Monday, September 26, 2016

The Growing Chasm

Last year I had the privilege of serving in a group called “OK: NH”
It was a group of political, business, and religious leaders that wanted to talk about the growing economic gap in our country.
This group included people from both political parties.
It included five people that ran for governor.
The plan was to read a book by sociologist Robert Putnam, a New Hampshire resident, and then talk to presidential candidates about how this can be an issue that is discussed during the election.
We read this great book called, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.
In the book Robert Putnam gives all sorts of data about how the rich in our country are getting richer and the poor poorer.
All the advantages in our society go to those with money.
And it is affects every aspect of American life.
Rich people have more time to devote to their kids doing simple things like reading to them.
Rich people have more opportunity to have their kids go to summer camp, play musical instruments, and because of what is called pay for play, play sports.
Even Church is affected.
Statistically speaking rich people go to church more than poor people.
Because they have time off from work and resources to make it happen.
This is tearing away the American dream.
The American dream is that if you work hard, and do what is good and right anyone can make it in America.
It is making it harder and harder for people born in poverty to rise above their station.
The most damming statistic in the book is that a rich person with low grades and test scores has a better chance to get a college degree than a poor person who has better grades and test scores.
It was through this book and this work with those people that I have come to see statistically what I have felt in my gut.
That in our country there is a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

I want to say that all of us in our congregation are rich.
We might not be super rich.
We might not have millions in the bank.
But as far as I know we all have jobs, a roof over our heads, and money in the bank.
In our world today that makes you rich.

We have this world where there is a chasm.
And we have Jesus this morning telling us a parable of a rich man and Lazarus.
And the chasm that develops between them.
The chasm happens because the rich man does not see the suffering of another.
Martin Luther said about this text, “the other sin that he forgets to exercise love toward his neighbor; for there he lets poor Lazarus lie at his door, and offers him not the least assistance.
And if he had not wished to help him personally, he should have commanded his servants to take him in and care for him.
It may have been, he knew nothing of God and had never experienced his goodness.
For whoever feels the goodness of God, feels also for the misfortune of his neighbor; but whoever is not conscious of the goodness of God, sympathizes not in the misfortune of his neighbor.
Therefore as he has no pleasure in God, he has no heart for his neighbor.”

I realize that this sermon could turn into one where I go on and on about a problem in our world, and everyone leaves feeling a guilty but then does nothing about it.
As Luther suggests, Jesus is not trying to get us to feel guilty, he is trying to get us to have faith in God and love each other.
I want to assure that my goal is not to have you feel guilty about what you have.
I am sure that you have worked hard all your life to have the things you have.
I am sure that you work hard to support your family.
Having money is not the issue.
The rich man is not condemned because he is rich.
He is condemned because of the chasm that he created between himself and Lazarus.
And that is what we must think about this morning, the chasm that we create in our lives.
And there are lots of them out there now.
There are chasms of race, of nationality, of political party, of economics, of religion, of sexual identity, of all sorts of things.
And those chasms only seem to grow.
They are made even clearer by our current political season.
And our two political party system only stoke the fires to make them more pronounced.
Our two candidates for president are campaigning on fear telling us not how our country could be better, but how bad it will be if we elected the other person.
We are told by Hillary that half of people supporting Trump belong in a “basket of deplorable”.
I can’t get behind that idea, because even people who like Trump are God’s children.
Some of their ideas might be deplorable but not the people themselves.
Most of them simply have created a chasm that seems too big to cross.
On the other hand we have Trump.
What can I say about Trump?
A man who talks bad about anyone that disagrees with him.
 A man who sees the world in stark terms of good and bad, and tells us to fear each other because of religion or nationality, gender, skin color, or whatever.
We have a chasm.
We have failed to see each other lying at the gate pleading for better treatment.

The question is what are we going to do?
We can’t leave it here.
We can’t say this is the chasm and there is no closing it.
I think we have to listen to Jesus on this one.
In this parable you and I are not the rich man, and we are not Lazarus.
We are the 5 siblings left behind.
We are the ones who have to listen to Moses, the Prophets, and the one raised from the dead.
We are the ones who are left here and now and tasked with repairing the chasm.
And I want to tell you that you can do it.
You can cross that chasm.
Right now today, if you choose, if you want to listen to Moses, the prophets, and Jesus.

Here is how.
Figure out what the chasm is that needs to be crossed, and with all of your Christian love and mercy go there.
Let me give a few examples.

I have a colleague she is a liberal person.
She is going to vote for Hillary.
She voted for her in the primary.
But during the primary she didn’t go to a Hillary rally.
She went to see Trump.
She wanted to understand why people liked him.
She went and she talked to people.
And she came away with a new appreciation for him.
She is not going to vote for him, but after seeing him live she understood better his appeal to people.

In my life I have been blessed to have been around people of different economic, social, and racial backgrounds then myself.
I had this experience once when I served in Boston in City Year.
More recently, I got to cross the chasm while in seminary.
I got to serve for two years in a Latino congregation, and for a year on internship at an African American congregation.
What I found in all of those occasions was that people are people.
Regardless of skin color or how much money they have.
We all come from the same creator.
We all love our kids and want what is best for them.
We all are a combination of good and bad.
We all sin.
We all are forgiven by a gracious God.
The chasm is not what we think it is, because on the basic level we are all the same.
Only artificial things separate us, politics, gender, race, theology, economics, and nationality.
If we could see each other through those things then maybe we would have a little more compassion towards one another.

And we will be able to see each other at the gate before it is too late and the chasm is to deep and wide.
So this week cross the chasm, try to understand someone else point of view.
See that we are all children of God, needing to rest in grace and mercy.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Childern of Light in a Complex World!

It is my belief that Sunday school is not just for children.
All of us who are serious about wanting to know God through Jesus Christ have to continue to learn.
The best case I can make for this is our Gospel reading for this morning.
It is a difficult parable to understand.
What is Jesus talking about?
Are we to be dishonest as long as it suits our needs?
In case you are confused about what this particular story of Jesus means don’t worry.
So are people who have given their lives to studying the Bible.
As I read different commentaries about the Gospel this morning one thing became clear.
Everyone is a little unclear about what Jesus meant to say.
Even the explanations for what the parable means are somewhat hard to untangle.
And I realized that if I gave a sermon trying to untangle them it would be boring, and maybe leave us all a little more confused.

If we look at the parable from a broader perspective what we see is that Jesus is trying to teach us about what it means to live in this world.
It would be nice to believe that every decision we make is simple.
We are given two possible choices between the good and bad.
And all we have to do is choose the good.
Life is messier than this.
It is not as clear cut.
The choices that we make on a daily basis are tied with complications.
And if we are going to be the Children of the light then we have to be really shrewd and clever in how we make those decisions.
We have to be as shrewd and clever as people of the world.

This weekend while we were running Reach the Beach (A 200 mile relay that raised money for Camp Calumet) we had these Thrivent t-shirts to give away.
We met these people who were from Chicago running the relay and we offered them t-shirts.
The Thrivent t-shirts say, “Live generously”.
When one of the women in the group saw what the t-shirt said, she said, “I really do try.”

We might think that living a generous life is natural.
It isn’t.
But like this women we actually do have to try.
What I have learned in my life is that In order to be a generous person you have to work at it.
You have to plan for it.
You have to be shrewd about how you use the money God gave you.
It is not something that just automatically happens life as a child of light demands of us that we use our minds to think through how best to navigate a complex world.

Life in this real world is messy, because life in this real world is sinful.
This side of heaven none of us gets off sin free.
We all have to make deals in order to do the kingdoms work.
This is what makes it so complicated

In Washington DC there is a church called Luther place.
It is a great church.
They have as part of their ministry a full homeless shelter.
This started because in one of the coldest winters the pastor decided to open the doors and let the homeless sleep inside the church.
Because if he didn’t people would have died.
Eventually they came around to building this complex with all sorts of services for people experiencing homelessness.
The pastor who started this told me that in order to build his homeless shelter he had to raise lots of money.
And he had to take money from companies that he believed were not doing what was ethical in their business practices, companies that he once had protested against for their unethical behavior.
The pastor told me, “I would take money from Satan if I knew I could do the kingdoms work with it.”
It would be nice to think that we could have an absolute right and wrong thing to say about everything, but life is more complex.

When I was in youth group as a kid we used to have youth group at our youth leaders house on Sunday morning.
We would eat breakfast and talk about issues.
One Sunday he wanted our advice.
He was working for a company that made something for the military.
He wanted to know if he could do this as a Christian.
Could he ethically support war?
We had a really good talk, and at the end we came to the conclusion that he could.
One, he could because it was job that fed his family and his job helped protect people.
Two, God’s grace allows for us to engage in the world that is messy and sometimes involved war.
It would be nice to think that we could have an absolute right and wrong thing to say about everything, but life is more complex.

I was reading an article from a mother who was talking about how hard September is.
How busy it is.
Because the kids are back at school and this means, new forms to fill out, homework to be done, back to school nights to attend, sports schedules to be kept, supplies to be purchased, and the hectic schedule of life.
Articles like this keep popping up, and it just makes me think about how busy we all are most of the time.
We are running like crazy.
And we don’t have enough energy for what really matters.
We are not shrewd enough in our lives to figure out how to make time for spiritual things.
How do we make time for prayer, worship, and Christian fellowship?

We are spending our time and money on things that don’t satisfy.
And then we wonder why our lives are out of whack.
We wonder why we are so tired and hurried.
Jesus tells us that piece of mind comes with being shred and clever.
It means making choices that are hard.
It means saying “no”.

This is why Sunday school is never ending.
Because all of our lives we will come across situations that demand us to be shrewd and clever.
We will have to use the best of our spiritual selves to make difficult dissensions.

My Youth Group leader lived with himself knowing that he did what he did because he loved his family, and he knew a gracious and loving God who understood the complex nature of life.
The pastor from Washington DC lived with himself knowing that he was serving a forgotten and marginalized population, and he knew a gracious and loving God who understood the complex nature of life.
We all live with ourselves knowing that life is complex and depends on shrewdness that is how we get by each and every day.
It helps to know deeply and intimately God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Because then we know that those difficult decisions are backed up by a gracious and loving God who understands the complex nature of life.

This morning’s Gospel is complex and a little confusing.
That is the point.
It is this way because Jesus knew our complex lives, and Jesus tries to help us live in God’s grace every day.
Jesus wants to help us be shrewd and clever as we navigate life.
May your September be made a little bit easier because you have knowledge of God’s gracious and loving nature.
May you be more loving and gracious to yourself as you try to figure out how to live as a child of the light in a complex world.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Disappointed and Sad

It has taken me a while to decide if I should write this blog about what is happening at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I have been concerned about the way that President Lose and the board has been treating people that work there for a least a year. I have tried to talk about this directly with some members of the board and President Lose. I have talked about it with Bishop Jim Hazlewood. These conversations have not helped the situation. So after taking the summer to think about it some more I have decided to do the next thing and include the public in my concerns.
            Some people asked me not to write this because they said, “It will hurt your career.” I want to be clear that I don’t have a career. I have a calling to teach and preach the word of God and nothing can hurt that. I am not looking for career advancement. I just want to be a good parish pastor. I also don’t believe that Bishop Hazlewood is the kind of person that cannot handle the fact that within the Church we sometimes have disagreements. I could be wrong this is a chance I am willing to take.
            My concerns about the seminary have nothing to do with the proposed merger with the Lutheran Theological seminary at Gettysburg. I think that is the best idea since the Reformation! It is probably 10 years too late. It has nothing to do with losing what the seminary was when I was a student there 13 years ago. I accept that the Church has changed and so we all must find new ways of being the Church in this new time. What I don’t like is that just because we are going through a difficult time doesn’t mean we get to throw out what it means to be the Church.
            The Church is a system of relationships. It is about relationships between people who share similar views about faith and life. These relationships start in local parishes, but are bigger than that. They are statewide, regional, national, and worldwide. I don’t know our current presiding Bishop, but I know that we are connected through a mutual maze of relationships. Without these relationships the Church is just another institution with an agenda out to consume people’s time and energy. That is why we should care more deeply about the relationships than the institution. That is why the institutions that we create should serve to advance and deepen those relationships not the other way around.
            What is happening at Philadelphia is that David Lose and the Board cares more about the institution than the relationships. The president of the Board has said, “Our goal all along has been to create a new venture in theological education that enabled us to better prepare leaders responsive to the challenges of the day in a way that is more affordable for students and more sustainable to the larger Church.”  The stated goal is to keep alive the institution no matter who that hurts or what happens in the process. Why is that the goal? How about the goal being to create leaders who are able to build important relationships?  How about building relationships that reflect what we as the Church are at our best?
            The Church cannot stop being the Church just because times are tough and we are out of money and resources. I have heard from some faculty that they did not feel that this new venture was done in a way that was respectful of what they brought to the table. Instead of the president and board asking for them to participate in this new venture they have been treated as employees. The seminary has followed the law of any other corporate structure forgetting that it is part of the Church. The seminary has forgotten that what we are about is relationships. And so it has given the faculty what appears to be ultimatums about signing a severance package. The faculty has been silenced against speaking out in fear of losing what might be a job someday.
                        I saw firsthand how much David Lose and the Board disrespects the faculty at our synod assembly this year. There were no faulty members speaking about the merger on the panel. (Dr. John Hoffmeyer was at the assembly and could have been on the panel.) Dr. Lose several times disrespected what faculty does. Once saying, “Professors only teach what they were taught, and that is not what the Church needs.”  Additionally, while talking about how tenure was not needed because we have to look out for student debt. The overall discussion was about how we don’t need pastors to know about academic things (like Greek and Hebrew) only practical things (like boilers and budgets). I disagree. I think professors do teach what is new and needed in the church today. I find it of great help what I was taught in seminary. One of the lay people who was with me at the synod assembly said to me, “I want my pastor to be a scholar”.
I am sensitive to this because of what happened to my friend Don Johnson. He was treated this way by President Lose. He was let go without David Lose ever talking to him about what he did. He was let go without a discussion about how his needs and the seminaries needs could both be met. At the time, people didn’t say anything because they just thought Don was being difficult. But I think now the seminary has shown its true colors. They don’t care about the relationships they care about survival.
            All of this breaks my heart. I love LTSP. I loved being a student there. I loved the way this institution was often a safe place for LGBTQ people when other seminaries were not. I loved that it was in a city and valued diversity. It spoke of relationships and how important they are to what we do as leaders. I am a good pastor (on my best days anyway) today because of what I learned there. Because of that love I have for LTSP I encouraged people to give money to it; I have encouraged students to study there, now I cannot in good conscious do those things. I will have to grieve what has happened. I will have to find another way to support good seminary education, one that values relationships over institutional survival. I am not mad about it; I am just disappointed and sad.
            I realize that this blog will not change things at LTSP. I realize that some will think I am merely causing trouble and should just get with the program. But I don’t think we learn that way. I don’t think we grow as a Church that way. And I have to speak my mind. I have to say what I see as wrong. I have to publically grieve what has been lost here, not an institution but relationships. What has been lost is not LTSP, but the idea that relationships are what make an institution have heart and soul. Something new will be built, but what will it matter if all that is there are some buildings and a bank account with money in it. “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:25)