Category: First Christian Minneapolis

Sunday Sermon: “Unsafe At Any Speed”

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent from 2010.


“Unsafe at Any Speed”
Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5
November 28, 2010
Advent 1
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN
In the Spring of 1990, I was a junior at Michigan State University.  For Spring Break that year, I went on a trip to retreat center outside of Norman, Oklahoma.  We drove caravan-style from East Lansing, Michigan all the way to Norman.  Now, one of the people responsible for driving was a fellow student, a sophomore named Ray.  Ray’s Dad worked at Ford and was able to get company cars to drive around.  Somehow, Ray was able to get his dad to let him use a company car on this trip.  Said company car happened to be a Ford Taurus. 
So, I ended up in Ray’s car as we drove from Michigan.  We stopped at some point for lunch in Missiouri.  I remember being in the parking lot of a fast-food joint and a group decided they wanted to go to Arby’s across the street.  Ray thought this was a good time for me to drive the car.
Now, this was a bad decision for three reasons.  First, the car was a stick shift, and I had never driven a car with a manual transmission.  Second to get to the Arby’s you had to go uphill…in a stickshift.  The third reason is that this Taurus wasn’t any ordinary car, but what is called among car geeks, the Taurus SHO.  SHO stands for super high output and it is a souped up version of this plain family sedan.  The original SHO, which this car was, had an engine made by Yahmaha, the motocycle company.  Maybe if I had know I was driving a demon maskquerading as family sedan, I would have declined driving Ray’s car, but ignorance is bliss, so I went ahead and tried to drive the car.
I repeat, I tried to drive the car.  Trying to remember to deal with the clutch was bad enough.  The car would rev up (another bad sign) and then I would stall it.  Start it again, the engine would rev, car would stall. 
After many fits and starts, I got it up the hill and now was attempting the most challenging maneuver: trying to make a left turn, up a hill, and into the parking lot.  I can still remember Ray saying something like “hit the gas” and I did just that.
Seconds later I had made the left turn into the parking lot and I’m pretty sure that everyone knew it.  Why?  Because when I hit the gas, I literally peeled rubber. The care sprung to life, and for a split second I felt like I was part of NASCAR.  The tires squealed, and I roared into the parking lot of Arby’s complete with the smell of burning rubber.
It was safe to say that I never did drive that car again. 
If there was any lesson to be learned, other than never try to learn to drive stick in a race car, it was learning to appreciate the power I was dealing with.  After my experience, I learned to apprciate the sheer power underneath the hood of this car and most importantly, that this was no ordinary car.  It was not safe.
The passage today found in book of Matthew is an odd one for this time of year.  This the first Sunday of Advent, a time when we prepare the coming of the Christ child, and it is during this time that we tend to get sentimental.  We like to sing Christmas hymns (even though it isn’t Christmas yet) about a little child born in Bethlehem.  We have images of a manger with the baby Jesus and animals milling about.  It all looks so peaceful and oh so very…safe.
And yet, here is this passage from the Bible where a grownup Jesus is talking about  the coming of the Son of Man and not knowing the hour and about being ready.  And if we read further on, there would be stories of ten bridesmaids that were locked out of wedding party and a tale about sheep and goats, reward and punishment.  None of this looks peaceful or bucolic. 
Growing up, many people thought this was about the second coming of Jesus and the lesson here is that we need to get saved and get right with God so that we won’t be “left behind.” 
But what if Jesus wasn’t just talking about future time, but was talking about the present time?  What if Jesus wasn’t talking about just about the judgement that is to come, but the judgement of Jesus now?
When Jesus spoke to his followers, he might just have been talking about his own time.  There were many who wanted things to be as they were and missed seeing the Messiah, God’s anointed right in front of them.  Many of the religious leaders of that time missed out on Jesus, because they refused to see him.  They were not ready to for the coming of the Son of Man.
If you read the gospels, you always find that the people one would expect to be ready for Christ’s coming would be most unprepared.  The religious leaders like the Pharisees tended to think that they knew all about God and about the coming of the Messiah and Jesus wasn’t it.  A man that ate with sinners and broke the religious laws, someone who was disruptive to their way of life, how could this man be the Messiah?
And yet, Jesus was the Messiah, the one who came to those who hearts were prepared for his coming, the outcasts, the forgotten, even the villians.  They were ready to hear the message of the Son of Man.
For us modern folk, the message here is to be ready for when Jesus returns.  We can hear in this text of that future day when Jesus will come and we must give an accounting of how we cared for our sisters and our brothers.  But the message is also that Jesus comes today and everyday.  God comes in our daily lives and we must have the eyes to see when Jesus breaksthrough.
All of this talk about the coming of God and God’s judgement is not what we expect in Advent.  We want that sweet baby Jesus.  But Advent reminds us that Jesus is not safe.   Jesus keeps on barging into our lives and messing up our plans.  Jesus points out that we don’t have it all together and that we need to get right with him.  Jesus  power to heal, to love the unlovable reminds us that we are dealing with something more power than anything we ever imagined.
What if we lived waiting for the coming of Chirst, not knowing the time when Jesus might arrive?  What would this church look like if we spent time doing works of justice towards those in need in preparation of Christ’s return?  What if we thought that in the face of the poor or the outcast we might encounter the Living Christ.
Advent is a time for preparing and waiting for the Christ, but it is also a time we are reminded that God is not safe.  We can get ready for wild ride with Jesus, but we can’t domesticate or tame Jesus.
In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Lion , The Witch and The Wardrobe, there is a conversation about the nature of Aslan.  The children in the story find out that Aslan is not a man but a lion and knowing about the power of lions, the kids are scared.  One of the children, named Susan asks,”Is he quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  Mrs. Beaver replies, “That you will, dearie, and no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else silly.”
Then Susan’s sister Lucy asks, “Then he isn’t safe?” That prompts Mr. Beaver to tells the young girl, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The problem today with the church is that we want to worship a safe God, one that is controllable and predictable.  But God isn’t safe.  We should live out our faith with fear and trembling.  But know that God is good as well. 
Twenty years ago, I didn’t know the power of that Ford Taurus.  Don’t be the same way of God.  We worship a power God of love and judgement.  Be prepared to meet Jesus now. Today.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

How a Clockwork Pastor is Becoming Human

7024824877_2f325d0636_zWhen I started seminary 15 years ago, I had come to accept that I would never pastor a church.  I just wasn’t a people person.  Maybe I’d be a seminary professor or something.  I didn’t know it back then, but I was basically acknowledging my Aspergers limitations.

Of course, as you can tell, I didn’t end up as a seminary prof.  Instead, I’ve been the Associate Pastor at a church for nearly five years.  And somehow, I’ve managed to not mess things up, praise be to God.

Just shortly after my Aspergers diagnosis, I wrote about what my future would be in the ministry.  I had my doubts at times, but as this blog post from May 2008 shows, I was thinking about what conditions would make for a good pastorate:

Last night, I watched the Associate Pastor at the church I am a part of. We had our weekly prayer service- now biweekly during the summer months- and she was talking with two members of our congregation whose daughter, son-in-law and children were brutally affected by a tornado that hit the northern Twin Cities suburbs. She was skilled in being truly a pastor to them during this horrible time. As watched this scene, it occurred to me: I couldn’t do what she is doing- or at least it doesn’t come to me as naturally…

While I am relieved about my diagnosis of Aspergers, it leaves me with a big question regarding vocation: what in the world do you do with a pastor that has autism?

I’ve been around long enough to know that pastors tend to be social beings. They are supposed to be the kind of people who can connect with others. They “get” social cues. They know how to deal with sudden change. So what about someone like me who isn’t any of that? How in the world can I be a pastor if I don’t have those skills?

For a long time, I’ve wondered where I fit in the church. I knew I didn’t fit, but didn’t know why. But now I need to figure out how to use my gifts in ministry, how to use my Aspergers not as a deficit, but as an advantage.

I know that I need to be in environments that are structured and have some sense of stability. That has made me think of some kind of Associate Ministry. However, at least in the metro area, there are no possibilities for that kind of ministry among Disciple churches and very few in UCC circles. I guess I could start looking outstate and see what happens.

What I have wanted to do is to maybe create some kind of ministry in a congregation where I would be on staff probably bivocational. Maybe it would be to perform worship or lead Christian Education. But it would be something that is regimented.

Five years later, I’m the Associate Pastor at a church and I have spelled out duties.

As I look back over those five years, I can see how I’ve been stretched, having to move out of my comfort zones.  No matter how much you try to keep things as routine as possible, there are going to be times where things won’t be routinized…where things will be chaotic.  What I’ve had to learn as someone who is autistic is that sometimes things can’t be routine.  If someone is in pain and needs help, you have to learn to summon strength from somewhere and help that person.

Last summer, I got a call at 10:30pm from the office manager.  A longtime member of the church had died.  We were between pastors, so I had to meet with the family in St. Paul.  My android brain might have wanted to protest, but I had a job to do.  I had to be human for a little while to help a family that had lost their loved one.  A wife of 60 years needed someone to hold her hand.

What has happened over the last few years is become more…human.  It’s not that I was some monster before this, but being a pastor means you have to engage people, giving someone a hug when they need one, or listening when they need to rant.  None of this comes easy to me, and like most persons with Aspergers, you learn to fake it til you make it.

I’m still somewhat android-like in that when I see someone that needs something from me my brain starts whirring and spitting out a command that I should do.  If someone is mad and hurt, my brain says, “Hug person.”  And so, I give them a hug.  No, it’s not warm and fuzzy, but I get the job done.  And maybe in someway I learn to be a real boy along the way.

So, five years later, I’ve learned so much about people and I’ve learned so much about ministry.  It tells me that I can do this whole pastor thing, and there’s even a benefit along the way: the robot-boy is becoming a human….almost.

There’s Still Hope for the Mainline

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I tend to be critical of mainline Christianity.  It’s not that I want to leave what has been my theological home for two decades; it’s that I get frustrated at some of it’s shortcomings.

Despite all of that, mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity is my home.  As much as I respect my evangelical beginnings, I don’t belong there anymore.  My current home might be a fixer-upper, but it’s still home.

So, I get a bit sad when I hear stories about how Mainline Protestantism is shrinking.  People leave the church.  Congregations close.  Denominational offices keep cutting staff. Will this form of Christianity even be around in 20 years or so?

The thing is, I do see some signs of a church that is trying to keep the lights on.  My day job with the Presbyterians is located in the Minnesota Church Center, which is home to several denominations.  During the building-wide weekly Lenten service, someone from the Episcopal Diocese in Minnesota shared a unique way of studying Scripture that has been used among Native American Anglicans.  This wasn’t some of flimsy stuff I sometimes find in liberal churches.  This had substance.

Even in the church that I serve, I’ve seen signs of life and a church willing to live and be open to the Spirit.  There is still good things going on in mainline churches.

An article in the Orange County Register talks about the signs of hope taking place in Mainline congregations in the suburban California county.  The author of the article does a good job as he shares what is going on several congregations and helps us understand that in light of the recent decline among evangelical churches, that the reasons for decline among the mainline is not simply because they decided to have a more liberal theology.  The increasing secularization of American society has caused churches to adapt.  Here’s what one Disciples of Christ congregation did:

At Harbor Christian Church in Newport Beach, a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, members solved the Sunday morning problem by shifting activities to Sunday evening or other days of the week.

Pastor Wes Knight said attendance at adult spiritual formation classes shot up when they were shifted to Sunday night.

Now, 30 people come weekly for a potluck supper and member-taught classes on topics ranging from forgiveness to the spirituality of pottery.

Knight said Harbor Christian, surrounded by several of Orange County’s largest churches, embraces its identity “as an alternative to the megachurch.”

There are no theological requirements for membership, and the roughly 70 worshippers who attend each Sunday are intimately involved in one another’s lives.

“They’re just like my own family to me,” said Mike Nelson of Mission Viejo who recalled being enthusiastically welcomed at the church when he arrived five years ago, even though he was struggling with a methamphetamine addiction.

“I tried the megachurches and didn’t find any sense of community,” Nelson said. Harbor Christian members “didn’t judge me at all.”

Read the whole thing.  It gives me hope that while the mainline churches might be smaller in the future, but by God we will be around in the future, preaching, teaching and welcoming the stranger.

About That Interview…

Some of you might have noticed that there is an article in the most recent Christian Century with a Disciples pastor in Minneapolis by the name of Dennis Sanders.  I haven’t said much about it, but I wanted to provide some background to the article.

Steve Thorngate, the editor sent me an email over the summer asking if I would take part in the magazine’s series on ministry in the 21st century.  So began a number of emails back and forth, with Steve asking some really good questions and I trying to answer them as best as I could.

I do want to say thanks to Steve for being patient as I tried to answer his questions and for giving me the chance to think about my ministry.  There are a lot of good people that have been interviewed for the series.  I don’t know if I’m at the caliber of the other ministers, but I am glad to tell my story and the story of the wonderful church that I’m honored to serve.

Sunday Sermon: “In God We Trust”

“In God We Trust”
Mark 10:17-31
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
October 14, 2012
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I will admit it: I really don’t like this passage.

Why don’t I like it?  For a lot of reasons.  I don’t like how people sometimes use this passage to lord over others.  People who are full of themselves and like to preach against all those confortable folks in the pews with their nice houses in the suburbs.  Never mind said preacher has most of the accutrments of modern society like an iPhone and/or a laptop and nice clothes.  If you’re gonna go around acting like a prophet, you might want to actually try living as one.

I also don’t like this text for some opposite reasons.  I don’t like how we try to soften this passage.  Pastors and others try to make the text more palatable by saying that the whole camel thought the eye of a needle referred to the beast entering a smaller door fit for them.  We try to say that Jesus was just testing the young man on what was keeping him from God.  It might be wealth for one person, but it might be something else entirely for another person.

There is another reason I don’t like this text and it comes down to this: it’s just too personal for me.  There’s a fear that this verse is speaking to me as well and if it came down to selling everything I have and giving it to the poor to follow Jesus, my response would be just like the young ruler.  I’m hardly rich, by American means, but I don’t know if I could give up my car or iPad or home and follow some long-haired hippie. Continue reading “Sunday Sermon: “In God We Trust””

Trinity Sunday Sermon: "Come to the Table"

With Trinity Sunday coming up, I decided to share a sermon I gave on Trinity Sunday 2009

“Come to the Table”
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
June 7, 2009
Trinity Sunday
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

A few months ago, my partner Daniel and I were invited to have high tea. A friend of mine this in an auction and she invited serveral of her friends to the event, including me.

I was not looking forward to it.

I had this fear that I would have to learn to how have tea. I was scared that I would not hold the tea cup in the right way and that I would make a fool of myself.

Well, the day came and Daniel and I went to a suburban house in Richfield. A woman in her 50s or 60s came to the door dressed quite nicely. We went in and sat down at a table that was adorned with nice china. It was all nice, but I was nervous. Finally, it was time for the tea and the cookies. But instead of worrying about if I had to have my pinky up or not, what happened was rather surprising. The circle of friends gathered and started sharing what was going on in their lives. My fears subsided as I realized there was less concern about getting things right than there was about the relationships that were happening at that moment.

The Sunday after Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday, when we focus on God as the Three in One: God the Father or Creator, God the Son or the Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit or Sustainer. This Sunday is an interesting Sunday for those of us who belong to this tradition in Christianity called the Disciples of Christ. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of what became the Disciples, did not focus on the Trinity. The reason was that there was no mention of it in the Bible. Since we were a people of the book, it made no sense to spend time in a concept that was not mentioned in the Bible.

And he is right of course, if you read the Bible, especially the New Testament, you will not find the word, “trinity.” The concept of Trinity is not a biblical per se, it’s a doctrinal statement that came later in the life of the Chrisitianity. So, since it was considered a doctrine, and we Disciples tend to be non-doctrinal, the Trinity doesn’t get talked about a whole lot among Disciples.

Now, one doesn’t have to believe in the Trinity to be a good Christian. However, it is a way to think about the nature of God, a way to explain God. There are a lot of different ways to try to describe God and the Trinity is one of those ways. The Trinity also reminds us how we are to be church, how we are to be God’s children in the world. For some reason, the Trinity has me thinking of food and tea, tables, mission and grace.

In the John text, we introduced to Nicodemus. We find out that he is a Pharisee and is intriguied by Jesus. He comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness to find out more about this man. I can imagine him walking down the streets at night, trying to make sure no one sees him and then going to a door on a side street and knocking the door. One of the disciples opens the door and leads him to a room where Jesus is sitting with tea or coffee at the waiting. Nicodemus sits and the two converse among many, many cups of tea. Nicodemus was well versed in the law and believed he had done all the right things. But Jesus starts talking about being “born again” and about how being born of water and Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not about one has done for God, but what God has done for us; how God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to live among us.

What happens during this late night visit is the beginning of a relationship. Nicodemus is captivated by this man named Jesus, and begins to get closer to him. We later see the Pharisee stand up for Jesus and after the crucifixion works with others to find proper burial place for Jesus.

In our Isaiah text, we see that a person is being called by God to a mission. Unlike the quiet setting found in John, this story seems rather frightening. There are angels with several wings that don’t seem like those gentle versions we see on television. We can imagine a loud voice calling the person to do this thing for God. And the person replies that he is not worthy to do carry out God’s mission. And then we have this odd vision of one of these horrid looking angels getting a fiery coal and placing it on the person’s mouth as a sign of his now being made clean by God. Once he was made clean by God, the person in this story can now claim in a strong voice, “here I am! Send me.”

If there is one thing I want you to remember, is that the concept of the Trinity is about seeing God as a God that wants to be in relationship. God is in relationship within God, and God wants to be relationship with all of creation, including humanity.

There is a painting by Andrei Rublev, a Russain artist, that shows what the Trinity is all about and gives a clue into what it means to be church. (show the painting).

Gathered around a table are three figures reprenting the Trinity. You can see the three seated around this table and sharing each others lives. Notice that there is one seat that is open. It’s an ivitation to come and sit with God.

God is not about trying to do the right thing. In some ways, many people are like I was before that tea party, worried that I would do the wrong thing. But God is more interested in having a relationship with us.

Sometimes we are afraid to be in relationship with God. Sometimes we feel that we are not worthy and sometimes we just stay away. But just as God cleaned the writer in Isaiah, we are made clean by God through Jesus Christ. It was through the life death and ressurection that we are made clean and called to do God’s work in the world.

As members of First Christian, we have been in the midst of a study called Ubinding the Gospel and we have been implored to learn to share the good news of Jesus with others. I can imagine, that at times, we might feel not up to the task. We feel ashamed that we are not sharing the gospel with others and feel unclean.

I want to challenge you to see sharing the good news not in the form of a task that one should do, as some boring task of duty, but as engaging in a relationship. It’s about sharing our lives with each other over a cup of coffee. It’s about inviting someone to dinner and seeing how your family and friends are doing. Evangelism isn’t not about trying to accost someone with the good news of God, but it is going out in the world and being in relationship with people; sharing our lives with each other. And since God is part of our lives, we will share that part of our life as well.

I want to read something to you: it’s the mission statement for First Christian. “In response to the grace of God, the mission of First Christian Church is to be a Christ-centered presence, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, and to witness through service to God’s World.”

We don’t go out and talking about how we encounter God because we have to. We do it in response for what God has done for us. God has in Jesus showed that God loves us. In response that we are loved by God, we can be a presence in the world, being in relationship with our friends and neighbors and even strangers. We seek to get to know people and get to know about their hopes and fears and seek ways to help them and to just be Christ to them. We seek to be in relationship when we serve food to the hungry at St. Stephen’s shelter. Being church is not about a building or committee, or pews or an organ. Those are all nice, but church is about a table,, where the Trinity invites us to come and share our lives and where we are so in love with God that we want to go out and invite others to the table.

And that’s what we do every week, don’t we? We come to this table where we are reminded of God’s love for us. We don’t have to worry if we are worthy, God has already made us worthy, God has made everyone worthy.

I want to leave you with a final image. As many of you know, there was a time long ago, when I was a member of this congregation. I remember the first time I visited this church, Labor Day weekend of 1996. I went to the service and then came home to do some other things. Later that evening, a I heard a knock on the door. There was a man in his 50s with a loaf of bread and a packet. The man was from First Christian and wanted to thank me for visiting. The man was Garry Hesser, who is a member here. I was invited to enter a relationship and decided to take up the invite. I would remember later on having conversations with Garry and Martha Harris over tea as we talked about the nature of God.

God is not calling us to duty; God wants us to be in realtionship with God and with each other. God is about having tea with friends and sharing our lives. We are invited to the Table. Come to the Table. Be yourself. Feel free to invite others. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The painting is called The Trinity, by Andrei Rublev.

Planned Parenthod vs. Susan G. Komen: Same S*%!, Different Day

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the whole Komen controversy because its been done ad nausem.  But I do have one question: where should the Church be in all this?

The whole mess concerning the two groups was one more annoying incident in the culture wars.  Each side, including many a Christian, took their usual sides in this forever battle.  We slunged mud at the other side with equal ferocity, all in the name of being on the side of right, of course.

But how should followers of Jesus respond?  How do we handle issues in ways that aren’t aping what we seeing the wider culture?  Why are we so quick to turn even an issue that everyone agrees is a major problem: breast cancer, into war of words?  Why are people so willing to paint everything as black and white and not try to see another viewpoint or veiwpoints?

What is sorely missing in the life of the church today, no matter what side you are on, is how to think theologically and engage culture.  What we tend to do is hold on to our positions, convinced they are God’s instead of sitting down and trying to discern things.  Instead of trying to find God’s will, we have already decided we know God’s will and need to tell those other guy how stupid and evil they are.

The Church, liberal and conservatives, have acted like asses in the last few days.  When it comes to showing a “more excellent way” of being in the world.  We fall short.

Epic. Fail.

Repost: Why Church Planting Matters

Jim, left and my partner, Daniel, right.

From August 2010.

As First Christian plans its future, a constant among the plans is to leave some money aside for to plant new churches. Both the Senior Pastor and I have made this a priority in what ever decisions are made.

That has been met with some resistance. One person wondered why we weren’t spending some of the money on mission. Others have thought the same thing. (It’s funny that people all of the sudden care about mission when it comes to using money for church planting.) I’m always a bit angry at the resistance to planting churches. As someone whose position involves mission, I get wanting to support mission, but church planting is part of that mission.

Of course, I have a strong belief in planting new churches, because I planted one. Yes, it failed but it also made a difference in the life of one man, my dear friend Jim.

Jim came from a Catholic and Anglican background, but because he was gay, he never felt welcomed in those churches. When Community of Grace came online, he was able to reconnect with God in a way that continues today.

I don’t know if Jim would have come back to the church if it was an existing church. But because there was a new church that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality, he could come on in and meet Jesus.

I know that at First part of the resistance is that many of churches planted by the congregation have since closed. But just because a congregation is no longer in existence that doesn’t mean that planting it was in vain. Countless people were able to learn the stories of old, feast at the table, make a baptismal covenant and meet Christ. That matters.

I wonder at times if part of the resistance to new planting new churches comes from what has happened to mainline Protestant churches over the last 50 years. Walter Russell Mead writes that as the fundamentalists/evangelicals split from the modernists in the early 20th century, it was the modernists that ended up much poorer:

In a sense, the mainline churches today suffer because they never took stock of the costs of modernism in quite the same way that evangelicals came to terms with some of the shortcomings and one-sided characteristics of the fundamentalist movement. Beginning really with Billy Graham’s pilgrimage, for two generations evangelicals have been working to free themselves of cultural detritus (culturally determined views on race and on the place of women in society, for example) while holding on to the vital principles of the fundamentalist core — doctrines like original sin, the atonement, and a strong belief that God, however mysteriously, acts in history.

The heirs of the modernists, I fear, have not really had this ‘second stage’ movement. If anything, the most noticeable trend in many mainline denominations has been to go farther down the road of the modernists. Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who in many ways came closer than any other to the kind of review and renewal that mainline Protestantism needs, would be politically and theologically isolated in the mainline churches today. His stance suggested a rigorous and critical approach to the limits of liberal theology, but that side of his legacy has been largely ignored.

Niebuhr in a sense has had no heirs. His effort to synthesize the core vision of historic Protestantism with a contemporary sensibility did not capture the imagination of subsequent generations of mainline church leaders. The mainline churches seemed to feel that little of value was really lost when the fundamentalists left. The modernists won the fight with the fundamentalists, after all. They ended up with the big buildings, the prestigious and academically well respected theological schools, the patronage of the social elite, the bully pulpits that commanded attention and respect, the control of the denominational machinery. Why look for anything more?

In truth, the split impoverished the mainline churches as much as it did the fundamentalists. Modernity in religion became progressively unglued from the foundations of Protestant faith; the mainline churches lacked the kind of compelling, burning message of faith that would have kept new generations of educated, thoughtful believers engaged in the church. For too many mainline congregations, faith faded into a habit, and the habit faded away.

While many people in the mainline churches continue to live rich and intense spiritual lives, the mainline churches as a group seem to have lost both the urge and the ability to communicate a message of urgency about the need to people to, as the old spirituals put it, “get right with God.” They have lost the ability to make the Christian life and a Christian commitment the vital center of community and family life — even for many of their own members.

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.

And of course, please have done that. But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up in the African American church and I can tell you that they had a lot of passion. And yet, that bothers white mainline Protestants. Yes, the will try to enjoy a black church service, but the urgency, the passion is just not there.

I came accross this post a few weeks ago by Presbyterian pastor John Vest explaining his experience at Presbyterian Youth Triennium:

For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.

Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.

But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.

As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)

All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.

Now, I get and appreciate the “earthy Jesus” he is talking about. I think it is incredibly important to understand the life of Jesus, not just his death.

But I also understand the “Jesus, bloody Jesus” as well. The life of Jesus tells us how we should live. But it is the death of Jesus that allows us to follow Jesus. Following the earthy, Jewish peasant is something we can do, kinda like I can choose to become a vegetarian. Both are good, but they aren’t necessarily passionate. But there’s a reason the crucifixion and death of Jesus is called “The Passion.” There was emotion involved. It affected people, it changed them. It still does today.

In the African American church, we sing songs that talk a lot about blood, the blood of Jesus. It might seem goulish, but we realize that it was this blood that saved us, that saved us all to be servants to each other. I don’t know, but maybe the experience of slavery made us less squeamish about blood and make Christ seem more urgent.

So, what does this little theological trip have to do with church planting? Well, if Jesus is just the earthy prophet, then I don’t really see the need to plant churches. Hell, I don’t even need a church. I can just give money to an agency and spend time at a soup kitchen. But if Jesus is the One who came and lived among us, cared for the poor, healed the sick, made the blind see and also died for us and rose up to defeat the powers of death, well that sounds a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? Kinda like you want to be in church.

Church planting matters because Jesus matters. Jesus changes lives. He brought my friend Jim back to a church. Jesus matters. Let’s plant churches.

“We Must Look to the Future”

There’s a story in the lore of First Christian Church-Minneapolis that involves one Dr. George Haggard.  Dr. Haggard was already pretty advanced in years when the story begins, but his spirit was still young.  What was then Portland Avenue Church of Christ (we became First Christian Church-again-in 1955) was thinking about building a new church facility, but there was a bit of hesitancy.  You see, these were the days of World War II and with the sting of the Great Depression still present in everyone’s collective memory.  And yet, this octogenerian pressed onward stating to the congregation that they must start raising the money for a new building.  “We must look to the future,” he said.

“We must look to the future” became the rallying cry for the next decade as the church embarked on a building campaign.  By 1955, the dream that started a decade earlier was complete- a gleaming new building for a growing church.

A decade later, you were still hearing the talk about looking towards the future.  I chanced upon a newsletter from 1962 that talked about the plans to add on an educational wing.  Dr. Haggard had long passed from the scene, but his spirit lived on.

It’s interesting thinking about what the good doctor said; it seemed to fit the mood of the times.  He uttered these words during a dark time in American history, and they pointed towards a future hope, which was realized in the 1950s. Progress was the key word in those days and looking towards the future meant things were only going to get better.

Dr. Haggard’s  words might be seem odd to those of us here at First these days.  We are a smaller church than we were when Dr. Haggard’s dream became reality.  As we prepare to move out of the building that was that Dr. Haggard’s dream to our new home at SpringHouse, it doesn’t feel like our future is bright as it is uncertain and scary.  When the future is uncertain, it’s quite easy to get trapped in the past- a past when the church hallways were filled with the sounds of laughing children, when the sanctuary was packed with people, when the future wasn’t so scary.

One of the lectionary readings for December 18 is from the seventh chapter of Second Samuel.  In it God tells King David through the prophet Nathan that God would establish the Davidic line forever.  David’s legacy, a royal lineage, would never end.

But it did end.  Centuries later, the Babylonians swept in and defeated Israel.  The age of kings was done.  When we start reading the gospel of Luke, Israel has a king, but he is basically a governor (a really brutal governor) of Rome.

But it’s also in that first chapter of Luke that we see an angel come to a young girl named Mary.  The angel tells her that she will give birth to a son, called Jesus.  The Davidic line is restored by the King of Kings.  God didn’t not give up on God’s people. God is Emmanuel, always with us.

We, must still look to the future.  Maybe it won’t be the future of big buildings and big memberships, but it will be a future where God is present with us, especially when the future seems cloudy.  As we move into SpringHouse, let’s remember that God is with us in the future, with us as we work with our partner congregations, with us as celebrate communion and preach the gospel.

We must look to the future, because that’s where God is.  And it’s where are to be as well.

Sunday Sermon: December 4, 2011

“That Will Preach.”
 Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 
December 4, 2011 
First Christian ChurchMinneapolis, MN
It been interesting to walk around the church office these days. It’s kind of become a bit of a museum. As we get ready for the upcoming move to SpringHouse Ministry Center, old newsletters and church bulletins are being taken out of the archives room and getting scanned onto a hard drive. Space is going to a bit tight in our new home, so now is the time to get rid of or economize our stuff. It’s been fascinating to look at the newsletters and bulletins from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and to see what things were like here at First during that time. It’s hard for me to come into the office and not look at these documents from our past. There’s something about recent history that I find fasinating. There’s a store in Stillwater that has old car ads dating from the 1920s and onward. I could sit for hours and just look at these old advertisements. I really like reading more recent ads because it kindles a sense of nostalgia, a longing for how things used to be. These old bulletins can also kindle a sense of nostalgia. When you read these documents, you get a glimpse to the days when this sanctuary was full at two services. I remember reading somewhere that the Sunday School kids classes had hundreds of kids. Yes, I said hundreds. It’s after reading all this that you noticed how the feeling of nostalgia slides a bit into despair and sadness. The thing that keeps running through my head is what happened to all those people? Why are we not growing now? Is there any hope for us now? In a little over a month, we will have our last worship service here and we will probably get into a bus and start worshipping in our new space. There’s a lot of anticipation among us, but I also know there is probably some sense of sadness in there as well. We are headed to into a new way of being church. I know there is excitement in the opportunities to work together with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC. But we can’t pretend that there is a sense of loss. The reason we are leaving this location is for a pretty simple reason: we had become too small to maintain this building. When we moved into this building in 1955, First was a large congregation. We aren’t that anymore. And while we can say all these great things about downsizing, we can’t really deny feeling as if we are losers.
And we are also anxious about the future. We wonder if we’ll grow in our new location. We wonder if we can make it with a reduced budget, reduced staff and reduced membership. Some of you have heard the news that First Christian Church in Mankato is closing at the end of this year after 143 years of ministry. In an email we learn that the church had shrunk to the point that they couldn’t maintain a viable ministry. We wonder if that’s going to be our fate 10 or 15 years down the road. We live in anxious times. We aren’t the only church dealing with the issues associated with decline. Add to that are people dealing with lost jobs and uncertain futures. We can’t really say that these are the good days. In many ways, it seems like those good days are far behind us. The passage today from Isaiah is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. You may have not heard anyone read this passage, but you might have heard it in song. Part of Handel’s Messiah includes phrasing from Isaiah 40 and we also get the hymn “Comfort, Comfort You My People.” This passage is one of hope in the midst of despair. This part of the book of Isaiah was written at a time when most of the Israelites were off in capitvity in Babylon. Their homeland had been destroyed by foreign armies years before and they were carted off to a strange land to serve their new conquerors. These were not good times for the Israelites. And then out of nowhere comes this un-named prophet who says that God is going to bring comfort to God’s people. God was no longer angry at the Israelites for their wandering ways, going after other gods. The prophet shouts that God is coming and we are to get ready. Mountains will be made plain; valleys will be filled up and we are tell the whole world that God is here. The whole point of this passage is that God has not forgotten God’s people even though they had forgotten God. Actually, they realize that God has been there all the time. I’ve always considered the Gospel of Mark as the oddball gospel because it begins and ends so aburptly. We start with this guy named John who lives in the desert eating bugs and wearing uncomfortable clothing. He tells people that the promised One is coming and calls on folks to be baptized a sign of the renewal taking place in their hearts. He uses Isaiah 40 to say that Jesus is coming, so get ready. And the odd thing is that people take John’s word seriously. They pour out of the cities into the middle of nowhere to be baptized. In a time when Israel is again under foreign control-this time the Romans- and the religious leadership is somewhat corrupt and in some cases fratenizing with the Roman government, the people found hope in John’s message. God had not left them- in fact, hope was on the way. Advent is a time of expectation and waiting. But it is also a time of hope. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is not just a nice song we sing at this time of year, it is a cry for salvation, a pleading for God to come and save us and a belief that we can rejoice because liberation is just around the corner. We look at how things used to be, the old glory days, and wonder if God has left us. Isaiah and Mark remind us that God is always faithful to us and is always there. We might have a smaller number in the pews, we might not have the large choir we once had, we might not have the Sunday School rooms full of kids as in the days of old, we might not have as much in the bank account , but God is still with us. These passages also tell us something else: that we are to be messengers of the good news. Yeah, I’m bringing up that dreaded “e” word: evangelism. But before you start running away in terror, I want to tell you something. The first part of that word, the evangel part? Well, in Greek, that means “good news.” Evangelism is not about beating someone over the head with a Bible, but it’s about telling everyone around you that God is good, that Good is always with us and that God has not given up on God’s creation. Afraid of talking to strangers? Well, I’m not asking you to start talking to someone you don’t know, try starting with the people you do know: your husband or wife, your children, your friends, and even yourself. In this time of despair, we need to tell the good news over and over and over. This is the message we need to tell from the moment we enter the doors of our new home; no matter what the future holds, we will preach the good news; that God has not left, God loves us and is always, always with us. Every Wednesday evening, I lead a Bible Study. It has been fun to get together and discuss the Bible. Ann Wolverton and Karen Westphal have been regular attenders and it’s been great to sit down and study the scriptures together. Every so often, a questions comes up that I try to answer. After I’ve shared my thoughts, I noticed Karen looking at me with one of those thoughtful looks and she says, “That will preach.” This message that we have? It will preach. It’s a word that needs to be heard, one that we need to even tell ourselves. All of us are called to preach the good news. We are called to tell that good news to others in word and deed. In feeding the hungry or praying for a friend. We proclaim that God is here, come in the form of baby to bring hope and healing to the world. To the church called First Christian Church, the hope we have is not in a large membership and budget to match, though these are nice things to have. Our hope is Christ who comes preaching repentance and forgiveness. And that’s good news to share. As the song goes: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel. Thanks be to God. Amen