Category: christian formation

Come Sunday: “Part-Time Lover” (September 8, 2013)

Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

September 8, 2013

Luke 14:25-33

One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.

Luke 14:25-27 (The Message)

part_time_helpOn September 8, 2002, I was ordained a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  As I reflect on eleven years in ministry, I’ve noticed something: every ministerial position I’ve had has been part-time.  I spent the last five years as part-time Associate Pastor in Minneapolis, and this Sunday I begin as the Supply Pastor of a church northeast of St. Paul.

I actutally like working part-time.  In most cases, the churches couldn’t fund a full time position, which is was okay by me.  I was still able to do ministry, though it was far more limited than what could be done as a full-time pastor.

When you’re a part-time clergyperson, especially if you have another job, you have to learn how to manage your time.  Since we only have 24 hours in the day, I have to decide what is most important to get done.  Somehow, I’ve managed to pull it off.  That said, being part-time with another job means that you aren’t always focused.  You have to deal with two things vying for attention which can weaken your committment to both.

In the gospel lesson for today, we see Jesus telling the crowds that to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, they need to “hate” their families and even their own lives.  That’s a harsh statement to hear.  How many of us want to tell off our relatives?  We don’t like this passage (well, at least I don’t like it) because it’s so black and white.  There’s no room for a part-time lover; you’re either all in or you’re not.

I wonder though if we are looking at the text wrong.  What if Jesus isn’t calling us to hate our mothers and fathers and siblings, but is calling us to place everything, including our families under the lordship of Jesus.  What if Jesus is saying that to be a follower means that every aspect of our lives is given over to God?

The late Dallas Willard wrote about this passage.  He thought this was less about some kind of drugery, where we have to give up things we love and instead “count the cost” in a spirit of joy:

So this counting of the cost is not a moaning and groaning session. “Oh how terrible it is that I have to value all of my ‘wonderful’ things (which are probably making life miserable and hopeless anyway) less than I do living in the kingdom! How terrible that I must be prepared actually to surrender them should that be called for!” The counting of the cost is to bring us to the point of clarity and decisiveness. It is to help us to see. Counting the cost is precisely what the persons with the pearl and the hidden treasure did. Out of it came their decisiveness and joy. It is decisiveness and joy that are the outcomes of the counting.

What this passage in Luke is about is clarity. It is not about misery or about some incredibly dreadful price that one must pay to be Jesus’ apprentice. There is no such thing as a dreadful price for the “pearl” in question. Suffering for him is actually something we rejoice to be counted worthy of (Acts 5:41; Phil. 1:29). The point is simply that unless we clearly see the superiority of what we receive as his students over every other thing that might be valued, we cannot succeed in our discipleship to him. We will not be able to do the things required to learn his lessons and move ever deeper into a life that is his kingdom.

Of course, if we are holding on to our dear lives, we won’t want to give anything out of joy.  But what if we loosen our grip and start to see how God works in every nook and cranny of our lives.  Not just when it comes to religious matters, but in our work, our play and our relationships.  As Willard notes, this passage is really about clarity.  It’s that experience of dizzyness we get when we wear a new pair of glasses.  Everything looks the same, but everything is different now.

Jesus does want it all.  But I don’t think this is about some kind lenten abstinence writ large.  No, it’s more like having second sight and seeing things in a different way.  It’s learning how even the most mundane aspects of life are given over to God.

None of this is to say that there aren’t times when we do have to make a clean break.  But more often than not, it’s understanding that this is God’s world and we are God’s servants, ready to see what God would have us to in God’s world.

Jesus isn’t looking for a part-time Christian, but full-time disciples.

And the benefits aren’t that bad.

 

Go and be church.

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Come Sunday: The Church on the Edge of Forever (August 18, 2013)

Thirteen Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

August 18, 2013

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

city on the edge of foreverOne of the best episodes of the TV series “Star Trek” is one called “The City On the Edge of Forever.”  Dr. McCoy gets an accidental overdose of drug that makes him mad.  He beams down to a planet with Kirk and Spock right behind him.  They arrive on the planet and stand in front of what seems like the largest TV I’ve ever seen.  McCoy, still in his drugged state, leaps into what is called the Guardian of Forever.  The minute he goes in, the landing party loses contact with the Enterprise.  We find out that McCoy has somehow changed history, causing the Enterprise to not exist.  Spock and Kirk enter the portal and find themselves in Depression-era America.  The two meet a young woman who works at a soup kitchen.  She is a peace activist that was supposed to die in a car accident.  However, McCoy saves her from getting hit by a car.  His one action caused a series of other actions that lead to the timeline radically changing.  Edith is able to lead a nationwide peace movement that keeps the United States out of World War II.  This allowed Nazi Germany to develop the atomic bomb and win the war.  To make a long story short, Kirk stops McCoy from saving Edith from the oncoming car.  Edith dies and the timeline is restored, but at a terrible cost.

In last week’s blog post, I talked about how faith is about doing something for God without knowing how the story ends.  This week’s passage in Hebrews has me thinking about how our actions have implications far beyond our own time.  The passage talks about how so many folks acted on faith and didn’t face happy endings.  They were faced with a choice and in faith decided to follow one road.  Because Abraham believed, a nation was born.  Because the Israelite believed, they could cross the Red Sea on dry land.  Choices were made that shaped our future.

What comes to mind for this coming Sunday is about how so many churches and religious agencies are facing tight budgets.  Many churches struggle to make ends meet.  Others end up closing.  It’s easy to look at our sanctuaries, which were once empty and are now barely occupied and wonder if God can work with our faith community.

The answer is yes.  The writer of Hebrews talks about a number of unnamed people who also heard the call of God and chose to step out in faith.  But as they say, there is always a downside:

I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. . . . Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.

39-40 Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
Hebrews 11:32-40 (The Message)

The night before his assasination, Martin Luther King gave his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech.  It’s an eerie forshadowing of what he was going to face hours later, but it also sums up what it means to have faith in God and our part in ushering in God’s kingdom.We all have a part to play, but we won’t always get to see the end of the story.  Here’s what he says towards the end of that speech:

And then I got to 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 doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. 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. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

King saw that he was part of something bigger than himself.  He knew that he was doing God’s work and he had the eyes of faith to see what the completed work would look like.

As followers of Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that our actions matter.  We might not see the ending, but we can know that we part of the great cloud of witnesses that will have an effect on people generations from now.

Go and be church.

I preached a sermon in 2010 based on the Hebrews text.  You can read it here.

Come Sunday: The Ant and the Grasshopper-Remixed (August 4, 2013)

Eleventh Sunday of Pentecost (Year C)

August 4, 2013

Luke 12:13-21

Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?

-Luke 12:18-20 (The Message)

the-ant-and-the-grasshopper-an-interactive-children-s-book-by-tabtale-screenshot-4When I was a kid, I loved the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  The Ant was the serious type and worked hard to prepare for the coming winter.  The Grasshopper was more of the free spirit who didn’t worry much about anything, especially the future.

The story ends with winter arriving and the Ant all cozy in his modest two bedroom apartment.  Meanwhile the Grasshopper is shivering in the biting winds, hungry and wondering what will happen to him.

I wanted to be that Ant.  I wanted to prepare for the winter and I even remember telling my mother one morning as I was getting ready for school that we needed to prepare for the oncoming Michigan winter, just like the Ant.

In today’s passage, we see Jesus telling a story of his own.  In this one the rich farmer ends up with a big harvest.  He ends up building large barns to store his harvest and he then decides to kick back, relax and enjoy life, a little like that Ant in that children’s fable.

Except this time, God comes in and tells the farmer that he will die this evening and all of big earnings will be of no use to him.

In this tale, the Ant doesn’t fare so well.

What was wrong with the farmer?  In one case, nothing.  He had a big harvest on his hands.  He had worked hard for this and wanted to enjoy it.  It’s hard to see this guy as greedy; I mean he is just enjoying the fruit of his labor.

Maybe that’s why this story is so upsetting- because the farmer’s greed doesn’t look like greed.  Most of us in his place would probably do the same thing and in fact, we do that all the time.  We buy things telling ourselves that we need them and it doesn’t really look like we are being greedy-we’re just enjoying life.

Was the farmer greedy because he didn’t share what he had with others?  The harvest ends up in the barns.  What would have happened had he shared the harvest with others?  What if we saw the bounty not as an occasion to pat ourselves on the back, but to be generous to others?

Jesus tells the story of the greedy farmer as the Message calls it, in response to a man who wants his bother to share their inheritance.  Theologian Russell Rathburn notes that the man is probably the younger brother who in that time and place was entitled to a smaller share than his older brother.  The younger brother wasn’t happy with what he had, he wanted more than his fair share. So Jesus then tells what has to be the first stewardship sermon.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to place everything at God’s feet and that includes our finances.  We are called to be wise stewards.  We are called to be generous with what we have.  And we aren’t called to build bigger houses…I mean barns to store our stuff…or harvest.

In one version of the Ant and Grasshopper tale, the Grasshopper is left to freeze in the cold.  Another version has the Ant taking the Grasshopper in and feeding his fellow insect.  I’m going to guess that the first version is the “correct” version of the tale.  But I kind of want to believe that the second version still has some validity, for the only reason to show that the wise Ant was not only supposed to be prudent, but also compassionate and generous.

Thanks the kind of Ant I want to be.

Go and be church.

More Resources

Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

David Lose: What Money Can’t Buy

Carol Howard Merritt: Greed and Responsibility

Rick Morley: To Covet or Not

Come Sunday: Jesus Walks (June 30, 2013)

Sixth Sunday of Pentecost (Year A)

June 30, 2013

 

Luke 9:51-62

 

 

 

 

57 On the road someone asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

58 Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Luke 9:57-58 (The Message)

 


I’ve always had issues with this passage, for the simple reason that it didn’t make sense.  Why was Jesus telling that one guy who wanted to follow him that he wouldn’t have a place to stay?  Why was he so unconcerned about the man that had to bury his father?  Why was Jesus, as  Lutheran pastor Russell Rathburn notes, such a jerk?

The translation found in the Message bible helps clear things up.  Jesus was trying to get people to understand their priorities in life.    To the man that said he would follow Jesus wherever he went, Jesus warns him that he might lead the man to some places that were not comfortable.  To the man that needed to bury his father, Jesus says he must choose life over death.  To the one that wants to say goodbye to his friends and family, says that one that looks back isn’t fit for God’s kingdom.

The temptation in modern American society is to make our faith one of many priorities.  We want our faith to be predictable if we want faith at all.  We want a faith where we are in charge.

But here’s the thing: if we are following Jesus, we aren’t in charge.  We are following Jesus, and that might take us to some strange places, places we would never dream of going.  And maybe that’s why this passage bothers me; it lays bare my desire to be in control, to choose my faith.

In 2011 UCC Minister Lillian Daniel caused a bit of  stir when she wrote an article for the Huffington Post called  “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  The essay skewers those who tend to see themselves as “spiritual” but don’t feel they need to be connected to a church, let alone committed to anything or anyone. She has critcized what she believes to be a made up faith that is more in line with American consumerism than it is with the Church.  In a longer version of the essay that appeared in the Christian Century, she says the following:

“…in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

Suddenly it hits that teenager: I don’t need to invent God, because God has already invented me. I don’t need to make all this up for myself. There’s a community of folks who over thousands of years have followed a man who was not lucky—who was, in the scheme of things, decidedly unlucky. But he was willing to die alongside other unlucky ones, and he was raised from the dead to show there is much more to life than you could possibly come up with.”

 

Jesus Walks.  Jesus walks to places we would never consider and that can make us quite uncomfortable.  That will make us quite uncomfortable.  Jesus had a hard road to walk, but in the end it was so worth it.  Our walks with Jesus and encountering the lost and lonely will also make a difference in that we will all see God in places we never would have expected.

Jesus Walks. Will you follow?

 

Go and be church.

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

Janet Hunt: No Turning Back

Rick Morley: Facepalm

Ann Howard: Home Free

Ragan Sutterfield: Stay Close



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: Easy Silence (June 23, 2013)

Fifth Sunday of Pentecost (Year A)

June 23, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-15

 

 

 

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.

1 Kings 19:11-12 (Common English Bible)

 


He was only 21.  He laid in the hospital bed in silence.  I would come by every so often to see how he was doing.  The result was a lot of time in silence.  You could tell he was angry.  You could tell he was depressed.  At 21 he had his life ahead of him.  But then an ATV accident leaves him without a leg.

Depression comes in many ways.  Sometimes, it arrives in an angry silence.  Sometimes the anger is rather loud.  Sometimes it comes in the form of despair.  For the prophet Elijah, it came with despair.  He felt he did all the right things.  But now he was on the run from Queen Jezebel, who has made Elijah a marked man.  I’d be depressed too if a homocidal regent is after your head.

Depression can be a time when you feel alone.  Elijah was feeling very alone.  Jezebel had killed most of the prophets of the Lord and Elijah had to leave everything behind.  You can feel that God is not simply silent, but just isn’t around.  God has left the building.

And yet, this passage reminds us that God was with Elijah.  Angels offer the prophet of the Lord food to keep up his strength.  Finally, God comes to Elijah, not in the busy sounds of the everyday, but in silence.

All of us will face those times when it seems like the bottom has fallen out.  We stumble through our days and just want to give up.  But God is present, maybe not in the way we expect, but God is there.

In 2006, the country group the Dixie Chicks released an album that included a song called “Easy Silence.”  The song was written by  the Dixie Chicks with Dan Wilson, the former lead singer of the group Semisonic.  In the song, the singer talks about how the easy silence of his companion is a balm in the frenetic pace of the world:

When the calls and conversations
Accidents and accusations
Messages and misperceptions
Paralyze my mind

Busses, cars, and airplanes leaving
Burning fumes of gasoline
And everyone is running
And I come to find a refuge in the

Easy silence that you make for me
It’s okay when there’s nothing more to say to me
In the peaceful quiet you create for me
And the way you keep the world at bay for me
The way you keep the world at bay

Life will knock us around.  Elijah’s story reminds us that God will come to us in those hard times in ways we don’t expect.  In. the. still. silence.

Go and be church.

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

Roger Nam: Commentary

Nanette Sawyer: Elijah, Murderer

Todd Weir: Angel’s Bread



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: Testify! (June 9, 2013)

Third Sunday of Pentecost (Year A)

June 9, 2013

Luke 7:11-17

 

 

16 Awestruck, everyone praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding region.

Luke 7:16-17 (Common English Bible)

 


If you’re like me, you’ve been to a few funerals over your years.  There really isn’t anything surprising about funerals.  You expect to have a service where a pastor preaches, maybe some will do a eulogy talking about this person’s life and so on.  After the service we might then go to cemetery to commit the body.  Again, this is all the we expect.  We expect to be sad.  We expect to cry.  We know what to expect.

No one expects a body to come back to life.

And yet, that’s what happens in today’s text.  Jesus enters the town of Nain and he sees a funeral procession taking place.  It’s the funeral of a young man and Jesus can see the man’s mother.  In those days, women had to rely on a husband or some man to support them.  We don’t hear about a husband, so we can assume this woman had no husband.  This meant her son had to take care of his Mom.  But now he was dead.  This woman was now alone with no one to support her.

You can imagine Jesus locks eyes with this woman.  He had compassion towards her and ends up bringing the young man back to life.

What I find interesting is not simply that Jesus brought this man back from the dead.  What is fascinating is how the crowd of  guests react.  First it’s with a bit of fear (which makes sense.  Ever seen a zombie movie?  I’d be scared too.), but then it becomes excitement and praise.  “God has come to help his people!” they say.  Luke notes that the word of the miracle spread the region.  The people of Nain spread the story of God doing a mighty work for God’s people.

So, how would we react? What would happen if we were sitting in a church somewhere with the casket up in the front of the sanctuary.  What if a young guy in his thirties comes up, opens the casket and raises the person back to life?  What would we do?

How do we respond when we see God acting in the world.  Do we shrug or is it possible that we don’t even bother to see God acting in the world?  Have we become blind to God and therefore not excited to tell others of the good news of Jesus?

Back in 2011, Methodist pastor Chad Holtz caused a stir when he wrote on his Facebook page that he no longer believed in hell.  Long story short, he got fired from his job.  A few months later, Holtz wrote in his blog that he was heading for treatment for sex addiction.  Last year, he surfaced again after months of blog silence.  His first post back showed a man who had “found religion” as they say:

I wasn’t feeling that the night of July 7, 2011, when my wife told me we were finished for good after discovering evidence of yet another adulterous affair.  A 20 year addiction to pornography, chat rooms and illicit phone calls led finally to this.  Amy, a shell of the woman I married 8 years before had had enough.   A month later I received divorce papers and a month after that I was sitting in divorce court, contemplating ending it all.

My addiction and adultery all took place while serving as a pastor and going through seminary.  I knew a lot about God but did not know God.  I had no fear of God, denying that such a loving God could ever send a soul to hell.  But if there was ever a person to whom our Lord would say, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” it was most surely I.

I arrived at Pure Life Ministries on Nov. 3, 2011 for no other reason than wanting to escape my misery.  Any place had to be better than the roach motel that had become my home for months.  I told my friend who dropped me off that my highest hope for my stay here was that I would come away with at least 7 months sobriety under my belt – more than I had ever had in my adult life.  Of course, “sobriety” at that time was a very low bar: no pornoagraphy or affairs.  The idea that I could be free from lustful thoughts, fantasies or self-gratification not only seemed impossible but hilarious…

One of several breakthroughs for me happened in late December when we were challenged to take seriously Charles Finney’s “Breaking Up the Fallow Ground” reading.   I pressed in, and spent all of Wednesday writing out the many ways I have neglected God and sinned against He and others.  I found myself prostrate, here in the chapel, crying out to God, undone by my own wickedness.  I saw the cross for the first time as it truly is and wondered why on earth God would do that for such a wretch like me.  I saw the price that Jesus paid not just for the world, but for Chad Holtz.  And it cut me to the core.

As I repented I cried out to God for my wife, Amy.  Her despair over our marriage and the 8 years of hurt I put her through left her clinically depressed, filled with anxiety and faithless.  Watching her husband preach from the pulpit each week while being the only one who really knew me made her sick, and she told me one day that if God existed at all He never would have let her marry a monster like me.  I pleaded with God to take from her all her pain and depression and unbelief and to cast it onto me.  I deserve it all! I cried.  Lord, if you do nothing else for me in this life let me bear her suffering!  And in that moment Jesus whispered to me, “I already bore it.”  

Jesus has done far more abundantly than I could think or imagine in this place.  He saved me.  I know today that I am free, redeemed, delivered, unchained.  I know what it means to live at the cross and to walk in daily repentance.  I know what it is to fear God and the joy of holiness.  By God’s grace, what I thought 7 months ago was impossible and hilarious is now my testimony.  The chains that bound me for decades are gone.  The blood of Jesus has washed me clean!   Hallelujah!

In my evangelical and black church upbringing this is what they would call a testimony.  A testimony is nothing more than telling what we have seen God do in our lives, what we have seen God do in the lives of others.

The people of Nain saw something wonderful that day.  They saw a man who was dead, deader than dead, come back to life.  They saw this as God working in the world, and they would not, could not, keep quiet.  They had to tell people.

Chad’s new found faith and sobriety is not because of will power.  Chad can tell it was because of what God had done in his life through Jesus.

What about us?  Are our eyes open to God?  Are we wanting to tell others of the mighty works God has done?  Does our faith matter?  Does it make a difference?

God has come to help his people.  Do we believe that?

Go and be church.

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

Frederick Buechner: You Do Not Need to Understand Healing to be Healed

Rick Morley: No Formulas

Lisa Scholl: How to Heal Like Jesus



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: With A Little Help From My Friends (June 2, 2013)

Second Sunday of Pentecost (Year A)

June 2, 2013

Luke 7:1-10

 

 

6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “ Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it. ”

Luke 7:1-10 (Common English Bible)

 


This story is fascinating for a lot of reasons.  First, the centurion is a Roman solider, the very face of the occupying force that is oppressing Israel. Second, this same soldier is on friendly terms with the Jewish community, even building a synogogue for the residents.

But there’s something else that’s interesting.  We never “see” the centurion.  He never leaves his house to meet Jesus face to face.  We really don’t know why.  He does mention that he doesn’t feel worthy, so maybe he was aware of his position and felt unworthy to meet Jesus.  Maybe he wanted to attend to his sick servant and didn’t want to leave him for a moment.  Whatever the reason, Jesus and the soldier never meet.  Instead, the centurion sends emissaries to meet with Jesus.  The first group comes out and describes the situation, while the second group make a plea based on nothing but faith in Jesus.

Jesus was amazed by the centurion’s faith.  “ I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this,” he tells the crowd following him.  But what’s even more amazing is the role the centurions Jewish friends play.  It had to be odd for a Roman solider, who was not usually considered favorably by the local population to have relationships with the people he was supposed to oppress. His friends go to Jesus not once, but twice to plead to heel his servant.

Faith matters, but faith is not something that’s a solitary exercise.  Faith at its best is communal, it lives when strangers become friends and carry each other when times get rough.

A few years ago, pastor Lillian Daniel made waves with an eye-opening essay called “Spiritual But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  Daniel thinks the latest interest in being spiritual but not religious is the latest iteration of American individualism, a faith that basically doesn’t need anybody else except me, myself and I.  Daniel sees the church as a place that is countercultural to the prevailing individualism:

In church, we hear scriptures like the one in which Jesus says to ordinary, fallible Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” In other words, you people are stuck with each other.

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

The reason the servant is healed isn’t just because of the centurion’s faith, even though that is important.  Healing came because his friends carried the message to Jesus, who in turn healed the servant.

This faith that we encounter is one where we come together and worship and learn to bear each others burdens.  We pray for each other.  We care for each other.  We do this because we have faith in God and can see in each other how God is working in and through us to bring healing to the whole world.

Daniel is right that churches are far from perfect.  But it is in these countless faith communities where we pray for each other and work together to bring healing for a friend and for all of creation.

Go and be church.

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

Jeannine K. Brown: Commentary of Luke 7:1-10

David Lose: Unexpected Faith

Lauren Winner: The Centurion’s Friends



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year! Yeah, Not So Much. (December 16, 2012)

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!  Yeah, Not So Much.”

Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

December 16, 2012

Luke 3:7-18

 

 

 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

Luke 3:7-9 (Common English Bible)

 


We’ve all done it.  A some point or another during this time of the year, we start singing carols, Christmas Carols to be exact.  With snow on the ground it makes one ready to sing those old familiar hymns of the season that give us good memories.

But there’s just one problem: it’s not Christmas yet.

It’s not even the Christmas Season which happens between December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany).  Wanna know why we sing a song called “The Twelve Days of Christmas?”  Because Christmas is in fact a twelve-day celebration between Christmas Day and Epiphany.  But our wider culture tends to see the Christmas season in secular or economic terms: the Christmas season begins the Friday after Thanksgiving and ends on Christmas Day.  We have our Christmas parties during this time of year and we take part in secret Santa contests.  It’s supposed to be a happy and joyous time of the year or as that annoying song goes, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

And then we have John the Baptist come and spoil everything.

He comes around calling people snakes and urging them to get right before God.  He must have put the fear of….well, God in the crowd because they ask John what they should do to set things aright.

I’ve always thought John’s tirade to be a bit mean, but these days I can at least understand what he was getting at and it reminds me what Advent is all about.

Advent.  That’s the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas where we await the coming of Jesus.  It’s a time of waiting and expectation.  But even as we wait for Christ’s arrival we are called to take a good look at our lives.  We are called to look at how we treat each other and how we are or are not treating our sisters and brothers with justice and mercy.  It’s not fun taking a look at what’s going on inside of us.  It’s so much easier to just sing a Christmas carol and kind of rush Christmas and all.

But if Advent is about anything, it’s about hope.  We can look into our lives and see where we have fallen short, but we can give thanks that hope is on the way in the form of a little baby.

One of my favorite hymns of this time of year just happens to be an Advent carol.  “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” speaks of the longing for deliverance from oppresors both within and without.  It provides the answer to the question the crowds ask John, “What can we do?”

And here’s the answer:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And so we wait. And we repent. And we wait some more for the salvation for the healing of all of God’s creation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say about this week’s passage:

Kate Munnick: Practical Theology and Subversive Advent

David Lose: A Promise We’re all Invited To

Jerry Goebel: One Who Is Mightier Than I



Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: Lectionary Reflections (October 28, 2012)

“Happily Ever After?”

Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

October 28, 2012

Job 42:1-17

 

Then the Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters.

-Job 42:12-13


Under a Cajun moon I lay me open
There is a spirit here that won’t be broken
Some words are sad to sing
Some leave me tongue-tied
(But the hardest thing to tell you )
But the hardest words I know
Are I love you goodbye
I love you goodbye



-Thomas Dolby, “I Love You Goodbye,” 1992

I can still remember it like it was yesterday; presiding at a funeral of a man just a year younger than me who committed suicide.  His grieving partner was devastated as was the young man’s parents who lost their only child.

I’ve read this ending of the book of Job before and never really thought much about it.  God restores Job with cattle and sheep and even more children.  A happy ending to a man that had to deal with so much pain.

But there are those that are troubled by this ending.  Does this mean that if we suffer, we are going to get all that we lost restored? And the fact is, more often than not, people don’t get what Job got from God.  They don’t get more kids after one is lost to gun violence.  The woman who is abused sexually doesn’t get to erase those painful memories.

But while Job did get children and livestock, I have to think there was some sense of grief as well for what was lost.  Job might have celebrated having children again, but there had to be pain in his heart for the ones he lost.

Job is a happy ending in the same way that we celebrate the Ressurection.  Jesus was able to defeat death, but he was different, not simply restored.

Job’s ending is a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.  The ending isn’t a guide to life, as it is a reminder of God’s love for us even when we don’t have a happy ending.

Sometimes life is simply about saying goodbye, about letting go, about loss.  Sometimes there is no nice ending to wrap up the story.  Sometimes the story ends horribly.

But good times or bad, God is there, present.  That’s probably not the ending we all want, but on this side of heaven it is enough.

More Resources

 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say on Job 42:

Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt wonders if this passage and others in the Bible only work for those who are privileged in society and not those on the margins.

Episcopal Priest Rick Morley sees a hidden Easter message of hope in the last chapter of Job.

Finally, via Tony Jones comes a woman who wonders why she believes God is good despite all of the tragedies and heartaches this world offers.

Photo: Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528. Job on the dunghill, and his wife pours water on his sores, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46323

 
Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Come Sunday: Lectionary Reflections (October 21, 2012)

“There’s a Wildness In God’s Mercy”

Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost, Year B

October 21, 2012

Job 38:1-7 and 34-41

 

 

Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge?
Prepare yourself like a man; I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me.
Job 38:2-3

Job is in many ways one of the most accessible books in the Bible. By accessible I mean that its something that we understand because we’ve all been there. Job is a good and faithful man with riches and many children. In an instant all of his wealth and his children are taken away from him. He is left with questions and not a small bit of anger with God.

Theologian Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that Job and his friends believed in a common view of suffering: if you’re good, then God will bless you. If something bad happens to you, then it’s because you did something wrong. When all of this happens, Job feels cheated. He has lived a righteous life, so none of this should be happening to him. His friends are of little help, accusing him of doing something wrong and telling him to repent of his sin.

Job isn’t really that different from us. Shcifferdecker notes that Job and other thought the world revolved around them. The world was an orderly place where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. But the God comes to job in a whirlwind and sets Job right. Living the Midwest as I do, I can imagine God coming in a menacing tornado. God responds to Job not with answers, but with questions. God shows a created order that is rather wild, just like God. And humans are not at the center of anything. After a while Job gets it- things are not so ordered and sometimes bad things happen to good people.

If there is a takeaway from all this is that the world is not logical. Things happen that just doesn’t make sense. We don’t understand when a young woman dies in a traffic accident with a drunk driver. We don’t understand the cancer diagnosis. We don’t understand why we are laid off from a job. We don’t understand when someone is raped. But in the midst of all this chaos, God stands with us. God took Job on, but he never left Job.

When I was training to become a pastor, I had to take a term of Clinic Pastoral Education. I spent time at a nursing home in Minneapolis. I remember seeing a young man who lost his leg in an ATV accident. You could see the anger on his face. I spent time sitting with him and saying a little. I always came away somewhat helpless. I still feel that feeling when I do pastoral care.

But maybe being present is enough. Maybe it matters that God stands with us during the hard times, even when and especially when, we wonder, why?

Go and be church.

Dennis Sanders