What a Week

(My weekly church blogpost shared here, as our church website is in transition)

Remind me not to take vacation during the last week in June ever again.

I remember watching the Phil Donahue Show one summer in late June as a kid, shortly after school let out (I was a really fun kid. Really.). They were talking about the constitutionality of burning the American flag in the wake of United States v. Eichman, a case that ruled as unconstitutional laws that banned the desecration of the American flag on free speech grounds.

The guests were passionate. The audience members were opinionated. There was lots of energy around this issue.

From that moment I got more and more interested in both politics and in the flag, and I learned quite a bit about both. I read the Constitution and the Flag Code, and various opinions about both. One of the lessons I learned is this: even though school is out and summer has started, late June – when the Supreme Court releases its most anticipated rulings – is one of the most consequential times of the year for our country.

In the past week, the Supreme Court has ruled on marriage, healthcare, environmental protections, fair housing, and congressional redistricting, among other issues. Together with the outrage following the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the heated – yet very important – discussion surrounding the Confederate Flag, it was a significant week for our nation.

Now, in the midst of all this news and critical issues before our country, the church cannot be silent. At the least, the church and its leaders should seek to make sense – in terms of faith – of what our society is experiencing in this moment. Even more, the church and its leaders should be public voices for justice. After all, a lamp isn’t lit to be set underneath a bushel (Matthew 5:15), the call of a prophet is to cry out loudly against injustice (Isaiah 1:23, for example), and the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Cries for the church to stay out of politics, and for preachers to speak on matters of faith not politics, miss the point. Jesus engaged in ministry publicly. Jesus spoke about how people treat one another. Jesus died at the hands of government – publicly. The prophets of old decried how society neglected the widow and the poor. Faith without works is dead, and one work of faith is to seek a more just society that improves the health and welfare of any who suffer injustice, indignity, poverty, hunger, and oppression of any kind. Faith is inherently public, and is inherently concerned with public things.

After all, Jesus’ main way of speaking about God’s intent for humanity was to speak of the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is like ….” Kingdoms are societies. They are inherently social, public, corporate. The life of faith is not just something we keep to ourselves, individually.

Even more. Faith is not just one part of our lives, but informs the whole of our lives. We do not put faith on and take faith off. Faith is not just found in one box in our closet, to be taken out on Sundays and holidays. Faith is part of all that we do. Faith informs all of our actions. Faith – and the God in whom we have faith – is concerned with all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Thus faith led me to weep when nine African Americans were murdered while at prayer. When one member of the body of Christ suffers, I suffer. Faith led me to ask tough questions about the legacy of racism, the power of symbols, and the unfulfilled promise of “we the people” seeking to form “a more perfect union.” In faith I read where Scripture tells me that “love bears all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), and that we are called to “bear another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Looking at the burden of racism and the legacy of oppression that my sisters and brothers bear, I grieve and ask, “How can I bear this burden with them?” I don’t have a very good answer. The question gnaws at me. The status quo is not working. Racism persists. This sin, and the structures that were shaped by it, need to be dismantled.

Faith led me to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling on marriage, extending marriage rights to same-gender couples in all fifty states. For years couples and families have lived without the dignity and legal protections of marriage. Medical decisions, estates, health insurance, shared property ownership, and so many other protections and opportunities were denied to same-gender couples and their families, to our neighbors and friends, to Soldiers wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, to our fellow human beings and sisters and brothers in Christ. Legal prohibitions created a hardship for millions of people. Faith celebrates when hardships are alleviated, when “the lowly are lifted up” (Luke 1:52). Faith rejoices at wholeness and healing and justice.

In neither of these issues am I directly implicated. I am not black. I am not gay. Yet that is precisely the point. Faith is not primarily concerned with the self. Our faith is primarily concerned with the whole of society and the care of the other. “Love does not insist on its own way,” writes Paul, speaking to the faith community in Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:5). Faith is oriented toward the justice and renewal of the Kingdom of God and those who live within it. Justice is experienced – and enacted – in community. Faith is inherently interested in the community and the world.

So too, I believe, is the American Experiment. The United States was established by “we the people” to establish “a more perfect union.” The Bill of Rights was written to restrain society, its government, and its majorities from trampling on the rights of individuals. But more than a mere restraint function or a statement of the rights of individuals, the Bill of Rights and the eloquent call to create “a more perfect union” speak to a positive view of a society in which “liberty and justice for all” is the goal.

In the critical conversations about race that our nation has begun since the Charleston shooting, and in the celebrations and hand-wringings and questions of “what’s next?” following the Supreme Court’s ruling, our nation is one step closer to realizing its calling to form a more perfect union. Such steps are difficult, and ours will never be a perfect union – sin will make sure of that.

Yet we strive ever forward, as Christians and as Americans, to make ours a more perfect union. Such a more perfect union begins to take shape when our focus turns from self to other, and we recommit ourselves not to insisting on our own ways but instead to bearing others’ burdens … to seeking liberty and justice for all.

Talking about Politics and Sexuality at Church

This November, Minnesota voters will have the chance to accept or reject a proposed state constitutional amendment that would write a definition of marriage into the state constitution. Understanding the sensitivities that arise when talking in the church about either politics or sexuality – let alone both! – I shared the following letter in my congregation’s August newsletter as a first step to kicking off a formal conversation about these matters.

Dear members of Grace,

We’re about to ramp up to a busy fall election season – every member of the state legislature is up for election; there’s an election for President of the United States, and an election for one of our US Senators; and, there are two state constitutional amendments up for approval in November. It will be busy. The airwaves will be crowded. You’ll hear and read lots of conflicting and diverse messages. As bothersome as all the advertising might be – and yes, it will be – there are important matters before us, and we should take care in preparing to cast our votes.

One of the topics before voters this November will be the issue of same-gender marriage. Same-gender marriage is illegal in Minnesota, and the proposed state constitutional amendment would write a prohibition of such marriages into our state constitution.

If you open your worship book to page 286, you’ll find the Marriage liturgy. Marriage has been part of human society for eons, and has been part of the life of the church for over 1500 years. Marriage is among those rites of the church that are sometimes referred to as “pastoral services,” that is, as non-sacramental services that accompany significant moments in one’s life. The church has been interested in marriage for a long, long time.

Yet the church’s role in weddings is not an uncomplicated matter. Marriage is a legal union of two people that is regulated by the state. The government determines who can marry whom. When pastors preside at weddings they are officiating over a ceremony that is simultaneously civil and religious – enacting the civil marriage in the eyes of the state, while also proclaiming God’s blessings upon the couple. The church’s ministry with marrying couples is indeed intertwined with the government’s policy on marriage.

Rarely do Christians have the opportunity to cast a vote in the public sphere on a matter of such historic significance in the life of the church. Few times, if ever, have ballot initiatives or constitutional amendments been so clearly connected to the life of the church as is this upcoming vote on a state constitutional amendment that would limit marriage to opposite gender couples. This is a unique time for our church and for our state.

Marriage is in our worship books and is among our church’s most cherished traditions. And this November, marriage will also be on the ballot. Clearly, we in the church should be talking about this. We’re not all going to agree, of course, and some of us might be weary of such conversations. But I invite all interested members to share conversation, prayer, deliberation, and study around these matters, in informal conversation and in structured settings. At dates and times to be announced next month, I will convene a series of gatherings for any who wish to explore these matters here at Grace.

In this election season, we pray that God blesses us – and the people of this state – with a spirit of understanding and a desire to seek the greater good.

Peace to you,

Pastor Chris Duckworth