Sermon: Risky Business

 

Luke 19:29-44
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

Most of us here can remember seeing the first news footage of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall as it fell in November of 1989.  For someone of my age, this was phenomenal because as long as I was alive, there was a wall separating the former capital of a unified Germany in two.  On that night, people living in East Berlin were able to walk into West Berlin and take in the sights, something they hadn’t been ever able to do sometimes in their lifetimes.

 

But there would probably be no breeching of the Berlin Wall in November if it weren’t for what took place in the city of Leipzig, a city in the former East Germany in September 1989.  On Monday, September 4 in Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas Church.  Now the church was well known because it was one of the churches in town where the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the music director.  But on this late summer evening, St. Nicholas would be known for starting process that led to the downfall of a nation.

 

Throughout the 1980s, St. Nicholas held weekly prayer services.  The prayer mingled and mixed with protest; because this Lutheran church was a place where people who upset with the communist government of East Germany could come and talk..and pray.

 

On September 4, out of the prayer sprung peaceful demonstrations.  Citizens would take to the streets to protest and demand more rights, such the right to travel abroad and to hold democratic elections.  

 

Going to church became a risky endeavor.  No one knew if going to these Monday demonstrations would cause the police to react.  A woman commented that she would bring a candle and held it in her hands as a sign to the army and the police that she was unarmed. Protesting against the communist government, one that was well known in monitoring its citizens was bold and scary.  But those demonstrations that arose from weekly prayer services had an effect.  Other demonstrations took place in other East German cities. Back in Leipzig, the numbers of those protesting grew and grew.  On October 9, 1989 around 70,000 people showed up to protest- this in a city of 500,000.  A week later that number nearly doubled to 120,000.  Two days after this, East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. And the numbers kept growing to over 300,000 in late October.  It was this pressure that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By March 1990, the protests ended.  These demonstrations had resulted in democratic elections in the spring of 1990 and German reunification in October of 1990.  

 

All of this started in a Lutheran church in one city holding a prayer service.  But that was all it took to bring down a totalitarian regime.

 

Today, is Palm Sunday.  We get together, people start to sing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and we wave our palm branches.  We remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem knowing that pretty soon Jesus would face trial, torture and death.  If we were honest, we would admit that this day is a harmless day in the life of the church.  I’m mean Jesus is on a donkey for goodness sake. It’s the day when we might have kids marching around the sanctuary with triangles and cymbals and the like.  Palm Sunday is a nice day, a respite before we head into the heavy holidays of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

 

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at this.  Palm Sunday is not about a cute parade with a middle age guy riding a donkey. In someways, Palm Sunday is about challenging the powers of this world, to say who is really the King around here.

 

But if this is a direct challenge to Ceasar and all the other rulers, Jesus has a funny way of showing it.  Again, the donkey.  Why in the world would anyone ride a donkey.  They aren’t the most pretty animals, which is just fine because they were considered beasts of burden.  You used donkeys to carry loads, it was a real workhorse.  Some think the riding of a donkey was a sign of humility and peace.  Roman leaders would have rode horses which were bred for fighting.  When a Roman general won a decisive battle, he would ride into town with in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Around him were his soldiers as well as the deposed king of conquered territories.  The whole thing was an expression of the power of Rome.

 

So, having Jesus riding a humble donkey didn’t make sense.

 

So Jesus rides into town with people placing their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride. The disciples didn’t get that Jesus was about to die, but they did think Jesus was king and they led the parade proclaiming Jesus as king, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The disciples might have remembered what was prophesized by the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. “

 

All of this king talk was cool, but it was also risky.  Since it was Passover, the Romans were out in force.  Passover is when Jews remember how God led them out of Egypt.  This talk of freedom made the Romans nervous, so they were out in public to remind the people of who is in charge.  Maybe that’s why the Pharisees were telling Jesus to keep his disciples quiet.  It might be that the Pharisees were folk traveling with Jesus, so they might be telling Jesus to keep quiet of concern for him.  The Pharisees were trying to walk a fine line between keeping the peace on both sides.

 

The Pharisees want to play it safe and with very good reason.  The Romans were not above trying to put their boot down through active repression.  There had been many who sought to challenge the Romans only to meet a very bloody end.

 

But Jesus was willing to take the risk, to tell everyone that he is  different kind of king, one that is more powerful even than Caesar himself.

 

This is what makes Palm Sunday a risky and dangerous day.  It might seem that a guy on a donkey is’nt that much of a threat to anyone, but looks can be decieving. It was on this day when Jesus made his public decoration that he was king, greater than any other king out there, including Caesar.

 

Palm Sunday also has a message for us.  Are we willing to claim Jesus as our King, one that is greater than any modern Caesar, presidents and prime ministers?

 

Too often, we have made the Christian life one that is safe. We try to make Jesus fit into our political agendas of the left and right.  But if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the king of all, then it means we live at times in defiance to earthly leaders regardless of whether we like their agenda or not.  Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, not anyone but Jesus.

 

Holy Week is a battle between the pretenders to the throne and the real king.  The pretenders thought they had put the real king to death on Good Friday, but….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

This faith that we have can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.  It was that faith that started in Lutheran church in central Europe in 1989 that brought down the earthly rulers and changed history.  It was that same faith, that willingness to follow King Jesus that led Archbishop Oscar Romero to speak for the poor and it was what got him killed as he served communion.  It was the same faith that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak boldy against his opporessors in South Africa that the side of freedom will win so they might as well join his side.

 

Maybe we don’t have to worry of living in a place like East Germany or aparthied-era South Africa.  But we are called to place Jesus first to be able to say that it is Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

 

Jesus is Lord.  Caesar is not.  Jesus riding on a donkey might seem foolish, but so was having a prayer service deep inside the old Iron Curtain.   In the end, the man on the donkey will bring down the kingdoms of this world.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Sermon: Looking for Loopholes

 

Luke 10:25-42
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio version.

Supposedly the commedian W.C. Fields was reading a Bible one day. Fields was known for his kind of outrageous lifestyle of drinking and mistrisses, so having him reading a Bible seemed a little out of character. When asked why he was reading the Bible, Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

Today we are looking at one of the most well-known parables, the tale of the Good Samaritan. Even people who have never set foot inside a church know about this story. People look at this tale and see it as a morality play, that tells people how we should live good and ethical lives. But the parables had bigger plans than just being about being good. Parables give us a peek into God’s kingdom; it shows us what it means to live under the rule of God.

Before we go into the play, let’s get to know about Samaritans. The Samaritans are people of mixed heritage. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, many Jews were taken to Assyria and Assyria sent many of its citizens to the Northern Kingdom. They started to intermarry with the Israelites who remained and over time, they gave up their worship of idols and picked up the practices of their Jewish heritage. Jews were not crazy about Samaritans because they were not considered pure. So Jews and Samaritans don’t get along.

Which might explain that time that Jesus was not accepted in a Samaritan town. In Luke 9:51-55 Jesus starts his journey towards Jerusalem and his ultimate death. Jesus sent some of his disciples ahead to a Samaritan town in order to find accomdations. But the townsfolk were not interested in welcoming Jesus at all. We aren’t given a reason why the town didn’t welcome Jesus. Maybe they saw him as a troublemaker. Maybe it was that he was simply Jewish and they didn’t want their enemies in town. This is ironic since in the next chapter we will hear a story of a welcoming man that was a Samaritan. But this might be an example of the fraught relationship between the two peoples.

Today’s text open with a lawyer or Pharisee coming up to Jesus with a question. He asks Jesus: about what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus answers back by asking him what is written in the Torah or law. The layer responds, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly.

Then the lawyer asks another question. “Who Is My Neighbor?” Some versions say he is asking this question to justify himself. What this means is that he was wondering who had to be considered a neighbor. In essence he was looking for a loophole. Who were the people he was supposed to love and who were the people he could ignore?

This is when Jesus goes into his famous tale. He challenges the lawyer by setting the story up with several characters that the lawyer or Pharisee would find hard to love. The Samaritan, in addition to being considered a heritic, would probably have been a trader. Traders were also despised by the Pharisees because they were considered dishonest and because they had to deal with people from all walks of life, didn’t follow religious laws closely. We don’t know much about the man, but he would have also been frowned upon because of his state. Being injured and left for dead on the roadside meant that he was ritually unclean. The innkeeper also wasn’t considered pure because they provided shelter to traders. And we know the robbers weren’t heroes in the Pharisees eyes either.

So Jesus has set up this tales with a lot of people who would be considered ne’er do wells in the eyes of this lawyer. But Jesus also included two people who would be considered politically correct in his eyes, the priest and the Levite. But here is the interesting thing: these two people who would be considered faithful to the law, saw the injured man on the road and they passed him by. These were men who knew they law. They knew what could make them unclean and also they knew they were to love their neighbor. Their faith was such that it left no room for love of people.

Jesus is smart here. The lawyer or Pharisee wants to be able to use the theology he has learned to get out of caring for a stranger. So Jesus decides to tell a story that is so stark, so urgent, that it shows how small the Pharisees faith really is. Because when you say that these folk are not worthy of love, it means ending up with situations like these where supposedly holy people leave a person dying on the side of a road.

The thrust of Jesus story is not who is our neighbor. Jesus never bothers to answer the Pharisees’ original question of Who Is My Neighbor. Instead he asks who was the neighbor. The lesson here is that we should be neighbors to those we meet. Which means not just loving those near and dear to us, but those who are alien to our way of living.

The theme for Lent here is “Who Is My Neighbor?” Of course, the answer here is that we are the neighbor and being a neighbor means that we exhibit the love that Jesus would want us to show. We live in a time when we live in fear of the other. We have people who seek to say we should be loving, but not to these folk. We love everyone, but not these Muslims. We love everyone, but not these Mexicans. We love everyone, but not these Trump voters. Just like the lawyer, we are all looking for the loophole, for the thing that tells us we don’t have to care for those who are different or do things we don’t agree with. In essence, we are saying that there are people beyond God’s love.

But in God’s kingdom, love is boundless. God loves even at the risk of self. Note that Samaritans also practiced ritual purity, so touching the injured man meant making the Samaritan unclean. But the Samaritan was willing to do this because God’s love doesn’t stop at the borders that we place in our lives.

A moment here. I’ve said that parables are not morality tales and it’s easy to see the Samaritan as a role model, someone we should aspire to be. You have to see this in the context of first century Palestine where Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. To understand what this parable is saying you have to put in an analogus modern context. The theologian Debi Thomas makes it clear:

An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.

How can First Christian be a good neighbor in Mahtomedi and beyond? How do we reach beyond our comfort zones to extend active love to someone? In God’s kingdom, people are neighbors to those who are alien to them as well as those who are similar. In God’s kingdom there is no boundary that walls us off from certain people or tells us certain people are beyond love. That is a hard thing to accept, because as humans we all try to decide who is not welcomed, who is beyond redemption. But there is are no loopholes in the Bible. We are called to be good neighbors to everyone.

In 1996, the Klu Klux Klan held a rally at the city hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When people in the area heard about the rally, about 300 people came to counter-protest the meeting of the Klan. The Klan rally only garnered 17 people total. During the rally, someone spotted a man in the crowd who had a tatoo of the dreaded Nazi SS wore a confederate flag t-shirt. This was basically the equivalent of waving a red cape in front a raging bull. The anti-klan crowd began to chased the man. The crowd started to hit and kick the man.

In the crowd at the time was an 18 year-old African American woman named Keisha Thomas. When the crowd started to attack this man, she placed herself in front of the man who was now down on the ground. There are a series of now-iconic photos of Keisha shielding the man and trying to fend off the angry protesters. The reasons those photos still resonate today is it recorded something so odd: an African American woman protecting an alleged white supremacist. This sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But this is exactly what it means to be a neighbor. In the moment the crowd started to attack the man, she saw this man as someone worthy of love, even though he had done nothing to deserve it. Keisha knew there weren’t any loopholes that would exempt her from being a neighbor and so acted in love to protect someone that today we would consider “unclean.”

Who Is My Neighbor? We already know the answer: we are the neighbor and we are the ones to love those around us no matter who they are. Jesus told the lawyer and tells us today to follow the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise.”

So church, “Go and do likewise.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Borrowed Time

“Borrowed Time”
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Click here for the audio version.

pixar-borrowed-timeA man leaves home to head into New York City and work in one the city’s tallest buildings. It’s the morning of September 11, 2001, and the man’s family never saw their husband and father again.

On that same morning, a husband drops off his wife at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. He kisses her, expecting to see her when she returns a few days later. The woman is on a flight that is hijacked and later plows into the Pentagon. Before that happens, his wife calls from the plane and tells her husband that she loves him one last time.

In August 2007, a woman calls home to tell her husband and daughters that she is leaving work and will be home for dinner. She leaves downtown and heads on the freeway during rush hour. She usually takes a different route, but tonight she decides to take the freeway. She wades though traffic as it crawls across a bridge over the Mississippi River. Out of nowhere, the bridge collapses, tossing cars and trucks into everywhere even into the river. The woman’s car is plunged into the river and she never comes home.

In December 2015, a man drops off his husband at his workplace in California. The man heads home and a few hours later sees a breaking news report of a mass shooting at his husband’s place of work. He calls his spouse over and over, and no one ever picks up the phone. After a frantic day and night of trying going to hospitals to find his partner, he gets a phone call. What he feared has come true; his husband lost his life in a mass shooting.

Tragedy seems to happen out of nowhere. One day it’s a normal day and the next moment things are changed forever. We might not have things happen like they did on 9/11 or the Minneapolis Bridge collapse, but tragedy does happen. More than likely we will get that phone call late at night or early in the morning where we learn that love one has died.

When these things happen, we are left wondering where God was. We wonder if God had a role in this. Others will be less charitable and believe that the person who died or someone else did something that displeased God and so this was their fate. No matter what, tragedies have us wondering what went wrong for this to happen.

In our text today. A number of people are chatting about the big news today. The news is that there were some Galileans on their way to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. Pilate, the governor of the area, went on a rampage and a number of these Galileans were killed in the process. It’s hard to think they did anything to deserve this, other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was a common belief in that time period that if something bad happened to someone, it was because they or someone close to them had sinned. We see this in John 9, when Jesus heals a blind man. Before he does this, his disciples wonder if either this man or his parents had sinned to make him blind. Jesus learns about this tragedy involving the Galileans and decides to respond. He never directly tackles the issue of whether or not God was involved in this suffering. He also for reasons we don’t know doesn’t try to defend God, either. Instead he challenges the crowd with a question of his own. “Were the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hands more sinful than every other Galilean?” The people don’t answer. Jesus responds to his own question: “No, they didn’t. But unless you repent and keep repenting, you will end up just like them.”

What Jesus was trying to get at is to focus on what it means to live our lives. Jesus was telling those around him that it didn’t matter if someone did something for bad things to happen. He was telling them to not focus on the lives of others, but to focus on how we are living the life we have left. How do we treat those around us? Do we care for those poor and the weak? Are we a neighbor to strangers?

To make the point clearer, Jesus talks about a tower in the town of Siloam that fell killing 18 people. He asks, are they more sinful than the average Galilean? No, and if the crowd doesn’t change their hearts and lives, they will die as well, meaning time will have run out, with no chance of constantly seeking to follow God’s ways.

Jesus then tells a parable of a fig tree that had not produce any fruit for years. The owner of the tree and the vineyard thinks it’s a waste of money to care for this plant and that it should be thrown out. The gardener looks at the owner and says, give me one more year. I will do all I can to make this tree produce fruit. If in a year nothing changes, than we can throw it away.

In this tale all of us are the fig tree. Sometimes we don’t produce any fruit. Now, we might think God is the owner, but that would be wrong. Jesus didn’t come down to earth to appease an angry God, but to stand in the place of humanity, to give us a second chance. God (and Jesus) are the gardener, asking for a bit more time to do what can be done to help the tree produce figs.

We live on borrowed time. God is there ready to work and help us to be fruitful people of God. God has given us the gift of life and calls for us to repent. Repent means to turn around or to see things from another view. It means that we are always striving to be better people with God’s help and that comes through discipleship, by learning from Jesus how to be people who are grateful that God has given them this life to live, no matter how long or how short it is.

Last year, two animators from Pixar studio made a short animated movie called “Borrowed Time.” It was nominated for best animated short at this year’s Oscars. The story centers on a grizzled sheriff,a man that looks as if he has lived thousand hard years. This is a broken man that carries within him the shame of what happened on the last day of his father’s life. His father who was also a sheriff and the young man were riding a stagecoach through the American west, when they are besieged by robbers. In the ongoing chase, the horse and carriage crashed and throws the father off of the coach and over a cliff. The son realizes his father is missing and looks for him and finds him-alive- hanging on for dear life on the side of the cliff. The son tries to reach for his father’s hand, but can’t reach it. The father takes out his rifle, so that the son can pull him up. The son keeps pulling his father up and up and almost gets him on to solid ground. But you see, the son was pulling on the butt of the gun which meant he was near the trigger. As he gives on great heave, he accidentally shoots the gun which was pointed at his father at close range. The father is shot and falls down the cliff.

He carries that pain for decades and we see the now adult son as man standing at that same cliff, unable to shake off the sadness of losing his father and the horror of knowing he was the cause. He looks as if he is going to leap of the cliff to his doom, until a glare catches his eye. You see all those years ago, his father gave him a watch, and in the rush it got tossed to the ground and lost. The man picks it up and sees a picture of him and his dad. It was at that moment he was able to shake off the guilt he carried with him all those years. It wasn’t a happily ever after kind of ending, but it was the beginning of something, maybe a sense in some way of starting anew.

Jesus comes to give life to the fullest, as he says in John. In Christ,we can live for something, live a life knowing we are forgiven and seek to have a heart that forgives and loves very much.

But we only have so much time. How will we live the life that we have? Will we waste it away worrying about others and wondering if they are bringing damnation on themselves or we will we repent and live a life turned around for God?

We live on borrowed time. How are you going to live it? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “When the President Comes to Church”

Luke 4:14-30
Mission First: Gathered Series
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 15, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

If Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in? Just hold that thought for a bit.

A few years ago, I was involved in helping the church I was at in sponsoring a refugee family.  We worked with the Minnesota Council of Churches which has a good record of helping people from around the world settle here in Minnesota.  We learned that we were going to sponsor a family coming from Somalia.  This is not unusual; Minnesota has been a leading destination for refugees from Somalia, which has been dealing with a civil war for almost 25 years.  Now, most of the people who come from Somalia are Muslim.  This tends to be the dominant religion in that part of the world.  I didn’t think much of this fact until I got an email from a woman who was a member at the church.  She was upset about us helping these refugees.  It wasn’t because they were African.  She was upset because…you guessed it, they were Muslim.  As much as I and the Senior Pastor tried to talk about the need to help these people who were simply looking for a home, she was resolute she thought these people could be trouble.

 

Now, we did go ahead and sponsor this family and helped them acclaimate to American society.  But I was dumbfounded that someone was more worried about a person’s faith than they were about helping a family find a safe place to make a life.

 

Another story.  About 20 years ago, I attending a Baptist church in Washington, DC.  Back then, the church was made up of both liberals and evangelicals.  A minister that had been involved with the church was asked to serve on the pastoral staff.  She was more than qualified for the position, but there was an issue: she believed in the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.  In the 1990s this was still a controversial issue in this Baptist denomination.  During a meeting to discuss the issue, another woman rose to talk.  She was from the evangelical faction of the congregation. She admitted that she and this pastor didn’t agree on this issue.  But she also had a relationship with the pastor and counted her as a friend.  She urged the congregation to call this pastor and they did.  Here were two women, who were on different sides of an important issue and yet they maintained a relationship, they respected each other.

These are two examples, one positive and one negative.  There are those who are willing to reach out to those who are different backgrounds and beliefs, and there are those who think that there are good people and those who seek to harm others. It seems at times that we as a society are less willing to be friends of those who are different from us.  Our society has learned to segregate themselves into groups where we can be with others that think just like us.  We start to think that the other side is not simply wrong; but somehow dangerous to the very social fabric.  

 

Churches are no less different than the wider society. It’s becoming less and less common to see liberals and evangelicals in the same congregation.  Both sides look at each other as apostates, not really Christians.  We see ourselves as doing God’s work and the other side?  Well, not so much.

 

I’ve not done such a good job at spelling out our current sermon series which is based on gathering.  The church is a gathered community.  It is gathered by God.  But what does it mean that we gather?  If it is God who gathers us in, then who is part of the community? Who is not?  

 

Today’s text has always been an odd one for me.  Jesus is back home in Nazareth and he’s asked to read scripture at the town synagogue. He gets up and reads from Isaiah 61.  This is Jesus way of announcing his ministry and his mission statement. He tells the crowd that he is the Messiah, the Lord’s annoited.  He is here to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the imprisoned and the oppressed and to give sight to the blind.  

 

Now, the people didn’t really get that he was connecting himself to this passage, until he adds to the passage that what was promised in Isaiah is being fulfilled as the people are listening. Everyone is astounded at what they have heard.  Some were proud, some were questioning.  One the surface, we think this is about what they had just heard.  But Jesus could sense people’s hearts.  Something wasn’t right, the people were missing the point.  He knew they were more interested in him performing more miracles than they were about taking this passage to heart. So, that’s when Jesus took what could have been a nice experience and pushed it a bit further. He tells them that he knows they want him to produce the signs that took place in Caperneaum. But he warns them by telling two stories.  First he talks about how the prophet Elijah helped to feed a poor widow and his son in the town of Zarapath.  If you can remember from a few months ago when we learned about this passage the town of Zarepath is outside of Israel.  Jesus is saying that there were other widows who were dealing with hunger because of the draught, but Elijah was sent to help this foreigner.

 

Then he shares another story.  The prophet Elisha healed a Syrian general named Naaman from leporesy even when there were others in Israel who suffered from leporsy.

 

All of this riled up the people and they set to push Jesus down a cliff to his death.  Jesus is able to slip away, but it seems like he would not be coming to Nazareth for the holidays anytime soon.

 

So, why were the people so angry?  What made them so enraged that they wanted to kills Jesus? These were not unfamiliar stories, so what caused them to go mad with anger?

 

Just as Jesus was telling them that he was the Messiah, he was telling the crowd that this Messiah wasn’t coming just for the Jews, but for everyone.  Those tales were nice to say that God could care for some outsiders, but Jesus was pushing them.  God wasn’t just being nice to Gentiles, this was part of God’s plan.  No one group was special, which is how the people in the synagogue saw themselves.  But Jesus is going farther than this.  Jesus is not playing favorites.  Mary sung that things were going to be flipped upside-down and here is the proof.  Those that felt they were special, that they were God’s favorite, were no longer sitting so pretty.

 

Jesus would end up living out what he preached that day.  He would meet with Samaritans and Roman soldiers and a host of other folk that probably wouldn’t be welcomed in that synagogue.  Jesus was on a mission and he wasn’t going to be boxed in.

 

It’s easy to look at this and think that luckily we aren’t like these people in this passage.  I hate to tell you, but we are.  We aren’t any better than the townsfolk of Nazareth.  We might say we welcome everyone, but there is always someone that we don’t want coming into the doors of our churches.  We don’t want people of other ideologies in our churches or maybe someone from a different social class.  We say we have open arms, but too often we act like bouncers for the kingdom of God. Jesus was called to be servant to all, not just the people of Israel.

 

As I said earlier, it is God that gathers the church.  It is God that gathers this church. What does that mean for us and are we ready for who God gathers to this church?  I’d like to believe that I would be able to welcome all, but would I welcome everyone.  Would you?

 

The church is called to be light in the world.  God is building God’s kingdom with us.  What the world needs to see in this church and in all churches are communities that are willing to reach out to people regardless if they are not of the right group.  We need to be able to come together in prayer and worship with people that we might not always agree with.  

 

So, I come back to the question I asked at the beginning: if Donald Trump showed up at the door of this church, would you let him in?

 

There is a church that is actually dealing with that question or something like it. The Washington National Cathedral is hosting the inaugural prayer service for the President-elect.  The Cathedral has a history of hosting inaugural worship services, so this is keeping in line with that tradition.  But the idea of allowing Donald Trump into the doors of the grand cathedral has upset many people around the nation.  The Cathedral is part of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington has tried to explain why they are hosting this service at this time.  I want to share what Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde said about opening the doors of the church to the next President:

 

First, I want to acknowledge the anger and disappointment that our decisions have engendered. And to say that I’m listening, because the spiritual principles that move many of you to protest are essential for the work that lies ahead. While I do not ask you to agree, I simply ask you to consider that we, too, acted on spiritual principles. Those principles, while they may seem to conflict with yours, are also essential for the work that lies ahead.

The first spiritual principle, which always characterizes the Episcopal Church at its most faithful, is that we welcome all people into our houses of prayer. We welcome all because we follow a Lord and Savior who welcomes all, without qualification. Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize. We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in the need of prayer.  

The second spiritual principle that informs my decision is that in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all. I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways. Nonetheless, I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals. As President Obama said in his last speech, our nation’s future will be determined by our resolve to “restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.” I ask the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to join me in dedication to that purpose, in faithfulness to Christ and as ones who cherish the gift of democracy.

 

Jesus’ mission on earth was to minister to everyone.  While the crowd in the synagogue thought God was just for them, Jesus was pushing the boundaries and saying that the love of God is for even those we deem outside of the love of God.  If we are honest, we will admit that this is a hard teaching and one we’d rather ignore.

 

Would Donald Trump be invited here?  That’s a question you need to wrestle with so I’m not going to give you an answer.  I pray that we can be like Christ, to get outside of our comfort zones and welcome everyone to God’s kingdom.  Even when we find it difficult.

 

Would Donald Trump be invited here?  Thanks be to God. Amen.

X & Y, By & By

Mark 8:27 – 9:8

algebraDuring my freshman year in high school, I was introduced to Algebra.  Math was always something that took a bit longer for me to comprehend and sitting in Ms. Collier’s class this was no different. I would look at the numbers and got stuck on the whole concept of x and y.  Where did they fit in?  How do you calculate an equation with these letters?

Every piece of homework was like trying to decipher hyrogliphics.  It made no sense.  The result was of course that I didn’t do so well in Algebra.  Actually, I crashed, I got my one and only failing grade in a class.

The next semsester, I was put in a slower Algebra class.  As I started learning these concepts again, it was like the clouds parted and the fog rolled away.  I now understood what x and y meant.  I could do the equations with ease.  That semester I ended up with a letter grade of B.

I don’t know what made the difference.  Maybe it was the teacher. Maybe it just took time for things to sink in.  All I know is that it felt great to finally understand.

The text in Mark spans two chapters and deals with what seem like two unconnected events; Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Transfiguration.  But in some ways, they are intimately connected.  Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah, the king.  But he and the rest of the disciples didn’t understand what that meant.  They never understood what kind of king Jesus would be.

That’s why Peter was shocked when Jesus starts talking about being arrested and put to death.  Peter knew what a king was, and that is not what should happen to a king.

Then there is the Transfiguration.  Peter along with John and James see this odd event of Jesus brighter than bright, sitting with Moses and Elijah.  Peter was so gobsmaked he started talking about building altars for the three.

It’s easy for us to think that Peter was so dense.  But we are no better than Peter. There is still a lot of this faith we don’t always understand.  What does it mean that Jesus is God’s son? What does it mean that Jesus would die? What does it mean that Jesus would be raised from the dead?  These are questions we are still wrestling with centuries later.

Which is maybe why the voice comes in and tells Peter to listen to Jesus.  Maybe we need to sit with our questions and sit in the moment with Jesus.  In time, the answers will come, the skies will clear and like I did with Algebra over 30 years ago, we will understand.

Faith is just that, faith.  We don’t understand everything in our faith.  There are times in both good and bad times, where we just have to sit with this uncomfortable feeling and continue to follow Jesus.

There is an old gospel hymn I remember hearing sitting in the Baptist churches of my youth in Flint, Michigan.  The first verse of “We’ll Understand It Better, By and By,” goes like this:

We are tossed and driven
on the restless sea of time;
somber skies and howling tempests
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists are rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by.

Sometimes we don’t understand x and y.  But with God’s help we will, by and by.

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.

Listen to the Sermon

Sermon: “Coexist?”

“Coexist?”
1 Kings 18:20-40
Twenty Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
November 8, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

The scene is Mount Carmel. Thousands of citizens from the Northern Kingdom have trekked to this place to see a spectacle.  Off to the side, they can see King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel seated on ornate chairs.  In the center are two altars.  On the right are the prophets of Baal, some 450 people.  The people had been introduced to Baal worship only a few years before when Ahab married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess.  Rumors have swirled that Jezebel demanded that she and all of Israel worship her god.  Ahab had a temple built for Baal and other places were set up for people to worship this new god.

 

People had heard that the prophets of Yahweh were being persecuted.  Some even believe that Jezebel is giving the orders.  As to worshipping this foreign god, most of the people in the audience had gone down to the temple once or twice.  Of course, they still went to the temple of Yahweh, built by King Solomon when Israel was a united kingdom.  But most of them thought it couldn’t hurt to get some extra help in making sure the crops grow or for success in battle or business.  Plus it was the thing to do.  They lived in an area surrounded by other nations and all the nations kind of borrowed each other’s god.  This is what was done.  

 

On the left was Elijah.  He told people he was God’s prophet, there to make sure the King was doing his job of leading the people in the ways of God.  A lot of people didn’t really like Elijah.  He was a bit rude to people and just didn’t know when to shut up.  Most of the people knew that he had been away for a few years.  Reliable sources said Ahab blamed him for the drought that had gripped the land.  

 

After a bit of preparation on both sides, Elijah strode to the crowd.  It looked like he was going to say something.  Oh boy, the people thought, he’s going to chastise us again.

 

They were right.  Elijah scowled at the people and said, “How long are you going to sit on the fence? If God is the real God, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him. Make up your minds!”

 

Just like clockwork, they thought.  No one responded to his statement.  Why do we have to choose?  What does it hurt to worship an extra god?  We need all the help we can get!

 

But Elijah wasn’t done talking.  “I’m the only prophet of God left in Israel; and there are 450 prophets of Baal. Let the Baal prophets bring up two oxen; let them pick one, butcher it, and lay it out on an altar on firewood—but don’t ignite it. I’ll take the other ox, cut it up, and lay it on the wood. But neither will I light the fire. Then you pray to your gods and I’ll pray to God. The god who answers with fire will prove to be, in fact, God.”

 

A few people in the crowd rolled their eyes.  The only prophet of God in Israel?  What a drama queen.  Most of the people nodded their heads to Elijah’s challenge.  “Good idea!” a few people yelled.

 

Elijah nodded to the group of Baal’s prophets, indicating they can start first.  The prophets started bowing and yelling for Baal to answer them.  Some of the people expected fire to come down, any minute now.  Half an hour past. Then an hour. Then two hours.  The prophets were getting hoarse after all that shouting.

 

It’s then that the people hear Elijah’s voice.  He starts laughing loudly and then gave a sneer.  “I don’t think your god can hear you.  You might want to yell louder, he taunted.  “Is he off meditating?  Maybe he’s taking a bathroom break?  Was this the week he was going on vacation?”

 

The prophets of Baal grew upset at Elijah’s teasing.  They decided it was time to make sure Baal listened.  To the surprise of the people, the prophets start cutting themselves until they were covered in blood.  It was a hideous sight.  Some people wondered.  Baal was supposed to be the god of storms and fertility.  Why could Baal answer the prophets?

 

Elijah waves his hands.  “Enough. It’s now my turn.” He started getting the altar setup.  The odd thing was when he asked that the altar be doused with water.  It seemed odd in the middle of a drought to waste water like this, but Elijah never made sense, anyway.  When he was done he started to pray in a loud voice. “O God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make it known right now that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I’m doing what I’m doing under your orders. Answer me, God; O answer me and reveal to this people that you are God, the true God, and that you are giving these people another chance at repentance.”

 

The people were startled by the lightning.  First it was in the distance and within seconds it was right on them.  The lightning looked like fire as it came down from the sky and struck the altar.  The heat engulfed the altar and was intense.  Within a few minutes, the fires dissipated leaving nothing behind.  The people were astonished.  A few people started yelling, “God is the true God!”  Many in the crowd started bowing in obedience to God.  Many of the people had thought worshipping Baal was no big thing, but when they saw nothing happened  when asked to perform a sign, the god did nothing.  But this God, Yahweh was active.  Maybe it was time to place our bets on Yahweh, they thought.  

 

The people decided to follow the God of their ancestors: unless something better came along.

 

There is a bumper sticker that I’ve seen around town in the last few years and you’ve probably seen it as well.  The sticker says “Coexist.” The letter c is shaped like a crescent moon representing Islam.  The letter x is shaped as a Jewish star of David and the letter t looks like a cross representing Christianity.  The message of the bumper sticker is to preach tolerance among the major religions. Looking at the news today, I think the message of tolerance among different faiths is sorely needed. I am thankful that we live in a nation where people are free to worship different faiths.  

 

But the sticker also bothers me too.  It feels at time that the message on the sticker is to look at faith as nothing more than a commodity, something to be consumed and used.  The people of Israel were guilty of using faith. Take a prayer here and a sacrifice there to use.  Israel didn’t have a problem with belief, it had a problem with faithfulness. There is a rush in liberal Protestantism to try to not make our faith too distinctive.  We think it would be nice if we could strip away the difference between the faiths.  If we could just get rid of the fervor, the doctrine, we could then get to the essence of every faith.

 

I’m not advocating that we become fanatics.  I think there is much to learn from other faiths, and I think we are called to be good neighbors to them.  We shouldn’t fear the mosque being built down the road or the guy who wears a turban as part of his Sikh faith.

 

But in the passage today, the message that is that we need to believe all this God-stuff. The word for belief or faith is also the same word for trust.  We put our trust in God and God alone.  The people of Israel needed to believe in not just any God, but the God that led them out of Egypt.  It was a particular God that loved them and cared for them.  

 

The cross, the symbol of Christianity, is more than just a symbol.  It is a reminder of our sin and a sign of God’s love.  It is a reminder that God passionately loves us and is willing to give up life itself.  Our faith is not just something we pick up for good luck.  It is a worldview, it is a reordering of life itself.  Faith, our faith, should change us.  

 

What bothered Elijah and God is that the Israelites no longer saw their faith as all encompassing.  It was something that could be used the thrown away when done.  To place trust in God, to believe in God and Jesus and the cross means entering a story and letting that story change us.

 

Most of the Spanish that I’ve learned, I learned by listening to my mother talking to my grandmother and my uncles.  Probably the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it.  You have to be in a place where it is used from day to day to begin to understand it and speak it.  Part of the reason that I think people who take a language class in high school forget it is because they come to the class with an English mind.  You’re standing outside the language, may be able to pick up a few words, but not to totally understand it all.  I can’t remember much of what I learned in taking Spanish in high school, but I do remember what I learned when I was 10 years old and having to talk to my grandmother in Spanish.

 

Faith is much like a language.  You might be able to get some understanding from the outside, but unless it is a part of you, unless you take in what it says, it doesn’t have much effect on your life.  

 

Faith is about believing in something, to put your trust in it.  As Christians we believe in a God that created the world, a God that came in to earth in the form of a human called Jesus, who lived with us, died and rose again to bring us closer to God.  And we believe we are called to preach the good news and care for others.  This isn’t about being nice to each other or being better people, but it’s about believing that all this church stuff matters. Coexisting is not enough.

 

Did the people understand that in Elijah?  I don’t know.  But I hope that we will. Thanks be to God. Amen.