Category: Ordinary Time

Why Do I Do These Things? — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5A (Romans 7)

Rembrandt, Apostle Paul
Romans 7:15-25a  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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                Why do I do these things? Why can’t I seem to do what is right? Right now the issue of racism is raging across the globe as we reckon with continuing reports about profiling and police violence against people of color, especially people who are black. Names such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain have become part of our consciousness. While we speak of “Black Lives Matter,” we also are facing the issue of whiteness as an ideology. That is, the ideology that white Euro-American culture is superior to other cultures, and that white people are genetically superior as well. It is in this context that we hear Paul ask why he does that which he hates. He attributes it to the sin that dwells within him.

                We can debate whether sin is genetically or socially determined, but whichever choice we make, it does seem that Paul is correct that sin is a problem. Living under the dominion of sin is, Paul noted in chapter six, deadly. However, to live under Christ’s dominion leads to life (Rom 6:23). The promise of baptism is freedom from sin, but Paul recognizes that even he struggles with the power of sin. He’s no Vulcan who has learned to suppress his passions with logic. These passions that drive behavior live too close to the surface and are difficult to control.

                To affirm the premise that sin exerts power over our lives, even when we resist, doesn’t mean we’re totally depraved or unable to do anything good. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes, this is about human nature. Instead, it is a question of where sin resides and exercises control. That is the self. It is like a virus that has taken root in our lives, driving our behavior in ways that are contrary to our nature. In fact, as Lancaster points out, for Paul sin resides closer than the good, which is why it has so much power. [Romans, pp. 127-128].

                In his discussions of law, the problem isn’t with Jewish law. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is with the will not being strong enough to live according to these instructions. Concerning the definition of sin, it’s not really about breaking rules. Instead, it is a distortion of our relationship with God. It is a turning from centering our lives in God to centering our lives in ourselves. Thus, as Harold Masback writes: “The very turn to self-assertion unleashes a ‘fleshliness,’ the self’s insatiable desire to secure its own acceptability through acquisition and possession rather than through trust in God’s love” [Masback, Feasting on the Word, p. 209]. As Paul reflects on his situation in life, he confesses to being conflicted. He would like to do otherwise but seems unable to do so. Now, if we’re not inclined to do what is right, then there is no conflict. The conflict comes into play when we desire to do what is right and find sin overpowering that desire. The only way out is grace. It is grace that overcomes the power of sin so that we might live into God’s desires for us.

                In our day we are beginning to recognize that sin is not only personal it can be systemic. Racism is systemic. We’re not born racist, but the system quickly forms us. Before we know the difference between ourselves and others, the virus has begun to spread. Thus, as Sarah Lancaster points out “recognizing this problem helps us see how deeply conflicted we really are and how thoroughly dependent on grace we must be.” [Romans, p. 130].

                The title of Kerry Connelly’s book speaks to the dilemma we’re facing as believers. The book is titled Good White Racist? How can I be a racist and be a good person? Connelly writes that “We hid from our own shadow side, unable to hold the paradox that as generally good people, we can do incredibly bad things” [Good White Racist? p. 11]. That’s the point Paul is making. Good people can do bad things. This is true even when we want to be different. I look at myself. I am committed to being anti-racist. My denomination provides anti-racism training, which I’ve taken. As chair of our Commission on Ministry, I require it of my colleagues, both new and old. I know better, and yet I see evidence that racism is lurking just under the surface. It’s present in the form of implicit bias. It’s present in the sense of white superiority. It’s present in white privilege.

                Paul’s discussion of sin has long been problematic for liberal Protestant Christians. We want to believe that if we educate ourselves, we will reach that utopian place of justice and peace. It’s enticing. I want to affirm it, but then I hear a voice like that of Reinhold Niebuhr, who pulls the rug out from my illusions. In Moral Man inImmoral Society, Niebuhr writes that “while it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible to grant to others what they claim for themselves” [Niebuhr, Moral Man in Immoral Society, p. 3].  He notes that educators have “given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise.” [Niebuhr, p. 3]. But, there’s no evidence that this true. Instead, he suggests that the only way forward is through some form of coercion. That goes against the grain of my own theology, which suggests that divine love if it is truly love, is non-coercive. It does put me in a bind.

                Paul has put his finger on our dilemma. He raises questions that I’ve yet to fully find answers to. Perhaps the place to start is to recognize that the challenges we face are rooted in spiritual realities. We find it difficult to tackle the problems of our age because we believe that with a bit of education, we can overcome them. The fact is, literacy and education are universal in the United States, but we still can’t figure out how to overcome racism or provide for the common welfare of all residents. So, maybe we need to look at this from a spiritual perspective. In other words, perhaps the issue isn’t the law, it’s our personal and corporate enslavement to the power of sin, which has taken root in our lives. We claim for ourselves freedom, but are we truly free? So, perhaps racism is itself an inherently spiritual issue. Perhaps the very systems in which we live are spiritually compromised. It’s in that context that together with Paul we can cry out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (vs. 24). Perhaps the answer is to be found in that declaration of thanksgiving that Paul provides us: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vs. 25a). This is a recognition on Paul’s part that he can’t save himself. He needs help, and Jesus is there to provide it. Just reach out and take hold of the promise. That may seem like a copout, but perhaps it is the starting point for change. As they say in Twelve-Step programs change begins when we admit we have a problem we can’t solve on our own.


Picture attribution: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved June 28, 2020]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.

 

What Has Dominion in Your Life? – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4A (Romans 6)

 

12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 

15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. 

20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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                Whenever the words slave or slavery appear in Scripture, we should wince. We must be careful not to do anything with these words that would justify North American slavery and its legacy because that legacy is still with us. We do not live in a post-racial society. The election of a black man didn’t suddenly change our nation. To say that “all lives matter” is to miss the point. Racism is still alive and well in America. So, anything that might justify or rationalize the servitude of a particular people is simply unacceptable. It’s with this warning that I venture into this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which speaks of being a slave either to sin or to God.  

 

We need to remember that at the time when Paul wrote this letter slavery was a dominant form of life in the First Century Roman world, with as many as two-thirds of the residents of the empire being slaves. Not all forms of slavery the same. One could be a slave and work in the salt mines or one could be a tutor to a wealthy family. Some slaves were forced into this life and others sold themselves into slavery. We should also remember that a significant number of early Christians were themselves, slaves. So, at least some of the recipients of this letter were slaves. So, it’s not surprising that Paul used this image to present his message of dominion.  

 

                This reading for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost continues the discussion of the power of sin that Paul has been working with in previous verses and chapters. He has told the Roman church that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He wants them to know that the Law can reveal their sin, but not free them from it. Their only hope is Christ. In the opening eleven verses of Romans 6, Paul makes it clear that to be in Christ is to die to sin. He uses baptism to illustrate his message. He tells the Roman Christians that when they were baptized, they died to sin, even as Jesus buried. Then as they rise from the waters of baptism, they share in the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, in baptism, they move from death to life. To be baptized is to be dead to sin. That is, to be in Christ is to be dead in sin and alive to God.

As we turn to verse twelve of chapter six, Paul changes metaphors. Now the question is—who or what has dominion over our mortal bodies. Paul tells the readers that now that they are dead to sin and alive to God they shouldn’t “let sin exercise dominion over your mortal bodies. It’s here that turns to the metaphor of slavery but notice that it is assumed that one has the freedom to choose the nature of one’s slavery.

                Here is where things get tricky. There were different forms of slavery in the First Century, none of which were race-based. Slaves might be prisoners of war or the spoils of war. These were not voluntary forms of slavery, but one could sell oneself into slavery either for economic purposes or to advance one’s social status by serving someone of importance. This was common for tutors and other scholars. Nevertheless, to be a slave was to lose one’s freedom, even if entered into voluntarily. Thus, Sarah Heaner Lancaster writes that “all the restrictions and dangers of being someone else’s property apply as equally to the willing slave as to someone enslaved by force. Just so, misusing the freedom that grace provides by voluntarily obeying sin makes one no less a slave to sin” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 114].

                Instead of turning yourself over to sin, to let it have dominion over your life, turn yourself over to God so that your bodies might be instruments of righteousness. There is the freedom to choose, but it’s the freedom to choose the nature of one’s slavery. It is either being a slave to sin or a slave to God. It’s a question of allegiance in many ways—sin or God.  So, what is the advantage of giving dominion over to God rather than sin? Truth be told, sin often seems more attractive, but Paul suggests that the domain of sin leads to shame. In other words, Paul is drawing on the cultural understanding of honor/shame to define sin’s hold. Of course, to enter Christ’s domain means leaving behind a world that defined honor to join one that in the eyes of the broader culture might connote shame. Paul just turns things upside down and suggests that by choosing God’s dominion, one chooses the long-term gain over the short term. When one lived under the dominion of sin, one may have done things and behaved in certain ways that they now would be embarrassed about, even if those items were perfectly legitimate in the previous life.

Paul wants them to know that the choice is theirs. They can choose to let sin have dominion, but it will lead to death. Or, they could let God have dominion, and that leads to life. Or as Paul puts it in another well-worn verse: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).   

 

Dead to Sin, Alive to God — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A (Romans 6)

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

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                When I play Monopoly it’s always helpful to obtain at some point a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You never know when you’ll need it. When it comes to spiritual things, sometimes we treat grace similarly. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” That may be true, but it’s a sentiment easily abused (usually by the person driving the car, who cuts you off almost causing an accident). That’s why Paul told the Corinthians that while all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 6:14). Here in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read about the power of sin and the power of grace. Paul makes it clear that we have been justified by faith through the grace obtained through the death of Jesus. Death, Paul writes in Romans 5, came to humanity through sin, but life comes through Christ, who overcomes sin through his own death. But if grace is so powerful that it overcomes death, why not sin all the more so that grace has an opportunity to work its magic in our lives. As Luther declared: “sin boldly” (I don’t think Luther had libertinism here, though).   

 

                Grace is not, in Paul’s mind, a license to sin. It is instead an invitation to restart our lives by moving from one realm (sin) into another (grace). Paul isn’t naïve. He understands the power of sin to gain dominion over our lives. He may not have used the term systemic in relation to sin, but he understood that sin was a power that was present in the broader culture/society. Think here of racism. Why is it so prevalent in our society? Why do we find it so difficult to break free of its hold? If it was just a knowledge thing, we could break free so easily, but it runs so much deeper than that. To be in Christ means dying to that old realm where a system, like racism, continues to reign. Grace is the starting point, but it’s not the endpoint. So, to be in Christ means dying to the old realm and being resurrected into a new life that is under the dominion of Christ. Of course, if we open the door to let it sin back in, it will make its home in our lives once again. So, no, we should sin so that grace might have greater opportunity to display itself.

This leads us to baptism as that point wherein we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ. It is the point at which we exchange allegiances. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes: “Exchanging one dominion for another requires a change of allegiances. To continue in sin would show that one has not changed allegiances” [Lancaster, Romans, p. 107]. In other words, to rise to new life in Christ means that you can’t live as you once did. That old life marked by sin, by rebellion against God’s rule, has been left behind.

This change of identity is embodied in the practice of believer baptism by immersion. By being buried in the waters of baptism, we die to the old life. As we rise from the waters of baptism, we leave the old life behind. In the ancient church, baptism followed a lengthy period of teaching (Hippolytus in his Apostolic Tradition spoke of a three-year process), after which one was baptized. In those services, in which one often stripped off one’s old clothes before entering the baptismal pool, one would be asked to renounce Satan, before being buried in the waters of baptism and then given new clothes upon the exit from the baptistry. Our processes are not nearly as intensive as was true in the early years of the church, but the imagery remains powerful. In baptism we are buried with Christ, leaving behind the old life of sin, before being raised to new life, again with Christ, so that we might share in his resurrection.     

 

                We can’t sin so that grace might abound because if we’ve been baptized into Christ, we have died to sin and raised to new life. Therefore, neither sin nor death has dominion over our lives. Yet, we know, that in real life sin keeps tugging at us. It’s why churches often provide prayers of confession. It seems we need to die to sin anew each day. I know this is true of my own life. In part, this is because even if I have given allegiance to Christ in baptism, I still live in this world where sin rules. Karl Barth recognizes this challenge to our continued engagement with sin. He writes that “because and so long as I live in the body, I remain the old man, and am wholly and indissolubly one with him. Therefore the death of the old man and dissolution of my identity with him also involves the doing away of my union with this body. As the new man, I live no longer in it: as determined by time and things and men, I exist no longer” [Barth, Romans, p. 199]. We may have changed our allegiance, but as long as we experience this body of ours, we will be subject to sin. We can move toward that new life, as we change our allegiance, but truth be told, we will continue to wrestle with sin. We might not be as beholden as we were in the past, but it’s still there. The difference, is we struggle with sin, but no longer do we live in bondage to it.

                To quote another bumper sticker that is also easily abused, “please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” That is true. Sanctification is a process, a movement toward the full embodiment of God’s grace. That being said, imperfection is not an excuse for sin, including racism and homophobia. In the end, we are called to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. Thus, if we live by faith, then as Barth notes: “faith means seeing what God sees, knowing what God knows, reckoning as God reckons” (Romans, p. 206). This is the new life in Christ.  


Image attribution:  Baptism in the River Jordan during pilgrimage, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55206 [retrieved June 14, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Christian_Pilgrims_Celebrate_the_Epiphany_in_the_Jordan_Valley,_Jan_2011_(1).jpg.

 

In the Name: Third Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

In the Name: Third Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 26, 2020

Read: Acts 3:1-10

 

Reflection

 

The healing of the lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate is about a healing on the surface.  I remember learning a little song about this passage in the Christian school I went to back in 5th grade.  “He went walking and leaping and praising God, walking and leaping and praising God, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazaeth, rise up and walk.”

The first verse states that they were heading to the temple to pray.  The early members of the church were faithful Jews and didn’t see themselves as establishing a religion separate from Jerusalem. The prayer at the “ninth hour of the day” or 3:00PM was the second daily prayer of the day.

Location matters in this story.  When the beggar asks for money, he is sitting outside the gate.  He sought charity from the worshipping community, but otherwise was not part of the worshipping community. The disciples were able to enter into the community, but not this man.

When this man is healed, what is the first thing he does? He gets up, starts walking and leaping, and then enters the temple praising God.  He was on the outside and now was able to come inside.

What is the important aspect of this story?  On one level, this about a man who was not allowed in the temple and now is brought in and welcomed.  That does matter, but there is something more important.  In verse six, we see Peter looking straight at this man and tell him that he doesn’t have any money to give the man.  But Peter then tells him that in the name of Jesus rise up and walk.  

What is so important about Peter doing this in Jesus’ name?  Why does that matter?

Peter is honest with the man when he says he has no money.  Peter can’t give this man what he thought he wanted. Instead, Peter gives something more: the name of Jesus.  William Willimon notes that in Luke (part 1 of Luke-Acts) the name of Jesus is tied with healing and Peter picks up on that, using the name and power of Jesus to heal this man.

It seems like this passage is saying that there are things more important and more powerful than money.  

I’m thinking about this as I look at my small congregation and at times I wonder, what can this congregation do?  

The answer is that it can do much…in Jesus’ name.  As Christians, we believe in the power of God. We believe in the name of Jesus which can bring healing and we believe that in the name of Jesus, we can be agents of healing in the world.

When I taught this passage a few years ago, I talked about how the lame man who couldn’t enter the temple was brought in tells us we are called to heal the outsiders like refugees and bring them inside.  I still think that is important and matters.  However, we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, all in Jesus’ name.  In the power of Jesus’ name we can do things beyond what the bank statement says or how many people in the pews.  Just as Jesus did miracles in God’s power, we as the church are called to be in the world in the power of Christ.  It’s easy at times to get involved in the work of justice and not really do the work in Jesus’ name.  We will talk about Jesus, but we aren’t really doing it in the name and power of Jesus.  

As Christians, we rely on God.  As we face the outsiders of our day, we realize that we can be agents of healing…in the power of Jesus’ name.  Because that power will change the world.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

In the Meantime: Second Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

In the Meantime: Second Sunday of Easter(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 19, 2020

Read: Acts 1:1-11

 

Reflection

 

When I was about seven or eight I would start to think about the year 2000 and what life would be like then.  I remember figuring out how old I and my parents would be when we entered the 21st century. I was going to be 30 years old.  Looking from the late 1970s and early 80s, that seemed so long away. I couldn’t imagine being an adult, especially an adult of such an age.

Of course, I am speaking to you on the other side of the year 2000, twenty years from the year 2000 to be exact.  Thirty doesn’t seem so old when you’re 50. But that doesn’t mean I’m not wondering about the future.  When I opened up my IRA account, I picked one of the date-specific accounts. I picked the 2034 fund which is the year I turn 65.  That seems a long way off, but we’ve played this game before.

As a child looking at the future, the year 2000 felt like an eternity.  While I was waiting for eternity, I lived my life. I went to high school in 1983. In 1987, I graduated. I went to college and then moved to Washington, DC  in 1992 for a few years. I moved to Minnesota in 1996 and started seminary in 1997. I went on my first trip to Europe in 1998 and then China in 1999.  Before I knew it, I was there, the year 2000 was a reality. While I was waiting for this big date to happen, I still had things to do; to go to school or to work; to meet new friends and loves, to move to new places, to travel around the world.  I didn’t just sit there waiting for this magical date, life had to happen.

In the first chapter of Acts we see Jesus giving a final talk to his disciples.  He had risen from the dead and now he was ready to ascend into heaven. He tells his friends to stay in Jerusalem and wait for God.  

When Jesus is done talking, one of them asks if he will restore the kingdom of Israel.  This text makes the disciples look like fools, at least at first glance. Here Jesus was talking about big things, and they are concerned about getting rid of the Romans.  

What was Jesus telling them to wait for? What was going to happen?    Jesus wasn’t telling them to wait for revolution, for the Romans to be sent packing.  No, they were to wait for something much bigger.  They were to wait for something that would spread beyond Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. But what was it?  

But before they could ask for clarification, Jesus is taken up and out of their sight.  It’s then when two young men tells them to stop looking up. Jesus will return, but you have work to do. You will wait, but things have to be done.

We learn that the disciples went back to town and devoted themselves to prayer.  They didn’t just mope in their rented room, but began to prepare for what God had in store for them next even though they didn’t know what that next big thing was.  In Acts 2 we see the Holy Spirit entering the Upper Room and changing the disciples forever.  But in the meantime they did things like prayer and choosing a replacement for Judas. They lived their lives being faithful to their friend Jesus.

God is calling us, like the disciples to wait for his return.  But that doesn’t mean that we drop everything and do nothing, or do the wrong things.  Jesus told his disciples that there was still work for them to do after he left.

The disciples were to be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the known world.  And on Pentecost, this became true. They were pushed to witness to Jesus in cities and towns far beyond Israel.  They invited everyone to meet Jesus, even long after he ascended into heaven. Christ would return, but in the meantime they had work to do. They had to be a witness to Jesus, telling them about what he was like and the difference he made in their lives.  

 

Jesus is still calling us to this.  We wait for Christ’s return. We have no idea when that will happen, but we wait for it.  But in the meantime, we have work to do. We have people to feed. We have people to help get clean water. We have people to tell about the good news that is Jesus.  

We wait. We wait for wholeness, we wait for healing.  We wait for God’s return. But while we wait, let us take in the view, let us see what Christ sees. But in the meantime, we have a job to do, a life to live.  Let’s get to it. 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Keeping Up Appearances: Third Sunday After Epiphany(Narrative Lectionary)

Keeping Up Appearances: Third Sunday After Epiphany(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

February 2, 2020

Read: Mark 5:21-43

 

Reflection

 

I recently read a news item about a small congregation and how the pastor was able to connect the church to the wider community bringing in more people to the congregation.

I really hate those stories.

It’s not that I want these churches to fail. I am glad to see how declining churches can be rejuvenated.  But serving a small church for the last few years, I’m jealous. We have done what we can to connect to the wider community and we aren’t getting an influx of visitors.

We never hear it much, but I think there are a lot of pastors that feel like a failure.  Many of us try to do what we can to put our congregation on a new footing. We plan events for the community where only a few people show up, or maybe no one shows up at all.

We don’t hear much because most pastors aren’t willing to share their shortcomings.  They want to appear like they are in charge.

So many of us try to keep up appearances.  I am remembered of the British television show of the same name where the lead character tries to show herself and her family as better than what they really are.  

But the text today in Mark has a number of people that can’t keep up appearances.  They can’t pretend things are fine.  They can’t put up a fake smile in hopes that they can fake it until they make it.  The woman dealing with gynecological problems can’t hide her illness. It’s probably very visible and very embarrassing.  She is considered unclean, which must have felt shameful to her.  The woman didn’t even want to face Jesus, she had faith that if she just touched his clothing then maybe something would happen.  She touches Jesus’ clothing and she knew at that moment that she is healed.  Jesus marvels at her faith in spite of all the circumstances.

Jarius was a high religious official.  Most of the religious leaders viewed Jesus with disdain, but Jarius falls at the feet of Jesus begging that his daughter be healed.  We don’t know what Jarius thought about Jesus beforehand, but we know now that Jesus was his last chance. He threw all decorum to the side and cast his hope on Jesus.

Sometimes we want to appear that we have it all together.  Most times though, we don’t have things all together.  More often than not, we are barely holding things up.  But we don’t want to show this to others, mostly because we feel failures and want to keep that part of ourselves hidden.  But Jesus has a way of having us rip off our false faces to reveal ourselves. When the mask slips and crashes to the ground, Jesus is there waiting to heal us, waiting to forgive us. We don’t have to pretend everything is okay.

At the beginning of Mark, Jesus tells religious leaders that the healthy don’t need a doctor, it is the sick.  Jesus tells us to stop keeping up appearances and let Jesus come and heal us.

 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

All Is Forgiven: Baptism of our Lord (Narrative Lectionary)

All Is Forgiven: Baptism of our Lord (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

January 12, 2020

Read: Mark 2:1-22

 

Reflection

I’ve been preparing for the sermon for this coming Sunday and I’ve been reading and thinking about the text: Mark 2:1-22. The very first story is the story of the four men who went up to the roof and lowered their friend down to where Jesus was healing. Everyone always focuses on the extreme faith and love on the part of those four friends. What makes no sense, is when Jesus sees the man being lowered and not immediately make this man walk. I mean it was as plain as the nose on one’s faith. Why did Jesus feel the need to say this man’s sins are forgiven?

Maybe it was because the man himself wondered if his predicament was because of the result of sin. Does it mean that he sinned and became a paralytic as a result? Probably not. But think about this man’s situation for a moment. We don’t know if this has been his condition since birth or it happened later, but you can wonder why you are in this predicament. In John 9, Jesus meets a blind man and his disciples wonder if he sinned or did the man’s parents sin to make this man blind. Jesus says neither. But when you are in this condition, you might be more aware of your sin than other times in one’s life.

What matters is that Jesus saw this man, saw the awesome faith of his friends and told the man what he needed to hear: that he was forgiven, that the burden that he carried was no longer his.

There are lots of people in our midst who are weighed down with guilt, sin, and sadness. The question for us today is not that we can forgive their sins, but can we bring them to Jesus in the same way that this man’s friend did? They were willing to help their friend even if it meant tearing up a roof to get their friend to be healed by Jesus.

As Christians, we are called to share the love of God with our friends and neighbors. A friend recently said that in many cases, the people that we meet are longing for forgiveness. Bring them to Jesus can help them realize a sense of grace in a world that is graceless.

Now, that might sound odd to some because especially in mainline Protestantism, there has been a move away from forgiveness towards justice. There is a need to focus on justice issues, but there is also a spiritual side of life where people just want to feel a sense of grace, to know they are forgiven. Sometimes that is even more important to people than physical healing.

So as we prepare for Sunday and we meet our friends, know they are carrying burdens. How can we bring them to have an encounter with Christ? How can they experience forgiveness from Jesus?

Sometimes forgiveness feels more important than healing.

 

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Forget Me Not: Christ the King (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 24, 2019

Read: 2 Kings 22:1-10, [14-20]; 23:1-3

Photo by Jordy Meow on Unsplash

Reflection

There is an episode of the Original Series of Star Trek where Kirk and Spock beam down to a planet and in the midst of a war. They end up in a village of people who call themselves Comms who imprisions them. They are in jail with a person from another tribe called Yangs. Kirk and the Yang leader escape to the Yang villiage. It’s during a ceremony where the Yangs recite something that seemed very familiar, that Kirk and the others notice what looks like an American flag. They all surmise that this planet had something akin to a cold war between “Yankees” and “Communists.” But this war grew hot as the nations used biogical warfare. Later on, one of the Yangs starts reading from a scroll and again, the words were familiar. Kirk undstands that this was the preable to the US Constitution. He chides the group for not understanding the meaning of the document. The Yangs had fought for so long that they had forgotten the meaning of the constitution, which Kirk reminds them is not just for the Yangs, but for the Comms as well.

Every culture is formed by stories. But stories can get lost and forgotten. Or the meaning is lost to the story and it becomes interpreted in ways that the document was not intended.

Reading today’s text can be a challenge. It’s very dense and filled with words that were hard to read. But after a while, the clouds will scatter and the message becomes clear.

Josiah was now the king of Judah. It is a vassal state of Assyria. There are people at work repairing the temple when the workers find a document. It is the law that was given to the people as the journyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. They had fallen so far, that the law had been be forgotten and lost.

Josiah hears the prophecy and he rips his clothes in sadness. He sent his court priest to go to the prophet and ask what God wants. The priest does go to the prophetess Huldah who confirms that yes, the kingdom of Judah will suffer a dark fate for falling away from God. But because Josiah expressed repentance, Josiah will not see that fate.

Now, if I heard all of this I might be happy that I won’t have to face the coming judgment. But Josiah does something different. Instead, he launches a reform campaign. We don’t read more than the first few verses of chapter 23, but in verse 25 we learn the details of his reform:

The king now commanded the people, “Celebrate the Passover to God, your God, exactly as directed in this Book of the Covenant.”

22-23 This commanded Passover had not been celebrated since the days that the judges judged Israel—none of the kings of Israel and Judah had celebrated it. But in the eighteenth year of the rule of King Josiah this very Passover was celebrated to God in Jerusalem.

24 Josiah scrubbed the place clean and trashed spirit-mediums, sorcerers, domestic gods, and carved figures—all the vast accumulation of foul and obscene relics and images on display everywhere you looked in Judah and Jerusalem. Josiah did this in obedience to the words of God’s Revelation written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in The Temple of God.

25 There was no king to compare with Josiah—neither before nor after—a king who turned in total and repentant obedience to God, heart and mind and strength, following the instructions revealed to and written by Moses. The world would never again see a king like Josiah.

2 Kings 23:21-25 (The Message)

The companion text for this week is from Luke 24, where the risen Jesus meets with two disciples who don’t recognize him. What both texts highlight is how we can blind ourselves to God. The people of Israel forgot God’s law and the two disciples could not see Jesus walking with them.

It can be so easy- the cares of this world make us blind to God speaking in front of us.

A pastor friend liked to say to the congregation he preached at where they saw God this week. I think that question is important, because it forces us to remember that God is present in the world and in our lives, even when we forget Jesus.

Josiah could have just been happy to know that he wouldn’t see the coming judgement. But he wanted everyone to remember, to remember what God had done in the lives of the people of Judah.

Where have you seen God this week? What stories do you think have been forgotten?

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

The Day Will Come . . . A New Creation — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 23C (Isaiah 65)

Isaiah 65:17-25 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
 
*****************

                Won’t you envision with me a new heaven and a new earth, where violence and death and suffering are no more? This is the eschatological vision that is revealed here in Isaiah and then again at the end of the Book of Revelation. In that last vision of John the Revelator, we hear the pronouncement:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev. 21:1). That reference to the sea is important, for the sea stands in for chaos. It is the enemy, so its absence is a sign that peace has come upon the land. It might not be a welcome word if you enjoy the ocean (as I do) but remember the context. The people of Israel weren’t a sea-going people. That said, the vision here is one of change, but what is the nature of that change? When the two passages are read together, this vision of a new heaven and new earth sounds rather ominous. That is because it seems to suggest something catastrophic occurring. It would appear that God intervenes in a radical way so that the old creation is done away with and something new replaces it. That vision has its attractions, but is this what the Prophet envisioned? Perhaps not.

We need to hear this vision in its original context. This word in Isaiah 65 was given to exiles who longed to return to their homeland. It’s given to people who are essentially homeless and face food insecurity. They are refugees who don’t have control over their own lives. Into this context comes this promise of abundance and peace. It is a promise of a long life, but not necessarily immortality. In this vision, the wolf and the lamb lie down together. Yes, predator and prey live together in peace. For a small nation, like Judah, this is a promise worthy of embracing, for they are the prey, while the Babylonians and other empires are the predators. It’s a reality that existed millennia in the past and exists today as well. So, it is a vision that resonates.

So, what do we make of this promise of a new heaven and new earth? Must we envision a catastrophic moment in time when this earth passes away and a new one emerges? Or is there another option? Jürgen Moltmann offers this response:

It is a golden Shalom age in the history of humanity and on this earth that is meant, not a world beyond. But that presupposes that this earth is good, and that in this promised age it will simply have to flower into a new undreamed-of fertility. It will not be annihilated and created anew. The pre-apocalyptic apocalyptic prophets saw a threat to Israel’s life and existence, but not to the cosmos. Their visions of the blessed life presuppose a profound trust in the earth. [Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Kindle Locations 3916-3919). Kindle Edition.]

The Book of Revelation, which is definitely apocalyptic, may envision a radical change to the cosmic realm, but we needn’t take things quite so far. Ultimately, the future is unknown to us, so we don’t know how things will end. All we can do as make some judgments based upon our understanding of who God is. With that said, I for one don’t embrace a vision of God is one who destroys, but I do envision God being one who is actively engaged in drawing us into a future that looks a lot like what Isaiah suggests!

                To those who heard the prophet’s words, the vision is not of some cosmic reality. It is a vision of restored hope, where the return from exile will lead to stability. The city that was destroyed will be restored. Then the people will dwell in peace. Yes, this is a vision that promises a very different future from what was being experienced at that moment. In that new world envisioned by the prophet, there will be no more weeping. There will be no more war. People will build their homes and live in them, without fear that others will come along and take them. For exiles, that is a very compelling vision. The nation of Judah had watched as the Babylonians invaded their land, destroyed their Temple, and seized their homes, relocating them to another place. But now, with the return from Babylon, though things are still difficult, it’s possible that something new might emerge. Yes, a New Jerusalem could emerge where peace reigns and no injury takes place—the serpent will have to survive on dust (taking us back to Genesis 3).

                For those of living in the 21st century, what word do you hear? What word does this speak to those who are refugees, whether from war or famine or violence? Is there a word here for them? What about those who experience food insecurity or homelessness or who die young either from disease or violence? For those under 30, suicide is among the greatest causes of death. What about them? Then there are those of us who live relatively comfortable lives; those of us who have nice homes and don’t face food insecurity; what word is spoken to us? What word of newness do we hear in this message? We might not have a complete word for the moment. As a colleague shared in her recent sermon, perhaps “The answer is . . . under construction.” Depending on where we find ourselves, we might hear an invitation to join in the work of building a new creation, a new Jerusalem.

                As we contemplate this message we can take hold of the message found in the fourth verse of Brian Wren’s hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings.”

                In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.
 

                This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new. 
                                                                                             (Chalice Hymnal, 518).

Rick’s Roll: Pentecost 22 (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 10, 2019

Read: Hosea 11:1-9 and Mark 10:13014

Reflection

First off, sorry for not writing these past few weeks. Being the bivocational pastor makes for a busy life, but I will try to be more regular in my reflections.

This Sunday’s text has me thinking about prophets, God’s love and Rick Astley.

Who can forget the British singer who bursted on the the pop music scene in 1987 with the song “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic and the video has become a popular internet meme.

But that song also reminds me of how God expresses God’s love for the people of Israel who have failed him time and time again. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” says a pained God. God is angry at how Israel has decided to not trust in God, but to seek alliances with other nations to protect themselves from Assyria. They don’t realize that this will be a fatal mistake. Assyria will invade and cause the Northern Kingdom to cease to exist. The population, the 10 tribes of the North, will become lost to history.

When I’ve looked at this text before, I usually focus on how God is responding. But I’m seeing the Hosea from a different viewpoint; that of Hosea himself.

Throughout the book of Hosea the prophet is led by God to do some odd things that are to symbolize the fraught relationship between God and Israel. Early on, he marries Gomer a prostitute. I won’t go into detail about this, but the marital and parental images are suppose to show the love of God and the faithlessness of the people.

But how did Hosea feel about all of this? We can gather that Hosea, a prophet, had a heart for God and was willing to allow God to work through him. That meant saying and doing somethings that might have seen weird to the people around him.

As we look at our own lives and the life of the church, do we think about what it means if we are Hosea in our modern context? What if we are called to tell the people how they have fallen away from God, but also share God’s great and never-ending love?

Churches in the United States are dealing with a changing culture. In the 1950s and 60s, people were nominally Christian and church was the center of cultural life in America. But we are not the church going nation we used to be. That has left us disestablished from culture. As we see our pews become empty and our budget shrinks, we are wondering how to live. More liberal Christians think it is about social justice and they are busy dealing with various political issues and going to this or that protest. More conservative Christians think it is about moral living and that people must stop living loose and become holy for God. Neither of these are bad choices, but they miss something: God’s anguished love for us all.

What is the church being called to do in this day and time? Hosea echoes Rick Astley by telling the people that God will not give them up, never let them down, never tell lies or desert them. God will never make them cry won’t say goodbye, you get the idea.

In a society that is so fragmented, isolated and angry, can we be a Hosea to the people? Do we feel, do we know that God loves us passionately like a parent loves their wayward child?

That is the mission of the church in these times. We are called in words and deeds to tell of God’s anger and love for us.

Hosea was faithful to God and was able to convey God’s feeling to the people. We are called today to be faithful to God, and share the good news outside of our walls.

Are we ready to be God’s Hosea?

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.