Monday, January 27, 2014

Ordinary people….extraordinary things: a sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

Grace, peace and mercy are yours from God who is the light of the world.  Amen.
All four Gospels have a version of today’s text, Jesus calling his disciples. It’s a pretty important story, how Jesus selected the people who would accompany him in his ministry.  While each Gospel account has its own details, they all emphasize Jesus interrupting the disciples in their work and these men dropping whatever they are doing, and following Jesus. No arguments, no protesting, not even a single claim of, “Well, I have a few loose ends to tie up at home. I’ll see you in a couple days.”
I think we’ve all heard this text in sermons many times. It’s a favorite of preachers attempting to exhort their flocks of parishioners to get out into the world and DO something. And it’s a favorite of Sunday school teachers everywhere because of its fun imagery (fishing nets! boats! Jesus!) and simple message: When Jesus comes calling, say “YES!”, drop everything you are doing and follow him.  You just have to DO it.  Easy enough, right?  Yeah…I don’t think so.
Maybe this message isn’t so simple after all. I think that the disciples are often cast as these models of piety and religious observance and we are told that we should do everything in our power to emulate them. James and John didn’t seem to take issue with leaving their father behind, we are told that they “immediately left the boat and their father and followed Jesus.”   And we don’t hear about these disciples packing a U-Haul, so we can assume they left behind the comforts of home and most of their possessions. Simon Peter and Andrew were hard at work using the tools of their trade, and they “immediately left their nets and followed him.”
It’s really tough to imagine giving up the comforts of home for the unknown, and leaving behind loved ones, so we are thankful that someone else is doing it.  We don’t have to consider ourselves disciples.  Aside from the practical concerns of whether or not it would be possible or desirable to devote one’s life to being a disciple, we wonder if we would ever be qualified. If Jesus really knew what we were up to, like our doubts about faith or that decade when we didn’t go to church or our youthful indiscretions, would we make the cut? We think we can’t possibly be good enough or religious enough.  Which is why we would prefer that someone else do it. A professional.  Like missionaries or pastors.  But, I will let you in on a little secret, even pastors don’t always feel qualified to be disciples.   Because every single one of us in this room is only human.  We all make mistakes.  We are often wandering around in the darkness of this world and running into walls and tripping over stuff. We will continue to do so.  And if we focus only on the “should’s” and “ought’s” of being a disciple and put ourselves into a punishing routine of morality, we miss what Jesus is up to.
But what is actually happening in the text?  Jesus is walking along the shore of the sea of Galilee when he encounters these men who will be his disciples.  We don’t really hear if he has interacted with Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the past.  However, what we do know is that the disciples were not plucked out of some seminary or discipleship training school. There was not a job interview or a competency exam.  Jesus came to them right in the middle of what they were doing.  Jesus called ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things.  They were not called based on their stellar qualifications.  And as the Gospel of Matthew moves along, we hear that the disciples are just human.  They repeatedly fail to notice that Jesus is the Messiah.  They just cannot seem to get their heads around the fact that he is a different kind of King and isn’t going to take down their enemies in some show of force.  They fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asks them several times to stay awake.  Simon Peter, one of the first disciples called by Jesus as we hear today, will go on to deny Jesus three times.  Another disciple, Judas, will actually betray Jesus. 
If Jesus was using accomplishments to grade the effectiveness of the disciples, they would have failed.  But they were NOT called to DO.  They were called to BE.  To be in relationship with Jesus and with all people in the kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be in relationship with Jesus and with those whom Jesus loves. This is not the sort of personal relationship with Jesus Christ where Jesus is your best friend or your therapist or your fairy Godmother who gives you everything you want if you just pray for it in the right way. This is the sort of real and raw relationship where you die to yourself and what you think you want, and that space of self-determination is filled with Christ.  When your hardened heart is broken and is replaced with a new and tender heart of God’s own, which feels the pain of the world and is moved to love in spite of itself.
We are not called to DO, we are called to BE.  We often want to equate vocation, one’s call to be of service to God in the world, with occupation.  I remember around the time I was graduating from College, when I was looking for the dream job which would be my vocation, my younger sister Katie said something that I will never forget. Katie did not go to college right away.   She went to cosmetology school and at the time I was looking for what I considered my dream job that would change the world, she was working in a hair salon.  It was not a fulfilling job.  It was long hours, grueling work, and often thankless. Katie told me that your vocation was not what you do for work, but how you are connected to other people.  So after many hours of cutting hair and standing on her feet, Katie would volunteer at a nursing home to cut and style the hair of the residents.  She would make residents feel special and beautiful, in a place where many people feel forgotten.  Katie taught me that vocation uses your gifts and qualifications, but more importantly, it uses your connectedness to other human beings. Katie has since moved onto college and graduate school and has taken this understanding of vocation into her career as a speech pathologist, but I will never forget what she taught me. 
            So all of us gathered here are called to different vocations in service as disciples.  Some of us have occupations that match up with our vocations.  Some of us do not.  But what we have in common is a sense of connectedness with the people of God.  So how are you being called into relationship with others in the name of Christ?  How is God inviting you to use your gifts as a disciple? 
But, we all protest, what if I am not useful enough?  Let’s entertain a metaphor.  This quilt that I made ten years ago,  , this was my very first attempt at such a complex sewing project.  As you can see, the squares don’t match up.  The colors don’t exactly align.  This quilt is not perfect.  But its imperfections do not render it useless. Despite the fact that it doesn’t look quite right, it’s been on my bed or on my couch or accompanied me on dozens of picnics for the last decade. 
            People of God, we are like this quilt. We have lots of little pieces that make us who we are.  Sometimes they are messy.  Sometimes they are broken.  But they make up one splendid whole that God uses for good in the world.  We all have a vocation to be disciples. So...go and do likewise!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

2013 Year in Review

January 8, 2013 Move to MN
I used to be pretty good about sending a Christmas card, that did not happen this year.  The holiday season got a little out of hand.

So here is my answer to what happened in 2013

1. Move to Minnesota:
On January 7, 2013 I left Denver for a two-day trip to the Twin Cities.  This was to begin my Lutheran year classes at Luther Seminary.  I moved into campus housing and took a January intensive class.

It's awfully chilly in MN

2. New Tattoo in January 2013
One of the ways that I mark significant points in my life is with tattoos.  So, to celebrate my move to Minnesota and the final part of my seminary education, I got a new tattoo.  As a side note, this was the most painful tattoo yet out of the four that I have. Do not get a tattoo in this location unless you want to experience excruciating pain.

3. New friendships in Minnesota

I had the privilege of meeting a number of wonderful people in Minnesota: Jodi, Nate, Peter, Kae, Margaret, Eileen, Jon, Dan, Emmy, the list goes on and on.  As well as rekindling friendships with friends from Denver and Augustana College who lived in MN, Asher, Josh, Ingrid and Christy. Humble Walk Lutheran Church brought me immeasurable joy!

Me with my friend Margaret in the state capital.
Credit City Pages

4. Marriage Equality in Minnesota

Lutheran clergywonen at the state capital.
Being present at the Minnesota state capital the day marriage equality happened…holy time. I talk more about the experience in this blog post, Love is the Law. I also talk about it in my Pentecost Sermon. Driving away from the capital building blasting "Love is the Law" by the Suburbs with the windows down after marriage equality was voted into law…probably hands down my favorite moment of the entire year.

5. Coming out…
Yeah, you heard that right. I am not straight, nor have I ever been.  This is the first time that I have announced this on this blog, although I've alluded to it. It's liberating.  It's also been really hard.

6. Turning 30
Birthday lunch at Pizzeria Lola with Nadia

In July I turned 30.  I got to have lunch at my favorite restaurant in Minneapolis, Pizzeria Lola, then listen to Nadia speak at a conference at Luther, then a dinner picnic at Minnehaha falls. It was a great day! 30 really feels no different than 29 or what I imagine 31 will feel like. Life keeps moving along.

7. Starting Internship
With Nancy at FLC. Credit Susanna for picture
 In August I started my vicar year at First Lutheran Church in St Peter, MN.  I preach, teach, do pastoral visits, and all sorts of other assorted and sundry things.  It is not without challenges, but it is also enjoyable.  It has been an adjustment to live in a small town, but I am getting there. I love the people in this congregation fiercely.  They know what it means to love God and love each other.  They have embraced me and welcomed me into their community. I am learning a lot about myself and my identity as a minister.  

So far my favorite experience…the Christmas Program.  So many wonderful things.

8.  Joining The Pulse: 

Credit The Pulse, Dec 2013

As soon as I moved to St Peter, I knew I would need to have an outlet for stress relief and friendships that was not related to work.  I joined The Pulse, a community gym. This community has been a lifeline for me this year.  For friendships, for exercise, for pushing myself to achieve my fitness goals.  It might seem like an extravagance or even a stupid thing that this made it onto my 2013 year review, but this has been one of my greatest joys this year. 

Looking forward to 2014!

Here are the things brewing for this year:
-Finishing coursework for my Mdiv
-Graduating in June with my Mdiv
-Heading off to do… fall.  No clue as to what this will be.
-Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis
-several different vacations planned (this week…San Francisco!)

Review of Queer Clergy by R.W. Holmen

Earlier this fall I responded to a call for people willing to review a new book, Queer Clergy by R.W. Holmen, that was hitting shelves in early 2014. I received an advance reader's copy. Life got a little out of hand (as is to be expected while working in a church over Christmas), so I am just now getting around to writing my review.  

Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism is a compelling history of the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) clergy in five major mainline Protestant denominations, the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Episcopal Church (TEC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church (UMC). Holmen traces the arc of history in each denomination from the first murmurings of LGBTQ clergy to the present (or until about May 2013). He uses official documents of the denominations: minutes, resolutions, policy statements, and judicial decisions, as well as personal interviews with LGBTQ pioneers in each denomination.

Holmen himself is an ELCA Lutheran with a background in law, who is an ardent ally for LGBTQ persons. He writes in the preface, "Hopefully this book will help LGBT Christians and straight allies to appreciate our past and to remember the pioneers who have led the church to be a place of welcome."   This book is a straightforward and concise history text, but for me, its real value is in naming the pioneering and prophetic queer clergy who have gone before me.  Since I am a part of the ELCA, this review will focus on that portion of the text, part III.

In this forum, it is impossible to summarize all the information packed into this section of Holmen's book. It is a rich examination of the early LGBTQ activist groups in the Lutheran church (starting in the 1970s), the early explorations of social statements regarding human sexuality (although none considered LGBTQ ordination), and the introduction of many early clergy pioneers.  After the formation of the ELCA in 1988, Holmen traces an intensifying call for discourse.  Through reporting personal interviews with those involved and citing synodical documents, he traces the heartbreaking stories of defrocking of out glory, of congregations being expelled from the ELCA for calling openly gay and lesbian pastors. He discusses the process of extra ordinem ordinations and the ultimate formation of the group, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), to provide a credentialing body for those clergy who had a call to ordained ministry and also happened to be LGBTQ.

A theme in this section is "Biblical obedience mandated ecclesiastical disobedience."  With rising crescendo, Holmen traces the history of resolutions and proposals until the ELCA Churchwide Assembly 2009 (CWA09) and what is referred to in ELCA circles even now as "The Vote."

This resolution is as follows, "RESOLVED that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church."

With 559 voting yes, and 451 voting no, the moment had arrived for queer clergy in the ELCA.  Holmen writes, "the reaction among a thousand voting members and another thousand observers was muted.  The plenary hall was suddenly sacred space, and the quiet interrupted only by weeping and the murmur of prayer.  By twos and threes and fours and fives, the children of God huddled together in tears and prayer, some in joyous thanksgiving and others in grief."  I remember watching this vote from my desk at work in Boulder, CO.  I remember weeping too with joy that my denomination had found a way.  Little did I know how important this would become for me personally.

Holmen also respectfully addresses the opposition to this vote in the years that follow.  I was impressed by both his treatment of this issue, but also the conduct of the ELCA and its leaders.  He also covers the emotional reinstatement process of those clergy who were defrocked and those congregations that were expelled.

I don't find myself moved to tears by books very often, and Holmen's book did this for me.  I have a lot personally invested in this history, and as I read this text, I gave thanks over and over again for the brave clergy, bishops and allies, who went before.  I know many of the people personally that Holmen writes about, Pastor Anita Hill, Pastor Bradley Schmeling, Retired Bishop Herb Chilstrom, and others, but this book filled in the rest, and I will never stop being thankful for these people.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Liturgy Series Part X: Benediction and Dismissal

LSTC, Augustana Chapel, Chicago.
A. Hanson 2013
I have been a part of many different worship services throughout my life.  In traditional congregations, at College, at camp, and now where I work.

A Benediction is generally something along the lines of:

"The Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace.  In the name of the Father, + the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen." 

One of my absolute favorite benedictions is from Holden Village:

"O Lord God, who has called us, your servants, to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen."

A benediction is an invocation of God's blessing as the assembly leaves worship and goes out into the world.

A dismissal is the congregation's reminder to itself as to its mission in the world.

My internship congregation says the following together every week as a dismissal:

"Renewed by Christ in Word, water, bread and wine, we go in peace to serve our community and the world.  Thanks be to God."  

Another common benediction is:

"Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God."  

This final part of the worship service calls upon God to remain present in the lives of those gathered, and help them to fulfill their vocation as people of God.

Liturgy Series Part IX: The Eucharist (otherwise known as communion)

Credit Jodi Houge, 2013. 
(After a long hiatus, the liturgy series is returning.  Life gets crazy sometimes and I don't always keep up with blogging.)

The celebration of the Eucharist is one of the most lively debates in the Church.  Who gets to eat at the communion table?  Who does not?  Should we use real bread or wafers?  Should we use only wine or grape juice too?  Should we commune by common cup, individual cups, or intinction (dipping of bread into wine)?  At what point should children be allowed to commune?  Do you need to go through a class first to "understand" communion?  Does anyone understand communion?  Should you be baptized in order to take communion?  Is one denomination's communion more valid than another's?  Should we have communion every sunday or does that cause it to become "less special" and we should restrict it to once or twice a month or even more infrequently?

And so on and so forth.  We could argue about this all day.  Everyone has an opinion.

But when we celebrate the Eucharist, what is actually going on?  (In full disclosure, I am an ELCA Lutheran, so what I am going to write will be true to my tradition.  I cannot claim to speak on behalf of any other denomination.)

What does Jesus say about this?  In Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:14-23 we hear some variation of "In the night in which we was betrayed Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it for them all to eat saying, 'Take and eat, this is my body given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.' Again after supper he took the cup, and when he had given thanks gave it to them all to drink saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.'"  

Jesus says nothing about understanding what is going on, who is old enough, when it should happen.  Jesus says to give thanks, to eat and to drink, and by doing so, remember him.  That is it.

Lutherans understand Christ to be fully present in the bread and wine, but not that they are literally transformed into the body and blood.  This has launched a thousand debates.  For me, communion is proclamation. It is Christ saying, "This is my body and blood given for you.  Do this in remembrance of my death and new life and that I have done this for you."  Communion is the guarantee that the Gospel will be preached every single Sunday without fail, regardless of what happened in the sermon.

In my time as an intern pastor, one of my joys is bringing communion to members who are hospitalized, homebound or in care facilities.  It is a joy to preside at this holy time, and a privilege to share communion and prayer and conversation with these members of our congregation.

Up next, Liturgy Series Part X: Benediction and Dismissal 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Letter to my 21 year old self

Pretty sure I was 21 when this photo was taken.  Or maybe 20. 

Dear Self,

You are living on the top of the world right now.  Your 21st birthday was spent on Flathead Lake in Montana, you went out to the Great Northern bar in Whitefish and danced with your friends.  You are headed back to your senior year at Augustana College.  You feel like you have MADE it.  You feel like you are a completely formed adult right now.  You feel like you know who you are.  You are feisty, you are opinionated.  You are a feminist, you are an outspoken pro-choice activist and gay rights activist.  In fact, you seem to have a an "activism flavor of the month."  Life seems pretty black and white.  Right and wrong.  Liberal and progressive is good.  Always.  Conservative is bad. Always. You don't really seem to have an understanding of how you impact other people. But all you know, is that you are a grown up, and your knowledge and liberal arts education and opinions are a gift to the world and you are going to keep sharing them (or ramming them down people's throats).   You've spent so much time thinking these things, that certainly no one else has ever had these thoughts before, and the world needs to hear them.

Looking back, ten years out, I sometimes wish that I could have just a little bit of the stupid confidence that you seem to have had at age 21. But a decade later, there are some things that I wish I could go back and tell you, although I won't, because we all need to learn them.

First, nothing is ever completely black and white, particularly when it comes to beliefs, values, or opinions.  Everything is gray.  Everything. You will be working at Planned Parenthood one day, and strike up a conversation with some very gentle Catholic pro-life activists.  You will realize that other people hold their values just as closely as you hold yours and you will realize that openness and listening to others is the way that real change happens, not militant shouting. You will end up living in intentional community with a friend who is a very conservative evangelical Christian.  He will become a close friend and he will teach you how to love others before judging them, and he never points out to you that you were judging him first.  He only listens. You will meet many people along the way who teach you about places and situations that will forcefully expand your comfort zone.  And you will be better for it, but it will be painful.

Next, right now you think you have a pretty good grasp on issues of social justice and feel the need to tell everyone about them.  A year from now, when you are working in a homeless shelter, you will fall to your knees when you realize that you really know nothing.  Things are far more nuanced than you realize.  You've spent a lot of time bashing political/fiscal conservatives or people who don't think the same way that you do as being ignorant or misguided.  You will come to realize that most people are basically good, and most people are just doing the best they can at any point in time with the resources that are available to them.  You will feel a lot less exhausted when you stop trying to take on the world and make the world see things from your perspective. Just being, and doing the best you can with what you have, is all that you can do. And that is enough.

And being a fully self-supporting adult is really, really hard. Right now you have all these values, like having a fulfilling job that will change humanity for the better and traveling the world. But then real life will creep in, with all these boring things like car insurance and root canals and saving for retirement. You might not find the job of your dreams at age 22, but you need to find a job to support yourself.  And guess what, that is okay.  Because work doesn't define you.  You will go on to travel a lot, and that's okay too.

This might come as a shock, but most people don't actually care about the earth-shattering revelations that you have uncovered in College.  Everyone that goes to college ends up reading Betty Friedan, Simon de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Ghandi, queer theory, interfaith dialogue, and so on, at some point. They've gone out into the real world and gotten jobs and learned important things like how to play well with others and make compromises, and that's actually worth more that being able to recite feminist theory anyway. You will make valuable contributions to the world, but learning is just as important as teaching and doing.

So calm down, take a deep breath, and just be.



Thursday, January 02, 2014

Holding the stories

A. Hanson 2012
One of my absolute favorite parts of my ministry is to visit with people and hear their stories. Sometimes this is a formal setting, often times it is in passing.  Nothing brings me greater joy than sitting with someone and hearing what makes them happy, what makes them sad, and what challenges them.  It is for this reason that I almost always accept invitations for lunch, dinner, or coffee with parishioners and the reason that I have weekly office hours at the local coffee shop.  These stories give a richness to ministry that cannot be found by just leading worship or attending committee meetings.

The town where I live, St Peter, Minnesota, experienced a devastating tornado in 1998.  This natural disaster has formed the landscape of the town, the community of people, and the way that this town approaches life together.  Today I had the opportunity to have lunch with a couple parishioners who told me stories of that day and its immediate aftermath.  My congregation's building was untouched by the tornado, and it was the only church building in town that did not sustain some sort of damage. As a result, the church parking lot was used as the nerve center for relief efforts and the building itself was used as a meeting space for all sorts of community groups.  The Catholic church was destroyed in the tornado, and it was on Maundy Thursday in 1998, just about a week and a half after the tornado, that First Lutheran, along with St Peter Catholic church, hosted an ecumenical service. My parishioners talked about how touching it was to be in worship, celebrating Holy Communion, with all sorts of Christians from the town and this story moved me to tears.  This partnership of two congregations under one roof would continue for two years and is still talked about as a shining example of what churches can do when they set aside their differences.

On New Year's Eve I had the opportunity to hang out with my retired neighbors that live across the street.  They invited me over, saying, "it would be just like you get to hang out with your grandparents!" and I was happy to accept because they have a fireplace and the weather has been brutally cold lately.  I heard stories of childhoods spent speaking Swedish in the impoverished scandinavian Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis.

St Peter is also home to one of the state's behavioral health hospital, as well as the state security hospital (like a prison, except for people who are too ill to be in prison) and many of our members have worked there in various capacities.  It is so interesting to hear how the hospital has changed over the years.  I visited one homebound member who worked in carpentry for the hospital and how he took such pride in his work and how he trained and worked alongside many patients and just how important it was to treat everyone with respect and honor their gifts, even patients confined to a mental institution.

And this is only a small sample of what I have been privileged to hear this year. What an incredible gift it is to hold bits and pieces of these stories.