Homily on the Importance of Remembering

Text: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

I delivered this reflection at my Naval Academy 15-year class reunion.  We held a memorial service in the USNA Chapel for our classmates who have died over the years.  Their names:

Steven Adelman
Kelly Haney
Robert Jenkins
Landon Jones
Jason McCray
Bret Miller
Christopher Wilson
Ronald Winchester

Rest eternal, Shipmates, and may perpetual light continue to shine on you.

15 years….15 years ago we graduated from this place, heading out to “forge a new millennium;” our class motto.  Then about three months later, fateful events happened on September 11th, and everything changed.  As I thought about what I’d say here today, I realize that we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 last month. As a nation we have been at war, conflict, or whatever you want to call it, essentially the entire time after we graduated from the Naval Academy.  Who knew 15 years ago this would be the new millennium we’d be forging.

And here we are today, to celebrate reunited, to laugh, catch up on where we’ve been, where we’re going, who has kids, who’s a little grayer, a little thicker around the middle, and who still looks like they did 15 years ago.  I think Tim Stabbing’s still running a sub 8 1.5 mile these days!  So we remember…..I remember.

I remember standing Company Mate of the Deck Plebe year, explaining chemistry to Jason McCray, and Jason explaining his defensive line assignments for the upcoming game that week.  To this day, I’ll never understand how Jason could master all those complex defensive calls, but couldn’t figure out chemistry! I remember Youngster year walking around with Bret Miller in New York City, both of us completely lost because we grew up in small towns, totally drenched in our own sweat because that’s what wearing cotton summer whites in the middle of summer will do for ya.  I remember spring Firstie year, Hoot Stahl coming up to me and saying, “Fuller, you’re a wrestler…we gotta cut weight to get within standards, and so we figured you could give us some tips.”  And later, there was pretty much all the Firstie lineman, in my room, taking tips on how to lose 50 pounds in three weeks.  While my memory isn’t that great, I’m pretty sure Ron Winchester was there.

We remember, and it’s important to remember.  It’s important to remember because the truth is, there is still a piece of me that looks at our world and nation and the last 15 years and when I think of our classmates who have died darkness creeps in and erodes away at any sense of joy in this life.  Remembering is important because when we take the time to do so, God does renews us from within, taking the sadness and pain and cynicism and replacing it with a sense of thanksgiving, gratitude, strength, and hope.  Our souls are renewed, bringing a peace that only God can give.

And so this weekend, as we celebrate reunions, let us take time to remember, and in a bit remember our classmates who will never be with us again in this life by reading their names and sounding a chime.  We remember, we are healed…and for the gift of remembering, let us say thanks be to God.  Amen.

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The Politics of the Pulpit: Preaching on Sunday, 9/11

September 11th, 2016 will be somewhat of a rarity for preachers: it is the 15th Anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. For most of us, we can recall what happened and where we were on that morning in 2001. Some have called it our generation’s defining event, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War was for their respective generations.

However, it’s defined us in a completely different way. We’re not like the Pearl Harbor generation, who collectively rallied together as a nation in support of the nation’s involvement in WWII. Yet we’re also not like the Vietnam War generation, who collectively divided as a nation to its involvement overseas. I’d like to think today we’re somewhere in between. Instead, we have collectively rallied together as a nation – and caught a case of amnesia.

Perpetual war and violence has become our new normal. Two articles I read recently highlight this: one by a retired general suggesting that there is no endpoint to the post-9/11 war, and another explaining that the devastation in Louisiana has received little attention because ratings show we’re more captivated by who the next President will be, rather than another story about death. News about war and violence have become just another news article to post on social media, a footnote in our lives rather than a reality that shakes it and turns it upside down. However, I don’t think it’s because the majority of us have become indifferent and apathetic. Perhaps the reality is so painful that instead, we push it completely out of our consciousness. When someone does bring it to the center of our community, the result is conversation often turns into a fight over ideology where fingers are pointed, lines are drawn, and a war of words ensues where no one wins.

It’s no wonder that we then get political about the pulpit.

We get political about what we say because we’re always measuring the effect our words will have on our hearers. A good number of pastors and preachers do this as a means of good pastoral care. Yet it’s a completely different thing when one weighs the effect in terms of personal risk and cost. One only has so much social capital they can draw from, and one divisive comment or topic from the pulpit can bankrupt you in a moment’s notice. Having amnesia ourselves as preachers becomes an enticing alternative when faced with prospect of addressing 9/11, the following war, and violence on a Sunday morning. A colleague posted on social media: “Just like the Sunday near Veterans Day or Memorial Day or July 4th, ignoring it [9/11] is a missed opportunity. Yet over-doing it risks the idolatry of patriotism masked as religious faith.” It’s a delicate line and the stakes are high for one’s ministry. What’s a preacher to do?

I ask you indulge me in a bit of testimony: as I sit here and write this, I realize that I have 15 years of service in the United States Navy as a Submariner and Chaplain. My whole Naval career has been spent at war, and I recognize I have classmates, shipmates, and friends who have died in combat, died in training, and live, but do so bearing scars and wounds both on the outside and within. It is a sobering reality, but I at least know this: it’s real.

What’s not so real to me is when I take off my uniform and join society around me. To see the rest of the nation living as if war and its effects don’t exist creates a tension that’s difficult to live in. From time to time I receive a “thank you for your service” or someone buys me a cup of coffee, but overall life outside the Navy feels odd, disconnected, artificial, and lonely. I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck around as a chaplain; because I think the best part of my day is when the service men and women who frequent my path share with great honesty their stories, struggles, and experiences. They share why they chose to serve – those reasons often connected to the events of September 11th, 2001 – and things  feel a bit more real for me.

And when I sit in the pew on Sunday, I need to hear more than just a petition in the prayers. I need to hear something from the pulpit, but not a word that romanticizes my military service as some sort of sacrificial act of Jesus-love. Nor do I need to hear a word that condemns the motivations and forces behind my military service as some sort of message of prophetic justice.

I need to hear about a God who is incarnate in the sobering reality of the last 15 years and likely the next 15 and beyond. I need to hear about a God who still comes to seek the lost and somehow is still present long after the fantasy of Eden vanishes from our sight. What I need to hear is that there is a community outside of the uniform I wear that doesn’t have amnesia when it comes to the reality of these last 15 years of war. I need preachers to be honest: both about the fact war and violence is a reality we can’t turn away from, and that it is a reality that God in Christ is fully present with us in.

That’s no easy thing for a preacher to do for reasons beyond just the politics of the pulpit. It would be easier for you to have amnesia that day. However, if there ever is a time to eschew the politics of preaching and to snap people out of their collective amnesia, this might be the Sunday to do it – from the pulpit. It’s likely people will be really listening….I know I will be.

The thoughts expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or Navy Chaplain Corps in an official capacity. 



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Sermon 14 August 2016:The Problem of Loyalty

Text: Luke 12:49-56

Grace and peace from God our Father, and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. I’m a guest this morning, filling in for Pastor Harry and as a guest I come bringing peace to you! (Note: I picked this up drew it and started waving and pointing it at people!) 


I bring peace and unity, not division! I come to bring comfort, not uneasiness and fear!  Now perhaps you’re not really believing my message of peace….which might have to do with me waving this sword around and pointing it at you. Words of peace are pretty thin when accompanied by fear, aren’t they? In fact, it probably feels more like coercion; they feel more like a demand.  And it seems, at least to me, there’s a lot of those messages going around these days:

“Let’s make America great again!”

“It’s time to put a woman in the White House.”

“hashtag: [fill in the blank] lives matter”….filling in the blank how we see fit.

And Christians seem to be caught up in it as well: “As Christians, we need to unite and take a stand.”

I’m one of those people who likes to engage on social media, and I get drawn into some discussions online…..probably against my better judgment. At least that’s what my wife tells me! This past week I found myself in such discussion where a lady was asserting – no, insisting – that very last sentiment to me.  There’s a war on Christianity in America, and we need to rally together to make sure Jesus and the church don’t lose.  I pushed back on that notion because as a Christian, I just don’t think I’m at war with anyone.  In response to my pushback, she questioned my loyalty to Jesus.

A couple things came to mind as I hear Jesus’ words from our text this morning: one, we got it backwards.  He said, “Do you think I came to bring peace to this earth?  No, rather I come to bring division!”   I think Jesus is giving us a warning: there’s a danger when the promise of peace and unity is connected to a demand for loyalty. Yet there’s another danger here: if we somehow reason Jesus’ words as a challenge to where our loyalties lie, then the demand for loyalty shifts from humans to God. If God demands our loyalty in exchange for peace and unity, then it has implications for God’s character – who God is.  God is one who demands our complete and total loyalty – or else. And unlike the demand that comes from humans, the implications aren’t just for this world….they’re also eternal.

I wonder this morning if Jesus isn’t asking us where our loyalties lie, but rather Jesus is challenging the very notion of loyalty itself.

Some of you may have seen the movie “42”.  It’s the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, breaking the color barrier in baseball. I re-watched the movie recently, and what struck me is that the rule about no African-Americans in Major League Baseball was an unwritten one.  Actually, it wasn’t a rule at all: it was loyalty to the long-held belief that Major League Baseball was and should remain a “white man’s game” and there was no place for the African-American in it.  Loyalty to that belief lasted until Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to sign Jackie Robinson – against the better judgment of his advisors and peers, and despite warnings and threats by many.  During the movie, it was apparent that Ricky wasn’t sure how bringing Robinson into baseball would turn out.  All he knew was that the loyalty to the idea that black players should be excluded from Major League Baseball was killing his love of the game. And so he took a chance, a leap of faith perhaps, on playing Jackie Robinson….and the rest is history.

The thing about loyalty is that comes at a cost.  We tend to judge and seek sameness, limping along fearing that if we let the unknown or that which is different into our lives, it’ll be the death of us.  But the thing about loyalty is that sides are taken, lines are drawn, and we entrench ourselves with the group.  All this sounds a lot like….war. And in war people take up arms, whether it be words, which do damage but have their limit, or what’s becoming too common in our world today, people are choosing to pick up real weapons.  One thing’s certain when it comes to war – pain and suffering.

Perhaps this morning, God isn’t demanding our loyalty. Instead, God invites us to be faithful.

Faith calls us to look beyond ourselves and our sameness to a greater world around us, a world that God created, loves, and redeems…all of it.  Faith calls us to a life of sacrifice and love for the sake of others – especially those we fear and things we don’t understand.  Faith calls us to stop doing violence to ourselves and others.  Faith calls us to run the race – not to win, but with perseverance. Faith is the call to trust – and nothing more.

In a time where powers and forces are preying upon our fears, creating paranoia, then demanding our loyalty under the premise of peace, let us look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Jesus, the One frees us from the bondage of loyalty and its demands. Jesus, the one who is faithful to us….and that faithfulness is a promise that costs us nothing but gives us all – the very peace and joy and freedom we seek for ourselves, for each other, for our nation, for our world.  Amen.

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Sermon for 7 August 2016: Discovering Our Hearts…and God’s

Text: Luke 12:32-40

 Like a lot of kids growing up, I liked playing baseball. In fact, while a lot of folks who know me well think that wrestling has always been my favorite sport, I have to admit that baseball was my first love. I loved the strategy that went into it, and I especially liked it when I could be most active, where I could make the most plays and be the most involved.  

 And that meant that I was naturally drawn to playing catcher. I was actually pretty good at catcher – I picked up all the strategy and signals, I didn’t have a problem blocking balls in the dirt, and I wasn’t afraid of being hit by foul balls and occasional accidental swings from batters. Even in the hot summer sun, I loved donning the heavy catcher’s equipment because I was involved in every play and every pitch. All I ever wanted to do was be a baseball catcher, and my heart was dead set on that and nothing else.

 Only one little problem with that: I’m left-handed. For those of you who don’t know the game well left-handed catchers are a rarity, and don’t exist at the highest levels of baseball. The problem is that your throwing arm is on the same side as most of the hitters – who are right-handed – and because of that, they interfere with your ability to be an effective catcher.  That split second of delay is he difference between getting and out or someone being safe. 

The day inevitably came: I was told I could no longer be a catcher. I convinced my coaches, despite their better judgment, to let me try, and of course, at the higher levels I struggled because of being left-handed. I couldn’t throw any base stealers out and I just wasn’t very effective any more. I was mad, frustrated, and frankly heart-broken that I had spent all my time and energy into being a catcher just to fall short, and to really, lose my heart for the game. 

 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But so often, I think we get Jesus’ words flipped around and instead we believe: for where our hearts is, there your treasure will be also. I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong, but I wonder where such a life leads us. We pour everything we have and are into the expectations and desires of our hearts, thinking that we’ll find our true treasure. But what happens when our desires and expectations go unmet? What do we miss out on by investing so much into making our expectations and desires a reality? Perhaps we’re left with broken hearts. But more than that, such life out of our expectations and desires shuts us out from the mystery and wonder of God’s Holy Spirit at work, changing, transforming, healing us. Such a life…..is not a life of faith.

 From Death to Life is an organization founded by Mary Johnson in 2005. 12 years prior, a man, Oshea Israel, murdered her son. Oshea was arrested, and convicted of murder and was thrown in jail. Mary, holding a lot of hate and hurt in her heart, decided to take a major leap of faith: she decided to forgive her son’s murderer. That forgiveness didn’t happen overnight; 9 months after her son was killed, Mary sought out Oshea in prison, and at first, he refused to see her. However, over time, he gave in, and they met. A relationship began, and forgiveness was given and received….forgiveness that both Mary and Oshea has said repeatedly, literally saved their lives. They had chosen to invest much into the task for forgiveness, not knowing where it might lead. It wasn’t easy all the time. But in dedicating themselves to the task of forgiveness, Mary and Oshea rediscovered joy could exist again in their lives and that joy could exist in a relationship started in death. Mary and Oshea discovered their own hearts, and they found their hearts in each other.

Something for you to think about this morning: I think when Jesus spoke that verse, I don’t think he was giving us a command as he was giving as an assurance about who God is. “For where God’s treasure is, there will be God’s heart also.” In Jesus, God’s only treasured son who put on flesh and whose life was given for us, we discover the very heart of God, a heart that’s solely pointed towards us. God’s heart resides with and for us, because Christ is with and for us. Such an act, it can be reckoned to us as faith: God’s faithfulness to us.

 I wonder these days, with all the violence and division in our lives today if it feels like we’ve lost our hearts. In our longing we try to fashion something that might get it back for us…..but then things fall short of those expectations. When we invest all that we are and all that we treasure into such things as forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, service…..it doesn’t guarantee an outcome like Mary and Oshea’s and it does’t guarantee our desires and expectations will ever be met. In fact, we may never fully see the fruits of our labor, our efforts. But perhaps investing in that life – that is a life of faith, a life lived in hope of what’s unseen. Perhaps investing our treasures in that life of faith – we rediscover our hearts and together, we discover that we’re at the the very center of the heart of a God who has not left us. Amen. 

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Just another blog on leadership….

….or maybe not.

Talking to most pastors, leadership conversation usually centers on the quality of what one does.  It’s about HOW one leads, HOW one gets people or an organization to do what it’s supposed to, or how we put it in my line of work, what they’re called to do.

But I believe leadership is about YOU – the leader.  It is fundamentally about WHY you lead and WHO you are.  That is what is known as character, or integrity.  The best leaders are able to answer the “why” and “who” questions, and aren’t afraid to honestly reflect and wrestle with them.  I ask myself: “What can I learn?” versus “Was I successful or a failure?”  I know the first question is an exercise on reflecting on one’s character.  The second, I’m not sure what it’s about fully, but the temptation to be dishonest with one’s self and shift blame is present.  Considering the last almost 3 years of pastoral ministry, I thought I’d pass on some of my learning to you leaders out there for something to chew on.  So without further ado…..

1. There are usually 2 sides to every issue….or 3. Or 5.  When people bring their “issues” to me, I remind myself that it’s simply their perspective.  You know the old adage, “there’s your side, my side, and the truth.”  While it’s important to always here someone’s story and perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should accept it as objective, absolute truth…..because there’s always another side to the story.  In today’s world, it’s acceptable to overreact to every issue,  and we’re learning the outcomes are divisive and tragic.  I’ve learned not accepting the first, second, or even the eighth side I hear slows me down and allows me to be a non-anxious presence, rather than an anxiety-producing one.

2.  Don’t let people steal your joy.  I am one of those rare pastors who doesn’t derive my sole joy in life from my job. (Note sarcasm) Each of us has something that brings us sustained, unlimited joy in our lives.  It’s that thing that keeps us going.  No one but you and I are responsible for making room for it, however; it’s ours, and if we’re not careful, we can let people and distractions steal it from us and we become a shell of who we really are.  Worse yet, we become unhealthy and unfit to lead.  Sure, there is a degree of sacrifice that comes with being a pastor, but you’re not called to be a martyr. Don’t let people steal your joy.

3.  Lead out of acceptance, not affirmation.  I used to be one of those people who sought affirmation of others to define my self-worth.  However, affirmation often is hitched to the wagon of success.  What happens when that wagon departs and you’re left holding failure?  I’ve learned that people’s praise is often fleeting…tied to their expectations, their level of satisfaction, and their definition of success.  Acceptance is taking things at face value.  It’s knowing who you are, your limits and capabilities, what you can offer and what you cannot.  It’s also knowing – and accepting – the same in those you lead.  Acceptance is not holding on to things too tightly, because they’re not really yours to begin with.  Acceptance is understanding leaders aren’t in total control, which leads me to a couple supporting ideas:

  • Accept failure as simply consequence of decisions/actions vice an indictment on you, and learn from it.
  • There are limits to what’s within your control; but be ok taking control of what is within the sphere of your role.
  • As a leader, you often get what you earn, good or bad.

Finally, acceptance has led me to understand that only standard I need to evaluate myself by is God’s.  The minute I cannot be true to who God has created and called me to be, is to be in denial of what’s truth.  Acceptance is accepting that good news as…truth.

4.  Whether you succeed or fail, know why.  Any fool can get lucky and hit the jackpot.  Conversely, fools also tend to pass blame when failure comes.  In either case, it’s leadership by shotgun approach and totally random.  Good leaders at their core are intentional about learning – they take the time to know why something succeeded or failed.  When success comes, they can replicate it.  When failure results, they can learn and change.  Leaders who know why things succeed or fail (or take the time to discover it) provide stability and wisdom to the people and places they lead.

5. It is important to have a fundamental belief in the people you lead and the community’s mission/vision.  Perhaps a softer way to say this is “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”  But it’s deeper than that.  People and the church deserve your best.  If cynicism sets in to the point where you don’t believe in people or the community’s ability to give their best or to fulfill what God has called them to, then it’s time for you to leave.  That doesn’t mean you’re a jerk nor that there’s something wrong with your people.  It’s just a sign that perhaps it’s time for you both to part ways before apathy – or worse – sets in.

6.  Compromising doesn’t mean compromising who you are and who you’re called to be.  Know your “why.”  This has two parts.  Let me start with the first one: compromise.  There is a big problem in congregations, and that is the idol of “nice.”  People hold up this idol and compromise becomes the sacrifice at the altar of “nice.”  What it means is that the leader always should “be nice” and thus be a compromiser.  What this compromising ends up being is that the leader and their decisions are subject to the expectations, satisfaction, and definition of success of others.  Over time leaders compromise what they are about and the ministry they feel called to do.

That leads me to the second part of this.  I think compromise runs rampant when leaders forget their “why.”  One’s “why” is as simple as what makes you get out of bed in the morning.  It’s the motivation behind what you do, your call, your reason for existing.  Whether it’s comfort, apathy, fear, or a host of other things, the result is we tend to forget our “why.”  That’s when we start compromising – ourselves and our vocation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  What other things do you think are important when it comes to thinking about leading with character or integrity?  What does it mean to you to lead with one’s character and integrity intact?

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Reflecting on Diversity & Orlando

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

I attended my Synod’s annual assembly this past weekend. (For you non-churchy types, think Comicon meets TEDTalk) Since I’m no longer serving my congregations, I came primarily representing our Synod’s “Tapestry team” – a steering group focused and dedicated to the reality of and need for diversity and inclusion in the church. We presented to both the adults and the youth, and held a lunchtime discussion. During the course of the discussion, one person said, “I’m tired of all these conversations. I’m tired of just talking about how we want to be diverse and include others. We need to do SOMETHING, and we need to do something NOW.”

That statement is reflective of a plea that exists not just in our church, but also across the nation. The recent tragedy of the largest mass shooting in the United States has people demanding some action be taken now. If you’re connected to social media, just check your news feed or the top trending hashtag. People are tired of yet more tragic news. They are frustrated by the inaction of our institutions and leaders. And, they are voicing it – loudly.

So what do we do? Should we listen to political and social voices that have chimed in, and loudly, and to an extent, certain religious leaders have also done so? Should we act out of their calls for action?  I’m not so sure. If we think of our response as followers of Christ, I think our only response is this:

“I see you.”

I talked a lot this past weekend about the need to see and engage “diversity in context.” More often than not, we are great at seeing what looks, sounds, and lives like us. We retreat into the comfort of sameness when events happen that are such a departure from the routine of our lives. However, when that happens we – intentionally or unintentionally – put up blinders that prevent us from seeing those who are different from us. Those who differ in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and class, religious beliefs, gender, and age become invisible to us. We twist tragedy into something more palatable, rather than the gruesome truth it bears. When victims of marginalization and violence become invisible to us, we further marginalize and exclude them.

To see another is to acknowledge not just their existence, but also their very humanity. When we see people, we also see the reality of their lives, including the tragedy, injustice, and violence that exist in it. When we really see people in this way, I believe our hearts are so moved that we see Christ in them, and empathy becomes our response. In our empathy (not pity or sympathy, there is a difference) we begin to ask questions like,

“What does healing, justice, or reconciliation look like for you?”
“What do you want to happen?”
“What does this feel like for you?”

Saying “I see you” moves us from marginalizing the invisible to sharing their humanity, giving them a voice, and ultimately liberating them. Saying “I see you” is doing the work Christ calls his church – calls each of us – into. Whether we’re talking about the victims of the Orlando Shooting, the victim of rapist Brock Turner, or the diversity in our context, “seeing” is doing as Christ has done for us. If we make our default response mirror our political and social leaders, if we constantly keep responding with “this is what I think needs to happen” or make about some issue disconnected from the people and event, then we make this all about us, and not about those who have been marginalized. And even worse, it marginalizes and makes them even more invisible to us.

Jesus said, “I see you” to so many in his ministry: blind beggars, tax collectors in trees, and women at wells, to name a few. We know how that turned out! In being church and Christ-followers in the world, then let us continue this ministry that sees the unseen and refuses to push them further into the obscurity created by self-interest, agenda, and ideology. Let us say, “I see you” to those invisible in the world knowing that Jesus has seen us in our own baptisms, and continues to see us today.







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Sermon Pentecost Sunday 2016: “Gifts & the One Thing”

Text: Acts 2:1-4 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

I consider Pentecost to be part of the “Big 3” of the church liturgical year along with Christmas Eve and Easter worship.  So the Pentecost story in Acts 2 is a big deal, and a pretty extraordinary story: violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, people speaking in foreign languages yet able to understand each other.  Perhaps our imaginations often form this image of a massive gathering of people experiencing all this – the first megachurch was born! Only thing is, that’s not how the story goes.  If you read a bit earlier in chapter one, it’s just the 12 disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, who were present.  Jesus has just ascended to heaven, leaving the disciples a bit lost and wondering what was next.  This is the setting for event in Acts 2 we just read.  My point is this: the Pentecost story, where the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on Jesus’ closest followers, happened in a house, as scripture tells us.  It wasn’t the birth of the megachurch, but rather the first Pentecost occurred in a small church.

I can resonate with that notion, because Pentecost moments where God changed and empowered me happened in small churches.  It’s places like small Balsamlund Lutheran Church in Aldrich, Minnesota, population 41, worshipping about 25 folks.  I grew up in that churh and learned a few things, like playing games of red light, green light on the church basement stairs, going through Sunday School with my sister and one other kid as my grandma, our teacher, simply opened up he bible, read from it and we talked about it. I watchedold men tell stories and talk about the weather and farming, and played organ through my high school years.

It was tiny little Christ United Methodist Church in Groton, Connecticut, worshipping about 35 folks a Sunday, where I spent three months at Submarine Officer Basic Course.  In my time there, I played guitar for children’s ministry, discovered my love for discussing theology with the pastor in the parking lot after worship, and learned the church could be a home away from home that I could escape from the demands of memorizing countless information about submarine systems and tactics.

It was little Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I began to discover I had a gift and passion to minister to the lost, to those who are shut out and excluded from the church because of realities such as race, social and economic class, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, and gender.  My heart changed in such a way where I knew just exactly how important this good news that Jesus came to seek the lost, to suffer with them, and raise them up to new life so that they might know they are not alone and that their lives are a gift.  It was at Redeemer I began to discover what it meant to be a pastor in this church.

And then there’s you.  St. Andrew and Holy Communion Lutheran Churches in Portsmouth, Virginia.  And it is here where I was allowed to learn and grow as a pastor in this church.  And even more than that, I’ve learned that church is about struggling, challenging, wrestling….and embracing, laughing, caring, and loving…..and staying fully engaged in the present, trusting that God has our future because God promised that in Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.  It is in these two tiny little churches that I discovered in a very Pentecost way that the Gospel, the news that God send God’s son Jesus to die on a cross and be raised three days later so that we might be free from sin and death and fear actually matters. It’s not a bunch of bible stories nor is it a bunch theological ideas. The gospel matters in our life today.

In all these little churches, it was through the gifts of others – through YOUR gifts –  that God changed me. Being church is about God giving gifts and God putting those gifts to work so that others may experience Pentecost in their lives.  Now, sometimes those gifts are hard to see in ourselves, whether it’s because of our humility or we just don’t know….so sometimes it takes others to see the gifts in us.

I have a little gift for you this morning: something not so much to remember me by, but something to remind you….remind you of the gifts that exist in you, gifts I have seen at work, and gifts through which God changes lives. And it is these gifts – your gifts – working together as one body that [place the cross at the center] make CHURCH, THE CHURCH. And note there’s plenty of white space on the board to add new names and new gifts as you see them.  This display is yours to keep, a reminder, and an answer to this: What is church, and what does it mean to be church? This board is my final answer.  YOU are my final answer.

I know our time seems short….only 2 years and 7 1/2 months to be exact.  It has been quite a rollercoaster, hasn’t it?  We’ve packed a lot of life into that time, I think….wrestling and struggling with things that I don’t think other churches typically have the courage to do.  I’m proud we’ve done that together.  And then there’s all those questions….I’ve probably asked too many questions, and maybe there’s a small part of you that’ll be happy knowing I’m taking my questions with me….but my questions have sparked your own questions. We’ve asked those questions of each other and I think because of that, we both grew in faith.  Yet, as our journeys continue on separate paths, there are other questions left to answer, ones that come with uncertainty or fear of the future, and perhaps ones where you also wonder just how God might use your gifts as church, or doubt God has use for them at all.

But there is one thing we don’t have question or doubt.  And to explain that a bit further, I’d like to sing one last song for you.  You can follow along with the lyrics on the insert in your bulletin.

[One Thing, by Paul Colman]

YOU are church.  It is the gifts God has given YOU that make you church and being church is about the ways that God puts those gifts to work .  If you ever doubt that, let this board be a reminder of that.  But when even that’s not enough, and those questions and doubts linger, never doubt or question what’s at the center.  It is this One Thing that matters, it is at the center. It is our hope and it is a reminder that you are not alone, that your lives are a gift, that God loves YOU. And so do I.  Amen.

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