Monday, September 30, 2019

Sermon on Sin

Yeah, no foolin' a sermon on sin.

Go here for a starter, begin at the 7:45 mark and play till the 8:25 mark.


Background - this is a series that is both about revitalizing the church and our four working groups: Climate Justice, White Privilege, LGBTQIA+, & Youth Experiencing Homelessness.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Acts 4:23-27
September 29, 2019
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

Prayer: Living God, you’ve been with us up till this point...dont leave us now.  Amen.


One day my grandfather asked a coworker at the Post Office if he wanted to join him and his son for a day of trout fishing.  The next day everyone arrived at the stream for a day of fishing. The co-worker got out of his car looking like he just stepped out of the Orvis showroom, my grandfather was wearing his old green shirt and pants (you want to match the foliage).  My father looked at the co-worker and his dad and the crow functions of his brain took over, he wanted to be with the shiny person.  


So the shiny one and my father took off splashing, hopping, running, slowshing, and ruckusing up the stream so they could fish all the good holes first.  Meanwhile my grandfather finished his coffee, ate an apple, then prepared his rod and flies for the day. But the time he stepped into the stream the water had settled and the trout had resumed the ready position.  


At the end of the day the three of them met back at my grandfather’s International Scout.  The shiny one and my father had nothing to show, my grandfather had a kreel full of brook trout.  


Dad told me that story because he wanted to illustrate that I didn’t need any new things in life to be successful, but I absorbed the story as the beacon for my vocation.  When we center on racial justice or overcoming white privilege we have be single-minded and focused and trusting. This is the kind of work where we might not see measurable goals achieved, instead we are looking for observable goals achieved.  


Over the last few years of our national life racial justice has been front and center in our collective conscience.  It seemed the themes of racial justice and racial reconciliation were everywhere in the movies, on the radio, social media, in print, on the bust in the park, at coffee shops, in pews and elsewhere - everyone was talking about this in some form or manner.  I heard unthinkable conversations about white privilege, black lives matter. Standing Rock took its place as a national symbol along with Selma, Seneca Falls, and Stonewall.  


But where are we now?  


2020 Oscar predictions...no Black Panther, no Blackkklansman, Colin Kapernick is still not in the NFL, when was the last time those who kneeled during the national anthem made the news? will Beyonce wow us again at Coachella?  


Being single-minded, staying focused, trusting the work, observable not measureable


The church is still involved, but you can feel the energy shifting to electoral politics.  We are now in the realm of 24-7 cycles of impeachment, elections, hearings, leaks, breaking news, & etc.  This power and principality will try to consume us. These issues are important but they are not omnipotent - they are like shiny temptations begging us to pay attention.  And if we are going to center on racial justice, confronting white privilege, racial reconciliation we have to prove we are not crows.  


I hear many conservative white churches approach racial justice with this simple refrain: we are all brothers and sisters, we do not see color.  I hear many white liberal churches approach racial justice with this simple refrain: I’m not racist. What happens next is that liberal carry conservative aspects of sin with them into the realm of racial justice.  They internalize I’m white, I’m racist, I’m a sinner. And so right then the conversation shuts down, folk get defensive and some pretty bad behaviors start emerging.  


And so we wonder why this issue gets shoved under the rug and not dealt with on a broader and deeper scale.  


So here it the possibility of a new way forward.  We are sinners because we live and participate in a racist system.  This doesn’t mean in your heart of hearts you are a racist, but it does mean that living in this racist system has affected your heart and effects that way you live and benefit in this world in conscious and unconscious ways.  


Years ago a member of the church I served in Athens, WV asked me to join him and his wonderful wife for pecan pie and coffee.  As we ate pie and talked about life he told me about his time as a young school superintendent for Marion County Georgia. In the blink of an eye history was thrust upon him when Marion County became the first county in Georgia to integrate schools.  Marion County is next to where Jimmy Carter grew up, where baptist preacher and New Testament scholar Clarence Jordan had his inter-racial Koinonia Farms. My parishioner told me about the threats and calls and the harassment but he said I knew what was right and we were going to do it.  He then shifted gears on me, “Now Preacher, I’ve been going to church all 85 years of my life and I’ve been listening to sermons for the past 115 years. Here’s the deal: We all know we are sinners, but we need help to know what to do about it. Now eat up.”  

Here are three things for us to do.


  1.  Don’t ignore the concept of sin in this manner.  This is not a theology of personal sins, you lied, you cheated, you had bad thoughts.  We need a robust and broad definition of sin that includes unjust systems and powers of oppression.  Me confessing my sin of racism isn’t enough, me linking arms with others to root out and cleanse the existence of racism in our society is what is needed.  


  1.  Observable not measurable.  Look for changed hearts, look for broken hearts, look for mended hearts.  In a like manner I want us to do this work with soft hearts. Too many times liberal churches want folk to be where we are immediately while ignoring the reality that it took years for us to get to the place where we are.  We are on a continuum in this work, I pray to be where some of you are, and I am helping others get to where I am. This is not a competition. We are here to encourage, lift up, pick up, and nudge one another to be the people God is calling us to be in this time and in this place.  Remember, we are not in the judging business. So let us come up with ways to help people along. Some churches have even started 12 step programs for racism.  


Let this number wash over you for a moment: every year megachurches experience ⅓ turnover in membership.  ⅓ where do they go? We have to be a place to help absorb some of those folk - and we cant do it if we expect them to automatically think and behave and fit into to our program; we have to create some space for them to enlighten us and for us to enlighten them.  We need to be a place where folk from all over the spectrum and continuum who are trying to move forward in their lives to overcome racism.


  1.  We are in this for the long-haul.  We may not see measurable results, but we are already seeing observable results.  Beth Waterhouse’s personal reflection for one, the language shift I hear in your conversations, the books you are reading, the movies you are watching, the people you are seeking out, the experiences and exchanges you are having.  We are only into our third 100 days of action/reflection time period.  


I read the other day about a person who wrote one page a day.  One page of stories, one page of reflection, one page of poetry.  At the end of the year some of the pages find their way into a book, other pages into essays, and some are just wood shavings.  This person reveals how just doing something little each day can add up to something big within a year’s time. In this work it is just a simple commitment to do something small each day and trusting over a year, over a life time you work will have shifted the balance more toward a just, sustainable, and more beautiful world.  


Now I want to end with the story from Acts.  You may or may not have noticed I have been preaching from the book of Acts these past few weeks, and I’ll continue.  It stands to reason, Acts is the birth of the church and we are trying to rebirth, refound, revitalize Judson. Plus Acts gives us a blueprint of the Spirit of God in action. My hope is to someway throughout this Fall to weave together the themes of Acts and our four working groups.  Because when I meet with people and they ask me to tell them about Judson...when I start telling them about racial justice, climate justice, LGBTQIA+, and youth homelessness their eyes light up and they want to know more. One person only knew the church as a place that was closed to LGBTQIA+, one person wanted to talk and talk about composting, one person wanted to tell me everything about the mission of Butter Bakery, one person had a grocery bag full of contacts concerning the re-linking of the Kingfield and Bryant neighborhoods once the 40th St pedestrian bridge opens back up.  It’s been amazing to have these conversations.  


And yet it’s been humbling, because I know for sure that our work will go unnoticed and unrecognized.  And we have to be fine with that. At the end of our lesson this morning there was one name, do you remember it?  Joseph the Levite from Cyprus whom the Apostles called Barnabas (the son of encouragement). What else do we know about Joseph the Levite from Cyprus?  Nothing. Not one more thing.  


What if years from now when the history is being written about this time the only mention we, as a church, get in the books is that Judson Church was a congregation that encouraged.  That would be enough. And by that everyone knew this as a congregation full of nameless people who did small acts everyday for the betterment of the common good. People who stayed the course, who remained faithful, who hand single-minded vision, courage and were risk takers.  That would be awesome.  


Your friends need someone like that in their lives, your neighborhood needs someone like that, your co-workers, this city, this state and nation, this world...God needs someone like that.  It just takes one person, be that person; it just takes one church, let us be that church. You can do that, we can do that. Let us do it. Amen and Amen.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Three Parables

It's been awhile since I've preached using parables, since 2008 to be exact.  Here they are (character voices not included).

Three Parables:
The Parable of the Climate Denier
The Parable of the Misguided Pastor
The Parable of the Forgetful Church
Acts 3:1-11
September 22, 2019
Judson Memorial Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN
Rev. G. Travis Norvell

Prayer of Illumination
Divine Wisdom, Breath of Life, be with us as we hear your word, your stories, your world changing possibilities.  Amen.


Some words on broken syllogisms


You remember syllogisms: Major Premise, Minor Premise, Conclusion


God loves everyone,
I am part of everyone,
God loves me.  


But most of life is not a neat syllogism but a series of broken syllogisms


God heals the broken
I am broken
God has not healed me.


The story in Acts is a story of a healing, but the healed person will eventually die like the rest of us.  So instead of concentrating on the healing I ask you to concentrate on the exchange of looks in the story. Because in those exchanges is the power of this story, for us this morning.  We have power as people of faith, but oft times we forget it.  


Acts 3:1-11


Okay the ground rule for all parable preaching - you must resist the temptation to think I am talking about you in the parable.  You will think that I wrote this parable with you in mind as one of the characters, I did not. Example: in the Fall of 2008 I played golf once a week with X, the UCC pastor in town.  Xwas a great guy, but a terrible golfer. He thought all of his golfing problems were related to his equipment (external), not his skill (internal). I used a real life instance where X walked up to the tee box and said this hole is set up for a low-flight ball with medium spin, I have just the ball.  He reared back and swung (there was not one thing redeemable about his swing) and hit the ball and it traveled all of six to seven feet. I told this story to illustrate how many times we think an external solution will solve an internal problem. After the sermon, three or four people came up to me and had these responses: “that was me, wasn’t it? I knew my swing needed work, but is it really that bad?” OR “why didn’t you just say you didn’t like golfing with me”.  I shelved parable preaching that Sunday, until this morning because I know you are a mature, reflective and self-differentiating congregation…


This week, however, as I wrote this sermon parables kept emerging off the margins of the page.  I said, go away parables, but they kept pestering me. Sometimes while writing I can sense a poem in the prose, and sometimes I write a poem off the margin of the page.  But this week as I listened to youth (both excited and downcasted) prepare for the Global Climate Strike, as I participated in the Council Meeting where our moderator unveiled an amazing plan for the work of the council, as I watched kids racing one another on tricycles at the preschool, as i watched a preschool parent laugh and laugh at the pumpkin spice sermons note on the sandwich board sign as I listened to stories of care and compassion during the Congregational Care meeting, as I talked to Judson neighbors and blessed dogs, shook hands and read emails and talked on the phone and answered texts...these parables kept emerging.  


Second note, maybe you read A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, an allegorical tale about the Christian life.  In the book there are no characters with normal names, each character is a metaphor with names such as Love, Perseverance, Mr. Worldy Wiseman, and Obstinate.  I’m following his lead...


Here they are, parables of faith-power.  


The Parable of the Climate Denier


One day there was a Climate Denier who said things like, “Why would God give us oil if He didn’t want us to burn it?”  And, “If the earth burns up, so what? That will just usher in the return of Jesus.” And so three upright, faithful, well-meaning people, Data, Persuader and Awe from Judson Church went to pay Climate Denier a visit.  


Data knocked on Climate Denier’s door and of course Climate Denier let Data in.  Data plopped down a six inch binder of spreadsheets on dot matrix printer paper. Data showed Climate Denier there was no logical reason to deny climate change because you cannot argue with the science.  But Climate Denier did not like Data insinuation that they were stupid so they said, “That binder looks and sounds like alternative facts”. Data became furious, grabbed the binder, stormed out the door and yelled, “ignorant fool, it’s because of people like you…”  As Data stomped down the sidewalk Persuader was coming up. Data said to Persuader, “If you’re going to see Climate Denier, it’s no use that person is stubborn as two 5 gallon buckets stacked tight together. But Persuader just smiled and said to theirself, “Oh Data, when will you ever learn, just hide and watch”.  Persuader knocked on Climate Denier’s door. Persuader could tell Climate Denier was shaken and troubled but they went ahead with their plan anyway. “Dear Climate Denier you know that CO2 levels are at an all-time high. If you do not reduce them now it will be too late. You must change now.” Again Climate Denier felt as if they were being insulted, why was it only Climate Denier who must change?  Climate Denier replied, “What about when a volcano explodes doesn’t that spew CO2 into the atmosphere? Besides what harm is it that I drive my car to the grocery store every now and then?” Persuader coolness quickly melted as they got in Climate Denier’s face and yelled, “You dumb as sledtracks SOB don’t you get it? The Climate is changing and it’s your fault. Get with the program. Why don’t you just leave Judson and join X or someplace like that”  Then Persuader stormed out of the house and down the steps and down the sidewalk. Just at that moment Awe was coming up the sidewalk. Persuader was so mad and frayed they just spit and screamed. Awe slowed down and gave Climate Denier some time before knocking on the door. When Awe knocked on the door they did not come in when invited, instead they invited Climate Denier to walk with them. So they walked, sometimes in silence, sometimes chit chatting.  They talked about their aches and pains, they talked about nieces and nephews, and grief and trouble paying the bills, they talked about God and prayer and the unfairness of life. Then they came to a bench overlooking Lake Hiawatha and sat down. They watched in silence as the sun set. After the orange orb dipped below the horizon, Awe pulled out of their bag two glasses and a bottle of Pinot Noir from the X McMinnville, Oregon vineyard owned and operated by an American Baptist family.  As they sipped their wine their faces relaxed even more and they realized how much they needed each other.  


The Parable of the Misguided Pastor


One day Pastor was feeling useless, like all of their work meant nothing - in one ear and out the other.  And so Pastor thought about becoming a politician, but then Pastor remembered the limits of politics and all the handshakes and speeches and crowds - just the thought made Pastor tired.  Then pastor thought I bet I’d make a great organizer. But then Pastor remembered the limits of organizing too and all of the time needed for administrative work, and planning and visioning and phone calling and texting and emailing - the thought of that made Pastor break out in hives.  About the time Pastor was feeling futile the phone rang, it was Broken-hearted they were in the hospital and it didn’t look good, would Pastor come see them. So Pastor pedaled and caught the bus and walked to Broken-hearted’s room. Broken-hearted was about to tell Pastor about their condition when Doctor walked in wearing a white coat, and official lanyard and talking in a velvet voice. Pastor went to leave, feeling useless again but then Doctor started talking to Broken-hearted in a not so kind voice and saying things that weren’t very kind.  So Pastor stopped walking and addressed Doctor, “You can’t talk to Broken-hearted that way. They are a valued member of Judson Church, they are a child of God like you and me. Doctor apologized and regrouped and Pastor never thought again of being a politician or an organizer.  

The Parable of the Forgetful Church


One day three demons, Enormity, Sustained Energy, and Division, came to visit 41st and Harriet Ave. in South Minneapolis.  Enormity said, “I hear you think you’re really doing something with your four working groups: White Privilege, Climate Justice, LGBTQIA+, and Youth Homelessness - well I’m here to remind you of the size of these problems and that one teeny church does, doesn’t matter diddly squat.  And Enormity laughed a wicked deep laugh and stepped away. Then Sustained Energy came forward and said, “Look at you, how long do you think you all can keep this up? Your bones are fragile, your paycheck work will consume you, and your results will never match your expectation Hah!.  Then Division piled on, “You know just for fun I’m going to send my minions of other worthwhile projects to tempt you. They will wiggle and waggle in front of you teasing you, they will make you feel guilty because you are not paying attention to them, they will make others feel jealous because they get all the attention and these issues get none oh it will be so much fun to watch the joy and energy and change drain away from you and watch you shrink back to the size.  As they stood giggling and taunting and mocking Judson their thoughts together said, “nothing more than a pompous mouthful, the best good enough 150 on a Sunday progressive church in America…


And then a person with a walker said, “Hold on.”  And then a youth said, “Yeah, wait a minute.” And then the coveted young family said, “Aren’t we a Resurrection community?”  And at the sound of that the demons shrank, then set of toddler twins went over and squashed the demons and popped them like bubble wrap...