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Archive for May, 2012

In three days I am packing up my home for the third time in the past year and moving to New Hampshire to begin my CPE training.

Looking around my house, my home kind of matches my head.  There are stacks of clothes and books in almost every room, little lines of organized chaos.  I know in what container everything will be packed by the time I leave on Thursday morning, but right now, all I see is clutter. 

I am so grateful for this ride that is the seminary experience.  Even still, as I drove my closest campus friend to the airport this morning for her own CPE journey, I realized that I am nostalgic for a little stability.  I have changed so much since moving to Chicago last August.  My theology is different, my preaching is different, my writing is different, my body is different, the way I communicate with my loved ones is different.  In seminary, every day is an opportunity for transformation  While it is exciting, this fast paced change can be intimidating at times.

CPE will be twelve weeks of even more change.  These weeks will be spent learning how to provide spiritual care within the context of a hospital setting.  I’ll be working with people of all faith traditions in all walks of life whose lives transition as a result of life-changing medical moments.  Some people will be expecting the changes their health situation brings, like a senior who has been preparing for the end of this life.  For others, like those in a car accident, change will be unexpected.  CPE will teach me to how to faithfully be with people from all edges of the spectrum.  In that process of learning, my expectations of what it means to be a pastor will become something very different then how I understand it to be today.

The irony is, I begin my CPE unit exactly one year after my final day of employment at the congregation which opened my heart to a life of pastoral ministry.  It is also ironic that one year later, I learned that this congregation is also transitioning in its life as I transition in mine, as I learned via a social media announcement this morning their senior pastor has accepted a call to a new congregation. There is a part of me that wishes I could go back to that parish and we could wade in these unsure waters together.  But in my heart, I know that our simultaneous transitions need to travel on separate currents to end up where we need to be.

There is no shame in acknowledging that these currents feel uncertain at times, and that our uncertainty has us reaching for the familiar.  We all crave stability in times of change.  I know right now I am searching amongst the stacks in my home and head , searching for some metaphorical life preserver that will ease the fear of the ambiguity of what is to come.  It is natural for us to quake when we feel the tide of our lives shift directions, even when that change will bring goodness, knowledge, and peace.

But in these moments when we wade, not quite understanding how the water laps at our feet, we should remember that we were called into a relationship of security through turbulent waters.  We were called into a life of faith through baptismal waters, waters that while appear gentle in the font yet powerfully remove the bondage that comes from being victims of a fallen humanity.  Such waters brought a change so strong that we went from being dead in sin to alive in Christ with a few drops and the seal of a cross upon our head.  It happened quickly, in the blink of an eye, and in that blink gave us a life preserver that will never waver no matter how strong the current.

The tide is changing.  Who we were yesterday will inform how we will move tomorrow, but not determine who we’ll be tomorrow.  A change is coming.  Praise and thanksgiving to the One who equipped us to brave the storm through the waters of our baptism.

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The following sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH in May16, 2012.  This sermon was based on Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-12

As children of God, our lives are split between two realities.  Salvation is here, but not yet.  We are the resurrected people, but we are still waiting for the end of days.  Our Messiah is dead, yet still lives.

The Gospel of John focuses on the tension that many theologians call the “two kingdoms.”  Luther was a big fan of this notion, and our confessional heritage spends a great deal of time helping us reconcile the polarities of our faith.

Lutherans celebrate that we are called into a life of faith.  We recognize that without God calling us into relationship, we would not have our faith.  Since we have been given the gift of faith we are called into a life of service, both to God and to our world around us.  Our faith is entirely ours, but only because it has been given to us.  Our faith is that of two kingdoms.

We are nearing the end of the Easter season.  I just learned recently that during this season, our first lesson is always from the book of Acts.  Our lectionary is structured in such a way that the first lesson is always about the history of our church.  During most of the year, our first lesson is from the Hebrew Scriptures, most often referred to as the Old Testament.  We read those passages to help us learn about how God worked in the pre-Christ world, and the tradition that formed as a result.

We study Acts during the season of Easter for the same reason we read from the Hebrew Scriptures – we are trying to understand another chapter of time within our church history.  The book of Acts shares how the Jewish community began to adapt their heritage from the impact of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  Looking at our Acts passage today, we see a mention of the circumcised people, meaning the Jews.[1]

Acts is a book shares how through Christ, the two kingdoms of the Jews and the Gentiles unite.  Yet, many scholars and people who read Acts and other New Testament scriptures see the division between these two communities, and focus on the rising tension between the two.

How many of us feel that we are caught between two tensions, two kingdoms, two aspects of our lives?

This past week the United Methodist Church held their General Assembly.  While at this assembly, they began their first church-wide discussion about whether or not they would call openly gay, transgendered, or bisexual people into rostered leadership.  Their discussions sounded very familiar to that of our own denomination in 2009, and the Presbyterian Church USA in 2011.

As one can imagine, the United Methodist Church engaged in discussions that contained a great deal of tension, a great deal of controversy.  Two sides of the aisle emerged, two groups of people with two different thoughts, two kingdoms trying to strive for what they feel is the most truth representation of the Gospel.

In the ELCA, we continue to adjust to this division of understanding.  Churches have left our synod and denomination because they felt conflicted on where the church should stand on such a controversial issue.  Often, same passages of scripture and confessional doctrine are used to represent one side of the aisle or the other.

It is hard to engage in these discussions because we all just want to do what is right.  We all want to follow God’s will the best way that we can.  We all want to know that we are making the right call, and that we can somehow, some way, bridge that gap that separates this earthly reign from the reign of the heavens.

During the season of Easter, we read the book of Acts to help us remember that building a church and forming the right doctrine really isn’t about us.  Moving the church forward requires us to release a part of ourselves and make room for the Spirit.

In the passage directly before our lesson today, Peter is telling the Gentiles that the disciples had been commanded to preach that Jesus had been ordained to judge the living and the dead, and that people will receive the forgiveness of sins through is name.

Much like the justice conversations that have been occurring over the last few years, this was really controversial news.  This news did not match how the Jewish community understood their faith to unfold.  Peter was really connecting with the Gentiles, but making no headway with the Jewish community.

Suddenly, the Holy Spirit fell upon the conversation, and all who heard the word understood that it was true.  Not only that, but they could also communicate with each other in a way that they hadn’t been able to before.  Suddenly, they not only were hearing each other, but they were working for the same cause.

Before that moment, no one would have thought that the Gentiles would have been invited into a life of faith as the Jewish community had.  No one would have thought that anyone outside the Jewish community would have benefited from the Messiah of the chosen people.

Yet in that moment, the Holy Spirit called the Gentiles into a life of faith.  The Holy Spirit made room where the human limitations of faith could not.  Peter recognized this and asks:

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”[2]

Peter is asking his followers, “Who are we to place limits on who should be baptized when the Holy Spirit is clearly telling us that these people have been chosen by God into a life of faith just like us?”

He is asking, “Which kingdom has the right to decide who experiences the grace of God?”

It is a futile question.  We all know the answer to which kingdom has the right to decide.

The non-futile question we must ask ourselves today is how do we invite the Spirit into our hearts and minds so we can faithfully hear God’s decision?

One answer is found within the epistle of John.

The letter first reminds us that we are loved by God, and that out of respect to that love, we should follow the commandments.  The letter reads:

“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.[3]

Once again, we are confronted with two kingdoms.  To make change in this world, we must adhere to laws that are not of this world.  We must follow the commandments to love others as we love ourselves, to honor the Sabbath, to not commit trespasses of morality, to honor those around us and their possessions.  If we ever hope to make change in our church, in our world, we must live by guidelines that are not of this world.

This message is re-solidified in our Gospel passage, where Jesus reiterates that to truly show our love for him, we must love one another.  We must keep the commandments.[4]

Jesus takes this message one step further.  He tells us that when we keep his commandments, we are no longer servants but friends.  We are elevated into a place where we are freed to engage in tough conversations.  By keeping the commandments, our hearts are in put into a place where we can, like the crowd in Acts, hear the truth with the Holy Spirit.

I read recently an article where a pastor explained his frustration with people referring themselves as children of God.  For him, referring to ourselves as children places us in a sort of “arrested development” state, a state that allows us to sit back and wait, hoping that God will speak to us when we need to be spoken to.

This same pastor argued that we should continue to see God as a parent – a mothering Father who will forgive us when we fail, support us in our struggles, and comfort us when we ache.  But he urged his readers to view themselves as adult children relating to their Holy Parent, rather than a toddler waiting for Daddy to scare away the monsters under the bed.

I know that for myself, my relationship with my parents has greatly enhanced since I have become an adult.  Now that I hold myself accountable for my actions, I am freed to be honest with them in a way that I never have been before.  Most of our conversations have a level of equality that leads to an understanding of truth that I had never considered when I was a child.

And yet, I am still their child.  It was only a few weeks ago that I had some struggles with my auto-immune disorder, lupus, and I called my mom in the middle of the day.  As a loving parent, as a parent who values my adult nature, she hopped right into her car and drove six hours to Chicago to be by my side.  As an adult, I connect with her more intimately than I ever did before, and it is because of that intimacy that the testimony of her action was so powerful.

In our Gospel and Epistle today, our texts support that we should engage our faith as adults.

We are called into our adulthood when we are given the responsibility to engage in the commandments and to follow the scriptures.

We are called into adulthood when we engage in challenging conversation that we would rather have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about.

We are called into adulthood when we celebrate that our high school seniors are now making life choices that are our equal.

We are called into adulthood when we parent our own children, or when we respectfully celebrate holidays about parents when we are unable to be a parent ourselves.

It is in engaging our adulthood that we overcome our arrested development and achieve an intimacy with God through the power of the Holy Spirit that we could never imagine.  Living into our commandments helps us to bridge the gaps between our earthly reign and the reign of the heavens.

Amen.


[1] Acts 10:45

[2] Acts 10:47

[3] 1 John 5:3-4

[4] John 15:12

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All yesterday and this morning my news feed has been filled with updates from the United Methodist Church’s General Assembly where, in addition to other topics, they discussed the inclusion of LGBTQ people.  I was reminded of how similar those feeds read to updates from Presbyterian Church USA, and again within my own denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over the past few years.

These conversations are emotional, earth-shifting, and exhausting.  No matter which side of the aisle you stand on, it takes bravery and courage to represent your understanding of the gospel in order to help enlighten the decision making process of your denomination.  I am very clear on where I stand.  I believe that God is inclusive to all people, and that everything about our human nature is sinful because we are children of a fallen humanity.  I believe that it is God’s grace that turns our sinful nature into beautiful actions, and it is because of God’s grace that carnal lust can be transformed into a healthy, loving expression of how two people connect with one another.  I believe this is the case for heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people.  I believe that sex, or any action, without God’s grace is sin.  In light of God’s grace, sex or any action can be a gift that we give one another to express affection and our faith to God.  What determines that transition is if we approach our relationships in light of our faith.

Furthermore, I believe that I can support my position through scripture, confessional heritage, and testimonies of people I personally know.  However, I know that people who stand on the opposite side of the aisle also feel that they also have as much evidence of their convictions.  This is what makes having hard conversations so challenging.

But what is important is that we have such conversations.  It wasn’t until I began working for a United Church of Christ congregation that I ever had to put my theological principals into practice.  Being a representative of the church, when engaged in conversations about the LGBTQ communities, I was forced to be more thoughtful about explaining where I stand.  In that thoughtfulness, I was challenged by other people whose understanding of the gospel was different than mine.  In that challenge, I discovered that being born into a fallen humanity, a humanity entrenched in sin, that just about everything about my life would be sinful without the grace of God.  This includes my heterosexual sex-life, but not limited to my sex-life.  In those revelations I was able to embrace the freedom that comes from having been freed from my sin through the power of my baptism.  It is in that freedom that I now experience a richness in my relationship with God that I never had before.

That would not have happened had I not been challenged.  That would not have happened had I not been open to exploring the platform of the other side of the aisle.  I would not be as sure in my convictions if I hadn’t engaged in challenging conversations with people who think and act differently then me.

Do I wish that things would have been more peaceful for the UMC as they gathered this past week?  You bet.  I also wish for the ELCA that we can continue to find peace within the challenging adjustments of our 2009 sexuality statement.  I work for a periodical produced by three ELCA seminaries, and I am astounded by the number of people who discontinue their subscription because they can’t reconcile with the 2009 statement and are disconnecting themselves from anything that is ELCA related.  I see other Lutheran traditions ceasing their work with the ELCA to fight malaria and AIDS because of the 2009 statement.  Such actions are not peaceful but challenging.   I can wish and pray that as we continue to strive for equality and justice that those conversations will be peace-filled, or at least find a way to work together despite our differences, but I recognize the likelihood that we can’t always meet eye to eye even when we should.

That challenge shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Struggling with having the hard conversations is a part of what makes us human.  It is only when we accept that our nature leads us to struggle that we can see that God’s grace is patiently with us, equipping us with tools to keep moving forward.

Today, I am praying for the UMC, the PCUSA, the UCC, and the ELCA as Christians within our country move forward from the experiences of challenging conversations.  I am not going to condemn or cast blame on what hasn’t happened, or continue to tell the negative tales of what has.  I am going to keep my focus on God’s grace, and ask for guidance on knowing how to faithfully engage in eliminating the aisle.

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