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.

Sermon: Let Jesus Be Jesus

Matthew 16:13-20
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 24, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

youngjusticeI’ve always had an interest in superheroes.  Which is kind of odd, because I tend not to buy comic books or as they are now called, graphic novels.  I know friends that have boxes of comics from years past, but that’s not me.  No, the way that I found out about superheroes was through TV, specifically, the SuperFriends- a light-hearted take on the Justice League which ran on ABC at various times in the 1970s starting in 1973.  Then it was watching the live-action series “Wonder Woman” and the “Incredible Hulk.”

 

In the years following college, I would catch an animated version of the X-Men and during the seminary I was loved watching Batman Beyond,  a futuristic take on on the Dark Knight.  And yes, I still watch superheroes in the movies and on television.  I watch shows like “Arrow” which is a take on the comic book hero, the Green Arrow; Young Justice which focuses on the sidekicks of famous heroes, and well, there are more, but I think that’s enough for you all to know for now.

 

I think that I am fascinated by superheroes because the stories can sometimes take on things that are taking place in the wider culture.  I like the X-Men because the story makes these superheroes are not treated like superheroes by the wider culture.  In fact, they are seen as threats hence why they are referred to as mutants.  Since I was coming out during that time period, I could see X-men as an allegory to how LGBT persons are accepted in society- or not. Comics can also allude to the changing demographics of a society.  Earlier this month, Marvel Comics announced that the next Captain America was going to be African American.  The character is currently one of the current Captain America’s superhero associates, Falcon. Falcon was considered one of Marvel’s first black heroes when he was introduced in the late 1960s and assume the identity of superhero that embodies the American ideal represents the changes take place in the United States.

 

Superheroes tend to have aliases.  Sometimes they want to keep their other identity a secret. Batman was actually billionaire Bruce Wayne. When Superman wasn’t saving the world, he was Clark Kent, a journalist.  Very few people around them actually know of their secret identities.  I think comic books and television use a ton of suspended disbelief in thinking that a mask around people eyes will prevent them from knowing who they are, but for some reason people buy it.

 

Because these heroes didn’t tell people who they were, people became curious.  Who are these people?  Is it someone they know?  What was it that people said after meeting the Lone Ranger: who was that masked man? Regular folk just want to meet their hero and find out about them.  There are some that see them as a threat to society and they want to expose them before they cause more trouble.

 

Superheroes can remind people of how we relate to God: a mysterious powerful creature that seems to want the best for us.  Some just want to meet God and learn more about God, while others see God as a threat to their way of living. Read More…

Sermon: Things Fall Apart

Genesis 45:1-15 and Matthew 15:10-28
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 17, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

thingsfallapartrootsHow is your heart today?

 

You could answer that in two ways.  The first way is probably literal.  How are you doing healthwise?  Are you eating right?  Are you getting enough sleep?

 

As a society, we are obsessed with health, even when we don’t act like we care.  We are told we are to heavy need to go to the gym.  We are told we eat poorly and try the latest fad to get to health.  We’ve quit smoking.  We are doing everything we can to keep our hearts healthy. I try to go to the gym twice a week, and try to walk as much as a I can daily.  I’ve also gained all the weight I lost a year ago, but I still do what I can to keep my heart healthy.

 

But heart can also talk about our whole being, not just the muscle in the center of our chest.  And looking at the news from the past week, humanity’s heart is not doing so well.  Events like the shooting of Michael Brown, an African American man from Ferguson, a Saint Louis suburb by the local police have shocked us.  Islamic extremist have taken one of the world’s great faiths and turned into a murderous ideology that kills anyone from a different faith or who don’t follow Islam in the same way they do.  And then there was the tragic death of actor Robin Williams.  A funny man that we learned took his own life after battling depression for years.

 

In Matthew’s gospel we see Jesus first talking the crowd.  He calls out the Pharisees for their concern of rules like ritual handwashing, but very little concern about what really defiles a person.  There was no concern for the inner life of a person. Read More…

The Prosperity Gospel in Black and White

prosperityLast winter, I wrote a somewhat contrarian blog post on the Prosperity Gospel.  I never did endorse it, but I was trying to talk about the fact that for those on the lower economic margins that happen to think about money, they are more willing to talk about finances and how this relates to their walk with God.

Something today made me think about the Prosperity Gospel again and I noticed something about most of the critics of it:

They’re all white.

Now, I can only make that statement from what I’ve observed.  Maybe there is an African American pastor railing against the Prosperity Gospel.  But there’s something telling that there seems to not be a person of color who obesses over the Prosperity Gospel in ways that whites do.

I think there is a reason for all of this.  I’m not an economist, I’m just a pastor.  But here are some observations that I’ve noticed:

African Americans and Latinos think about money more, especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  African Americans and to a large extent Latinos tend to be more money insecure than white Americans.  It’s not uncommon for whites to have more in savings and more in terms of wealth that might have been passed down to the next generation.  That is almost never the case when it comes to most persons of color.  Even those who make into the middle class are more insecure because they don’t have wealth built up.  Being African American and married to a white person, I can tell you there are stark differences between our families when it comes to wealth.  So, if you have less, you will be thinking more about how to pay this or that bill which means you think about money a lot.  Now if you are an African American and finances are tight and you hear some preacher talk about prosperity, do you scoff at this?  Probably not.  Why?  Because this pastor understands what you are going through and is preaching a way out- a lifeline.  I think prosperity preaching is bad, but let’s face it; it’s a tempting message for a real reason.

If you are a middle class white person, you are more than likely to have a fair sum of money saved up, or your parents have a good sum that you can borrow.  You also probably have some inheritance of some kind (stock, land, etc.) that you can use.  In short white Americans don’t tend to think so much about money problems.  It’s easy to warn of the dangers of prosperity gospel while you are sitting on financial reserves.

Again, there is a lot that is bad about the Prosperity Gospel.  But that doesn’t mean that prosperity or finances shouldn’t be talked about- especially when money is such a big part of the lives of many persons of color, not because of greed, but because they don’t have much of it and the needs are many.

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