Tag: first christian church

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.

Work with a Church Rising from the Ashes in Minnesota

The following is something I wrote on the First Christian website.  As some of you know, First-St. Paul is down to a few faithful members.  We are starting to venture forth into the community, but it would by helpful if we had a few more people.  Share this with your friends.  To contact me, go to the bottom of this post.

IMG_0033First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this congregation.

First Christian is a 132-year old congregation. The congregation is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a mainline Protestant denomination. Until 1996, the congregation was located on Marshall Avenue in the Cathedral Hill area. In that year the building was sold and a church building was purchased in Mahtomedi, a St. Paul suburb. Like many urban congregations, First Christian lost membership until the church was left with a handful of members. While the current congregation is small, they have great faith and seek to be church. The members are open to new ways of doing ministry as much as being in community with each other. Changes have been made in worship, administration and mission. We are slowly but surely connecting the surrounding Mahtomedi/White Bear Lake community. The congregation works with ministry partners like the Mahtomedi Area Food Shelf and Hope for the Journey Family Shelter in Oakdale. We are working with other Disciples of Christ congregation to have a presence at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival, reaching out the LGBT community. God truly has been at work in this community. While there is great energy and faith, the congregation realizes the need to have a critical mass of people involved in our faith community.

First Christian is in many ways being rebirthed. The process is not unlike a church start, which is why we are looking at creating a launch team to join us in the rebirthing process. The Re-Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact Pastor Dennis Sanders at info@fccstpaul.com or by phone at (612) 568-4576. We will contact you shortly!

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: “You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance”

Genesis 12:1-4 and John 3:1-17
Second Sunday in Lent
March 16, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

detroitAs a kid, I loved looking at maps. I still do love pouring over a map, but when I was younger, I could spend hours looking at a map. The Rand McNally map of the Interstate Highway System was like the Bible to me. I look and see what interstate went where, what cities it came close to and the like. I don’t have the time I did to look at map so intently, but a map from Triple A still gives me joy.

Maps have an important purpose: that is to help guide the driver to their desired destination. Maps can tell you if a road is finished or not, or if there is construction. The whole point of a map is to get you to point B in the most direct and easy way possible. A map should help keep any surprises on your trip to a bare minimum.

Our Scripture in Genesis is an important turning point in the Biblical story. The first eleven chapters of Genesis are considered a pre-history. The creation, the fall, Cain and Abel and Noah and the Ark are all part of this pre-history. Beginning in verse 12 we enter a new story that will take up the rest of Genesis, if not the rest of the book of Genesis. God is going to bring salvation to all of creation through one nation. Abram would be the father of what would become the Jews and as God promised, the Israelites would be a light to the nations and through the God’s people would arise the one person to reconcile us to God: Jesus. But all this had to start somewhere, so it starts with an old man named Abram.

What’s interesting about Abram is that he pulls up stakes and obeys God heading toward Caanan. He was going to give rise to a great nation even though, A- he was old, B- so was his wife Sarai, C-they had no children and D- they had no land. I’m guessing that God is that guy that tells you to do something and then says, “I’ll explain later.”

Abram’s faith wasn’t perfect. He did doubt at times and sometimes came up with his own ideas. But he would always come back to trusting in God’s promise- even if God took a very, very, very, long time to bring it to fruition.

The theme we are using during Lent is Jesus Remember Me. In this story God is calling Abram into something new, but for Abram it involved risk. There was no map to guide him, only a promise from an unknown God. Even though the way was not easy, God didn’t forget Abram and Sarai. One day they are blessed with a son, Issac, who would further God’s promise.

Nicodemus is one result of Abrams faith. In the gospel of John, he has a nighttime meeting with Jesus. He has questions and seeks answers from Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t give him a map, but instead answers his question with riddles. The answer is there for Nicodemus, but to see the answer he has to go from mere belief to faith. He had to be born of the Spirit to have this second sight.

As some of you know, I helped plant a church about a decade ago. I remember one time getting a phone call from someone asking a question about the church. They wanted to know if there was a choir or an organ. We were small and didn’t really have either. The man said thank you and hung up, upset that we weren’t meeting his desire. I think he was more interested in being entertained than he was joining a bunch of fellow sojourners.

The question that many of us here at First are trying to answer these days is about our future. The church has shrunk to a handful of faithful members. Some would say that a church this small is no longer viable and should just close up shop.

As think about how to move forward, a funny thing has happened. Thanks to people like Janice Paulson, we have started finding items from the congregation’s past. A pulpit Bible, a sign, pictures of our old building near downtown St. Paul and a list of pastors since the 1880s. These items are helpful for reminding us that this congregation has been a faithful witness for over a century. A century of people trying to live out God’s promises.

The message of Abram for us today is that a relationship with God has to do with faith and risk. A church or congregation is called to leave our familiar places and follow God in faith as we journey forward to the end of Days when sin will be no more. As a gathered people we are called to witness to the world of the mighty deeds of God. We invite others to join us. And we do all of this without a map.

To be part of this congregation, or any congregation for that matter, is not about being entertained. It isn’t about having an awesome choir, there’s nothing wrong with having a good choir, but it’s just not the focus. We are not here for entertainment, but to journey together trusting in God’s promises in baptism, that we are children of God, that we are washed clean from sin, that we are empowered by the Spirit, part of the wider Church and given eternal life with God.

Trying to be church in this day and time is not easy. Church was something that most people in society went to, because that’s what was done. But we live in a different time where church is just one option of many. We long for the old days when are churches were full (and much larger). But maybe we are where we need to be; ready to hear God’s voice to leave familiar places and ways of doing things and sojourn together to where God takes us for the salvation of the world.

That’s a tall order for a small church. Can we do it. With God’s help? Piece of cake. 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: “I’ve Been A Mess”

“I’ve Been A Mess”
Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
February 2, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

It was a Friday afternoon. I was working at a major law firm in the Twin Cities as an assistant. It was not my favorite job and things weren’t going well for me. I didn’t enjoy the job and I wasn’t doing a good enough job for folks. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.

pinkslip-1Anyways, I was busy at work trying to get somethings done before Daniel arrived in town for the weekend. I got a call from one of the lawyers to come into his office. I got up and went to his office not expecting anything. I came in and saw the lawyer along with another lawyer seated in the office. I was being fired. I had made a mistake on an assignment and this was one too many. I was escorted back to my office to gather a few things and then brought downstairs to the lobby. In contrast to the cold nature of the attorneys, the secretary who escorted me did so with tenderness and care. She said her goodbyes, leaving me alone in the lobby.

Losing a job is not fun. Being fired is even worse. You know you made a mistake that can’t be undone and you live with a sense of shame.

It’s been almost a decade since that happened, but I still can feel the sting.

As I was preparing this sermon, I came across and article about the rising number of pastors who leave the ministry. The joy of their ordination is long gone. Many of the pastors feel used up and spit out, dealing with long hours and little pay, depression and lonliness. The website expastors.com shared this horrible statistic: “50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years. 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.”

I don’t think this is an overexaggeration. I’ve seen with my own eyes how friends trained as pastors end up leaving and trying something else. I’ve felt that temptation to hang it all up.

I share these stories because we all live with a sense of failure. Maybe it was a failed marriage, or having to deal with depression or come to terms with some issue of addiction. Whatever it is, we don’t feel up to snuff.

The gospel text today is a well-known passage. The Beatitudes are the preface to the Sermon on the Mount, but they stand on their own. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blest are those that mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers and so on. When we read these familiar words, we tend to see this as an instruction. So we work on trying to be meek or being a peacemaker and so on. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant by those words. What Jesus was talking about is that those who are poor in spirit or who mourn are the ones that are blessed by God. No one needed someone to tell folks how to be better people, what was need was something that spoke to the present condition.

What Jesus was offering to the crowd that day was a word of hope. For those who feel like they are losers or left out and excluded, these are the ones that God blesses.

But what does it feel to blessed? We know shame and sadness, but what does it mean to see blessing as a feeling? Theologian David Lose explained it this way:

To be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.

What I needed on that November day years ago, was to feel blessed. It’s what so many burned out pastors need to feel. It was what every one of us needs to feel : that we are loved and cared for not because of what we have done, but because of who we are. Being blessed means that we don’t have to put up a front and pretend that everything is okay. Because God accept us, we don’t have to hide. That’s something I wish my fellow pastors would hear more, because we are so good at pretending that everything is okay with us.

I want to end with one more story. It’s been over 20 years now since my grandmother died. My mother took her death pretty hard. She saw her mother die as she suffered a stroke while in the hospital. In the months that followed, Mom went through a very involved mourning process. I learned from this experience how everyone mourns in their own way. That lesson was lost on the pastor of my parent’s church. Mom recounted how he told her to stop mourning her mother. After all she was 90 years old, so death was inevitable.

Needless to say, Mom was upset. The pastor didn’t understand that in God’s economy, those that mourn are welcomed into the kingdom. What would have happened if the pastor blessed my Mom? What if he told her she was blessed and that God loved her? What if he honored her brokeness and told her God remembers her?

The good news is that God’s kingdom welcomes those who are poor, those who mourn, thost who try work for a just society and world, the lowly, the least and the forgotten, which is basically all of us.

I leave you this morning with this. You are blessed. You are blessed, even if your life is imperfect. As the hymn we sang earlier says, “rejoice and be glad! Blessed are you, holy are you, rejoice and be glad, yours is the kingdom of God.”

Let it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “The Gospel of Bilbo Baggins”

“The Gospel of Bilbo Baggins”
Matthew 4:12-23
Third Sunday of Epiphany
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

They didn’t turn out the way that I wanted.

I’ve said that in one form or another over the years when it comes to baking. Now, I love baking breads or cakes or cookies, and most of the time things turn out fine. But every so often I end up with some kind of baked goods that are terrible.

A few weeks ago, I decided to make some chocolate chip cookies. I followed the instructions as usual, but with a few changes. One change was that I used whole wheat flour. I wanted to be healthy while I ate something delicious.

So I make the cookies. I allowed them to cool and then I started putting them into some tin cans to eat later. I decided to eat one to see how good it was. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right. It was soft, which I liked, but it was too bready and just tasted awful. I thought maybe it need a few more minutes in the oven, so I placed them in a bit more. No change, the cookies were horrible. I couldn’t understand why. I had made chocolate chip cookies many times and they never turned up like this!

After a while I learned what the culprit was: the whole wheat flour. After much reading and sharing by friends on Facebook, I learned that you have a mixture of regular white flour and whole wheat flour to avoid the catastrophe that I witnessed. The experience reminded me that cooking at least for me is adventure. To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get.

In today’s scripture, we find Jesus calling the first disciples. He has begun his public ministry starting in the small town of Capernaeum. His message is simple: “repent for the kingdom of heaven draws near.”

He walks and sees Peter and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea. He tells them to follow along he will make them fishers of people. Peter and Andrew leave their nets behind and follow Jesus.

Jesus then sees three men working on the fishing nets; brothers James and John and their father, Zebedee. Jesus calls them and the brothers leave their nets and their father behind.

In our lectionary study this past Wednesday, we talked about how the disciples just dropped everything and everyone to follow Jesus. A number of us found that whole concept as odd. Did James and John really leave their father hanging? In the culture of that day, having children was a person’s social security. Did James and John have other brothers to take over or was Zebedee left to fend for himself?

Most of us couldn’t just do that. We have commitments to a job and family. So, we see this action as troubling. Why would Jesus allow this? What was it about Jesus that made Peter and Andrew and James and John to do something so radical and dangerous?

tumblr_md7ykxbevu1rys4k5o3_1280As we were talking about this Wednesday evening, my thoughts went to the beginning of The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. The beginning starts with Biblbo Baggins, our Hobbit who is quite satisfied living in his nice living house in the shire. He wasn’t not interested in adventure, no he liked his life to be predictable and orderly.

All that changed when he meets Gandolf the Wizard as well as a number of unruly dwarves who make a mess of his house. It wasn’t long before Bilbo was on a journey with Gandolf and the drwarves, leaving the safety of the shire behind.

Most of us have what I would call pedestrian dreams. We want a nice job that pays well, a nice home and a nice car. None of this wrong per se, but notice that what we are all looking for is safety, predictibility.

But the life of faith in Jesus is not safe or predictable. Jesus calls us to leave our own shires to follow him; to tell people of the good news of Christ, and to participate in ministries of healing to help show all of creation that the kingdom of heaven in near.

Most of us feel uncomfortable about what the disciples do because it is so foreign to us. We don’t think we could ever do something like that. The thing is, God might not call us to just drop everything to become a disciple. But that doesn’t mean that we are not called by God. We will be called to leave something behind, it just won’t be leaving your parents behind.

And that’s what this story is all about: our calling. That word might sound familiar to you because it’s the word we use when a pastor is chosen to pastor a certain church or when someone decides to become a pastor. I wish we would expand the meaning of that word, because in early 21st century America, we think only pastors can be called. The reality is that anyone can be called and we are always being called. The only difference between my call to be a pastor and your call, is that I get a new title and a fancy new robe. We are all called to work with Jesus telling people that the kingdom of heaven is near.

God may not be telling you to leave your job and go to seminary, but God might be calling you to work with the poor or educating children, or healing those with diseases as a doctor. We are all called by Jesus to let go of our nets. The trick is to learn what that net is and to be able to trust God and let go.

In the last few months in my ministry with you, I’ve seen how you have let go of one way of being church and follow God in various ways. The early disciples never knew where they were headed, but they trusted God and so has First Christian-Mahtomedi. Our “shire” could have been to end the ministry here, but instead you all took a risk. It is exciting to see all of you living out your communal call as a community.

Jesus calls us to join in God’s mission just as he did to Peter, Andrew, James and John so long ago. What do we need to give up to follow?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “What If God Was One Of Us?”

“What If God Was One of Us?”
John 1:10-18 and Matthew 2:1-12
Second Sunday of Christmas/Epiphany
January 5, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

il_340x270.523490481_b1qnOne of my earliest memories of Epiphany was seeing a manger on display at Emmanuel Lutheran School in Flint, Michigan. It was the winter of 1978 and I can remember standing in line and looking at the nativity scene. I was transfixed on the Wise Men. The three figurines were fascinating, but there was one that held my attention. The other two kings were painted the skin color of Europeans. But this final king was different from the other kings and even everyone else in the scene. He was painted with a dark color, kind of like me.

I was fascinated by seeing someone worship the newborn king that looked like me. I like to think that this experience told me that Christmas and Epiphany was for me, but I’m not sure I was thinking that deeply; I was only 9 years-old after all.

The other reason that Epiphany holds a special place in my heart is hearing the stories of my mother. In Puerto Rico as it is most of Latin America, Epiphany was a big deal. Mom would tell me that kids would get get gifts on this day. She also told me that kids would somtimes put hay under the bed for the Magi’s camels. If the hay was gone the next morning, well, that was proof that the wise men had stopped by while the children were asleep. Epiphany still plays a role in modern day Puerto Rico. The image of the Three Kings are found everywhere; it is imbedded in the heritage of the island.

Tomorrow is the first day of Epiphany, which is the time when we learn of Christ being revealed to creation. This season of Epiphany, which continues until the beginning of Lent or Ash Wednesday is when we see Christ being made known to the world.

So we start our Matthew text with the Magi coming into town and visiting Herod, the vassal king of Judea. Now contrary to lore, there weren’t three kings. Actually we don’t know how many there were. What we do know if that they came Herod asking for help in finding the king. The magi were probably court officials that provided predictions based on the stars for their royal patrons. It wasn’t unusual for Magi to go on journeys to offer gifts to kings. A historical record notes that Magi came and gave gifts to the Roman Emperor Nero.

When they arrive asking for help from Herod, you can see why Herod was worried. Only a few miles away there was some child who was considered a threat to his rule.

We know the rest of the story; they found Jesus in Bethlehem and offered the child gifts. Then they head back home and out of the rest of the story.

Because of culture, we tend to see the Magi as the central characters in this story. They are important, but they aren’t the central character. The person that matters here is Jesus. What the Magi did do is point us to the Savior, to the Christ child. The true king of all creation has been revealed and he comes in the most humble form; a human baby.

John 1:18 says that no one has ever seen God except through God’s Son. The writer of John 1 reminds us that Jesus wasn’t just a good man, but he was the Son of God, the one that enfleshed God in human skin.

For the last few days and weeks, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the church. What is the church for? What does it mean? What does this congregation mean?

I stumbled on an interview of Scot McKnight, a well-known evangelical theologian. He’s working on a book about the nature of the kingdom of God. For McKnight, the kingdom of God occupies a certain place and time. The church is supposed to be a small representation of God’s future kingdom breaking into the here and now.

Epiphany is not about the Magi, but the Magi are important because they point to the Christ. What if that’s what the church is also called to do- to point to Christ? What if in our teaching, making bulletins, playing music, feeding the hungry, helping the hungry, what if our church, this church is pointing to the God revealed in Christ? That means then that Epiphany is aslo about us; about us pointing creation to God, especailly the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For the next month and a half, we will be reading stories about how Christ is revealed to all of creation. I’d like for you to keep somethings in mind: How do you see Christ revealed in your life? How are you revealing Christ to others? How can this church, how can First Christian Church of Mahtomedi, MN reveal Christ to the world?

I’ve been seeing a poem making the rounds that I’ve heard before. It’s called the Work of Christmas and it’s by the African American theologian Howard Thurman. It says:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

May we all have eyes to see Christ revealed and may we, as individuals and as church reveal Christ to others. 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.