Sermon: Risky Business

 

Luke 19:29-44
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

Most of us here can remember seeing the first news footage of people dancing atop the Berlin Wall as it fell in November of 1989.  For someone of my age, this was phenomenal because as long as I was alive, there was a wall separating the former capital of a unified Germany in two.  On that night, people living in East Berlin were able to walk into West Berlin and take in the sights, something they hadn’t been ever able to do sometimes in their lifetimes.

 

But there would probably be no breeching of the Berlin Wall in November if it weren’t for what took place in the city of Leipzig, a city in the former East Germany in September 1989.  On Monday, September 4 in Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas Church.  Now the church was well known because it was one of the churches in town where the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the music director.  But on this late summer evening, St. Nicholas would be known for starting process that led to the downfall of a nation.

 

Throughout the 1980s, St. Nicholas held weekly prayer services.  The prayer mingled and mixed with protest; because this Lutheran church was a place where people who upset with the communist government of East Germany could come and talk..and pray.

 

On September 4, out of the prayer sprung peaceful demonstrations.  Citizens would take to the streets to protest and demand more rights, such the right to travel abroad and to hold democratic elections.  

 

Going to church became a risky endeavor.  No one knew if going to these Monday demonstrations would cause the police to react.  A woman commented that she would bring a candle and held it in her hands as a sign to the army and the police that she was unarmed. Protesting against the communist government, one that was well known in monitoring its citizens was bold and scary.  But those demonstrations that arose from weekly prayer services had an effect.  Other demonstrations took place in other East German cities. Back in Leipzig, the numbers of those protesting grew and grew.  On October 9, 1989 around 70,000 people showed up to protest- this in a city of 500,000.  A week later that number nearly doubled to 120,000.  Two days after this, East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. And the numbers kept growing to over 300,000 in late October.  It was this pressure that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By March 1990, the protests ended.  These demonstrations had resulted in democratic elections in the spring of 1990 and German reunification in October of 1990.  

 

All of this started in a Lutheran church in one city holding a prayer service.  But that was all it took to bring down a totalitarian regime.

 

Today, is Palm Sunday.  We get together, people start to sing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” and we wave our palm branches.  We remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem knowing that pretty soon Jesus would face trial, torture and death.  If we were honest, we would admit that this day is a harmless day in the life of the church.  I’m mean Jesus is on a donkey for goodness sake. It’s the day when we might have kids marching around the sanctuary with triangles and cymbals and the like.  Palm Sunday is a nice day, a respite before we head into the heavy holidays of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

 

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at this.  Palm Sunday is not about a cute parade with a middle age guy riding a donkey. In someways, Palm Sunday is about challenging the powers of this world, to say who is really the King around here.

 

But if this is a direct challenge to Ceasar and all the other rulers, Jesus has a funny way of showing it.  Again, the donkey.  Why in the world would anyone ride a donkey.  They aren’t the most pretty animals, which is just fine because they were considered beasts of burden.  You used donkeys to carry loads, it was a real workhorse.  Some think the riding of a donkey was a sign of humility and peace.  Roman leaders would have rode horses which were bred for fighting.  When a Roman general won a decisive battle, he would ride into town with in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Around him were his soldiers as well as the deposed king of conquered territories.  The whole thing was an expression of the power of Rome.

 

So, having Jesus riding a humble donkey didn’t make sense.

 

So Jesus rides into town with people placing their cloaks on the ground to cushion Jesus’ ride. The disciples didn’t get that Jesus was about to die, but they did think Jesus was king and they led the parade proclaiming Jesus as king, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” The disciples might have remembered what was prophesized by the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion. Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem. Look, your king will come to you. He is righteous and victorious. He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey. “

 

All of this king talk was cool, but it was also risky.  Since it was Passover, the Romans were out in force.  Passover is when Jews remember how God led them out of Egypt.  This talk of freedom made the Romans nervous, so they were out in public to remind the people of who is in charge.  Maybe that’s why the Pharisees were telling Jesus to keep his disciples quiet.  It might be that the Pharisees were folk traveling with Jesus, so they might be telling Jesus to keep quiet of concern for him.  The Pharisees were trying to walk a fine line between keeping the peace on both sides.

 

The Pharisees want to play it safe and with very good reason.  The Romans were not above trying to put their boot down through active repression.  There had been many who sought to challenge the Romans only to meet a very bloody end.

 

But Jesus was willing to take the risk, to tell everyone that he is  different kind of king, one that is more powerful even than Caesar himself.

 

This is what makes Palm Sunday a risky and dangerous day.  It might seem that a guy on a donkey is’nt that much of a threat to anyone, but looks can be decieving. It was on this day when Jesus made his public decoration that he was king, greater than any other king out there, including Caesar.

 

Palm Sunday also has a message for us.  Are we willing to claim Jesus as our King, one that is greater than any modern Caesar, presidents and prime ministers?

 

Too often, we have made the Christian life one that is safe. We try to make Jesus fit into our political agendas of the left and right.  But if we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the king of all, then it means we live at times in defiance to earthly leaders regardless of whether we like their agenda or not.  Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar, not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, not anyone but Jesus.

 

Holy Week is a battle between the pretenders to the throne and the real king.  The pretenders thought they had put the real king to death on Good Friday, but….well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

This faith that we have can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.  It was that faith that started in Lutheran church in central Europe in 1989 that brought down the earthly rulers and changed history.  It was that same faith, that willingness to follow King Jesus that led Archbishop Oscar Romero to speak for the poor and it was what got him killed as he served communion.  It was the same faith that led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak boldy against his opporessors in South Africa that the side of freedom will win so they might as well join his side.

 

Maybe we don’t have to worry of living in a place like East Germany or aparthied-era South Africa.  But we are called to place Jesus first to be able to say that it is Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

 

Jesus is Lord.  Caesar is not.  Jesus riding on a donkey might seem foolish, but so was having a prayer service deep inside the old Iron Curtain.   In the end, the man on the donkey will bring down the kingdoms of this world.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Repost: The Importance of Dandelions

Since April is Austim Awareness Month, I wanted to share this post from exactly a year ago.

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

 

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

By now, everyone has heard about the ruckus that took place at Middlebury College in Vermont when conservative scholar Charles Murray came for a discussion.  It is a very disturbing story and seems to point to  coarsening culture where different viewpoints bring out fear instead of tolerance and questioning.

One of the most interesting voices that arose during the aftermath is Alison Stenger, a professor at Middlebury, a self described liberal and the liasion to Murray during his time on campus.  While she was trying to protect Murray from the protestors, she was yanked and thrown to the ground resulting in concussion and a neck injury.  Writing in the New York Times, she saw the event as a microcosm of a larger problem:

In the days after the violence, some have spun this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, our coddled youth or intolerant liberalism. Those analyses are incomplete.

Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.

It used to be that our culture was one where ideas were brought up and debated. But increasingly, we are becoming less tolerant of any view that deviates from what we consider the norm. As Fred Bauer writes in the National Review essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” denying those deemed racist or sexist the right to speak is becoming the norm.

And this behavior seems to be making its way to the church.  Recently, Princeton Seminary invited Tim Keller to the campus to recieve an award.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  But Princeton is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant body while Tim Keller is a minister from the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Protestant body.  Keller is know in church planting and evangelistic circles for his planting of a PCA church in New York that has become a megachurch, with locations throughout the Big Apple.

But there are problems.  The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative body that doesn’t ordain women and has what could be called “traditional” views on marriage and sexuality.   The PC(USA) allows for women clergy and within the last 10 years, allowed gays and lesbians to be pastors.

I tend to think it is a good thing that Princeton is reaching beyond its liberal comfort zones to welcome and honor a fellow Christian with whom they might disagree with on some issues.

But the reaction to Keller receiving this award has been one of shock and anger.  Alumni from Princeton Seminary are appalled that it would even consider granting Keller an aware because of his views on ordaining women.This is what Presbyterian pastor Traci Smith has to say about this:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

Another blogger and Presbyterian pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, goes even further. She doesn’t get why Princeton would give an award and the space to talk to someone who support complementarianism which she believes supports the abuse of women:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complimentarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Now let me be clear: I support the ordination of women. I am not a complementarian. That said, I don’t think that means that people who are complementarians or are against the ordination of women should be banned from a seminary. Because if we start not welcoming people because of differing views, that make us no better than when conservatives do the same thing.

And yes, I’m pretty sure Keller thinks homosexuality is a sin.  But I’m not offended by that or fearful- it’s one person’s viewpoint and having him come to give a speech doesn’t threaten the rights of gays and lesbians.

This is part of a disturbing trend that I am seeing among the Left and within Progressive Christianity- the tendency to not listen to dissenting views.  The views themselves are deemed harmful to people and some believe that progressive churches shouldn’t allow those with views like opposing the ordination to even set foot on a seminary campus to give a speech.

We live in an age that is far more tribal.  People draw sharp lines to demarcate who is in and who is out.  We sit afraid that someone will say something that we don’t agree with and will reign down havoc along with the end of all that is fair and good.

People are (rightly) offended when Donald Trump talks about building a wall on our southern border, but he is simply showing what is going on in American society these days; the erection of walls to protect us from those who are different than us.  We can’t really say boo to Trump for building a wall when Americans are doing that with their friends and neighbors.  Trump’s wall is just a symptom of a larger problem.

I would like to believe that we can learn to trust each other and be willing to open ourselves up to alternate views that might make us uncomfortable.  But I think we are heading towards a new Dark Age where Christian belief in loving our neighbor or our enemy is being set aside for something far more harsher. It is an age where we might even believe that conservative Christians aren’t even real Christians.

It used to be common among more progressive Christians to hear talk about the need “to stay at the table” or to work on healing the bonds of community.  There was a belief that people of differing opinions need to stay engaged with each other and that even those who had the “losing” view were part of the community. Such language seems absent these days. Maybe it was because of some of the great sucesses that we have seen in the area of gay rights.  Maybe people started to think that it wasn’t necessary to bridge differences.

Seminaries like other institutions of higher learning should be places where we have our beliefs challenged and where we learn that the other side is just as human as we are.  But academia has become a place where only certain views are tolerated.

What bothers me more and more is that Progressive churches are becoming places that are more Progressive than they are Christian.  Like Charles Murray, there are things about Keller that I disagree with.  But we should be more willing to welcome a fellow Christian and listen to what he has to say and offer our own views.  He needs to hear other views on the role gays and women in the church, but you don’t learn that by trying to bar someone from campus because their views don’t match yours.

Seminary President Craig Barnes is doing his best to be honest to where Princeton stands on gay inclusion and women’s ordination, but he is also taking a stand against a kind of censorship.

It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

As I said before, as a gay man, there is always a bit of apprehension around those who might see what I do as a sin. But I am reminded that we follow the One who allowed himself to be vulnerable to suffer for the salvation of the world. If Jesus can do that, we can sit and listen to those we might disagree with. Because God is with us and has been through this before.

That is, if we have the grace to take a step in faith.

Not Bible-Believing, but Jesus-Believing

 


Every so often, someone will visit the church and they will say they are looking for a “Bible-believing” church.  I’m always curious just what it means to be a Bible-believing church.  If someone came up to me and asked if First Christian is a Bible-believing church, I already know what my answer would be.

The answer would be no.

Keep reading…

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.