Thursday, May 3, 2012


Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)
 John 15:1-8 and Acts 8:26-40 
May 6, 2012

It's spring here in Minnesota which means that it's time for me to do some gardening...

...and kill some plants.

No matter how hard I try, I'm just not great when it comes to planting flowers.  It's not that the plants die the instant they see's just that they don't thrive as easily as they would if someone else planted these flowers.

I think there are a few issues here; I probably didn't plant the flowers deep enough, thereby exposing the roots; the soil itself is not the best and probably needs to be dug up; and I may not water enough.  I'm thinking that these living things are not grounded enough, not enough to withstand the heat of Minnesota summers and the chill of Minnesota winters.

In Jesus' never-ending final speech to his disciples, he starts talking about being the vine and about his disciples being branches. "I am the vine, you are the branches," he says.  Jesus goes on to say that those who abide in him will bear fruit, while those who don't abide in Christ don't produce fruit.

Since I'm a city kid, I didn't really get this whole vine and branch thing.  It wasn't until I started (trying) to plant that I realized the importance of being spiritually grounded in Christ.  

Which leads to our second passage in Acts where the apostle Phillip is directed by an angel to take the road out of Jerusalem to Gaza where he encounters an Ethiopian who just happens to be the finance minister of his kingdom.  We learn that this man is a eunuch and he went to Jerusalem to worship at the temple even though he couldn't go where all the Jews could go worship because the law forbade eunuchs from being Jews. 

Phillip and the man talk about Scripture which leads to talking about Jesus.  The Ethiopian is baptized by Phillip who right after the baptism is snatched by the Spirit to go to another region to share the good news there.

So, what do the two passages have in common?  Not much, except that the reason this whole encounter between the eunuch and Phillip happened was because Phil was open to the prompting and guiding of the Spirit.  He was grounded.

As we go about our work in the world, especially as we pursue justice, we are reminded in these passages to be grounded in Christ.  If we are grounded, if we are open to hear how God speaks to us, then God will take us to places we never imagined.

Go and be church. 

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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Endings?

Easter Sunday (Year B) Mark 16:1-8 April 8, 2012
I recently had the opportunity to see the Lorax movie. The animated movie is based on the 1971 book of the same name by Dr. Suess. It was an is my favorite Suess story and I credit it with my love for the environment. I remember reading the book and seeing the 1972 TV special as a kid growing up in Michigan in 1970s. The book's ending is, well, it's an ending. But it's not a happy ending. One of the main characters, the Onceler, tells his story of how he chopped down all the trufula trees to make "Thneeds." The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, pleads and prods the Oncler to not go down the road he is so hell-bent to take. But Onceler ignores the Lorax, until there are no more trees. When the last tree is chopped down, the Lorax picks himself up by his tail and floats away, as the Oncler is left dealing with the wasteland he created.

The book ends on a note of hope, but it's not a "happy ending." The Oncler tosses the last Trufula seed to the boy listening to his story and tells the young man to plant it. We don't know what happens after that, but we hope that the boy will do as the Oncler says and heal the world.

 The new movie version takes most of the major elements of the story and keeps them intact. However, there were some additions, but the one most glaring was the ending. In the movie version, the Trufula seed has been planted and small saps are starting to appear. The Oncler is out watering the young trees as he sees the Lorax return. They greet each other as good friends who hadn't seen each other in a long while.

 I won't say I didn't like the ending, it was okay as endings go. However, it seemed like the ending was tacked on to make the story "complete." The book's ending was open-ended and really up to the young boy. We don't know what happens next, but we hope for the best.

Today's gospel is probably the oddest of the gospel accounts on the Easter texts. We don't have proof of a resurrected Jesus walking around having dinner with his friends or asking Thomas to put his fingers in his wounds. There is no Jesus here. All we have is a young man dressed in white saying Jesus has been raised and is in Galilee. What we have are the women who came to take care of Jesus' body and come and find this odd man and no body. It's not a happy ending.

This had to bother some folks because there were some additional verses added to Mark 16 some time after the gospel had been written. Someone wanted to have a happy ending. When I was younger, I hated this shorter ending of Mark. I liked the other gospels with their longer versions of Jesus' resurrection. But as I've gotten older, I tend to like this version because it's more real. When people first encounter the empty tomb, I don't think there was a lot of joy. I think people were scared and wondering where the body had been taken. I think people had to wonder who was this weird guy doing sitting in the tomb and saying Jesus was raised from the dead.

But what if Mark is doing a Dr. Suess? What if the ending is one more of hope, the hope of resurrection and the hope that we will tell the world that Jesus is no longer dead by living? David Lose seems to think that's what the writer of Mark is getting at:
Mark writes this open-ended gospel that threatens to end in failure, you see, precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling the good news squarely on our shoulders. Mark isn't terrible at endings, it turns out, he's brilliant, and by ending his account in this way, he invites us into the story, to pick up where these women left off and, indeed, go and tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised, and is going ahead to meet us, just as he promised.
But it's also hard to tell that message when we are faced with empty tombs. We are afraid because we don't know always what's going on let along understand it. And yet, there is this call to not be afraid, to go and tell and to know that Jesus is ahead of us. Bruce Epperly reminds us how the resurrection is an ongoing event:
Resurrection will always be a mystery. But, we know it when it happens. Mark’s resurrection story (Mark 16:1-8) ends with the women in awe, fear, and silence. Resurrection is too much to comprehend when we assume the finalities of death and defeat. But, the empty tomb portends an open future in which the Risen One goes ahead us as companion, guide, and inspiration. While I don’t worry about the mechanics of the resurrection, I believe that Jesus lives – I have seen resurrection in unexpected courage and surprising love; in the face of my grandson, the child of a cancer survivor; in willingness to sacrifice for a great cause; and in the persistent quest for justice despite the odds. I believe that Christ is alive and in his resurrection, we can face the future with strength, courage, and wisdom as we take our place as God’s partners in healing the earth.
Mark put this odd and scary event in our laps and asks us what we will do with it. It's our Trufula seed. Let's run with it, plant it and see what happens. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Save Me, Save Me, Save Me

Palm Sunday
Mark 11:1-11
April 1, 2012

 It was about 15 years ago, that I came down with the flu.  I had moved to Minneapolis a few months earlier and was trying to make a new start.  I was 27 and still not sure about what I wanted to do.  (Not that anyone who 27 knows what they want to do in life.  At 42, I don't know if I know any better now than I did back then, but that's another story.)

Anyway, I came down with the flu.  I was sick for a few days, but like most people, I got better from my little illness.  I went back to work and things looked like they were getting back to normal.

Except they didn't.

I got sick again, and this time things were worse than before.  What had started as the normal flu, became pneumonia.  I don't think I've ever been that sick before.  I remember my parents calling me to see how I was.  Mom asked me if she and dad should make the 12 hour journey from Michigan to see me.  At first I said no.  I mean, I was a grown man and could take care of myself. 

But I couldn't.

About 12 hours later, I had gotten worse.  The medicine I was given at emergency wasn't working.  I dialed the phone and called Mom late at night.  All I had to say was to come and within hours, they were on their way to take care of their son, who couldn't take care of himself.

As I read the gospel text for Palm Sunday, I am fixated on one word, the word "hosanna."  We only hear this word one time during the year, Palm Sunday.  It's the word we hear the crowd as Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem.  We can imagine little kids marching up and down the isles of a sanctuary shouting Hosanna over and over again.  I used to think this was just a word of praise and in some ways, it is.  But I did some checking and found out that the word means in Greek "save or pray."  So, the word the people were shouting was not as much shouts of joy as much as it was a distress call. 

I wonder about the people shouting those words.  They were looking for help from God.  The Jews were living under the rather cruel boot of Rome and wanted freedom.  So here comes this guy on a pretty humble animal (a donkey) and the people shout for help.  But the help that arrives is not that appealing.  I mean, it looked rather silly to see this grown man on a short animal that is used more for hauling things than it was for carrying people. 

Help was on way, but not in the form they expected.

Palm Sunday is normally seen as the last gasp of happy times before Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  But maybe it's not such a high point as it is reminding us that we are all looking for salvation and wholeness.  Maybe it's about hitting bottom, as those in recovery say.  Maybe we realize that we can't do it on our own and look for someone to come and save us- even if it is a fool on a donkey.

Hosanna, Hosanna. Save me, save me.  Truer words never spoken.

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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Human

Fifth Sunday of Lent
 Psalm 51
March 25, 2012

 One of my favorite television shows is the science fiction/horror series "Being Human." The series is based on a British TV show of the same name and features a vampire, werewolf and a ghost living together in an apartment in Boston. The whole premise of the show sounds like the start of a joke and at times, there is a lot of humor as the three try to live life as humans even though they are no longer human. But the main thrust of the show is how hard it is for them to be normal. Time and time again, they get thrown into situations where they are confronted with what they have become and how hard it is to live life as it was before they left the human race. This little campy television show tells a story of the supernatural, but at its core the message is very human: we are not always who we seem to be or even who we want to be. Sooner or later, we will face the reality of how far we have fallen and how hard it is to get back up.

Psalm 51 is the passage we hear every Ash Wednesday. If there ever was a downer passage, this it is. "Have mercy on me, God,according to your faithful love! Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!" writes the psalmist. This is a guy who realizes that he's been caught. He's not offering a simple or formal apology, he's being incredibly honest. He messed up. He got himself into a mess that he can't get himself out of. He asks God for help because only God can get this writer out of the pickle that he constructed.

Our culture doesn't really like to talk about sin. I'm not talking about sin in the I-ate-too-much-chocolate kind of way. I'm talking about how we are able to get ourselves into messes even when we don't mean to. We want to think that we can solve any problem that comes our way and if we can't, well, then weren't smart enough. But the psalmist knew better. All of the pretense had gone away and the writer is left with the fact that no matter what, she will make mistakes that will hurt others and hurt God. She realize that it is only God that can make her clean and can right the relationship which has been broken.

As we journey towards the cross, we are reminded that salvation comes only not through us trying to make things right, though we will try. Salvation comes in the one that washes us daily, that makes us able to praise God with a right and renewed spirit. It is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we can become healed and human.

 Go and be church.

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

Friday, September 9, 2011

Forgive and Forget. Not.

Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35
September 11, 2011

1Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

I found out about it on the bus.

On that late summer morning 10 years ago, I was on a bus heading towards work. I had graduated from seminary the previous May and was getting ready to do my 9 month experience in Clinical Pastoral Education in a week. As the bus made its way past the University of Minnesota and towards downtown Minneapolis I heard the news about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. I didn't think much about it, at first. I thought about the incident in the closing days of World War II when a military plane crashed into the Empire State Building and thought it was just a small plane that got lost.

But we now know that what happened on September 11, 2001 was not just a little event. Hell opened up and swallowed us whole on that day.

It's interesting that the gospel text this Sunday is about forgiveness. It seems like an odd that on the day we remember the horror that took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, we are faced with a question: how many times can we forgive?

How do we forgive when someone offends us?  How do we deal when someone is hurtful to us?  How do we learn to "forget" the other's sin?

God calls us to be a people who are forgiving, but it's hard to be forgiving in a world where people hijack airplanes and drive them into buildings. 

Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber notes in her blog post on the lectionary text that the ability to forgive is not in our human nature and she's right.  The natural response to being hurt is to not forgive, to not forget.  We want to remember our hurt and we want to lash back. Forgiveness is not about being moral, it is supernatural.

Jesus calls us to being a loving and forgiving people.  God call us to be a people that doesn't remember people's sin.  But the fact is, we fall short and with good reason.  We can't forget that hurt and we want to hurt back. 

It's only in Christ that we can forgive and love. 

We can't forget September 11.  We can't forget the hurts that we are dealt in life.  We can't do it.  We just can't.

But because we are forgiven through Christ, we can forgive and live as a forgiven people. 

So on this Sunday when we stop to remember the past, let us also remember we are forgiven, give thanks and then live in that forgiveness.

Go and be church.

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

Coming to a Church Near You

Tenth Sunday of Pentecost
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8
August 21, 2011

The two Bible passages that I am commenting on this week (I will also be preaching this Sunday) has me thinking about movies. It always seems that there are folks who only like the big summer blockbuster movie with mega budgets. On the other side, there are those who only seem to like small, independent movies. I tend to like both kinds of movies. I love the big films with awesome sound and special effects and I love the small films that tell a story and leave the moviegoer thinking about life.

The passage in Exodus is definitely that start of a big budget film. There's a larger than life villian in the Pharoah, the plucky young women who defy the Pharoah's order and a baby is saved from destructions. You can even here the anthemic music score.

(Of course, a big-budget film was made on Moses, the Pharoah and the Israelities.)

On the other hand, the Romans text feels like an independent film. The story is less grandiose and more personal and intimate. If music is a part of the film, it happens to be one piano playing a sparse tune.

The beginning of Exodus feels big, because that's the point. The whole point of the book of Exodus is about God working to free God's people. The crafty midwives were they people whom God worked through to thwart Pharoah's plans. Exodus makes the point that God will work to say "No" to the devil's themes.

As David Lose remarks, there is a lot that can be used by faith communities in this text. But in someways, it still feels so out of touch from the common church person. After all, we aren't dealing with a genocidal leader.

That's where Romans come in. Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome is far more personal and far more practical. In this letter we find Paul telling his fellow followers to constantly offer their whole lives as a sacrifice to God. He urges the Romans and by extension, us to live lives that are not conformed to the ways of the world, but to be shaped by God, to be transformed following God's ways.

Shiprah and Puah model this kind of transformation. They are not conformed to the ways of Pharoah, and instead choose to follow God's way- saving the Hebrew boys from destruction.

In our daily lives, we probably won't face a homocidal king. But, we are called to live and work in a different way as follower of Jesus. How do we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God?

There is a woman at my church who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. She was the woman who was instrumental in starting a prayer shawl ministry at our church and has even given the shawls at times, even though she has trouble getting to church these days.

This woman, and all the members of the prayer shawl ministry are being transformed by God, using yarn and knitting needles to bring comfort to people.

The challenge this week is how we can live as God would want us to live. How are we being transformed by God? How are we offering worship to God?

Go and be church.
Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fit for a Dog

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 15:10-28
August 14, 2011

The following is a sermon I gave in 2008. This gospel text is probably the most challenging in the Gospels and it's one that I like to tackle.

During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.

One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.

At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.

I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs.

After I finished the race, many of the parents who were there watching the race, were shocked at what had happened and asked if I was okay. I was, but I had been rudely reminded of my parent’s admonition that there would be people who might not like me simply because of my color. My father, having grown up in Jim Crow Louisiana was well aware of this. I learned that day, that even though we have come a long way as a nation in race relations, there were always going to be people who would treat others horribly simply because of how the appear.

Today’s gospel reading is difficult, if not confusing to hear. We are used to a Jesus that is welcoming of everyone and yet here we see a Jesus that is not very nice, not very nice at all. Jesus seems to look like a hypocrite and a bigot all in one.

The passage begins with Jesus talking about his nemesis, the Pharisees. He tells the crowds that it is not what someone puts in their mouths that defiles, but what is in that person’s heart that makes someone unclean. He takes direct aim at the religious leaders, telling them that it is not following rules that makes a person righteous, but their heart, their intentions, that matter. This is all classical Jesus, sticking it to the self-righteous among him that cared more for following the law, than they did in helping their brother or sister.

And yet, all this seems forgotten in the next part of the passage. He is in region of Tyre, when a woman, who was not Jewish, came up to him frantically. She is desparate to have Jesus heal her daughter who was tormented by a demon. What was Jesus’ reaction? Well, at first he ignored her. Then the disciples told him to send her away.

Jesus responds, but it seems that he is still not paying any mind to this woman. “I have come only for the lost sheep of Israel,” he responds. No Gentiles need apply.

The woman pushes further and gets in front of Jesus and drops to the ground. “Lord, help me,” she says. She seems to know that this Jesus could heal her daughter and knew this was her only hope.

Jesus finally speaks to her and says, “It isn’t right to take the food meant for the children and give it to dogs.”

Ouch. Now, some scholars think that the term “dogs” here meant a more playful term, like “Puppies.” But it would seem rather callous for Jesus to be playing with the woman, when her daughter was gravely ill. Other scholars say that calling someone a dog was a derogatory term, in the same way that another word referring to a female dog is used as a derogatory term today.

So here we have Jesus, the Son of God, the one who broke barriers to welcome everyone, showing a sense of prejudice to a fellow human being.

No one would blame the woman for walking away, but instead of doing that, she pushes back with a witty response worthy of Shakesphere. “Yes, but even the dogs get what is left by the children at the table.”

For some reason, this shocks Jesus and he realized the woman’s faith. She was no longer a foreigner, but a woman of great faith. The woman came home to find her daughter healed.

So what is this story ultimately about? Is it about race? Is it about inclusion? Well, on one level it is about that, but there is another undercurrent going on here. It’s all about faith and placing our faith in God even when it seems that God has no faith in us.

The Pharisees placed their faith in their correct following of religious practice. But Jesus exposes that as a sham, because someone can be good at practicing the faith and still be a rotten person. During the time of slavery and later Jim Crow, there were many white Christians who were stead churchgoers and took their faith seriously and still treated their black sisters and brothers like dirt.

The Gentile woman, on the other hand, placed her faith in God. For all we know, she may have not worshipped the God of Israel, but she knew that this God could heal her daughter and that this man, Jesus would heal her daughter. So, she was bold in asking and never took no for an answer.

What does this all have to do with this faith community here in the early 21st century?


Like the Pharisees, we can place our hope in things other than God. We can place our hope in our traditions, in our bank accounts and in our buildings. Or, we can be like the woman, who had faith even when the road seemed dark and with out hope. The woman’s faith was bold, daring, audacious, willing to break boundaries. She believed in a God that would heal her daughter and knew, knew, that Jesus would heal her loved one.

This sermon could have been one where I simply said that we should be more welcoming to people who are different. It would have been a perfect “After School Special” kind of sermon. But I don’t think we are simply asked to be nice to others, but to live in faith and open up the doors, welcoming others regardless of who they are, not because it’s the nice thing to do, but because it is we believe, with our whole hearts, that the Jesus who healed the Cannanite woman’s daughter, is one that welcomes someone regardless of the race or sexual orientation.

But there is even another message that we need to hear. The fact is, we are the dogs. We are not part of the children of Israel. We are outsiders. And yet, we can come boldly before God in faith because even the dogs receive God’s blessings.

I’m not much of a dog person. I’ve always loved cats and I’m the proud servant of two cats. (If you have cats, you understand why I said I’m a servant.) Some of my friends do have dogs. What I’ve noticed is how faithful dogs are to their companions and to others that they meet. I remember one day when I met up with two of my friends. Along with them, was one of their dogs, a large Rottweiler. Now these dogs have a reputation for being big, scary dogs, but this dog was incredibly friendly and decided to lick me.... a lot. This dog showed love and acceptance. Not unlike the woman who was once called a dog.

We will face a world where we will be shut out for whatever reason. But we have faith in a God that knows no boundaries and is with us, to the end of the age. Amen.

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