About fifteen years ago, I saw a wonderful movie called Soul Food. The movie was about an African American family in Chicago where the family gathered weekly after church for a meal cooked by the matriarch of the family. The meal was filled with things that I love: fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese- all probably bad for my cholestrol, but so good.
It was this meal that in many ways held the family together, and when Big Momma died the meals and the family were thrown into disarray. The skill and cunning of one grandson was able to get the three sisters together to cook a meal and in time bring the family back together.
The apostle Paul is talking about communion here. In fact, he is going back to an event that he wasn’t around for, the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. The church in Corinth was in turmoil and in many cases forgot what this meal was all about.
For Paul, this meal was about proclaiming Christ, the one who would bring salvation to you, to me and to all of creation. It is also an act of grace. On the night that he shared a meal with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him. This meal is not one where we have to be good enough to be there. We come as we are, because we need it. We need to know that God is in the business of saving, we need to know that no matter who we are and what we have done, Jesus still shares a meal with us. We need this because you and me and everyone want to be healed. We need this meal because we are hungry and the morsels the world gives us don’t fill us up. We need this meal because it is the place where rich and poor, straight or gay, black or white are one in Christ Jesus. This is the glue that hold us together.
About eight years ago, I went to a family reunion in Lousisana, where my Dad is from. The food there was just like in Soul Food: all bad, but oh so good. That meal brought Sanders from around the country to say hello and come together. The meal was the glue that brought us together.
The meal that brings us together. Remember that tonight, tomorrow and on Sunday.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Photo: My parents and cousin Carolyn at the Sanders family reunion, Pineville, Louisiana, 2006.
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.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
First Christian Church
I can be a nervous flier.
My fear of flying hasn’t stopped me from getting on a plane on a regular basis. I’ve flown international flights to Europe, South America and Asia. You are really dealing with your fears when you take a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.
I think the reason I am able to get on a plane and go up into the air is because I’m fascinated with any kind of trasportation. When it come to planes, I love to learn about the different kind of aircraft, and getting wrapped up in seeing if the plane I’m flying; like if I’m on an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 757. It also helps that I I use a little physics to remind me what keeps the plane in the air, that and a short prayer as the door of the cabin closes and the plane backs out of the gate.
I’m not sure where this fear of flying came from, but I have to wonder if going to see a movie on the Hindenburg blip was what did the trick. I got scared when you see the blimp coming in for a landing in New Jersey and then seeing the aircraft incinerate in a few minutes. Mom probably shouldn’t have taken me to the movie. There was no sex or violence in the film, so I think Mom thought it would be okay. And it might be for other kids…but it wasn’t for me.
You know, the funny thing about my nervousness of flying is that it is really one of the safetest ways to get from point A to point B. New equipment and safety measures have made flying a piece of cake. I know that my fear is irrational. It’s really irrational when you compare it to the thing I do everyday; get into a car and drive. Far more people die in automobile accidents than they do in plane crashes.
I think the reason flying worries me is the fact that I am not in control. I get into a flying tube that travels at hundreds of miles per hour and about 4 miles above the earth. I have to trust the pilots and autopilot to make sure I get to point B…alive.
The car is a different story. I am the one driving. I am placing my own life in my hands. I am in control.
Or am I? I am starting to think that my control is a just an illusion. There are other drivers around me and one of them could end up hitting me, through no fault of my own. I can’t prevent the other car sideswiping me.
Psalm 23 is the most familiar passage in all of Scripture. We hear it everywhere. We hear it so much, we tend to forget what it says. When I was preparing for this Sunday, I didn’t plan on preaching on this passage. I mean, everyone knows this passage. It’s too easy for us pastor-types to ignore this passage that is so widely known. The reality is that we have heard Psalm 23 so much, we don’t listen to it. And we should.
The passage talks about God as a shepherd, actually as one who shepherds. The shepherd is the one who takes care of the sheep, protecting them from harm and leading through our journey. Right there in that first verse we see the words “I shall not want.” As a kid I didn’t know what that meant. Why would you say God is your shepherd and then say you don’t want him? I’ve since learned that it means that God is enough. God is all we need. Of course we are humans, so we are always in want. We want more money or a bigger house or what have you. Trusting that God is all we need is something to aspire to, but know that we are always tempted to place out trust in other things Why? We want control.
While this verse tends to evoke calm images, the God in this passage is an active God. God is shpeherding, God is the one restores or turns our souls to God. God is the one that protect us through the dark valleys of losing our job, or getting the cancer diagnosis or divorce. We are persued by God with goodness and love for our whole lives. This God is busy- working for you and me.
During this time of Lent, we are reminded that God came in the form of a human being-Jesus Christ- to demostrate that God indeed is the Good Shepherd. In Jesus, we see God active, teaching and preaching and healing, turning our hearts towards God.
Learning to trust God is a process. We will move forward and then backward. If Jesus’ own disciples can waver between trust and doubt, so will we. But maybe in our own journey in trusting in the Good Shepherd, we can tell others of the saving work of Jesus Christ. People learn about the Good Shepherd for our words and actions. This is what Jesus did, and then his apostles and now us. We go and tell of what God has done in our lives; a God that is with us through lush pastures and dark valleys.
Later this week, we will remember the assination of Martin Luther King Jr. There was a lot of talk about that event in 1968 last year on the 45th anniversary. I’ve always been fascinated by his last speech. It’s been called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and it was given a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking garbage workers. The mountaintop speech is interesting because it seemed so prophetic. I want to share what is probably the most heard part of that speech, at the very end
It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
As Rev. King was heading into his dark valley, he knew that God was with him. I have to believe that he could only do what he did because he believed God was his shepherd.
I want you do something this week. Please look at Psalm 23 again maybe today, maybe tomorrow and think on what those words me. How is God a shepherd to us? What does that all mean for our daily lives?
The Lord is our shepherd. We are actively loved by God. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
First Christian Church
Life in a small town is interesting. I grew up in a city that had about 150,000 in my childhood and I was only a short distance from the Detroit Metro Area with a population of 4 million. So as a city kid, life in a small town is not something I’m familiar with.
My partner Daniel, on the other hand grew up in small towns. He was born in a small town in Saskatchewan and grew up in the small towns of Hope and Kindred, North Dakota. One of things I’ve learned is that in a small town everyone knows everything about you. I learned this for myself when Daniel and I were dating. I was driving from Minneapolis to Grand Forks. Now the rule of small towns tends to apply to small states. I was on Interstate 29 getting close to the Grand Forks when I was pulled over by the state police. I got a ticket from probably the nicest trooper ever. A few minutes later, I was at Daniel’s place. He walked out and said in an apologetic voice, “I’m sorry.”
I was perplexed. Daniel then told me that he knew I got the speeding ticket. I was astounded at this. How in the world did he know?
It turns out that Daniel’s sister was on the highway and saw a blue Volkswagen Jetta pulled over. She called Daniel and said that she thought I had been pulled over.
I remember Daniel smiling and telling me this is what it means to live in small town.
The thing about being in towns and cities far away from large urban areas is that you really can’t hide. Thing that you have done are going to be found out.
In this passage today, we have Jesus and the disciples on a trip. The first verse says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Samaria was a region home to Samaritans, a group of people that had a mixed Jewish-Gentile heritage. Now, when we hear the word Samaritan, we think of the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. While we might think Samaritans are good stand-up folk, that wasn’t how Jews saw them. The two groups despised each other. Most Jews would avoid Samaria on trips. Jesus, however doesn’t. As the passage says, he had to go through Samaria.
At some point, Jesus and the disciples stop at a well. The disciples go on into an unnamed town to get some food. The writer of John says it was about noon.
So as Jesus is reclining in the noonday heat, a woman makes her way to the well to draw water. I’ve been in Louisiana in the summer when the sun is high in the sky and it is hot. People tend to stay indoors to esacpe the heat. But this woman was out, getting water for the day. Jesus asks the woman for water and the woman was shocked. Jesus was a Jew and a man and a Rabbi. She was a Samaritan woman. Why in the world would he be asking for water?
So begins a conversation between the woman and Jesus. Jesus talks about living water, which interests the woman. At some point Jesus asks the woman to go and bring her husband back. The woman was worried when Jesus asked that question. She couldn’t tell him the truth. She simply tells Jesus that she has no husband. Jesus responds that she is correct that she has no husband, in fact she had five former husbands and the current man in the house is not her husband.
Now this is a pivotal moment in the story because it reveals something about the woman. Were you wondering why this woman was getting her water at midday. In visiting places in hot climates like Spain, Puerto Rico or the American South you learn that people tend to do their main work either in the early morning or in the evening; times when the temps are cooler. This woman went to gather water at noon. Why? It could be that the time she drew water indicated that the town treated her as an outcast. Dealing with the extreme heat of midday was easier than dealing with stares from the other women. This is a small town and she couldn’t hide.
So, this woman had to be thinking that Jesus was going to treat her same way that the other townsfolk do, with disdain. She’s ready for the lecture and it doesn’t come. Instead Jesus keeps right on talking. He talks about the need for worship that is honest and about the Messiah that will come to save the world. It’s then that Jesus reveals himself to the woman.
The passage is not clear about what the woman did or didn’t do. All we know is that she had a lot of husbands and that the man she was living with now wasn’t her husband. All we know is that the small town that she lived in knew everything about her and forced her to get her water at noon so she wouldn’t have to deal with the townsfolk who treated her with contempt.
But when Jesus points out what has caused her being an outcast, he didn’t shame her. He kept right on talking and later revealed himself to her.
The townsfolk knew all about her and used that to keep this woman isoloated. Jesus knew everything about her and continued the conversation.
One of the things you learn as a pastor is how many secrets your congregation has. We see people with smiling faces that tend to hide the domestic abuse, or the alcoholic or the scret affairs. None of us can bear being open because we fear that our honesty will cause us to be shunned like the woman.
The wonderful thing about this story is that Jesus knew everything about this woman. And yet, he remained in relationship with her. When she says that Jesus knew everuthing about her she was basically saying that Jesus knew all about the embarassing aspects of her life and still loved her.
The reason this is such a wonderful story to me is that it reveals something about God, and maybe even a clue as to how God’s church should act. The God we have is one that loves us passionately. This God will sit and talk with a woman at the risk of God’s own reputation. We have a God that knows everything about us and loves us anyway.
As God’s church, can we engage our friends and family? Can we offer them the living water of Jesus even if we know everything about them? Can we live honest lives, exposing our own shortcomings and know that God loves us anyway? Can we be Christ to others around us, loving them because they are God children?
In someways it was wonderful to be welcomed by Daniel after getting my ticket. It made getting a speeding ticket not seem so bad.
As we encounter the watering holes, bars, coffeeshops, offices and churches in our lives where people gather. May we be Christ to others. May we offer them the wonderful living water of Jesus. May we love them no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-21
March 5, 2014
First Christian Church
It’s been nearly 20 years since Ken Burn’s documentary on the Great American pasttime aired. Baseball talked about the early beginnings of the sport, what impact it had on American society and how it was impacted by American society. There was a certain poignancy in watching this mini-series in 1994, because during that fall there was no baseball due to a strike. For the first time since World War I, the bats of October would fall silent; there was no 1994 World Series.
There are a number of memorable moments from that documentary, but the one that most interested me was footage of a reporter interviewing Reggie Jackson sometime in the late 1970s. Supposedly during this time, Jackson had found faith and become a Christian. The interview had Jackson speaking like a choirboy, telling the reporter the joys of being saved. When the interview ended, Jackson changed. He started swearing up a storm and talking about what you had to do in front of the cameras. I can’t make a call as to whether Jackson’s faith was real, but it was easy to see that the piety was just an act for the cameras. Of course, while Jackson now being himself, there was a camera on taking all this in.
The passages we read this evening talk about worship and how people were basically doing things for show. They would do everything for the cameras, but when the light went off, they treated their fellow person poorly.
It would be easy to look at the passages and simply say that we shouldn’t act that way. I could tell you that we need to care for the poor more than how we look during worship. But that is not what these passages are about. At least not on this day.
Ash Wednesday is a day when we are reminded of how finite we are. It is a day to remind us that we are imperfect, as the old pop song goes, “we’re not that innocent.”
Do you remember? Do you remember that you are finite? Do you remember that you are not perfect? Ash Wednesday is a call to remember our baptisms as children of God, a call to remember that our worship is only as good as how we treat our neighbors, a call to remember that God doesn’t want an act, but an honest heart.
I’m not going to urge you to do good. That’s not the point of this day. I am asking that you remember who you are and whose you are. When you do that, everything else will fall into place. Thanks be to God. Amen.