I’ve never been the guy that people want to hang out with. I’ve never been the person that people really want to confide in. For the most part, I’ve been the guy on the outside of the group.
None of this means that I have no friends. It does mean that there is a certain platonic intimacy that I haven’t fully experienced. It does mean learning to be alone.
I’m beginning to understand that the reason it has been such a struggle to make friends is because I’m autistic; meaning, I have difficulty communicating to others. I’ve started to liken this to entering a room where everyone is speaking German and I’m speaking Swahili.
Autistic blogger C.W. Wyatt notes that he is not the one that people want to hang out with:
Hanging out with friends seems to be something that most of my Facebook “friends” do on a weekly basis. Some seem to be hanging out nightly. They are the social butterflies I sometimes envy, because social skills matter personally and professionally.
I don’t get random emails, messages, or phone calls from people asking, “What are you doing tonight?” I can’t recall the last personal, non-work message, that was not initiated by me. People don’t reach out to me without a reason.
The other thing that makes communication difficult is that I’m constantly overthinking every damn thing I do. I obess over saying the right thing to someone. I get nervous that a sign of friendly affection might be taken the wrong way. I tend to think that I do things that are taken the wrong way. This has implications not just in social situtations, but also at work. I’ve ended up on the wrong side of a supervisor for doing something that got me into trouble.
I’m learning that I will always be on the outside. Please understand, this isn’t a pity party; I’m just understanding that no matter how I try to improve my social relationships, there will always be problems.
The sermon podcast is at the bottom of this post.
Matthew 28:1-10 and Acts 10:34-43
April 20, 2014
First Christian Church
It was the poet T.S. Elliot that once said that April was the cruelest month. Living as we do in the Northern United States, we know that April is all sunshine and flowers. April can be rainy and cold and we saw this week snow in April in Minnesota is not an unheard of event.
It was the Facebook posting of a friend that reminded me that April is the cruelest month not just because of the weather, but because some of the most memorable tragedies and disasters seemed to have taken place in April. Here’s just a few: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the genocide in Rwanda, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine School shootings, the Virgina Tech Shooting, Boston Marathon Bombing. I should add that most of these events happened to take place between April 14 and April 20.
My friend found this information on the website Gizmodo. The writer of this article says the following about this week and why is it so terrible:
Of course, if you look back far enough into history, you’re going to find something terrible for every day because, well, terrible things happen all the time. But you have to admit, this week just isn’t a good week for American history. Maybe it’s because of the weather. Maybe it’s because people suck.
The writer’s words were a bit coarse, but in many ways this writer is on the right track. We live in world where death seems to rule. People hurt and kill others that they don’t agree with or are different. People hurt others because of mental illness or because they just want to see people suffer.
These events remind us that things are not right in the world. If we think about this long enough, we might just give up, believing that there is no hope for people.
Today’s scripture in Matthew is about the ressurection of Jesus. The women associated with Jesus’ ministry come to the tomb to finish preparing his body for a proper burial. They had seen what had happened a few days earlier; they saw their friend Jesus die a miserable death. They expected to do the business they had to do and then leave the tomb with heavy hearts.
But something happens. The ground starts to shake violently. An angel appears and sits on the stone in front of the tomb. I can only imagine that having an earthquake and then some odd being dressed in white had to be fear inducing. The guards at the tomb were so frightened that they fainted. The stone is moved and then the angel says to the women: “Don’t be afraid.”
“Don’t be afraid?” Really? You just roll a stone away and cause grown men and you tell people to chill out? God does have an odd way of doing things.
The angel tells the women that Jesus isn’t here. Jesus has been risen from the dead, just as he said. This is a joyous message, but listen to what the passage says: the women leave the tomb filled with fear and joy. Maybe the women were acting like most of us do at times, hopeful for better times, but knowing deep down this might be an illusion. Maybe they were overwhelmed by the odd events and wondered if any of this was real. But they also had to have a bit of excitement that maybe, just maybe, what the angel said could be true. The women carried in their hearts fear and joy at the same time. That’s not so unusual; we always live in joy and in fear. We love our children, but we are fearful of the world we are giving them; we love our work, but fear getting laid off, we are happy to retire from decades of work, but fear how to make financially and it goes on and on. Hoping for the best, planning for the worst, that’s how you have to live in a world of cruel Aprils.
When Jesus appears in this text, he tells the women the same thing: “Don’t be afraid.” I don’t think the angel or Jesus meant that its a sin to be frightened. There’s a lot in this life to fear. Jesus disciples would face many challenges that would cause them to fear. To not be afraid is to not be overcome by the fear. It is to place our hope in the Risen Savior and believe that death and fear don’t have the last word, that love and God will always win.
Easter is really about courage. It is about believing and trusting in God even when things look uncertain and scary. The ressurrection is not telling us that we will never have hard times; it is a promise that reminds us that God is the rock we can cling to when times are hard. The ressurrection is wonderous that Jesus defeated death, but remember, Jesus still died.
As we at First discern our future, we need to mindful that God is with us during these uncertain times. We believe in an Easter God, the kind that conquer death and give us new life. But we are also an Easter people- we believe that Jesus was raised, we believe God is there even when things look dark and hopeless. This congregation, First Christian of St. Paul is called to go from this place and be messengers of this ressurection hope. We are called to share Christ to those who are hungry and homeless, to those who are lonely, to those facing addiction, to the whole wide world. We share this message in word and indeed. We can say all of this in the midst of genocide, shootings, terrorism and the like not by ignoring the evil that is in the world, but by believing in the ressurection power of Jesus in thick of a world where bystanders are injured or killed by a homeade bomb and where a disgruntled person can drive a rental truck to a building in a major city and cause havoc. Nothing, nothing, nothing can deny this wonderous message: the tomb is empty, death doesn’t have the last word.
That is the message we leave here with. April can do its worst, but we are an Easter people serving an Easter God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
About fifteen years ago, I saw a wonderful movie called Soul Food. The movie was about an African American family in Chicago where the family gathered weekly after church for a meal cooked by the matriarch of the family. The meal was filled with things that I love: fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese- all probably bad for my cholestrol, but so good.
It was this meal that in many ways held the family together, and when Big Momma died the meals and the family were thrown into disarray. The skill and cunning of one grandson was able to get the three sisters together to cook a meal and in time bring the family back together.
The apostle Paul is talking about communion here. In fact, he is going back to an event that he wasn’t around for, the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. The church in Corinth was in turmoil and in many cases forgot what this meal was all about.
For Paul, this meal was about proclaiming Christ, the one who would bring salvation to you, to me and to all of creation. It is also an act of grace. On the night that he shared a meal with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him. This meal is not one where we have to be good enough to be there. We come as we are, because we need it. We need to know that God is in the business of saving, we need to know that no matter who we are and what we have done, Jesus still shares a meal with us. We need this because you and me and everyone want to be healed. We need this meal because we are hungry and the morsels the world gives us don’t fill us up. We need this meal because it is the place where rich and poor, straight or gay, black or white are one in Christ Jesus. This is the glue that hold us together.
About eight years ago, I went to a family reunion in Lousisana, where my Dad is from. The food there was just like in Soul Food: all bad, but oh so good. That meal brought Sanders from around the country to say hello and come together. The meal was the glue that brought us together.
The meal that brings us together. Remember that tonight, tomorrow and on Sunday.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photo: My parents and cousin Carolyn at the Sanders family reunion, Pineville, Louisiana, 2006.
Matthew 21:1-11 and Phillipians 2:5-11
April 13, 2014
First Christian Church
If you were watching the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral. It’s an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off. At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.
If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades. The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life. Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a buisiness making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city. While I do think there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the commercial that left me feeling uneasy. I think that the commercial is a tale of sucess. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?
Palm Sunday is a hard Sunday for pastors. It’s not because this starts Hell Week, I mean Holy Week. No, the reason this day is hard for us is because we don’t know what to preach about. We want to make sure people understand the whole story of Jesus last days on earth and we are torn from talking about the entry into Jerusalem or talk about what is to come on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is a struggle because we know that a good number of people sitting in the pews will only come on Palm Sunday and then come back next week on Easter. So, the average person will go from little kids walking around sanctuary re-enacting Jesus’ entry into Jersualem and then a week later the choir is singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” It could make people think that the church is just one big party every Sunday, missing the more darker aspects of Thursday and Friday.
This dilemma has led for pastors and worship leaders to start calling Palm Sunday “Sunday of the Passion.” Some churches will do the Palm Sunday things and include the Betrayal, Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion at the same service. We want people to not leave church not having to come face to face with the cross.
I don’t know if it’s uniquely American or just a sign of the human condition, but we always want to make life a party. We want to have our lives focused on the good things in life, and not the times when we face suffering and heartache.
Maybe that’s why people at times feel a bit weirded out by the cross. Paul has called the cross a “scandal” something that is so gruesome that it makes no sense to make it into a symbol of our faith. I know that I’ve heard people say they didn’t want to deal with hearing about “bloody Jesus.” I think somewhere in our deepest hearts we don’t want to deal with the cross. It’s embarassing. It’s horrible.
In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant. Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically. Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.
Jesus enters Jerusalem with cheers. He comes riding on a donkey, like a king. In fact it wasn’t uncommon for kings to ride donkeys during times of peace. The shout for Hosanna or God Save us. There had to be some folks in the crowd who wondered if this was the one who would free them from Roman oppression. The Romans might have been a bit worried about some new king that could kick them out of Israel. But the real shocker comes later, when this king acts “unkingly.” He arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die. All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king. He couldn’t even save himself.
The cross is an embarassment. Why would a king humiliate himself this way?
Jesus endured all of this for you and for me. We are free from the bondage of sin because of the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus led a sacrificial life, he was given the title of Lord, or king. This is the king that became a king for the salvation of all of creation.
As humans, we want to bypass Calvary. We all want to go from Palm Sunday to Easter. But the thing is, we can’t get to Easter unless we go through the cross. There is no bypass route. Because Christ went to Calvary to enter into human suffering, the church is called to enter into our own Calvarys. We are to be found where there are crosses all around because that’s where Jesus is.
I can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad. I like having a nice house (and the house in that commercial was sweet), and a nice car. But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.
I don’t know who will be coming to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. But here’s a little advice. Even if you don’t go to church on either of those days, please honor that time. Be mindful of Jesus and the act of love that he did by being humble and dying a humiliating death. And then be open to where God is leading us to bring healing and wholness. And remember: there is no bypass from Palm Sunday to Easter. You gotta go through Calvary. Thanks be to God. Amen.
On Saturday, Methodist pastor Alan Bevere wondered why mainline churches are losing their young adults. This was my response.
This is probably going to be a future blog post, but I will offer a few observations. First, mainline churches have done a poor job when it comes to campus ministry with one exception: the Lutherans. When I was working for the local Presbytery, there was one church that was heavily involved in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota, but it was on the conservative end and therefore not given much attention. That church is in the process of leaving the denomination. There is another church nearby that could have a bigger presence and we will see if it does anything. I think that there has been some presence at that church in the past but not much. But most mainline denominations have not invested in campus ministry, which has to be a way to keep kids in church.
Which I think leads to number two; a lack of young adult ministries at the judicatorial level. The big downtown and suburban churches like Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis (where I work now) or Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, have thriving young adult ministries, but that is because there is staff dedicated to that sort of ministry. However, small churches don’t have the resources to reach out on their own. Middle judicatories need to either create resources to help small churches do effective ministry, or work to gather churches in one area to pool their resources and do ministry together.
There is also no talk about young folk as they enter careers. Michael Kruse is better at explaining this, but there needs to be some way that the young Christians learn of the importance of vocation. We pastors have to help them see the connection between their work and their faith.
Finally, there needs to be more expansion of Americorps type programs. The Lutherans have Lutheran Volunteer Corps which again is a breeding ground for new leaders. A few Presbyterian Churches in the Twin Cities are coming together to operate something similar.
Okay one more thing. Mainline churches need to make the main thing the main thing. Too often what we offer is something that is watered down and frankly no different than what is heard at a Democratic party convention. Young people are wise enough to know that if this is what they are getting in their churches, then they don’t need to come to church. They can get their politics from a plethora of places that do it better. We are called to make disciples, not Democrats.
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
That was a phrase I heard a lot when I was growing up. In my evangelical upbringing, there was a stress about living where we are, but not follow the ways of the world. According to the phrase, we are to follow Jesus and not gods of this world.
Around the time of seminary in the late 1990s, I started hearing talk about”empire.” The empire was something that challenged the authority of God. In mainline/progressive churches, talking about empire was their version “not of this world.” The thinking is based on the depiction of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time. It was an all encompassing entity that demanded loyalty and worship. The empire tends to be used also to describe a modern Rome; namely the United States. In this view, Christians are to resist the power of empire which are rather great.
There is a lot of talk about how we should not fall for the lies of the world/empire and follow Jesus. But most our talk is just that, talk. While we denounce the world/empire, we have basically got in bed with the Ceasars of this world. It’s been well recorded about how evangelicals had a Vegas-style wedding with the GOP. What is less well-known- especially to those on the inside is how progressive Christians have swallowed whole left-wing politics. It’s dressed up in churchy language of course, but it’s still a melding of Ceasar and the church. Many progressive Christians are engaged in politics that is basically left-liberal politics and what I think is very disturbing is that they seem to be unaware that they are just as captive as their conservative sisters and brothers.
None of this is to say that conservatives are any better- they aren’t. But progressives are not innocent. Both sides have bought into the conservative/liberal mentality that has become a hallmark of our polarized American society. Methodist pastor Allan Bevere shares how the church has become captive to the political system:
I immediately think of the (United Methodist) General Board of Church and Society that belongs to the first group, while United Methodist Action (affiliated with the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is an expression of the second group. The former group sounds less Christian and more like the Democratic Party, while the latter group sounds less Christian and more like the Republican Party. Indeed, when I read the anything from either group, I often struggle to see the decisively Christian theological presence in their arguments.
The problem is that both groups that Bishop Carter identifies suffer from their own version of civil religion. James Hunter defines civil religion as “a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical prophetic values; American identity is, thus, vaguely Christian identity” (Hunter, To Change the World, p. 145). As Hunter rightly notes, the religious right wants to keep America Christian (as they understand it) and the religious left wants to make America Christian (as they understand it). And since both sides are more decisively Democratic or Republican than decisively Christian, the former is unable to apply their concerns for life and hospitality to the unborn, while the latter cannot apply them to immigrants and gays and lesbians. But a consistent ethic of life and hospitality “represents a continuum from conception to death, from the individual to the creation, from interventions in and support of the lives of unborn children and their pregnant mothers, trafficked and enslaved young people, endangered coal miners, incarcerated young men on death row, tortured prisoners of war, the dignity of the aged, and the fragile ecosystems upon which we all depend” (Carter).
As long our UM boards and agencies and organizations (official and otherwise) and we individual United Methodists are nothing more than extensions of the Democratic and Republican Parties, we will not only continue to be selective as to who receives the hospitality of Christ through us, we will also fail to be the alternative to the world that the church is designed to be. One can’t be an alternative when one simply parrots the prevailing political polarities. Until we embrace a consistent ethic of life, our ethic of hospitality will be inconsistent. We will continue to be inconsistent as long as we sound more like the politicians in Washington D.C. than the carpenter from Nazareth.
The problem in mainline/progressive circles is that we can’t really tell the difference between liberal politics and prophetic witness. We tend to think that if someone speaks out against a conservative policy, they are somehow in the same league of Old Testament prophets like Amos. Frankly, if we are nodding in agreement with what the “prophet” says all the time, that person is probably not a prophet.
But as I said before, this captivity is very subtle. I don’t think people are deliberately trying to neutralize the church, but that is what is happening here. We might tell ourselves that the work for a higher minimum wage is part of God’s plans of salvation, but is out work for God or the Democratic party?
I don’t think the answer here is for Christians to withdraw from politics. We have to be able to engage the world around us. But the answer that has elluded me all these years is how can church leaders raise Christians who understand the political landscape and seek to help Christians make choices based on their faith. It’s too easy for churches to just capitualte to the wider culture. What I think is needed is some room for the pastor to help people discern what it means to believe and act in this culture. It’s going to mean thinking long and hard about issues seeking a way that will help the least of these. It might also mean having to deal with someone that has a different ideology. It means working together to work for healing and wholeness with someone you might not agree with. It would mean really asking God to lead us instead of using God a political cheerleader.
I don’t have all the answers, let alone the vision of this change in the church’s public witness.
A Year A Palm Sunday sermon from 2011.
“To Be Continued…”
Philippians 2:5-11 and Matthew 27:11-54
April 17, 2011 (Palm Sunday)
First Christian Church
About a 10 years ago, I was driving down I-35W from Edina to Minneapolis. All of the sudden, the traffic just stopped. Now usually if there is a traffic jam, the traffic slows down, but it rarely just stops. I looked at the other lane and it was devoid of any traffic…at all. It was a little odd to see a freeway not have any cars on it at all, especially at the middle of the day.
Just then, a caravan of black cars made its way down the empty lane. One of those cars was a limousine with flags donning the hood. It occurred to me that what had just passed me by was a presidential motorcade. Then-President Bush was in town to make a speech in Eden Prairie and as is the case whenever the president is in town, all roads leading from the airport to the location where the president will be are shut down totally to offer he or she protection.
Frankly, I think it’s kinda cool that as president you don’t have to worry about traffic jams. Ever.
Now, I understand why one would shut down roads in order to make sure that the leader of our nation is protected from threats. But all of these measures are a reminder of the power of the Presidency. When the President walks into a room, please stand up. Sometimes it’s even followed by music, “Hail to the Chief.”
Even in a democracy, there are trappings of power. It just kinda comes with the territory.
Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter where we remember Jesus entering into Jerusalem, not in a motorcade but on the back of a humble donkey to cheering crowds. So, we all get palm fronds and wave them back and forth as a reminder of Jesus’ tripumphant entry into Jerusalem.
In recent years this Sunday has also had another name: Passion Sunday. Because in some cases people don’t come to Maunday Thursday or Good Friday services there was a fear people would go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter and miss that whole suffering and death thing that happens between the two events.
So, today instead of reading the traditional Palm Sunday texts we went with the Passion Sunday texts.
In planning for this Sunday, I kept reading Paul’s letter to the Phillipians. It’s not the kind of text one would expect to hear on a day like this, but in some way it is exactly the kind of text we want to hear today. As Jesus starts down the road towards Easter, we have to stop at the Cross. Paul wrote this text to remind us all of who Christ was and how Jesus lived and died on this world and how we are called to do the same thing.
Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi and they are in a jam. They are facing persecution, worried about Paul who is inprisioned, and to leaders in the congregation are bickering with each other. In the midst of all this turmoil is these words about how Christ being equal to God, but knowing gave up his status and position to become a servant even to the point of death. And then he talks about how all of this made a difference in our lives and to top it off Paul calls us to imitate Christ and learn to lead lives of service towards others.
In verse 7 we see the Christ “emptied himself.” In Greek it means to make void to become nothing. It means that Christ set aside the position and power that he had to become a servant, and he willingly became a suffering servant for the sake of others. Now, none of this should be used as a excuse for someone to do violence towards another, but it is a reminder that as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to set aside our standing and status to serve others.
Kara Root, a colleague who is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis recounted a story in the early history of the church that is a wonderful example of being emptied for others. Two major plagues hit the Roman Empire in the years after the church began. It was during these times that Roman doctors literally headed for the hills. Basically, anyone that was not sick, took off and let the sick and dying fend for themselves. Everyone did this; except the Christians. They were the ones who took care of the ill. Why did they do this? Why did they put themselves in harm’s way when they could have ran off as well? Kara notes that they did this because they saw those sick and dying as the sisters and brothers and decided to be in service to them.
In recent weeks, I’ve seen how this community of faith, a community that is not unlike the church at Philippi- filled with chaos and wondering about its future- show a willingness to be a servant to others.
A few Saturdays ago, I get a phone call while I’m at the airport in Mexico. It’s Bob and tells me of our sister Paola and what was happening with her. I did what I could, though it would have wait until I arrived in the States, and so did Bob , but what I saw is how this community rallied to Paola’s aid. They offered clothing, food and even a place to stay. That’s an example of servanthood, setting aside our needs to help a sister in Christ who really needed just the basics.
The act of servanthood by Jesus was something that set us free from the powers of sin and death as my Lutheran friends like to say. Our own servanthood is not only a way to pay homage to what God did in Jesus Christ, but it can also free people. Helping an immigrant, or feeding someone at a soup kitchen or giving someone a shelter who doesn’t have one, being a servant to these folks can give someone life.
I’ve shared with some of you the stories I have of my time in China back in 1999. For those who don’t know, I had the opportunity study abroad during seminary in Hong Kong and mainland China. There are a ton of stories to share, but I want to share this story about a parade. We were visiting these small villiages in remote southwestern China. One day as we walked towards on such villiage we saw that the townspeople had lined the streets to greet us. What had started as a little walk to meet the villiagers turned into a parade. We had become instant celebrities.
But maybe what was even more memorable was the fact that the people in this villiage, actually in every villiage, made us food and wanted us to eat with them. Believe me when I say that I ate so much rice, that it took a while before I wanted to eat it again. It meant a lot to them that guests were arriving and they did what they could to welcome us and make us feel at home. They didn’t have much, but they gave what little they had for our enjoyment.
This coming week, we will go through the busyness that is called Holy Week. It is so easy to just go through the motions or even just forget about it and not listen to the stories. The story of Jesus in the last week of his life is one that we need to listen to again and again. It’s not just something we have heard before, but this story, this act of service and love has made a difference in our lives. For the love of God, let us go out and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.