“Fit for a Dog”
Matthew 15: 10-28
August 17, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.
One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.
At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.
I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs. Read More…
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 27, 2014
First Christian Church
About fifteen years ago, I was down in Louisiana for my uncle Joe’s 80th birthday party. I remember sitting in the dining room of Uncle Joe’s house when my cousin, Joe’s oldest son also named Joe and his wife Barabra got out something they had been working on for years: the family geneology. The two looked through court records and we able to patch together the story of the Sanders family. They went to county courthouses throughout the South and you see in this family tree how my ancestors made their way to Louisiana from South Carolina.
If know American history, then you know why South Carolina is the starting point for me and countless millions of African Americans. South Carolina was known for its slave markets, where farmers would purchase slaves who came off the boat from their African homes. I don’t know this for certain, but I can imagine part of the journey of my family from South Carolina to Georgia, then Mississippi and finally Louisiana could have been because my ancestors were bought and sold to different plantations over the years.
The look into my past brings up a few conflicting emotions. There is something cool about seeing all the generations who came before you. I could see that I belonged to the Sanders family. But it also brought some sadness and unpleasant feelings because those many of ancestors were treated as nothing more than property; a commodity to be bought and sold. We were stripped of our heritage and given Christian names including my own last name. More than likely we were given the name Sanders because it was the name of some plantation owner.
Maybe it was because of that earlier history that my mother made sure that I learned about African American history as I grew up. I remember reading books about famous African Americans, inventors, doctors and the like. I remember in elementary school that we had days were we had to dress up as a famous person. In fifth grade and sixth grade I dressed up as the inventor Elijah McCoy and Dr. Charles Drew, the discovery of plasma. Mom wanted me to remember that African Americans were more than just slaves; we were survivors, acheivers. I was told I belonged to a people with a rich heritage.
Today’s passage in Romans is one where Paul is excited. He tells the church at Rome about the wonders of belonging to God. We had a God that prays for us, taking our grunts and sighs to heart. We have a good that is with us not only in the good times, but in the bad times as well. When Paul tell the Romans that “ that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God,” he isn’t trying to be glib about tragedy. Paul is telling us that even when the unthinkable happens, God is with us. We belong to God and while evil is around now, it will never, ever have the last word.
Paul ends this passage with two wonderful sentences telling the Romans and us that nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul says, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” We are loved by God, no matter what.
Paul’s message was one of hope to the Roman church. No matter how bad it seemed, no matter who you are, no matter how much money you have in the bank, you matter to God; you belong.
The notion of belonging to something bigger than you seems even more important than ever. We live in a time where we are supposed to be liberated from, well everything. Whereas in the past, there were organizations like the Elks that helped define themselves in community, we are more likely to go it alone. On the radio recently, there was a segment of a program that was devoted to those parents who are dealing with their children living under their roof again after college. My husband Daniel wondered why this was a problem. In our past, family took care of each other, with several generations living under one roof.
The role of the church in this individualistic era is to tell people, all people that they belong to God. There is a world where people need to know that they are loved by God. That is what this congregation, every congregation is called to do. We are called to welcome people, no matter who they are.
This passage in Romans reminds me of baptism. We know that baptism is about the washing of our sins, but it is also about a promise; that we belong to God. In traditions that do infant baptisms, you might find the baptismal font just as you enter the sanctuary. It’s a reminder that baptism is what makes us familiy.
As I’ve said before, I was the Associate at First Christian Church in Minneapolis. These days they worship at the Springhouse Ministry Center in Minneapolis. SpringHouse is the collaboration of three congregations under one roof. First Christian shares the building with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale United Church of Christ. The old church building that was Salem’s was gutted and redsigned to include three sanctaries. In the fellowship space between two sanctuaries is a combination baptistry and baptismal font. Whenever someone from any of the three congregations is baptized, all the members of all three churches meet and begin their services with this baptism. It is a powerful reminder that we belong to something, someone bigger than ourselves.
This past week, our church was the focus of a special concert given by our own Luke Swanger and his friend Zach Peterson. About sixty people came to this place to hear wonderful music of piano and violin. We raised money for the Hope for the Journey Family Shelter in Oakdale. I think it was a great event. We were all excited about this because it was a way of telling people we live in this area. I think people knew as they entered our doors that we welcomed them and showed God’s love in our actions.
Church is not about going to a place to give money and see a performance. No, it is a place where we are reminded that we are loved by God and where we learn how we belong and how we can tell others in word and deed that they are loved by God.
I will remember my mom’s dillegence in helping me know that I belonged to a people of survivors. My ancestors might have been told they belonged to the slavemaster, but they knew who they were and whose they were.
The title of this sermon is taken from a 1987 song by the gospel group from Detroit, the Winans. They sang this song with fellow Detroiter Anita Baker. The song talks about how trouble will pass and while God isn’t mentioned, we do know that we have someone on our side that will get us through the hard times. I wanted to share some of the lyrics:
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
There’s a feel of nightfall
When darkness comes
And covers all of the day
Sometimes we feel pain
But there are some things
That we can change, just pray
Ain’t no need to worrying
What the night is gonna bring
Because it will be all over in the morning
You belong. I belong. We belong. Don’t ever forget that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 20, 2014
First Christian Church
I’m going to talk about my garden again.
Well, not about the flowers. No, what I am talking about is something that is a constant problem no matter what I do.
I’m talking about weeds.
For some reason, my garden has been targeted by the weeds. I’ve spent hours pulling them out by their roots, it doesn’t work. Both Daniel and I have contacted an old fashioned mixture of vineagar, soap and water that is supposed to kill the weeds and it does just that; that is it kills the plants that it comes in contact with, but it does nothing to the roots which means in a while the weeds come back.
I’m not crazy about using a pesticide like Roundup, but I am become sorely tempted. My fear though is that it could kill the flowers along with the weeds. Sure, I’d get rid of the weeds, but I would also lose the flowers that I’ve taken years to cultivate. So I’m not going to use Roundup. Maybe.
This Sunday, we find another agricultural parable where Jesus describes the kingdom of God. Last week, we talked about a sower who threw his seeds everywhere, not caring if they took root or not. This Sunday, we find Jesus telling a story about a farmer that planted a field. One evening, an enemy of farmer (farmers have enemies?) sneaks on to the field and plants weeds in the garden. A few weeks later as the wheat that the farmer planted sprouted, everyone saw that weeds were also planted alongside the wheat. The farmer knows who did this; someone that didn’t like the farmer and wanted to see him fail. His farmhands, who were distrubed by the weeds marring this harvest, asked if they could go and pull up the weeds by roots.
You would think that the farmer would have said yes and gladly join in. The weeds could choke his crop causing economic upheaval in his household. Instead, he says to leave the weeds where they are,lest they damage the wheat. The farmer tells his farmhands to wait until harvest. The workers can come in and harvest the weeds to throw them in the fire. All in due time, the farmer says.
Jesus later explains this parable to the disciples. The farmer was Jesus and the field represented the world. The enemy was the devil and the weeds are evildoers and all the evils of the world. Jesus tells them that for now the weeds will remain next to the wheat. But the harvest is coming, and when that happens, the workers will gather all the sin in the world, bind it and thrown into the fire. All in due time.
We live in a world filled with weeds and they have been present this week in the news. In the skies over Ukraine, someone shoots a surface to air missle, striking a passenger jet and snuffing out the lives of nearly 300 people, including a number who were going to an International HIV/AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. Families around the world are mourning the loss of a loved one and one nation especially, Maylasia, and the national airline are facing a second air tragedy in less than six months.
Palestinians and Israelis are at war again. It began with the death of three Israeli teenagers and then the death of a young Palestinian who was killed in revenge. Now there are rockets striking parts of Israel and the Gaza Strip. Because Gaza is so densley populated, there are more casualities on the Palestinian side, more cries of pain. Any hopes for some kind of peace settlement between the two peoples is shelved, again.
At our southern border, our nation is dealing with a massive influx of children coming from Central American countries where they are threatened. Their arrivals places stress on an already stressed immigration system. It has also for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, has lead to Americans protesting the arrival of these children who are in need of attention and need a place to stay as they are processed through our system.
In North Minneapolis, where I live, there happens to be an increase of crime in the area. The newspaper reports that even if there were a cop on every corner, the violence would not settle unless the community comes together to deal with some of the underlying issues of the perpetrators.
There are weeds everywhere. We try to pull one out and another one takes its place. We keep hoping this government program, that tough on crime measure, this peace agreement and so forth will stamp out the weeds of sinfulness once and for all. It’s been a century since the start of World War One. What was it called? The war to end all wars. Yeah, not so much.
If we only look at the weeds, if we seem them as intractible we can easily lose hope. News surfaced this week about a something a Methodist minister did last month. On June 23, Charles Moore, a retired Methodist pastor stepped out of his car in a shopping plaza in Texas, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He died hours later at a hospital in Dallas.
Why would someone set themselves on fire? For Rev. Moore, the purpose was to send a message. In notes left behind he was though his hometown and the nation had not repented of slavery. He expressed anger at the continuing policy in the United Methodist Church towards LGBT people. He was upset that the death penalty was still being used. Rev. Moore saw what he percieved as weeds and was upset that he wasn’t able to get rid of them. I don’t think suicide is ever a good thing, even in protest. That said, Rev. Moore is not alone in wanted to get rid of the weeds all by ourselves. I know of many people who are passionate about this or that issue and are always upset that the weeds remain.
For whatever reason, Rev. Moore did not have hope that things could change, that they would change. The parable of the weeds is at its heart, a parable of hope. The workers saw the weeds and wanted to get rid of them. The farmer was not so eager, because it wasn’t time. The farmer knew the wheat could get tangled and chocked by the weeds. The farmer knew that the weeds ran right through the wheat. He wanted to wait until it was time and then had a plan to get rid of the weeds.
God knows there are weeds in the world. Not only in the big actions taking place in our world, but the weeds that grow up around each and everyone of us. But we shouldn’t fear the weeds. We shouldn’t think it is up to us to get rid of the weeds. God has a plan. It was the plan that sent God’s son to Earth in the form of a baby, who grew up, healed the sick, died on a cross and rose again. In Christ’s death and resurrection, sin and death are defeated. It might not look that way on this side of heaven, but at the end of days sin and death will not have the final world. All of the weeds in the world will be taken away and burned.
As Christians, we are called to make disciples and help our sisters and brothers. We are called to tend the garden. There will always be weeds. That doesn’t mean we ignore the sin taking place in our world or try to alleviate the pain. We are called to do justice in the world. But that doesn’t mean it is up to us to get rid of the weeds. The hope we have in Jesus is that the weeds of war and voilence and sadness won’t last forever. They are defeated and just don’t know it yet. All in due time.
Maybe this afternoon I will take to the weeds in my garden. They’ll come back and I will still look longingly at that bottle of Roundup. All in due time. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, Romans 8:1-11, Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13
July 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
When I was growing up in Michigan, I would always see these commercials on TV that made no sense to me. As most of you know, my hometown in Flint, Michigan, a small city known for its many auto plants. Flint is smack dab in the middle of two important parts of the state. To our south is the Detroit Metro Area, and we get a lot of the Detroit stations as well as the TV station from nearby Windsor, Ontario. To our north, are three small cities known as the Tri Cities and the agricultural region of the state. Flint also picked up those stations as well. It was during a certain time of the year, when I was watching some program on that particular station, that I would see it: an ad for Roundup.
I had no idea what this was. What did they mean that this product would give better yields? What was quackgrass?
For those of you who come from rural areas, you know that Roundup is a herbicide that farmers use to keep weeds from damaging their crops. But to a city kid like me, this meant nothing. For farmers, this was important, since a bad weed or a bug, could wipe out their crop and hence their income for the year.
Today’s Gospel text is a parable. Through the Gospels, the name we give for the first four books of the New Testament, we see Jesus using stories of everyday people doing everyday things as a clue to what God’s kingdom is about. Too often, though we tend to look at these parables, if not the entire Bible as a book of morals, a guide to show us how to live. Some people use the Bible in this way to lash out against those who don’t follow what they think is a moral way. Others see the Bible as a way to gain wisdom and to lead a good life. However, both assumptions are wrong. The Bible is not here to tell us how to live. Instead, it tells us about who God is, and what God’s kingdom is all about. If we become godly people because of this, great, but that isn’t the main point of the Bible.
Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.
Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.
You would be wrong.
The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.
So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?
That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.
This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.
We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”
But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.
My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.
But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.
And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.
Years ago, the chemical manufactuer Dupont, used to have a slogan that went “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I propose that as followers of Christ, we enter a life of “Better Living Through Grace.” God’s grace is abundant, and we need to enter into that reality-one where scarcity doesn’t exist. Amen.
This is the sermon I wrote for this Sunday back in 2008.
“Better Churches and Gardens”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Last Thursday night, I decided to do something that I haven’t done in a long, long time.
Long before I could drive.
Long before I graduated from high school.
I played kickball.
Yes, I played that simple game where we tried to kick a plain, red ball and run around bases. It was fun, but I was reminded of something. I know that many of you are “more mature” than I am, but I can say that playing kickball at 38 is a lot different than playing it at 13. When I was 13, I could play kickball forever. These days, not so much. And my muscles feel it the next morning.
I was doing this all for a reason. I am part of a group young church folk, ordained and not ordained in the United Church of Christ and the Disciples that were looking for ways to get young adults in their 20s and 30s who were not really connected with a congregation involved in the life of the church. We’ve called the group Come Thirsty and to start things, we are meeting every Thursday in July at a local park in Minneapolis for a game of kickball and then going to the nearby Bryant Lake Bowl for fellowship and maybe a game of bowling.
There is very little that makes it seem like a church event, with the exception that we start things off with prayer. Other than that, it looks like a normal gathering of 20 and 30-somethings.
To some, it might not seem like much is going on to further God’s work in the world. What does kickball have to do with Jesus? Well, maybe everything.
In today’s gospel, Jesus decides to tell a story about the kingdom of God. Now, I love the parables and have since I was a child. But I have not really like the parable of the sower, the first parable. It reminds me of my time in college when the campus pastor would use this sermon to talk about our spiritual lives. The message is that we need to be really good and have open hearts to recieve God’s message. This story had been turned into a moralistic tale and it seemed to lose its mystery and power.
But these days, I have a different understanding of the parable. I’ve said this before, but parables are not really morality tales, but peeks into what the kingdom of God is like. That is what is going on here.
Jesus tells a tale of a sower who throws the seeds here, there and everywhere. Now, I don’t have a green thumb, but I know well enough that any farmer or backyard gardener, is very careful where the seeds go. They take care to plant then in the right place and in the right soil. Seeds are precious and have to used with great care.
But this sower is not that careful. In fact, he is not careful. This person just throws seeds anywhere, even though there is good reason that such a process isn’t going to be that fruitful. And it looks like such a prophecy is becoming true, because the seeds get eaten up birds, choked by thorns or simply die on the rocks. As if by luck, some of those seeds fall on good soil and they produce a bumper crop beyond anyone’s imaginations.
So, what is going on here? Well, let’s imagine that the sower is God or Christ. God decides to just spread God’s seed, or God’s word anywhere, not caring if it produces fruit or not. This is a wonderful example of grace. God’s love is extravagant, it is wasteful. God is hardly stingy when it comes to sharing love with creation. In some cases that love will be shared and not returned. In others, it will produce and abundant harvest that will seed another generation. God is willing to take the risk and flings seeds far and wide.
What you don’t see here is the message that we normally hear: that if we work hard and are dilligent, things will work out. I am not saying that we should ignore that message. What I am saying is that in God’s economy this rule doesn’t apply as much.
When Jesus was on the earth, he was always sharing his life with others. Some took that message and ran with it, becoming faithful disciples. Others refused to hear the message. Now matter what, Jesus still shared, like a sower sowing seeds every which way.
As Christ followers, we are called to do the same. Churches are called to share God’s love in word and deed. Now sometimes, that will be warmly recieved, and other times it will not. But like God, we just keep on doing what we are doing.
As this congregation readies itself for a new pastor, we are reminded in this parable that we are to go out and start planting seeds. We don’t have to wait for a pastor to do that. We are called to do that NOW. We are called to share God’s love in word and deed to the world outside the doors of this church. When we gather to pack food packets for the hungry, when we gather weekly for prayer, when we show concern with our sisters and brothers in our workplaces, we are planting seeds. The sower went out to plant seeds. So did Jesus. And so are we. The church is not a club, there to serve only the needs of each other, but a staging ground where we prepare to go out into the world.
We will encounter problems. Some of those seeds will fall on hard soil or deaf ears, some will fall on those who worry about everything, some will be taken by the birds or get concerned other things. But we still plant away because in the end, the harvest is going to be plentiful. Lives will be changed.
So back to that game of kickball. To some it might seem like a waste of time. But I have to believe we are planting seeds in the lives of young adults who might not have thought about church before. Our work is having an effect in that local congregations are starting their own groups, some after a long dormancy. I believe seeds are being sown, here and there, and some of it will not take root. But some of it will. But it really doesn’t matter; because we place our trust in God who will produce a bountiful harvest, far beyond our imaginations.
June 8, 2014
First Christian Church
I was always looking forward to the family summer vacation. Dad would back up the car to make it easy to put our luggage in. Mom would fill a picnic basket with items to eat or drink along the way. Dad would also get the old igloo ice chest, fill it with ice and place cans of pop and lunch meats, again for the journey ahead. I was over the moon as the car pulled out of the driveway and made its way to freeway and our chosen destination.
What was so exciting about that car trip? In most cases, we were going to places we had been to before. But that didn’t matter to me. Just being on the journey was exciting- even if I had travelled the road before.
Today is Pentecost, what is normally called the birthday of the church. It is the day that the Spirit makes itself known to the world through Jesus’ disciples. The story begins with the disciples gathered in a room in Jerusalem. Jesus told them to wait there until the Spirit comes. I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen. It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and the floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?
The passage says that the 120 were gathered in one place. They stayed in this room waiting for…what? As usual, Jesus didn’t really explain what was going to happen.
And then something happens. A wind blows through the room. Then in what seems to be a vision of some kind, what appears like flames settled on each person’s head. Then something odd happened. Each one felt compelled to praise God. That wasn’t the strange thing. What was striking was that they were praising God in different languages- languages that very few of them had even learned.
They couldn’t just stay in that room. They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly. And so they did just that, when it just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world. They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges.
Some were amazed of what was happening. Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk. But people, the none too bright disciple, explains to the crowd what was going on. He finally gets what Jesus was all about and shares the story of God’s salvation. The passage ends with the writer saying that 3000 people were added to their number on that first Pentecost.
It’s tempting to look at this scripture and focus on the end: that 3000 people were added on that day. Most congregations in North America are facing decline and First-St. Paul is no different. We look at that and wonder what we could do to get 3000 people on to our membership roles.
But we should be focusing on another part of today’s text. It’s where Peter is explaining to the crowd what is happening. He refers to the prophet Joel which says that in the last days God’s spirit will be poured out among all flesh, men and women, young and old. Even slaves would receive the Spirit of God.
The Spirit’s arrival pushed the disciples out of the upper room and into the rest of the world. There was no more staying in a room, everyone was on a journey to witness the wonderous deeds of God through Jesus.
Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church. The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey. The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.
As most of you know, I was the Associate Pastor at First Christian Minneapolis for nearly five years. I had known most of the folks at church, because I joined the church over a decade earlier, so this was a bit of a homecoming after being gone for several years.
First-Minneapolis was at a crossroads in their ministry. The church that was 1500 members strong, was now a church of about 150. The sanctuary that was built in the 1950s for a growing church, now seemed cavernous. A few months before I arrived, the church came to conclusion that they needed to sell the building and move into more appropriate quarters. Selling the building was hard and many wondered if this was the end of the congregation.
For about two years, I was part of a transition team made up the Interim Pastor, myself and lay members. We heard various ideas and prayed and listened. As we continued on our jounrney we didn’t realize that even though the road seemed uncertain, we were being led by the Spirit. We met two other congregations that were planning to move into one building. Salem Lutheran and Lyndale United Church of Christ had also gone through decline and was open to try something new. We cautiously entered the process, feeling that we should join this partnership. The three churches rehabbed what was the old Lutheran church into a facility that house three congregations called the Springhouse Worship Center. First-Minneapolis opened themselves to the Spirit, and while it wasn’t a mighty wind or fire or speaking fluent German even though they didn’t know the language, it was life changing.
As First-St. Paul discerns its future, we should remember that church is not a place. Our goal isn’t to get more people in the chairs, as much as we all would love to see that. What God is calling us to do is to be open to where the Spirit is active- and might be in places and people we don’t expect. We are called to be looking for the party- it’s to find where the Spirit is bringing joy and hope and then join in.
I am excited that First will join First-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy Christian in Lakeville at the Twin Cities Pride Festival. I know this is stretching ourselves into new years. But I also think this is part of what we are called to do; to see this place as a staging ground for our ministry into the world. Sitting at a booth for a few hours on Saturday might not seem important, but it is. Many people have been hurt by other Christians because of their sexual orientation. Part of the reason of the booth is to offer healing and fellowship. The three churches will take turns offering people communion and people who can listen and pray with them. Will there be paople who might join First-St. Paul? I hope so, but that’s not the reason we are going to be there. We will be there because the Spirit is already there and we will witness to that fact. Did you think taking a shift at Hope for the Journey Shelter was just doing a good thing? No, it’s joining the Spirit in offering hospitality and hope in the name Jesus.
We are called to go into the world and preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is about going out, not coming in.
As First-Minneapolis began to journey with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC, we would end every joint meeting with a prayer. It’s a prayer from the Lutheran tradition, and it fit what we were all dealing with. It’s called the Holden Prayer and it goes like this:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannon see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost is a journey. Let us feel today like I did all those years ago as I went on a summer vacation. Let us be excited where the Spirit is leading us and the God is with us. Don’t forget to buckle up. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I preached this on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in 2008, which is also called Good Shepherd Sunday.
Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10
April 13, 2008 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I’ll admit it; I’m a geek.
Some of you know I wrote the main article in this month’s church newsletter. It’s called “Church 2.0.” I talked about how my job as a communications specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area has used my knowledge of blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace has changed how we communicate with each other.
I’ve been working with blogs and social networking sites for several years and they have helped me create new relationships that would have been impossible in the past. I’ve made true friendships over the Internet with people from across the nation. Heck, I even met my partner Daniel through an online dating service.
What I find interesting is how this information revolution is changing society and what clues it has for the church, especially the mainline church and specifically, Lake Harriet. As I just said, this brave new world of blogs, podcasts and interactive web pages, is forming relationships where none might have ever existed. I am reminded that Tammy Rottschafer the Associate Pastor here at Lake Harriet has reminded me over and over that being church is about relationships. God may just well be calling us as a faith community to be more of an “interactive church,” a place that connects and relates with each other, with the outside world, and with God.
In the Second chapter of Acts, we are given a brief description of the nacsent church. It was just after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as flames of fire. Peter testified about Jesus and the scripture says 3,000 joined this new community that day. The passage that was read today, is about the day-to-day life of the church after that day. It’s a short passage, but I think it packs a wallop. The devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, they held all things in common and helped those in need, the broke bread together, had glad and generous hearts and praised God. The result of all this is that their community grew daily.
While this all happened long ago, I see a lot of today in this passage. This is a church that is interactive. Like working on a weblog, there are people relating to each other. This passage isn’t telling us that we need to be exactly like this church, but it does describe what the church should be about.
The church is called to be a place where we are devoted to learn to be a follower of Christ. The church is a place where we have fellowship with each other, where we care and love each other. The church is a place where we realize that our material possessions are not the goal in our lives, but to use what we have to help those in need, especially those in our community, but also those outside of it. The church is a place where we come together and break bread in table fellowship together, realizing that it is Christ that calls us to the table regardless of who we are. The church is a place where we are happy in Christ and are generous to friends and strangers.
Notice it doesn’t say that a church needs to have a pastor that will bring in more people, or have an awesome sound system, or a brand spanking new building. What IS needed is a visible faith community living in the light of Christ.
You know, as compact as this passage is: being a journalist by training, I could sum this up in about five words: “the church is about hospitality.”
If you read this passage over and over, what becomes apparent is that this new church was a place where people where caring to each other and to strangers. They fellowshipped, they broke bread together, they helped each other. They were caring with each other and people noticed. That’s why their community grew and grew.
As many of you know, I was the pastor of a new church for several years. It ended up closing or as I like to say, it was shelved for the time being. For a long time, I was lead to believe that to be a growing church, you needed to do things that would attract people. So, we had these innovative services that were supposed to pack them in and it didn’t. I remember wondering what I had done wrong. We were an open and affirming community, meaning we were openly welcoming of gays and lesbians, and yet that didn’t do a lot to bring people in.
What I learned from that experience is that I failed to really have relationships with people. For many people who had been burned by the church because of their sexual orientation, it didn’t really matter if we were Open and Affirming if we didn’t have relationships and chats over coffee with gay and lesbians and be Christ to them.
This church is going through change and getting ready to start a new journey as a church. I don’t know if I am in a position to offer words of advice, but I will any way. Remember that being church is not about having some hotshot pastor or big programs. It’s about relationships, it’s about hospitality. It’s about what we do during prayer time here and on Wednesday evenings, when we pray for our friends here in church and around the world. It’s when we give flowers on the table to someone in the hospital or a stranger as a sign of friendship. It’s when we pack food packets that go to feed the hungry. It’s when we welcome people regardless of sexual orientation even if we don’t understand it all. It’s about developing relationships with those who cross our path and showing them Christ in our lives, not to convert them (the Holy Spirit does that), but to be a living witness of who Christ is.
Today is what has generally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. We read from John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. We read from Psalm 23 which talks about God being our Shepherd that is always with us. In the past, I always looked at this passage as being about God being the shepherd and that we sheep are to be good followers. But I now see it as God in relation with God’s church. God cares for us and looks after us in ways we can’t imagine, because God is in love with us; God has a relationship with us. As a community that is loved by the God of the universe, we are called to care for one another- not because it’s something we have to do, but because it’s who we are. And when people see us living as a Christ-led, hospitable community, they will take notice.
The response we sang during the call to worship is by the hymnwriter, Marty Haugen. The song is called “Shepherd Me, O God.” The refrain says, “Shepherd me, O God; beyond my faults, beyond my needs, from death into life.”
Lake Harriet has some experience with death, with dying to old ways and to what we once were. In fact, many might even feel like we are dying now. But this song should be our prayer: that God will lead us, beyond our faults and needs from death into being the Easter people that we are.
Take heart, my friends. Know that God is with you, raising us up from death into life. And along the way, make friends, be hospitable and welcome everyone, everyone to this Table. Thanks be to God. Amen.