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Sermon: “Eau? Oh!”

April 2, 2014

John 4:4-42
Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Life in a small town is interesting. I grew up in a city that had about 150,000 in my childhood and I was only a short distance from the Detroit Metro Area with a population of 4 million. So as a city kid, life in a small town is not something I’m familiar with.

Hope, North Dakota. Population: 258.

Hope, North Dakota. Population: 258.

My partner Daniel, on the other hand grew up in small towns. He was born in a small town in Saskatchewan and grew up in the small towns of Hope and Kindred, North Dakota. One of things I’ve learned is that in a small town everyone knows everything about you. I learned this for myself when Daniel and I were dating. I was driving from Minneapolis to Grand Forks. Now the rule of small towns tends to apply to small states. I was on Interstate 29 getting close to the Grand Forks when I was pulled over by the state police. I got a ticket from probably the nicest trooper ever. A few minutes later, I was at Daniel’s place. He walked out and said in an apologetic voice, “I’m sorry.”

I was perplexed. Daniel then told me that he knew I got the speeding ticket. I was astounded at this. How in the world did he know?

It turns out that Daniel’s sister was on the highway and saw a blue Volkswagen Jetta pulled over. She called Daniel and said that she thought I had been pulled over.

I remember Daniel smiling and telling me this is what it means to live in small town.

The thing about being in towns and cities far away from large urban areas is that you really can’t hide. Thing that you have done are going to be found out.

In this passage today, we have Jesus and the disciples on a trip. The first verse says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Samaria was a region home to Samaritans, a group of people that had a mixed Jewish-Gentile heritage. Now, when we hear the word Samaritan, we think of the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. While we might think Samaritans are good stand-up folk, that wasn’t how Jews saw them. The two groups despised each other. Most Jews would avoid Samaria on trips. Jesus, however doesn’t. As the passage says, he had to go through Samaria.

At some point, Jesus and the disciples stop at a well. The disciples go on into an unnamed town to get some food. The writer of John says it was about noon.

So as Jesus is reclining in the noonday heat, a woman makes her way to the well to draw water. I’ve been in Louisiana in the summer when the sun is high in the sky and it is hot. People tend to stay indoors to esacpe the heat. But this woman was out, getting water for the day. Jesus asks the woman for water and the woman was shocked. Jesus was a Jew and a man and a Rabbi. She was a Samaritan woman. Why in the world would he be asking for water?

So begins a conversation between the woman and Jesus. Jesus talks about living water, which interests the woman. At some point Jesus asks the woman to go and bring her husband back. The woman was worried when Jesus asked that question. She couldn’t tell him the truth. She simply tells Jesus that she has no husband. Jesus responds that she is correct that she has no husband, in fact she had five former husbands and the current man in the house is not her husband.

Now this is a pivotal moment in the story because it reveals something about the woman. Were you wondering why this woman was getting her water at midday. In visiting places in hot climates like Spain, Puerto Rico or the American South you learn that people tend to do their main work either in the early morning or in the evening; times when the temps are cooler. This woman went to gather water at noon. Why? It could be that the time she drew water indicated that the town treated her as an outcast. Dealing with the extreme heat of midday was easier than dealing with stares from the other women. This is a small town and she couldn’t hide.

So, this woman had to be thinking that Jesus was going to treat her same way that the other townsfolk do, with disdain. She’s ready for the lecture and it doesn’t come. Instead Jesus keeps right on talking. He talks about the need for worship that is honest and about the Messiah that will come to save the world. It’s then that Jesus reveals himself to the woman.

The passage is not clear about what the woman did or didn’t do. All we know is that she had a lot of husbands and that the man she was living with now wasn’t her husband. All we know is that the small town that she lived in knew everything about her and forced her to get her water at noon so she wouldn’t have to deal with the townsfolk who treated her with contempt.

But when Jesus points out what has caused her being an outcast, he didn’t shame her. He kept right on talking and later revealed himself to her.

The townsfolk knew all about her and used that to keep this woman isoloated. Jesus knew everything about her and continued the conversation.

One of the things you learn as a pastor is how many secrets your congregation has. We see people with smiling faces that tend to hide the domestic abuse, or the alcoholic or the scret affairs. None of us can bear being open because we fear that our honesty will cause us to be shunned like the woman.

The wonderful thing about this story is that Jesus knew everything about this woman. And yet, he remained in relationship with her. When she says that Jesus knew everuthing about her she was basically saying that Jesus knew all about the embarassing aspects of her life and still loved her.

The reason this is such a wonderful story to me is that it reveals something about God, and maybe even a clue as to how God’s church should act. The God we have is one that loves us passionately. This God will sit and talk with a woman at the risk of God’s own reputation. We have a God that knows everything about us and loves us anyway.

As God’s church, can we engage our friends and family? Can we offer them the living water of Jesus even if we know everything about them? Can we live honest lives, exposing our own shortcomings and know that God loves us anyway? Can we be Christ to others around us, loving them because they are God children?

In someways it was wonderful to be welcomed by Daniel after getting my ticket. It made getting a speeding ticket not seem so bad.

As we encounter the watering holes, bars, coffeeshops, offices and churches in our lives where people gather. May we be Christ to others. May we offer them the wonderful living water of Jesus. May we love them no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

On the WorldVision Retraction

March 28, 2014

World-Vision

Most of the people who read this blog know that I try to understand and respect the views of evangelicals and conservative Christians.  I came from that background and even though I’m a mainline Protestant, the theology that made me who I am is the evangelical faith of my youth.  Because of that and because I think God calls us to love our enemies, I want to give these folks some leeway even on issues that could affect me, primarily on issues of sexual identity.  I know and understand that we don’t see Scripture in the same way, so I think toleration should be the case as long as we respect each other.

However, when the other side is disrespectful and downright mean, all bets are off.

By now, most of us know that WorldVision, the evangelical relief and development agency, lifted a ban on hiring persons in same-sex relationships.  This was less of a “let’s celebrate marriage” guesture as much as it was “we need people who can help” or pragmatic move.

When I first saw this, I was happy.  I’ve always respected WorldVision for its work and I hoped it would signal a change in evangelicalism where gays would at least be tolerated.

Well, after a flurry of responses, including a number of nasty ones, WorldVision reversed it’s policy yesterday.  Via “YoRocko,” the head of the relief agency threw the gay community under the bus:

“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”

I’m checking my copy of the Nicean Creed to see where it says “don’t hire homos.”

While it is upsetting that WorldVision flip-flopped, what is truly maddening is that there were people who were so mad that they decided to not give to the organization anymore.  Really?  You were going to not help the world’s poor because of what WorldVision did?

I know that people sometimes withhold funding for various reasons.  But this just seems out of whack.  WorldVision is an organization that tries to alleviate the suffering of the poor among us.  I’m pretty sure when Jesus talked about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 I’m pretty sure it didn’t read, “I was gay and you shunned me” as a good thing.

The people who threatened WorldVision were threatening the poor in my view.  They cared more about who someone sleeps with than they do helping the poor and hungry.

I know that there are those who will say that they are defending an important institution in traditional marriage.  I understand that, but did people read some of the awful communication directed towards WorldVision? Look at the quote below:

Quote“Committed the children to the grace of God?”  Are you freaking kidding me!  Sorry kids, WorldVision committed a sin, so you’re on your own.  God be with you!

I know my tone here has been more harsh than…well, ever.  I don’t like to rant on this blog.  I also don’t want to offend my evangelical friends. However, I believe a line was crossed here.  I will defend someone their right to believe and practice their faith, even if it doesn’t mesh with my interpretation.

But I can’t support this.  This is just wrong.  You don’t hurt kids to prove a point.

I understand why WorldVision had to backtrack; they were going to take a hit to their finances which would hurt their good work.  I really don’t have a beef with them.  Some of the supporters of WorldVision are another story.

I remember my mother commenting about one of her brothers that was living with a woman that he wasn’t married to.  (He did later marry this woman.) Mom wasn’t crazy about that, she thought it was a sin.  But she still loved her brother.  She had her values, and love was one of them.

I wish that were the case with some WorldVision supporters.

 

Like The Woman At The Well?

March 21, 2014
Like the woman at the well, I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy.
And then I heard my Savior speaking—
“Draw from My well that never shall run dry.”
Fill my cup, Lord;
I lift it up Lord;
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.

The Samaritan Woman - John 4:1-42We are going to be singing the song “Fill My Cup,Lord” (the song above) in church on Sunday. It comes from the story in John 4 about the Woman at the Well. It happens to be one of my favorite stories in Scripture. When I went to China fifteen years ago, I got three wall hangings of the work of He Qi, the Chinese artist who depicts religious stories in paintings. The three I bought were based on stories I love, the Good Samaritan, the Road to Emmaus and the Woman at the Well.

I love this story because it is a story of Jesus breaking boundaries left and right. But I really love it because it is about grace and about Jesus being the friend of sinners.

I will be preaching on the text Sunday, but as this Sunday grew near I felt a bit of hesitation. You see, over the years it seems to get harder to preach this story. Over the years, I’ve heard people reflecting on the story and well, challenging one aspect of it: the role of the woman.

This woman (who is unnamed) comes to draw water in the middle of the day. In very warm climates, you would not be out when the sun is at its hightest. No, you would draw your water in the early morning or the evening when it is cooler. The fact that this woman comes at noon indicates that she is some sort of outcast. During the conversation with Jesus, he asks her to go and fetch her husband. When she says she has no husband, Jesus replies that she is correct. She has had five husbands and the man that she lives with now is not her husband. Now, traditionally people have thought that she might have been doing something that was considered sinful. However, another story has come forward in recent years that rejects seeing the woman as a sinner, but more as a victim of some sort. The Bible never really tells us what this woman has done, if anything. The passage raises question about this women and what has led her to be an outcast, but we are never told what happened.

What I loved about this story is that God can work through someone deemed a sinner. The kingdom of God is for this person as well. Friend of sinners indeed.

But that view is starting to fall out of favor at least in mainline circles for this newer viewpoint. There is no mention of sin. There is no repentance. They argue that the traditional understanding of the woman at the well is full of misogyny and moralism.  Here is what David Lose said in a Huffington Post article in 2011:

She is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms.

Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don’t get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).

And that’s it. That’s the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as a prostitute, but I guess I could see people thinking that. So if this isn’t the correct interpretation, then why is it being used?  The continued oppression of women:

So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.

A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.

I can understand why the traditional view can be so unsettleing.  Christian leaders have used scripture to belittle women.  I definitely would not call the woman a whore with the certainty that John Piper seems show.  We really don’t know what she has done, if anything.  So , we need to be careful in thinking we know the woman’s “sin” if there even is one.  Plus as Lose and other Bible scholars have noted, she might have been involved in a Levirate marriage.

That said, Lose’s alternative understand of this story, one where the woman is offered an identity and dignity seems to be weak tea for me.  Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Jesus treats woman with dignity matters.  The gospels present a Jesus that felt women had a role in his kingdom and it was more than cleaning tables.

But there is something missing in Lose’s interpretation.  Maybe the problem is that this is the kind of stuff I would expect to hear from nice, tolerant liberals.  It has nice words to say about inclusion and about treating women with respect.  But do people need to go to church to hear this?  Inclusivity is important, but I can learn that from a Coke ad.  I don’t need the church for that.

I agree that the woman does get to be a missionary to her people, which is groundbreaking.  All of this is good, I just don’t know if it really says anything about the love of God or what this all means for the church.

As I said before, we don’t know if this woman had sinned.  What we do know is that she was viewed a sinner by the townsfolk- which is why we see her getting water at noon instead of the morning or evening.  Whatever happened, we know that she is an outcast and outcasts are normally made to feel like sinners even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

I think it matters if this woman appeared to be a sinner (note that I said appear.  I did not say she was a sinner.)  If that’s the case, then the story changes.  This is then not about offering dignity but it is about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the one who is willing to impugn his own reputation to love the sinner and the outcast.  THAT is what makes this story so amazing.  Regardless if this woman was a sinner or not, Jesus radically loves this woman, even to the point of causing people to talk.

We all love to talk about Jesus being a friend to sinners, but we get a little nervous when Jesus in the Bible or Christians today, actually try to be friends…to sinners.

Lutheran pastor Delmer Chilton recounts a story that place right after his ordination; one where the newly minted minister ends up in the midst of some “working girls:”

I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg.  An old college friend drove several hours to be there.  After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day.  Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs.  We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep.  I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt.  Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green.  I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”

He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?”  I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.

The reason the Woman at the Well resonates with me is that Jesus was willing to be seen talking with someone that at the very least was an outcast and still loves her. Because of that radical love, this woman was able to witness to her neighbors and they too saw Jesus as the Messiah.

In the end, this story really isn’t about the Samaritan woman. She does factor in and is important to the story, but the story is really about a God that is willing to love someone, anyone so radically that one might think God is off God’s rocker. If God is a friend to outcasts and sinners, then God is surely a friend to me. We can rest in the hope that we have a God that passionately loves each one of us.

Hmmm…I think I might have written my sermon for this Sunday….

 

JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48282 [retrieved March 21, 2014].

Sermon: “A Woman and the Son of God Enter a Bar…”

March 20, 2014

This John passage is the lectionary gospel reading for this coming Sunday.  Below is a sermon I preached in 2008.

“A Woman and the Son of God Enter a Bar…”
John 4:5-42
February 24, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I am a terrible joke teller.

Believe me, I’ve tried. But ever since I was a child, I’ve have done a bad job of telling jokes. If I was kidnapped by Al Queda and the only I would be granted freedom is to tell the jokes, well I would be their involuntary guest for quite a long time.

But listening to jokes can be fun. I know that at some point, we have all heard a joke that begins like this: “A priest, a rabbi and a Baptist preacher walk into a bar…” The people who walk in the bar maybe different, but it’s still the same joke. A few people enter a bar who don’t seem to fit. We don’t expect a priest, a rabbi and a preacher to enter a bar together. We don’t expect them to even be at a bar. That’s what makes the joke so interesting: it’s throwing people who don’t normally associate with each other in situations you don’t expect them to be in.

The text from the book of John is one of my favorite stories. Just like the joke, it throws together people you don’t expect to be together in situations you don’t expect them to be in. As the story begins, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through Samaria. Now, most Jews would go out of their way to bypass Samaria. They did this because they didn’t like the Samartians. The Samaritans were related to the Jews, but they were mixed with other heritages and because their role in the past which included tharwting their Jewish cousins, they were called “half-breeds” by the Jews. The Samaritans returned the favor, by hating the Jews back.

So, Jesus travels in enemy territory. He is then left alone at the local water hole while his disciples go into the town to buy food. It was noon. Now, I’ve never been to the Holy Land, but I have been to parts of the world that are known for being hot. I’ve visited my relatives in Central Louisiana and traveled in Spain…in August. In both places, it gets incredibly hot during that time of the day, with the sun high in the sky. You don’t want to be outside during that time, and for the most part, you aren’t. Most people stay inside. But not Jesus. He is sitting here in the hot sun, near a well, with no way to get the water in the well.

At this point, something odd happens. A woman is approaching the well. This is odd, because normally, women, and it was women in those days, went to get water from the well in the early morning and the evening, times of the day when the sun was not so hot. And yet, this woman was heading towards the well with a bucket to draw water for her needs. Many have speculated that this woman might have had a reputation in town and going to get water in the middle of the day, meant not having to deal with the cold stares of the townsfolk.

Jesus sees the woman and asks her, “Give me something to drink.” The woman looks at Jesus and notices maybe by his skin tone or his speech that he is Jewish. That must have sent chills up her spine that her hated enemy was sitting there asking her for drink as if she was his servant. She then responds, “Why in the world would ask me, a woman and a Samaritan, for water?”

Jesus then starts talking about water again- but not the water in the well. He speaks of a Living Water, a water that will quench the thirst of this woman forever. At first, she was still a bit skeptical, wondering how he could get this water without a bucket. Then she starts to ask if there is any way she could get this water and not have to come out in the heat to get water. At some point, Jesus asks the woman to call her husband. She responds quickly that she has no husband. But Jesus sees through this and calls her on it.

You have to imagine this woman was scared. She was already and outcast because of her past, and she didn’t need this Jew looking down on her. But how did he know? She wonders if this man is a prophet and starts talking about God and worshipping on the mountain where her fellow Samaritans went to meet God.

At some point, Jesus reveals himself to her as the Messiah. She runs back to town and tells the townsfolk that this man told her everything about her. Could this be the Messiah?

This story is about grace. This morning, we sang what is probably the most famous hymn: “Amazing Grace.” Many of you know the history of this song. It’s writer, John Newton, was a slave trader. Talk about your shady pasts. He had traded people like commodity. He felt like the “wretch” in the song. And yet, he knew that God had saved him. He was lost, and now he is found. He was blind in sin and now he sees.

This woman was an outcast. Whether or not she was an innocent victim or someone with a seedy past, doesn’t matter; she is on the outside. And yet, Jesus reached out to her. He crossed the boundaries of ethnicity, gender and probably 200 other boundaries to reach out to this woman in grace and love.

But this story isn’t simply about what Christ did, though that’s incredibly important. It’s also about how the community that claims to follow him lives. We call ourselves Christians. Do we respond to the people we meet with the same grace that Christ did? Could we love those who might be doing something we might not necessairly agree with?

The fact is, outside these walls, there are people who are dying of thirst. Not real thirst, though there are people who are dying of thirst, but they want to be loved. They know they have a past, or are doing something people might not like. They have felt like an outcast. All they want is a welcoming hand that loves them regardless of their past. Are we willing to cross our own boundaries to share the love and grace of Christ with them?

Let me tell you the story of a real outsider. Many of you know Jim Galvin, who was a member of Community of Grace. He has shared with me on occasion that having a church that openly welcomed him even though he was gay meant a lot to him. He had felt excluded from other churches in the past because of his orientation, but he found a place to be. Jim found grace.

I don’t share this story to pump myself up, since I was the pastor of this church start. I share it because it is an example of welcoming the various “people at the wells” in our own lives.

The theme for today is baptism and in a short time, I will be passing out a seashell to add to your growing altars at home. Shells are the traditional symbol of baptism. Baptism is a time when we are welcomed in to the church. But there is something more going on here. It is in the waters of baptism that we are reminded that God loves us. God knows us totally; all our faults and all out shortcomings and loves his still. We are loved madly by God. Jesus was willing to sit in the middle of a desert in the middle of the day to tell this woman that she was loved by God. That’s love. Jesus went to the cross to show that love to all of creation. THAT’s love.

Baptism reminds us we are loved that much by God. And if we are loved that much by God, shouldn’t we return the favor by carrying that love forward? Can we cross the boundaries of race, sexual orientation, political ideology, theological differences to love somebody?

Baptism is a reminder that we have been given Living Water, a water that reminds us we don’t have to go anywhere else to feel loved, because we are loved by God, all the time.

A Woman and the Son of God enter the bar…and everything changes for the better. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Picture: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, by He Qi.

Sermon: “You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance”

March 17, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-17
Second Sunday in Lent
March 16, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

detroitAs a kid, I loved looking at maps. I still do love pouring over a map, but when I was younger, I could spend hours looking at a map. The Rand McNally map of the Interstate Highway System was like the Bible to me. I look and see what interstate went where, what cities it came close to and the like. I don’t have the time I did to look at map so intently, but a map from Triple A still gives me joy.

Maps have an important purpose: that is to help guide the driver to their desired destination. Maps can tell you if a road is finished or not, or if there is construction. The whole point of a map is to get you to point B in the most direct and easy way possible. A map should help keep any surprises on your trip to a bare minimum.

Our Scripture in Genesis is an important turning point in the Biblical story. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are considered a pre-history. The creation, the fall, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Ark are all part of this pre-history. Beginning in verse 12 we enter a new story that will take up the rest of Genesis, if not the rest of the book of Genesis. God is going to bring salvation to all of creation through one nation. Abram would be the father of what would become the Jews and as God promised, the Israelites would be a light to the nations and through the God’s people would arise the one person to reconcile us to God: Jesus. But all this had to start somewhere, so it starts with an old man named Abram.

What’s interesting about Abram is that he pulls up stakes and obeys God heading toward Caanan. He was going to give rise to a great nation even though, A- he was old, B- so was his wife Sarai, C-they had no children and D- they had no land. I’m guessing that God is that guy that tells you to do something and then says, “I’ll explain later.”

Abram’s faith wasn’t perfect. He did doubt at times and sometimes came up with his own ideas. But he would always come back to trusting in God’s promise- even if God took a very, very, very, long time to bring it to fruition.

The theme we are using during Lent is Jesus Remember Me. In this story God is calling Abram into something new, but for Abram it involved risk. There was no map to guide him, only a promise from an unknown God. Even though the way was not easy, God didn’t forget Abram and Sarai. One day they are blessed with a son, Issac, who would further God’s promise.

Nicodemus is one result of Abrams faith. In the gospel of John, he has a nighttime meeting with Jesus. He has questions and seeks answers from Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t give him a map, but instead answers his question with riddles. The answer is there for Nicodemus, but to see the answer he has to go from mere belief to faith. He had to be born of the Spirit to have this second sight.

As some of you know, I helped plant a church about a decade ago. I remember one time getting a phone call from someone asking a question about the church. They wanted to know if there was a choir or an organ. We were small and didn’t really have either. The man said thank you and hung up, upset that we weren’t meeting his desire. I think he was more interested in being entertained than he was joining a bunch of fellow sojourners.

The question that many of us here at First are trying to answer these days is about our future. The church has shrunk to a handful of faithful members. Some would say that a church this small is no longer viable and should just close up shop.

As think about how to move forward, a funny thing has happened. Thanks to people like Janice Paulson, we have started finding items from the congregation’s past. A pulpit Bible, a sign, pictures of our old building near downtown St. Paul and a list of pastors since the 1880s. These items are helpful for reminding us that this congregation has been a faithful witness for over a century. A century of people trying to live out God’s promises.

The message of Abram for us today is that a relationship with God has to do with faith and risk. A church or congregation is called to leave our familiar places and follow God in faith as we journey forward to the end of Days when sin will be no more. As a gathered people we are called to witness to the world of the mighty deeds of God. We invite others to join us. And we do all of this without a map.

To be part of this congregation, or any congregation for that matter, is not about being entertained. It isn’t about having an awesome choir, there’s nothing wrong with having a good choir, but it’s just not the focus. We are not here for entertainment, but to journey together trusting in God’s promises in baptism, that we are children of God, that we are washed clean from sin, that we are empowered by the Spirit, part of the wider Church and given eternal life with God.

Trying to be church in this day and time is not easy. Church was something that most people in society went to, because that’s what was done. But we live in a different time where church is just one option of many. We long for the old days when are churches were full (and much larger). But maybe we are where we need to be; ready to hear God’s voice to leave familiar places and ways of doing things and sojourn together to where God takes us for the salvation of the world.

That’s a tall order for a small church. Can we do it. With God’s help? Piece of cake. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “Natural Born Sinners”

March 13, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-8 and Matthew 4:1-11
First Sunday in Lent
March 9, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

For about two or three years growing up, I took swimming lessons. Sometimes I too the lessons at the local YMCA and sometimes at the YWCA. I’m not a great swimmer, but I do credit these classes for helping me not be afraid of the water.

I remember once experience very vividly. It was the last class and I was excited. So my mother drops me off and I head into the dressing room. I got my street clothes off and got ready to head to the poor. I bounded out of the locker room and saw one of the instructors sitting poolside. “I’m ready for class!” I said.

The teacher smiled and said “No, you’re not.”

I was a bit perplexed. “Yes, I am” I answered back.

“No, you’re not” she said again and then nodded her head looking at my midsection as if she was giving me a secret message.

You might have noticed in this story that I left out something. I took off my street clothes, took a shower and then headed outside. I forgot the little thing of putting on a swimsuit. So here I am totally naked in front of my teacher, who thankfully was the only person in the room. Embarrassed, I scooted back to the locker room to put my swimsuit on. I don’t think I ever saw the young woman around, but I’m pretty sure she has shared the time an eight year old came out of the locker room nude and didn’t know it more than once since the 1970s.

It’s funny how embarassed we tend to be at our own naked bodies. We live in a cutlure that prizes the perfect body. It’s always fascinating to pass by a Victoria’s Secret store in a mall. The models that appear in the posters at the front of the store are all thin with ample bosoms. Now I’m pretty sure that not everyone that shops at Victoria’s Secret is a supermodel. Most of the people who purchase the lingerie there are not going to look like the poster. I wonder if the women who purchase items Victoria’s Secret feel embarrassed that their body isn’t anywhere close to the models on the poster.

The thing is, at least in American culture (but probably a number of others), we are made to feel embarrassed about our bodies and we cover them up. Being naked is so…naked. Having nothing on is leaving yourself vulnerable

In reading the text from Genesis, what has fascinated me recently is the fact that after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve realized they were naked. That never made sense to me. I think you would have noticed that you were naked. Adam even tells God that they were afraid because they were naked. And because they were naked, they hid from God.

What was it about being in the buff that made Adam and Eve so scared? Why did they rush to put on fig leaves to cover themselves? Why did they hide from God? And why would you ever listen to a talking serpent?

Okay, I’m not going to answr the last question, but I wonder if the reason nakedness plays a role in this story is because it signifies the problem that befalls creation. When humans realized they were defenseless, vulnerable, they decided to cover themselves for protection. They didn’t want to look like that in front of God, so instead of communing with God, they took to hiding. They don’t trust that God will love them for who they are. Best to cover up the naughty parts so that God didn’t have to see the things we are ashamed of.

This passage is usually the one that gives rise to the whole concept of Original Sin. I think the Original Sin isn’t sex or being naked. What Original Sin is all about is learning to not trust God; to not see ourselves as loevd by God and seeking to hid from God. We show God and others our best selves, and keep the not so nice parts tucked away and hidden. The gulf between humanity and God is because we started to not trust God. We start going our own ways because we God won’t love us if God knew the whole truth. We hide through power or drinking too much or using drugs. We start not trusting each other and the gulf builds not only between us and God, but between each other.

The story in Matthew where Jesus gets tempted shows us what God intended. Jesus is tempted, not by a serpent, but by the devil. Each time the devil tells Jesus to use his power to benefit himself. Each time Jesus responds saying that he would trust in God. He remembered he was God’s own Son and was loved. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is healing the gulf between God and man. Where we are reminded that God loves as we are, warts and all. We don’t have to hid from God with fig leaves or drugs or a big house.

As we enter lent and focus on our vulnerability and finiteness, remember that God loves you. Your baptisms are a reminder of that love. It doesn’t matter if you were sprikled, dunked or what have you, that baptism reminds you that God remembers you.

There is a reality TV show that I see from time to time called Naked and Afraid. The point of the show is to take two people, who have some skills in survival training and drop them off in the middle of nowhere with just one item and without clothing. The show has been in the plains of Africa, the jungles of Panama and the swamps of Louisiana. The two contestants have to try to build shelter and find food for 30 days. Because they are naked, they are susceptible to the elements. Their bodies take a beating in that month. They endure the cold of night and the heat of day. On more than one occasion, someone has become sick and to get well sans any medicine. It’s amazing because you can see how fragile human beings are. It seems like the only thing keeping these two alive is the fact that they can reason.

We cover ourselves up to protect ourselves. But I think God wants us to be naked, to be vulnerable as Jesus was while on earth. To not trust in clothing to hide us, but to trust in God, the one who passionately loves us.

Remember that you are loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Anger You Don’t Understand

March 9, 2014

gay_s640x427One of the bloggers that I love to read is Rod Dreher.  While we share some similarities politically, we are on different sides of the same-sex marriage issue.  Rod has written a number of posts on what he sees as the coming troubles facing social conservatives as the opinion on gay marriage changes.  I decided to comment on a recent blog post.  One of the things he is bothered by is the meanness on the pro-SSM towards social conservatives.  While I agree that there has been a lot of spiking the ball on our side, I thought Rod needs to understand where some of that anger comes from and it doesn’t come from nowhere.

Before I share the response, I want to add that I do appreciate Rod.  He is one of the most honest people I know striving to honor God in the best way he can.  He has helped me see that not all social conservatives are horrible monsters.  So, while I am offering a bit of pushback here, I don’t do it out of anger.  I just want to him (and others) to understand a little about our side and what might be fueling the anger. 

Rod,

Part of the issue that needs to be addressed is the bitterness that many in the gay rights community has towards social conservatives. A lot of this comes from the pain we have experienced from people who were religious and yet treated their sisters and brothers with cruelty. One of the things that Ross Douthat shared in his Sunday column is the abuse LGBT folk have suffered in the past. I think it is important for social cons to at least admit that some of this vitriol is a knee-jerk response to some of the things we have faced.

The other issue that is a problem is how social conservatives are viewed by the larger society. When I was coming out in the 90s, the image I saw was Pat Buchanan venting at the 1992 GOP Convention in Houston. The image most gays and allies have of social conservatives is one of hateful people bent on destroying LGBT people. It’s not a true image, but it’s there. My view of social conservatives have changed for two reasons: one I take the call from Jesus to love our enemies seriously. Second, I’ve met many social conservatives and see that they don’t have five heads and eat gay babies. Because American society is so fragmented with like-minded folk clustering together, most gay folk have never encountered a social conservative and see them as complex beings instead of caritactures. And because we don’t know you, hence the hostility.

I don’t know what the answer is. I have used my blog to express that social conservatives are not all monsters, but I have also got pushback from people who write me talking about the pain they have faced and how it makes no sense to show mercy. The negative image of social conservatives is ingrained in many gay people and their allies and that is what keeps them from showing and sense of forgiveness and love. Gay people can and should speak up and maybe even seek out social conservatives and befriend them (somthing I’ve tried to do). But I think the only way this is going to change is when social conservatives themselves reach out and be Christ to gay people. When gay people can see that social conservatives are people, things will change. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but realize that a lot of the anger is warranted. Trust has been broken. LGBT people like myself can and should reach out, but until gays and trust social conservatives such hostility will continue, even if it is not right.

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