July 31, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 6:25-34 2nd Reading: 1 Peter 2:1-10
For the last Sunday in my “Burning Questions/Stump the Pastor” sermon series, I’ll be addressing the question: “What do you struggle with? What do you really question either from scripture, tradition, etc?” On the one hand, it is nice to be asked this question—it shows someone is curious about what goes on in my head that I might not otherwise share. Also, it points out that you, too, struggle with scripture and tradition and parts of your faith and maybe it might be nice to know you’re not alone. I might tend to be a cheerleader of Christianity and Lutheranism—obviously I am a bit attached and biased. But yes I also struggle with it and in it, just as you do. So I’m glad to share about my struggles with my faith. On the other hand, I don’t want this to become a gripe-session. I love my job. I love my congregation. I love being a Lutheran Christian. I love this neighborhood. How could I serve, otherwise? But love isn’t blind, and I do struggle.
I have loved and struggled within Lutheranism my whole life—I was born a Lutheran and always considered myself one, even when I attended an Episcopal church for a few years and explored other denominations and faiths. I do feel that I choose to be a Lutheran Christian, even though in some ways it was decided for me when I was an infant. But many of my friends who were raised in the church didn’t decide to stay Lutheran or anything at all really, so it is a choice.
When I was a teenager, I read the Bible cover to cover. I struggled with understanding the Holy Spirit. There were years when I didn’t say the part of the creed about the Holy Spirit that goes, “with the Father and the Son, he is to be worshipped and glorified.” I couldn’t find it in the Bible and I didn’t understand the trinity very well. In time I learned not to take myself so seriously and to look at both scripture and tradition in my understanding of how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture of who God is and I found a few places in the Bible that seemed to say that we can worship the Holy Spirit.
I struggled with sexism in the Lutheran church—even though women could be ordained, they can’t find a call as easily as men. I remember there were only about 7 of us who graduated on time. The men had calls right out of the gate, even though in my humble opinion some of them wouldn’t be as good of pastors as some of the women and weren’t as mature. Some of those men didn’t have successful first calls although there is no telling if that was their own fault or not. The women all waited for calls. I waited three years for a call. Now I know that God had a purpose in that—to find me a good match in Oregon where we could be near family and afford to buy a home and where I would have a loving, healthy congregation to raise me up to be a good pastor and teach me what I need to know.
I have struggled with homophobia in the church. When I was 16 I went to Camp Odyssey, the one I am volunteering at this year so that others can have a similar experience. We tackled racism. We tackled sexism. I felt we could conquer the world with love and acceptance. And I sat down on that Thursday afternoon in 1991 and heard from people I had never had the chance to listen to before, a lesbian couple, describe their very ordinary lives together, doing laundry, supporting each other, loving each other, just like any other couple. And it blew my mind. And I read an article in the Lutheran magazine about churches in San Francisco where gay and lesbian pastors were serving. In my mind, we needed gay pastors so that gay people could have role models and pastors who understood their situation. And I got to the Bay Area and I realized that a gay or lesbian person could be a role model for any of us and who of us can say another person’s call isn’t from God to preach and preside? But it has taken the Lutheran church a long time to catch up and still this issue fragments us.
I’ve worked through a lot of my arguments with the Bible. I am not too fond of the passages about hell and eternal fire and gnashing of teeth. I know from word studies and research that descriptions of hell usually refer to the garbage pit outside the city of Jerusalem that burned day and night. Or it refers to the grave. It can be hard to reconcile the concept of a loving God with one who would torture us for all eternity. I don’t believe in that kind of hell. I believe hell is something we make for ourselves here on earth. I also believe that someday all those painful things and all our problems and shortcomings will be no more—I don’t know if they will be burned up in a fire, but that would be fine. I don’t like trying to scare people into believing and doing good.
And I struggle with the role of the pastor. Often I hear and get signals from some of you that my idea of what I do and your idea of what I’m supposed to do don’t always match up. I get the feeling you expect me to do a lot of things for you—that’s what you pay me for. I should lead the children’s message. I should lead the singing. I should organize and lead adult forum. I should lead the prayer at the meeting or meal, and so forth. But I see my job as teaching you all to do those things. You are the priesthood of all believers. You have gifts and talents. I get to help empower you to use your gifts. I get to try to work myself out of a job.
Someone said to me recently regarding my maternity leave and some community projects I’m involved in outside of King of Kings, “You should be careful how much you’re away, we may realize we don’t need you.” That’s exactly what I hope you do realize—it is my job to make you realize that! You can do most of this yourself. That is part of what Pastor Solveig was trying to teach you when she made all those red stoles for you. You are the church. You can do this yourselves. You have God’s help and everything you need, so don’t get discouraged. And this is why I am particularly excited to see what comes of my maternity leave, besides a little munchkin and motherhood for me. There is a very special gift here for you as well. This is your time to take on many of the tasks that are yours anyway. My job is to preach and preside at the sacraments. Everything else is on you. I get to teach you how to be that priesthood that you are and give you the confidence to do it and this is a very good excuse to do just that. And that is why I need you to sign up to make visits with me, so you can learn to do your job, which I will not be able to do for you while I am away. Please be sure to check the sign up sheet on the door to the social hall so I can start taking you on visits with me so you know what to do if I am gone for 6 weeks or one day.
I get frustrated when I hear or feel that our congregation is the only place you’ll go to worship—not Oak Hills when we have worship there, not on vacation when you’re away, not at Thanksgiving Eve, not at St. Stephen for Advent services, and so forth. I realize that some of that is a shyness and awkwardness about being in a new place. But I just know there are so many places to experience God’s loving presence, and when we go to a new place, we might see something a little differently than we did before and it may give us a more complete picture of who God is. Sometimes I wonder if after you die, the angels will be inviting you into heaven and you’ll refuse because it isn’t King of Kings.
And I am concerned that the whole Christian church in general and Lutheran church in America doesn’t adapt to our culture to be relevant for people today. There is a good chance there won’t be a job for me in 20 years. I don’t think the Lutheran church will die by then. But many congregations will close because of an inability to reflect God in a way that people today can understand and be touched. I don’t like the idea of Katy Perry-type music at church, so I can understand some of you don’t want guitar or percussion. But is church really about what you or I want, or should it be what a world in need really needs? I do have hope that we will become what we need to be to share the love of God with those who aren’t like us. And if we don’t we will die, and others will do it for us. Either way, the love of God will go on. I would hate to see myself standing in the way of others experiencing the love of God, though.
The Gospel reminds us that whatever bothers or worries us isn’t the end of the story. Worrying and fretting won’t add a single day to our lives. God is in charge. I have spent nights sleepless concerned I had offended one or more of you, going over words I said that maybe I shouldn’t, or analyzing something you said to try to understand where you’re coming from. But those nights have been relatively few. And I am learning to come to you instead of letting it eat away at me. I was concerned that the unknowns of pregnancy and motherhood would make me fret more. So far, though, I feel very calm about the future. I feel very hopeful. I see a bigger picture that is about the circle of life and family and each of us having a place in the universe and our church’s development and growth. Some things that might have worried me before pale in comparison to the bigger picture of God’s amazing grace and creativity.
I know you struggle, too, sometimes, and worry and wonder about your place in the church. I’m not going to say, “Don’t worry” because that doesn’t work. Instead, I’ll say, look at the wildflowers growing outside this window and see how we don’t do a single thing to make them so beautiful. Look at your beautiful family and give thanks. Look at all the blessings of health and food and community and living in this part of the world. And praise God because there is so much more to be thankful for than to gripe about!