Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday Sermon-October 28, 2007

The Prius and the Publican”

Luke 18:9-14

October 28, 2007

Lake Harriet Christian Church

Minneapolis, MN

I admit it: I am a gearhead. I love cars. I guess that shouldn't be so shocking considering I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan a city that is know for making cars and the fact that both my parents worked for General Motors. I remember the excitement I would have going to a car dealer and seeing all the shiny new cars. I still love going car shopping, though I could do without some of the pushy car salesman.

I'm also an environmentalist. I try to recycle as much as I can, use flourescent lights and I currently drive a very fuel effiecent VW Jetta. I'm concerned about global warming and I want to do what I can to stem the damage.

The time is coming that I might want to look at another car. I've been thinking about various cars and thinking about their fuel mileage. I love the Dodge Charger, the reincarnation of the 70s muscle car, but as much as I like the stylish looks and powerful engine, it's not the most “green car” out there. I've thought about getting another diesel powered Jetta which will get even better milelage than my current diesel VW. Lately, I've been thinking also about the Toyota Prius because it's a hybrid and also because I'm looking for something in the hatchback/station wagon design.

Now, I have to say I am a bit hesitant about getting a Prius even though it satisfies my green thumb. What has me hesitating is that I don't want to appear to showy or ostentatious.

Let me explain. As global warming becomes a greater issue, people are choosing hybrids. Not a bad thing, in fact that's a good thing. What is interesting is that some hybrid vehicles are more equal than others.

In a July 4 article in the New York Times, shows that the main reason people by Toyota's green machine is to make a statement. In a survey done this year, 57 percent of Prius owners said they bought the car because “it makes a statement about me.” That higher than fuel economy which came in at 36 percent, and even lower emissions which came in at 25 percent. “I really want people to know that I care about the environment,” said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. “I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car.” The Prius is outselling other hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Camry and the Honda Civic. Mary Gatch of South Carolina chose the Prius over the hybrid Camry because...well, I will her speak for herself: “I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there,” Ms. Gatch said. “I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.”

Today's gospel at first doesn't seem to have anything to do with people buying a car, but in fact it does. Jesus tells a parable about two men. At the beginning we are told the reason Jesus tells us this story was because some trusted in themselves and held others with contempt. Anyway, two men go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. The Pharisee prays to God and thanks God that he is not like all the bad people in the world, thieves, rouges...or this tax collector. The tax collector stands off at a distance and doesn't even look up to heaven. He says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says this one went home justified.

Now, you have heard me say this enough that you are probably sick of it, but parables are not moral tales, but showing us the world in God's eyes. If you walk away from this sermon thinking Pharisee=bad and tax collector=good, then I have failed you in helping to understand what this passage is saying.

A lot of people see the Pharisees as stock villians, but that is too simple. In doing some reading about this passage, we find out that the Pharisees are responsible for basically keeping Judaism alive and prospering. The Pharisee in this story was probably not a bad person, but trying to do good. He was trying to follow the law handed down by Moses and was trying to make sure that the Jews were trying to uphold their law in the midst of an alien power that controlled the land.

When you are involved in a cause, it is so easy for pride to start creeping in. We are doing something good and we start to see those that aren't part of the cause as somehow less than worthy. So you have this religious leader, doing what he can to keep the community faithful and sitting next to him is this tax collector. Tax collectors of that day worked for the Roman Empire, so they were seen as collborators. In addition, they also collected more than what the government wanted and pocketed the extra money. So, they conspired with the enemy and they extorted money. That didn't endear them to the community. If you were the Phraisee and this traitor was sitting next to you, you might even say the same thing he said. He was doing what he could to keep the community together. The tax collector was doing all he could to help destroy it.

Now, we all want to identify with the tax collector who was humble. But that's the problem; because in reality, we are closer to the Pharisee than we would like to think.

Pride is a funny thing; it's so insidious that you don't know how full of yourself you can be. If you want to see a place where pride is operating in full force, just go to church. The issues that we get involved in, whether it's the Iraq War or homosexuality, is full of people on both sides who are “full of it.” We tend to think and say to God, “thank God I am not like those liberals or conservatives or fundamentalists, or Democrats or Republicans,”or what have you.

The Bible says that the tax collector went home justified. He went home justified because he knew that the only One that could save him, that could have mercy on him was God. He went home justified by faith. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, it is by grace that we are saved through faith.

We human beings tend think it is what we do that makes us justified. But we are justified not by our works but by what Jesus has done on the cross. By grace we are saved though faith.

Concerning the Prius owners, I am not saying people should not buy the car. We all should be considering choices that will not hurt God's earth. However, there is something wrong about wanting to buy are car to make a statement about how good you are. In a way, that seems close very close to the Pharisee's own pride.

The thing is, even though we are prideful beings, God still loves us.

For our Lutheran brothers and sisters, today is Reformation Sunday. It is the Sunday they remember when a young monk by the name of Martin Luther pounded his document called 95 Theses on the door of a building in Germany. As I was putting together this sermon, I was reminded of a saying attributed to Luther as he was asked if he would recant his beliefs which were considered hertical. He said to have replied, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

Here we stand. We try to seek God's will and seek to do justice and be merciful in the world. But as Luther, we are called to do this with humility. Because in the end, it's not what we do that saves us, whether that's tithing or buying a Prius, it is our faith in the one that loves us even when we are self-righteous.

He we stand. We can do no other. God help us all. Amen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I Must Be Nuts....

I wrote this on Sunday, but I'm publishing it now:'s been a few months since I said goodbye to Community of Grace. Sadly, it was time put the church out of its misery. The thing is though, I am still interested in church planting. I have looked at other churches for open pastorates and I am keeping my mind and heart open to where God might be leading me...but this whole crazy idea of planting a church is still there.

The sad thing is that I really don't know of anyone who is committed and interested. I dunno, Minnesota can seem so barren at times when it comes to mission. All I can do is pray that there are people who might be interested in starting something new.

I keep getting the feeling that there needs to be something different among the few Disciple churches in the area. I think the current churches are trying, but there needs to be something more.

If I did start again, it would be different. We wouldn't try to be a new "old" church with a board and all that, but we would be a bit more organic: meeting for prayer, worship and doing works of justice. We would of course be open and affirming and it would be a Disciples of Christ congregation. I would also not be so interested in big numbers. I would rather have 10 strong people than 1000 who are pew warmers.

I have more I want to write, but it's late. Please keep me in your prayers as I think this through.

I feel like I'm a nut here...

Why Did I Get Ordained?

Every so often, there are days that I just feel down on me.

This was one of those days.

When I was about eleven, I remember playing softball. I was up at bat and trying to hit the ball. Being that I was never good at sports, this was going to be bad. I struck out and in frustration, I slammed the aluminum bat on the ground. I was mad that I couldn't hit a damn ball.

That's sort of how I've been feeling lately in regards to the church and my calling as a pastor. I feel like I'm up at bat again and I keep swinging and missing.

Church life and being a pastor is an odd thing. You go to seminary and learn about the importance of mission and social justice, you get excited about doing ministry in a parish and then when you get out into the real world, you have to do deal with churches that aren't so gung-ho for mission, pastors who see their roles as leaders as just a job or worse yet, something to lord over others and lay people who bitch about how much church sucks and yet won't do anything about it.

But what is really frustrating is having this heart to do ministry and churches not knowing what to do with you. Actually, they don't do anything with you- they just seem to ignore you and hope you will go away.

I shared my concerns once with a friend and she thought this was about demanding a job after ordination. Please. Yes, I would love to be paid, but this is about giving someone with a calling something to do, instead of ignoring them.

Sometimes I would like to meet someone who passionate about mission and not just wanting to complain. I want to meet someone who has read the gospels and wants to be Christ in the world.

I wish people would stop thinking I'm just being crabby Dennis and be the goddamn church.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Sunday Sermon-July 15, 2007

I've been doing a lot of supply preaching lately. Here is a sermon I gave at a church in the Western suburbs of Minneapolis.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Louisiana...”
Luke 10:25-37
July 15, 2007
Pilgrims United Church of Christ
Maple Grove, MN

I love summer for many reasons, but the reason I love it the most is because of vacations. When I was younger, my family embarked on several trips from my native Michigan to my dad's home state of Louisiana to visit his relatives. Spending time in Central Louisiana was always an adventure to me. I got a chance to have fun with my southern cousins and eat some wonderful Southern cooking.

My dad is now in his late 70s. When he was in a young man in his twenties, he left Alexandria, Louisiana to move to my hometown of Flint, Michigan to make a new start. His sister, Nora, was already living here, so he had family to help him get on his feet. Like many African American men at that time, he took a job in the many auto plants found in Flint. Dad worked at the old Buick plant for nearly 40 years.

Early on, Dad would go back home to see his Mom. What I learned that the trips he took South were quite different from the ones he would take with my mother and I some twenty years later. You see, it was mid-1950s. Dad had grew up in the Jim Crow South were segregation was the law. When Dad would go back South, my Aunt Nora would make a basket of fried chicken for the journey. My Dad's mother would do the same thing on the journey back. You can probably guess why. Fifty years ago, it was not so easy for a young black man like my father to stop at a local restaurant and get food. Dad also couldn't stop a hotel, so that meant sleeping on the side of a road until a cop told him to move along.

Of course, the civil rights movement made such practices illegal. By the time I came around, we stopped at restaurants and hotels in South without a stare. But every time I do, I remember that it was not too long ago, that someone like me wouldn't get in the door.

I love the parables of Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well known. You all probably know it by heart. Now, people have seen parables as moral tales that tell us how we should live. I tend to think that parables are a peek into what God's kingdom or reign looks like. Yes, we should try to live according to the principles set out in these parables, but what is important is to see how God is acting in the world and to join in.

Like many of you, I have looked at this story again and again. I thought I knew the story until I looked at it again. The young lawyer asked what he had to do to inherit eternal life and Jesus gives him a straightforward answer: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul and stregnth and love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer said he was doing all these things. But for this person, just doing all this was not enough. He was self-righteous and frankly, was looking for a loophole. “Who is my neighbor?” he said.

Who is my neighbor? The lawyer was focused on himself. He wanted to know who he had to be nice to get into heaven. It's almost as if he saw this as some sort of initiation: be nice to so-and-so and you get bonus points to eternal life!
We are a lot like the lawyer in this aspect. When we read this story, we think it means that we should love our neighbors. I'm not saying that we shouldn't, but that is not the point of this story. Jesus tells the story. A man is traveling down the highway and is overcome by theives who leave him for dead. A priest and a Levite see the man on the road, injured and dying, and simply pass him by. The third person, a dreaded Samaritan, sees the injured man, puts bandages on his wounds and takes him to a nearby hotel to recuperate. The crux of this story comes next. Jesus asks, “who was a neighbor to the man?”

That, my sisters and brothers, is the point of this story. It is not who is our neighbor, but are we a neighbor to others? Are we moved with pity to help those around us who are friend or foe?

The America that my father encountered in the 1950s was one that wasn't neighborly. Restaurants and hotels did not extend welcome to my father, simply because he was black. It was when people like Martin Luther King who believed we should be neighborly to those around us, that this inhospitality changed for the better.

If there is a “moral” to this story it is not to love our neighbors, but to be a good neighbor. God in Jesus Christ was a neighbor while on Earth. He met with the lowly, healed the sick and even forgave those who killed him. The God we love and serve is the Ultimate Neighbor, who loves and cares for creation.

How do we become good neighbors? Maybe it means that we befriend and be Christ to a gay man that was never made to feel welcome at the church of his youth. Maybe it means working to bring affordable housing to a community. I think you all get the idea. We are called by Christ to be good neighbors.

I should add, that being a good neighbor doesn't mean that we are loved by the world. The Samaritan might not have been seen in a good light by the man by the side of road when he recovered. Some will not receive our help. And you know what? God understands. God and Jesus came to be a good neighbor and it got him killed. But then we don't do this because we are looking for a reward. We do it because we follow a God who loved the world so much that he became one of us, suffered with us and died for us. This God lives again and is with us as we seek to be good neighbors to those who in our midst.

In 1989, our family went down South yet again. We were making our way through Mississippi and stopped at a rest area. I was a sophomore in college and Dad was pushing 60. As we were about to get into our car and continue of journey to Louisiana, a middle age white man came forward. You could tell this man was down on luck. He said he and his family were from Alabama and were without food. He pleaded for some food. Now, my mother is known for packing our car with lots and lots of food- more than we were ever going to eat. We headed back to our car and gave the man what we could. He was quite thankful and went to his car and his waiting family. I could see from their station wagon, that they seem to be carrying all of their possessions in that vehicle.

I never did ask why my parents why they did what they did, but I gather they did it because they were Christians and took taking care of others seriously.

Looking back I found it somewhat ironic that here was this black family that showed compassion to a white family that needed help, when a few decades prior, white people would not allow my father a place to eat or sleep.

I don't think my parents were better than those people of the Jim Crow era; I just think that they knew that being a Christian was more than talking about your religion, it was about living out that faith.

In the end, what really determines our faith is not how holy we are. They priest and the Levite were holy men, but their faith meant very little when it mattered. What matters is how we live this faith out.

Go and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday Sermon-September 23, 2007

I haven't really posted in a while. It's about time I start up again, so I will leave you with this sermon.

“The Parable of the Dirty, Rotten Scroundrel”
Luke 16:1-13
September 23, 2007
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

I remember getting up early on some school monrings to watch the cartoons on TV. Before the days of “Good Morning America,” some local stations would show kiddie fare in the early hours. I remember watching “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Underdog,” “Tennessee Tuxedo,” and of course, “Dudley Do-Right.” Some of them, like “Underdog,” were serials, that went over several episodes. What I remember from these cartoons are the characters, especially the villians.

“Rocky and Bullwinkle” had Boris and Natascha. “Underdog” had Riff-Raff and Simon Bar Sinister and Dudley Do-Right had Snidely Whiplash. The villians were over the top. Where the heroes were the embodiement of all that was good and true, the villains were the exact opposite. Simon Bar Sinister had this weird voice that sounded like he was perpetually inhaling. Snidley Whiplash seemed to be this odd shade of green that I guess was to tell us he was bad. Boris and Natasha had Russian sounding accents, that indicated their badness to the world.

The villians in these shows were bad to the bone, there was nothing to be learned from them except what not to do. In the end, the good guys won and the bad guys got what they so richly deserved.

Today, we read the parable about the Dishonest Manager. This has always been a puzzling parable for me, because it seems to be lifting up the manager as the hero of the story. I mean Jesus can't possibly be telling us that this crook is a hero, can he?

That's exactly what he's doing.

Let's start at the beginning. There is a rich man that owns a ton of land and has to have a manager to handle everything. So he hires this guy who is supposed to be managing his immense wealth. The manager wasn't doing that. Instead, he was taking a bit of the money on the side. Well, you can only do that for so long before you are caught, and the manager got caught. The rich man was quite upset and for good reasons. Here was a man that he hired to manage his money and instead of doing his job, the manager was embezzeling. The rich man lays down the law and tells the manager he should get ready to pack his bags.

The manager is of course scared. He is not good with his hands, so working in the fields is out. He doesn't want to beg. He knows he needs to do something and fast to save his own skin. So, he goes to those people who owe debts to the rich man. “How much do you owe?” he says to one man. “Fifty thousand dollars,” says the man. “Well, you now owe $25,000. Next!” He does this with all of the rich man's debtors. The rich man gets wind of this. Now, you think that he would be really mad right now. Not only was this weasel skimming money off the top, but he is dispensing money that isn't even his to the debtors! Instead, he honors the manager for being so shrewd. The crooked manager is now in the best of positions: he has the respect of both the rich man and the debtors.

So, what in the world is the point of this story? Why in the world is Jesus lifting up this thief?

Well, if you have heard me preaching about parables before, you know that parables should not be seen as moral tales, telling us how to live. I don't think Jesus is telling us to go out and embezzle money. Instead of a moral tale, a parable is a clue to what the kingdom of God is like.

The manager is very generous with his master's money. He is going around forgiving debts left and right. People who were worried how they were going to repay a debt, now have their debts drastically cut. The manager is a lot how some people are in this world. They may not be the nicest people in the world, but they are generous and treat people with kindness. They tend to put the church to shame. Mohondas Ghandi was not a Christian, but they way he lived life; working for justice, caring for the least of these was more Christian than his British counterparts, who were steeped in their Christianity and did not live it out. He was rumored to have said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

The God that we serve is one that is incredibly generous. It might even look wasteful to some. The famous parable of the prodigal son, shows a father whose love is so freely given, that he embarrasses himself by showing love to his wayward and scheming son. The son didn't deserve the love he was given, but the old man gave it anyway. The parable of the Sower has a man spreading seeds anywhere, not caring where they fall. God shows his love, even when God is not loved back. That is the kind of God we serve. Some people who would be called “children of the world” are more generous in how they live life than those of us so-called “children of light.” I think that is what Jesus is getting at here. The Pharisees and even the disciples, the insiders, did not understand that following God means being generous with others. The ones on the outside did get that.

How generous are we? Are we willing to forgive people of their debts? Do we welcome the strangers in our midst? Do we care for the forgotten ones? Are we stingy or generous? Are we Christians willing to be like the Christ we profess to follow?

The villain in this story becomes the hero. This scalawag shows us how we are to live our lives and about the God we serve. But that's the way it is in God's upside-down kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.