Reformation 500…Now What?

I was asked to share my sermon preached at the 2018 ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly. The assembly met with the theme, Reformation 500…Now What? Following is the sermon I shared with the community.

Our text today is from Acts Chapter 2, versus 1-21. In it, we find the community of believers from all over the world gathered on the day of Pentecost.

The disciples there, who have walked with Jesus, have been through a time…

They had experienced the awe of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the hope of the gospel, the betrayal by one of their own, the joy of the resurrection, and the fear that those who crucified Jesus might be coming for them next.

And so they gathered, all together in one place…now what?

Since the Protestant Reformation, the Church has been through a time over the last 500 ½ years. There has been awe and hope, betrayal, joy, and fear.

Today, we gather, here, together in one place, pondering…now what?

Listen, I know “Now What?” moments can bring a wide range of emotions – some people are excited about the possibilities, others are rolling their eyes – but, I also know that from the beginning of time, God has shown up in “Now What?” moments.

When Adam and Eve were hiding there in that garden, naked, ashamed, and alone, wondering “Now What?,” God showed up and loved them enough to make them some clothes.

When Sarah and Abram got to a place where they could not see a way forward, when they had tried their own way and failed, wondering “Now What?,” God continued to show up, reminding them of the promise, exceeding their every expectation.

When the prophets had tried over and over again to lead the people in a different direction yet all of humanity failed, and they wondered “Now What?,” after some silence, God showed up, and Jesus came to redeem us all.

Now, on the Day of Pentecost, as this community of believers stood in the room from all over the place, speaking different languages, having different lived experiences, wondering “Now What?,” God showed up, and the Holy Spirit changed the lives of the people in that room forever.

The winds of change stirred the people, opening their mouths to speak, and ears to hear and understand each other unlike ever before, inspiring, and empowering them for ministry, to go share and live the gospel.

They came into the room one way and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they could not leave the same. They were stirred beyond stagnation. They proclaimed God’s mighty acts in different ways. They walked out among the people and the people were amazed that the believers were speaking their language for the very first time.

I wonder…in what way is the Spirit blowing among us now, opening our ears, hearts, minds, and mouths to speak the language of the people around us, because for what’s next, we’re going to have to understand each other, and not just understand the language of our native land but understand the language of our faith?

See, what I have experienced in my time as a Mission Developer, walking around neighborhoods and having coffee and talking with people who are unchurched, is the reason most people are unchurched is not because they have never, ever, ever heard of Jesus before. So many are unchurched because they have not found a place in the institution of church that seeks to speak about Jesus in the same language that feels natural for them.

They come into church, craving a language of acceptance but finding a language of judgment. They come into church longing for a language of inclusion, but finding a language of racism, sexism, and ageism. They come into church, sure they will hear a language of justice but instead they hear silence that is deafening.

Church, I wonder what do people hear when they gather with your faith communities? What don’t they hear? Can they hear the grace, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ reaching to the margins, reaching to them?

My prayer today is the answer to this question is yes, unequivocally yes. In each and everyone of our congregations and ministry settings, I hope that the love of Jesus is proclaimed in such a way that anyone who walks through the doors or encounters you on the streets would know that Jesus loves and welcomes them and so do you.

I’ll never forget very early on in my first new start in Boston, we were having Advent Camp and I had placed a sign out front that said, “Advent Camp, All Kids Welcome.” A woman, her 6-year-old daughter, and 3 year-old son walked in, hesitantly. They were greeted at the door, invited over to participate with the other kids, they had a great time.

Afterwards, mom told me how happy she was they had a good experiece. She said the only reason they came in was because her daughter begged her to come. Originally, she told her no, that it wasn’t for them; but, her daughter said, “The sign says ‘All Are Welcome’, so that includes us.” Mom said she wouldn’t let up so they came in. And, she was relieved that they were actually welcomed.

See, turns out this family, up until two days prior had been homeless for two years. They had been living in their car, while they still had it, and then a shelter. They had just that week been placed in temporary housing by the city, across the street from the church. And, this opportunity at Advent Camp was so special because her kids didn’t often get opportunities to do things with other kids.

What struck me about this experience was that it never occurred to the 6-year-old that she wasn’t welcomed; and, it never occurred to her mom that she was. Mom’s experiences with church over time were such that a 20-something Latina with two kids and no job, who were all homeless up until just the other day could not just walk in a church and be welcomed just because the sign said so.

The Holy Spirit is burning today, a hot flame and a blowing wind opening our ears to hear and understand the people around us, calling us to be the voice of grace, hope, love, and justice our communities need, calling us to extend real welcome to people, so we might share the story of Jesus.

What would happen if even more than ever before, we started really hearing and understanding our neighbor?

Now What?

Now, the Holy Spirit is blowing among us, sending us out into Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, opening our ears to hear the voices that go unheard among us in our neighborhood.

Now, the Holy Spirit is sparking a fire within us to look at our church, to see the people still sitting on the margins of our congregations, synod, and national church.

Now, the Holy Spirit is calling us to move beyond hearing and understanding to action – to be the hands and feet and voice of God in the church and community.

Now what?

Now, we have to shift our language and understanding about the Reformation. See, I often experience us as a church talking about the Reformation as a particular event or period in history; but, I believe the future of our church is critically dependent upon us moving from celebrating and relishing in the event of the Reformation and moving forward to living into the spirit of the Reformation. We have to move from the proper noun of the Reformation to the regular ol’ noun of reformation – the act or process of reforming an institution or practice.

Reforming – to make changes in something in order to improve it. The very definition itself suggests continuing action. It implies a relevant response to the current context. It suggests we continue to reform, over and over, and over; we do not remain the same.

Church, we are standing in a Now What moment and I believe the Spirit of the Living God is saying the time for the Reformation was not just 500 ½ years ago, the time for reformation is now!

Now what in Alabama? Now what in Georgia? Now what in Mississippi? Now what in Tennessee? Now what with declining church attendance? Now what with competing priorities for time and money? Now what with the culture around us shifting?

Beloved, I know you have a lot going on. I understand people are busy. I understand money is short. The mere idea of more change may make you shudder. But, the commission remains to go, from the day the first disciples stood on that mountain with the risen Christ and received the Great Commission to this very day. We have not been called to remain stagnant. So, in the face of our current context, we have to become even more creative than ever before.

We are living in a time where we have to learn to pivot while we juggle. We are juggling competing priorities but we have to stay relevant and pivot when necessary to engage our current context. We cannot fully live into vital ministry if we are a 1958 church serving in a 2018 world.

Where is the Spirit blowing us in our communities today?

Now what?

We have had potlucks with AME colleagues and watched the movie Selma…and maybe even 13th…But, Black people are still being arrested at Starbucks and Waffle House; shot at when asking for directions; and having police called for having BBQs, taking naps in their dorms, pushing their baby in their baby stroller in the park, playing golf, checking out of the AirBnB house, showing a real estate client’s house, and arriving at their own house.

Now what?

We have approved the AMMPARO strategy as a church for protecting migrant minors; but, parents and children are being separated at the border and there are children sleeping in cages like animals.

Now what?

We have offered our thoughts and prayers, we have marched with signs held high, we bought the t-shirt, and we hashtagged Never Again and Enough is Enough on Facebook, Twitter AND Instagram; but, our babies are still dying in their classrooms, so Enough is clearly not Enough.

Now what?

The mission field is fertile and God still has plenty of work for us to do, Church. The Spirit of the living God fires us up even more fiercely to continue to reach towards the margins and declare the love of Christ in the hurting world around us.

What if we heard the voices around us even more clearly, the ones that typically go unheard? When we understand the stories of those around us, we are able to receive even more of the full glory of God because without these voices, we are missing a part of what God is doing.

The Spirit came at Pentecost regardless of gender, education, sexual orientation, income, ethnicity, or social status. The story of Jesus is intertwined in all of our stories and in the stories of every person we meet. If we ignore any of those stories, we are stifling a part of the witness.

And, the Holy Spirit is not a fan of being stifled, quenched, or silenced. You can try to control the Spirit but She will still have her way. We have to be open and prepared for what may come next. It won’t always be a gentle breeze.

Sometimes – oftentimes, even – we will be called to hear and understand the story of someone very different from us. Though they may be different, their story is a part of God’s story just like ours and we are called to embrace that story. We are all created in the image of God and the image is only truly reflected if all are included.

And, wouldn’t onlookers look upon the church in a fresh new way if rich people were talking about God together with poor people and adults were talking about God together with children – not like “awe that’s cute, baby” – but really taking them seriously. Wouldn’t onlookers look at the church differently if the college-educated were talking about God together with those who did not finish high school. And, if transgender people were talking about God together with cisgender people. And people who had never been to prison were talking about God together with those who had – without judgment or pity. All calling on the name of the Lord, together!

Oh, wouldn’t that change the way some of the people who just aren’t sure about Jesus, who aren’t sure about this church thing felt about coming to church? This vision isn’t something I randomly dreamed up. I believe it is the vision of the kingdom of God, and I believe it is the answer to Now What?!

I wonder: What passion is ignited in you today for hearing and sharing the story of Jesus in a whole new way? Who do you need to open your ears to hear in your neighborhoods? Whose story do you need to understand? I encourage you this day to be fired up about sharing your story and hearing the story of those around you.

But, here’s the thing…we can’t go just one little place, to those neighbors just like us who make us comfortable, and decide we’re done. No. The Holy Spirit is blowing us out to go to our neighbors over there to the left and share stories with them and engage them. Then say, well, “Now what?!”

Then go to those neighbors over there to the right, share stories, serve together. Then, say, “Now what?!”

And head over especially to that place you never thought you would go and love the people there like never before. We leave there encouraged because that was a tough one, but we’re not done yet. The question remains, “Now what?!”

What about the people around the corner, you know, the ones we might drive by on the way to our beautiful sanctuaries, ignoring their need for sanctuary.

They are whats now.

The Spirit keeps calling us to say…”Now what?”…over and over and over and over and over and over again until Jesus comes.

Beloved, what’s next won’t be easy. But, you would be hard-pressed to find a time in scripture when God called somebody to something easy.

Just ask Noah who had to build an ark before it ever rained before. Just ask Moses who had to lead some whiny people in the wilderness for 40 years. Just ask Joshua who had to take the whiny children and whiny grandchildren of those whiny people into the promised land. Just ask Esther who had to stand up to the king to save her people who were exiles in a foreign land. Just ask young Mary who birthed a savior. Just ask that savior, Jesus, who had to die on a cross for the sins of the world.

What’s next may not be comfortable. But, we are reminded, the One who calls us is faithful and God WILL do it.

So, let us finish our work here this weekend and walk out of this place, fired up for what’s next.

And, now, may the winds of Holy Spirit blow you into new places and new spaces to engage new people who the church has never engaged before. May you be ignited with new ways to serve to bring about the mission of God in your community. May the winds of the Holy Spirit lead you to break down boundaries that divide.

May the passion of peace ignite a fire in you. May the winds of joy lift you off your feet. May the fervor for unity light you into action. May the winds of love blow through your communities. May the fire of the Holy Spirit ignite you to speak life to a broken world.

Amen.

Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney

2018 ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly

June 2, 2018

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Building Bridges: Connecting with Neighbors

It was my privilege to spend a couple of days this week at the “Bold Like Jesus: Crossing Borders” conference in Greensboro, NC. This is the third gathering of pastors and lay leaders from across North Carolina and is an ecumenical learning opportunity about evangelism hosted by the AME Zion, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Moravian denominations.

I served as one of three presenters, with the focus of my session on “Building Bridges.” There’s much we can learn from Jesus as we bridge connections with neighbors in our communities and there is much to learn from the actual process of bridge building. It was at this intersection that I focused my comments. I was asked to share the material I presented today for use in congregations. It can be downloaded by clicking here: bold-like-jesus-building-bridges-presentation (Note: some pictures have been removed to reduce file size.)

Connecting with the community can be exciting and invigorating but it also requires being ready to step out of our comfort zone and not being afraid of failure. Here’s what I shared as my “Be-Attitudes of Bridge Building”:

  • Be prayerful
  • Be open to the move of the Holy Spirit
  • Be authentic
  • Be creative
  • Be flexible
  • Be willing to fail
  • Be okay with being rejected
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable
  • Be approachable
  • Be willing to go beyond the surface
  • Be a team player
  • Be relevant to your context
  • Be willing to keep trying
  • Be reminded…you’re not saving your neighbor – Jesus already did
  • Be joy-filled!

Go out and build bridges.

Happy connecting! Pastor Tiffany

(Photo source: http://www.bridgerun.com)

 

What I Learned About the Power of Story

Having over 10,000 people in 67 different countries read your story teaches you some things. At least, it has for me.

Four weeks ago I shared my story of being an African American woman who is Lutheran. I debated about sharing it right down to the last minute before pressing submit. I was very aware that sharing my story came with risk; this is why I noted that I was either wise or foolish for doing so (the jury is still out.) But, the risk was not all that resulted in my hesitation. You see, I am not one that typically chooses to be vulnerable (Brene’ Brown is helping me.) Sharing my experience in the church is by far the most publicly vulnerable thing I have ever done. And, today, I am so very glad I did it.

Over the last four weeks, I have read as many comments about the blog as possible across social media sites and responded where I could. I have had conversations in person and by phone, email, and Facebook messenger.

There are a few things this experience has taught me.

I have learned to never be afraid of my truth. Owning my truth is liberating for me and sharing it allows me to be a vehicle through which others can be liberated.

I learned the power of story. So many of you have shared your story with me. I have heard you say my story is your story. You have shared the particular phrases and quotes from my story you have heard time and time again. You have shared your stories of how you have experienced being on the margins of your own denominations and work places. You have shared your struggles with being a white ally but your commitment to continue doing this work. You have shared how my story empowered you to share your own story with others.

I have heard you say the ways in which you are convicted by and struggle with this work. I have heard some of you courageously admit that a part of you really doesn’t want to change; because, frankly, it is more comfortable being comfortable – but you have committed to not let that part of you win. Some of you admitted you don’t know what to say or what to do; but, you know you cannot be silent. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Thank you for choosing not to be silent.

I have heard you say my story has helped you to be renewed and re-invigorated for this work of racial justice. You have connected your hopes for the church we are becoming with my own hopes.

I have always used story as an interesting teaching and preaching technique; and, those who know me personally know I can always work up on a random story to illustrate a point. But this experience has helped me to really understand the power of story. I believe all of our stories united together, when moving from story to action, has the capacity to radically change the world.

So, today I encourage you to please share your story. The world needs it.

The day after I posted my story, I shared the following on my Facebook page: “Thank you to the very many of you who have taken the time to read my story. I am incredibly humbled that in just over 24 hours more than 3,700 people took the time to read, like, share, retweet, and comment on my blog. I am also incredibly sad. Something about pressing “Submit” on the blog yesterday made it more real. But, more than I am sad, I am hopeful and I am free. Free from living under the veiled cover of the effects of racism on people like me. Beloved, we have been silent for far too long. My colleague Andy Arnold commented, ‘thank you for sharing your story and for your persistent belief that the evil of racism will not have the final word…’ And, that is all this is about for me. I just refuse to let the sin of racism win. I am free to continue using my voice to share the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of a broken world. You are free too. To join me on this journey. Thank you for your willingness to do so. Live love.”

Thank you for being a conversation partner with me over the last four weeks. May we continue to be partners as we move from conversation to action. May we go into the places and spaces where we have influence and ask who is not at the table and make sure they are invited. May we listen to people different from us and shape ministry together. May we avail ourselves to experiences other than what is most familiar to us. May we unite to not let the sin of racism win.

I look forward to crossing paths on the journey. God bless you.

Yours in Mission,

Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney

Living Lutheran: My Story

Following are remarks I shared at the ELCA New England Synod Lay School of Ministry event today, where the theme was “The Church We Are Becoming.” I have debated about whether it is safe to share my story beyond today’s audience. Wisely or foolishly, I have decided to do so.


As we move towards being a church that is more diverse, I consider it important for us to learn to hear the stories of the lived experiences of people of all ethnic backgrounds so we can better understand what it means to be a diverse church. Today, I share my story with you of being an African American woman in the Lutheran Church and my hopes for the church we are becoming. Here is my experience “Living Lutheran.”

I am a child of an organist. This means, growing up, I went to church every Sunday of my life unless I was sick or we were on vacation.

When I was 8 years old, I proudly served as the Sunday School secretary. It is the first leadership role I can recall holding in the church. It was a very important job, which included a pretty responsible-looking clipboard from which I did my work. I maintained attendance and offering reports from each Sunday School class and I called on a person from each class to share what they learned that day.

From this point, my ministry quickly catapulted to include singing in the youth choir (please note: my love for music far exceeds my gift for music). I taught Vacation Bible School, served as acolyte and lector, read the church announcements, and led the youth group.

I went to a Lutheran elementary school, so even at school there was church.

I was confirmed with a great group of people, many of whom I am still connected with today on Facebook.  I still remember our debates in two years of confirmation classes and have our picture in our white dresses and dark suits. I remember the words of Jesus from my confirmation verse: Matthew 6:33, ” But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

When I went to college and after my first semester my parents passed down one of their cars for me to drive, one of the first places I drove was to the Lutheran church near campus and I took a friend with me. There, I served on Church Council for the first time.

Not long after, I moved to a new city as a young adult, I scoured the web before I moved and, consistent with my type A personality, I developed a detailed list of Lutheran churches, complete with Mapquest directions, for my visits. Consistent with the ways of the Holy Spirit, my itemized list proved unnecessary after I visited the first congregation on my list and knew immediately it was for me. I never visited another. There I served as treasurer and young adult deacon, developed a singles ministry, and began discerning my call to ministry.

During this time, I served as a lay person on my synod’s Commission to Plant New Congregations, where I heard amazing stories from people called Mission Developers, who were called to develop or redevelop congregations.

A few years later, I found myself in a Lutheran seminary many miles from home and sensed a call to be just like those Mission Developers I had the opportunity to interact with years before.

Ultimately I was called to develop what has become a ministry with wonderful people, a ministry that strives to be a blessing to the community it serves. I was called to this place called Dorchester, a place I had never heard of before I received a phone call inquiring about my serving there, this place where I have seen God – the tangible, incarnate presence of God in the streets of this neighborhood, in the people I serve at The Intersection, in the ways the Spirit has moved in this ministry.

Rooted in the experience of my life and my family is the Lutheran church. Woven in the fabric of my life are beautiful stories of where I learned about Jesus’ love and grace, where my faith began to teach me how to engage the world, where I understood God calling me, where I made friends.

Yet, the toughest thing I have ever tried to be in my life is both black and Lutheran.

I have done tough things before – I’ve been to graduate school twice. My final semester in seminary, I simultaneously took 5 classes and worked 3 jobs. I’ve started a congregation from scratch. Yet, the difficulty of those experiences pale in comparison to my experience being both black and Lutheran.

My original topic for this session was centered on helping you discover the diversity in your own neighborhoods. I was going to make cool maps based on your zip codes and slides with neat graphics to show you how diverse your neighborhoods are and compel you to go out there and meet your neighbors and engage them in ministry.

But two weeks ago, I realized that this is not what I need to talk to you about today. So, I shared with your program organizer the need to change my topic. To instead share my story of being a person of color in this church. Because I realized that you don’t need me to tell you demographics to go find your neighbor and neat ways to go out and engage your neighbor. Instead, you need me to inspire you to hear the story of your neighbor. To truly hear. And to respond. And to see Christ in your neighbor. To hear Christ in their story. And when you do, you’ll discover you’ve known all along where the diversity is in your neighborhood and you’ll discover how to go out there and engage your neighbor.

So, there are no neat graphics and fancy maps today. Only a story. My story.

If, right now, you’re disappointed because you expected me to teach you something today instead of just talking about myself, I want you to know that I do plan to teach you something. I plan to teach you to hear the voice of people of color, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

If you are already uncomfortable, imagine how I feel.

So, my objective today is to share my experience being both Black and Lutheran to move you. Move you not with the end goal of guilt but with the end goal of action, action that will help this church be the church I hope we are becoming.

The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.

Why?

Well, first, because I regularly have my identity questioned.

I remember about 10 years ago, I was dating a guy who asked me about my church and I told him I was Lutheran. He responded: “Lutheran…What’s that?!” It turned in to a huge argument, not because he didn’t know what it meant to be Lutheran. I wasn’t surprised by that. This denomination is not well known among Black people, in general. But, what I was so angry about, was that this was the church I loved and he responded as if it was something unidentifiable stuck under the bottom of his shoe. I was offended that he had questioned my identity.

What I did not know then, that I do know now, is that it is far worse to have your identity questioned by someone on the inside, than it is to be questioned by someone on the outside.

I cannot count the number of times I have been asked by Lutherans what it was like when I became Lutheran… or the better, sister question of what it was like when I converted from being Baptist. When asked this question, I wonder why it never occurred to the person that maybe I was baptized at 2 months old in the Lutheran Church and confirmed at 12, just like them. I wonder if they could ever even imagine my grandparents were a part of a group of families who began a Lutheran church 70 years ago.

In addition to my identity being questioned in the Lutheran church, the cultural representation of my worship is also questioned.

At the time of the boyfriend offense 10 years ago, I still primarily only knew personally, black Lutherans. People from the predominantly black congregations where I had been a member or went to school and a few other congregations in the areas I lived. The white Lutherans I knew personally were all linked to those congregations. I knew other white Lutherans from area youth events and the like; but, we did not interact often.

It wasn’t until I began to become involved in more synod ministry and then joined a predominantly white congregation that this demographic balance began to shift for me.

I discovered one of the first places of tension between cultures in the Lutheran church is worship.

Time and time again, I have experienced Lutherans offering disparaging remarks about the cultural style of preaching, music, and other worship style accustom in the African American tradition.

Many times those elements of culture expressed in African American worship and preaching that are inherently a part of my experience as an African American Lutheran, are seen as other than the norm. For some, this cultural “other” is understood and appreciated. For others, elements of my faith experience that seem so natural to me are described as “not Lutheran,” as a “religious other.”

In seminary, my least favorite week every year was not mid-terms or final exams; it was “Preaching with Power” week. “Preaching with Power” is the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute’s annual celebration of preaching, teaching, and music in the African American Tradition. And, it is the time, every single year for three consecutive years, I got to listen to the sidebar conversations of my Lutheran classmates griping about the preaching and music during this week, an audible and embarrassing intolerance of other Christian denominations but also of Black preachers and worship experiences in the Lutheran church. One week out of the year, there was worship at the seminary expressed in a way that felt culturally relevant for me and it was the one week many of my classmates could not tolerate.

Seminary is certainly not the only place I have experienced my worship questioned. Earlier this year, I was talking to a woman from a Lutheran congregation about The Intersection. She asked me if we had “Lutheran worship.” I thought maybe she was confused at first since Lutheran is not in our name. I reminded her that The Intersection is a congregation under development of the ELCA and told her, yes, we have Lutheran worship. She said she asked because one time she went to this one Spanish congregation in New York and they weren’t Lutheran at all. I asked her what about them wasn’t Lutheran. She began to describe the paintings of Latinos on the walls of the church. Apparently, because Jesus wasn’t white, they weren’t Lutheran.

Someone said to me once, after the first time I preached at their church, I didn’t know what to think when I heard you were black…but you’re good!

I wonder if they know I don’t receive that as a compliment. I take no pride in being a good Black…good enough to measure up to their standards set for a black preacher.

When I hear and read complaints about congregations having to adjust their liturgy when the presiding bishop calls us to confess the sin of racism in worship, it makes me wonder why they don’t see crying out for justice for people who look like me as the work of the people.

When they say, we already did that last month, when the presiding bishop asks again, I wonder if they care that people who look like me are still hurting, this month.

When colleagues tell me how hard it was for them to preach about Charleston, I realize it is probably because they never said a word about Trayvon, Rekia, Eric, Michael, and Tamir.

When people are angry because they think talking about race is too political and we shouldn’t be political in worship, I want to SHOUT out that this is not about politics, it is about love.

But then I remember that I can’t shout because then I fit the angry black woman stereotype that often gets black women uninvited from tables and I know I cannot affect change if I am not at the table. So, instead, I withhold my passion, and I work to compose finely crafted words, ones that will lead people to tell me how articulate I am, and how moved they are by the things that I say.

The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.

A couple of weeks ago at Bishop’s Convocation, the presiding bishop made the comment that this country is set up for white people. As she said this, I realized, in a multitude of ways, so is this church.

I am fascinated that there are people comfortable with all white leadership, staff, and decision making tables that are not diverse and reflective of the cultural and geographical experiences and realities of people served.

I have been told I am a superstar in this church. It is hard for me to think they believe the words they are saying, when, in the same conversation, I am questioned about whether I am best to make decisions about the ministry I serve. I can’t help but wonder if my white superstar colleagues are also questioned about whether they are best to make decisions about their ministries. I wonder if the commenter knows what I hear them really saying is: you’re good, you’re just not good enough. Blessedly, I know God who called me to this work disagrees.

But then I am grieved, because if what I have experienced is superstar treatment, my heart breaks to even consider the treatment of those who are thought of as simply mediocre.

It can be easy to wonder if these experiences are real or perceived. It was somehow affirming to me this week when I had a chance to hear Bishop Gayle Harris, an African American woman serving as bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, share her experiences in ministry. She commented, “Being a woman and being black, you always question how people are reacting to you.” This is my truth.

I have heard several Lutheran leaders say of racial justice work that we have to begin by going really, really slowly with this because this work is really hard for many of our congregations who are at the very beginning of doing this work.

I wonder if they realize what that sounds like to the person in pain. Like, if the same person were sitting on my neck, would they tell me it was too hard to get up all at once, so they are going to start getting up slowly?

Would they say that first they need to study why sitting on my neck is a problem. And after their eyes have been opened to the pain of sitting on my neck, they will begin to struggle with whether it’s really their fault that they are on my neck in the first place. I mean, don’t I realize they didn’t actively sit there themselves, they were placed there when they were born and that’s not their fault.

Would they tell me they are hopeful because the millennials are better at getting off people’s necks and the next generation and the next will be even better at getting off my neck. Do they know when they say this it tells me that there are still decades before they might get off my neck, that I should be content with the pain until then?

Would they tell me they need a break from talking about sitting on my neck because this is really hard for them? I wonder if they know that tells me that their feelings are greater than my pain because all the while they are taking a break from talking about my neck, my neck is still breaking and I can’t breathe.

These are the things I have heard about working to dismantle systemic racism in this church and it feels to me like someone sitting on my neck saying they need to get up slowly. Meanwhile, I can’t breathe.

One of the toughest things I’ve ever tried to be is both Black and Lutheran.

Some people think the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to develop a Lutheran congregation from scratch. It is not. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is building a Lutheran congregation from scratch with people of color, when I know good and well the hardest thing I’ve ever done is be a person of color in the Lutheran church. It feels like I’m hurting them too. There are days I question whether I have broken my ordination vow to not give illusory hope, by going out and welcoming people of color to a church that is not yet for them.

So, why do I keep doing the toughest thing I have ever done?

Because I believe God and I believe in the theology of this church. I believe Jesus comes to the places where people can’t breathe. Jesus comes to the people whose necks are being crushed and Jesus lays right there beside us, pushing against the weight, too. Jesus continues to come to broken people in broken churches and continues to fight to put us together and mold us into the church we are becoming.

I believe that I am saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. I believe you are too. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world – poor people, LGBT people, physically and developmentally disabled people, the bullied child who is just a little different than his classmates, and people of color. I want to tell these people they are loved and they are not alone. I am called to share the good news with them that the Lord meets them there on the margins and loves them to better. That Christ shows up in the person of people who believe this too. Those who fight with us to push and pull the weight off the necks of the marginalized. I want to tell them that there are those who are willing to fight to help them breathe.

If I did not believe this, I could not be both black and Lutheran.

But, I do, so I continue to work to help create the church I hope we are becoming.

A church where we stop questioning whether a person is Lutheran enough and instead start reframing that question to expand Lutheran identity to include lived experiences beyond those rooted in only certain cultural expressions.

A church where we understand Lutheran worship as Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending expressed in culturally relevant ways. A church that realizes one can be Lutheran and not sing ELW setting 3 every week. A church where we check ourselves on this whole idea of what it means to be “Lutheran enough” because the vast majority of what I hear people call “not Lutheran” has absolutely nothing to do with Lutheran theology and everything to do with whether the way someone else worships matches the way they worship in their own congregation.

The church I hope we are becoming is a church that is willing to work inside out to dismantle racism in the systems closest to us – in our congregations, synods, Churchwide organization, and on to our neighborhood, cities, country, and world. One that eliminates systems in our church that crush people of color. A church where when we see that we are not living into our call to be more diverse, our call to deal with the systemic racism infecting the church, that we call each other out, even if it hurts.

A church that will go into the places and spaces unfamiliar and uncomfortable to us because we love the people there enough to go even at risk of making ourselves uncomfortable.

I have hope that this is the church we are becoming.

So today, I have no neat evangelism tips for you to go increase the diversity in your congregations. I’m not going to tell you one story about The Intersection’s Zumba class or cooking class.  I have no handout or pictures to show. No long list of bullet points.

Only this. A story. My story. A story about loving your neighbor enough to work towards becoming the church I hope we are becoming. Love them enough to use your voice to repair the places this church is broken. Love them enough to invite them to the table to build the church of Christ, not just do church the way you are comfortable.

Love them enough to make this church a place that is welcoming…not fake welcoming…but truly welcoming. Because there is a difference and they will know it.

You cannot tell your neighbors who are people of color that God loves them, and go out in your yellow shirts with your congregation’s name on the back, and tell them you are God’s hands in the world, if you are not going to use your hands to push yourself off their necks and then pull others off too.

Go, hear the stories of the people in your community. Go, observe their lived experiences. Go, show up and just be with people. And, when you do, you will figure out how to serve them. When you hear their stories, you’ll come up with creative ways to do ministry alongside them. Ways to join what God is already doing in and among them. Because, let’s be clear, God is already in your neighborhood with them. You don’t need to save them. Jesus did.

Go. Be the church that “shares a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.”

Amen.

–Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney, November 7, 2015