It Really Is the Little Things

“We are so small.”

When you are the pastor of a small church that belongs to a small denomination that happens to be small in number in Minnesota, you will hear this phrase over and over. We are so small.

As Americans, we don’t like small. We live in a big country in size and third in population in the world. Most of us don’t like to talk about how big we are, but we still live large. We like big cars, we want to live in big houses, we just like big.

I’m not here to knock bigness. As someone over 6′ tall, I’m kind of use to being big. But our love for big things at times comes at the expense of the small. Big is viewed as being good. Being big is a sign of success. Being small, on the other hand, is viewed as failure. We see that in the area of faith, a big church is viewed as a successful church. A small church is seen as week and dying.

When a church is small, there is a temptation to think you really can’t do anything because you don’t have enough people. I get that to a point. Having more people makes a difference. Believe me, I would love for this church to have more people to do things.

Churches in America, especially mainline churches have been dealing with shrinkage for years. Denominational leaders become pessimistic, believing that they can only manage the resources that grow smaller by the day. Everyone wishes they could be bigger. We all think we could do more if we were large.

But I have to remind myself that while this congregation is small, we can be used by God for great things. In the book of Judges, we are introduced to one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible: Gideon. He considered himself the lowest of the low in Israel and he was a bit of a coward. But God still called him to lead the Israelites. God wanted him to lead an army to defeat the Midianites. He starts with 10,000 men which seemed like a good-sized army. But God has other ideas. Time and time again, God tells Gideon to cull the army until he is left with 300 people. God tells Gideon he will be victorious and you know what? They were! With nothing but horns and pots, they were able to confuse the Midianites who ended up killing each other. Three hundred people were able to defeat a massive army all because Gideon placed his trust in God.

As we head into the holiday season, our church is looking to get ready for the season. But that is usually when we feel that smallness even more. But what if we stopped looking down at ourselves and we started to see how God can use us? What if we took a step in faith like Gideon did? What if for a moment it doesn’t matter how much money is in the bank or how many people are on the church rolls, but all that matters is that we trust God as we go out in faith to take part in God’s mission. A few years ago, I preached about a small congregation that made a difference in the world.

Border Methodist was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown (Minneapolis). At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway. This could have been where the story ends; the church closes. However, it doesn’t. A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church. Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers at Border. Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin. What was the big deal of this invite? This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated. Whites went to one church, blacks to others. What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal. Things like this just weren’t done.

The display has articles from the New York Times about this event. This was huge. There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display. On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused. As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members. A cup of cold water made the difference.

Border was small church that could have been ignored. But they were noticed by a larger congregation and they were willing to join this small church in mission because of their witness and for a greater good. I continued by talking about one of our first visit to the Gay Pride festival:

This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.  Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today.  The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray.  As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”

I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay.  It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God.

First Christian is a congregation that believes in diversity and welcome and we have done that through our witness at Pride. One retired pastor said upon visiting that this congregation was a Beloved Community. That’s something.

First Christian-St. Paul’s better days might be behind us, but with God we might be headed towards our best days.

This church and countless other churches that think that they can’t do much should take comfort in knowing that God has always used the things that might seem insignificant to do God’s work in the world. When God came in the form a human being God chose to come in the form of a baby; a helpless child. Could anyone think this tiny babe would turn the world upside down?

So, let’s move forward in faith, taking risks. Let us remember that while we are few in number, like Gideon we are backed by a mighty God.

The Church of Tomorrow

What is church all about?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for some time. It kicked into overdrive when I read the Interim Regional Minister’s monthly column. Churches in my region were worried. Would they continue? What can they do turn things around?

My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) describes the local congregation in our Design of the Christian Church. It states:

Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The statement is pretty clear. The local church is physical place where people are “brought into the saving grace of Christ.” It is the place where people are baptized, nurtured and receiving communion.

The words seem clear, but at times it feels at least in our denomination that we are all confused why the local congregation exists. Why are we here? Why do we matter? Do we matter? Those congregations in Iowa wonder, how long will they be around. They are dealing with a changing culture and are unsure where to turn next.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m not a Regional Minister, I’m just a pastor in a small suburban church that is wondering how it will survive in a changing world.

And how the times are changing! We live in a time when the church is not so central in our culture. We also live in a time when anti-institutionalism is rampant in our culture and that way of thinking has crept into the church. How many of us have heard how Jesus didn’t care about the institutional church? It’s the belief that as long as we do good in the world, why do we need church?

So mainline/progressive churches need to ask what are churches for, and it is a question that has to be answered if congregations are going to have any future.

I think we need churches as places where people are formed as followers of Jesus. It is a communal experience where we learn from each other. We need places that are places where forgiveness is possible, there are people who long to be forgiven. That need for forgiveness is important, but mainline churches are not as comfortable of talking about sin. What they are comfortable doing is focusing on justice issues. Issues like the environment or racial justice are issues where the church need to give voice, but as Christians we understand these issues belie the fact that we are in bondage to sin. Heidi Havercamp looks back to her great-grandfather to relearn the Calvinist belief in total depravity. She writes:

In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin…

Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.

Eric Thorson, who was a classmate of mine at Luther Seminary, understands that people are hungry for a place where they can experience forgiveness:

My work as a pastor came at a pivotal time in American Christianity.  Inclusion was the most pressing thing to be talking about.  The ideas and words we had spoken about people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender were not adequate to the reality of these people’s lives.  The ministry of the church had driven these people into hiding, hurt them, divided their families, and provided cover for the selfish hatreds people have toward those who are different.  I fought and preached and agonized over how to get the church to recognize the full equality of these beloved children of God.

My church, the ELCA, is trying to prove its relevance at a time of great unrest in society.  So many things have gone wrong.  So many wrongs have been championed in the name of religion.  How can we show we are not part of the problem?  How can we resist the tide of loveless brutality that sweeps through our society?

And yet, coming to church as a stranger, as a person merely seeking mercy and forgiveness, sometimes I have seen the basic message of the Christian faith drowned out by the struggles of the moment.  Yes, it is important to know the difference between good and evil, sin and righteousness, and yet, we should not forget that we are not good or righteous.  We need grace and mercy and life from One greater than ourselves.

I have met so many people these past years who are afraid of the church not because it fails to be inclusive, but because they believe their sins cannot be forgiven.

There is a truth in coming to the table as a beggar, to eat and drink life unearned and undeserved.  This truth should not be lost.

I think if I were to talk to those congregations, it is to tell them that there isn’t a special program that will turn their church around. Instead, I would tell them that they recover the lost lessons found in the Design. They need to be a places where people are formed into becoming followers of Jesus. They need to be places where they know that they are forgiven by God and experience the grace that has been denied to them for so long.

Finally, they need to be places where they are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God. The cover story in a recent edition of the City Pages focuses on Peace Lutheran church. A small congregation found on the edge of St. Paul. The church dwindled down to about 20 members and there was maybe about a year of finances left. It was then the church decided that if they were going to close they would at least do it with a bang. They opened the doors to the community and death was postponed:

“Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.”

A church that wasn’t open much through the week was now the first place people looked to if something went wrong.  Strangers decided to donate to the congregation keeping it afloat. The little church kept going out being servants to their community.  The church is growing because the people decided to risk, to serve.

Local churches in big cities, small towns and suburbs are places that are a local example of the wider church. If people are going to see real live followers of Jesus in action, it’s going to be at the church. It’s a place where they can see God in action through the lives of everyday people. If they are going to experience grace in a world where that is in short supply, it’s going to be at the local church.

That’s why churches exist. In a time where we think it’s all about me, the church says you are you because of community. In a time where the stranger is shunned, the church opens its door. In a culture where the meritocracy pushes people to be perfect, the church says we aren’t perfect but we are forgiven.

This is the message mainline churches need to recover. We need churches. Not because we love institutions, but because 2000 years ago, small churches in the dusty corner of an empire were able to turn the world upside down. We did it then and with God’s help, we can do it again.

Sermon Podcast: Just Dance.

2 Samuel 5:1-5 and 6:1-23 | Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Ubuntu Worship Series | October 20, 2019 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

Just as King David danced before God, the church should be about dancing in our lives. We need to be able to express the joy of our faith in a public way in all that we do.

We Need to Talk About David

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The Reproaches of Nathan to David.

If you are of a certain age, you can remember watching the wedding of Luke and Laura.  On November 16,1981, millions watched on their TV sets as the two characters from the ABC soap opera General Hospital were wed in holy matrimony.  Their relationship saved the soap from cancellation and the wedding episode made soap operas legitimate.

There was just one little fly in the ointment with this fairy tale courtship and wedding.  A few years prior to the wedding, Luke raped Laura.  The whole story is that a drunken Luke sexually assaulted Laura.  The writers had the two characters go through counseling and  Luke felt horrible.  I guess for the time period it was trying to take rape seriously, but in our era, there is no way this story would end up with a wedding.  But four decades ago, people loved this couple in spite of this horrible beginning.

I think about Luke and Laura and the rape because people have been talking about the biblical character of David.  David has been considered a “man after God’s own heart,” a person that wanted to serve the Lord.  We see a man who ruled during the “golden age” of Israel when the nation was united and strong. But we all know that David wasn’t perfect.  He made mistakes.  Found in the eleventh chapter of Second Samuel, we see the story of David and Bathsheeba which is usually portrayed as a torrid affair that resulted in a baby.  Since Bathsheeba was married, David needed to get rid of Uriah, Bathsheeba’s husband. David does get Uriah killed and he is then able to marry Bathsheeba and raise the child as his own.

That’s how the story was presented when I was a child.  However, the story is probably a lot more darker than we like to think.  This was less of an affair than it was a rape.  More and more scholars and pastors are tending to agree with this.  The passage doesn’t explicitly tell us this, but you can tell that it’s implicit.  Christianity Today has been rather bold in sharing a few articles on this new look on David.  The article by Kyle Worley leads with how many people are more comfortable with David being a murderer than a rapist. He writes:

Perhaps more intriguing than determining David’s motives is our own determination to spare him from disrepute. We don’t want David to be a rapist. We actually find it easier to stomach him being a murderer of a man than an abuser of a woman.

And, if the preponderance of sermons is any indication, Christians have historically been willing to slut-shame Bathsheba to keep any stink (beyond adultery) off of David. It’s nonsensical, particularly because in Scripture, Bathsheba is never accused, indicted, or even maligned in any way for what happened.

David, though, is not just another figure in the Bible. He is the “man after God’s own heart,” championed both as a heroic figure for young boys in Sunday school and the subject of Christian studies on manhood and masculinity.

The phrase we so often associate with the biblical king is not a blanket endorsement for David’s example, nor the idea that he represents what it means to be like God as a man. It means that David was God’s chosen man as king of Israel. John Woodhouse says this phrase “is talking about the place the man has in God’s heart rather than the place God has in the man’s heart.”

Scripture is full of broken people, and King David, for all his virtues, is a broken man. So why has this particular story become such a contentious one for us? I’m convinced that we don’t want David to be a rapist because we don’t want to reckon with the sin of abusive power.

It’s that last sentence I want to zoom in on.  Maybe he’s right that Christians don’t want to reckon with the sin of abusive power.  But I think the reason people are hesitant is because of something far more basic: you can’t look at David as a “good guy” in scripture and be a rapist at the same time.

Of course, you can be both.  But in our imagination, rape is an unforgivable sin.  It’s hard to say that David was a man of God and then talk about the time he raped a general’s wife.  A rapist is considered a foul being that no one wants anything to do with.  We can’t simply say David had a weakness.

Why did it take so long for Bill Cosby to face justice for assaulting women?  Because to admit that he did these things, it means we have to face the fact that America’s Dad, this legendary comedian was a no-good horrible motherfucker that deserved a horrible fate.

Whether it’s R. Kelly or Matt Lauer, we tend to “cancel” people that we learn have assaulted people (unless for some reason, they are in the White House). We want nothing to do with them. Rapists are viewed in black and white. There is no room for gray at all.

I am not advocating that we not look at the encounter between David and Bathsheeba as rape.  I think the case is strong. And I think for many women that have faced the horror of rape it means something that in our holy book someone was confronted of their crime. What I am saying is basically “now what?”  What do we do with David?  Worley wants to see this as an indictment of spiritual leaders.  But this has wider implications. It speaks about any man in some role of power.  Do we say David is still a good guy since he pleads for forgiveness from God?

There is a strong temptation to cover up David’s grievous sin.  But I don’t think you can, nor do I think you should. We need to have a clear view of David and what he did.  But the question remains: what do we do with David?  Do we “cancel” him?

Worley says that the Bible is full of broken people and David is no different.  True, but it is a leap of the imagination to equate brokenness with sexually assaulting a woman.  Committing genocide is also a sign of brokenness, but we don’t think of that as falling short of perfection.

I don’t have an answer to my own question.  It makes sense to see David as a rapist, but I struggle to figure out what to do with him now that we see him clearly.

The writers at General Hospital were able to turn a rape into some fairytale wedding between victim and perpetrator. When it comes to David, we can’t do that. We shouldn’t do that.

Sermon Podcast: Be Kind

Ruth 1:1-17 | Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Ubuntu Worship Series | October 13, 2019 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

A comedian befriends an ex-president and hilarity ensues, which means there was no hilarity.  A widow is shown kindness by a woman named…kindness.

Sermon Podcast: The Fear Factor

Exodus 1: 8-20, 2:1-10 and 3:1-15  | Ubuntu Sermon Series | Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost | September 29, 2019 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

Two women are able to thwart the evil plans of a king.  A princess decides to care for a child that will one day lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land. God hears the cries of the oppressed and decides to act.