Sermon: Let Jesus Be Jesus

Matthew 16:13-20
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 24, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

youngjusticeI’ve always had an interest in superheroes.  Which is kind of odd, because I tend not to buy comic books or as they are now called, graphic novels.  I know friends that have boxes of comics from years past, but that’s not me.  No, the way that I found out about superheroes was through TV, specifically, the SuperFriends- a light-hearted take on the Justice League which ran on ABC at various times in the 1970s starting in 1973.  Then it was watching the live-action series “Wonder Woman” and the “Incredible Hulk.”

 

In the years following college, I would catch an animated version of the X-Men and during the seminary I was loved watching Batman Beyond,  a futuristic take on on the Dark Knight.  And yes, I still watch superheroes in the movies and on television.  I watch shows like “Arrow” which is a take on the comic book hero, the Green Arrow; Young Justice which focuses on the sidekicks of famous heroes, and well, there are more, but I think that’s enough for you all to know for now.

 

I think that I am fascinated by superheroes because the stories can sometimes take on things that are taking place in the wider culture.  I like the X-Men because the story makes these superheroes are not treated like superheroes by the wider culture.  In fact, they are seen as threats hence why they are referred to as mutants.  Since I was coming out during that time period, I could see X-men as an allegory to how LGBT persons are accepted in society- or not. Comics can also allude to the changing demographics of a society.  Earlier this month, Marvel Comics announced that the next Captain America was going to be African American.  The character is currently one of the current Captain America’s superhero associates, Falcon. Falcon was considered one of Marvel’s first black heroes when he was introduced in the late 1960s and assume the identity of superhero that embodies the American ideal represents the changes take place in the United States.

 

Superheroes tend to have aliases.  Sometimes they want to keep their other identity a secret. Batman was actually billionaire Bruce Wayne. When Superman wasn’t saving the world, he was Clark Kent, a journalist.  Very few people around them actually know of their secret identities.  I think comic books and television use a ton of suspended disbelief in thinking that a mask around people eyes will prevent them from knowing who they are, but for some reason people buy it.

 

Because these heroes didn’t tell people who they were, people became curious.  Who are these people?  Is it someone they know?  What was it that people said after meeting the Lone Ranger: who was that masked man? Regular folk just want to meet their hero and find out about them.  There are some that see them as a threat to society and they want to expose them before they cause more trouble.

 

Superheroes can remind people of how we relate to God: a mysterious powerful creature that seems to want the best for us.  Some just want to meet God and learn more about God, while others see God as a threat to their way of living. Continue reading “Sermon: Let Jesus Be Jesus”

Sermon: Things Fall Apart

Genesis 45:1-15 and Matthew 15:10-28
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 17, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

thingsfallapartrootsHow is your heart today?

 

You could answer that in two ways.  The first way is probably literal.  How are you doing healthwise?  Are you eating right?  Are you getting enough sleep?

 

As a society, we are obsessed with health, even when we don’t act like we care.  We are told we are to heavy need to go to the gym.  We are told we eat poorly and try the latest fad to get to health.  We’ve quit smoking.  We are doing everything we can to keep our hearts healthy. I try to go to the gym twice a week, and try to walk as much as a I can daily.  I’ve also gained all the weight I lost a year ago, but I still do what I can to keep my heart healthy.

 

But heart can also talk about our whole being, not just the muscle in the center of our chest.  And looking at the news from the past week, humanity’s heart is not doing so well.  Events like the shooting of Michael Brown, an African American man from Ferguson, a Saint Louis suburb by the local police have shocked us.  Islamic extremist have taken one of the world’s great faiths and turned into a murderous ideology that kills anyone from a different faith or who don’t follow Islam in the same way they do.  And then there was the tragic death of actor Robin Williams.  A funny man that we learned took his own life after battling depression for years.

 

In Matthew’s gospel we see Jesus first talking the crowd.  He calls out the Pharisees for their concern of rules like ritual handwashing, but very little concern about what really defiles a person.  There was no concern for the inner life of a person. Continue reading “Sermon: Things Fall Apart”

Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End

I Kings 19:1-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 10, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Podcast.

YMCA
A postcard of the YMCA in Flint, MI. I took swimming lessons here in the 1970s.

I’ve shared some stories in the past of my taking swimming lessons when I was growing up.  I would take lessons sometimes at the local YMCA and at the YWCA which was just down the street.  Most of the time we took lessons, we practiced in the shallow end.  Being seven or eight meant that the shallow end was already a challenge.  But at least I could touch the bottom of the pool.

What scared me was trying to swim in the deep end.  I can remember treading water out towards the middle of the pool feeling the pool’s floor slipping away from me.  At some point, I couldn’t touch anything other than the water that was surrounding me.  It felt like I was like an acrobat; working without a net.

Then there would come that day when we would work at the deep end, learning how to dive into a pool.  I would make my dive, scared that I wouldn’t be able to get to poolside fast.

But I was able to do my dives on the deep end. Albeit with me probably bawling up a storm.

As much as I hated swimming in the deep end, I had to learn this skill.  I had to learn this because the reality is that we will spend a good majority of our time in waters that can be very deep.  We have to stop clinging to the pool floor and step out in faith.  You have to believe that the skills you have learned will keep you afloat will be enough. Continue reading “Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End”

Sermon: “Better Living Through Grace”

Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, Romans 8:1-11, Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13
July 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
 

 

dupontWhen I was growing up in Michigan, I would always see these commercials on TV that made no sense to me. As most of you know, my hometown in Flint, Michigan, a small city known for its many auto plants. Flint is smack dab in the middle of two important parts of the state. To our south is the Detroit Metro Area, and we get a lot of the Detroit stations as well as the TV station from nearby Windsor, Ontario. To our north, are three small cities known as the Tri Cities and the agricultural region of the state. Flint also picked up those stations as well. It was during a certain time of the year, when I was watching some program on that particular station, that I would see it: an ad for Roundup.

 

I had no idea what this was. What did they mean that this product would give better yields? What was quackgrass?

 

For those of you who come from rural areas, you know that Roundup is a herbicide that farmers use to keep weeds from damaging their crops. But to a city kid like me, this meant nothing. For farmers, this was important, since a bad weed or a bug, could wipe out their crop and hence their income for the year.

 

Today’s Gospel text is a parable. Through the Gospels, the name we give for the first four books of the New Testament, we see Jesus using stories of everyday people doing everyday things as a clue to what God’s kingdom is about. Too often, though we tend to look at these parables, if not the entire Bible as a book of morals, a guide to show us how to live. Some people use the Bible in this way to lash out against those who don’t follow what they think is a moral way. Others see the Bible as a way to gain wisdom and to lead a good life. However, both assumptions are wrong. The Bible is not here to tell us how to live. Instead, it tells us about who God is, and what God’s kingdom is all about. If we become godly people because of this, great, but that isn’t the main point of the Bible.

 

Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.

 

Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.

 

You would be wrong.

 

The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.

 

So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?

 

That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.

 

This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.

 

We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”

 

But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.

 

My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.

 

But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.

 

And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.

 

Years ago, the chemical manufactuer Dupont, used to have a slogan that went “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I propose that as followers of Christ, we enter a life of “Better Living Through Grace.”   God’s grace is abundant, and we need to enter into that reality-one where scarcity doesn’t exist. Amen.

Sermon: “The Interactive Church”

I preached this on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in 2008, which is also called Good Shepherd Sunday.

Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10
April 13, 2008 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I’ll admit it; I’m a geek.

friendsbreakbreadSome of you know I wrote the main article in this month’s church newsletter. It’s called “Church 2.0.” I talked about how my job as a communications specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area has used my knowledge of blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace has changed how we communicate with each other.

I’ve been working with blogs and social networking sites for several years and they have helped me create new relationships that would have been impossible in the past. I’ve made true friendships over the Internet with people from across the nation. Heck, I even met my partner Daniel through an online dating service.

What I find interesting is how this information revolution is changing society and what clues it has for the church, especially the mainline church and specifically, Lake Harriet. As I just said, this brave new world of blogs, podcasts and interactive web pages, is forming relationships where none might have ever existed. I am reminded that Tammy Rottschafer the Associate Pastor here at Lake Harriet has reminded me over and over that being church is about relationships. God may just well be calling us as a faith community to be more of an “interactive church,” a place that connects and relates with each other, with the outside world, and with God.

In the Second chapter of Acts, we are given a brief description of the nacsent church. It was just after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as flames of fire. Peter testified about Jesus and the scripture says 3,000 joined this new community that day. The passage that was read today, is about the day-to-day life of the church after that day. It’s a short passage, but I think it packs a wallop. The devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, they held all things in common and helped those in need, the broke bread together, had glad and generous hearts and praised God. The result of all this is that their community grew daily.

While this all happened long ago, I see a lot of today in this passage. This is a church that is interactive. Like working on a weblog, there are people relating to each other. This passage isn’t telling us that we need to be exactly like this church, but it does describe what the church should be about.

The church is called to be a place where we are devoted to learn to be a follower of Christ. The church is a place where we have fellowship with each other, where we care and love each other. The church is a place where we realize that our material possessions are not the goal in our lives, but to use what we have to help those in need, especially those in our community, but also those outside of it. The church is a place where we come together and break bread in table fellowship together, realizing that it is Christ that calls us to the table regardless of who we are. The church is a place where we are happy in Christ and are generous to friends and strangers.

Notice it doesn’t say that a church needs to have a pastor that will bring in more people, or have an awesome sound system, or a brand spanking new building. What IS needed is a visible faith community living in the light of Christ.

You know, as compact as this passage is: being a journalist by training, I could sum this up in about five words: “the church is about hospitality.”

If you read this passage over and over, what becomes apparent is that this new church was a place where people where caring to each other and to strangers. They fellowshipped, they broke bread together, they helped each other. They were caring with each other and people noticed. That’s why their community grew and grew.

As many of you know, I was the pastor of a new church for several years. It ended up closing or as I like to say, it was shelved for the time being. For a long time, I was lead to believe that to be a growing church, you needed to do things that would attract people. So, we had these innovative services that were supposed to pack them in and it didn’t. I remember wondering what I had done wrong. We were an open and affirming community, meaning we were openly welcoming of gays and lesbians, and yet that didn’t do a lot to bring people in.

What I learned from that experience is that I failed to really have relationships with people. For many people who had been burned by the church because of their sexual orientation, it didn’t really matter if we were Open and Affirming if we didn’t have relationships and chats over coffee with gay and lesbians and be Christ to them.

This church is going through change and getting ready to start a new journey as a church. I don’t know if I am in a position to offer words of advice, but I will any way. Remember that being church is not about having some hotshot pastor or big programs. It’s about relationships, it’s about hospitality. It’s about what we do during prayer time here and on Wednesday evenings, when we pray for our friends here in church and around the world. It’s when we give flowers on the table to someone in the hospital or a stranger as a sign of friendship. It’s when we pack food packets that go to feed the hungry. It’s when we welcome people regardless of sexual orientation even if we don’t understand it all. It’s about developing relationships with those who cross our path and showing them Christ in our lives, not to convert them (the Holy Spirit does that), but to be a living witness of who Christ is.

Today is what has generally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. We read from John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. We read from Psalm 23 which talks about God being our Shepherd that is always with us. In the past, I always looked at this passage as being about God being the shepherd and that we sheep are to be good followers. But I now see it as God in relation with God’s church. God cares for us and looks after us in ways we can’t imagine, because God is in love with us; God has a relationship with us. As a community that is loved by the God of the universe, we are called to care for one another- not because it’s something we have to do, but because it’s who we are. And when people see us living as a Christ-led, hospitable community, they will take notice.
The response we sang during the call to worship is by the hymnwriter, Marty Haugen. The song is called “Shepherd Me, O God.” The refrain says, “Shepherd me, O God; beyond my faults, beyond my needs, from death into life.”

Lake Harriet has some experience with death, with dying to old ways and to what we once were. In fact, many might even feel like we are dying now. But this song should be our prayer: that God will lead us, beyond our faults and needs from death into being the Easter people that we are.

Take heart, my friends. Know that God is with you, raising us up from death into life. And along the way, make friends, be hospitable and welcome everyone, everyone to this Table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “But We Had Hoped…”

Luke 24:13-35
Third Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2014
First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN

 

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

The_Road_To_EmmausThese are the words of John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist Church.  Wesley was going through a time of doubt and depression and while sitting in a church in England he had an encounter with Jesus.  He felt “strangely warmed” as he said.  He went into the service full of despair and left feeling he could place his trust in Christ. When most people hear this story, they focus on the whole warming of the heart.  What we tend to forget was that Wesley came in to this church a broken man.  He didn’t come in with much hope.

It was a little over ten years ago that I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  This is one of those requirements you have to do before getting ordained.  Clinical Pastoral Education is a time when your faith comes face to face with life.  You have to figure out how to be Christ in a very vulnerable moment.

I worked at Luther Hall, which was a transitional care facility.  Some of the people I met were only there for a few days after a surgery.  Others were there for a longer stay.  I remember one of my first visits was to stop by the room of a patient.  He was unconscious and this family was all around him.  The man had a brain tumor it didn’t look like he was going to make it.  However, the wife kept saying that he was going to get better.  This was hard for me.  I couldn’t just be frank and tell them he wasn’t going get better.  I couldn’t  pray that he would be miraculously healed.  I was facing a moment where there seemed to be no hope.  I did the best I could to not do something that would offend them.

How do you minister to someone when there is no hope things will get better?  Those events happened thirteen years ago and I still don’t have a really good answer.

The this story about the Road to Emmaus is an fascinating story.  We hear a story about two disciples and we don’t really know much about them.  We don’t even know why they are walking to this town.  What we do know is that they are heartbroken.  This is only a few days after Jesus was crucified and now on this day they have heard the story of an empty tomb.  These two people were crushed by the news.  First their friend was killed by Rome and now there isn’t even a body left to mourn.  Their emotion is distilled down to a few words: “But we had hoped.”

The two believed that Jesus was going to come and redeem Israel, that he was going to free Israel from Roman occupation.  Now, that wasn’t going to happen.

But we had hoped…how many times have we echoed those words?  But we had hoped to have twins.  But we had hoped to keep my job.  But we had hoped we would not lose our house to forclosure.  But we had hoped to see our child graduate.  But we had hoped it wasn’t Alzheimers.  But we had hoped he wouldn’t walk out on his wife.  But we had hoped.  Those four words pack a punch.  It tells us all that we need to know; hoping for something, excepting something better and to not have those dreams come true.  Ernest Hemingway was once challenge to write a story with only six words.  He responded: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.”  Everyone of us has dealt with some kind of heartbreak, failure or loss.  But we had hoped.  It is one of those mainstays in life.

As these two men walk, another stranger starts walking beside them.  Jesus had joined the the two men.  Even when we don’t feel there is hope, when we think nothing will ever get better, Jesus is there.  But it’s hard to see that when you are mired in despair.  It’s also hard to walk with someone who is in pain.  How many of us don’t know what to say when someone levels a bombshell of pain on you?  I can tell you it’s not easy.  It’s uncomfortable.

A little later, the two men invite Jesus to stay with them the night.  They sit down to have a meal and Jesus blessed and broke the bread.  It was then that they knew Jesus was there.  It was at that moment, hope came alive.  Jesus was there all the time and they have to go and tell the other Disciples.

As Christians, we gather every Sunday and have communion.  It’s easy to just go through the motions.  I’m pretty sure we don’t expect much to happen as we eat a cube of bread and a thimble of grape juice.  But the thing is, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that Jesus is with us now.  Communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done, but it is also a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us now, even when we can’t sense God.  Christ walks with us even when we don’t know. Because we are humans that tend to forget God is with us, we need this holy meal.  We need to know that when say “but we have hoped” Jesus responds by breaking bread and revealing that God has been with us all along.

This is the reason we need church.  Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight was recently interviwed about them importance of the church. He call the church a “kingdom society where God’s will is done as a result of Christ’s redemption.  It is being part of a community that we learn about how God operates and where we can see Christ in each other, as well as in bread and win.

When they realize they were talking to Jesus, the disciples ran and told the others.  We are called to go and tell others that Jesus is alive and is with all of us.  The result of breaking bread with Jesus, as we do every Sunday is to go and tell the good news.  There will still be heartache, at least on this side of heaven.  But we can tell others that Jesus is with us even when we don’t know.

As we continue our journey this Easter season, let us know that Jesus walks with us- even when we don’t feel it.   And let us go and tell the world. May our prayer be this passage of the well known hymn, “Let us talents and Tounges Employ:”

 

Let us talents and tongues employ,

reaching out with a shout of joy:

bread is broken, the wine is poured,

Christ is spoken and seen and heard.

Jesus lives again; earth can breathe again.

Pass the Word around: loaves abound!

 

May it be so.  Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Sermon: “The Healing Power of Collard Greens”

This is a sermon I preached on Easter evening in 2005.  It is the text I will be preaching on this Sunday for the Third Sunday in Easter.

Luke 24:13-35
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN

I love good food, and it probably shows.
emmaus
I consider myself lucky to be born in the family that I’m in, because I grew up with two wonderful cooking traditions. On my father’s side is the African American tradition of the Deep South. It’s a tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pie. It is all fattening and it’s all good.

On my mother’s side is the Puerto Rican cuisine. I remember coming over to my grandmother’s when she was still alive and eating rice with chicken, or arroz con pollo. Sometimes she would substitute sausage or fish for chicken, but it was just as delicious. When I was little, I used to call it “Orange Rice” and literally thought my grandmother bought orange colored rice. Then I also remember pasteles, a delicacy that is made from plantain. They are little meat pies filled with pork and raisins and olives. My grandmother and other relatives made them and have been known to carry them in my luggage when I leave Michigan bound back to Minnesota.

Food doesn’t just bring needed nourishment to us, but it’s a context that brings people together. I remember eating arroz con pollo and talking in Spanish to my abuela, or grandmother. I remember eating so much soul food that I probably needed angioplasty at a family event in Louisiana a few years back, but it was also a wonderful time to get requainted with my southern relatives.

Today, we encounter one of my favorite stories concerning the ressurection. It’s the road to Emmaus where Jesus appears in disguise to two of his disciples. These disciples were still in shock over all that had happened in the last few days; the shocking arrest, the mockery of a trial, the crucifixion. They had thought Jesus was the one that would save them, and now their savior was dead. They told this disguised Jesus that it was already the third day since his death and in Jewish tradition, this meant that the soul had left the body, meaning there was no hope that Jesus would ever come back. To add insult to injury, the women who were aquainted with Jesus reported that the body was gone. These two had lost hope and were alone. They had placed their hopes on this one called Jesus and it had all ended so badly.

Jesus decides to put a stop to this pity party and open the Scriptures to them. They were interested in what this supposed stranger was saying to them.

When they arrived in Emmaus, it was evening and not a time for someone to be on the road alone, so they asked the stranger to stay with them for the evening. He agreed and shared bread with them. It was when he broke the bread that the disciple’s eyes were opening. Jesus had been revealed and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished from their sight.

It’s interesting that the resurrected Jesus made himself know presumably at a table, breaking bread. In preparing for this sermon, I noticed that some interesting things happened when Jesus was at the table. In the fifth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the calling of Levi, aka Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, an agent of Rome. Now Jews didn’t take kindly to collaborators, and it was also known that tax collectors not only collected money for Rome, but took a little extra for themselves. So, it goes without saying that Matthew wasn’t popular. And yet, Jesus calls him and as a result, Matthew hosts a big party where all his fellow tax collectors were invited. Well, this didn’t go over with the Pharisees who thought it shameful that Jesus would associate with such lowlife. Remember what Jesus said? He said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Then there was the time he was invited over to the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story, record in the seventh chapter of Luke, tells of a sinful woman who comes in and washed his feet with her tears and poured purfume on them. Well the Pharisees were shocked. Didn’t Jesus know this was a “bad” woman. Why would he even allow her to touch him? What does Jesus do? He takes Simon and the others, all who were considered high society, to task for not being hospitable to him. Only this woman who was considered and outcast, showed him proper respect and for that, he forgave her sins.

Then there is the story of Zacheus, another tax collector. In Luke 19, we read that Jesus invites himself to Zacheus’ house. Zaccheus is so moved that this one called the Messiah would stay with him, that he repents and repays those whom he has cheated.

Over and over again in the book of Luke and in the other Gospels, Jesus is found somewhere where they is a table and food. What’s interesting here is that these “table talks” give us an insight into who the Son of God is and also what God is all about.

The prior stories all point to the fact that God is one who loves everyone and there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and other various “sinners.” He also dined with the rich and powerful as well. This shows that Jesus was not a repsector of persons, but welcomed all. These “table talks” remind us that as children of God and followers of God’s Son, we are called to welcome all, regardless of their status in life.

So what does the meal in today’s text mean? Well, let’s go back to the fact that these disciples had lost all hope. They didn’t realize Jesus was alive. As Jesus told them Scriptures they were rekindled with some hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who Jesus was. In the context of this simple evening meal, they were reminded that death could not silence Jesus. He was alive, he had conquered death, and as a result, we now have new life. Not only is Jesus one who welcomes all to the table of fellowship, but he is one that death can’t hold. No earthly power can hold God back, thanks be to God.

In a few moments, we will partake of the bread and the wine. In Disciple theology, what other call an altar, we call a table. I tend to like that. An altar has a regal image to it, relating more to a king. That’s not a bad reference, since Jesus is a King, but the word table connotes something more basic and common. It represents the Son of God who came to earth as a peasant child, and then as an adult spent time teaching at tables. We still learn from Jesus today at this table. It is here we are reminded of God’s love for us-all of us, regardless if we are black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay. We are reminded that God loved us so much, God became one of us, lived among us and died the death of a common criminal. We are also reminded of his ressurection and know that not even death could hold him and no longer has a hold over us as well.

In closing, go back to talk about food. A few years ago, there was a movie called Soul Food, about an African-American extended family in Chicago. The matriarch, Big Mama, would cook these wonderful meals on Sundays after church and all the family would come over. Now, at some point, Big Mama fell ill and was hospitalized. When she ultimately died, the meals stopped and the family fell apart with certain people not talking to each other.

The narrator of this story, Big Mama’s eldest grandson, schemes to get the family together and concocts a story about some hidden money. Everyone attends and one by one, they all come together and start making the meals that Big Mama used to make. In the end, the family was back together all through a meal. The meal, healed a broken family.

This is the savior we worship, one that is made known to us in meals. The question I want to end with is this: as followers of Jesus, do our meals, at this table and at all of our tables reveal the something about the Risen Savior or do they reflect the table of the Pharisees, which is built on exclusion?

Something to think about. Amen.

Photo: “The Road to Emmaus” by Dr. He Qi ( http://www.heqigallery.com )

Sermon: “The Cruelty of April”

The sermon podcast is at the bottom of this post.

Matthew 28:1-10 and Acts 10:34-43
Easter Sunday
April 20, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Jonny Gomes #5 of the Boston Red Sox lays the World Series trophy and the 'Boston Strong 617' jersey onto the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street during the World Series victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jonny Gomes #5 of the Boston Red Sox lays the World Series trophy and the ‘Boston Strong 617’ jersey onto the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Boylston Street during the World Series victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

It was the poet T.S. Elliot that once said that April was the cruelest month. Living as we do in the Northern United States, we know that April is all sunshine and flowers. April can be rainy and cold and we saw this week snow in April in Minnesota is not an unheard of event.

It was the Facebook posting of a friend that reminded me that April is the cruelest month not just because of the weather, but because some of the most memorable tragedies and disasters seemed to have taken place in April. Here’s just a few: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the genocide in Rwanda, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine School shootings, the Virgina Tech Shooting, Boston Marathon Bombing. I should add that most of these events happened to take place between April 14 and April 20.

My friend found this information on the website Gizmodo. The writer of this article says the following about this week and why is it so terrible:

Of course, if you look back far enough into history, you’re going to find something terrible for every day because, well, terrible things happen all the time. But you have to admit, this week just isn’t a good week for American history. Maybe it’s because of the weather. Maybe it’s because people suck.

The writer’s words were a bit coarse, but in many ways this writer is on the right track. We live in world where death seems to rule. People hurt and kill others that they don’t agree with or are different. People hurt others because of mental illness or because they just want to see people suffer.

These events remind us that things are not right in the world. If we think about this long enough, we might just give up, believing that there is no hope for people.

Today’s scripture in Matthew is about the ressurection of Jesus. The women associated with Jesus’ ministry come to the tomb to finish preparing his body for a proper burial. They had seen what had happened a few days earlier; they saw their friend Jesus die a miserable death. They expected to do the business they had to do and then leave the tomb with heavy hearts.

But something happens. The ground starts to shake violently. An angel appears and sits on the stone in front of the tomb. I can only imagine that having an earthquake and then some odd being dressed in white had to be fear inducing. The guards at the tomb were so frightened that they fainted. The stone is moved and then the angel says to the women: “Don’t be afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid?” Really? You just roll a stone away and cause grown men and you tell people to chill out? God does have an odd way of doing things.

The angel tells the women that Jesus isn’t here. Jesus has been risen from the dead, just as he said. This is a joyous message, but listen to what the passage says: the women leave the tomb filled with fear and joy. Maybe the women were acting like most of us do at times, hopeful for better times, but knowing deep down this might be an illusion. Maybe they were overwhelmed by the odd events and wondered if any of this was real. But they also had to have a bit of excitement that maybe, just maybe, what the angel said could be true. The women carried in their hearts fear and joy at the same time. That’s not so unusual; we always live in joy and in fear. We love our children, but we are fearful of the world we are giving them; we love our work, but fear getting laid off, we are happy to retire from decades of work, but fear how to make financially and it goes on and on. Hoping for the best, planning for the worst, that’s how you have to live in a world of cruel Aprils.

When Jesus appears in this text, he tells the women the same thing: “Don’t be afraid.” I don’t think the angel or Jesus meant that its a sin to be frightened. There’s a lot in this life to fear. Jesus disciples would face many challenges that would cause them to fear. To not be afraid is to not be overcome by the fear. It is to place our hope in the Risen Savior and believe that death and fear don’t have the last word, that love and God will always win.
Easter is really about courage. It is about believing and trusting in God even when things look uncertain and scary. The ressurrection is not telling us that we will never have hard times; it is a promise that reminds us that God is the rock we can cling to when times are hard. The ressurrection is wonderous that Jesus defeated death, but remember, Jesus still died.

As we at First discern our future, we need to mindful that God is with us during these uncertain times. We believe in an Easter God, the kind that conquer death and give us new life. But we are also an Easter people- we believe that Jesus was raised, we believe God is there even when things look dark and hopeless. This congregation, First Christian of St. Paul is called to go from this place and be messengers of this ressurection hope. We are called to share Christ to those who are hungry and homeless, to those who are lonely, to those facing addiction, to the whole wide world. We share this message in word and indeed. We can say all of this in the midst of genocide, shootings, terrorism and the like not by ignoring the evil that is in the world, but by believing in the ressurection power of Jesus in thick of a world where bystanders are injured or killed by a homeade bomb and where a disgruntled person can drive a rental truck to a building in a major city and cause havoc. Nothing, nothing, nothing can deny this wonderous message: the tomb is empty, death doesn’t have the last word.

That is the message we leave here with. April can do its worst, but we are an Easter people serving an Easter God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Maundy Thursday Meditation

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

About fifteen years ago, I saw a wonderful movie called Soul Food.  The movie was about an African American family in Chicago where the family gathered weekly after church for a meal cooked by the matriarch of the family.  The meal was filled with things that I love: fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese- all probably bad for my cholestrol, but so good.

100_0473.JPGIt was this meal that in many ways held the family together, and when Big Momma died the meals and the family were thrown into disarray.  The skill and cunning of one grandson was able to get the three sisters together to cook a meal and in time bring the family back together.

The apostle Paul is talking about communion here.  In fact, he is going back to an event that he wasn’t around for, the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples.  The church in Corinth was in turmoil and in many cases forgot what this meal was all about.

For Paul, this meal was about proclaiming Christ, the one who would bring salvation to you, to me and to all of creation.  It is also an act of grace.  On the night that he shared a meal with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him.  This meal is not one where we have to be good enough to be there.  We come as we are, because we need it.  We need to know that God is in the business of saving, we need to know that no matter who we are and what we have done, Jesus still shares a meal with us.  We need this because you and me and everyone want to be healed.  We need this meal because we are hungry and the morsels the world gives us don’t fill us up.  We need this meal because it is the place where rich and poor, straight or gay, black or white are one in Christ Jesus.  This is the glue that hold us together.

About eight years ago, I went to a family reunion in Lousisana, where my Dad is from.  The food there was just like in Soul Food: all bad, but oh so good.  That meal brought Sanders from around the country to say hello and come together. The meal was the glue that brought us together.

The meal that brings us together.  Remember that tonight, tomorrow and on Sunday.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Photo: My parents and cousin Carolyn at the Sanders family reunion, Pineville, Louisiana, 2006.

Sermon: “When Love Comes to Town”

Matthew 21:1-11 and Phillipians 2:5-11
Palm Sunday
April 13, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

If you were watching the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, you might have caught a commercial that has gone viral. It’s an ad for Cadillac and features a well-dressed man comparing hard-working, some might say overworked Americans to Europeans that take a large amount of time off. At the end of the commercial, the name walks up to the subject of the commercial, the ELR, Cadillac’s plugin hybrid.

If Cadillac wanted to get some attention, it got it in spades. The general feeling from people was that it was too focused on gaining things over having a life. Ford did a “parody” of the commercial with a woman from Detroit who has started a buisiness making dirt to give to the urban farms springing up in the city. While I do think there are advantages to working hard over and against the more European attitude, there was something about the commercial that left me feeling uneasy. I think that the commercial is a tale of sucess. If you work hard, good things will happen. But what happens when one works hard and bad things happen?

Palm Sunday is a hard Sunday for pastors. It’s not because this starts Hell Week, I mean Holy Week. No, the reason this day is hard for us is because we don’t know what to preach about. We want to make sure people understand the whole story of Jesus last days on earth and we are torn from talking about the entry into Jerusalem or talk about what is to come on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This is a struggle because we know that a good number of people sitting in the pews will only come on Palm Sunday and then come back next week on Easter. So, the average person will go from little kids walking around sanctuary re-enacting Jesus’ entry into Jersualem and then a week later the choir is singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” It could make people think that the church is just one big party every Sunday, missing the more darker aspects of Thursday and Friday.

This dilemma has led for pastors and worship leaders to start calling Palm Sunday “Sunday of the Passion.” Some churches will do the Palm Sunday things and include the Betrayal, Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion at the same service. We want people to not leave church not having to come face to face with the cross.

I don’t know if it’s uniquely American or just a sign of the human condition, but we always want to make life a party. We want to have our lives focused on the good things in life, and not the times when we face suffering and heartache.

Maybe that’s why people at times feel a bit weirded out by the cross. Paul has called the cross a “scandal” something that is so gruesome that it makes no sense to make it into a symbol of our faith. I know that I’ve heard people say they didn’t want to deal with hearing about “bloody Jesus.” I think somewhere in our deepest hearts we don’t want to deal with the cross. It’s embarassing. It’s horrible.

In his letter to the Phillipians, Paul writes a concise understanding of who Jesus was and what his life, death and ressurrection meant. Paul talks about how Christ emptied himself, giving up his status in the Trinity to become “a slave,” to become a fragile human. He lived as a servant, healing people spiritually and physically. Jesus never claimed any special privileges that he was definitely worthy of. Instead he was obedient in life and obedient in death, even in the most shameful way of dying- by crucifixion.

Jesus enters Jerusalem with cheers. He comes riding on a donkey, like a king. In fact it wasn’t uncommon for kings to ride donkeys during times of peace. The shout for Hosanna or God Save us. There had to be some folks in the crowd who wondered if this was the one who would free them from Roman oppression. The Romans might have been a bit worried about some new king that could kick them out of Israel. But the real shocker comes later, when this king acts “unkingly.” He arrested, beaten, forced to carry a wooden cross and then was nailed on that cross to die. All the while the guards and religious leaders made fun of him being the king of the Jews. Some king. He couldn’t even save himself.

The cross is an embarassment. Why would a king humiliate himself this way?

Jesus endured all of this for you and for me. We are free from the bondage of sin because of the life, death and ressurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus led a sacrificial life, he was given the title of Lord, or king. This is the king that became a king for the salvation of all of creation.

As humans, we want to bypass Calvary. We all want to go from Palm Sunday to Easter. But the thing is, we can’t get to Easter unless we go through the cross. There is no bypass route. Because Christ went to Calvary to enter into human suffering, the church is called to enter into our own Calvarys. We are to be found where there are crosses all around because that’s where Jesus is.

I can’t totally fault the guy in the Cadillac ad. I like having a nice house (and the house in that commercial was sweet), and a nice car. But as followers of Jesus life is more than things and more than living the good life. We are called to enter into the crosses of suffering in this world and do the work of healing and justice in the same way that Jesus did.

I don’t know who will be coming to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. But here’s a little advice. Even if you don’t go to church on either of those days, please honor that time. Be mindful of Jesus and the act of love that he did by being humble and dying a humiliating death. And then be open to where God is leading us to bring healing and wholness. And remember: there is no bypass from Palm Sunday to Easter. You gotta go through Calvary. Thanks be to God. Amen.