Sermon: Running to Stand Still

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

Listen to the Sermon.

Where have you seen God today?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Where have you seen God today?

 

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

Sermon: God Is Good?

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

Listen to the Sermon.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Corporal Punishment, Race and Adrian Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: No Maps!

Genesis 12:1-9
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 Listen to this sermon.

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, I loved when we went on vacation.  We almost always drove to where we were going: Ohio to some of the amusement parks, Northern Michigan or Louisiana to visit my Dad’s relatives.

 

For me, the excitement would start several days before we left.  Mom would drive downtown to the local AAA office to get maps and guidebooks for the trip.  The most exciting thing was when the salesperson would put together the Triptik.  If you or someone you know was a member of AAA, you know what a Triptik is.  The name is a play on words, because the collection of maps looked like a triptych, a painting that was divided in three sections.  One the salesperson had gathered the necessary maps they came back with a red marker and drew the suggested route to our destination, showing where there might be construction and the like.

 

triptikIt was probably those trips to AAA that started my love of maps.  I could spend hours looking at all the road maps that we collected over the years.  I remember during the 80s, buying a Rand McNally Atlas of the United States and Canada just for the heck of it.  An exciting time for me was paging through the states and seeing all the highways as they crisscrossed each other.  Yes, I was, I am a map geek.

 

I know these days that I can use the map app on my phone and I have to get to certain places, but it just isn’t the same as getting that oversized Rand McNally map and just study it.

 

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I like maps.  I’ve loved travelling on the highways and as a little kid, I would internalize where my parents drove and was able to repeat them back when they got lost.  I like to know where I am going.

 

Most people like to use a map to get to their desired destination.  It just makes sense to know who to get someplace.  No one likes being lost.

Read More…

God Is A Concept.

johnlennonWhen I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention.  It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night.  At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”

I really didn’t know what it meant.  I originally thought it was nice to talk about  God.  I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God.  God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.

I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post.  Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio.  In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians.  The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil.  Watson writes:

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:

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.

God is a concept.  It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking.  When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.”  We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come.  But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come.  We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world.  We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.

As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.

Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places.  More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.

The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.

About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation.  The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life.  I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met.  I wish I had a chance to get to know him better.  During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful.  The priest was surprised to hear this.  As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response.  Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times.  How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?

Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world.  Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard.  We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world.  There is evil out there.  There are men knocking their wives unconscious.  There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body.  There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys.  There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children.  Yes, there is evil.  But God is also present.  God hasn’t given up on creation.  God has already overcome the world.  THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.

I’m not leaving the mainline church.  I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to.  I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed.  But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.

I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity.  We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.

I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.”  Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.

“Aslan is on the move.”  It’s time we believe that again.

 

Sermon: “I Promise.”

Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 7, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the podcast.

For the next few weeks we are testing out a new lectionary.  Since I’ve been here, we have been using the Revised Common Lectionary, which tries to get you through the major parts of the Bible in three years.  My alma mater, Luther Seminary has devised an alternate lectionary which is called the Narrative Lectionary.  It also tries to get you through the Bible, but it’s in four years and not three.  The main thing about this lectionary is that it looks at the Bible as one large story of God interaction with God’s creation.  The story starts today with what I would call the prologue of God’s story.

 

A rainbow over Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997.

A rainbow over Grand Forks, North Dakota in 1997.

So today we start with a real familiar story.  Many of us here are aware of this story.  Maybe we were told this story in Sunday School as a youth.  Maybe you read a storybook that had Noah and the ark.  Maybe you sang that song “God said to Noah…”  Whatever it is, the result is the same, we have this image of an ark on the waters with a smiling Noah.  The animals also seemed to have smiles on their faces and the little ship bobbled along the makeshift seas.  It’s a nice and pleasant picture.

 

That’s the story we think we know.  And then you actually read the story.  The earth is this horrible place and God is upset at what God sees.  God regrets making creation and decides to hit the reset button. So, this flood wasn’t something that just happened, it happen because God is angry and grieving over the creation that has gone astray.  We see God judging all of creation with a massive flood that kills everyone-men, women and children save a remnant of creation.

 

And then there’s the animals on the ark.  In those children’s pictures, we see all these happy animals and a happy Noah.  Okay, I’m a city kid, but even I know if you have things like elephants and sheep and horses and cows you end up with poor Noah and his family living in smelly boat cleaning up all the poop produced by the animals. I don’t imagine Noah had a smile on his face after having to clean up after the elephants.

The story of our youth is not a nice sweet story.  It’s a disturbing story.  God judges creation and the body count is more than any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

 

But as hard as it is to come to terms with a violent, judgemental God of fury, we would only have part of the story if we only focused on the flood.  Now it is important to understand that God is a just God.  God doesn’t look at sin and not care.  The sinfulness of creation breaks God’s heart.  But the flood, God as judge is only half of the story and it would be wise that we don’t focus only on the flood- God is a just God, but God is also a loving God and even in the midst of destruction, God shows that God brings salvation and promises to do relate to creation in a new way.

 

This passage starts with the whys of Noah building the ark and ends with the flood ending and God speaking to Noah and his family.  They would be the instruments of salvation as they would repopulate the earth along with the animals.

 

But that is not the important part of the story.  It’s what happens next that matters.  God tells Noah and his family that God will set a “bow in the clouds.”  A bow, a rainbow will grace the heavens as a reminder that God would never again destroy creation.  Maybe in modern parlance God is placing a giant post-it note in the heaven to remind God that God would not unleash such violence on creation ever again. God made a promise to creation; a promise that would come with a cost.  You see, creation didn’t just stop breaking God’s heart.  At some point people would start being evil again and God would become angry at the injustice going on.  God might want to send judgement, but God made a promise, a promise to keep.  What we will start to see from here on out is God trying to reconcile with God’s creation in a different way.  God will use a specific people, the Jews as an example to the world to return to God.  Later on, God uses God’s chosen people to bring for God incarnate, Jesus who would bring salvation to all of creation.

 

The symbol of the rainbow is about hope.  Out of the sadness of creation comes a sign that God is still there, walking with us instead of abandoning us.

 

The rainbow has always been about hope.  After the storms, there is a sign that God remembers.

Most of you here remember the big floods of 1997.  My husband Daniel lived in Grand Forks at the time which we all remember was inundated with water from the swollen Red River.  A city of 50,000 had to grab what they could from their homes and go.  This was the largest peacetime evacuation in modern American history which was suceeded eight years later when New Orleans was evacuated during Hurrican Katrina.  So there is water everywhere in the city.  To add insult to injury, a fire starts in downtown that would damage about 11 buildings.  So here is all this water and in the midst of it is a fire.  The fire trucks couldn’t get through the flood waters and even if they did, the couldn’t use the fire hydrants since the city’s water system had failed. You can’t get anymore absurd than that.

 

There is a picture that I saw from that time that I believe was taken by a photographer from the Grand Forks Herald, which won a Pulitzer for their work even as their own building was flooded and burnt.  The picture has smoke from the buildings and flood waters everywhere.  But there’s something else there.  It’s a rainbow.  Daniel remembers that picture.  It was a sign of hope.  Come hell or highwater (in this case literally) hope was possible.  This was not the end.

 

Over the next few weeks will talk a bit more about God keeping God’s promise of hope.  Just remember when we face the hurts of the world, know that God has and is suffering with you and that this pain is not the last word.  There is a rainbow around the corner.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Walk Among the Dead

IMG_1381

It was a beautiful late summer day in Minnesota.  My husband Daniel decided this was a great day for a walk…through a cemetery.

He knows how to make a guy feel loved.

We went to down to Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.  It’s the big cemetery in the area and has some of the state’s most famous people hanging out.  A number of Pilsburys are buried there, as is the late Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife and one daughter who were all killed in a plane crash 12 years ago.

I have to say I enjoyed the walk.  It was interesting to see these burial stones of people who lived long lives and some not so long.

The thing is, if I had been asked a few years ago if I wanted to walk around the final resting place of thousands of folks, I would have passed.  It was Daniel that made the difference.

When make trips to South Dakota to visit an aunt and other relatives, we have always stopped by his mother’s and father’s grave.  They in separate church cemeteries only a few miles apart.  I remember on the day of his dad’s funeral, his sister, brother and nephews went to his mom’s grave, and got a blanket and spread it in front of her grave.  None of this was disrespectful; it was honoring one parent on the day that the other parent is being laid to rest.

Daniel helped me see something I should have seen a long time ago.  We all die.  We will all end up at a place like this.  Death doesn’t have to be scary; it’s just something that at least on this side of heaven, just is. 

I’m less scared of death because of Daniel.  A few years ago, my Aunt Nora died after a battle with Alzheimer’s.  I visited her in the hospice, but didn’t go to the funeral in Michigan.  When Daniel and I visited Michigan a few months later, I needed to go to the cemetery to see where my aunt was buried.  We found the gravesite and I felt a sense of completeness.  A few years back, I wouldn’t have done this, but now I had to visit, to say hello, if that makes sense.

Death is present in all of our lives.  Our beloved pets die, our parents die, and we die.  If we can accept that we are finite and that we will end up at a cemetery someday, maybe we can make death less scary- and maybe we will learn to live the life we have left.

BTW, please read this great post on death and life by David McElroy.

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