Sermon: Joy in Safetyville

Exodus 20:1-20
Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 5, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to the Sermon

-826adfcef174d44bI get my hometown newspaper, the Flint Journal  via email daily.  Like a lot of newspapers, the Journal prints a physical copy only four days a week, so a lot of what they do is online.  Everything Thursday they have a feature called Throwback Thursday, something that has been done on social media for quite some time.  Since the Journal has a vast selection of old photos, they spend each Thursday looking back at something in Flint’s past.  One week about a month ago, the featured a place called Safetyville.  Safteyville was located east of downtown and it was a place where kids went to learn about living with cars safely.  This place existed from the mid-1960s until the early-80s.  Safetyville was a miniature town with kid-sized buildings and roads.  Kids could get into small cars and learn how to drive safely.  For nearly twenty years, kids from the Flint area learned how to be safe drivers and pedestrians from the time spent at Safetyville.

A lot of people have great memories of the place which if you think about it is rather odd.  This was a place where you learned the dos and don’ts of driving and walking around cars.  Learning the rules of driving is not always the most exciting thing, but the people behind Safetyville made it exciting.  They knew how to make something that could seem burdensome into a thing of wonder and mystery.  A place where you were to learn the rules was a place that brings fond memories to adults who are now in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Read More…

Sermon: You Didn’t Build That.

Joshua 24:1-25
Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 12, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon

obama-you-didnt-build-thatEvery presidential election is always kind of a silly season in America.  People hear what a candidate says and it becomes fodder for the opposing side for weeks.  Certain phrases enter the body politic and are remembered for years after the election.  And this is not a modern phenomenon.  In 1884 as Grover Cleaveland was running for President, allegations surfaced that he had fathered a child out of wedlock.  His opponents began chanting “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”  After Cleveland won the race his supporters fired back: “Gone to the White House, ha,ha,ha.”

In 2012, there wasn’t any chants like that, but there is one phrase that stuck out above all the din.  It was something that President Obama said, something that supporters of Governor Mitt Romney picked up and ran with.  The phrase is “You didn’t build that.”  If my memory serves me correct, the phrase came in a speech reflecting the role of government in our society.  The GOP milked that phrase for all it was worth.

Now, this sermon is not, I repeat, is not about the role of goverment or a rehash of the last Presidential election.  I’m wary about being partisan in the pulpit, so I’m not interested in talking about politics, at least from this vantage point as a pastor.

That said, this phrase is interesting to me, not because of politics, but because how it lines up with today’s passage.  The phrase reminds us that we are not where we are becuase of our smarts, but because God has been with us all the time.

Read More…

Why I Hate Columbus Day (It’s Not for the Reason You Think)

columbusdaynoTomorrow is Columbus Day.  Like a lot of folk, I never gave the holiday much thought over the years.

But I have paid attention of it over the last few years and I’ve come to dread the day.

Tomorrow, when I look at my Facebook or Twitter feed, I will see a number of posts maligning the day and the man.  Now I get why Columbus Day has become troublesome.  Columbus wasn’t a nice man at all.  I’m even up for changing the focus of the day.  What I am not for is the amount of self-righteous preening on social media where everyone is falling over themselves to share their “outrage” against Columbus and all that happened in his wake.  It amounts to nothing and changes nothing.  As blogger Nathaniel Gives said last year, I doubt that a lot of the people complaining are going to do anything serious like maybe give back land taken or even trying to improve the plight of Native Americans. Several cities have voted to change Columbus Day to something like Indigenous Peoples Day, but unless we are doing things that helps educate the public about Indigenous Peoples the excercise amounts to little.

If people are really concerned about this, if they want to change Columbus Day to something more fitting, then maybe people should look back to the Martin Luther King holiday.  In the 30 years since it became an official holiday, communities accross the country take part in events that both teach and celebrate the life of Dr. King.  If people want to create an alternative holiday, then start spending time teaching communities about Native Americans.  Have Native American speaks talk about their customs and traditions.  Make Indigenous Peoples Day or whatever the hell you call it something that educates people.

And what about Columbus?  Matthew Inman, the writer of the popular Oatmeal cartoon wrote something for Columbus Day last year.  Someone it does dabble in the standard denunciations, but he does say something that is important to remember: “History is full of terrible people doing terrible things, so instead of casting a shadow where there is already darkness, I’d much prefer to cast a light.”  He then proceeds to talk about Bartolme de las Casas, a priest who worked to end slavery in the New World. Columbus wasn’t a great guy, by any stretch of the imagination.  While I can understand why Italian-Americans pushed for Columbus Day’s creation, this is a different day.

So, sure work for an alternative.  But do something more than tear down a historical figure.  Teach people.  Help those indigenous peoples who are still dealing with the after affects of Columbus and everything after.  But do me a favor: if you don’t plan on doing anything else but going on Facebook, stop thinking like you are some kind of angel for “speaking out.”  It’s lazy and self righteous and won’t make a dime’s worth of difference.

The Landscape for Mission (and Theology)

One of the things that my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is trying to do better is helping people understand the context in which they are to be church.  An initiative, the  Landscape for Mission has come out that helps people explain the changing society that we find ourselves in and insight on what we can do.  I like the production value and I like that the four videos tell some hard truths about the denomination, something that a number of Disciples refuse to admit.

Where I think it falls short is in the area of theology.  I think we need to do more than address the situation of a declining denomination and offer reassuring words.  I think that among Disciples there is a massive deficit when it comes to theology.  Theology isn’t something professors do in seminary, it is about trying to understand our faith especially in the light of changed circumstances.  We need to do more than say the church is declining; we have to ask, what is church? Who is Jesus?  What does it mean that Jesus died on a cross?  What does it mean that Jesus was raised?  What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is mission? What is the mission of the church? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Disciple in this day and age?  Even more basic: What is a Disciple?

Fellow Disciples pastor Robert Cornwall has noticed the lack of theological thinking within Liberal Christianity with some concern.  In a posting written last month, he shares a quote from Canadian Theologian Douglas John Hall:

In short, Gospel needs theology; and where it is truly gospel and not just spiritual sound-and-fury gospel will evoke theology. It was fashionable during the Liberal period to minimize the importance of the epistles of St. Paul, or even to dismiss them. But without Paul’s theological acumen, which is reflected as well in the gospels, the early Christian movement would have split into millions of mutually exclusive and quarreling cults, and we should never have heard of the Christian religion. The fundamental claims of the Christian message by their very nature, including their boldness and universality, require the most intensive, committed and sustained thinking that human beings can manage. This thinking is not something added to the hearing of gospel; it is inherent in that hearing—to the extent that where such thinking is not evoked by what is named gospel, it must be questioned whether the thing so named is what it claims to be.

To which Cornwall adds:

If we are to call ourselves Christians and consider God to be a part of our lives, then this will require clear and thoughtful thinking about God and the things of God.  Hall notes that prior to the 4th century, when theology became more clearly the domain of the elite, Christians engaged in a lot of God-talk.   After Constantine, we left it to the experts.  While at one level theology requires significant training and expertise, at another level it can be and should be something engaged in by all of God’s people, otherwise we simply become another group therapy session.
Though we needn’t be dogmatic, and doubt is part of the theological process, we needn’t be afraid to embrace the gospel with its theological dimensions.  The key is holding our beliefs with a dose of an “absolute perhaps.”  That is a phrase I learned from another colleague, who with me recognized the importance of theology.  Can we not engage in conversation with the “absolute perhaps” standing at the center of the conversation?
Cornwall and Hall didn’t write this with the Disciples in mind, but it rings true.  As a denomination we don’t even look to the thoughts and musings of one of it’s well-known founders Alexander Campbell to even have some understanding of the Disciples views on mission and ministry.
I know that I will get painted as a naysayer, but I think one of the reasons the Disciples are in the situation they are currently is because we haven’t really taken the time to think theologically.
Maybe, the Landscape for Mission will foster more ongoing discussion and theological conversation.  I want to believe that.

Sermon: Running to Stand Still

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 28, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

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Where have you seen God today?

 

Dennis at the BusLast year, in the midst of getting my parents moved to their apartment, Daniel and I took a mini vacation around places in Michigan and Ohio.  We stopped at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, which of course is the also the town where the headquarters for Ford is located.  I hadn’t been in the museum in about 30 years, so I was excited to walk through the museum again. There are a number of famous cars in the building including a number of Presidential limosuines, some cars from the last 70 or 80s years and exhibits on how the car has changed American society.

 

But there is one display that has become the heart of the Henry Ford’s collection.  It’s an old city bus painted in yellow and green.  It’s the bus that civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was on that sparked the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.  As most of us know, in the 1950s in many parts of the South, blacks had to sit in the back of the bus and if they were towards the front and a white person entered the bus they had to move towards the back.  One day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger who entered the bus.  The result was Parks was arrested and blacks in Montgomery began boycotting the busses to protest an unjust law.  It was during this time that a young preacher came to prominence for taking leadership during this boycott.  Martin Luther King became the other public faith of the boycott and after Montgomery he became the face of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

 

All of this started on this bus that now had its home in Dearborn, Michigan.  In the years following the boycott, the bus was sold and ended up in farmer’s field.  In the early 2000s, the bus was found, restored and delivered to the Henry Ford for permanent viewing.  Rosa Parks had moved to Detroit in the years following Montgomery and before she died in 2005, she was able to see the old bus that was witness to an earth shaking change in American society.

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

It’s been 25 years since the events at Tiennamen Square took place.  I was in my second year of college at the time, and I remember seeing footage of the protests.  What was going to happen?  Could political change come to the world’s largest country?

 

We got our answer on June 4 when the Chinese Army came in and removed the protesters from the square.  When I mean removed, I mean slaughter.  Scores of mostly college students were killed or injured by the army.  I remember seeing the footage of the destruction of the Goddess of Democracy, a Chinese version of the Statue of Liberty that took root in the square.  The downfall of the statue was also the downfall of hope for a different way of governing the country.

 

There is another image that remains.  You’ve all see it.  In the aftermath of the crackdown, there is a sole man in the middle of a wide avenue standing in front of a line of tanks.  It seemed that no one else was around.  This man stood his ground against these large tanks and at one point even got up on one of the tanks.  No one ever knew who this man was or what happened to him, but he was a symbol of defiance in a hopeless situtation.

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

The people of Israel were now free.  They had spent years as slave under the Pharaoh, a leader that didn’t know their ancestor Joseph and how another king welcomed Joseph’s family with open arms.  God hears the cries of the Israelites and raises up Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.  Pharaoh was stubborn and his heart was hardened.  He would not let the Israelites leave.  God sends 10 plagues or catastrophes that wreack havoc on the Egyptian people.  After the last plague, Pharaoh had enough.  He kicked the Israelites out.  Moses and the people of Israel left and started making their way to the Promised Land.

 

The people might have thought the nightmare was over.  But it wasn’t over.  Pharaoh’s heart hardened again and he decided to go after the fleeing Israelites.

 

The Hebrews were at the shore of the Red Sea with the advancing Egyptian army on their tail.  Things looked hopless and they shared their fear with Moses.  “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? 12 Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt?”  Moses tells them to stand strong, be still in and know that God will be with them.  God tells Moses to tell the Israelites to “get moving.”  They needed to be ready when God works to save them.

 

And save them God did.  God caused a mighty wind to blow back the waters of the mighty sea so that dry ground would appear.  The Israelites were able to walk through the newly dry ground and away from the Egyptians.  The Egyptians went in after the Israelites and God causes the waters to come crashing in on the army which was totally destroyed.

 

“Don’t be afraid,” Moses said to the people. “Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

 

Do we believe God can make a difference in our lives?  Moses told the people that God was going to rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians, with their mighty army.  Logic tells us that the Egyptians were going to slaughter the Israelites.  They were a powerful army with the tools of war; the Israelites were former slaves that probably didn’t have much.  Moses tells them to stand still, to stop their worrying and fretting and see what God is doing.  God tells the people to start moving in faith.  Together the people were called to run and stand still.  Both meant that God was moving, but the people needed to believe God was going to win the battle against the Egyptians.

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

There’s a reason that I keep saying that same sentence.  It’s because in mainline Protestant churches like this one, there is a tendency to not see God in our daily lives.  Some take this a step further and think there no such thing as divine action by God.  Methodist pastor David Watson notes that the world wars of the last century, the holocuast and other attrocities have led mainline theologians to focus on the nature of evil to the exclusion of believing in a God that can do miracles. All of this has had an effect in our churches.  Watson writes:

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

 

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

My observations make me agree with Watson, we don’t expect God to show up.

 

Some theologians think that the who experience at the Red Sea didn’t happen as we think it might or what Cecil B. Demile thought.  They think that all this might have happened at the Reed Sea, a shallow body of water.  The winds could push the waters back allowing the Israelites to escape and causing the Egyptian chariots to bog down.

 

I shared this with the folks at our Wednesday Bible Study.  Which story makes sense?  The consensus is that we liked the more familiar story, because it was more dramatic.  I would agree, but I think there is  related reason.  We want to believe that God shows up and fights for the Israelites.  We don’t want a nice explaination, we want a miracle.  We want to see God in action.

 

We have no idea what happened that day.  Maybe it was the Reed Sea scenario, maybe not.  What makes the difference is that God was active and the people believed God was alive and working for them.

 

It’s time for us to believe that God is going to show up.  It’s time to stand still and stop worrying.  To stop and see where God is active.  It’s time to believe that God can make a way out of now way in this church, in our lives and in the world.  We need to believe that God is a healer that can restore the sick even if our prayers are not answered.  We need to believe in a God that in the words heard in the black church growing up “woke me up in the morning and started me on my way.” We need to believe that the bread and wine of communion remind us of Christ’s time on earth and Christ’s work in our lives now.

 

We have to believe in a God that can do miracles, because if we can’t believe God will show up, it’s hard to be church and it’s hard to persuade anyone to come to church.

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

In history, God was at work with Rosa Parks as she stood against segregation.  God was at work with that one unknown man in China as he faced down tanks.  God is at work, feed the poor, welcoming the homeless and the outcast and facing down the Pharaohs in the world.
Where have you seen God at today?  Stand still to find out and then move out in faith.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: God Is Good?

Genesis 39:1-23
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 21, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Sermon.

Before we go into today’s text, some backstory.  Joseph was the son of Jacob who happened to be the grandson of Abraham.  He was the youngest of Jacob’s sons.  Being an only child, I’ve never totally understood sibling rivarly, but this is definitely a textbook case.  Jacob doted on his youngest, keeping him from doing the really hard work.  He even gave him a fancy robe, something his brothers didn’t get.

 

Of course, his older brothers hated their little brother.  But they didn’t react by whining, they wanted to kill Joseph.  Ruben, one of the brothers was able to disuade his brothers from offing Joseph.  Instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and was soon on his way to Egypt.

 

potipharswifeThis is where we find Joseph at the start of chapter 39.  Joseph was sold as a slave to the house of Potiphar.  He has gone from a favored son to a slave.  But as the passage notes, the Lord with Joseph.  He ends up in the house of a high-ranking Egyptian official.  After a time, Joseph went from being a common slave to running the household.  He went from working in the elements to working inside and managing the affairs of the household. Joseph was so good at what he did, that his boss completely trusted him with everything.

 

So far, Joseph’s story sounds very much like a rags-to-riches story.  Our society loves these kind of stories.  We love hearing about someone who was down and out and some how improves himself despite the challenges set in his way.  We love these stories because they talk about someone who through hard work is able to pull himself up by his bootstrap and succeed.

 

Now, when you hear these stories, most of the time we never talk about what happens after they “make it.”  We want to believe that the pinnacle of success is constant, but of course, nothing ever stays the same.  We can go from making $100K a year to losing a job  and then making $24K in a lower paying job.  Things can go from good to bad in a second.

 

So, Joseph was doing well.  God was truly with Joseph.  But was the good time a sign of Joseph being faithful, of being rewarded by God?  But would God still be with Joseph when things took a turn south? Read More…

Corporal Punishment, Race and Adrian Peterson

Note: I need to say that this blog post is NOT an endorsement of corporal punishment.  The post is reflecting the some of the more complex emotions on this sensitive issue.

Adrian-Peterson-child-injuryWhen the news first broke about Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson being indicted for physically abusing his child, my “official” belief was that what he he did crossed a line.  Parents can discipline children, but if the photos that have been shown are true, well, this was way beyond a little pat on the butt.

But deep down, I felt an odd feeling- knowing that sooner or later, the issue would move to talking about corporal punishment and what role it should have in parenting if any.

I have to say, that if I ever have children I’m pretty sure I would not spank them.  I just don’t think that this line of punishment works anymore.

That said, when people start talking about how horrible it is to spank children and what horrible parents these people are, I get angry at the those people. Read More…

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