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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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.

Sermon: Yesterday Once More

Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13
Third  Sunday of Advent
December 13, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

1971buicksstorageatplan

Storage near the Buick City Plant in Flint, circa 1971.

When I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan last spring, a memory came back to me as I went down a certain road.  The memory was seeing those auto carrier trucks lumber down the road.  The trucking company had it’s main garage on the eastside of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points.  That memory came back, because as I drove down this road, it ocurred to me that I didn’t see those trucks anymore.  It was a reminder that things had changed.

 

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so.  I’ve passed by the old Buick complex which took up several city blocks.  It was almost a city in itself.  But the plant shut down and now there are acres and acres of nothing but concrete slabs where a factory stood.  My mother can attest that a number of auto plants that were once the engine of Flint are no longer there.  The AC plant that made auto instruments and where my mother worked for 25 years is also a distant memory.  

 

buickhauler

One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

 

As the market changed and technology changed, less people were needed to work in the huge plants.  In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them.  Today, there are around 8,000.  

 

Such a massive change has brought changes in Flint as well.  I’ve told you about the well-kept houses that are now trashed.  Stores have closed up and people have moved.  The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship.  Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born.  Today it is around 99,000.  The city that I grew up in was prosperous.  It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great.  That Flint no longer exists and it is heartbreaking to me because I knew what things were like in the good days.

building44

Demolition of Building 44 of the Buick City Complex, 2002.

But that is not the only story about Flint.  There is another story that is growing up right alongside this sad story.  Last summer, Daniel and I walked down Saginaw Street, the main drag in town in downtown.  For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do.  But as I walked, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available.  The area seemed to be buzzing with activity.  We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown.  Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world.  Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area.  This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine.  

 

It’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground.  There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like my hometown will have a future, just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to.

 

We are looking at the book of Ezra this morning and the focus is on a homecoming.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Baylonians around 585BC.  It was Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place.  So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a far away land.  During the exile, Babylon fell.  In its place, a new empire took over: Persia.  It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live.  Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home.  So, a number of folk decide to make the journey back.  

 

They come back to a Jerusalem that was in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed.  It was time to rebuild.  As we read in today’s text the people get to work to creating a new temple that happened to be financed by Persia.  It took a while, but after some time, the temple was completed.  This is where something interesting happened.  The younger folks who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple were excited.  They only had tales about what life was like back in the homeland.  They now were home and had a place to worship God.  But the passage notes that the older folks were sad.  They remembered what the old temple looked like and this wasn’t it.  This temple was a bit smaller than the old one.  It also wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple.  For these folk, what they felt was a sense of everything that they had lost.  The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back.  They had to live in this new reality, but it seemed to pale in comparison to the what they remembered.

 

The passage ends with this odd mixture of joy and sadness taking place at the same time.  

 

Nostalgia can be a tricky thing.  These days people cling to the past in the attempt to hold on to something in a changing world.  And there has been a lot of change.  Twenty years ago, ten years ago, no one thought same sex couples could ever marry legally, but now here we are.  We have gone from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.  Changes in immigration laws have brought people from around the world to become Americans.  Many come from places people know little about and in some cases they worship religions we aren’t very familar with.  People who were born male are now saying they always felt female and start appearing as women.  All of this can be bewildering.  Change is not always wonderful, it can be scary. Maybe that’s why so many people seem attracted to a presidential candidate whose campaign slogan is to “Make America Great Again.”

 

This time of year is always an odd one.  There is a festive atmosphere that can put most anybody in a good mood.  But while there is joy, there is also sadness.  It was last year, that I was laid off of my job two days before Christmas.  Some people are dealing the loss of a loved one or dealing with being newly divorced.  In the midst of this joy there is also sadness.

 

For a lot of reasons, we want the security of yesterday.  The present doesn’t always feel so good.  

 

But the thing is, God knows all of this and is present with us.  Go back to Ezra 1 and we see God is the one that persuades Cyrus to sent the Jews back home.  As we read last week, God is there wanting to bring us comfort as we face the future. What the older folks missed in their sadness of the lost temple is that there was a new temple- a place where God can dwell and one where the people can worship.  And God can also give us a space to mourn and even there we don’t mourn alone.

 

Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus, our salvation.  But it also reminds us why we wait.  We wait for someone will join us in our sorrow and give us strength to move into a new future, a future that is better than we can ever imagine.

 

I’ve wondered what the people in this congregation were thinking when they sold their old building near downtown St. Paul to move here.  I was never in that building, but in hearing from some of you, it was a sight to behold.  But I also know it was getting harder and harder to pay for the upkeep of this large sanctuary.  I wonder what it was like to worship there for the last time.  I wonder what it was like to get used to moving here and if some people thought this place wasn’t as grand as their old home.  Moving a church is never easy.  And it probably wasn’t for you all.  

 

And then there was the change when your pastor for 20 years left.  A number of people stopped coming and the ones that remained wondered if they could continue.  It felt hard being so few, but you came together and worked to keep the doors open and to be open to new adventures.

 

So many churches hang on for dear life, clinging to buildings that have outlived their usefulness long ago. They remember how things were and wish it could be like that again.  But the stay put, afraid to face an unknown future.  That could have been your experience.  But it wasn’t.

 

In each of those experiences, God was with you.  God never left.  When we mourn what we have lost, a lost past, a lost building, a lost loved one, we know that God is there.  We can make those changes, we can face the future because we have a God that is always with us as we step out in faith to do mission in the world.

 

I miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway.  I miss what it represents.  I know others are also missing something or someone.  But I also know that our God is with us in the changes in our lives.  We know that hope is on the way.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “Coexist?”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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