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.