Monday, May 21, 2007

The Struggles of Us All

Philippians 1:27-30
Preached at Shavertown United Methodist Church

Today we have the special honor of baptizing one baby, and confirming eight young people, in the name of Christ. Baptism and Confirmation is the churches' way of symbolizing the claim that God has on us. When new babies are baptized, and when we are confirmed, it is pretty clear to the whole world that we are a Christian of some sort. No one else does it like those who follow Christ. There are similarities, however, especially with Confirmation. We mark the passage of youth to the beginnings of adulthood, much in the way that Jews have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and Hispanic culture has a QuinceaƱera for girls.

When we in the Methodist church confirm a person, we say that as these lives step into adulthood, we will walk with them before that day, but just a few steps further behind, watching for growth and available for advice. We also say that eventually, we will still walk with them as we walk with each other.

Which isn’t to say that those of us who are older are any better Christians. Being Christian, as even John Wesley believed, is something you practice, but you rarely perfect. Being Christian isn’t a matter of passing tests. It isn’t a matter of saying the right things, or doing the right things. It’s a matter of believing that Christ chose to die for you, and God raised him from the dead so that you might have everlasting life.

This is what, at core, we Christians claim. Our journeys as Christians revolve around understanding, acceptance, and the sharing of just this fact.

It is that essential story that is the basis of our existence. How we handle it, how we respond to it, is what makes us Methodist, or Episcopalian, or Catholic, or Baptist, or independent, or Orthodox. Customs, nationalities, evolution of thought, wars, and famines affect how we practice, what we believe in that practice.

When a baby is baptized, we as Methodists make a theological statement about infants, and about baptism. We believe that infants, as living human beings, are children of God. We believe that as the church, we as a whole are responsible for them, by supporting their parents in the faith, by providing education through Sunday school, fellowship through church trips and parties, and mentorship through relationships. We explain salvation to them, but we don't yet hold them responsible for taking care of their own salvations.

Somehow, they grow in their understanding of the faith, until they come to the point where they are able to take that responsibility. Some of our fellow Christians agree with us in those statements, some don’t.

When we confirm young men and women at the age they are, we are making statements about what we believe about adolescents, about the Holy Spirit, and about grace. We believe that at 8th grade, at 12 or 13, the beginning of the teen years, they have grown enough to understand their salvations, their growth in Christ, and to assume the duties and the pleasures of caring for their own souls. We no longer hold their faith in trust--they take charge of themselves spiritually and religiously.

Paul, in today's Scripture, is writing to the church in Philippi, which is along the main trade road between Constantinople and the ports that went to Rome. These were a racially mixed group of people, both Jews and Greeks, and the first member of the faith at Philippi was a dealer of purple dye named Lydia. We know this, and other stuff about Paul and the Philippian church through Luke's recording of events in Acts.

When you read Philippians, you get the sense that the people of the Way in Philippi have questions, they have doubts, they have fears, they want to make sure they are doing things right. Paul's letter to them is to answer questions, set their minds at ease, and admonish them about diverting from the path they have set out upon.

In other words, Philippians is a great letter to read to people who are growing and living in the faith, by someone who the whole church knows and trusts.

Its funny how, some 2000 years later, the advice is still so similar and necessary!

Our passage today is a place where Paul is telling the church that being a Christian means standing up for yourself and Christ. To not be moved.

This doesn't mean that Paul is telling them that they need to be inflexible, unforgiving, on the constant watch for sin and associating with pagans. Those aren’t the things that make for a Christian. No, what makes the mark of a Christian is loving your neighbor, believing in Christ, that he died for us, and that the Holy spirit is our constant companion, our connection to him and to God, on earth. He even goes so far as to tell the church what I believe is a reminder of what he must have taught them in person in the next chapter. If there is one bit of Philippians that Christians can recite from memory it is chapter 2, verses 6-11:

". . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
--(New Revised Standard Version)

Being Christian isn't just reading the Bible and going to church, though that is important. It isn't just marking yourself down as "Christian, Protestant" on your hospital admittance forms. It isn't just identifying yourself as "Christian, Other" on My Space. It is believing what Christ has done for us as true, and letting that resulting love shine out through us. No one is perfect-- Paul's advice is as much to the elders and long timers of the Philippian church, and to our own long timers, as it is to the newbies in both situations.

Stand fast. Stand together. No one can be a Christian alone. God is in nature, it is often said. It is true. But it is not all. It is only half the story. God is also here, among us, when we gather. You cannot be a Christian alone; you need people to stand fast with. And for this child, and especially for these confirmands who join is by name today, we have pledged, and will pledge again, to stand fast with them.

May we be as good as our word.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Imus and Rutgers

Note: This was originally written in mid April, as I was recovering from knee surgery. I am just now getting it up on the blog!

As I write this article, I am listening to Dan Patrick's radio show on ESPN radio. The discussion is full of the recent comments made by a radio talk show host, Don Imus, about players on the Rutgers University's women's basketball team. By the time you read this, it will undoubtedly have died down, enough news cycles will have passed that it might even be hard to remember what exactly happened. It will be “just another racial/sensationalist event” where a white person seemed to speak unfortunately about someone who is Black/Asian/Hispanic/"insert-minority-classification-here".

That's too bad. These events keep happening, seem to be happening more all the time, and not yet have we learned what is really at stake here.While Imus appears to have been VERY contrite, and has done what the majority white culture requires he do to hopefully learn exactly how what he said was wrong and stupid, we in the majority white culture won't have learned a thing. What he did was say out loud what too many think in the majority white world. And our thinking is pretty much wrong-headed when it comes to race.

Now, I am a white person. I have my racial prejudices. I’m not proud of this fact, but I know I was raised in an American culture of white privilege. It's true of most of us. What matters isn't that this is true, but what we are going to do with it. I am the chair of the Wyoming Conference's Commission on Religion and Race, and was a member of the North Texas Conferences' Anti-Racism team. I have had my eyes opened to many things, through this training. One is that it is a privilege to be able to say, as many white people do, that "I am color-blind".

What we need to realize is that it is from a position of power that we have the ability to say we don't see race. We alone have the power to ignore or notice race. Our brothers and sisters of color (folks of African descent, Asian descent, Hispanic heritage or First Nations heritage, really anyone of a minority classification or status), have no choice in how they are seen. It is the first point of introduction, it is inseparable from that all important "first impression". Being white or Caucasian is the norm, it is the nominal state. While we have the choice whether to work with the race or not, whether we choose to ignore, value or devalue it, they do not have that choice. They MUST notice us as white. They must work with us, because we are the majority. We are everywhere! They must notice that we have the power to choose whether to notice or not. And honestly, we all notice. And what we do with it is one example of our privilege.

I am privileged to be able to ignore it or not. I benefit from the white people around me not thinking about me through some progression that may include; "Hey, what race is he?" "Is he a physical threat?" Is he a threat to my daughter?" Is he a threat to my job?" "Is he smarter than me?" "Is he legally here?" Every person of color, every identifiable minority you could name has this swirling around them everywhere as they go through their day.

Each time there is some wrongheaded or ignorant comment made by someone who is white, we return to the wrestling match of race in America. And we find that it is still too difficult a problem. We forget, we move on. Imus said he's sorry; he was probably sincere. He will have probably learned something. But the stereotype of black women that he propagated and reinforced has not gone away. The ones who were defamed, who were mis-portrayed have not found relief. There is no redemption, no escape from the stereotype for them in the same way that Imus will ultimately receive.God teaches us in Scripture that Jesus died for all of us. We are all worthy of redemption, we are all worthy of forgiveness. Imus is forgiven. But lots and lots of people still think of African-American females in the way that Imus referred to them. Redemption has not happened for them. And so we in the Christian church are not yet done.

Now I Know

Well, I know where I am going, now. Last Friday, I sat down with the Pastor Parish Relations Committee (PPRC) of the Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist churches, which is a two point charge east of Scranton and North of Wilkes Barre, PA. It will be my first solo appointment since 1999-2001, and my first one since ordination.

Center Moreland is the larger church, Dymond Hollow the smaller. They are eight miles away from my current appointment, but it is a very long eight miles. You start in a busy suburban area, with grocery stores, banks, car washes, pizza joints and other neccessities, and drive north. The stores and strip malls become less frequent, and as you turn left, the last one passes you by. The road gets smaller, and a lot weavier. At the crossroads in Center Moreland,there is a deli, which when you walk inside also becomes a pizza takeout place, meat market, and movie rental store.

The parsonage at Center Moreland sits on the top of a hill, with tree covered hills all around. In fall, this must be blinding!

There are dairy farms and horse farms all around. The church is about 200 yards from the house, down a hill that we're told is a killer sledding hill.

When my wife and I were waiting for the PPR to meet a bit with the District Superintendent, we sat in the Beetle with all the windows open as well as the sunroof. There was quite a racket in the gloaming; geese. And as they came closer, there were just two, not the 30 it sounded like! We also listened to bugs and other nature noises we don't get much right now, including the passing of two ATV's.

As we were leaving after the extremely pleasant 2 hour meeting, I almost stepped on a frog that was on the walkway. I haven't seen one of those in forever! Our thought, as we left, was "our 7 year old is going to really enjoy this!"

There are adjustments I will need to make, like adjusting for preaching weekly. There will be a lot more sermon posts! I'll also need to get up a little earlier in order to get everyone out the door earlier in the mornings. It will also be odd to have the church office in the house, but these are all just adjustments, and doable.

I really feel that the Conference and the Bishop has really worked to meet my family's needs, and has given me a really good appointment. My prayer is to not bollocks it up--to start slow, preach well, visit, and let the visions come on God's time. The people of the PPRC were gentle, flexible, and interested in worship and Bible study. It gave me a good vibe, and the churches both have good reputations among my colleagues.

The Kucklehead Achieves Enlightenment

So, I am sitting here today reading through the administrative portion of this blog, and I discover the tab marked "edit posts". I go to it, thinking I would like to actually, you know, edit a few things, and I find all these comments listed on my posts!

I had no idea! I believe the line is "Luke, you have just taken your first step into a larger world!" To all of my colleagues and friends I didn't know I had at RevBlogGalPals, thanks! I will pop right on and go see yours soon, because I am really interested, have the mental energy, and I believe one of you admonished me to!