Living in Community

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Ezekiel 33:1-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Seventeen years ago, during my freshman year at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, IL, I was one of nine tuba players in the Marian Catholic High School Marching Band.

It was a bit of a rough start.

I wasn’t like the other kids in the tuba section. We did not have the same interests. We did not have the same approach to music. We did not have the same way of thinking about high school. And it led to friction.

Marching band is a delicate thing. It is the definition of a team sport. You can have 99 people lined up in a perfectly straight line, but if 1 person is a half-step out of line, it doesn’t matter what the other 99 are doing—it’s not a straight line, and you lose points.

The whole band can be playing the same part in unison, all together. But if one person comes in a half-beat too early, the whole part is ruined, and you lose points.

The entire band must work together, and it must work together well if the band is going to succeed. You have to rely on each other to do your parts, and to do them well. You have to trust that the person in front of you or to the side of you will hit their mark, and they are trusting that you are going to hit yours as well.

This is such an important and difficult task that to this day, even within the last month, I have had nightmares about being back in marching band, on the field and ready to start a show, and I suddenly realize I don’t know my part at all. I don’t know a note of the music or a single step. It is the scariest nightmare I’ve ever had.

In order for all of this marching band stuff to work, there needs to be a certain level of trust. And in the tuba section, we didn’t have that trust. We fought with each other, we got mad at each other, and we found it very difficult to work with each other.

One day after school, when the tuba section showed up for our sectional (our weekly rehearsal just for our instrument), the assistant band director, Marc Whitlock, called all nine of us over and led us into the big storage room at the back of the band room. He then, in a tone of voice that allowed no argument, told us that we’d better not dare come out until we’d worked through our crap. And then he slammed the door and walked away, leaving us by ourselves.

The next two hours were… well, let’s just say that they were heated. I don’t remember much of that afternoon. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of blaming. There were a lot of arguments and frustrations aired out in the open. There was a lot of brutal honesty, feelings expressed that we’d kept bottled up for weeks. It was an incredibly awkward, painful experience for a shy, introverted freshman.

I wish I could say that after those two hours, when we emerged from the storage room, all of our problems were solved. That’s not the case. Some of the upper classmen were still the same egotistical jerks they always were. I was still going to be the annoying Little Princess in their eyes. However, we did emerge with a better understanding of one another. We knew each other better. We knew what to expect. And we knew that no matter what happened, we were the tuba section. We were going to work together to make the best show we possibly could. We weren’t going to let our personal disagreements get in the way of our mission.

I will say that by the end of the year, we were closer. Not perfect, closer. Maybe we even respected each other just a little bit. But the work that began in that storage room was never quite finished. Most of us never became friends, and the friendships I did manage to cultivate in my section didn’t last beyond graduation.

Living intentionally in community with people is really, really hard. Personalities clash. People get upset. People get angry. Sometimes relationships are broken to the point that they can’t be salvaged anymore. Sometimes people leave. Keeping a community together, especially a voluntary community like, say, a church, is really, really hard.

And this is not a sermon on how we all need to come together, put aside our differences, and all get along. I wish it were that simple. But we know it’s not. We know that our community has suffered. We know that some relationships have been broken that we may never mend not matter how hard we try. I know that I’m the reason for some of them. It would be rather insincere of me to then come up here and say “We all just need to come together.” It doesn’t work in our country, and it doesn’t work in the church.

Nor is this a sermon about following the “rules” of Matthew 18 when it comes to resolving disputes, as if Jesus is providing a ready-made blueprint for approaching conflicts. I’m not sure that’s the right approach. Even though our own church constitution uses Matthew 18:15-20 as a model for conflict resolution, I’ve never been in a congregation that used it effectively. Because living in a community, where people will come into conflict, is really, really hard.

Instead, this sermon is about God.

Take a look at Matthew 18 as a whole. Remember, chapter divisions in the Bible are completely arbitrary because the original authors didn’t divide their writings up that way, but look at the rest of Matthew 18. It begins with a story of the disciples wanting to know how to be truly GREAT, and instead of telling them what they or we might expect makes one great, Jesus instead picks up a child, those unruly humans who get scoffed at in church, and tells the disciples that if they want to be great, they need to be like children; and that protecting the children was more important than almost anything.

Next, he tells the parable of the Lost Sheep, in which he explains that God would and does sacrifice anything and everything in order to find the one sheep, the one lost person, who has wandered away; that God would go to whatever lengths necessary to bring someone back into community.

And then we get today’s reading about how to handle conflict, in which extraordinary effort is made to repair a broken relationship.

That’s followed by Peter asking how many time’s he’s supposed to forgive someone, and Jesus gives him an absurd number that translates into, “As many times as it takes for you to fix your relationships, dummy.”

And that’s followed by a story that emphasizes that forgiveness is of paramount importance in how we relate to one another.

It’s almost as if God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another. And of course, that’s because… God knows how hard it is to live in community with one another.

Jesus Christ, God as a human being, lived in community with other human beings. He experienced disappointment from his parents. He had to flee for his life as a refugee when the leader of his country actively hunted him out to kill him. He was kicked out of his home town’s synagogue when he preached; in one story, the townspeople try to throw him off a cliff!

He ticked off the Roman authorities and he terrified the temple leaders. He was criticized for hanging out with all the wrong people and breaking some of the most cherished and strictest rules. His relationships with others deteriorated so much that they eventually arrested him, put him through a show trial in a kangaroo court, sentenced him to death, and murdered him.

God knows that living in community with each other is really, really hard.

It’s why God came as a human being in the first place—because living together as human beings with each other and as human beings with God is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work.

And the truly amazing thing is that God is willing to put in that work. God proved that when Jesus Christ was willing to endure torture and death, and then rise again, just so we would know that God was in this community business for the long haul, willing to do whatever it took to work out our differences.

That God was willing to be locked in a storage room with a bunch of people who didn’t get along, and work it out until their relationship improved.

That God was willing to come back again and again and again and again, slowly improving our relationship with God, banking on the fact that eventually, we and God will better understand each other and better live with each other in community, even though it’s really, really hard.

God is willing to endure really, really hard, just to be closer to us. That’s how important we are to God. That’s how important you are to God.

It’s why “when two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name, God is there too—not as a threat, but as a promise, because where two people are gathered you’ll have three different opinions and there’s going to be conflict, and God is there too to keep the community going despite the conflict.

Sometimes, we emulate this community-building devotion well. Today is “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday, a Sunday dedicated in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to being our in the community and helping one another—this Sunday, a group of us are traveling to Weston, WI, to participate in a Feed My Starving Children Mobile Food Pack to help feed the hungry and strengthen our community.

We see it in the amazing work being done by ELCA’s Lutheran Disaster Response and other agencies in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and the preparations they are making to go into Florida and the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma hits.

We see it whenever two communities of any time, religious, political, ideological, put aside their differences, even temporarily, for something greater than themselves, because it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes, we aren’t so good at building or keeping communities and relationships together. It is really, really hard after all. Maybe we’ll make some progress along the way. Maybe we won’t.

But our relationship with God; that’s something that, no matter how difficult it gets, God will always keep working on. God will always keep forgiving. God will always keep working to make it new, to make it alive. God doesn’t give up on us.

And who knows? Maybe in the process of working out this relationship with God we may very well find that, together, we’ve come to understand ourselves and each other just a little bit better.

Featured Image: “community” by Jason Taellius is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Don’t Be Upset about Nashville

Tolerance of a belief ends when it leads to harmful action.

In the midst of relief efforts underway in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released what they have called the Nashville Statement. Named for the city in which it was written, it’s a 14-point declaration on human sexuality.

If you know anything about the CBMW or the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which hosted the CBMW at its annual conference, then you can probably guess what the Statement says. Naturally, it caused quite a stir on social media, and many friends and colleagues of mine have publicly spoken out against it.

But for those of us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t be so upset about the Nashville Statement.

It’s nothing new.

The Nashville statement isn’t groundbreaking. None of the views it espouses are new teachings, or even new interpretations of old teachings. It required no theological discernment to write and doesn’t go into any depth (just like the Biblical interpretation that informs it). Many evangelical and fundamentalist churches hold to these same views. The Statement even acknowledges this lack of originality.

It says there are only two sexes (and that those “in between” physically must adhere to one or the other), gender is identical to biological sex, sex is solely for procreation, and cisgenderism and heterosexuality are the only gender identifications and sexualities created by God. Old hat, nothing revolutionary.

On many fundamental facts, it’s just plain wrong.

It’s based on a tired, shallow reading of the Bible. It also outright denies basic facts about humanity, sexuality, genetics, and science that have been known and proven for decades now. We know that in addition to visibly male and visibly female, there are people who visibly don’t conform to either side of the sex binary. There are XX and XY chromosome combinations (what we consider “female” and “male”), but also XXY, XO, and mutations that cause some XX to develop severely masculine features and some XY to develop female internal sex organs or features–all of which are associated with the term “intersex”.

The statement mischaracterizes the nature of homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, asexuality, queerness, genderfluidity, genderqueerness, and even heterosexuality. It relies on the “absence of evidence” informal fallacy in determining what is and what is not acceptable, which is a fallacy for a reason. It completely ignores decades of careful research around these questions. Frankly, the statement is not just narrow-minded in its understanding of theology, but also in its understanding of facts.

Finally, you shouldn’t be upset about the Nashville Statement because the ELCA accepts it.

Shocking, right? But go ahead and read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, the ELCA’s social statement on… well, human sexuality. This is usually the statement cited when people talk about how awful the ELCA is (along with our horrible, terrible, no good willingness to work with the Episcopal Church). And in the eyes of many who signed the Nashville Statement, that sentiment is justified.

The ELCA’s social statement on human sexuality says many commendable things. It acknowledges that sexuality is for more than simple procreation. It recognizes that marriages can become so toxic, harmful, and dangerous that divorce must follow. It lifts up that some in the church recognize the validity of what it calls “lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous, same-gender relationships”. It affirms a wider spectrum of sexuality and gender identity than the Nashville Statement. It supports birth control!

But have you read it? Then you know that it says this:

The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman.

And this:

We further believe that this church, on the basis of  “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.

Which leads to this:

On the basis of  conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of  natural law.  They believe same-gender sexual behavior carries the grave danger of  unrepentant sin.  They therefore conclude that the neighbor and the community are best served by calling people in same-gender sexual relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a celibate lifestyle.  Such decisions are intended to be accompanied by pastoral response and community support.

The reality is that while some (few) parts of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, it fails in two spectacular ways. One isn’t really the statement’s fault: social statements in the ELCA aren’t enforceable laws. They are teaching documents that guide policy, but they aren’t binding on anyone. Everyone is free to disregard them if they wish.

But the biggest failure is that Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust goes through all of this effort to carefully discuss sexuality, then explicitly and intentionally says that the harmful views of the Nashville Statement are not only found in the church, but should be honored and celebrated.

In theory, this sounds like a good idea. All viewpoints are acknowledged, our inability to agree is acknowledged, and there is a (tacit) commitment to continuing dialogue.

But this is what it looks like in practice: LGBTQ+ individuals routinely denied entrance to the candidacy process; LGBTQ+ candidates for ministry routinely denied interviews with congregations, or refused interviews by congregations; congregations refusing to allow their pastors to carry out the duties of their office for LGBTQ+ couples; LGBTQ+ individuals cast out of the community; all in the name of “bound conscience”. All of this is explicitly allowed in the church.

Tolerance of a belief ends when it leads to harmful action. And that’s what the ELCA allows. Our church explicitly allows discrimination against and the abuse of LGBTQ+ individuals because “bound conscience” protects not only attitudes, but actions that follow them. None of this is hypothetical–it happens, and the church condones it.

So yes. Continue the fight against the bad theology and science behind the Nashville Statement. We need to do better. We must do better. We didn’t sign the Nashville Statement. But it’s a little hypocritical to get too outraged by it when we allow its teachings in our own church.

Featured Image: “Flag Day” by Jglsongs is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

One Page at a Time

This bit of truth-telling, this watershed event, can’t be taken away. It’s important to remember for the disciples, and it’s important to remember for us.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church and Chapel in the Pines in Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

By now I’ve answered the question, “How did you become a pastor?” enough times that I almost have a script memorized in my head. It’s what we call our “call story”, or the story of how our lives led up to the point at which we knew God was calling us to be ministers of Word and Sacrament or, in the case of Deacons, Ministers of Word and Service.

The way I tell it (and no, I’m not going to give you my whole call story) is that as I lived my life, God slowly closed off alternate pathways until the path I’m on now was pretty much the only path left.

Back in high school, when I was totally carefree, I was convinced I’d follow in the steps of a hero I adored and become a band director and a music teacher. When I applied for college, that’s what I was looking for. It’s why I went to Capital University to study under Jim Swearingen, who is a legend in the music education world. I was pretty sure I knew where my life was going. Yeah, people had said I’d be a good pastor, but that’s not what I was interested in.

Shows how much I know, doesn’t it? It wasn’t a year before things started to crack and fall apart. For one, music education required a level of dedication and practice to my musical craft that I simply didn’t have. There are actually quite a number of things I can imagine myself doing for six hours a day, including very constructive things, but playing my tuba or studying music scores just isn’t one of them.

I also discovered that while I love teaching, I would not survive in our education system. I didn’t enjoy my education classes at all. I hated my field visits, not because they themselves were bad, but because I could no longer imagine myself doing that work.

Finally, half way through my sophomore year and having failed a class with a C, just before Christmas break I wrote a letter to Jim Swearingen explaining that I was dropping out of the Music Education program. It was the scariest letter to date I have ever written. I went home that break and had to figure out what I was going to do when I got back, because now, I needed a new major.

I ended up taking a general Music major and picked up a religion minor. And the more I had conversations with my professors in the Religion and Philosophy Department, the more they urged me to consider going to seminary. I still wasn’t convinced, but I was at least willing to hear them out.

Eventually, I declared a religion major simply because I could. And as graduation approached, I grew more and more anxious. I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated. I had no career plans. I had no savings left. I was thinking about seminary. But I knew that once graduation came, the stability I’d enjoyed for the last four years of my life was gone. It was terrifying.

Graduation came. I moved back in with my parents and started working construction and restaurant jobs. When I moved back out to Columbus a few months later to live with a friend and her fiancé, I was still lost and trying to figure out what I was going to do.

Finally, after putting it off and putting it off and putting it off, I figured I had nothing else to lose and applied to seminary. By some miracle, I was accepted, and we started orientation.

I don’t remember much about that first day, except a session where all the new students stood in a circle in the chapel and introduced ourselves to each other. But what I do remember is getting home that night, falling into my bed, and thinking, “This is it. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. This is exactly what I was supposed to do.”

Now, it’s not always been a rosy journey since that point. Some of you have heard some of my stories about struggles in seminary and after I graduated. But I hold onto that memory, that feeling, that statement: “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

It’s important to hold onto statements like that. It’s important to be reminded of them.

When Jesus and his disciples visit the city of Caesarea Philippi, what happens there becomes one of these moments. I’ve been to Caesarea Philippi. It’s the site of what was once a massive spring gushing out of a cave dedicated to the Greek god Pan (the spring still exists, and is a wonder to behold, but it no longer gushes as it once did because of an earthquake). Here, Jesus sees the convergence of three worlds: the Greek, the Judean, and the Roman.

It’s been a long journey to get there. Jesus has been traveling through Judea and Galilee, preaching, teaching, healing, and exorcising. He’s made friends and allies, but also enemies. So far, no one’s really asked the question that’s on his mind: “Who do people think that I am?”

When he asks his disciples this question, they posit a number of theories: some say that he’s Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet who’s returned from heaven to lead them. Some say he’s the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who had just been executed (don’t ask me how they got that idea, I don’t know). Despite everything Jesus has been doing, it seems no one really gets it.

And then he turns to his disciples and asks them: “Okay, but, who do you say that I am?” I can almost hear the anticipation in his voice. I can almost feel his anxiety, his caution. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the disciples before, you’ll know that for the most part, they are a group of people who just never seem to get it. Would they stay true to form, Jesus might wonder? Would they disappoint again?

But Peter has his moment. Peter, who I usually call the dunce of group. Peter, who better resembles Kelso from That 70s Show than he does Bill Nye the Science Guy, actually comes through. He gets it. When Jesus asks that fateful question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

I can almost feel the warmth of Jesus’s smile. They have been listening! They have been paying attention! All of his work hasn’t been for nothing.

Because here, at Caesarea Philippi, the disciples glimpse what’s so important. Here, even for just a moment, they understand who Jesus is, who God is, and why Jesus came in the first place. Here, more than anywhere else during Jesus’s lifetime, the disciples are the best that they can be.

Now, it doesn’t last. The very next story in the Gospel according to Matthew—literally, today’s story ended at verse 20 and the next one starts at verse 21—Peter goes and screws it up, gets called Satan, and basically returns to his regular, stupid self. But this moment, this strong, defiant, truthful proclamation of Jesus’s identity out of the mouth of Peter sets things in motion that can’t be stopped.

It’s after this that Jesus starts his journey back toward Jerusalem, his last journey to the city. It’s after this that he gets into real trouble with the religious authorities of his time, and they start plotting to kill him. It’s after this that he shows the world what it means to be the Son of the Living God and the chosen of God—it means suffering and dying, all in the name of love. This confession of Peter’s is a turning point in the Gospel story that sets everything into motion.

And yeah, Peter screws it up, and the disciples screw it up, and sometimes I wonder if Jesus never did think he made a mistake in the people he’d chosen to follow him. But this moment, this bit of truth-telling, this watershed event, can’t be taken away. It’s important to remember for the disciples, and it’s important to remember for us.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by this thing we call being a Christian. In my church for example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we lay out in our constitutions what it looks like to live out our baptismal callings. We are to:

Worship God in all that we do,
Proclaim the Gospel,
Carry out the Great Commission to make disciples,
Serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs, which includes caring for the sick, advocating for justice for all, working for peace among the nations, standing in solidarity with the poor and the powerless,
Nurture the faith of our community,
Get along with other Christians,
Provide regular worship services,
Provide pastoral care,
Teach the Word of God,
Be witnesses to Christ’s words and deeds,
Challenge, equip, and support all members as they try to carry out their calling.

It’s a lot to keep track of it. It’s a lot of work, being a Christian. And a lot of the time, it’s too much to do all at once.

One of my key failings is that I’m easily overwhelmed. I’ve never been sicker in my life than when I was trying to write my senior thesis in college, because I was on a ridiculously shortened schedule. When I’d sit down to write, I’d stare at the blank page, then remember that I had to have something like 40 or 50 pages by the time I was done. The thought alone would literally overwhelm me, and I’d have a breakdown.

People who cared about me, my friends and family, would remind me, constantly, that I could do it. That one page at a time was how every paper was written, no matter the speed. One page at a time.

Sometimes, we only have enough strength to be Christians one page at a time. And we are Christians one page at a time:

When we feed the hungry, through programs like the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and Caritas.

When we take those few minutes a day to open up the Bible and read a little bit of God’s word, even if we don’t understand what it means.

When we confront our own biases and sins, recognizing that all human beings are in need of forgiveness, even us.

When we speak out against injustice, even and especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

When we actually talk about our faith, and aren’t ashamed of it.

One step at a time, like Peter.

One step, one page, one day at a time. That’s what the Christian life, the life of the disciple takes. Each day, each moment is a single page. We may not be able to do it all at once–to squeeze a week of Christian discipleship into one day a week, or a life of discipleship into a single month. But we can do it one day at a time, one page at a time.

Featured Image: “an open book” by imanka is licensed under CC BY 2.0.