Category: Easter

Sermon: “On Pastors and Pastures”

A sermon from Good Shepherd Sunday 2006.

“On Pastors and Pastures”
John 10:11-18, Psalm 23
May 7, 2006
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I have to “blame” our Associate Minister, Tammy Rottschaefer for this sermon. For a while she has commented on the problem with parts of the church today in that we don’t know how to be church together. Somehow, all that talking about being church, sunk into me. For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be church at this time and place. I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be a pastor, a question that has been on my mind since I was ordained nearly four years ago.

The Good Shepherd - John 10:1-16
The Good Shepherd. Jesus Mafa.

Well, I usually like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I found out that today is called Good Shepherd Sunday, hence all the sheep you see on the table. The text today all focus on God as the Good Shepherd. We just heard Dan read probably one of the most well know Biblical texts, Psalm 23. In the gospel text, we see how Jesus calls himself a Good Shepherd, that lays down his life for the sheep. Now, sometimes when people see this text, they think it might relate to people like me: pastors. In fact, the word pastor is derived from a Latin word which means shepherd. So from early on in this history of the church, pastors were thought of as people who took care of a flock or congregation. And there is a lot here about how a pastor should act: giving their lives in service to others. But that would be a limited understanding of the text. As Christians, which means, followers of Christ, we should see this text as a key to understanding what it means to be a community of faith. And I think it gives great insight as to what it means to be church in the early years of the 21st century. And it’s important to ask what it means to be church in light of the current time, not what happened 20 or 50 years ago. This is a question we must continue to ask as the years go on.

This week, I came across two things that relate to current events. The first thing I stumbled across was a speech given by former Senator John Danforth. Danforth, is a lawyer and represented Missouri for several years in the US Senate. He is also an ordained Episcopal minister, and as of late, has been concerned at the mixing of religion and politics, particluarly in the Republican party, of which he is a member of.

In a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian organization, the former Senator and current pastor, expressed dismay at those who use issues and events, like gay marriage, abortion and the Terri Schiavo case to divide Americans. He notes that the very meaning of the word religion comes from the same root as the word ligament, meaning that religion should be something that brings us together, not tear us apart.

Which leads to the other event that occurred this week. I was listening to public radio and there was an interview with another Episcopal priest who was planning to talk about the Good Shepherd and another major event : the verdict and sentencing of Zacharias Moussaoui, who had some role in the 9/11 attacks. He was sentenced to a life term in a SuperMax prison in Colorado. If religion is something that should bind us to each other and to God, Moussaoui was the living embodiment of the opposite. He bragged about wanting to hurt Americans, he taunted the families of victims. He made a mockery of the Islamic faith, by associating it with his homocidal fantasies. As he was sentenced, he made one final taunt saying that America had lost and he had won. The judge in the case, exploded, probably after holding her rage in for several years, condeming Moussaoui and saying that he “would die with a whimper.”

What is religion all about? What is faith all about? What is church all about? Is it to bring people together to each other and to God, or is to drive people apart, splitting the so-called holy and so-called profane?

I think if we look around the world today, these questions are being asked in various ways by various religions, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and so forth. I tend to think that at least within the framework of Christianity, the way these questions are answered depends on how we look at God and how we look at the other.

In today’s texts, we see that God and Jesus are looked on as shepherds that take care of creation. When I read these texts, you see a God that is willing to give up God’s life for his sheep. In the twenty-third Psalm, we see how God is with us through the good and bad times of our lives. The God we see here isn’t one of a judge that is waiting for us to slip up, but of a caring being, who is gentle and loving. I don’t know about you, but that gives me comfort. When I was younger, I was told by adults, not my parents, that you better be good because any slip means God was going to get you. To know that there is a loving God that care for a messed up sheep like me, gives me hope. But I think these passages have much more to say than about God being a caring shepherd. Since we are called to follow Jesus, these verses tell us how we a community are to live in the world. I believe that we are called to be shepherds to each other, to give of ourselves for the other, regardless of who that person is. I think that is what bothers Rev. Danforth: those who profess loudly of their faith aren’t living that out in service to the other.

Mr. Moussaoui wants to sacrifice his life: but only to hurt and divide others, NOT in service to others.

To be church in this time and place means being a community that welcomes people regardless of where they are on their walk in life. It means being hospitiable instead putting up walls. It means reaching outside these walls and being in service to others, even if they don’t believe the same things we do.

It also means responding in love to the whole world. Why? Because the Good Shepherd cares for the sheep. God is loving and in Christ gave of godself on the cross. And that’s not easy. I have to admit, it’s not easy wanting to love or forgive someone like a Zacharias Moussaoui, who wanted to hurt people. The minister interviewed on public radio said as much. We all knew where we were on the dark day nearly five years ago. And this congregation was touched by that day: a former member’s son and a nephew were either in or near the World Trade Center that day. A girlfriend of the son was on the 106th floor of one of the towers. She didn’t make it. We have every right to be angry, that’s human. To be a follower of Christ doesn’t mean we put of happy faces and ignore our own feelings of injustice. But we hold those feelings of righteous anger in tension with God’s call to love-even the enemy.

There is an argument going within religion in general, and Christianity in particular. The argument is whether religion is to bring us together or rend us apart. There are those who see God as less than a caring shepherd, than as vindictive judge, looking to punish those that don’t follow a particular dogma, which usually mirrors the dogma of those people. Sadly, these people want to limit who is welcome. In the extreme, some want to physically hurt people. Others seek to hurt people emotionally, which may not leave scars we can see, leave damage nonetheless.

Lake Harriet is the midst of its Stewardship Drive. Now, on one level, this about how much we can pledge for the coming year to fund various ministries of the church. But on another level, it’s also about what kind of church we want. Do we want to be a church, that follows Christ’s examples and seeks to love and serve the world, or will we be a church that closes the doors, not to mention our hearts, to others.

What does mean to be church? What does it mean to be a shepherd to others? Let us discern as a community those questions. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Children’s Sermon: “We’ll Leave the Light On For You”

I’ve started to get in the habit of preparing for a children’s sermon in the same way I do the regular sermon. So, after some studying, I wrote the following down for yesterday’s sermon. The gospel used is the one for Easter Evening in the lectionary.

‘We’ll Leave the Light On For You” (Children’s Sermon)
Luke 24:13-35
Second Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2013
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

So, I have a story to tell you.

well-leave-the-light-on1There were these two guys walking down the road from Jerusalem. They were going to village named Emmaus. Jesus had risen from the dead and decided to join his friends, but he didn’t tell them who he was and his friends didn’t recognize him at first. They’re kind of sad that Jesus had died and now it was the third day when he said he would rise from the dead. His body is gone from the tomb and they don’t know where it went.

So, Jesus uses this opportunity to talk to them and he tells the all about him and what was going to happen and why it had to happen.

This took a long time because when they got to Emmaus, the two disciples asked Jesus to stay with them for the night since it was getting dark and the roads could be dangerous. They were practicing something called hospitality, welcoming people into their home or protecting them from harm.

When Jesus joined them for dinner, he broke bread which was a Jewish custom for giving thanks to God. It was then the two men realized that this was Jesus! And just like that, he was gone. He dissappeared. The two got up and ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others that Jesus was alive!

Why do you think this story is important? There are a lot of reasons but one is how important is to welcome people including strangers, people we don’t know. One writer said we should always be hospitable because we might be welcoming angels and don’t know it! The two men welcomed Jesus and didn’t know it, but because they did, they got to see Jesus.

When we welcome people, we might see Jesus in those people. Let’s pray.

Sermon: “The Unsuccessful Church”

This is a sermon I preached the Sunday after Easter 2006 using the gospel text that will be used this Sunday.

“The Unsuccessful Church”
John 20:19-31
April 23, 2006
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN


I want to tell you something about being a pastor:  it kinda sucks.

Okay, you probably didn’t expect a pastor to use the word “sucks” in a sermon.  You also probably didn’t expect that I would say that being a minister is not always a bed of roses.  However it’s true.  Being a pastor at times is exciting, but sometimes: yeah, it sucks.

It’s been nearly four years since I was ordained.  I remember that was an exciting day, but I can also remember that the last four years as a young minister haven’t been easy.  Seminary teaches you how to preach a sermon and how to understand the Bible.  It teaches you about other cultures and how to counsel people.  But it doesn’t teach you how to deal with your boss, who is also a minister and yet doesn’t see you as an equal and treats you as such.  Seminary also failed to mention how to deal with members of churches who act like children of the devil rather than children of God when they deal with you.

Seminary also didn’t teach me about starting a new church, and about how to do it on a literal shoe-string budget.   It also didn’t teach me how to deal with people who leave the new church or don’t come because it isn’t “successful,” and how to deal when you’ve planned a worship service and sermon and only two people show up.

There are days that I wish I never went to seminary and never got ordained.  I wish I had received an advanced degree in something else other than the ministry.

And then there is the fact that at times I don’t feel like a pastor.  I know people who can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew and use that to preach wonderful sermons and I would need to take both classes again.  I don’t feel like I have the right words to say when someone shares that their mother has cancer or a close friend is near death.  More often than not, I feel like a big failure.

Well, this is a happy sermon, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s why today’s gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it’s the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary.  As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem.  They were scared.  The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.

Now, what’s interesting here is that they knew something was up.  We didn’t read the earlier parts of John 20, but let me give you a recap:  Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that first Easter morning and found the stone rolled away.  She tells Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved, that Jesus was gone.  They both go to investigate and it’s true; the body is gone.  Mary stands outside the tomb weeping and then in time sees the Risen Christ.  Of course seeing your friend, alive and well isn’t something you keep to yourself, so she went to tell the disciples saying , “I have seen the Lord!”

Now, being on the outside of this story, I would think that if someone tells me a friend that was dead was now alive, hiding in a room wouldn’t be my first impulse, but even after they had heard the good news, the disciples locked themselves in a room in fear.

You know, this text includes the story of the disciple named Thomas, who has forever been given the name “Doubting Thomas” for refusing to believe the disciples when they saw Jesus was alive and well.  But Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted.  Mary Magdalene had told the disciples that Jesus was alive and well and yet they still locked themselves in a room.  And yet, even inspite of their doubts, Jesus appears to them and gives them peace.

I think this is good news to someone like me.  As I said earlier, being a pastor isn’t easy.  I think some of the reason that I struggle with my role is because I tend to think a pastor is someone who has to have it all together.  A pastor has to know everything, do everything well, and have the right words to say all the time.  A pastor also has to be a wonderful leader that brings in tons of new members to the church and have a spiritual life like none other.

What’s wrong with that is that it leaves God out.  It puts all the focus on me to be perfect, which isn’t going to happen.  The wonderful thing is that inspite of my struggles and doubts, despite my desire to do everything myself and beat myself up when things go wrong, Jesus still invades my locked doors and works through this cowering and doubting disciple.

I also think that if the Risen Christ can bypass the locked doors of my heart and give me peace, he can do it with this ragtag bunch called Community of Grace as well.

It hasn’t been easy being on staff.  Not because of the other staff, Bryan and Dan are great colleagues and friends.  What has been hard is expecting the church to be bigger than it is-filled with people on Sunday evening.  I read stories about new churches that start with 200 hundred people and I wonder, what am I doing wrong?

And yet, God has done something with the small gathering of believers.  God appears in this group that includes the beleaguered and those on a quest and gives us peace.  I’ve seen God at work here.  I’ve been in other churches and I’ve never seen such honesty, and such Spirit as I do here.  We are all struggle with doubt and yet, that’s okay- we are welcomed by God and God still works through us.

I have seen resurrection happen here.  I’ve seen people who were long estranged from the church, come back.  I’ve seen people who might not agree on tax policy, pray for each other and befriend each other during dark times.

The ending of this chapter explains that these stories of Jesus are written that we might believe.  Belief here isn’t about certainty.  It isn’t about having the facts or proof of Jesus.  Instead, these stories are written so that we might believe, to rely on Christ, to place our trust in Christ.  These stories are here to remind us during the dark times of our lives that Jesus is with us and we can place our trust not in a dead god, but the Risen Christ.

I believe it was the Peace Corps, that once had the slogan, “It’s the Toughest Job, You’ll Ever Love.”  It isn’t easy to be a pastor, but then it isn’t easy to be a follower of Jesus either.  We all struggle and doubt, and mess things up.  And yet Christ is in the midst of us.

And maybe that’s what makes this all worthwhile: despite all the mistakes and less than perfect lives, we get to see how God works in us and how God can change lives.

Thanks be to God.


Doubt, Fear and Church Planting

On this upcoming Second Sunday of Easter, I wanted to share this sermon I preached back in 2006.  It dealt a bit with some of the struggles of church planting and relating that to the fear of the disciples in the locked room.  Here’s a snippet:

You know, I’ve learned something about starting a church: it’s damn hard.

Okay, you probably didn’t expect a pastor to use the word “damn” in a sermon, but the fact of the matter is, planting a church is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, but mainly because those involved in planning the church have such grand visions. I had hoped tons of people would show up and that our denominational bodies would give us tons of money to help us get started. In a way, I’m like the person Gordon Atkinson is talking about: I wanted to create this really cool church with a swingin’ pastor that would just be kick-ass.

What happened? Rev. Sanders got introduced to little thing called reality. Lot’s of people haven’t shown up. Some have stayed for a while and then moved on. Others made tons of excuses. As for the money, the denomination isn’t in the position to give us loads of money, though the money we have received has been helpful. To top things off, I worry about my colleague and fellow co-pastor who is trying to look for work and keep his financial ship from sinking. I can remember preparing wondering worship services with mind-blowing sermons and only two people show up. And there are times when I feel that no one cares about Community of Grace and no one would miss us.

Maybe that’s why today’s gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it’s the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary. As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem. They were scared. The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday Sermon: May 2, 2010

I usually post my sermons soon after I preach them, but for some reason I didn’t post this one last year.  I filled in for the pastor at Plymouth Creek Christian Church in Plymouth, MN.  Part of the reason I share this now is that I want to tell part of the ongoing story of the church that I serve at and how God is at work at this urban church.

“Young Trees”
John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18
May 2, 2010
Plymouth Creek Christian Church

Plymouth, Minnesota


How do you transform a church?  That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer over the last eighteen months in my role as the Associate Pastor at First Christian.  Working with Bob Brite, the Interim Pastor and the rest of the congregation, we are trying to find out how to make what was once a big downtown church into something that fits the current times.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do know that it seems difficult to find an easy answer.  We sit and pray and talk and wonder and so on.  In some ways it seems like we are just plodding along and trying to see what works.  Some people at the church think that the congregation’s best days are behind it and wonder if it is time to just give up.

At the same time, something else was quietly happening.  One of  our members, Deb Murphy was a little bit upset about the fact that there was no children’s program going on at the church.  One of the things that can happen when a congregation is in decline is that certain things tend to get left by the wayside.  The children’s ministry was one of those things that got left aside.  There were hardly any children in the church.  Well again, Deb was upset about this and she made the mistake of telling me about it.  I asked her what she could do about it.  Well, that got to Deb.  She is an artist and has worked for years in the Twin Cities theatre community.  After some thought, she came up with an idea of using arts to teach children about the Bible.

“Young Trees.” By Deb Murphy.

Come September of 2009, Deb started her class called Art of the Covenant.  It was kind of amazing: kids started coming to the class.  A friend from work ended up bringing her daughter to the program.  A couple started brining their three grandsons.  A woman who had stopped attending started coming back after her two adopted sons were eager to attend the class.  I can stop by on a Sunday morning and see the classroom filled with little ones.  Another couple announced they were ready to leave the church because there was not anything for their four year old son, save for this new class.

Little by little, Deb’s class is making a difference.  On Easter Sunday during the children’s sermon, there are fourteen children who came forward,  It was a wonderful scene.

Deb’s action was one of love and service.  In all the questions regarding how First Christian transforms, we had forgot about one simple thing: that we were called to love people.  Deb remembered.  She remembered to love the children.

In today’s reading in John, Jesus leaves the disciples with a very simple rule.  Love one another.  This is what I like about Jesus: he loves to keep it simple.  And yet, we tend to not be able to keep this very simple rule.  The Church, that’s the big-c church, not this church, has had a bad history of not welcoming people who might different from the norm.  We haven’t always loved those who are of a different race or nationality or sexual orientation or political persuasion.

Jesus call us to love each other.  It is what the church is all about or at least what it should be all about.  Earlier in the 13th chapter of John, we read about Jesus getting up from the table and starting to wash his disciples feet.  Now, washing feet back in Bible times was kind of a needed thing.  Unlike modern times, the streets were not clean, but filled with dirt and grime and dung.  So, entering a house meant your feet were pretty nasty.  That’s where foot washing came in.  Jesus decided to wash his disciples feet, probably to clean their feet, but also to make a point: followers of Jesus are called to be servants, to express love in our actions.

That’s what we are called to do when Jesus asks us to love each other.  We are called to love those within our walls and those outside our churches in actions of service.  We are called to put aside our need to be right and love each other.

But loving is hard.  It means that we are going to have to push beyond our comfort zones.  In Acts 11 Peter is called up to Jerusalem to talk to some of the leaders of the young church.  They wonder why Peter was out sharing the word of God with to the Gentiles.  Peter explains that he had a vision where a sheet came down from heaven filled with food he wasn’t supposed to eat according to his faith.  But God compels him to eat saying that what God has made was never unclean.  The Peter meets Corneilus, a Gentile who wants to know more about Jesus.  Peter shares the good news and Cornelius and his entire household become followers and he sees the Spirit working through these folks.

For Peter, loving meant not just loving his fellow disciples, but also loving someone outside his faith.  And so the circle widens.  We are called to love and be servants not just to those in the church, but to strangers along the way because they are also made of God and are not unclean.  They are part of God’s family.

Back in March, Deb wrote a devotional called “Young Trees” based on a picture she took of some of the kids she teaches.  I want to share some of that the devotion to close this sermon.  She wrote:

If you look closely, there is a lot of life in this picture.  Bob was gesturing at the moment I took the picture, so his hand is blurred with movement.  Fletcher is moving closer to see what’s in the  basket.  Elizabeth has turned around to look at her mom.  Tristan has turned toward Nancy.

Aidan is reaching out to the little girl in Val’s lap. (The two Masons are out of sight – but being active, I’m sure.)   Earl is watching intently. There are fresh red tulips. Again, if you look closely, you’ll notice communion – the bread and the cup – on the tables, symbolic of new life in Christ.

Why did I title this picture Young Trees?  Two things contributed to the title.  One is the lectionary Gospel (Luke 13: 6-9) for Sunday, March 7th.  The owner of a vineyard wants to get rid of a fig tree that hasn’t produced any fruit in the three years since it was planted.  The gardener begged to be allowed to aerate the soil and fertilize the tree to help it produce.  I see the children as the young trees in our vineyard that need both physical and spiritual nurturing and sustenance.  And if you look at the picture again, these trees of ours are surrounded by a largeroomful of gardeners.

The church is called to be gardeners.  We are called to love and tend to each other and to those strangers we meet along the way.  That’s it.  It isn’t about evangelizing people, or giving more money, or anything like that.  We are called to love.

Thanks be to God.