Sermon: Out of the Saltshaker

Matthew 5:1–20
Work of Christmas Series
Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 25, 2015

First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

“Those of us who follow Jesus are called to leave the saltshakers of our own making and do good works for the glory of God in the wider world.  We don’t do good works to find God, we do good works to honor God.”

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Reverend Loser

Loser_by_mysticalphaEvery so often, more often than I’d like to admit, I get this feeling that I am a failure- especially when it comes to this pastor thing.

I’ve been at my church for a little over a year.  I think I’ve done a lot to help the congregation and to encourage them.  I think this church is at a different place than it was last year.  And yet, there is the feeling that I am not doing a good job, not good enough.

Part of this is dealing with some issues that took place in my life a few years ago that I am still trying to get past.  But mostly, I feel like I haven’t done enough to attract new members.

I’m probably not alone in thinking this way.  A lot of us do various things to help increase the visibility of our congregations.  We engage in social media.  We improve the church website.  We host community events.  And the result is…not many people darken our doors.

For me especially, it’s been frustrating.  I’ve been trying to establish relationships with those who left the church just before I came.  I’ve written, called and done everything short of showing up at their doorstep (and no, I am not trying that).  I may have to just give up trying to extend a hand to them.  I know that I’ve done the best I could, but I know that there is that voice somewhere that says I’m not good enough.    If I were better, I would have made contact with them and woo them back to the church.

Then there is this feeling that I’m not reaching out to the community.  If I were more outgoing, then maybe things would be better.  Maybe if I didn’t have Aspergers, I would be better able to communicate with others and then there would be more members.  I would be like that other pastor who can announce an event and 50 people show up.

All of this is nonsense to some extent.  Some of the problems facing First Christian started before I came there. Some things are the result of changes in culture.  But when few people show up to an event, or when few visitors show up to worship the questions always come flooding back.

If you want to know why so many pastors end up leaving the ministry, it’s because we tend to think that the success or failure of a church is all on us.  Pastors end up shouldering a lot of responsibility on themselves.

In the end, I have to accept some grace.  I am not all that.  All I can do is be faithful.  I try to do a good job, try to encourage the congregation, but in the end it is all on God.  It’s God that I have to trust in, but that’s hard.  I think we pastors are taught or at least we think, that we have to be demigods. I think God has to sometimes hit pastors upside the head and say to them “there is only one God baby, and you are not it.”

First-St. Paul might grow numerically and it might not. I am hoping for the former and that has been my prayer.  But in the end, it is up to God.  My job is to preach God’s hope to the people and hope they will see God at work in the world.

I just need to tell myself this over and over.

Sermon: “The Tale of the Lady and the Prayer Shawl”

John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 11, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN


IMG_1216It’s Springtime and that means that it’s time for the  spring pledge drive on public radio.  Now, I love listening to Minnesota Public Radio and I’ve been a supporter for about a decade.  I get that public radio and television in the United States is not funded totally by the government, but mostly by donations from listeners.  But every time I hear that the pledge drive is coming, I get sullen.  I’m sad because I know that the this pledge drive is going to take away from hearing some of my favorite programs.  I love listening to Morning Edition in the morning and All Things Considered in the evening.  During a pledge drive, there is a high chance that I will have my news program interuppted time and time again by people asking for money and telling me all the fabulous thank you gifts I could get, If I just called 1-800-227-2811.  After hearing this over and over, I start finding another radio station that isn’t having a pledge drive.


But even though pledge drives bother me, I know why it is done.  I love the great reporting at both the local and national level.  I love all the interesting shows.  I know that the money I donate goes to support good things.


In churches we have something that similar, yet different- the stewardship drive.  Every year we have people talk about what the church means to them and each year people choose to give a certain amount of money per year to support the church.  I have wondered at times if we gave people gifts when they pledge- maybe they get a free mug or tote bag.


More than once, pastors have thought about how stewardship to the church and a public radio pledge drive are similar.  But are they the same?  Is church the same as listening to Nina Totenberg?


Why does church matter?  Why is that we come to this building every Sunday morning and spend a few hours there?  Why do people not only give their money, but also give their time to this community?  What makes church so special?  Do we need church?

The second chapter of Acts is one of the best known in Scripture.  The chapter begins with Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit comes down on the disciples of Jesus.  Peter gets the courage to tell the story of Jesus which led to 3000 persons joining the disciples in this new thing called the church.


Towards the end of the chapter we see this passage, one of my favorite.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.”  This passage is one of community and it is in many ways it is the defination of what church is all about.  No, I am not going to tell you to sell everything and live in a commune somewhere. As far as I know, no other faith community ever did things like this.  But it does tell you what church should be.  The church is a place where we learn together on what it means to be Christians through Sunday School and Bible Studies.  The church is a place where we break bread and engage in fellowship or potluck. A church is a place where we don’t see our obessions as just for us, but they are to be used for God’s service.  It is a place where we help those in our community who need help.


Why does church matter?  A few years ago, a pastor in the Chicago suburbs wrote a column that sparked a bit of controversy.  She wrote an article called “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  As you can guess from the title, Lillian Daniel  has a problem  with a type of person that doesn’t go to church, but can see God in sunsets.  I’d like to share a shortened version of the article.


On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.


Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?


Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.


Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

Church matters because it is the only way we can understand this crazy thing called faith.  It is a place where we can be called out if we are out of bounds.  It is a place where we learn from each other and help each other in our belief in Jesus.  It tells us that we are not the center of the universe, but we are called to be sent out and work in Christ name to bring healing and wholeness in this world.


I want to end with a story of someone that I learned a lot from.  Her name is Dorothy and she died a few weeks ago at age 92.  When I started at First Christian in 2008, I came in contact with Dorothy.  She wasn’t able to get to church on regular basis anymore, but she did come to the Thursday meeting Handcrafters, a group of women who come together to make various crafts.  Dorothy was leading an effort to make prayer shawls for people.  She wanted to get the shawls delivered to persons who needed a gentle touch in their lives. It was an effort, but we were able to get the Elders involved in delivering the shawls.  But these women all in their 80s and 90s, made caps for the homeless and every new baby got a prayer shawl as well.


What I learned from Dorothy is that you might retire from work, but you don’t retire from doing God’s mission.  And I learned that mission isn’t a solitary activity.  Mission is a time where the community comes together to do something to the glory of God.


This is why church matters.  We are not a holy version of the Rotary Club.  We are people who gather together to learn from each other about Jesus and is sent into the world to announce God’s kingdom.


Hopefully this fall, we will be having a stewardship drive.  No, we won’t be giving out tote bags if you pledge.  But I hope you will be reminded that this church is a place that the outside world can see God at work and will join us in being church together.


If you look in my office, there is a prayer shawl sitting in my chair.  I had forgotten that Dorothy had given me a shawl of my own.  I was looking in the closet one day and saw the bag the shawl was in.  With her recent passing in my mind, I took it with me to church.  It’s a reminder to me of a saint who taught me that being a disciple has no age limit.


What does church mean to you?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Sermon: “Waiting to Exhale”

Here’s a sermon I preached in 2007 on Pentecost Sunday.

“Waiting to Exhale”
Act 2:1-21
May 27, 2007 (Pentecost Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN


When I was about two years old, I was diagnosed with asthma.  From about age two until maybe age 9, I dealt with constant asthma attacks where I had hard time breathing.  I can remember sitting in the doctor’s office of Dr. Cory Cookingham, who was my allergy and asthma doctor, who would sometimes have to give me a shot of adrenalin to open up my constricted lungs.  More than once he worried if this didn’t work, that the hospital would be the next stop.

Growing up as a kid with asthma was not fun in the early 70s.  I still had a pretty full childhood, but there were things I was limited in doing.  My made sure all the schools I attended were clean and not dusty so as not to trigger an attack.  I remember when I was very young, not playing outdoors again for fear of an attack.

As I got older the spectre of asthma grew smaller.  I was able to play outdoors and have fun, no longer fearful for another attack.  In fact I went without an asthma attack for eight years until the summer I graduated high school.  I still have attacks few and far between, but I do carry an inhaler just in case. Continue reading

Discipleship or Consumerism?

seedA few days ago, I was at a church retreat.  In response to a question on what challenges the church is facing, a woman remarked that one challenge is how people don’t really want to get involved in church.  They don’t see it as a life, as much as a place where they can get their needs met and be on their way.

I was glad to see someone in the pews notice this.  It’s been a growing frustration of mine over the years.  Pastors are pushed in many ways to try to make their churches appealing to folk, especially the oh-so-important Millenial crowd.  We are told that younger folks are not interested in serving on committees.  We are told they want to do mission.  We are told they want a church that is welcoming to LGBT folk.  So, we try to do everything to try to attract people: we offer more mission opportunities.  We push for our churches to be Open and Affirming.  We try to make our worship experiences more hip.  There is nothing wrong in trying to be hospitable and welcoming.  I’m not saying we don’t engage in mission and I most definitely am not saying churches should not welcome LGBT persons.  But there is a danger in that we start to trade the call to discipleship, the call of Jesus to follow him and replace it with a slick marketing message in order to gain market share among a certain demographic.

Again, nothing wrong with churches doing marketing; that is my trade.  But there is something wrong about replacing the hard message of becoming a disciple of Jesus for an easy message that tries to get people in the pews.

Methodist pastor Ben Godson reminds us that churches need to engage their local communities instead of trying the latest fad:

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

Every pastor or church board chair wants to see more people involved in the life of their churches.  We are all desiring some kind of trick to make our congregations grow and thrive.  Of course we need to make sure we aren’t placing barriers that prevents growth, but we need to have faith that God will cause the growth to happen at a church.  What we are called to do is to help those who want to follow Jesus is to help them become better followers of Christ; in short, we need to make disciples.

Discipleship isn’t sexy and it can be slow.  It’s not something that people are going to flock to.  But I have to think the benefits are longer lasting than having the latest, coolest worship service.

Even as Minnesotans await a big snow (in May?), I get excited around this time of year because it means I get to plant flowers.  Now, I am not a great gardener.  Actually, I kinda suck.  I’m getting better at it and the flowers I planted last year are slowly coming up.  This year, I will water the plants, put some more mulch in the garden.  There is no shortcut to a good garden, it just takes time.

The same goes with discipleship.  It will take time.  Some people won’t be interested and that’s okay.  But if we want strong followers of Jesus Christ, we will take the time and not be so uptight.  We are called to make disciples, not consumers.

Ashes to Ashes…We All Fall Down.

Like many people, I’ve been rather surprised to hear that Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend.

The South African athelete, who is a double amputee, is known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon fiber legs and his speed.  Pistorius was a symbol that persons with disabilities can achieve great feats, like being a world champion runner.  Yes, he was to use that tired cliche, an inspiration.  He helped put the Paralympics on the map, helping us to see it as a serious sporting event on par with its sister event, the Olympics.

I remember watching him run in the quarterfinals during the London Olympics.  He didn’t get farther than the quarterfinals, but even in that he was a winner.

So, it’s shocking to see him brought low, quite possibly by his own actions.

oscar-pistorius-running-in-the-olympicsWe’ve seen to have a run of sports figures who have been revealed to be human after all.  Besides Pistorius, there’s Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire…and I could go on.

It would be easy to look at all this with a sense of contempt.  We can look at sports figures or priests and shake a waging finger at them thinking we are glad we aren’t like them.

Except that we are.  More than we care to admit.

Ash Wednesday was this past week. This is the one day where we have to face not only our finitude, but the fact that all is not well with us.  No, I haven’t killed someone, or covered up child abuse or cheated on my partner or taken performance enhancing drugs. But more often than not, I have cut corners or looked the other way when someone was doing something that wasn’t right.  As the old pop song goes, I’m not that innocent.

Laurie Feille, the Senior Pastor at First Christian, preached from Luke 22 this past Wednesday.  It was an odd text to use since this tends to be passage we don’t hear until Holy Week.  But we heard the story of Peter’s denial and of the rooster crowing and something else, that of Jesus looking at Peter.  I’ve never given that much thought, but Jesus looks at Peter.  The fisherman couldn’t hide.  He was caught.

That sense of being found out is what seems so central to the time of Lent.  It’s not about beating ourselves up or saying we are no good, but it is about realizing how fallible we are, how we can be so good one moment, and beastly the next.

But maybe having Jesus look at us can also be freeing.  Maybe it can mean we don’t have to play games, pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.  Maybe we can reach out for help, instead thinking we can make it on our own.  Maybe it can mean laying down the burden of keep up appearances.

Amy Butler is the Senior Pastor or Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  (I was a member of the congregation in the mid 90s.)  She has this to say about Ash Wednesday at her urban congregation:

…our urban congregation spends an awful lot of energy trying to get those folks through the doors, to demonstrate in real and meaningful ways that the gospel — and sometimes even the church — has something of value to offer their lives. Attractive signage, convenient scheduling, witty sermon titles, easy parking, thoughtful worship, free child care — we do the best we can to pique the interest of someone, anyone, in the stream of people who walk or drive by our building every day.

Oddly, every year it’s Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we’ve never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it’s this day — the day we focus on our sin and humanity — that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.

Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?

Reminders of the ways in which we’ve failed are all around us every day; why seek them out? But people do.

I do. And I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be — if only for a moment — honest about who we are.

Because this busy world in which we live never seems to give us a break. Like the shiny church signs advertising only exciting, intellectually stimulating topics for worship, we get up every morning challenged to convince the world that we’re worth its time.

We’re smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we’re doing. But secretly, we’re scared someone will find out that we really don’t.

I think about all of those fallen sports heroes.  It has to be hard to keep up a facade of perfection.  But then, it’s work to hide things from each other.  When Adam and Eve ate of the apple and realized they were naked, they had to spend time finding fig leaves.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are designed for us to face some hard truths about ourselves. It isn’t a happy time.  But even in this time of uncomfortable introspection, there is grace, as Butler notes.  Even in the midst of judgement, there is freedom.

No doubt I will follow what happens with Oscar Pistorius.  And I hope I will also look at myself and ask God for help, because I am more like Pistorius or Paterno or Armstrong than I care to admit.  Because we all fall down.

All of us.

About That Interview…

Some of you might have noticed that there is an article in the most recent Christian Century with a Disciples pastor in Minneapolis by the name of Dennis Sanders.  I haven’t said much about it, but I wanted to provide some background to the article.

Steve Thorngate, the editor sent me an email over the summer asking if I would take part in the magazine’s series on ministry in the 21st century.  So began a number of emails back and forth, with Steve asking some really good questions and I trying to answer them as best as I could.

I do want to say thanks to Steve for being patient as I tried to answer his questions and for giving me the chance to think about my ministry.  There are a lot of good people that have been interviewed for the series.  I don’t know if I’m at the caliber of the other ministers, but I am glad to tell my story and the story of the wonderful church that I’m honored to serve.