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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dream On

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost A
August 7, 2011
 Genesis 37:1-4 and 12-28

Note: The following is my attempt at adapting a curriculum originally intended for youth to an adult audience.  You find out about the project here.

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

Here's the Story, of man named Jacob...

This first part of the story of Joseph will deal with something many might find familiar: the rivalries that take place within families. As we read the text, keep in mind this question: where is God in all of this?
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.*4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

-Genesis 37:1-4 (NRSV)
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 bothers.

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.

A word about the special coat. 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 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 as we shall see.
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.

9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, ‘Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ 10But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, ‘What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?’ 11So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Genesis 37:5-11 (NRSV)
In this passage, we find out 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 bug his brothers (and his parents). What do you think Joseph was thinking as he interpreted his own dream?

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.
So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.’ 22Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’—that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves* that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

-Genesis 37:17-24
"Here comes this dreamer." In those days, dreamers were considered Very Important People- until they died. So, Joseph's brothers were looking forward to getting rid of this dreamer who was an annoying pest.

But two older brothers had their wits about them. Rueben knew there was no way the brothers could cover up killing Joseph. So, he persuaded them to put in Joseph in a pit which is exactly what they do.
26Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is there if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.

-Genesis 37:26-27
For whatever reason, Rueben leaves the scene. The other brothers sit down to eat and after a while, traders come by. Judah decides that the whole let's-kill-our-brother idea just wasn't going to work out. But, Judah says, maybe we could sell our "dear brother" into slavery!

And so for $20 they sold Joseph to the traders and off Joe went to Egypt.
34Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son for many days. 35All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’

-Genesis 37:34-35
Joseph was now out of the picture. Rueben, who had planned to get his brother out of the pit when the others weren't looking, returns to find out that Joseph had been bought and sold. The brothers scheme to find a way to explain why Joseph was gone. They took Joe's nice coat, tore it up, splattered it with blood and ran to Jacob telling their father that his beloved son had died.

Jacob was beside himself in grief. His favorite son was dead.


• How do you respond to people who act like they are better than you?
• Have you ever said something like Joseph did to his family?
• Is it OK to want to do better than others in your family?
• Is it OK to tell them?
• How would you feel if you were a sibling of the boy Joseph?

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

...and You're Still Here

Genesis 32:22-31
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost A
July 31, 2011

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’

There's a song by Alanis Morrisette called "Everything." This came out long after her ginormous success with her "Jagged Little Pill" album, but the song is no less powerful. The song starts off with a shocking statement: "I can be a a**h**e of the grandest kind." It starts off basically saying that the person in the song can be a big jerk and they know it.

After that shocking opening, the chorus then moves on:

You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything to which you can't relate
And you're still here

And you're still here. Amazing.

Jacob is wrestling with some unknown person. It's a big time in his life; he's getting ready to meet his estranged brother Esau, who is not that happy to see him. Jacob had tricked his dear brother, stealing both the birthright and their father's blessing. Jacob is stressed about meeting his brother and the night before the big meeting, he ends up having to wrestle.

For whatever reason, these two wrestle all night. At some point the unknown man struck Jacob's hip causing it to go out of joint. The man might have thought that should be the end of that, but Jacob held on. Finally, the man asked for Jacob to let go. But Jacob wants a blessing. The man asks for Jacob's name and Jacob gives it. The man then gives Jacob a new name: Israel.

It was in this scene that Jacob's past and future meet. Jacob was basically a cheat. He cheated his brother, he cheated his father-in-law, he tricked his father. Jacob was not an upstanding person.

Kathryn Schifferdecker explains:
My colleague, David Lose, says, "Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It's about telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, (and) our sins. And then we hear the good and gracious news about God's response to our condition, for Christ's sake, no matter what."

David uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of "telling the truth twice." God asks Jacob's name, and he says "Jacob." (The name "Jacob" is derived from the Hebrew word for "heel" and has the connotation of "supplanting" or "cheating.") And that name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been—a supplanter, a cheater, a liar, one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother's blessing, one who had to run for his life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban, deceiving and being deceived. That's the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but he has matured from the callow youth he once was.

I think we like to think of this passage one where Jacob (and the rest of us) wrestle with God. But what if this is also about how God wrestles with us?

God knew who Jacob was. God knew Jacob's less then stellar past. And yet, God blesses Jacob and gives him a new name. God was still there.

God would continue to wrestle with Israel, not just the man, but the nation that bared his name. But God remained, staying in love with God's people even when they spurned God.

The point to remember here is that God is continually wrestling with us. God knows of our own less-than-stellar past. And yet God is still there with us, blessing us and loving us.

And you're still here. Amazing.

Go and be church.

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

Friday, July 15, 2011

Weed Be (Not) Gone

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost A
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The big controversy earlier this year was over the release of Rob Bell's book, Love Wins. I haven't read the book yet, but I did read many blog post about the concept of hell. Did it exist? Does it matter?

The arguments were fast and furious. No matter the side people took, they all reminded me of a nasty habit I have of taking a book I'm reading and peeking at the end of the novel to see how things end.

I think Christians want to look at the end of the Story and see how it ends. We want to write the ending and decide who gets a happy ending and who doesn't.

Which is why the parables of the wheat and tares is so fascinating. The workers in the field are upset that an enemy has planted weeds among the wheat. They want nothing more than to remove the weeds. As someone that tries to garden, I can understand the desire to remove weeds from a garden. But the owner of the land decides to let the weeds and wheat grow together until harvest time when the weeds will be burned. He is concerned that the desire to remove the weeds will hurt the wheat, so better to wait until harvest time.

It's natural to think that this story is about good and bad people and that the bad people will go to hell. It very well might be what Jesus is getting at. But notice that now is not the time to pull out weeds. Now is the time to let them grow together.

The parable is a reminder that we don't know the end of the story. We don't know who is wheat an who is a weed. We also are unaware of the parts of us that are "weed" the part that turns away from God and the part that is "wheat" that seeks to follow and be Jesus to those we encounter.

The Church is filled with stories of people trying to root out weeds. The problem is that we end up pulling up the wheat as well and end up messing up God's garden.

As we head to church this weekend, let us remember that we don't know the end of the story. We aren't called to determine the fate of our sisters and brothers. We are called to tend to the field, care for both wheat and tare and leave the end result to God.

Go and be church.

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

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Better Living Through Grace

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost A
Matthew 13:1-23

As a kid, I would love going to garden shops. I remember there was an old Frank's Nursery not far from my house and I'd love to into the garden area and take in all the sights, sounds and smells. To this day, I have a great fondness for going into the garden areas of a Home Depot or Lowe's.

With this love comes a bit of heartache, because I'm not a good gardener.

It's not like I try. I will go to a store and by some plants and I try to water them as often as possible and they end up looking like I had done nothing to them. The brown thumb strikes again.

Last year was like previous years, I had bought a few plants and took care of them. I gave them plant food, checked all the proper websites on how to take care of prennials and still the plants looked like...well, it's another word for fertilizer.

But this spring, something happened: I started to see green shoots. I realized that even though I thought I did a terrible job taking care of plants, here were several examples of growth. Through spring and into summer, the plants have grown and some have even bloomed. It seems like in spite of what I've done, these plants grew into visions of beauty.

When I realized that this Sunday was the Sunday of the Parable of the Sower, I started looking at past sermons. I remember preaching a sermon six years ago about how I started to look at this parable from Jesus differently. You see, this story was one of my least favorite and I'm someone that loves the Parables of Jesus. It puts me back in college, where my campus pastor would talk about what kind of soil we are and how we need to be good soil. The passage always left me with sadness, because I thought I could never measure up.

I will let my younger self take it from there. Here's part of the sermon I preached on July 10, 2005:

Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.

Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.

You would be wrong.

The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.

So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?

That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.

This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.

We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”

But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.

My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.

But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.

And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.

It's easy to look at this story and see it as a moral about how we have to be "good Christians." The problem is that as Russell Rathburn has said, that makes this story a tale about "works-righteousness" instead of the wonderful grace of God.

This might be a "low Sunday" for your congregation as many folks are on the highways and byways. But I hope you still take the care and the time to communicate the awesome love of God to those who do make it to church. If you look out into your congregation, there are probably a lot of folks feeling a lot of guilt. Maybe some of it is well-deserved, maybe some of it isn't. Either way, they also need to know that they are loved, loved by a God that loves extravagantly.

I always end this with my tagline "Go and be church." I mean that. Go and show people your love. Go in the power of the Spirit and love wastefully. Some of the seeds won't grow, and some will produce a bumper crop. The results don't matter as much as we show we are loved by a big, lovable and relentless God.

Go and be church.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Take A Walk on the Wild Side

Second Sunday After Pentecost A
Genesis 22:1-18

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’
-Genesis 22:1-2

Take your son. Your only son, Issac. Whom. You. Love.

When I was younger, I remember hearing this story and being told this was a percursor to what would happen later in the New Testament where Christ as God's son became the sacrifice that set us free.

These days, I tend to focus on the whole concept of Abraham taking his son to be the sacrifice. It's something that makes you uncomfortable. To a modern reader like myself, it just seems wrong for Abe to even think that God would even request such a horrible thing. There is a temptation to just ignore this passage, frame it was one of those terrible "texts of terror" and just move on to a more pleasant text.

But the thing is, as unsettling as this story is, there is something here for us to learn about faith and about walking in faith.

The thing that is amazing (and disturbing) is that Abraham had faith in God.  He does what he has always done when God calls- respond.  He sets out to the place God tells him to go to with Issac.  He continues to believe God will provide and is ready and willing to raise the knife to slaughter his own son because he had faith in God.

Rick Morely tries to show how faith isn't as neat and tidy as we would like it to be- indeed, sometimes it can seem quite bizarre:

This story raises so many questions. Big questions. Questions about the kind of God that would ask this. About the kind of father who would hear this Voice in his head and follow it.

If this happened today Abraham would be arrested.

I think the ugly, tortured nature of this story was meant to be. I also think that there aren't any good answers to the hard questions that this story raises.

Because while this is an ugly story, it's really not about the ugliness. It's about the faith of Abraham who was willing to do whatever God asked him to to. For him there was no limit. And, it's about the faithfulness of God who ultimately provides, and which turns a tragic story a little less tragic.

The Akedah is one of those chapters of the Bible which reminds us all too well that we don't have a neat and tidy little religion that is country-club respectable in all ways at all times. 
Faith in God is always an odd thing.  I don't think it will lead these days to attempted murder, but it might lead us to places we never expected to be and doing things we never dreamed of doing.  This passage reminds us that the God we serve is not a safe God.  We follow a loving God and a good God, but never a safe God.

We also have to remember that faith is not simply following certain beliefs, but instead about trust.  We place our trust in God and that trust is lived out in our daily lives.  Rabbi David Ackerman sums this up nicely:

In Jewish culture, Avraham Avinu is the original "walking man." Two words bespeak this central motif of Abraham's life. Lekh l'kha, "Go forth," (or as I prefer, "Go take a hike," which I'll explain in a moment) is of course the divine command that begins Abraham's saga. The same phrase recurs in Parashat Va-yera as part of the demand that Abraham offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Between those two imperatives to go take a hike, Abraham spends a lot of time on the road. Momentously, he leaves his homeland and his father's house in search of a new, and not precisely identified, land. He migrates to Egypt in response to a famine and returns only to take to the battlefield, just one of a series of adventures that keep him continually away from home. Abraham's peripatetic nature gives rise to a great deal of commentary down through the centuries, some favorable, some not...

Aviva Zornberg brilliantly describes Abraham's journeying as suggestive of "the full paradox of a vital quest, enacted in empirical randomness." He may not know exactly where he is headed, but he understands full well why he's headed there. And in this regard, Abraham is all of us; our lives in so many ways follow the same trajectory of purposeful, personal journeys, undertaken in unreliable circumstances, in search of uncertain results. And yet, we continue to walk...

Heschel's famous claim that marching for civil rights in Selma constituted "praying with his feet" is the direct descendent of this Hasidic ideal. We walk in search of opportunities to serve God, to improve the world, and thereby to worship.

I do think when we are called by God we are called to take a walk on the wild side, to quote Lou Reed.  It is a journey that doesn't always make sense, but it is a journey where we will meet God and be changed.  It won't be all tied up with a bow on top, but it will provide in ways we can't imagine.  We have faith in God and God has faith in us.

I don't have an easy suggestion for you all for the coming Sunday.  This passage wasn't made for that.  But I do ask that you look at the text a few times and ask your congregations to struggle with this passage.  Remind them that trusting God isn't easy or simple.  But also let them know this walk with God will not be boring.

Go and be church.

Illustration: Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall. Musee Nationaux Alpes-Maritimes (Nice).

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

Friday, June 17, 2011


Trinity Sunday A
Matthew 28:16-20

The last few verses of the book of Matthew, which is commonly called The Great Commission, is a passage I am very familiar with. I remember it from my youth. The thrust of the passage back them was pretty simple. Go share the gospel with others. I remember learning ways you could help your friends and neighbors become Christians, methods like the Four Spiritual laws. I know back then I wanted to evangelize and tell others about the good news of Christ. But I also felt a bit odd about it. I didn't feel comfortable doing it. I knew it was important, but I just didn't know how to say the words to another person.

As I grew into adulthood and away from my evangelical upbringing, I struggled with this passage. What did it mean to me now? Did it mean trying to tell someone the "Romans Road" to salvation, or did it mean something else? Should we just ignore the text?

For some reason, I couldn't ignore the text. It was there staring at me.

This Sunday, many pastors might be tempted to just skip this passage. Mainline Protestants don't feel as comfortable about sharing their faith in the way that evangelicals do and this passage is a reminder of all that they might not be comfortable with. That, and some remind us of a more darker interpretation- the abuse of this passage to conquer other peoples. Michael Danner sums up all that makes people feel very queasy about The Great Commission:

...what reference point do we use when we define those words? Do we let the life and teaching of Jesus inform what it means to “go” and “make”? Or do we let something or someone else define what it means to “go” and “make”? This makes a huge difference.

If we let Jesus inform what it means to “go” and “make” it leads to humble service, drenched in love and grace, that seeks restoration and freedom for any and all that we encounter. It leads to story telling and wine sharing and bread eating. It leads to healing and hope.

Other kinds of “going” and “making” are markedly different. Some people “go” and “make” in ways that are manipulative, coercive or, even, violent. Others “go” and “make” in ways that seek to replicate their own beliefs in others. Still others “go” and “make” using fear, anger, guilt and shame. And, still others go and make in ways that make themselves feet better but, in reality, they do little to engage hurting people in a hurtful world.

I can't deny that a lot of bad things have been done in God's name. Cross has sometimes followed Flag in the taking of other lands and the subjegation of other peoples.

But just because others have really, really botched the understanding of the passage doesn't mean we should just ignore these words. In Matthew's version of the story of Jesus, these are the last words that Jesus says to his disciples. It's a farewell to his friends, and final words like that carry some weight.

The word "go" keeps buzzing around in my head. Jesus says to go and make disciples. Matthew was clear how that was to be done, which is what frustrates Danner. Some have used force to try to spread the faith, but I don't think this is what Jesus had in mind.

When I think about going and making disciples, I think of my friend Jim. Jim is my age and like me, is gay. For a long time, he stayed away from church because he didn't feel that a community would accept him for who he was. We met when I was attempting to plant a church. He was able to find a place where he could commune with God and others. I can't remember doing anything special other than being who I was in my faith. But Jim has told me that something did happen. He was able to see Jesus in the hospitality shown by myself and others in our small community.

Maybe this is what is meant by "go." Go and live our lives, lives filled with grace and a living witness of Jesus Christ.

As communities gather this Sunday, let's learn what it means to share our faith. I don't think it's about Spiritual Laws or Roman Roads, but I do think it is about sharing our lives with others, sharing enough that they can see Jesus.

Go and be church.

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pentecost Is A Question

Pentecost A
Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21

When I first started serving at First Christian, there was no children's ministry at all.  None.  Over the years of dealing with declining membership, a large physical plant to maintain and a host of other issues taking care of the little ones came last.

That didn't set well with one of the members.  She has always loved being with children and was mad that nothing was going on.  As she recounts the story, she was complaining to me about why no one was doing anything about this and I responded, "So what are you going to do about it?"

It was after my moment of frankness that she started a children's program at the congregation, which in many cases was instrumental in helping the church revive itself.

Coming into Pentecost, I looked forward to this Sunday with both excitement and boredom. I love Pentecost because its such a joyous holiday, a time when pastors and worship leaders get to do something a bit different. I love that we get to wear red and usually the sanctuary is festooned with bright shades of red.

On the other hand, we tend to hear the same Pentecost text over and over again. At first blush, I wanted to just skip this text. It's been so overdone. David Lose kind of captures the "boredom" of the text:

Honestly, I suspect that we've heard the story of the wind and the tongues-of-flame and the dove and the crowds-hearing-the-sermon-in-their-own-languages just enough to believe that the promise of Pentecost is deliverance, celebration, victory, and strength. The signs of Pentecost, after all, are mighty. And what is the Holy Spirit if it is not God's own agent – the very Spirit of the resurrected Jesus – now on earth to accompany us with signs of wonder and power.

However, as the week progressed, this text kept coming back to me. I can't really describe why I am attracted to this text, again, but I am.

I think some of the points to consider as we re-read this text again is how disruptive the Spirit is. I don't think we realize just how much the Spirit turns the lives of the disciples of Jesus upside down. Look at what Peter starts talking about in this passage:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

None of this sounds safe, does it?

Looking at the text from Numbers, we see that the Spirit touches some people who weren't authorized to be prophets. Joshua thinks something needs to be done to stop these people who were not accredited from prophesying. But Moses tells Josh to put a sock in it. "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” he says.

Pentecost is in many ways a question.  We are asked to look back to see all the mighty deeds that God has done for God's people, to see how Jesus showed us God's love in his life, death and resurrection and to see the Holy Spirit descend in wind and flame.  We are asked to see all of this and ask, "So what are you going to do about it?"

As we worship in our churches this weekend, as preachers prepare to preach yet another sermon on the Acts text, we might want to ask our congregations the same question.  "So, what are you going to do about it?"

The "so what" for the disciples was that they started telling the story of Jesus all over the known world.  They didn't go back to their old lives, but forged ahead, being empowered and led by the Spirit to some new territory.

The wind, fire and the speaking of different languages is a pointed question to us.  What does all of this mean to you?  Does it affect you?  Does it change your life?

David Lose references one of my favorite political columnists, David Brooks, who wrote a worthwhile essay recently to today's college grads.  He told them to give up the recent obsession in our society to focus on the self, and to live for others:

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

As Christians our lives are shaped by a calling; a calling from God, exemplified by Jesus and sent by the Holy Spirit. It is when we serve others, teaching children about God or befriending a person battling addiction that is when we begin to answer the question that is Pentecost, it when we do something about life in response to all the amazing acts God has done for us. For all of us.

So, what are you going to do about it?

Go and be church.

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

Friday, May 27, 2011

We Are the World

Sixth Sunday of Easter A
John 14:15-21

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

When you read this passage, it's easy to think that Jesus is talking about those special people in his life. Jesus is talking to his disciples, continuing this long farewell speech that started in John 13. In this passage, he tells the disciples that they will recieve the Spirit, something the world can't recieve because they don't know Jesus.

It's easy to hear this passage and think not just think Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but that he is speaking to us, the present-day disciples who want to follow Jesus. It's also easy to think that we have some special knowledge that the rest of the world doesn't have. We have access to the Spirit, something the rest of those poor suckers don't have.

Only, the disciples didn't quite get it, did they? Peter denied Jesus, Judas betrayed him and the rest basically took off at the very moment Jesus needed them. Even as Jesus is speaking to them about being given the Spirit, they were like the rest of the world in not knowing who Jesus was.

What should dawn on us is that the disciples, both then and now are also part of the world, the world that denies and ignores Jesus. We are the world.

This passage reveals that those who profess to follow Jesus can be just as blind as everyone else. It reminds us that we are as the old saying goes, simply "sinners by grace."

As we stand in our pulpits or sit in the pews this Sunday, we should remember that we don't always "get Jesus." Like the disciples of old, we can be see Jesus right in front of us and yet not see Jesus- choosing to live as if God didn't exist.

But while that is part of the message here this week, thank God it isn't the whole message. Jesus starts this passage by saying that if we love him we will keep his commandments. It all goes back to relationship. We place our trust in Jesus. We love Jesus and we show our love by keeping his commandments- even though we will mess up.

Maybe it's not accidental that we have this text on Memorial Day weekend, a time when we remember those who gave their lives serving their country. These folks showed their love of country by serving and giving the ultimate sacrifice. The servicemen and women who died serving showed fidelity- an ongoing relationship with their nation. Likewise, we are called to fidelity with Christ, an ongoing relationship where we show our love in keeping his commandments- loving our neighbor, welcoming the outcast and loving even the enemy. We do this as imperfect disciples who sometimes don't understand Jesus, but still going on serving in Jesus name.

Go and be church.

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

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

For You, But Not About You

Fifth Sunday of Easter A
John 14:1-14

The gospel for this coming Sunday is not the easiest to understand. This part of Christ's farewell discourse, which spans four chapters in John; chapters 13 through 17. In chapter 14 he talks about mansions and being the way. None of it makes a lot of sense to his disciples. The first three verses are truly opaque but at the same time familiar:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

The verses are used a lot during funerals. They sense a future hope, a sense that God in Christ is creating a place for us- heaven. Could this passage give us some comfort, that no matter how hard life might be, we have this dream of being with God in every sense imaginable?

But as Rick Morley notes this passage can bother folks because it seems too much about us:
I have to say though, that this is not one of the passages of Jesus' teachings that speaks readily to me. Not because I'm uncomfortable with Jesus' sentiments here, but because I'm uncomfortable with the all-too-typical-take on them.

 I get uncomfortable with any version of our faith which turns Christianity into something that's all about us. There are far too many teachings on Jesus, salvation, and Heaven, which remake Christianity into a narcissistic cult. And that's the very opposite of the kind of faith that Jesus presents and compels us to follow.

The faith, as Jesus taught it, is all about us loving God and our neighbor. It's an outwardly focused faith, which pushes us to look around and find people to love, and a God to adore.

If we stopped at the first three verses, I would totally agree with Rick. But there is much more to this passage. Yes, we are promised a future with God, but there is work to do now. Look at verse twelve:

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

The one who believes...a moment here. What does the word "believe" mean. Well, you should know that it doesn't mean following certain dogma. No, the greek word for "believe" is pistis, which is also the word for faith and trust. So, the one who places their trust, their faith in Jesus will also do what Jesus did, preach the Word of God, heal the sick and feed the hungry. Chapter 14 is for you and for me, but it surely is NOT about us. We are assured to be with God now and in the future, but we are also called to do God's work in the world. Tripp Hudgins has some great thoughts about how this passage, this talk of mansions is a now and not yet kind of deal:

when we read Revelation and take Jesus’ worldly ministry seriously, I see that the Kingdom of God is here, now, with us, always lighting the way to God. It’s not some netherworld that we cannot reach without magical map making from the Messiah. Jesus is the map. His life, his very fleshy and challenging life is the way to the dwelling that we each have in God’s house, in this City of God.

House. City. Land. Kingdom. No matter what the metaphor, we know it’s a place, a recognizable place. The trouble is that our relationships with these places are often so polluted that, like Thomas, we cannot even begin to imagine that God’s dwelling might actually be a house, a city, a land, or a kingdom. And most of us cannot imagine that there’s room for everyone.

The thing is, Jesus is the dwelling place, Jesus is our home and in Jesus there is room enough for everyone.

Thanks be to God.

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

Saturday, April 30, 2011


First Sunday of Easter A
John 20:19-31

As I was preparing for a Lectionary Study this week, I came across the web Bible Study called Faith Lens, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The study started off talking about a television show that I enjoy viewing called Mythbusters.  Here's how contributor Bill King describes the show:

Nominated for an Emmy and hosted by the jauntily bereted Jamie Hyneman and “stuff maker” Adam Savage, Mythbusters scientifically tests urban myths, outrageous propositions, and conventional wisdom.  The show has a particular fondness for myths which involve explosions, making a mess, or disgusting materials (they made a candle out of ear wax).  Some have called it “the best science show on television,” and few would dispute that it is the zaniest.  The show sometimes does silly things, like constructing a lead balloon, just to see if it can be done.  But beneath the laughter is a serious purpose, to illustrate how science separates fact from fiction.

What's so cool about the show is how Jamie and Adam try to test out urban myths.  Sometimes they are able to "bust" the myth and show that it's not true.  Other times they are able to verify that the myth is true, and still other times it's plausible.

When you read this week's gospel in John about good ole "Doubting Thomas" you might think about how Tom wanted proof of Jesus' existence.  There will be talk about how doubt is important in the life of faith and we will try to hold him up as a modern hero who didn't just want to believe something because someone told him.

These are all good things to note in the text, but what if there's something more here that we aren't seeing.  What if this text is not just about doubt and faith, not just about the Risen Savior, but also a message for the church,  the body of Christ?

In his lectionary reflection this week, Russell Rathburn expresses his interest in the actual body of Christ:

After crashing through all that at break neck speed, John slows it down to spend the majority of this verses focusing on his Body. Thomas says he wants to see the Body, see the wounds. Jesus arrives and very graphically shows him the wounds, and in a very intimate gesture, invites him to place his finger/hand inside them. There can be no doubt that this is the Body of Jesus the Christ, very man, very God.

That Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith. This Sunday’s reading starts and ends with it, giving just a verse each to the Great Commission, Pentecost, the rest is all about the Body. After so much emphasis on the Body of Jesus through the Lent and Easter seasons, how do we preach with out one? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? There really are not any other options are there?

The question that hits me here is Russell's talk about the body of Christ when there isn't a body anymore.

But what if there is a body?  What if Christ's ressurection wasn't only about the physical resurrection, but also about how the ressurection lives in the life of the gathered community, the Church?

Thomas wanted to experience Jesus for himself.  He did not want to rely on the experience of others.  Belief for Thomas was not about accepting creedal statements, but about a relationship and if he couldn't experience a body, then what's the point?

Now for a moment, think about the body of Christ as the church, because in the here and now that's what modern Thomases are looking at when they want to see Jesus.  They aren't looking to just accept a doctrinal statement, but they are looking to commune with the Body of Christ.  In this present age, there isn't a physical body to talk about, but Christ is found in the Church, the folks who believe in Christ and abide with him.

Maybe, just maybe, if the church can live as a community called, gathered and sent by God to preach the good news, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we live as a community of forgiven sinners, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we welcome all to the doors of our churches, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.

As you prepare to preach or teach this Sunday after the Ressurection, think about what it means to be the Body of Christ in our world.  How do we witness to the Living and Risen Christ?

Go and be church.

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

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cruise Control

Easter Sunday A
Matthew 28:1-10

I have to believe that one of the most beautiful inventions has to be cruise control in cars.  There's something kinda cool about pressing a button and having the car basically drive itself during long trips.  All I have to do is sit back, relax and the car drive itself.

Okay, I don't just let the car drive itself.  I do have to keep my eyes on the road.  Cruise control doesn't mean I get to excuse myself from driving- I still have to be alert and ready for any changes on the highway.

Easter can be both a blessing and a curse.  It's a blessing of course because Jesus defeated the powers of death and arose on that Sunday morning long ago.  But it's also a curse, because it comes at the end of a long week and we are just plumb tired.

But maybe what really makes Easter a curse is that we've done it so many times.  We sing the same songs and preach the same sermons year after year.  I don't know about others, but there have been moments when I feel that this has all be done before.  Ressurrection is so first century.

It's easy to go on cruise control when it comes to Easter.  But I wonder if doing that means we miss what might be going on in the story.  I wonder if we miss how this old story is not so old in reality.  Maybe in reading this story again, we will see where new life is springing up in our own lives.

The gospel text today has a lot going on, but I want to focus on one group of characters: the women.  If you want an example of what it means to live without hope, it has to be the two Marys.  These women had a close relationship with Jesus and believed that this guy was special.  Then he ends up getting killed.  They come to the tomb on Sunday morning without any hope.  Another idealist is killed.  Cynicism wins again.

I think back to my time in Clinical Pastoral Education.  I remember meeting a young man who lost one leg in an accident.  I would spend time in his room where he would say very little to me.  His face was one not simply of sadness, but one of profound grief.  He was only 21.  He had a future ahead of him.  But the future was now more cloudy and his face told me had little hope.

That is what these women felt.  There are times in our lives when we feel that there is no hope that things will change.  No hope that someone will get better; no hope that you will get that job; no hope that a loved one will quit drinking.

And then, there's an earthquake, and an angel appears saying that Jesus is no longer at the tomb but alive.  I have to believe the Marys thought it was a joke.  But if they thought that, they didn't think it for very long.  Matthew says the left with fear and great joy.  As they run to tell their friends the good news, they meet Jesus, alive and well.  Where there was no hope, there was now hope. 

The message of Easter is one of hope, but it starts in a place where there is no hope.  It starts in the way things are in the world.  If someone is dead, they kinda stay dead.

But hope has a different agenda.  It can bring life where there was no life and healing where there was sickness.  It reminds us that God is there with us, even when we feel abandoned.  Hope is there even when everything is tell us that there is no hope.

As you go to your faith communities this Sunday, please don't operate on cruise control.  Read the Easter story again and think about the two Marys.  Think about the disciples or the guards.  Read the story again and pay attention.  Think about hopelessness. Think about helplessness.  Think about love. Think about hope.  Think about it all and believe the good news that Jesus is alive and well.

Christ is Risen!

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hope Will Heal

By Dennis Sanders

Lent 5A: April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I actually remember when I first heard this scripture.  It was at a Sunday Morning service at the Baptist church I grew up at in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  I had to be about 10 years old at the time and I remember thinking how odd this scripture was.  I mean, what was this about dried bones coming back to life?  None of it made sense.

Flash forward three decades and a whole lot of life later, these words from the prophet Ezekiel make sense, at least that whole valley of dry bones part.

As I read this text, my thoughts drifted to my home state of Michigan and how it's faring these days, which is not well.  The census figures came out recently, and the news was not good.  Detroit, which was once the nation's fourth largest city, lost 25 percent of it's population in the last 10 years.  What was once a city of nearly 2 million in 1950 is now a city hovering around 700,000.  The changes in the US auto industry have ravaged Detroit and most of southeastern Michigan, leaving utter devastation in its wake.  My hometown of Flint had close to 200,000 when I was born in 1969.  These days, it hovers around 100,000.  In the 1970s, around 80,000 people worked in the many auto factories that dotted Flint and the surrounding cities, including my parents.  Now there are less than 10,000 working for the auto industry. The loss of so many jobs can take it toll.  In towns like Flint and Detroit, where there were once neighborhoods filled with well-maintained homes, there are now places filled with rotting houses and crime.  Its always hard to come home and see how far Flint and most of Michigan have fell.

Ezekiel is taken to a valley filled with dry bones by God.  Our prophet surveys the devastation and then hears this strange question from God.  "O mortal, can these bones live?"


I know there aren't supposed to be dumb questions, but this really seems like the dumbest question to ask.  These were bones.  Oh, and they were dry bones, so there was zero chance they were going to come back to life.  It seemed like there was an obvious answer to God's question, but Ezekiel was smart and replied that only God can know.

God keeps talking about how God will put the bones back together with muscles and skin and finally with the very breath of God.  Life would come from where there was no life.

God then explains to Ezekiel what this whole exercise was about.  The Israelites were in exile, far away from home.  They felt cut off from everything they knew and felt like those dried bones.  But God had a plan.  All was not lost.  God told them they would come back to their homeland and not only that, they would receive God's spirit.

As we continue our Lenten journey this week, it might seem odd to have a story about hope in it.  After all, we are on a journey towards the Cross and this is supposed to be a "somber" time.  Hope is something that feels more Advent than it does Lent.

And yet, maybe it makes sense to have this passage of hope in this dark time.  As I think about the economic devastation that is Michigan, I am reminded of stories that point to hope, that point to something that says, "despair will not win."  I am reminded of a recent article in my hometown newspaper about folks moving into Flint at a time when so many are leaving.  They see hope when others see despair.

In many mainline Protestant churches, there is a sense of feeling like dry bones.  The glory days are long gone and there might be a sense that there is no hope.

But God counters our despair by saying that God will save and restore us.  God will bring us back from the graves to life.  God gives us hope, not in a fairy tale-ending, but that God will be with us and breathe life into us.

This Sunday, I hope that you can acknowledge the dry bones that are in your life and in the lives of your congregation and community.  I also hope you can preach...hope.  Remind them, remind yourself that even when there seems to be no life, when the bones are raw that God will come and knit us back together, bone by bone.  Hope will heal.

Go and be church.

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

Photo:Abandoned, decrepit Victorian-era home in Brush Park, Detroit, Michigan from Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

This Is the One!

By Dennis Sanders

Lent 4A: April 3, 2011
I Samuel 16: 1-13

If you want to get great interview tips, you might not want to read the Bible.

For some reason, God just doesn't seem to pick people with the right skills for the job. God always seems to pick the smallest, or the weakest, or the youngest candidate for whatever God wants done.

This week is no different.  The text opens with the prophet Samuel feeling blue.  In chapter 15,  Saul, the king of Israel did not heed God's instructions and was rejected as king.  Samuel leaves Saul in a huff and the long-standing relationship between them is broken.   Samuel was in mourning over the loss of a close friend.

We have no idea how long Sam is sad, but God then tells him enough is enough: it's time to get up and anoint a new king.

Samuel makes the trip to Bethlehem and meets a man named Jesse who has seven sons.  Our man Sam gets introduced to Jesse's oldest, Eliab.  The text never says that Eliab is handsome, but you can guess he had to be a looker.  Samuel is excited and tells God that this has to be "The One."

"Nope," God says. "He's not the One.  You see, you humans like to look on the outside, but I tend to look on the inside."

You know the rest of the story.  God ends up choosing David, the youngest of Jesse's sons.  The Message version of this text refers to David as a "runt."  When David is presented to Samuel you hear God saying "This is the One!  Anoint him now!"

Like I said, God is an odd God.  The people God chooses to do God's work in the world are more times than not, people who are not qualified for the job.  Gideon was chosen to be the leader of the Israelites, even though he was a fraidy cat. Jonah preached God's judgement and repentance to the people of Nineveh, even though he hated them and tried to get out of the job.  Let's not even start with the disciples of Jesus who somehow were the ones that helped found the church.

Our culture, our world is always attracted to that which is new, shiny and beautiful.   We are interested in the person that has the most awards and the most degrees from the finest schools.

But God tends to look at other things and as followers of God's Son, we are also called to look at people with God's eyes.  God seems to be able to do mighty things by choosing the weak, the cowardly, and the outcast. 

This coming Sunday, many churches will focus on the text from John 9 on the blind man that was healed.  It's an important text, but I hope pastors and Christian Ed teachers will consider using the 1 Samuel text as well.  In our congregations are people who are dealing with unemployment and feeling useless.  There are others who deal with issues of self esteem and depression.  Some struggle with substances like drugs or are in recovery and working hard to stay clean and sober.  Whole congregations deal with declining membership, declining budgets and empty buildings.  This text gives hope, the hope that God can use them to do God's work in the world- even if we don't measure up.

Working at an urban church, we tend to get a lot of people who come literally from off the streets.  It's really easy to judge these folks and not seem them as God's own and potentially as God's anointed.  But the fact is, they can be used to do God's work just like the richest person in the church.

As we walk our Lenten journey, let us have ears to hear and eyes to see when God might just point to someone we least expect and tell us that "this is the one" who will join us in God's work.

Go and be church.

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

Photo: Samuel Anoints David from the Brick Testament.