Our Faith Should Matter

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Clergy Marching Images

Last Sunday I went off script, way off. I scrapped the prepared sermon in light of the events that had taken place in Charlottesville. I prayed and then trusted that the Spirit would put the right words in my mouth. What follows is a brushed up version. Hopefully it gives you the gist of what I said to the faithful people of First Lutheran Church in Strongsville.

I was in Atlanta last week for the ELCA Rostered Leaders Gathering. I heard powerful preaching from a black South African pastor who lost her father and brother during the apartheid era. James Forbes – arguably the best preacher of our time (still, at age 82) – decried this time as the most embarrassing in the history of our country. But both were able to summon the courage to speak of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and of the confidence that we have as Christians that hatred and bigotry will not have the final word.

I had the opportunity to visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights. It was a sobering experience. Images of hooded, torch bearing KKK members provide a startling greeting. Visitors can try the “lunch counter” experience, remembering that men were beaten, spit upon, and thrown out of diners. Old style TV’s aired footage of law enforcement officers turning hoses on protesters. Black and white photos of people who were arrested or killed during the freedom rides lined an entire wall. The legacy of Dr. King was eloquently told. When I got to the end I thought to myself, “I hope to God this never happens in America again.”

Torch Bearer 2 Image

And then Charlottesville happened. Yet again torch carrying white supremacists marched to a church… A CHURCH. All they needed were the hoods. There was no cross burning and no one was lynched, but it could have happened. Nazi flags were paraded through the streets. I wonder how folks in the Greatest Generation felt about that. Clergy members who were linked arm in arm singing “This Little Light of Mine” were attacked. Peaceful protesters were mowed down by a 20 year-old white racist who intentionally turned his car into a missile, killing a beautiful young woman and injuring many others. Right here in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Some of our leaders made statements, some said nothing, some were late to the game.

Heather Heyer Image

Those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we should have something to say. It would be unfaithful to our baptism into Christ to be silent. Because you know, this is going to happen again. We think it could never happen to us, out here in white suburbia, seemingly insulated from all the bad stuff that happens in the world. But it will happen again. There will be marching in the streets, and next time it might be OUR streets. What will we have to say? And what will we do about it? I saw a quote this morning that said, “If you wonder what you would have done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement, you’re doing it now.”

(Here’s the one thing I “salvaged” from the appointed Gospel Lesson.)

Did you notice what was going on in the Gospel Lesson? A big storm had come up and the disciples were in a boat on the sea, fretting and worrying about their survival. And Jesus wasn’t anywhere to be found – at least not right away – because I think sometimes Jesus leaves us on our own to figure things out so we grow into a more mature faith. But when Jesus finally does come to them, he’s walking on the water. And apparently they couldn’t tell that it was Jesus because Peter asked, “Jesus, if it’s you, let me come to you on the water.” IF it’s you, like Peter still had doubts. So Jesus said, “Come on. This is what I’m looking for. People who want to do what I’m doing!” PEOPLE WHO WANT TO DO WHAT I’M DOING. That’s what we need right now, people who want to be doing what Jesus is doing.

And so Peter jumped out of the boat, and as long as his eyes were fixed on Jesus everything was cool. But the moment he took his eyes off of Jesus, the moment his attention was diverted, what happened? He started to sink! Look, this is a time to keep our eyes focused on Jesus and to be doing what Jesus would have us do. We can’t afford to have our attention diverted. It’s time for the church to be the church, and do what the church is called to do.

We have a message of hope that needs to be heard. And there is a world that is in need of hope right now. So what will we do? And what will we say?

This is a time when our faith should matter.

 

The Main Message

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Cross and Starry Sky Image

Today (August 9) there has been a lot of saber rattling between the leaders of two countries with nuclear capabilities. If someone blinks, or gets trigger happy, or becomes irrational a global crisis could ensue and a lot of people could lose their lives.

It’s a good thing I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. preach on a day like this. He has a resume too long to list here, but as Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church in New York City he is at 82 years of age, still considered to be one of the greatest living preachers of our time. In true American Baptist style, Dr. Forbes preached for 45 minutes, and he was so good that people were encouraging him to just keep on going. You rarely see that among us Lutherans who believe that going to church for more than an hour would keep us from doing more important things like mowing the lawn or playing golf.

Dr. Forbes covered a wide range of topics, but began by boldly suggesting that as a nation we are living in our most embarrassing period (his words). He used scripture to support his perspective. “You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!” (2 Timothy 3:1-5)

Listeners and readers may apply this passage anyway they choose. That’s one of the beauties of scripture. It’s a living document that speaks to the past, present, and future. Speaking to the church, Forbes issued a strong reminder that while it would be easy to bury our heads in the sand, to become distraught, to feel hopeless or powerless, to remain silent for fear of persecution, we cannot allow ourselves to travel that path because we still have good news to tell. The question is, do we have enough moral courage to do so?

When we wonder about the role of the church or the responsibility of Christian people during difficult times of division and brokenness, we should make no mistake. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ remains our main message. In Christ there is power to overcome death and destruction, there is hope for a world enslaved to dangerous rhetoric, and there is a promise that God continues to be aware of our situation. The God of love is still on the throne begging to rule our hearts, and guide our lives, and save us from self-destruction.

When Dr. Forbes finally took his seat the 800 people in the room knew without a doubt that they were the recipients of a precious gift. A reminder that love wins, that life is stronger than death, that God’s promises will be kept. We were transformed and empowered not by threats of violence, or exaggerated expressions of worldly power, but by the hope we have in Jesus Christ.

I needed that. We all do.

Second Fiddle

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Kyrie Irving Jersey Image

I make it a point never to buy a jersey or t-shirt with the name and number of a professional athlete plastered on the back because they’re usually only around for a short time. I almost made an exception to that rule for Kyrie Irving. It’s a good thing I didn’t.

Kyrie Irving wants to be traded. From the Cleveland Cavaliers. You remember them, right? The team that has gone to the NBA Finals the past three years and managed to win the city’s first major professional sports championship in 52 years? THAT Cleveland Cavaliers.

Apparently Kyrie is no longer satisfied playing second fiddle to Lebron James, the best basketball player on the planet, no matter what the disciples of Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook may have to say about their idols. Uncle Drew wants to go to a team that will be built around him, where he can be the center of attention. He gave Cavs owner Dan Gilbert a list of acceptable options. That in itself takes a lot of nerve, given that Kyrie is still in the middle of a five-year contract without a no-trade clause that allows Gilbert to do whatever he pleases with his starting point guard.

But this is the problem with professional athletes. Everyone wants to be a star, everyone wants the glory, everyone wants the world to revolve around them. Let’s be honest. As much as owners and general managers talk about the “team concept” the players have deaf ears. In today’s world of professional sports it’s all about endorsements, television commercials, equipment contracts, and anything else that might shine the spotlight on the individual athlete. Before even playing one professional basketball game, Lakers first round draft pick Lonzo Ball had a pair of shoes on the market retailing for $450. It’s a good thing Kyrie doesn’t want to play in LA, because we already know who the glory hog is in Tinseltown.

Here’s what I have to say to Kyrie. Beat it. Go ahead to Minnesota or San Antonio or New York. I guarantee you won’t be playing basketball in June. You’ll be watching the Warriors – Cavaliers Episode IV wishing you could be part of it. But someone will have taken your place. Maybe Derrick Rose, maybe someone else. And maybe you’ll learn that nobody is indispensable, that the Cavs will be alright without you and your “all about me” attitude.

And maybe you’ll be sorry and feel at least a tiny twinge of regret when the Cavaliers receive their world championship rings in October 2018, and you’re not there to help hoist the banner. You will ride in no parade, you will have no champagne bath, and no praises from a thankful city with rain down upon you. But that’s okay. By then we will have forgotten all about you and our attention will be once again wrongly focused on the next greedy athlete who wants out of our fair city.

Loud and Clear

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Joshua Tree Tour Image

U2 roared into Cleveland last week to send a message, and it came through loud and clear. From the opening tribal drumbeats of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the stunning retelling of the stories on the 30 year-old The Joshua Tree, to the final tender chords of the show-closing “One” the band spread its gospel of tolerance, inclusion, justice and peace.

U2 held out no false hope, sensing that we’ve heard enough of that already. Listening to their music in today’s sociopolitical climate was at times painful, like looking into a mirror and coming to the realization that you’re at least partly to blame for the mess. But one could also hear the promise of redemption as the band urged the audience to rise above the wreckage with greater works of love. We may be in trouble but we haven’t been left for dead.

Bono, who has a penchant for sermonizing, smartly allowed the songs to stand on their own. Buoyed by a technically unbelievable audio visual presentation that left the audience breathless, we were forced to think differently about music that made its debut when the lads were just starting to be taken seriously. The concert was a brilliant reminder of the unique ability of the arts to speak truth to power.

There were songs about the incredulous nature of what we see every time we turn on our televisions:
I can’t believe the news today, oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.
(Sunday Bloody Sunday)

About the toll of war:
So we’re told this is the golden age. And gold is the reason for the wars we wage.
(New Year’s Day)

About an acute awareness of the human condition:
If I could, you know I would let it go. This desperation, dislocation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation, let it go. I’m wide awake. I’m not sleeping. (Bad)

About violence:
Early morning, April four, shot rings out in the Memphis sky… In the name of love, what more in the name of love? (Pride)

About walls, borders, and boundaries:
I want to run, I want to hide. I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside.
(Where the Streets Have No Name)

About hope:
I believe in the Kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one.
(I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For)

About relationships:
Through the storm we reach the shore, you gave it all but I want more.
(With or Without You)

About the refugee crisis:
Is there a time for keeping your distance, a time to turn your eyes away? Is there a time for keeping your head down, for getting on with your day? (Miss Sarajevo)

About peace:
See the bird with the leaf in her mouth, after the flood all the colors came out.
(Beautiful Day)

About greed:
All of this, all of this can be yours. Just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.
(Vertigo)

About redemption:
Feel like trash, you make me feel clean. I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen.
(Ultraviolet)

And, finally, about unity:
One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should. One life, with each other sisters, brothers. One life, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other, one. (One)

By the time it was over U2 had done its job. Some might be tempted to think it’s rather arrogant of four Irishmen to tell us Americans in no uncertain terms what’s wrong with our country. Here are these “outsiders” forcing us to admit that everything is not okay, that we’ve sacrificed an important part of ourselves that needs to be reclaimed, and that we’ve strayed from the basic principles of decency and civility that used to make us truly great.

But maybe that’s exactly what we need. We should always welcome those who call us into account and keep us honest. I’m not sure where those voices are coming from within our own borders, and so until there’s a clearer clarion call, I’ll be tapping into my U2 collection a little more often.