Friday, September 18, 2015


#SlateSpeak is a weekly conversation that makes connections between our world and God's plan for our world.  Each week's topic is a different theological focus that speaks to our communities in our world.  These conversations happen between women and men all over the world and provide a safe space to discuss God and God's work (and our work too!). What follows are some highlights from last night's conversation.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sticks and Stones

This sermon was delivered to the people of 
Word of Hope Lutheran Church on 
Sunday, September 13, 2015.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.  Why do we keep telling this lie to children and to ourselves?  It’s something that we used to retort on the playground when someone called us a meanie, or perhaps said we had cooties.  But as we got older, we stop saying it less and less.  We are called worse things.  We get called fat.  We get called ugly.  We hear things like fag or slut.  People are called bitches.  And then it gets worse from there.  Vicious rumors get spread about us.  And it’s not something that happens when we get out of high school.  
We hear people telling lies about us.  We hear people spreading around things we would rather not have people know about us.  And worse, we continue to use other words to do the same for others.  We might not say them out loud, but we will text them to a confidant or perhaps post something on the internet.  And then let’s not get started on what we post online, behind the safety of our keyboards.  We share things that aren’t true without thinking about it or checking up on it.  We shout these awful words without even stretching our vocal chords.  It has become easier and easier to use words to tear down instead of build up.  
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words have real power.  They’re the things that cause us to become anorexic or anxious.  Words are the things that have the power to push us into a deep depression or send us into a flying rage.  Words are what create enemies among us.  And words can kill a spirit faster than any stick or stone ever could.
So what is it about those words that give them such power.  How does it happen that words can do so much, even though it costs us so little energy.  One of my favorite armchair theologians Frederick Buechner offers this suggestion:

“In Hebrew the term debar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed.’ Thus to say something is to do something.  I love you. I hate you. I forgive you. I am afraid.  Who knows what such words do, but whatever it is, it can never be undone.  Something that lay hidden in the heart is irrevocably released through speech into time, is given substance and tossed like a stone into the pool of history, where the concentric rings lap out endlessly.”

Words, when spoken, do something to the very nature of the universe and how we perceive things.  And how we perceive things changes the way that things are - I don’t know how this works, I just know that it’s the case.  For example, if we have an entire group of people think that another group is inferior just because of the color of their skin, we start to treat them as being inferior.  And then they begin to feel inferior.  EVEN though they are in no way, shape, or form inferior.  And then it becomes harder and harder for them to find a voice to say that they are not inferior and are, in name as well as in fact, equal.  All of that was started from a handful of words that were built on a lie.  
That being said, words can also heal.  Words can inspire hope.  Words can speak things into being that are positive.  Frederick Buechner continues:

When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ there was light where before there was only darkness.  When I say I love you, there is love where before there was only ambiguous silence.  In a sense I do not love you first and then speak it, but only by speaking it give it reality.

It’s by saying something that we open up to the possibility of things becoming true.  It’s only by saying that love exists that we actually make the love exist.  After all, it’s not enough for one person to feel love for another person - you have to tell them that you love them for that love to be genuine and real.  It’s not enough to think that a person is kind or caring, you have to tell them that they are, and by doing so, you continue to help them grow as a kind and caring individual.
Think of the good that can be done by telling someone that you love them without conditions each and every day.  The good that comes from telling someone you’re beautiful instead of you’re ugly.  The good that comes of telling a child that they’re smart instead of stupid.  We know it’s true.  We know that our words have the power to heal and make whole.  That these words can speak good things into being instead of just hurtful things.  
So what does that have to do with the scripture readings?  Well, it brings us back to, you guessed it James.  See James spends this excerpt from the letter talking about our tongues and the power that our tongues have.  He talks about how our tongues can run wild without thinking and that they can say all sorts of powerful things without us even thinking about it.  Our tongues can set fires under people - fires that suffocate or fires that inspire passion.  Tongues that can bless the Lord and also curse our enemies.  
And it’s this last piece that James thinks is so weird.  He thinks that it is so bizarre that we would use our tongues to bless the Lord and curse our enemies one breath right after the other.  Which, I have to say, sounds an awful lot like naivette on James’ part.  But then again, he wasn’t in America on September 11, in 2001 where we first prayed to God and asked God to protect us and keep us safe and then without stopping to breathe cursed our enemies and wanted God to punish them for us.  And that’s just one fairly recent example, if we looked back throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the holy texts of other cultures we would find countless examples of how people have been praised God and then asking for divine punishment to be poured out upon those who have abused them.  
But James does have a good point.  How can we use our words to speak into being forgiveness, love, and peace while also speaking into existence more war and suffering?  At best, the two cancel each other out and at worst we have a half-hearted peace that suffers a tense existence because of war and violence.  
And then, if we remember that James has been about trying to make people doers of the word and witnesses to God’s beautiful redemptive work in the world, it makes sense why James would warn teachers and preachers (or really just anyone who professes to be a Christian and speaks) to be extra careful.  Because our words have a certain power and existence that actions alone don’t have.  And when we use our words, we speak into being ideas that people have about God.  And then people take those ideas about God to judge God and other Christians.
Which brings us to Mark’s text this morning.  Jesus wants to know what people say about him.  Jesus wants to know what ideas about him are being spoken into existence and pointing people towards or away from God.  And then more importantly Jesus wants to know what his disciples are saying about him.  Jesus wants to know how their words are shaping people’s hearts and minds.  And they say that Jesus is the Messiah - the Savior.  The one who has come to make things right.  And Jesus applauds them for it - until it looks like they don’t understand just what that means, in which case Jesus has to speak into being a very different definition of the word Messiah.
And so, as we go out into the world speaking words about God, what are we saying?  Are we saying that Jesus is just another prophet or miracle worker?  Is Jesus a military leader or a judge?  Cause there are a lot of people who say those things about Jesus and what Jesus is - and those people have actually ended up pushing a lot of people away from the very God they claim to want people to know.
Or do we say that Jesus is the messiah who humbles himself and teaches us that there’s another way?  Do we say that Jesus teaches us how to love our enemies and turn the other cheek?  Do we say that Jesus loves humanity so much that he went to the cross to demonstrate just how much God wants us to be redeemed and restored?  Do we say that Jesus continues to offer forgiveness and healing, even when we feel like we don’t deserve it?  Do we say that no matter what happens in our lives, Jesus continues to say “I love you,” and by doing so speaks that into being?  Do we say things to our enemies like “I forgive you,” or “I love you,” and speak those things into being for ourselves as well as for them?  With God’s help, I think we can.  Amen.   

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Sin is Sin

These two guys walk in to a church, ok.  And the one guy is dressed in a sharp suit, smells good, looks good.  He’s got a short, neat haircut with a perfectly groomed beard.  On his left wrist, he’s got a Rolex the size of a pocket watch with a wedding band to match.  You can almost smell the money oozing off of him.  The other guy is obviously homeless.  As soon as he walks in you can tell it’s been awhile since he’s used deodorant.  If you were to get close, but you probably wouldn’t, you’d notice the outline of dog tags under his shirt.
Which one do you say hello to first?
Honestly, which one do you smile at?  Which one do you kindly ask how his weekend is going?  Which one do you try to get to know and be extra friendly with?  And then which one do you kindly ignore and hope they go away?    
I’ll tell you which one I choose.  As much as I hate to admit it, especially considering what James just wrote to us this morning, I spend more time with the guy in the suit and tie.  I naturally gravitate to him.  I want him to like me, I want him to like this church, and I want him to continue coming here.  I don’t think I’d make this decision consciously, but if I’m going to be truly and deeply honest with myself, of the two, he’s the one I go to.
And then I need to hear these words from James and I need to ask myself why?  Why am I avoiding the person that looks probably a lot like Jesus did during his ministry?  Why am I avoiding the very person that Jesus would have sought out on his travels?  Why am I gravitating towards the person that would likely have shunned Jesus’ message to “sell all that he has and give it to the poor?”  
And if I’m going to be honest, it’s because going to the richer person is easier.  It’s more comfortable.  It’s not going to result in me getting dirty.  It’s not going to result in me risking my social standing.  It’s what the world expects me to do, and I feel absolutely no qualms about doing it.  It’s more acceptable for me to ignore the homeless person and hope he goes away than it is for me to treat him like a person, welcome him into the building, offer him some money, and sit and talk to him for a while.  It’s more acceptable for me to ignore him than it is for me to love him.
And if I’m not loving him, if I’m not loving my neighbor, then what am I doing calling myself a Christian?  Isn’t that part of the greatest commandment?  That I love God with all my heart, soul, and mind AND love my neighbor as myself?  At best by ignoring him I am apathetic towards him, which feels so much worse than outright hating him.  At worst, by ignoring him, I am causing him harm.
Either way I’m breaking God’s commandments and living in sin.  I’m living into a broken relationship with this person that I’m not particularly interested in mending.  And if I’m doing that, I might as well have killed him - I’ve broken the relationship and refused to repair it or restore it.  That’s why James says, perhaps counterintuitively, that there are no gradients of sin.  Sin doesn’t operate like our legal system.  There are no 1st degree or 2nd degree offenses.  All sin is a break in a relationship.  And all sin that is unrepented of is considered to be murder - because you’ve killed that relationship with that person: their life is cut off from yours.  
Bear with me, I know this sounds counterintuitive.  Trust me, I was a philosophy major who loved his ethics classes.  I really want one evil to be lesser than another because it makes the world a better place.  I want to say well of course lying is better than killing - it just makes sense, according to this world.  But what if we looked at sin in a way that was different from our current legal system?  What if we looked at sin the way we look at cutting string?
Once you make a cut of thread, you can’t undo it.  No cut can be any less thorough than any other cut.  I can’t half-cut a piece of thread, once I start that whole thing is cut into two pieces.  Sin is kind of like that.  Each sin cuts the thread of our relationships.  Now sin can cut the relationship in lots of places.  But certain sins can’t cut more or less than other sins.  
Especially for God.  Because God doesn’t see sins as individual acts that we do, God sees all sin as something that breaks relationships between the Trinity and between humanity.  That’s part of why we word our confession the way that we do.  We’re not confessing to this sin, this sin, and this sin, but for all the complete breaks in relationships that we need God to help us mend.
It’s confusing, I know.  It doesn’t quite make sense, I know.  It’s not how the world views things, I know.  But bear with me.  Because it only gets weirder.  Remember how I said God’s weird?  Well, here’s a piece of that.  
So we’re a part of God’s world, and when we play by God’s rules, our sins aren’t any better or worse than say, Hitler’s sins.  Because, remember, God doesn’t qualify or quantify sin.  For God, it’s all a break.  This sounds bad, I know.  We like to think that we’re at least a little better than Hitler, but remember sin is sin.  It’s all equally bad.  But wait, there’s more.  Because God isn’t content to let us sit here in our sin.  Instead of judging us, God offers another way.  Instead of divinely punishing everybody, God chooses mercy.  To quote James, mercy triumphs over judgement.  And Lutherans say James doesn’t have good news!
God chooses to redeem us in our sin.  God chooses to offer us mercy and grace time and time again even when we make mistakes and love ourselves more than our neighbors.  And because God doesn’t qualify or quantify sin, that offer of love and mercy and grace goes to every single person on earth.  Even Hitler.  To each and every person, which means each and every person is worthy of being welcomed into the kingdom of God.  Every one.  Rich and poor.  Black and white.  Republican and Democrat.  Liberal and conservative.  Male and female.  These binaries aren’t exclusive, instead all are brought into the church.  

Which is to say, James isn’t saying kick the rich person out of the church.  Instead, he’s saying to welcome the poor person in.  The rich person gets treated well 24/7/365, so they can wait a little bit to be welcomed into conversation, instead start with the person who is mistreated and abused.  Let them know that they are welcome and that there is nothing they have done, are doing, or could do that would keep them out of the kingdom of God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.  

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dear Kim Davis

Dear Kim Davis,

You don't know me.  We will probably never meet.  I won't be applying for a marriage license in your office, but that's only because I'm a resident of Fayette County and not yours.   And you probably won't read this, but I want to say it anyway.

I forgive you.  And I want to apologize to you.

First, I want to forgive you for what you're doing.  I see your protests and your refusal to issue marriage licenses to these LGBTQ couples and they cut to the very core of my being because in judging them, you were judging me.  In doing so, you have caused a break in our relationship - you have sinned against me and you don't even know me.  And if I'm going to take serious my call as a Christian, I'm going to forgive you.  I'm going to pray for you.  Because that's what Jesus teaches me to do.

And I must apologize to you.  I've thought hurtful things about you.  I've said things that make fun of you and your beliefs to my friends.  I wasn't acting like the Christian that I wanted to be.  I've thought that you were ignorant or bigoted.  And even though we haven't met, I've broken our relationship too.  So I must confess this to you and ask your forgiveness as well, knowing it may not ever come.

I pray that we can come to have a restored relationship.  I am going to try to see you as a person - as the Child of God that you are.  I hope that you are able to see me the same way.

In Christ's Love,

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

(Un)Righteous Anger

Have you ever noticed that righteous anger isn’t ever all that righteous?  Instead it’s usually a blend of being hurt and feeling ashamed, with more than a little dash of afraid that we’re being a little stupid or appearing foolish.  There’s also a little bit of I need to be right thrown in, even as we know we’re probably oh so very wrong. And very little righteousness.  Very little about trying to restore a right relationship with them.
I know this, because I’ve had some great moments of righteous anger in my time.  I used to get mad at my roommate all the time for something he said or did that hurt me.  The funniest of these usually involve doing the dishes.  I would get furious when I would come home after a long day and see a huge pile of dirty dishes in the sink - knowing he had cooked a meal for his fiance and they hadn’t left me any - knowing that I would begrudgingly be the one to do the dishes.  
So I would bitch and moan to my best friend, who would give me about 30 seconds to feel sorry for myself before promptly saying, “What’s really bothering you?”  And of course all the hurt that the anger was hiding came through.  And at no point was my anger righteous.  It was just a defense mechanism used to hide the hurt that something in our friendship was changing.
But it’s this righteous anger, this feeling of being right even when you know you’re wrong; this feeling like God is on your side, this trying to avoid the really hurt and the real break in the relationship that has just occurred - this refusal to acknowledge sin as a very real presence in our lives - that I think of when I was reading this text from James.  And it’s that one line, the one that says, “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”
Yeah, that righteous anger doesn’t have much to do with God.  Or righteousness, the restoration of relationships to what they should be.  In fact, that anger does more to break the relationships than whatever it was that actually caused us to first be angry.
And as I spent the week thinking about it, wrestling with this anger that does not produce God’s righteousness, the more I thought James really could have been writing to many Christians in America today.  Of course, he’s not, we can’t forget that we are reading someone else’s mail - these words weren't originally written for us.  But at the same time, they speak to us, through the Holy Spirit.  
But I mean, how many Christians, both liberal and conservative alike, that spend all their time directing their anger at the world.  They get outraged over race relations, same-gender relationships, climate change, gun control, the power of women, healthcare, and the list goes on and on.  It’s like they, err...we, think that we can use our anger to make God change what’s going on around here.  Of all stripes, we start beating the Bible to our particularly favorite weapons, I mean verse, and then we get angry at what the world is doing to change or not change.
We get angry and then we stop listening.  Because of course we do.  It’s almost impossible to have a genuine conversation when you’re angry.  Emotion clouds the way.  We’re spending so much time and energy on avoiding the things our minds are whispering to us that we have no other option but to block out other people too.  Because of course they’re wrong too.  And if we’re not listening to others, there is no way that we can be in a real relationship with them. These real relationships require communication and some humility to be genuine and God-centered.  And there is no way that we can be a part of God’s righteousness, of these right relationships, while we’re angry.  It can’t happen.
So what then, are we to do about this?  Especially because unless you are especially patient, this righteous anger is a reflexive response that we don’t really get to control.  It just kind of happens upon us, especially when something hits a little too close to home.
I think the answer lies in this reading from James this morning.  It’s pretty much the first verse where he tells people to hold their tongues and shut up.  Listen for a while.  Listen to your neighbor, listen to yourself, listen to God.  Just take a few minutes, step off your high horse, close your mouth, and start listening.  For it’s by listening that you begin to restore relationships.  You begin to see how the other person feels, you begin to hear how your own feelings are hurt, you are able to listen to the hurt/fear that’s inside, and then you can also hear God calling you to make things right.  
Listen for a while...listen to God.
Of course this is speaking from a position of privilege, right?  There are people who are oppressed and have every reason to be angry.  The victims of systemic racism in our country?  They should be angry, because they’ve been ignored.  White people who don’t like hearing that racism still exists in our country?  Their anger is more of the pseudo-righteous anger that arises to keep them from hearing the truth.  Women who are mistreated in the workplace or treated as less than equal?  They have every right to be angry because laws are being ignored.  Men who think that women are just being uppity or bitchy?  They don’t really have the right to be angry.  Big difference.
And sadly, whether we want to admit it or not - and I think it’s time we admit it.  Many in our Lutheran church are speaking from a position of privilege.  We tend to be white, and a part of this shrinking middle class.  And not just us, but most Christians in America fit this category.  And people who are not Christians are looking to us to see how we’re going to respond to the violence and real problems facing our country.  And so when we hear about #BlackLivesMatter or #YesAllWomen, or when there’s yet another mass shooting, people who are not Christians are looking to us to be the example.  They want to see how we are changed by our relationship with Christ through baptism.
And sadly, when these things happen, most Christians start going on and on about how it’s not us or they rally about how our freedoms are being taken away.  And then the world sees more of the same old, same old righteous anger that’s not actually right or righteous.  
But what if, what if in the midst of these things, we responded by shutting up for a little bit.  What would it look like if in the midst of yet another tragedy we put a hold on the anger the world has come to expect from us and started listening to the victims?  What if we listened to those who commit these crimes and understand how the system pushed them into making these choices?  What if we listened first?  Then we thought about it, then we decided to actually do something about it?  What if when people looked at us, they saw us as how Christians are supposed to be seen?  Those who listen to the cries of the oppressed and then answered God’s call to help them?  What if?