Sermon: Create Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world aint suppose to work like this.

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

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

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

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

The world aint suppose to work like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Fight the Power”

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

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

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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

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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

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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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