Lessons in Civil Discourse

To counter the previous “downer” post, I thought today I would share a more hopeful story.

Trinity Lutheran Seminary has a unique ecumenical relationship. While it is joined with the Methodist Theological School (“Methesco”), the Pontifical College Josephinum, and Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary in the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus, it is its relationship with Bexley Hall that has opened the door to some amazing ecumenical opportunities.

TLS and Bexley Hall share more than just an interest in working together academically. We share our professors, our classes, our worship, our buildings, our campus, and our community; two seminaries, one community. I have had the privilege to experience regular (and diverse) Anglican worship, classes, and of course, the famous hospitality of Common Meal at Bexley House every Thursday night.

Classes with my Anglican brothers and sisters has given me the chance to engage in some pretty intense debates. Too often, debates among Christians deteriorate until both sides resort to shouting their party lines at each other, as if by being LOUDER they will make themselves more CORRECT. But it doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) this way.

One of my classmates and I can almost always be counted on to take opposite sides in a debate. Some of these debates have been over the involvement of laity in worship, the historic episcopate, “Called to Common Mission” (the full communion agreement between the ELCA and the ECUSA), inclusive language, Bible translations, and I’m sure a number of others that I cannot remember. Most recently, I disagreed with an author because of his views of Protestant Theology, while he agreed with the author for the same reason.

In some Christian circles, these disagreements would probably lead to shouting matches, mutual disdain, scheming, conniving, conspiracies, and sabotage. Yet we have managed to find a way to speak civilly with one another in our disagreements (with the occasional impassioned outburst to keep things interesting), and we try to see the issue from the other’s point of view. I admit that he is so good at forming his arguments that I often find myself bested in these debates, even when I bring the Book of Concord along to help me out. Another day, perhaps, another day! Best of all, the disagreements don’t affect our social interactions. Work is work, not-work is not-worth fighting over.

The wider catholic (universal) church could learn a lot from the relationship TLS and Bexley Hall (and their community) have. We live out the full communion agreement between our two traditions every day. It is an enlightening experiment 13 years running, and with God’s luck, will be an example to other Christians for at least that many to come.

What Is Ecumenism?

I get this question quite often, so it seems fitting that the first post on Living an Ecumenical Life should address it.

Ecumenism is, in a nutshell, the search for Christian unity. What this means varies from person to person and church to church. For some, Christian unity is a hope for the ultimate reunification of all Christians under one worldwide church organization. For others, Christian unity is Christians cooperating with each other in mission work and advocacy. It is, at its core, a movement dedicated overcoming barriers and divisions between Christians.

The Modern Ecumenical Movement

The modern ecumenical movement is usually traced to the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. This meeting of Protestant minds was the largest meeting of its kind at the time, and marked a new dedication to working together in mission. The foundations of the National Council of Churches USA and the World Council of Churches can be seen in the work of Edinburgh. The next few decades marked a rapid growth and enthusiasm for the ecumenical movement.

One major way in which my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has “done” ecumenism is through full communion agreements. In these bilateral agreements between two church bodies, agreement is reached on the basics of belief and faith. Members from the two churches are able to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist from each other, and clergy may be shared between the two. The ELCA has this type of agreement with the Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church of America, the Episcopal Church USA, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church.

Churches don’t have to have full communion agreements in order to do ecumenism. The majority of churches have very few of these agreements, if any. Yet they still feel called to cooperation with their Christian brothers and sisters, engaging in mission work together, co-funding projects, working together out in the field, or standing in solidarity with one another in the face of injustice. Any time Christians of different traditions gather for prayer, worship, or work, ecumenism is being done.

Recent developments in Christianity have cast some doubt on the feasibility of the ecumenical movement for some. Woman’s ordination caused a great deal of tension, and now the controversies surrounding homosexuality and the ministry have broken many ties within and between churches. My own church just voted in late 2009 to ordain openly gay men and women and has led to congregations breaking away and joining/forming other national church bodies. The Anglican Communion is suffering similar issues, and some predict a split there as well. Churches that once worked together are pulling apart and severing ties, both in worship and out in the field.

This is the state of affairs, so to speak, that confronts anyone living an ecumenical life; an uncertain future, but a rewarding journey all the same. Those committed to ecumenism work for a vision that they may not see come to fruition in their lifetimes. But the task is still an important one for Christians, and one I hope to be doing for a long, long time.

Sermon–April 3, 2011–Lent 4A

Fourth Sunday in Lent B

  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13
  • Psalm 23
  • Ephesians 5:8-14
  • John 9:1-41

Preached at Hope Lutheran Church, Columbus, OH, as part of my Ministry in Context.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

It is one of the hardest questions I have ever had to deal with. It has caused me enormous frustration, not only  in my personal little philosophical world, but in my academic life.

I took an introductory religion class at Capital with Pastor Kurt. I will never forget the day he came in, sat down at his table, looked around the room, and asked, “What is evil?” That was the most frustrating and headache-inducing class period I have ever sat through.

This question is by no means a new one. Humanity has struggled with it for thousands of years. I dare say, it has been one of the most pressing questions of our existence, ever. It is particularly troubling for us, who believe in a good, just God. All sorts of ideas have been proposed throughout history. They range from the idea that humans have free will and thus choose evil, to the belief in a supreme evil being working against God, to the assertion that … there simply is no God.

And, this may not shock anyone, but we still don’t have an answer. Neither did the Judeans of Jesus’ time, who inherited a long tradition from their ancestors, the Israelites. For them, evil was the result of going against God’s will. But more importantly, contrary to our highly-Western, American notion of the individual being everything, evil could be shared by the community. It could be inherited, or suffered by others. Deuteronomy describes evil being passed down to the third and fourth generations of those who sinned against God. It is this tradition that forms the debate in our Gospel story this morning.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why was this man born blind? He was born this way, so he couldn’t have sinned himself; it must have been his parents that sinned and brought this evil on him. That’s not very fair. Not only was it not fair, but there was nothing he could do to change his situation in life. He could neither rid himself of his blindness, nor could he do anything to remove the stain of sin from himself that his people, his family, assumed he had. And neither could anyone else. He was as he was, and that was all there was to it. No hope. No redemption. Life simply goes on. It’s a terrible feeling.

I feel the same way sometimes. The more globalized our world gets, the more complex our systems become, the smaller I feel in it. I am just one human being. How can I effect any change in the world? I look around me every day. And I wonder, why is a small creek the boundary line between rich and poor? Why does our system promote greed over love? Why do dozens of anti-government protests erupt around the world at the same time? Why do I get to enjoy a certain privilege because of the color of my skin, even though I fight and fight and fight that system that causes it?

Why, why, why, … why? What is my place in all of this? It’s too big for me to understand. There’s too much wrong with the world to sort it out all. All this evil in the world. How can I fight it, when I can’t even answer what causes it?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Knowing that these and many more questions are on my mind, it may be a little frustrating, then, to read that Jesus avoids the question. Even his own disciples expected that the man was blind because someone had sinned. They too were looking for a cause for this suffering, something they could blame. It’s natural. But, by now, I’ve come to expect that every time someone asks Jesus a question, they never quite get the answer that they were expecting.

He avoids blaming anyone as the CAUSE of the man’s blindess. That the man was blind was tragic, don’t get me wrong. And in tragedies, we humans usually try to find someone, or something, to blame, so that we know where to dole out justice or where to go to fix the error. The Pharisees were no exception. They too, had their system. But since when has Jesus been bound by traditional human systems?

For Jesus, the question is not what CAUSED the man to be blind, but what can he DO about it? The will of God was not in the strict rules of the Mosaic laws, but in the acts of compassion that move Jesus to change the world around him, one person at a time. This way of thinking was a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus was willing to step outside of the box–sometimes FAR outside–in order to effect change and healing. Last week we heard him speak to the Samaritan woman at the well, something that was HUGELY taboo. He hung out with “sinners,” the tax collectors, and the prostitutes, because they needed his message too. He drives the legal extortionists from the temple because they took advantage of the poor.

Jesus doesn’t care WHY the man is blind. For Jesus, all that is important is that the man needs to be healed, and he can do that. Whatever the cause of the blindness, it’s purpose is, at that exact time and place, to show God’s love. He spits on the ground, makes mud, spreads it on the man’s eyes, tells him to go wash, and heals him. The man’s eyes are opened, and not just physically.

At the beginning of the story, the man knows only that the person who healed him is named Jesus. He doesn’t really know who he is, or where he comes from. Yet under questioning from the Pharisees, and later, in conversation with Jesus, he comes to believe in Jesus as the Son of Man. He has been freed from his blindness and the limitations imposed on him in society and religiously. He has been brought from darkness into light, even as the Pharisees fall deeper and deeper into blindness and darkness. He has begun a new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We experience that same freedom, in the waters of our baptism. It is appropriate that we hear this story late in Lent. In the early church, the traditional day for baptism was Easter, and Lent was a season of preparation. Just as the blind man was healed by the waters of the Siloam pool, so too are we healed by water and the Spirit. We live in a world where the blind follow the blind. Sin stains everything we do and everything we touch. But through our baptism, our eyes are opened. We are freed. And we are called to work the works of him who sends us in the world.

Why do bad things happen to good people? We may never be able to answer that question. Maybe.. it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what WE can do about it.

We are CALLED to advocacy with our neighbors as their children fall victim to gang violence.
We are CALLED to be a prophetic voice when officials neglect the poor and needy.
We are CALLED to unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ and speak for the promotion of basic human rights.
We are CALLED to live out our lives in love for our enemies instead of hate.
We are CALLED to let no one tell us we can’t change the world because we are only one person. JESUS was one person, and he changed the world forever, through love.

Through our baptismal covenant we have the freedom to be agents of love and change in the world. By the grace of God we are saved. Our eyes are opened. We were darkness, but now in the Lord we are light.

And what a light we have to share.