Category: Detroit

Sermon: Automatic for the People

Mark 4:1-34
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 17, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN


selfdrivingcarBeing from Michigan, I am a car nut.  I kind of miss not being in Detroit today because it’s time for the annual Detroit Auto Show which because it’s in the Motor City, it is the car show.  Daniel and I have gone for several years in a row, but won’t be attending this year.  Hopefully we will get back there next year.


Like I said, I like cars.  I like to drive cars.  If I could have been an auto journalist I would have.  But I would have to learn to drive a manual if I wanted to do that.  Someday I will tell you the story of my one and only attempt to drive stick.  It involved a Ford Taurus SHO and burning rubber in a Missouri Arby’s parking lot, but that will have to wait for another time.


One of the biggest developments at Detroit and in the automotive industry in general is the rise of automated or self-driving cars.  These cars are only in the testing stage at this point, but they are more a reality than they were say five years ago.  At this point, more and more cars have some sort of assitive technology that gives the car more control.  We have cars that can sense when you might be drifting into another lane, and cars that can brake themselves if it senses a collision.  


While I think some of the assistive tech is a good idea, there’s a part of me that is not crazy about autonmous cars or what others think about these cars.  A number of writers have opined that the most dangerous part of the car is the driver.  They celebrate that fallible humans are written out of the process to ensure a more safe drive.  


Maybe I’ve read one too many scifi novels about robots becoming our overlords, but it does seem we are giving power over to a machine, all because we are fallible.


I like to be able to drive. I like the sound my car makes when it’s shifting gears.  I love the car’s get up and go and I love how that feels.  An automated car means I don’t drive, I don’t get to derive pleasure from the vehicle, I become passive, letting the car do all the work.  But, the self-driving car seems to be on its way to being a reality, so I guess I have to learn to love my robot overlords.


The root of the problem here is that a self driving car means giving up control.  I have to rely on microchips and motherboards to make sure I get from point A to point B.


What this has in common with our text today is that in our Christian walk, we are called to allow God to work in the world and trust that God is working things for the better. We have learn that faith is not all about us.


in chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus shares several examples of parable that focus around farming such as it was in first century Palestine.  The first story is the most well known: the parable of the sower.  It involves a farmer that scatters seeds hither and yon.  The seeds fall in different types of soils, rocky soil, among the weeds, on a path and finally in good soil.  


I’ve said this before, but I need to say it again: I used to hate this parable.  The reason I hated it is because in the churches of my youth, everyone was focused on the second part of the parable, the part where Jesus explains the story to his disciples.  People have taken these verses as proof of what this story was all about.  But the thing with Jesus’ parables is that they were told straight, but told as Emily Dickenson said slant.  Jesus did explain the parable somewhat, but it almost seemed too easy.  Was Jesus trying to say something else?  Was he only sharing part of the meaning?  Look back at the parable.  What do you notice?  If you know anything about farming or even just gardening, you should pay attention to what the farmer is doing.  For the farmer, sowing seed means throwing it anywhere.  I don’t think that’s what a farmer usually does with seed, unless one is really lazy.  I remember one time just throwing grass seed around on bald spot of lawn a few years back.  The results were less than optimal.


Why would a farmer throw see around like that?  What was the meaning here?


Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at the second farming parable, the Growing Seed.  If the farmer in the first tale is wasteful, this one is just plain dumb.  It seems that the seeds were just planted automatically and the farmer is at a loss to understand how it was planted and how it is growing.  You would think the farmer might want to water the plant, but he just sits aghast at this plant growing.  How in the world did this guy become a farmer?  He ends up harvesting the grain when its ready. At least he knew that.


The final tale is about the mustard seed.  Jesus says its a small seed, and indeed, it is.  But once it is planted it becomes a big plant.  What you need to know is that the mustard plant is sort of invasive, it takes over an area, much like kudzu does in the American South.  So God’s kingdom is like kudzu.


What do all three stories have in common besides having dumb farmers?  They are all about the kingdom of God and what is common in all three stories is that things happen in spite of human interaction.  The sower isn’t careful where the seed is planted; it is just planted anywhere and everywhere.  The second farmer doesn’t even plant the seed, but it still grows and produces a harvest.  The third tale doesn’t even have people in it- it’s just about this small seed and how it grows everywhere.


Parables can have more than one meaning, but one meaning that could come from all three tales is that in God’s kingdom, God is the main actor not us.  In God’s kingdom, life is automatic and we will happen with or without us.


That thought is both humbling and freeing.  It’s humbling because it means that all of our hard work for God doesn’t get us a gold star.  It means that God loves us for us, not because we do things that please God.  


The freeing part is that we don’t have perform.  We don’t have to feel that we have to do God’s work or nothing will happen.  God’s work happens; we can choose to join it or not, but it will happen and it won’t be stopped.


This can be humbling for pastors.  We like to think everything is on us, but in reality it isn’t.  It means that churches are places where we are looking for where God is active and joining in.  It means that we tell people where we see God active and point to God.  It makes faith more of an adventure than a chore.


As much as I am wary of automated cars, there is a mode of transportation that I use that I am not in control of.  Everytime I board a modern airplane, I am entrusting my safety to the pilots in the cockpit.  As I like to imagine me telling the pilot, their job is to make sure I don’t die.


The fact is, I’m actually putting more faith in the airplane’s navigation systems more than I do the pilot.  Most of our modern airlines use autopilot to get from point A to point B with the pilots there to help with the flying and to step in when the autopilot might not work.


So it is with us.  We place our trust in God, the farmer that throws God’s love everywhere, no matter how it is recieved.  We place our trust in a God that puts people in our lives and work with God to help them to know Christ.  We place our trust in a God that is constantly growing and drawing people to God even when we haven’t done a thing. Part of discipleship is to trust God, which at times can be a hard thing to for some of us to do, but God is there telling us that God has this.  


If I can trust God and look for where God is active in our world, maybe I can accept a self-driving car, provided it doesn’t drive me off a cliff.  


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner, Yada Yada Yada

“Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner.”
This is one of those cliches that Christians tend to use (or at least I’ve heard people use them, I don’t remember hearing someone say it) and one Christian in particular doesn’t like it.  Here’s what Christian Piatt (a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor) has to say about this:

This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focus on the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others’ sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.

Many Christians, mostly those in Mainline churches, hate the phrase and with reason: it’s been associated with how some Christians have viewed LGBT folks.  While I’ve never heard people say this, it is common for more conservative Christians to act this out and in some cases there’s been more focus on hating the sin than there is on loving the sinner.

Because of this tendency, there has been a move to basically be offended at this practice.  “Mind your own damn business!” Is the response from most people.

While I understand the tendency, I feel we are losing something in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Trevor Lee, an evangelical Disciples of Christ pastor in Denver wrote this in a post last week:

I need to be able to hate the sin while loving the sinner. I need my wife and kids and friends to be able to do it too, because I am a sinner. I want to be better than what I am. I hope my wife and friends want me to be more than what I am too. Not because I need to impress God or tilt the scales but because sin is destructive. It is not hating sin that is unloving.

Even more broadly in culture we embrace this at times. We long for our friend to stay sober, and hate it when he doesn’t, because we love him. We rejoice when a co-worker catches a real glimpse of the plight of the poor and turns from selfishness to generosity (and so we affirm that something is better in her now than it was before). We hate that a family member runs from one broken relationship to another, because we long for him to experience more. Yes, there are times when we hate the sin and love the sinner, even if we don’t call it that.

The Bible is replete with the call to leave sin behind and walk in love, peace, and righteousness. Jesus himself called people to change things about their lives–to walk in his way. This acknowledgement that not all things in their lives were as they should be was not an act of hatred but an act of love. He, more than anyone else, could and can see what people could be if sin were completely stripped away, and he hates the sin for what it does to the people he loves.

And this is what I wrote in response:

While it has been used against LGBT persons like myself, I still think the phrase has value because, well, it’s what God call us to do. We are to love one another, but that doesn’t mean we ignore sin- I think we have to be able to lovingly hold each other accountable. Too much of our culture has become about self-esteem (which has found its way into religion) and not about how we can lift each other up to be the kind of people God wants us to be.

Like I said in my response, I do think the practice has been misused.  And yet, the idea has some value.  As Trevor noted, Jesus did call people to righteousness as much as he reached out to sinners.  While I don’t think being gay is a sin, I am a sinner and I do think God calls me to repentance, not for being gay but for missing the mark of what God wants for me.

Is there a way we can hold each other accountable and yet not be judgmental and condescending?  I’d like to think so, but how do we practice that?  Christian Piatt is correct to bring up that Jesus told folks not to worry about the splinter in our neighbor’s eyes and ignore the plank in our own.  But does that mean we never to talk about what might be going on in another person’s life?  What did Jesus mean when he said this?  When is it right to “butt in” and when is it right to stay out?

As you can see, I am not totally settled either way on this.  What are your thoughts?

Slouching Towards Detroit

Fellow Disciples pastor Steve Knight shared a good post yesterday on the need for more missional communities, which is a fancy way of saying we need more new churches.  Why?  Beside that whole Great Commission thing, it’s also because at least in mainline churches, we are growing smaller and smaller.  Here’s a graph that Steve showed about our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, over the last decade:

The picture it shows about the denomination is not pretty.  (It’s even worse for Episcopalians.) It shows at least over the last decade a steady decline.  As Steve notes, it doesn’t show the number of new congregations added (which is now over 700), but you can’t really deny that things in the Disciples of Christ are not well.

Steve starts talking about how the Mainline churches are a lot like Detroit, something that I commented on back in 2009.  As I thought about that more and more, I’ve started to think that if this analogy is true, mainline churches are in big, big trouble.

Comparisons to the largest city in Michigan hit home for me because Detroit is only an hour south of Flint, where I grew up.  I’ve seen the decline of the auto industry close up and I’ve seen how cities like Flint and Detroit have slowly declined and lost their luster, becoming shattered hulks of their former selves.  I’ve seen how these places knew the decline was happening and half-heartedly tried different schemes to bring back the shine, only to have those attempts fail.  I’ve seen the hope that somehow, the glory days would come roaring back, not knowing how, but just believing that it would.

The thing is, you tend to get used to the decline.  Things get a little shabby here and there, but we trick ourselves into thinking everything is okay…until it isn’t.

Something similar is happening among the mainline churches.  We see the decline happening,  and we try again and again to try this scheme or that scheme in the hopes that it will right the ship.  But we really don’t try hard and in someways we just expect that somehow, someway the glory days will come back.

What does this have to do with church planting?  Everything.  I’m not advocating we plant churches for the sake of saving mainline churches, thought that could be a result.  I am advocating planting churches to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the problem here is that in some ways we in the mainline stopped believing in spreading the message of Christ.  We got comfortable and pursued of other agendas.  We plant churches, but sometimes the whole endeavor seems half-hearted, like we are doing something just because it seems right.

I’ve noticed over the years how hard it is to get people in mainline churches animated when it comes to new churches.  Plans to give money to church plants are met with skeptism.  If we have a meeting dealing with homosexuality? We get a full house and people getting all passionate.  Talk about new churches?  Crickets chirping.

This is not me just spouting off.  I’ve seen how people have responded in my various roles when we start talking about new churches and it seems that people just don’t seem when it comes to new churches.

None of this means I’m going to give up.  I’ve seen utter decline and I want to see mainline Protestantism be vital in the coming decades.  But, mainline churches have to stop being comfortable with decline and be willing to give up everything to save themselves- not in the hope of getting back to the glory days, but to something new and better than before.

One more auto story.  In 2006, Ford decided to place everything it owned, down to it’s blue oval logo, in hock in order to get a loan to keep the company going.  

That move was prophetic.  Two years later, the economy tanked and Ford’s crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler were bankrupt and running to Washington to be saved.  Ford was able to weather the storm.  Earlier this week, Ford’s credit was raised from junk status and scion Bill Ford was able to get his family’s logo back.

Ford was willing to let go of everything in order to survive.  It was a risky move for this century-old company to do something so bold, but it paid off in the end.  Ford is a much stronger company, more competative, coming up with some cool cars that people want to drive.

Are mainline churches willing to do something that ballsy?  Are we willing to sacrifice, to lose ourselves for God’s kingdom?

I don’t know.  I hope so.  Let’s not get to comfortable with decline or expect easy solutions.  That roads leads to Detroit and well…you don’t want that.  Trust me.

Photo: Areial view of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s main train station from 1913 until the end of Amtrak service in 1988.  The intervening 25 years have not been kind of the grand building. The website notes, “Most of the interior has fallen victim to ‘urban miners’ who break in to steal any stone accents, wire and even copper tubing and bricks to sell as scrap. The removal of these materials causes extensive damage throughout, resulting in the interior being completely destroyed. Urban guerrilla artists have taken advantage of the vacant wall space.” You can see more photos of the building by going here.