Evening Prayer-January 13, 2021

Since people don’t seem to read blogs anymore I have no idea if anyone is reading this particular blog. I wanted to start posting some of the daily prayer videos I’ve been doing from my church. If you are looking for something to help you with prayer, check out the Midweek Vespers. In these crazy days, we need some time to pray to God because we need it. We really need it.

This Is Who We Are

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

2020, God and Flint, Michigan

The year 2020 hasn’t ended yet. Unfortunately, we still have a few days in the year. Very few of us will be looking back fondly on this year of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million dead, tons of canceled events, massive numbers of jobs lost, racial strife, and an incredibly divisive election that did damage to democracy. There was nothing good about the year 2020.

Right?

A few years I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. As I drove down Dort Highway on the east side of town a memory came back to me. The memory was from the 1970s when I was in grade school. Up and down Dort Highway, auto carrier trucks would lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on this side of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back to me forty years later because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. They hadn’t driven on that road for years. It was a reminder that things had changed.

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

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. One of the times the state intervened led to the now-infamous Flint Water Crisis where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

I’m a minister, so it’s not a surprise I would go to the Bible to see if there are any parallel situations we could learn from. Turns out there is a powerful example. The Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 585BC. It was a Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a faraway land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folks decide to make the journey back.

The Israelites return to find Jerusalem in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. When the people of Israel came together at this momentous occasion, something interesting happened. Among the young who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple, there was excitement. They now were home and had a place to worship God.

Image for post
Flint’s 235-acre complex known as Buick City was in operation from 1904 until 1999. The facility was demolished in the early aughts. Public domain.

But the older Israelites were sad. They knew of the splendor of Jerusalem of old. They had memories of the old temple and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, they could only feel a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. The days when Israel was a free and prosperous nation were long gone. They had to live in this new reality, and it paled in comparison to their memories.

Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed and it can be quite painful. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand), it was hard to face reality. That’s why 2020 has been so difficult. These days people cling to familiar or live in extreme denial. Everything that we once knew, everything that seemed certain is now no gone. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

But nostalgia is tricking us. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We can’t regain the past, we can only reach for the future. Easier said than done.

While we can’t go back in time, and neither could those Israelites. When we go back to that festival in the book of Ezra, we find something interesting. The cries of joy and pain were so that no one could tell the difference. The passage never says that the old Israelites were wrong to weep. It just says they weep. They are happy to be back home after decades away and they are hopeful in seeing a rebuilt temple even if it isn’t as grand as the old temple. But in the midst of their joy is a lot of pain. For them, this wasn’t a time that was simply joy or simply pain, it was both. It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet. What better word could define 2020? We’ve lost a lot in 2020. There is nothing wrong in grieving for that which we lost. We mourn because we can’t be near the ones we love. We mourn because we live in a new reality that pales in comparison to the old. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is one that has changed all of our lives and we are left with a lot of bitterness because we have lost the life we once had and maybe people we loved.

Image for post
Volunteers in Minneapolis clean up the ruins of an Arby’s restaurant that was burned down in the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

But there is also sweetness in this year that we see as so dark. And it has truly been dark. But there have also been signs of hope in this long year. It’s the people who would clap for first responders. Or the grandmother that lives next door to me that gave up her job so she could be there for her grandchildren as they took part in distance learning. It was the army of volunteers that I saw in Minneapolis with brooms in hand trying to clean up parts of the town that were overcome by rioters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It was the communities of faith that had to learn how to pivot and become virtual overnight and still find ways to be church while apart. It was people visiting with friends over Zoom or socially distanced outside in the summer air. It’s the sign of those trucks filled with vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out of those warehouses in Michigan. There is a lot of pain to be found in 2019, but there is also much joy.

Image for post
Flint Farmers Market. September 2018. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I still miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I miss that old Flint. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story of hope that is growing up right alongside this sad story of decline. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked down the street that late summer day, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. This is still a Flint in process. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike for my hometown, but it’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. So, even when my heart sinks passing by the old Buick plant where my Dad worked for nearly 40 years and stare at a barren field, there is also a sense of hope because there is something new taking the place of the old. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like maybe my hometown will have a future, after all. It’s just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to. There is sadness at what has been lost, but a slight sense of wonder about the green shoots starting to appear.

We need to grieve what has been lost in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have joy as well. Life is many times a mix of happy and sad times. We need to feel them both.

Featured image: The first Chevy Corvettes roll of the line in Flint, Michigan- June 1953. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

This essay originally appeared at Medium.

Everything and Nothing At All.

Every Wednesday, I do a Midweek Vespers video where we come together for prayer and reflection. I will start posting them here on Wednesdays. Below is today’s video.

Midweek Vespers is a time when we gather to reflect and pray for our world. Join us each Wednesday at 5:30 PM Central fccsaintpaul.org

This week’s episode: From Matthew 19, Jesus meets a well-to-do young man who asks what he needs to do to have eternal life. Jesus’ answer? Everything and nothing at all.

Jesus drives a hard bargain, doesn’t he?  A young man comes by to ask what he can do to obtain eternal life.  Jesus repeats back to him the law, which the young man said he had followed since he was a child?  Then, Jesus asks him to sell all he has to poor and then follow Jesus.  That was too much for the young man who walked away sad.  

One of the questions that I have is why did the young man ask the question anyway? He had followed the law, but he seemed to think he was still not doing something right.  When Jesus throws him for a loop, that is usually interpreted as his holding on too much to his possessions.  There is some truth to that, but what if this is also showing that using the law as a checklist will never bring salvation.  The young man did everything that was required of him, but when Jesus told him to give everything to the poor, he realized how high the cost would be and for him the cost was far too much.

Jesus didn’t come to get rid of the law, but to bring it to fulfillment.  Using the law in the way the young man did would never bring the righteousness he longed for.  Jesus was asking him to see the law in a different way- as a relationship with God and with his neighbors. The grace of Jesus Christ doesn’t take away the law, it helps us to see it in a different way.  

A rich man can’t enter heaven, not without the grace of Jesus.  The young man believed he could do it with his hard work under the law. But that wasn’t going to work when it asked so much of him.  

So, what about us?  We still tend to  think that doing things is what brings us salvation.  However, it is only Jesus that can save us.  The apostle Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 13 that even if he gave everything it would not amount to much.  “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  

Grace doesn’t do away with the law, but it changes its meaning.  Following the law is about relationship and not about getting brownie points.  We can get off the treadmill that keeps us trying to please God and others and enter into the gracious love of Jesus.

What must you do to gain eternal life? Everything and nothing at all.