Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Unified Theory of Lutheranism Today

 So, at Learning, Lawn Chairs, and Lemonade (my church's summer intergenerational group) we’ve been thinking about the Future Church.
            Each week I come out with three props to start things off: a pair of glasses, a hammer, and a map. These three props represent the three considerations of Aristotelian Ethics (but if I’d told everyone we meeting to talk about Aristotle, no one would have showed up)—determine where you are at, what tools you have to get where you are going, and know where you ultimately want to end up.

Glasses (Where we’re at):
            As some of you have heard before, I think where we are at, as both a church and a nation, can be defined by 3Ds: Disestablishment, Decentralization, and Demographic Shift
            The Church is (or in some regions of the country, is becoming) disestablished here in the USA—that is, we have a different voice in our country and in our culture than we once did. There was a time when our society saw the church as an integral part of the social fabric and treated us as such. For example, there were blue laws that kept businesses closed on Sunday so employment wasn’t a barrier to worship. These days most people don’t equate Good Christian with Good American, the distinction between those two things has grown and changed.

            The most quoted line of poet William Yeats comes from the beginning of his poem “The Second Coming” in which he writes:
            Turning and turning in the widening gyre
            The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
            Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
            There is no center to things any more, everything has cracked open and separated out. At one time, everyone got their news from one straight laced news man, a single source, and that was the reality everyone bought into. At one time, you were likely to live next to a neighbor with a differing political opinion from yours and that was okay. At one time, people regularly bowled in leagues and regularly joined organizations of all sorts. Now, there are news channels that cater to any viewpoint, everything is looked at through a partisan lens and there are literally now “blue” and “red” neighborhoods—a great sorting based on ideology, the same number of people bowl as before, but alone because league attendance has plummeted, and any organization that takes serious commitment has taken a serious hit. In short, we’re feeling the effects of decentralization.

            There has also been a great demographic shift going on in America for a while. For example, in the 1950 census 87% of Americans claimed to be European, in 2010 64% made that same claim. As the same time, Asians went from 0.2% of the population to 5%, Latinos from 2% to 16%, and “multi-racial” wasn’t even a category but now is the identity claimed by 2% of our population. While these ethnic changes have taken place economic changes have occurred as well. There are now 10% fewer people in America considered middle class, and at the same time the cost of everything has risen dramatically, while incomes have not.

            These 3D’s represent the landscape in which we are doing ministry. George Orwell once wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And it is; the day in day out stuff of ministering in this time and place can make us lose sight of the ground we are on and the realities we face. But if we know the landscape, we can find firm footing and show forth God’s love rightly. And the reality in which we find ourselves living together as church isn’t bad news, at worst it is neutral, it is just where we are. In fact, there are some real positives! 
            Without the social pressures of being a good citizen and a good Christian, those of us still in the church are here because we really want to be here, not because there is social pressure to be here! 
            There is a power to decentralization—a small group of people can do giant things. That should be good news to us, after all we are a small group of people tasked to do nothing short of be God’s hands in the world! 
            Non-Europeans are the majority of new immigrant to this country, and Lutheranism has traditionally grown with new immigrants from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway… Well guess what, there are now more Lutherans in either Ethiopia or Tanzania than in Sweden, more Lutherans in Indonesia than Denmark, more Lutherans in India than Finland, Norway, or the USA, more Lutherans in Nigeria than the Netherlands. For that matter, the majority of Namibians are Lutheran. You get the picture, our country’s ethnic demographic changes should only scare us if we see Lutheranism as being about Lederhosen and Lefse instead of Grace and Word and Sacrament and Cross.
            As for the economics of it all, maybe this jolt to the middle class will help us hear those in poverty in a new way. Perhaps it can make us more thankful for those things we do have. Could we maybe become more creative in response to our limits? Even more generous? 

Hammer (what tools do we have):
            On one hand we have some really solid theological centers in Lutheranism—Grace and Faith, Scripture as the two edged sword of Law and Gospel, the Christian as both Saint and Sinner at the same time, the Cross as the lens with which we look at everything… these are incredibly important… but they can also be rather abstract… so it is worth looking to the other hand, and finding more concrete tools—specifically, those things we do in worship. 
            They are the practices of the Church that have existed since the beginning—in Luke’s Gospel on the road to Emmaus (Luke 23:13-35) they gather, read scripture, share a meal, and are sent back into the world. In the Didache (an early Christian handbook for worship probably written by Christians who were especially fond of Matthew’s Gospel) and in Justin Martyr’s description of what Christians do in worship, they all spell out the same thing. At base, Christians gather, read the word of God, share a common meal, and are sent out to bring the Gospel to the world, by whatever means they can.
            Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending. These are our tools to use in the world in which we live. 
            Gathering, how revolutionary today! We’re a people who don’t do it alone; who insist upon community, even when it is hard. We are centered in Christ’s death and life for us and practice confession and forgiveness in it. 
            Word, we are challenged and comforted continually by God’s story. There are many stories in our culture, many of them unhelpful, so we cling instead to those stories in which Christ found his being. We tell them and are transformed by them, sacred story shaping who we are; God’s story is our story. 
            Meal, one of thanksgiving and celebration, one in which we receive true nourishment, Christ himself for us. Grace physically present to us. Thanksgiving and community around a meal from God!
            Sending, the church does not exist for itself, or its members, but for the world which God loves. We are filled, to be emptied. We have practiced being community, found how our story intersects with God’s story, been thankful and fed, so we may now be that outside the church walls, loving our neighbor.

Map (Where we want to end up):
            Finally, there is the ultimate question—what’s the point of all this? What’s Lutheranism for? What’s the goal of church? 
            Taking a look at my handy dandy Small Catechism, I can look to Luther’s description of the 10 commandments and from it gather humans are to fear[1], love, and trust God. That’s it right there! Our goal is to help people fear, love, and trust God. We are making wonder filled, beloved, people who are confident that God has got them!

Putting it all together:
            The ultimate goal of the church is to help people be in awe of, love, and trust, God. The practices of Christian worship are the main tools we use to get to that goal. The disestablishment of the church, the decentralization of our society, and the demographic shifts in our country, present both challenges and opportunities to reaching this goal. 

[1] I believe fear in this sense has more to do with awe. Just as seeing the Grand Canyon gives us a sense of smallness and wonder and a tinge of fear (especially if you are afraid of heights), so too does a proper relationship to God.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon: Another letter of Paul to St. Stephen Lutheran

Dear Sibblings in Christ,
         For three chapters in my letter to the Romans, I struggled, twisted and turned, tried to articulate and express what God was doing with his people.
         I struggled so mightily because the whole thing, God’s merciful acts for us, is so mysterious and unexpected.
         I struggled as well, because I was writing to a mixed community—both Jew and Gentile; one that had experienced turmoil on account of the persecution and expulsion of the Jews in Rome… for 3 years the community had been solely gentile, the Emperor had removed all the Jews from the city, including the Christian Jews in that congregation—and by the time they returned the dynamics there had shifted, relations strained.
         I struggled, because that question weighed so heavily upon my soul—what of my own kinspeople? What of the people from whom Jesus Christ came, whom God adopted, made a relationship with, gave the commandments to, who rightly worshipped God and held tightly to God’s promises. What, I asked, is God doing in relationship to his people? Who are his people? How does God’s mercy and God’s majesty play out?

         I struggled with it, and still do.
         But this I know. I know that at least I, Paul, embraced God’s law without the Spirit, and in so doing condemned what God was doing through Jesus Christ.
         I persecuted the early church;
I witnessed and aided the stoning of Saint Stephen;
I called cursed that which God had blessed—truly I had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
         And I did so because I clung to holy words “cursed is the one who hangs upon a tree,” I held to them so tightly that I squeezed the holiness right out of them. I couldn’t see Jesus holding out his loving arms to all people from that cursed tree!

         And I worried that my people had done something similar, that some of
-Our cultural practices,
-The boundary markers created to keep our communities safe,
-Emblems of Identity held dear, so the dominant culture couldn’t crush the covenant God made with us…
That these things had become a stumbling block.
That these same fences keeping corruption out, were now keeping God’s mercy confined,
Keeping those who desperately needed the salvation of Jesus, from receiving it.

         And it is hard to talk about these things, these days, because my words are sometimes been used as ammunition by anti-Semites to injure my people—the Jews.
         In fact, I think the only honest way to hear my words is to apply them to your congregation or synod or denomination or religious tradition.
         The only honest way to hear my words about my people is to sincerely assess:
your own cultural practices,
your own boundary markers,
your own emblems of identity,
your own fences,
your own fanaticism.
How have they held back God’s work—the reconciliation of the whole world?
How have they stifled the Spirit and called cursed, those things which God has blessed?

         For example:
         I have heard that 300 years after my death Christianity tied itself to Rome—that being Roman and being Christian became part of a single cultural package—and then Rome fell and nearly took the faith down with it.
         I have heard of Christian churches that lock their doors during the service, because they are afraid of their neighbors—they literally fence off those seeking the freedom of Christ.
         I’ve even heard of some Christians that so associate their faith with a meeting of people in a building, that they forget that being a Christian is a lifetime of ongoing repentance, everywhere, not just for an hour on Sunday.

         I encourage you to think of the fanatics, fences, emblems of identity, boundary markers, and cultural practices of your faith that might be getting in the way of Christ.
         Those things—are, at the end of the day, all human attempt to Resurrect Jesus, and to incarnate God. They are works of humans, that are for not.
         After all, you must know that God already came in the flesh of Jesus,
and death has already been overcome by Christ
—the resurrection, the incarnation, they are God’s to do, not yours!
         These things are already done. All we can do is trust it to be true
—trust that God’s got this.
         All we can do is get out of the way and watch God at work in the lives of people with whom we wouldn’t expect God to act
—listen to the good news that God has acted for us and not against us
—for all of us, against no one!
God’s merciful reach is bigger than our boldest imagination!
God is always merciful.
It’s all a gift, a calling, a promise, and it is all-irrevocable.
God is faithful and God’s promises are unbreakable.
         How this all come together—it is ultimately a great mystery—the mysterious works of God—and even as it is a struggle to speak of it, or grasp it in our minds or hearts, or express it ourselves,
it is so marvelous!