Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Happily Ever After?

Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
October 28, 2012
Job 42:1-17
Then the Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters.
-Job 42:12-13
Under a Cajun moon I lay me open There is a spirit here that won't be broken Some words are sad to sing Some leave me tongue-tied (But the hardest thing to tell you ) But the hardest words I know Are I love you goodbye I love you goodbye
-Thomas Dolby, "I Love You Goodbye," 1992

I can still remember it like it was yesterday; presiding at a funeral of a man just a year younger than me who committed suicide.  His grieving partner was devastated as was the young man's parents who lost their only child.

I've read this ending of the book of Job before and never really thought much about it.  God restores Job with cattle and sheep and even more children.  A happy ending to a man that had to deal with so much pain.

But there are those that are troubled by this ending.  Does this mean that if we suffer, we are going to get all that we lost restored? And the fact is, more often than not, people don't get what Job got from God.  They don't get more kids after one is lost to gun violence.  The woman who is abused sexually doesn't get to erase those painful memories.

But while Job did get children and livestock, I have to think there was some sense of grief as well for what was lost.  Job might have celebrated having children again, but there had to be pain in his heart for the ones he lost.

Job is a happy ending in the same way that we celebrate the Ressurection.  Jesus was able to defeat death, but he was different, not simply restored.

Job's ending is a reminder of God's presence in our lives.  The ending isn't a guide to life, as it is a reminder of God's love for us even when we don't have a happy ending.

Sometimes life is simply about saying goodbye, about letting go, about loss.  Sometimes there is no nice ending to wrap up the story.  Sometimes the story ends horribly.

But good times or bad, God is there, present.  That's probably not the ending we all want, but on this side of heaven it is enough.

More Resources
 Here is what other scholars and pastors have to say on Job 42:

Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt wonders if this passage and others in the Bible only work for those who are privileged in society and not those on the margins

Episcopal Priest Rick Morley sees a hidden Easter message of hope in the last chapter of Job.

Finally, via Tony Jones comes a woman who wonders why she believes God is good despite all of the tragedies and heartaches this world offers.

Photo: Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528. Job on the dunghill, and his wife pours water on his sores, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46323


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

Friday, October 19, 2012

There's a Wildness In God's Mercy

Twenty First Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
October 21, 2012
Job 38:1-7 and 34-41
Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge? Prepare yourself like a man; I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me. Job 38:2-3
Job is in many ways one of the most accessible books in the Bible. By accessible I mean that its something that we understand because we've all been there. Job is a good and faithful man with riches and many children. In an instant all of his wealth and his children are taken away from him. He is left with questions and not a small bit of anger with God.

 Theologian Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that Job and his friends believed in a common view of suffering: if you're good, then God will bless you. If something bad happens to you, then it's because you did something wrong. When all of this happens, Job feels cheated. He has lived a righteous life, so none of this should be happening to him. His friends are of little help, accusing him of doing something wrong and telling him to repent of his sin.

 Job isn't really that different from us. Shcifferdecker notes that Job and other thought the world revolved around them. The world was an orderly place where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. But the God comes to job in a whirlwind and sets Job right. Living the Midwest as I do, I can imagine God coming in a menacing tornado. God responds to Job not with answers, but with questions. God shows a created order that is rather wild, just like God. And humans are not at the center of anything. After a while Job gets it- things are not so ordered and sometimes bad things happen to good people.

If there is a takeaway from all this is that the world is not logical. Things happen that just doesn't make sense. We don't understand when a young woman dies in a traffic accident with a drunk driver. We don't understand the cancer diagnosis. We don't understand why we are laid off from a job. We don't understand when someone is raped. But in the midst of all this chaos, God stands with us. God took Job on, but he never left Job.

When I was training to become a pastor, I had to take a term of Clinic Pastoral Education. I spent time at a nursing home in Minneapolis. I remember seeing a young man who lost his leg in an ATV accident. You could see the anger on his face. I spent time sitting with him and saying a little. I always came away somewhat helpless. I still feel that feeling when I do pastoral care. But maybe being present is enough. Maybe it matters that God stands with us during the hard times, even when and especially when, we wonder, why?

Go and be church.  

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
October 14, 2012
Mark 10:17-31

Every so often, I hear someone talking about the so-called Prosperity Gospel.  For the uninitiated, it's a message that states that God wants us to be wealthy.  If you have faith in God, then God will bless you financially.

The Prosperity Gospel has it critics...a lot of them.  When I googled "prosperity gospel," I came up with a ton of links denouncing the theology.  It didn't matter if you were liberal or conservative, there was an outright disdain for this belief in "pennies from heaven."

Whenever I hear all the criticism, I feel a bit uncomfortable.  It's not that I agree with the prosperity gospel, it's just that I don't know if any of us is that innocent ourselves.  I mean, it might feel good to look down on those preachers who peddle this garbage, but at some point you realize that God is pointing at you as well.

The fact is, we are caught up in having things as well.  We might look with contempt at the prosperity preachers, but most of us live in nice houses with nice cars, listening to tunes on our iPod/iPhone/iPad/iWhatever.  To paraphrase that old pop song, "We're not that innocent."

This week we find Jesus encountering a young man who's done pretty well financially.  He's also someone that has tried to be a good religious person. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, which the young guy has done.  "You still need to do one thing," Jesus said. "Sell all of your possessions and give it the poor."

We know how the story ends.  The young guy walks away perplexed.  That's when Jesus remarks about how hard it is for a rich man to enter heaven.

Theologian Matt Skinner tells us that we shouldn't try to soften the message that this gospel is getting at.  We are pretty good at trying to soften the blow.  Jesus isn't really calling us to give up everything, we say to ourselves.  But yes, God is calling us to do just that.  Jesus is calling us to be true disciples and give up everything to follow him.

Of course, we live in the real world.  Very few of us are going to give up our stuff and go and live in a yurt somewhere.

And yet, Jesus is still calling us to give up everything, give up our call to be prosperous and follow him.

I don't have an easy answer to this quandry.  I know that I am saved by grace through faith.  I know that I am love by God even though I fall short.  And yet, you and I are still called to give our whole selves to God, because that's exactly what God did through Jesus on the cross.

Go and be church.

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

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Jesus Loves the Little Children...Yeah, Whatever.

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year B
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Mark 10:2-16

As I prepared for this coming Sunday, I did a lot of reading concerning the gospel text.  Many megabytes were spent talking about the first half of the Mark text, which centers on divorce.  That makes sense, on one level.  We see many marriages that seem to break up, leaving the children is a not so good place.

When it comes to that second half of the text, the one about Jesus welcoming the children, well that one got the short shrift.  I didn't find anyone that did an exegesis of the this part of the reading, let alone really focus on what this passage is saying.  I think part of the reason that we do this is because we think we know this story.  We have seen many an image of Jesus seated with a bunch of kids around him ala a children's sermon.  What is there to question or learn from something so obvious?  Jesus liked children.  How sweet.

Look at this text again.  Parents are bringing their kids to Jesus hoping he would touch them.  We don't know why they are doing this, but for some reason it is vital that Jesus bless their children.  The disciples are a little preturbed that these little ones are bothering Jesus.  What happened next?  Jesus got angry. At the disciples.  Jesus tells the disciples that children are at the center of God's kingdom.  If we don't come to faith in God like a little child then we won't see the kingdom.

I've learned what it means to have a child-like faith from the children at the church where I serve.  They are not shy about sharing their thoughts on God and are great at applying the stories they hear to life in general. These kids ask questions. They share what they have learned.  The can be fearless. And they are vulnerable.  They are always open to learning.

The Pharisees were learned men and thought that faith was about how smart and how cunning you can be.  Jesus reminds us at the end of the passage that God is not interested in our smarts, but is interested in child-like hearts ready to learn, ready to be loved.

May it be so with us.

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

Friday, April 29, 2011


First Sunday of Easter A
John 20:19-31

As I was preparing for a Lectionary Study this week, I came across the web Bible Study called Faith Lens, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  The study started off talking about a television show that I enjoy viewing called Mythbusters.  Here's how contributor Bill King describes the show:

Nominated for an Emmy and hosted by the jauntily bereted Jamie Hyneman and “stuff maker” Adam Savage, Mythbusters scientifically tests urban myths, outrageous propositions, and conventional wisdom.  The show has a particular fondness for myths which involve explosions, making a mess, or disgusting materials (they made a candle out of ear wax).  Some have called it “the best science show on television,” and few would dispute that it is the zaniest.  The show sometimes does silly things, like constructing a lead balloon, just to see if it can be done.  But beneath the laughter is a serious purpose, to illustrate how science separates fact from fiction.

What's so cool about the show is how Jamie and Adam try to test out urban myths.  Sometimes they are able to "bust" the myth and show that it's not true.  Other times they are able to verify that the myth is true, and still other times it's plausible.

When you read this week's gospel in John about good ole "Doubting Thomas" you might think about how Tom wanted proof of Jesus' existence.  There will be talk about how doubt is important in the life of faith and we will try to hold him up as a modern hero who didn't just want to believe something because someone told him.

These are all good things to note in the text, but what if there's something more here that we aren't seeing.  What if this text is not just about doubt and faith, not just about the Risen Savior, but also a message for the church,  the body of Christ?

In his lectionary reflection this week, Russell Rathburn expresses his interest in the actual body of Christ:

After crashing through all that at break neck speed, John slows it down to spend the majority of this verses focusing on his Body. Thomas says he wants to see the Body, see the wounds. Jesus arrives and very graphically shows him the wounds, and in a very intimate gesture, invites him to place his finger/hand inside them. There can be no doubt that this is the Body of Jesus the Christ, very man, very God.

That Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith. This Sunday’s reading starts and ends with it, giving just a verse each to the Great Commission, Pentecost, the rest is all about the Body. After so much emphasis on the Body of Jesus through the Lent and Easter seasons, how do we preach with out one? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? There really are not any other options are there?

The question that hits me here is Russell's talk about the body of Christ when there isn't a body anymore.

But what if there is a body?  What if Christ's ressurection wasn't only about the physical resurrection, but also about how the ressurection lives in the life of the gathered community, the Church?

Thomas wanted to experience Jesus for himself.  He did not want to rely on the experience of others.  Belief for Thomas was not about accepting creedal statements, but about a relationship and if he couldn't experience a body, then what's the point?

Now for a moment, think about the body of Christ as the church, because in the here and now that's what modern Thomases are looking at when they want to see Jesus.  They aren't looking to just accept a doctrinal statement, but they are looking to commune with the Body of Christ.  In this present age, there isn't a physical body to talk about, but Christ is found in the Church, the folks who believe in Christ and abide with him.

Maybe, just maybe, if the church can live as a community called, gathered and sent by God to preach the good news, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we live as a community of forgiven sinners, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.  Maybe if we welcome all to the doors of our churches, then our modern Thomas will see Christ.

As you prepare to preach or teach this Sunday after the Ressurection, think about what it means to be the Body of Christ in our world.  How do we witness to the Living and Risen Christ?

Go and be church.

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cruise Control

Easter Sunday A
Matthew 28:1-10

I have to believe that one of the most beautiful inventions has to be cruise control in cars.  There's something kinda cool about pressing a button and having the car basically drive itself during long trips.  All I have to do is sit back, relax and the car drive itself.

Okay, I don't just let the car drive itself.  I do have to keep my eyes on the road.  Cruise control doesn't mean I get to excuse myself from driving- I still have to be alert and ready for any changes on the highway.

Easter can be both a blessing and a curse.  It's a blessing of course because Jesus defeated the powers of death and arose on that Sunday morning long ago.  But it's also a curse, because it comes at the end of a long week and we are just plumb tired.

But maybe what really makes Easter a curse is that we've done it so many times.  We sing the same songs and preach the same sermons year after year.  I don't know about others, but there have been moments when I feel that this has all be done before.  Ressurrection is so first century.

It's easy to go on cruise control when it comes to Easter.  But I wonder if doing that means we miss what might be going on in the story.  I wonder if we miss how this old story is not so old in reality.  Maybe in reading this story again, we will see where new life is springing up in our own lives.

The gospel text today has a lot going on, but I want to focus on one group of characters: the women.  If you want an example of what it means to live without hope, it has to be the two Marys.  These women had a close relationship with Jesus and believed that this guy was special.  Then he ends up getting killed.  They come to the tomb on Sunday morning without any hope.  Another idealist is killed.  Cynicism wins again.

I think back to my time in Clinical Pastoral Education.  I remember meeting a young man who lost one leg in an accident.  I would spend time in his room where he would say very little to me.  His face was one not simply of sadness, but one of profound grief.  He was only 21.  He had a future ahead of him.  But the future was now more cloudy and his face told me had little hope.

That is what these women felt.  There are times in our lives when we feel that there is no hope that things will change.  No hope that someone will get better; no hope that you will get that job; no hope that a loved one will quit drinking.

And then, there's an earthquake, and an angel appears saying that Jesus is no longer at the tomb but alive.  I have to believe the Marys thought it was a joke.  But if they thought that, they didn't think it for very long.  Matthew says the left with fear and great joy.  As they run to tell their friends the good news, they meet Jesus, alive and well.  Where there was no hope, there was now hope. 

The message of Easter is one of hope, but it starts in a place where there is no hope.  It starts in the way things are in the world.  If someone is dead, they kinda stay dead.

But hope has a different agenda.  It can bring life where there was no life and healing where there was sickness.  It reminds us that God is there with us, even when we feel abandoned.  Hope is there even when everything is tell us that there is no hope.

As you go to your faith communities this Sunday, please don't operate on cruise control.  Read the Easter story again and think about the two Marys.  Think about the disciples or the guards.  Read the story again and pay attention.  Think about hopelessness. Think about helplessness.  Think about love. Think about hope.  Think about it all and believe the good news that Jesus is alive and well.

Christ is Risen!

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

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hope Will Heal

By Dennis Sanders

Lent 5A: April 10, 2011
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I actually remember when I first heard this scripture.  It was at a Sunday Morning service at the Baptist church I grew up at in my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  I had to be about 10 years old at the time and I remember thinking how odd this scripture was.  I mean, what was this about dried bones coming back to life?  None of it made sense.

Flash forward three decades and a whole lot of life later, these words from the prophet Ezekiel make sense, at least that whole valley of dry bones part.

As I read this text, my thoughts drifted to my home state of Michigan and how it's faring these days, which is not well.  The census figures came out recently, and the news was not good.  Detroit, which was once the nation's fourth largest city, lost 25 percent of it's population in the last 10 years.  What was once a city of nearly 2 million in 1950 is now a city hovering around 700,000.  The changes in the US auto industry have ravaged Detroit and most of southeastern Michigan, leaving utter devastation in its wake.  My hometown of Flint had close to 200,000 when I was born in 1969.  These days, it hovers around 100,000.  In the 1970s, around 80,000 people worked in the many auto factories that dotted Flint and the surrounding cities, including my parents.  Now there are less than 10,000 working for the auto industry. The loss of so many jobs can take it toll.  In towns like Flint and Detroit, where there were once neighborhoods filled with well-maintained homes, there are now places filled with rotting houses and crime.  Its always hard to come home and see how far Flint and most of Michigan have fell.

Ezekiel is taken to a valley filled with dry bones by God.  Our prophet surveys the devastation and then hears this strange question from God.  "O mortal, can these bones live?" 


I know there aren't supposed to be dumb questions, but this really seems like the dumbest question to ask.  These were bones.  Oh, and they were dry bones, so there was zero chance they were going to come back to life.  It seemed like there was an obvious answer to God's question, but Ezekiel was smart and replied that only God can know.

God keeps talking about how God will put the bones back together with muscles and skin and finally with the very breath of God.  Life would come from where there was no life.

God then explains to Ezekiel what this whole exercise was about.  The Israelites were in exile, far away from home.  They felt cut off from everything they knew and felt like those dried bones.  But God had a plan.  All was not lost.  God told them they would come back to their homeland and not only that, they would receive God's spirit. 

As we continue our Lenten journey this week, it might seem odd to have a story about hope in it.  After all, we are on a journey towards the Cross and this is supposed to be a "somber" time.  Hope is something that feels more Advent than it does Lent.

And yet, maybe it makes sense to have this passage of hope in this dark time.  As I think about the economic devastation that is Michigan, I am reminded of stories that point to hope, that point to something that says, "despair will not win."  I am reminded of a recent article in my hometown newspaper about folks moving into Flint at a time when so many are leaving.  They see hope when others see despair.

In many mainline Protestant churches, there is a sense of feeling like dry bones.  The glory days are long gone and there might be a sense that there is no hope. 

But God counters our despair by saying that God will save and restore us.  God will bring us back from the graves to life.  God gives us hope, not in a fairy tale-ending, but that God will be with us and breathe life into us.

This Sunday, I hope that you can acknowledge the dry bones that are in your life and in the lives of your congregation and community.  I also hope you can preach...hope.  Remind them, remind yourself that even when there seems to be no life, when the bones are raw that God will come and knit us back together, bone by bone.  Hope will heal.

Go and be church.

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

Photo:Abandoned, decrepit Victorian-era home in Brush Park, Detroit, Michigan from Wikipedia.