I preached this on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in 2008, which is also called Good Shepherd Sunday.
Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10
April 13, 2008 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I’ll admit it; I’m a geek.
Some of you know I wrote the main article in this month’s church newsletter. It’s called “Church 2.0.” I talked about how my job as a communications specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area has used my knowledge of blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace has changed how we communicate with each other.
I’ve been working with blogs and social networking sites for several years and they have helped me create new relationships that would have been impossible in the past. I’ve made true friendships over the Internet with people from across the nation. Heck, I even met my partner Daniel through an online dating service.
What I find interesting is how this information revolution is changing society and what clues it has for the church, especially the mainline church and specifically, Lake Harriet. As I just said, this brave new world of blogs, podcasts and interactive web pages, is forming relationships where none might have ever existed. I am reminded that Tammy Rottschafer the Associate Pastor here at Lake Harriet has reminded me over and over that being church is about relationships. God may just well be calling us as a faith community to be more of an “interactive church,” a place that connects and relates with each other, with the outside world, and with God.
In the Second chapter of Acts, we are given a brief description of the nacsent church. It was just after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as flames of fire. Peter testified about Jesus and the scripture says 3,000 joined this new community that day. The passage that was read today, is about the day-to-day life of the church after that day. It’s a short passage, but I think it packs a wallop. The devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, they held all things in common and helped those in need, the broke bread together, had glad and generous hearts and praised God. The result of all this is that their community grew daily.
While this all happened long ago, I see a lot of today in this passage. This is a church that is interactive. Like working on a weblog, there are people relating to each other. This passage isn’t telling us that we need to be exactly like this church, but it does describe what the church should be about.
The church is called to be a place where we are devoted to learn to be a follower of Christ. The church is a place where we have fellowship with each other, where we care and love each other. The church is a place where we realize that our material possessions are not the goal in our lives, but to use what we have to help those in need, especially those in our community, but also those outside of it. The church is a place where we come together and break bread in table fellowship together, realizing that it is Christ that calls us to the table regardless of who we are. The church is a place where we are happy in Christ and are generous to friends and strangers.
Notice it doesn’t say that a church needs to have a pastor that will bring in more people, or have an awesome sound system, or a brand spanking new building. What IS needed is a visible faith community living in the light of Christ.
You know, as compact as this passage is: being a journalist by training, I could sum this up in about five words: “the church is about hospitality.”
If you read this passage over and over, what becomes apparent is that this new church was a place where people where caring to each other and to strangers. They fellowshipped, they broke bread together, they helped each other. They were caring with each other and people noticed. That’s why their community grew and grew.
As many of you know, I was the pastor of a new church for several years. It ended up closing or as I like to say, it was shelved for the time being. For a long time, I was lead to believe that to be a growing church, you needed to do things that would attract people. So, we had these innovative services that were supposed to pack them in and it didn’t. I remember wondering what I had done wrong. We were an open and affirming community, meaning we were openly welcoming of gays and lesbians, and yet that didn’t do a lot to bring people in.
What I learned from that experience is that I failed to really have relationships with people. For many people who had been burned by the church because of their sexual orientation, it didn’t really matter if we were Open and Affirming if we didn’t have relationships and chats over coffee with gay and lesbians and be Christ to them.
This church is going through change and getting ready to start a new journey as a church. I don’t know if I am in a position to offer words of advice, but I will any way. Remember that being church is not about having some hotshot pastor or big programs. It’s about relationships, it’s about hospitality. It’s about what we do during prayer time here and on Wednesday evenings, when we pray for our friends here in church and around the world. It’s when we give flowers on the table to someone in the hospital or a stranger as a sign of friendship. It’s when we pack food packets that go to feed the hungry. It’s when we welcome people regardless of sexual orientation even if we don’t understand it all. It’s about developing relationships with those who cross our path and showing them Christ in our lives, not to convert them (the Holy Spirit does that), but to be a living witness of who Christ is.
Today is what has generally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. We read from John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. We read from Psalm 23 which talks about God being our Shepherd that is always with us. In the past, I always looked at this passage as being about God being the shepherd and that we sheep are to be good followers. But I now see it as God in relation with God’s church. God cares for us and looks after us in ways we can’t imagine, because God is in love with us; God has a relationship with us. As a community that is loved by the God of the universe, we are called to care for one another- not because it’s something we have to do, but because it’s who we are. And when people see us living as a Christ-led, hospitable community, they will take notice.
The response we sang during the call to worship is by the hymnwriter, Marty Haugen. The song is called “Shepherd Me, O God.” The refrain says, “Shepherd me, O God; beyond my faults, beyond my needs, from death into life.”
Lake Harriet has some experience with death, with dying to old ways and to what we once were. In fact, many might even feel like we are dying now. But this song should be our prayer: that God will lead us, beyond our faults and needs from death into being the Easter people that we are.
Take heart, my friends. Know that God is with you, raising us up from death into life. And along the way, make friends, be hospitable and welcome everyone, everyone to this Table. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Third Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2014
First Christian Church
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
These are the words of John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist Church. Wesley was going through a time of doubt and depression and while sitting in a church in England he had an encounter with Jesus. He felt “strangely warmed” as he said. He went into the service full of despair and left feeling he could place his trust in Christ. When most people hear this story, they focus on the whole warming of the heart. What we tend to forget was that Wesley came in to this church a broken man. He didn’t come in with much hope.
It was a little over ten years ago that I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis. This is one of those requirements you have to do before getting ordained. Clinical Pastoral Education is a time when your faith comes face to face with life. You have to figure out how to be Christ in a very vulnerable moment.
I worked at Luther Hall, which was a transitional care facility. Some of the people I met were only there for a few days after a surgery. Others were there for a longer stay. I remember one of my first visits was to stop by the room of a patient. He was unconscious and this family was all around him. The man had a brain tumor it didn’t look like he was going to make it. However, the wife kept saying that he was going to get better. This was hard for me. I couldn’t just be frank and tell them he wasn’t going get better. I couldn’t pray that he would be miraculously healed. I was facing a moment where there seemed to be no hope. I did the best I could to not do something that would offend them.
How do you minister to someone when there is no hope things will get better? Those events happened thirteen years ago and I still don’t have a really good answer.
The this story about the Road to Emmaus is an fascinating story. We hear a story about two disciples and we don’t really know much about them. We don’t even know why they are walking to this town. What we do know is that they are heartbroken. This is only a few days after Jesus was crucified and now on this day they have heard the story of an empty tomb. These two people were crushed by the news. First their friend was killed by Rome and now there isn’t even a body left to mourn. Their emotion is distilled down to a few words: “But we had hoped.”
The two believed that Jesus was going to come and redeem Israel, that he was going to free Israel from Roman occupation. Now, that wasn’t going to happen.
But we had hoped…how many times have we echoed those words? But we had hoped to have twins. But we had hoped to keep my job. But we had hoped we would not lose our house to forclosure. But we had hoped to see our child graduate. But we had hoped it wasn’t Alzheimers. But we had hoped he wouldn’t walk out on his wife. But we had hoped. Those four words pack a punch. It tells us all that we need to know; hoping for something, excepting something better and to not have those dreams come true. Ernest Hemingway was once challenge to write a story with only six words. He responded: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.” Everyone of us has dealt with some kind of heartbreak, failure or loss. But we had hoped. It is one of those mainstays in life.
As these two men walk, another stranger starts walking beside them. Jesus had joined the the two men. Even when we don’t feel there is hope, when we think nothing will ever get better, Jesus is there. But it’s hard to see that when you are mired in despair. It’s also hard to walk with someone who is in pain. How many of us don’t know what to say when someone levels a bombshell of pain on you? I can tell you it’s not easy. It’s uncomfortable.
A little later, the two men invite Jesus to stay with them the night. They sit down to have a meal and Jesus blessed and broke the bread. It was then that they knew Jesus was there. It was at that moment, hope came alive. Jesus was there all the time and they have to go and tell the other Disciples.
As Christians, we gather every Sunday and have communion. It’s easy to just go through the motions. I’m pretty sure we don’t expect much to happen as we eat a cube of bread and a thimble of grape juice. But the thing is, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that Jesus is with us now. Communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done, but it is also a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us now, even when we can’t sense God. Christ walks with us even when we don’t know. Because we are humans that tend to forget God is with us, we need this holy meal. We need to know that when say “but we have hoped” Jesus responds by breaking bread and revealing that God has been with us all along.
This is the reason we need church. Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight was recently interviwed about them importance of the church. He call the church a “kingdom society where God’s will is done as a result of Christ’s redemption. It is being part of a community that we learn about how God operates and where we can see Christ in each other, as well as in bread and win.
When they realize they were talking to Jesus, the disciples ran and told the others. We are called to go and tell others that Jesus is alive and is with all of us. The result of breaking bread with Jesus, as we do every Sunday is to go and tell the good news. There will still be heartache, at least on this side of heaven. But we can tell others that Jesus is with us even when we don’t know.
As we continue our journey this Easter season, let us know that Jesus walks with us- even when we don’t feel it. And let us go and tell the world. May our prayer be this passage of the well known hymn, “Let us talents and Tounges Employ:”
Let us talents and tongues employ,
reaching out with a shout of joy:
bread is broken, the wine is poured,
Christ is spoken and seen and heard.
Jesus lives again; earth can breathe again.
Pass the Word around: loaves abound!
May it be so. Amen.
This is a sermon I preached on Easter evening in 2005. It is the text I will be preaching on this Sunday for the Third Sunday in Easter.
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
I love good food, and it probably shows.
I consider myself lucky to be born in the family that I’m in, because I grew up with two wonderful cooking traditions. On my father’s side is the African American tradition of the Deep South. It’s a tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pie. It is all fattening and it’s all good.
On my mother’s side is the Puerto Rican cuisine. I remember coming over to my grandmother’s when she was still alive and eating rice with chicken, or arroz con pollo. Sometimes she would substitute sausage or fish for chicken, but it was just as delicious. When I was little, I used to call it “Orange Rice” and literally thought my grandmother bought orange colored rice. Then I also remember pasteles, a delicacy that is made from plantain. They are little meat pies filled with pork and raisins and olives. My grandmother and other relatives made them and have been known to carry them in my luggage when I leave Michigan bound back to Minnesota.
Food doesn’t just bring needed nourishment to us, but it’s a context that brings people together. I remember eating arroz con pollo and talking in Spanish to my abuela, or grandmother. I remember eating so much soul food that I probably needed angioplasty at a family event in Louisiana a few years back, but it was also a wonderful time to get requainted with my southern relatives.
Today, we encounter one of my favorite stories concerning the ressurection. It’s the road to Emmaus where Jesus appears in disguise to two of his disciples. These disciples were still in shock over all that had happened in the last few days; the shocking arrest, the mockery of a trial, the crucifixion. They had thought Jesus was the one that would save them, and now their savior was dead. They told this disguised Jesus that it was already the third day since his death and in Jewish tradition, this meant that the soul had left the body, meaning there was no hope that Jesus would ever come back. To add insult to injury, the women who were aquainted with Jesus reported that the body was gone. These two had lost hope and were alone. They had placed their hopes on this one called Jesus and it had all ended so badly.
Jesus decides to put a stop to this pity party and open the Scriptures to them. They were interested in what this supposed stranger was saying to them.
When they arrived in Emmaus, it was evening and not a time for someone to be on the road alone, so they asked the stranger to stay with them for the evening. He agreed and shared bread with them. It was when he broke the bread that the disciple’s eyes were opening. Jesus had been revealed and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished from their sight.
It’s interesting that the resurrected Jesus made himself know presumably at a table, breaking bread. In preparing for this sermon, I noticed that some interesting things happened when Jesus was at the table. In the fifth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the calling of Levi, aka Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, an agent of Rome. Now Jews didn’t take kindly to collaborators, and it was also known that tax collectors not only collected money for Rome, but took a little extra for themselves. So, it goes without saying that Matthew wasn’t popular. And yet, Jesus calls him and as a result, Matthew hosts a big party where all his fellow tax collectors were invited. Well, this didn’t go over with the Pharisees who thought it shameful that Jesus would associate with such lowlife. Remember what Jesus said? He said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Then there was the time he was invited over to the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story, record in the seventh chapter of Luke, tells of a sinful woman who comes in and washed his feet with her tears and poured purfume on them. Well the Pharisees were shocked. Didn’t Jesus know this was a “bad” woman. Why would he even allow her to touch him? What does Jesus do? He takes Simon and the others, all who were considered high society, to task for not being hospitable to him. Only this woman who was considered and outcast, showed him proper respect and for that, he forgave her sins.
Then there is the story of Zacheus, another tax collector. In Luke 19, we read that Jesus invites himself to Zacheus’ house. Zaccheus is so moved that this one called the Messiah would stay with him, that he repents and repays those whom he has cheated.
Over and over again in the book of Luke and in the other Gospels, Jesus is found somewhere where they is a table and food. What’s interesting here is that these “table talks” give us an insight into who the Son of God is and also what God is all about.
The prior stories all point to the fact that God is one who loves everyone and there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and other various “sinners.” He also dined with the rich and powerful as well. This shows that Jesus was not a repsector of persons, but welcomed all. These “table talks” remind us that as children of God and followers of God’s Son, we are called to welcome all, regardless of their status in life.
So what does the meal in today’s text mean? Well, let’s go back to the fact that these disciples had lost all hope. They didn’t realize Jesus was alive. As Jesus told them Scriptures they were rekindled with some hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who Jesus was. In the context of this simple evening meal, they were reminded that death could not silence Jesus. He was alive, he had conquered death, and as a result, we now have new life. Not only is Jesus one who welcomes all to the table of fellowship, but he is one that death can’t hold. No earthly power can hold God back, thanks be to God.
In a few moments, we will partake of the bread and the wine. In Disciple theology, what other call an altar, we call a table. I tend to like that. An altar has a regal image to it, relating more to a king. That’s not a bad reference, since Jesus is a King, but the word table connotes something more basic and common. It represents the Son of God who came to earth as a peasant child, and then as an adult spent time teaching at tables. We still learn from Jesus today at this table. It is here we are reminded of God’s love for us-all of us, regardless if we are black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay. We are reminded that God loved us so much, God became one of us, lived among us and died the death of a common criminal. We are also reminded of his ressurection and know that not even death could hold him and no longer has a hold over us as well.
In closing, go back to talk about food. A few years ago, there was a movie called Soul Food, about an African-American extended family in Chicago. The matriarch, Big Mama, would cook these wonderful meals on Sundays after church and all the family would come over. Now, at some point, Big Mama fell ill and was hospitalized. When she ultimately died, the meals stopped and the family fell apart with certain people not talking to each other.
The narrator of this story, Big Mama’s eldest grandson, schemes to get the family together and concocts a story about some hidden money. Everyone attends and one by one, they all come together and start making the meals that Big Mama used to make. In the end, the family was back together all through a meal. The meal, healed a broken family.
This is the savior we worship, one that is made known to us in meals. The question I want to end with is this: as followers of Jesus, do our meals, at this table and at all of our tables reveal the something about the Risen Savior or do they reflect the table of the Pharisees, which is built on exclusion?
Something to think about. Amen.
Photo: “The Road to Emmaus” by Dr. He Qi ( http://www.heqigallery.com )
Matthew 21:1-11 and Phillipians 2:5-11
April 13, 2014
First Christian Church
If you were watching the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral. It’s an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off. At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.
If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades. The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life. Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a buisiness making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city. While I do think there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the commercial that left me feeling uneasy. I think that the commercial is a tale of sucess. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?
Palm Sunday is a hard Sunday for pastors. It’s not because this starts Hell Week, I mean Holy Week. No, the reason this day is hard for us is because we don’t know what to preach about. We want to make sure people understand the whole story of Jesus last days on earth and we are torn from talking about the entry into Jerusalem or talk about what is to come on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is a struggle because we know that a good number of people sitting in the pews will only come on Palm Sunday and then come back next week on Easter. So, the average person will go from little kids walking around sanctuary re-enacting Jesus’ entry into Jersualem and then a week later the choir is singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” It could make people think that the church is just one big party every Sunday, missing the more darker aspects of Thursday and Friday.
This dilemma has led for pastors and worship leaders to start calling Palm Sunday “Sunday of the Passion.” Some churches will do the Palm Sunday things and include the Betrayal, Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion at the same service. We want people to not leave church not having to come face to face with the cross.
I don’t know if it’s uniquely American or just a sign of the human condition, but we always want to make life a party. We want to have our lives focused on the good things in life, and not the times when we face suffering and heartache.
Maybe that’s why people at times feel a bit weirded out by the cross. Paul has called the cross a “scandal” something that is so gruesome that it makes no sense to make it into a symbol of our faith. I know that I’ve heard people say they didn’t want to deal with hearing about “bloody Jesus.” I think somewhere in our deepest hearts we don’t want to deal with the cross. It’s embarassing. It’s horrible.
In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant. Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically. Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.
Jesus enters Jerusalem with cheers. He comes riding on a donkey, like a king. In fact it wasn’t uncommon for kings to ride donkeys during times of peace. The shout for Hosanna or God Save us. There had to be some folks in the crowd who wondered if this was the one who would free them from Roman oppression. The Romans might have been a bit worried about some new king that could kick them out of Israel. But the real shocker comes later, when this king acts “unkingly.” He arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die. All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king. He couldn’t even save himself.
The cross is an embarassment. Why would a king humiliate himself this way?
Jesus endured all of this for you and for me. We are free from the bondage of sin because of the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus led a sacrificial life, he was given the title of Lord, or king. This is the king that became a king for the salvation of all of creation.
As humans, we want to bypass Calvary. We all want to go from Palm Sunday to Easter. But the thing is, we can’t get to Easter unless we go through the cross. There is no bypass route. Because Christ went to Calvary to enter into human suffering, the church is called to enter into our own Calvarys. We are to be found where there are crosses all around because that’s where Jesus is.
I can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad. I like having a nice house (and the house in that commercial was sweet), and a nice car. But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.
I don’t know who will be coming to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. But here’s a little advice. Even if you don’t go to church on either of those days, please honor that time. Be mindful of Jesus and the act of love that he did by being humble and dying a humiliating death. And then be open to where God is leading us to bring healing and wholness. And remember: there is no bypass from Palm Sunday to Easter. You gotta go through Calvary. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
First Christian Church
I can be a nervous flier.
My fear of flying hasn’t stopped me from getting on a plane on a regular basis. I’ve flown international flights to Europe, South America and Asia. You are really dealing with your fears when you take a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.
I think the reason I am able to get on a plane and go up into the air is because I’m fascinated with any kind of trasportation. When it come to planes, I love to learn about the different kind of aircraft, and getting wrapped up in seeing if the plane I’m flying; like if I’m on an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 757. It also helps that I I use a little physics to remind me what keeps the plane in the air, that and a short prayer as the door of the cabin closes and the plane backs out of the gate.
I’m not sure where this fear of flying came from, but I have to wonder if going to see a movie on the Hindenburg blip was what did the trick. I got scared when you see the blimp coming in for a landing in New Jersey and then seeing the aircraft incinerate in a few minutes. Mom probably shouldn’t have taken me to the movie. There was no sex or violence in the film, so I think Mom thought it would be okay. And it might be for other kids…but it wasn’t for me.
You know, the funny thing about my nervousness of flying is that it is really one of the safetest ways to get from point A to point B. New equipment and safety measures have made flying a piece of cake. I know that my fear is irrational. It’s really irrational when you compare it to the thing I do everyday; get into a car and drive. Far more people die in automobile accidents than they do in plane crashes.
I think the reason flying worries me is the fact that I am not in control. I get into a flying tube that travels at hundreds of miles per hour and about 4 miles above the earth. I have to trust the pilots and autopilot to make sure I get to point B…alive.
The car is a different story. I am the one driving. I am placing my own life in my hands. I am in control.
Or am I? I am starting to think that my control is a just an illusion. There are other drivers around me and one of them could end up hitting me, through no fault of my own. I can’t prevent the other car sideswiping me.
Psalm 23 is the most familiar passage in all of Scripture. We hear it everywhere. We hear it so much, we tend to forget what it says. When I was preparing for this Sunday, I didn’t plan on preaching on this passage. I mean, everyone knows this passage. It’s too easy for us pastor-types to ignore this passage that is so widely known. The reality is that we have heard Psalm 23 so much, we don’t listen to it. And we should.
The passage talks about God as a shepherd, actually as one who shepherds. The shepherd is the one who takes care of the sheep, protecting them from harm and leading through our journey. Right there in that first verse we see the words “I shall not want.” As a kid I didn’t know what that meant. Why would you say God is your shepherd and then say you don’t want him? I’ve since learned that it means that God is enough. God is all we need. Of course we are humans, so we are always in want. We want more money or a bigger house or what have you. Trusting that God is all we need is something to aspire to, but know that we are always tempted to place out trust in other things Why? We want control.
While this verse tends to evoke calm images, the God in this passage is an active God. God is shpeherding, God is the one restores or turns our souls to God. God is the one that protect us through the dark valleys of losing our job, or getting the cancer diagnosis or divorce. We are persued by God with goodness and love for our whole lives. This God is busy- working for you and me.
During this time of Lent, we are reminded that God came in the form of a human being-Jesus Christ- to demostrate that God indeed is the Good Shepherd. In Jesus, we see God active, teaching and preaching and healing, turning our hearts towards God.
Learning to trust God is a process. We will move forward and then backward. If Jesus’ own disciples can waver between trust and doubt, so will we. But maybe in our own journey in trusting in the Good Shepherd, we can tell others of the saving work of Jesus Christ. People learn about the Good Shepherd for our words and actions. This is what Jesus did, and then his apostles and now us. We go and tell of what God has done in our lives; a God that is with us through lush pastures and dark valleys.
Later this week, we will remember the assination of Martin Luther King Jr. There was a lot of talk about that event in 1968 last year on the 45th anniversary. I’ve always been fascinated by his last speech. It’s been called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and it was given a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking garbage workers. The mountaintop speech is interesting because it seemed so prophetic. I want to share what is probably the most heard part of that speech, at the very end
It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
As Rev. King was heading into his dark valley, he knew that God was with him. I have to believe that he could only do what he did because he believed God was his shepherd.
I want you do something this week. Please look at Psalm 23 again maybe today, maybe tomorrow and think on what those words me. How is God a shepherd to us? What does that all mean for our daily lives?
The Lord is our shepherd. We are actively loved by God. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
First Christian Church
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.
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.
“A Woman and the Son of God Enter a Bar…”
February 24, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
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.
Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-17
Second Sunday in Lent
March 16, 2014
First Christian Church
As 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.
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-21
March 5, 2014
First Christian Church
It’s been nearly 20 years since Ken Burn’s documentary on the Great American pasttime aired. Baseball talked about the early beginnings of the sport, what impact it had on American society and how it was impacted by American society. There was a certain poignancy in watching this mini-series in 1994, because during that fall there was no baseball due to a strike. For the first time since World War I, the bats of October would fall silent; there was no 1994 World Series.
There are a number of memorable moments from that documentary, but the one that most interested me was footage of a reporter interviewing Reggie Jackson sometime in the late 1970s. Supposedly during this time, Jackson had found faith and become a Christian. The interview had Jackson speaking like a choirboy, telling the reporter the joys of being saved. When the interview ended, Jackson changed. He started swearing up a storm and talking about what you had to do in front of the cameras. I can’t make a call as to whether Jackson’s faith was real, but it was easy to see that the piety was just an act for the cameras. Of course, while Jackson now being himself, there was a camera on taking all this in.
The passages we read this evening talk about worship and how people were basically doing things for show. They would do everything for the cameras, but when the light went off, they treated their fellow person poorly.
It would be easy to look at the passages and simply say that we shouldn’t act that way. I could tell you that we need to care for the poor more than how we look during worship. But that is not what these passages are about. At least not on this day.
Ash Wednesday is a day when we are reminded of how finite we are. It is a day to remind us that we are imperfect, as the old pop song goes, “we’re not that innocent.”
Do you remember? Do you remember that you are finite? Do you remember that you are not perfect? Ash Wednesday is a call to remember our baptisms as children of God, a call to remember that our worship is only as good as how we treat our neighbors, a call to remember that God doesn’t want an act, but an honest heart.
I’m not going to urge you to do good. That’s not the point of this day. I am asking that you remember who you are and whose you are. When you do that, everything else will fall into place. Thanks be to God. Amen.
For those who look at my blog to get ideas for preaching (all two of you), I have a link to a sermon I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany in 2005. It even sounds timely because it focuses on same sex marriage. Click on the link below to learn more.