Monthly Archives: August 2015

Sermon 30 August 2015: “Are Traditions Serving Us Well?”

So I have a couple of questions for you this morning: You know how Pentecostals and Baptists will shout “Amen!” during sermons?  Well, what is a “Lutheran Amen?” Answer: “Hmmm….” And, How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?  Change?  You can’t change that lightbulb!  My granddaddy paid for and put that lightbulb in with his own two hands 50 years ago!

Tradition….we Lutherans love our traditions.  Jokes, potlucks, Rally Day, bakesales….and stewardship campaigns.  Well, maybe not that one.  But as Lutherans we also have other traditions that are important to us: liturgical worship, the preached Word, our Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, and our theological heritage.  Yes, we Lutherans love our traditions, because they’re meaningful to us.  But the question Jesus is posing to us this morning is “What does it mean when those traditions of our aren’t serving us so well?”  We may follow them, hold them dear, but do those traditions bring us into a fuller understanding of who God is, help us see God in our midst, and nurture our faith journey?

We have a favorite tradition in this country…..freedom.  Our civil rights.  The freedom of speech, the right to assemble peacefully, to bear arms, even the freedom of religion within our own traditions.  We have the individual, god-given right to do and say what we want, right?  Events going on this past week suggest it’s true:

  • As freshmen checked in on campus last weekend, a fraternity at Old Dominion University hung bed sheets signs that read: “You can drop your daughters off here, we’ll show them a good time.  And you can drop your moms off too.”
  • If you’ve been paying attention to the presidential candidacy news, you probably are aware of Donald Trump, who says and does pretty much whatever he wants, whether it’s true or not.  But regardless how ridiculous people think he is or that people will lose interest over time, he is rising in popularity every week.
  • And this past week, out near Roanoke, a man – who is black and gay, but more importantly living with a whole host of other problems – decides in his own mind that somehow, it’s his right to retaliate, and shoots a 24-year old reporter and her cameraman while they were conducting a live interview on the news.

And what I think this is tradition gone wrong….not so much that the tradition of civil liberty is wrong, but that we’ve twisted it into something where we can say and do what we want without any regard for anyone but ourselves.  Sure, we might dismiss things like this as “boys will be boys or it’s just college students being dumb.”  Or we avoid the horrible tragedy of yet another act of public violence.  Or no one holds a man accountable for comments that stir up and create what is becoming the angry mob that is America.  And Jesus is very clear: “it’s not the tradition itself, but what resides in your hearts that defiles…..and because of that, you twist the tradition into something vile, you keep doing over and over, you hold so dear and sacred, and it’s not serving you very well at all.”

When we look at the list Jesus gives at the end of our reading today, we probably look at it and say, “well, we’re not guilty of any of these….theft? Murder?  Greed?  Fornication? At worst I can probably say I’ve been a bit prideful this week, or done something foolish and petty, but for the most part, I’m a pretty good person.”  But I wonder, perhaps that list isn’t all inclusive.  Perhaps there are other things not on the list that are just as harmful, and we’ve turned them into traditions that aren’t serving us so well as individual Christians, and as the church.

I’ve mentioned before to you that my mom was an alcoholic growing up.  And, most of you know I grew up in a small rural farm in Minnesota.  There’s a couple of truths when it comes to such things where I grew up.  One, everyone knew about it.  Word gets around, and every neighbor, family member, and just about everyone in the church knew about my mom’s problem and that it was likely affecting our family.  Two, there’s a long-standing tradition that well, you stay out of people’s personal business.  Whether it’s out of preserving someone’s dignity, or because it made you uncomfortable, you simply kept your distance from such things.  But I wonder if that tradition really served my mom and my dad well….I wonder what would have happened if someone had come up to my dad and asked how things were going, and if there was anything they could do for him?  I wonder if someone in the community – or the community itself – had intervened with my mom, and offered to get her the help she needed.  I wonder what would have happened….but people remained complicit, remained silent in light of the suffering and addiction my family was going through.

The thing is, my little church and community isn’t the only church to hold onto the tradition of complicity and silence.  And I wonder, is this tradition of complicity and silence in the church and as individuals really serving us all that well today?

The thing is, complicity and silence really isn’t a Christian tradition or a tradition of the church.  Christian tradition has much deeper roots, You see, God decided to no longer be complicit to our brokenness and sin. God decided to no longer remain silent to the cries of pain, suffering, addiction, and loss of God’s people.  God sent Christ….entering into our brokenness and sin, bearing the burden of it with us, a demonstration of God’s divine love that changes our hearts, changes us.

That good news serves as a reminder that God is no longer complicit and silent in our lives, and as we are called to follow in the way of Christ, the way of the cross…..let us observe the tradition of entering into the suffering and brokenness, bearing one another’s burdens, and sharing Christ’s love with those we’re called to serve.  Amen.

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The Beatitudes: Re-thinking Law Enforcement Officers & Race Relations

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I posted this picture on my Facebook account last week, which prompted a lot of pushback from a friend of mine who has worked as a police officer.  The topic of our conversation, like many I’ve had with friends and acquaintences that currently or have worked as police officers, is their objection to the idea that there exists a mass movement of police brutality toward African-Americans and other people of color across the country.  They object to the idea that every single person who puts on the uniform is taught a way of doing their job that prejudiced and biased towards people of color, and that the law unilaterally protects them so they are free to commit such acts.  My friend and many of the police officers I converse object to the idea that all cops are racist.

I would contend that perhaps the acts of violence themselves aren’t systemic, but the attitude of racial prejudice is systemic, but systemic in our society, not solely within the ranks of law enforcement officers.  I think that police, like most organizations, are a cross-section of society.  That means yes, racist folks exist within their organization.  But it also means that not all cops are racist. Yet, I do wonder if we have issues within law enforcement departments that work to protect and ignore the comments and actions of those who are racist, rather than hold them accountable for such attitudes and action.

However, my conversations with friends and acquaintances have me wondering where the gospel is for those who wear the badge when we talk about racism.  Where is the word of grace and reconciliation for them, just as it is offered for all people?

A mentor of mine, in our conversation about law enforcement officers and race, raised this thought to me: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  This verse from the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the passage known as the Beatitudes, is usually taught to us as God’s blessing on those who we deem peaceful – folks like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and the like.  Seldom do we think of folks like police officers, sheriffs and their deputies, or even military in such a way.  They carry weapons, they wear intimidating uniforms, they work for the very powers and empires that freely use violence in the name of keeping peace, right?

But when he said “peacemakers,” what if Jesus was talking about the Roman guards that were around them everyday?  What if Jesus was saying, “Those guys over there in uniform, who represent the empire you despise, yet keep the peace in a way that doesn’t abuse power, but rather serves and protects each of you?  Blessed are they…because they are children of God.  I’m including them as well.”  Maybe you object to that notion, but we know such people existed, because it’s right there in the Bible.  In chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel, there’s an account about a Roman Centurion whose daughter is sick, and the Jewish people appeal to Jesus to heal her on the grounds that “he is worthy for you to do this, for he loves our people.”  What if today, Jesus’ same blessing is for police officers today?

A member of my congregation, a police officer who serves in Norfolk, VA: “Pastor, so I was out the other day, and this little black kid comes up to me and strikes up a conversation.  I got out of my car and started talking with him, because I want him to trust me.  But then his mom comes up, snatches him away by the arm, and I hear her say, ‘You don’t ever talk to those people.’ Now how am I supposed to get past that attitude?  And isn’t she just making the problem worse?  I want the neighborhood I patrol to trust me, and I’m trying.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.

A former police officer shared this story, “Our department was going to arrest this kid who was ID’d at the scene of a crime.  The plan was to go in, full breach, because they feared he might run.  My partner spoke up and said, hey, my partner works that area, he knows these people.  After skepticism that it would work, I eventually got the go ahead to go to the house.  The mother let me in, even after I told her the news was bad and we had to arrest her son.  There was a pistol on his dresser, but because it was me, and we didn’t go in breaking their door down, we were able to avoid someone getting killed.”

Blessed are the peacemakers.

I wonder if there is a difference between “peacemakers” and “law enforcement,” not so much as what one does in their job, but instead as attitudes or postures one adopts as they look at their role and responsibility. Those who enforce the Law are suspicious, taking on a “guilty until proven innocent” posture.  They enforce the law as means of imposing the law with the goal to subdue.  Peacemakers look at their role differently.  They work to “serve and protect” the neighborhoods they patrol, and the law is a means to ensure people are kept safe, that peace is kept and maintained.  Peacemaking is a means to allow people to live freely, rather than a means of suppression and control.  Law Enforcement’s aim is to impose a way of life on people; peacemaking’s aim is to live life with people in community.

As much as I think we have an obligation to listen to the stories of people of color and the ways they are discriminated against, we also have an obligation to listen to those who wear the police uniform and strive to keep peace  We have that obligation because Jesus has mandated “blessed are the peacemakers” and they are children of God.  As the church, it is that status and identity that frames our relationships, and the Body of Christ and the prophetic proclamation of God’s justice – especially in the topic of race – suffers if we condemn or silence any one part of it.

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“It’s not a problem, it just is”: Race, Ethnicity, Culture & the Church, Part 2

On August 6th, the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, and William Horne III, a member of the Churchwide council, led a webcast discussion and Q&A on racism.  For our church, it was a significant attempt in bringing the topic of racism to the forefront in our church.  You can watch the 40 minute webcast here.

My initial impressions were overall positive, but at the same time I was left wanting.  I think it is a good step to bring the whole church along, slowly, into the conversation.  I think we have to realize that not everyone is as well-versed, nor self-actualized to reflect on things like privilege, prejudice, micro-aggressions, and subversive discrimination and racism.  This is a hard conversation, and for me, I hope it’s not one we simply restrict to the forms of racism that African-Americans experience.  I think we need to have a conversation about racism that goes beyond one ethnic or race group and includes all who suffer through their experience of it.

More than that, however, I think the thing that left me wanting was people in the church want to solve a “problem” – the “problem” of racism.  A good friend of mine reacting to my rather confrontational blog post prior to this one, expressed that in some ways, he feels like he’s “part of the problem.”  I find sadness in that statement, and sadness for those who share that same sentiment, because I often wonder, “where’s the grace that leads to reconciliation in that?”  Problem-solving seems to cause a divide along lines of right and wrong, just and unjust where some are left in perpetual shame. Additionally, people are not part of a “problem” or a “solution.”  Rather, they simply are part of a larger narrative, a reality that exists in our world, a reality held in bondage to human sin.  And frankly, as a person of color, I don’t want people to think of my life as a “problem” to be solved, but rather, an experience to be engaged, empathized with, and respected.  Rather than a solution, I seek to be understood….and we cooperate in addressing the reality of racism in our society as the church, and on terms in which we share in our broken humanity, together.

I think issues of race are best addressed not as a problem, but rather, by being honest.

Consider the following:

  • Our church is and always has been a non-diverse, white church racially, ethnically, and culturally.
  • Our church has very few people of color in positions of leadership, and we so often do not hear those voices speaking on the issue of racism.
  • There is little that exists within our church’s forms of communal life, worship, and ministry that align with the cultural and ethnic values of persons of color.

If we view these things as problems, then we start pointing fingers.  Someone’s right or someone’s wrong; someone’s to blame.  There tends to be a right or wrong answer, a solution to the problem, to which we basically categorize people as “part of the problem or part of the solution.”  (What makes it even stranger for me is that it tends to be whites who think and talk amongst themselves about the topic of racism; it’s like a bunch of history majors trying to teach each other about Nuclear Power)

However, if we approach these statements as simply an honest portrayal of reality, we realize that these things simply exist.  We take them at face value, and if they don’t alight with who God has called us to be, then we simply work to change them as followers of Christ.  There is a critical distance that comes with the exercise of being honest, identifying what is true and examining if it aligns with what we confess about God and Christ.  That critical distance, I believe, creates a less anxious and shame-inducing process than problem-solving. That is a more Christian, and honestly, a Lutheran response.  Our tradition steeped in a theology of the cross proclaims that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not about offering solutions to life and society’s problems, but rather simply being honest about reality and “calling a thing what it is.”    Our confession and repentance in worship is a corporate one; “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…..”  I think we have to acknowledge first our non-diverse church and the limits that exist because of it when we talk about racism.  The response is that we just have to stop deceiving ourselves and acknowledge the fact we are not diverse, and perhaps consider where we need to fill in the gaps if we’re to understand racism further.

That brings me to my second response to Thursday’s webcast: honesty also moves us to a posture of listening rather than fixing.  The honest admission is that because we are not diverse, we do not know what experiencing racism is like, so we need to listen. We need to listen to the stories of African-Americans, Latino/Latina Americans, Asian-Americans and all others of what it’s like to live as a person of color in this country.  We need to listen to the harassing, fear, anger, frustration, and the hope in their stories.  Listening, rather than fixing, means that people of color become our teachers, because their stories are the purest form of understanding racism and what is at stake for people’s lives everyday.  “Fixing” leads us toward the need for uniformity and comfort, and usually ends up in shame, division, and avoidance within communities.  Some are right, and some are wrong….and we remain unchanged, our hearts actually hardened against the other.  Racism is not a problem to be fixed…..but rather a reality to be heard, understood, and transformed by.

What if we simply listened to the truth in stories told by people of color….and allowed ourselves to be transformed by them?

I believe something else is powerful about listening to honesty in story.  Listening moves us to a place of grace.  We become gracious in allowing space to hear someone’s story.  People are gracious in sharing honestly with us.  And aren’t we so transformed in such a gracious exchange? It is this grace, freeing us to be vulnerable with each other, to connect with each other as humans loved by God that perhaps, will indeed be the salvation of us all.  And isn’t that what God’s grace is all about?  And as Lutherans, isn’t this a manifestation of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ that we all hold so dear?

The truth is, in my humble opinion, that this is the liturgical movement we experience in our Lutheran worship: honesty as confession, humility and openness to the other as repentance, and listening as grace being imparted on us.  We can’t solve the problem of racism on our own because we are all sinful and fall short of God’s grace…..but maybe the point is, racism is not a problem to begin with; and when we’re honest about that, we can start being honest about what God is calling us to say and do as a church confronting the sin of racism in America.

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“I am not welcome….” Reflecting on race, ethnicity, & the Lutheran Church

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its survey of racial diversity across various religious groups in America.  What may be a shocker to some (but not to me) is that the church denomination I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is the second least racially diverse across America.  You could make the case it is THE least racially diverse since the group below it, the National Baptist Convention, has been historically and still is, an exclusively an African-American church.

My church, the ELCA, prides itself on its efforts to be more racially diverse and inclusive of other ethnic groups.  Wanting to give my church the benefit of the doubt, I did a little further investigating and according to 2012 data compiled by the ELCA, it reported about 8.5% of its membership was made up of other ethnic groups.  The Pew Research survey reported about 4% of the ELCA’s membership is made up of these same ethnic groups.  Therefore, as a church body, we’ve actually decreased in diversity over the last three years. As an Asian-American in this church whose ethnic group is just as diverse (pretty much if you are not white and hail from the continent of Asia and the Pacific Islands you’re lumped into the “Asian” category), this is what I hear:

I am not welcome in this church.

The majority voice of the institution that is the ELCA receives me because I was raised up in its predominant cultural heritage.  I was raised on dairy farm in central Minnesota, adopted by Scandinavian parents, who were Lutheran.  Like many Asian adoptees, my own cultural identity, along with cultural norms and values, was replaced by a predominantly white one.  My pursuits in higher education and my work ethic are hailed and respected by white privilege in a form of racism and discrimination known as the “model minority.”  However, since I started seminary in 2009 and became a pastor in the ELCA I have become increasingly aware of those moments when my racial identity has me standing outside this church.  I have increasingly felt the force that is white privilege acting upon me in this church when I find myself wrestling with the contradictions and hypocrisy of the cultural identity of my childhood, along with its norms and values, compared with who I am today……wrestling that quite franky, has been raised by my experience and participation in my church, the ELCA. I know I have been subjected to forms of racism and discrimination throughout my whole life, but never before have they been so explicit, and myself so aware of them, until the start of seminary through present day. 

I feel it when I’m asked to take pictures for publications because I’m “the kind of person we think would be the right fit and would represent who we are as Lutherans.”

I feel it when I watch one of my congregations long for more youth, yet ignore a newcomer who is an African-American teenager, to the extent where the majority of them don’t even know his name.

I feel it every time I speak out in concern and anger from a place of my own experience, and I am met not with questions seeking understanding, but rather statements demanding my silence and questioning my loyalty to the institution.

I felt it this past Sunday morning while worshipping as a visitor at an ELCA congregation, and looking around me and seeing that I am the only person of color in the room.

I, along with many others, are not welcome in this church.

I will admit, this has been a summer in which I’ve given into my feelings of frustration and anger towards the institutional church – the ELCA.  Some of that is founded, and some of that is my sinfulness, my lack of grace towards the church.  However, as I sit here and reflect on my feelings and what this all means, I still assert that I, just like so many other ethnic minorities, am not welcome in the church.  Sadly, other people of color are experience the unwelcome of the church in more tragic and overt ways than I have. Yet, my deeper reflection has led me to understand that perhaps the meaning behind that statement is just a revelation of reality, rather than a critique that requires a solution of the ELCA which I am a part of.

The reality is that the ELCA is historically a white church – German and Scandinavian immigrants to be exact.  It is a church that values higher education and gives power (we make them clergy) to those who possess those credentials.  It is a church that has always been more proud of its cultural and theological tradition rather than thrusting itself into the unsettling, reforming work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a church that historically has given itself to efforts that focus on the spiritual and communal well-being of its existing members rather than all out evangelizing to those outsiders around them. 

The reality is that my church isn’t overtly racist, it’s just not and has never been divserse. What exists is a passive form of discrimination though the existing culture, values, and structures of privilege – white privilege.  And I think my mistake has been to put the church on trial without understanding that I’ve misplaced my trust in the hope that people will make the church a more welcome place for people of color – for people like me. Perhaps what I ask for is simply an impossibility given who we have been and who we are as a chruch. It isn’t a welcoming institution for people of color – there is little that celebrates the ethnic and cultural heritage and values that are a part of who we are.  My reflection has led me to believe that I should be more gracious towards the non-divserity of the ELCA…..and the subconscious resistance to do the work necessary to make it a more diverse church. My failure has been to place my trust in the hope that people can be the great author and catalyst of change in the church – and we full well know what happens when we place our trust solely in the efforts of humanity. 

What I’ve come to understand that my trust must be placed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I may not be welcome in this church by established human – ie. white privilege – standards, but I belong.  I belong because in Christ, a place has been made for me.  In Christ I am joined to the community of God for who I am, not by the standards devised by people who have enjoyed their long-standing place within the institution and see no need to act with a sense of urgency to change that.  Despite all that is real and true about this church, the fact remains that in Christ, I do belong.  That is where my confidence comes from, that is where my voice comes from, and that is where my courage is founded in. I follow Christ….the experiences unique to who I am racially, culturally, ethnically, and the thoughts, ideas, questions, and wrestling that coincide with that have a place in the church as the Kingdom of God here on earth.  In my understanding of belonging comes an appreciation for what the Lutheran church gifts to me – a theological tradition that helps me make sense of the particularity of my experience as an Asian-American adoptee.  The gift is not a sense of welcome and inclusion into a cultural majority of institutional privilege and power that I can never be a part of simply because of who I am. 

I may not be welcome.  But I know I belong….because I know who and whose I am.  That should be my focus, and that is enough.  And I hope for all those who find themselves standing outside the welcome of this church because of their questions, their ethnicity, their race…..they might find a sense of renewed faith and belonging in faith in Christ, not the empty boasting a promises of human progress. 

My place, like many people of color, is a particular one within the church. It may not – and it may never – be within the institution’s privileged places, but it is always a place of belonging established by God’s grace made known in the cross of Christ. May we be so bold as to live courageously in the knowledge of that gospel truth. 

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