Sermon: SyrophonecianLivesMatter

The following was preached in 2015.

Mark 7:24-37
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 5, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

When I was in high school I was cross country for two years.  I enjoyed running, but I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world.  I was less a gazelle than I was a gazelle that was limping.  Anyway, this mean that I was usually more often than not, I was in the back of the pack, a long way of saying I was dead last.  

canaaniteSo one day after school, we went meet in Swartz Creek, a small town about 10 miles from my home town of Flint.  My school was going up against Swartz Creek high.  The race starts and as usual, I was last.  We were running at a local park and some of the route circled back on itself.  I’m running probably thinking when is this hell going to end, when I started hearing voices.  Off toward the side a number of white teens, not much older than me had gathered.  I realized that the voices were directed at me and they weren’t nice.  I heard the word “nigger” more than once, as well as references to me liking watermelon.  I was shocked by the language, but I kept on running.  When I made a second pass, the voices started up again with the young men hurling racial slurs again.  It was at this time, that I saw a lanky African American running towards the boys.  It was Troy,a senior and the only other African American on the team.  He had finished his race and must have seen me being harassed.  I learned that Troy stopped at a distance and just stared at them.  It did the trick, because the boys left.

As I crossed the finish line, last, of course.  It was there that a number of the parents of my teammates asked if I was okay.  I said yes, and I was okay.  I’ve known since I was a kid that people would look at me differently because of the color of my skin.  That said, I had never been called “nigger’ before.   Having that hurled at you is something you don’t easily forget and I haven’t.  It’s been a little over 32 years since that happened and it still feels like yesterday.

When something like that happens, it sends a message: that you aren’t welcomed in these parts.  I don’t think the entire town of Swartz Creek is out to get black people.  I think there were good people in that town in 1983 and even more so in 2015.  But those boys had learned from someone that people who look like me were not welcomed in this town.  

In this past year, we have heard a lot about an issue that we had hoped was becoming less of a concern and that the issue of race.   Several high profile events have taken place between African Americans and white policemen.  In June we were shaken by the deaths of nine people inside of a historic African American church, by a white man that they had welcomed to join them in a Bible Study.  It seems that even though we have an African American is president, we have more African Americans in positions of power, even though all the whites only or coloreds only signs have been taken down, racism is still an issue; African Americans are still being held back.

When we started hearing about the situation in Ferguson, MO a phrase started to catch on.  It started as a Twitter hashtag and then it became a phrase all on its own. That phrase is “Black Lives Matter.”  Some people don’t like that phrase, thinking it excludes others.  But the phrase isn’t around to say that white lives or Asian lives or Native lives are not as important.  Instead it is the lifting up of an uncomfortable truth: that even with all the advances that we as a nation have made in the last 50 years when it comes to race, still doesn’t value black people as much as others.  If you don’t believe me, let me share this story from earlier this summer.  A pool party was taken place in McAllen, Texas a suburb of Dallas.  Someone called the police and they came.  Now the pool party was a mixed affair with black and white teens partying together.  BUt when the cops came, they only went for the black children.  There is an image that went viral where a white police officer grabbed a young African American girl in a bikini, threw her to the ground and placed a gun to her head.  The officer in question was fired from the police force, but there it was in black and white, blacks lives didn’t mean much.  The cop probably wasn’t consciously racist, but something in his unconscious saw this young girl in a bikini as a potential threat.

I think some of the reason for the pushback against “Black Lives Matter” is that no one wants to see themselves as a racist.  We all have the image of the guy in the bedsheet or the racist southern cop.  People know they aren’t like that.  But they don’t want to face that they have something that all of us have regardless of race: an unconscious bias towards people like us and a distrust of people who are “other.” And right now that unconscious bias is leading towards the harassment of African Americans by people who have sworn to protect all people.

Just like it’s hard for people to confront their own biases, today’s text is a challenging one for us because it causes us to see Jesus in a different way.  We have learned that Jesus never sinned.  We see Jesus as someone who welcomed the outcasts.  Jesus is the guy that broke barriers.  Jesus is the model of what it means to be tolerant and loving towards all. The Jesus we see here, smashes every preconception about Jesus we’ve had.

Jesus was in the region of Tyre and he was trying to keep a low profile. You would think he would know that being the Son of God meant that he wasn’t able to ever be incognito.  A woman from the area had heard about this Jesus and she believed he could heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.  She comes and asks Jesus to heal her daughter.

This is where the story gets interesting.  Jesus refers to her as a dog.  Some have said that his calling her a dog was really calling her a cute puppy, or that Jesus was testing the woman.  But both of these have problems. Dogs were not the pets we see in 21st century America.  In many of the cultures of the day, dogs were basically vermin.  Others have said the Jesus was testing the woman, to see if she really believed.  But Jesus doesn’t do that anywhere else in the Bible and that would just seem mean.  “Hi, you’re daughter’s ill? Sure, I can heal her, but first let me ask you this question!”  I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t do that.

Which leaves us with the last explanation standing: that Jesus really did mean to call her a dog and didn’t want to heal this woman’s daughter. Now that’s hard to hear. We are told Jesus never sinned and well, here it is.  Why was Jesus being so prejudiced?

The thing is, we won’t ever totally know why.  Some think Jesus didn’t yet understand that this message of salvation is for all.  But what was interesting here is not just what Jesus said, but what the woman said in response.  She believed that Jesus could heal her daughter.  She had heard the stories and believed that Jesus could expel the demon and she wasn’t going to let Jesus stand in her way.  She believed in Christ even when it seemed Christ didn’t believe in her.

“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said. “ Even if you don’t think much of us, Lord, we still want some healing from you and we believe you will do it. I matter. My daughter matters.”

It was this woman’s faith that healed her daughter.  Jesus was astounded by the woman’s faith and tells her that her daughter is healed and when the woman got home, she saw that the demon had left her daughter.  

Most of us don’t like to think that we have a bias.  White people don’t want to think they have biases against black people; straight people don’t want to think they have a bias against gay people; Americans don’t want to think they have biases against foreigners. We don’t want to think we only like certain people and are suspicious against others, even though that has been an issue since time began. We want to believe that all of our problems with race or diversity or gender were settled a long time ago. We want to believe we would welcome anyone into our homes or churches, when in reality we can be hestitant to welcome others not like us.

Which is why it’s a challenge for Christians to read this passage.  We want to see Jesus in a perfect light and if Jesus isn’t perfect, then it stands that we have some problems as well.

But Jesus who is both fully human and fully divine reminds us that we are not that innocent.  If Jesus, the Son of God has a bias, then so do we.  We are not more perfect than Jesus.

I was reading a story last night about how some of the most politically progressive cities, places like Madison, Austin, Portland, San Francisco and our own Minneapolis are places where people of color live segregated lives apart from their white neighbors.  Many of these places have folks who are on the “right” side of issues and think that race is a problem for conservatives or those folk in the South.  There is no problem here.  I’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and I can tell you: y’all have a problem.  Lots of African Americans are locked out of the thriving economy here and they face harsh treatment from the cops. Their children face more suspension and expulsion than their white counterparts for similar offenses.  But in the same way we don’t want to talk about a faulty and prejudiced Jesus, we don’t want to talk about the ways we can unconsciously make life for persons of color harsh in so-called progressive cities.

The amazing thing about the Syrophoenician woman was her faith. She believed that her daughter was going to be healed in spite of Jesus words.  Maybe she heard the stories of how God defeated Pharaoh or something.  She just knew God would heal her daughter.

And so it is with us.  We believe in a God that can heal us of our biases.  We believe in a God that does smash barriers and we believe in a God that will smash the barriers in our hearts so that we can work for God’s reconciliation in the world.  

I don’t know why Jesus tried to ignore this woman anymore than I understand why those kids taunted me all those years ago.  What I do know is that God shows up to bring healing, sometimes in a woman who believes Jesus can heal her daughter, or in a lanky runner coming to the aid of a fellow runner.  God is a God that works towards healing.  Are we ready to join God? Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Sermon: How Many Lights Do You See?

Acts 2:37-42
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sacraments Series
August 13, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon here.

The 'Unite the Right' rally in CharlottesvilleGood science fiction should be able to talk about a present issue dressed in futuristic garb. Star Trek has been able to do that for most of its 50 years of existence.  There is an episode in the sixth season of Star Trek: the Next Generation, where the captain of the Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the Cardassians, a humanoid race that had uneasy relations with the Federation.

He is taken to an interrogator named Madred.  Madred is adpet in the uses or torture and manipulation and it is used to its bone chilling intent in this episode.  He uses physical torture, but Madred also used tricks of the mind to get a prisioner to break and that is what he wanted to do to Picard, to break his will.  Early in the episode, Picard meets with Madred and the interrogator calmly asks him to look up to the lights in the celing.  “Tell me, Picard,” Madred says.  “How many lights are there?”  

Picard is confused, because it was quite obvious that there were four lights.  So, he answered that there were four lights.  It was the wrong answer.  There were five lights. Madred sends him back for more torture.  This wicked game happens again and again.  Towards the end of the episode, he is asked one more time how many lights there are. Picard by this time was beaten and battered and it looked like he was going to comply with Madred and tell him there are five lights, to admit that he had been broken by Madred.  But just as Picard is going to say something, the session is interuppted; the base where Picard was had recieved word that he was free to go.  Picard stands up ready to be head out of the room and away from his captor.  Then he stops and turns around. He looks at Madred with fury and states in a loud voice, “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!” and then leaves.  

Later when Picard is aboard the Enterprise, he confides in Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor that he was so beaten and broken that to make the pain stop, he was willing to say there were five lights.  

Today we are going to talk about baptism and we will be doing it this week and next.  We will focus on the story of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down and set upon the heads of Jesus’ disciples.

When people around them started to question them, Peter tells the crowd about Jesus. He tells them about how Jesus was put to death and is now raised from the dead.  The people knew about Jesus, but they saw him as someone the Romans put to death.  It was another troublemaker that was stamped out by the Romans.  But Peter tells them that this was not the whole story.  He starts by sharing a passage from the prophet Joel and links that to Jesus.  Peter tells them God’s redemption story and that leads the people to ask what needs to be done.  

They had one view of things, but now there was a different view.  Where they might have seen themselves as if nothing was wrong, now see they are in need of help.  Peter tells them to change their ways and be baptized as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness of sins or salvation of creation.

We think of baptism as an act that takes place with a little or a lot of water and it is that.  But in many ways, baptism is a break from the reality we knew into something very different.  Those first converts had a certain view of life that they grew up with.  They thought they knew who Jesus was, but Peter shares with them a radically different view, one that actually pricked their hearts. Peter had shared with them something different and baptism was the sign that something had changed, someone had changed them.

But the thing is, those first converts all the way up until today, are sometimes charmed by other voices.  Those voices tell us that 2 and 2 isn’t four, but five or they tell us that there are five lights instead of four.  There are always people who lure us away from God’s truth who are able to alter reality into something else that seeks to separate from God. As 1 Peter 5:8 states, “ Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

As I was reading social media and the news sites yesterday regarding the goings on in Charlottesville, it’s easy to see how we can believe a lie.  For whatever reason, the people waving those torches this weekend were decieved into believing that there are acceptable people based on skin color and race.  Yes, the distrubing pictures of angry white faces are people who have given into evil, but they are also faces of those that have been tricked into thinking that their belief system will bring them salvation, when all it will give them is damnation.

Baptism isn’t something that we do to get on God’s good side.  It is something that happens because of what God has done.  God chose to love humanity despite the many ways we broke God’s heart.  God became human in Jesus in and in Jesus lived and suffered and died seeking to do God’s will in the world.

While baptism is something we do for God, it is something that should change us.  Peter called for his listeners to repent, to turn around from their ways of doing things and live into the new reality that they have been introduced into.  Knowing Jesus from a different standpoint meant seeing life, our life from a different standpoint.  Repentance and baptism meant that these new Christ followers spent their days in the temple worshipping, sharing with each, especially when one had need.  Later they were the ones that cared for people who were ill, at time when others would leave people to die.  Repentance changed a slaveowner named John Newton to give up his old life and end up writing one of the most well known hymns, “Amazing Grace.”

How has baptism changed us?  How do we see life differently?  

In most baptismal liturgies, there is the following phrase that takes place as the child or adult is being baptized.  It is part of that person’s baptismal vows. This is one example that is used in Disciple congregations and it goes like this:

Do you renounce evil, repent of your sins, and turn to Christ?
I do.
Do you confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and
do you accept and proclaim him to be Lord and Savior of the world?
I do.

The Methodists are bit more verbose on this and I want to share it as well:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?
I do.
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.
Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

At this time in our nation’s history and in light of this weekend’s actions, I don’t have answers into how we should respond.  I’m not here to give a firery sermon.  But I am here to remind you of our baptismal vows.  Let us learn to renounce evil, or as some versions state, the wiles of the devil.  Let us be focused on living for Jesus, to living life in a different way and guard ourselves against the sirens that seek to lure us away as it has those white protestors in Virginia.  And let us live our vows that call us to resist evil, and battle injustice and oppression. Let us confess who we are and whose we are.  May we be a living witness of God’s love and share that love with others.

How many lights do you see?  Don’t let the devil trick you.  See the reality around you and live it out in a world that so needs to see it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

Galatians 1:13-17; 2:15-21 and Luke 18:9-14
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Losing My Religion Sermon Series
May 21, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio.

It’s been about two years since our congregation voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we openly welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered persons into the life of our church.  I think that’s a good thing, but over the years even long before our vote, I’ve been wondering about the quality of the pro-inclusion argument.  Whenever I’ve seen people argue in favor of LGBT inclusion, the main thrust goes like this: Jesus hung around undesirable and marginalized people and so should we.  

 

I get what this message is trying to say, but it feels sort of a flippant answer and not really delving into the question.  Too often, people cherry pick Scripture to find some verse on inclusion and maybe throw in that the rest of society is more accepting of gays and so should we.  But the thing is, it really doesn’t answer the deep questions that issues like this bring up.  Who belongs to God?  And why?  How are we accepted by God?

 

In today’s text, Paul is teed off.  Something is taking place that has hurt the Gentiles who came into the faith.  A leading founder of the church was exhibiting a two-faced behavior.  A delegation from Jerusalem is stirring up dissention.  Paul has to say something to put things right.

 

The problem here is similar to what we talked about last week.  A group of Jewish Christians have come to Antioch to persist that any Gentile Christian must be circumcised to be part of the faith. In some way they are being pushed by events in Jerusalem.  A nationalist movement is coming to fore in Jerusalem and demanding people follow a strict interpretation of the law.  This group is causing trouble especially with the church which had started welcoming Gentiles.  Peter who was in Antioch, knew what was going on back home. He had made it a habit to eat meals with the Gentile Christians.  Eating a meal with someone is a sign of a close relationship.  When, Peter sees these Jews from Jerusalem urging for purity, Peter decides to stop eating with the Gentiles.  Peter probably believed he was doing this to keep the Jewish Christians back home safe from persecution.  But he did it at the expense of the Gentiles who now made to feel like second-class Christians.

 

Paul is seeing all of this and he is mad and calls Peter out.  He rails against what Peter has done and how it led to other Jews to engage in the same hypocrisy.  This is when Paul goes into sharing what really matters in the faith.

 

Now in the past, this passage has been seen in a very simplistic terms.  Pastors tend to see this as Paul repudiating the Torah and saying that all we need is to just believe in Jesus.  In this view, it sets up Judiaism is the wrong faith and that Christianity is the good faith.  But at this point, the church was still a sect within Judaism. Paul and Peter and others didn’t see themselves as starting a new church, but probably more as reforming Judaism.  Paul’s words in chapter one shows he was a faithful Jew and didn’t see himself as leaving the faith.

 

So Paul isn’t arguing for a new faith, but and expansion of the old faith.  Paul is talking about covenant.  If you can remember way, way back to last September, God establishe a covenant with Abraham and the whole Jewish people.  God and Israel would be in a covenant relationship.  So in this way, the covenant was focused on one specific people, the Jews and these Jews would perform works like circumcision. These works were not done to please God, but were a sign to show that they belong to God.  So when Paul says in chapter 2, verse 16 that righteousness doesn’t come by following the law, but faith in Christ, he is not saying what you think he is saying.  The law was a way to mark you as a Jew.  But Christ’s death on cross means that this mark is no longer needed.  Righteousness was no longer limited to nationality, but was for everyone.  

 

When Paul talks about faith, it is again tempting to believe this is about mental assent.  If you really believe in Jesus, then you’re in.  Believing in Jesus matters, but the real nugget is what Jesus has done, not what we have done.  Yes, we should believe, but it is not about beliving in Jesus as much as it is to realize that God in Christ has already done the work.

 

Paul is talking about freedom.  We are not bound to a covenant that is only for one group, but a covenant for everyone. We are not bound to believe enough in Jesus to be saved, but realize that we are saved by God’s actions through Jesus on the cross.

This is why Galatians is called a book about freedom.  We are freed from the different barriers to be able to live as community who realizes it is free in Christ.

 

So, if I was going to talk about LGBT inclusion today, I would say something like this:  they don’t have to give up their sexuality in order to show they belong to God.  Instead, they are free by faith, not mental assent, but realizing that God has already done the work to make them, to make me belong because of what was done on a cross on a hill a long time ago.  Inclusion in Christian terms is not about trying to be hip or trendy or being on the right side of history.  It is about knowing that we, all of us are free. It is knowing and trusting that God has done the work of inclusion because of the work done on the cross.  This is why we are Open and Affirming.  

 

Our second text from Luke, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You see how the Pharisee comes before God.  He stresses he has done all the things that show that he was a faithful Jew.  Then we see of the Publican or the Tax Collector.  He doesn’t really want to be there.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven and pleads for mercy.  If you remember, tax collectors were not seen as upstanding people because of their work with the Romans and because they could rip people off.  The publican can only rely on the grace of God.  Unlike the Pharisee, he couldn’t talk about all that he had done.  He knew he didn’t have anything that could make him righteous accept the mercy of God.

 

In a few weeks, we will be gathered at Loring Park in Minneapolis with our fellow Disciples churches, First Christian-Minneapolis and Plymouth Creek Christian Church.  We go there not to show how hip or “woke” we are, but to witness to a God that loves all of us, that God became like us and died on a cross for us.  Because of this means everyone is welcome.  I am welcomed, you are welcomed because we place our trust in God and we share that good news with others.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Eucatastrophe!

Luke 24:1-12
Easter Sunday
April 16, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

I think people have a hard time accepting Easter.

 

People can get Good Friday.  We can get that good people get executed by the State, by religious leaders.  We’ve seen social reformers like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who challenge the status quo and meet a horrible end.  

 

We know how the world works.  People rise up to challenge the system, people who preach peace and equality.  The ruling authorities and their backers are scared to death of such change and are ready to find some time someplace, to get rid of this guy.  

 

That was the modus operandi for the movie Meet John Doe, a 1941 movie directed by Frank Capra.  A journalist makes up a person called John Doe who talks about what is wrong with contemporary society.  When the article is a smash, the publisher and the reporter have to find someone that can be John Doe and they find someone.  More articles are written and after a while a nationwide movement is born.  John Willowby, the guy that comes to be JOhn Doe comes to realize that the publisher is looking to use the movement to create a new political party and bring him to power.  When JOhn Doe finds out, the publisher outs Willowby and he is brought down.  

 

Or maybe it’s like Network, the 1976 movie where an angry newsman about to fired goes on a major rant about what’s wrong in society and becomes a massive ratings hit.  He’s not fired and instead becomes a media sensation with his own TV show..  But then he said things that started to make people uncomfortable and his ratings slide.  His show is “cancelled” when a terrorist group assassinated him live on air.

 

So we know this story.  People are always coming up and challenging the way things are and the Man or the Empire or what have you cuts the new movement off at the kneecaps.

 

We’ve become so used to this story that it has filtered into our own understanding of the Christian faith.  There are many people who believe what is said about Jesus.  They believe he cared for the poor and the least of these.  They believe he called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders.  They believe he had no time for the despots who ruled Judea.  They can easily believe that these forces came together and were able to persuade a frustrated follower to rat Jesus out and get him arrested.  They can believe that Jesus is then given a show trial and is then tortured by the authorities.  They can believe he was crucified on a cross, because that’s what happen to people who challenge the system.  What they have trouble believing is that Christ rose from the dead.  No one comes back from death.  So, to make things not a total loss they say the disciples finally got what Jesus was trying to say.  This was the resurrection.  But that seems a bit hollow to me.  It’s making the best out of a bad situation, but it isn’t gospel, it isn’t good news.

 

The women who were walking to Jesus tomb that morning were not kidding themselves.  They were going to the tomb to prepare the body for a proper burial. When they get there, they find the stone rolled away.  In some versions of the story, there is a fear that the body has been stolen.  That had to be in the minds of the women that morning.  What was going on?  It was then that two men appear from nowhere.  They tell the women straight: “Why in the world are you looking for the living among the dead?  He isn’t here; he’s risen!  Remember what he told you in Galilee?”

 

You can see the women looking at each other.  They remember Jesus told them this-more than once- but they didn’t pay much attention.  They thought Jesus was being overly dramatic, because no one can rise from the dead, can they?

 

The women leave the tomb and head back to the room where the apostles are.  They tell them this wild story and the disciples didn’t believe them. The text says the words of the women seemed like nonsense.  Because again, no one comes back from the dead.

 

Or can they?

 

Peter started to wonder.  What if the words Jesus said were actually true.  After a while, he got up and went to the tomb.  Everything is there just as the women had said. He is still unsure of what has happened.  All he knows is something has happened.

 

As Christians we believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  It’s hard for people to understand that concept.  None of the writers of the gospels really could put the event into words.  They could tell people that something happened and they believe it did happen, but it was hard to understand.

 

The resurrection of Jesus, where Jesus come back from the dead and leaves the tomb is hard for people to understand.  It goes against the laws of physics.  But something happened.  In a time when it seemed like hope had died again, something happened that changes the entire world.

 

Theologian N.T. Wright has a new book out called, The Day the Revolution Began.”  In it, he takes on the old belief that Jesus came to die for our sins and appease an angry God.  Wright looks at this from the standpoint of the gospel writers and sees a bigger plan.  Jesus did come and did forgive our sins, but there is more here that happens. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God’s power, God’s rule was usurped.  Jesus comes to overthrow the powers that had come to rule in the world.  Jesus’ death was a trojan horse, a way to make people think God is truly dead and evil has won.  But on Easter morning, Jesus rose to show that the battle has been won.  Yes, there is still death and evil and sadness.  But defeating death by being resurrected means that the evil powers days are numbered.  Because Jesus lives, everything has changed and we can live knowing that the victory has been won.  That is what gives people hope to change things now.  I briefly talked about a story involving Desmond Tutu last week.  

 

During the high point of the anti-apartheid movement in the 80s, Tutu was in a church that was filled to capacity.  Tutu knew there were undercover cops present.  Tutu playfully calls them out tells them that their side, the regime that divided people by race was destined to lose.  They might as well join the winning side.  Only someone who believes that Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil can be that bold.  

 

There is a world to describe what happened that Sunday morning.  It’s called Eucatastrophe.  The word comes from J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings.  It’s the mixture of the Greek prefix eu which means good, and the word catastrophe.  It means the sudden turn of events that ensures the protagonist doesn’t mean a bad end.  Tolkien saw this in religious terms seeing the Resurrection as the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation of Jesus.  The best example in Tolkien’s words is during the climax of Lord of the Rings.  It looks like Sauron, the bad guy is going to win, but then Gollum falls to his doom with the One Ring, bringing down Sauron.

 

The Resurrection is a eucatastrophe.  Just when we think the powers are for certain going to lose, something happens.  Jesus is alive and the powers are defeated, the just don’t know it yet.

 

On Friday, some of you might have read a poem I shared with you and I want to say it here again because it describes this eucatastrophic moment when things turn around or will turn around.  It is by a colleague of mine, Kara Root who pastors a church in Minneapolis.  This is the poem:

 

I need the Resurrection

because my sister is sick

and can’t afford insurance,

because I’ve told a weeping Haitian mom,

“No, I can’t take your son home with me.”

because I’ve been rushed off a Jerusalem street

so a robot could blow up a bag that could’ve blown up us.

because I’ve exploded

in rage

and watched their tiny faces cloud with hurt.

because evil is pervasive

and I participate.

I need the Resurrection

because it promises

that in the end

all wrongs are made right.

Death loses.

Hope triumphs.

And Life and Love

Prevail.

 

The resurrection is real.  I don’t know how it happened, but it did happen.  And it has changed our lives.

 

The first of many standalone tales in the Star Wars franchise came out last December.  Rogue One is the story of how the Rebels got the plans to destroy the death star.  It is not a happy movie because this is truly the movie where every main character dies.  The mission was a success, but those who gave their lives to get the plans did not live to see the results.  But in the midst of sadness, the main character says something profound.  Rebellions are built on hope.  Hope becomes the theme of this film even though there is so much death.  At the end of the movie the plans are given to Princess Leia who of course is the person who has the plans at the beginning of the original Star Wars 40 years ago.  A CGI version of the late Carrie Fisher takes the plans as an underling wonders what good could these plans bring.  She ends the movie with one word. Hope.

 

Eucatastrophe is hope.  It is believing that death and evil will not win and will never win.  It may come at a cost, but the world will be set to right.  

 

So, as we head towards Easter dinners let’s remember what this day is about at the end, what it was for the women and the disciples.  Hope.  Something that can change the world for the better. Christ is Risen.  Amen.

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.

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.