Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Naming the Other

For two years now, we’ve been treated to Pastor Jon’s excellent preaching. He has delivered inspiring and powerful sermons touching on both law and gospel, those two most basic aspects of Lutheran biblical interpretation. His sermons on gospel tell us of a God who loves unconditionally, who redeems, uplifts, inspires and blesses. His sermons on law tell us of a God who exhorts us to love our enemies, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and stand up for the oppressed. In short, to reach out in love and service to the Other.

We hear these messages and we nod our heads. We are comforted and challenged. We are called and inspired.

Twice in the past two years, Pr. Jon has gone a step further. He has named the Other. A year ago, he named the Other as the African American community, which is suffering under intense and painful institutionalized discrimination. More recently, he named the Other as Muslims, whose civil rights are being violated by our government.

Naming the Other changes things. As Pr. Jon named the Other, and named the injustice, we reacted at a much deeper level. Some of us said to ourselves, “Yes! THIS is the Christian message. THIS is what it means to follow Jesus!” We left affirmed and inspired. Others of us said to ourselves, “This is politics and it doesn’t belong in the pulpit.” We left disappointed and angry.

People of Calvary, this could be a serious problem. Or it could be an amazing opportunity.

It is a serious problem if we refuse to engage in dialog with one another about these things. It is a serious problem if we keep to ourselves our disagreements with one another, if we dig in to our own ideas and opinions convinced that we are right and others are wrong. It is a serious problem if we have conversations behind closed doors rather than open dialog within our loving and embracing Calvary family.

It is an amazing opportunity if we can come together and wrestle with these very real issues. I think that we can at least agree that our communities and our nation are experiencing an unprecedented level of divisiveness, anxiety and anger. We have been worshipping and sharing in community with one another for years, and even decades. We have practiced Christian hospitality with one another, and we have loved unconditionally. What better environment in which to come together and grapple with difficult issues that directly impact our lives and our call as Christians?

I will tell you now that whichever direction we choose, it is not going to be comfortable. We face either being frustrated with one another in secret, or being honest with one another in what might be painful ways. If we do choose the way of dialog, we will need—absolutely NEED—to set aside our insistence that we are right (this will be especially difficult for me!) We will need to be prayerful, loving, forgiving, and open-minded.

It is probably obvious which option I favor. We cannot simply use Calvary as some sort of ivory tower in which to take refuge until the current turmoil blows over. I do not believe that is what it means to follow Jesus.  I believe to the very core of my being that if we remain silent in the face of injustice, we condone that injustice. If we fail to take action to stand up for the oppressed, we are complicit with the oppressor. So I, for one, cannot remain silent. It is my deepest hope that you will join me in prayerful and loving conversation in which we are unafraid to name the Other.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Living into the Comma

Last week at the children’s sermon, I asked the kids what it meant to be blessed. None of them could put it into words, even though I got the sense they had some idea of the definition. To help them out, I showed them a series of pictures of people and asked them whether or not they thought the people in those pictures were blessed.

Unsurprisingly, they recognized right away that the family with the nice, big house, the family at Disney World, and the older couple toasting wine glasses on a yacht were blessed. How did they know? Well, they had “stuff.” And they looked happy. So that’s what it means to be blessed.

When I showed them pictures of a homeless family, a woman grieving, a Muslim woman in front of a mosque that had been vandalized, and a man in jail, they were emphatic. These people were not blessed.

Maybe it was a little bit of a dirty trick—the gospel lesson for the day was the Beatitudes, after all, and of course I was going to challenge the kids’ notions of what it meant to be blessed. But at the same time, these kids had just come from a Sunday School lesson in which they had been discussing this very story, so I was a little surprised that none of them smelled a rat in my questions about blessing.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Because as adults, many of us lifelong practicing Lutherans, we’ve read the Beatitudes and heard them preached on countless times. We know that Jesus turns what was the accepted understanding of blessing in his time on its head. And yet somehow, we still haven’t gotten the message. We still—and I mean all of us at some time or another—fall into the belief that blessings are material things bestowed upon us or the presence of positivity (people, situations and things) in our lives. We still look at those who are suffering and cannot fathom how to see them as blessed.

Of course, all those wonderful things in our lives, material and otherwise are blessings. All that we have comes from God. And if we have good things, those good things come from God! So we are, in that very culturally-defined way, blessed.

The problem is that that’s where most of us stop. We live as though we are blessed-period. Blessed. But the truth is that God’s blessings don’t end in a period. They end in a comma. We are blessed-comma. Blessed, and… Blessed, to... Blessed, so that…

God said to Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…  and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:2, 3b

If we are ever to get unstuck in our inability to recognize God’s blessings beyond just the positive material things in our lives, we have to live into the comma. If we are ever to fathom how to see the suffering as blessed by God, we have to move past the comma into the calling.

Luther wrote of God as “the God of the preposition:” God’s work through us. Now I would never suggest that God is unable to work outside of human agency—that the suffering aren’t blessed unless we work to bring them blessing. That being said, I do believe that God calls us—in no uncertain terms—to be a blessing to those who are poor, who grieve, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who experience persecution. God calls us to take action on their behalf, to reach God’s arms around them in love and healing, to work to change systems that continue to do them harm.

This is not simply an admonition, but an invitation. When we live into the comma, suddenly our own blessings seem less hollow. When we stop counting our blessings and start sharing them, life takes on real meaning and purpose. We get “a foretaste of the feast to come” when we will live in joyful community with God’s people (which is all people!) Isn’t that exciting? So go forth! And remember that you are blessed,