This Is Who We Are

“This Is Who We Are” Mark 1:4-13 Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021 First Christian Church Mahtomedi, MN Preached at First Christian Church on January 10, 2021. “This isn’t who we are.” President-elect Joe Biden said these words in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assault on the US Capitol. Politicians like to say this during events like this.  I know more often than not the people who say this mean well.  They want to say that as Americans we aspire to higher goals and that what happened is something that is uncharacteristic of who we are as Americans. This phrase comes from a good place. It’s also incredibly wrong.  This is who we are.  This is who we are as a nation. Because if you are African American like I am or Native American or Japanese American, you know that our nation has a dark side and far too many times that dark side has shown up to harm persons of color, LGBTQ Americans, and others.  For some of these people seeing the images of a mostly white crowd running amok within the walls of the US Capitol, a place where I once worked, nod their heads and say “This IS Who we are.” This is not all of what the United States is all about.  If it was, then we as a nation are without hope.  The words found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution matter to us as Americans. As a nation, we strive to live up to better ideas and many times we do. But let’s not kid ourselves.  A century ago, three African American men were lynched in Duluth under trumped-up charges of rape.  Later this year, we will commemorate a century since the Tulsa Massacre which killed an untold number of African Americans in what was called Black Wall Street. This is who we are. We are sinners.  We fall short. We commit evil. We are not okay. In Mark, John the Baptist comes around preaching a baptism that led to repentance, to change their lives. One day, Jesus comes.  That had to come as a shock to John because Jesus had nothing to repent of.  But he baptizes his cousin anyway.  When he comes up from the water, the sky splits and the Holy Spirit comes into him.  It is then a voice that claims Jesus as the Son of God.  It is there that he is given an identity as our savior. This is who Jesus is. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. This is who we are.  You and I are Daughters and sons of God. But we still sin.  We fall short.  We are claimed by God, but let’s not forget that we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Because we are claimed by God in spite of our sin, we are called to act. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil and then went into his ministry, because he knew who he was. Our theme for Epiphany is “For the Sake of the World.” It’s a phrase that comes from our Lutheran sisters and brothers and it says the church exists for the sake of the world.  Churches exist as people who are baptized and claimed by God to go out to proclaim justice and preach reconciliation.  This is who we are. In light of the storming of the capital our baptism matters. We are called into a ministry of reconciliation and Lord knows we need it.  As a congregation, we need to find ways to give space to where people can listen to one another. Our baptism compels us to move from the sidelines and join in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. What happened this week is a wake-up call for the nation and the church. What we saw is a reminder that this is part of who we are as a nation.  We saw rioters, bullies and a President out that want to spread fear, to use the words of God, but worship an idol. That is who they are. But we at First Christian have another identity. Claimed by God, we have a role in preaching God’s love and justice to our nation and our world. We will be talking about this more because we must.  It is time for us to live out our baptisms. It doesn’t matter how small we are in number or how much money we have in the bank. It is time for you and I to live up to who we are in the eyes of God. We are the children of God. This is who we are.  Let’s start acting like it. Thanks be to God. Amen. Listen to the sermon podcast.

Sermon: Looking for Loopholes

 

Luke 10:25-42
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio version.

Supposedly the commedian W.C. Fields was reading a Bible one day. Fields was known for his kind of outrageous lifestyle of drinking and mistrisses, so having him reading a Bible seemed a little out of character. When asked why he was reading the Bible, Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

Today we are looking at one of the most well-known parables, the tale of the Good Samaritan. Even people who have never set foot inside a church know about this story. People look at this tale and see it as a morality play, that tells people how we should live good and ethical lives. But the parables had bigger plans than just being about being good. Parables give us a peek into God’s kingdom; it shows us what it means to live under the rule of God.

Before we go into the play, let’s get to know about Samaritans. The Samaritans are people of mixed heritage. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, many Jews were taken to Assyria and Assyria sent many of its citizens to the Northern Kingdom. They started to intermarry with the Israelites who remained and over time, they gave up their worship of idols and picked up the practices of their Jewish heritage. Jews were not crazy about Samaritans because they were not considered pure. So Jews and Samaritans don’t get along.

Which might explain that time that Jesus was not accepted in a Samaritan town. In Luke 9:51-55 Jesus starts his journey towards Jerusalem and his ultimate death. Jesus sent some of his disciples ahead to a Samaritan town in order to find accomdations. But the townsfolk were not interested in welcoming Jesus at all. We aren’t given a reason why the town didn’t welcome Jesus. Maybe they saw him as a troublemaker. Maybe it was that he was simply Jewish and they didn’t want their enemies in town. This is ironic since in the next chapter we will hear a story of a welcoming man that was a Samaritan. But this might be an example of the fraught relationship between the two peoples.

Today’s text open with a lawyer or Pharisee coming up to Jesus with a question. He asks Jesus: about what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus answers back by asking him what is written in the Torah or law. The layer responds, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly.

Then the lawyer asks another question. “Who Is My Neighbor?” Some versions say he is asking this question to justify himself. What this means is that he was wondering who had to be considered a neighbor. In essence he was looking for a loophole. Who were the people he was supposed to love and who were the people he could ignore?

This is when Jesus goes into his famous tale. He challenges the lawyer by setting the story up with several characters that the lawyer or Pharisee would find hard to love. The Samaritan, in addition to being considered a heritic, would probably have been a trader. Traders were also despised by the Pharisees because they were considered dishonest and because they had to deal with people from all walks of life, didn’t follow religious laws closely. We don’t know much about the man, but he would have also been frowned upon because of his state. Being injured and left for dead on the roadside meant that he was ritually unclean. The innkeeper also wasn’t considered pure because they provided shelter to traders. And we know the robbers weren’t heroes in the Pharisees eyes either.

So Jesus has set up this tales with a lot of people who would be considered ne’er do wells in the eyes of this lawyer. But Jesus also included two people who would be considered politically correct in his eyes, the priest and the Levite. But here is the interesting thing: these two people who would be considered faithful to the law, saw the injured man on the road and they passed him by. These were men who knew they law. They knew what could make them unclean and also they knew they were to love their neighbor. Their faith was such that it left no room for love of people.

Jesus is smart here. The lawyer or Pharisee wants to be able to use the theology he has learned to get out of caring for a stranger. So Jesus decides to tell a story that is so stark, so urgent, that it shows how small the Pharisees faith really is. Because when you say that these folk are not worthy of love, it means ending up with situations like these where supposedly holy people leave a person dying on the side of a road.

The thrust of Jesus story is not who is our neighbor. Jesus never bothers to answer the Pharisees’ original question of Who Is My Neighbor. Instead he asks who was the neighbor. The lesson here is that we should be neighbors to those we meet. Which means not just loving those near and dear to us, but those who are alien to our way of living.

The theme for Lent here is “Who Is My Neighbor?” Of course, the answer here is that we are the neighbor and being a neighbor means that we exhibit the love that Jesus would want us to show. We live in a time when we live in fear of the other. We have people who seek to say we should be loving, but not to these folk. We love everyone, but not these Muslims. We love everyone, but not these Mexicans. We love everyone, but not these Trump voters. Just like the lawyer, we are all looking for the loophole, for the thing that tells us we don’t have to care for those who are different or do things we don’t agree with. In essence, we are saying that there are people beyond God’s love.

But in God’s kingdom, love is boundless. God loves even at the risk of self. Note that Samaritans also practiced ritual purity, so touching the injured man meant making the Samaritan unclean. But the Samaritan was willing to do this because God’s love doesn’t stop at the borders that we place in our lives.

A moment here. I’ve said that parables are not morality tales and it’s easy to see the Samaritan as a role model, someone we should aspire to be. You have to see this in the context of first century Palestine where Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. To understand what this parable is saying you have to put in an analogus modern context. The theologian Debi Thomas makes it clear:

An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.

How can First Christian be a good neighbor in Mahtomedi and beyond? How do we reach beyond our comfort zones to extend active love to someone? In God’s kingdom, people are neighbors to those who are alien to them as well as those who are similar. In God’s kingdom there is no boundary that walls us off from certain people or tells us certain people are beyond love. That is a hard thing to accept, because as humans we all try to decide who is not welcomed, who is beyond redemption. But there is are no loopholes in the Bible. We are called to be good neighbors to everyone.

In 1996, the Klu Klux Klan held a rally at the city hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When people in the area heard about the rally, about 300 people came to counter-protest the meeting of the Klan. The Klan rally only garnered 17 people total. During the rally, someone spotted a man in the crowd who had a tatoo of the dreaded Nazi SS wore a confederate flag t-shirt. This was basically the equivalent of waving a red cape in front a raging bull. The anti-klan crowd began to chased the man. The crowd started to hit and kick the man.

In the crowd at the time was an 18 year-old African American woman named Keisha Thomas. When the crowd started to attack this man, she placed herself in front of the man who was now down on the ground. There are a series of now-iconic photos of Keisha shielding the man and trying to fend off the angry protesters. The reasons those photos still resonate today is it recorded something so odd: an African American woman protecting an alleged white supremacist. This sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But this is exactly what it means to be a neighbor. In the moment the crowd started to attack the man, she saw this man as someone worthy of love, even though he had done nothing to deserve it. Keisha knew there weren’t any loopholes that would exempt her from being a neighbor and so acted in love to protect someone that today we would consider “unclean.”

Who Is My Neighbor? We already know the answer: we are the neighbor and we are the ones to love those around us no matter who they are. Jesus told the lawyer and tells us today to follow the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise.”

So church, “Go and do likewise.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Borrowed Time

“Borrowed Time”
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

Click here for the audio version.

pixar-borrowed-timeA man leaves home to head into New York City and work in one the city’s tallest buildings. It’s the morning of September 11, 2001, and the man’s family never saw their husband and father again.

On that same morning, a husband drops off his wife at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. He kisses her, expecting to see her when she returns a few days later. The woman is on a flight that is hijacked and later plows into the Pentagon. Before that happens, his wife calls from the plane and tells her husband that she loves him one last time.

In August 2007, a woman calls home to tell her husband and daughters that she is leaving work and will be home for dinner. She leaves downtown and heads on the freeway during rush hour. She usually takes a different route, but tonight she decides to take the freeway. She wades though traffic as it crawls across a bridge over the Mississippi River. Out of nowhere, the bridge collapses, tossing cars and trucks into everywhere even into the river. The woman’s car is plunged into the river and she never comes home.

In December 2015, a man drops off his husband at his workplace in California. The man heads home and a few hours later sees a breaking news report of a mass shooting at his husband’s place of work. He calls his spouse over and over, and no one ever picks up the phone. After a frantic day and night of trying going to hospitals to find his partner, he gets a phone call. What he feared has come true; his husband lost his life in a mass shooting.

Tragedy seems to happen out of nowhere. One day it’s a normal day and the next moment things are changed forever. We might not have things happen like they did on 9/11 or the Minneapolis Bridge collapse, but tragedy does happen. More than likely we will get that phone call late at night or early in the morning where we learn that love one has died.

When these things happen, we are left wondering where God was. We wonder if God had a role in this. Others will be less charitable and believe that the person who died or someone else did something that displeased God and so this was their fate. No matter what, tragedies have us wondering what went wrong for this to happen.

In our text today. A number of people are chatting about the big news today. The news is that there were some Galileans on their way to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem. Pilate, the governor of the area, went on a rampage and a number of these Galileans were killed in the process. It’s hard to think they did anything to deserve this, other than being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was a common belief in that time period that if something bad happened to someone, it was because they or someone close to them had sinned. We see this in John 9, when Jesus heals a blind man. Before he does this, his disciples wonder if either this man or his parents had sinned to make him blind. Jesus learns about this tragedy involving the Galileans and decides to respond. He never directly tackles the issue of whether or not God was involved in this suffering. He also for reasons we don’t know doesn’t try to defend God, either. Instead he challenges the crowd with a question of his own. “Were the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hands more sinful than every other Galilean?” The people don’t answer. Jesus responds to his own question: “No, they didn’t. But unless you repent and keep repenting, you will end up just like them.”

What Jesus was trying to get at is to focus on what it means to live our lives. Jesus was telling those around him that it didn’t matter if someone did something for bad things to happen. He was telling them to not focus on the lives of others, but to focus on how we are living the life we have left. How do we treat those around us? Do we care for those poor and the weak? Are we a neighbor to strangers?

To make the point clearer, Jesus talks about a tower in the town of Siloam that fell killing 18 people. He asks, are they more sinful than the average Galilean? No, and if the crowd doesn’t change their hearts and lives, they will die as well, meaning time will have run out, with no chance of constantly seeking to follow God’s ways.

Jesus then tells a parable of a fig tree that had not produce any fruit for years. The owner of the tree and the vineyard thinks it’s a waste of money to care for this plant and that it should be thrown out. The gardener looks at the owner and says, give me one more year. I will do all I can to make this tree produce fruit. If in a year nothing changes, than we can throw it away.

In this tale all of us are the fig tree. Sometimes we don’t produce any fruit. Now, we might think God is the owner, but that would be wrong. Jesus didn’t come down to earth to appease an angry God, but to stand in the place of humanity, to give us a second chance. God (and Jesus) are the gardener, asking for a bit more time to do what can be done to help the tree produce figs.

We live on borrowed time. God is there ready to work and help us to be fruitful people of God. God has given us the gift of life and calls for us to repent. Repent means to turn around or to see things from another view. It means that we are always striving to be better people with God’s help and that comes through discipleship, by learning from Jesus how to be people who are grateful that God has given them this life to live, no matter how long or how short it is.

Last year, two animators from Pixar studio made a short animated movie called “Borrowed Time.” It was nominated for best animated short at this year’s Oscars. The story centers on a grizzled sheriff,a man that looks as if he has lived thousand hard years. This is a broken man that carries within him the shame of what happened on the last day of his father’s life. His father who was also a sheriff and the young man were riding a stagecoach through the American west, when they are besieged by robbers. In the ongoing chase, the horse and carriage crashed and throws the father off of the coach and over a cliff. The son realizes his father is missing and looks for him and finds him-alive- hanging on for dear life on the side of the cliff. The son tries to reach for his father’s hand, but can’t reach it. The father takes out his rifle, so that the son can pull him up. The son keeps pulling his father up and up and almost gets him on to solid ground. But you see, the son was pulling on the butt of the gun which meant he was near the trigger. As he gives on great heave, he accidentally shoots the gun which was pointed at his father at close range. The father is shot and falls down the cliff.

He carries that pain for decades and we see the now adult son as man standing at that same cliff, unable to shake off the sadness of losing his father and the horror of knowing he was the cause. He looks as if he is going to leap of the cliff to his doom, until a glare catches his eye. You see all those years ago, his father gave him a watch, and in the rush it got tossed to the ground and lost. The man picks it up and sees a picture of him and his dad. It was at that moment he was able to shake off the guilt he carried with him all those years. It wasn’t a happily ever after kind of ending, but it was the beginning of something, maybe a sense in some way of starting anew.

Jesus comes to give life to the fullest, as he says in John. In Christ,we can live for something, live a life knowing we are forgiven and seek to have a heart that forgives and loves very much.

But we only have so much time. How will we live the life that we have? Will we waste it away worrying about others and wondering if they are bringing damnation on themselves or we will we repent and live a life turned around for God?

We live on borrowed time. How are you going to live it? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: The Day After

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

You can listen to the sermon by going here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is the point here?  

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Fight the Power”

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

Listen to the sermon podcast.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Trouble In Lake Wobegon

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

Listen to the Sermon.

 

IMG_2355
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: “Seeking God in a Shattered World”

In light of what’s going on in Boston, I thought I’d share this sermon I preached two years ago.  Vandalism is hardly in the same category as the horrors that took place today, but the message of the Sermon on the Mount ring true.

“Seeking God in a Shattered World”
Matthew 6:24-34; Isaiah 49:8-16
February 27, 2011
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

This was one of those weeks that no body told me about when I was in seminary.

If you have not heard, the church building was hit twice this week by vandalism on Monday and then again on Wednesday. Someone decided to throw some bricks in the windows in the Fellowship Hall. As many of you know, these aren’t the only two acts of vandalism that have taken place recently. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve counted six incidents. It started with someone spray painting the words, “No God!” on our church sign on First Avenue. Then we started getting the broken windows.

I have to hand to Max Hurlocker, the Property Chair and our Office Manager Chris Wogaman, who were busy making calls to repair the windows, call the police and our landlord, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Since Bob was out of town, I stepped in to do…well not a whole lot, but to at least provide a listening ear. As I sat in on a meeting on Tuesday with representatives from the Institute and the alarm company I could hear some the questions coming from our members. They all boiled down to one simple question: why? Why was someone targeting us? What did we do to deserve this?

broken windowHaving someone vandalize your property once is bad enough, but then it happens twice in the space of 48 hours, it can be downright unsettling and produce a lot of worry. You don’t feel secure anymore. You wonder if it will happen again or if it will get worse.

It’s funny that this is all taking place as the Lectionary texts deal with Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. Last week we hear the call to love our enemies and this week Jesus tells his followers not to worry.

I’ve heard people say that the Sermon on the Mount is basically a guide to living an ethical life. But if Jesus was trying to make a living as a self-help guru, then this is an epic fail. Jesus is asking us to do the impossible. Love some jerk who throws a brick into our building? Really? Don’t worry about things?

Right.

The Sermon on the Mount is impossible to follow. The fact is, we will fail in trying to live by it. And yet, here it is, here Jesus is, calling for us to not worry about what we are going to eat or what we are going to wear.

If it seems odd to hear this in the aftermath of vandalism, it’s even harder to hear it in this current economy, where people worry constantly about keeping their homes and their jobs. Jesus tells us not to serve God and money, but let’s face it: we worry about our finances. We have debts and mortgages and bills to pay and we wonder if we will always be able to pay them.

We could just ignore this passage and go on with our lives, and in many ways we do that anyway. How many times have we heard this passage and just move on? It’s a nice saying, but it has no bearing on reality.

But we can’t ignore this passage. It does speak to us, even as it calls us to do the impossible. Jesus calls us to trust that God will take care of the details. As the old Stevie Wonder song goes, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Matthew 6:33 says, “seek first the kingdom of God.” Some versions use the word “strive” instead of “seek.”

Either way, we are being asked to try to strive to live as God calls us to live in this world. The Sermon on the Mount is a step-by-step guide on how to live a good life, but it is a way , a rule of life, of how the followers Jesus should live. We are following a high calling from God to be a peculiar people in the world even though we will fall short time and time again.

I don’t blame people for worrying about all the vandalism. That’s a natural response. It also makes sense to do what you can to prevent from happening again. I think we are always going to worry about things.

The concern is when our worry about things gets in the way of striving to be God’s people. A broken window should not deter us from reaching out to our neighbors. It should not prevent us from giving out bus cards to those who are homeless or poor. It should not stop us from feeding the poor or finding ways to shelter those without homes. Despite the worry, we seek to be a faithful community that shares God’s love in word and in deed.

You all know that I’m a bivocational pastor. I work as the Communication Director for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. This week, I was asked to take pictures for an open house at Kwanzaa Presbyterian Church, which is located in North Minneapolis. As the name suggests, it’s an African American congregation. One of the co-pastors there is Alika Galloway, and she took about an hour to talk about all the various ministries going on at the church and there is a lot. There is an after-school program that provides a lot number of African American kids who live in poverty and meal and a stable place to learn and play. There is also a program called Northside Women’s Space which is done in conjuction with a researcher from the University of Minnesota. The Women’s Space simply offers a refuge for women who work in the sex trade. Many of these women live chaotic lives where they face abuse from pimps and johns. This space, housed in one of the congregation’s buildings gives these women a place just to be and even give them some help.

All of this takes place in a part of town that is not the safest. I would guess there is a lot of worry that takes place at Kwanzaa. But yet, they seem to strive for God’s kingdom, feeding those who are hungry and giving hope to the outcast.

As I was getting ready to head to the church, I had to make a phone call to the congregation. I got their voice mail and heard Alika’s voice. Towards the end of the recorded voicemail message Alika said “It’s True, it’s true, it’s true. God loves you, God loves you, God loves you.”

That’s a message that people in North Minneapolis need to hear, especially if they live in poverty and feel that no one cares for them. They need to know that someone cares for them, and as the passage says today, if God cares for the lilies and birds, God cares for these folks. Kwanzaa makes sure that the residents of North Minneapolis know that by saying it and doing it.

It’s also a message for us. In the midst of our own worries and struggles remember that “it’s true, it’s true, it’s true. God love us, God love us, God love us.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “The Unsuccessful Church”

This is a sermon I preached the Sunday after Easter 2006 using the gospel text that will be used this Sunday.

“The Unsuccessful Church”
John 20:19-31
April 23, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN

 

I want to tell you something about being a pastor:  it kinda sucks.

Okay, you probably didn’t expect a pastor to use the word “sucks” in a sermon.  You also probably didn’t expect that I would say that being a minister is not always a bed of roses.  However it’s true.  Being a pastor at times is exciting, but sometimes: yeah, it sucks.

It’s been nearly four years since I was ordained.  I remember that was an exciting day, but I can also remember that the last four years as a young minister haven’t been easy.  Seminary teaches you how to preach a sermon and how to understand the Bible.  It teaches you about other cultures and how to counsel people.  But it doesn’t teach you how to deal with your boss, who is also a minister and yet doesn’t see you as an equal and treats you as such.  Seminary also failed to mention how to deal with members of churches who act like children of the devil rather than children of God when they deal with you.

Seminary also didn’t teach me about starting a new church, and about how to do it on a literal shoe-string budget.   It also didn’t teach me how to deal with people who leave the new church or don’t come because it isn’t “successful,” and how to deal when you’ve planned a worship service and sermon and only two people show up.

There are days that I wish I never went to seminary and never got ordained.  I wish I had received an advanced degree in something else other than the ministry.

And then there is the fact that at times I don’t feel like a pastor.  I know people who can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew and use that to preach wonderful sermons and I would need to take both classes again.  I don’t feel like I have the right words to say when someone shares that their mother has cancer or a close friend is near death.  More often than not, I feel like a big failure.

Well, this is a happy sermon, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s why today’s gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it’s the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary.  As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem.  They were scared.  The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.

Now, what’s interesting here is that they knew something was up.  We didn’t read the earlier parts of John 20, but let me give you a recap:  Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away.  She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone.  They both go to investigate and it’s true; the body is gone.  Mary stands outside the tomb weeping and then in time sees the Risen Christ.  Of course seeing your friend, alive and well isn’t something you keep to yourself, so she went to tell the disciples saying , “I have seen the Lord!”

Now, being on the outside of this story, I would think that if someone tells me a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn’t be my first impulse, but even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear.

You know, this text includes the story of the disciple named Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well.  But Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted.  Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well and yet they still locked themselves in a room.  And yet, even inspite of their doubts, Jesus appears to them and gives them peace.

I think this is good news to someone like me.  As I said earlier, being a pastor isn’t easy.  I think some of the reason that I struggle with my role is because I tend to think a pastor is someone who has to have it all together.  A pastor has to know everything, do everything well, and have the right words to say all the time.  A pastor also has to be a wonderful leader that brings in tons of new members to the church and have a spiritual life like none other.

What’s wrong with that is that it leaves God out.  It puts all the focus on me to be perfect, which isn’t going to happen.  The wonderful thing is that inspite of my struggles and doubts, despite my desire to do everything myself and beat myself up when things go wrong, Jesus still invades my locked doors and works through this cowering and doubting disciple.

I also think that if the Risen Christ can bypass the locked doors of my heart and give me peace, he can do it with this ragtag bunch called Community of Grace as well.

It hasn’t been easy being on staff.  Not because of the other staff, Bryan and Dan are great colleagues and friends.  What has been hard is expecting the church to be bigger than it is-filled with people on Sunday evening.  I read stories about new churches that start with 200 hundred people and I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

And yet, God has done something with the small gathering of believers.  God appears in this group that includes the beleaguered and those on a quest and gives us peace.  I’ve seen God at work here.  I’ve been in other churches and I’ve never seen such honesty, and such Spirit as I do here.  We are all struggle with doubt and yet, that’s okay- we are welcomed by God and God still works through us.

I have seen resurrection happen here.  I’ve seen people who were long estranged from the church, come back.  I’ve seen people who might not agree on tax policy, pray for each other and befriend each other during dark times.

The ending of this chapter explains that these stories of Jesus are written that we might believe.  Belief here isn’t about certainty.  It isn’t about having the facts or proof of Jesus.  Instead, these stories are written so that we might believe, to rely on Christ, to place our trust in Christ.  These stories are here to remind us during the dark times of our lives that Jesus is with us and we can place our trust not in a dead god, but the Risen Christ.

I believe it was the Peace Corps, that once had the slogan, “It’s the Toughest Job, You’ll Ever Love.”  It isn’t easy to be a pastor, but then it isn’t easy to be a follower of Jesus either.  We all struggle and doubt, and mess things up.  And yet Christ is in the midst of us.

And maybe that’s what makes this all worthwhile: despite all the mistakes and less than perfect lives, we get to see how God works in us and how God can change lives.

Thanks be to God.

 

Sunday Sermon: July 29, 2012

“Left Behind”
John 6:1-21 and Ephesians 3:14-21
July 29, 2012
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I was never good at sports, but I tried anyway.  In high school, I was in cross-country and long distance track.  In the summer of 1984, the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, I went with several of my cross country team members to a week-long camp at a state park in Northern Michigan.  We would practice during the day and the evening after dinner was on our own.  A few nights we would walk about two miles or so to lodge that had a large recreation room.  Most folks would play on the pool table or some of the other games in the room.  One night as we all gathered, I decided to leave the room for a bit to go to the restroom.  Most of the guys were talking to some girls who had showed up.  I didn’t think much of this as I left the room.

So, I did what I had to do and came back to the room…and no one was there.  The room was completely empty.  I was a bit dumbfounded. Where did everyone go?  I walked up to the front desk and asked where my team mates had gone.  The person at the desk to me that they went down to see the lake with the girls. I had been left behind and I was kind of bugged. Continue reading “Sunday Sermon: July 29, 2012”