Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What is the Church About?

I'm a little hesitant in bringing up this post, because I know there will be people that will think that "Dennis hates poor people and probably kicks puppies." That's far from the truth. (I mean, I would kick kittens, instead.)

Seriously, I know that there will be people who will assume the following critique means I don't care about social justice when in reality I do. But I still have this problem.

Fellow Disciple and blogger, Michael Davidson stated his resolutions concerning our denomination, the Disciples of Christ. I agree with most of it, but I have some questions about the following:

We will become even more mission-focused. A missional focus that does not seek to create more Christians or churches, but rather seeks to serve our world through: standing up for economic justice; being a non-consumer driven church; standing against all kinds of discrimination based on race, gender, socioeconomic, or sexual orientation; altering systems in our culture and Christendom that tolerate mediocrity in the name of maintaining power or creating diversity.
Only then will they know us by our love, and will an authentic Christian witness revealed.

Now, I am someone who thinks that mission, being "sent out" into the world carrying the good news of Christ is important. I think it is important for Christians to engage in acts of justice, not just as a side issues but as part of who we are. But there is also a question that tugs at me: if the church is only focused on economic injustice, ending all forms of discrmination and the like, who really needs the church? The fact is that there are a lot of good and wonderful people who do these things without the church. (I don't agree with those who say you can't be both moral and an atheist.) We don't need to get up on Sunday mornings, let alone give money to a local church, when such money can be spent directly on the poor, instead of paying pastors and administators. To take it farther, we don't need denominational officials or structures, since again, we should be spending money on social justice.

(I'm also a bit peeved by his dismissiveness of new churches, being a new church pastor. I will get to that in a moment.)

For me, I do justice not because it is what Christianity is all about, I do it out of joyous response of what God has done in my life in particular and the whole of creation. God came to earth in the form of Jesus and lived with us. Jesus then died for us a freed us from the power of sin. We now live in God's grace. When someone does something wonderful for you, what is your normal response? Well, to "pay it forward." I do justice out of the love that God has shown. God has shown love and we want to share that love.

Davidson also seems to be dismissive of new churches. Being a new church pastor, I take some offense. One of the reasons I helped plant Community of Grace was to be an Open and Affirming church, a place where gays and lesbians can worship freely. This new church has brought one person back to church after years of not feeling welcomed because of his sexuality. He has come back to community and his faith has grown because of this new church. Church planting can also be about justice.

Justice is the evidence of our faith, but it is not the faith itself.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sunday Sermon- Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2007

No Do Overs”
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22
January 7, 2007 (Baptism of Our Lord)
Community of Grace Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Did you ever have one of those experiences where you are playing a board game and you made some kind of mistake? Someone usually has pity on you and you get what is called a “do-over.”

I live for those moments.

Do overs can be great, I mean you get another chance. I really like them when I was playing some kind of athletic game as a kid. Since I was not blessed with physical prowess, this meant that I had another shot at getting it right.

Getting a do-over in say, kickball, is a good thing, but do-overs don't work so well in the life of faith. In fact, they might do some damage.

Today is what is commonly called The Baptism of Our Lord. It is on this day, that we read about Jesus, the Son of God, the one who had no sin, coming forth to be baptized. Baptism has always been a touchy subject for me. As many of you know, I come from the Baptist tradition, so people tend to get baptized later in life than someone from a tradition that practices infant baptism. Baptists as well as Disciples believe in something called “believer's baptism,” which means that the person usually makes a profession of faith before they are baptized. I got baptized in December 1976 at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. I was seven years old and didn't understand everything that was going on. Anyway, I did get baptized and went on to grow up in the church and learn about God and about how God loved me.

As I got older, I started to have doubts. I would hear many preachers talking about making sure we were saved by God and I would fret about this. Did I really believe? It didn't get any better when I was in college. Back then, I shared my concerns with my campus pastor. His belief was that in my case, I might want to get baptized again since I wasn't sure. When I shared this with my mother, she looked at me as if I had just turned purple. I never went through with it and over time, I put my fears to rest. That was until about five years later when I was looking to join a Baptist church in Washington, DC. I was chatting with the pastor, and he asked if I had been baptized. I said yes “Was it a believer's baptism?” he said. I tensed up. All the doubts came back. You see, he believed that the “believer's baptism” was the only true way to be baptized and had “re-baptized” those who came from traditions where they were baptized as children. Despite my doubts, I told him I had been baptized.

Baptism, is an interesting tradtion because we humans just don't get it. We tend to think it is something we do, and forget it is something that God does. While I was pointing out how some misinterpret “believer's baptism,” there are many who see infant baptism as some kind of magic that protects children from the flames of hell. Again, we think it is a human action, but baptism is a reminder of who God is and who we are in God.

In today's Gospel, Jesus is going to be baptized. In some passages, he is baptized by his cousin John, but in this passage it seems that John is in prison, so someone else must be doing the deed. After he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes down and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

This passage is pretty short, but it says a whole lot. The pastors I heard in my youth seemed to think that you had to be incredibly perfect to make your baptism stick. You needed to be sure in your heart for it to work or you needed to profess your faith for it to have any affect. If you made a mistake, you got a do-over and could do it again.

But that's not what a baptism is all about. What happens when Jesus is baptized reminds us what this event is all about: it is a reminder that we are loved by God, that we are part of God's family and that there is nothing that can tear us from that love, not our doubts, not our sins, nothing. And then when we are washed clean by God, we are then called into the world to bring God's message to all.

Baptism is about entering into a relationship with the creator of the universe. This God that loves us so much that God sent his only Son for us, reminds us when we are baptized.
Baptism isn't magic; it's about a relationship. God reminds us that we are loved, and we pledge to love God and serve others. Jesus' baptism was the beginning of his public ministry. All those miracles and teachings didn't happen until he was baptized. The baptism was not a good luck charm, but it grounded him, he was doing this for God, because he had a relationship with the Father.

I tend to keep up on what's going on in other denominations, and since I know a lot of Lutherans, I tend to know what's going among our Lutheran brothers and sisters. In a few weeks an ecclesastical trial will take place. There is a pastor from Atlanta, Brad Schemling, that has been found to be in a relationship with another male pastor. Now, the ELCA frowns on gay pastors in relationships. What they outcome of this trial will be in still in doubt, but I am reminded that some of Lutheran friends who believe in the ministry of all believers tend to say that if gay people can't be pastors, then don't baptize them. Now being a logical man, that used to not make sense to me. I knew Lutherans were baptized as infants and no one can determine sexual orientation when some one is in diapers. But then that was the point. When we baptize a child, we don't ask if they are gay or straight, we see them as a child of God that is to be brought up in the ways of God. If we don't prohibit someone from being baptized and told that God loves them, then why are we prohibiting them from sharing that love with others in the role of minister?

Community of Grace has gone through a lot in the past few years. We are at a crossroads here. I think I can speak for Dan in saying I feel tired and listeless and feeling a bit of despair. Why didn't anyone come visit us? Why aren't more people in the pews? What did we do wrong?

While I feel that way sometimes....well, most of the time, I also think God is telling me something else. The fact is, as small as we are, we are a gathered community of baptized believers. We are part of God's family and we are on a mission. I will say that again: we are a gathered community of baptized believers and we are on a mission. Baptism is also a call to go into the world and share God's love. We are modern apostles, which in Greek means “sent out.” Church isn't about how many people are in the pews, but if the people in those pews are going to go out and “be Christ” to the world. Are we showing that Christ's spirit of caring for the poor, for all of creation, of welcoming everyone and anyone? Community of Grace has tried to do that, though sometimes we've gotten off track. That's why we try to give a portion of our offerings to a charity. When we offered pastoral care after the death of Charlie XXXX, we were being Christ and affirming our baptism, that God loves us and in response we will love others.

I think we need to do more. I think we need to do more acts like going to soup kitchens or delivering meals to persons living with HIV/AIDS or the elderly. Our worship needs to focus on giving praise to God and preparing us for mission in the world.

In a few moments, we will reaffirm our baptism. We will pledge to live lives pleasing to God, to renounce sin and to work for justice and peace. We are reminded that church is more than just going to a service once week, but it is about being sent into this world armed with God's love and knowing that we are loved by God no matter what.

The Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church says this about baptism:

Through baptism into Christ,
we enter into newness of life
and are made one with the whole people of God.
Baptism isn't about trying to get right before God as some of the pastors of my youth thought. It isn't some magic trick either. It's about entering into a new life and new family. It's about remembering what God has done in our lives and in gratitude sharing that same love with others. Our renewal of our baptismal vows is a reminder that a church isn't a country club, but a people on a mission with God as our guide.

If I had to give an answer to my campus minister and my minister in DC, about my certainty of my faith and if my baptism meant anything, I know what my answer would be. It's an old answer; it's the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the important creeds from the Reformed branch of Protestant Christianity. Since it's a catechism, it's in question and answer form. That first question says, what is your only comfort in life and death? The answer is what I would say to those pastors:

That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

Seems like a good enough answer. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday Sermon- First Sunday of Christmas, December 31, 2006

I did some more supply preaching over the holidays. Here's another sermon I gave.

Wholly Family”

Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17

December 31, 2006

Edgcumbe Presbyterian Church

St. Paul, MN

Mary's having a baby.

No, I'm not talking about Mary, the mother of Jesus here, I'm talking about Mary Cheney, one of the daughters of Vice President Dick Cheney. Now, normally this wouldn't garner so much attention, but the fact that Ms. Cheney is a lesbian and has been in a committed relationship with a woman for 15 years and the fact that a vocal group within the party she and her father belong to think homosexuality is wrong IS news. Usually, the news of a pregnancy brings good news, but for a number of religious leaders, this was not good news. Janet Crouse, the leader of Concerned Women for America, called the event and I quote, “unconscionable.” A policy analyst for another group, Focus on the Family said that while he had empathy for Cheney and her partner's good news, “love can't replace a father and a mother.”

What does family mean in almost 2007? That has been the question that has inflamed what is called the “culture wars” for about 25 years. For some, it means having a father and a mother who are married. For others, it could mean two same sex partners.

This past June, I had the opportunity to attend a family reunion in Louisiana. I had the chance to see relatives that I haven't seen in years. We Sanders live all over the place, from Louisiana, to Texas, to Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota, Arizona and California. We had a great time of catching up and eating great food; fried chicken, fried catfish, crawfish ettoufe, boiled shrimp and so forth. Events like these remind me of my family, it reminds me of who I am: a Sanders.

So for a follower of Christ, what should family mean? You see, those culture wars I talked about are also affecting the church and I'm well aware about how these debates are affecting the Presbyterian Church. Notice I didn't say what does family mean, but what should it mean. I say this because I'm beginning to think that how God looks at family is bigger than how we look at it.

In today's gospel, we see that Jesus and the family are going on a trip to Jerusalem. When I was a kid on long trips, I would probably sing to myself or read a book. I have no idea what Jesus did. Anyway, they went to Jerusalem for Passover. Afterwards, they headed home. Mary and Joseph didn't see Jesus, but thought maybe he was with friends, so they journeyed on. After a while, the didn't see him at all. Now, they were starting to worry. They turn around and head back to Jerusalem and spend three days searching for him. They finally find him in the temple talking to the teachers. You can imagine that his parents were fuming. His mother was angry that he had caused them to worry. Now, at this point, you would expect that a kid like Jesus would say something like “I'm sorry.” But Jesus didn't say that. Instead he says, “Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?”

That left Mary and Joseph stumped, and it leaves us stumped as well. Didn't Jesus care about his mother and father? And what's this being in his Father's house?

I think this little exchange reminds us that Jesus had a different understanding of what it meant to be family. In later years, Jesus would say that whoever does the will of God is his mother and brother.

So what is Jesus saying about family? I don't think he saying that family is bad, but Jesus seems to be saying that family should be bigger than blood ties. Jesus said he needed to be in his Father's house. This meant that he needed to be about God's business and that was of higher concern than family ties.

There is a lot of talk in Christian circles about family values. Now, I'm certainly not against families and I don't think Jesus is calling for the breakup of families. However, Jesus is concerned when family becomes a god and takes the place of godly values.

When Jesus walked this earth, he seemed to be willing to accept everybody. He made friends with people that many would not want to be near at all. Jesus practiced a radical hospitality that made anyone a member of the family.

As Christians, we are called to practice this same hospitality. We are called to be a family of God that is made of up people from different walks of life.

A few years ago, I visited a church in the area that has the word “family” in its name. The service was okay, but no one really welcomed me to the church. This church seemed to care a lot about families of the nuclear sort, but it didn't welcome a stanger into their church family.

But there is a positive example of what family is and I didn't have to go to far to find it. A few years ago, I started to attend this congregation for a time. It was in early March of 2002, that I found out that my mother had breast cancer. I sent an email to Pastor Cindy Ray about this. A few days later, checked my email and noticed that there were a ton of emails from members of Edcumbe who all said they were praying for me and my Mom. I was deeply touched by this, because I was someone who most of you didn't know and yet you treated me as if I were a long time member. That's what Jesus means by family.

As Christians we are to be about family values, but our definition has to be wider. We need to welcome those from all backgrounds, regardless of their race or gender, regardless if they are rich or poor, regardless if they are straight or gay. All of these people are God's children and therefore part of the family.

A well known restaurant chain has a slogan that goes, “When you're here, your'e family.” That should be what any community that claims to follow Jesus is like, a place where all are welcomed and none are excluded.

Let us be about our Father's business. Thanks be to God. Amen.