Saturday, May 25, 2019

Oh No, The World is Changing vs. Look, a New World! (Newsletter article)

              I received a letter from my home congregation Christ Lutheran, Cheyenne Wyoming, informing me that it was closing. It was a shock; it sort of knocked me off of my spiritual center of gravity. I mean, for me it was one thing that Lutheran congregations around St. Stephen were closing—after all on the East Coast only 1 in 4 members attend on any given Sunday, whereas “back home” Lutheran congregations have double the attendance—half of the congregation attends any given Sunday—which makes it much easier to keep a congregation afloat and energized. So, I went down that sad rabbit hole of thought, “If congregations in an area of the country where there is a cultural expectation that everyone attends church can’t make it… what chance do we have here?”
              Coloring all of that, of course, was all the emotional ties I had with the people of Christ Lutheran and yes, even the building. It was the place I first heard that God was gracious, the pulpit from which I preached my first sermons! I was losing an incredibly important part of my past! My very identity was being pulled out from under me!
              I was unable to attend the closing of the congregation, but I was able to send them a brief letter that was read at the closing:
Grace and peace,
This is Chris Halverson, I was a member of Christ Lutheran in my high school years. I received the letter informing me of Christ Lutheran’s imminent closure. I’ve not worshiped at Christ since traveling back to Cheyenne for my 10 year East High graduation; Seminary in Philadelphia and being called to be a Lutheran church in New Jersey has kept me away. I just want everyone to know how much you all mean to me. The wide variety of ways you all ministered to me—the community, the openness and love, all of it, was just what I needed as the sensitive teenager I was; you were truly the body of Christ to me. Thank you all so very much!
Chris Halverson
              When I started to write (and re-write, and re-write again) the above paragraph I did so mourning the past, that everything was changing, my story was changing.
              But by the time I send the letter the direction my heart was headed had flipped. I was so thankful for the good I experienced at Christ—in fact I wanted to pass it on! What if in my ministry… in the congregation I serve and the congregations I will serve… I could help create communities of openness and love, where we can be the body of Christ for whole hosts of people who need it? What if a changed story, a loss of place, the deep sorrow of looking back at what was… what if all of that could prompt us to look forward? We’re not losing an old world, but finding a new one, flowing out in front of us to explore. What if the whole thing is a grand new adventure?
              I don’t know how that shift occurs, that moment mid-paragraph that moves the soul from grief to hope, but I’m so glad it happened for me. I hope it has happened for folk from St. Peter’s and Cross of Life and St. Stephen, Edison. I hope it happens for the entire church as we continually wake up to the new world in which we minister. We experienced the Church as a life giving, resurrection laced place, and now, in this new world we are in, we get to create just such a place for others! Thanks be to God!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

God Makes No Distinction

            When I was a kid, and I got to choose a book from the school library, I always picked the biggest one with the least pictures. I went straight from reading Goosebumps to Moby Dick. Synod Assembly isn’t for another 3 weeks, but I’ve already read all 106 pages of the bulletin of reports… it’s just what I do.
            And so, when the Mueller Report came out some people were horrified that it was 450 pages long—I was kinda excited—its length was a feature, not a bug.
            Having read the whole thing (or at least the 90% that wasn’t blacked out), I was especially struck by one thing.
            A Russian Spy Unit of the GRU, used Social Media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to regularly bombard 126 million Americans with propaganda, all with one goal—Division.
            They looked for the most divisive issues, and groups, and leaders in our country and pushed them even further, there was hardly a burning social issue that they didn’t throw gasoline on.
If there was a justice reform group, they encouraged cop killing,
a Black Lives Matter Group, they encouraged members to think of whites as Neanderthals.
In anti-immigration groups, they encouraged hatred of Latinos,
neo-Nazi groups, they set up real life rallies.
And I won’t even get into the ways they manipulated our two main political parties…
To be clear, “We have met the Enemy and He is Us.”
That is, they took what was already there, these divisions in our country, and amplified them.            And it worked!
We bought it,
we bought into the idea that our neighbor is irrational or evil
—that whoever is not forus is againstus…
            And we shouldn’t be surprised
—that’s always an inclination within us,
Division is in our DNA.
Division is easy, and division is everywhere!
            Let us pray

            Our reading in Acts starts with criticism… It starts with a division among the leaders in Jerusalem—Peter is being criticized for associating with unclean, uncircumcised, non-Jewish men. Eating with them.
            You can hear the questions:
-Are you leaving us and siding with them?
-Do you think you can have a place at their table and ours?
-Don’t you know that these groups are mutually exclusive?
            I’d imagine if the GRU was active back then they would have flooded the Disciple’s with pictures of non-Jews eating pork and lobster with super greasy hands and popularizing the hashtag #IsPeterWithUs?
            And Peter protests—he too finds this expansion of the Word of God to the Gentiles disturbing. After all, in his world there are these grand divisions:
Jew and Gentile,
clean and unclean,
holy and profane,
life and death.
If one is yellowand the other redthe great danger to guard against would be orange.

            He has this vision, with all kinds of unclean animals offered as food—the Lord tells him to eat these animals, that they are now clean!
            And he doesn’t do it.
            And he is told again.
            And he doesn’t do it!
            And he is told a third time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
            Andonly thendoes he relent, and goes after these men from Cornelius’ house to find the Holy Spirit bringing life, holiness, and cleanliness to gentiles too.
            Only then…
            Can you imagine it
—it takes the Holy Spirit and angels prompting Cornelius and then acting out a whole holy skit for Peter, complete with camels and jackals and crocodiles and buzzards!Oh my!
            All that just to get across one simple idea: God Makes No Distinction!

            But I’m sure we’d work just as hard not to hear God’s word for us, if that holy picnic blanket fell into our laps. God would have to repeat things three times for us…
            After all making distinctions help us know who we are / they create boundaries / they make us feel like we’re in the right / we know who is on our side and who is safe / they help us feel like we’re in an exclusive club…
and they just make life simpler
—with enough divisions you can go on auto-pilot
—we can cruise through some of the hard parts of life and concentrate on the bits we find to be important or enjoyable. We can stay in a place of safety and stasis…

            Now, the ELCA has worked with Immigrants since before it was the ELCA, through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services since 1939
(one of the few things the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod still does with us)
and more recently through the ELCA’s AMPARO strategy, which focuses on helping unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the US. 
            But, just this last week Pastor Betty Rendรดn of Emaus Lutheran in Racine Wisconsin and her family were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to be deported to Colombia
—she’d fled Colombia because guerilla soldiers threatened to kill her after she refused to send her male students to join the rebel army.
            And it is fascinating to watch our denomination respond. There is a lot of chest thumping,
“This time it is personal.”
“She’s one of us.”
“They chose the wrong Immigrant to mess with, she has a church behind her!”
            And on one hand, for a lot of people, imagining a pastor in their denomination detained in an ICE facility does change that dividing lines, right?
            But on the other hand, there is the reality that some folk were on autopilot, cruising through the pain and suffering of so many, because they didn’t fit into a particular box of people worthy of our care and our concern.

            Yes, I imagine we’d buck away and avert our eyes to God’s word for us:
God Makes No Distinction!
Just as the Apostle Peter did.
            And yet, that is the calling… a radical transformation of how we view other human beings! 
No Distinction!
            It seems impossibly hard… just to hold onto that command… 
Whatcan push from our hearts this yearning for exclusiveness and ease, these distinctions that make us feel safe?
            Peter was a lucky guy, on that roof in Joppa three times he was shown not to make a distinction
—But he was luckier still, 4 times, years earlier in Jerusalem, when Jesus washed his feet, as I read in John 13
—four times, he is told of God’s glory and told about love… in fact, when it comes right down to it, he is told that God’s glory is found in Love!
            Yes, another command…
love one another
—but also a promise and a reminder
—You are loved,
you are loved by Jesus,
loved and washed by him,

-washed when you don’t get why you are washed,
-washed when you deny him,
-washed when you betray him!
-Washed lovingly even when you are called profane or unclean.

            You don’t need to be on the better side, he dwells with us all!
            You don’t need rules to make you righteous, he is your righteousness!
            You don’t need to be on auto-pilot to find rest, for you will rest in him!
            Division is so easily stoked, a boulder at the top of a mountain that just needs a little nudge, a few Russian Internet trolls can do grave damage to a whole country.
            In the face of all that, we are washed and loved and continually reminded that
God Makes No Distinction! A+A