Broken for You

John 6:56-69 | Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost | August 23, 2015

First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“Whenever I’ve served communion, I usually say two phrases.  I hand out the bread and tell someone, “The bread of Christ broken for you.”  And then as the person dip the bread in the cup, I saw “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”  Whenever we have communion, we remember that Christ was tortured and brutalized for our sake. We remember that Jesus offered up his own body for the sake of the world. “

Cat’s In the Cradle

Ecclesiastes 2:18–3:8 | Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost | A Time to Be Wise Sermon Series | August 16, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“Even though life can seem pointless, we are to find joy in this life.  Joy in our eating and drinking, joy in our work and joy in our downtime.  We are to find God in our life, to seek joy in relationships.  Instead of working to to work like the father in the song, our work gives glory to God, but it is not an idol the separates people from God and each other.”

The Curious Case of the Atheist Pastor

A controversy is brewing in the United Church of Canada over a minister who doesn’t believe in a God or in the Bible.  There are those in the denomination that believe she should be defrocked since she is an atheist.  She is demanding to stay ordained, believing that she is preaching a truer form of the faith, one centered on how we live instead of doctrine which she believes later corrupted the original intent of the faith.

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

“That didn’t go over well,” Vosper said. “(But) if we are going to continue to use language that suggests we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavour.”

After I shared this on Facebook, some of my more progressive Christian friends wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, she was getting away from doctrine which can be soul-crushing.

Needless to say, I think Rev. Vosper is wrong. She has a big misunderstanding about what doctrine is all about and an even bigger misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about.

Let’s look at her main beef, that Christianity was based on how we live over doctrine. It’s an interesting supposition, but it goes against most of church history. If Christianity was only about living a good life, then huge chunks of the Bible are wrong (which I guess doesn’t matter since she doesn’t believe in it anyway). But if it was about living a good life, then why are there no records indicating this? If the push was supposed to be more of a philosophy like Stoicism, wouldn’t we have some record of it? It’s kind of hard to believe that there was a cover-up this big, ala the Davinci Code.

When it comes to doctrine, it is common among some Progressive Christians to look down on doctrine, seeing it as something that forces people to believe in things instead of living a good life. But I think such a viewpoint is in its own way anti-intellectual. It basically says faith is something that is not worth thinking about, but is something that you do.

Now, there has been a history of Christians that place emphasis on beliefs and living horrible lives. But that is not the whole of Christian doctrine. Doctrine and practice must go together. Doctrine is what fuels what Christians do in helping their neighbor and sharing their lives together in worship. Belief in the context of faith is adopting a certain worldview that drives all that we do, no matter if we are Christian, Jewish or Hindu.

Doctrine is also part of theology or faith seeking understanding. Christians want to understanding things like God, Jesus, the Church, the Cross, the Resurrection and the like. Doctrine is coming to grips with this nebulous thing called faith and putting into practice in our daily lives.

The United Church of Canada’s Statement of Faith is a way for people to understand humanity and its place in God’s world:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

This statement tries to understand all of the concepts I just stated and places fashions them in a document stating not what the church must believe, but what they place their trust in. They believe in a God who is a creator, Jesus who came in flesh to reconcile us to God and believe in a church- a body that celebrates God, proclaims Jesus and serves others. In this statement belief and action go together.

I can understand if Rev. Vosper doesn’t believe in all of this. That is her right. But does that mean that the church has to accept her as a teacher or leader in the church?

The good thing about Rev. Vosper is that she made me think again why I’m a Christian. I wish she would do some deep thinking about the church herself before trying to remake the church in her own image.

More Than Zero

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 and Luke 12:23-23 | Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost | A Time to Be Wise Sermon Series | August 9, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“The purpose of this passage is not that life is pointless, but it is there to make us think about life.  What are we living for?  Who are we living for?  The writer of this passage thinks that everything is pointless and maybe it is when we only live it for us.  But what if we instead decided to live our lives for God? What if we see that God is present in our life the other six days of the week in our jobs or in our free time?”

The Abortion Debate Christians Should Be Having

Planned Parenthood Supporter

Photo by Sarah Mirk.

It’s been interesting seeing the debate rage on about Planned Parenthood and a number of videos that seem to put the organization in a very bad light.  As I read some of the articles condemning the practice retrieving organs from aborted fetuses, I felt a sense of unease.  Like many, I was alarmed by the videos, but reading some of these admittedly pro-life writers I was also feeling that the growing scandal was proof positive that abortion was evil and that it should be banned.  No one said those words, but I could sense them behind the rhetoric.

But the defensiveness of the pro-choice side was also disturbing.  While I tend to lean pro-choice, I believe that abortion is not something to celebrate.  I tend to follow the old maxim of abortion being “safe, legal and rare.” I also think there should be limits on when abortion in permissable, similar to what goes on many European countries.

What was missing from the argument is how hard this issue is.  Two lives hang in the balance; the woman who is deciding to keep or abort the baby and the growing fetus.  But the hallmark of the debate is focused on extending maximum and absolute rights to their side.  Pro-life advocates want to focus on the growing cluster of cells in the woman’s body to the exclusion of the woman it seems.  Pro-choicers tend to focus on the reproductive rights of the woman, but ignore the fetus.

Christians on both sides of the debate spout the predictable lines and none of it is helpful to dealing with this complex and difficult issue.  If pro-lifers think Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights supporters are butchers, while pro-choicers think the pro-life movement is filled with hypocrites more concerned with a clump of cells than with the women or the children if she chooses to give birth.

What’s missing from this debate is theology.  What does it mean to be human in the Christian sense?  What is the theological value of the woman carrying the fetus?  What is the theological value of the fetus itself?  None of these questions mean that you can or can’t have an abortion, but it does cause us to think about where God and God’s ways fit in all of this instead of having God just be a cheerleader for either side.

While it is not theological in scope, writer Damon Linker was able to shed more light than heat in the current debate in his most recent column.  While his argument isn’t theological per se, he does get at the heart of the issue: life and death.  He starts off:

Here is the truth about abortion: It kills an unborn baby. We all know this — and with continuing advances in ultrasound technology, it’s something we know with greater and greater certainty all the time.

This is one of the things that makes the decision to seek an abortion so emotionally fraught and morally wrenching for most women — because an abortion kills an unborn human being, and we normally believe that human beings possess intrinsic moral dignity or worth and therefore have a right to life, no matter how small or helpless they are.

Of course a baby in the womb differs from most other human beings in residing within and being completely dependent upon another human being with rights of her own. This creates the potential for a tragic, irresolvable moral trade-off between the good of the baby (his or her life) and the good of the pregnant woman (her liberty).

One of the things that frustrates me with the pro-choice side is their view of the fetus. My own view is that whether or not one decides to abort the fetus, you are killing something that in a few months becomes a living, breathing person. It might not be totally human yet, but it will in time. Knowing this is what makes that fetus more than a clump of cells. Christians believe that humans are created in the image of God, meaning that God places high value on humans. Again, none this says have an abortion or don’t have one. But as Christians, we must understand that what is going on inside the mother has value. To borrow a phrase from Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid.

But the woman carrying the fetus is also of value and worth.  She was also created in the likeness of God.  She is also worthy of dignity at a very delicate time in her life.

Notice what I haven’t said here so far; I haven’t used the word rights. It’s not that the term shouldn’t be included in the debate; it’s just that as Christians, we have to deal with more than rights; we have to talk about how to deal with these two beings, the fetus and the woman as creations of God.

Damon notes that both sides tend to favor some kind of maximum rights for their side.  So, on the pro-choice side it can mean abortion at any time for any reason.  On the pro-life side it can mean making the baby central with the woman off to the side.  Damon notes that in many European nations there has been a balancing between the status of the woman and the fetus/baby:

In Europe abortion is legal and easily available nearly everywhere through 12 weeks of pregnancy. After that, countries vary in their restrictions, with most limiting access to abortion as the pregnancy approaches 20 weeks, and a few allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy as late as 24 weeks — which is right around the time when the baby becomes viable outside the womb.

That makes considerable moral sense. Tacitly acknowledging the tragic trade-offs involved in abortion, it balances the rights of the woman against the rights of the baby. At the start of pregnancy, long before viability, the woman is sovereign. But as the fetus approaches the capacity to survive outside the womb, the woman’s sovereignty reaches its limits and her rights give way to those of the baby.

If as Christians we believe both beings are created in the likeness of God and worth value and dignity, then this should be at least the best of a hard situation. It takes both sides to heart and tries to balance both sides.

I doubt we will have a European style solution to the abortion debate.  But nevertheless, as Christians we need to talk to each other and grapple with the theological implications of this all- because if there is any situation where we need to look at a public policy issue through God’s eyes this is it.

I don’t know if I do justice to speaking theologically about this issue, but I hope that we will start doing this as Christians.  Abortion is too important an issue to leave to the partisans.

Here I Am. Send Someone Else.

New Property Sign (1) [800x600]I came back from the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a week ago.  I got some great ideas about revitalizing First Christian of St. Paul, but there is still this desire to be part of planting a new church.

I tend to believe that the Twin Cities and Rochester are poised for new Disciple congregations.  But while I believe this and feel that we need to get on the ball, I also know not everyone feels the same way, which only makes me more anxious to see something new.

Whenever I bring this up, everyone to a person seems to think I should be the one planting a church and my reaction is…mixed.

You see, I’ve planted a church before and while I had a good time, it was hard to get people to take part in the life of the church.  Gathering a church can be a challenge.  That and if I did it, I’d be on my own.

But it’s not just competence that keeps me from doing this- it’s also the fact that I’m busy trying to help revitalize a church and that takes time.  I want to help, but I just don’t have the time to start a church.

Which is why I pray that God will lift up people who want to plant a church.  I can’t do it now.  But I have to believe there are maybe first call pastors or young adults that would like to try something different.

I want to believe that, because I think the harvest is ready and we need some laborers.