Tag: lectionary year c

Sermon: “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others”

It had to happen sometime: I used a Sesame Street reference as a sermon title.

“One of These Things Is Not Like the Other”
Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

If you are interested in politics, this was a week to remember.  On Wednesday, we learned that Harry Reid, a Senator from Nevada and the Democratic Majority Leader invoked what has been called the “nuclear option” with regard to Senate rules.  For over two centuries, the Senate had a rule that nominees to various offices had to have the approval of 60 members of congress, a supermajority.  The Nuclear Option changes the rule to allow a simple majority, 51 members, for nominees to be confirmed.

Sesame_Street_One_of_These_ThingsThe reason for going nuclear was that the minority in the Senate, in this case, the Republicans, have blocked a number of judicial and executive appointments.  Now, these candidates should sail through.

The reaction has been predictable.  Democrats are in favor of the rule change.  Real work can get done, they believe. Republicans are not so enamoured because this effectively gives the minority party very little leverage.  Cries of “naked power grab” were quite common.

Hypocrisies abound in this story.  Eight years ago, it was the then-Republican majority in the Senate thinking about going nuclear and the Democrats who were against it.  A last minute bipartisan deal staved doomsday.  There was an attempt this time to avert the Big One, but that effort failed.

This week was also the 50th anniversary of the assasination of John F. Kennedy.  I believe last Friday, the 22nd was the exact day when that awful event happened.  I wasn’t around when that took place, but it was fascinating to hear some of the background concerning the event.  National Public Radio rebroadcast a piece by the late Walter Cronkite walking people through the events of the day.

Today is the final Sunday of the Church Year.  The year starts with Advent and ends with this day, which is commonly called Christ the King Sunday.  This Sunday ends up framing what Advent is all about.  We are reminded that a King is coming to set the world right.

In the passage from the book of Jeremiah, we find that God is not happy.  Speaking through Jeremiah, God is upset at the most recent kings of Israel.  It’s important to note that the Israelites tended to see their kings like shepherds.  In other parts of the world, the king was seen more as a god.  That’s why we see the prophet likening to kings to shepherds- bad shepherds.  God brings judgement on these kings, these shepherds who have scattered the sheep, misled them and just basically abused them.  God says that God will attend to these incompetent kings and bring comfort to God’s people.  Jeremiah starts talking about a new king, a shepherd that will comfort God’s people, ruling with justice.

Now, Jeremiah was writing for a Jewish audience, not a Christian one.  So, a Jew might not see this the same way we will.  That said, Christians do see this new king as Jesus Christ.

Some people are a bit uncomfortable calling this day Christ the King.  It sounds a bit too authoritarian and triumphalistic.  It’s hard for us to reconcile the image of a powerful leader with one who lived in the backwater of the Roman empire take care of the sick and outcast.  For those who don’t like the concept of Christ as King it is a bit puzzling to see a “king” serving others.  After all, we know what a king is, and Jesus ain’t it.

The concept of Jesus as King is troubling really to all of us.  We know what a king is and while we Americans don’t have a king or queen, we do understand what it means to be powerful.  The President of the United States has power.  He or she isn’t a king, but just because they are elected, doesn’t mean we don’t bestow a king-like aura on them.  We know that kings, or any leader is a powerful person.  Jesus?  The guy who talks about loving our enemies?  Not a king.

We only read a short passage of Luke today, but this text places us in the last few hours of Jesus’ life.  We see him being arrested and facing the Roman leaders.  He is humiliated and then forced to carry his cross to the Place of the Skull.  As he is nailed to the cross, the soliders mock him, placing a sign that says “King of the Jews” and offering a toast of sour wine.

How in the world could this one be king?  He has no power even to save himself from this humiliation.

But let’s go back to how the God and Israelites see a king.  The king is not a god, but a shepherd, one that takes care of the sheep and protects them from harm.  King Jesus doesn’t rule like other kings.  Instead Jesus brings healing to the sick, food to the hungry and sacrificing his life for the benefit of all creation.  This is a king that doesn’t act like a king-god, but a king who is the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for all of us.

When I was growing up, I like most kids, watched Sesame Street.  There was a segment from the 1970s where one of the cast members would start singing a song called “One of these things is not like the others.”  You would see four things: three of them are the same, and one is something totally different. As we saw these objects you would hear the song:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Jesus is not like other kings.  As we enter this time of Advent, please keep this in mind.  We will be hearing about this king as told by the Prophet Isaiah.  One these Kings is not like the others.  Let’s find out how.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sermon: “Fit for A King”

The following is a sermon I preached on Christ the King Sunday in 2004.  The gospel text for that Sunday is the one that will be used this coming Sunday.

 

“Fit for a King”

Luke 23:33-43
November 21, 2004 (Christ the King Sunday)
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN

 

jesus speaks to a womanToday is Christ the King Sunday.  It is the last Sunday of the Church Year which begins with the first Sunday in Advent, which is next Sunday.  It is on this Sunday that we are reminded of Jesus as our King, our Ruler, our Lord.

I consider it a stroke of coincedence that this past week saw the opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The building is stretches out towards the Arkansas River reminiscing the former president’s phrase of being a “bridge to the 21st century.”  The library is like most presidential libraries in that it is a history of the person and the times.  There is a replica of the Oval Office, one of the presidential limos and other memorablia from his time as our president.  There is also an exhibit of le affair Monica.

Presidential libraries are fascinating because they tell the story of people who ended up as one of the most powerful persons in the world.  They basically tell the story of their ascent to power.  You will see pictures of them meeting with other heads of state and how the handled various events that happened under their watch.  For someone like myself, who loves politics and history, I would find this interesting.

Even though we Americans don’t have kings, our presidents are pretty powerful people.  We know how a leader is supposed to act.  So, today’s gospel text is sort of interesting because it shows not powerful person, but one who seems at least to be powerless.  How can we call Christ a King when he is being crucified like a common criminal between two real thieves?

I started to think about what would happen if there were a Jesus Christ Messianic Library?  What would it have in it that would reveal something about this person we call Christ the King?

Well, let’s imagine that we are taking a trip to this library.  The building is shaped like cross.  As we enter, the first exhibit is one of a common stable with animals milling about.  The exhibit’s title is “Birth of a King.”  It explains that Jesus was born to a young teenage girl.  It also explains that Jesus was born in a stable because all the hotel rooms in Bethlehem were booked.  The exhibit also includes replicas of shepherds kneeling in front of the baby.  We are told by one of the museum guides that shepherds were considered ritually unclean because they dealt with sheep and yet the angels appeared to them and told them of the glorious news.

We keep walking.  The next exhibit has Mary and Joseph as if they were on the run.  Mary is carrying a baby that seems about two years old.  We read that Mary and Joseph had to leave their home in order to protect the baby Jesus from King Herod.  Herod was the king appointed by Rome to rule over the Jewish people and he had heard of this “new king.”  Afraid that he would lose power, Herod ordered the killing of all male babies under the age of two.  Mary and Joseph were warned about this impending plot by an angel and fled to Egypt.  The young child was already considered a threat to those who worshipped power.

We then keep walking and encounter an exhibit called the “Calling of the Tax Collector.”  It’s a video exhibit and it has an interview with a tax collector called Zaccheus.  He explains that tax collectors were not liked by the people because they were agents of Rome and therefore collaborators.  Tax collectors also tended to take a little more from people than the required tax in order to line their own pockets.  He says that one day he heard that Jesus was coming to his town.  He wanted to see this guy.  Problem was that he a short guy.  The people of the town knew this and made sure that he couldn’t see Jesus coming down the street.  Zaccheus then said that he climbed a tree to get a bird’s eye view.  He saw  Jesus coming down the street and then was shocked when Jesus told him to come down since he was going have lunch with him today.  He did and then explained that he gave away his riches in order to repay those he ripped off. He explained that his life had been changed.

We keep walking and look at other scenes from Jesus’ life.  None of them are really glamourous, but stories with common people.  The encounter with a Samaritan woman.  Or the one where a woman with blood disorder was healed only by touching his garment.

Towards the end of our visit we enter a grand room.  In the center is a replica or three crosses.   This room explains the crucifixion of Jesus.  It talks about his arrest by the religious leaders and how they influenced the Romans to put Jesus to death.  There are also talk of his being toutured.  We see his crown of thorns.  We see the garments that the Roman soliders gambled for.  We also see the sign on the cross that says, “King of the Jews.”  It was meant to be a cruel joke.

There is more to be seen of this library, but we will get to that later.  However, at the end of our visit there is a plaque that reads:

“You are now leaving the Jesus Christ Messianic Library.  Jesus is not like all other rulers.  He didn’t assume power.  He met with the forgotten of society.  He offered forgiveness to people who did things that were considered unforgivable.  He crossed the boundaries of class and gender.  In the eyes of the powerful, he was forgettable.  In the eyes of those who have faith in this man, he made all the difference in the world.”

The King that we worship is one that was born to poor parents in a backwater of a great empire.  He was born a helpless baby.  He then lived a life as a poor itinerant rabbi and was killed by the authorities because he was a bother to them.  And yet, this supposedly forgettable person has changed everything.  The writer of Colossians says that Christ we have forgiveness us sins and we are redeemed in Christ.  He goes on to say that he is the image of the invisible God, the one that is powerful than any earthly ruler.

As Christians we worship a person that was and is the Servant King.  He lived to serve others, to love and to forgive.  This is our King.  This is the one that we follow.  This is the one whose life we are to imitate.

That’s what this day is all about: remember the One who had power and gave it up for the betterment of all.

Image: Jesus Carrying the Cross, Speaking to a Woman. Stained-glass composition by J. Le Breton (glass studio of Gaudin, Paris), 1933.This is a conflation of John 19:17 and Luke 23:27-29, the Veronica legend.

Sermon: “Same As It Ever Was”

“Same As It Ever Was”
I Kings 19:1-15
All Saints Sunday
November 3, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

You may ask yourself, where is that large automobile?
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

About a year ago, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, held the first annual cat video festival.  They hosted the event in the Sculputre Garden across the street and for several hours showed nothing but YouTube videos of cats.  Believe it or not, 10,000 people showed up on an August evening to watch these videos.  The whole event got a write-up in the New York Times and a second one was held this year at the State Fairgrounds.

The winner of last year’s event went to Will Braden, a gentleman from Seattle with his video feature Henri.  The video, which is now a series of videos, is called Henri, Le Chat Noir or Henry, the Black Cat.  Henri is a cat with ennui.  In video, Henri who is a tuxedo cat, look longingly into the camera while depressing piano music plays in the backgrond.  The films are in black and white and Henri speaks in French with subtitles showing up on the bottom of the screen.  Henri asks existential questions on the meaning of life, quoting Camus whenever the need arises.  In the video that won the prize Paws de Deux, Henri drops angst filled phrases like, “The 15 hours a day I sleep have no effect. I awake to the same tedium.”  He learns some important things as he questions his existence: things like the whipped cream in the bathroom isn’t whipped cream and that sometimes the cat door is closed.

Henri is a hit.  It’s funny because the last being that you’d think to have an existential crisis would be a house cat.  I’ve known a few cats in my lifetime, and while I don’t know what they think, it’s hard for me to believe they are wondering if they feel anything in life.

But the thing is, we do ask questions.  We do sometimes wonder what is life all about.  We wonder if we are making a difference.  We wonder if  anything we do actually matters.

Today we are commemorating All Saints Day.  All Saints Day, which took place on Friday, is a day we remember those who have died in the past year.  But it’s also a day to give thanks for not only for those saints who have passed on, but the saints around us.  You don’t have to be dead to be a saint, you know.  All of us who are followers of Jesus are saints.

You might be wondering how in the world could you be  saint.  You haven’t done anything great, you might say.  You aren’t perfect.  That’s okay, none of the folks we call saints were either.  Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians in chapter 2 verse 19 “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

So this day isn’t just remembering those who have passed on; no it’s also a reminder of who we are, the living saints of God.

So back to those existential questions.  The phrase I started this sermon with is from a song called “Once In a Lifetime,” by the rock group Talking Heads.  The song asks a lot of questions, with the singer of the song wondering how they got where they are and basically wondering what life is all about.  Today’s text is also an existential journey.  That said, the person asking the existential question isn’t the main character, Elijah, but God.

Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime Türkçe Altyazı from permalink on Vimeo.

The prophet Elijah has a tough job.  He was God’s chosen prophet to the people of Israel.  That should be a great job, except that most of the people aren’t worshipping God but Baal, a false God.  King Ahab decides to worship Baal, taking on his wife’s faith.  Jezebel, the Queen was not from Israel and worshipped Baal.  Together they persecuted the prophets of God until there are very few left.  Elijah decides to challenge the King to prove whose God is bigger.  First up, the prophets of Baal pray for their god to send fire on their offering.  Nothing happens.  Then it was Elijah’s turn.  He prays to God and God answers, powerfully burning the offering, including the altar. Elijah is then able to perusade the people to capture the false prophets have them killed.  When Jezebel hears of this, she swears vengence against Elijah.

Now, after such a dramatic event, one that he won, you would think Elijah would have been confident in God.  He would be able to stand up to Ahab and Jezebel, telling them to do their worse.

Instead, he takes his servant and high tails it out of town.  He drops off his assistant and then keeps going until he sat under a tree hoping to die.  But instead of death, a messenger comes and tells him to eat some food that had been mysteriously perpared for him.  This happens one more time.  Afterwards Elijah starts on a journey; he keeps walking and walking and walking.  When he finally stops, God asks him an odd question: Why are you here, Elijah?

What’s even stranger is that Elijah never answer God’s question.  Instead,  Elijah talks about how vigilant he was and how he is the last prophet and his life is threatned.  Then God tells him that God is about to pass by and there are fires and wind and earthquakes.  Finally there is the sound of silence where God speaks, asking the same question with Elijah giving the same answer. This story ends with Elijah being sent onward.

Why are you here, Elijah?  It’s an existential question.  Why was Elijah where he was?  Why didn’t he answer the question?  Why did God even ask the question?  Didn’t God know?

Why are we here?  Why do we gather each Sunday to worship?  Why does this matter?

Elijah never answered the question.  Or maybe he did.  His response to God is one of frustration.  The people of Israel have broken the covenant and he is the only one standing in the way of Ahab and Jezebel’s evil designs. He says twice that he has worked hard and now feels alone.

Why are you here?  This is a question that is asked again and again.  We hear it when we’re laid off from our job.  Or when your baby boy dies after being born premature.  We here it when we get the cancer diagnosis or when our loved one decides to leave you.  Why are you here? We hear that question and feel it hanging in midair.  We try to search for an answer, but more often than not, we don’t have an answer.

The reason this all matters on this All Saints Sunday is that we are all trying struggling to answer that question. Why are we here?  We don’t know and that scares us.  All saints, living or dead have asked that question and at times fear that we won’t have the answer.  Saint’s don’t always have the answer.  We can feel as lost as Elijah.

We don’t have the answer, but we do have a God that answers.  In this passage God calls Elijah to annoint a new king.  He learns at the end that there are 7,000 who have not bowed down to Baal.  Why are we here?  Don’t know, but we know that God was with Elijah and with us.

Being a saint is hard.  Living saints on this side of heaven will face despair and will more often than not ask questions like “Why are you here?”

But God sustains God’s saints.  In this time of despair where Elijah just wants to die, a messenger comes twice to offer Elijah food and drink.  We have to acknowledge and trust that our power comes from God and not from our own work.

We will struggle, but God is there and we are have fellow Christians around us to help when we feel like we want to give up and not go on.

Being a saint isn’t easy.  It can be draining and scary and lonely.  Actually, to be saint means that you will suffer in some way because life on this side of heaven is always a challenge.  But it is in God that we can keep moving forward.  Saints are people who are empowered by God to do God’s work.

As this community of faith makes it way forward, I hope that all of you saints take this passage to heart.  We are not alone.  God is with us.  We are part of a community that lifts each other up.

I started with a cat with ennui.  I want to be a little bit more serious at the end.  One of my favorite poems is one by the great African American poet Langston Hughes and it’s called Mother to Son.  It’s a poem about hardship, but it’s also about being able to rise above adversity.  I think it’s one response to the question of why we are here.

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
<Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Why are we here?  I don’t know.  But I can say, fellow Saints of First Christian, don’t you fall now.  Our journey isn’t a crystal stair, but God is with us.  Keep going, saints.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “Oh Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble…”

Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

This parable reminds me of General Akbar from Star Wars.  He’s the fish like guy from the Return of the Jedi who realizes the Rebel forces are in danger.  He utters a line that most science fiction geeks know by heart: “It’s a trap!”

ackbarThe reason I decided to give you one more clue that I’m a geek, is because the passage today has a trap built into it- one that you can’t see so easily.  The trap is out there in plain sight but because we are so focused on the ruse, we don’t see it.

So, Jesus tells this story and Luke says he tells it  “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  He then sets up the story.  Here’s this Pharisee who come to the temple to “pray.”  He is supposedly praying to song, but he starts talking in a voice that everyone in the room could here.  He gives thanks to God that he wasn’t like the low lives he regularly encounter; including, a tax collector.  The Pharisee knows that the tax collector is in the room and makes a point to look at him.  The Pharisee continues telling God, and everyone else, of all the good things he has done.

Then there is this tax collector.  He isn’t even looking up, but is faced downward and pleading with God to have mercy on him, a sinner.

Did you catch the trap?  Or did you fall for it?

Before I reveal the trap; a little background.  To the first century hearers of this story, the Pharisee was considered a good person.  He worked hard to follow the law and was looked up to by the populace.  The tax collector on the other hand, was not seen as a good person.  Tax collectors were employed by Rome, which meant they were viewed as collaborators to the occupying force.  Rome allowed them to keep whatever the collected above the amount required by Rome, which meant that more often than not, these men would try to get every last cent from the local population.  If you think people don’t like the IRS, the Jews of that day despised these fellow countrymen who worked for the other side.

So, the Pharisee was righteous.  He did all the right things.  The tax collector was not considered a righteous person and this particular tax collector knew it.

But here’s the General Akbar moment.  Most of us will look at this parable and come to the conclusion that the moral of the story is to not be like the Pharisee.  We are to be humble and not full of ourselves.  That’s the trap.  We end up thinking this story is about learning to not be self-righteous, but to be more humble.

But the minute we think this story is about not being the Pharisee, we end up…being the Pharisee. We want to think this is about being humble, but the line between humility and pride is thin, indeed.  We can think we are being humble by living simply or eating organically, or driving a Prius or not smoking or drinking, but we are falling into the trap.  We are justifying ourselves by what we do and looking down at others who don’t measure up.

The tax collector went home justified, not because what he did, but because of what he said.  He asked God to have mercy on him.  He realized there was nothing he could do to please God.  He had to rely only on God’s mercy and grace.

This story is not about being humble.  That’s a good thing and we should try to be humble, but this story is about resting completely on God’s grace and not on what we do.

In Paul’s letter to the Phillipians he takes note that all the things that he thought were so important to him- all the credentials and honors no longer mean anything.  Here’s what Paul says in Phillipians 3:7-9:

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.

It’s easy to focus on being good, in being self-righteous.  It’s hard for us, all of us to come before God and rest on God’s mercy.  That means not being in control and relying totally on God’s grace.

Yesterday, a group of us went to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children.  Now I believe that as Christians we are to be engage in helping each other, to do works of justice.  But it’s so easy to think that we are doing this to justify ourselves, to make us feel good about ourselves and to get on God’s side.  But our acts of justice are not done to become righteous, they are done out of the abundance of God’s mercy- they are acts of gratitude for what God has done in our lives.

I’ve noticed the song we sing for our Doxology.  It’s a song that I remember singing as a kid.  I don’t know the history of why it’s sung as the doxology, but it does seem to fit what we are talking about today.  “Freely, freely, you have recieved; freely, freely, give.”  We have recieved God’s grace.  We did nothing to receive it.  In response, let us live a life of gratitide towards others and God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “He May Not Come When You Want To…”

Luke 18:1-8

Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

October 20, 2013

First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN

I’ve learned a lot about growing old from my parents…and my 15-year old cat, Felix.  Maybe the most important thing I have learned is that growing old isn’t for weaklings.

Now growing old is not all negative, but there are things that happen with age- like dealing with arthritis.  Felix doesn’t leap up to the bed like he used.  For my parents, it’s not easy going up and downstairs.  Old cats and old humans both have issues that can rob them of a little dignity.

As I was reading this story about the persistent widow and the unjust judge, I was reminded the vagaries of age.  We don’t know how old this woman, but I’ve always pictured her as older.  As a woman and as a widow, she was on the lowest rung.  She had no recourse in legal matters.  Widows especially had basically no power.

And yet, she comes day after day after day to plead with the judge to rule in her favor, to give her justice.  The judge gets tired of her pestering and grants the widow her wish.

Jesus then says to the crowd that if a judge who didn’t love God or humanity could grant this woman her wish, how much more will God give us justice.  God will stick up for them and not drag God’s feet.

Ah, there’s the rub.  How often have we prayed for something and it seems like the prayer is never answered?  How often have we been the persistent widow that keeps believing and keeps asking and we never see our prayers answered?  It’s hard to believe when it seems that God is seemingly slow in helping us.

But then Jesus ends his talk with these words: “But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

This is the main point of this passage, not the part about God answering our prayers.  The point here is to have a faith that hangs in there in the good times and the bad.

The widow really was in a hopeless spot.  As a widow she was one of the most vulnerable in society.  The corrupt judge didn’t have to answer her petition because she was a nobody.

But the woman had something, something that gave her the strength to keep asking: she had faith. The point in the story is not to pester God, but the point is to have faith even in the hard and challenging times.

Life as Christians is not without its challenges.  We pray for healing, for a new job, for protection and the like.  Sometimes those prayers are answered.  However, sometimes those prayers are left unanswered for reasons not known.  The thing is, we have faith that God will answer us, maybe not right away and maybe not in our lifetime, but God is faithful, God is trustworthy.  That’s the faith that allows us to do ministry together.  And it’s so important to do this as a church, because we are surrounded by others who can help us believe when we have trouble doing so.

We didn’t read the Old Testament text for this week, but it’s the well known story of Jacob wrestling with an angel (or God).  They wrestle all night and at some point God cheats and places Jacob’s hip out of socket.  Let’s leave aside the strange fact that it seems odd to talk to a stranger, let alone wrestle them, that story is also a story of faith, because it shows what the life of faith is like: like a long wrestling match, or like an old woman who knows how be a pest.

Faith is a lot like growing old; things are not in your control.  You start losing things around you and there are really good days and really bad days.  But the thing is, we perservere.  We go forward in life, believing that God is with us a keeping God’s promises even when it seems otherwise.

As I was preparing this sermon, I heard the song “Hurt.”  The song is by the electronic band Nine Inch Nails and was a big hit in the mid90s.  The song was recorded again nearly a decade later by Johnny Cash.  It was one of  the last songs he did before his death.  Cash had gone though a bit of a revivial in the late90s and early oughts.  He made several albums where he reinterpeted songs by current artists and made them his own.  What’s interesting about “Hurt” is the lyrics, no it’s the video that is fascinating.  The video was made in February 2003 and it had the elderly Cash singing, with a clips of a younger Cash doing various things.  It was the juxtaposition was so jarring.  We saw on the one hand an aging man not in the best of health and clips of him as younger and vibrant man.

While this was a mournful and sad video, it wasn’t hopeless.  What we saw was a man faithful to his craft, even in his last days as he faced illness and then the sudden death of his wife, June Carter Cash.

The life of faith is not easy.  We will face ups and downs.  What matters even when things are dark, is that God is present with us and remembers the promises made.  And so we continue to live as if God has answered our prayers, we believe and have hope in the one who loves us more than a careless judge.  To paraphrase a old spiritual, “He May Not Come When You Want to, But he’s Right on Time.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Come Sunday: Not for the Faint of Heart (October 20, 2013)

Here’s this week’s lectionary reflection.

Growing old is not for the weak.

This past summer, my partner and I were busy shuttling between Minnesota and Michigan to move my parents from their house of over 40 years to a senior housing apartment complex on the other side.  It was getting difficult for my octogenerian parents to maneuver around the house.  The neighborhood they lived in, on the northside of my hometown of Flint, Michigan had become more and more dicey, especially in the last few years as the auto industry imploded.  Moving my parents allowed me to see how aging is not something for the weak.  The independence that one had in their youth and middle ages is not as present.  Your body just doesn’t work like it used to.  You become more dependent on others.  It’s just not easy to be elderly.

Keep Reading Come Sunday: Not for the Faint of Heart (October 20, 2013).

 

Sermon: “On the Verge of a Miracle”

“On the Verge of a Miracle”
Luke 17:11-19
Twenty-First Sunday of Pentecost
October 13, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

liminalI grew up in very unusual area. My home town of Flint is about an hour West and South of Canada. Yes, you heard me correctly, South to Canada. Detroit is the only place in America where one can look due South into Canada. The town of Windsor, Ontario sits on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Because Detroit is on a border, this means that people commute between the two nations on a daily basis. Windsor, like its American cousin, has several auto plants in the area.

Because I lived near a border, I’ve noticed how much the boundaries have started to merge. It wasn’t unusual to see cars with Ontario license plates at local stores. I grew up watching CBET or channel 9 from Windsor. A lot of folks would watch Hockey Night in Canada, but being the news geek that I am, I watched the evening news almost every night at 10 while in high school and college..

Crossing a boundary, especially a land crossing is fascinating. Of course we cross boundaries when we fly, but that kind of crossing doesn’t feel real in the same way that crossing by land does. Crossing by land is like being able to go through the looking glass; to enter another reality that is different from your own. I’ve never done a land crossing to Mexico, but I have done crossings to Canada and it does feel like entering through a mirror to an altnerate universe.

As I look at today’s text in Luke, the thing that comes to mind is the fact that Jesus is hanging around the border between Judea and Samaria. I’ve not been to Israel, but I could imagine the border between Judea and Samaria was a lot like the US-Mexico border. I could imagine a lot of mixing, but also some apprehension of those people on the other side. So Jesus was walking around and he meets up with 10 men with leprosy. They please with Jesus to heal them. Now, when the Bible talks about leprosy, they are actually talking about a host of skin diseases and in that time, persons with skin problems were considered unclean and asked to stay away from others. A border had come up around them separating them from the rest of the population.

Jesus sees the group and simply tells them to show themselves to the priest. The temple priest was not just a religious figure, but also a health inspector. Showing themselves to the priest was a way of getting the “seal’ of approval. Along the way, all ten men realize that they no longer have a skin disease. Joyous, nine of the men continued on to see the priest, probably excited of being let back into the community.

But one of the men didn’t continue onward. The other nine men were Jewish, but the last one was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other and in this case, a Samaritan would not ever been deemed clean by Jewish priest. So, this guy was doubly an outcast. not simply because of his health, but also because of his heritage. Showing himself to the priest was not going to happen, so instead he decided to reach the person responsible for healing him: Jesus.

Jesus responds by wondering why was it that this Samaritan is the only one who gave thanks to God. The story ends with Jesus looking at the Samaritan and saying “your faith has made you well.”

This story is all about boundaries, borders and no-man’s lands. There was the border between Judea and Samaria. Then there is the border between Jews and Samaritans and finally there is the borders between those who had no illness and those who had an illness that made them unclean.

As humans we like to have things spelled out. Unclean here, clean there. Whites up front and blacks in the rear. Conservatives live in this town and liberals in another. Borders aren’t necessarily bad, and sometimes they are needed. But sadly, sometimes borders keep the “wrong” kind of persons out. The lepers were shut out of society and stuck in this middle place between normal life and the end of life itself.

So now I’m going to share a word that you don’t hear a lot: “liminal.” It’s not a word you hear every day, so let me give you the definition or definitions: of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.2.occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. In matters of faith liminal means being located in a separated sacred space, which occupies a sacred time.

The ten lepers were entering a liminal time, the threshold of something great. They met with Jesus at a certain time and place and left that experience changed. But only one understood that this was a liminal moment a sacred time where the Samaritan had to give Jesus thanks.

Borders are places that are threshold places, places where we leave the familiar to head into something new.

I believe this faith community, First Christian, is in a liminal time. We are in-between things a time where we leave the things we know so well, and heading into the unknown. Liminal spaces can be scary, precisely because we don’t know what is going to happen next. But we also serve a God who in Jesus smashed the walls that kept people separated. It is this God who is with us in this middle ground. This time can be a holy time when we are aware of God’s presence.

As we continue being church during this middle time, I pray that we can be aware of God being with us. I pray that we can be present with God and to see what God will do next.

I want to end this with a song from the late Christian recording artist Rich Mullins. As I was preparing this sermon, a song of Mullins came into my mind. It’s called “Verge of a Miracle” and here’s the chorus:

You’re on the verge of a miracle
Standing there – oh –
You’re on the verge of a miracle
Just waiting to be believed in
Open your eyes and see
You’re on the verge of a miracle

God is about to do something great, we are at the threshold. Let’s be present for it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Come Sunday: “Let’s Get Liminal” (October 13, 2013)

liminal

Borders are interesting things.  I grew up in Michigan only an hour in two directions to the US/Canadian border.  When driving accross a border, you stop at a booth where someone from Customs asks why you are coming to their fair nation and what are your intentions.  After looking at our passports, the officer waves us through to a new nation.

Come Sunday: “Let’s Get Liminal” (October 13, 2013).

Sermon: “Well I’ll Be Damned?”

Luke 16:19-31
Eighteenth Sunday of Pentecost
September 29, 2012
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

rich man lazarusThe first time I ever really saw a panhandler was when I lived in Washington, DC. I lived in the nation’s capital from 1992 to 1996 doing various jobs at nonprofits. I haven’t been to DC in years, so things might have changed, but back then Washington had a lot of homeless folk, living a hard life on the streets. There seemed to be a lot of homeless people near the church I attended in Chinatown. But whether I was in Chinatown or near the Capitol, you would see someone asking for money.

I remember one of the first times someone asked for money. I was getting ready to catch the subway to make my way back to my apartment in the Maryland suburb of Silver Spring. A man stopped at Union Station. He told me he was dropping off his sister to catch a train and needed money for gas for his car. As I heard the story, I felt bad for the many who seemed to have very little. So, I gave him $10 and he gave me his phone number with pledges to pay me back.

You probably know how this story ends. The next day, I call the phone number he gave me and of course, it didn’t work. I got played.

In the 20 years since that happened, I have done different things when approached by panhandlers: for a while I would by gift certificates at McDonalds and give them to people in leiu of money that could be used for drugs or alcohol. Sometimes I would give a little money. Other times I would simply look at the man or woman and say no, I didn’t have money or something like that. One of the thing I could never do was basically ignore them as I walked by. I’ve seen other people do that, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I can understand why people might want to do that, but there was something that just didn’t feel right about that.

The church that I went to when I lived in DC was Calvary Baptist Church. The church housed a homeless shelter for women and while I never did go to the shelter, I remember coming to the front door in the evening for a meeting and seeing the person at the font desk. Also sitting at that desk was a baseball bat. My guess is that it was used more to scare people than to actually be used. But, this being a homeless shelter for vulnerable women, one had to be prepared to use it in order to protect the women.

Looking back, my time in DC was helpful in preparing me to be in the clergy and the challenges in taking care of the poor. For good or for ill, I had to learn that remembering the poor doesn’t mean that the poor are somehow noble; instead they are real people.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in one the most well-known of Jesus’ stories. It also seems like the most simple to understand. It is a dramatic reminder of God’s care of those who are forgotten by society.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. There was a rich man, who is un-named in this story. He dresses in expensive clothing and eats only the best food cooked by some of the top chefs in Palestine. At the gates of his mansion was another man, named Lazarus. He is poor and homeless. He sees the rich man leave for work everyday in his Land Rover and shows his handwritten sign asking for some money. But the rich man ignores Lazarus, every single day. In fact, everyone ignores Lazarus except the dogs, who come and like the sores on his body.

Then one day, both of these men die. Lazarus is taken to heaven, while the rich man suffers torment in hell. The rich man can see Lazarus and this time, acknowledges him. He begs that Abraham send Lazarus with a drop of water to quench his thirst. But Abraham says no dice. Even if he wanted to there is a large chasm between heaven and hell that no one can cross.

So the rich man asks one more thing of Abraham. He asks him to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to not end up like him. Nope, says Abraham,. They have Moses and the Prophets and that should be enough. Just as the rich man is going to speak again, Abraham continues, if they can’t listen to Moses and the prophets than they won’t listen to someone risen from the dead.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The rich man is never named in the story, while Lazarus is named. This is a reversal of how the world would act, in that the rich are always named, while the poor are easily forgotten. Lazarus had a hard life, but now is resting in the “bosom” of Abraham. The rich man lived in the lap of luxury, but in the afterlife he now faces a life of pain. It also brings up questions: if he knew Lazarus’ name, why on earth did the rich man ignore Lazarus in life? Why in God’s name did he ignore him? Why was the rich man ordering that Lazarus come and save first himself and then his brothers?

All of these are good questions, but there is one that has been on my mind as of late: why is Lazarus so damn perfect?

Lazarus is seen as this saint who sat at the rich man’s doorstep asking for food and being ignored by the mean ‘ol rich man. Maybe in some alternate reality there are people like this, but there have been times when the poor that I’ve encountered are not such saints. You meet folks who are abusive or lie or do other things that don’t make them outstanding candidates for a Nobel. The problem with parables like this is that you never deal with the Lazarus that asks for $10 to get a cab home and who says they will pay you back and then never do. We never encounter the Lazarus with a drug problem, or the one that’s an alcoholic, or the one that beats his girlfriend at least not in this passage.

The poor are real people with real problems. Maybe the rich man didn’t help Lazarus because he didn’t want to be taken in again. Maybe it was better to just ignore Lazarus so that he would never have to be scamed again. The problem with how parables like this are preached is that they seem to take place in some idealized world where you have have poor people with chemical dependency issues or mental health problems. The call to care for the poor is not some romantic adventure- it is not easy and it can be quite frustrating.

But here’s the thing. Even if all of this were the case, even if Lazarus had problems, Jesus doesn’t let the rich man off the hook and we aren’t off the hook either.

I tend to think that God does understand that caring for people isn’t easy. Of course, we should be safe and not open ourselves up to danger. But this parable still tells us to care for the poor. It still tells that to bridge the gap between God and us is through helping the least of these.

A few years ago a movie came out called Precious. It’s the story of a teenage African American living in New York in the 1980s. Precious is poor and lives with an abusive mother. She gets raped by her father, who is HIV positive and is pregnant with their child. She was held back in 8th grade even though she was now in her mid teens. The movie is a realistic portrayal of poverty in America and it isn’t pretty to watch. Precious is dealt a bad hand in life, but she is also helped by caring people, an attentive social worker, a teacher and other people who try to give her some hope in a world that was chaotic. The movie ends with her finally saying goodbye to her abusive Mom and walking out with her two young children, one of which has special needs. It’s not a happy ending, but there is hope. She leaves bouyed by the help she has recieved and is heading for an unknown future.

The rich man was in hell because he didn’t try to bridge the gap between himself and Lazarus. Hell wasn’t as much a punishment as it was the end result of a life lived for self. As I said last week, what matters in life is not what we have, but the relationships we have with those around us.

I want to end with A Christmas Carol. The story was written in the mid-19th century by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge is much like the rich man in that he ignores the poor around him. His visits by the three spirits show him his past, present and future. He awakes on Christmas morning realizing that he still has time to make things right. The story ends with him celebrating Christmas with the Cratchet family and with sumptous meal he had paid for.

Our story is still unwritten. We still have time. Yes, the poor will annoy us at times. But we can’t ignore the poor around us. We are called to be in relationship with the least of these as difficult as it is. So let’s close the gap. Let’s remember the Lazaruses sitting at the corners of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

*The image of the Rich Man and Lazarus is by Jason Micheli.

Sermon: “Faith. Fellowship. Future.”

“Faith. Fellowship. Future.”
Hebrews 11:29- 12:2
August 15, 2010
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

 

 

I think it’s safe to say that I have been to almost every Home Depot, Lowes and Menards in the metro area this summer.  The reason being is that my partner Daniel came up with the idea of adding on to our house.  We are adding a bedroom and bathroom on the main floor.  You have to understand that Daniel has a drive to get the best looking addition for good price.  This has meant going to every home improvement place around to scout out tiling for the floors and walls, looking at windows, all the way down to the shower heads and towel hooks.

 

I kind of marvel Daniel and his ability to create a vision of what will be the final result.  He can imagine what the addition to the most minute detail.  I, on the other hand, have a hard  time trying to envision anything.  If it were up to me, we would probably be living in very sterile hovel somewhere.

 

One of the things that I have learned over time is that faith and imagination are linked.  Faith isn’t so much about believing all the right things, as it is about being able to see where God is leading even though we can’t see it.

 

The text for today from the book of Hebrews takes a wide panoramic view of Jewish history and looks at the some of the well-known people , holding them up as examples of living by faith.  It was by faith that the Israelites walked on dry land when the Red Sea parted.  It was faith that caused the walls of Jericho to fall down.  The writer lifts up people like Solomon and Gideon and Rahab, people from all sectors of society; some who were from the upper reaches of Jewish society and some who were not.  Some were outsiders or had a bad reputation, like Rahab.  Many met horrible endings.  But all of them were people who had the imagination to see where God was taking them, even though they never made it there themselves.

 

Sometimes it is too easy to see faith as some kind of nebulous thing that really doesn’t have any bearing on our lives.  Or we think we have to be a great person to have faith.  Or, we think we need to have “enough” faith for God to be pleased with us.

 

Faith is something we can see.  We may never see the end result, but we can see how faith is played out in the life of regular people like you and me.  Who we are is because of the faith of others before us.  If don’t believe me, go to an old church sometime, the ones that have cemetaries next to them.  Daniel’s Mom and Dad are buried in church graveyards in South Dakota and here you can see all the people who came before; people who made an impact on the lives of the living.

 

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Deb Murphy.  We were chatting about the past and future of this congregation and out of that conversation came a drawing that I want to show you this morning and I hope that you will come forward at the end of service to see the drawing. Deb decided to draw a tree, complete with roots, trunk and leaves.  At the roots are some of the programs and ministries that have taken place over the decades; the Christmas Tea, Friday Night Out, First Christian Residence,  Mission in Paraguay.  The trunk has more recent experiences: Handcrafters, the Grande Sale, the Naomi and Laura Lynne Circles.  In the leaves are some of the more recent endeavors: the Prayer Shawl Ministry, Art of the Covenant Children’s class, our work with Feed My Starving Children, the Currie Avenue Project which provides housing to the homeless.  All of these works were done in faith.  Some are still taking place, some are no longer in existence.  But all of them have made an impact in the lives of people.  The people from First Christian who planted churches like Lake Harriet in the early part of the last century didn’t know that they would change the lives of countless folks.  Yes, most of those church plants are gone, but they still made an impact.

 

Some of the more current ministries we are doing will help people long after we have passed from the scene.  All of these activities, past and present took an imiagination to not simply see the world as it is, but as what it could be in God.

 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed any of the posters around church for various church events.  At the bottom is a kind of logo for the church complete with a tagline: “Faith. Fellowship. Future.”  I’ve been using that as a tagline for the church having seen it as the theme for a church anniversary dinner in 1950s.  As Deb’s drawing shows, we have been a community of faith.  It is in God’s name that we have done all that we have done.  But faith isn’t a solitary activity; as Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, both living and dead who help us in our own journey of faith.  I’ve heard it said that we are a loving Christian community and I truly believe that.  Then there is future.  Our work as a community is always geared towards the future.  When we welcome the refugees, feed the hungry, give a home to the homeless, we are working towards that day when, as the old Negro spirituals used to say, there will no more cryin’.

 

I want to end with one more analogy.  I was reading in one of my devotions this week about this related to this text about how we need to get out of our basements and go up into the balcony sometimes to see how our faith is truly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

 

Sometime,  when you have the chance, I hope you will go up to the balcony here at First.  Now, these days, no one really goes up there save whoever is doing the sound.  And I will admit that maybe looking downward and seeing that the pews are not even close to being filled, could be cause for despair.  But use your imagination.  Look and see the drawings of the kids from Sunday  School and see how we are raising the next generation in faith.  Look at the table and see the bread and “wine” ;  hear the wisdom from the elders and marvel that the table has and always will be a place where everyone is welcome to take part in the Lord’s Supper. See the piano and the organ and hear the voices of the choir as they preach God’s word in song.  You get the picture.  What you start to see is that while we might be small in number these days, we are large in faith.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and are those clouds of witnesses to those around us, even those we don’t know.

 

Keep on dreaming.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.