A sermon from 2004 preached on the third Sunday of Advent.
“What are you Dreaming Of?”
Luke 1:47-55, Matthew 11:2-11
December 12, 2004
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
I don’t know, but I sometimes wonder if we start to dread this time of year more as we get older. It’s the little things that start to bother me about all the hype surrounding Christmas. For instance, on my way to work every morning, I pass by the Marshall Fields store in downtown Minneapolis. They have several Christmas window displays all centered around the theme, “What are you dreaming of?” And then they have piped in music to accentuate the theme. Actually it’s only one song, “White Christmas,” that is played over and over. Now it is played by different artists, so you get a traditional version one moment and a hip-hop version the next, but it’s still the same song. I have to say, that passing by this display, five days a week and having to hear “White Christmas” all the time, has wonder if this is what Christmas in Hell would be like. I think for the remaining few weeks of the season, I will just walk on the other side of Nicollet Mall.
As annoying as that display is, it’s theme does make sense at this time of year and it relates to today’s texts. “What are you dreaming of?” What are your hopes and dreams? And how does that relate to the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ?
In the texts today, we meet two people who have different dreams of the Savior. The first is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. John was a fiery preacher and preached repentance in order to be safe from God’s judgement. Last week’s gospel tells us a little about John’s version of the coming of Jesus. Here’s what John said when some Pharisees came to be baptized:
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. b c 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, John we can tell from this that John would not do well with pastoral care. John had a vision of God as a righteous judge that would come and take names. He wanted a God that would punish the wrongdoers to everlasting punishment. His Jesus was one that made people quake in their boots.
So, he was a little confused when he began to see that his cousin was not all that he was cracked up to be. Here was John in prison and soon to be executed for challenging those in power, and he had to wonder if this was all worth it. He saw a man that was not acting like the righteous judge, ready to kick some theological butt on those who oppressed others. Instead he heard of a guy that healed people, met with all types of people including the dreaded Pharisees and was kind of on the meek side. John had to wonder if all of his rabblerousing was for naught. He was dreaming of a mighty warrior and well, he didn’t see that in Jesus.
Now look at Mary. This passage from Luke is called the Magnificat, where Mary announces the wonders of God. It is one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture. At the time, Mary was young, an unmarried teenager who happened to be pregnant. If that’s a bad position to be in today, it really was a bad position back then. And yet she thanks God that she has chosen her, a poor Jewish girl, to give birth to the one who would bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. Mary’s version of the Christ was not one of a spiritual Rambo who would destroy, but of one that had done great things in the past and that looked with favor on the powerless and the lowly, the nobodies.
So, what are you dreaming of? Who is Jesus to you? I think it would be safe to say that we don’t expect Jesus to be this Rambo Savior. However, many tend to think that Jesus was simply a good man with good teachings. While that is somewhat true, it’s not a complete picture. The reason we celebrate Advent and Christmas is that God came down to earth to be with humanity and to liberate us from sin. A powerful God, became a helpless baby, who then became a poor, itinerant rabbi who touched the untouchable, and talked to those to others shunned. Jesus is became, Emmanuel or “God With Us.” The noted author C. S. Lewis once said this about who Jesus was:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either he was and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
If we hear Jesus’ response to John, we have to conclude that this is the One whom was promised, God who came to earth and walked among us. And because he lived with us, he made all the difference in our lives.
Recently, I was listening to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” it’s afternoon news program. A commentator talked about how he tended to not think much about Christmas since it focuses on the baby Jesus who did not say anything controversial. He believed Christians should focus on Easter when Jesus rose from the dead instead of this quiet Jesus that suits our commercialized culture.
While I agree that Christmas is too commercialized, he misses the point of this time of year. Advent and Christmas are not about shopping or about a silent Jesus, as much as it is about God coming to earth: and because God came in the form of Jesus, the sick are healed, the hungry are given good things and the lowly are exalted. Salvation has come in the form of a baby.
So, what are you dreaming of?
“Things Can Only Get Better”
Second Sunday of Advent
December 8, 2013
First Christian Church
When I Daniel and I moved to our house in North Minneapolis back in 2007, there was a large Silver Maple tree in the backyard. This tree was quite fruitful, because we were always getting rid of little saplings that seemed to appear everywhere in our yard. Three years later, we decided to expand our house. We also learned the maple tree was diseased, which meant it was susceptible to falling over. So, we called a service and had the mighty tree taken down.
As I had said earlier, we were doing some remodeling which would include a bathroom and bedroom. We wanted to have hardwood flooring in that room and Daniel came up with an idea. There’s a business in Minneapolis called “Wood From the Hood.” The company specializes in reclaims wood from discarded trees in urban areas an turns them into wood products. In our case, the silver maple was taken and turned into plank upon plank of blonde hardwood that now grace the downstairs bedroom. What was once a diseased tree ripe to fall down, was turned into something useful and beautiful.
We are continuing our journey through the book of Isaiah during Advent and on the concept of waiting. Today’s passage is one of hope. The people of Israel have seen their land divided into two kingdoms. At some point, the Northern Kingdom was overrun and fell to conquering armies. The Southern Kingdom’s days were numbered as the Regional powers in the area rattled their sabres. In the midst of all this, the writer start’s talking about some guy named Jesse. For those who either don’t know or remember, Jesse was the father of David, the great king of Israel. All of the kings of the Southern Kingdom were from the line of Jesse. Some were kings faithful to God, and other, not so much. In the last days of the Southern Kingdom and during exile, there had to be some thought that the royal lineage was gone forever. No more kings.
But the writer tells the audience to not loose hope. He says that life will spring from the stump of Jesse’s tree or family lineage. A shoot will spring up and this bearer of hope will rule with justice. Lions and lambs will sleep together in peace.
The writer was telling the people that even though things look dark, there will come a day when a new Davidic king will arise and rule not only the Israelites, but all the nations with justice.
It’s important to note that there were no more kings of Israel after the fall of both kingdoms. So, what was the writer talking about?
For Jews, the stump might be Hezekiah a king of Judah that instituted a time of righteous reform. But Christians have seen this passage as talking about another ancestor of Jesse, that is Jesus. Out of a lineage that didn’t produce kings anymore, would come a great king, one that would make all the difference in the world.
God has a habit of using things that seem useless for God’s great work in the world. God used a dynasty of a long ago king to bring salvation to all of creation. Jesus would usher in a new kingdom unlike any the world has seen.
As I was preparing this sermon, I kept thinking of stumps, actually one particular stump, this congregation. This an old and established congregation that is nearly 130 years old. If we could walk up to the stump of First Christian St. Paul/Mahtomedi, we would see ring upon ring of history. But we would also feel a bit of sadness because…well, it’s stump. There’s no tree. And it can feel like that all that is left of this congregation is a stump.
But what if God is not done with us? What if there is a green shoot growing from the stump? What if from the big stump, a new plant is growing and over time will grow and grow? In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve been amazed at how much faith you all have. In many cases, when a church is down to a handful, the tendency is to close. But you didn’t. I don’t know why you didn’t, but if I would hazzard a guess, it would be that you saw a green shoot coming up out of the stump. You saw life where there wasn’t supposed to be any. You had faith that God was doing a good work here and you are waiting to see what God is doing. I know congregations that are larger than you that have just given up.
The birth of Jesus was astounding. The coming King was born when Israel was a backwater of a large empire. He was born to an unmarried woman. And yet, God did wonders.
I want to end with a quote I found this week as i was preparing for this sermon. It’s by Barbara Lundblad a Lutheran theologian. Here it is:
“What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s beginning? Perhaps then we will tend the seedling in our hearts, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Do not wait for the tree to be full grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: “Look! Look — there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?””
During this time of year, may God give us the patience to let the little seeds we see in the world grow. And as God’s work grow, may we grow in faith to see God’s mighty deeds. Amen.
A few things on my mind:
- I’m about to declare a war on the war on the war on Christmas. Progressive and Evangelical Christians lob attacks at each other. Ummm…guys, remember we’re supposed to be focusing on that Jesus guy?
- David Brooks, who is back to his writing gig at the New York Times after an extensive leave, writes about how politics has taken over so much of our lives at the expense of culture. I think that’s also found in the church as well. Most often I hear arguments that mirror partisan arguments, just with more Jesus-talk.
- I used to think social media like Facebook and Twitter would bring people together. It can, but more and more it has become a place where we can stay safe in our ideological silos.
- There’s an article going around where President Reagan’s spokesperson jokes with journalists about the AIDS crisis. Partisans are already showing this as proof positive of how terrible (read, evil) Reagan was. It is a reminder that the administration was rather indifferent to the problem. The thing is, I don’t know if a second term President Carter or President Mondale would have done much either. The problem is that this illness was striking populations that people didn’t much care for. Thirty years later, our society is much more accepting of gays and of people with HIV in general. The culprit is more the culture than any party. Thank God things have changed. Let’s hope such indifference never happens again, but knowing humanity, it probably will.
- I’m leading an informal group that is focused on new church and church transformation in the my Region (Christian Church in the Upper Midwest). It’s been an up and down year. On the downside, I’ve had a number of folks who at least said they were interested in starting a church, and then I never hear back from them or they decide not to. It’s been frustrating because I want to see new churches in the area, but maybe there is a reason. The upside is hearing about churches that are being transformed and changed to do mission. I’m looking forward to seeing where God is a doing a new thing in established churches and starting new ones as well.
- For those who don’t know, my position with the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area was eliminated last month due to budget issues. My last day on the job is December 10. It’s been a good six years here and I hate to leave. I won’t be out of work though, I start on December 11 at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church doing IT and electronic communication.
- Earlier this year, Presbyterian Pastor John Vest wrote a blog post in which he said that mainline churches are good at managing their decline. I agree with him on this. I think mainline churches have to see themselves as something worth saving. Sometimes I fear that we don’t think we are worth saving.
- Friendship has always been a mystery to me. Aspergers has made it hard to find ways to connect, but I also fear saying something at the wrong time. If I gush about what a great friend someone is I fear it will be taken the wrong way. But silence doesn’t help either. Maybe this is why I don’t have close friends.
I don’t follow financial guru Dave Ramsey much. I’ve heard him a few times on NPR, and I know he’s about offering folks some practical advice on debt and basically how to live financially. I also know that he blends his faith into his talks on economics. I think he does a good job with what he does; giving folks some hard truth when it comes to finances.
Ramsey is facing some harsh criticism from some fellow Christians over a recent blog post on his website. He shared a list from another site entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” Bloggers such as Rachel Held Evans and Morgan Guyton have wrote strong responses to the post, which in turn has led Ramsey to update the post, lobbing some barbs of his own. I wanted to offer a few insights on my own.
First off, I don’t know if this is different for white Americans, but among African Americans it is normal to have a wide range of economic classes in one family. You can have someone who makes six figures and someone who is on food stamps. What this means is that African Americans tend to have a better working knowledge of poverty than whites. One of the things I notice among some of the folk I know that are poor is that they do make bad decisions. Now, I agree with some of the latest studies about how poverty makes people make bad decisions. That said, such findings should not put us into some kind of economic fatalism. People need to be aware that their situation can make them do stupid things, but then they have to learn how to go against the temptation. Of course, lifting people out of poverty should do the trick, but in the immediate present, one has to learn to not make those decisions even when they seem tempting because money is short.
Second, I don’t think this list (which I think I’ve seen before) is putting the poor down. It simply focuses on a kind of empowerment. Yes, there are barriers to this. But that doesn’t mean the poor shouldn’t try. I find it interesting that Evans takes Ramsey to task for advocating eating healthy when the poor suffer from “food deserts” but ignores the fact that people and groups like First Lady Michelle Obama also advocate for the poor to eat better. I haven’t seen any blog post condemning Ms. Obama for her advocacy.
Third, poverty is a complex thing. There are both internal and external factors that cause poverty. Coming from the post-apocalyspe landscape that is Flint, Michigan, having a major industry in a one-horse town leave can be devastating to that city, resulting in poverty and crime. But poverty also has roots in bad decisions as well. Conservatives tend to focus on the latter and not as much on the former. I think that’s a problem. But liberals are also at fault on focusing on the external and not the internal. Both are major drivers of poverty and have to be addressed. This is not about blaming the poor- it’s about helping the poor live smarter and ultimately lifting them out of poverty.
Fourth, I tend to think that progressive Christians tend to idolize the poor. We lift up verses talking about God choosing the poor and somehow see this as some sort of sainted state (for others, not for ourselves). God is on the side of the lowly and that includes the poor. But I really don’t think God wants the poor to be poor forever. Poverty is a sin, a sign of the brokeness of humanity. I think God would like to see the poor prosper and live better than they are now. Which leads me to my final point:
I think progressive Christians have to come to terms with prosperity. If you mention the word, prosperity in liberal Christian circles, you are more than likely to hear it as an adjective that comes before the word “gospel.” We have a vision of slick-haired preachers that come around telling people that God wants them to be rich. I don’t doubt there are folks like that who distort the gospel. But don’t we want the poor to prosper, to live better than what they do? Can prosperity mean something more than “God wants to make you rich?” Can it mean lifting people from poverty to live lives more whole? Can it not just relate to consumerism but to something more?
There are just a few things that come to mind. I’m curious to learn what smarter folks on money and the economy have to say about this.
“What the World Needs Now”
First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2013
First Christian Church
As most of you know, “Roger and Me” was a 1989 documentary by Flint native Michael Moore. Moore chronicles life in town that was dominated by one industry, the auto industry, and one company, General Motors. The 80s were not kind to Flint as external and internal forces led to layoffs and economic hardship. A number of Flint natives are not so crazy about the film because of the reputation it placed on the city, as a bleak post-industrial landscape. would tend to agree, the Flint of 1989 was not as bad as the film suggested. The problem is that Moore was about 20 years early. The Flint of 2014 is as bad and even worse.
In the last few decades since Roger and Me, the auto industry has continued to contract. General Motors ended up closing a number of plants, taking a number of job and plunging the city into economic tailspin.
The Flint that I drive through these days isn’t like the Flint I knew in the 1970s. That Flint was prosperous and busy with nice homes and kids playing in the streets. The Flint of the 2010s is poor with abandoned homes and neighborhoods, empty slabs where factories once stood, and empty buildings where stores used to be. My heart breaks a little when I see the city of my birth doing so poorly. Everyone knows that the best days of the city are behind it and there is uncertainty that the future will be better. Flint is very much like its big brother an hour to the south, Detroit. Both towns benefited from the auto industry, but with the good days behind them, they wonder if there is any hope left for a restoriation.
During Advent, we will be focusing on several passages from the book of Isaiah. This book was written during some interesting ties in the life of the Israelites. The nation is not what it once was; it has divided into two and started worshipping other gods. Assyria and Babylon, two powerful nations, were jockeying for control of the region where Israel resides. The best days for the Israelites are behind them. The future looks dim and uncertain. Hope seemed to be a distant memory.
And then we Isaiah enters the pictures. Right off the bat, we have an interesting choice of words, in that Isaiah saw words? Could it be that Isaiah had a vision? Whatever it was, Isaiah encountered God and was able to pull back on the curtain seeing what God was up to.
Isaiah saw that one day, the nations of the world come to God’s mountain wanting to learn God’s ways. This small nation, in the midst of two powerful nations, would become the beacon to the world, pointing the way to Zion, point the way to God. The nations would come and learn God’s ways, instruments of war would become farm implements and war will become a thing of the past.
This passage is a passage of hope and of waiting. The hope is that what bad times the people are facing won’t last forever. The waiting comes because this hope is something that will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. Salvation was on the way, but it wasn’t going to arrive for a while, maybe even beyond their lifetimes.
Advent is a time of waiting. We wait for Jesus to be born, which we know will happen and has happened. But Advent is also waiting for the time when God’s kingdom will be in full bloom. We don’t know when that will happen and it may well not happen in our lifetimes. But that future hope is not out of reach to us. We can experience a bit of that future hope in our lives right now. We live knowing that God will bring healing and fullness to all of creation and we try to model that future hope in our lives, in our daily work and in and through our faith communities.
As Christians, we are to live as if that future hope is here already. We need to seek and help others come and learn God’s ways. Because we can hope, because we can see that what we see is not the final word, we can work to help people see a fortaste of the kingdom that is to come.
When I was a kid growing up in Flint, there was something I saw at church that always puzzled me. It’s common in the African American tradition to hear people calling each other, Brother so-and-so or Sister so-and-so. I never understood that as kid. In most cases, none of these people were related, so why were they doing this?
It wasn’t until college that I learned that the reason people did that is because in the outside world most African Americans weren’t treated with much respect. Sometimes they would be called by their first name or they might use more derogatory names. But in church they were viewed differently. Here, they were treated with respect and given a name that provided pride instead of shame. The church was treating its members as if the era of racial segregation had been overthrown. The titles were a future hope that was being practiced in the hear and now.
Jesus is coming. Hope is on the way. Live like it’s already here. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have. For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son). What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements:
So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic. The problem is that most liberal Christians tend to think that people of color share the exact same views that they deem important. Then they meet reality. The United Methodists are not as much a national body, but a world-wide body, made up of folks from everywhere. African Methodists are growing in number and they don’t have favorable views of homosexuality. North American Methodists are not growing and liberal Methodists are a small fraction. What this all means is that the rules on sexuality aren’t changing any time soon and no amount of protest is going to change that, at least not immediately. Diversity is a good thing, but the downside is that the person with a different skin tone might also have different views that you might not agree with.
Laws for Me But Not for Thee. Being a gay man who just recently got (legally) married, I totally side with the good reverend on this matter. That said, I am bothered by those on “my side” that seem to want the church to just throw the Book of Discipline aside and follow the law of love or something like that. I don’t come from a creedal background, so on some level, I just think these things are sort of silly. But the fact is, other denominations are set up around certain documents that govern their way of life. The Book of Discipline is the way the United Methodists order their life together. You can’t ignore the Book of Discipline just because you don’t like what it says. You might think that the ruling on homosexuality is silly, but the fact remains it is there. This doesn’t mean that my side of the isle must simply submit to what is considered an unjust law. There is a lot of room for civil disobedience, but people have to admit that they are breaking the law and be willing to face the consequences. You can’t wish away a law you don’t like.
What About the Love? I can understand defrocking someone if they have committed a grave sin, such as child molestation. I don’t understand the drive to not simply say that Rev. Schaefer violated church rules, but to humiliate him. What about restoring a fallen brother or sister gently and in love? Can we disagree without being mean? There really was nothing Christian about the sentence and it was rather cowardly too: they left it up to Schaefer to decide if he wanted to admit wrong or give up his ordination. Please. If you’re going to make someone “an example” at least have the guts to be upfront about it.If progressives are at fault for being too loose with the Bible and/or books of order, then conservatives tend to be guilty of using these tools for organizing as ways to exclude and shame.
The Center Cannot Hold. My time with the Presbyterians have had me thinking about two people, a man and a woman in their 80s who served the church in various functions. The man is liberal and the woman conservative. What was interesting about both is that while they had their views and held to them, they also had a belief in the institution, the thing that bound them together. Because they had this thing called the Presbyterian Church (USA) in common, they were able to function with some impartiality, trying to solve problems for the good of the institution. We no longer have that today, not in Washington or in our churches. Institutions, especially the church, have been weakened. In it’s place has risen the tribe, a group of people who share common concerns and views that is suspicious of those who are different from them. We see this in our politics, but it is also rife in our churches. Tribalism doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but instead sees the different as a threat. What has happened with Schaefer is all about tribes than it is about church. The conservative tribe wants to make an example of the pastor, while the progressive tribe sees this as proof positive that the opposition is exclusive and backwards. Tolerance takes a backseat when it comes to the tribe, whereas in the institution, tolerance is a bedrock rule, because you can’t have people aim to something higher than base pursuits if they see the person next to them as evil incarnate. I don’t know how to heal the wounded center in American Christianity. We are engaged in a zero-sum game with the other side and demand nothing short of total surrender.
The Schaefer case is on one level about gay rights, which I totally support. But it also holds up how we as Christians in the United States fall so far short of being Christ in the world.
A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent from 2010.