Thursday, May 3, 2012


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

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

...and kill some plants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go and be church. 

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

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Endings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Save Me, Save Me, Save Me

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

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

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

Except they didn't.

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

But I couldn't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Human

Fifth Sunday of Lent
 Psalm 51
March 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

 Go and be church.

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