Brave?

Since I wrote my last post, the sermon I gave this last Sunday at my church:  “Okay, God, What Next?”, I’ve received some comments from friends that I was brave to preach that sermon which stated my complete support of the Supreme Court decision that all gay and lesbian people deserve the legal right to be married.

I’ve been thinking about that.  I know I am not brave. My friends are brave who came out to their families and friends not knowing what kind of support or derision they would receive.  I may have had the smallest snippet of bravery when, sixteen years ago, I preached a similar sermon at my first congregation in New York – long before my own denomination stated their support of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but even then I knew my synodical bishop and many fellow clergy agreed with me, so I was not standing alone.

But now, as I sit here in 2015, with the ruling of the Supreme Court and the affirmation of my own denomination behind me, I am not brave to speak out in favor of gay and lesbian people having full marriage equality.  Rather, I feel remorseful and ashamed.

I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now. There were many years when I no longer had the vigor and passion of being a first-call pastor, ready to change the world and willing to say the hard things that needed to be said.  Those years when I was an associate pastor and I did not feel it was “my place” to speak out on issues and show disagreement with a senior pastor or those years when I was in rural Texas and knew my congregation was just barely holding on to the ELCA by a thread and I didn’t want to be the one to push them too hard for fear of them leaving the ELCA altogether. Those years when I supported my gay and lesbian friends, attended and sometimes was given the beautiful honor of preaching or presiding at their weddings, and yet I did not post the pictures on Facebook or speak about it too widely because I wanted to be sensitive to “where my congregation was at.”  I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people.  Spineless.  Neither hot nor cold.  A hypocrite, really.  I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth.  How dang noble, Ruth.  Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry.  I’m ashamed of it.

This is my confession today.  I am not brave.  I have been the opposite of brave.

The culture of our churches in these times makes it difficult, truthfully.  Clergy have families to feed and so there is a certain amount of wanting to keep a congregation happy so that one’s paycheck keeps coming.  The problem is that the real, raw gospel of Jesus Christ is upsetting and even infuriating…but none of us like being confronted and challenged regularly. So there is this balance that pastors try to find between sharing the convicting truth of the Gospel and also the endless grace.  We need both.

But too often, way too often, churches get so worried about anyone getting upset about ANYTHING.  So much so that this becomes a god of its’ own.  I’ve sat in countless council meetings where fear of losing members was the guiding decision-maker, not “what would Jesus do.”

And when a church does this too much, not only does the pastor get disillusioned, but so do the people.  People are passionate about the church when it is fired up about sharing the gospel, not when it is fired up about itself.  When we find our identity in Jesus, not when we find our identity in our programs or our pretty buildings, then we are authentic and brave and frankly, irresistible.

Anyway, here’s to being brave.  I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, an age that I am comfortable saying I may be halfway through my life.  The first half was very good – full of love and beauty and grace.  Now, the second half – I pray I will be truly brave.

Parables and Promises (a sermon from June 14, 2015)

Well, it is summertime – and summer means all sorts of things.  It means Bible School and there are beautiful days to be out on the lakes, it means family vacations and time with friends, it means mosquitos and woodticks, and it means that we are to the season of Pentecost in which we get to hear Jesus speaking in parables.

A parable is a short story that teaches something.   It is different than a fable because fables usually have animals or plants or inanimate objects or forces of nature as characters, but parables usually have human characters.  A parable is similar to an analogy.

Let’s take a look at some parts of the parable of the mustard seed.  In the gospel of Mark it says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds but when it is sown it grows to become the greatest of the shrubs.  Similarly, in the gospel of Matthew –  first, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its’ branches.  And the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” Makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – growing into something big.

Until we remember, however, that actually – neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, and farmers loathed it. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, In Jesus’ time, yeast or leavening was something that people understood as unclean or evil. Unlike the handy packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.

So…why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed or something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life? Well, it may be because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined.

And God’s kingdom is like that!  The Holy Spirit is far more potent than we’d imagined and it usually spreads in surprising ways, always in ways that are not controlled, oftentimes even in ways that disturb us and far from the way we think it should be. 

Think about it – a rag tag group of disciples, most of them probably teenagers, none of them professionally trained or educated – chosen by Jesus to be the first to go and share his word and make disciples of all nations.

Think about it – we could listen to the best public speaker in the world give a carefully crafted sermon about the deepest meanings of a text, but it would most likely not be as moving as when we hear the words of scripture being read out loud plainly and simply by a young child.

Think about it – of all the books written over time and distributed by great publishing houses – books written by great minds and backed by powerful corporations and lots of money to distribute them – still, it is the Holy Bible that is most printed and most quoted book by far.  Even people who claim to be atheists can quote scripture – because there is something about this Word that sticks, that captivates even those who want to call it hogwash.

It doesn’t make any sense and it never has and yet we who have experienced it know it to be true.  God’s Word isn’t just words. 

It reminds me of a book called How to Do Things with Words, – it is by J. L. Austin who makes the claim that words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. In other words, words aren’t merely descriptive but are evocative, even creative. When two persons say, “I do” in a marriage ceremony, for instance, they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does.

David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia expands on this – he says, “Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. And sometimes the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickenson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises.”

Words can do that!  And always and especially, God’s Word.  I’ve had that in my mind all week.  We could take all sorts of time to dissect what each parable means and the imagery Jesus used – but he used images and experiences people could understand in these parables so that we would know that the value to be found in these parables isn’t something we have to dig deeply for – rather our understanding of them comes from how the words fall on our ears, how we experience them.   

And perhaps mustard seeds and yeast and treasures buried in fields were great images for the times in which Jesus was teaching, they probably are still, but for those of us who love words, and I am one of those people, I wondered how it would be if we were to take a cue from Jesus and construct a few of our own parables.  How would that sound for each of us to try to describe those moments we have glimpsed the breaking in of God’s own kingdom into our daily lives?  I thought I would try my hand at that this week.  How’s this:

The kingdom of God is like a little boy who cannot sit still and is infinitely more interested in his red balloon than listening to the lesson or singing the songs in Vacation Bible School –and yet, when you ask him to tell you the Bible stories from the week, he knows every one of them in order.

The kingdom of heaven is like a small group of people gathered at the graveside of their friend.  Ancient words of scripture are read and as hot summer breezes move like a brush through the grass and the trees, they whisper that even in death, all things are being made new.

The kingdom of God is like when you are dead tired after a three days of Bible school but then you hear a small child as she walks by you in the grocery store singing the words to one of the songs she learned and the lyrics are, “My heart will sing no other Name, no other Name, Jesus.” 

Or one more:  The kingdom of heaven is like the people of God gathering together – and some are happy, and some are sad, and some are angry, and some are full of faith, and some hardly believe, and some are tired, and some are old, and some are young, and some are rich and some are poor, and some are stressed out, and some are content – they all come together hungry for different things, but they come to Jesus’ table, and all are fed.

Prayer for today:  Dear Lord, be near to us this day and in all our days.  Inspire us with your Word, give us strength and energy to serve You and love one another.  Help us to trust you are with us always in all ways.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

Admissions and Confessions

It was a stark and disquieting day – the day he admitted that he didn’t really believe in Jesus.

He admitted it as he was reading the Bible and all he could think about were the questions he had swirling around in his head.  The scripture said, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  He admitted that he wasn’t particularly interested in being servant of anyone, much less of everyone.

He admitted it as he thought about all the questions he had about how the Holy Spirit worked through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion.

He admitted it as he thought about how on the surface he appeared to be a very ‘good’ Christian.  However he knew very well that underneath that very thin veneer there was a man who lived stingily and cautiously, and not like someone who really ever believed in a gospel of transformation.

He admitted that if he was truthful with himself, he didn’t want to give away his hard-earned money to the poor.  Sure, he desired to help the starving children in Africa – but honestly, he really, really desired a flat-screen plasma television.

He admitted that any shred of faith he had now was completely unrecognizable from the faith he had as a child or even as a younger adult.

He thought that admitting all these things might spin his faith off into some void, that he might somehow become lost forever in a sea of agnostics and atheists with no way back.

Rather, it led him back home again.   His admissions, his confessions, reminded him why he so desperately needed a Savior.  By refusing to just play the part of a Christian anymore, he was coming closer to being the real thing than he had in a long time.