A Church’s Radical Response to the Marriage Equality Decision

In response to the Supreme Court decision about marriage equality, we are going to try something radical at my church. Actually, what I should say is that we are going to continue to try something radical, as it is what God’s people have always tried to do:

We are going to live, worship, and serve together as the people of God.

To put it another way, together by God’s grace we will continue to live out our Mission Statement:

“Empowered by the Holy Spirit, We GATHER, GROW, and GO.”

So here’s the statement I made to my congregation (edited for written clarity) on Sunday. The positive response it has received so far reflects my hope – and belief – in our congregation’s ability to live out such a “radical” response:

Since Friday’s Supreme Court decision affirming marriage equality, my conversations in person and on social media with members of our congregation have confirmed what I thought would be the case: Many of us greet the outcome with joy. Others of us are at least disappointed. Some – perhaps most – of us don’t have strong feelings either way, or are even wondering, ‘What Supreme Court decision?’

The “official” position of our denomination (ELCA) is that folks are free to disagree as they follow their “bound conscience” about these matters. Some of us believe that loving our neighbor means in part including in God’s great gift of marriage those who find love and meaning in a relationship with someone of the same gender. Some believe that marriage is only between a man and a woman. Others are somewhere in between or are undecided. But none of these positions is required to be an ELCA Lutheran (or a Christian), any more than the same conclusion is required on other issues (especially political issues) about which we may differ, but which should never divide the Church.

In the midst of our disagreements about this or any other matter, let us remember what unites us. We stand together at and under the cross of Christ, joined as one body by the Holy Spirit, and as brothers and sisters by God’s grace poured out in baptism. We have been freed to love and serve each other – regardless of our differences – and to share Christ’s love with our neighbors, no matter who they may be.

Sure, we disagree about issues around sexuality, but the truth is we differ about so many other things. We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and I don’t know of any family where everyone agrees about everything. And yet, we are still family.

In my church, we have young earth creationists, believers in intelligent design, and folks who think God uses evolution to achieve the great variety of living things. We have folks who believe in the rapture, and those who conclude Jesus is coming back once for everyone. Some among us practice abstinence when it comes to alcohol, and others of us appreciate that we are a denomination that descends from Martin Luther, who loved to discuss theology over homemade beer. We disagree about lots of theological fine points, and just plain don’t understand others. (What does it mean in the Apostle’s Creed when it says Jesus “descended into hell”? I can give you a bunch of different theories and disagree with myself!)

We have liberals, moderates, and conservatives;  democrats, republicans and independents; and many who don’t care about politics.

And yet by the grace of God we’ve managed to be the body of Christ in this place and time, loving each other and striving to reach out with the Gospel of Christ’s love to our community and beyond. There are – and will be – times when everything is not harmonious. Sometimes we get it wrong individually and as a congregation; thank God we are saved by God’s grace and loved by God no matter who we are, no matter what we have done.

That’s where we find our unity – in our salvation by God’s grace through faith. We are united in our sinfulness and in our helplessness to save ourselves. We are united at and under the Cross, and gathered as Church by the Holy Spirit.  And we are united in mission, to love and serve each other, our community, and the world as the Body of Christ.

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HATE WON’T WIN – A Sermon After Charleston (Psalm 27:1-6)

Charleston-Emanuel-AME-Church-Shooting-Victims

Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. 45 years old
Depayne Middleton Doctor. 49 years old.
Cynthia Hurd. She would have been 55 years old today.
Susie Jackson. 87 years old.
Ethel Lance. 70 years old.
Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney. 41 years old.
Tywanza Sangers. 26 years old.
Reverend Daniel Simmons. 74 years old.
Myra Thompson. 59 years old.

These nine Christians – African-American brothers and sisters – gathered for a Bible Study last Wednesday evening at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They were joined by a stranger, a young white man who just listened for the hour they discussed the Gospel of Mark.

But the young man was welcomed. He later told police that he almost didn’t go through with what he was planning because everyone was so nice to him.

But he did go through with it. He murdered those nine folks.

Lord have mercy.

In his Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther wrote that a theologian of the cross must call a sin what it is.

So let’s call it what it was – a sinful act of HATE BASED ON RACE.

Some who would rather not confront the sin of racism – and who do not wish to acknowledge the continued pervasive presence of racism among us – have called this murderous assault other things. They have said it was an attack on Christianity or religion in general. They have said it was the isolated act of a disturbed individual. They have blamed mental illness or medication treating mental illness. They have blamed guns.

But let’s be clear – let’s call it what it was. Hate based on race. The perpetrator himself said he went to that particular church to kill black people. This is what he said to his victims before he began his evil deed: “You rape our women, you’re taking over our country, you have to go.”

He has admitted that he killed them simply because they were African-American, not because they were Christians.
He was a Christian, a member of an ELCA church like this one. For us, this is a family matter – not only was the perpetrator an ELCA Lutheran but two of the pastors were educated at the Lutheran Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

Of course it is easier to think of this as a far-away isolated incident perpetrated by a madman or to blame it on something other than racism. It is easier because then we don’t have to confront the sin that stains our culture. It is easier because we don’t have to talk about racism. If we acknowledge its roots in racism then we have to admit it is not someone else’s problem – it is OUR problem.

A few years ago I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls were murdered there by a KKK bomb in 1963. I remember being deeply moved by church members who were there at the time sharing their recollections of that horrible day. I remember also being thankful for how far we had advanced since then.

But . . .  today we mourn another group of African-American worshippers murdered in their church because of hate.

Hate that is learned.

Where did the perpetrator get those ideas? How were they germinated? What was the fertilizer – and I use that word on purpose – what was the fertilizer that made them grow?

We, people of God – especially we who have the privilege of choosing to ignore our ethnicity – we need to ponder these questions.

We want desperately to believe racism is a thing of the past, but the Southern Poverty Law Center (which keeps its eye on such things) reports that hate groups have increased by a third in this century – since 2000.

The stench of racism is still here. It is certainly in our churches. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that America is more segregated on Sunday mornings than at any other time is still true. Integrated church staffs would help, but for some white churches an African-American pastor is out of the question. Our previous synod bishop, Bishop Knoche, tells of going to meet with a church council within the past ten years and being told, “We’ll take any pastor you send us . . . as long as it’s not a black pastor.”

Lord have mercy.

But confession begins on an individual level. As your pastor, it begins with me. I confess that some of what I was taught growing up in the south of the 60’s and 70’s still lives inside me. There are times when I have to remind myself that people of color are not, for example, inherently more dangerous than people who look like me.

Lord have mercy.

Worse is my fear –driven silence. There are times when I have stayed silent in the presence of someone who told a race-based so-called joke. I did not laugh, but that is not enough. I did not speak up. I confess I have been with people who have talked in disparaging ways about this or that race, or about people from another country. I have listened to stereotypes about “those people” and I have not spoken up. Silence implies agreement.

Lord have mercy.

How about you?

When we remain silent, we are part of the sin that is racism. Racism is nothing more than the original sin of PRIDE raising its ugly head. It is the sinful notion that I am better than you, that my group is better than your group. Racism is sin rooted in our disobedience of Jesus’ command to love my neighbor as I love myself.

Are we not called to confront sin? As Martin Luther King, Jr. has been quoted as saying, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”

As Christ-followers, we must confront our silence. We must not fall into Satan’s trap when we are confronted with this or any other sin and respond, “But those people do the same thing!”

When we are confronted with racism, we immediately get defensive. That’s our human, sinful nature. “The media taught me,” or “If those people didn’t, then I wouldn’t . . .”

Jesus called us to pay attention to the log in our OWN eye. Instead of rationalizing our disobedience and our silence by complaining about what other people are doing or not doing, we are called to ACTION.

What kind of action?

First, to recognize where we fall short.

Second, to speak up and speak out.

Third, to strive for justice, wherever injustice occurs.

And importantly on this Father’s Day, to talk to our children so racism isn’t handed down from generation to generation like a genetic malformation.

But what keeps us from acting? What keeps us from speaking up when someone among us uses a racial slur or stereotype?  What keeps us from confronting our own prejudice and the prejudice of others?

The same thing that motivated the perpetrator on Wednesday.

Fear.

What happened Wednesday in Charleston was a cowardly act of fear bred in lies. It was fear of people who are different. What kind of “courage” does it take to mow down nine unarmed praying people – some of them grandmothers – with a .45 caliber handgun?

We don’t confront racism and prejudice because we are afraid – afraid of losing friends, or of being put down, or of being embarrassed.

But brothers and sisters, we do not have to be afraid! Look at our Scripture for today, Psalm 27. The person who wrote this Psalm had every reason to fear – enemies all around, an army of them!

But the Psalmist declares, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

Trust in God and in God’s promises, and there is no need to fear!  There is no need to hate or to stay in silence in the presence of hate. Sure, it may be uncomfortable, it may even be painful – it apparently was no picnic for the Psalmist but remember the words of assurance Paul write for us in Romans 8 – “For the present sufferings do not compare to the glories about to be revealed!”

That kind of TRUST in God and in God’s promises was proclaimed loud and clear by the families of those who were murdered on Wednesday. Did you see any of the perpetrator’s bail hearing on Friday? Family members of the victims were allowed to speak.  With the emotional wounds so fresh, you would expect cries for retribution and vengeance.

But listen . . . Listen to what TRUST in God sounds like.

Listen to the words of Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year old Ethel Lance: “You took something precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again.”  She continued through tears. “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and so do I.”

Listen to the words of Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson. He spoke to the judge regarding the perpetrator.  “I would like him to know that . . . I forgive him and my family forgives him.”  Then Mr. Thompson amazingly expressed concern for the perpetrator’s soul. “We would like him to take this opportunity to repent.” Several other family members made similar invitations of salvation to the man who had murdered their relatives just two days before.

And listen to the words of Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons. “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, this is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

HATE WON’T WIN!

That young man murdered those worshippers hoping to start a race war but what has happened is that people have stepped forward and forgiven him. What is happened is that people have come together in love based on faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

HATE WON’T WIN!

Hate is rooted in fear.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid.”

AMEN

– A podcast of this sermon is available here 

(Sermon preached at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville, June 21, 2015)

Posted in Bible, Christian Living, Christianity, Racism, Sermon | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Dave’s Letter to the Church at Millersville (The Power of the Gospel)

bishop cromartie pictureI wrote Sunday’s sermon in the form of a letter to my congregation based on the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome (Romans 1:1-17). The letter was read aloud by the lay worship assistant, interspersed with commentary by me. Here is just the letter. You can hear the whole sermon – letter and commentary – here.

From Dave, a servant of Christ, called to be a pastor and ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament – means of grace for the people of God.  My authority to preach and preside at the sacraments does not come from myself. Ordination is an act of the church. The church is the baptized people of God, the Body of Christ on earth.

The Gospel I have been called to proclaim is nothing new – it was promised in the time before Jesus as recalled and recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, fully God and fully human, savior of each of us, hope for the world, and reconciler of the universe.

It was in his death and resurrection that Jesus most clearly proclaimed his identity. By his submission to death – even though he is God in the flesh, even though death is the penalty for sin and he never sinned – he showed the depth of his love expressed in humility and service. By his resurrection on the first Easter, he demonstrated that sin and death have no power over him nor any over his people. In baptism his death and resurrection become OUR death and resurrection, and we are freed from sin and from its ultimate consequence, death.

So I write to the people of Christ, both the church and the Savior:  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank God for you every day. One of the most important parts of my call as your pastor is to pray for you. I pray for God’s will to be done through you as individuals and as a congregation.

There is something  I am called to do that is even more basic than prayer, though. When I was experiencing a call to ministry and was not sure what I was going to do about it, I met with a pastor I trusted. I asked him about the work of being a pastor, specifically what was the most important thing.  He said it was simple . . . love the people you are called to pastor. That has been and will be my guiding principle, remembering that Christian love is more than a feeling; it is love in action.

Ministry is not what the pastor does, though. Being church is about being in ministry together. All of us have gifts and talents and ideas – we all have the same Holy Spirit living inside us, inspiring and empowering us. In baptism we became members of Christ’s church, and we were called to ministry. We are all ministers of the Gospel.

Being church TOGETHER is vital not just to our collective ministry but also to our personal faith and life. Christianity was never meant to be practiced alone. Sure, you can find and worship God anywhere, but only by being church can we encourage each other and combine our various gifts to BE the Body of Christ in the world and for the world.

The most precious thing we have as the church is the Good News About Jesus Christ – the Gospel. That Gospel of grace is what makes the church different from any other organization in the world. It is our reason for being.

The Gospel is the power for our salvation. It is power that comes from God, not from anything we do. The Gospel is God’s righteousness, not our own. We are saved by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We receive this salvation by faith, but don’t think that faith is something you do, either. Faith is created in us by the Holy Spirit. So our salvation is totally through God’s Grace – it is totally a gift of God. There is nothing we can do to earn it . . . that’s good news indeed, but the reverse is also good news – there is nothing we can do or not do that will cause God to stop loving us.  As Paul writes in Chapter 8 of Romans, there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God.

There are times when God is difficult to see, but God is always there. When you were baptized, God promised to be with you always, to walk with you and to be there inside you though God’s Holy Spirit. And God ALWAYS keeps God’s promises. The Bible is the story of God’s faithfulness. We know we can trust God, especially because God kept promises all the way to death on a cross. And then the resurrection happened. Just as God had promised!

In these recent days it has indeed been difficult to see God. Where is God in an earthquake in Nepal that takes so many lives, or in the turmoil in Baltimore? One way to answer that question was provided by Fred Rogers – you know him better as Mr. Rogers. You may not know that Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian Minister.  He often told this story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Look for the helpers – in Nepal, in Baltimore, in hospitals and hospices, in our own lives of struggle.  Look for the helpers, it is in them that we will see God, it is in them that we will see the Gospel lived out.

Friends, here is one place I have seen the Gospel during this troubled week:

Bishop Martese Cromartie, whose Facebook page identifies him as President of Prophetic Deliverance Ministries, Inc., travelled the streets of Baltimore with a camera on Tuesday and photographed the cleanup from the riots the night before. One of those photos went viral . . . Maybe you saw it on Facebook or Twitter or on television.

It shows an African-American youth.  He looks like an elementary school student, no more than 10 years old.   He’s wearing a brown sweater. He has three bottles of water cradled in his right arm, and with his left hand he is reaching up with another bottle. He is offering it to a white police officer, one of a line of police officers in full riot gear – shields, helmets, masks.

In his original tweet of the photo, Bishop Cromartie wrote that the picture, “speaks volumes.”

Yes indeed it does! When you look at that photograph, at the young man who wants to make sure the police officer is all right, at the police officer who is there because he has sworn to protect that young man (and others in his community), you will see the Gospel.

It’s the Gospel as Paul talks about it in the first Chapter of Romans – the Good News that has the power to transform. Good News about God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. Good news about grace in the midst of a world that is fallen and riven with sin.  The Gospel is reconciliation of enemies, it is the power to transform.

The picture by Bishop Cromartie is all of that. The young man with his simple offer of water is grace and reconciliation and can transform you just by gazing at it. I don’t know if that young man is even a Christian – or the police officer either, for that matter. But the picture shows us the Gospel just the same – it shows us the presence of God’s grace and goodness even in the midst of trouble and chaos and suffering.

That is the Gospel we are called to live out together.  The Gospel isn’t an idea or a doctrine, it is a way of life – life empowered by the good news about Jesus Christ.  It has been a tremendous blessing to live out that Gospel with you over the past almost six years. As we move into the future together, let us be even more diligent in seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we strive to BE the Body of Christ for each other, for our community, and for the world.

Love,
Pastor Dave

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Who Is My Neighbor (in Baltimore)?

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” – (Luke 10:29)

Who is my neighbor?

That’s my question as I sit in the safe sanctuary of suburbia and view the havoc in Baltimore on my big screen plasma TV. Like the lawyer who asked Jesus that question, I want to justify myself. I desire a self-affirming answer. Surely my neighbors are the people who think and act like me.  Like me they are most certainly deserving of this protected perch.

But that was not Jesus’ response to the lawyer.

I don’t believe it is Jesus’ response to me.

My neighbor is there in the streets, hurling stones and bricks with anger rooted in hopelessness. My neighbor has grown up believing  he will be in jail or dead before he is 25.  That is what he has seen. That is what he knows.

The HD image of my neighbor’s rage provokes fear and anger and heartache all at the same time. But I must admit . . . there but for the grace of God go I.

I have been blessed with family and mentors and good schools and middle class privilege (and yes, privilege that comes with being white) and what some would call luck (but I identify as blessings). What would I be if my reality was more like my neighbor’s?  If instead of breaks I had hope broken by circumstances I neither caused nor chose, who would I be?

God forgive my impulse as I watched the looting that violence should be repaid with violence.  I am quick to be critical of those who say or post on social media, “Just shoot ‘em,” but I confess the primal lure of such a reaction. God forgive me for thinking of my neighbor, even fleetingly, as a “thug.” Forgive me for labelling my neighbor and perpetuating his dehumanization. He was fearfully and wonderfully made just like me.

It is indeed easy for me to judge. I live an insulated existence.  I am protected by a system that relies on incarceration rather than reconciliation. It is a system where prisons have been privatized, where the wealthy reap profit proportional to the number of my neighbors they keep in chains. This is a system that echoes the shackled legacy of my neighbor’s ancestors.

No wonder my neighbor is angry.

There are other neighbors of mine in the streets who must choke back their anger and fear.  They are there in the midst of the maelstrom, risking their lives and their limbs, restraining their impulse to react with violence. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to follow orders to stay in place, to watch as destruction is inflicted on the communities they have sworn to protect. There behind the shields and the helmets and the mace and the guns are my neighbors.

My brothers.  My sisters.

God forgive my impulse to stereotype those public servants who sacrifice so much, those men and women whose families give them up for hours every day knowing there might come a day when they give them up forever. None are perfect, but most simply do their best. Can I say for sure what I would do in their place? Would I even be willing?

Yes, those on either “side” of the riotous divide are my neighbors.

But most of my neighbors, my brothers and sisters, exist in that divide.  They are not participants in the tragic events. They are residents and business owners, employees who happen to earn their living in the heart of chaos fed by despair. Many of them, those who have not given up on hope, have tried to lift up their neighborhoods and their families.  Some among them are brother and sister clergy of myriad denominations and faiths. Blessed are these peacemakers who stand not above but with people who are suffering, neighbors who are heartbroken and angry in ways I cannot imagine.

I cannot imagine.

So enough of my words.

I have failed to listen.

It is easy to pontificate from a distance, to make assumptions that even with the best of intentions only exacerbate marginalization by the very act of assuming.

It is time for my neighbors to speak and to be heard.

It is time to listen.

 I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The Unexpected Pastor’s Best Picture Countdown 2015

oscars best picture

Here’s my annual ranking of the  films that are vying for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. As in the past, the films are ranked not by prediction of who will win, nor by which ones I “liked the best,” but by my opinion of whether they should take home the Best Picture Oscar . . . You can find out who wins on Sunday night when Neil Patrick Harris will host the festivities. (NOTE: There are some unspecific spoilers in these capsule reviews.)

8. Whiplash

I may have liked “Whiplash” more if I had seen it before the nominations were announced. As it was, my viewing focus was impaired by my fairly constant wondering, “Why was this nominated for Best Picture.” I get why critics were crazy about it (95% on Rotten Tomatoes) – it’s an Indie film with strong performances and a plot about suffering for art (kind of like last year’s critics’ darling “Inside Llewyn Davis“, which I didn’t much like, either). But I just did not connect with “Whiplash.”

The sadistic fervor with which teacher J. K. Simmons brutalizes drum-student Miles Teller is worthy of Simmons’ Best Supporting Actor nomination, but there is little to redeem either character. Although we are clearly meant to root for the student, he comes across as much of a narcissist as the teacher.

The film’s message is “Sadistic teachers will damage you forever, but they’ll also make you great.” That Simmons’ Mr. Fletcher has managed to keep his job for so long in spite of his abusive methods stretches credulity, and the “stand up and cheer’ ending is both implausible and flat. It left me firmly planted in my seat with my hands occupied getting my coat and gloves.

To be fair, if you haven’t seen “Whiplash” it will be worth a view when it’s available on Netflix. The acting is excellent, including a surprise (to me) appearance by Paul Reiser as a nebbishy father. It’s been a long time since “Mad About You.”

7. The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne reportedly studied with a dance teacher in order to learn to flex and contort his body as Stephen Hawking’s ALS progressed in “The Theory of Everything.” The hard work paid off – the transformation is striking and he may very well win the Best Actor Oscar on Sunday. But Felicity Jones, portraying Stephen’s wife, Jane, does most of the acting for the second half of the film after Hawking can no longer move or speak. She does a fine job, but there is a definite loss of momentum as the story focuses on her dedication and heroism, which I’m sure is real but casts a definite “we’ve seen this before” aura over much of the film.

What is missing is explication of why this particular situation – this particular man – is special. We don’t get any sense of why Stephen Hawking’s work is so important other than scenes of scientists standing around saying, “That’s brilliant!”  Maybe it’s my nerdy nature, but I would have preferred more focus on Hawking’s actual theories and what they reveal about the universe.

“The Theory of Everything” is a fine film for what it is, but it is not the Best Picture of 2014.

6. The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”  is another worthy competitor for Best Actor, also portraying a genius with issues. But Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) is limited not by a physical disability like Stephen Hawking, but rather by his own somewhere-on-the-autism-spectrum (at least as Cumberbatch plays it) personality.

But the real strength of “The Imitation Game” is that it is not simply a character study. Unlike “The Theory of Everything,” the science behind Turing’s efforts to crack the Nazi Enigma Code is made quite clear (sometimes a little too clear in its more elementary explanations, though).

Where the film succeeds most is in illustrating the vital nature of the work Turing and his team are doing. The film makes it clear that not cracking the code means Nazi victories and lives lost. The moral calculus of war is explored adroitly in decisions about how to use the ability to read the code once it is broken. Finally, the depth of “The Imitation Game” lies not just in the hard-won successes of Turing and his team, but in the tragedy of the shameful injustice that beset him at the end of his life that serves as a framing device for the film.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

It hurts me to put “The Grand Budapest Hotel” so far down on this list. I would not be disappointed if it won the Best Picture Oscar Sunday. Director Wes Anderson has long deserved the Academy’s recognition. Unfortunately, he doesn’t deserve it this year, at least not for Best Picture. Anderson is one of the few directors whose vision is so distinctive that when you see a scene or even a still from one of his films in isolation, you say, “Yep, Wes Anderson directed that.”  (Watch this, for example.)

If this was two years ago and “Moonrise Kingdom” was nominated as it SHOULD HAVE BEEN, it would be number one on this list. But it wasn’t nominated (and “Amour” was?! Does anybody even remember “Amour??”)

Anyway, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nominated this year and, although I enjoyed it and will surely watch the DVD many times, it is neither Wes Anderson’s nor the year’s best. But there are plenty of delights. Ralph Fiennes turns in a stellar Oscar-nominee worthy performance as legendary concierge and seducer of women Gustave H. The precious (in a good way) visual design featuring Anderson’s usual dollhouse sets and miniatures deserves to win a Production Design Oscar on Sunday. The “Grand Budapest Hotel” entertains and enthralls, but there are better films nominated this year for Best Picture.

4. American Sniper

I did not want to see this film. I assumed it would be Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry in Iraq” picture, glorifying war and violence-as-solution and the “Go ahead make my day” attitude.

I was wrong.

Although “American Sniper” is in some ways a Chris Kyle hagiography (it omits his post-war prevarications), it is ultimately a wrenchingly effective indictment of war, particularly of the damage battle can do to the young men and women sent to fight on our behalf. Through Sienna Miller’s excellent portrayal of Kyle’s wife, Taya, the film also gives voice to those who are left behind when their loved ones go off to war. No one is left undamaged – not Chris Kyle who Taya observes has been changed by the war, not the soldiers who leave chunks of their body on the battlefield, not Taya whose marriage is threatened not by another woman but by Chris’s obsessive dedication to service and to those with whom he serves.

As one of the 99.5% of Americans who do not serve in the military, the film was a window into a culture I just don’t understand.

There are certainly problems with “American Sniper” – the denigration and stereotyping of all Muslims/Iraqis, the inference of a connection between 9/11 and the Iraq War, and so on – but it is appropriately nominated for Best Picture. In any other year, Bradley Cooper would be the front-runner for Best Actor; but there are just too many excellent performances in this competition. “American Sniper” is a consequential film, and worth the emotional investment inherent in viewing it.

3. Selma

“Selma” is an important and timely film. It is  difficult to watch at times but essential history to remember and to inform the present. It’s amazing that no feature films have been made about Dr. King until now. But “Selma’ is no mere bio-pic. It  is successful not only in portraying Dr. King but also in bringing to life others who were important in the civil rights movement. “Selma” centers on what happened in that Alabama town, but it is a film with an epic scope.  Especially notable is the depiction of Coretta Scott King as a rounded character, not just “the wife behind the man.”

It is a travesty that David Oyelowo did not receive a Best Actor Academy Award nomination even with all the wonderful acting performances last year. “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who is also in the film) should win Best Song – stay for the end credits to hear it. “Selma” may very well win Best Picture on Sunday, but the politics of the Academy are such that it appears unlikely that another “African American” film would win after “Twelve Years a Slave” took home the statue last year. If “Selma” does win, it would be a deserving addition to the pantheon of Best Picture-winning films. (Although I believe there are two films that deserve it more.)

2. Boyhood

I absolutely love the top two films on this list. I probably have more of an emotional attachment to “Boyhood,” though. While it of course centers on Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) “Boyhood,” it could have been called “Parenthood.” As a parent, I related to the profound changes experienced by the grown ups in the film.  Ethan Hawke is excellent as the father who grows up, but Patricia Arquette delivers the best performance of any actor or actress in a leading or supporting role last year (that I have seen). Her final scene of realization, despair, and letting go is incredible; any parent who’s ever sent a kid off to college can relate.  If she does not win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her honest, open, heartfelt portrayal of Mason’s mom, there’s no justice in the Academy.

Boyhood’s emotional heft is grounded in the 12-years over which it was filmed, but there is so much more to it than that. Director Richard Linklater’s film could have been just a stunt, but he draws out performances from real-life but not overly “dramatic” situations that give the film an aura of truth. Not only should Arquette be awarded  an Oscar on Sunday, but Linklater and editor Sandra Adair should win as well for this seamless masterpiece of a quilt stitched together from 12 years of cloth squares (or something like that).

1. Birdman

As much affection as I have for “Boyhood,” “Birdman” was the Best Picture I saw in 2014. I wrote an entire post on this blog about it. You can read the whole thing here, but the first paragraph sums up my regard for the film:

When we think of “breathtaking” films, what usually come to mind are epic spectacles of sound and fury. But “Birdman” is a film that takes one’s breath away through the transcendence of the art form of film itself. “Birdman” is an amazing, synergistic achievement of artists at the height of their power. The result is both enthralling and exhausting; “Birdman” achieves a rare existential immediacy that is a thrilling reminder of what filmmakers, and indeed artists of all sorts, can attain.

I’ve written about great acting performances throughout this list, but Michael Keaton is my choice for the Best Actor nod on Sunday. And Edward Norton should be the Best Supporting Actor winner (although J. K. Simmons will probably win). As I wrote before, “They don’t need to nominate anyone else based on  just his very first scene.”

“Birdman” is a triumph of the art of film, and is also laugh-out-loud funny. Besides the Best Picture and Acting awards, Director of Photography  Emmanuel Lubezki should be rewarded for creating the illusion that “Birdman” is one uninterrupted take (except for the final scenes).

My one quibble with “Birdman” is that I believe it should have ended when that long take ended, with the end of the play within the film. But then we wouldn’t have the reason for Emma Stone’s final smile to discuss forever, would we?

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A NOTE ABOUT ACTRESSES

I wrote a great deal about Best Actor nominees in the list, but not much about Best Actresses. That’s because the Best Actress nominees, with the exception of Felicity Jones in “The Theory of Everything,” were not in movies that were nominated for Best Picture. I have not seen “Still Alice,” but everything I have heard indicates Julianne Moore will and should win on Sunday.

ONE MORE BONUS FILM RECOMMENDATION

The best film I saw in 2014 not nominated for Best Picture was “Pride.” It was nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes. Here’s what I wrote about it on Facebook after I saw it:

One of the films nominated for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes last night was “Pride.” I was totally unfamiliar with it, but saw it in the Redbox and decided to check it out. Karen, Autumn, and I watched it today . . . what a wonderful film! It’s a true story about the British miner’s strike in the 80’s when a small group of gay activists in London decided to support a mining village in Wales. It’s about what can happen when very different people get to know each other – not only can they “get along,” but they can achieve great things. It’s not a preachy movie or a “gay movie” (whatever that means) it’s an inspirational comedy that made us laugh and even tear up a few times. And the soundtrack – mostly 80’s New Wave – is awesome!

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Signs of Things to Come – A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

(Lots of folks missed worship today due to weather, so here’s the sermon. The Scripture is Matthew 16:24-17:8, where Jesus says”Carry your cross” and then the Transfiguration is described.)

I am going to do something this morning that I’m not sure is a good idea – for the second time in  month I’m going to open the sermon with a quote from The Princess Bride. The movie has been on my mind because after I talked about it a few weeks ago, Celia Poteet let me know that there is a new book about making the film by Cary Elwes, who played Westley. So I read it in just a couple of days because it was so much fun.

Anyway, here is the quote from the Princess Bride that is an apt beginning for this sermon about bearing the cross and about the transfiguration:

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

“Life is pain” may be overstating the point I want to make here which is this – pain is a reality in our lives. And truly, anyone who says you can make it through life in this imperfect, sin-scarred world without any pain or suffering or disappointment is selling something.  Or asking for a donation.

Especially Christians. Sometimes the Christian faith is presented as pain and suffering avoidance insurance. Just believe in Jesus, and go to church and follow the rules and send in a donation, and your problems will disappear. God will wave a magic wand and “poof!” you’ll be walking on sunshine and all your life will be rainbows.

Certainly, it is only natural to want to avoid suffering. We are certainly not called to SEEK suffering for suffering’s sake – our own suffering does not and will not save us – there was only one person who’s suffering was ever salvific and that person’s suffering saved the whole world.

But . . . the reality is that until we enter the perfection of eternity we are going to face sickness and stress and even death. Believing that those things don’t happen to good Christian folks is only going to leave us disappointed and doubting when the troubles inevitably come.

Life in Christ – life lived to the fullest – is not found in security – “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says in today’s reading. As Pastor Chris Duckworth writes in his blog, “Life is found in relationship with Christ and with those whom Christ loves.”  And Jesus didn’t hang out with the “safe” people – he was known for being with the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the rebels, children, and others who were either ostracized or looked down upon – or both.  Jesus risked his reputation – and his life – to touch the untouchables, to reach out to the marginalized.

That is part of what Jesus is saying in that invitation to his disciples – to us: “Anyone who wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Let’s take a moment to consider those last two words of Jesus’ invitation – “follow me.”  Where was he going? Where is he inviting us to follow?

In Matthew’s Gospel right before today’s reading Jesus told his disciples for the first time that he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed.

Do you remember Peter’s reaction to that news?

“Never! I will never let that happen to you!”

Do you remember Jesus’ reaction to Peter?

“Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter was tempting Jesus – like Satan had tempted Jesus in the wilderness – with taking the easy way. “Turn these stones into bread.”  “Don’t go to Jerusalem.”

But Jesus was born to go to Jerusalem – Jesus was born to die for Peter and for us.  Jesus did not run from suffering – from that point he turned toward Jerusalem, even knowing what waited for him there.

Because Jesus was born to suffer for us, and to be IN our suffering.

Jesus invites the disciples – and us – to follow him to Jerusalem, to walk with him to the Cross.  That is how we often describe the season that begins this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday – the season of Lent is our walk to the Cross with Jesus.

And the last Sunday before Lent is always Transfiguration Sunday.  The turning point. The turn toward Jerusalem. The turn toward the cross.

Six days after telling his disciples about his coming suffering and death, Jesus and his disciples arrived at what would come to be known as the Mount of Transfiguration. He took three of his closest disciples up that mountain with him. They witnessed something amazing – something that is beyond our understanding. Jesus was transformed – transfigured – his face and his clothes described by the Gospel writers as glowing and shining. Suddenly, the greatest prophets of the Old Testament – Moses and Elijah – were there, talking with Jesus.

And Peter – gosh, I love Peter – does the first thing that comes to his mind. You’ve heard me say before that I think of Peter as the ADHD disciple – he’s the one who impulsively steps out of the boat to walk on the water with Jesus, he’s the one who tells Jesus he won’t let him die in Jerusalem (he’s also the first one to confess Jesus is the Son of God), he’s the one who pulls out his sword when Jesus is arrested.

On the mountaintop, his impulse is one that I think we can relate to – “Let’s stay here.”  What he says doesn’t make much sense – let’s build some shelters – but the feeling behind it is “It’s safe here. Up here on this mountain there are no sick or dying or poor asking for help. No Pharisees or Romans. We’re a long way from Jerusalem. Let’s just hang out up here.”

Then God speaks from a cloud – “This is my son. I love him. I am pleased with him.”  Remember, those are the words we first heard when Jesus was baptized, when Jesus began his ministry. Now God reaffirms Jesus identity as he begins the last stretch of his ministry toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.

God says something else. As many times as I’ve read and preached on the transfiguration, I noticed something new this time. I think God is talking especially to Peter.

Peter who had argued with Jesus when Jesus said he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.

What does God say up there on the mountain where Peter wants to stay? “Listen to him!”

Listen to Jesus. He knows what he has to do . . . for you.  For the world.

Listen to Jesus. You can’t stay up there on that mountain. You have to go back down, back down to the real world. There’s danger down there, and pain, and death . . . but you don’t go back down alone. Jesus is with you. Jesus will always be with you.

There are times when we’d just like to stay on the mountaintop, above it all. Sometimes the church can be our mountaintop – and it should be. We are safe here – safe to be ourselves, safe to share our doubts and our fears and our questions. Safe from the hostility that much of the world seems to have for Christ and for Christians.

The mountaintop can be people who believe and think like us. We can be careful to surround ourselves only with people who agree with us. But Jesus calls us to GO – to take the Gospel to all the world, not only to people like us but ESPECIALLY to those who are not.

The mountaintop can be the things we do to shield ourselves from the reality of suffering. It can be immersion in media or in substances or just staying away from those who are hurting or lonely. But part of carrying our Cross is carrying THE cross – carrying the hope of the one who died on the cross – to those who are suffering.

Jesus said to come down off the mountain. Jesus said, “Carry your cross.”  What does that look like?

As I considered that question I couldn’t help but think of someone who we heard this week lost her life because she gave it to others. You probably read or heard about Kara Mueller’s death in Syria. She died while in captivity to the evil that is ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State or whatever you want to call it.

Listen to what she wrote in a 2011 letter to her parents: “I will always seek God. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love. I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
Kayla Mueller saw God in suffering. She saw the God who suffered and died on a cross. She refused to stay on the mountaintop.  She found God down in that valley where troubles and danger lurked. She refused to stay on the mountaintop. Kayla Mueller’s journey took her to India and Israel and to the Palestinian Territories and finally to Syria. According to CNN, she was drawn to help Syrian refugees on the border between Turkey and Syria where she was kidnapped in August 2013.

Even in captivity, she was a light in the darkness. Again according to CNN, Reverend Kathleen Day, who headed a campus ministry Kayla had joined at Northern Arizona University, recalled that she wrote in a letter from captivity that she tried to teach crafts to her ISIS guards, including how to make origami peace cranes.  Listen to what Reverend Day said, “We delight in that. She said she found freedom even in captivity.”

As Christians, we are called to acknowledge that suffering is part of this fallen world, but we are never called to a fatalistic attitude that “well, that’s just the way it is.”  No! We are called to respond to suffering and lessen it where we can. Listen to more of Kayla’s words, this time to a Kiwanis Club meeting when she visited home a few years ago: “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal. I will not let this be something we just accept.”

Brothers and sisters, you and I may not be called to go to Syria or India or anywhere other than our own neighborhood. But we are called to GO! To be inspired and emboldened by the mountaintop but to leave it, to follow Jesus down and confront the suffering we find there. We are called to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, where by his death he not only saved us but demonstrated that he does not avoid suffering, he is always THERE in our suffering.

“Carrying your cross” means to respond rather than turn from the suffering of others, to be willing to be vulnerable for another person.

I could name many examples of cross-carrying just in our congregation. Those who give up so much to care for sick loved ones, especially those who sacrifice much of their lives to do everything for husbands and wives and  mothers and fathers with suffering for dementia. There is cross-carrying in actions of concern for families that are struggling with relationships or finances. There is cross-carrying in sacrificial work for and support of the ministries of the church that reach out to those who suffer.

God is there in our suffering. God is there in the suffering of others. That is where WE are called to be as the hands and feet and mouths of God’s love.

Let me share just a few more words from Kayla, from a letter she wrote to her parents from captivity. They are words of faith, they are words of hope, they are words that exhort us to action – to cross-carrying, to following Jesus to Jerusalem, to coming down from the mountain:

“Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I will be doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I. By God’s will we will be together soon.”

Let us pray for Kayla’s family that they will be filled by the hope of those words, that through the Cross and the empty tomb not even death can interfere with the hope of reunion.

AMEN

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How Is Jesus Like a Lump of Coal?

It’s Countdown to Christmas Time, and that means the sneaky spooky spying Elf on the Shelf is back. Like a member of the North Korean Secret Police, the little informer keeps tabs on folks and reports back to the Dear Leader. It just creeps me out.

My objection is not singularly with the Snoop on the Shelf, though. It’s what he (it?) represents, the whole naughty/nice mode of parental blackmail. “Be good, because Santa only brings toys to the good kids. You don’t want to get a lump of coal in your stocking, do you?”

Why does this stick in my craw like a carelessly swallowed shard of turkey wishbone? Because it contradicts the most fundamental message of Christmas. The naughty/nice dichotomy is more of a threat to the “real meaning of Christmas” than a herd of Happy Holidays-proclaiming cashiers or a forest of Festivus Poles.

The essence of Christmas is GRACE.  Grace is God’s undeserved gift of forgiveness and salvation.

Here’s the thing – a Christmas system based on getting what you deserve is contrary to the grace embodied in the first Christmas. Jesus was most definitely not what we deserved. That baby in the manger wasn’t a gift for the “nice” . . . Jesus was born to save the “naughty.” Us.

The apostle Paul was clear on this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15).

I’ve written before that as a Christian and pastor I have no problem with Santa. I love Santa . . . because Santa loves all kids . . . not just the nice ones. I believe it is possible to incorporate Santa into our Christmas celebrations without losing the focus on God’s grace.

That means eliminating the naughty/nice stuff.  This is something my wife, Karen, taught me. Our kids knew they were going to get presents at Christmas because they were loved, not because they were “good.” Christmas is a great time to talk about God’s love for everyone. It’s the perfect opportunity for discussions about grace.

Christmas is about God’s no matter who you are, no matter what you have done love for the world. We celebrate because all of us sinners – all of us “naughty” folks – got not a lump of coal in our stockings, but rather a Babe in a Manger.

(NOTE: I have intentionally overstated my feelings about Elf on the Shelf. I am NOT saying that you can’t be a “good Christian” – whatever that means – and play Elf on the Shelf with you kids. I’m encouraging parents – and non-parents – to consider the messages we choose to convey about Christmas. But the Elf on the Shelf really does give me the willies.)

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