Monday, August 18, 2014
Monday, August 11, 2014
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
I recently read an article in the Christian Century called "Fibbing about Church." (Christian Century, June 11, 2014, p. 7). The gist of the article was that, when surveyed, people lie abut their church attendance. "On any given Sunday, even those with strong connections to a church might well miss worship." Weekly worship is a thing of the past and "the days of full pews are behind us." So why do people falsify their worship attendance, when asked?
In person by phone, people are more likely to claim more frequent church attendance than if surveyed online. The gap between the two surveys is attributed to social desirability bias, or the tendency to say "the right thing" or what you think a person wants to hear. The article suggests that the survey is hopeful in that fibbing about church may mean that people who attend church infrequently may actually want to attend more frequently. "Some of the people who aren't at church think they should be." The article suggests that some of the responses are motivated by aspiration and not obligation. Some people who do not participate, would like to be part of a church community.
This morning at our regular bible discussion, we talked about attendance. In a small church, absences are noticeable and make a difference in our life together. Planning for children in worship is challenging when some Sundays 20 kids are here and some Sundays 2 or 3 kids are here. We have seen many people's attendance habits change over the past 9 years. And for those who still participate weekly or more frequently, seeing other people come and go and disappear from the community can be troubling and sad. So then, we read the parable that Jesus' told some people about participation in the Kingdom/life/ mission of God. What we read has implications for how we understand ourselves as church in this present context.
Today's BS text: Luke 14. 15-24. Jesus said, "Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time of the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, "Come, for everything is now ready." But they all alike began to make excuses...So the slave returned and reported this to the master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, "Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. And the slave said, "Sir, what you have ordered has been done and there is still room." Then the master said to the slave, "Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled." What does this mean?
1. God desires a "full house", all are invited and welcome.
2. Anyone and everyone is to receive an invitation to the dinner. Include those who are naturally left out, ignored, overlooked, and forgotten.
3. Excuses and absences do not cancel the event. There will be a dinner and there will be guests.
So, out of this emerged a way of thinking about faithfulness. Faithfulness is not showing up when you're invited. It is not characterized by right behavior,i.e, proper participation. We think of the faithful as those who come to worship and participate in the life of a congregation. The faithful are "the givers." But authentic faithfulness, in this text, is demonstrated by the slave. In obedience to the master, he or she invites people, any people, all people, poor people, blind people, wealthy and distracted people, I'm-too-busy-for-this people. Church, at its best, is people gathered at table to be fed by God's abundance. And it is invitational, open, welcoming, hospitable to those who are typically uninvited. WE are this Church! The good news is found in the food we share around one table. God, like the bread we bread, is for everyone. Period. This is what it means to be saved by grace. Unearned. Prepaid. Free. No strings. You show up, you get fed. If you are hungry in any way, you're invited. You can make excuses. But, in the end, you'll still be hungry. So, stop making excuses and come to the table.
As for the church, we are not the church if we are not---before every gathering---inviting others to join us at the table. Invitation is our task. God does the rest. Church is a people and a place where the hungry are fed. And God is found. Or maybe we are found by the God who is never absent, always present. And always making ready to receive you. YOU are the guest at God's banquet. Not because you are right, worthy, well-bred, rich enough, important enough, or good enough. You are the guest because God has said so. And it is by invitation and participation in the meal that we are church. Nothing more. Nothing less.
So, we gather for dinner together. And we receive the Eucharist. We break bread and Jesus is revealed to us and we are forgiven, healed, freed, and made ready to serve others.
So, church, let us exercise the sort of faithfulness embodied by the slave in Jesus' story. Invite. Compel. Invite. For everything is ready. And the food is good. Amen.
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
In the past few years, a lot has been published, on blogs, in magazines, in books, about the dying of Christianity in the west. Or the death of western Christendom, depending on who you read. Even today, I read two blogs about church death. There seems to be a great deal of anxiety about this,on the one hand. And I am also hearing a fair bit of acceptance of it on the other. To say the least, there is a grief process, a letting go process, at work in the church. Annd there is a fair biit of denial taking place that refuses to accept a "climate change" in western culture toward modern western Christianity. This shift rejects institutional, scriptural hegemony and authoritative universal claims of truth and morality. This shift involves the limits of science and the seeemingly boudless output of new technologies. There are no longer competing sources of knowledge for human unnderstanding. There is a dominant secular world view. And there is a radicalized theological perspective characterized by fundamentalism, religious fanaticism, and theologically justified and religiously practiced intolerance. Even aas western Christians become mroe secular, the heaart of Christianity is movving to the global south, where the poorest and most marginalized peoples live. Those places that wwere colonized by western Christian missionaries in the last couple of centuries have become strong, conservative, growing Christian movements. In some ways, christianity is the face of progress in those parts of the world---providing sexual education and human rights for women and children, as well as health care and increased educational opportunities.
I am a church professional, a pastor, an Evangelical Lutheran pastor. I am almost 40 years old. In that time I have witnessed the mainline decline from the front row. The mentality among many of my elder colleagues is that "we're losing the war". First, the non-denominational megachurch phenomenon of the late 20th century seemed to replace us. All the young people go to ______________church (fill in with your local non-denominational megachurch. Attractional, personaliity-driven, entertaining, and highly consumeristic these churches appeal to American cultural proclivities. But the version of church is so American that it loses its spiritual center. The cross and resurrection of Jesus, his presence in a community gathered around the gospel story, eucharistic fellowship, and prayer have been neglected in favor of Psalms set to pop music and homogeneous groupings of people who agree on moralistic grounds. Church becomes a place of moral judgement and rules that govern who is in and who is out. But even the megachurch expression is losing ground in the U.S., to the nones.
The Nones are the fastest growing religious definition in the U.S. They are people who are not affiated with any religious group or preference. Some of them were never affiliated and some of them are disconnected and some of them have abandoned the religious life of their family of origins. And while mainliners were distracted by church growth and megachurches and the perceived threat to their own congregational systems, we failed to see or hear the hard, necessary truth. The church, in its late modern, western form, is dying and will die. It must die. That is how Jesus Crhist and the church are incarnated over and over again for 2,000 years. Death and resurrection. Faith in God reires hope in the face of certain death. It requires an openness to Spiritual renewal, God at work in a new way to make something new happen that resembles God's ultimate reality, the kingdom or reign of God in, over, with, and for the world.
I have written about this in my blog before. Years ago. I can't even find the post, its been so long. I did not, however, set out today to write about the dying or death of the church as we hhave known it in the west. I have already done that and so has pretty much everyone else. I set out this afternoon to write about life; the Life of the Church. The resurrection of the church. I can only tell you what I have seen and heard. I suspect others can confirm these things. These are the ways I see church changing.
1. Pope Francis. Remember, I am a Lutheran---the first ones to reject the papacy and strike out to reform the church in the 16th century. 500 years later, a shift is taking place again. We are discovering that there is no salvation, no justification by grace through faith, without justice and peace on earth. The marginalized, poor, and oppressed live longing for a better day. It is not necessary to baptize a starving and sick child, as much as it is to feed them. Francis loves the poor with a Christlike love and is calling the church to renew its biblical calling to servve, love, and bless them as Christ hidden in their suffering.
2. Relational diversity and deep acceptance of the other. I have seen churches become people of hospitality and welcome that intentionally include addicts, people stuck in poverty, homeless people, gay people, sick and dying people. I get to be part of a Christian commuity that increasinngly accepts people as they are, beloved children of the same God.
3. Koinonia. The art of community-building. Churches are building community with artists, musicians, Ex-gang members, ex-offenders. Multi-lingual, multi-cultural communities. Churches that are intentionally small, relational, and missional/incarnational expressions of the gospel story, trying to live like the community described in the book of Acts, in the New Testament. I see churches plant gardens and feed neighbors. I see churches build parks and support their public schools. I see churches teach English and reading classes to immigrants. I see churches create housing for low income households, and jobs for unemployable adults.
I bellieve the church is going to be smaller and more vibrant and more contagious and more impactful in the 21st century. Small, immersed in the culture like infiltrators, bearers of light in a dark place. If we could just stop talkiing about death-whose dying and why, what a good death is like, and what life support should be-and start living and breathing as the body of the one who died and somehow lived and lives and will live forever among us, so that the church lives forever on earth as sign and sentinel for the age that is coming, then our light will break forth like the dawn.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
There is an indignity that comes from working full time for a pay check that does not pay enough to feed one's family, pay for adequate housing, and provide for basic health care and transportation costs. It has to do with the human determination to provide adequately and sustainably for ones self and one's immediate family. In America, some people are denied this dignity, often because of circumstances beyond their control.
Generational poverty and lack of real opportunity keep people below potential. And it begins with children. The bible and our own national history calls us to do better than this.
"You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihoods depends on them;otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you and you would incur guilt." Deuteronomy 24:14. I'm not someone who uses a highlighter in my bible. I don't underline the parts I like and ignore the parts I don't like. I think the bible has some things to say to us about how believers in God treat people. There is a relatively consistent and clear picture that emerges when one considers one sub category of people vis a vis the bible: the poor. Ethical, compassionate, just treatment of the poor is a significant biblical theme from beginning to end. Those with wealth and means have a responsibility toward the poor in their midst, to assure their well being. In the passage I selectively posted above, directed toward employers, workers have a right to be paid for their work in a way that assures them a livelihood. Both timing and amount fall into the category of livelihood. It must be sufficient for the needs of the day.
I live in a county that is mixed with urban, rural, and suburban populations. There is extreme wealth and poverty in Lancaster county. This is a county where the working poor struggle. 21% of Lancaster county workers make minimum wage or less. 1 in 5 Lancaster County workers would benefit from a minimum wage increase and they would contribute more to the local economy as a result. People who work full time deserve the dignity of a living wage. It's been 5 years since federal minimum wage was increased. According to an MIT study, a living wage calculation for a family of four living in Lancaster county is $17.31/hour. A single parent household with 3 children must earn the most:$28.84/hour. According to Lancaster city data, 44% of poor households worked full or part-time. 69% of poor households are single-mother households. 1/3 of the poor are children in Lancaster.
The cry of the business community is that increasing minimum wage will force layoffs and other cuts. They are threatening to unemploy low income workers, rather than pay them a sufficient wage.
If someone is willing to work a low skill, low pay job to earn a living, they ought to receive a respectable wage. Raising the wage will increase tax revenue and provide additional spending into local economies, where earners spend their money. The wealthy will not be penalized by a minimum wage increase, but rather stand to gain greater wealth. Wealth is created at the bottom and trickles up, not down.
What would a biblical call for justice for the poor sound like today? I think it would begin with an invitation to repent from the injustice of income inequality and insist that employers pay their workers living wages. Six weeks of job training is not going to assure that my family has adequate food and housing today. And the indignity of life below poverty for those who cannot work is another topic altogether. Employment is not the only solution to poverty. Compassion and sacrifice is the way up and the way out. The walls between the wealthy and the poor must be demolished. Empathy must be established. And resources must be shared effectively and fairly.
I am a Lutheran Pastor. I am called to announce good news to the poor. I cannot offer hope without a fight for justice. I know too many children who are uncertain about their next meal or their next home. Not in Honduras or Haiti, but right here.