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.