An ELCA pastor shares his thoughts about the Bible, spirituality, the world, and LGBT issues.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Luther and Vocation

     This coming Sunday, Lutherans around the world celebrated Reformation Sunday.  A sermon I preached several years ago on this day focused on Luther's understanding of "vocation" which he refers to as Gottendienst or "godly service." Gottendienst is the German word for "worship." Thus Luther is telling his audience that what one does in this world is more than a holy calling or a vocation. It is an act of worship. The importance of everyone having a sense of vocation or holy calling cannot be understated. In fact, Jurgen Moltmann asserts that "next to Word and Sacrament, the recognition of the divine vocation of every Christian in his or her worldly occupation is the third great insight of the Lutheran Reformation."
     What does Gottendienst mean for us? Well, one way I look at it is that God honors whatever work we do, be it great or small. Every conversation, every act of kindness counts. God blesses us whether we mop the floors or construct them. God blesses us whether we preach a sermon or take food to an AIDS patient. God blesses our fight for LGBT equality at a national rally as well as a casual conversation with a co-worker.
     Each of us has a gift. Each of us is called to serve. Each of us has a vocation or, perhaps, it is better to say vocations since all of us have multiple callings to our families, our work places, our community and our world. My point is that I hope we will celebrate wherever God has placed us right this very moment. May we use our gifts in whatever ways we can and keep striving to introduce the world to the Jesus we know: The Jesus who loves us, redeems, and sets us free from the chains of hatred, prejudice and injustice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reformation - A Circle Journey

     I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has never felt like they were outside of the circle at some point in their lives.  Then again, I’m a gay Christian geek so I don’t exactly hang out with the beautiful people.  The people I hang out with have been rejected for a multitude of reasons.  Some were told God hated them.  Some were the last ones picked in gym class for softball.  Some were told they were ugly, stupid, etc.  You can fill in your own horror story!  It’s Halloween, after all!
     If you’re the kind of person who understands what I’m talking about, I’m confident that you also long to be inside the circle.  You long to have a place to call home; a place of community and welcome where you can be yourself and be loved with no strings attached.
     Thankfully, I found this kind of open circle in my teen years in a youth group I attended at Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, PA.  I found it again in a small band of “outside of the box” seminarians who, when I told them I was gay back in 1986 said, “Well, duh.”  I found it again in 2009 when the ELCA said I could serve openly as a gay man with a partner!
     This coming Sunday is Reformation Sunday.  One way we can think of Martin Luther’s faith journey is moving from a closed to an open circle.  Luther’s circle journey began when he was a monk in the Catholic Church.  The Church of his time made people feel like God was a closed circle.  The only people who could really approach God were the priests.  The people saw God as distant and mysterious and above all…angry; more willing to condemn than save, more willing to punish than redeem.
     Worship services were in Latin.  Most people could not understand them.  The Bible was also in Latin so they had no access to the Scriptures themselves.  The people had to rely on what the priest told them the Bible said.  No surprisingly, the whole system became very corrupt.
     At the heart of this closed circle was the practice known as the selling of indulgences.  What an indulgence was is  a slip of paper you purchased from the church which forgave you of your sins.  It also helped to shorten your or your loved one’s time in purgatory.  Purgatory was the place the people of Luther’s time believed you went after you died.  It was there that you were purified until you were ready to go to heaven.
     I know it sounds crazy but this is the way the church operated.  The Church made money off of people’s fears.  They led them to believe that God was not forgiving but was looking for an excuse to send them straight to hell.  Not surprisingly, the Church became very rich through the practice of selling indulgences
     Luther, being a monk, was a product of this system.  Tormented by the thought that God truly hated him, he tried desperately to work harder and harder in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness.  One day Luther was reading Romans 3 and saw it with new eyes.  It literally changed his life and would later transform the face of Christianity:
“For we hold that a person is justified (i.e. made right with God) by faith apart form works prescribed from the law.”
     This verse, and those which surround it, were a revelation to Luther.  He finally realized that God was the most open circle of all, far more willing to forgive, save and redeem than the Church had led him to believe.  This began Luther’s crusade to reform the Church which started on October 31, 1517.  He nailed 95 Theses (challenging church scholars to a debate) on the front doors of the church at Wittenburg (community bulletin board).  These theses attacked the practice of selling indulgences and challenged the Church to reform itself.  They set off a debate and controversy that would last for years which eventually resulted in Luther being excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
     His reforms continued and grew, establishing a Church that now has a profound effect on many other denominations even though they might not be aware of it.  Luther came to realize that the way we experience God’s love is through faith.  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. It is an open circle offered to all who say “I believe.”
     And so, on this Reformation Sunday I will be presiding at a church that is an open circle.  And I pray that reformation would continue in the Church so that all are places of welcome and hospitality for all of God’s people, including gay Christian geeks!  I will fight for this as ing as there is breath in my body and Christ’s love in my heart.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ragamuffin: The Life of Rich Mullins

"If I stand let me stand on the promise
That you will pull me through.
And if I can't, let me fall on the grace
That first brought me to You.
And if I sing let me sing for the joy
That has born in me these songs.
And if I weep let it be as a man
Who is longing for his home."

    In 1989 I first heard the song “If I Stand” by Rich Mullins.  It literally brought me to my knees with it’s honest, transparent, grace-filled lyric that resonated with my soul in more ways than I was aware of at the time.  I sensed that Mullins and I were kindred spirits, ragamuffins, who were a bit wounded but were also deeply and passionately in love with Jesus.  Mullin’s musical voice was unique back then.  No one else dared to be as honest as he was about the struggles of life and faith.  In 1997, when I heard he was killed in a tragic auto accident, I was brought to my knees again. I mourned the loss of a spiritual brother and unique artist who would have most certainly gifted us with a lifetime of incredible music.
     Yesterday I watched the 2014 film Ragamuffin which is an attempt to tell Rich’s story and capture his spirit.  Biopics are always a loosing proposition because it’s impossible to summarize a life in 1 1/2 hours.  That being said, Ragamuffin is a very good movie that has the blessing of Mullin’s family which gives it a certain amount of credibility.  Michael Koch does a decent job of portraying Rich Mullins.  To find an actor who is also gifted musically is sometimes hard to find.  Koch definitely captures the wounded side of Mullins, especially his battle with alcohol.  The only thing that is missing is Rich’s playful, child-like side.  Mullins did not brood 24/7.  The love of Jesus shone through him in a way that was genuine and refreshing.  I would have loved to have seen more of that in the film.
     Overall, writer/director David Schultz does a decent job with this film.  My hope is that it will introduce a new generation to an artist that has had a profound effect on my life.  Over the years there have been persistent rumors that Mullins was gay or bisexual.  The only person who can truly answer that question is Mullins himself.  The film is silent on the issue.  To be honest, it really doesn’t matter one way or the other.  I think gay and lesbian Christians feel a kindred spirit with Mullins because he and the Church did not always see eye to eye.  He was definitely an out-of-the-box thinker and challenged everyone to look at God in new ways, which is something the Church is slow to embrace.
     I definitely recommend you see this film.  It can be streamed on Netflix or is available for purchase as well.  More importantly, listen to his music.  It’s as good as Contemporary Christian Music gets and I believe his songs will stand the test of time.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Love Wins in North Carolina!

There are no words that can adequately express how I feel this evening as my marriage is finally recognized in the state I love.  I'm not sure how my relationship of 21 years unravels the fabric of society!  I cried when I phoned my adult kids to tell them the news.  They cried, too!  Love won today in North Carolina.  I hope my conservative friends will, one day, understand why this is such an important issue and can celebrate with me!

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Big Day

Wow!  It hardly seems real but with the Supreme Court's decision today, North Carolina might start issuing marriage licenses to LGBT couples by the end of the week.  Amendment One would be struck down and my marriage would finally be recognized by my state.  If this happens I'll definitely be at the Register of Deeds in Asheville to bless marriages and sign certificates.  Some of my friends have waited a LONG time to get married.  Who knew we would see this day some so soon?  Praise God!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I Am What I Am

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. [1 Corinthians 15:10, NRSV]

     There is a strange notion in some Christian circles that we need to be perfect. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, we're all a bit of a mess! Martin Luther, a church theologian who definitely thought outside of the box, said that we are "simultaneously saint and sinner." By this he meant that we are a mixture of good and bad, triumphs and struggles. Nobody is all good or all bad. We're a jumbled mix of both.
     Armed with this truth, it is important that we do not totally demonize those who try to speak out against LGBT Christians. I know it's hard to do, but we are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us [Jesus' words, not mine! See Matthew 5:43-44]. We are called to see the good that is inside of them, even though it is sometimes hard to do.
     Martin Luther King Jr. [the other Luther] once said that "love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." I believe King knew what he was talking about. And so we are challenged to love those who try to put us down in order that they might be transformed by God's love.
     The flip side of this equation, however, is that we should NEVER remain silent when someone says we are going to hell simply because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. We are baptized children of God, just like they are. God's grace towards us has NOT been in vain and we claim our place at table with no apologies or reservations. We will love our enemies, but we will NOT allow ourselves to become spiritual doormats.
     How are you feeling today? Think about those who have persecuted you in the past and pray that God will to heal their spiritual blindness and fill their hearts with love.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Third Child in the Vineyard

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. “  [Matthew 21:28-32, NRSV]

      After reflecting on this coming Sunday’s gospel lesson throughout the week, I have come to the conclusion that it is not our task to identify with one child over the other.  We cannot and should not make this choice because, if we're being totally honest with ourselves, there is a little bit of both children in all of us  There are times in our lives when we turn down God’s invitation to work in the vineyard but go anyway.  Likewise, there are times in our lives when we promise God we'll do some pretty lofty things but don't come through in the end.
     The purpose of this parable is to help us look at the connection between actions and words; between what we believe and how we live our lives.  I don't think Jesus is calling us to be like one child over the other.  He is actually challenging us to be what I call the "third child,” to say yes to the call to go work in the vineyard and then back up our words with our actions; to be people of faith whose words and deeds are consistent with one another.
     This parable is a wake-up call for everyone.  It shouldn't make us feel secure nor should it make us feel totally helpless.  Instead, this parable is designed to place a mirror in front of our faces; to help us examine the way we live our lives and how we treat other people; to see if our words and deeds are in line with the gospel we say we believe in.