Category: Preaching

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Wondering Where the Lions Are: Advent 1(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 29, 2020

Read: Daniel 6:1-27

Reflection

Between ages 7 and 10, I took swimming lessons at the YWCA and YMCA.  I had a good time in the water and loved to use the paddle boards and make big splashes in the pool.  

But there was one thing that scared me to death…the deep end of the swimming pool. You see, I could touch the end of the pool on the shallow end. However as you moved farther away from the shallow end, it became harder and harder to touch the floor.  You would get to that point where you couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool and you get a bit scared.  Of course, the reason I was in a swimming class is to learn how to swim, even in deep water, even in the places where I couldn’t just touch the bottom. Swimming was suppose to teach me how to handle the deep end, how to manuver in a place that seemed scary.  The swimming instructors were teaching me to trust the skills I’ve learned to tackle the deep end.  Not to get cocky in my skills, but to trust what I’ve learned to prevent me from drowning.

 This is the first day of the new church year, so I guess I should say Happy New Year.  This is the first Sunday of Advent, that season before Christmas where we await the coming of the Savior and also are reminded of why we need to Christ to come and save us and there is no one more deserving of salvation than the character in today’s text.

Daniel and the Lion’s Den is one of the first Bible stories children learn about. Daniel, an Israelite in exile, is a faithful worker in the court of King Darius of Persia.  Daniel does such a good job in his position as a chief administrator that the king is interested in promoting him to be the second in command in the Empire; only the king would be higher than Daniel.

His fellow administrators can’t stand that this foreigner is showing them up, so they devise a plan to trick the King into sending Daniel to the lions where he would meet his end.

When the days comes to send Daniel into the lion’s den. The administrators are joyous because they have this foreigner where they wanted him and soon, their troubles would be gone.  King Darius is nervous; he hates to lose such an able worker and he probably feels this charge is all trumped up. But he can’t do much other than hope Daniel’s God would save him.

The king didn’t sleep all night.  The king races to find Daniel is safe and sound, while Daniel’s rivials and their families face the lions and meeta cruel fate. 

What an odd text to start Advent with!  But maybe it isn’t so weird.  Daniel was facing an unjust punishment.  God comes to the rescue and save him from devastation.

Advent is a time of waiting for Christ, waiting for salvation.  Daniel waited for salvation as well and God did save him.  But the story here is not that God won’t let us face bad times.  The list is long of good people, faithful people who were killed by despots past and present.  The story here is that God will prevail even when it seems that evil will have the last word.  Even if Daniel were swallowed by the lions, this would still be a tale of God winning over evil, because God is bigger than corrupt administrators or a fumbling king.

The thing that scared me about the deep end of the pull is that I would be engulfed by water, that I would drown.  Daniel could have been scared about how the lions would pull him apart and then devour him.  But he has faith in God and is able to face down the lions because God is faithful.  The lions might kill him, but they have no power over him.

As I said before, trusting God doesn’t mean you won’t face trials.  We wait and hope for salvation, but that doesn’t always come in the way we want or expect.  Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Oscar Romero and countless other disciples and followers of Jesus did not come to happy endings and yet they believed in a God that would save them, a God that never allowed evil to have the last word.

We wait in Advent for the coming of Jesus.  Jesus will not take away all the bad things in our lives.  We will still get cancer.  Our loved ones will still die.  We will get laid off.  The lions are always there waiting to have a midnight snack.  But we have hope.  Hope not that things will be okay, but that God is with us and will never ever let evil win. We wait knowing that Jesus is coming to be with us, to be with us in all of the dark times in our lives and to give us the faith to stand up to intolerance because the forces of darkness will never ever have the last word.

By the way, I’m still scared of the deep end of the pool.  But I also trust what I learned in swimming class.  May God give us the same courage in all the deep ends of our lives.

 

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

 

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Don’t You Forget About Me: Christ the King Sunday(Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 22, 2020

Read: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Reflection

Imagine with me that you wake up one morning and everything seems normal.  You listen to the news on the television and make breakfast and then head to work.  

When you get there, you expect to see your friend Bruce.  You’ve known him for nine years and his personality is such that everyone in the office knows who Bruce is.  You pass his desk and it’s empty.  In fact, it seems like no one had used his cubicle for months.  There is no nameplate or anything that shows he worked at your office. You ask around what happened to Bruce.  Everyone gives you a strange look.  To a person, no one remembers Bruce.  At first you think it’s a joke, but then you realize people are serious.  They act like Bruce never existed.  

You get to work, but you have this odd feeling.  Why can you remember Bruce, but no one else can?  

The day ends and you get back to your home to get ready to have dinner with your brother Nathan and Aunt Sophie.  You get ready and drive to the restaurant.  You see your brother you start catching up on things.  After a while, you ask where is Aunt Sophie.  Nathan gives you a blank look.  He asks who is Sophie.  You tell him that she’s your father’s sister and has two kids: Ben and Olivia.  But those names don’t register either.  Now you start to get nervous.  You finish dinner and get to bed hoping this is just a weird day.  

The next day, you give Nathan a call.  The phone rings and rings, when finally a woman picks up.  You know this is Carol, Nathan’s finance.  You ask to speak to your brother and for a moment, there is silence.  She doesn’t know a Nathan.  You are shocked.  Nathan and Carol had dated for six years.  

You hang up the phone.  You wonder what in the world is going on.

This keeps happening over a few days.  Friends, relatives and significant others just seem to vanish with the people around them having no memory of their existence.  One day, you realize everyone around you has vanished.  You sit in your room, in tears.  You pledge to remember these people, to believe they existed and mattered.  And you hope one day they will return. You hope you won’t be forgotten.

In our text this week, the people of Israel are not in a good place.  This text is being written to a people who have gone through the worst thing possible, at least to them.  Their homeland, Judah or the Southern Kingdom was one of the last places standing during the rise of the Babylonian Empire.  Finally, the Babylonians swept in and invaded.  Jerusalem is destroyed. The temple built by Solomon is brought down. The people were taken far away from their homes to live in Babylon.  They were in a new culture with new gods.  They remember the old days and they also remember how they didn’t follow God. They remember worshipping other gods. They remember treating the poor unjustly.  They know they hurt God. They probably think they deserved this punishment, which of course, they did. They might have wondered if God had forgotten them and moved on.

But then they hear this passage from Jeremiah.  They knew he was the old prophet.  Back in the day he preached that the people repent and no one listened to him.  These days, everyone wished they had.  

People gather around to hear what the old prophet has to say.  He tells the people that one day, they will go back home.  That made people feel good.  Their time in Babylon was more only for a time.  Their memories of a past land that doesn’t exist anymore will no longer be memories.  But there was still more Jeremiah had to say.

He tells them that soon he will make a new covenant with the people.  The old covenant was the one made during their journey from Egypt to the homeland.  After years of a broken relationship, God wants to get back together and start a new.  God will make a new covenant, not one that’s written in stone, but written in the hearts of the people.  God was going to transform the people from the inside out.  

Then Jeremiah says something that just blows everyone’s mind.  God will forget the sins of the people.  God had not forgotten God’s people, but the sins of the people would be liked they never existed.  Even when all has vanished in front of them, God is still there remaining faithful.

The people were smiling.  It would be years, decades before the people could come back, but they knew that God had not forgotten them.  God always wanted a relationship with the people of Israel and they were ready to renew the relationship and start over with God.  

When we look at the Bible, we tend to see two sides of God.  We think the Old Testament is filled with stories of an angry god ready to punish people.  We think the New Testament is about a God of love, a God that gives second chances.  But this passage puts a lie to that thinking.  It is in God’s nature to love passionately and to give second, third and fourth chances. Like an addict that falls off the wagon again and again, God is there to transform us into something wonderful.

This passage is about the covenant God establishes with the people of Israel, so it is not our covenant.  But it is a reminder that we live under a gracious covenant as well.  Because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God doesn’t remember our sins either.  God works at making us followers by working from the inside out.  We remember how good God is to us and God forgets our sin, making it possible to begin anew.

On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is a king, but he is not like other kings.  If we were following the Revised Common Lectionary, which we have done in recent years, today we would read the passages from the passion, those last few hours before Jesus’ death.  The crucifixion is a reminder of the lengths God will go to prove God’s love for us.  In the form a Jesus, a king is willing to lay aside a crown and die for the sake of others.  This is the God we find here in Jeremiah, the one that is willing to start anew to forgive and forget. To restore and to heal.

Next week, many of us won’t be traveling to see Mom and Dad or any other relative.  We have been urged to not travel to see our loved ones because it could cause the coronavirus to spread.  In a year where we feel cut off, it is easy to feel like we have been forgotten.  But what this passage reminds us is that God doesn’t forget us.  Even when we feel alone, we aren’t alone and in this dark time, it can give a sense of hope.

Decades later, the people make their way back to Judah.  After years of abandonment, the cities would be repopulated.  It is with happiness that they realize God didn’t forget them, but God also forgot their sins.  It was a new day.

Photo by Forest Simon on Unsplash

 

The Crown of Glory – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22A (1 Thessalonians 2)

 

1 Thessalonians 2:9-20  New Revised Standard Version

9 You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone 16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus, they have
constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has
overtaken them at last.

17 As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 Yes, you are our glory and joy!

 

****************

                Paul speaks to the Thessalonians as a father speaks to his children (vs. 11). What we are tasked by the Lectionary to read/reflect upon here (vs. 9-13) is a continuation of the reading from the previous week, where Paul revealed that God had entrusted the gospel to them (Paul and companions). Thus, the reading here reinforces the earlier message concerning their mission in Thessalonica and beyond. Paul affirms their being witnesses, along with God, of the diligence with which Paul and his companions proclaimed the Gospel in Thessalonica. As noted in the opening verses of the chapter, Paul reminded them that he and his companions hadn’t proclaimed the gospel with false motives or out of concern for financial gain. They didn’t even take advantage of their rights as apostles (vs. 5-7). In other words, they weren’t hirelings. They were servants of God’s mission in the world.  

                As noted, the Revised Common Lectionary limits the reading for the week to verses 9-13. It’s understandable that verses 14-16 are omitted (there are unfortunate words regarding the Jews), but it seemed to be important to take a look at the remainder of the chapter to better understand Paul’s words here in verses 9-13.

The centerpiece of this week’s reading is the nature of the Gospel proclamation. Paul commends the Thessalonians for receiving their message not as a human word, but as the word of God. In describing their message as a divine rather than human word, Paul isn’t implying that their message was somehow inerrant or infallible (these categories are rather modern and thus not something Paul would have even considered). Rather they were speaking to their belief that God’s word had been made known in Thessalonica through their ministry. In other words, God speaks through human voices and words. There is good news here. The word has been heard and embraced by some (that’s the locus of the selected reading), but there is also opposition (the remainder of the chapter). Both exist and must be addressed. In the end, however, Paul commends them as being his crown when Jesus returns.

                The concept of the “word of God” is problematic. That’s because too often this phrase is applied solely to Scripture, when in fact the phrase is used in multiple ways. First and foremost, the term Word (Gk. Logos) is used in reference to Jesus, who is understood to be the Word (Logos) of God incarnate (Jn.1:1-14). In several places in the Book of Acts, the phrase is used in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel. That is the case here, where Paul has in mind the act of preaching/proclamation. The variety of ways this phrased is used has led me to embrace Karl Barth’s well-known articulation of the principle of the “three-fold Word of God.” As I’ve noted in a book on this question, Barth has proven very helpful in my own theological journey. Barth writes in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics

Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. [Church Dogmatics, 1:1:52].

Of course, Barth, and I assume Paul would agree, recognizes that not all preaching reflects God’s message. However, both men recognize that God can speak through human messengers, and thus preaching can be a conduit of God’s word.  

                Having made this clear, speaking as a father to his children, Paul urges the readers to live lives worthy of God, “who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (vs. 12). This is a good place to pause and note that while Paul places great emphasis on God’s grace received by faith, he is also concerned about conduct (behavior), which might be understood as works. Therefore, he gives thanks that the Thessalonians received their word as the word of God and that this word is at work in their midst.

                Having taken note of this gracious word on Paul’s part, we now must take note of a most problematic word concerning the Jews. In verses 14-16 Paul commends them for being imitators of the churches in Judea who had suffered persecution from “the Jews,” even as they were suffering similarly.  We need to remember that contextually Paul understands his message being directed at reaching Gentiles. He finds any interference in that work problematic (at the very least). This leads to an unfortunate rebuke of his fellow Jews, who had opposed the Churches in Judea and had done the same in Thessalonica. If we remember that this letter was written several decades before the Book of Acts, we might want to take note of Acts 17, where Luke tells us of Paul and Silas’ visit to Thessalonica. In that passage, Paul is said to go and preach in the synagogue concerning Jesus. While some followed Paul, along with devout Greeks and leading women, “the Jews became jealous,” and along with some ruffians in the community attacked Jason for hosting them. That led Paul to head off to Berea and then Athens. This might be what Paul is referring to, but we can’t be certain.

                Living in a post-Shoah world, where the murder of millions of Jews along with others, has forced the church to be attentive to texts that have been and can be used to justify persecution and even murder of Jews. In a sidebar in the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we read this reminder: “These verses present a succinct summary of classical Christian anti-Judaism: the Jews killed Jesus, persecuted his followers, and threw them out of the synagogues; they are xenophobic and sinners, and God has rejected and punished them. The harshness of these words raises questions about Paul’s attitude toward his fellow Jews” [Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 374].

There have been suggestions among scholars that this sounds less like Paul and more like a later Gentile scribal insertion. While that makes some sense, especially since it doesn’t fit well with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, where he affirms that God has not rejected the Jewish people. The problem with this suggestion is that there is no textual support for such a conclusion. In any case, whether these are Paul’s words or not, unfortunately, the damage has been done and the passage can be and has been used to justify anti-Jewish views and behavior. It would seem that Paul is trying to encourage his spiritual children to persevere in the face of
opposition and even persecution. Contextually, this might be understandable when one is in a minority position. However, in a different context, when Jews are the minority voice, this can be dangerous.

                Having commended them for hearing and embracing their message as God’s word to them, and having encouraged them as they experience persecution, the chapter closes with Paul letting the community know that he wants to visit them. Unfortunately, Satan had blocked their way time and again. The reference to Satan’s interference reminds us that Paul viewed the world in supernaturalist/apocalyptic terms.  As John Byron notes: “Although Paul does not explain what Satan did to hinder him, he has an acute sense that his freedom of movement was curtailed, and viewing the situation on a supernatural level, determined that Satan was interfering with the seen world.” [Benjamin E. Reynolds. The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (p. 249). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition]. Despite the supernatural interference (however that transpired), Paul celebrates their faith. They are his hope and joy, and the “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming.” That is, when Jesus comes in his glory to judge the living and the dead, Paul can stand before Jesus and point to them as being his crown of glory and joy!  

When God Builds A House…: Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

When God Builds A House…: Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 25, 2020

Read: 2 Samuel 7:1-16

Reflection

I’ve always had an interest in design.  I love looking at buildings and seeing who made them and what style of architecture it belongs to.  Where I live in Twin Cities is probably one the best places to see both old and new architecture. The IDS Center in Minneapolis was designed by the famous architect Philip Johnson and that building exemplifies a postmodern style and his use of glass in many of his buildings like the IDS or the Glass House, which was his residence. The Wells Fargo Center was built as the Norwest Center in 1988.  It is built  in a modern art deco style the preferred style of architect Cesar Pelli, who also designed the Central Library in Minneapolis.

Then there is the Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Frank Gehry designed this building and Gehry is known for his radical design and if you have seen the Weisman, you know it is a bold design with curves and straight lines in places where they shouldn’t be.

Architecture and design can capture a certain mood or feeling.  The buildings designed by the late Oscar Niemeyer for the planned capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, showed a nation looking towards the future.  The Greek and Roman style of many of the buildings in Washington, DC tries to tie America to the proto-democracies of Greece and the Roman Republic.  A more negative example is the work of German architect Albert Speer, who design buildings during the Third Reich.  He and Hitler came up with plans to rebuild Berlin with wide avenues and very large buildings, one planned stadium was supposed to accommodate 400,000 people.  The plan was to make buildings that could aesthetically pleasing ruins that would be a testament to the greatness of Nazi Germany.  

Great architects tend to make buildings that make some kind of statement.  It might be a message they want to make or to reflect the community’s wishes.  They can talk about the future or harken back to the past.

David is now king of Israel.   The nation is united and at peace.  Not having to lead an army or worry about getting killed, he had some time on his hands to think.  He tells Nathan, the prophet that he is bothered that he is living in this stunning palace made of cedar, while the ark of God sits in a tent.  

Nathan didn’t need to hear anymore to understand.  He realized that David wanted to build a temple that could house the ark of God.  He then gives David permission to build.  That night Nathan has a dream where God is speaking about David. God tells Nathan to tell David that God doesn’t need a house. God reminds David that God never, ever asked for a temple.  

We know that David wanted to build a temple.  We know he wasn’t happy that the ark of God was in a tent.  But why does David really wants to build a temple.  Is God building this out of gratitude for what God has done?  Is it a way to get on God’s good side?  Does he think this is some sort of spiritual quid pro quo, if he does something for God, God will do something for him? We aren’t sure why David wants to build a temple. What we do know is that David wanted to do something for God, and God thought David didn’t understand what grace was all about.  

David wanted to do something for God.  David had big plans to make a beautiful temple that would honor God.  But God has to remind David that God is the one that calls the shots, not David.  We aren’t any different, we have big plans to serve God.  But in thinking we can pursue these grand plans, we forget that this is God’s story, not ours.  God is the one in control, not us. God didn’t want David to start to think he was all that because he built this big temple for God.  He wanted David to be a man who saw that God was the one that helped him, not the other way around.  In short, God wanted David to learn about grace and gratitude.

God then turns the table around.  Instead of David building a house for God, God was going to build a house for David. God tells David that a dynasty would be established.  His son would rise up succeed him as king and the House of David would rule forever.

God then turns the table around.  Instead of David building a house for God, God was going to build a house for David. God tells David that a dynasty would be established.  His son would rise up succeed him as king and the House of David would rule forever.

That was important for people hearing this story. 2 Samuel was written probably a century after these events happened.  It was written when Israel was in exile and the king Zedekiah a descendant of David, was deposed by the Babylonians.  So, this was a passage talking about the eternal dynasty of David written after the last of the dynasty ruled Israel. 

God’s faithfulness doesn’t always come in the way we expect.  David probably thought the kingdom and the dynasty would last forever and it would, just not in the way he expected.  For the people living in exile, this passage was a reminder that God has always been with them and is with them now even if it seems that king and kingdom are no more.  For Christians, we know that this point forward to another king, a descendant of David. Jesus would be the king that would allow the House of David to rule forever.

As a community of faith that is called by God, we are called to be thankful.  Being thankful means that we understand that this is God’s Story and not our own.  It means learning to remember what God has done and be thankful.  David’s son Solomon would end up building the temple, but it would be on God’s terms not the king’s.  Being thankful was a way of realizing who was in charge, who was the king.  

Jesus was the king that rule forever, allowing the dynasty to continue and that would have implications down the road.  In the New Testament, Israel is under the control of the Roman Empire.  It was not unknown for people to worship the Emperor as a god.  When people said that Jesus was Lord, they were challenging who was the leader, which meant challenging the Empire.  For the nascent church, it was important to respect the government, but at the end of the day, Jesus was Lord (or king) and Caesar was not.

This is an important thing to remember in this election year.  As we do our civic duty and vote for our leaders, including president, we who are followers of the great king are called to thankful and faithful and remind ourselves that no matter who we support, Jesus is Lord, Jesus is the king, the king established long ago by God.  God is building a house, but it isn’t a house of stone or wood, but a house of people, a kingdom that is not of this world.  For that we give thanks. 

Photo by João Marcelo Martins on Unsplash

 





 

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

Anxious Days: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Anxious Days: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 18, 2020

Read: I Samuel 1:4-20 and 2:1-10

Reflection

I’ve dealt with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder for years.  It’s not as bad is once was thanks to medication.  Actually,  discovered that I had OCD when I was treated for depression.  OCD is something that makes you do thinkings repeatedly because of the fear something is undone.  Or it can be unwanted thoughts that can frighten you.  I can remember when I was in my late 20s trying to get some sleep during the evening and how hard that could be.  I would either wash my hands several times or, more often than not, I would get up and check to see if the dish towel that hung on the door handle was too close to the stove.  I would keep getting up over and over.  I knew this was silly, but there was this anxiety that tells you that you might be making a mistake.  You might have put that dishtowel on the stovetop. 

As I said, my OCD is under control now mostly because of medication, and also because I’ve learned to trust that things are not so out of control as I fear they are.  But you still have the anxiety that something somewhere is going to get you or that you forgot something that will hurt others or even yourself.

But you don’t have to have OCD to be anxious.  We live in an anxious times. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic which sparked a recession that has shed millions of jobs.  We are in a contentious race for President. Racial and ethnic animosities are being stirred up bring about ugly results.  These are anxious days.

Our text this week opens with a man named Elkanah who has two wives: Pennianah and Hannah. Penninah gives Elkanah several children, including sons.  Hannah is not able to have children.  Elkanah loved Hannah more than Penninah, so he tries to do the right things.  He gives her a double portion for her to sacrifice.  He even tries to cheer her up.  “I’m more worth more than 10 sons!” he said.  But those words didn’t make Hannah better.  She wanted a child and it was important that she have a child. You have to understand that in ancient Israel, the value of a woman was measured in how many children she had especially boys.  Also, children were an insurance policy for the future.  They were the ones who took care of an elderly parent or made sure the woman didn’t end up on the street.  Because Hannah had no sons, she was in big trouble.  If Elkanah were to die at the point, the inheritance would go Penninah’s sons who would then decide if they wanted to support Hannah.  Since Penninah was a bully to Hannah, she was sure that Penninah would persuade her sons to send Hannah packing. 

So, Hannah was anxious.  She had every reason to be.  She decides to deal with her anxiety by praying to God.  She asks God to give her a child and after Eli, the priest, who thought she was drunk initially , tells her he prays God will give what she asked.

We know she has a child, but it’s interesting in her prayer that she didn’t just ask for a child- she wants to give the child back to God.  Her anxiety gave way to urgency- she knows any gift from God is a gift and she wants to treat it care.  

That sense of urgency, that sense that God is at work is the basis of Hannah’s song in chapter 2.  She is able to sing outloud about the goodness of God, the one who is her rock, the one that remembered her.  She sings of the God who shatters the bows of warriors, a reminder that no earthly power can stack up to God.

Hannah’s song echoes another woman who will start singing about the mighty being brought down and the lowly lifted up.  Mary sings a song which is now called the Magnificat, about an urgent God that rules over all creation and no one could challenge God’s power.

 We live in anxious times.  But God calls us out of anxiety into urgency. The God we serve is one that is at work in the world and is working to set the world to rights.  Our anxieties can block our God-given sense of urgency.  Hannah understood that God was at work in the world, so her prayer was not just about having a son, but about devoting her son to be about God’s work.  The son she had was named Samuel, who became the last Judge of Israel.  Judges were temporary leaders that were called to lead the people in times of crisis.  Samuel would become one of these Judges who would later annoint a young boy in Bethlehem named David to be king over Israel.  Hannah knew if this prayer was granted it was because of God and it made sense to give her gift back to God to bring salvation to the world.

God is still a God of urgency. God wants to share the gospel with others, to feed the hungry, to welcome the outcast.  We are called to join God in this urgency, but too often we are trapped in anxiety; how will the church pay its bills?  How will we pay the pastor?  Will we be around in 10 years or so?

But we also need to be a people or urgency.  Yes, we have challenges.  But like the person with OCD, we have to get out of being frozen and move forward in faith.  Hannah had no idea what would become of Samuel, but she was willing to trust God and so do we.

We will always be anxious, that’s just part of being human.  But we can stop going in circles.  We can’t stop being frozen.  We can know that we can carry our anxieties to God, who will help give us a sense of urgency to help a hurting world.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

 





 

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

Who Is He And What Is He To You: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Who Is He And What Is He To You: Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 11, 2020

Read: Exodus 32:1-14

Reflection

What does God look like to us?  For some people, God is an old white guy with a long beard and a flowing robe.  The famous book, The Shack, has God coming down to earth in the form of an African American woman. The Chinese artist He Chi, frequently paints Jesus in his context as a Chinese man, which means Jesus looks more Asian, than what I’ve called “the Swedish Jesus.”  

 

Maybe one of the most controversial depiction of God or Jesus is the statue Christa.  It was created by British artist Edwina Sandys, who happened to be the granddaughter of Winston Churchill in 1975. It is what you think it is, a picture of Jesus on the cross, but as a woman.  It was displayed at St. John the Divine Church in New York during Easter of 1984 where it had people talking, both words of praise and outrage.  It is now back at the St. John the Divine permanently, but the work has been interpreted as depicting the inclusion of women in the work of Christian faith and also about the suffering of women.  For some, it might seemed problematic to see Jesus as a woman. We all have an image of God in our minds and it can be hard at times to see God in a different viewpoint. It is why people can take issue with calling God , Mother .  Many people have an image of who God is and it is difficult to switch and see that there might be another way of looking at God.

 

For the people of Israel, God was a bit of a mystery.  They had seen God’s actions in the parting of the Red Sea and in the provision of manna and quail, but God seemed somewhat distant to the Israelites.  That was especially the case when Moses left them to head up a mountain and commune with God for well over a month.  Where was Moses?  Moses was at least someone that they could relate to.  Moses was sort of an intermediary between the people and God, and not having Moses around led the people to become a bit restless.  They could look up towards the top of the mountain seeing it covered in smoke and fire wondering if this was God. Alas, there was no one around them to tell them if this was God.  

Aaron decides to have the people collect all the gold among the people.  He is able to fashion a golden calf.  He decides to make an altar for the Lord and the people see this as a representation of the one that brought them out of Egypt.

Notice that this golden calf was not necessarily an alternate god. Instead, this is an image of the same God that led them out of Egypt.  The Hebrew uses the same word they use for God, YHWH. But the Israelites had spent years with the Egyptians and mingled with other cultures that had physical representations of their gods, so they thought that’s what they needed to do here.  This was their version of God.  But the problem is that they contained God in this form.  God was not the free being that was enveloped in mystery, but this golden cow.  That’s what is wrong here, not that they worshipped an idol as much as it was that they fell in love with false version of God.  They wanted a god that would live among them, and the calf was a way for God to be with them.

But it was the wrong way for so many reasons.  First it was initiated by humans and not God.  Second the humans decided to describe God instead of God. Third, and this is most important is that God was working on a place, a tabernacle where God would dwell with the Israelites.  God was making plans to be closer to the people if they just had the patience to wait. “Let them construct a Sanctuary for me so that I can live among them,” God tells Moses in chapter 25.  From Exodus 25 until chapter 31 we have God giving Moses instructions on what this tabernacle would look like.  The people were nervous and worried and created an “avatar” a representation of God and all the while God was at work finding a way to live among the people. If they had only been patient and waited.

We aren’t that different from the people of Israel.  Too often we want to define God instead of entering the mystery of God.  We want to be able to define God, to make God palatable to our own tastes.  A Methodist pastor friend of mine consistantly talks about how modern Christians in America try to make the faith fit our ideology.  This is why Christians on the political left and right tend to fashion a god that is acceptable to them.  We want a god that supports universal health care.  We want a god that is anti-abortion.  Instead of wanting to encounter a God that is a mystery, one that we are constantly getting to know, people make a god that is easy to understand and surprisingly agrees with us.

As I’ve said before, I have a thing for R&B songs from the 1970s.  It comes from being a toddler in the basement of my childhood home back in Flint, as my Dad listened to the soul songs of that era. There is a song by the artist Bill Withers that is called “Who Is He and What Is He To You.”  It’s really a song about a man who discovers that his wife or girlfirend might not be so faithful to him.  The man in the starts to ask questions about the role this man has in her life. 

Here are some of the lyrics:

Something in my heart and in your eye
Tells me he’s not someone just passing by
And when you cleared your throat
Was that your cue
Dadgummit
Who is he, and what is he to you

God was pretty much saying the same thing to the Israelites as well as to us today.  That thing, that image of God that we have; just what role does it have in our lives?  As the song says, we are too much for one God, but not enough for two.





 

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

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 27, 2020

Read: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15- 21

Reflection

Beginning with chapter 37 until the end of the book of Genesis, the story focuses mainly on one person, Joseph.  The great-grandson of Abraham, you might have heard the story of Joseph as a kid, and over the last few years, you might have even seen a production of the Broadway play, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Our story opens with Jacob and his sons.  Joseph is one of the “babies” of the family and tends to chores close to home instead of shepherding the flock with his older brothers.

Now, it’s quite common for a child to ask their parents if they love them or their sister/brother more.  The parent will say that they love each child equally.  You won’t find that story in today’s text.  Jacob played favorites with his children, and Joseph was his number one son.  Because he was the number one son, he got a special garment- a “long robe with sleeves,” the Bible says. It was a very fancy coat, one that set someone apart from manual labor.  In popular culture, the coat is described as one of  “many colors.”  In reality, some translations note the coat was an ornamental coat and others talk about a multi-colored coat.  Either way, it was a really nice coat that signified Joseph was special- which is something that really bothered his brothers. The text never said if Joseph knew that he was the favorite, but one could guess that he did and made sure his brothers did too. None of this endeared Joseph to his brothers.  They couldn’t stand him.  Now in most families, it quite normal to have some sibling rivalries.  But as we saw with Cain and Abel, when brother feud in the Bible, it can sometimes get a little out of hand.

We learn that Joseph has a special talent: deciphering dreams.  His parlor trick will come in handy later in our story, but right now all it does is annoy his brothers as we see in this snippet: 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ 8His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.Genesis 37:5-8 (NRSV)

For his brothers, this was the last straw.  It was time to do something.  It was time to get Joseph out of the way.  Permanently.

Joseph’s brothers were looking forward to getting rid (ie: kill) of this dreamer who was an annoying pest.  His brothers were ready to kill him, but Ruben stopped his brothers from committing fratricide.  Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, and Jacob is told that his precious son, his favorite son,  is dead. Between chapters 37 and 50, we follow Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  He gets to work in the house of a government official, and later falsely accused of raping the official’s wife, who wanted to sleep with him. Joseph winds up in prison, but it released when people learn he can interpret dreams.  He is called by the Pharoah to interpret his dream and he is able to discern a famine is coming and the nation must prepare.  Egypt is saved from a devastating famine and in turn, helps other nations that are affected by a drought.  Joseph is made what would basically be the Prime Minister of the nation. Joseph’s brothers return to the scene again as they travel to Egypt to get food during the famine.  In the end, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and his father. His family is welcome to come and live with Joseph in Egypt.

Genesis 50 opens up with Jacob dying. But Joseph’s brothers were afraid of him and for good reason. Now that Jacob is dead, will Joseph make life hard for them?  They come to Joseph and tell him that before Jacob died he told them that Joseph must forgive his brothers.  His brothers really hadn’t changed- they were motivated by self-interest.  Jacob never said this.  Instead of asking for forgiveness for how they treated Joseph, they instead invoke their dead father telling Joseph that he had to forgive his brothers because it was what dear old dad wanted.

In spite of their lying, Joseph forgives his brothers responding that God was able to use an evil experience and make it into something good. There is an important lesson to be learned here about suffering and the work of God.Joseph could see how God was working within his suffering and so he could see that something good came of the years of captivity and estrangement. However, it is bad taste for someone other than the sufferer to impose a meaning on them. What we see in chapter 50 is how God’s will works even in the midst of evil.

It was wrong for the brothers to seek to kill Joseph and then decide to see him into slavery.But God used this situation to help save the Egyptians from famine.We can’t and shouldn’t say that such evils are God’s will, we can see how God’s justice can work through human sin, just as it did later on in Scripture in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.





 

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

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 20, 2020

Read: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

 

Reflection

In the fall of 2001, I was a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  I made rounds, visiting people and I stopped  by a room where a number of people were gathered.  On the bed, was man who seemed asleep.  His wife explained he had a brain tumor.  From what I knew it didn’t look good; he didn’t have long in this world.  But the wife told me with hope that he would get better.  They were hoping he would be able to go a facility to rehabilitate. She wanted me to lead a prayer.  I was nervous, because I didn’t want to pray a prayer that would give them false hope.  I didn’t think that God was going to magically heal this man’s tumor.  And in some way I was right, a little later I heard that the man was going to hospice.

Was I right to believe that it was foolish to believe this man would be healed?  Should I have told the family that God would heal this man?

In our passage, Abraham welcomes three guests.  It was common in desert cultures to offer strangers hospitality.  Since there were no McDonalds in the desert; it made sense that people would offer travelers something to eat and drink.  Abraham welcomed these guests and went above and beyond in hospitality.  He asked Sarah to make bread with the finest flour.  He told a servant to kill a calf and then offered a refreshing drink.  We learn one of the visitors is the Lord himself.  As they ate their food, God tells Abraham that in the space of a year, he and Sarah would have a child.

Now a few things here:  Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was 90.  God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation when he was 75.  So, the couple had been told for several decades that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.  Sarah was already way, way past her childbearing years so there seemed to be no possible way that Sarah was going to have a baby.

Sarah was eavesdropping nearby and when she heard all of this, she let out a laugh.  She laughed because she had heard for decades that she would have a child and nothing ever changed.  She was already barren when Abraham first told her of what God told him.  She knew it wasn’t going to happen. She even suggested that Abraham get with her servant Hagar to have a child.  Ishmael was the result of this pairing, but even Sarah wasn’t pleased with that solution. Sarah had received heartache on heartache.  She was old, Ishmael wasn’t working out.  She knew how life worked and she and Abraham had come to accept they would never be parents. Her laugh was a laugh of anger, frustration and hurt. I’m going to have a child?  Now? At my age? Not bloody likely.

Sarah heard for years something would happen and it never did.  She was used to things being what they were and couldn’t believe that things would be different.

If we were in Sarah’s place, would we laugh?  I think if it was me, I probably would.  I would like to believe that I would believe that God could do anything, but like Sarah, I know too much.  I know that people with brain tumors seldom recover.  I know that some couples face miscarriages. I know people die from cancer.  I know that evil exists and that the impossible is just that; impossible. 

Theologian David Watson notes that mainline Protestant theologians in the 20th and early 21st centuries have grappled with the problem of evil.  The horrors of two major global wars and the Holocaust have made us think that divine action is not possible.  

Watson continues saying that the result is that because liberal theologians had this view, it trickled down to the churches.  We had whole communities of faith that no longer believed that God would show up.  Watson puts it plainly:

“For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.”

None of this means we should not take evil seriously.  But we shouldn’t let that limit God.  Instead in the midst of this world where there is heartache, we still hope and pray that God will do the impossible in our impossible world.

God answers Sarah’s doubt.  “Is anything to difficult for the Lord?”  Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that this is really a question God is expecting Sarah (and Abraham) to answer.  The story ends with us never knowing what Sarah said in response other than that she didn’t laugh.  I’m guessing she didn’t immediately believe.  God was really asking; do you believe in me or not?  Do you trust me or not? 

In chapter 21, we see a different kind of laughter.  As God said, Abraham and Sarah did have a baby and named him Isaac which meant laughter.  God had the last laugh.  “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,”  Sarah says with a heart full of joy.  Indeed, how could they not?  This was so fanciful and unbelievable that you had to laugh.  You had to laugh for joy.

Faith in God means believing in the impossible.  It doesn’t mean taking leave of our sense and to start jumping off buildings thinking God will save us.  We believe in the impossible, not the ridiculous.  But we have to believe that our God is real, and powerful and can make a difference in our lives and in our world.  There will still be evil in the world.  There will be heartache.  But because we believe God will do the impossible, we end up having something that in and of itself seems weird: joy.  We begin to see God in the hidden corners of our lives, places where we thought God could never be present.

 

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 Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 13, 2020

Read: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

Reflection

If you grew up hearing Bible stories, you know the first words in the book of Genesis.  Those words, “In the beginning” is the start of the Creation Story. We might think we know the story inside and out. But did you know there are two creation stories with two distinct emphases?

Think of it this way: Genesis 1 is like a big blockbuster motion picture. Do you remember the opening of Star Wars with the orchestra and that scrolling text? That is what Genesis 1 can feel like.  Genesis 2 tells the story again, but this time it is more intimate, more focused. If Genesis 1 is the big summer movie, then Genesis 2 is like a documentary focusing on the most minute of aspects.  Genesis 1 shows God’s power through the creation of the world. Genesis 2 shows God being more in relationship with creation, especially one particular part of creation: humans. Today we learn about the start of a sometimes beautiful friendship with humanity.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that the creation stories reflect stories about how the world began that were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia (where modern-day Iraq is located). Bureggeman notes that the texts were probably written in the Sixth Century B.C.E. and to the people of Israel. At the time of writing, the Israelites were not in a good shape. Foreign invaders called the Babylonians came and conquered the people. Many were taken away from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon (again, located in what is today Iraq). If you were a Jew who had been taken away from their homeland and were told that your people are weak and even your God is weak, how would you feel? Pretty rotten. The Babylonians were acting like any invader would and trying to tell their new conquest that mighty Babylon was in charge. They told their newest conquests that their god was dead. The God of Israel was dead. Long live the Babylonian gods.

It was in this context that these texts were written. The goal of the text wasn’t scientific, but spiritual. The text reminded the people of Israel that the God they worshipped created the world and was the Lord of all life- even Lord over the mighty Babylonians. The creation stories were a message of hope to the Israelites. Even though it looked like God had abandoned them, the God who created the mountains and the seas, was in control. In God we Trust, indeed.

In Genesis 2:5-7, God creates the form of a human. It is when God breathes into the human that the being has life. The Bible talks a lot about breathing. God breathes into Adam and springs to life. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 2 on Pentecost, the wind that comes can also be described as a breath. Breathing is important for our physical life, what does it mean for our spiritual life?

Adam is busy naming the animals, but God notices something. “It’s not good that man should be alone,” God says. God knows Adam needs a helper or companion. It is important to note that the first thing that was not good was not the Tree of Knowledge or even eating of the tree; it was the fact that man was alone. God creates this new being called woman for companionship, reminding us we are not made to be alone but created for each other. Just as humans enter into a covenant with God, humans enter into covenants with each other.

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