Who’s In Charge?

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

-Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address 1861.

So, Tuesday night happened.  Donald Trump will be our nation’s 45th president.

I didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton, but I was as shocked as anyone else. Sleep was not easy to come by Tuesday night. Part of the tension is the how President-elect stirred up both racial and ethnic resentment. Does that make me, an African American-Puerto Rican, less safe in America? Will racism or xenophobia affect me in someway?

 

While I’m concerned, I’m not freaking out.  I’m not in mourning.  I’m not breaking relationships with those that I know who voted for Trump.  I’m not freaking out because I truly believe that my ultimate allegiance is in Christ and not who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.   I believe God is in control.

Now, I know that phrase is sending a lot of my progressive Christian friends into orbit. Their response is similar to what Progressive Christian blogger John Pavlovitz said in his most recent blog entry regarding the election:

At times like these, Christians like to smile sweetly and say, “God is in control.”
No. God is not in control.
God didn’t vote for Donald Trump, you did.
Stop passing the buck to God.
God isn’t defacing prayer rooms.
God isn’t taunting gay teenagers.
God is not bullying kids on buses.
God isn’t threatening Muslim families.
White Christians are.
You are in control of this. You have pulpits and pews and a voice and influence and social media, so get to work. 

Saying God is in control doesn’t mean everything is okay. It doesn’t mean we ignore real problems. It doesn’t mean that God is controlling our every move. But I can say God is in control because God is the person I give ultimately allegiance to. To put it in more political wording, “Jesus is Lord and Ceasar is not.”

This evening I went to see Doctor Strange.  For those who don’t know the origin story, Steven Strange was a famous and vain neurosugeon who is severely injured in a car crash.  His hands, the one that made his living possible suffer extensive nerve damage and he is no longer able to do the one thing he excelled at.  This is where Strange makes the journey from normal man to socerer supreme, but together he has to be willing to believe that there is more than what he sees.  He has to be able to see into various dimensions to go beyond what he knows to be true and what is beyond reason.

Long story short, he had to have faith.

In reading and listen to the anger and grief coming from some progressive Christians I have to wonder at times if they have lost their faith.  We scoff at the notion of God being in control and instead believe it is all on us, or at least on having the right ideology.  During this election season white evangelicals were rightly criticized for placing so much on the notion of politics to trade in the faith for a few pieces of silver that they thought Trump would give them.  But Progressive Christians are no better.  We know longer believe that God is the ultimate and so we make leftist ideology our god.  We trade in the belief that there is a God that rules all of creation and is greater than any king, prime minister or president for the world of politics.  We wrap our politicians in a religious blanket, giving their words a tinge of God even though God seems to be somewhat diminished.  After a while, we become no better than religious conservatives in trading the politics of Jesus for the politics of Washington.

 

…to give you a future filled with hope

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (Common English Bible)

Looking for employment is not an easy endeavor. In fact it can be soul-crushing. But then, so can having a job. Or losing a job.

As some of you who follow this blog may know, I have a part-time call at a church in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. The reason I could do this part-time call was because I had a pretty good fulltime job. That is until two days before Christmas 2014 where I was let go from my position.

Let’s just say Christmas was hell that year.

shattered-dreamsI was hoping that I would find another good job soon. After all, I had experience and I was able to learn how to be sociable and keep my Asperger quirks to a minimum. But nearly two years later, I still haven’t found anything. I am thankful that I have found some part time jobs and have been able to stitch together a living, but it’s not even close to what I was making before.

Since early this year, there have been a few opportunities that presented themselves. I thought I did my best on the interviews sent some of my best examples…and the job went to someone else. I could say race was a factor, and there is some truth to that, but I can’t just rest and make excuses. I have to keep getting out there, but it gets hard to pick yourself up and try again, especially when you think you have the skills needed to do the job.

One of the things I’m learning is that all the job hunting trips people tell you to try to get a job don’t seem to work…at least not for me. I haven’t found that “hidden job market.” All the people I know haven’t really led me to a job. I’ve tried meeting with a few people just to get ideas and a number of them never bothered to respond.

All the while I remain somewhat jealous at my husband, Daniel. He doesn’t have a background in communications that I have, but he has been able to get two jobs as managers. I have some more skills than he does. He gets noticed and I don’t. (That could be that he’s white and I’m black.)

Maybe I have to considered that I’m not going to have a job where I can use my communication skills. It just seems that I’m not wanted, no matter how much I’ve improved my skills, no matter what I do to add value to an organization. For whatever reason, I’m not what people want in a prospective employee.

I started this post with a familiar, at least to me, passage. Too often, Jeremiah 29:11 is seen as a route to success. But I don’t think this is what this verse is about, especially since what I’ve learned about Jeremiah is that his life wasn’t that awesome.

I tend to think that it means that no matter how bad life gets for people, no matter how things don’t go according to plan, God is there to give us hope, to give us peace, to give us a future. It may not be the future we wanted, but it is a future with God, and I’d rather have that than nothing at all.

I will continue working with the jobs I have now and being a pastor to the little flock God has left me with. And I will try to keep looking for work. I have hope, not that things will work the way I want it to be, but that wherever I land, I will have God’s hope. It’s all I got.

Sermon: Create Joy

“Create Joy” | Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8 | Mission First: Called Series |Seventeenth  Sunday After Pentecost | September 11, 2016 | First Christian Church of St. Paul | Dennis Sanders, preaching

Listen to the sermon by using the player below.

grand_canyon_posterBefore I get into today’s sermon, I wanted to share a little bit about what we are planning to do for the next few months. We are starting a new worship theme this Sunday that will go from now until next May.  We will be talking about mission and the future of our church by using the Mission First emphasis that is being used by the wider denomination of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  For our purposes, the year long theme is broken down into three parts: from now until Advent, we will focus on what it means to be a church that is called.  During the winter until Easter, we will talk about the church gathering and during Eastertide we will talk about the church being sent into the world.  So, let’s begin.

The Grand Canyon is not just a place in Arizona; it also is a 1991 movie.  The movie, starred Kevin Kline, Steve Martin and Danny Glover and while it didn’t make a whole lot of money when it came out in late 1991, it was a movie that seem to fit the time.  One of the issues the movie takes on is race, and it seemed to speak to the 1992 LA riots which would ocurr a few months later in the spring of 1992.

If there is a theme in the movie, it has to be trying to bridge the gaps that are found in human relationships.  Divisions of race and class were exposed and there were attempts to try to heal those divisions.  The Los Angeles of 1991 was a somewhat grim place, a place full of crime and isolation, but the connections that are made help make the world around these people a better place.  Not a perfect place, mind you, but a place where connection and reconciliation could happen.

That reminder that the LA of 25 years ago was not a sunny place.  Crime was rampant and the movie picks this up.  The movie opens with Kevin Kline’s character, Mac watching an LA Lakers game during the Magic Johnson era.  When the game ends, Mac leaves the arena and take a wrong turn that puts him in the wrong side of town.  Of course this is where the car decides to break down.  Mac gets out and calls for a tow truck and waits.  Well, being a white guy in a well to do car in a sketchy neighbood, basically means you are probably going to meet some people who are not so nice.  Pretty soon, Mac is surrounded by a group of young men who are looking ready to jump him.

In the nick of time, the tow truck arrives.  An African American man gets out to do his job.  Simon, who is played by Danny Glover interrupts what might have been a robbery or worse.  In the midst of this one of the muggers, Rocstar, who happens to be holding a gun enters into a conversation with Simon, all the while with the gun pointed at Simon.  Rocstar is willing to let him go and do his work if he can answer this question: was Simon pleading because he respected Rocstar or was it because of the gun?  This is how Simon answers:

Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.

The world aint suppose to work like this.

Chapter 2 of Genesis presents us with a second story of creation.  Where Genesis 1 seems to look at things from 10,000 feet, this second story zeroes in and focuses on the relationship between the human and God.  This creation was formed from the earth, hence why some called this person, adam which is a play on the Hebrew word, adamah or the earth.  This human is given a task to do, a job  to take care of God’s creation.  Some has said that work was a result of sin, but here we see God ordained work.  When the human was lonely, God created a partner to work with him.  The man and woman had a tight relationship with God and as we see later, it is not unusual to see God walking in the garden.  God and creation were in relationship.

The church is a gathering of people called to be in relationship with each other and with God.  The church is a recreation, a taste of the coming kingdom of God when creation is restored.  Adam and Eve had a relationship that was not exploitative and they had a relationship with God, one that was close.  Things were good.

But that’s when things went South.  We are introduced to this serpent, a symbol of temptation.  The serpent asks questions and is able to tempt the man and the woman.  The woman tells the snake that they aren’t allowed to even touch the tree, because if they do, they die.  Now this is not what God said, but already they were making God into a harsh parent trying to take away fun.  The snake keeps tempting them telling them that they could be like God, heck they could be better than God!

So they eat the fruit and their eyes are opened. They see everything in a different way and it is not fun.  They realize they are naked and feel the need to hide.  They take some fig leaves and cover up and hide from God.  This call to relationship is shattered.  Humanity starts to hide from each other and from God.  Instead of thinking of others, humanity thinks only of itself.

The world aint suppose to work like this.

God’s plan for creation changes.  Humanity has fallen from God’s grace and is now separated from God and each other.  Sin enters creation.  We end up with a world where there is racism, domestic violence, lying, murder, genocide and others.  Humans can’t stop wanting to be godlike and falling short every time.

So what does this mean for the church?  We as humans are part of this fallen creation. We are tempted to be like God and sometime we fall for the lies.  But we are also redeemed through God’s backup plan, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In Jesus, we are redeemed, even thought for now, we are still imperfect.  We are called to be a place where the world can witness what God intended for creation, to be a place where we are honest and live for others.

This past weekend, as I was moving my mother, I looked at my phone and noticed a news alert.  This was the alert which told us all that Jacob Wetterling’s body had been found.  Since 1989, his parents and the whole state were held in limbo wonder what happened to this young man.  The Wetterlings hoped that Jacob was still alive somewhere.  But that was not the case.  A grave in rural Minnesota gave witness to the horror, that Jacob was dead and had been dead for nearly 30 years.

It got even worse when a few days later, Jacob’s killer told everyone in chilling detail how he kidnapped, sexually assaulted and killed Jacob.  It was disturbing.

In the midst of all of this we heard from Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling who has been the family spokesperson over the years.  In a time when she could have been bitter, and showed anger, she instead offered words of hope.  This is what she wrote on Facebook a few days after the news broke:

The Wetterlings are deeply grieving and are pulling our family together. We will be eager to talk to media as soon as we are able.
Everyone wants to know what they can do to help us.
Say a prayer.
Light a candle.
Be with friends.
Play with your children.
Giggle.
Hold hands.
Eat ice cream.
Create joy.
Help your neighbor.
That is what will bring me comfort today.

Create joy.  Create joy.  That was her answer.  In the midst of horror and hate, she told people to bring joy.

This is what the church must be called to be in the world.  This is what this church must be in the world.  We must be a community that is joyous, one that models a different way being in the world, one that gives people a glimpse of what it God intended for the world.

Simon tell us the present world isn’t supposed to be this way.  He’s right.  The world isn’t supposed to be a place where an 11 year old riding his bike with his brothers and friend is kidnapped and forced to spend the last few hours of his life in pain.

The killer of Jacob Wetterling proved Simon right, the world isn’t supposed to be this way.  But our response is to listen to Patty Wetterling and create joy.  Let us be a community that goes out from these walls and befirend the lonely, feed the hungry and tell everyone that God loves and so do we.

We are called to create joy, so let’s get to it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Questions on the Disciples and the Local Church

Disclaimer: I have to start this blog post off by saying that the following criticism is not directed at any one person.  It is NOT a personal attack on anybody.  This is a critique of a larger system that people might be a part of, but again my beef is with the system and not any person.

church-you-can-see-through-10I think congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are in trouble and parts of the  General and Regional Church bodies are not prepared to deal with it.

They aren’t ready because they are not geared towards helping congregations as they are focused on their own agendas and a less corporate spirituality.

They also aren’t ready because in the past, the churches were doing well.  In the heyday of the Disciples, the churches were full and sent their monies to the various ministries.  Not every church was great, but churches were not dealing with the massive change they are now so whatever issues there were might have been easily solvable.

None of this was intentional.  I don’t think there are folks in Indianapolis sitting around finding ways to destabilize local churches.  That said, I think churches are struggling to be relevant and sustainable in this new century and time of being church and the various agencies of the denomination are not responsive enough to the changing mission field.

They also aren’t ready because the current structure of the denomination, now nearly 50 years old, isn’t designed to help congregations of the 21st century. I’ve said it a few times before, and it bears repeating now. According a video shown at the 2013 General Assembly, only 18 percent of Disciple congregations are considered sustainable according to 20th century standards, meaning the ability to pay a full time pastor among other factors.  I said in a post a year ago, that my current congregation is not considered susatainable according to these standards.  Which means we have to find a new standard.  What makes a congregation sustainable and vital?  That’s a question that people at the General church and the Regional church have to answer.  I think there are a lot of churches like First Christian-St. Paul that are not considered sustainable according to the mid-20th century standards, but they are still places filled with vitality.  How is the wider church reaching out to them and helping them with resources?

How are we handling churches that decide to close?  Are we working with the leadership to look at using the sale of buildings to further ministry?  Are we helping them “die with dignity?” Do we offer pastoral care for the members?

How do we help congregations understand their ministry context?  How is Regional staff working to help these churches do ministry in this post-establishment era of mainline churches?  Is there a way for churches to share their best practices?  In the past, tools that help churches understand the demographics of their neighborhood were available in the Region.  A few years ago, it seemed that Hope Partnership could do this but for a fee.  Can this be made free again so that churches can access this resource?

Here’s a basic one: do we even know why we need congregations?  My take is at times we don’t know.  It could be why new church ministry languishes in some regions. Speaking of new church, are Regions working on ways to have staff support for this endeavor? Do we understand how these churches can introduce people to a loving God?  Do we understand that churches are small examples of the kingdom God is bringing forth?

That’s just some of the questions I have right now about Disciple congregations.  I’m curious to know if others have the same questions or even if they have questions.  I’d like to hear from fellow Disciples on this.

 

 

What Is Mission First All About?

 

At the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio, those gathered heard about a new initiative being rolled out called Mission First.  Mission First seems to be a way to retool the denomination for the 21st century.  A central part of this initiative is to have Mission Gatherings in 2016.  My region is having its Mission Gathering later this month.

While the website for Mission First has some background on the idea, a certain question keeps coming to the fore: what is this all about?

I get that this is kind of a churchwide visioning process, but what is the endpoint?  What does this mean for churches?  What is the theology behind it?  Does this mean a refashioning of our agencies and regions?  I’m not sure.  How does this inspire the local church in its own mission and ministry?

This is how Mission First is described on its website:

It’s likely your faith community has done some visioning in the last few years. The general expression of the Church is doing the same. As the year 2020 nears, it is time to listen for God’s continuing call and to seek together where God is calling Disciples next in our shared mission and ministry.

Addressing the 2014 General Board, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins set out a challenge:  “The time has come to lighten our load and tighten our focus – on mission!  I am inviting our church, in all its expressions, to join in a conversation on God’s mission for Disciples today.

Okay, but why are we doing this? Is it because it’s time have a new one? And what are things weighing us down?

It seems that Mission First is trying to outline some new priorities:

Mission First! addresses the need to find a new shared focus in mission. We are not setting aside pro-reconciliation/anti-racism, new and transforming churches or leadership development. Mission First! seeks to help Disciples identify the next mission priorities God has for us as we move toward the year 2020 and beyond.

And it is also listening to what is going on in the churches:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

But it also seems to call for some reorganization:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

So, we have a few objectives going on here, but it feels to me somewhat disjointed. I think this is about developing a new vision, and mission priorities and quite possibly restructure, but it never feels like these objectives are linked.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is also going through a visioning process. Called Forward Together in Christ  is the name of their initiative and this is how it is described on its homepage:

The ELCA is a young church at only 28 years old. It is a good time to take a look at where we are as God’s people and try to understand what God has in store for us. And we think it is an exciting time to be looking forward together as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

We want to create a vision for the future ELCA – as a church with solid foundations sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and making a difference in the world locally and globally. And as a church that we can be proud to pass on to our children.

We want to discover how we can continue to faithfully serve God’s mission in the years ahead and reach a shared understanding among church leaders about the ministries that are most important.

And we want to assess whether the structures that were set up for this church are right for the future, and as part of this consider how we use our resources in the best possible way. There are many challenges.

This description seems far clearer of what they are all about and where they are headed.

Now, I think Mission First is needed. The Disciples are a denomination for the 29th century and needs to be retooled for the 21st century in how it spreads the gospel. It’s been nearly 50 years since Restructure and it is probably way past time to have the church reflect our present age and not what church was in the late 1960s.

But I think the execution has not been focused and at times seems very light on theology. Do people in the pews understand what it means for the church in mission? What does this have to do with how the Disciples started, out on the then-frontier?

Hopefully, I will learn more about this process later this month.  Maybe I can get another view that I’m missing.

Sermon: “Fight the Power”

Ephesians 6:10-20
Twelfth  Sunday After Pentecost
August 7, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

brzpw84cuaaz3rsOne of the earliest hymns I remember singing was “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  And I have to admit that I liked the song.  There is something peppy with the music, and yes, it has almost a martial beat to it.  For those of you who don’t know the lyrics it goes like this:

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads again the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!

 

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!

 

I haven’t sung the hymn for several years, in fact I think it has been about 20 or even 30 years since I’ve sung the song.

 

Part of the reason is that in many churches, the song is considered too militaristic, glorifying war which contrasts Jesus’ nonviolent ministry.  There were moves in the early 80s to strike the hymn from the Methodist and Episcopal hymnals and in 1990 the Presbyterians were able to strike the song from their hymnal.  For many Christians, this is a song that distorts God’s action in the world.  Earlier this year, noted evangelical pastor Brian McLaren felt moved to re-write the hymn.  He had seen the Republican debates where there was talk about Islamaphobia, massive bombing and talk of Jesus all in the same debate.  McLaren worries that the use of the word “foe” is ambiguous and could be interpreted to go against people of a different faith or race. This is McLaren’s re-written first verse:

 

Onward, all disciples, in the path of peace,
Just as Jesus taught us, love your enemies
Walk on in the Spirit, seek God’s kingdom first,
Let God’s peace and justice be your hunger and your thirst!
Onward, all disciples, in humility
Walk with God, do justice, love wholeheartedly.

 

Now it is common in the church that when anything is changed, there will be pushback.  This time around, the push back came from Russell Moore, the head of the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Moore responds by saying that violent imagery is found not only in hymns, but in the Bible itself.  He notes that Jesus uses warlike imagery and so does Paul.  He says that the foe in the hymn is clear: it is the devil.  He goes on to note that we are peacemakers because we know the real battle doesn’t involve guns and tanks, but it is a spiritual one that is lead by Jesus against the powers.

 

Moore is I think closer to the truth here.  While hymns can be used to justify violence, they also can remind us what it means to live as a Christian: that everyday we face a battle, one that is bigger than anything we have faced.  We need Jesus to lead these armies to battle the foes that keep humanity apart from God and each other.

 

In this last chapter of Ephesians, Paul is giving the church in Ephesus some parting thoughts. Now Paul is writing this from a prison cell.  While he sitting in jail he tells the Ephesians that even while he might have to deal with Roman authorities, the real enemy are forces of cosmic darkness. Because we face powers that are beyond this realm, Paul tells the church to rely on God and be clothed by God to withstand the attacks of the devil.

 

I know that there are some that don’t believe in a devil.  We might find it a bit strange to be talking about a devil and a spiritual battle.  It’s more important to deal with actual problems than something that is made up.

 

But if you have ever dealt with someone dealing with an addiction, you can understand that sometimes evil can be a problem that is bigger than all of us.  Someone with an addiction can want to give up the alcohol or cocaine, but find it so hard to do so.  I’m not saying that serious issues like addiction can only be solved through prayer.  But sometimes evil can wrap us up into situations we never expected to be in.

 

Paul tells the church that faith is not a game.  It is something that needs to be taken seriously because we are in a spiritual state of war.  Paul calls the church to discipleship, to learn how to follow Jesus in order that they can stand against the wiles of evil.

 

We live in a world where we are in a battle where evil is wrecking lives.  I’ve shared this story before, but about 25 years ago, I was on a mission trip in Chicago.  It was in a poor neighborhood, north of downtown.  We spent a week at a Baptist church that was involved in the community.  I remember one evening we stood outside in the early spring after a youth meeting.  I remember we started talking to this one young girl who had to be about 15 or so.  She calmly explained that her mother had kicked her out of the house.  Here is this young girl that now has to look for a place to call home and she had to find it quickly.  This wasn’t just about a young woman dealing with housing insecurity. It was also about the powers that separated mother from child and forcing her to

 

There was a lot of poverty and homelessness in Uptown Chicago.  The powers seemed to rule.  But then came Sunday.  When the church worshipped, they worshipped.  It was joyous and it reminded me that even though life was hard, they believed that with God, the powers would be defeated.

 

Fighting the powers means we have to be prepared.  This is why Paul uses this military imagery about the things that we use to stand against the powers of evil.  The belt of truth, the breastplate of justice, the shoes of peace, the sword of the spirit are all the things that train us in the art of battle.  It’s easy to think that when injustice is in the land that it makes no sense to go to Bible Study.  But when we place the amour of God on us, it prepares us for the battle against evil.  We learn from the Bible in church to prepare us for the mission outside.  

 

Onward Christian Soldiers can seem like it is praising war.  And I don’t doubt that it has been used that way.  But what if it is expressing a truth: that all of us sitting here this morning are soldiers in a battle and it is a battle that we will win because God leads us. I think this hymn expresses the reality that this church lives in.  

 

In 1989, the director Spike Lee released a movie called Do the Right Thing.  A soundtrack was released and I remember there was one song that was associated with the movie: Fight the Power by rap group Public Enemy.  It’s a pretty bold song and Public Enemy tended to be a group that was provacative.  In reading the background of the song, I was reminded that the song was revealing of the racial problems taking place in American culture.  Some might think that things are fine and dandy, but the song reveals that things are not fine.  The whole song is an interupption to the status quo.

 

Onward Christian Soldiers might seem anachronistic today.  It could also be something that explains reality in a jarring way just like Fight the Power.  It might just remind us that things are not okay.  That we are in a battle.

 

Brian McLaren is right that we must spread justice and peace, but we are dealing with a battle between good and evil. We do that in love, but the stakes are high, this is not a test.  

 

So let us go out and love each other and love those outside of this church.  But let us know that we are also dealing with powers that aim to keep people down.  We might be small in number, but with God, we will be victorious.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

“Trouble in Lake Wobegone”
Luke 10:25-37 and Romans 14:1-18
Seventh  Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Sermon.

 

IMG_2355

The sign says, “I could be next.” The photo was taken by yours truly on July 7, 2016 in front of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul.

It could have been me.

That is what I thought early Thursday morning, as I groggily woke and checked Facebook.  There were some news reports of a police shooting near St. Paul.  As I became more conscious I started to realize this was big news.  It was another member of the police shooting a black man.

It was then I saw a post from Daniel my husband. It was frieghtening post.  He was already up reading the news and penned a heartfelt post…about me.  He wondered if this morning would be the last we had together.  He wondered if the cops pulled me over for a busted taillight, would I be next.  He wondered what might happen in the last few minutes of my life if I had been shot.  He ends the post saying he dreaded sunrise.

That woke me up.  It also left me helpless.  There was no way I could tell Daniel, that he was worrying over nothing.  As I read more and more about Philando Castile and his work at a local Montessori elementary school, I saw that if someone who seemed to be a good guy could get killed by the police, then there was no way I could tell Daniel that this odds were low that such a thing could happen.  Because they could happen.  Because I am black and because people see me and millions of other black men as a threat even before we open our mouths.

The thing that is so maddening about this is that for all intents and purposes, Philando was a good man.  He had worked for the St. Paul schools as a cafeteria worker.  He became a supervisor two years ago.  He got to know the kids of the primarily white elementary school where he worked.  This wasn’t someone with a questionable record, but someone trying to make a life, a good life. Yes, we are not the nation we were 50 years ago. Yes, we have a black president that was elected twice.  But even despite all of this a good man can get killed just after he honestly told a cop that he had a permit to carry a gun.  He had a constitutional right to carry a gun and did so according to Minnesota statutes.  But when that officer shot four bullets into Philando he made a mockery of those laws, telling us that you have a right to a gun, just as long as your’e white.

As I left for work Thursday morning, hearing the news of what happened in Falcon Heights and another police shooting in Baton Rouge a day earlier, I was fearful of being pulled over and that is a first.  I can remember being a kid in the 1970s and having the police come to school and teach us how to be careful around strangers.  Now, forty years later, I have to be careful around police.

And we haven’t even talked about what happened Thursday evening in Dallas. As protestors were ending a peaceful protest, one that where the police were there to ensure saftey, an angry man started shooting, killing five police officers- the most officers on duty dying at once since 9/11.

It could have been me.  It also has been me.

I’m not going to go into a long story, but there have been times when I was treated differently by the authorities because of the color of my skin.  I could talk about my experience with the American border guard at the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls.  And I’ve shared my experience at a credit union in Flint where some folks suspect thirteen year old me was going to cause trouble.  I don’t want to be known as the pastor who just talks about race, and I don’t want to make the pulpit a political platform, but you all need to know how African Americans are treated in this society and as a your pastor, I feel I need to let you know and together find out how we as followers of Jesus Christ should respond.

But it’s not just black men suffering, it’s also black women and children.  Did the officer realize he was shooting someone at close range with women and children present?  How many of us saw that video by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds as she calmly explains to viewers on Facebook how her boyfriend was gun down.  And why did a four-year-old have to witness this horror?

Racial inequality is still a problem 50 years after the civil rights movements.  African Americans still face unequal treatment in employment, in education and in the criminal justice system.  Minnesota has a reputation as a state with a good standard of living, but life for many black Minnesotans is terrible; in some aspects worse than Mississippi. There is trouble in Lake Wobegon.

Our texts today in Romans and Luke have to deal with how we treat others.  In Romans, Paul urges the church in Rome to respect the beliefs of others in the congregation and live lives for that other person and ultimately to God. “Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.”  We don’t live for ourselves, but for God and the other.  We don’t dismiss their way of looking of things, but respect where they are coming from.

In Luke we hear the well known story of the Good Samaritan.  A man is on the highway and beaten up by robbers left for dead.  Two Jewish religious leaders come by and they pass him by, fearful they might become ceremonially unclean.  Finally a third person comes by.  The audience might think he was another Jew, but no, he is a Samaritan, a people not well liked among Jews. The Samaritan comes near, bandages him, brings him to hotel to heal and then gives a substantial amount to the innkeeper to pay for the room and any expenses the injured man should incur. The important aspect of this tale is not who is the neighbor, but who is the neighbor.  

As good neighbors, we are also called to seek out those who are in pain.  The Good Samaritan sought out the injured man.  He sought out the injured man, not simply because it was the right thing to do, but because it was where God was.  We know of God’s love for us because of Christ’s death on the cross.  Where there is pain, God is there and as Christians we must be there as well.  If anyone has seen the images or the video taken by his incredibly calm girlfriend , we see him groaning in pain in his blood-soaked shirt.  As he takes what might have been his last breaths, God is there…and it is where we have to be as well.

But some of us need to be there more than others.  Because the only way these police shootings and other examples of racism will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up.  This is not simply my problem or Lisa’s problem or my mother’s problem, but it is all of our problems.  I’m not trying to guilt-trip the white members of this congregation, but this is a problem that affects us all and no one can afford to sit on the sidelines.  I don’t know what that means for you, but I implore you to figure out what you can do.  We cannot have a nation where a good chunk of the public is fearful of those who are suppose to keep the peace.  In the vein of the Good Samaritan, white Americans people can’t just go over to the other side of the road, you have to stop and help your sister or brother who is facing threats and more.

This means that there is more to this than being nice to black people.  Being a people of grace means that we must enter into the pain of others, understanding and seeking to remedy the ways African Americans and others have been held back because of who they are.

This week, there was trouble in Lake Woebegone.  We learned that it is not as idyllic as we thought it was.  The mask has been ripped away revealing the ugliness beneath.  But even as we have now seen the darker side of Lake Wobegon, there is also a light of hope.  If you were able to watch the video following the shooting of Philando Castile, you see Diamond Reynolds talking and then at some point a small voice says something.  The voice said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”  Those were the words of Ms, Reynolds 4 year old daughter, a child barely out of being a toddler and having to grow up way too fast.  But those words are important because it tells us that racial reconciliation is a difficult thing to do and that God is with us in this hard work.  This is not something we do by ourselves, but we do it with God and through God, the one who came to earth as a human to repair the breech between humanity and God.

Things can change to bring wholeness and healing in our fragmented world. May we as the church find ways to bring healing and wholeness.  May work for the day when no one will ever say, “It could have been me.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.