Church Leaders – More than just White Men

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S (Scripture): Romans 16:1 I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant 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.

3 Say hello to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life. I’m not the only one who thanks God for them, but all the churches of the Gentiles do the same. 5 Also say hello to the church that meets in their house. Say hello to Epaenetus, my dear friend, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6 Say hello to Mary, who has worked very hard for you. 7 Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

O (Observation): Paul does a most wonderful and honorable thing: he mentions the women who have been faithful to Christ and with whom he has worked alongside. Why honorable? This should be expected, yes? Of course these women mentioned should be included, but for Paul to do this in the first century is a bit scandalous.

After all, women were NOT seen as equals amongst the Jews. Women had little rights and certainly no claim to positions of authority, especially in relation to matters of religion.

Yet, here they are. These women mentioned by Paul are working tremendously hard in order to share the Gospel with those who would receive it.

A (Application): Yet another example given to us about God doing “a new thing” in Scripture, in the early formation of the Church.

These leaders working with Paul remind us that the obstacles before us in the Church are typically self-made. We put up parameters around who can lead / do certain aspects of organized religion. Quite often we give little to no regard for the individual’s value.

We have done much harm from WITHIN the Church, as we have denied certain people from being leaders in the church based on their ethnicity, race, language of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more.

Thankfully, we are making strides towards being more just about these things from within the modern Church. We are seeing more diversity amongst our leaders, but our congregations seem less and less willing to extend calls to those who are not “white, straight, English-speaking” pastors.

But hope abounds. Congregations throughout the ELCA (in which I serve) are wrestling more and more with these issues and our hope rests in God’s abundant and reckless grace. Our denomination repents of these harmful actions in the present and in the past.

God will continue to send the Spirit to guide us into the way of peace. And we will hope to write about these leaders on social media, just as Paul wrote about his experiences to the churches in Rome.

P (Prayer): Lord, we are all made in your image and we are all known – individually – by you. Guide us. Amen.

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The Church: Challenges and Grace

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S (Scripture): Romans 4:21 [Abraham] was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us.

O (Observation): Paul leans on the mark of faith instilled into Abraham as the KEY factor in Abraham’s inheritance of God’s covenant. What God said, Abraham believes. Now, Abraham was not perfect in that belief, but it still stands that God was the one who was making promises and Abraham believed God would make good on God’s promises.

Faith is the factor for inheritance, not works or responses to that grace.

So, both Jew and Gentile could be Christian without giving up the Law (for Jews) and without needing to be held to the Law of the Jews (for Gentiles).

A (Application): God has always been about making room for all who wish to believe. Those considered “outside” of the Church is more often than not a rule generated and implemented by the Church, not God.

In what ways have you seen the Church push others away? When have stumbling blocks been put into place? When have blessings come to pass as people have been reunited with the Church body?

These questions help us to reconcile what it means to be a people of faith. Is there a standard? A Law? If so, what does the corresponding word of Grace sound like?

Is receiving God’s Grace easy for us? A challenge? Necessary for salvation?

Let that stew for a while : )

P (Prayer): Lord, be with us in our faith struggles. Amen.

The Law…The Rules

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S (Scripture): Romans 3:28b We consider that a person is treated as righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t God the God of Gentiles also? Yes, God is also the God of Gentiles. 30 Since God is one, then the one who makes the circumcised righteous by faith will also make the one who isn’t circumcised righteous through faith. 31 Do we then cancel the Law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law.

O (Observation): Paul is once again speaking to the Jewish Christians (those who were Jewish and now following Christ). He points out that their adherence to the Law (or lack there of) had nothing to do with their salvation.

When a Jew expresses the Law, this comes from faith in God. The mark of circumcision is the outward expression of an internal faith.

If that external marker was removed, what then? Could someone…say…a Gentile show faith in God? Yes! And if so, that person would not need the Law to become righteous…for God instills faith in both the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Anyone who believes in Christ has been joined to Christ’s righteousness. This is a free gift. The Law stands as a reminder of who we are called to be as God’s people. The Law was a guide and identity marker, not a path to salvation. Salvation is about faith in God.

So, should the Law be thrown out? Absolutely NOT!

A (Application): What barriers are we putting up as God’s people? What rules do we put in place for members and church leaders that make us stumble along the way? Shouldn’t we throw them all out? Well, not so fast : )

Just like we don’t throw out the Law, we don’t throw out everything that are good boundary markers in organized religion.

Healthy boundaries can be good, so that we can care for each other and build up healthy community. When we don’t trust one another and break down these barriers, we can lean on forgiveness and reconciliation, which we have first received from Christ.

Now, following the rules of the Church is not the goal…faith in Christ is the goal. As such, when the rules of the Church inhibit certain groups of people from access to faithful community, then perhaps the rules need to be updated.

The Law guides us and is an outward expression of what it means to have faith in God. Rules of the Church exist to guide us into community. But faith in God is what makes us righteous. And this righteousness comes through Christ, who gave himself for us. Believing in Christ – thanks to the Holy Spirit instilling faith in us – brings us to righteousness. The Law…the rules…don’t make us righteous. Christ does.

P (Prayer): Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. Amen.

Measuring the Church

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S (Scripture): Psalm 20

Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed one;

    God answers his anointed one

        from his heavenly sanctuary,

    answering with mighty acts of salvation

        achieved by his strong hand.

Some people trust in chariots, others in horses;

    but we praise the Lord’s name.

They will collapse and fall,

    but we will stand up straight and strong.

Lord, save the king!

    Let him answer us when we cry out!

O (Observation): The anointed one is the king of God’s people. This psalm may have been written before God’s people were conquered by the Babylonians, thus representing a general orientation towards giving thanks to God for blessing the people with a ruler to govern God’s people.

And in what do God’s people trust? They trust in the Lord’s name, not chariots and horses. Chariots and horses represented a country’s might – both politically and militarily.

The psalmist is reminding God’s people that – as illogical as it seems – strength comes not from our might, but from the Lord.

A (Application): The Church is in a precarious state. Our “horses and chariots” for years have been dollars in the offering plate and attendance. With high numbers for both, we say: “Look! God is good, because we have high attendance and lots of offering!” Is that the right metric, though?

What is the State of the Church? Are we counting the right things? How about counting how many people come to faith? Return to the faith? How about we count the numerous ways our church members impact their families and neighborhoods? How about we measure our disciple-making process? How about we measure the fruitfulness of the conversations between our adult members and our youth? How about we measure the inspiration level that some members have on others?

Some of these things we can measure…some, not so much. So what do we do? We keep on telling the story of God at work in our world. We talk about how God shows up in our lives, our politics, our homes. We show faith in God, who shows up every time.

Question is: Can we discern God’s presence? Or are we too busy counting our chariots and horses?

P (Prayer): Lord, hear us as we call out to you. Help us to count the right things. Amen.

A True Welcome

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S (Scripture): Psalm 9

But the Lord rules forever!

    He assumes his throne

    for the sake of justice.

He will establish justice in the world rightly;

    he will judge all people fairly.

The Lord is a safe place for the oppressed—

    a safe place in difficult times.

10 

Those who know your name trust you

    because you have not abandoned

    any who seek you, Lord.

O (Observation): The Lord is a safe place for the oppressed. The psalms were written at many different times throughout the history of God’s people. Some were written in times of peace. Some were written in times of great struggle and adversity. This Psalm reflects one of those times of great adversity.

But a ray of hope keeps God’s people from despair. They trust that all who are oppressed and seek the Lord will find a home with God.

A (Application): The oppressed of our day are many: LGBTQ+, immigrants, those who receive abuse, mentally and physically challenged people, and more. The Church was known as a place of refuge for a long, long time, choosing to aid the oppressed in all places.

My hope is that all churches can be places of refuge for the oppressed, once again. May churches be places where all are welcomed with a true sense of welcome, not a bait and switch type of welcome. Just welcoming folks for who they are is the first and vital step to help them know that God wishes to have a relationship with them.

The challenge to change (or not) may come later on when one understands that grace is what saves us, not our own acts of penitence.

May the Church be a place of welcome for all oppressed people. Just as they are.

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to see others as you see us. Help us to welcome all. Amen.

How’d That Happen?

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S (Scripture): John 6:16 When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. 17 They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. 18 The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. 20 He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.

O (Observation): Jesus just got done feeding the 5,000 and they wanted to make him king. So Jesus got out of there. They didn’t get it.

The disciples were hanging out in their boat, waiting on Jesus. But a storm came up and drove them off the shore – without Jesus! (Oops! Sorry, Jesus…the rope broke : )

That didn’t stop Jesus. He just walked on the water to go out to where the boat was – in the middle of the lake!

Night time. Storm. Wind. Chaos. The makings of quite the scary story – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well.

The disciples still don’t know what to make of Jesus, yet…

And to top it all off, as things settle down in the boat, and they are ready to head to the shore – Voila! – there they are…on the shore of their destination.

How’d he do that?

A (Application): How’d that happen? What went right? Where did we go wrong? Every church leader I know asks these questions, hoping to make an impact for God’s Kingdom.

We reverse engineer things to try to figure out the right formula. And then we replicate over and over again. But the only constant I see is “change.”

We are never the same people in more than any one instant. So that means whatever we lead has to be lean and flexible, so that the vision and mission can exist without too much structure. Yet, some structure is helpful along the way.

The Holy Spirit works in many and various ways. In meetings, while you’re driving to work, while you (individually or collectively) are at your wit’s end. The Spirit works in our midst.

Just ask the disciples in the midst of their spiritual turmoil. How did Jesus do that thing with the walking on water and the boat being at the shore? Only God knows.

How do we do the Church on earth? Just do it! Let God Lead! Enjoy the ride!

P (Prayer): Lord, guide us and make us wise to your commands. Amen.

Abuse of Power in the Church

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S (Scripture): Matthew 21:28 Jesus said to the chief priests and elders: “What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

29 “‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

30 “The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

31 “Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. 32 For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him.

O (Observation): Scandalous words from Jesus! Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you! And he’s saying this to the church leaders…folks who have dedicated their lives to perpetuating God’s Church on earth!

The story Jesus tells points to people who refused God’s Word, but follow Jesus, because they (the tax collectors and prostitutes) see that God (in Jesus) is actually a good thing and a good way to be in the world. Those who say “yes” to God’s Word, but perpetuate systems of oppression (like the chief priests and elders), are not doing the will of the Father.

Jesus lures them in with this tale. The church leaders hear this story and believe that they are the ones going about the vineyard work. Jesus begs to differ. Jesus sees their work as dismissing God’s love for the world, in favor of a love only for the Jewish people and rites and rituals. Jesus reminds them that God’s work and love was always for all people.

A (Application): Where do you see God in the world? How do you sense God’s presence?

If someone senses God differently from you, is that bothersome to you? Does that encourage you? If you’re bothered by someone else’s way of connecting with God, are you jealous? Are you upset, because they don’t see it your way?

This is essentially the problem of the church leaders in Jesus’ time. They know God a certain way: rituals, purification rites, etc. Jesus – being God’s presence on earth, Emmanuel (“God with us”) – has little use for the rites and rituals.

So, he changed things. And we all know that in church “change” is like a certain 4-letter word : )

What was important to Jesus was the work of God’s will, not the rites and rituals that excluded folks.

So, Church, where do we need to work on welcoming, and not just pushing others away? And in cases where we have pushed others away, where do we need to ask forgiveness and work towards reconciliation?

How can the Church be a healing presence, and not just a harmful one?

P (Prayer): Lord, be a healing presence for all of us – perpetrator of harm and receiver of abuse. Amen.