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: The Day After

Luke 7:1-17
Mission First: Gathered Series
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
February 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

You can listen to the sermon by going here.

On November 20, 1983 a major television event took place.  It had been talked about for weeks leading up to the broadcast and in many ways seemed ripped from the major headlines of that day.  If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the the TV movie, The Day After, which talked about how a fictional war between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact turns into an all out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The film focused on the lives of people living in Kansas City, Missouri and nearby Lawrence, Kansas. The movie was probably one of the hallmarks of the 1980s.  The estimates are that over 100 million people watched the two hour movie and it gave Americans a window on what would happen if the United States came under nuclear bombardment.  This was a movie that definitely spoke to the times.  1983 was a year when the Cold War was close to being hot.  In September of 1983, the Soviets shot down a Korean airliner as it crossed Russian airspace. Only a few weeks before the broadcast, NATO held a war game that the Soviets initially thought was an attack. That peak into the apopcalyspe also had an impression in Washington.  The Day After was screened in the White House on November 5, 1983.  President Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary after seeing the film that it left him “greatly depressed” and that it was “very effective.”  Reagan also said that it changed his mind on the prevailing view of nuclear war.  When an Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty was signed with the Soviets four years later, Reagan said The Day After made a difference.

dayafter-png-crop-promo-xlarge2It was a memorable event for a lot of people, except me.  You see, I didn’t watch the film. I couldn’t.  I couldn’t watch the film because week or two before I was watching 60 Minutes which was doing a piece on the upcoming film.  It showed a clip that lasted maybe a minutes or two and it was enough to scare me.  It showed people in Kansas City running in panic as the missles near the city. A man is in his car listen to the radio which was carrying the Emergency Broadcast when the bomb hits and you see the sky turn an ugly orange with a mushroom cloud just down the road.  

That clip was enough for me.  As a young kid living during the “warm” part of the Cold War in the early 80s, this was all too real for me.  The fear of a nuclear war kept me from sleep for a few nights after watch that clip.  

Stories about the apocalypse always leave me with my stomach in knots.  It doesn’t matter if the method is nuclear war, or a lethal virus, the breakdown of society and mass death leave me unsettled.  It is a sign of life out of control and with no sign of hope.

In our two texts today, two people are dealing with their own little apocalypse.  In one story, a Roman soldier is dealing the illness of a loyal servant who is near death.  In another story a widow is getting ready to bury her only son leaving her defensless in the world.  In both cases, Jesus comes and brings healing, show that God has authority even over death and we are given a taste of what it will be like when death is no more.

But let me back up a second.  A few weeks ago, we talked about Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth.  He gets the crowd into a frenzy when tells them the stories of the Widow of Zarapath whose son was restored to life and the healing of Naaman the Syrian general.  They didn’t like that he was willing to heal the enemy in the same way he healed his fellow Jews.  But here in this passage it seems like these two stories are being updated in real life.  Jesus meets some people who are coming on behalf of a Roman general.  This man was a good man that had even built the local synogogue.  Most invading armies wouldn’t have such caring military officers and to see one of the hated Roman actually doing good was surprising.  Jesus heads in the direction to the centurion’s when another group of friends come and tell him to not come and see him.  The centurion didn’t feel worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.  We don’t know why he feels this way, but he does.  Notice that the first set of friends tell Jesus he should heal this man’s servant because he has done a good thing.  And then notice that the centurion didn’t believe he was worthy to be in the presence of Jesus, but asked that Jesus just say the word and heal his servant.  Jesus was amazed at his faith and healed the servant.

This acts shows that Jesus has authority over all, even death and even from this solder from an occupying army.  

Now the second story.  Jesus is coming to a town called Nain where he sees a funeral procession. He learns that this is a young man who was the only child of a widow.  In this ancient culture, having a husband or a son was insurance to take care of you.  But now she has lost both ways of having security.  Jesus has compassion for this woman and brings this young man back to life.

This woman had lost everything and now Jesus had given this widow her son again.  

But there is a fly in the ointment when it comes to both of these tales.  The widow’s son was going to die.  Maybe not that day, but someday.  Same goes for the centurion’s servant.  When they say that the only thing constant is death and taxes, they weren’t joking.  Death was still going to come for them.

So what is the point here?  

On this side of heaven, people die.  But what these stories show is that in Christ, these deaths are not meaningless.  Death wins for the time being, but it is under Christ which means that death will not always get the trophy.  In funerals, we pastors are to preach of the coming resurrection when the dead in Christ are raised. We believe there will be a day when those that have died will be raised and death will be defeated.  We have hope that death is not a final word, but more like an ellipsis.  

As Christians, we will still faith death.  I wish that weren’t so, but it is.  If even Jesus couldn’t escape death.  While the young man had received a second chance at life, we all knew one day he would still die.  But Jesus resurrection, that which we preacher preach about at funerals, tells us what is no ahead of us.  In Christ being raised from dead, we know death is not the end.  Widows and generals will cry for now, but it is only for a time.  Death will be defeated.

It’s been interesting to start hearing from folk the same talk and fears about nuclear war.  After several years of not worrying about such a fear, it has crept back into conversation, with people afraid that our nation, our world will face a literal trial by fire.

Such talk always still leaves me nervous.  I still think I’m too beautiful to die, at least right now.  But there is not much I can do other than know that I am loved by God, that in Christ death is not the end and stand in the hope that death will not always have the last word.

It’s been thirty years since The Day After first aired and I still haven’t seen the movie and probably never will.  But I do give thanks that no matter what happens in life and in death, Jesus has shown us a taste of the kingdom where death will be defeated.  And that makes me sleep much better.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Create Joy

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

Listen to the sermon by using the player below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world aint suppose to work like this.

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

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

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

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

The world aint suppose to work like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Fight the Power”

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

Listen to the sermon podcast.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

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

Listen to the Sermon.

 

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

It could have been me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Sanctuary

Romans 11:1-2 and 13-24
Fifth  Sunday After Pentecost
June 19, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

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I was in track in high school.  We would have practice after school and I remember going into the locker room to change.  Everytime I would pass by a training room that was for people who had injuries.  It always seemed to be filled with people who were messing around and having fun.  Being a shy person, I never went in.  Anyway, it was a room for people with injuries, not for people to hang out.

 

But one afternoon, I decided to go in and just hang.  I walked in and hopped up on one of the tables to sit down. What I didn’t realize is that it was the wrong time to be there.  One of the coaches was wrapping the leg of student’s leg and he looked up at me with a look of shock and annoyance.  “What are you doing here?” he growled.  Realizing that I had made a mistake, I tried to answer and I couldn’t remember what I said.  What I remember is the coach angrily pointing at the door and telling me to leave.  I wasn’t welcome there.  I left with a heavy sense of shame. I still wonder how those other students were able to hang out there, but I wasn’t.  All I knew, is that I wasn’t allowed there and I never went back into that room ever again.

 

We all want to be in a place where we feel welcomed.  We want to be in a place where we can be ourselves.  We want to be in a place where we feel safe.  We all long for safe spaces where we don’t have to worry if we will be accepted. Safe spaces have gotten a lot of ribbing over the past year, and sometimes for good reasons- people have talked about safe spaces as place where they don’t have to meet with people who disagree with them.  But we were reminded this week that there is a need for real safe spaces to protect people from real harm.  But we have also learned that sometimes even safe spaces can be compromised- invaded.

 

In all the discussion last week about the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, one world kept coming to the fore over and over- sanctuary.  We know sanctuary as a place in a church where we worship, but over the centuries, sanctuary has come to also mean a place of safety.  It’s not accident that church sanctuaries have become sanctuaries where people who faced persecution could enter and be safe from a hostile culture.

 

Gay bars have long been places of safety for the LBGT community.  They were places where gay people could go to be themselves and not have to face stares from a less than accepting world.  In a world where people had to keep parts of their lives private, a nightclub was a place of safety.  I read a number of stories of the last week about how a certain bar was a place of shelter and a place where they no longer had to hide.  Those stories were also my story.  I don’t drink much, but I did like to go to gay nightclubs when I was younger to dance.  It was a place of safety where you could meet other people like yourself.  

 

The Pulse nightclub in Orlando was a sanctuary for sanctuary for a subset of the gay community.  It was Latin night last week, and this was a place where LGBT Latinos could come and gather.  It is still a challenge to be gay in America, but even more so to be gay and a person of color.  One of the things that struck me personally, was seeing the listing of names and seeing how many of them were Latino.  Even more heartbreaking and striking close to home was that the majority of the victim were Puerto Rican.  So the shooting was a double attack to me since I am gay and Puerto Rican.  The sanctuary that was created there that evening was broken by the actions of an angry man.

 

This week is also the one year anniversary of the shootings at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.  For centuries, the church has been a sanctuary for African Americans, a place where they knew there were loved and accepted, even when the wider culture did not honor their full humanity.  But that sense of saftety was shattered on that June evening, when a young white man who was welcomed to join those gathered in Bible Study pulled out a gun and started shooting, killing nine people.

 

The world we live in is not a safe one.  We kid ourselves if think it ever was safe.  We live in a world of sinful people who seem to hurt others for whatever reason.  It is a human reaction to this that we want to find a place that is a shelter, a place where we are accepted.  It is also a human reaction to threaten those who are different from us, which is why places of sanctuary can be compromised and invaded.

In chapter 11 of Romans, Paul is trying to answer a question.  Many Jews had rejected following God and Christ especially.  Paul opens us the chapter by saying that God had not given up on God’s chosen people: Paul was a Jew, so God was still being faithful even to a remnant of the Jews. God had been in relationship with Israel far too long to just give up.  Israel might have chosen to give up on God, but God had not given up on them.  

 

Paul then turns to the Gentiles.  He talks about them as branches being grafted on to the tree. The Israelities were God’s chosen people, but the Gentiles were now being added on.  Again, God doesn’t give up on them.

 

Paul reminds us that no one, no one is disposable.  God wants everyone to belong.  God doesn’t give up on us…and as church neither should we.

 

This week tells us that no sanctuary is ever safe.  As one writer said even Christ, the son of God was put to death, so every safe space is always threatened.  But even when a physical sanctuary has been destroyed, God can create a sanctuary of the heart, a place where we know we are loved by God.  

 

The message for the church this week is that we, you and I must be willing to be sanctuaries for others.  As I’ve said before, LGBT folk need to have places where they are loved and accepted, a place where they are free from fear.  While there will always be a need for physical places of safety, all of us, you and I need to be living sanctuaries to people, especially LGBT persons and persons of color- because for us, the world is even after all the advances made we need to be a people who are willing to care for others, especially those who might be different from us.  

 

The theme for this summer is “A House of Grace.”  The question I have for you this morning is how can we show God’s grace to those that sometimes feel like outsiders? How do we tell them that God loves them?  It’s nice to be an Open and Affirming congregation that welcomes people of different backgrounds, but it is even more important that we live that out in our daily lives to make what was written on paper a living reality.

 

I want to end by saying that being a living sanctuary doesn’t mean agreeing with people; it means having a Christ-like heart to those in need.  In the hours after the shootings in Orlando, I was checking my Twitter feed and saw a tweet from Russell Moore.  Moore is a Southern Baptist minister and is the head of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention.  Southern Baptists tend to have differing views on LGBT issues, so one might expect a not-so-nice tweet from Dr. Moore.  Instead he tweeted the following: “Christian, your gay or lesbian neighbor is probably really scared right now. Whatever our genuine disagreements, let’s love and pray.”

 

Now, one could quibble that he wasn’t in agreement on LGBT issues, but I don’t think that’s the point here.  The point was that in the midst of the sadness there was a little safe space made, a place of sanctuary.

 

The other example is the story of a local Chick-fil-A restaurant in Orlando.  It opened up on a Sunday to feed people who had lined up for blocks to donate blood to those injured in the shooting.  Chick-fil-A never opens on a Sunday, because of the religious views of the founders, but it did this day to feed people who were giving blood to another group of people who were deemed by the world as outsiders.  A bit of sanctuary.

 

Next week, our church along with First Christian of Minneapolis will staff a booth at Twin Cities Pride.  A lot of people attending that event will be angry and hurt and scared.  Are you willing to offer a few hours of time to be living sanctuary for these people, to let them know that God has not given up on them?

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.