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.

Sermon: “In the Meantime”

Acts 1:1-14
Second Sunday of Easter
April 3, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon.

martin-luther-kings-last-speechWhen I was about seven or eight I would start to think about the year 2000 and what life would be like then.  I remember figuring out how old I and my parents would be when we entered the 21st century. I was going to be 30 years old.  Looking from the late 1970s and early 80s, that seemed so long away.  I couldn’t imagine being an adult, especially an adult of such an age.

Of course I am speaking to you on the other side of the year 2000, sixteen years to be exact.  Thirty doesn’t seem so old when you’re 46.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not wondering about the future.  When I opened up my IRA account, I picked one of the date specific accounts.  I picked the 2034 fund which is the year I turn 65.  That seems a long way off, but we’ve played this game before.

When I was a child, and looking at the future, the year 2000 felt like an eternity.  In the meantime, I lived my life. I went to high school in 1983. In 1987, I graduated. I went to college and then moved to Washington, DC  in 1992 for a few years. I moved to Minnesota in 1996 and started seminary in 1997.  I went on my first trip to Europe in 1998 and then China in 1999.  Before I knew it, I was there, the year 2000 was a reality.  While I was waiting for this big date to happen, I still had things to do; to go to school or to work; to meet new friends and loves, to move to new places, to travel around the world.  I didn’t just sit there waiting for this magical date, life had to happen.

In our text today, we see Jesus giving a final talk to his disciples.  He had risen from the dead and now was ending his ministry.  He tells them to stay in Jerusalem until God provides a special gift to them.

Now, you have to wonder if the disciples were a little bit nervous when they heard that.  This is only mere days since the religious leaders and the Roman leadership had arrested Jesus and put him to death.  Would the leaders come after them as well?  They might have been tempted to hit the road and find a safer place.

When Jesus is done talking, one of them asks if he will restore the kingdom of Israel.  This text makes the disciples look like fools, at least at first glance.  Here Jesus was talking about big things, and they are concerned about getting rid of the Romans.

But maybe we are judging the disciples a bit to harshly.  If Jesus was telling them to wait, they had to wonder: wait for what?  Maybe this meant that Jesus was going to do something to remove the Romans.  They were waiting for something, but it was the wrong something. Jesus wasn’t telling them to wait for revolution, but to wait for something else. Instead they were to wait for some power, something that would spread beyond Jerusalem.

But before they could ask for clarification, Jesus is taken up and out of their sight.  It’s then when two young men tells them to stop looking up.  Jesus will return, but you have work to do. You will wait, but things have to be done.

When read the last three verses of our passage, what we learn is that they went back to town and devoted themselves to prayer.  They didn’t just mope in their rented room, but began to prepare for what God had instore for them next. We find that out in chapter 2 when the Holy Spirit is sent in to this Upper Room.  But in the meantime they did things like prayer and choosing a replacement for Judas.

Sometimes much of what happens in a church, at least in America, is focused on the future. If we get more people as members, then we can start doing some things.  If we had more money in the bank, we could have a great choir.  If, if , if, if.  We tend to think that if we have something, then we can really start doing ministry.

God is calling us, like the disciples to wait for his return.  But that doesn’t mean that we drop everything and do nothing, or do the wrong things.  Jesus told his disciples that there was still work for them to do after he left.

They disciples were to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the known world.  And on Pentecost, this became true.  They were pushed to witness to Jesus in cities and towns far beyond Israel.  They invited everyone to meet Jesus, even long after he ascended into heaven. Christ would return, but in the meantime they had work to do. They had to be a witness to Jesus, telling them about what he was like and the difference he made in their lives.

Jesus is still calling us to this.  We wait for Christ’s return.  We have no idea when that will happen, but we wait for it.  But in the meantime, we have work to do.  We have people to feed. We have people to help get clean water. We have people who don’t know that God loves them and we seek to tell them.  As church, we are called to be a community of witnesses, people who have seen Christ and know the difference Jesus has made in our own lives.  We are called to be Christ’s witnesses in Mahtomedi and Minnesota, Wisconsin, the United States and around the world.

The slogan that has been used for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been that we are a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.  The world we live in is still fragmented but we carry with us Jesus in our hearts and we are to bear witness of Jesus, to give people hope.

On April 3, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. gave what was going to be his last speech. It’s called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  Some have wondered if he sensed he would die soon, but he saw a promised land of racial harmony.  I think he had a sense that he would not see that promised land, but we were to keep working and one day that promise would be a reality. Near the end of his sermon he said the following:

 

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Unfortunately, we know how this ended.  The next day, April 4, he was assasinated at the young age of 39.  But he knew that God kept, God’s promises and we couldn’t wait for the promised land to arrive; work had to be done.

We wait. We wait for wholeness, we wait for healing.  We wait for God’s return.  But while we wait, let us take in the view, let us see what Christ sees. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, a life to live.  Let’s get to it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Mr. Congeniality

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Sermon: Automatic for the People

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Sermon: The Way It Is

Mark 1:21-45
Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Tamir Rice.

Tamir Rice.

When I was about 13 or so, I went with Mom to the credit union near her place of work, the old AC Sparkplug factory on the eastside of Flint.  This was back in the day when people went to an actual bank to cash their checks.  Mom waited in line to be served and I stood near the back of the lobby off in my own world.  Some time passed when I heard a voice.  It was gentleman (a  security guard) and I can’t remember if he asked what I was doing here or if I needed help.  Before I could answer, my mother, who had finished her business came up and said I was with her.  As we left the credit union, Mom chastised me for not standing still.  I didn’t understand then why Mom was so upset.  It’s only been with age that I came to understand what had went on.  It didn’t really matter what the gentleman with the bank said, the underlying message was basically what was I doing there?  What my mother understood and I did not, was that I was being watched…watched as a threat.  Now, I was rather tall for my age, but that wasn’t the reason I was being watched.  As you can now probably guess, I was being watched because I was black.  I’ve always thought it funny that people might see me as a threat, because if someone knew me, they would see I’m not that scary, especially my 13 year-old self.  But what my parents knew and what I would come to realize is that no matter how gentle I might be, some people might see me as a threat, a danger.

This all came to mind this week after hearing the news of a grand jury deciding to not indict two members of the Cleveland Police after they shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014.  Tamir was in a park playing with a toy gun.  The video of the shooting is rather chilling.  A police car roars up near the gazebo where Tamir is playing. The car stops and out jump two policemen who immediately shoot the 12 year-old.  As far as the surveillance video shows us, there was no talking to the child, no asking questions, no assessment of the context.  It was just race to the gazebo and take out a supposed threat.

Me at age 13 in 1983.

Me at age 13 in 1983.

In our text today, we start a journey through the book of Mark.  It is the shortest gospel and it dispenses with the birth story of Jesus and goes straight to his ministry.  Jesus is busy.  He casts out demons and heals the sick.

And then we come to verse 40.  Jesus encounters a man with leprosy.  He was considered unclean according to the religious custom and forced to be on the margins of society.  The man encounters Jesus and asks, if Jesus is willing to make him clean.

Notice the man didn’t say,  please heal me.  Instead he pleads that if Jesus isn’t too busy or is able to squeeze him into his calendar to heal him. Maybe this is a sign that of how outside of the community he felt, he felt so much like a nothing that he couldn’t ask Jesus boldly to be healed.

This is where the passage gets interesting.  In verse 41, we have a few different meanings of Jesus’ response.  Some sources say that Jesus was moved with pity or compassion.  That would make sense.  We see this in other parts of the gospels where Jesus cares for the people and tries to heal them of their illnesses.  But other sources say Jesus was angry or as it says in today’s reading, “incensed.”   That view is harder to square.  Why was Jesus angry?  Who was Jesus angry at?  

The text doesn’t reveal any clues.  I think it goes without saying that Jesus would have compassion on the leper.  Would Jesus be angry as well?

We can’t know for sure, but it is a possibility.  Jesus has shown anger before, so it doesn’t come from nowhere. Jesus might have been angry at how this man was being treated. Maybe Jesus was angry at how religious law kept this man on the outside of his community.  We don’t know, but this view makes us think about the use of anger in the life of the church.

If we are aware of the world around us and we are aware of what God means for God’s creation, we will probably be angry at how the world is.  We will want to work to be agents of God’s love, justice and grace.

If we go back to the news of the past week, people are upset because a 12 year-old who was doing what 12 year-olds like to do was gunned down as a threat, most likely because of the color of his skin. In spite of all the progress that this nation has made in race relations, it should disturb us that this still happens some 50 years after the civil rights movement.

But the church isn’t called to just be angry.  It is also called to be healers.  We might not be able to remove leprosy from people, but we can with God’s help try to bring healing where the world is fractured. The church is called to be where there is hurt and bring healing, just as Jesus did.  The ultimate symbol of identifying with hurt is when Jesus is on the cross, suffering and dying in our stead for the healing of all creation.

Jesus walking among us meant a reveal of the kingdom of God.  It is a place where lepers are healed and welcomed back into community. It’s a place where the sick are healed and the poor are fed. And if we are paying attention, it is a place where young black men aren’t immediately seen as dangerous.

The coming of Christ forever changed the world in ways we can’t imagine. Peter Wehner, a political writer who served in the last three Republican administrations wrote in the New York Times on Christmas Day how Christianity changed how we look at the poor.  He writes:

In his book “A Brief History of Thought,” the secular humanist and French philosopher Luc Ferry writes that in contrast with the Greek understanding of humanity, “Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”

Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, the meek and the merciful), his touching of lepers, and his association with outcasts and sinners were fundamentally at odds with the way the Greek and Roman worlds viewed life, where social status was everything.

“Christianity placed charity at the center of its spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had,” according to the theologian David Bentley Hart, “and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.” Christianity played a key role in ending slavery and segregation. Today Christians are taking the lead against human trafficking and on behalf of unborn life. They maintain countless hospitals, hospices and orphanages around the world.

We moderns assume that compassion for the poor and marginalized is natural and universal. But actually we think in this humanistic manner in large measure because of Christianity. What Christianity did, my friend the Rev. Karel Coppock once told me, is to “transform our way of thinking about the poor and sick and create an entirely different cultural given.”

In 1986, an odd song made it to the top of Billboard’s Top 100 charts.  It’s odd because it was a piano-driven song in a time of synthesizers and big guitars.  The song is “The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range.  The song talked about poverty and racism in 1980s America. The chorus starts by saying “That’s just the way it is, somethings will never change.”  We get the impression that some problems are so complex that nothing will ever really change.  But, the closing of the chorus tells us not to give into despair by answering “But don’t you believe them.”

I am not asking you to join a protest march.  But I do hope in this new year that we who believe in a God who came to earth to be like us and to bring healing, will be a little angry at the state of the world and in the name of Jesus seek to be agents of healing.  That we can someday be a world where a 12 year-old kid in Ohio, or a 13 year-old kid in Michigan won’t be judge a threat by the color of his skin.

That’s just the way it is? In Jesus Christ we say, “But don’t you believe them.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Drop the Blanket!

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

peanuts4On December 9, 1965 something special happened.

On that day 50 years ago, CBS first broadcast The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  I’ve done some reading on the special and it was unique for a lot of reason.  First off, is the soundtrack. Instead of some music more fitting of a cartoon, we get the smooth jazz sounds of Vince Girauldi.  Also did you know that it caused the end of aluminum Christmas trees?  When a remark is made panning the trees, sales dipped.  By 1967, aluminum trees were no longer sold.

But the thing that is the most memorable part of the special is when Linus VanPelt recites part of the birth story of Jesus.  It was unusual for such an open display of faith to be seen on television.

But recently, I learned something about Linus or I should maybe Charles Schulz that takes place during that memorable speech.

Linus is known for being the younger brother of Lucy VanPelt and for being rather smart.  But he is known for something else ever moreso: his security blanket.  Linus carries his blanket everywhere, he is never without it.  

But if we remember Linus on stage sharing the story of the shepherds, we weren’t watching his blanket.  Because if we were, we would notice midway through his speech, he let’s go of this blanket.  To be exact, he lets go of the blanket when he comes to the words, “Fear not.”

To Linus that blanket is what keeps him safe in the world.  And yet, at this crucial moment he gives it up.  

The shepherds in Luke’s telling of the Nativity had every reason to be scared.  Here they are, out on this evening to take care of their sheep.  It’s an evening like any other evening they have had to work.  And then out of nowhere, this man appears to them.  And we learn this angel tells the shepherds to “fear not.”

Those had to be the most silliest words ever uttered in Scripture.  What are you supposed to do when someone just shows up out of thin air!

There is something interesting about the Christmas Stories.  We like to think they are filled with joy, but they are actually filled with fear.  Notice the many times angel had to say fear not.  Gabriel said this to Mary and Zechariah as they were being told the good news of children.  The shepherds were afraid.  Even in the story of the Three Kings, we see that Herod is afraid of a 2 year old who was considered a king.

Fear is something that is sewed into the human heart.  We deal daily with fear.  This past year has seen a number of experiences that have made us scared.  The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernedino made us wonder if something could happen to us.  It also made us suspicous of refugees from Syria, worried that there could be terrorists among them.  While there is some need for caution, many people over-reacted with some governors turning away families escaping war.  Others, stoked by certain people, have become fearful of Muslims and that fear has produce horrible acts such as the torching of a coffee shop owned by a Somaili refugee in Grand Forks.  We are fearful of those who happen to think differently than us. Democrats are afraid of Republicans and Republicans are afraid of Democrats.  

Some fears are not fears based on people, but on situations.  Some fear if they can pay the rent this month or put food on the table. Some fear losing their jobs.  

So it isn’t odd that the angel said “fear not.”  It is all around us.  It has us all in its grip.

The coming of Jesus is a reminder that God came in human form to defeat death and fear.  By rising from the dead, Jesus conquered the fear of death.  Jesus dying for others, deals with our fear of being insignificant. Jesus living his life, not having a place to lay his head is the one that said the God that knows the numbers of hair on your head cares for you.

I will end with a story I recently ready.  On Sunday June 18,1944 D. Martyn Lloyd Jones ascended the pulpit like he did every Sunday in London.  But this was in the middle of World War II where the German Luftwaffe rained down hell from the sky.  On that Sunday, Lloyd-Jones began to pray even though you could hear the whine of planes ahead.  He continued to pray the pastoral prayer.   He only paused when the whine of the planes were too loud.  

That was when a bomb hit the church.  Debris rained down on the congregation.  There was a an air of panic among them.  What would the pastor do?

With the sirens blaring, Lloyd-Jones continued to pray.  When he was done, he told the congregation if they would like to move to the gallery for safety, they were welcome to do so.  A deacon dusted off the pulpit and then sat down.  The good pastor then went into his sermon.

In the face of death, where fear would make sense, he stood.  He might have been scared, but I believe he knew there was a power that would care for him not matter what happened.

I like to think that Linus dropped his blanket because at the moment, he had no fear. The question for us is can we? Can we drop the blankets of fear that we carry with us or use to protect us from life?  Jesus is born.  We will feel fear, of course, but because of the birth of a baby centuries ago, we need not fear for God is with us.  
Drop the blanket. Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas.