Sermon: All Is Level At the Cross

Matthew 10:40–42 and Acts 13:1–3; 14:8–18 | Fourth Sunday of Easter |April 26, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching



“God is calling the church to be a place that is a colony of heaven, an
example of what God’s kingdom is like. It is a place where people might
disagree on various issues, but they know they are united together in
Christ. In a society that is becoming more bifurcated, there is a need
for a place where people can see each other as a child of God.”

Read the Sermon text.

Sermon: All the Small Things

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Matthew 10:37-42
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 29, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Ernie is someone you just can’t forget.

 

Ernie is a man in his mid60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the community of First Christian in Minneapolis.  Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church.  He seems to always have a smile on face.

 

But Ernie can be a handful.  For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice.  This means when he talks, everyone hears.  Which meant you might not want to share you deep dark secrets with him.  Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing.  But you see, Ernie also talks like this in worship.  Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice.  When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service.  There are a host of other things I could share about Ernie that would exasperate me.

 

Sometimes sitting next to Ernie was Kevin, a man in his 50s.  Kevin is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on this side of sanity.  It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.

 

After a while we learned something about Kevin.  He was a budding artist.  He drew fantastic drawings in black and white and also in color. Most of his works had a science fiction feel to them, a vision of what a futuristic city looks like.

 

What is wonderful to see is that both Ernie and Kevin are considered full participants in the community.  In the five years I was a pastor at First, no one ever complained about Ernie or Kevin’s antics at time.  People learned to roll with the punches with these two.  I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Ernie and Kevin and were not embarrassed by them.

 

Churches always say that they are welcoming.  But no matter how much this is true or not, churches are always tested.  It might be the teenager with autism that sometimes starts yelling in the middle of service while his parents have a mixture of embarrassment and concern.  It might be the transgendered person that stays in the homeless shelter for women at the church.  It could be the sex offender that has done his time in prison and tries to reconnect in the community.  Time and time again, our faith communities are tested.  How do we really welcome everyone?  Do we understand what welcoming everyone means?

 

In today’s text; Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before they are sent on their mission.  Jesus is tells them straight up that they have to put Christ and God’s kingdom first before family.  I always love the translation of the text found in the Message Bible and this time it does not disappoint.  “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy,” the passage begins.  Following Jesus was going to be hard and it would test our relationships with our family and friends.  People would not understand that you are putting Jesus first, so be prepared. Jesus says, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”

 

When Jesus calls us like he called the disciples, Jesus is telling us to learn from him.  This process of learning how to be Christlike has name-discipleship.

 

That word has always confused me.  When I do think of it, I think of people reading their Bibles at 5AM or people who are known by what they don’t do: don’t drink, don’t smoke and so on.  Nothing is wrong with reading our Bibles or trying to live a chaste life.  It’s just that discipleship can seem so hard, so impossible.  How can any of us emulate Jesus?  Wasn’t he perfect?  While I hate to admit my weaknesses, I’m sure that I am not perfect and neither are any of you.

 

But here’s the thing, we might be called at times to do difficult things, like those who took part in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, all the while facing angry mobs of people.  But most of the time, it involves doing a small thing.  This is why Jesus talked about how great an act was of giving someone a cup of water.  Jesus didn’t say you need to go live in a yurt in Mongolia.  Jesus said give someone a cup of water.  We will face the more challenging aspects of discipleship, but we start right here with some H2O in a styrofoam cup.  When we do something like welcoming the Ernies and Kevins of the world we are doing more than just being nice.  We are representing who God is, a God that loves us all, good and bad, straight and gay, Democrat and Republican and so on. When we start with cold water, don’t be surprised if you start doing other things.  Once we learn to welcome people, it can be hard to stop.

 

My full-time job during the week is working as the IT guy at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist in Minneapolis.  At one end of the church building, there is a small chapel named Border Chapel.  Across from the doors to the chapel is a display.  You learn that the chapel was named after a church Border Methodist Church in Minneapolis.  Border was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown.  At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway.  This could have been where the story ends; the church closes.  However, it doesn’t.  A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church.  Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers  at Border.  Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin.  What was the big deal of this invite?  This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated.  Whites went to one church, blacks to others.  What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal.  Things like this just weren’t done.

 

The display has articles from the New York Times about this event.  This was huge.  There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display.  On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused.  As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members.  A cup of cold water made the difference.

 

This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.  Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today.  The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray.  As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”

 

I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay.  It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God.  A cup of cold water makes all the difference.

 

Jesus calls us to be disciples.  God doesn’t start by telling us to go to seminary and learn Greek.  No, God starts by calling us to do simple things; like welcoming a person with developmental disability, or a person dealing with mental illness, or people of a different race or ethnic group or someone who is gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender.  If we can welcome one these children of God, then we are well on our way as faithful disciples of Jesus.

 

A cup of cold water can make all the difference.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Why We Worship

IMG_0740One of my first memories is being a kindergartener at St. Agnes Catholic School in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  We would line up and leave the school building to enter the church building.  The sanctuary was wonderland for five-year-old me.  Banners were placed at the front of room indicating what time of the liturgical year it was or to help us give praise to God.  It was 1975, so this was when the Catholic folk mass was in high gear.  The whole experience was exciting and I wanted to come back.

I couldn’t say that about my regular church.

My parents and I went to New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Flint which is an African American congregation.  Now, there was some excitement at times when people were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and started screaming and dancing.  But the services were anywhere from 2-3 hours long.  Then there were the Sundays where there was the regular 11:00AM service, followed by the 4:00PM service and then the 7:00PM service.  This meant trying to sit through some very long sermons that I never really understood.  Aside from the screaming and yelling, the sermons were long and seemed boring to me.

Worship is a vital part of our Christian faith, no matter if it excites us or bores us to tears.  It’s also vital to churches like ourselves that are redeveloping themselves for the new times we live in.

There is a temptation in the effort to be relevant to not focus on worship, but mission.  The seeming prevailing wisdom is that we should be involved with mission with worship having a supporting role- if it has a role at all.

Pastor Kazimierz Bem thinks we have this all backward.  If we are looking to revive our faith it has to start with worship. This is how he describes worship and how it influences mission:

Worship is a central act of proclamation of God’s grace to us — in preaching and in faithful administration of sacraments. It needs to be robust, faithful, engaging — but its focus must be the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, God’s free, abundant, deep grace and love shown for us on the cross.

Yes, service is vital. I agree with Nicholas Wolterstorff that service is the part of worship after the assembly disperses into their daily lives. But unless our service is grounded in worship and an understanding that what we do is in gratitude for what God has done for us first, then we will end up as the all-too-familiar “Church of revolving doors.”

Do read the rest of the article when you have the chance.

As we continue to retool our churches for the 21st century, we need to be mindful that the central part of our faith community has to be worship, that time when we encounter God and give God praise.

First Christian-St. Paul is not giving up our commitment to service.  We are making a difference in Washington County.  But it has to be grounded in our worship, in the time when we meet God through the bread and the wine, through the preaching of the Word and through the melodies of music.

Let’s go to worship God!

Big Me and Little Jesus

roadtocharacterOver the years, I’ve noticed a change on social media.  When I started writing on LiveJournal about 15 years ago, the circles of friends were fairly open about their lives.  They wouldn’t share their deepest secrets with everybody, but they would with a certain group.  There was nothing exhibitionist about it- it was just everyday people sharing the struggles of everyday life.

Blogs were the same way.  People were willing to share their imperfections and questions.  The posts were filled with nuance and reason.

But over, say the last 5 to 7 years, something happened.  Social media became less personal.  Social platforms like Facebook and Twitter became more showrooms that presented a more cleaned up and perfect version of the self.  People tend to make more statements instead of  asking questions.  Every one seems happy online; on a few occasions someone isn’t so perfect and that is reflected in a post or tweet, but it is a longing to be the norm on social media the perfect self with the perfect family.

Being a church communicator, I’ve been hawking the importance of social media for years.  I still think that is important for churches to be on social media, but we need to be more aware of what social media, at least the most current version of social media is doing to us as a culture and as a church. Because, like any bit of technology it is changing us.

Social Media has at times made the church less a place of sinners saved by grace than a place where people try to present themselves as correct.  Liberal and conservative Christians focus less on their frailty, their temptation to sin and more on presenting their viewpoint/ideology as the superior one to the other side.  I don’t hear people sharing their uncertainties and questions as much as making a case for their side.

While polemicists on the left, right and center tend to roll their eyes when they hear commentator David Brooks speak, more often than not, Brooks has his finger on what is going on in culture on what has changed for good or for ill.  His latest book, the Road to Character, talks about how as a society we have become focused on resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues.  Resume virtues are the skills and experiences that fit on a resume.  Places like Facebook and Twitter are places you will find resume virtues.

Eulogy virtues are those things that people will say about you when you are gone.  More often than not, this is what you will still find in obituaries and on social media sites like Caring Bridge.

Resume virtues are part of what Brooks calls the culture of “Big Me” a resume or highlight reel of your life which shows just the good parts.  “Big Me” is looking at yourself as larger than life.  Brooks shares a set of statistics from the 1950s and from more recent times:

My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors: Are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005 and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves, and I think the starting point of trying to build inner goodness is to be a little bit smaller about yourself.

This is what I’ve seen in the shift in social media.  When I was on LiveJournal circa 2001, it was basically about sharing the ordinariness of our lives.  Fifteen years later on Facebook we see Big Me in action, where we show all the successful parts of our lives and leave the darker aspects of living behind. Brooks expounds on this in a New York Times column:

We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.

But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

So where is God in all of this?

I think in the culture of Big Me, God become less the Savior or Father, than the God of Moral Therapeutic Deism, a God that wants us to be happy, but not one that challenges us to be better. We get churches where we are affirmed, but never to be better, more virtuous.  We get churches where we don’t talk about sin (or at least we don’t talk about our sin, the sin of that guy down the street, though…) but we talk about how to be successful.

Brooks believes we needs to recover and older moral frame-work one that uses religious words and concepts:

There are certain words that have been passed down through the generations that we’ve sort of left behind. And some of them have quasi-religious connotations, but I don’t think they need to. Those are words like grace — the idea that we’re loved more than we deserve — redemption and sin. We now use the word sin in the context of fattening desserts, but it used to be central in the vocabulary, whether you’re religious or not; an awareness that we all sin and we all have the same sins — selfishness, self-centeredness. And I think rediscovering that word is an important task because without that you’re just too egotistical. You don’t realize how broken we all are at some level.

Maybe as Christians we need to start engaging and changing the nature of social media instead of letting it change us.  We need to talk more about our own sin and brokeness; not in a tell-all kind of way, but in honesty.  We have to present ourselves as saved by God’s grace and not through merit.  We have to be willing to show the cracks in our armor, to show we aren’t all that and a bag of chips.  We have to be about proclaiming a culture of Big God instead of Big Me.

Social media today  has had the effect of alienating me from my friends.  I don’t care as much about knowing what you had for dinner or your last trip as much as what is your story.  I need to be more honest about who I am and to hell if it doesn’t look good on a resume.

Social media has its place in our society.  But let’s make it a place that is little less about celebrating ourselves and more about telling our stories because we need to hear them.

Up On A Roof

Acts 10: 1–48 | Third Sunday of Easter | April 19, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“There is something about the song up on a roof.  It’s about escaping the cares of the world to enter this sanctuary of peace.  I think Peter was hoping for the same thing that day on the roof.  But God had other plans.  The roof wasn’t a place to get away from it all.”

Read the sermon text.


Sermon: What If?

Matthew 28:1–10 | Easter Sunday | April 5, 2015 | First Christian Church |Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching



“As we carry our own Good Friday crosses here to church this morning, we
can have hope that these crosses, death, loss, sadness, none of these
things have the last word. God will show up in the most unexpected time
and give us hope of a better day.”

Read the sermon text.

Sermon: Breaking Borders

Matthew 26:17-30 | Maundy Thursday | April 2, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching

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