Tag: mahtomedi

Visit a Ragamuffin Church

Visit a Ragamuffin Church

The following was written last summer. I was reflecting on the recent purchase of a car and how people tend to look at finding a new church in the same way. I also made an ask that people looking for a new church community look for a “dead” church where they can be of service instead of finding a church that fits their needs. Of course, I say this as the pastor of a ragamuffin, “dead” church. I hope it is of help.

Keep reading at my Medium page…

 
Table Talk: It’s Enough

Table Talk: It’s Enough

PHOTO BY JESSICA KNOWLDEN ON UNSPLASH

Then the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes.”
-Judges 7:7


Dear Friends in Christ,

One of my favorite Bible stories is found in Judges 7. Gideon, a man that was afraid of his own shadow is called to lead the Israelites against the oppression of the Midianites. In the preparation for battle, 33,000 men show up. God tells Gideon again and again that there are too many people. Gideon keeps whittling down the number for his army until there were 300 men left. Then God tells Gideon that their weapons would be trumpets and jars. Now, the Midianites had a large mighty, army. How in the world were 300 men with nothing but some musical instruments and clay pots are going to beat this mighty army?

We learn that God was with the Israelites and God would hand them the victory. That’s what happened. The trumpets and the smashing of the jars in the middle of the night scared the Midianites and they ended up fighting themselves until the big army was no more. The story of Gideon’s puny army is a reminder that God can use the smallest things to do “a mighty work.”

First Christian of St. Paul is a small church, maybe even tiny.  Our culture tends to put its faith in bigness and we suspect the small.  It’s easy to look at our church and think of all the things we can’t do, especially when we have a big church a mile or two down the road.  We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough money.  We don’t. We don’t. We don’t. 

(Being a small church doesn’t mean people aren’t invited to join and be a part of our congregation.)

Of course, there are limits as to what a small church can do, but there are limits to what anyone can do.  When we think that we can’t do something at church, think about something: why do you go to First Christian?  You go here for a reason and you’ve stayed.  If you are here for a reason, then there have to be others out there that might want to come to this church. So, instead of trying to wish we were bigger and better, work at making this church a place you want to be at because when we do that, we are welcoming others who might need a community like this.

What does being enough in God look like?  Let’s look at it through our offerings. When we give our offerings on Sunday, we are giving our money to help do mission in our world. Your offerings have gone to support our worship ministry which helps us meet God in the Word preached, the songs sung, and in the weekly Lord’s Supper. They have gone to help our sisters and brothers through our Mission Partners like Feed My Starving Children and the Mahtomedi Area Foodshelf. They help us go beyond borders to support the ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The giving of what we receive has allowed this small church to take part in God’s mission in the world.

At the end of the day, we are enough. Gideon teaches us that we are enough because God is enough.  God has a history of using little things to do great things. If God can use 300 soldiers to go against an army of thousands, what can God do with us? I truly believe God can and will use First Christian Church to be a witness in Mahtomedi, the Twin Cities, the United States, and to the ends of the earth.

In God, we are enough.  Let’s just let God work through us as we give our offerings, take part in communion, and worship together.  Let us have faith in a God that can take the little things and do great things.


Godspeed everyone.

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Dear God, help us to remember that we are enough.  Even when we are small, we can do mighty things in your name. Amen.

Finding God in the Drive-Thru Lane

Finding God in the Drive-Thru Lane

What is God up to?

I’ve been hearing that phrase over and over lately.  It’s the focus on a book I’m reading, the Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves.  It’s the sense that instead of engaging in the business of ministry as if it’s all up to us, Purves wants pastors to step back and let go.  God is the one that saves and redeems and it isn’t us.

I will admit, that frustrates me.  You are taught all these skills in seminary and the culture around us tells us very plainly that if we aren’t doing something that can bring in more people to come to worship, then it’s all our fault.  

I’ve been at my congregation now for seven years and in those years we haven’t really grown much over that time.  It’s hard for me to not wonder if I’m doing something wrong.  Am I praying enough.  How about reading the Bible.  I need to start a Faith on Tap!  

But wondering what God is both intriguing and maddening. It’s intriguing because finding out what God is up to means trying to be attentive to what God is doing in our world and especially in our neighborhood.  What have we missed by being so involved in busy work?

But looking for God is also scary, because it feels like quietism- meaning just end up doing nothing and waiting for God to do something.

Maybe that’s not what it means.  Maybe it means living our lives and observing how God worked in our lives and the lives of others. 

This past week, I was in a drive-thru lane waiting to get my food.  I come up to the window ready to pay for my meal when I find out that someone, probably the person that was ahead of me, paid for my meal.  It was fascinating that this happened to me once, but it happened TWICE.  Two times I was in a drive-thru lane and twice someone paid my bill.

I do wonder if I should have done a good deed and paid it forward for the person behind me.  I didn’t and I wonder if should have. What was God up to in those moments? What does it mean for my life or for the ministry I’m involved in.

Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote in early 2019 about the church is worried about our church.  Churches are shrinking, budgets are tightening, people are leaving.  We want to know what we can do and we spend time at conferences wondering what we can do to help our congregation grow. 

But Eaton thinks we are asking the wrong question.  We should be asking what God is up to. She quotes from Isaiah 43 about God doing a new thing and are we open to seeing it. Can we see that new thing happening or are we trying to recreate a past? Eaton writes: 

If we want to attract people to our congregations to rebuild a memory, God will not bless our efforts. But if we—grabbed by the Spirit in baptism, changed by the word, intimately and lovingly connected to Jesus and each other in communion, and set free by grace to serve the neighbor—invite all people into true life, then we shall become part of the answer.

This takes attention and devotion. Worship, prayer, Scripture study, generosity and service—not in order to save the church, but in response to the new life God has given us in Christ.

What we are being called to do is basically to live our lives faithfully.  Go to worship. Pray daily.  Serve others.  As she says, we don’t do this to save the church and we shouldn’t be spending time “saving the church.”  What we are called to do is live a life of thankfulness to the new things God is doing.

I still don’t know what that paying forward meant, but maybe it’s reminding me to be thankful to God’s work in the world.  

I pray that I not tie myself in knots in trying to “save the church.” I can’t save this congregation because it was never mine to save.  But I do want to take the time to live out my ministry and see God working in the world.  Who knows? It might lead to a renewal of my church and maybe your church as well.   

Sermon: Out of the Saltshaker

Matthew 5:1–20
Work of Christmas Series
Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 25, 2015

First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

“Those of us who follow Jesus are called to leave the saltshakers of our own making and do good works for the glory of God in the wider world.  We don’t do good works to find God, we do good works to honor God.”

Click here to continue reading the sermon text. To listen to the sermon podcast, please go here.

Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End

I Kings 19:1-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 10, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Podcast.

YMCA
A postcard of the YMCA in Flint, MI. I took swimming lessons here in the 1970s.

I’ve shared some stories in the past of my taking swimming lessons when I was growing up.  I would take lessons sometimes at the local YMCA and at the YWCA which was just down the street.  Most of the time we took lessons, we practiced in the shallow end.  Being seven or eight meant that the shallow end was already a challenge.  But at least I could touch the bottom of the pool.

What scared me was trying to swim in the deep end.  I can remember treading water out towards the middle of the pool feeling the pool’s floor slipping away from me.  At some point, I couldn’t touch anything other than the water that was surrounding me.  It felt like I was like an acrobat; working without a net.

Then there would come that day when we would work at the deep end, learning how to dive into a pool.  I would make my dive, scared that I wouldn’t be able to get to poolside fast.

But I was able to do my dives on the deep end. Albeit with me probably bawling up a storm.

As much as I hated swimming in the deep end, I had to learn this skill.  I had to learn this because the reality is that we will spend a good majority of our time in waters that can be very deep.  We have to stop clinging to the pool floor and step out in faith.  You have to believe that the skills you have learned will keep you afloat will be enough. Continue reading “Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End”

Work with a Church Rising from the Ashes in Minnesota

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “The Lord Is My Shepherd….at 35,000 Feet”

Psalm 23
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

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.

800px-Icelandair_Boeing_757-256_Wedelstaedt
A Boeing 757.

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.

Sermon: “Eau? Oh!”

John 4:4-42
Third Sunday in Lent
March 23, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

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.

Hope, North Dakota. Population: 258.
Hope, North Dakota. Population: 258.

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.

Sermon: “Leave Your Light On for Me”

“Leave Your Light On For Me”
Matthew 5:13-20
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
February 9, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

This past December, a party was thrown in my honor.

A few weeks earlier, I left my job as Communications Specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. My job had been eliminated due to budget cuts. It was hard to leave that job, but at least I knew there was another job waiting for me at a big Methodist church down the street.

About a few weeks before I left, I got an email from a retired Presbyterian pastor. She is the head of the Presbytery’s Taskforce concerning persons with disabilities. I had done some work for the over the years and the whole group felt I needed a proper send-off.

Now, here’s something you need to know about me: I don’t care much for being the center of attention and I really don’t like surprise parties. I’d rather not be the man of honor if I can help it. Being a somewhat private person, I don’t like to be the focus of the event. But I knew that the people who planned wanted to say thank you to me, so gritted my teeth and moved on.

I found out that the event wasn’t so bad. I had a good time, they even sang me a song. The good words I heard from people reminded me that I had made a difference at the Presbytery over the years.

epiphany-1Our text today continues in Matthew and in the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage Jesus talks about light and salt. Now, Jesus never says, “do this and you will become salt and light in the world. Instead, Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Like last week’s passage, the temptation is to look at these as rules. “Does doing x mean I can be salt?” “How can I be light?” No, Jesus just says it to those around him; “You are the light of the world.” “You are the salt of the earth.”

How do you feel when you hear that? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it bothers you. We look at ourselves and remind ourselves of all the things we can’t do. We can’t be the light of the world. At least not without some training. But those words remain: we are the light of the world.

I’ve been doing some thinking of what it means to be a church. I know the church isn’t a building, but a people. But what is the importance of a church? Why do they matter? I’m still doing some thinking and reading about this, but I’m starting to think that local churches matter because they are small examples of God’s coming kingdom. They should be examples to the rest of the world of what God’s way is like. In short, they are to be light and salt to their local communities.

First Christian-Mahtomedi is called to be salt and light to the communities around us. Actually we are salt and light to the surrounding community. The only question is if we are willing to live into being salt and light.

Here in the suburbs of St. Paul, there are people living in darkness. There are people dealing with abuse or addiction. There are others dealing with depression or another mental illness. There are others looking for a home or for their next meal. There are young mothers trying to figure out how to take of their children and kids who have been kicked out of their homes because they are gay. There are the elderly who feel that no one cares about them. There are refugees from a distant land who don’t know the language and have to face a different culture alone. We, the gathered church are called to go out and be light to these people and many others. They need to know that they are also the light of the world, that they are loved by God.

During my time at seminary, I remember taking my first worship class and having to watch a video on the importance of baptism. Since this was a Lutheran seminary it was talking about an infant baptism. The video, which was full of people wearing really bad 80s clothing went through the steps of baptism, including the part where the newly baptized child is given a baptismal candle. One of the child’s adult sponsors gives the candle to their parents and uses these words: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Does that sound familiar? It comes from verse 16 of our text. The parents are called to help raise this little one in the understanding that they are light and should share the light with others, giving glory to God. Baptism reminds us that we are a light to the nations, called to be light to others and glorify God.

This community called First Christian has been light in welcoming immigrants from Vietnam and other lands. We have been light in feeding the poor, in teaching Sunday School and serving as deacons and elders, in helping the homeless to find a home and in welcoming others in the fellowship of our monthly potluck.

You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. Do you believe that? Do you believe that in Christ we carry God’s light?

“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Let it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: “I’ve Been A Mess”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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