Tag: Disciples of Christ

Sermon: Drop the Blanket!

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

peanuts4On December 9, 1965 something special happened.

On that day 50 years ago, CBS first broadcast The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.  I’ve done some reading on the special and it was unique for a lot of reason.  First off, is the soundtrack. Instead of some music more fitting of a cartoon, we get the smooth jazz sounds of Vince Girauldi.  Also did you know that it caused the end of aluminum Christmas trees?  When a remark is made panning the trees, sales dipped.  By 1967, aluminum trees were no longer sold.

But the thing that is the most memorable part of the special is when Linus VanPelt recites part of the birth story of Jesus.  It was unusual for such an open display of faith to be seen on television.

But recently, I learned something about Linus or I should maybe Charles Schulz that takes place during that memorable speech.

Linus is known for being the younger brother of Lucy VanPelt and for being rather smart.  But he is known for something else ever moreso: his security blanket.  Linus carries his blanket everywhere, he is never without it.  

But if we remember Linus on stage sharing the story of the shepherds, we weren’t watching his blanket.  Because if we were, we would notice midway through his speech, he let’s go of this blanket.  To be exact, he lets go of the blanket when he comes to the words, “Fear not.”

To Linus that blanket is what keeps him safe in the world.  And yet, at this crucial moment he gives it up.  

The shepherds in Luke’s telling of the Nativity had every reason to be scared.  Here they are, out on this evening to take care of their sheep.  It’s an evening like any other evening they have had to work.  And then out of nowhere, this man appears to them.  And we learn this angel tells the shepherds to “fear not.”

Those had to be the most silliest words ever uttered in Scripture.  What are you supposed to do when someone just shows up out of thin air!

There is something interesting about the Christmas Stories.  We like to think they are filled with joy, but they are actually filled with fear.  Notice the many times angel had to say fear not.  Gabriel said this to Mary and Zechariah as they were being told the good news of children.  The shepherds were afraid.  Even in the story of the Three Kings, we see that Herod is afraid of a 2 year old who was considered a king.

Fear is something that is sewed into the human heart.  We deal daily with fear.  This past year has seen a number of experiences that have made us scared.  The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernedino made us wonder if something could happen to us.  It also made us suspicous of refugees from Syria, worried that there could be terrorists among them.  While there is some need for caution, many people over-reacted with some governors turning away families escaping war.  Others, stoked by certain people, have become fearful of Muslims and that fear has produce horrible acts such as the torching of a coffee shop owned by a Somaili refugee in Grand Forks.  We are fearful of those who happen to think differently than us. Democrats are afraid of Republicans and Republicans are afraid of Democrats.  

Some fears are not fears based on people, but on situations.  Some fear if they can pay the rent this month or put food on the table. Some fear losing their jobs.  

So it isn’t odd that the angel said “fear not.”  It is all around us.  It has us all in its grip.

The coming of Jesus is a reminder that God came in human form to defeat death and fear.  By rising from the dead, Jesus conquered the fear of death.  Jesus dying for others, deals with our fear of being insignificant. Jesus living his life, not having a place to lay his head is the one that said the God that knows the numbers of hair on your head cares for you.

I will end with a story I recently ready.  On Sunday June 18,1944 D. Martyn Lloyd Jones ascended the pulpit like he did every Sunday in London.  But this was in the middle of World War II where the German Luftwaffe rained down hell from the sky.  On that Sunday, Lloyd-Jones began to pray even though you could hear the whine of planes ahead.  He continued to pray the pastoral prayer.   He only paused when the whine of the planes were too loud.  

That was when a bomb hit the church.  Debris rained down on the congregation.  There was a an air of panic among them.  What would the pastor do?

With the sirens blaring, Lloyd-Jones continued to pray.  When he was done, he told the congregation if they would like to move to the gallery for safety, they were welcome to do so.  A deacon dusted off the pulpit and then sat down.  The good pastor then went into his sermon.

In the face of death, where fear would make sense, he stood.  He might have been scared, but I believe he knew there was a power that would care for him not matter what happened.

I like to think that Linus dropped his blanket because at the moment, he had no fear. The question for us is can we? Can we drop the blankets of fear that we carry with us or use to protect us from life?  Jesus is born.  We will feel fear, of course, but because of the birth of a baby centuries ago, we need not fear for God is with us.  
Drop the blanket. Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas.

Sermon: “Better Living Through Grace”

Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You would be wrong.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

We Call Ourselves Disciples

My wife Jan and I have been members of First Christian Church of St. Paul for nearly 20 years.  We love the congregational focus.  We particularly embrace the dedication to the principles of wholeness and inclusiveness of the Disciples of Christ, that welcome everyone to the Communion Table with no exceptions.  We have recently rededicated ourselves to mission based activities.  Our work with food banks, homeless shelters, and job programs is very important to us.  If we are making sandwiches for the homeless, staffing a homeless shelter, packing food for the hungry, or just raising money for local support organizations, it helps us realize our goal of furthering God’s plan and Christ’s love in our communities, local and world wide.  When someone asks about our church we say, “Open, active, and loving.”

-John Paulson, member of First Christian-St. Paul.

IMG_1294This past weekend, First Christian-St. Paul did something we’ve never done before: took part in the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Joining two other Disciple churches in the area, we shared a booth and handed out fans and information to the passersby. It was great to see our little church on the hill take part in this joint effort.

But we were doing more than just handing out fans. I mean, yeah we did hand out fans; but it was for a far greater purpose than getting our name out there. What we did in Loring Park on a warm weekend in June was an act of evangelism, telling the good news of Jesus to people passing by.

Evangelism is something that tends to scare people, especially those in moderate to progressive congregations. We fear it because of the stereotype that plays in our mind’s background. We envision someone yelling at people and making them feel bad. I get that. The actions of a few have kind of ruined that work for many.

And yet, we are called to evangelize. Actually, we are called to make disciples, followers of Jesus. Handing out fans at a gay pride festival doesn’t seem like evangelism, but in God’s economy it most surely is.IMG_1292

You see, to be an evangelist is to be someone that tells the good news: the news that Jesus is with us and worked to set things right through his life, death and ressurection. We tell the good news of a God that loves, because we have seen it in our own lives and want to see it in the lives of others.

Some of the people who passed by the booth might have kicked out of their church after admitting they were gay. Maybe they were told that they were going to hell or something. Our handing out brochures and fans helped them to see that this God that they thought hated them, welcomes them to the Welcome Table. The body of Christ is truly for them.

We small d- disciples are called to live like Jesus and sometimes that meant being in places we haven’t planned for. Disciples of Jesus are called to share the love of God with others and remind them that this Jesus who lived, died and rose again is concerned about YOU. This is a God that loves everyone and we called to make more people become disciples of a loving and caring God.

I don’t know if we will get people to come to church. That would be nice, but that’s not what mattered. We are called to do more than that; we are called to love the other as if he/she were our only kin.

Evangelism isn’t about getting people saved (though that does happen). It is about relationship; about knowing that this God of the universe does truly love us.

I say to those who volunteered, thanks for letting God speak through you. We aren’t done yet. We have more work to be done to show people God’s kingdom.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Crossposted at the First Christian Church of St. Paul website.

Sermon: “When Love Comes to Town”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Do You Remember?”

Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-21
Ash Wednesday
March 5, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

1977-hostess-reggie-jacksonIt’s been nearly 20 years since Ken Burn’s documentary on the Great American pasttime aired. Baseball talked about the early beginnings of the sport, what impact it had on American society and how it was impacted by American society. There was a certain poignancy in watching this mini-series in 1994, because during that fall there was no baseball due to a strike. For the first time since World War I, the bats of October would fall silent; there was no 1994 World Series.

There are a number of memorable moments from that documentary, but the one that most interested me was footage of a reporter interviewing Reggie Jackson sometime in the late 1970s. Supposedly during this time, Jackson had found faith and become a Christian. The interview had Jackson speaking like a choirboy, telling the reporter the joys of being saved. When the interview ended, Jackson changed. He started swearing up a storm and talking about what you had to do in front of the cameras. I can’t make a call as to whether Jackson’s faith was real, but it was easy to see that the piety was just an act for the cameras. Of course, while Jackson now being himself, there was a camera on taking all this in.

The passages we read this evening talk about worship and how people were basically doing things for show. They would do everything for the cameras, but when the light went off, they treated their fellow person poorly.

It would be easy to look at the passages and simply say that we shouldn’t act that way. I could tell you that we need to care for the poor more than how we look during worship. But that is not what these passages are about. At least not on this day.

Ash Wednesday is a day when we are reminded of how finite we are. It is a day to remind us that we are imperfect, as the old pop song goes, “we’re not that innocent.”

Do you remember? Do you remember that you are finite? Do you remember that you are not perfect? Ash Wednesday is a call to remember our baptisms as children of God, a call to remember that our worship is only as good as how we treat our neighbors, a call to remember that God doesn’t want an act, but an honest heart.

I’m not going to urge you to do good. That’s not the point of this day. I am asking that you remember who you are and whose you are. When you do that, everything else will fall into place. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: Everything’s Gonna Be Alright

Matthew 17:1-9
Transfiguration Sunday, Year A
March 2, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

I envy those people who can spend periods in prayer or meditating. The reason I am jealous of them is that this is something I can’t do. It might be a result of my Apserger’s diagnosis, but I can’t focus on things for very long. This means that when I’m trying to pray, my mind decides to think about other things. I can go from praying to thinking about what I have to do at work, to where I plan to go on vacation, to wondering if I had made that student loan payment, to…what was I doing now?

My brain can’t sit still. It is always busy and I envy those who can just rest their brain to focus on what’s at hand. I am reminded of a graphic that has made its way on the internet: someone explains how hard it is to focus when they have ADHD and they give a demonstration at the same time. The sentence goes, “I Wish I Could sleep, but my ADD kicks in and one sheep, two sheep, cow, turtle, duck, Old MacDonald had a farm, Hey Macarena!”

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, it’s the last Sunday before Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday. This story of Jesus going up to a mountain top and being changed is always told on this Sunday. It’s the last tale of Epiphany, that time when we see Christ being revealed to the world and it ends with a bang.

tomsan_adhd-bunnyJesus goes up to an unnamed mountain to pray. He brings along three of his disciples, Peter, James and John. While they are up on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured or goes through a metamorphosis. Sunlight pours from his face as the Message translation states. At the same time Jesus is now in conversation with two people and neither of them were disciples. He was talking to Moses and Elijah, the giver of the law and the last great prophet. It was odd enough for Jesus to be lit up like a Christmas tree, but he is also talking to two men who were supposed to be long dead.

The three disciples have seen this all and you have to imagine they are a little bit bewildered and downright scared. Peter decides this is the perfect time to talk about a capital campaign. He wants to build shelters for all three of them to memorialize this moment in time. That’s when that voice comes, interrupts Peter and tells everyone that Jesus is God’s son and that he should be listened to.

I’ve heard this story many times and it’s always told in the same way: why couldn’t silly Peter just keep quiet and live in the moment? Why was Peter so stupid?

The thing is, Peter is just doing what we would all do if we were in his shoes. Peter was shocked by what he saw. He couldn’t focus on what was important at that time, which was to listen to Jesus and take in the moment. No, he decides it’s time to build something for the Big Three.

I wonder if Peter was aware of his Jewish history. He would have learned that it is on top of mountains that God’s people come in contact with God. It was on a mountain top that God gave Moses the law. It was on a mountain that Elijah challenge the King of Israel and the prophets of Baal and where God reminded the people who was God. My guess is that Peter was too stunned to be thinking about such things. He was focused on doing something instead of siply being in the moment.

As I said, I think Peter is more representative of all of us than being an outlier. We too can be focused on other things; paying this bill or going shopping, wondering what color the carpet should be in the church sanctuary. We can get so focused on doing work that we leave Jesus behind. God’s calling out of Peter is a reminder to him and to all of us to be present throughout our life, because if we are too busy with other things, we might ignore the presence of God in our midst. This was a God-infused moment and Peter was missing it.

I’d be remissed if I didn’t touch upon another related subject going on here. Peter did have a case of spiritual ADHD, but noticed that after God speaks how the disciples fell to the ground. The passage says they were afraid. Fear can also take our minds of God, to see where God is working. Fear is a natural response to things that we don’t understand, and let’s be honest seeing your friend lit up like a Christmas tree and talking to two dead people is a great reason to be scared.

But look at what Jesus does. He comes and touches the disciples and tells them to not be afraid. When we are so busy with life that we aren’t paying attention or when life leaves us scared, Jesus is there offering a healing touch telling us not to be afraid.

We are getting ready to head into the season of Lent. This time of the year is a 40 day period (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter, a time when we take stock of our lives and prepare for Holy Week and Easter. As we enter this time, I ask that you be aware of those moments in your life where God is present. Even better I hope you will make time to be alone and be attentive to God’s presence. I also hope you will use this time to think about when you were scared and be mindful that Jesus is there offering a touch and a word of encouragement.

This congregation has had a very momentous year that would leave most people fearful and focused on the small stuff. I’m not asking you to not be scared. I am asking that you be aware that Jesus is there offering a word of hope as we continue to seek being church. Even when we are scared, we are not alone. We are never alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “There Goes the Neighborhood”

“There Goes the Neighborhood”
Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-18
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

there-goes-expressionSince I don’t have children, I’ve never seen the actual birth of a baby. But I have had the blessing of seeing a child hours after having entered the world. I remember seeing my nephew, John Luke, on a late May morning in 2008. I held him as he slept, he did have a busy few hours there, what with all the being born and all.

It’s fascinating to see someone at the beginning of their life. It’s also fascinating to see someone at the end of their life. In 2011, I got word that my Aunt Nora was being placed in hospice. She had dealt with Alzheimers for several years and had come to the point where she had stopped eating and drinking. The doctors believed that it was time. There was nothing else to do, but make sure she was comfortable. I was in Michigan to look after Dad as Mom was going to have her knee replaced. I made it a point to go to the hospice…to say goodbye. I secretly hoped she might get better, but I was realistic that she was nearing her end. Indeed a few weeks later she did die after being on this earth for 87 years.

Two years ago, Daniel and I took my parents to Puerto Rico, where my mother is from. We took time to visit relatives and do some sightseeing. I got the chance to go Arecibo Observatory, home to one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. At this location in Carribean, humanity could plumb the depths of space and still only understand a mere fraction of it.

I remember when I had the chance to travel to mainland China while in seminary. We had the opportunity to worship with our sisters and brothers in the remote southwest of the the nation…all under the watchful eye of the government, which had sent a long folks to “protect us.” I learned how it was to be faithful in a society where the government saw you as a potential threat.

Christmas Eve is always a challenge for pastors. We feel the need to preach, but the fact is, the message has been told again and again in the songs and the reading of Scripture. There isn’t much more to add, so my words are going to be short…hopefully.

The two gospel passages tonight look at the coming of Jesus in different ways. Luke talks about Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy, a census that the Romans wanted, and having to give birth to baby in smelly stable. Everything here is somewhat mundane, everyday. Yes, there is that whole angel thing with the shepherd, but even the shepherds were so plain. Luke’s story is about people, places and things. It’s concrete. John on the other hand, is a whole different animal. Where things are finite and ordinary in Luke, John tends to deal with the infinite. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” says John 1:1. There is no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no angels. Instead we have talk about the Word or Logos, about being rejected by people, about the Word being around since the beginning of time. In the midst of all this, verse 14 talks about the Word, the cosmic, the infinite taking on flesh and living among humanity.

Think about that for a moment. The infinite got involved with the finite. Here’s what John 1:14 says according to the Message translation of the Bible:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

This is what Christmas is about. God, the infinite, the all powerful and all knowing, became a helpless baby. God loved creation so much God decided to become one of us, to accept the limits of being human. God became Immanuel, God with us, by becoming one of us. God moved into the neighborhood.

As we get together with family and friends tomorrow, remember this: Christmas is about God getting involved in the life of the world for its salvation. God is about moving into our hearts and joining us in the good and the bad. Charles Wesley expressed this in his carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The third verse explains this wonderfully:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

God has moved in. There goes the neighborhood. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “Blasphemous Rumors”

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“Blasphemous Rumors”
Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor
And when I die I expect to find Him laughing

-Blasphemous Rumors, Depeche Mode, 1984

Those are the lyrics of a song called “Blasphemous Rumors” by the British New Wave band Depeche Mode. It’s an interesting song, because it takes on the topic of suffering and where faith intersects. In the song, we hear of a young girl trying to commit suicide, failing at first and then succeeding and another girl who became a committed Christian only to end up in a accident that left her on life support until the decision was made to turn the machine off.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t like this song because it seemed to denounce God for not stopping the evil that overtook these two women. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see how this song is a song of complaint and questioning. Why does evil exist in this world? How can a good God allow such bad things to happen?

Saturday was the Winter Solstice, the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the day in the year with the shortest amount of daylight. A number of churches are starting to do services around that day that are little less festive than the rest of the season. The service goes by different names: Blue Christmas, Longest Night, Service of Light and so on. I’ve done a Blue Christmas service at First Christian in Minneapolis in 2011 and 2012 and I hope to do one here next year. The point of the service is to help those who might be facing a Christmas without a loved one, or are facing a job loss or anything that could keep you from celebrating during the holidays. These services provide a space for grief and sadness amidst the joy. It helps people remember that God has not forgotten them. Continue reading “Sermon: “Blasphemous Rumors””

Repost: In Search of a Disciples Identity

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The following post was published in 2009.

I am not what they would call a “cradle Disciple,” someone who was born and raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I found the Disciples about a decade ago. At this point, having been ordained and now serving in a Disciples church, I can say that I am fully Disciple, for what that’s worth. But back in my seminary days, I really struggled with what it meant to be a Disciple, if it meant anything at all.

I went to a Lutheran seminary, here in Minnesota- the heart of Lutheranism in America. So, being at the Lutheran version of Mecca, where there were few non-Lutherans, you were challenged on what you believed. I remember learning about how Lutherans approached theology and studied up on Reformed Theology, but when it came to my own tradition, I was a bit lost. What did we believe? How did that shape our way of being? What did it matter that we were Disciples?

More than once, I thought about leaving the Disciples, simply because I didn’t know what my tradition believed and I wanted some sense of identity.

I do remember reading two books, Disciples and the Bible and Disciples and Theology, which did help me immensely in understanding the Disciples. I can also credit having Jan Linn in my midst. Jan is the pastor of Spirit of Joy Christian Church in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities and an emminent Disciples scholar.

But I still lacked solid grounding in Disciples heritage.

Recently, I was in a meeting where people brought up the fact that the congregation did not do a good job of describing who Disciples were. The common refrain people hear from Disciples is the errorneous viewpoint that we are free to believe in whatever we want. Even I have been guilty of saying that we are tolerant and open to a wide range of views, which said very little about who we are.

I am beginning to believe that one reason Disciples are in such a bad lot in regards to our size these days is because we do a bad job in telling people who we are. When someone comes to one of our congregations, they want to know a bit about us. They want to understand where we are coming from.

But the thing is, in many cases we don’t have much to say. And I suspect with such a shallow ground, people go elsewhere.

I know that these days, “brand loyalty” doesn’t mean as much to people as it once did. There are few and fewer cradle Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists and the like. But even though people move from tradition to tradition, that doesn’t mean that Disciples can be lax. In these postmodern days, identity means a lot and people want to know what is it that they are getting into. If it can’t be defined in some way, they will go elsewhere.

I am thankful for the new book by Linn and Michael Kinnamon that tackles Disciples Identity. If this wonderful movement is going to continue, we have to start knowing who we are.