On Wednesday night at our “First Wednesday Speaker Series” we watched the documentary “A Time for Burning.” The documentary is a 1966 film which explores the attempts of Pastor Youngdahl of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, to persuade his all-white congregation to reach out to black Lutherans on the city’s north side. The film was directed by San Francisco filmmaker William C. Jersey and was nominated as Best Documentary Feature in the 1967 Academy Awards. The film was commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America.
It is a thought provoking documentary even though it is fifty-three years old. On one hand one can watch it and then say, “look far we have come.” I don’t. When you look around the church on Sunday morning, what do you see? It is still mostly white. I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
Pastor Youngdahl in his attempt to bring Lutherans together by having voluntary cottage meetings with both white and black Lutherans, he was forced to resign. Many people from his congregation essentially said, “The pastor is moving too fast. The timing is not good.”
To put it bluntly, those were lame excuses. It was not too fast and the meetings were completely voluntary. No one was being forced to do anything. This is what “power” does. It tries to stop anything that it is not comfortable or status quo. “Let’s just keep the peace and not upset the apple cart.” Power tries to preserve power. Letting others who are different into the system constitutes a loss of power.
But the Church and the Gospel are not about power. As a matter of fact, Jesus always sided with those who were without power and on the outside. People like: fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the poor, children and foreigners. The people of power hated Jesus and saw him as a threat. People like: Pharisees, the Sanhedrin, the Roman Governor and the Chief Priests.
Jesus loved and cared for people who (in the opinion of those in power) were outside of God’s love. These people were sinners and therefore unloved by God (according to the power people). When people see others as less than human or unloved by God because they are “sinners”, there is an effort to keep them “contained”, marginalized and outside the Church.
We have seen the Church change its mind about sinners, power and outsiders over past 2000 years. It began with allowing Gentiles to be recognized as Christians. For many years, American Christians justified slavery and the oppression of our black brothers and sisters with the Bible. We even changed our minds about women serving as pastors. Today we struggle with other issues of inclusivity that threaten to split some churches or at least cause some to leave.
In the documentary, we saw that the mayor of Omaha (a white man) was more progressive and inclusive than the white churches of that community. It is sad for me to see the government ahead of the church when it comes to equality and that seems to be the case today for many churches.
It is not our job to decide who is worthy or welcome. We are all unworthy and we all continue to sin. In other words, we are ALL in the same boat. Our job in the church is not to judge sin. Our calling is to love and point people to Jesus. If we mistakenly think we can stop sin in our neighbor we are delusional. Think about it, we can’t even stop sin in our own life! Only Christ can heal brokenness.
The Church should be a place for ALL people. Not some people or people like me. We need to stop using sin as litmus test for who is granted admission to the church. Using that yardstick, none of us are welcome.
The Church in the United States still wrestles with the sin of racism. Some more than others. That is not the only issue that excludes.
In the documentary, the children of the parish had no problems making friends with people who are different than themselves. Today it is no different. Our children lead the way as well. Let us listen to them. It is quite possible that they may teach us something about the grace and love of Jesus.
I highly encourage you to watch this documentary.
God bless you all,