That’s not a God I recognize

Gospel: Matthew 20: 1-16

Inspiration for this sermon came from Stanley Saunders’ commentary on Working Preacher.

Jesus does NOT start telling this parable by saying, “God is like a wealthy landowner.” So why do we insist that the wealthy, capricious landowner, wielding power and money arbitrarily, represents God? We make the point of this parable: “God’s ways are not your ways, it’s not going to be like the justice you recognize.” That feels like the deeply unsatisfying ending of Job to me. I don’t accept it. The worst part is that when we associate God with the rich and powerful, it sometimes unconsciously slips into a reversal: the rich and powerful are like God. They can do whatever they want, they are above judgment, and the rest of us have to scramble to figure out how we’re going to react. No. This is why I’m glad Jesus doesn’t compare a wealthy landowner to God. He doesn’t say, God is like the unfair boss.

What he actually says is, “the kingdom of heaven is like this.” I’m going to interpret “this” as the whole parable. Again, we all have our go-to meanings for the “kingdom of heaven.” For some reason mine is usually that everything is as it should be. Everything is fixed, just, fair and therefore happy. But there are no gymnastics of interpretation that can get that picture of the “kingdom of heaven” out of this parable. Instead, the kingdom of heaven is like this: unfair things happen all the time. There will always, always be rich or powerful people pulling the strings. Sometimes, it may be us, and we need to check ourselves, on how we are wielding our privilege. Other times, when we find ourselves in those hordes of workers who are not getting a fair deal, the good news is that although we cannot control how those in charge act, we can control our own reactions. We can divide over jealousy and fight over favor. Or we can decide that is not how our story is going to go. That’s what I got out of Martin Luther’s treatise “Freedom of Christian,” written a couple years into the Reformation. We are free to choose, to serve our neighbors. We are not enslaved by our selfishness or fear of working or buying our way into heaven. We are free to take on this better, more godly burden, of living not for ourselves, but for others.

So, how do we want our story to go, then? One detail of the parable eggs me on here: A denarius was worth enough for a laborer to feed their family for a day. One day. It’s hardly a living wage. Not enough for housing, or any other necessities. The landowner is sowing division between the workers by paying them the same for different loads of work. We never question his right to do whatever he wants with his money (the landowner calls himself generous), but what he is paying any of them is not enough to survive, much less thrive. The kingdom of heaven is like this?

I believe we live in this “kingdom of heaven” right now.

The kingdom of heaven is like a story that provokes a reaction. It is like the experience of hearing this parable! We must struggle with who we know God to be, questioning where others would put God in stories of power and justice. Followers of Jesus should never be comfortable watching the rich and powerful “benevolently” doling out their own form of justice. We should certainly not be equating them with God. Especially if we realize we are the ones who could be described as the rich landowner in a given scenario. We must view everything through our theology, who we know God to be because of Jesus. We are compelled to do justice with our actions and with our words, especially by debunking the false justice and false descriptions of God we hear around us. Some of us will do that by protesting in the streets. Others will do it through teaching, writing, creating art or caring for the vulnerable. Others will have difficult conversations with those whom we love, about money and justice. We will call our congregations and our national denomination to account when we hear resources being equated with God’s favor.

The prosperity Gospel leads to injustice. The “prosperity Gospel” is basically that wealth indicates God’s favor, and that if you please God, you will be materially blessed. The prosperity gospel allows the rich to get richer, and the rest to fight over scraps because that is all they deserve. It can end up in: “everything happens for a reason” theology too, where those who died in the earthquake in Mexico this week must have done something wrong. That’s not how the God I know acts. I rebuke that theology. A prosperity gospel doesn’t want the cross, just the empty tomb. And you cannot get to resurrection without death first.

But where is God in this parable, if not in the seat of privilege doling out wages according to God’s own whim, sewing discord among the workers? God is in the flesh with the workers who would be turned against each other, ready to take the abuse of those who are frustrated with the powerful constantly assert their right to manipulate and arbitrarily steal their dignity. Jesus was in line for his measly denarius, with all the other day laborers. He freely chooses to suffer with his fellow workers in the vineyard. We choose the same. And the kingdom of heaven is here when we make that choice.

Don’t forget, God is also the one telling us this unsettling parable to stir up our spirits until we say, “Something’s off with that interpretation.” Jesus’ audience are disciples who have already argued about their positions and been told repeatedly: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And its going to get worse than that. The “firstborn child of God” will become so very last that he will be criminalized and executed, abandoned by all including a seemingly absent God. Will Jesus’ disciples still hope God will swoop down and fix things then, or will they (we) finally recognize that the kingdom of heaven is in the middle of greed and suffering and injustice, where God is responding IN PERSON to all that is not right with the world, and never will be until the very last day?

The kingdom of heaven is already breaking in among us, but not yet deciding everything for us. We have choices to make, theology to digest and then to speak aloud. Your God is not like a wealthy landowner? Tell me more about your God.

Preached at Zion, S. Mpls

“This church is like a family…”

Our church is like a family,” or “We are the family of God!” So many of us say some version of that metaphor on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure I heard it within the very first meeting I had with many of your Council leaders, at a coffee shop in St. Paul. But what do you mean by that?

* Turn to someone close to you and say the first thing that pops into your head; don’t over-think this. What do you mean when you call this congregation ‘a family’?

Some of those things you named might have been assumptions in Jesus’ day, but also the  family was security, legacy and support in old age, your identity (since it was not an individualistic culture at all).

So, how do we get into a “church family”?

*Turn again, to the other side, and share briefly: How did you get into this church family?

In the first reading, from the Gospel of John, Jesus is establishing the church that will live on after his death, and it is a family formed by adoption. Now, this adoption plan is made by a child for his mother, but it’s the same process. Like in adoptive families you know, the new relationships formed will change the lives of all involved. And its going to take ongoing commitment.

We all know there’s a difference between being counted as part of a group and really experiencing belonging. When we think about families formed by birth, sometimes we just assume that “belonging” happens automatically, but to really love and be loved takes effort. It’s the concept of attachment. For those of us raised by the parents who birthed us, our emotional attachment to them develops when we are infants, as they meet our needs. Every time. Even in the middle of the night. It is loving, but it is work. When we have to build attachment later in life, maybe through adoption or with potential spouses, especially after we’ve been hurt by others, it takes even more effort. It takes repeated words and actions, actions and words that prove “you belong to us. Nothing will change that. This is forever.” We all test those boundaries, try to push past the limits to see where they are, if we will still be loved if we do this, or reveal this about who we are. It takes complete commitment to being family no matter what, in order to build a secure attachment.

It is a choice, a commitment to be part of the family of God. But not a choice that we can undo, since it is made by God. We opt in, in some ways, claim our membership in the family by being drawn to Jesus, but then it’s the mutual responsibility of all the family members to keep relating, reconciling, loving each other. It’s a different meaning than “choosing” a church or “joining” a church, than our consumer approach to finding a community that will meet my needs. Look closely at these two Gospel stories. Jesus makes the family ties. People who have stuck close to him, he declares to be his family. I kind of wonder if Mary and John were on board with this new relationship – Jesus’ adoption plan for them – or not. Perhaps they got on each other’s nerves, or felt competitive for Jesus’ attention. They wanted to be close to Jesus, but perhaps not particularly each other. Do you ever feel that? Church would be great if it weren’t for the people. They became a family anyway.

The second story is a bit of a slap in the face to Jesus’ birth family. “My family are the ones who love God, and are seeking to stay close to God, to do God’s will,” Jesus says. Belonging in this family is not about being entitled or gaining special access to God’s attention. It’s about serving God’s will, not being served. And that’s really tough, because we turn everything we can into a means to gain recognition, pats on the back, a way to exert authority, to show how much we matter, or just to be reminded that we are lovable. But being part of this family is not an entitlement. None of us own any branch of Jesus’ family simply by being born with a certain heritage. We have to ask ourselves, are we actually seeking to do the will of God, or to hold onto the patterns or identity that make us comfortable?

Being part of a family is an active process, not passive. Doing nothing will indeed produce a result, of our relationships atrophying. We are as individuals always changing and so are those with whom we are in relationship. And somehow, so is God. We describe ourselves as being made in God’s image, and we understand God as the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, however you want to say it. God is, by nature, in relationship. Being in relationship means that we are committed to being changed by one another. So leaving a household of the Family of God because of a disagreement destroys attachment not only for those who leave, but for those who stay. Can’t we talk about, even argue about, the really hard things in our family without breaking apart?

And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” They didn’t pay lip service to “being a family.” They just did it. This viral video was going around awhile ago, asking people to stop inviting people to church. If you want to share your faith, invite them into your life instead. Care about them where they are. Share your faith in conversation. Re-enforce the love you have for them – for Christ’s sake – so often that they know to whom they belong when they pick up their briefcase, or put on their backpack and go out into the world.

This congregation is like family for many of you – and all the different things you mean by that. But it is also one household of a large, extended family. The family of God is vast and diverse and surprising, actually, in whom it encompasses. So, how will you convey that to others and have confidence in it for yourself, if this particular household of the world-wide family of God doesn’t continue to stay in one place?

Know that Jesus makes some surprising relationships for us. When you are actively seeking to follow the will of God, you will be surprised who becomes your family. You are not entitled to anything, but you are so loved. You are Jesus’ siblings, you know.

Preached on Sept 9, 2017

Scripture readings:

John 19:25b -27 Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

Matthew 12:46-50 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sermon on the Day of Voting to Close

Read Mark 16:1-8

The end. I think it is obvious why most of us prefer John’s account of the resurrection instead of this one. If we, with these women who were closest to him, thought that following Jesus was going to give us hope in a way that feels triumphant and victorious, that idea ends right here. Resurrection is joyful, trumpet-blowing news … eventually. But at first it means you know nothing about how this life works anymore. These women knew their role, anointing the body. Quiet, pious, behind-the-scenes work, which they had no doubt done before and would do again, according to the traditions that had been passed down to them. Now Jesus, whom they had seen crucified, was no longer dead, and they were commanded go and announce God’s message to all the male disciples. (Who wouldn’t believe them until they saw for themselves.) This not only changes what these women know to be one of the guarantees of life (death), but who they know how to be. It’s amazing news that also terrifies them.

We’re looking into the empty tomb today too. It’s an amazing and terrifying thing to say as a congregation: “Our old way of life and expectations of church died. What might life after that death look like?” You face questions of belonging for a group that feels like a family and imagining what the legacy is of this mission start that got so much of your time, energy and love. I am wondering with you: what new life can come of this? Eventually, those first women must have told people about the empty tomb, since the word got out that Jesus rose from the dead, and we have other gospels which tell us they did. But Mark’s scared ending resonates, in this time and place. We can trust the truth of it, because we have known resurrection that feels more like a punch in the gut than Easter lilies and butterflies.

Thankfully we have to another Gospel to read: John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene’s first reaction to the disappearance of Jesus’ body was grief on top of grief. Now she wasn’t just weeping because Jesus whom she loved was dead, but because she couldn’t even grieve properly. Counselors sometimes call this “complicated grief.” Maybe your relationship with the deceased was strained or you feel guilt along with the loss you are grieving or you think it’s not a publicly-acceptable reason to grieve (sometimes people wrongly feel like they can’t publicly grieve a loss such as a miscarriage or leaving a job when you chose to take another job, something like that). When our grief is complicated, and there’s no resolution, the unresolved grief can come out sideways as anger or destructive behaviors. So don’t bury your grief too quickly. Mary does the best thing possible: reaching out to others who can share in her grief. Peter and John went to the tomb, but then left again. Mary was still there weeping. In my mind, they let Mary down. Those two inner circle disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration, John says “they saw and believed, even though they didn’t yet understand the resurrection.” But here’s something they do know: Mary is one of them, and she is seriously grieving. That is not complicated. You might not know what resurrection means yet for this faith community and your faith life in particular, but you know how to support one another in times of loss. Thank you for showing up today, and for staying with each other for more than a glance in the tomb.

This is where Jesus meets us, just outside the empty tomb, so we know for certain that there is life after even complicated grief. We have plenty of gardeners here, who, when you speak to each other by name and with love, will reveal that Jesus is alive and making plans. We are seen; we are known; we are loved. Mary, Peter, John: No matter how you react to the empty tomb, the Gospel is on the loose! We are just figuring out how we are going to participate in that.

Special Interest Groups, Faith Community Version

Cataclysmic weather events happen frequently enough (thanks global warming) that a faith community could form around raising awareness, helpful disaster theology, and responding appropriately whether the floods are in Texas or India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

I hear often enough that the diversity of people’s interests (professional and otherwise) within a congregation is an asset (only the poor woman or man who works as an accountant often gets stuck being the Council treasurer). We cite other differences in a congregation as a selling point, such as multiple generations: “What other organizations foster on-going inter-generational relationships, besides extended families?” But I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the benefits of specificity, of a faith community with a narrower scope. What if we initiated theological conversations specific to certain professions in order to build a faith community (with some benefits of, and differences from a congregation) for those who have similar stresses, settings for living out their faith, and perhaps investment in acting on their faith in similar arenas?

I’ll give you an example: A faith-based non-profit builds schools or libraries, or sponsors school fees for children in an under-developed part of the world. A cohort of teachers, school staff and administrators in this country could be transformed by forming a relationship with one such school. We could do Bible Study on both ends, sharing insights between teachers and students here and there. Through the wonders of the internet, we could share video clips of ourselves, hopes, prayers and perhaps even create a project together such as Christmas cards or a seasonal devotional book. We’d fill Bible Study with stories of Rabbi Jesus teaching, or saying “Let the little children come to me.” Maybe we try cooking something from the other culture, and have a meal “together.” But it would all be about the vocations of teachers and students.

Or maybe medical professionals would be interested in engaging with a faith-based clinic or nursing school. Bible study or devotions shared across the miles could focus on healing stories, or even poetry from the Song of Solomon about the beauty of bodies. Perhaps the hospice departments would have spiritual insights about caring for people faithfully, through to the end. There would be room for conversation too about burnout in the profession and what it is to be, like Jesus, a wounded healer.

When a natural disaster occurs, “Disaster Theology” events that fund-raise, share best practices for response, de-bunk bad theology and lay out helpful theology would feed my soul. And while the regular church-goers need to hear it too, certainly, those who live well outside the sphere of influence of any congregation need helpful “disaster theology.” Cataclysmic weather events happen frequently enough (thanks global warming) that a faith community could form around raising awareness, helpful theology, and responding appropriately whether the floods are in Texas or India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Such a project wouldn’t be church, by some definitions: without regular worship or sacraments. But that is also the appeal! Community-building with faith, meaningful theological discussion, and challenges to reach beyond our own spheres for the sake of the Holy Spirit working sounds like what I actually need from church. Some of us are ready for less church and more direct action on our specific concerns because of our faith.

Pastor in the Pew

(An edited version appeared online in Fidelia’s Sisters, the publication of Young Clergy Women International.)

When I let it slide in conversation that I am a pastor, the natural follow-up question is, “Where’s your congregation?” For me right now, the answer requires extra explanation. I am a “pastor in the pew,” a phrase I am not entirely sure I should be coining. My national church body’s term for my status is “on leave from call for family reasons,” but in plain language, I am staying home with the kids for awhile. I do not believe at all that everyone should (even if they could, financially) do this, but for me and my family all the factors converged at once to make this what I wanted to be doing right now. Others gain the status of “pastor in the pew” by going into specialized ministries as chaplains or counselors, serving camp ministries or non-profits, going to graduate school, becoming professors or synod/regional church staff or retiring. Then, there we are: in the pews of a congregation where we are not the pastor.

We have the specialized education of seminary, and also gifts and insights into various kinds of ministries developed through experience. We also carry the confidence and wounds of being deeply embedded in congregational life. All of those things are recognizable and can be shepherded to the good of the congregation by a thoughtful pastoral leader, in whose flock we now bleat. But my real question is this: How do I still carry the identity of “pastor”? My church body does not ordain pastors until they have received a call from a congregation (only rarely to specialized ministry first), and we imbue the “call process” with spiritual weight, believing that the call of the Church is the action of the Holy Spirit herself. But, does it wear off? If I’m not actively leading a congregation, am I still a pastor? How do I be a faithful “pastor in the pew”?

First do no harm, right? My first priority is to be as respectful as possible of the pastor in the congregation where we joined. We could only join, of course, a congregation where I found the pastor respectable, but there are all the daily ways to live it out. I pay attention to details like always referring to her by using “Pastor” in front of her name. I am that rare person who responds to announcements by volunteering and strives to reply promptly to e-mails. If I had feedback to give about how she is doing her job, I would give it privately but never anonymously. Even theological challenges must be made with respect to the authority of her office, in my view. I only suggest ideas that I am willing to participate in bringing to fruition, and include her in official capacities (like opening with prayer) in projects I have instigated. I trust our pastor, so I am honest with her about what I do and do not want to lead or participate in. I negotiate directly and transparently when I am asked to perform pastoral duties (in my case for neighbors) such as baptisms in the church’s space, so it cannot even be perceived by an onlooker as usurping any authority. As another clergy woman, I try to think about when I would have liked someone to just volunteer to cut me some slack (because it wasn’t in the budget); that’s why I preached not long after our pastor returned from her maternity leave, and this year during Lent.

Those are the practical things, helpful notes from the field guide to being a decent “pastor in the pew”. The deeper stuff has to do with working out where my head and heart are, while I sit in the pew. I have to figure out what this call, and the identity I’ve worn for most of my adult life, mean when I am not in congregational leadership. I have to find outlets for my gifts for ministry outside of our congregation, because there I am not the pastor. I have been using my theological mind and my penchant for words to write: articles, blogposts, and even a book proposal. Writing about faith and life has been really meaningful and healthy both to exercise my mind, but also stretch and challenge myself theologically. The more I write, the more I want to read theology too. I feel like I’m contributing to a larger conversation. Next, what about all those organizational skills, connections I’ve cultivated and creative ideas I still have? I was pleased to stumble upon a ministry under development in my very neighborhood, whose leadership team could use an infusion of my energy. The exploration phase ended 6 months after I came on board, unfortunately with a failure to launch, but it was an outlet for me to use my pastor’s mind and networks, for which I am very grateful. As long as I remain a pastor in the pew, I’ll need to find these ways to live out that part of my vocation. Because, I have an ego.

Extrovert or introvert, call of God and all, I am still convinced that anyone must have a certain level of confidence and appreciation for themselves to stand up in front of others week after week and preach. The responses, even when negative, tell us that people are listening enough to our voice to struggle with what we have said. In sermons, classes, meetings, and even one-on-one pastoral care situations: the authority of the pastor still holds power for many people. Having been accustomed to that kind of authority makes me want to be cautious and self-aware about what affirmations and sense of value I might be seeking now. I have noticed that particular parishioners dig in their heels and exercise control in churches, when they do not have outlets for exerting authority in other parts of their lives, such as at a place of work or in a family system. I want to guard against becoming that thorn in the pastor’s side!

Finally, this time as a “pastor in the pew” is an opportunity to put my other vocations, of spouse/partner, parent, child, and friend, before being the leader of a congregation. The balancing act is suspended for awhile. My spouse and my kids get to chart their own course in this congregation, to be known for their own personalities and opinions, without reference to me as the pastor. They can be involved or not, without the concern that it reflects on my pastoral identity. Outside our household, we also get to show up more for friends who have something going on Sunday mornings: baptisms, installations in a new call, children’s programs, or just an interesting presentation happening at a friend’s church. While in congregational leadership, I guarded my limited Sundays off for travel and vacations, so many of these things were not feasible.

Of course there are things I miss about leading a congregation, and my identity when I was doing so. I cannot imagine how difficult maintaining clear boundaries would be for a person who retires or takes another job, but continues to worship in a congregation they had formerly served in pastoral leadership. That must be why most denominations have written or unwritten guidelines about contact with former congregations and members. In my view, a “pastor in the pew” can be an honored, supportive vocation for whatever time span, but it must be embarked upon with careful consideration.

5 Years In…

Every year when our Vikta’s birthday arrives, so does another milestone: The anniversary of when we first knew of our daughter. We received her referral document on her 2nd birthday, and 2 photos of her the next day. That was 5 years ago! Today, I’m remembering the adoption process, the waiting, the love and the great unknowns. I remembered that I had written about this to the congregation where I was the pastor at the time, in February when we finally had approval to go become her parents and bring Viktoria home. Here is that letter:

Dear River of Life,

Every adoption process is different, I know. These days there is much preparation required on behalf of the adoptive parents: classes, the home study, background checks from everywhere you’ve lived during your adult life and mountains of paperwork. But after all the preparation, for many there is suddenness. You are suddenly chosen by birthparents, maybe even receiving a call from the hospital. Or perhaps the child has been living with you through foster care, but is suddenly available for adoption. For inter-country adoption, there is often a sudden phone call telling you to buy your plane tickets, or meet someone at the airport. You may fear unwanted sudden events: a birthmother may have a change of heart, or unknown biological relatives could show up out of the blue, or politics will affect adoption from other countries. But always, with the suddenness, you would know that your life has changed forever.

I was ready for the suddenness, ready to be overwhelmed by how little I know after all, ready for the exhaustion and the chaos and the adaptation at lightning speed. It was this part of the process I never wanted, never knew to expect and certainly didn’t think would become the defining part of the process for us: incessant waiting. For 3 months our lives were suspended in waiting, not planning except in fits and starts for what we do not even know will be needed.

It has felt like it is dragging on and on, cycling through the seasons. Again, I know that for other adoptive parents, the wait can be much longer. In reality, this stage of the process for us has only been half a year – 6 months since we knew there was a specific child, whose name and photograph we’ve clutched tightly. But I am steeped in the rhythms of the “church year” so I’ve noticed that this six months spans just about all of it, except for the vast “Season After Pentecost.” Perhaps that is part of the reason it feels so long.

Reformation: We first had a phone call during the busiest weekend since I’ve been at River of Life (the ALLIA Convention) but were not able to return it until Monday. Then we heard about the child the adoption agency was referring to us: Viktoria! We soon said “Yes!” we would move forward with a visit, which was not able to take place until the end of October, over Reformation Sunday. Reformation is a celebration of God doing a new thing within old forms like the Church and the Scriptures. For us it was a brave new world, meeting the child whom we had to say “yes” to again a few days into our visit. We were choosing our future according to our consciences, even though we still couldn’t grasp the full implications of that choice. Kind of like Martin Luther, we thought, as we flew back home by way of Frankfurt, Germany.

Advent: Do you understand when I say that it has felt as if I am perpetually stuck in Advent (the season of waiting, anticipation, and longing)? A few weeks after we returned from our first trip to meet Viktoria, Advent was upon us. One of my pastor colleagues suggested that I could just hold up a photo of Viktoria in place of a sermon on “longing” that December.  Like the readings from the Prophets we always hear in the season of Advent, there were these promises for the future, but nothing was yet realized.

Christmas: Jesus was born centuries ago in Bethlehem of Judea, but we still wait for him to  come again. Stefan and I had a different child we were talking about in addition to the baby Jesus, and pondering all these things in our hearts. Every Christmas there is so much love invested in a tiny young person, but also in the potential for what they could do in our lives and our world. It was Christmas, but it was still Advent for us.

Epiphany: We know that there’s a lot of time in between Jesus’ birth and the magi visiting, and his baptism in the Jordan River. It’s not as quick as the church year has it. Instead there a good deal of growing up going on in between those milestones. But when we arrive at Epiphany there is something so satisfying about how everything is revealed at last. We, of course, hoped that since it hadn’t happened yet, our travel and court dates would be revealed, but there was no instant gratification on that matter by January 6th. This year I did 4 baptisms on the Sunday of Epiphany/Baptism of our Lord: 3 children from very near… one from as far away as China, our friends’ daughter who was adopted and came home to their family just a year ago. She is likely to be Viktoria’s first friend in her new life with us. The baptism liturgy we used has adoption language, about how God adopts all of us through baptism, into the same family.

Lent: Finally, finally, finally… one week before Ash Wednesday we got the word. We will “bond” as a family during Lent. That is our church season of reflection and repentance; I’m not sure what meaning to take from that just yet for our adoption process. During Holy Week, as Jesus parades into Jerusalem, breaks the Passover bread with his disciples, is betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, and gives up his life on the cross, our family will be moving steadily towards our permanent future and a great celebration, but not without grief. Our dear little girl has had enough grief and loss for a young life already…the fear and inexpressible emotions the disciples and Jesus himself experienced on Good Friday have already played out to some extent in her story. Her birth parents, who were not capable of parenting her, must have agonized too since they loved her enough to do what was ultimately the best for her. That was the painful, most just thing to do. There will be a lot of emotional turmoil as we try to write a new life story together. Yet through all of it, we will come, ultimately, to Easter. The Resurrection of our Lord will be our family’s time of new life too! The court date when we become a family forever is April 4th, the Thursday after Easter. I cannot wait for the joy of it – joy that is sincere because of all we’ve been through.

Even if no one else we know has been through this same exact process, and even those who’ve been through similar processes do not empathize with the exact way we’re experiencing it, it is not a completely new story. It is the oldest story, which we have known and loved all these years, and will continue to tell and live out for the rest of our days. The timing on that, at least, feels right.

Pastor Lee Ann

Embodied Stereotypes Instead of Theology

“Keep Minnesota passive-aggressive! (Or not, whatever you think is best.)”

I laughed out loud when I read that t-shirt slogan, and told my husband about it when I got home. Minnesotans have a set of character traits that we – and others – claim define us, and they tend to be synonymous with Lutherans, a Christian denomination that is still predominates here. Or I should have said, white Minnesotan Lutherans. Of Scandinavian descent. Sometimes those things are just assumed when you are in the majority. “This is who we are,” we say sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. But it’s killing us, or the people we don’t yet recognize are part of us.

Justine Damond was the 3rd person to die at the hands of police in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul in under 2 years. The culture within a police department may be toxic, but the culture we propagate in the community they serve has to be complicit for it to continue. Living into the stereotypes about ourselves costs lives; maybe this time we’ll do something about it. An op-ed by a former Hennepin County assistant defender in the Star Tribune underlined that it is the citizens who run these cities, and to whom the police departments are accountable when we insist on reforms. I wonder if black or brown citizens have ever thought that is true, though? This time, however, Police Chief Harteau was asked to resign.

How did our communities get here? Lutherans (again white, Scandinavian Lutherans) stereotypically don’t want to make a fuss. Stereotypes always misrepresent some, but they can also be internalized and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Our type stops participating rather than facing conflict. Church leaders worry, if we offend people and they leave, then we have no more chances to influence their prejudices, to change their hearts. Meanwhile, those who have been excluded or shamed disappear, never to return. We settle further into our homogeneity and justify not rocking the boat because “we don’t have any of those people here anyway.” Or we slip it in, little bits at a time, stories here or there, guest speakers, one pick in the book club, to open people’s eyes to discrimination. Maybe it builds up to a critical point of realization for some people. Or maybe the Council calls a special session because the complaints have become too numerous that the pastor is “too political,” although she has been fastidious about not mentioning any politicians or political parties. Except for a few side illustrations, living as if people of color (or any other group of people who might make us examine our complicity in discrimination) do not exist, bleeds outside of our churches into our communities. It shows up most starkly in what we do NOT do.

Lutherans can back up the pace of our incremental change with theology! An impetus for the Reformation touched off by Martin Luther 500 years ago this year was his assertion that there is absolutely nothing we can do (like buying indulgences or being a good person) to earn salvation. Luther claims that since there’s nothing we need to do, we are freed from selfish obsession about the fate of our souls, to serve our neighbor. But somehow being free to serve does not motivate us as much as fear or doing good works under threat. Taken only in part, the emphasis on “nothing we can do” leads to doing nothing as an act of faithfulness.

Although there are Lutherans who are African-American, African, Asian, Latinx, and Native American in the Twin Cities, I bet you didn’t know that. The image we project – not helped by Garrison Keillor’s long-time sagas on the fictional Lake Wobegone – of Lutheranism in Minnesota is monolithic: white Scandinavian. And because we’re all white and Scandinavian (in our mind’s eye), we are like a homogeneous family. Families unfortunately can be insular, and not motivated to take a stand unless we perceive one of our own is being threatened. But by failing to identify with people of color, LGBTQ folk or others we have marginalized, we deny what should be the definition of our faith: We are all one in Christ, so we are family.

The false self-image of the homogeneous family is corroding us from within, yet true to our reformation heritage, people are calling out the harmful practices. The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is the largest Lutheran church body and the most engaged in the public sphere, so that marginalized people could stay within it and actually try to change things. They are trying. The #decolonizelutheranism movement ) is a testament to the birth pangs and groaning of that process. But it is not just for the sake of the Church that we need to stop living into our stereotypes. It is explicitly for the sake of our neighbor, our brothers and sisters and our communities. The culture once established by a plethora of Scandinavian Lutherans in this area could be changed again, by a mass movement of the same owning the fullness of our theology and demanding change for all of our siblings: Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Justine Damond included.

The particular is universal, as a friend reminded me recently. So likely we are not just talking about Lutherans in Minnesota, but also Presbyterians in California or Southern Baptists in Georgia. Living our stereotypes instead of our theology leaves our family members crying out for justice alone.