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.

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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.

Scenes from a #MarchForOurLives

Winter decided to throw one hopefully-last storm at us on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. But despite the rapidly accumulating heart attack snow — it’s called that because it’s wet and heavy, and people push themselves too hard when shoveling, inducing heart attacks — hundreds of people from the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois gathered at Vander Veer Park.

We were invited into St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), where we took up two rooms. Speakers — including students, teachers, and community members — spoke in one room and then the other. Then we headed outside to march around the park showing our signs. There was chanting, cheering, and — since the park sits between two of the busiest streets in the cities — honking.

Hundreds of thousands of people — maybe more than a million — marched in Washington, D.C., and around the country. And I’m happy that a few hundred were willing to march in bad weather in Davenport, Iowa. Far too many people are injured and killed by guns in this country. Some of those injuries and deaths are from mass shootings. Many more are from guns used in crimes and suicides. As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it.

As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it. And I strongly suspect those won't be little changes. Click To Tweet

And I strongly suspect those won’t be little changes. They will need to be big, sweeping changes. Things like outlawing some kinds of guns, creating real licensing programs based on everything from the kind of gun to the individual’s training and mental health status, red flag laws, and banning both open and concealed carry. 

Yes, that will inconvenience some people. And yes, it will feel to some people like their rights are being taken away. But, in reality, it will simply be a reassertion of the second amendment’s own words. Gun ownership and use will be well regulated. And that will mean that our children — and all of our friends and neighbors — are safer.

The Parade of the Powerful, the Protest of the Pitiful

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 25, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Psalm 118:19-29 and Mark 11:1-11.

As with many of our readings during Lent, today’s reading takes place in the lead up to Passover. And to understand what’s happening in today’s reading — what’s happening when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt — we need to understand Passover.

Remember that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. And Moses, one of God’s prophets, led them out of slavery and out of Egypt.

And remember that Moses didn’t do that by asking nicely. And Pharaoh didn’t just let the people go.

Instead, God sent ten plagues through Egypt. The Nile turned to blood. Frogs flooded the land. Gnats were everywhere. Wild animals swarmed the land. Livestock got diseases. People and animals got boils. A great storm came to Egypt. Locusts devoured the crops. There was darkness for three days. And, in the final plague, God killed the firstborn of every family in Egypt. From the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the Egyptians’ livestock.

The name of the holiday — Passover — comes from the fact that each Israelite family slaughtered a lamb and rubbed its blood on their doorpost so that the spirit of the Lord would pass over their home and spare their children.

And, in the chaos, the Israelites fled. Passover is about revolution and revolt. And a little bit about killing the oppressors.

To understand what’s happing in today’s reading, we need to understand Passover. Because here we are on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Jews come to Jerusalem for Passover. All of them remember the time when their ancestors threw off the mantle of oppression. Some of them talk about throwing off the mantle of oppression now. And, every year, the Romans get nervous. The Romans don’t want an uprising. They don’t want a rebellion. They don’t want revolution and revolt.

And when Empires get nervous, they flex their muscle. They put their power on display. They have military parades. And, around Passover, the Romans would march troops into Jerusalem and a reminder: the Jews could have their own God and keep their own festivals, but only because the Romans let them.

And here comes this guy, riding in on a colt. And it’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman power, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Two marches: a parade of the powerful and a protest of the pitiful.

This is my fifth Sunday with you. You’re getting used to my preaching. You’re starting to see which parts of the gospel I emphasize. And one thing you’ll find is that this choice comes up a lot. God has set before us the way of life and the way of death. And we have a choice about which path we walk down.

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful.

We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

We can join the parade of the powerful or the protest of the pitiful. We can bow to the rulers of this world or we can shout, “Blessed is the kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Click To Tweet

And, let’s face it, it is easy to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is easy to march with the Romans. And it is especially easy for many of us in this congregation.
God knows it’s easy for me.

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. If we were in Egypt, I’d be one of Pharaoh’s people. If we were in Rome, I’d be one of Caesar’s people. By any measure you care to take, I am among the rulers of this world. And, while I may have hard times, I move through this world much more easily than by friends and neighbors who are not those things.

I am privileged.

And so are many of you. While you might not check all of the same boxes I do, you probably check a lot of them. We are a fairly privileged congregation.

And I want to be clear. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t struggle. Having privilege does not mean that we don’t have trauma. Having privilege is not something to feel guilty about. It is simply a fact.

But it is also a fact that makes it easier to be on the side of the Egyptians. It is a fact that makes it easier to march with the Romans.

It makes it easy for us not to fly a rainbow flag… after all, we know we’re welcome here.

It makes it easy for us not to say, ‘Black lives matter’… after all, we know that our lives do.

It makes it easy for us not to walk out with students chanting ‘never again’… after all, we don’t have lockdown drills.

It makes it easy for us not to call for the dream to be kept alive… after all, we won’t be deported.

It makes it easy to do the things that the rulers of this world demand of people who are privileged: to sit back, and enjoy our lives…

…and do nothing.

It makes it easy to join the protest of the pitiful.

I did not mis-speak. The power of this world is nothing compared to the power of God.

Moses went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Let the people go.’ And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he tried to hold on. He tried to keep the Israelites in slavery through blood and frogs and gnats and wild animals. Through diseased livestock and boils and storms and locusts. Through three days of darkness. Through the death of the firstborn.

The Egyptians tried to keep their privilege in the face of God’s overwhelming power.

And now we’re here on Palm Sunday… in Judea… in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea… while it is occupied by the Roman Empire. And the Romans are trying to hold onto their empire in the face of God’s overwhelming power. They just don’t know it yet.

And Jesus is riding into Jerusalem on a colt. It’s not even his colt. Two of his disciples — two of his students — had to go into town and ‘borrow’ a colt for him. And people are spreading their cloaks on the road and leafy branches on the road.

And they’re shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

In the face of Roman protest, the people are saying, “No. This is our king.”

Jesus on a colt is God’s power. In the coming days Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and tried and he will take up his cross. Jesus will be stripped of his clothes and hung on his cross; he will die and be put in the tomb. There will be three days in the grave. There will be the resurrection of God’s only begotten son.

God will do that thing that God does: she will will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; they will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; he will use what is weak in this world to show that he is powerful and sovereign and the God of all creation.

And the question that we are asked on this Palm Sunday and every Sunday and every day — the question that is before us especially when we are privileged by our race or sex or gender identity or sexual orientation or age or class or anything else — is where we will be when that happens.

Will we be with the Egyptians and the Romans? With Pharaoh and Caesar Desperately trying to cling to our privilege and comfort in the world-as-it-is? Pitifully protesting against the world that God is creating?

Or will we be with the crowds? Spreading our coats on the road and leafy branches on the road. Shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king?

Will we use our privilege for the sake of God’s Kingdom? Will we enter though the gates of righteousness to meet Jesus Christ, our lord and king? Click To Tweet

And, since I don’t like to end a sermon on a question, and since it’s the kind of thing that I ask the kids to do, and since church is where we practice how we should be in the world, please join me in an echo prayer:

Hosanna! [Echo]

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! [Echo]

Blessed is the coming kingdom of God! [Echo]

Hosanna in the highest heaven!” [Echo]

Amen! [Echo]

People I Listen To: Opening Arguments

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 Opening Arguments.

This is a new podcast for me, but I’ve listened to several episodes (even going back into the archives) and find it really enjoyable. In Opening Arguments, lawyer Andrew Torrez and guy-who-I-think-maybe-went-to-law-school Thomas Smith examine legal issues that are in the news, from Stormy Daniels to DACA to Constitutional originalism with intelligence and humor. As the intro to Opening Arguments says, don’t take legal advice from a podcast. But definitely take the time to listen!

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

Sermons Are Not Systematic

The United Church of Christ is a non-creedal tradition. That means that we don’t have a list of Things People Have to Believe. There is no central authority that tells our congregations or our members what they have to believe or how they have to worship. Instead, as the United Church of Christ website puts it,

We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.

And that creates a neat little challenge for preachers.

When I start preparing a sermon. I’m not bound by a list of Things People Have to Believe. I don’t have to bring everything around to a predetermined theological point. Instead, I’m bound by the scripture passages for that week (and their historical and literary context), the needs of my congregation, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And that means that the people of the congregation aren’t getting a single message or a systematic theology.

The Bible is a diverse collection of texts. While the biblical authors may have been inspired by God, they are not delivering a single unified message. They disagree. They emphasize different points. They argue from different perspectives and in different contexts. Working with one or two passages at a time tends to show different sides of the Bible in different weeks.

The needs of the congregation change over time. During different weeks, the world is a different place and the people are dealing with different things. That means using the Bible to do different things, offer different challenges, and bring different comforts.

The Holy Spirit moves in different ways. On some days, she is convicting me of my sin. On others, she is offering comfort for my sorrows. On still others, she is calling me in a new direction. And, of course, a million other things. The Holy Spirit does not seem intent on having me deliver the same message every time I speak.

All of this is really to say two important things. First, I am called to preach the gospel and I believe that I am faithful to that call. I believe that my sermons are well-supported by scripture, the traditions of the church, and the testimony of the Spirit. Second, my sermons are rarely (if ever) showing the members of my congregation the fullness of the gospel. Instead, they are offering snapshots of something much bigger than anything I can deliver in that time.

The fullness of the gospel is seen and experienced in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that.

We experience the gospel in the fullness of Christian life. In prayer and in communion. In scripture and in tradition. In potluck dinners and hospital visits. In hymns and, yes, in sermons. But the sermon is just a part of that. Click To Tweet

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