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.