This Is Who We Are

“This Is Who We Are” Mark 1:4-13 Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021 First Christian Church Mahtomedi, MN Preached at First Christian Church on January 10, 2021. “This isn’t who we are.” President-elect Joe Biden said these words in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assault on the US Capitol. Politicians like to say this during events like this.  I know more often than not the people who say this mean well.  They want to say that as Americans we aspire to higher goals and that what happened is something that is uncharacteristic of who we are as Americans. This phrase comes from a good place. It’s also incredibly wrong.  This is who we are.  This is who we are as a nation. Because if you are African American like I am or Native American or Japanese American, you know that our nation has a dark side and far too many times that dark side has shown up to harm persons of color, LGBTQ Americans, and others.  For some of these people seeing the images of a mostly white crowd running amok within the walls of the US Capitol, a place where I once worked, nod their heads and say “This IS Who we are.” This is not all of what the United States is all about.  If it was, then we as a nation are without hope.  The words found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution matter to us as Americans. As a nation, we strive to live up to better ideas and many times we do. But let’s not kid ourselves.  A century ago, three African American men were lynched in Duluth under trumped-up charges of rape.  Later this year, we will commemorate a century since the Tulsa Massacre which killed an untold number of African Americans in what was called Black Wall Street. This is who we are. We are sinners.  We fall short. We commit evil. We are not okay. In Mark, John the Baptist comes around preaching a baptism that led to repentance, to change their lives. One day, Jesus comes.  That had to come as a shock to John because Jesus had nothing to repent of.  But he baptizes his cousin anyway.  When he comes up from the water, the sky splits and the Holy Spirit comes into him.  It is then a voice that claims Jesus as the Son of God.  It is there that he is given an identity as our savior. This is who Jesus is. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. This is who we are.  You and I are Daughters and sons of God. But we still sin.  We fall short.  We are claimed by God, but let’s not forget that we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Because we are claimed by God in spite of our sin, we are called to act. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil and then went into his ministry, because he knew who he was. Our theme for Epiphany is “For the Sake of the World.” It’s a phrase that comes from our Lutheran sisters and brothers and it says the church exists for the sake of the world.  Churches exist as people who are baptized and claimed by God to go out to proclaim justice and preach reconciliation.  This is who we are. In light of the storming of the capital our baptism matters. We are called into a ministry of reconciliation and Lord knows we need it.  As a congregation, we need to find ways to give space to where people can listen to one another. Our baptism compels us to move from the sidelines and join in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. What happened this week is a wake-up call for the nation and the church. What we saw is a reminder that this is part of who we are as a nation.  We saw rioters, bullies and a President out that want to spread fear, to use the words of God, but worship an idol. That is who they are. But we at First Christian have another identity. Claimed by God, we have a role in preaching God’s love and justice to our nation and our world. We will be talking about this more because we must.  It is time for us to live out our baptisms. It doesn’t matter how small we are in number or how much money we have in the bank. It is time for you and I to live up to who we are in the eyes of God. We are the children of God. This is who we are.  Let’s start acting like it. Thanks be to God. Amen. Listen to the sermon podcast.

Sermon: Mr. Congeniality

Mark 12:1-12
Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Ever since I was little, I’ve had an interest in politics, especially during presidential years.  I can remember as a seven year old, sitting in my second grade class and having a mock election.  It was 1976, so the kids were asked to vote between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.  I remember Ford won in our class, he wasn’t so lucky in the real general election.

 

So, I was looking forward to this coming election.  Emphasis on the word, was.  I wish the election were as fun as it was 40 years ago, but this election is not turning out to be fun at all.

 

While I like to follow politics, I don’t like to talk about it at church.  I do that for a number of reasons.  The first is that Jesus is Lord. Our love for Christ must come before being a Democrat or a Republican. I also believe that because we believe God’s table is for everyone, I believe we must be welcoming to all regardless of party affiliation.

 

But I think I have to say something about this election, especially since the Minnesota caucus is two days away.  I’m not here to tell you who to vote for or even what my own party affilation is (though if you look at my Facebook feed, you would know).

 

I have to say something about one particular person, Donald Trump.  As everyone knows he is running for President.  When he started his campaign back in the summer of 2015, most everyone thought his campaign was a joke.  Now in March, on the verge of becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, we are no longer laughing.  

 

It’s been hard to figure out why Mr. Trump seems to be doing so well.  It’s certainly not because of his policies, which are paper thin.  What has been particularly head-scratching is that he has said things that would have sunk the campaigns of other people.  What is troubling is his character. He has made fun Senator John McCain’s imprisionment. He made fun of two persons with disabilities.  He has made sexist comments about a woman journalist.  He has called Mexicans rapists. He has said that he wants to ban Muslims, including Muslims who are Americans, from entering the company. He wants to deport all 12 million illegal immigrants in America.  None of this is something he said when the mikes were on but he didn’t know it, or off the record. No, he has said all of this live, in front of people and news cameras. I haven’t even talked about the fact that white nationalist groups are campaigning for him, including recording robocalls that have been heard in Minnesota. As Max Lucado, a well-known evangelical pastor said this week, Trump lacks decency and that matters in the White House and in life in general.

 

David Brooks, the conservative columnist notes that the rise of Trump is because of the rise of anti-politics, a sense that the other side is not just wrong, but evil. The other side is not acknowledged. Political writer Eliot Cohen says that a major reason for Trump is moral rot. For him, it’s one thing to be a jerk in private, but in public there is supposed to be a certain way to act, with respect. He notes that President Franklin Roosevelt named a finished large dam after the person he beat in the 1932 general election Republican President Herbert Hoover.  Considering how much Trump loves to put his name everywhere, I’m pretty sure he would not do the same thing.

 

So what does this have to do with today’s text?  Jesus tells a story of a man who plants a vineyards and then rents it out to tenants.  He goes away for a while.  After a while, it’s time to collect the rent, so he sends one of his servants.  The tenants decide at this point that they don’t want to pay rent and beat him up.  The landlord sends another servant and he is beaten up.  He sends a third and that one was killed.  This goes on for a while- the landlord sends a servant to collect the rent and the tenants either injure the servant or outright kill him.

 

Finally, the owner decides to send his only son.  His son was the sole heir to this land.  This point was not lost on the tenants.  As they see the son coming from a distance, they see this as a chance to get the land.  In that day, if an owner has no heirs, the land can go to the tenants.  The tenants had wanted the land all to themselves and this was their chance.  

 

When the landowner’s son arrives, the seize him, kill him and in a sign of ultimate disrespect, they throw his body outside of the vineyard.  

 

The landlord hears of this and is enranged.  Jesus says that the next thing that happens is that the owner will send people to come and punish the tenants and when I say punish, I mean kill. Judgement came to the tenants.

 

The problem with tenants is there sense of not thinking of others.  As I said, Trump is a sign of a culture go awry.  We are a society where we view those who are different with fear and contempt.  Where liberals and conservatives were able to compromise, they now look at each other with hatred and think life would be better without the other.

 

The workers thought that because they worked on the land, they had a right to the land an the owner had no right.  They were willing to do whatever it takes to prove that point, even if it meant killing the landlords son.

 

This parable was meant as a warning to the religious leaders of Jesus time.  They were the type of people that took pride in their following of the law, not caring much for how other were or were not able to follow along.  Jesus, predicting his death, knew that these leaders would reject him and would seek his death.  This parable itself is a take on a older text from Isaiah 5 called the Song of the Vineyard where the writer likens Israel to a vineyard that grows rotten grapes.  The gardener was so upset he decided to let the garden grow wild, to be left to its own devices.  The vineyeard was Israel and it wasn’t following the ways of God so God was ready to give them up to face the consequences of their actions, which happened in due time.

 

We live in a time where civility is nearly gone.  We seek to be with like-minded people and not encounter anyone who has a different view.  Our college kids want safe spaces where they don’t have to hear different opinions.

 

We shouldn’t be surprised that someone like Trump has appeared; we have prepared the ground for his seeds to germinate and grow.

 

This is the time for the church to be counted. We need to be a witness for character, because that matters- in our church and in our world.  We should expect our leaders to be people of care for others.  For the most part, most of our recent Presidents: Ford, Carter, Regan, the elder Bush, Clinton, the younger Bush and Obama have all governed with decency and honor.  You might have disagreed with their policies, but they were people who worked with a respect for the office and for the people they were sent to govern.  As followers of Jesus, we should speak out when there are people who seek to lead from a position of hatred, meaness and selfishness.  None of these are godly virtues; they are the characteristics of the tenants, people who thought only of themsleves, only in having more and saw others as being in the way of what they want.

 

As we walk through our Lenten series Purple Reign, we are reminded that the king that we serve, Jesus Christ, was one that treated others with respect, especially those that are forgotten.  He crossed political and social boundaries to share his message.  He gave up his life to save the lives of others.  These are the values, the aspects of character that we should be looking for in leaders.

 

The parable ends with the tenants facing judgement.  This is not something we should look forward with glee.  The God we serve is one that shows love even to those who don’t deserve it.  But flagrant violations of virtues cannot go unchallenged.  The tenants came to a point where they had to face the consequences.

 

This Tuesday, I will go to my caucus. And I will vote against Trump.  If he becomes the Republican nominee, I will not support him. I can’t tell you how you should vote.  I won’t tell you how to vote.  But as you go to your caucus, be mindful that we are called to care for others. I pray that you will not act like the tenants.

 

Dear church, it is time to be a witness for Christ.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Automatic for the People

Mark 4:1-34
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 17, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

selfdrivingcarBeing from Michigan, I am a car nut.  I kind of miss not being in Detroit today because it’s time for the annual Detroit Auto Show which because it’s in the Motor City, it is the car show.  Daniel and I have gone for several years in a row, but won’t be attending this year.  Hopefully we will get back there next year.

 

Like I said, I like cars.  I like to drive cars.  If I could have been an auto journalist I would have.  But I would have to learn to drive a manual if I wanted to do that.  Someday I will tell you the story of my one and only attempt to drive stick.  It involved a Ford Taurus SHO and burning rubber in a Missouri Arby’s parking lot, but that will have to wait for another time.

 

One of the biggest developments at Detroit and in the automotive industry in general is the rise of automated or self-driving cars.  These cars are only in the testing stage at this point, but they are more a reality than they were say five years ago.  At this point, more and more cars have some sort of assitive technology that gives the car more control.  We have cars that can sense when you might be drifting into another lane, and cars that can brake themselves if it senses a collision.  

 

While I think some of the assistive tech is a good idea, there’s a part of me that is not crazy about autonmous cars or what others think about these cars.  A number of writers have opined that the most dangerous part of the car is the driver.  They celebrate that fallible humans are written out of the process to ensure a more safe drive.  

 

Maybe I’ve read one too many scifi novels about robots becoming our overlords, but it does seem we are giving power over to a machine, all because we are fallible.

 

I like to be able to drive. I like the sound my car makes when it’s shifting gears.  I love the car’s get up and go and I love how that feels.  An automated car means I don’t drive, I don’t get to derive pleasure from the vehicle, I become passive, letting the car do all the work.  But, the self-driving car seems to be on its way to being a reality, so I guess I have to learn to love my robot overlords.

 

The root of the problem here is that a self driving car means giving up control.  I have to rely on microchips and motherboards to make sure I get from point A to point B.

 

What this has in common with our text today is that in our Christian walk, we are called to allow God to work in the world and trust that God is working things for the better. We have learn that faith is not all about us.

 

in chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus shares several examples of parable that focus around farming such as it was in first century Palestine.  The first story is the most well known: the parable of the sower.  It involves a farmer that scatters seeds hither and yon.  The seeds fall in different types of soils, rocky soil, among the weeds, on a path and finally in good soil.  

 

I’ve said this before, but I need to say it again: I used to hate this parable.  The reason I hated it is because in the churches of my youth, everyone was focused on the second part of the parable, the part where Jesus explains the story to his disciples.  People have taken these verses as proof of what this story was all about.  But the thing with Jesus’ parables is that they were told straight, but told as Emily Dickenson said slant.  Jesus did explain the parable somewhat, but it almost seemed too easy.  Was Jesus trying to say something else?  Was he only sharing part of the meaning?  Look back at the parable.  What do you notice?  If you know anything about farming or even just gardening, you should pay attention to what the farmer is doing.  For the farmer, sowing seed means throwing it anywhere.  I don’t think that’s what a farmer usually does with seed, unless one is really lazy.  I remember one time just throwing grass seed around on bald spot of lawn a few years back.  The results were less than optimal.

 

Why would a farmer throw see around like that?  What was the meaning here?

 

Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at the second farming parable, the Growing Seed.  If the farmer in the first tale is wasteful, this one is just plain dumb.  It seems that the seeds were just planted automatically and the farmer is at a loss to understand how it was planted and how it is growing.  You would think the farmer might want to water the plant, but he just sits aghast at this plant growing.  How in the world did this guy become a farmer?  He ends up harvesting the grain when its ready. At least he knew that.

 

The final tale is about the mustard seed.  Jesus says its a small seed, and indeed, it is.  But once it is planted it becomes a big plant.  What you need to know is that the mustard plant is sort of invasive, it takes over an area, much like kudzu does in the American South.  So God’s kingdom is like kudzu.

 

What do all three stories have in common besides having dumb farmers?  They are all about the kingdom of God and what is common in all three stories is that things happen in spite of human interaction.  The sower isn’t careful where the seed is planted; it is just planted anywhere and everywhere.  The second farmer doesn’t even plant the seed, but it still grows and produces a harvest.  The third tale doesn’t even have people in it- it’s just about this small seed and how it grows everywhere.

 

Parables can have more than one meaning, but one meaning that could come from all three tales is that in God’s kingdom, God is the main actor not us.  In God’s kingdom, life is automatic and we will happen with or without us.

 

That thought is both humbling and freeing.  It’s humbling because it means that all of our hard work for God doesn’t get us a gold star.  It means that God loves us for us, not because we do things that please God.  

 

The freeing part is that we don’t have perform.  We don’t have to feel that we have to do God’s work or nothing will happen.  God’s work happens; we can choose to join it or not, but it will happen and it won’t be stopped.

 

This can be humbling for pastors.  We like to think everything is on us, but in reality it isn’t.  It means that churches are places where we are looking for where God is active and joining in.  It means that we tell people where we see God active and point to God.  It makes faith more of an adventure than a chore.

 

As much as I am wary of automated cars, there is a mode of transportation that I use that I am not in control of.  Everytime I board a modern airplane, I am entrusting my safety to the pilots in the cockpit.  As I like to imagine me telling the pilot, their job is to make sure I don’t die.

 

The fact is, I’m actually putting more faith in the airplane’s navigation systems more than I do the pilot.  Most of our modern airlines use autopilot to get from point A to point B with the pilots there to help with the flying and to step in when the autopilot might not work.

 

So it is with us.  We place our trust in God, the farmer that throws God’s love everywhere, no matter how it is recieved.  We place our trust in a God that puts people in our lives and work with God to help them to know Christ.  We place our trust in a God that is constantly growing and drawing people to God even when we haven’t done a thing. Part of discipleship is to trust God, which at times can be a hard thing to for some of us to do, but God is there telling us that God has this.  

 

If I can trust God and look for where God is active in our world, maybe I can accept a self-driving car, provided it doesn’t drive me off a cliff.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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