Tag: luke

Sermon: Drop the Blanket!

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

 

peanuts4On December 9, 1965 something special happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “But We Had Hoped…”

Luke 24:13-35
Third Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2014
First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN

 

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

The_Road_To_EmmausThese are the words of John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist Church.  Wesley was going through a time of doubt and depression and while sitting in a church in England he had an encounter with Jesus.  He felt “strangely warmed” as he said.  He went into the service full of despair and left feeling he could place his trust in Christ. When most people hear this story, they focus on the whole warming of the heart.  What we tend to forget was that Wesley came in to this church a broken man.  He didn’t come in with much hope.

It was a little over ten years ago that I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  This is one of those requirements you have to do before getting ordained.  Clinical Pastoral Education is a time when your faith comes face to face with life.  You have to figure out how to be Christ in a very vulnerable moment.

I worked at Luther Hall, which was a transitional care facility.  Some of the people I met were only there for a few days after a surgery.  Others were there for a longer stay.  I remember one of my first visits was to stop by the room of a patient.  He was unconscious and this family was all around him.  The man had a brain tumor it didn’t look like he was going to make it.  However, the wife kept saying that he was going to get better.  This was hard for me.  I couldn’t just be frank and tell them he wasn’t going get better.  I couldn’t  pray that he would be miraculously healed.  I was facing a moment where there seemed to be no hope.  I did the best I could to not do something that would offend them.

How do you minister to someone when there is no hope things will get better?  Those events happened thirteen years ago and I still don’t have a really good answer.

The this story about the Road to Emmaus is an fascinating story.  We hear a story about two disciples and we don’t really know much about them.  We don’t even know why they are walking to this town.  What we do know is that they are heartbroken.  This is only a few days after Jesus was crucified and now on this day they have heard the story of an empty tomb.  These two people were crushed by the news.  First their friend was killed by Rome and now there isn’t even a body left to mourn.  Their emotion is distilled down to a few words: “But we had hoped.”

The two believed that Jesus was going to come and redeem Israel, that he was going to free Israel from Roman occupation.  Now, that wasn’t going to happen.

But we had hoped…how many times have we echoed those words?  But we had hoped to have twins.  But we had hoped to keep my job.  But we had hoped we would not lose our house to forclosure.  But we had hoped to see our child graduate.  But we had hoped it wasn’t Alzheimers.  But we had hoped he wouldn’t walk out on his wife.  But we had hoped.  Those four words pack a punch.  It tells us all that we need to know; hoping for something, excepting something better and to not have those dreams come true.  Ernest Hemingway was once challenge to write a story with only six words.  He responded: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.”  Everyone of us has dealt with some kind of heartbreak, failure or loss.  But we had hoped.  It is one of those mainstays in life.

As these two men walk, another stranger starts walking beside them.  Jesus had joined the the two men.  Even when we don’t feel there is hope, when we think nothing will ever get better, Jesus is there.  But it’s hard to see that when you are mired in despair.  It’s also hard to walk with someone who is in pain.  How many of us don’t know what to say when someone levels a bombshell of pain on you?  I can tell you it’s not easy.  It’s uncomfortable.

A little later, the two men invite Jesus to stay with them the night.  They sit down to have a meal and Jesus blessed and broke the bread.  It was then that they knew Jesus was there.  It was at that moment, hope came alive.  Jesus was there all the time and they have to go and tell the other Disciples.

As Christians, we gather every Sunday and have communion.  It’s easy to just go through the motions.  I’m pretty sure we don’t expect much to happen as we eat a cube of bread and a thimble of grape juice.  But the thing is, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that Jesus is with us now.  Communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done, but it is also a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us now, even when we can’t sense God.  Christ walks with us even when we don’t know. Because we are humans that tend to forget God is with us, we need this holy meal.  We need to know that when say “but we have hoped” Jesus responds by breaking bread and revealing that God has been with us all along.

This is the reason we need church.  Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight was recently interviwed about them importance of the church. He call the church a “kingdom society where God’s will is done as a result of Christ’s redemption.  It is being part of a community that we learn about how God operates and where we can see Christ in each other, as well as in bread and win.

When they realize they were talking to Jesus, the disciples ran and told the others.  We are called to go and tell others that Jesus is alive and is with all of us.  The result of breaking bread with Jesus, as we do every Sunday is to go and tell the good news.  There will still be heartache, at least on this side of heaven.  But we can tell others that Jesus is with us even when we don’t know.

As we continue our journey this Easter season, let us know that Jesus walks with us- even when we don’t feel it.   And let us go and tell the world. May our prayer be this passage of the well known hymn, “Let us talents and Tounges Employ:”

 

Let us talents and tongues employ,

reaching out with a shout of joy:

bread is broken, the wine is poured,

Christ is spoken and seen and heard.

Jesus lives again; earth can breathe again.

Pass the Word around: loaves abound!

 

May it be so.  Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Sermon: “The Healing Power of Collard Greens”

This is a sermon I preached on Easter evening in 2005.  It is the text I will be preaching on this Sunday for the Third Sunday in Easter.

Luke 24:13-35
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN

I love good food, and it probably shows.
emmaus
I consider myself lucky to be born in the family that I’m in, because I grew up with two wonderful cooking traditions. On my father’s side is the African American tradition of the Deep South. It’s a tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pie. It is all fattening and it’s all good.

On my mother’s side is the Puerto Rican cuisine. I remember coming over to my grandmother’s when she was still alive and eating rice with chicken, or arroz con pollo. Sometimes she would substitute sausage or fish for chicken, but it was just as delicious. When I was little, I used to call it “Orange Rice” and literally thought my grandmother bought orange colored rice. Then I also remember pasteles, a delicacy that is made from plantain. They are little meat pies filled with pork and raisins and olives. My grandmother and other relatives made them and have been known to carry them in my luggage when I leave Michigan bound back to Minnesota.

Food doesn’t just bring needed nourishment to us, but it’s a context that brings people together. I remember eating arroz con pollo and talking in Spanish to my abuela, or grandmother. I remember eating so much soul food that I probably needed angioplasty at a family event in Louisiana a few years back, but it was also a wonderful time to get requainted with my southern relatives.

Today, we encounter one of my favorite stories concerning the ressurection. It’s the road to Emmaus where Jesus appears in disguise to two of his disciples. These disciples were still in shock over all that had happened in the last few days; the shocking arrest, the mockery of a trial, the crucifixion. They had thought Jesus was the one that would save them, and now their savior was dead. They told this disguised Jesus that it was already the third day since his death and in Jewish tradition, this meant that the soul had left the body, meaning there was no hope that Jesus would ever come back. To add insult to injury, the women who were aquainted with Jesus reported that the body was gone. These two had lost hope and were alone. They had placed their hopes on this one called Jesus and it had all ended so badly.

Jesus decides to put a stop to this pity party and open the Scriptures to them. They were interested in what this supposed stranger was saying to them.

When they arrived in Emmaus, it was evening and not a time for someone to be on the road alone, so they asked the stranger to stay with them for the evening. He agreed and shared bread with them. It was when he broke the bread that the disciple’s eyes were opening. Jesus had been revealed and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished from their sight.

It’s interesting that the resurrected Jesus made himself know presumably at a table, breaking bread. In preparing for this sermon, I noticed that some interesting things happened when Jesus was at the table. In the fifth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the calling of Levi, aka Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, an agent of Rome. Now Jews didn’t take kindly to collaborators, and it was also known that tax collectors not only collected money for Rome, but took a little extra for themselves. So, it goes without saying that Matthew wasn’t popular. And yet, Jesus calls him and as a result, Matthew hosts a big party where all his fellow tax collectors were invited. Well, this didn’t go over with the Pharisees who thought it shameful that Jesus would associate with such lowlife. Remember what Jesus said? He said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Then there was the time he was invited over to the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story, record in the seventh chapter of Luke, tells of a sinful woman who comes in and washed his feet with her tears and poured purfume on them. Well the Pharisees were shocked. Didn’t Jesus know this was a “bad” woman. Why would he even allow her to touch him? What does Jesus do? He takes Simon and the others, all who were considered high society, to task for not being hospitable to him. Only this woman who was considered and outcast, showed him proper respect and for that, he forgave her sins.

Then there is the story of Zacheus, another tax collector. In Luke 19, we read that Jesus invites himself to Zacheus’ house. Zaccheus is so moved that this one called the Messiah would stay with him, that he repents and repays those whom he has cheated.

Over and over again in the book of Luke and in the other Gospels, Jesus is found somewhere where they is a table and food. What’s interesting here is that these “table talks” give us an insight into who the Son of God is and also what God is all about.

The prior stories all point to the fact that God is one who loves everyone and there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and other various “sinners.” He also dined with the rich and powerful as well. This shows that Jesus was not a repsector of persons, but welcomed all. These “table talks” remind us that as children of God and followers of God’s Son, we are called to welcome all, regardless of their status in life.

So what does the meal in today’s text mean? Well, let’s go back to the fact that these disciples had lost all hope. They didn’t realize Jesus was alive. As Jesus told them Scriptures they were rekindled with some hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who Jesus was. In the context of this simple evening meal, they were reminded that death could not silence Jesus. He was alive, he had conquered death, and as a result, we now have new life. Not only is Jesus one who welcomes all to the table of fellowship, but he is one that death can’t hold. No earthly power can hold God back, thanks be to God.

In a few moments, we will partake of the bread and the wine. In Disciple theology, what other call an altar, we call a table. I tend to like that. An altar has a regal image to it, relating more to a king. That’s not a bad reference, since Jesus is a King, but the word table connotes something more basic and common. It represents the Son of God who came to earth as a peasant child, and then as an adult spent time teaching at tables. We still learn from Jesus today at this table. It is here we are reminded of God’s love for us-all of us, regardless if we are black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay. We are reminded that God loved us so much, God became one of us, lived among us and died the death of a common criminal. We are also reminded of his ressurection and know that not even death could hold him and no longer has a hold over us as well.

In closing, go back to talk about food. A few years ago, there was a movie called Soul Food, about an African-American extended family in Chicago. The matriarch, Big Mama, would cook these wonderful meals on Sundays after church and all the family would come over. Now, at some point, Big Mama fell ill and was hospitalized. When she ultimately died, the meals stopped and the family fell apart with certain people not talking to each other.

The narrator of this story, Big Mama’s eldest grandson, schemes to get the family together and concocts a story about some hidden money. Everyone attends and one by one, they all come together and start making the meals that Big Mama used to make. In the end, the family was back together all through a meal. The meal, healed a broken family.

This is the savior we worship, one that is made known to us in meals. The question I want to end with is this: as followers of Jesus, do our meals, at this table and at all of our tables reveal the something about the Risen Savior or do they reflect the table of the Pharisees, which is built on exclusion?

Something to think about. Amen.

Photo: “The Road to Emmaus” by Dr. He Qi ( http://www.heqigallery.com )

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: “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.

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.

Sunday Sermon: “Big Time”

Today’s sermon is based off a song from recording artist Peter Gabriel from 1987.  You can watch the video below.




“Big Time”
Luke 12:13-21
Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost
August 4, 2013
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

People in my generation are familiar with the artist Peter Gabriel.  He was the lead singer for the British band Genesis and then left to start a solo career.  His best known album is So, released in 1986.  It was a very popular album with some memoriable songs and visually stunning music videos.  I remember seeing the video for the song “Sledgehammer” and it was groundbreaking.

Among the singles was a song called “Big Time.”  The video was made in the same style of “Sledgehammer” with stop-action animation and claymation.  The lyrics were about a man who was going to have all the big things in life- a large house, a large bank account, sumptous food, fabulous parties and so on.  Some might say it was a commentary on the materialistic 1980s and there’s something to this.  Here are the lyrics of the first verse:

The place where I come from is a small town

They think so small, they use small words

But not me, I’m smarter than that,

I worked it out

I’ll be stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out

I’ve had enough, I’m getting out

To the city, the big big city

I’ll be a big noise with all the big boys, so much stuff I will own

And I will pray to a big god, as I kneel in the big church

I remember hearing the song and watching the video and thinking to myself that I was glad that I wasn’t the kind of person that Gabriel was mocking.  I wasn’t interested in having a big car or a big house or anything like that.  I’m glad I’m not so materialistic as the guy in this song.

It was a nice fantasy to think that this song had nothing to do with me.  Just like it’s a nice fantasy to think that today’s gospel lesson has nothing to do with me.  Because even though I’m not rich, I too can get wrapped up in possessions.  And you know what? So can you.

Today’s passage begins with a man walking up to Jesus asking him to settle an argument.  The man was the younger sibling and he wanted more than his fair share of the inheritance.  You see, as the younger brother, he was to get a smaller portion his father’s money than his older brother.  He wasn’t happy with what he had.  He wanted more.

Jesus uses the occasion to tell people to take heed and not get caught up in greed.  He then tells the story of a farmer who had a big harvest.  The man thought about what to do with his bounty.  He decided to make bigger barns to hold his grain and once he did that, it was time to kick back and relax.  It was Miller time.

Or so he thought.  God speaks, calling the farmer a fool.  Tonight was his last night on earth and all that he worked for would be lost.

It’s easy to look at this parable and think that it has nothing to do with most of us.  Most of us here are middle class.  We aren’t the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, we aren’t wealthy investment bankers.  We aren’t star basketball players.  No, we are just middle class folk trying to make our way in the world.

But it has everything to do with us.  We might not have a big house, we might not make a big noise, but we do worry about having enough.  I worry about it and so do you.  The farmer is not an anomaly, no, the rich farmer is us.

If you want to see how much we worry about having enough of…everything, just watch a show like “House Hunters,” the popular show on the cable channel HGTV.  People who probably make as much as I do, are hunting for homes and asking for the sky.  They want large master suites, kitchens with high end appliances and granite countertops, media rooms, man caves and the like.

But let’s look at our own lives.  One of the things I need to be concerned about it retirement.  So, I try to put aside money for my retirement years and hope to have enough to retire in relative comfort.  Our security, our self worth is tied up in money and possessions.  This doesn’t mean we are bad people.  We have to save money for retirement.  We want to have a nice place for shelter.  We want our children to have nice clothes.  The farmer wasn’t a bad person per se.  He had gained his wealth fairly.  Where he went wrong was that he got caught up in what he had and not how to use what he had to glorify God.  Listen to what the farmer says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

Did you notice how many times the word “I” or “my” was used?  He never talked about giving some his food to the poor.  He never gave thanks to God for his abundant harvest.  It was all about “me, myself and I.”

So what do we do?  How do we not get caught up in stuff when it is so intertwined in our lives, when at some level it is necessary for our survival?

I think the answer lies at the end of the parable.  Jesus concludes the story by saying,  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Very few of us are going to sell our possession and move to some island in the Pacific to live in the jungle or what have you.  We will still live in this world, where we live in homes, eat out and plan for our retirement.  But in the midst of all that, can we be rich toward God?  Can we live our lives with less “I” or “me?”

This past week, many of us took part in Mission @ Our Doorstep.  We spent time making murals, making sandwiches, painting houses and simply offering a cup of cold water on a hot day.  For those of us who call ourselves Christians, these were not simply good deeds.  We used our time and money not simply for ourselves, but for others.  We learn that all that we have, clothing, food, shelter, are from God and in gratitude, we give towards others.  We buy backpacks and school supplies to help homeless youth.  We give our money and our homes to help an immigrant put down roots far from their homeland.  We are rich towards God when we realize that life is not about living in luxury, but about how we treat others and how we give glory and honor to God in our deeds of service.

Since I tend to be the pop culture preacher, I want to end on another pop cultural note.  In the second season of the animated series The Simpsons, there is an episode where the family is gathered for dinner and the oldest child, Bart, is asked to give the blessing.  He says very bodly, “We paid for this ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”  I remember people thinking how blasphemeous that was and how crude television had become.  But maybe, Bart was telling the ugly truth about ourselves.  Maybe Bart was telling all of us that we are that farmer, wrapped up in ourselves.

As we live our day to day lives, paying bills, going to work, driving our cars and so on, may we remember that everything comes from God and so we thank God for everything and live for others.  Thanks be to God. Amen.