savior of the whole world.  We hear this promise of the Spirit in these weeks after Easter to emphasize the promise that the resurrection is not a one-time culmination of the ministry of Christ.  The resurrection of Christ on Easter is the beginning for us.  It is the beginning of a lifelong process of dying and rising, put into motion by the work of the Spirit. We are so loved by God that God sent Jesus Christ into the world that we might be saved from sin, death, and ourselves.  Jesus sends his Spirit into the world so that what was begun so long ago on a cross will continue now and forevermore in abundant life in community. 

Let us pray:

Spirit of God, you comfort us in our grief and affliction. You also afflict us in our comfort.  We know that you are continually making us new and giving us abundant life as members of your body.  Thank you for calling us into abundant life in community.  Amen. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Not in my Bible...

A.Hanson, Central Lutheran
Minneapolis, 2014
I spent the last week at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis.  I heard so many wonderful preachers.  One preacher that made a huge impact on me is the Rev Otis Moss III.  In his sermon, he referenced a talk that was given by Howard Thurman.  Howard Thurman's grandmother (who was a slave in the deep South) was once asked how she could keep reading the Bible knowing that it permitted slavery.  She said, "That's not in my Bible."  She was pressed to explain and she finally said, "I ripped that page out.  So it's not in my Bible anymore.  I know that God is a God of love and a God of freedom."

I turned to my friend Scott and said, "I wish I could rip out Romans 1."  This is one of the clobber passages used to perpetuate hate and intolerance against me and others who identify as LGBTQ. And as I got to thinking more about it, I realized, Why can't I rip out that page from my Bible? (This is not literally going to happen, I sort of like my Bible intact. It has a beautiful purple soft leather cover.  But I digress, the God revealed in these eight verses is not the God that I know.)

Howard Thurman's grandmother was right on.  She knew that God is a God of love and of freedom from her own experience. I know that God is a God of love and freedom from my own experience.  This is made abundantly clear to me every single day. So I am done trying to justify my existence in this world to those who would hate me.  God is so much more a God of love and justice. I am loved no matter who I love. 

I could probably be accused of blasphemy by those who believe in biblical inerrancy.  But this is not between me and them, it is between me and God.  And my God is a God of love. I have agonized for many years about trying to make it all fit together.  To ignore or rationalize away the anti-gay passages in scripture.  But instead I am going with the revealed God of scripture instead of the literal scripture itself.  A God of love, a God of reform, a God of new creations.  A God that is continually revealing Godself in new places.  God is not static and not contained within a dusty tome.

And I think that when the God that we know from God's Word AND the lived experience of the Body of Christ differs from isolated passages in the Bible, we have a responsibility to share that God.

And that is the Gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

You already belong…a sermon on John 10:1-10

A. Hanson, Ameugney.
This is the closest thing to a gate I have.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from our resurrected and living God.  Amen. 
Jesus as the Gate.  Among biblical metaphors, this is one of the stranger ones. We call this particular Sunday in the church year, the fourth Sunday of Easter and halfway to Pentecost, “Good Shepherd Sunday”, but our Gospel text from John is not actually about Jesus as a shepherd, it is about Jesus as a gate.  And this image of Jesus is far from the bucolic and soothing idea of a good shepherd leading a flock of sheep through green pastures and beside still waters. We are generally uncomfortable with the idea of a gate, because in our understanding, it brings to mind something that separates those on the inside from those on the outside.  Gates keep people out, gates keep people in. Gates can serve as protection, such as when we fence our yards to provide a safe place for children to play, or gates can be a sort of privilege, such as with gated housing communities where a cushion of wealth can keep out those who are undesirable. Gates can be opened for us or slammed in our faces.
At first glance, this metaphor of Jesus as a gate seems more problematic than it does promising, particularly when looked at in the context of the body of Christ.  To proclaim Jesus as a gate seems that there might be an insider community and also a community that is outside the gate.  And because it is our human nature, we want to do everything possible to make sure that we are part of that insider group.  This is rooted in our need for security.  We look for ways to make sure that we can be included in this select group.  Whether that is by believing the “right” things (whatever those might be) or making sure that we are “good” enough through our own actions. Or perhaps we despair of ever really belonging to the body of Christ and we drown in our own shame and regret. Maybe we feel too young or too old or too poor or we feel depressed when everyone else around us seems to be filled with joy.
The church has in many ways contributed to creating this sense of who is in and who is out. This text has been preached as a sort of guide to salvation.  That Jesus is a shepherd and opens the gate to abundant and eternal life, and all we have to do is just follow him through that narrow gate and then stay the course with him. Also, the church has at some times and places decided who is good enough to be a follower of Jesus based on one’s actions, identity, or some other measure. It’s like the church itself, or the people that compose the institution, have decided to be the gatekeepers that open the doors to let the sheep pass through unimpeded…or not pass through. This does not sound much like the good news of the Gospel to me, and it makes it extremely difficult to see Jesus as the gate promising abundant life. 
I spent most of this last week at a retreat in Northern Wisconsin.  This retreat was for publically identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ELCA clergy and seminarians and hosted by an organization called Proclaim.  While the theme of the continuing education retreat was faith-based community organizing, for me, the greatest gift in learning was to feel a part of a community that knows how it feels to have gates slammed shut in front of them and knows what it is like to have their lives controlled by gatekeepers.  But this retreat was not a time of lament, nor was it a time of fostering solidarity in the face of oppression, it was a time of abundant life and joy and belonging as beautiful people that compose the body of Christ.  This past week was my first experience meeting other gay and lesbian clergy and I felt the deep joy of belonging. And I read this text in an entirely different way because of my experience on this retreat.
How might our experience of Jesus as a gate change when we realize that we already belong to the body of Christ?  In this text, Jesus is not the gatekeeper.  Jesus is not the one who decides who is in or who is out.  Jesus knows his sheep, he “calls his own sheep by name” and “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  We are known to Christ and we are saved. But this is not just the eschatological, life after death, kind of salvation.  This is at an earthier level. We are given abundant life now.
We miss something if we do not look at this text in the greater context of John’s Gospel.  The story immediately preceding this text is that of the man born blind, which we read on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Yes, it is a story of healing.  Jesus restored the man’s sight.  But also, he is restored to beloved community.  The man born blind had been alienated and marginalized.  He did not belong. The gatekeepers of his community had shut him out.  But Jesus restored this man’s sight, and in doing so, also restored his place in the community.  In the story of the man born blind, abundant life is not just a metaphorical nice idea.  It is given flesh and blood. We need to hear this story of abundant life being given in order to emphasize the promises that we hear in the Gospel today. If we merely see Jesus as a good shepherd leading the simple sheep into a serene pasture, we miss the flesh and blood, incarnational, aspect of it all.
 The abundant life that is promised to us through Jesus comes not as some far-off promise to be realized in the future, but rather, comes right now in our midst. Just as Jesus calls the sheep by name and leads them, we too are called by name and led. We belong to a community called the body of Christ and we are known intimately by God. And in a world where our human institutions seem hell bent on division, on determining who is in and who is out, we need this promise more than ever. 
And we need one another to realize this promise.  Just as I learned the joy of being known in a community this past week on retreat in Wisconsin, just as the man born blind was restored to belonging in community, we all have a need to be known and to belong.  As we go out from this place, I ask you to consider:
To what communities do you belong? 
Are there communities in which you feel like an outsider?
How can you help to create a sense of belonging for others in your communities?

Let us pray:
Gracious God, you have called us by name and you know us.  We belong to you.  Help us to live out our calling as members of your body, that we might ever be reminding one another of that belonging. Amen.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Where are the "kids" in church?

A. Hanson, Paris. 
There has been an article floating around cyberspace today called, "Grow up, Grownups!" that looks at why young adults do not feel welcome in the church.  The article related the author's experience of hearing a speaker present at a conference and then having an audience member say that while "young adults" (18-29) are legally adults, they do not act like adults.  The author points out that this is an extremely problematic attitude in the church.

The author argues that we treat young adults like children and adolescents in the church, and I could not agree more. The church appears to argue on one hand that there are not enough young adults in church and that the key to saving our declining denominations is to get more of these people into congregations. But on the other hand, we are treating young adults like children and so we ask, where are the "kids" in church?

The "kids" have gone elsewhere because they do not feel valued as members of our congregations. We reinforce this attitude every time that we schedule church leadership meetings during working hours.  We reinforce this attitude when we live in the past "glory days" instead of looking into the future with joy and expectation.  We reinforce this attitude when we attempt to force young adults into existing structures of leadership and governance in our congregations. We reinforce this attitude when we lament the death of what has been instead of trusting in the resurrection of that which is to come.  We reinforce this when we "let" young adults teach sunday school and lead youth group, but not serve on our finance or stewardship committees.

Young adults are labeled as immature because they are delaying marriage and children and becoming rooted in communities, and yet instead of asking why this occurs (the answer is profound economic insecurity), young adults are labeled as hedonistic and individualistic, and thus do not belong in our congregations.  Young adults are not rushing the doors of our congregations because we have not made them places of welcome. Churches have made young adults into a commodity, rather than seeing them as valued and beloved members of the body of Christ.

There are much bigger questions and issues at work in this discussion, but how about we start with treating young adults like the valuable people that they are?  They are hardworking, contributing members of our society and our congregations.  They are not children.  They are not teenagers.  They are fellow workers in the kingdom of God.