Ever since the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled in favor of gay marriage, I've generally seen two kinds of commentary on the subject.
The first is radical support from myriads of people. Christian and Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, atheist and agnostic have all come across in various ways, affirming that, under the constitution of the United States, all people deserve equal rights and equal protections under the law.
The second is the particularly Christian sort of disagreement with the court's decision. They complain that the definition of marriage as one man and one woman is the only Biblical form of marriage (though, in fact, the Bible also supports polygamy). They decry that SCOTUS had no right to rule this way (though under our laws SCOTUS is called upon to rule in just such circumstances). They claim that Christians' rights are somehow being impinged upon (though, in fact, this is an expansion of rights for LGBTQ persons whose rights were previously unrecognized). Each of these posts, it seems, begins with, "I'm a Christian," and then goes on to say why they're against gay marriage.
Today, I'd like to try something different. It's part personal confession, part public clarification. It's not the clearest or most direct post, so I apologize for that in advance. With all that said, here it goes.
I'm a Christian. But after everything that you've read by Christians recently that begin with that statement, perhaps what I should say is that I'm another kind of Christian.
I embrace the Bible as God's written word for humanity. So far, this probably sounds like the other posts you've read. Stay with me, because I believe part of God's gift of scripture is that God calls us to learn how to use God's word well in the world.
While I embrace that Bible, and in fact, because of that Bible, I also embrace the LGBTQ community. I'm in full support of gay marriage (oh for the coming day when we can just say marriage), not just on constitutional grounds, but scripturally. How can that be?
Well, there are lots of reasons that makes sense. Consider that every same-sex act that scripture denounces is one of either violence or privilege (OT & NT). In other words, the Bible never speaks to a marriage or romantic relationship between two people of the same sex because, to the writers, a relationship of mutual love between persons of the same gender was as unimaginable as a cell phone or air travel. Said simply, scripture only denounces apparently abusive sex acts and does not speak to same sex relationships. At the same time, consider the wide arch of scripture, where God creates a world out of nothing and seeks to bring that entire world into divine relationship, is about God creating avenues for relationship with all people. The arch of scripture moves from what we can do to stay in relationship with God, which because of sin always fell short, to what God decides to do to stay in relationship with us. This comes most clearly in the life of Jesus, the God who became human, died at the hands of political and religious oppression, then rose from the dead to bring forgiveness and new life to all humanity. God's on a mission not for exclusion but for reconciliation. We see this most clearly in Jesus, who, by the way, never mentioned anything about LGBTQ marriage or sexual activity. That lens, the lens of Jesus Christ, has to be the lens through which we interpret all of Scripture and seek to apply it to our contexts. Through Jesus, we must ask: What is God up to in the world? Where is God in the midst of this?
So, as a Christian, I see God at the forefront of this movement to allow all people to experience the unique kind of love and relationship in marriage that reflects God's love for the world, that reflects Christ's love for the church.
I'm a Christian, and that doesn't mean I hate other Christians with whom I disagree. Each of you are my brothers and sisters just as much as our LGBTQ sistren and brethren. I know we're all still Christian because the mark of our faith is not our belief first, but rather Christ's embrace of us in baptism and feeding us through the table of communion. God chose us long before we found faith or belief, so of course we're still at different places. Of course we don't all believe the same thing. That's been true of the church for just about 2,000 years now, and we're going to continue working on that until the new heaven and new earth come to full fruition.
For those of you who aren't Christian because it seems that faith is all about prohibiting rather than celebrating life, I hope this gives you a sense that there's another Christian way. This doesn't mean that Jesus doesn't care about how we live our lives. In fact, we still believe that Jesus offers wisdom on how to live the best life, and some things - violence, prejudice, oppression, coercion - surely work against that life. In the midst of this good life, there are those of us who wholeheartedly believe that Jesus embraces LGBTQ community without forcing them to deny their sexual identity or to live a life without romantic love. God wants to celebrate the good life with all of us, gay or straight.
So, as you see stuff continue to fly by on Facebook that begins with "I'm a Christian," remember that there's another kind of Christian, one convicted by the witness of Jesus and the arch of scripture that God's at work for the good of all people, and that we saw that God at work this week through SCOTUS. Thanks be to God for working to reconcile all things in and through Jesus Christ.
Here's a few numbers to consider:
In 2012, there were 4,726 higher education institutions eligible for Title IX funding. Of those, 3,026 offered at least Bachelor's degrees ("4-year institutions") and the other 1,700 offered Associates degrees ("2-year institutions").
How many ELCA campus ministries do you think there are nationwide? Finding number is hard to come by, in large part because the ELCA is currently decentralizing campus ministry from the churchwide office to a national network of practicioners. This means much of that information is somewhere in the ether. On the ELCA website, you can find about 300 campus ministry sites reported. However, some of those offer no contact information. Others seem recorded twice. But let's be generous with our numbers and say that the ELCA has 300 campus ministries across the U.S.
Of course, we don't know how many of those serve multiple campuses either. For instance, Highlander Lutherans, our campus ministry to Radford University out of Christ Lutheran in Radford, VA, plans to start an outreach to New River Community College in the Fall. One ministry reaching out to two institutions. I know of ministries that reach out to as many as five in large cities. So, for the sake of argument, let's be generous again and say that 1/4 of the ELCA campus ministries reach out to at least two schools. Of 300 campus ministries, that means we reach 375 campuses.
Now, do the math in your head really quick.
Ok. I'll help.
That means that, with our generous assumptions, the ELCA carries some sort of presence on 8% of campuses nationwide. Conversely, that means we have 92% of colleges and universities unmet with the uniquely Lutheran voice of new life by faith through Christ's grace. My goal, though, is not to lament or to judge.
It's to challenge.
Across the country, there are ELCA congregations in cities with colleges, towns with universities. Across the country, there is a mission field in the back yard of each of our congregations. There is a great harvest, and there are workers in each of our congregations that God equips to send into that field.
If you've got a campus within driving distance of your building, consider what God might be saying to you about campus ministry. There's a huge opportunity for ministry outside the walls of our buildings, and one that can make a lasting impact on future generations. College doesn't need to be a place where faith is lost. If our congregations take to the campuses with messages not of condemnation but instead liberation in Christ, then what kind of new life might we see both on campus and in our congregations?
Now, this isn't easy work. Of course, not much is easy when it comes to faith. But it is fun. It is friutful. It is enlightening. And in the challenges of campus ministry, I've found inexplicable joy. I've seen hearts on fire for Christ, and the deepest questions of doubt. I've seen faith like a child and faith like a philosopher. I've seen groups bridge the conservative/liberal divide, such that it looked much more like this: conservative + liberal. On campus, we may learn how to live with the cross at the center, with Christ as the one who binds us together, for the good work of bringing life abundant to the untapped mission fields in our backyards.
All 92% of them.
This is a special word for preachers tomorrow.
This week, a racially motivated terrorist attack took the lives of nine sisters and brothers.
The murders occurred in a church known to work for respite and reconciliation for two centuries.
Two of the fallen graduated from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, my seminary, at the hands of a member of my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Wives and husbands, children and parents, friends and loved ones, sisters and brothers in the Lord, members of Christ's body at work in this world, died this week.
Tomorrow, say something about them. If you're preaching, say something about their lives. Speak about the brokenness that led to their deaths. Name the pervasive prejudice that still shapes our culture and twists the minds of humanity toward hate and violence.
Name the evils of racism and terrorism.
Lift up the incredible words of forgiveness spoken by family members during Dylann Roof's bond hearing. Join in their prayers for his own repentance, for God to offer forgiveness even as the courts to work justice. Pray for those families and the church family of Emanuel AME.
Lift up the names of the fallen: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson.
Pray for the Roof family and all those shocked at the violence committed by someone they knew and loved.
Pray for justice, mercy, repentance, and restoration.
If you're preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, each passage tomorrow speaks of God's faithfulness through the storms of life, both real and allegorical. The Bible once again helps us to name both the suffering in the world and God's presence amidst that suffering, so say something.
If you've prepared a sermon where you can't appropriately tie in this example, there's an entire worship service of prayers and songs, of lament and of praise where you may name, at multiple junctures, that we need God to break this cycle of violence, of hatred, of racism and terror. Or the Spirit may compel you to change the sermon altogether.
People will enter churches tomorrow wondering what they might hear about God in the midst of this tragedy. Congregants will bring with them a deep desire to meet the Gospel at work in our world.
Whatever you do tomorrow, don't stay silent about this. Don't ignore this because, in your mind, it doesn't relate to your congregation. Sisters and brothers in Christ are dead. This relates to your congregation. One of God's creations killed nine others. This relates to your congregation. Whether racially diverse or culturally monolithic, this reality relates to everyone in every congregation.
Part of the call as preachers is to stand here, to speak God's word of promise into a world that desperately needs that Gospel, not in an abstract way, but in specific places to specific people. Surely after this week, we must know that we all desperately need that Gospel.
So say something.
One of the massive shifts in church culture in recent memory is how church staff orient their time, particularly for church pastors and ministry program directors. The practice common to the 20th century church as an office based ministry, one where the staff could work in an office where church members would drop by and people interested in joining would visit the office to get to know the pastor before regularly attending worship. This is where pastors wrote sermons, did Bible study, dreamed of new ministries, and provided pastoral care. Pastors didn't need to leave their office to perform ministry (or, at least, certain kinds of ministry).
More recently, pastors need to leave their offices as much as possible. Very few members, and even fewer community members, just stop by the office anymore. Rather, people are living lives in the community around our churches, and people need to see our church's investment in the community in order to develop a trust and interest in the life of the congregation.
This is especially true for churches seeking to actively grow as new starts or redevelopments of established churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Redevelopment Training practices suggest the following as five core pracitces, with percentages of time allotted: Networking with potential ministry partners who might desire to become a part of the community's life (70%), Visitor/New Member Assimilation (7%-8%), Pastoral Care (7%-8%), Leadership Development through Mentoring Leaders (7%-8%), and Vision Casting (7%-8%).
My how the tables have turned.
For myself, I know I need to spend more time in our community, getting to know the people who help make the New River Valley such a vibrant place to live. If I may confess, sometimes it is just easier to spend time in the office, to write sermons without distractions, to cast vision without the chaos of the world around us, to invite people in the church rather than carry the life of the church out into the community.
Of course, our lives are filled with ditractions. We live in the chaos of the world around us. And Jesus, our paradigm for leadership, was always going out to carry the life of God to the people God sought to redeem (which, of course, is everyone). If we desire to see God's Kingdom come more alive in our world, we need to live more like citizens of that kingdom. Our sermons ought to find shape through interaction with the community. Our vision ought to meet the chaos of the world head on. The church's ministry isn't meant ot stay in one place, but intsead meant to multiply, to grow like a mustard seed into a great life that blesses the environments in which we live.
So, pastors, get out of your offices (and here I speak to myself as well). Carry Jesus into your community and network with the people who God wants to experience reconcilation (whihc, of course, is everyone).
So, church members, encourage your pastors to step outside of their comfort zone, to work at restaurants and in city parks, to be voices of love that shine the gift of Jesus that each of our churches carries. With the commonality of cell phones, they're easily accessible and only a call away in emergencies.
Everyone encourage one another to help our churches become more actively involved outside the walls of our buildings. As we all know, the church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is...
the people whom Jesus calls to live out God's mission of redemption and reconciliation.
Which, of course, is everyone.
Recently, our redevelopment* congregation began a ministry called Across the Spectrum. This intentionally inclusive worship and fellowship experience provides worship opportunities for people of all abilities. Our goal was to provide a safe place for worship where all people might find valuable ways to engage with God, with an intentional outreach to people on the autism spectrum and persons with physical or intellectual disabilities. Since as much as twenty percent of our twenty to thirty people in worship live on the autism spectrum or with an intellectual disability, we wanted to provide an opportunity for inclusive worship for others who might not be able attend on Sunday mornings, or who already have a church home but would like a more sensory worship experience.
We found a great initial response, with an initial attendance of fourteen people. We honed the activities to the passions and abilities of the people in attendance. We gathered people from within our congregation and who'd never set foot in our church before. Energy was high.
Yet, we also found certain limitations. We first noticed that our space didn't allow for much growth. With many worship stations, a desire for free space to move, and a need to provide access for wheelchairs, our fellowship hall showed its limits. Though our sanctuary is flexible and would provide the necessary space, we're awaiting the installation of a lift to provide comfortable access to that room and to accessible bathrooms. We also noticed that our church's location was outside of the normal traffic patterns of much of the New River Valley's population. People from Blacksburg and Christiansburg were unlikely to travel to Radford, especially without knowing the trip was worthwhile.
So, our numbers hovered between ten and fifteen. Until Sunday, when we had twenty four people attend Across the Spectrum. What changed?
We began to partner with another ELCA congregation, this one in Blacksburg, where people also shared a passion for inclusive community. They have larger space that is immediately accessible, and their building sits just off of the campus of Blacksburg City Schools. With our combined resources and a shared commitment to inclusion, ministry grew.
Across the Spectrum will now alternate locations, with the first Sunday of the month at St. Michael (Blacksburg) and the third Sunday at Christ (Radford). CLC gave birth to this ministry and raised it through the early stages of life. Now, along with St. Michael, we will together help raise it into a new maturity.
We're better together. Not just CLC and St. Michael, but all congregations. We're at our best when we partner in the Gospel, when we join our passions and resources that more people might encounter Jesus. No congregations has all of the vision, gifts, resources, and capabilities to perform all the ministries our communities need. Yet, when we come together, good ministry may transform into powerful. Nice programs may blossom into beautiful. Church partnership, when driven by the Gospel desire to love our neighbors, is life giving to congregations and to communities alike.
In the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed that we might share the unity that he shares with the rest of the Trinity, that we might embrace the kind of life inherent to the Triune God. We've begun to taste a bit of that here in the New River Valley. Across the Spectrum was great as a ministry of CLC alone, but we can reach even higher heights with the partnership of St. Michael. Our partnership reflects the image of God and opens up the life of God, that all might experience more of the thriving, more of the vibrancy, that Christ offers to us.
*This is a term used by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to describe established congregations committed to a process of discernment, community engagement, and vision casting in the hopes of finding new life for the church through renewed partnerships with the surrounding community.
Pastors often speak of the amount of time that goes into the preparation and composition of a particular sermon, as well as when that work is performed. For me, you can count on every five minutes relating to between three and four hours of work during the week. This means that, for my usual fifteen minute sermon, usually nine to twelve hours work to construct the final product.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.