Sunday, September 30, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "The Deaconess's Portion"

Romans 16:1-2 

I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant[a] of the church in Cenchreae. 2 Welcome her in the Lord in a way that is worthy of God’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a sponsor of many people, myself included. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week Four: They Think the Church is Dominated by Males and Oppresses Females

Making the rounds of the viral internet earlier this year was a list compiled by an good-natured wag (who I am told is a former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary) that was simply entitled, “Top Ten Reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained to Ministry.” The title, of course, is in reference to the stances of many, many denominations and churches that still refuse to ordain women and/or allow them to serve in substantive leadership positions.  But the list itself is pure gold.  These are just a few of my favorite reasons for why I should not be up here right now:

A man’s place is in the army.

The physique of men indicates that they are more suited to such tasks as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do ministerial tasks.

Man was created before woman, obviously as a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment rather than the crowning achievement of creation.

Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. Their conduct at football and basketball games demonstrates this.

The New Testament tells us that Jesus was betrayed by a man. His lack of faith and ensuing punishment remind us of the subordinated position that all men should take.

Men can still be involved in church activities, even without being ordained. They can sweep sidewalks, repair the church roof, and perhaps even lead the song service on Father’s Day. By confining themselves to such traditional male roles, they can still be vitally important in the life of the church.

This is a sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us now through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church.  In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts.  And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases.  In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us.  And none of those stereotypes are good.  Each week we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it.  And so we began the series with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda, and “They think the church is judgmental and negative,” Last week, we tackled “They think the church arrogantly claims that all other religions are wrong,” and now this week, we turn to the theme of, “They think the church is dominated by males and oppresses females.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Erika is a graduate student in landscape architecture who “has a bubbly personality, and as she talked about Jesus, her enthusiasm was evident, especially when she talked about Jesus’ teachings about love and caring for the poor and needy.  But as she talked about the church and its leaders, her expression changed.”  This is, in part, what she has to say:

“America was birthed primarily from a male-dominated European society.  So the church is naturally rooted from there.  However, in our society today, there are great steps being made of seeing females as more equal in the job market and other places.  So I certainly would think that the church would be doing the same, but it doesn’t seem to be.  I have only seen and heard about churches shooting down women who both aspire in their faith and then desire to be in church leadership…the church has to understand the feelings of women, and not only what it feels like to be a female in the church but a female in the job marketplace, a female in politics, a female anywhere in a male-dominated society.  I can’t imagine that Jesus would not pay a lot of attention to this and make sure the church understands what females feel and respects and honors them.”

This chapter in Dan’s book was, I think, written to an audience who has needs we no longer have—namely the need to cross the bridge into ordaining women and allowing them to serve all of the same leadership posts as men.  And so this makes today’s both the easiest and toughest sermon to write and deliver—easy because I think we do well here and have little need for additional teaching, tough because, well, what do I say for 20 minutes?

But, as ever, Scripture with its wide array of characters and personalities, heroes and villains comes to the rescue.  Amazingly, despite the more well-known sections of Scripture that are oft-quoted today, typically by Paul and addressing what we now call “wifely submission,” you know, the injunctions about women remaining silent and submissive—1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and Titus 2.

So why on earth, then, would Paul be commending a female deacon of the church—Phoebe—in Romans 16?

The short answer would be selfishness—as verse two would seem to indicate, Phoebe was one of Paul’s patrons, someone who likely helped finance his extensive ministries to the Gentiles.

But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word that Paul uses in verse one to describe Phoebe’s post at her church is “diakonos,” which, if you’re wondering where the word “deacon” ever came from, there’s your answer.

But Biblical Greek—sort of like how, say, French or Spanish does today—differentiates between male and female forms of words, and Paul’s “diakonos” is very much the masculine form of the word.  Paul is commending a female deacon the same as he would a male deacon—that in Phoebe, Paul saw no difference between her and any other male leader of a Christian Church!  In that respect, my translation of “diakonos” as “deaconess” in the sermon title is quite incorrect.

More importantly, Paul puts to lie the very notion of segregating women off into their own spheres of ministry to be overseen by men—the portion of ministry that has been offered to women, versus what I have to believe is rightfully and Biblically theirs—that deaconess’s portion of ministry has for centuries been woefully inadequate.

For it is not merely that, according to Scripture, women make good deacons.

Women also make for good judges—in Judges 4, the leader of Israel at the time was a woman named Deborah, who, Scripture says, would sit underneath a palm tree and the people would come to her with their disputes.

Women also make for good prophets—in 2 Kings 22, King Josiah is renovating Solomon’s temple, and during the renovations, a Torah scroll is discovered.  On orders from the king, five of his advisers seek out Huldah in Jerusalem so that she can speak for God to them and authenticate the Torah scroll, which she does.

Perhaps most importantly, women make for good disciples—at the Crucifixion, when all of Jesus’ male disciples have fled, it is the women who remain—Mary, and Martha, and Susanna, and Joanna.

And we haven’t even gotten to Esther, Ruth, or Rahab yet, or even how Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen protecting her baby chicks in Matthew 23 and Luke 13.

But this is not meant to be simply an “Appreciate Biblical Women” token sermon—it is meant to be a springboard for something altogether different.  I did not learn about all of these women—Deborah, and Huldah, and Phoebe—until I attended seminary.  Far too often, I think, we read Scripture selectively and sweep these amazing figures of history under the rug of spiritual and religious selectivity.

Part of the burden—the great, terrible, and joyous burden—of accepting the Bible as the Word of God is recognizing that there is still so, so much of it that we may not know exists.

And when we shut ourselves off to half of humanity’s experience with it, and with God, we do ourselves—and the church a grave disservice.

It is not enough for us to ordain women, or to serve under women pastors and board members and elders and deacons and teachers.  We should do all of these things because the church has done so, because Scripture has done so, because God has done so.

And let us, in the process, come and continue to grow in great and exciting ways in our relationship with the God who, like a mother, created us and raised us.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 30, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012

What If?

Those might be the two most dangerous, exciting, and overwhelming words in the English language.

"What if..." is what kickstarts visionaries, begins revolutions, and sparks new ways of life and love.

Thousands of years ago, a murderer was visited by a God in a burning bush who told him to return to the land from whence he came to free the people who had been enslaved there for centuries.  And the murderer dared to ask--after repeated denials--"What if I obeyed God?"

Still thousands of years ago, a prophet in the royal court saw God in a fantastical, vivid, unbelievable vision, where God asked the prophet, "Who shall I send?"  And that prophet dared to ask, "What if I said, 'Send me?'"

Two thousand years ago, God came to earth in the form of an unkempt, loving, healing, brilliant, divine carpenter who dared to ask the world, "What if you actually loved God and one another with as much ferocity as you clearly love yourselves?"

After that carpenter was killed, resurrected, and returned to Heaven, His followers dared to ask, "What if we actually followed what He said even though He's not here anymore?"  At which point the Holy Spirit came down upon them, and the Christian Church was born.

And throughout the next two millennia of the church's history, we have been in the dangerous, exciting, and overwhelming business of asking ourselves, "What if?"

And one of the best "What if" questions I have heard in quite a while actually came from, of all places, Twitter.

From the Twitter account of Russ, the senior pastor I served under for two years as a part-time associate intern at First Christian Church in California.

He simply asked what if "we cared as much about ending world hunger as we did (ending) the NFL ref lockout."


It's a powerful reminder.  A look in the mirror that won't just fade instantly into the recesses of my forgetfulness.

What if I cared as much about building the kingdom of God as I do about my favorite sports teams winning championships, or my favorite television shows getting renewed, or my favorite restaurants building a location in Longview (ahem, Chipotle)?

Because sometimes I don't.

And I know I should.

I know it because that is exactly what that itinerant carpenter taught.

And God spoke through Jesus and said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be."

What if.

What if you cared as much about ending world hunger as you did about sports, or television, or a good burrito?

What if you cared as much about ending homelessness, or drug abuse, or violence as much as you did about, say, your favorite movies getting sequels?

Or...what if you cared as much about living and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ as you did about the NFL referee lockout?

It's not always easy to do.

But it's right.  Let that be enough.

What if...?

Yours in Christ,

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Get Letters About Gay Marriage

...sometimes, really frustrating letters.

Everybody and their dog knows that marriage equality is on the Washington State ballot this year (Referendum 74). The statehouse approved, and Governor Gregoire signed, a bill legalizing marriage equality, and enough signatures were gained to refer the bill to the November ballot for a popular vote--ergo, a "yes" vote is a vote for marriage equality, a "no" vote is a vote against it (as opposed to, say, Proposition 8 in California in 2008, where a "no" vote was a vote for marriage equality).

Because I'm a pastor, more than a few people have taken it upon themselves to divine my political viewpoints, which I tend to find alternately entertaining and worrisome.

Never, off the top of my head, has anyone automatically thought of me as progressive simply because I'm a pastor. Once they learn more about me--where I went to school, the theology I teach, etc., they realize that I'm not a run-of-the-mill stereotype. But still, it's frustrating.

Witness, then, a letter I received earlier from the Alliance Defense Fund, and which has been stewing in my desk drawer for months, which reads, in part:

"Dear Pastor: I write to encourage you and your church to support...protecting traditional marriage in Washington. ...It is not enough to simply acknowledge that churches are legally allowed to support (traditional marriage). Every church in Washington should... 

 Churches must lead the charge on this issue as they led the charge in the past on the great moral issues of history such as independence, slavery, women's suffrage, ending child labor, and civil rights. Churches and pastors have always been at the forefront of the great moral issues confronting our culture. They have never been afraid to stand for righteousness and to urge morality in culture. And today should be no different. 

Churches in Washington have a tremendous opportunity to lead the charge to protect marriage. Churches in other states have not been as fortunate. There is nothing legally preventing churches and pastors from standing together to support and protect marriage in Washington."

Why have I been sitting on this letter for months? In part because if I blogged about it when I first got it, it would be gone from memory and consciousness by the time November 6 rolled around, but also because when I first received it, I hadn't yet been here a full year and was still feeling out the scope and scale of my own moral authority as a pastor here.

Plus, since my sermon not this Sunday (the 30th) but the next (October 7th) will tackle the stereotype of the church being a homophobic institution, consider this entry a rollout to that particular sermon. 

First and foremost, I will not be using my sermon to telling my audience how to vote. To be plain, I think it's unethical to have a captive audience and tax-exempt status and use the trappings of worship to further my own political agenda. Just because the above-quoted letter says it's legal to do doesn't make it any less unethical.

But with my blog, something that I explicitly disclaim as only representative of my views and not of the church, and something that exists outside my actual Sunday pulpit, I have fewer such reservations.

I will be voting yes on November 6 for Referendum 74, which is a vote for marriage equality. And if Referendum 74 passes, I will obey the law and treat same-sex couples who come to me seeking marriage the same as heterosexual couples.

More to the point, I was galled to see an organization use instances of affirming people's rights (again: "independence, slavery, women's suffrage, ending child labor, and civil rights") as a justification for instead denying people's rights. In all of those instances, yes, many in the church stood up for the oppressed and the outcast and the exploited.

But I would say two things: First, it is important to remember that not all of us did. I am so very, very proud of the stands of Christianity that have been ahead of the curve on human rights. But it isn't all of us, not yet.

Second, all of those instances represent the church being ahead of the curve, so to speak. Not behind the curve, which is exactly how we are perceived now on same-sex rights. I'm reasonably certain that 40-60 years from now (the same amount of time between the present day and the civil rights movements of the 50's and 60's), opponents of same-sex marriage will be thought of the same way as segregationists are now--that they were wrong. 

And, quite simply, I think it is the right thing to do.

I surely know the Scriptural injunctions that discuss same-sex intercourse--and those I will wrestle with in my sermon on the 7th.

But I'm also not about to see the church I love, that has illuminated the world for two thousand years, fall on the wrong side of history again because we cannot bear the thought of monogamous same-sex couples being married. We're better than that.

And more importantly, God's better than that.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, September 23, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Manifest Proofs"

John 12:44-50

44 Jesus shouted, “Whoever believes in me doesn’t believe in me but in the one who sent me.45 Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness. 47 If people hear my words and don’t keep them, I don’t judge them. I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. 48 Whoever rejects me and doesn’t receive my words will be judged at the last day by the word I have spoken. 49 I don’t speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me regarding what I should speak and say. 50 I know that his commandment is eternal life. Therefore, whatever I say is just as the Father has said to me.” (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week Three: They Think the Church Arrogantly Claims All Other Religions Are Wrong

The wizened, venerable religious leader looked straight into the television cameras after day after day of riots and mob violence, and began his thought-out message to try to quell the strife and discord that had taken root in the streets once more.  As describes what he said:

(He) stressed conflict is not the answer, saying, "We live together and must respect our neighbors."

"These cartoons spread hatred, and we call for peace," he said, adding that (they) "fear the spread of hatred" against their religion and oppose "the mocking" of any religion.

“My message to those who want (strife) between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, I tell them, 'You will not succeed, because we are one people that have been living together for more than 1,400 years,'" he said.

And perhaps the most reassuring aspect of this entire interview was the fact that the subject of the interview was none other than Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt—the leader of the Sunni Muslims in Egypt.  At least for a fleeting glimpse in time, cooler heads were beginning to prevail amidst the religiously-oriented death and destruction that has emerged once more in the Middle East, and the cooler heads were coming from a religion with an awful reputation for the violence of its extremists.  Yet, as is true in most cases, it is the extremists who make the headlines.

This is a sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church.  In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts.  And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases.  In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us.  And none of those stereotypes are good.  Each week over the next six weeks, we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it.  And so we began the series with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda.”  Last week, the message’s theme was, “They think the church is judgmental and negative,” and now this week, we turn to the theme of, “They think the church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.”

As Dan Kimball describes him, Duggan is the manager of a coffeehouse who “went to a Catholic church sometimes as a child, since his family was Irish.”  As a teenager, Duggan received from his father a potpourri of religious texts, including a Bible, a Qur’an, and Buddhist and Confucian writings. Duggan read them all, and years and years later, shared with Dan, saying this:

“All I hear from Christians is that all other world religions are wrong and going to hell.  I have tried to have an intelligent conversation with them about this and discuss the beauty in other expressions of spirituality, but they go into this religious rhetoric and avoid the hard questions.  It seems they have programmed dogmatic answers that someone has told them, and they can’t even hold any type of normal back and forth conversation about any other spiritual beliefs.”

He continues:

“I once tried talking to two Christians about Buddha and the Dao.  They looked at me like they were going to freak out and didn’t know what to say. They could only talk to me about their beliefs and wouldn’t even talk to me about any other beliefs.  It makes me think that Christians are like horses with blinders—they have an isolated and inflexible view.  They are so fixated only on what they believe, they aren’t able to take in their surroundings and see other elements in the world around them.”

Like most—if not all of you—I have been watching the recent violence in the Middle East—at least in part a response to the highly-charged “Innocence of Muslims” film making the rounds on the internet—with a mix of worry and horror.

If you haven’t seen any of the film in question—and you shouldn’t—it is a grotesque piece of propaganda, worthy only of our disgust.  Imagine if a film depicted Jesus Christ as a leering womanizer, a pedophile, an unscrupulous thief, and a violent brute.  That’s about the size of it.

So Muslims have, I think, every right to be offended by this film.  But at the same time, Christians didn’t form mobs to kill people when Dan Brown came out with The Da Vinci Code.  Salman Rushdie, made famous for the fatwa issued against his own life, even quipped, “Dan Brown must live.  Preferably not write, but at least live.”

Religion cannot be in the business of destroying lives, it can only be in the business of lifting lives up, of building and rebuilding them.

And so we as Christians are right to condemn our own extremists where they appear.  And there are many Muslims, including Grand Mufti Ali, who are condemning their own extremists.

But what a degrading, humiliating burden that is to bear—to have to apologize to the world for fanatics who dare to claim your faith.

It is a burden we share with Jesus—think of His response to Peter wounding the servant during the arrest at Gethsemane.  Jesus not only heals the servant, but He rebukes Peter for his violence.

Jesus has spent an entire ministry trying to prove His divinity as a means of proving the truth of His message, and there is no way He would want that compromised by the violence of His followers, because, He longed to produce in us great faith.  After all, as one person wrote, Jesus “would heal the blind and the leper with (God’s) leave, and…raise the dead, and when (God) held off the Children of Israel (ie, the leaders -E.A.) from Jesus, when Jesus brought them manifest proofs, whereat the faithless among them said, ‘This is nothing but plain magic,’ I inspired the Disciples, saying, “Have faith in Me and My apostle,” and they said, ‘We have faith.’”

It’s a great testimony to God’s relationship with Jesus Christ.  It also comes from the Qur’an.

I’m a Christian for a reason—because I believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, as my Lord and Savior.  But that doesn’t mean every other religion disrespects Jesus.  Islamic tradition reveres Jesus, even though they don’t think He was divine.  At its core, Islam is not anti-Jesus.  But many churches will say it is, and Heaven only knows why.

But here, in John’s twelfth chapter, Jesus is about to be arrested.  Just before this passage, he says the time has come for Him to die and be glorified.  So He knows the game is up.  If ever there is a time for His faith to waver, this is it—again, His agonizing prayer at Gethsemane.  But John’s account of Jesus is remarkable—it is a Messiah so secure in His message of love and salvation that He doesn’t feel the need to judge the doubters.

It is Zen-like—being so at peace with what you know to be true, that you do not judge, you simply save, at peace even with the doubters who say that your miracles are nothing but plain magic.

Peace versus violence.  Love versus anger.  Salvation versus judgment.  In each, one is far easier to use than the other.  One is something we reach for far faster than the other.  And it is wrong for us to do so.

It is wrong because to follow God is a way of surrender.  Just as Jesus surrenders His capacity to judge to the divine Word, the Logos, He does something equally remarkable—He surrenders the chance to render immediate judgment—judgment comes ‘at the last day,” in His words.

It is not just that we are called not to judge—though Jesus made that abundantly clear last week in Luke 6—but that we are called away from a rush to judgment, to pre-judge, to be prejudiced.

Religion, with its moral authority, can and must condemn such violence as a moral evil.  But it is another thing entirely to judge an entire people or religion as violent based on the attention-grabbing crimes of but a fanatical few, to write off an entire religion as anti-Jesus rather than actually share in a dialogue where you can testify and witness in love to another person.

Jesus did not want His ministry defined by Peter’s violence against an innocent servant.  We as Christians do not want our Way defined by the legacy of violence the church’s history has left.  And I dare say that Islam itself, at its heart, does not want to be defined by terrorism.  So let us surrender, as Jesus did, that need to entertain our worst prejudices in favor of the far greater task of building the Kingdom of God.  Let us surrender our arrogance if it means replacing it with love, for that is a far more apt tool to make disciples out of one another.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 23, 2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mrs. Christ?

…of course, her last name wouldn’t have been Christ.  If we’re going by what naming customs were like in ancient Israel, her last name would be something along the lines of Bar-Joseph (see also: “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” by Christopher Moore).

Heads are wagging and tongues are chattering about the newfound revelation based on a piece of papyrus presented by Dr. Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, which refers to Jesus Christ having a wife.

And honestly, my immediate, five-second reaction (after trying to find a way to blame this on Dan Brown) was, to be completely honest, “Who the f*ck cares?”

Yes, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  I believe in Him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16).

None of the above is dependent on Him being a bachelor.

Who and what Christ was--and is--is an issue that we as Christians must respond to with love and with vigor.  But nothing about what He did for humanity was made possible only via bachelorhood.

If anything, I think we err on the side of sanitizing Jesus when he was indeed also human in addition to being more divine than any one of us.  We sometimes forget that He hugged and kissed people, that He didn't always wash his hands before he ate, that He cussed people out (ask me about Matthew 23 sometime), or that He had a temper.  Why is it necessary to our salvation to turn Him into a Ken doll as well?

In his book "They Like Jesus But Not The Church," (the same book I’m basing my current sermon series on) Dan Kimball illustrates his support for female pastors by arguing that if two different pastors could preach on identical texts and come to identical theological conclusions, but one happened to be male and one happened to be female, then women simply cannot be denied full equality in the church.

While I certainly don’t think women need to come to necessarily the same conclusions as men to be considered qualified as pastors, it is an argument with merit nonetheless, and one that can—and should—be applied to other demographics.

If a straight pastor and a gay pastor can both preach the Gospel with equal skill, insight, and theological inspiration, why do the vast majority of our churches shun the latter while accepting the former?

Or…if an unmarried pastor (ie, me) and a married pastor (ie, most of my colleagues here in town) can both preach the Gospel with equal skill, insight, and inspiration…etc.

Or…hopefully, you can see where I’m going with this.

Jesus said He said.  Whether He was married or not doesn’t change the fundamental nature of His message, which was one of good news for all who choose to listen.

So, if He were married, how does any of that change?

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying I think Jesus was married.  There are a number of issues facing the authenticity (or lack thereof) of this papyrus.

But I am saying that my faith is not so fragile that such a revelation would rock it to its core.

And I hope and pray that is very much the faith that Jesus calls us to—faith like the house built on rock, not built on sand.

A faith based on what Jesus offers as a divine vessel, not only as a man, a carpenter, and…maybe…a husband.

It’s still God’s love.  And it’s still for each of you.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Entirely unrelated, but I had to share this after my senior pastor in California, Russ, and one of my favorite bloggers--Rachel Held Evans--both shared this as well.  If you're an American football fan, you'll get a kick out of it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

One Year

(Note: Apologies for the tardy posting--today instead of yesterday--been dealing with mild flu-like symptoms on and off for the past couple of days.  Firing on all cylinders now, though.  -E.A.)

Today is my "official" anniversary of my ministry here in Longview--although I was busy with the odds-and-ends of moving, setting up my office, getting to know people, etc. throughout the month of September, today is the day I officially began as the pastor of FCC.

...and after four weddings, four funerals, 44 Sunday sermons, and a whole boatload of church potlucks and coffee-drinking sessions, it has been one hell of a ride so far.

After living so nomadically that I switched dormitories (as a college student) or apartments once a year (save for 2010), renewing a lease as opposed to signing a new one was almost a foreign experience.

After having got such fly-by-night relocations down to pretty much a science, I would be loath to pick up and move somewhere else--across town or anywhere--just for the hell of it now.

After two full years of volunteer (in the case of my hospital chaplaincy internship) or part-time ministry (in the case of my ministry at FCC Concord), I am devoting myself--without care or concern--to the full-time work of trying (and sometimes failing) to build up God's kingdom.

After four years of religious studies in college and three more years of seminary, I am an agent of what I have learned; no longer only a passive recipient of knowledge, but someone who can give as well as receive.

As such an agent, I have...

Come up with both good ideas and bad ideas.  Sometimes really, really bad ideas.

Both brought the house down and embarrassingly botched a sermon at a graveside service.

Been there for both peoples' births as Christians and deaths as earthly vessels.

Both pissed people off and brought people together.

Both proclaimed grace and demanded righteousness.

Made friends and found support networks.

Prayed.  A lot.

Lived through both great pain and great contentment.

Worshiped in ways I never knew existed.

Loved God in ways I never imagined were possible.

This is a great job.

Yours in Christ,

Monday, September 17, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "In Persona Christi"

Luke 6:27-37 27 

“But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. 37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week Two: They Think the Church is Judgmental and Negative 

The man’s crime could not have been more brutal—he had murdered another man by beating him to death with a tire iron. He was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

But increasingly inconvenient facts started to trickle out into the media about this killer. He was the victim of a lifetime of sexual abuse, beginning at the age of six. His mother would simply beat him in response to his sexual abuse. He was raped by one of his middle school teachers. He was raped while in juvenile hall. And the final straw came when he was raped again, this time, by a lay leader of the local Episcopal church, and this time, the day after the rape, he beat and killed his rapist.

There are no heroes in a story like his, only antiheroes and villains…save for one.

Recently, after learning of all of the sexual abuse this man had endured in his life—and perhaps coming to terms with what her own husband was—the murder victim’s widow signed onto her husband’s murderers request for a commutation of his sentence from death by lethal injection to life imprisonment without parole.

Her’s is far and away the most remarkable and amazing perspective of this whole ordeal, simply because it is the most profoundly Biblical--be merciful, just as your Father is merciful, says Luke.

Be merciful.

This is a new sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church. In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts. And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases. In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us. And none of those stereotypes are good. Each week over the next six weeks, we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it. And so we began the series last week with a message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda.” This week, the message’s theme is, “They think the church is judgmental and negative.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Maya is a hairstylist who came from a family of what I call CEOs—Christmas-and-Easter-Only churchgoers. Dan writes that Maya “hadn’t thought a lot about Christianity or church until a close friend of hers became a Christian. Then not only did she have to think about it, but Christianity became a negative thing to her.” She says:

“Before my friend became a Christian, you could talk to him. It was normal. He became a Christian after he met a girl, and then through her got converted. But after his conversion, you couldn’t talk to him anymore. Every conversation was about condemning something about my lifestyle. All he did was keep telling me all the things I was doing wrong. I shouldn’t be smoking. I shouldn’t be drinking. He didn’t like the way I dressed or the music I listened to. I was mad at the church for turning him into this kind of very negative person.” 

She continues:

“You ask why I don’t go to church? Why would I want to become a negative person like most Christians are? That’s why. The world is negative enough without having the church make me more negative. I saw what it did to someone very close to me, and I don’t want to become like that.” 

I don’t want to be like that…it is just as easily something someone would hear walking into a church rather than never attending one, because, if we are honest with ourselves, far too often the church tries to define itself by what it isn’t rather than what it is, by defining itself by what it is against rather than what it is for. And that simply isn’t how Jesus taught.

Nevertheless, if you were to take a straw poll on what the most disturbing chapter in all of Scripture would be, honestly, I think the sixth chapter of Luke would make the top-ten list. Not only does it have these radical, simple, powerful commandments to love and be loved, to give without any thought of reward, and to not judge or condemn or forgive, but immediately prior, it has Luke’s version of the Beatitudes—blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping—but in Luke, Jesus also follows that up by saying, “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full now, woe to you who are laughing now.”

And Christianity—the Way of Jesus Christ—sure would be a whole lot easier to follow and to practice if Luke just happened to spill a vial of white-out all over this particular piece of papyrus in his Gospel. But then what we’d have wouldn’t be Christianity. I’m not sure what it would be, but it sure wouldn’t be Christianity. That’s how crucial this chapter is to Christian spirituality.

I’ve shared this thought with a couple of y’all before, but sometimes I find myself wondering if part of my job…not the best part of the job, but the part that comes with the territory…is watering down the Gospel in order to make it livable, to make it convenient for a 21st-century world that still possesses the Pharisaic mentality of holding onto power, status, and material wealth.

Yet, Christianity is not meant to be a feel-good exclusive sort of club where you show up once a week, pay your dues, listen to some mealy-mouthed dope of a preacher recite bland niceties about chewing with your mouth closed, and go about your merry way without any change in mentality or lifestyle. That sort of lukewarm Christianity is not sustainable. More importantly, that sort of lukewarm Christianity is not Biblical.

But that is the type of neutral Christianity that we might be tempted to associate as the only viable alternative—not offending anybody—to being a judgmental church where I pound on the pulpit and rail against the evils of dancing, tattoos, and The Simpsons.

And to be completely honest, I have zero patience with either of those brands of church. I have zero patience with them because I think Jesus would have had zero patience with them.

Think of how much judgment there is still in a presumably open-minded world—we are judged by what we wear, how we talk, who we fall in love with, where we live, and much, much more. And Jesus says not to judge, and that judging invites judgment.

It is radical in its simplicity.

Never has something so simple been so apparently difficult for someone else to follow.

Because to recognize Christ is to recognize a paradox—the reality that even in our enemies is the Christian—which literally means “Little Christ.” Even our enemies live in persona Christi—in Christ’s image—and so Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and Messiah, resembles not just those who love us, but those who hate us. To hate them in return is to hate Jesus Christ Himself.

There is one other wholly annoying truth about this reality—I’m not just talking about friends and enemies. I’m talking about people who we see as less than us, and if you say never do that, I know you’re lying. I know it because I’m guilty of it, because I do not always give to people who I know cannot repay me. I drive by the people who stand begging at the corners of the Triangle Mall. I throw away charitable requests for money. I have not, as Jesus famously commanded, sold all of my possessions and given the proceeds to the poor.

And I expect to be judged for that, for one of my own ultimate shortcomings. After all…judgment—my judgment—does indeed, as Jesus says, invite more judgment. And that judgment I know will come from a divine God who will welcome me into Heaven with one arm, and with the other arm, guide me to each and every vulnerable person I ignored while I was alive, and demand that I beg their forgiveness. And perhaps the most important part of that experience will likely be that I truly, truly doubt that God would demand that they in turn apologize to me for daring to ask for my help.

Such are the ways of a God who demands everything from those to whom His church, and His Son, have given so, so very much.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 16, 2012

Thursday, September 13, 2012

God is not Neutral

(A note about programming: I had originally hoped to--out of my love for soccer--have finished a 9/11 commemorative "then-and-now" post centered around the US men's national soccer team, as they played a game on 9/11 this week in Columbus, Ohio, and were abroad in South America for a game when 9/11 occurred in 2001.  That game, scheduled for September 12, 2001, was held, and I wanted to juxtapose the words of the players then and now.  For a variety of reasons--lateness in picking up all of the desired quotes, ministry-related emergencies, and personal exhaustion--I did not have that post completed in time and did not want to run it half-baked for 9/11, so I posted I had finished instead.  I'm hoping to complete my 9/11 entry by next Tuesday and have it up for you then. But for now, we talk together a bit about North Africa.  -E.A.)

On some level, this is what democracy often looks like.

Democracy is born out of violence.

Democracies in the United States, France, Spain, and Germany only came about after widespread violence--revolutions in the case of the US and France, a civil war in the case of Spain, and two world wars with Germany.

And so when we turn to Egypt, and to Libya, both of whom unshackled themselves from unscrupulous dictators only last year, and we see violence break out and ask why they cannot protect our interests there, part of me wants to ask, "Was our violent revolution more justified than their's?"

Of course, ours happened over 230 years ago.  Our collective humanity and commitment to life has evolved since then.  Presumably, you would think, we would have found a more civilized way to give a voice to the voiceless.

But that is precisely the problem--rights are seldom given.  They must often be demanded.  African-Americans in the United States had to demand for years and years the right to vote, to attend the same schools, to sit in the front of the bus.  Do we truly think the ruling white politicians of the day would have simply handed over those things of their own accord?

Nonviolence worked in that case.  Mob violence often does not.

And I do not, do not, do not condone violence.  At all.  Nobody has the right to inflict pain upon another person.

But by God, Muslims have every right to feel offended by the half-assed, painfully bigoted "Innocence of Muslims" film.  I made it through all of about the first five minutes of the thing before I had to stop.

If you're a Christian, imagine a film that depicts Jesus Christ as a leery, womanizing, violent, thieving brute of a person.  With the production value of, I don't know, your average family reunion home video.

What moved me the most, though, is that after the violence that was raised in response to the offensive nature of that film, Muslims came together to gather and hold signs saying, in effect, "This is not representative of Islam."  A group of Americans were responsible for the original offense, and those who were offended are apologizing to us.

Probably more than any other major religion, Islam faces serious prejudice in the West.

I cannot imagine any currently urgent need for Christians to apologize for their extremist elements--I sort of take it for granted that y'all won't lump me in with the Fred Phelpses and Terry Joneses of the world.  Maybe I shouldn't.  But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I do.

And I found it heart-wrenching that rank-and-file Muslims might even feel the need to apologize for a religion that has made them better, more fulfilled people.

Nobody should have to shoulder that burden.  It is a degrading, humiliating burden to bear.

But...I have to admit, I feel it as well.  Because there are fringe elements of Christianity responsible for promoting "Innocence of Muslims."

For this, I can only say two things.

One is...I am sorry.  So, so sorry that Christianity might even be tangentially responsible for this offense.  That Muslims still feel the need to explain to us that their's is a tradition of love, not of hate (seriously, we went through the same thing after 9/11, after the Underwear Bomber...come on) when we can't see that reality past the madness of the religious extremists.  And that the film's makers attempted to scapegoat Judaism and Israel by falsely claiming that the film was made by an "Israeli Jew."

The other circumstances like these, God is not neutral.

Just because God loves all of His children does not make Him neutral.

When God came to earth, He spoke for the poor.  He spoke for the outcast.  He spoke for the weak, and the meek, and the shunned.  He spoke for those who thought against the grain, who were outside the mainstream of their contemporaries.

I have always hoped and prayed that when a Christian is persecuted in, say, North Korea or China, that God will speak.  That He will speak for the Christian.  Or when Jews have been persecuted by the Romans, by the Church, by the Nazis, that God will speak for Judaism.

And that means that when a Christian or a Jew casts out the Muslim, I have faith that God will speak, and that He will speak for the Muslim.

For God is not neutral.  God, through Jesus Christ, sided with the oppressed with His birth, His life and ministry, His death and resurrection, and His eternal message.

Pity the fools who violate that divine legacy with their prejudices and bigotry.

In memory of the countless lives lost in religious violence over the course of human history.

Yours in Christ,

Update: Word is now out that the offensive references to Islam in the film were all dubbed during post-production and the cast and crew were misled by the film's producers in the casting call and original script, which opens up a whole new dimension of how the producers were busy breaking the "don't bear false witness" commandment.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Politics and Pastors, Conventions and Cardinals

…alternatively: “Move Over, Billy Graham, America has a New National Pastor.”

So the national conventions of our two major political parties are now, mercifully, history, and we, the American people, can begin in earnest the race towards Election Day, which we are wont to do with obsequious Facebook memes and spirited arguments over holiday dinners with our oddball survivalist uncles who blame everything on the government.

In the midst of those conventions, and given the uber-partisanship of the day, you’d be hard-pressed to find any similarities between either of the two conventions beyond recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. (I’d like to point out, for the record, that the Democrats tapped Gabby Douglas to lead the Pledge. The Republicans had an meandering, mumbling actor talking to an empty chair as their biggest celebrity guest. We had the immensely endearing reigning Olympic gold medalist in the women’s all-around. I’m just sayin’.)

There was one other notable, and perhaps surprising, similarity: both parties invited Timothy Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York City, to deliver the benediction on the final days of their respective conventions.

Perhaps more so than any other pastor in recent memory aside from maybe Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren—who successfully and admirably invited candidates Obama and McCain to an open forum discussion at Saddleback in 2008, and gave the invocation at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration—Cardinal Dolan has been newly elevated to (I believe) the unofficial role of “America’s Pastor” that Billy Graham trailblazed by holding prayer meetings with every American President since, I believe, Dwight Eisenhower.

I’m not too surprised that America’s Pastor has become Cardinal Dolan, either, though honestly for some kinda disappointing reasons. I think it is fantastic to see a Roman Catholic cleric get this kind of attention in a largely Protestant-influenced nation, but in almost every other respect, he is a carbon copy of Billy Graham: a white, Anglo-Saxon male adept at utilizing mass media and whose theology and politics both tilt noticeably right of center.

So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  I'm hoping that by the time America has a female president, we will also have a female pastor.

But I want to hone in a bit on Cardinal Dolan’s role as the benedictor-in-chief at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Cardinal Dolan included this bit in his benediction to the Dems—and the bolded part was not in his address to the GOP: “Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature's God. Empower us with your grace, so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community.

A number of folks have interpreted this—the “remake those institutions” part—as a not-so-subtle swipe at the Democratic platform’s endorsement of marriage equality. And really, it is hard not to see it as exactly that.

I applaud President Obama and the Democrats for inviting pastors with whom they have profound disagreements to preside over prayers at functions as prominent as conventions and inaugurations.  We are so, so enriched when we refuse to turn our religious rituals, ceremonies, and temples into ideological echo chambers--I believe this firmly.

But if a pastor in the limelight is striving to take over the unofficial mantle of “America’s Pastor,” as it is pretty clear that Cardinal Dolan has been doing, I’m not sure how you can be America’s Pastor when you’re only affirming the Americans who are heterosexual.

I can’t divide my own flock upon arbitrary lines—I can’t only welcome and affirm those who are of a certain age, gender, or race. It’s unethical.

The same standard should be held to our most prominent and famous spiritual leaders as well.

Sadly, we have not always done a very good job at doing this, whether for the politics of optics—of having an up-and-coming Catholic cardinal at your event—or simply because we lack the prophetic courage to do so.

Yours in Christ,

Sunday, September 9, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Vote 4 Jesus"

Matthew 10:1-4

He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean;[a] and Judas, who betrayed Jesus. (CEB)

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations,” Week One: They Think the Church has a Political Agenda

It ordinarily was not something you would consider the “religious right” to become so invested in—it involved a student in the faraway state of Alaska accused of a rather juvenile prank—creating a sign that arguably advocated for drug use, who was subsequently disciplined by his school. He sued, claiming his free speech rights had been violated, and when the case made it to the Supreme Court several years ago, the talking heads pounced, chattering up a storm of conversations over the promotion of drugs—and illegal drugs at that—but fewer people discussed why Christian groups were at hand here. Why were they?

Well, the sign in question began with the words “Bong Hits,” hence the national conversation about drug use. But those words were then followed with, “4 Jesus.” Fearful of any precedent of censoring religious speech, these groups filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the student. And so it came to pass that the Christian right—not a monolith you would normally associate with promoting the sticky icky—broke down stereotypes about their puritanical nature, at least for a moment. Trouble is, though, nobody ever seemed to notice! Once a person’s or a group’s opinion of you is set, it can be so very, very difficult to change how they see you.

Even if you feel that impression is not entirely deserved.

This is a brand-new sermon series for us to begin the fall season here in the life of the church, and it is a sermon series that, as it takes us through September and into October, I imagine will likely challenge and maybe even distress us a bit…which I promise you is a good thing, even in the comfort zone of church. In fact, church has become such a comfort zone for us, and for many Christians, that an increasing number of folks feel shut off from us because they worry that they do not speak our language, or understand our thoughts, or follow our precepts. And that separation has not been easy on us, as church memberships decline and the average age of remaining church members increases. In the midst of these sociological trends, a California pastor named Dan Kimball wrote a book entitled, “They Like Jesus, But Not the Church,” in which he documents—qualitatively, rather than quantitatively—the stereotypes that people who live outside the church hold of us. And none of those stereotypes are good. Each week over the next six weeks, we will hear—through Dan—from a member of my generation about how they see the church, and we’ll do so while also exploring what the Bible has to say about it. And so we begin today’s message with the theme of, “They think the church has a political agenda.”

As Dan Kimball describes her, Alicia is a twentysomething “molecular biologist (who) exudes joy and intelligence when she speaks…(and) she speaks from a gentle and even concerned heart.” This is what Alicia had to share with Dan about Christianity:

"I don’t trust the church. All you ever see is men who have their own political agendas basically brainwashing the people in their church that if they don’t believe the same things the church leaders do, and vote the same way, they are going to hell. Church shouldn’t be about politics. It’s all about organizing their religion to control people to conform them to their viewpoints and mix that in with spiritual faith. What is sad is how many people sit there and never question it." 

She continues:

"Church leaders seem to focus more on acting like businessmen raising funds to build bigger buildings for their own organized religious corporations than they do on taking the time to teach about social action for the poor. I think Jesus would have cared more about raising money for the poor than building yet another mini-mall church with comfortable seating and wide video screens so you can see the CEO pastor all the better and bigger". 

I suppose that puts an end to my secret dream of installing platforms into the sanctuary floor so that I can ascend up in a cloud of dry ice like in Iron Chef.

Alicia is probably right, though—Jesus WOULD have cared more about the poor than about building another megachurch. And I don’t just say that because of what Jesus said—though Lord knows, He dedicated so many of His sermons and lessons to championing the poor and the outcast.

I say it because of what Jesus did, of how He built His ministry.

At first glance, this roster of the twelve disciples seems rather unremarkable. They’re given power over demons and disease, and really, that seems like the most surprising part of it all. But I don’t think that was the most surprising part of this passage to Matthew’s audience.

Re-read the names of the disciples themselves. While some of them are identified by lineage—James and John, the sons of Zebedee, and James the son of Alphaeus, only two are identified by title: Matthew the tax collector, and Simon the Cananean, or, alternatively translated, the Zealot.

This is no coincidence.

The Zealots were the Israelites and Canaanites who incited insurrection against the occupying Roman Empire by means of force. They were the backbone of the Jewish revolt of 66 CE that ultimately led to the sackings by Rome of Jerusalem and Masada. They were true believers in Israel’s independence from imperial rule, and they sought such a world by any means necessary.

A tax collector, by contrast, was the symbol of everything the Zealots loathed about Roman rule. I honestly do not like this translation, “tax collector,” because it evokes images of a bureaucratic auditor, but trust me, whatever your feelings about the IRS may be, the civil servants who work for it are not thugs. Ancient Israelite tax collectors were. The way the Roman Empire financed itself—how it raised its money—was by auctioning off the right to collect taxes in a certain territory to the highest bidder. That bidder paid that fee to the Romans, and was given free license to raise as much as he wanted in taxes from the populace. In order for this to be a profitable enterprise, he had to raise more than he paid, and the more he raised, the more profit he had. As you can imagine, tax collectors were, in essence, state-sanctioned thieves, taking as much as they dared from the people they had charge over.

But the way of Jesus Christ is such that it had room for both the fanatic and the thug, the Zealot and the tax collector.

You might say, “Pastor, this is because Jesus’ ministry was separate from political concerns.” But when Jesus is executed as a political figure—as, in Pilate’s words, the King of the Jews—Jesus was very much a political figure, whether He wanted it or not, whether we want it or not.

No, it is not that Jesus’ ministry was divorced from politics, or that Jesus didn’t care about politics, it is that He transcended politics. His message was so powerful, so persuasive, so compelling, and so inspiring that it brought a Zealot whose people had been broken and beaten down by the tax collectors to walk hand-in-hand with one of those very same taxmen.

Which means we do our Messiah a tremendous injustice when we use Him to justify our own beliefs, rather than justifying ourselves by believing in Him and what His ministry represents—hope for the broken-hearted, good news for the poor, and affirmation for the outcast.

So I’ve got news for you—as a Christian, I don’t care who offers aid to the poor, be it the church, or charities, or our government, because it is no single person or single entity’s role to aid the poor, it is all our roles, all our burdens, because the plight of the poor is not a political issue, it is a human issue; when we compartmentalize it, we’re compartmentalizing other people.

As a Christian, I don’t care if my political leaders share the same religious affiliation that I do, because Jesus didn’t care that His disciples shared the same political affiliations.

And as a Christian, if we become too caught up and too bogged down in which political party released which attack ad first, or who faked outrage at the latest non-starter controversy—if we care more about those things than what Jesus, later in Matthew, calls the “weightier matters”—justice and mercy and faith, then there are two disciples named Simon and Matthew who have something powerful to teach us.

This is not a church where I tell you who to vote for. And as long as I am here, it never will be.

You know that…but that doesn’t mean that everybody else does. People outside the church now, in many ways, expect the worst from us, rather than the best. Many folks would expect to walk through these doors this time of year during an election cycle and be told who to vote for. But that is not Jesus’ mission. He was not in the business of handing out political endorsements, He was in the business of changing peoples’ lives for the better. May it be so for His church, too.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 9, 2012

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Letters from the Soul: This Month's Newsletter Column

“What a Difference a Year Makes”

Dear Church,

It is truly amazing for me when I consider that on September 19th, it will be one year since I formally began my ministry here as your pastor.  It means so much to me that you decided to take a chance on a young pastor fresh out of divinity school, and I hope that over the past year, the faith that it took from you to call me here has been rewarded.

I realize that perhaps for you—especially if you have been worshiping here for many, many years—one year may not seem so much, but as someone still so close to the ground age-wise, I can say that ministering here has been nothing short of a life-changing experience for me!

While this first year has been devoted—for me, at least—to growing into this new role and learning about all of you, this church, and our community, I hope that in the year to come the growth and rejuvenation we have experienced will bear fruit in new and exciting ministries and missions—which may be entirely created by you!

After all, lay ministry is central to our church as a Disciples of Christ parish, and just as I have grown in my role here thanks to all of you, I hope that I can return the favor and work at helping all of you continue to grow in your own journeys of faith.

What a difference a year has made for me…and hopefully for you as well.  May the life and spirit that I know  I feel in this place continue to thrive as we continue our work as a Christian faith family together into another great year!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Eric

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Upcoming Sermon Series: "They Like Jesus, But Not the Church"

It's good to be back after a week of vacation, and I wanted to begin by offering y'all a preview of what to expect here on the blog for the month of September.  I'm readying posts on the religiosity of the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the "church  year" as a mirror of the September-June school year, and the place of the church in education--not just in terms of public-versus-private, but also of supporting public schools with our ministries...something that I have since learned that FCC truly excels at.

I'm also going to be starting a new six-week sermon series this Sunday (September 9th), and below is what I shared about it in FCC's monthly newsletter, The View.  I hope to see you here for this series--I've been looking forward to it for a long time!  And if you're a friend far away, I hope you will enjoy following along here on the blog!

Yours in Christ,

September is traditionally the month to kick off not only the school year, but the “church year” as well (even though the liturgical year actually does not begin until late November with the season of Advent!). In that spirit, we will be kicking off not only many of our programs that were previously on summer break, but also a new sermon series on the Sunday after Labor Day. Unlike many of my recent sermon series, this one is structured on an outside book, “They Like Jesus, but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations” by Dan Kimball, a pastor in Santa Cruz, California. He puts to ink the testimonies of many people in my age bracket, including how they feel the church is perceived today…and he’s got news for us: it isn’t always good. Dan structures his book in part into six separate chapters, each tackling a particular perception, and so we will be taking the next six Sundays to do the same as we struggle and wrestle with what the church could be doing more of, or be doing better, in our world—but there will also be plenty of hope, though, for the church and our future, throughout the series! 

“They Like Jesus, But Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations” Sermon Series

September 9: They think the church has a political agenda 
“Vote 4 Jesus,” Matthew 10:1-4 

September 16: They think the church is judgmental and negative 
“In Persona Christi,” Luke 6:27-37 

September 23: They think the church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong 
“Manifest Proofs,” John 12:44-50 

September 30: They think the church is dominated by males and oppresses females
“The Deaconess’s Portion,” Romans 16:1-2

October 7: They think the church is homophobic
"High Park's on Fire," Isaiah 1:9-17

October 14: They think the church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally
"Human Traditions," Mark 7:1-9