Author: Dennis

Introducing Polite Company

For the last year or so, I’ve been thinking about starting a podcast. I finally decided to take the plunge and created Polite Company a podcast on religion and politics. I’ve made five episodes so far including the following one on finding common ground in the church. I hope you will listen to this episode and consider subscribing to future episodes. To learn more about the podcast, please go to www.politecompanypod.org.

What A Beautiful World This Will Be

What A Beautiful World This Will Be

The sermon podcast is below.

Genesis 9:8-17 | First Sunday in Lent | UnAfraid Worship Series | February 21, 2021 | Dennis Sanders, preaching

A few years ago when Daniel and I were back in my home state of Michigan, we went to the Grand Rapids Public Museum which is in downtown Grand Rapids.  They had this interesting exhibits about midcentury design in Michigan.  We are both suckers for midcentury modern anything so we were in our element.  I can remember seeing some examples of furniture designed by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller, pictures of the General Motors Design Center in Warren, Michigan which was built in 1958 and had this futuristic architecture that showed that the biggest manufacturer in the state was looking forward.  In fact, that exhibit screamed optimism.  There is this sense that the future is truly bright.  In fact this was the time of what was called the International Geophysical Year.  The IGY was a year-long event in 1957-58 and it was a time where the Communist East and the Democratic West participated in an international scientific exchange. That event launched many innovations that are still around today.  Both the US and the USSR used the year to launch their first satellites into space. Plate tectonics was also discovered during this time.  The musician Donald Fagen’s 1982 hit IGY is about the International Geophysical Year and he paints a future that is bright. It’s a future with high speed rail, spandex jackets, solar power and so on.  He says over and over in the song:

What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free

What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free

It’s a wonderful future, right?  Except, Fagen wrote this song as a critique of the future, not in praise of it.  Everyone was optimistic in the 1950s, and Fagen looking back from 1982 didn’t see a future that was so great.  In fact some of the inventions, like microfibers turned out to be detrimental to the environment.

But that’s optimism for you.  Optimism looks at the future with a sense of what it will look like.  You can look at the present and make an extrapolation about the future.  The scientists of 1958 saw the future in light of 1958. 

Hope is something different. The theologian Miroslav Volf says that instead of extrapolating the present, hope is about a future that has nothing to do with the present.  He quotes Emily Dickenson in saying that Hope is the thing with feathers, it is something that comes from the outside, not from what we think the future will be, but a dream of what could be.

The way that our culture looks at today’s text is very optimistic. There is what I like to call a “Sunday School” image of Noah and the ark, where we see the boat filled with happy animals and a happy Noah.  It’s a bucolic scene.

But is that a real picture?  When the waters recede from a flood, things tend to be in disarray. In this passage, the waters have just receded.  The arc has settled on newly dried land and the survivors leave the boat looking dishevled.  They also probably don’t smell so great with all those animals.  All around them is death.  Dead humans and dead animals are rotting all over the place it.

It is in this midst that God tells Noah and his family that God will never ever destroy the earth with floodwaters.  He creates and rainbow as a reminder of God’s promises.  God flooded the earth because of the sin of the people.  The thing is, sinning would still continue.  But God wouldn’t try to destroy the world.  The rainbow was a symbol of hope.  The world would not get better, the future was uncertain if not very bleak.  But Noah and his family knew that if they look at the bow in the clouds, they knew that God had not given up on creation.  And God didn’t give up; in fact the rainbow was a sign that God was working on a way to repair the relationship between creation and God.  

We live in a time when death is all around.  We are close to nearly half a million dead from COVID.  Millions more have become sick with the virus and many will deal with its effects for years.  We all saw the horrible image of police officer Derek Chauvin, as he placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck squeezing the life out of him. We saw the crowd that infiltrated the Capitol taking the life of one policeman and one insurrectionist.  There is death and decay all around.  But we follow a God of hope.  God hasn’t given up on us. The sign of hope for us is just as odd as seeing a rainbow in the midst of death and destruction: a cross.  It is on this instrument of death that we have our hope.  Salvation comes from Christ crucified. 

Hope is very different from optimism.  The Sunday School version of Noah and the Ark is an optimistic picture.  It is looking at some perfect present into a perfect future.  But the real version is one of hope because for one to believe things will be better you have to believe that it is going to come from the outside. Hope is about being patient and enduring knowing that change can come like a bird sitting in the window chirping a song and lighting the mood of everyone inside.

Miroslav Volf closes an essay on the hope he wrote for the Yale Seminary magazine by saying this about hope:

Our salvation lies in hope, but not in hope that insists on the future good it has imagined, but in hope ready to rejoice in the kind of good that actually comes our way. The God who creates out of nothing, the God who makes dead alive – the God of the original beginning of all things and the God of new beginnings – justifies hope that is otherwise unjustifiable. When that God makes a promise, we can hope.

In these uncertain times, we can hope.  We don’t have an optimism in the spandex world Donald Fagen lampooned.  We have a hope in a rainbow and ultimately in a cross.  Emily Dickenson is right, “

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

That’s something to look forward to. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon:

Lenten Reflection-Ash Wednesday

Lenten Reflection-Ash Wednesday

Luke 9:51-62

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

In early 2002 I had the opportunity to serve in a nursing home as a student chaplain. After the Ash Wednesday service, I was tasked to go from room to room to give the imposition of the ashes to people who couldn’t make it to the service. The people in the rooms were in various states of consciousness. I dipped my finger in the ashes and placed it on their forehead as I said, “Remember You are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return.” That phrase had special meaning that year since most of the people were close to death.

That phrase seems to have meaning again in 2021. Between Ash Wednesday 2020 and today, we have seen death everywhere. We are closing in on nearly 500,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus and 2 million worldwide. Police brutality reared its ugly head again as we saw the names of so many African American men and women: Breonna Taylor, Armad Aubrey, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and probably others that have slipped into the background. Remember your are dust, indeed.

The text from Luke seems like an odd text for Ash Wednesday. But if you really think about it, well, it kind of makes sense. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem which is a nice way of saying he is on his way to his impending death. As he makes his way, a number of people come to him saying they want to follow him. I don’t doubt that they really want to follow him. But each of them has an excuse and if we are being honest, they made sense. The first guy wanted to follow him, but Jesus reminded him the road would not be easy. The second one wanted to bury his father and the next one wanted to say goodbye to friends. Each time Jesus took them to task. They wanted to follow Jesus, but they had other things to do. Like a lot of folk, they thought they had time. But Jesus’ response is saying that the time to follow Jesus is NOW. Jesus knew death was near, the three wannabe disciples were not aware of what might happen down the road.

We want to think we have all the time in the world to follow Jesus, but if last year has taught us anything is that tomorrow is not promised. If we are going to follow Jesus we have to be willing to follow him now. Life is too short.

In a culture where we don’t want to deal with the reality of death, Ash Wednesday and the last year tell us that we don’t have time to waste.

The gospel group The Winans had a hit in the 80s called “Tomorrow.” The very end of the song tells us “don’t let this moment slip away,” because, “Your tomorrow could very well begin today.” So, let’s not wait to follow Jesus. Tomorrow is sooner than we think.

*Cross-Posted at the website for First Christian Church St. Paul.

Worship From Home: February 7, 2021

Worship From Home: February 7, 2021

Welcome to the weekly worship service of First Christian Church of St. Paul a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Join us each Sunday for worship at 10:00 AM. www.fccsaintpaul.org.

First Christian Church of St. Paul is a small, open and affirming, and multicultural church located near St. Paul, MN in Mahtomedi. We are a local expression of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

We hear a lot about freedom in our culture. The freedom of speech, the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to choose. But what does that mean if we are Christians? What does freedom look like in the body of Christ? Pastor Rob will be looking at this question today from 1 Corinthians chapter 8 and we hear music from the late Zimbabwean composer Dr. Patrick Matsikenyiri.

I hope these worship services are of help to you on your spiritual journey. I hope that they remind you that even as we are apart we are part of a wider part of humanity. Please consider sharing the video and audio with a friend or relative that needs to hear the good news of the gospel.

Below is the video and sermon podcast for this week’s service.   

God be with you in the week ahead.  

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

The February 7, 2021 Service

The January 31 Sermon Podcast

The Ups and Downs of Being a Writer with ADHD

The Ups and Downs of Being a Writer with ADHD

If you want to see what other topics I write about, check out NeoMugwump where I write about politics and other issues.

NeoMugwump

I remember sitting in my dorm room as I tried to finish my story. I was in my senior year in college and I was in the second semester of a journalism class at Michigan State that gives J-students real-world experience as reporters for newspapers and radio stations throughout Michigan.

It was always difficult, worked hard to make surethe story was correct. I had my notes out in front of me as typed, flipping the notepad back and forth to check over and over. It was so hard to remember what was said. Did I remember that quote correctly?

I loved writing a story and still do. But as I look back to that memory of me sitting in my dorm room on a spring day in 1991, I can remember how much of a chore it was to write. It took forever to write that story. Frankly…

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Black Jobs Matter

Black Jobs Matter

If you want to follow some of non-religious writing, check it out at NeoMugwump. Here is one that is a few years old, with new update.

NeoMugwump

Writer’s Note (January 10, 2021): I wrote this story nearly five years ago in the middle of a job search. I’m in the middle of another job search and I can tell you that things haven’t changed much.

There is a hesitancy on my part about sharing this because I don’t want to complain and I know that race is not as big a factor as it was say 50 years ago. I still want to believe that my skills will speak for themselves. However, discrimination still exists and it would be wrong to not share that gaining good employment is still a challenge for African Americans.

My dad, who passed away in early 2015, once told me a story about looking for work. Dad moved to Michigan in the early 50s to find work in the auto plants, but before he did that, he and some relatives drove from…

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Worship From Home: January 31, 2021

Worship From Home: January 31, 2021

Welcome to the weekly worship service of First Christian Church of St. Paul a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Join us each Sunday for worship at 10:00 AM. www.fccsaintpaul.org.

This Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Epiphany): Do we believe in God?  Really, do we believe that God is real, that God makes a difference in the world, in our lives?  In Mark 1 we encounter Jesus preaching in a local synagogue and casting out demons to the surprise of the crowd.  They saw God acting in a way they never had before.  What does that mean for us today? What does a living God mean for us now and what can it mean in our world today? Join us as we learn together.

I hope these worship services are of help to you on your spiritual journey. I hope that they remind you that even as we are apart we are part of a wider part of humanity. Please consider sharing the video and audio with a friend or relative that needs to hear the good news of the gospel.

Below is the video for this week’s service.  It will be available for viewing starting at 10:00 AM.  

God be with you in the week ahead.  

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

The January 31, 2021 Service

The January 31 Sermon Podcast

Evening Prayer-January 13, 2021

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

“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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.