Book Review: Dear Church by Lenny Duncan

Let me start out by saying that I feel ill-equipped to offer much of a commentary on the topic of race. Yes, I have attended a multi-day anti-racism training and I have read various books on race relations, but I will never know what it feels like to be a person of color in the church or in our nation. I grew up in a predominantly white town and have lived for a majority of my life in predominantly white towns. The two congregations that I have served have each had one person of color as a member.

The congregations that I have served are exactly the ones that Lenny is writing to in Dear Church: A Love Letter From a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. I know that to do anything I must stop and listen to those that have experienced discrimination and told to go back to where they came from. I can be present with them and attempt to be a representative of God.

Lenny’s call for a revolution will make many in the church uncomfortable and we will begin to hear the denials of racism stack up. I believe that everyone has at least a bit of racism within them and to begin this conversation we must repent of it. Lenny has allowed himself to become vulnerable in the sharing of his own experiences and his call to action. He is a pastor on the front lines that is truly willing to put his call on the line to do exactly what Jesus.

There are parts in the book that I do not fully understand and yet I am willing to listen and change my own practices if it means that I am able to preach a more inclusive gospel. As he states time and time again, Jesus loves everyone, and if we are to live into our true calling as Christians, we should too. This is a must read so that we can come to an understanding of where the church is today so that we can move into the future. If the ELCA, as the whitest denomination in the U.S., does not confront our heritage and enter the conversation, we vary well may not be around in the near future.

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Only One Thing!

July 21, 2019

Luke 10:38-42

As a child, I could not wait until Christmas break came upon us. It meant that Christmas was usually less than a week away and the excitement that built up in my family home was almost uncontainable. At least among myself and my younger siblings. The excitement that my parents exuded would at times be present in raised voices because of the anticipation of getting everything ready to host Christmas Eve. Four of my older siblings would return home with their families and the house would nearly be bursting at the seams.

My mother had to get her Martha on, at least a week or two before Christmas Eve. The amount of Christmas treats that she made was incredible. She would plan for dinner on Christmas Eve, which usually consisted of ham and various sides topped with all those wonderful treats that she would make. Over the years, as nieces and nephews were born, and then they began having their own children, Christmas Eve became a good type of chaos. Unless you were my parents because it could easily become overwhelming.

I could see my mother and Martha agreeing on the hecticness of having a houseful of people. Martha’s anxiousness that appears in Luke’s gospel could be expected as she wants to make sure everything is right for Jesus and his disciples. We have no idea how many people came into their home. I am sure that it was Jesus and at least the twelve closest disciples, but nothing rules out that this group could have contained the seventy that Jesus had sent out earlier to share the peace of God and cure the sick. It is the hospitality that Martha is showing now that he had told the disciples to look for.

Mary and Martha have chosen to be hospitable in their own ways and sometimes the better part is to pause and listen to the Lord.

It is not hard to find a sermon that puts Martha in a bad light. She appears to be self-obsessed because she must do all of the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary has stepped out of the norm as she chooses to listen to Jesus and his teachings. Much like the Samaritan last week that stopped to help the stranger, which in Jesus’ time would have been viewed as counter-cultural, Mary chooses to sit at the feet of a male teacher. This was nearly unheard of in first century Israel and if the right person had seen it could have possibly got Mary in trouble.

Jesus’ teachings and actions move well beyond expected norms. Martha is uncomfortable with Mary’s actions and raises her concern to Jesus. She is anxious and wants help. Jesus does not necessarily tell Martha that she is wrong, but let’s her know that Mary is in the right place at the right time. She has chosen the better part. She has released any concerns that she may have so that she can fully turn her attention to their guest, Jesus. We do not hear Martha’s response, but I would like to believe that she began to fully understand what Jesus was talking about in this moment. Martha was serving where she felt called to serve at that time and so was Mary. We each have our own calling that connects us to the body of Christ.

I must admit it is easy to forget that. It is easy to forget that everything we do affects those around us. It is easy to forget that our own actions have consequences, either good or bad. It is easy to get caught up in the anxiousness of making sure our checklists are completed. It is easy for us to get caught up in our work (even if it is the work of the church), in school, with finances, in our relationships, in our time management, in the events of the world, and even in our aging. In all those things, are we preaching the gospel, or is Jesus just an afterthought?

The better part of this is to pause and sit at the feet of Jesus. To listen to his teachings and be fully present to his word. This is the kingdom of God that has came into Martha’s home and Mary has chosen the better part for her of sitting and listening. Perhaps Martha has even chosen the better part for herself if what she is doing is a proclamation of God. For her to project her expectations upon Mary is not what Jesus expects in the kingdom.

We are each called to serve the Lord in various ways and sometimes we must break out of the barriers that fence us in. The Good Samaritan visibly showed this last week by loving his neighbor and caring for his wounds. Mary shows her love for God by sitting at Jesus’ feet and hanging on his every word. While Martha gets caught up in her anxiousness, her act of doing may be the best way that she can express her love for God. The Samaritan and Mary have both broke through the fence of the norms of their day.

Hopefully, we can point to times in our own lives where we have welcomed God into our midst in our lives and the lives of those around us. Jesus helps us break through the barriers that fence us in and welcomes us and walks with us in love. To love others as we love God requires us to break through those barriers. Jesus sets us free! It has happened many times throughout the last couple of centuries as we have confronted the evils of slavery, racism, sexism and homophobia. Not to say that we have fully came to a full reconciliation of any of these, but we have made our voices be heard as we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus sets us free to open our hearts, minds, and souls to embrace all of God’s beautiful creation.

Jesus also sets us free so that we can love the strangers and refugees among us. Jesus sets us free to love our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and atheist neighbors. In that freedom we are given the chance to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words. The words that bring us closer to him and our lives in the kingdom.

So, let us continue to be hospitable and embrace all of God’s creation with love and compassion. Let us listen to Jesus for what is the better part in our lives.

Let us pray. Loving God, you walk with us and in that we can be empowered as faithful witnesses. We give thanks for the faithful witness of those that have gone before us, those in our midst, and those that will follow. May we be bold in proclaiming your good news and share your love beyond all boundaries. Amen.

You Can’t Do It Alone!

July 7, 2019

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Now that I have done it twice, returning to college after being out of classes for some time can evoke a tiny bit of anxiety. I began seminary a decade after getting my undergrad degree, and last fall I began a spiritual direction certificate program at Loyola University Chicago. This anxiety really can happen at any grade level, kindergarten, entering middle school, or starting as a freshman in high school. Once you get into class, it can get better as you get to know people and then you get the syllabus.

The syllabus is great because it has everything you will need in it for the year and what the expectations of the teacher or professor are. One of the first things that I usually turn to in the syllabus is the assignments that are due over the course of the semester. This past spring semester I looked at the syllabus for one of my classes and read that one of the assignments included group work. UGH!!!!!

Now, I like people and I like working with people. However, this was an online course. How were we going to do group work? Also, there is that part of me that feeds into our cultural urges to be individuals and rewards those that are strong enough to do things on their own. There is little foundation in this, but individuality as become a large part of our society.

When we turn towards the gospel lesson, Jesus sends the seventy disciples out ahead of him in pairs! Jesus repeatedly ensures that the disciples are not on their own and reminds them that not one of them is greater than another. We too are sent, supported by Christ, and called to work alongside each other for the kingdom of God.

As the disciples traveled with Jesus they were consistently challenged by his teachings and he stretched them to think beyond themselves. They argued among themselves about who was greater and if they could sit at the right and the left hand of Jesus. To me, it sounds like the individualism that we are concerned about today existed two thousand years ago. Throughout history, wars have started and continue to erupt when leaders and countries think that they are better than others.

The seventy disciples sent out ahead of Jesus were given the task to start healing and proclaiming the word of the Lord so that the communities were ready when Jesus arrived. Jesus knew that they would not be totally successful in their mission and when they came back with great stories of the demons listening to them and people being healed, Jesus was quick to rebuke. For it was not them personally doing any of this work. It was God working through them. How easy this can be to forget. Imagine the inflated egos that some of them may have had when they returned with such great news for Jesus and he popped their bubble.

How easy it is for praise to be quickly taken in a negative direction. If allowed, it can result in the same inflated egos. Once their ego has been inflated, some people will do whatever they can to maintain it, including misleading others and going to the extremes of corruption. I am sure that we can all think of instances when this has happened in the corporate world as well as in our own government and especially other governments around the world.

It is easy to get wrapped up in our own way of doing things and want little help from others. Especially if we know the way we are doing it is the right way! It becomes easy for us to turn others away because things will get done the way we want them to get done, whether it is right or not. This happens in many areas, like school, to the operation of our cities, corporations, and government. Believe it or not, it can even happen in the church!

From the very beginning of creation, this was not God’s intention. We were created in the image of God to be in relationship with one another. Less than a month ago we celebrated Holy Trinity Sunday and lifted up the relationship of the Trinity and how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work with one another to guide and lead us in our lives. We are not created to back bite and try to one-up one another. We are not created to take advantage of others. We are not created for our own personal successes that lead to inflated egos.

We are created to be in relationship and to live into community. We are created to support our siblings and to share the same love with them that Jesus shared with us. Do you think those seventy disciples that were sent out, did so reluctantly because they had to go out in groups? I personally doubt it, because I am sure there would have been a clarification from Jesus why they had to go out in twos if they had questioned him. It was their boastfulness that got them in trouble when they returned.

They are there to support one another and be reminded that they do not have to go alone. This is a great reminder for us as we try to go our own way with little support from others. We all know that things come together much better in relationship and in community with one another. However, we are pulled away from this when we think we know better. In Jesus we have a reminder that we are not alone, and we do not have to proceed on our own. No matter what it is we face we are encouraged to surround ourselves with others.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to attend a benefit dinner for Ded Rranxburgaj and his family at Central United Methodist Church in Detroit. Due to an eruption of war in Albania in 2001, Ded and his family moved to the United States and applied for asylum. They followed all the rules and a couple of years ago Ded was threatened with deportation. His wife Flora, who has MS, has a medical exception, and their two sons are not in danger. As a community Central United Methodist has provided them sanctuary for roughly eighteen months as Ded awaits a court ruling. They could not have done this all on their own and if it were not for the church community, this family would have been split apart. This is community supporting one another and imitating Christ.

Jesus entered this world in a time when the Jewish population was tolerated in the Roman Empire, but he suffered at the very hands of that empire. When we come to the table and take communion we eat and drink the very being of Christ. May this loving welcome that Christ invites us to be open to all of God’s creation and may we carry that love out to those that are living amid injustice.

Jesus repeatedly ensures that the disciples are not on their own and reminds them that not one of them is greater than another. We too are sent, supported by Christ, and called to work alongside each other in the kingdom of God.

Let us pray. Sending God, you have sent us out into the world to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ. May we bring peace and comfort to those that are sick and in need of healing, and may we bring your word to those places that we see injustice. Amen.

You Have a Choice!

June 30, 2019

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Growing up I would say that I had the greatest freedom I could imagine. Probably the only thing that could have made it better was if my parents had been millionaires. Still, I would usually receive what I asked for within reason. Of course, it helped that I am a white male that lived in a predominantly white town. 

My parents gave me the freedom to make many of my own decisions and befriend whomever I wanted. I had the freedom to choose to attend Central Michigan University and the freedom to discern and decide to go to seminary and become a pastor.

Some of these freedoms may come to us because of where we live. As we approach Independence Day, it is important to be reminded of the roots of our country and the many struggles that we have been through and will continue to go through. We give thanks for the freedom that has come to us through the sacrifice of many generations, however, we must remember that the ultimate freedom we encounter is not our American concept of individuality, autonomy, and self-determination.

As Christians, in Jesus Christ we have been given the gift of freedom. What we choose to do with that freedom is reflective of our life in Christ. You have a choice!

If you read in entirety, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it will not take too long to figure out that Paul is not too happy with the community that has started following Jesus in the city of Galatia. They have been arguing amongst themselves. They have been bickering about the proper practices that they should be carrying out as followers of Christ. They have probably used not so kind words for one another as they have failed to live fully into a new community. One of their biggest arguments has erupted over the necessity of circumcision.

It was disagreements like this that threatened to tear apart the early church. Paul’s letter was a response to all that was happening. It came to a point where he even wrote, “If however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (vs. 15). Perhaps Paul needs to write a letter to our modern times, or we could simply use the Letter to the Galatians.

The arguments and disagreements that Paul writes to are not any different than those that we have today. We turn on the news and we view what this one group did to another group just because they did not agree or simply did not like them. We witness it to an extreme in the violence that we encounter in our culture. We witness it on Capitol Hill in our elected leaders and their failure to work together for the common good of the people. We see arguments over whether we should care for our neighbors.

One of the biggest places to see this occur is on social media where people seem to think that they have more freedom to say anything they would like since they are not in front of those that they are criticizing. The thing that has amazed me is that there is an ELCA Clergy group on Facebook and it seems that even pastors feel they can let all their nasty out on one another through social media.

All of this is part of the nastiness of the flesh that Paul writes about in our lesson from Galatians. The flesh that he is referring to is our self-oriented selves that disregard others and turn inward to our own personal desires. Now, desires are not a bad thing. It is a matter of what light that desire manifests itself. The flesh that Paul writes of pulls us away from our life in Christ. Once we are pulled away, it can be easy to stay in that and thus we must be intentional in repenting and turning back towards God.

So, the freedom that is given to us in Christ can be seen as a two-edged sword. We have the choice to follow the desires of the flesh or to follow the leading of the Spirit. We are given the freedom through the grace of God to follow or not follow Jesus. Wow, how very overwhelming that can be at times and we know that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and following completely in the way of Jesus.

In the freedom found in Jesus Christ we are showered abundantly with the fruit of the spirit to live out the lives he has called us to live. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (vs. 22-23).  When we live with this fruit, it does not mean that we will not have conflicts and that everything will be just the way we want it to be. When we live into this fruit, it means that we live into relationship with one another and approach each other with love and respect. Imagine what would be of this world if we kept the fruit of the Spirit near us and did our best to live out that fruit daily.

Psalm 16 concludes, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (vs. 11). The path has been laid down for us in the life of Jesus Christ and the freedom that he has given to us through his death on the cross. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited competing against one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:24-26).

As Paul comes near to the end of the letter, he re-emphasizes the importance of the love found in Christ. We are reminded that love is to be given away as Jesus gave away his love for all of humanity on the cross. It is a love that blankets us for all of eternity. It is the love that comes to us and the same love that we have within us to give away to others. To follow Jesus Christ means to live fully into the freedom he has given us by giving away the very love he has given us. A love that is meant to be shared with all.

Jesus has asked each of us to come and follow him. What is your choice?

Let us pray. Great and gracious God, you teach us to walk in the way of Jesus. We pray that we are not tempted to walk alone desiring the works of the flesh, but that we are open to the Spirit weaving through our lives and communities to guide us in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Amen.