Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:2–4 and 3:17–19
First Sunday in Advent
November 30, 2014
First Christian Church
My dad was always concerned whenever I did something with one my white female friends. I never really understood what was the deal. I had no interest in dating them, just hanging out with them. I went to a Catholic high school in Michigan that was predominantly white and it so happened that a lot of the people I knew were white women.
A few years out of high school, I started to understand what Dad was getting at. My friend Cherie and I had both moved to Washington, DC she to go to graduate school and I to an internship and hopefully a future job. We had decided to drive the 12 hours from DC to Flint. Somewhere in Western Maryland was when the muffler decided to give out. We kept going until we crossed over into Pennsylvania to stop at a Chevy dealership to get the muffler replaced. We decided to get something to eat while we waited for the car. As Cherie and I were chatting and eating our lunch, a looked over to an elderly man who was looking at me. He had this scowl on his face like he was disgusted about something. It was then that I realized what my father was talking about. You see, having grown up as he did in Jim Crow Louisiana, he was aware of the dangers of a black man seen in public with a white woman. Now, this wasn’t Louisiana in the 1940s, it was Pennsylvania in the early 90s. I don’t think this man was planning on gathering his neighbors to do something to me. But that scowl reminded me that even though we have made advances in the civil rights, there were still lingering threads of a nightmarish past.
2 Kings 5:1-27
All Saints Sunday
November 2, 2014
First Christian Church
I think I’ve always grown up with some sense of illness, either in my own life or in the life of my parents or my relatives. I was diagnosed with asthma when I was about two. I can remember that Mom and Dad had to do a few things to help me not have asthma attacks or at least lessen their frequency. They got central air to protect me from the molds and grasses. They made sure what ever school I went to was clean. I remember I was enrolled to go to one school which happened to meet in the basement of the church. Mom pulled me out of that school after two days.
I also couldn’t have pets like cats or dogs. There was a tiny problem. I seemed to like cats. Mom had enrolled me in a daycare center and she told them to keep me away from cats. Well, there was stray cat in the area, and somehow I was outside and decided to pet the cute kitty. A few hours later, I was in emergency with a 103 temp fever and a bad asthma attack.
My asthma was pretty serious until I was about 9 or so. I can remember one image that seemed to sum up my time living with severe asthma. I was looking out the living room window. My parents were careful when to let me outside and when to stay indoors. They didn’t want me pushing myself too hard and triggering another attack. So here I was maybe about 3 or 4 staring out the window seeing the world outside, a place that was viewed by the grownups as somewhat dangerous to me. I can remember a sense of isolation, that I was different.
Illness has a way of doing that to people. For whatever reason, getting sick with a chronic illness tends to either keep people away or separate people from the rest of the world. The current struggles with the Ebola virus has resulted in people being cut off from the wider community, even when there is little chance that the person in question would get sick.
Sometimes people isolate themselves from others in order to not have face others or have people see them in a vulnerable position. I’ve known people with psoriasis who wear beards to cover their skin. Older people who have various health problems tend to stay home instead of going out, something that might be too hard or too embarassing.
In the Bible, we might be familiar with the texts that deal with people with various skin diseases. These stories are found more often than not in the gospels. Jewish law deemed these people unclean and they had to separate themselves from the wider community. In today’s story we meet a man named Naaman. He’s the top general in the Syrian army. He was considered a masterful warrior which probably made him famous in Syria. But while things might seem to be going well for Naaman, we learn that he has leprosy. Now leprosy in the Bible was probably not the thing we think about when we think of leprosy: which is also called Hanson’s Disease. Instead, it refferred to a number of skin diseases. We don’t know what kind Naaman had, but we do know it was serious.
One day, a servant girl speaks to Naaman’s wife. The young girl was from Israel and was taken during one of Syria’s raids. She tells the wife: “Oh, if only my master could meet the prophet of Samaria, he would be healed of his skin disease.”
Naaman hears this and goes to tell the king. I can imagine him feeling a little bit of hope. Maybe, a cure was around the corner. He tells his boss, the king, the news. The king decides to send a letter his counterpart in Israel and sends Naaman on his way.
Naaman is probably thinking he would have this grand meeting with Elisha the prophet. But that wasn’t meant to be. Instead of seeing Elisha he was greeted by a servant and instructions: go wash in the Jordan River seven times.
Some theologians criticize Naaman for being so prideful and I think there is a bit of that. But I wonder if this is not more an anger of frustration than mere pride. Elisha never bothered to come out to meet Naaman. There was that problem of isolation again. Instead of meeting him face to face, Elisha seems to hold Naaman at a distance, something he’s been used to for as along as he had the illness. Maybe he thought Elisha was doing the same thing: staying away and then to add insult to injury being told wash in a substandard and probably unclean river.
A journalist of Liberian heritage was in her nativeland to report on the Ebola epedemic. Back in the United States, she talked about the fact that she couldn’t touch her family members and noticed how sad it was to not be able to hug a neice or shake a friend’s hand. Could Naaman have been angry that yet again, someone couldn’t come near him for fear of being infected. He was ready to head back to Syria, unhealed.
Like in the early part of the chapter, it is the outsiders, the servants who come to Naaman’s aid. They persuade him to wash in the Jordan and he is healed. The outsider is now free from what kept him separated. He is made whole.
The interesting part of this whole story is that God was always there in the background. In verse one, we see God affecting the outcome of the battles Naaman fought in. The little girl had faith that Elish could heal Naaman through God’s power. God is with Naaman when he is the outsider with a skin edition, God is with the servant girl who is considered an outsider by being a servant. After Naaman is healed, he asks that he might take some clumps of the soil in Israel. He plans to play on that soil, as a reminder of who it was that healed him.
Before I go any further, there is an anti-story here as well. Gehezi, Elisha’s servant schemes to get some of the riches Naaman brought as a gift for Elisha, the gifts the prophet refused. The insider decides to get his pound of flesh. But Elisha knew that Gehezai had scammed someone who has been healed by God. Because of that, he got the same skin condition Naaman was healed from. The insider was pushed out because of his greed.
The story to hear from this passage is that the God of the Israelites is the God of the world. It is a God that cared for a foriegn general, a man from a foreign people who wanted to worship and follow God.
The ultimate healing that would come in the form of Jesus Christ would not be just for certain people, but for the whole world. Outsiders would become insiders.
This past Friday, we had our first ever Trunk or Treat. Yes, it was dissappointing to only get one child after standing out in the cold. But the role of a church is to tell those around us that they are welcomed at God’s table. We can’t force them to come, but when we as church share God’s love with others, we are bringing others to God’s Welcome Table.
By the way, as I got older, I kind of outgrew my asthma. I still carry an inhaler that I use at times. But I was able to get outside more and most importantly, I got to pet cats and not get sick. I wasn’t separated anymore. And neither are we. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Micah 5:2-4 and 6:1-8
Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 9, 2014
First Christian Church
Our long national nightmare is over.
I’m talking about the conclusion of the 2014 midterm elections. For several months we have seen endless commercials on television, our mailboxes stuffed with campaign mailings, our email inboxes filled with several emails a day and so on. Our own mailbox here at church was filled with mailers from a close fought Minnesota House race. Now, we don’t have to deal with that anymore…until 2016.
As much as I detest all the spam that seems to come into my life, I like to watch the returns come in on election night. I remember watching the election returns in 1980 as Ronald Reagan defeated sitting president Jimmy Carter. I remember my first election in 1988 and watching Vice President George Bush become president and I saw the votes come in 1992 as Bill Clinton became president.
I tend to watch the returns of midterms as well. In the fall of 1990, I was in a ballroom in Lansing, Michigan waiting for the returns to decide who would be the next governor of my home state of Michigan. I was covering the event for a number of radio stations in the state. And no one can forget watching in either joy or terror in 1998 as Jesse Ventura became Governor of Minnesota.
Politics can be an exciting thing to take part in. But I’m learning that it also has a darkside. Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein wrote in his blog in late September about how ideology is splitting America apart. Sunstein noted the findings of a test which asked people how people would feel if you child or friend married someone of the opposite political party. In 1960, 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats would be uneasy. Fifty years later, in 2010, the number is now 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats who would have a problem. Political prejudice is now greater than racial prejudice.
Sunstein writes that modern political campaigns are partly to blame for the increase in party distrust and that distrust is starting to spill into other aspects of life- such as marrying someone of a different political persuasion.
And this “partyism” is seeping into the church. In many cases, we have “red churches” mostly evangelical congregations and “blue churches” mostly mainline congregations. Some churches have gone in such an ideological direction that people of the other persuasion now feel unwelcome at church.
2 Samuel 11:1-12:15
Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 19, 2014
First Christian Church
The story of David and Bathsheba is the Bible’s own political thriller. It has everything: powerful men, sexual affairs, murder and cover ups. Before there was Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, there was David and Bathsheba. There’s even what I would call a Woodward and Bernstein character: the prophet Nathan who is the one that finally accuses David of the wrong he had done before God.
It’s easy to look at this story and leave it as a political thriller. It’s easy to join with Nathan in accusing King David and ignore how close we all are to becoming just like David. No, we probably won’t try to have people killed (at least I hope not), but the temptation to fall into sin is just beneath the surface. I think we are all capable of becoming King David.
But let’s review the facts first. The passage opens with David in Jerusalem. It’s spring, the time when kings normally go to war with their armies, but for whatever reason, David decided not to go. He was walking along the roof of the palace when he encounters a beautiful woman taking a bath. He does some checking and finds out that this is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a warrior in the Israelite army. He invites Bathsheba to the palace and has sex with her. Afterwards she goes back home and David is probably thinking that nothing more would happen. Of course, we know more did happen. Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant. David decides to recall Uriah in the hopes that time with his wife would make it look like the baby was Uriah’s and not David. But Uriah, along with all warriors swear off sex while in battle. So in a last attempt, David has Uriah send his own death warrant to Joab, one of David’s generals. At David’s urging, Joab puts Uriah on the front lines where he is killed. David had finally covered up the crime. He marries Bathsheba after the mourning period and the baby is born. No one is none the wiser.
Except someone was the wiser: God. Through Nathan, David is caught red-handed.
As fanciful as David’s sin was, it is important to remember that we are not that far from being David. A few months ago, I read an article by anthropologist Helen Fisher. She has done some extensive research on adultery among various culture. She notes that while most humans do enter into a long lasting relationship with someone, also called pair-bonding, they can and do enter into extra-martial relationships quite frequently. She notes that studies show that anywhere from 20-40% of heterosexual men will have an affair in their lifetime. For heterosexual women it is 20-25%. She adds that there is a 70% incidence of dating couples experiening infidelity. And this final statistic is amazing: 60% of men and 53% of women admitted that they had tried to poach a partner, trying to convince a wife or husband to have an affair.
David isn’t the only one in trouble here.
“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” is what Romans 3:23 says describing humanity’s common lot. David was considered a man after God’s own heart. He was considered faithful to God. Because of his faithfulness, Israel prospered. And yet, this man sinned. Big time. Like Nixon-level big time.
As you have heard me say since we started using the Narrative Lectionary, these stories are actually one story: how God works to bring salvation to all of creation. The reason this story is part of the salvation story is that even though David committed a few sins, including some big ones, even though he had to face the consequences of his actions, even though he displeased God, it was through his lineage that Jesus came into the world. God still used him to be part of the salvation story. David experienced grace from God, grace that wasn’t earned, but was given nonetheless.
This story is important to us for at least two reasons. The first is that this story reminds us that we are people who sin, who sometimes wander off, that we fall short of the goal again and again. That’s not something we like to hear. I remember a few years ago, hearing a fellow pastor preached. He noted he didn’t like one of the words in the hymn Amazing Grace. If you know the hymn, the first few lines go like this: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” He objected to the word “wretch.” In his view it was a word that hurt people. I can remember him saying that none of us our wretches. Maybe that word is a bit harsh, but for the writer of this hymn, who was slave trader, the words were the truth. We can’t understand God’s grace, unless we understand that we are not okay. Nathan’s parable is a story that shines a bright light on David’s sins. He has to face the music, he has to realize that he isn’t all that and a bag of chips. He has sinned. Maybe our sin isn’t adultery, but we have all sinned and will sin in the future. A church is a meeting place of sinners, or at least it should be. We come to church to join with other sinners to experience grace and healing. A church should be a hospital for sinners, a place where we can be made whole.
The second thing to remember is that God still uses us for God’s work in the world. We feel God’s grace, the love that won’t let you go even when we fall short. None this means we should go and sin, but it is nice to know that we are loved even when we mess up which at least in my life is rather often.
In my time as a pastor, I’ve learned about pastors caught in affairs. One such incident happen when a pastor was caught in a prostitution sting. The revelation spelled the end of his time at a church where had he been pastor for over 20 years and had to be suspended from active ministry. The faith tradition he belonged to had procedures to deal with pastors. A church judicial committee had to place sanctions on the person and he had to do certain things to be restored as a pastor. I happened to be at the meeting where his sins were made known in public, as well as what his path to restoration had to be. Beside this man was another pastor, who stood by his side as an advocate and truth teller. The pastor had his very own Nathan, that was there to stand beside him during the rough times and make sure he is on the straight and narrow. It was an interesting mix of sin and grace taking place.
I can’t say that I would never sin. I’m human. What this pastor reminds me is that I’m not perfect. And neither are you. We are capable of doing terrible things. But God has not given up on us. There is judgement, but there is also grace.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 5, 2014
First Christian Church
I 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…
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 28, 2014
First Christian Church
Where have you seen God today?
Last 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.
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 21, 2014
First Christian Church
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.
This 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…