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“The elders of the daughter of Zion
sit on the ground in silence;
they have thrown dust on their heads
and put on sackcloth;
the young women of Jerusalem
have bowed their heads to the ground.” – Lam. 2:10
There aren’t many words to be written this morning, after a year of eye-opening racial violence, and on a morning in which our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal church have been slaughtered in the name of race. We are witnesses to domestic terrorism perpetrated by a white shooter on African-Americans who had gathered for a bible study.
Last night, more people were murdered in a church than were killed in the Boston Marathon bombings.
If you want a bit of background and history about Emanuel and the Lutheran/AME history, please read below.
If you feel moved by God to do so, I would encourage you to give to Emanuel for their work, response, and for the costs of funerals and ministering to their community in grief. Use the donate button on the right side of their website.
If nothing else, let us pray:
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Come Holy Spirit, speak our prayers when we have no words. Help us yearn for peace where there is none. Empower us to speak truthfully, to confess our systemic sin, and listen well to our brothers and sisters crying out in grief.
Mother Emanuel AME Church is one of the most historically significant churches in the African-American tradition, and has been a long beacon of God’s freedom for the enslaved over centuries.
Like most African Methodist Episcopal churches, it began as a home for those who had been excluded from Christian fellowship because of race, becoming the biggest and oldest black church in the South. It has also been long a site of racial violence. Denmark Vesey, one of it’s founders, was hanged along with 34 others for conspiring in a slave revolt, and the church was burned down. From their website:
“In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church's founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. Brown, suspected but never convicted of knowledge of the plot, went north to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME denomination.During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all black churches were outlawed. The congregation continued the tradition of the African church by worshipping underground until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted, meaning "God with us."
One of the founding members of the AME, Daniel Payne, went on to become one of the most famous abolitionists, a bishop of the AME, and the founder of Wilberforce College, was trained at the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg, but was unable to find work in the Lutheran church, and returned to serve the AME church. Our seminaries regularly train AME pastors, yet our own churches remain nearly 95% white.
Emanuel’s current pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was among those murdered last night. Rev. Pinckney was trained as a teenager for ministry, but completed his seminary education at the Lutheran Theological Summer Seminary, earning a Master of Divinity.
As Lutherans, our connection to Emanuel, and the larger AME church is important to remember today. It is important to remember both in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters, and as a reminder of our own complicity in the long and lasting racism in the United States. So listen, pray, give, participate, and let these martyrs of our faith be remembered justly.
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One of the hardest things about being in a place for only a year is that you don’t always get opportunities to share the interesting parts of your life that got you to a place like St. Paul. I’ve been reminded of one of those times recently as the 2016 presidential race is getting under way with all the candidates being asked about the Iraq War and the Supreme Court getting to rule on multiple important decisions. The divisive political speech that has sickened the imagination of American churches has amped up once more.
In 2006, in my senior year of high school, I spent a year working as a congressional intern for a moderate Minnesota Republican, Rep. Jim Ramstad, who represented my district in the House of Representatives. For years, politics had been the center of my life, and was how I thought I was going to make an impact in the world. I spent that year, almost like a pastor, answering calls and writing letters to constituents, ranging from problems at the V.A., to a woman who called each Friday convinced that she had been abducted by aliens. It was a year that I thoroughly enjoyed, in some part because Rep. Ramstad was so welcoming and because, at the time, he was one of the last remaining moderates who worked regularly across the aisle, particularly on the two things he was passionate about: mental health and addiction.
It wasn’t long after that, during my time in college, that I found just how difficult it was to reconcile being both a Christian convinced in the importance of unity, and the divisiveness of so much of political speech in this country.
On Sunday, I found myself wondering throughout the Acts reading, and throughout our worship, about the picture we had in front of us: of a gathering of Jews, convinced of a variety of different life perspectives, including politics, being united in some way in the hearing about this Jesus. Their unity was not in their homogenous beliefs about how best religious views might affect political ones, or vice a versa, but by the work of the Holy Spirit and the good news about Jesus. And if the witness of the church in Acts is any example, they struggled through this reality for years to come: How do we live together as the body of Christ in unity and difference?
I’m not sure there is a simple answer to that question, other than to say it’s a gift of God, and a worthy struggle to endure together. Paul, Peter, and James certainly struggled through that in the early years, disputing such close-to-the-heart issues as circumcision and the relationship of Jews and Gentiles, and often disagreeing strongly. Yet, we continue to see, in the midst of disagreement, a constant working of the Holy Spirit to bring them back together in Acts.
Unfortunately, the wider church has participated in such deeply homogenizing practices: slavery, racism, gentrification, and segregation by race, education, income, and geography. Yet, as I have come through the doors here, I have been genuinely delighted by the diversity and hospitality that I have found at St. Paul: socioeconomic diversity from numerous different towns in the area, hospitality towards those with developmental and physical disabilities, reconciliation with those who identify as LGBT, the warmth towards our children in worship, and our continuing care for inter-faith families. Yet, as political creatures trying to pursue a common good and human flourishing, we struggle like most other churches do: with how to live with significant differences in politics, in theology, and about how to best make sense of living out our faith in the world.
It is easy, and we are culturally (and maybe even biologically) disposed, to assume the worst about those who disagree with us, it is much more difficult to assume them as a sister or brother in the faith, The challenge ahead for all of us, myself included as someone who always assumes my correctness, is to make space for a new sort of intimacy and diversity in community.
As one of my mentors once said to me, one of the challenges of being a Christian in this era is to build communities with people that have learned how to live in the grey space of being wrong. To profess the things we believe to be true, and also to live in the possibility that we might be wrong.
And that space of difference, that in-between, that pause if you will, of the possibility of being wrong, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that creates something new between us: communion and community.
Abiding in the Waves of Change
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Today marks the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus and the beginning of ten days of wrestling with Jesus’ physical absence that led to the beginnings of what we now call the Church, and eventually the day of Pentecost. I suppose it is fitting that this week has also marked the release of the latest Pew Forum polling on religious self-identification in America, and all of the analysis and anxiety that follows amongst church professionals, particularly in our neck of the Church.
The numbers are stark, with the mainline Christian tradition, which includes the ELCA, hemorrhaging about five million members over the last five years. The poll also includes an indication of the increasing number of young people (mainly millennial, of which I am a part) who identity as “nones,” which includes atheist, agnostic, and also many who are spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religious tradition.
Already, many have begun to dissect what the Church is doing wrong, particularly in our own tradition, something my friend Clint, a fellow Pastor in Arkansas, likes to call the “Mainline Protestant Gaze,” the self-loathing that immediately follows these kinds of reports. He writes: “We look at these numbers, and immediately begin to offer explanations. We hope to discover causation. Perhaps we are lukewarm, too liberal, not having enough babies, too inwardly focused, boring, irrelevant, too relevant, apostate, old, void of the Holy Spirit.”
Yet, as a millennial, while I find these anxieties to be genuine, I think they are misplaced, as the critiques that millennials tend to offer about the church are legitimate and have much more to do with the death of Christendom, and a sort of nominal Christianity, than with any particular one thing that we are doing wrong. I count myself among the many “nones” who are no longer interested in participating in religions communities that simply teach morality, constantly are asking for money, never wrestling with the tough questions that are so present to us in this connected and instant world.
To me, what these numbers show, is that churches who take their life together to be nothing more than a nominal social club, will not enrich and deepen faith, and too often that has been the case in our neck of the woods. What we are seeing, as Ed Stetzer, an Evangelical writer noted in the USA Today: ”Christianity and the church are not dying, but they are being more clearly defined…Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it's not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.”
This is not to say that the road ahead isn’t challenging, and that all churches have work to do in deepening their life together and their commitment to living a public faith in their communities. But, that communities that are paying attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, to the work of God in their local communities, and to the critiques being offered, are learning how to be healthy communities of faith in this new era.
And we have that work to do too. Last Sunday, St. Paul welcomed almost thirty new members into our community, a wide mix of new partners in this work. And I can attest that your pastor and the many beautiful leaders of this place are committed to this hard work.
I am grateful to have been assigned to this synod while I’ve been an intern here at St. Paul., especially since there is much demand among seminary graduates and clergy around the country to come to New England, some of the rockiest soil for the church in the United States. The first week in June I’ll be at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis for my final interviews and faculty approval, the last step before I can seek a call and be ordained. I pray for a call nearby with high hopes for St. Paul, watching as the Holy Spirit deepens your faith and life together, just like she did after the Ascension of Jesus.
Earth Day Reflections
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Geologists and cultural theorists have begun calling the era that we live in anthropocene, the era in which the effects of humans upon the geological features, species, and climate of the earth are profound. There is a great debate about whether a whole era can be named on the actions of humans, but the evidence of our lack of stewardship of God’s creation is clear.
As I write this on Earth Day, and in this Easter season, I am reminded of the grief I feel over how the issues of how we care for this beautiful and fragile world that was given to us and to our fellow creatures as a gift of God has been politicized and polarized. This creation is groaning under the weight of our sinfulness, awaiting its restoration and resurrection too. Just this week has seen reports that Oklahoma suffered more earthquakes that California due to oil and gas extraction methods, news of the continuing and worsening drought in the California basins, and the spread of a virulent bird flu in Iowa and Minnesota.
I can only hope that we, Christians, can find the theory and practice to faithfully follow Jesus and join in the work of restoring creation in the years ahead. But it is going to require some difficult choices in the years ahead if places like the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota, will not only be protected, but also allowed to thrive.
Pastor Brian Zahnd, who is one of my favorite evangelical pastors and authors, gets at this well in the reflection he shared today:
A MEDITATION FOR EARTH DAY
Mary Magdalene’s Easter “mistake” of thinking Jesus was the gardener is a poetic hint of how Christ as the Last Adam leads us back to our first vocation. Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to a deep love for God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. Or perhaps it’s just voracious capitalism dressed up in Christian garb—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If we cannot love the primeval forest I’m not sure we can love either God or neighbor.
The wise Elder Zosima in Fyodor Dosotevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" gives this counsel to the novice monk Alyosha:
"Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love."
If someone says that sounds like "tree-hugger" theology, I say a theologian can do worse than to hug a tree.
Luckily, we Lutherans can lay claim to one of Christianity’s foremost eco-theologians, Martin Luther. Luther himself was an avid gardener, and had a deep love for creation. One of the most famous quotes (even though he likely didn’t say it) that is attributed to him is “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
Now, go forth, spread the good news, and embrace the freedom to do something for the sake of the good world we live in.
A Kid’s Calling is to Play
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We, here at St. Paul, take vocation seriously. From the many jobs, families, and places that our people call home to their callings in this world, we enthusiastically embrace our role in God’s story. What you might not know is how seriously we take the vocation of being a child here at St. Paul, which you can see in our work in Godly Play where every Sunday the rooms are transformed to sacred space dedicated to a child’s response to God’s story.
I just got back from a weekend at Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) in Chestnut Hill for Godly Play training, where I gathered with 50 other teachers to learn about the work and vocation of children: play. And we learned how to teach play and storytelling, and how to play and wonder ourselves.
In Godly Play, our children gather, play, wonder, and feast…and play some more. They hear the sacred stories from scripture, reenact liturgical actions and meet the saints who heard the Good News and made it their own. Through the act of storytelling and wondering, we invite kids to make meaning and play with these stories like play-doh. As they take them and make them their own, the children are finding their own lives in the midst of God’s story for all of us.
Sometimes, we adults undervalue this sacred work of children, as if this isn’t the “real” thing, but Jesus seems to tell us something else: “13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”
I think maybe kids had it right all along, and somewhere, someplace, we missed something crucial: that playing with God, and experiencing the joy of God’s presence, is vital to our faith lives.
If you have kids, from 4 years old through 2nd grade, and your kids aren’t in Godly Play yet, we would invite you to come and participate in a whole different kind of faith formation for children.
And maybe, just maybe, we adults can try and play with God’s story too. You’d be surprised at what you might discover.