Saturday, October 27, 2012

Children and trust

It is funny what I remember, and when.

Tonight I went to the confirmation dinner for three girls, Annelise and Erica and Siri, who were in the fourth and fifth grades when I started at Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer.  They're in ninth and tenth now, and on the verge of confirmation.  I won't be there tomorrow when they affirm their baptism publicly; I'll be at my new church, my internship church, the church that I am increasingly referring to as "mine" and "ours" and, with surprise and pain, to LCCR as "theirs" and "yours."

It was a blessing to see them, not much older than when I left three months ago, and just as effusive in affection and energy.  It was good to sit with their parents and families and remember.  They are three remarkable young women.  I cried, of course.  And yet I am so happy.

Tonight I came home and bandaged my thumb, which is torn open across the pad.  I'm not good in the kitchen.  And a memory hit me, suddenly:  four years and some months ago, I bandaged Annelise's knee.

It was spring, not long after I'd started; a month at least had passed, but not two.  I still wasn't sure what I was doing there, or anywhere really.  I was barely twenty-three.  The doors were open at the back of the church after worship, and the Sunday School kids were running back and forth across the new cement patio.

Suddenly, at my elbow, were Annelise and her older sister Solveig.  Solveig was only five years younger than me, and on the verge of college; Annelise was ten, maybe eleven.  I am not entirely certain, now, that I knew Solveig's name at the moment that they appeared, baring Annelise's leg from under her pretty dress.  She had fallen.  She was bleeding.  And they presented themselves to me, to the Children's Education Associate, because -- she would know what to do, right?

The millions of things never covered in religion classes or seminary include "know where the first aid kit is."  Life experience had taught me to check the kitchen and then the bathrooms, and I got lucky:  it was on the counter next to the coffee maker.  I knelt at her feet, Annelise sitting and watching, Solveig offering commentary.  I found the antiseptic wipes and cleaned her leg.  It was gruesome.  It was icky.  I do not like other people's blood.  And yet I did not shirk from it.  I found the antibiotic ointment, in single-serving packages, and the Band-Aids, and I bound up her skinned knee.

I remember she thanked me, and so did Solveig, and then she hopped off the bench and they found their parents and headed home.

It was such a clear moment, and yet so hazy.  Kairos time, we call it in church-speak:  when something happens to pull you outside of the linear progression of time.

It was a simple thing, for a Sunday School kid to hurt her knee and come to her teacher for a Band-Aid.

And yet it was so complex, to know that a kid I barely knew would trust me, and to find in that moment of trust that I could do what I needed to do.

I am not called to children's ministry, specifically, although there is no doubt that I am good with kids and enjoy them.  I am called instead to the hurting, to the pained, to the bleeding leg that begs for someone with compassion to care and bandage it.  I love the honesty of children, the naked questions and critiques, because I long for the honesty of people, the doubts put into words, the hesitations voiced, the challenges understood and met.

It is a blessing to be reminded of this, and to be trusted with it.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Really?": a sermon on Mark 10:32-45


Mark 10:32-45

Jesus and the disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

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Click here to listen along.

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If there were a subtitle for the gospel of Mark, it would probably be:  “Really?”

See, last week we heard the story of the rich man who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus ends up telling him:  Sell everything.  Give the money to the poor.  Then come and follow me.  And the rich man goes away, and Jesus turns to the disciples and says:  “How hard it will be for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”  And the disciples say, “Really?”

And three weeks ago we heard the story of how the disciples find out there is someone else out there, who is casting out demons from people in the name of Jesus.  But he’s not with the disciples, so they tell this crazy renegade to stop.  Then they run to tell Jesus, like kids on the playground -- Teacher, Teacher, he was casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t with us!  And Jesus says that whoever is not against us is for us-- and you should be a lot more worried about yourselves than about the actions of others.  And the disciples say, “Really?”

See, each of our four gospels has its own slightly different way of telling the story.  And Mark’s gospel in particular loves stories where the disciples do not come off looking like smart and holy people.  They are a ragtag group of uneducated fishermen and tax collectors and other low-level employees -- a bunch of sinners, really.  And they spend a full year traveling with Jesus, moving from town to town, witnessing healings and miracles, hearing his teachings, listening to him debate with the religious leaders.

And the first time Jesus predicts his death, Peter rebukes him.  Peter, who just verses before said “You are the Messiah,” says “But that can’t mean you’re going to die!  You have it wrong.”  And Jesus says:  whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their live for me and for the good news will save it.  And the disciples say, “Really?”

And the second time Jesus predicts his death, the disciples as a group don’t understand, and they’re afraid to ask -- so they start an argument over who among them is the greatest.  And Jesus looks at them and says: whoever wants to be first must be last.  And the disciples say, “Really?”

And in today’s story, Jesus and his followers are headed for Jerusalem.  Jesus pulls the disciples aside and says, “When we get there, the Son of Man will be tried by the religious leaders, and condemned, and handed over to the Romans, and mocked, and beaten, and crucified.  And in three days he will rise again.”

So then James and John come forward and say, “When you are glorified, give us the best seats, next to you.”

Naturally, right?  That’s the obvious response to someone telling you they’re willingly walking towards their own suffering and death.  To say, “Oh, okay, cool.  But we get your car, right?”

So Jesus says:  “Really?”

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with my baptism?
Are you able to give up power and glory so that others might have it?
Are you willing to let go of what you’re used to, in order to be something very different?
Are you willing to challenge authority, and to love the least of these?

And in Eugene Peterson’s version of the gospel they say:  “Sure, why not?”

This is the holy gospel of a group of twelve guys who just did not get it.  Thanks be to God.

But really -- thanks be to God.  The thing I love about the disciples is that they don’t get it at about the same level that I don’t.  The thing I love is that after two thousand years of Jesus saying, “The greatest among you must be the least,” I’m still counting up points and wondering which seat I get in heaven.  And I may be wrong, but I have the tiniest little suspicion that I’m not the only one in the whole Christian church who does this.  I think maybe there might be two or three more people out there somewhere who would really like to know who’s ahead in this game.

And sometimes these three or four of us get into power, and we build systems that count points.  We look at our bank statements, at the stock market, at the cars in our driveways.  We get into political office.  We get the better iPhone.  We make art, but only for money and fame.  We give love, but only if we get love back.  And we count up our points and check them against others’.  Sometimes we -- and again, it’s just three or four of us -- come out ahead.  Sometimes we come out in the middle.  Sometimes we come out behind.

And into all this Jesus comes and says, “Whoever wishes to be great must be a servant.”

And the disciples say, “Really?”  And when the soldiers come for Jesus, they all run.

And we say, “Really?”  And we count up our own points.

So I really love that the disciples do not get it.  But even more I love that it’s all still true.

Our inability to understand what Jesus is saying doesn’t make it a lie.  Our inability to grasp the kingdom of God doesn’t make it any less real.  It’s always there.  Always working around us and alongside us.  Always ready for the moment when our point system breaks down-- and God can break in.

Jesus is always true.  Always ready for when we need to be freed.  When our rankings and systems become not a way to glory and power but to death and destruction.  When everything we’ve stored up to prove we’re worthy turns to dust and mold.  When our news is saturated with political polls and snarky commentary, when our media tells us we aren’t nearly beautiful or powerful enough, when even our church communities start to draw lines about who’s in and who’s out-- this is when Jesus says, “But it is not so among you.”

It doesn’t have to be so among us.

The God who came down, who dwelled in a human body, who lived and walked with us-- that is what is so.  God loves us so much that when we could not let go of our own rankings and systems -- then God came into the world and showed us how clearly all that led to death.  That if you hold on to power, if you hold on to glory, if you hold on to your own greatness -- then your life is lost.

That's what we baptize Tucker into, today.  We baptize him into Christ's baptism:  into the Spirit descending like a dove and resting on him.  Into life in community, and service to others.  And we do baptize him into Christ's death-- death to sin, to the forces of evil, to all the powers that draw us from God.

In baptism, we have all died to those.  Their hold on us is drowned in holy water.  Everything that binds us and keeps us from God -- everything that makes us seek power and glory -- every system of point-keeping and one-upping -- it’s all done.

Now, those forces aren't gone.  They still operate in the world.  They'll still show up in our schools, our workplaces, our homes, our friends' homes.  They're still in our lives.  But their power?  Their power is gone.  As a baptized child of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit, you are free.

Free from evaluating.  Free from comparing.  Free from competing.
Free from hiding the broken parts of ourselves.  Free from guilt.  Free from shame.

You are free.  You are really free.

So, now that you are free -- what do you want to do?

You are free to ask for help when you need it.
To offer help, even when you’re not sure if you can.
To pray, even if you don’t think you have the perfect words.
To open the Bible, even if you never have before.
To be honest about your pain.
To ask questions you were told you couldn’t ask.
To stop keeping score.
To love your neighbor simply because they too are a beloved child of God.
To love yourself.

So now that you are free -- what do you want to do?

We’ve left index cards on your chairs.  Find a pen, and write it down.  One thing.  One thing you want to be freed from, or freed to.  Just one thing.  We'll offer you a minute of quiet.  Some of you are out-loud thinkers; you need to process, talk this out with someone.  That's great.  Do that.  Some of you are already reaching for your card, with one idea burning clearly in you already.  That's great.  Write it down.  Write it down, and take it with you.

And be free.  Be really free.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fun news!


I've been invited to join an online group of contributors who write on questions of faith from different denominational and experiential perspectives.  They're The Ecumenicals, and you can find them here:  http://www.ecumenicals.org.  I'll be writing a post for them about twice a month.

Here's the bio I wrote for them:

Education:  B.A. in Religion, St. Olaf College
                   M.Div in Congregational Missional Leadership
                    at Luther Seminary (concurrent senior).
                    Intern pastor at Light of the World Lutheran
                    in Apple Valley / Farmington, MN.
Blog:  emm-in-sem.tumblr.com or emm-in-sem.blogspot.com
Emmy has found her home among the Lutherans after being baptized Catholic, raised Episcopalian, and spending formative years in the non-denominational and Assembly of God churches.   
She holds to common ecumenical confessions, including the importance of Scripture, the Trinity, and the creeds; she also holds to most of traditional Lutheran theology, like our lives as simultaneous saints and sinners, our desperate need for God’s grace, and the Bible and the preached word as “law and promise.”  She believes that our very real and very near God is intimately interested in justice, and that the invisible God is most clearly revealed in the cross. 
“I love a good story— Biblical or otherwise!  I love to be with people when they ask hard questions, questions that they’ve been told they can’t ask.  I love biking around the parks and lakes that make up Minneapolis (where I live) and eating good food (either home cookin’ or out at a swanky new place) with Kristi, my partner of seven years.  As a contributor to the Ecumenicals, I hope to dive deeply into the Bible and into my theological tradition and rise to the surface with something that can nourish others.”

My dear friend Ali says, "Girl, you never stop working."  (And I like it that way.)

On that note, I have a sermon to write for Sunday; prayers are welcome -- and also your bodies, if you want to hear the results in the flesh.  10am in North Trail Elementary at 170th and Pilot Knob in Farmington.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An anonymous Orthodox Christian asks...

(Tumblr has the option to ask me anonymous questions here.  I really like it.  Here's today's question.)














First:  thank you, and right back at you.  Living in the balance of loving your tradition, loving yourself, and loving others is a huge task, and you are inspirational (literally -- God-breathed!) for taking it on.

To start, I haven't studied Orthodox theologies or practices in depth, so my ideas are very preliminary.  My very basic understanding is that the Orthodox church understands the formation and application of the Bible in a distinctly different way than the Protestant church does.  I'm hesitant to say a lot for that reason; I don't know a lot about the nuances inherent in Orthodox belief and teaching.

I did some reading, and also some prayer, and here are the questions that arose for me.  I put them forth in the hope that you, dear Anon, can find someone better educated in Orthodox tradition than I to tackle them with!

- In general, the understanding of sex and gender has seen significant change in the past fifty years.  That bears consideration (not necessarily change, but absolutely consideration) by any religious tradition.  What kinds of consideration has the Orthodox church given this?  What does the Orthodox tradition say about the relationship between male and female, and about marriage?  Does that differ from other Christian confessions (in which case, one would need a specifically Orthodox way of talking about sex and gender), or are there enough similarities that other Christian confessions about sexuality and gender can enter the conversation?

- The Orthodox church has deep conviction about the value of its tradition.  This is a very good thing -- and yet I believe it can be difficult to discern where divinely instituted tradition and cultural norms overlap.  For example, the Orthodox church, by tradition, does not ordain women -- and yet there appears to be lively debate in pockets here and there on the Internet (and I would presume in congregations, as well) about that tradition.  One post I saw said, "We should be cautious that the question of the ordination of women did not arise in the first 1,950 years after Christ."  How do we know that question did not arise because, for the first 1,950 years after Christ (and for thousands of years before Him!), women were not allowed to have positions of power in almost every situation?  The larger question here being:  how has the Orthodox church discerned when to separate from cultural norms, and when to go along with them?  Does that have any bearing on the conversation about sexuality and gender?

- Finally, and what I think most importantly:  your question, at heart, has personal consequences.  You want to know if you can still love your church.  To that, I ask:  what about Orthodox Christianity draws you in?  Is it the teaching of the Holy Tradition?  Is it the beauty of art and ritual and how it connects you with the divine?  Is it the spiritual pilgrimage throughout life by which you seek to better imitate Christ?  Find what makes you long for the church.  That is where the question has to be answered-- not in theology but in how you experience the work of God in your life.  If the thing that draws you in is the uncorrupted Holy Tradition and the patristic consensus, you may struggle more with how to integrate LGBTQ welcome into that; I don't perceive a lot of space allowed for change within the tradition.  But if what speaks to you is the beauty of liturgy, or theosis, or something else, then there might be more space for both what you love about the Orthodox church and what you understand about LGBTQ rights.

I'm deeply honored that you came to me with this question and I hope my stumblings in the dark are of some help to you on your way.  Know that my askbox is always open.  I am admittedly not the most knowledgeable on this subject (and many others!), but I try to know and love people where they are, and I'd be honored to walk this with you in whatever capacity is helpful to you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Anon asks: how do you think homosexuality is biblically sound?

(Background: on Tumblr, one can submit anonymous questions to a blog.  This is one I got yesterday.)











Anonymous asks:
Totally not asking in a confrontational way at all, but what's your scriptural doctrine to support the LGBTQ movement/gay rights/open and unopposed homosexuality in the church? I wouldn't label myself conservative but I don't think homosexuality is biblically sound, and I just like to hear other people's takes on the matter and how they back it up with Truth.

Awesome.  Hi.  This is why I love having the Anonymous option on -- thanks for asking your question with a lot of openness and honesty.  I will try to answer in the same way!

A couple definitions are needed here.

* The way I understand something to be “biblically unsound” -- and please, please, please correct me if this is not how you meant it, Anon -- is that the Bible declares it to be invalid or untrue.  So I read “homosexuality is [not] biblically sound” to mean “the teachings of the Bible do not allow that one can be a homosexual.”  Or, shorthand, “the Bible opposes homosexuality.”

* Homosexuality, as a catch-all term for the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people, can be defined in a lot of different ways.  I think the essential here is that a homosexual person is someone who has or wants a physical, emotional, romantic, and sexual relationship with a member of the same sex.  

So.  Does the Bible oppose homosexuality?

My short answer is:

Yes.

In the same way it opposes bacon cheeseburgers and sport utility vehicles.

No, I’m serious.  Stop giggling.

I may be rehashing old stuff for some of my readers (and for you, Anon), so:  if you have a working understanding of and appreciation for the historical critical method of Biblical study, you can probably skip the next few paragraphs.

First:  Some passages in the Bible clearly condemn things that we clearly accept.  Two kinds of thread in one cloth (Lev. 19:19).  Working on Saturday (Ex. 20:8-11).  Men having long hair (1 Cor. 11:14).  And yes, bacon (Lev. 11:7-8) and eating milk and meat together (Deut. 14:21).

In addition, there are things the Bible allows that we clearly condemn today.  Slavery, for example (Eph. 6:5-8), and selling children into slavery specifically (Ex. 21:7-8).  And we no longer follow the Biblical ways of worshipping, even though the writer of Leviticus is pretty serious about how important they are (the first eight chapters alone are all about how to properly worship and offer sacrifice).

And -- the Bible condemns things, very clearly and very often, that many Christians don’t get as worked up about as homosexuality.  Like not taking care of widows and orphans, for example (Ex. 22:22, Deut. 10:18, Deut. 24:19-21, Deut. 25:7, Deut. 27:19, Job 24:21, Job 31:16-22, Ps. 94:6, Ps. 146:9, Is. 1:17, Jer. 7:6, Jer. 22:3, Ez. 22:7, Zech. 7:10, Mal. 3:5).  Those are a lot of passages, and yet the six or seven verses that condemn homosexuality get a lot more attention.

My struggle with the viewpoint that homosexuality is an abomination comes when that kind of “literal reading” isn’t applied across the whole Bible and there isn’t a good articulation of why.  Condemning homosexuality simply because we “take the Bible literally” can be dangerous or look hypocritical if we preach and teach that other passages are not meant to be taken literally.  

Second:  The general Biblical worldview does not have space for things that exist in our cultures today.  What would the people who wrote the Bible say about public education, about gun violence, about how many hours we spend watching television?  We can guess, but if we time-traveled, picked up the apostle Paul, and asked him to tell us what to do with our iPhones, he would just stare in terror at the little beeping white box-thing in his hand.  If we are going to let the Bible be true, we can’t ask it questions it can’t answer.  We can read, and try to apply, but we always have to do so in the knowledge that we are taking a document written in a particular place and time that is very, very different from ours, and trying to apply it to our lives.

Homosexuality did not exist, in Biblical times, the way it does today.  Homosexual acts then were violent rapes by the winning army, or pedophilic acts in pagan temples, or fleeting and lust-heavy encounters under the cloak of secrecy.  No one was understood to “be homosexual” -- heterosexuality was so assumed it wasn’t even discussed.  

If we take modern science and psychology seriously, along with the personal testimony of thousands of gay and lesbian people, then at some point we have to deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of people find themselves attracted to the same sex.  This was simply not a fact that the writers of the Bible had access to.  

So, if you asked the writer of Leviticus about me and my partner of seven years being able to share an apartment, a bed, a cat, and a 401(k), his head would come very close to literally exploding.

Just like if he saw a sport utility vehicle tearing across the hills of Lebanon.

So:  is homosexuality biblically unsound?  

The shortest answer is no.  It’s not.

But here is what I believe is.

What I believe is biblically unsound is persecution, oppression, and hatred.

What I believe is biblically unsound is declaring the purity codes of a hundred generations ago to be greater than the God who declares “I am doing a new thing” (Is. 43:19), the God who cries “The ones who I have called Not-my-people will be my people” (Hos. 2:23).

What I believe is biblically unsound is to read Peter’s vision in the book of Acts (ch 10) and deny that God is capable of going beyond our carefully drawn boundaries.

What I believe is biblically unsound is to see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 9:26-40) and to respond with anything but joy when the eunuch cries, “Look, here is water!  What would prevent me from being baptized?”

What I believe is biblically unsound would be to claim that we can hinder God -- 


the powerful God who woke new life in Sarah’s old womb, the God who brought an oppressed and enslaved people out of Egypt across a dry sea bed, the God who rained down just enough to eat in the wilderness --


the wide-reaching God who saved Pharaoh and Egypt from the famine, who healed Naaman, who spared Rahab, who remembered Hagar --

the God who willed himself to be a tiny baby in a virgin’s womb, who preached mercy and compassion, who stretched out his carpenter’s hands to bleeding women and demon-possessed children and disbelieving Samaritans and rotten-skinned lepers and knew all along that his message of love would lead him to die --

the God who rose again and makes new life in us every day.