Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thank you for praying

I can’t speak for all pastors, only this one. But I want to tell you that I love it when people don’t ask me to pray.

You know how it so often goes. You’re at a church event, it’s time to eat, and suddenly, all eyes are on the pastor, waiting for her to pray over the casseroles and the jello salad. Or a family in the congregation invites the pastor to their place for dinner. They all sit down at a table covered with piping hot food, they place their napkins on their laps, and then someone says, “Pastor, will you pray for us?”

Now, I know that for a lot of people this is a way of honoring their pastor, and I can appreciate that. But I have to tell you that whenever laypeople pray in a public setting, my heart soars. And when they don’t automatically turn to me and expect me to be the pray-er, I always notice. Hallelujah! They're not looking to me as the professional holy person in our community. They realize that I’m no more holy than anyone else, and God doesn’t hear my prayers above others.

The other night I went to dinner at the home of some Ascension folks, that moment came, and I cringed inside. But no one looked to me. Our host offered a table prayer, and I immediately felt a rush of relief and joy. In fact, I was so overjoyed that I wanted to jump up and kiss him, but he is a married man, so I restrained myself. I'm sure no one sitting at the table realized how much his prayer meant to me.

Occasionally, I’m praying with someone who is homebound or ill, and after I’m done praying for them, they continue with a prayer for me. This has only happened with a handful of people I’ve known in 40 years of ministry, but when I hear them praying for me, it brings me to tears. I’m grateful to them for their prayers, but I’m also grateful to them for recognizing that they, too, can offer prayers of healing for their pastor. Yes, we're all in this together.

I do appreciate it when people show respect for me as their pastor, and I realize that I hold a unique place of honor within our faith community. But it’s not all about me. Other people can pray. Other people can visit the sick. Other people can teach. Other people can preach. Other people can make important decisions. Other people can lead. And if we’re going to faithfully go where God is leading us, the more we share this ministry we’ve been given, the further we’ll go.

This idea is actually one of the pillars of Lutheranism. We call it the “Priesthood of all Believers.” It’s a part of our understanding of Baptism, which is when we all become ministers. The Lutheran Church has taught this for hundreds of years. My experience has been that most Lutherans ignore it.

For Lent this year, during our Wednesday evening services, people from the congregation have planned the worship experiences, and they're leading them. I’m sitting in the pews with the congregation. Yes!

Prior to worship, we get together for a soup supper. On the first Wednesday, before we ate, someone asked me to pray. I started to do it, and then I thought, no, if I pray tonight, they’re going to ask me to pray every night and I don’t want to become the official pray-er. “No, I changed my mind,” I said. “I think someone else should pray.” I expected there to be an awkward silence, or a lot of hemming and hawing around as we cajoled someone else into praying, but that didn’t happen. Immediately, someone stood up and prayed. It felt to me like she was waiting for the opportunity.

And I was a very happy pastor. It’s not just about me being relieved from saying a prayer. It’s about being part of a faith community that understands what it means to be a part of the priesthood of all believers. Thank you for praying!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dealing with the Divide - courage, caring and Christian community

We did it. This morning at Ascension, about 30 of us pulled our chairs into a circle and we listened to one another. It wasn’t easy. For some, it took every ounce of courage they could muster just to be there. And I’m thankful that our Christian community meant so much to them that they felt called to show up.

Last Sunday I challenged the congregation in a sermon to put Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciling with one another into action. I talked about the elephant in the room since early November when our President was elected. Despite strong feelings, we have avoided talking about it. We have been polite, but we have avoided looking one another in the eye, and that is not what the life of reconciliation looks like.

And so, this morning we gathered to listen to one another, for the purpose of understanding. We didn’t gather to argue, or to convince one another that we’re right and they’re wrong. As we shared with one another, we were reminded of all that we have in common as God’s people. And because of that, we were able to listen to our differences and acknowledged them, forbearing with one another in love.

The morning was not without discomfort. We began with prayer and a reading of Ephesians 4:1-6. Then we went over some basic ground rules for our time together before splitting into two groups. This was the most difficult part of the morning. For some, it meant “outing” themselves among those who had no idea how they had voted in the presidential election. I had been concerned that there might have been only a few who had voted for DJT at our meeting. It turns out that was not the case. The group was close to evenly divided.

The two groups separated. Each was assigned the task of compiling a list of 5-10 things they wanted the other group to understand about them. As I floated back and forth between the two, I was taken aback by the raw emotion within both groups. Had this really been such a good idea, after all? I had to keep reminding myself that, without openness and honesty, there is no genuine community. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s the only way to go.

After they compiled their lists of things they wanted the other group to understand about them, I asked them to get inside the heads of the people in the other room and come up with what they imagined the other group would say about themselves on their list. That seemed to be easier for them, although I could see that this process could have taken all day. They had plenty to say among themselves, where they felt safe.

Then came the scary part. We got back together and we compared lists. Those who didn’t vote for President Trump had a list of things they wanted those who did vote for President Trump to understand about them, and vice versa. The telling part of the exercise was the second part where each group had done a pretty good job of guessing what the other group would be saying.

At the top of both their lists, there was a clear statement about how much it means to them to be people of faith. And that, of course, was the point. We’re all people of faith.

This is what it looks like to be in Christian community. Ascension gathers under a wide, wide tent. Our diversity isn’t obvious to the naked eye, but we are certainly diverse. No one is denied a place under that tent. This isn’t easy to accomplish in our divided society, but by the grace of God, we do it. I hope the people of Ascension can appreciate how extraordinary they are.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to end the morning. I thought of praying, or going back to the text from Ephesians. But when the time came, I knew exactly how we needed to conclude our time together. We gathered about the altar and communed one another with the bread and wine. And then we offered God’s peace to one another. When we said, “Peace be with you” we looked one another in the eye, and we meant it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Help! There's an Elephant Sitting on the Baptismal Font!

Preached on Sunday, February 26, for the people of Ascension Lutheran, Towson MD.

This is an unusual Sunday for me because I’m not preaching directly on the text for today. Instead, I’m feeling compelled by the Spirit to address our context. That context is the nexus between the Sermon on the Mount, entering the season of Lent, and the negative drain of the world around us that is sucking us into a downward spiral of us against them.

For the past four weeks of the Epiphany season, we’ve been in The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about how God’s Reign is a counter-cultural experience that Jesus calls us to be a part of.  It differs radically from the values of the world around us in the way we treat one another, ourselves and even those we perceive to be our enemies. 

Week after week we’ve heard Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and you have respectfully listened in as I’ve wrestled with those words out loud from the pulpit. And week after week, while we’ve made our way through the Sermon on the Mount, there’s been a big ol’ elephant in the middle of the room, sitting right on top of our baptismal font. Have you noticed it?

Now, I don’t mean to use that image in the political way. The elephant is not the GOP. The elephant is the thing that we’re all aware of, but it makes us so uncomfortable that we choose pretend it doesn’t exist.

The elephant I’m referring to is the divide between us regarding partisan politics. I know some of you cringe when you hear the word politics from the pulpit, but to ignore politics is to ignore what’s going on in the world around us. And when we ignore what’s going on in the world around us, what we do in this place becomes completely irrelevant. 

I didn’t think it could get worse than it was during the presidential campaign, but over the past few months, the political divide in our country has grown wider. I’ve had this sense that it’s become the unspoken subtext of every sermon I preach. I don’t even bring it up, and many of you assume I’m talking about it. Especially as we’ve been cracking open the meaning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. 

But Jesus teachings are never about endorsing a political party or a specific candidate. They are about turning away from the ways of selfishness, violence and injustice, and toward the Reign of God, which is where Jesus tells us true life is found. 

Face it, if the world around us followed the teachings of Jesus, it wouldn’t be in a such a mess.

But here’s the thing. We’re Jesus people here. We may not always get it right, but we’re a part of this community because it is our hearts’ desire to follow the way of Jesus. 

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and that includes us, that other people will know we’re his disciples by the love we have for one another. Think of our congregation as a little love laboratory. We’re practicing love with one another so that we can also share that love with people outside our community. In other words, if we don’t get it right here, we’ll never get it right out there…

I know that many of us have trouble with conflict. We may choose to avoid it, or deal with it sideways, rather than head on. As followers of the Jesus Way, that’s not how we deal with conflict. We don’t just ignore it, or agree to disagree. Because when we do that, we may be okay on the outside, but we’re harboring evil in our hearts. 

That’s why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not enough just to refrain from murdering another person if you’re thinking the worst about them in your heart. 

Jesus teaches that when we’re at odds with one another, instead of trying to stick it to them, we turn the other cheek, we go the extra mile, we pray for them. And then there’s that part about making peace with one another before we bring our offerings to God. Within our community, we’re always about the business of reconciliation. We can’t seek a right relationship with God when we are in a wrong relationship with one another. 

As followers of Jesus, that means we have to deal with the elephant. We can’t march on through the season of Lent as if it weren’t there. 

Some people in our congregation support the policies of our President, some of us support some of his policies, and others have trouble seeing how he’s capable of doing anything good. Some of us are cheering his leadership, and some of us are scared to death. That is what it is, and we aren’t going to change it. But what’s of concern for our community is not the way we think and feel about our president, it’s the way we think and feel about one another. 

We all share the pews on Sunday mornings. We raise our voices in song together. We exchange the peace with one another. We eat and drink at the same table. And we do all this while we avoid looking one another in the eye. 

There’s an elephant in the room when we gather together. And it’s not going to go away until we address it. 

Christ calls us to be reconciled with one another. The way to reconciliation is not by avoiding conflict, or agreeing to disagree. The way to reconciliation is through understanding. We need to listen to one another. We need to feel free to express ourselves, knowing our words will be respected and received in love. We need to open our minds and our ears – listening to those who don’t see things the way we see them. 

Right now, our world is so polarized that this seems impossible. But we’re set apart from the rest of the world. We’re a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, God’s little love laboratory on York Road. Because we’re in Christ, we can do something the world is incapable of doing. And we can model what reconciliation looks like, as a shining City on a Hill. 

So, I’m challenging us to be reconciled with one another as God’s people. Choose to do something during the Lenten season to better understand those who seem so far away from you right now that everything within you is telling you that you need to remain as far away from them as possible. 

Lent is not about giving up chocolate. It is about reconciliation-- restoring relationships. Our relationship with God, our relationships with one another.

·         We can repent of our demonization of others.

·         We can have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with someone we’ve been avoiding.

·         We can seek forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged.

·         Most of all, I hope we can grow in our awareness that, within Christian community, it is always more important to be loving than it is to be right. 

Now, some might be quick to tell me that people in Baltimore don’t do that. Or people who grew up in your family don’t do that. But I will be quick to say that how we were raised, or where we’re from, or the way we’ve always done it is completely irrelevant. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is exactly what we do.

To help with the process, next Saturday morning at 10, we’re offering an opportunity. We’re going to have a time for listening and understanding.

Our time will be structured. There will be guidelines. You will have the opportunity to say as little or as much as you feel moved to say. The purpose of our time together will not be to argue or to convince others that we’re right and they’re wrong. The purpose is reconciliation. It is to a time to listen and to understand. We will never agree about everything. But you don’t have to agree with someone to understand where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with someone to love them. 

We can faithfully live out the life Jesus is calling us to embody, and strengthen our community for the sake of the work Christ calls us to be about in the world. It’s the only faithful way to remove the elephant from our worship space so we can get our baptismal font back.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Resist, yes!

A couple weeks ago, I had chapel with the four-year-olds in Ascension’s nursery school. I've been teaching them Bible stories that every kid oughta know this year. This particular day we were on the story of David and Goliath. Since Goliath was the ultimate bully, I seized the opportunity to talk with them about bullying, and that's how I introduced the story.

“Does anyone know what a bully is?” I asked. Several kids raised their hands.

“A bully is when somebody takes your toys and won’t give them back,” one little boy said.

“That’s true,” I said.

Well before I knew it, we had jumped down a rabbit hole. Someone else talked about how a bully breaks into your house in the middle of the night and they steal all your toys. And they all had ideas to share about that. About burglar alarms, and what they would do if someone broke into their house, and how they would keep them from their toys. My point had been totally derailed.

But I sensed that the kids were genuinely afraid of someone breaking into their house in the middle of the night and stealing their toys, so I said something that, in hindsight, I know wasn’t the smartest thing to tell a room full of four-year-olds. I said, “I don’t think anybody is going to break into your house at night, but if they did, the last thing they’d be looking for is your toys. They would take computers and T.V.s and jewelry. But not your toys.”

First of all, what I said did little to allay their fears. And second of all, I was reasoning with them as if they were adults. Not a great response on my part.

But what I really took away from this little conversation is that, for them, the most valuable things they owned were toys. And the worst thing someone could do to them was take their toys. That was their greatest fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator, isn’t it? How often does fear drive our decisions as adults? We may not be afraid of someone taking our toys, but we’re afraid of them taking our families, or our jobs, or our standard of living, or our way of life. And our behavior is driven by a fear of losing something that is valuable to us, something someone else may take from us.

We have a name for those we fear, that name is them. From a very young age, life becomes a struggle between us and them.

We don't all have the same them that we fear. Them may be the government, or people who don’t look like us, or people who worship a God we don’t recognize, or people who disagree with us, or people who aren’t from around here, or protestors in the streets, or Republicans, or Democrats… Who is them to you?

The word resist has been used a lot these days by people who oppose the direction our government is taking us as a nation. I’m tuned in to that resistance, although I have some problems with its effectiveness as a method for true change. 

For starters, I know that whenever I am resisting them, it contradicts who I’m called to be as a follower of Jesus. The Jesus way of being in the world is not about us and them. In God’s Reign, us and them does not exist. We have no need to prove ourselves superior, to keep those who aren’t like us as far away from us as possible, or to act vindictively toward those who would do us harm. (Yes, I’ve been spending some time in the Sermon on the Mount.)

My other problem with the resistance is practical. As long as our resistance is focused upon them, and we demonize those who disagree with us, we widen the great divide that threatens to destroy us as a nation.

Resist, yes. By all means resist. But what we need to resist, above all else, is not them. It’s them-ing. I’m convinced that until we stop them-ing others, we’ll never truly find a way out of this mess we’re in.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Catching a breath

We're three weeks into the new administration and I'm exhausted. I've been sleeping fitfully at night and when I'm awake, I "stay woke." Whatever I'm doing, I have one eye on a screen.

I'm becoming addicted to outrageous news. I scroll through Facebook and Twitter, seeking it out, always looking for my next fix. There is a raging fire within me, and I'm stoking it with angry posts on social media. I don't have to look hard to find fuel for my flames. 

Has this become my new normal? I don't like what it's doing to me. It's distorting my perception of reality, and it's turning me into a downright cranky person. But I can't look away because I feel that would be irresponsible. I need to be vigilant, and I need to speak up and act out when the most vulnerable among us are being trampled on. I couldn't face myself in the mirror if I did otherwise. Nor could I dare to call myself a follower of Jesus. So, ignoring the truth isn't an option for me. 

I might also try to escape it, but it seems that it's become too pervasive for me to do that either. Recently, when I asked someone what I was missing in the movie La La Land, I was told that people have been drawn to it because it's a great escape in a time of turmoil. It didn't work for me. The whole time I was watching it, another film was running in my brain. Escape isn't going to get me through these days. 

What I can do is pause to catch my breath from time to time. I can practice contemplative prayer, allowing the burdens that have taken over my thoughts to float on down the river for a bit, while I open myself to the presence of the Holy. I can take time for the arts, releasing my own self-absorbed state to encounter the reality other people experience. I can get down on the floor and see through the eyes of my two-year-old grandson, who still trusts that the world is loving and good. And I can seek out moments of beauty and kindness in the likes of humanity. They really aren't that hard to find. 

On the other hand, just yesterday I decided that I was going to post something positive on FB. One that would help us all catch our breath for a moment. It was the photo of a pitbull, who had become so protective of a chihuahua at an animal shelter, that when he was adopted, the new owner had to take them both. The photo was enough to melt the hardest of hearts; it invited us all to take a collective breath, no matter how we might feel about the political state of our country right now. 

The comments were all what I expected, "Aw, shucks, isn't that sweet!" That was exactly what I was going for. *breathe*

And then, at the end of the day, a friend wrote: "Love it! If only that kind of affection were contagious to humans and we could spread it to Washington!"

I had to laugh. Yes, breathing is difficult these days. But I'm in it for the long-haul, and I plan to catch a breath whenever I can.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A short person's view of the Women's March in DC

So much has been said about the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21. I want to tell you what it was really like for me… on the ground. It was grueling, frustrating, physically painful, exhausting… and one of the best days of my life. 

Ever since the march was announced, I knew I had to be a part of it. And now that I live so close to DC, I felt it was my responsibility to be among those who gathered. As disheartened as I have been about our new president, I will not stand by and passively watch while my country moves backwards. I couldn’t not be there. 

Now, you need to know that I have an extreme aversion to big crowds. That’s one of the reasons why I always get my Christmas shopping done in early November. What I love most is cuddling under a quilt with my pets while reading a book or watching TV in the quiet solitude of my home. I would have thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely Saturday watching the marches around the country from comfort of my reclining couch. But for me, that wasn’t an option. I would never be able to live with myself if I were able to be at the Women’s March, and I decided to sit this one out. 

I was thrilled that my daughter Gretchen decided to drive down from NYC to march with me. She left after teaching school on Friday and, a trip that should have taken her 3.5 hours, took her 6.5 hours. After watching reports of people traveling via planes, trains, buses, cars from all over the country, I was starting to get a feeling that the turn out in DC was going to be bigly YUGE!

Gretchen and I boarded a morning bus with some friends from Ascension and we were off. Among the items I brought with me—a hand-made sign that read, “Hell hath no fury like 163,000,000 women scorned”, my cell phone charger, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and two bags of miniature Hershey bars.  

I felt a strong sisterhood with women on other buses that were on the road with us as we all converged on our nation’s Capitol. On the way we followed social media for reports of other marchers. That’s how we learned that the Metro was a mess. People were waiting for hours to board from the end of the line so that in the city all the trains were filled. We all had Metro passes but none of us used them. We would be walking the entire day. I can’t tell you how many miles it was, but by day’s end, I didn’t know how I could possibly take another step. It was brutal. 

So we headed toward Capitol Hill on foot. Along with hundreds of thousands of other people, we were struggling to figure out how to make our way to the rally. Everywhere we looked, streams of people were flooding by us, and they weren't all headed in the same direction. How can we get into the rally? Where is the entry point? No one could answer our questions. Well, I should say that they all had different answers. We had no way of knowing what was going on, so we just worked our way forward as best we could, no knowing if we were going the right way, but hoping that sometime soon we would receive some clarity. 

A few times we passed lines of people, a block or so long, waiting to use port-a-johns. There’s no way I’m standing in a line like that to relieve myself, I thought. Surely, there would better options when we got inside the Mall. 

We pushed ahead through the crowd. And then we came to the sardine can. Actually, that metaphor doesn’t begin to describe what we encountered. Imagine a million people crammed into a space that might hold 200,000 people somewhat comfortably. And imagine all those people trying to get someplace else. Well, the problem was, there was no place to go. 

The rally was going on, but we couldn’t hear it. We learned that it was taking place on the other side of the Air & Space Museum from where we were stuck. If we could just get around that building… It should be doable. 

You may know how it is working your way through a large crowd of people who are pressing against each other. If you see the slightest opening, you slide into it. If a line of people snakes past you, you slither behind them, hoping they might clear the way for you. Nine of us were together, inching our way forward. 

It became clear that there was no way in hell we were going to make it to the Mall. I finally got within sight of the bottom right-hand corner of a jumbo screen that was showing the stage. But as a 5’4” person surrounded by giants holding signs above their heads, that was as good as it was gonna get. 

At last I had a moment of clarity. Now I knew what we were up against. And I started to think about what would surely be our greatest challenge, and that was getting to a port-a-john before any of us had a bladder emergency. I suggested that we try to extricate ourselves from the mob and find a potty. My cohort was in agreement, and we decided that we would make our way to the Air & Space Museum. That was the first big turning point of my day. I led the way. 

I’ve been trying to find the correct metaphor to describe what the next hour-and-a-half was like. To return to the sardine can mentioned above, imagine sardines smooshed in a can so tight they can’t be separated. Imagine that can being the length of a football field. And then imagine one of those sardines, on the far end of the can, deciding that it’s going to make its way to the opposite end of the can... Well, I don’t know if that accurately describes the experience… Imagine that sardine trying to make its way through a concrete wall the length of a football field. That may be more of what I was up against. People were standing shoulder to shoulder. They were immovable, mainly because they had nowhere to move. And I was trying to squish between the cracks, often creating them as I went, pushing people aside and apologizing again and again.

I suspect I moved about a foot a minute as I made my way. There were a couple of times when I muttered to myself, “Just take me now, Lord, because I can’t do this.” But there was no room for me to lay down and die, so I had to push on.

Somewhere along the way, I left the people behind who were with me. I pressed on because I figured that we were headed toward the same place, and eventually we’d all meet up at the Air & Space Museum. I just had to press on. 

When I finally reached the steps that led to the museum entrance, I was elated. Climbing them, I heard the “Rocky” theme playing in my head. I got to the top, threw my arms in the air and then looked out at the crowd below. The only person I could spot who I knew was Gretchen, and she was about 50 feet away, which was much further than it sounds, considering all that stood between her and me. I held my big yellow sign above my head, and she saw it! 

We never laid eyes on any of the other people in our original group again until we returned to our bus at the end of the day. It was a miracle that Gretchen and I found each other, and I hate to think of what our day would have been like if I hadn’t brought that sign. 

I had spent a couple of hours making the sign on Friday. It was on foam-board, two-sided and laminated with clear contact paper. When we entered the Air & Space Museum, we had to go through a security check, which meant I had to leave my sign at the door. I would never be able to fight my way through the crowd again to get it back. I traded it in on a trip to the restroom, which, in such dire circumstances, seemed like a good deal. Yet when I later marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, I really wished I had it back. 

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Do you really think Gretchen and I waltzed right into the Air & Space Museum? Ha! We had to wait. In line. For about an hour-and-a-half we stood in a line along the side of the building. This really wasn’t awful. For the first time, we actually could hear what the speakers were saying at the rally and, since we were going to be standing anyway, we had probably found the only place where we could do it without being suffocated and squeezed on all sides by the bodies of strangers. We enjoyed the people standing in line with us, and I had fun handing out chocolates to people who were passing by. 

There were desperate women that day who couldn’t stand in line for hours on end waiting to use the restroom. Some women formed circles to block the eyes of onlookers while they took turns squatting in the middle and doing their business. At times this happened over drains, and at other times, no drains were involved. Desperate women needed to take desperate measures. This may sound disturbing to you if you weren’t there, much like people who weren’t a part of the Donner party might not understand what they did to avoid starvation, but if you were there, you understand completely. The beauty of it all was that we were looking out for one another. And I found that to be true throughout the day. Given the intensity of the situation, people were patient, supportive and caring with one another. I think it’s because we were all family. 

Eventually, Gretchen and I got into the Air & Space Museum. This was the second big turning point of my day. I felt like we were entering a palace. It gave a whole new meaning to the words, air and space, as both were in abundance. Yes! This was when we waltzed. All the way to the restrooms. And… No lines. Empty stalls in abundance. Flushing toilets, sinks with electric hand dryers. We had died and gone to heaven!

We didn’t exit the building the way we had entered, which meant that at long last we found ourselves on the other side of the Air & Space Museum. This had been our goal about four hours earlier. Finally, we could see the Mall. 

As we made our way through the crowd, we were swept up in a tsunami. Where are they going? Gretchen and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s go with them.” As if we had a choice. 

We gradually realized that we were headed toward Pennsylvania Avenue, and we were in the middle of the protest march. This was the third turning point of the day for me. All the other discomforts of the day paled in comparison to the way it felt to march toward the home of the most powerful man in the world with people who were making it clear that we would resist any abuse of that power. 

A few times I had tears as I thought about the enormity of the moment. Marching beside my daughter, and knowing sisters and brothers were marching with me all around the world, I was caught up in something so much bigger than myself, or even this moment. This was why I had come. 

There was plenty of humor along the way. I wish I could show you some of the signs I saw, but I was savoring the moment rather than trying to capture it all on my cell phone. I also wish I could remember some of the things we were chanting along the way, but I can’t recall any of them. I only remember that sometimes they were defiant, and other times they were hysterical. Mostly, it felt good to be with so many people who felt as strongly as I do about the future of our country. 

I will never forget how deflated and defeated I felt on election night. Our march down Pennsylvania Avenue has filled my soul again. This is a great country! Always has been, always will be. Political powers will come and go, but basic principles of love, justice and human decency will get us through whatever comes. And the struggle will make us stronger. I’m thankful to be a part of it.

Following & Fishing

Preached at Ascension January 2, 2017.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Really? No questions asked?

Well, I have a few questions… Like, are we sure Jesus didn’t already know these guys before that day? After all, he was living in the same town with them. Or wouldn’t it have been irresponsible for them to leave their family business, to drop everything and follow some wandering rabbi? Wouldn’t that have been leaving their families in the lurch?

From the text itself, all we have to go on are the simple words, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediately is one of Matthew’s favorite words. Nothing happens in its good old sweet time. Everything happens immediately. There is an urgency to the gospel message that can’t wait. “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus says. Not someday in the future. It’s here, now.

So, the crucial question for us to answer is this one: Does Jesus also call us to follow him? And, a follow-up question: does following him mean fishing for people?

The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, Jesus also calls us to follow him. But the second question is a little more complicated. If following Jesus involves fishing for people, what does that look like in Towson, Maryland in the year 2017?

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember that I talked about evangelism, sharing the good news, and how it’s not coercion or manipulation. It’s an invitation to come and see Jesus. When we invite in love at Ascension—which is the first part of our stated mission—when we invite in love, it’s not so we can get more people in the pews and more dollars in the offering plate. It’s so they can come and see Jesus. So they can see Jesus in us.

We all have opportunities to share our faith with others. This is something that’s not best done by accosting strangers on the street. It’s done in the context of relationships.

When I read today’s gospel lesson, I imagine Jesus already had a relationship with Peter and Andrew/James and John before he called them. He may have had a conversation with them about becoming his disciples. They may have even known he was coming that day. They may have discussed it with their families before walking away from the family business. Then, Jesus arrives on the scene to tell them it’s time to go. That makes sense to me, because sharing the good news happens within the context of relationships.

It may be a coworker, a family member, a spouse, a grandchild, a friend at school. When we share our faith with them, we don’t come at them with canned answers and tell them how it is.

First, we listen. We try hard to understand what it’s like to be the other person. And then we share our faith with them like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And then, we accompany them in their journey.

You’re here today because you recognize, as people of faith, that it’s important for you to be a part of a Christian community. That was important to Jesus, too. He didn’t do individualized instruction on how to live into the Kingdom of God. He gathered people around him so that they could live into God’s Kingdom together.

The Kingdom of God was so radically different than the world around them that they had to band together or they were dead meat. Of course, this is just as true for us today. 

And so, we invite people to come and see what it looks like for a community to strive to follow the Jesus Way in the world.

There is a difference between inviting people to see Jesus and marketing our product to consumers. But here’s the thing about that. We also want to make it as easy as possible for people to enter into a relationship with Jesus. That means we don’t throw roadblocks in their way. So there are things we do. We wear nametags to let new people know they’re welcome, we use social media effectively, we do the best we can to offer a worship experience that reflects what the relationship we have with Jesus means to us.

Church leaders have been expending a lot of energy lately trying to reach young adults, who are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers. Yeah, I know, it’s typical for young adults to wander away for a while, explore alternative religions, whatever. But that’s not what’s going on with today’s millennials, people who are under 30ish. There is a generational difference.

Research says that among people who are 18 to 29 and were raised in the church, 59% have dropped out. Those are church kids.

They have serious complaints about church, based on their experience. When naming some of the reasons why they don’t go to church, 87% say they see Christians as judgmental. 85% say Christians are hypocritical. 70% say Christians are insensitive to others. 91% say Christians are anti-homosexual. And they don’t want to be associated with people who are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, anti-homosexual.

That’s a good thing. It means we raised them right. But church people need to seriously look at the Jesus they are embodying to the world. Is it actually Jesus?

The author Rachel Held Evans has a lot to say about her experience with the church, as a millennial herself. She writes about how many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cool bands, hip worship, edgy programs, impressive technology. And while these aren’t bad ideas, they aren’t the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. She says, “Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making it worse.”

This is reflected in recent research from the Barna Group, where they found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” The researcher David Kinnaman notes that millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion.”

Rachel Held Evans says it so eloquently: “If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.

“You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water.

“You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

“In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community.”

Millenials are a gift to the church because they are forcing us to be the people Jesus calls us to be. What they’re looking for is what we’re all looking for in a faith community… authenticity. Are these people the real deal or not?

As followers of Jesus who are called to share our faith with others, we can’t ignore this. How will we, as individuals and as a faith community, embody the Jesus the world needs to see?