The Christian Persecution Complex

According to legend, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. One of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food to widows in the community, he was full of grace and power, and a compelling speaker. He was arrested for blasphemy, brought before the Sanhedrin, and stoned.1Acts 6:1-7:60 And that’s an important story. The early Christians faced real persecution at the hands of the political and religious authorities of Judea and Rome. People died. More than that, people were killed by the machinery of power.

In some parts of the world, modern Christians face similar threats. According to a report from Aid to the Church in Need, Christians in China, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey faced serious oppression and persecution. This ranged from church buildings being torn down and congregations being forced to disband, to Christians being targeted by extremist groups like Daesh, to government crackdowns on Christians. And, of course, as a Christian I find this persecution horrific. But — and I want to be very clear about this — I am not against this persecution because the victims are Christian. I am against it because the victims are victims. As a Christian, I am called to be against persecution and oppression no matter who the victims are and no matter who the perpetrators are.

There are a lot of countries that aren’t on the list provided by Aid the Church in Need. One of them is the United States. And that’s because Christians in the United States simply are not persecuted or oppressed. Yes, there are individual cases of people being mistreated because they are Christian. But there is simply no systematic persecution or oppression of Christians in the United States.

Which is why I find columns like this one by Douglas MacKinnon so annoying.

MacKinnon begins his column with a question: “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”

And he ends it with a series of rhetorical questions that he believes evoke Christian persecution in ancient Rome:

Will we soon have to meet with fellow Christians in secret? Will we have to whisper our beliefs from the shadows? Will those Christians with “traditional” beliefs lose their jobs and livelihoods if discovered?

As more and more of the mainstream media, entertainment, academia and the hi-tech world continue to purge or discriminate against Christians, what future job fields will be open to young Christians?

Will those Christian children eventually be forced to renounce or deny their faith in order to get a job and provide for their families?

In between, he tries to convince readers that, in the United States, Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, and attacked by liberals, social justice warriors, and other people who “worship at the altar of political correctness.” And he has examples that range from being brow-beaten for saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ridiculed for a vision he claims to have had, to a teacher who was fired for giving a Bible to a student and a Marine who was discharged for refusing to remove a Bible verse from her work space. Of course, he fails to mention that the teacher was later rehired and that the Marine never raised the issue of religious freedom during her original court martial. More importantly, he tries to equate these inconveniences — as unjust as they may be — with the life-and-death struggles that Christians face in other parts of the world.

Quelle connerie.

It is absolutely true that it is not okay to make fun of someone, or vandalize handouts, or otherwise harm someone because of their religious beliefs. But it is also true that American Christians — and, especially, American evangelicals — have a long history of serving as examples of the adage that to someone who is privileged, equality feels like oppression. What Christians like MacKinnon do not like is that Christians are not as shielded from ridicule as we once were (though, of course, we are still shielded). 

The fact is that there is no statistically significant risk of the church I serve being shut down. Or of my livelihood being made illegal. Or of people who believe what I believe being attacked in the streets. Or of people who believe what I believe being denied entry into the United States. Or of a government agency observing the worship services I lead. But all of these are real risks faced by Christians in other parts of the world. And most of them are risks faced by members of religious minorities here in the United States.

Of course, there is a risk that someone somewhere — and maybe even someone on television or in a movie — will make fun of my religion. Or tear down a flyer that I’ve put up in a public place. Or suggest that my beliefs are wrong or misguided or irrational or dangerous. There is, in short, a risk that I will be treated slightly worse than mainline and evangelical Christians were treated in the United States a generation or two ago. And that I will still be treated significantly better than members of religious minorities in the United States have been treated for decades if not generations. In short, there is a risk that I will enjoy significant privilege without enjoying all of the privileges that Christians in the United States have grown accustomed to.

And that’s not really a problem… except insofar that, as Christians, we shouldn’t be enjoying those privileges at all. “Woe to you when all speak well of you,” writes Luke, “for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”2Luke 6:26

MacKinnon’s questions don’t point to the persecution of American Christians. They point to our weakness. MacKinnon will be allowed to remain a Christian as long as he wants to. He will continue to be able to meet with his fellow Christians in public spaces. He will continue to be able to share his beliefs through mass media. There will continue to be government sponsored chaplains and prayer breakfasts and red masses. He will continue to have political and social power, privilege, and prestige.

And here’s the thing. If the threat of the possibility of losing that power, privilege, and prestige is enough to cause him to question whether or not he will be allowed to remain a Christian, then I’m not sure whether he can share that name with people half a world away who confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior even under the very real threat of death. I am certain that he has no right to invoke them in the cause of protecting his own — and my own — privilege.

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Daring in Our Welcome

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 22, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts 10:9-16.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

I’ve been here with you for just over two months. I’ve attended committee meetings, eaten with the Lion’s Ladies, snacked with the Crafty Stitchers, watched WOW Kids classes, sat in on Faith in Motion sessions, led worship, visited a few of you, and enjoyed some of the other privileges of being your pastor. And at every turn, I’ve been greeted by smiling faces and open arms.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it.

But welcoming me is easy. Like I said a few weeks ago on Palm Sunday, I am — and this is not an exhaustive list — a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I am a lot like most of you. And while we might not check all the same boxes, there’s a lot of overlap between you and me. It’s easy for us to be welcoming to each other.

Today we are having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome. We are reaffirming our covenant as an open and affirming congregation of the United Church of Christ. We are telling our community that, while we might not always be as good at it as we want to be, we are a welcoming church.

And that’s good. That’s a good start. But while we are celebrating what we have done and what we are doing, it’s important to recognize that there is still work to do.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are a welcoming church on the easy setting.

In today’s reading from Acts, Peter is on his roof, praying. Peter is a Christian. He is a disciple and an apostle of Jesus the Christ.

He is a leader in the church. And he knows what the church is: a community of Jewish people who have found the Jewish messiah and been saved for the kingdom of the God of the Jewish people.

He knows that the church is a place for people like him. He knows that Christianity is a religion for people like him. He knows that

Christ is a savior for people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes.

What Peter does not know is that, right now, some people who are not like him are on their way. Because a man named Cornelius had a vision. An angel said to him,

Cornelius, your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Send men to Joppa to find a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with another man named Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.

So Cornelius sent the men. And Cornelius is a gentile. And Cornelius is an outsider. And, to Peter at least, Cornelius is not one of us.

And that’s when Peter has his vision. He is praying. He is hungry. He has a vision.

Heaven opens up. A sheet comes down. It is covered with beasts and reptiles and birds. And a voice says, “Peter…kill and eat.”

And that’s a problem. Because these are not Jewish foods. Peter knows that he cannot eat them. They are profane and unclean.

And I want to be clear about this. It’s easy for us to hear this story and think that the sheet is full of cheeseburgers and bacon wrapped shrimp. And c’mon Peter… eat.

But…

On Sunday nights, Mariah and I get together with some friends and watch The Amazing Race. That’s the show where pairs of people race around the world completing challenges and trying to win a million dollars. And some of the challenges involve eating weird things. They’ve had to eat frogs and crickets and scorpions and live octopus and cow’s lips.

And if anything on that list made you cringe, that’s what Peter feels when that sheet comes down. Only he can see it. And smell it.

And it’s easy for him to say, “Eww… I’m not eating that.”

And if nothing on that list made you cringe, then I look forward to rooting for you on Sunday nights when I watch The Amazing Race.

But Peter can see it and smell it. And it’s easy for him to say, “I’m not eating that.”

And there’s this voice from heaven, and it says, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” And this happens a few times. And the sheet disappears. And heaven closes. And Peter is confused.

And the men who Cornelius sent arrive.

Peter goes with them. He meets Cornelius. He delivers the good news. The Spirit falls upon these gentiles. And they are baptized into the church… this church that just a little while ago Peter knew was people like him.

Maybe not people exactly like him, but people who check a lot of the same boxes. People who check the Jewish box.

Peter’s vision is not about food. It’s about people.

It’s not just about people. It’s about the frogs of people, the crickets of people, the scorpions of people, the live octopus of people, the cow’s lips of people. And to Peter, that’s Cornelius, and his household, and you, and me.

We are here today in this church because a voice said, “Peter, what God has made clean, you cannot call profane.” We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community.

We are here today in this church because Peter listened to that voice, put aside his discomfort, and welcomed Cornelius and his household into the Christian community. Click To Tweet

And 2,000 years of history can make this hard to see, but Peter did that on the hard setting.

And we are called to do that, too.

We are a welcoming church. I’m sure of it. I’ve experienced it. But we are called to reach beyond the welcome we’ve extended so far. We are called to welcome – and be welcomed by – the people who make us the most uncomfortable. The people who make us nervous when they move into our neighborhoods. The people who we cross the street from when we see them coming. The people who make us cringe when they sit in our sanctuary.

And while that is hard to do, I am not kidding about it.

Now, I need to be clear here. I am not suggesting that anyone owes hospitality to anyone who has hurt them or abused them. There are times when we have to ignore someone, when we have to turn away from someone, when we have to walk away from someone. There are times when that is the right thing to do.

But still… we are called to be daring in our hospitality.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we need to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He tells us what it means to believe in Christ. It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and welcome to the stranger. He tells us what it means to have faith in Christ. It means clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoner.

Being daring in our hospitality means doing those things when they are easy and when they are hard.

It means giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty and clothing to the naked even when we think that they might be taking advantage of us.

It means welcoming the stranger even when they are a refugee from a dangerous country or someone who came into our nation illegally.

It means caring for the sick even when they are contagious and we are afraid.

It means visiting the prisoner even when they are in prison for a heinous crime… and letting the parolee into our fellowship even when that makes us uncomfortable.

It might even mean learning new skills, crafting new policies, creating new programs, or renovating our building. It could mean coming face-to-face with the law and the courts. It certainly taking risks. It absolutely means being open to being changed.

When Peter met Cornelius, he said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”

And when Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, he said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Cornelius changed because of the work that God did in him. And Peter changed, too, because of the work that God did in him.

That is the work of welcome. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who is welcomed is changed. In welcome – in extravagant welcome, in holy welcome, in divine welcome – the one who welcomes is changed.

In welcoming each other – people who are like us, people who are not like us – we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

That is a risky thing. That is a daring thing. That is a holy thing.

May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome.

In welcoming each other we welcome God and Christ and the Holy Spirit. We do a risky, daring, holy thing. May God grant us the grace to be daring in our welcome. Click To Tweet

‘Baga!

Posting is lighter this week because last weekend, I went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was a student there, I played in the jazz ensemble, as well as a few of the jazz combos. And while I’m not nearly as good as I used to be — because who has time to practice anymore? — I enjoy going back for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival (named for Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories… the spelling is intentional).

‘Baga is a surprisingly good festival for a small town in Illinois. This year’s featured artists were Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Matt Ulery’s Loom, and, of course, the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Both Greg Ward’s and Matt Ulery’s ensembles take some work to listen to; they aren’t background music. But both are also well worth the effort and can easily grab your attention and make you want to listen carefully. The Knox Jazz Ensemble is easily one of the best jazz ensembles at a small liberal arts college. This year, they had the added treat of premiering a piece written by Matt Ulery especially for them, and which truly highlighted the talents of this year’s band.

The festival also had performances by the Knox Faculty & Friends Combo and the Knox Alumni Jazz Ensemble.

 

Parties and Feasts

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at Congregational United Church of Christ in Whitewater, Wisconsin, on September 15, 2013, when I was working for Back Bay Mission. The scripture for this sermon is Luke 15:1-10.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to him… and the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling.

I know this scene. I imagine that I’ve seen it in some painting or in the pages of an illustrated Bible.

Jesus is in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair… because Jesus is always in the middle, all white robes and trimmed beard and wavy hair.

There are tax collectors and sinners in robes and rags, because tax collectors and sinners are always in robes and rags. They are the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised. And they sit near Jesus, listening with rapt attention as he speaks about the cost of discipleship and the saltiness of salt.

And there in the corner talking amongst themselves are the Pharisees, men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces, because the Pharisees are always men of dark robes and long beards and gaunt faces who stand in the corner and talk amongst themselves.

And they are grumbling, saying things like, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We know this scene. It’s a scene that’s made to seep into our bones and tell us who is good and who is bad. Here is Jesus: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Here are the Pharisees: paying their tithes on mint and dill and cumin, but neglecting justice and mercy and faith. We know whose side we are supposed to be on.

But the picture is wrong. The Pharisees aren’t bad guys.

The Pharisees are concerned with a very basic question: How can the people be Jewish – distinctly Jewish – while living under the constant threat of assimilation? How can the people be Jewish when they are ruled over by Gentiles? How can the people be Jewish when they are surrounded by Greek and Roman culture? How can the people be Jewish when it would be so much easier to abandon that identity and become just another Hellenized people in a backwater province on the edge of the Roman empire?

We know this question. Christians have been asking it for a while: How can we be Christian – distinctly Christian – while living under the constant temptation of secular Western consumer culture? How can we be Christian in a world where religion that sets you apart is a private matter and public religion has no flavor? How can we be Christian when we are surrounded by the lure of privilege and power and prosperity? How can we be Christian when it is so much easier to abandon that identity and become just like everyone else?

And, like many Christians today, the Pharisees settled upon an answer: there are the rules; here are the boundaries; if the people – not just the priests and Levites, but all of the people – keep the rules and stay inside the boundaries, then no one will risk assimilation and they will remain a people.

So, when they see this rather popular man flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries and inviting other people to do the same, they grumble. Just like a lot of Christians grumble when they see people flaunting the rules and crossing the boundaries: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

There are grumblers today, of course: modern day Pharisees. There always have been.

I don’t know how you do communion here, but in my church and in the church I grew up in we pass the bread already broken and we pass the cup in little plastic single-serving cups. A lot of churches do this and what people don’t know is that this practice of little communion cups started in the 1890’s because some people were afraid of what it would mean to drink from the same cup as, y’know, one of those people… who might have diptheria or tuberculosis. Not that those diseases had ever been passed by a common cup.

It wasn’t just the physical disease, you see, but the moral disease… the risk of associating with those people.

We see the same thing with those churches that demand the submission of women or advocate so-called reparative therapies for people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. These aren’t about what’s best for the people but about making sure that the people are kept in their places and the wrong sort of people don’t get too close and, if necessary, remaking those people into people just like us. It’s about making sure that rules aren’t broken and boundaries aren’t crossed and this group remains a distinct people.

We even see it when people say that giving money or food or housing to the poor or hungry or homeless will just make them entitled and dependent, that it will rob them of their initiative and work ethic and dignity. As though being homeless isn’t hard enough work. As though not having enough to live on doesn’t rob you of your dignity.

There are a million ways we worry about rules and borders and grumble when we see Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And Jesus replies to this grumbling with three parables.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine sheep in the middle of the wilderness where they can all be stolen by thieves – or eaten by wolves – and go after the one sheep that you lost? And when you find that sheep, which one of you wouldn’t call all of your friends and neighbors over for a party?

Or if a woman lost a coin worth slightly less than a day’s wages. Wouldn’t she comb over every inch of the house looking for it and, when she found it, call all of her friends and neighbors over for a party that will probably cost more than the value of the coin in the first place?

Or… Let me tell you about this guy who had two sons. One of the sons went to him and said, “Dad, I’d like to pretend you’re dead and have you give me my share of the inheritance and I’ll go have the life I want to have.” And when that went horribly wrong because the son wasn’t responsible with what he had been given, and he came home begging for mercy just like his mother said he would, that father threw a huge party that, frankly, was kind of insulting to the other son who had stayed on the farm and worked hard and never once had a party thrown for him.

I mean… who among you wouldn’t do the same thing?

The answer, I imagine, is pretty close to ‘all of us’. All of use would not do the same thing.

The sheep is gone. It’s a business loss. It’s a write off. You have to be kidding if you think I’m going to leave the rest of these sheep in danger to go after one. You have to be insane to think I’m going to celebrate finding a lost sheep.

The coin is probably under the couch. I’ll find it next time I vacuum. We will not be having a big expensive party to mark the occasion. Though, in fairness, I’m probably not going to vacuum unless I’m having people over anyway.

The kid can get a job and pay rent like a normal person.

We are not, in general, us white-bread American mainline Protestants, a people of parties and feasts. Perhaps for a birth or a birthday or a marriage or an anniversary. But not for a lost sheep or a lost coin. Possibly not even for a son who tries to return home after leaving us and acting like we don’t matter.

We are not even a people of parties and feasts when it comes to being given our daily bread or forgiven our debts or not being led into temptation or being delivered from evil.

But I think what Jesus might be suggesting to the Pharisees – to the people who grumble and worry about rules and boundaries – is that maybe we could be such a people: a people of parties and feasts.

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin,” but, “They are the people who celebrate every sinner who returns to the fold!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have a private table,” but, “They are the people who eat and drink with anyone!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who have different people in different places and demand that we be like them,” but, “They are the people who, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, celebrate you as a beloved child of God!”

Maybe when people speak of us they won’t say, “They are the people who will offer you food when you’re hungry if you promise to get into a job training program and work to pay back your debt to them,” but, “They are the people of abundance who share everything they have without thought or concern; they will celebrate that you are eating a meal they gave you or moving into a home they built for you!”

Maybe when people speak of us they will say, “They are a people of great joy and abundant life! They are a people of parties and feasts!”
Last night you threw a party, a shrimp boil. And yes, that was a fundraiser for Back Bay Mission and we thank you profusely. What you did last night will house the homeless and feed the hungry and help people get back on their feet (of get on their feet for the first time). What you did last night will strengthen neighborhoods and seek justice and transform lives. And we thank you.

But I’d like to think it was also a celebration.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every house that has been built or rehabbed and, more importantly, every family who has found a home.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every bag of food that has been handed to the poor and to the homeless and, more importantly, every stomach that has been filled.

I’d like to think that celebrated every mission trip that has served in housing rehabilitation and the Micah Day Center and the food pantry and, more importantly, that we celebrated every person who discovered within themselves and their communities the power to change lives for the better.

I’d like to think that we celebrated every life that the Mission has touched and every life that Whitewater Congregational has touched and every life that the United Church of Christ has touched and every life that Christ has touched, which is every life.

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people of feasts and parties who can say to the outcast, the marginalized, the disregarded, the unacknowledged, the hated, the despised, the weary, the broken, the proud, the righteous, the tax collectors, the sinners, the Pharisees, the scribes, the people of this whole wide world: “All you have to do to be part of this people, this community, this church, this love is show up. And we will celebrate one another.”

I’d like to think that we marked ourselves as a people about whom others will say, “They welcome sinners and eat with them.”

Because that would be good news, indeed.

On Hymns and Local News

I am a nerd.

I’m a nerd about my faith. I read the Bible, I study theology, I talk to people about Christianity in general and mainline Protestantism in particular.

I’m also a nerd about news and politics. I read the Washington Post and Vox.com and other news sites and blogs. I listen to Crooked Media and On Point and other podcasts that cover politics. I watch national and local news on television. And I study the issues.

And here’s the thing. I know that other people in my congregation aren’t nerds about their faith, and I know that other people in my community aren’t nerds about news and politics. And the people who aren’t nerds include both people who agree with me on things and people who don’t. But the fact that people aren’t nerds about these things does not mean that they aren’t consuming information about these things. 

That’s one of the reasons that I’m particular about the hymns and other songs that we sing in worship on Sunday morning. Most people — especially the people who aren’t nerds about it — learn the tenets of their faith through songs. When we sing about the Jesus being a sacrifice to make atonement for our sins, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. When we sing about justice and charity for the least among us, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing.

As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing. Click To Tweet

And local news does something similar.

On the front page of one of my local news broadcast’s website right now there are stories about a man who was arrested for smuggling firearms, the number of guns that have been recovered by police, a boil order for a nearby town, and another town that’s giving away free lots to people who will build homes on them. There are local weather forecasts and alerts. And there are links to state and national stories from their broader network. On tonight’s broadcasts, local anchors will report on these stories and more, forecast the weather, and give us the sports highlights.

But local news does more than report on the community. It also tells community members what they should pay attention to. When my local station reports on a local nonprofit, it is saying that that local nonprofit is important. And when it reports on sports (and not so much on the arts) it’s saying that sports (and not so much arts) are important. Local news matters because it is informative. It’s also important because it shapes what its viewers think matters.

And that’s why Sinclair Broadcasting is dangerous.

Sinclair Broadcasting is an unabashedly right-wing, pro-Trump media corporation that owns about 200 local television stations in more than 100 media markets. Right now, it reaches about 39% of U.S. households. It’s also trying to buy Tribune Media, which would expand its reach — both through its own channels and through agreements with other channels — to more than 70% of households.

That’s dangerous because Sinclair Broadcasting issues must-run segments to its local newsrooms. Some of these are identified editorials from Sinclair Broadcasting’s own staff, like former Trump administration special assistant Boris Epshteyn. Others are read by local news anchors, as highlighted in this video from Deadspin. That means that the same people who objectively report on local politics, community events, and sports, are also reading politically slanted stories. And they are not always telling viewers what is coming from their local station and what is coming from Sinclair Broadcasting.

Democracy relies on informed citizens… and on citizens who know where their information is coming from. A politically biased corporation crafting news stories and editorials, and putting those stories and editorials in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. That’s true regardless of which side of the aisle that politically biased corporation is on. But right now is it a right-wing corporation mandating that local news broadcasts toe its line.

A politically biased corporation crafting stories, and putting them in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. Local news matters. Protect it. Click To Tweet

So, what should we do about this?

First, find out which of your local stations are owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and get your news from somewhere else. Both Wikipedia and Vox and help you find those stations.

Second, let people in your community know what Sinclair Broadcasting is doing and encourage them to do the same thing. You might share this post, but I also recommend sharing this segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

Third, as always, pay attention to your media diet. I know that I tack to the left, and I make sure that I seek out media that offers a different viewpoint. I also make sure that I look to reliable news sources before I believe a story that’s too good — or too bad — to be true. These include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and CNN. Always double check stories.

Local news matters. Protect it.

A Sign and a Wonder

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 8, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are John 20:19-31 and Acts 4:32-35.

There are stories about Bill Murray; you know, the guy from Groundhog Day.

Some of them are not true. And the stories that aren’t true tend to follow the same format: Bill Murray walks up to someone when no one else is around, does something weird, and tells the one person who is there, “no one will ever believe you.”

So, for example: One time, when I was driving a long way and it was late, I stopped at a Wendy’s. The place was empty. I got my food and sat down for a late dinner when Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Ghostbusters — walked in. He walked right up to my table, picked up my burger, unwrapped it, and took a big bite. Then he looked me right in the eyes, slapped my burger down on the table, and said, “no one will ever believe you.”

And then he just walked out. And that story is not true.

But some of the stories are true. One time, Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Lost in Translation — walked into a bar in Austin, Texas, during the SXSW Festival with two of the guys from Wu-Tang Clan and started bartending.

And no matter what someone ordered, he only served shots of tequila. And that story is true.

And it’s not just stories about Bill Murray; you know the guy from Rushmore. Some stories are true and some stories are not true.

And I’ve always felt a little bad for Thomas.

Last week, we heard Mark’s version of Easter morning. This week, our gospel reading starts with John’s version of Easter evening. But we have to start by backing up… just a little.

In the gospel of John, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she ran to get Peter and another disciple. And Peter and that other disciple went into the tomb and saw that it was empty. And they went home.

But Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb. And she saw Jesus. And she talked to Jesus. And then she went to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

And I don’t know if they believed her. Because on the evening of the first day of the week — so this is Easter evening — some of the disciples were together. Judas probably wasn’t there. He betrayed Jesus. He probably wasn’t hanging out with the other disciples. And Thomas wasn’t there. We don’t know why. He was just gone.

And the disciples were together, locked in a house, because they were afraid. Mary Magdalene had told them the good news… and they were still afraid.

And on the evening of the first day of the week, Jesus appeared to some of the disciples. He greeted them. He showed them the nail marks in his hands. He showed them the spear wound in his side. And he breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit. And they rejoiced.

Sometime later, the disciples who were together that evening — who had seen Jesus that evening — told Thomas about this. And he didn’t believe them. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he said, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And then, about a week later — so this is a week after Easter — Jesus appeared to the disciples while Thomas was with them. And he said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

And Thomas believed. Here was Jesus — with nail marks and a spear wound — and Thomas saw and believed.

And Jesus chided him.

“Have you believed because you have seen me?” he asked, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And we call Thomas ‘Doubting Thomas’. We have the nerve to do that. We, who want to know it there’s video of Bill Murray — you know, the guy from Rushmore — serving tequila shots as SXSW, have the nerve to say that Thomas wasn’t trusting enough. Thomas, whose friends were saying that Jesus — you know, the guy who was crucified and buried — was had risen from the dead.

Thomas just wanted some evidence.

And that’s okay. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay.

Thomas just wanted some evidence. We know what that’s like. We live in an age when people demand evidence. And we should demand evidence. Evidence is not the opposite of faith. Faith needs evidence. And that’s okay. Click To Tweet

Three things are true.

First, most of the disciples believed that Christ had risen because they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. They knew Jesus. They had seen him turn water to wine. They had seen him heal a paralyzed man. They had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. But they believed because they saw Jesus.

Second, Thomas believed that Christ had risen because he saw Jesus, and put his finger in the nail marks in his hands, and put his hand in the spear wound in his side. He knew Jesus. He had seen him turn a few loaves and fish into a feast. He had seem him heal a woman with hemorrhages. He had seen him forgive sins. But he believed because he saw Jesus.

Third, Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while he said that to Thomas, I think he meant it for all of them. Because all of them had seen.

The disciples saw the risen Lord. They had their evidence.

But it is also true that there are people who have not seen Jesus, or the nail marks in his hands, or the spear wound in his side. But even they have seen something. Even we have seen something. We have seen the power of Christ. We have seen the signs and wonders that Christ has done.

Because, when we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders.

When we are the church, we are one of those signs. When we are the church, we are one of those wonders. Click To Tweet

Later — after Jesus had ascended into heaven, after Matthias had been chosen to replace Judas, after Pentecost, after Peter and John defended themselves in front of the high priest — the believers were together.

And they were of one heart and one soul. And they held everything in common. And they gave their testimony.

And there wasn’t a person in need among them. If there was someone in need, they gave to them. Even if it meant selling their land and houses, they did it.

Do you want to see a sign and a wonder? Do you want to see evidence of the transformative power of Christ?

Find a community that is so willing to share that there is not a person in need among them. Find a community that is so open and welcoming that every outcast feels at home the moment they walk in the door. Find a community that loves everyone just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

Find a community that protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life.

Find the church.

When the disciples gathered together on an Easter evening a long time ago, they weren’t asking for evidence. And I doubt they were expecting a miracle. But they saw Jesus, and the nail marks in his hands, and the spear wound in his side. And they believed. And they were changed.

When they told Thomas, who wasn’t there, he didn’t believe them. But later, he saw Jesus. he put his finger in the nail marks and his hand in the spear wound. And he believed. And he was changed.

Right now, there are people — people in your lives, people in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that power and violence and death will not win. Right now, there are people — in your lives and in this sanctuary — who are desperate for evidence that this is a world ruled by justice and peace and love.

Right now, there are people who are desperate for evidence that there is more magic in this world than Bill Murray — you know, the guy from What About Bob? — serving tequila shots. People who are desperate for evidence that there is a God who hears their prayers, who dances with them when they are joyful, who mourns with them when they cry, who loves them just they way they are and too much to leave them that way.

We are that evidence. I am that evidence. You are that evidence.

I know. That’s a huge responsibility. That’s a big ask. We’re not always going to be good at it.

But I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the nail marks in this world and the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me.

And I have faith that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are at work in you, too.

I have faith that God is working in me, because I have seen how God has changed me. I have faith that Jesus is showing me the spear wounds in the side of the oppressed. I have faith that the Spirit is moving me. And in you, too. Click To Tweet

And when someone asks for evidence of a loving God, I have faith that I can point to this congregation — this congregation that, at its best, protects the environment, cares for the poor, forgives readily, rejects racism, fights for the powerless, shares its resources, embraces diversity, loves God, and enjoys this life — and say, “here are people who have been transformed by Christ.”

And then I can tell a story about the Christ we have been transformed by: you know, the Christ who was born in a manger in an occupied land, who was betrayed by his friend and crucified by the powers of this world, and who showed us once and for all that death does not have the final word and that this is a world ruled by love. Amen.

People I Listen To: Stuff You Should Know

A while ago, I did a series of posts called ‘People I Read’. In that series, I gave little blurbs about the other blogs and sites I regularly read. It was sort of a callback to the blogrolls of the early days of blogs. I thought it would be nice to do something similar for the podcasts I listen to. So here is a new series of blurbs. As with the previous series, I’ll try to put up a new one every couple of weeks.

Today’s podcast I listen to is Stuff You Should Know.

Stuff You Should Know is a podcast from the people at How Stuff Works, hosted by Charles “Chuck” Bryant and Josh Clark. On every episode, they take a medium-sized dive into a single topic, ranging from how Meals on Wheels works to whether vaping is bad for you. Admittedly, it can sometimes feel a little like an undergraduate report hastily pulled together from secondary sources and given off-the-cuff in front of the whole class. But if you want to learn a little bit about a new topic — and especially if you want to learn whether you want to learn more about a new topic — Stuff You Should Know provides a great entry point to subject after subject after subject. And with more than 1,000 episodes, there’s always something new to learn!

Listen on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Rationality and Sensibility

I majored in philosophy in college. One of my classes was called ‘Morality and the Law’. As part of that class, we read and discussed a lot of Supreme Court cases (as well as other cases). And one of the ideas that cropped up in a lot of those cases was the idea of the reasonable person. This is the hypothetical — and entirely fictional — person who exercises case, makes good judgements, and is generally neither a genius nor an idiot in their daily lives. They are the standard that we judge other people against. For example, we judge whether someone is negligent by asking what a reasonable person would do in the same circumstances.

We also tend to use that judgement when we’re judging other people in our everyday lives. We like to think that other people are rational. More accurately, we like to think that we are rational, and that if other people would just learn and think, they would be like us. And we especially apply that standard to people living in poverty.

For example, in their book Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith write that “One of the biggest difficulties in getting out of poverty is managing money and just the general information base around money.” People in the middle class know how to do things like use a credit card and manage a checking account. They know how to get a good interest rate on care loan. They understand mortgages, annuities, and insurance. If people living in poverty just knew how to do those things — if they just knew how to think — everything would be fine.1Ruby Payne, Phillip DeVol, and Terie Dreussi-Smith, Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities, Kindle edition (Highlands: Aha! Process, Inc., 2009), Kindle locations 642-643, 596-602 

The problem is that people aren’t rational. At least, we’re not just rational. We are also emotional, impulsive, intuitive, and hundreds of other things. We are a thousand chattering voices, many of which are submerged in our subconscious. Sometimes reason wins out. At least as often, emotion, impulse, intuition, desire, or some other voice wins out. In fact, reason tends to win out only when we’re working hard to make sure that it does. So, in spite of that background in philosophy — a discipline where we prize reason — I prefer to think of us as sensible: if we knew everything about that conversation that was going on in someone else’s head, we would look at their actions and say, “yeah, that makes sense.”

One of the big differences between poverty and non-poverty is that being middle-class — let alone wealthy — means having a cushion for all of the non-rational things we do. I can impulsively spend ten dollars on something dumb and it’s no big deal. Someone living in poverty doesn’t have that slack. The simple difference is that there is a much higher demand on the person who is experiencing poverty to be rational.

We're sensible, not rational. And being middle-class, let alone wealthy, means having a financial cushion for all of the irrational things that we — that all of us — do. Click To Tweet

And here’s the thing: when we’re thinking about how to address poverty, we have at least two choices:

We can take the approach that charity skeptics take and try to teach and enforce rationality. I think that doing that isn’t likely to work. Being rational takes effort, and effort isn’t infinitely sustainable. Being rational often enough to work your way out of poverty — consistently making the right choices without giving in to emotion or impulse — is all but impossible.

We can take a charitable approach and start by building a cushion for people who are experiencing poverty. It’s a little counterintuitive, but by giving some space to be irrational, we can make it easier to be rational when it counts. For example, by giving people the option to make a bad financial choice once a week — to blow two dollars on a candy bar or four dollars on a latte — we also help make sure that they don’t use their energy up on being rational about the little things. And that makes it more likely that they’ll have the energy to be rational about the big things.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on April 1, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Mark 16:1-8.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

In churches around the world today, congregations are shouting with joy that the stone has been rolled away, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that hope has been restored to the world. This is a joyful day. Christos Anesti! Le Christ est ressucité! Atgyfododd Crist! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And, as usual, the women are there first.

Go into any of those churches who are shouting with joy today, and chances are good that you’ll see someone who looks like me standing in front of the congregation, giving his Easter sermon.

While we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women — about half of the ordained pastors in the United Church of Christ are women, and this congregation has had five women serve as settled or interim pastors, stretching all the way back to Mabel Mannington in 1918…

…while we are fortunate to be part of a denomination that ordains women, we know that many do not. In churches around the world, you are far more likely to see a man preaching this morning than a woman.

But it is important to remember that it is women who went to the tomb; and, for countless generations it has been women who have kept the church going. In the same churches where men are giving their Easter sermons, women are teaching Sunday school and caring for the children; playing the piano and singing in the choir; running food pantries and delivering casseroles; sitting with the dying and serving funeral luncheons.

Women buy spices late on a Saturday night. And women get up early on Sunday morning to go down to the cemetery and anoint the body of the crucified.

In today’s gospel reading, it is the first day of the week after Jesus was crucified. The first day of the week after is an important moment. If you’ve ever had a first-day-of-the-week-after then you know that. Your universe has changed. Your world has been turned upside down. But the rest of the world is still moving on. For you, it’s the first day of the week after; for everyone else, it’s just another day.

We haven’t seen Peter since he denied Jesus three times. We haven’t seen the other disciples since Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane. But on Sunday morning — on the first day of the week after — when the sun has risen, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome are on their way to the tomb.

And they might not know it yet, but this is the work of the church.

It’s easy to think that the gospel is about the miracles and the parables. It’s easy to think that the church is about worship and programs. It’s easy to think that, if we just had a more impressive sign or a more dynamic pastor, we would grow our membership and this sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all of the people.

And that’s not untrue. But it’s not the whole truth.

The gospel is also about quiet words with a woman at a well and eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. The church is also about stocking a young family’s fridge and sitting down with someone who’s crying. And if we let our care and our warmth radiate out, and we invite people to come and see for themselves, then our sanctuary would be full to overflowing and we’d have to build a new one to hold all the people.

Maybe. I’m not making guarantees. The gospel is about the miracles and the parables. And the gospel is about going to the tomb on the first day of the week after.

And something amazing happens when these three women go to the tomb. They are wondering who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb so that they can anoint the body of their crucified Lord. And they look up, and the stone has already been rolled back.

And sitting in the tomb is just… this guy. And he tells them, “Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here. He’s been raised. Look, there’s the place where they laid him. It’s empty. Go tell Peter and the disciples that he’s going to Galilee and he’ll see them there.”

And the women are seized by terror and amazement. And they flee the tomb. And they say nothing to anyone.

And that sounds bad.

Allow me a moment of biblical nerdery. Today’s reading is from the gospel of Mark. And in our earliest copies of Mark, from the fourth century, the gospel just ends there. The women fled, they were afraid, they said nothing to anyone. End of gospel.

And some Christians decided that that was a bad ending. So they added to the gospel. Some added the shorter ending, where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she does in fact go and tell the disciples what she was told to tell them. Some added the longer ending, where Jesus appears to the eleven remaining disciples and adds some teachings and ascends to heaven.

And there are theories about what happened. Maybe Mark meant to end his gospel there. Maybe Mark meant to write a better ending but never got to it. Maybe Mark wrote a longer ending but we lost it.

But no matter what, the ending we have — the ending that we’re sure Mark wrote — is this: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that matters.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. They went to do something perfectly ordinary.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb to anoint the body of the crucified. They might not have known it yet, but they went to do the work of the church. Click To Tweet

And by doing that — by showing up in the every day work of the church on the first day of the week after — they discovered something amazing. There was no big sign, there was no praise band, there was no powerpoint presentation, there was no dynamic preacher. There was just the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And they were amazed. And they were afraid. Because that was a transformative moment. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome were no longer the women they were on the last day of the week before. They were no longer the women they were in the last hour of the night before. They were no longer the women they were in the minute before they walked into that tomb. They had been changed. They knew the truth: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And that kind of transformation is amazing and terrifying.

But here’s the thing: when we learn that truth, we don’t need to say anything to anyone. When we learn that truth, people will see it on our faces and in our actions. When we learn that truth, people will know that we are Christians by our love, by our love; they will know we are Christians by our love.

And here’s the other thing. Maybe we learn that truth in worship. Maybe we learn that truth from hymns. Maybe we learn that truth from our dynamic… young… handsome… pastor. But I think — I strongly suspect, I’m pretty sure — that all of those things are a response to that truth. We find that truth — we learn that truth — in the every day work of being the church.

We find it in teaching Sunday school and WOW Kids and Faith in Motion. We find it in playing the piano and singing in the choir. We find it in giving to the Referral Center and making casseroles. We find it in sitting with the dying and making funeral luncheons. We find it in showing up in the moment and on the first day of the week after. We find it in dancing for joy and mourning with our friends and neighbors.

We find it, in short, in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world.

We find that truth — that Christ is risen — in being ministers to each other and to the whole wide world. Click To Tweet

We are fortunate to be part of a denomination that invites men and women and people who don’t conform to the traditional gender binary to participate in every aspect of the life of the church, from delivering an Easter sermon to cleaning the kitchen and everything in between.

And we are fortunate to be part of a church that invites everyone to be transformed by that work.

Today is the first day of the week after. And just like Mark’s gospel, we don’t know how this ends. But there is today. And there is tomorrow. And there is next week and next month and next year. There is work to be done every day. And sometimes it’s terrifying. And sometimes it’s amazing. And always it’s transforming.

Because in all of it, all of us can learn a little more of that truth and what it means: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

A Meditation for Maundy Thursday

This meditation was delivered at  First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday). The scripture was John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Those of you who are members of First Congregational United Church of Christ might have read the little bio of me that you received before you called me as your pastor. And, of you did, you might remember that about a year ago, I was consecrated as a diakonal minister by the United Church of Christ’s Council for Health and Human Services Ministries.

And as part of that, I got this bowl, and this towel, and this story.

In the 1850s or so, the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union — one of the predecessors to the United Church of Christ — sent Louis Edward Nollau to the United States to minister to the First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest. On his way across America, he ended up stuck in St. Louis. So he became the pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

And he founded some nonprofit organizations. One of them was an orphanage.

When he proposed the idea of an orphanage to the congregation at St. Peter’s, they said, “Rev. Nollau, we don’t have what we need to open an orphanage.” And he replied, “We have exactly what we need… we have an orphan.”

A boy named Henry Sam moved into the parsonage, and more joined him. And that community became the German Protestant Children’s Home, and then Evangelical Children’s Home. Today, it’s named Every Child’s Hope, it’s way more than an orphanage, and it serves more than 1,400 children every year.

All because there was an orphan, and there was someone who understood today’s gospel reading.

Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other.

Today is Maundy Thursday. The word ‘maundy’ comes from a Latin phrase: mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos: A new command I give you: Love one another as I love you.

Jesus loved his disciples by washing their feet. He washed them to make a point about how they should treat each other; how we should treat each other. And he washed their feet because they were dirty.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison.

We have all that we need to love one another as Jesus has loved us. We have people who are hungry and who are thirsty and who are strangers. We have people who are naked and who are sick and who are in prison. Click To Tweet

All that Pastor Nollau and his congregation needed to open an orphanage was an orphan. All that we need to love one another is someone who needs to be loved; which is to say, anyone at all.

Amen.

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