Sermon: 6 Jan 2018

Matthew 2:1-12; 16

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

This Sunday kicks off the season known as Epiphany in the church year, which is about the revelation of who Jesus is – God in flesh.  Today celebrates the story of the wise men from the East, who come to visit Jesus and pay homage to him as the King of the Jews.  The made for kids version – which many of you may know by convention – is this calm scene in which the wise men come with their gifts, bowing before the calm, happy baby Jesus.  And there’s nothing wrong with that story.

But there’s another story the text tells us.

It’s the story of King Herod.  Herrod, not a Jew by birth, but King of the region nonetheless, hears this news about a child born of a royal line – King David – and thus by birthright may have a claim to the throne.  The text tell us Herrod is afraid…because Jesus is a threat.  So Herrod secretly summons the wise men and sends them on a second recon mission to find Jesus, and report back. But, warned in a dream, the wise men disobey the order and don’t return.

The assigned reading for today doesn’t include verse 16, but I think it’s important to understand the gravity of this story, so let me read it again, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

Herrod killed all the children in and around Bethlehem, ages two years old and younger.

Let that sink in.

This story is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.”  Innocent babies, killed, all because a paranoid King wished to protect his power and eliminate a threat to it.  It’s certainly a story different from the nice wise men story we’re used to, isn’t it? It’s sobering however, to think this story is part of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.  How is this good news? And where was God for those countless babies that were killed?

I suppose such questions would never lead anywhere.  Moral/ethical debates of this sort rarely do.  Nor would it be too helpful to question the goodness of a god who acts so unjustly by doing nothing. I think there’s another message for us this morning, one that is more in line with our own lives, perhaps.

I think this story is about the slaughter of innocence…..ours.

It’s the effect of things in life that chip away at our innocence – things like injustice, unfairness, meaninglessness, indifference, hate, arrogance, and I could go on.  The slaughter of our innocence leaves us cynical, angry, frustrated, resigned, lacking empathy towards ourselves and others, hopeless….and perhaps even worse things like despair. The slaughter of our innocence is a tragedy, no matter how much we try to dismiss it with sentiments like “this is what adulting is about,” or “innocence is for the naive.”

The slaughter of our innocence leaves us viewing the life and living our lives well short of God’s intention to serve God and our neighbor with compassion, humility, joy, and love.

You all are sitting here, having completed a year away on deployment.  And that time away comes at a cost.  Some of that cost I imagine, while a reality, wasn’t exactly pain-free or without hardship.

And while many would tell you to find meaning, to justify your year away, to consider the rightness or virtue of the deployment, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that in some way, perhaps some of your innocence has eroded away.  Time lost that you can’t get back.  Loss of relationships and opportunities.  “It is what it is,” we sigh.

But the good news for you today is that in today’s story, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and in your story today, the slaughter of innocence, exists this newborn baby Jesus.  Baby Jesus, Son of God, innocence in the flesh, living among us.  What this means for us is that even in a world so full of lost innocence and darkness that Jesus among us means that God can and will restore a sense of innocence in the world.

But not a trivial, idealistic innocence.  God’s innocence among us opens our eyes and reveals the very real and tangible things that brings life back into our lives. God’s Innocence is not to return to a childlike state, but rather have our view of life and those living it with us changed.  We become tuned into the moments, things, and persons in our lives that restore our hope, our faith.  That brings joy and rescues us from our cynicism and resignation.

As we celebrate Epiphany today, and as you continue to reflect on the fact that you’ll be returning to the States in a few days and will return to your lives in just a few days more after that, let us rejoice in the revelation that in our own lost innocence, the One who we call Jesus the Christ – and who is innocence in the flesh – is indeed among us.  Quite a revelation indeed! Amen.

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Christmas Eve for the rest of us.

It’s Christmas Eve. And it’s mid-afternoon for me here in Germany, about 6-7 hours ahead of all my people Stateside. I’ll go to church in a few hours at a LCMS congregation, because it’s English-speaking and the Lutheran in me wants to be among Lutherans to claim some sense of normalcy.

Believe it or not, this is my first Christmas deployed. In 17 years in the Navy, it took becoming a Chaplain and mobilizing to Germany to finally spend a Christmas “deployed.” But it feels anything but that. I’m not underway, submerged 400 feet below the sea. I’m not sucking sand in the desert. My wife and my in-laws are with me. And I spent the last few days viewing Christmas Markets across Germany.

I feel out of place this Christmas. However, it’s not really any different from any other Christmas for me. Convention: the merriment, the gifts, the large gatherings, the thin traditions that seem so disconnected from the Christian narrative I have come to dedicate my life to.

This is a picture of the Cathedral in Köln, Germany. I think it represents my cycncism about Christmas and what it’s become. Beautiful, breathtaking, but also a symbol of the church’s power (and abuse of) and influence, built off the backs of ordinary people.

Being deployed to Germany has made me a bit cynical. Realizing the very Protestant Reformation that created the church I now serve happened primarily because political leaders saw it as an opportunity to siege power has made me wonder: why celebrate? In fact, why even bother to have faith in Christ at all?

I don’t have answers, and right now, I don’t feel compelled to even try. But what I will do is go to a church led by an LCMS pastor (and pray I can take communion). I will have members of my staff (deployed like me) over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. I will appreciate my in laws and my wife (even when they drive me nuts). I will try to appreciate the fact that yes, this is my first Christmas deployed, and while it’s not “hard” I will take stock of the challenges and stressors and that it’s ok to take a break from it all.

I am thankful, for all my mixed feelings about Christmas, about the Church I serve in, and this world, I can put that aside for one moment and simply take a breather….regardless of what I want or think, God is in control. Faith and innocence like a child is what’s required.

And for the rest of us, those like you and me, maybe that’s enough for at least one holy night.

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Traveling, Christ the King, & The Advent Season to come

I got a bit of a break in our mission schedule the past two weeks, so I took the opportunity to visit Budapest with my wife the last couple days. Folks in my social media network had lots of suggestions and opinions about the city, most of them reflecting how great the city and its sites are and what I should go see and do.

It’s an interesting place, but I’ve never been a fan of cities. They just don’t inspire me. Maybe that’s because of my upbringing on the farm or the introvert in me who hates the city’s crowdedness. I guess I’m just drawn to the more remote places of the world, places that are not inhabited and not touched by millions of people.

Upon deeper reflection, I think it’s more than that. I find meaning in cities, but it’s usually in their histories around the darker events, the sobering history of the place. Budapest is a place marked by achievement and greatness, but also of great suffering and tragedy. The Holocaust. Rulers of empires who built a city on the backs of the poor; those rulers immortalized by large statutes, tributes to their egos. Empty churches, like the one I worshipped Sunday in with a whopping 5 other people.

Which brings me to Christ the King Sunday, Which was celebrated yesterday. Judging by the usual posts of sermons and thoughts from my colleagues, no doubt people discussed how Jesus is a different kind of King, one who unlike worldly rulers is worthy of our fealty, devotion, and love.

I guess my question is: is faith really about a choice of what or who we swear or allegiance to? Is that what God/Christ demands of us? And what exactly am I swearing my undying loyalty to: Liberal Christianity? Conservative Christianity? Orthodoxy? Progressivism? Lutheranism? The ELCA?

In our quaint worship service, the pastor, a Hungarian pastor filling in for the ELCA pastors who usually lead the service – more nervous about her English than anything – didn’t use the appointed Revised Common Lectionary texts for Christ the King Sunday. Rather, she chose more apocalyptic texts we associate with Advent. Her message was we often think God’s promises won’t happen in our time. But whether it was the Babylonian-exiled Israel, or the NT communities of Jesus’ and the apostles’ day, the proclamation was that they were meant for the present time. God’s promises of life out of death, hope out of indifference, love rather than fear, peace rather than power are for us, NOW. Faith in those promises is an act of resistance in a world that says there is nothing but indifference, fear, power, and death when it comes to this life. It is faith practiced because we believe God is with us NOW.

In other words, faith as resistance means something else entirely than fealty to God/Christ….or our fabricated notions of the same.

This is why I can’t wait for Advent to come. Advent (much like Lent) calls us to God’s promises. Advent calls us to not worry so much about who goes to church or who’s keeping the Christ in Christmas. Rather Advent, in our celebration of the season and observance of its rituals, calls us to sense God in the here and now in those places we typically don’t look for God. Yet I think Advent is even more than that.

Advent is calling us to account for fear, indifference, love of power, and death in our lives and resist these things.

God doesn’t demand our allegiance or fealty as some ideally benevolent King. Rather, God calls us to faith as resistance against the madness of the world. In that resistance, we can truly be free. And always, God is with us.

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How 9/11/2001 impacts us today…..17 years later.

Did you take time to remember today?

17 years ago, people’s memories were emblazoned by two planes flying directly into the World Trade Center towers in New York City.  Additional planes crashed into the Pentagon and in a field in Pennsylvania, both part of the attack.

I’m not going to recount where I was that day, or the fact that for nearly two decades the country has been at war, or that the event has faded from our national consciousness.  What I want to raise, for your reflection today, is how 9/11/2001 impacts us today.  I want you to consider this:

Since 9/11/2001, the country and all of us have been living in a constant state of fear.

I would argue the United States has fractured along just about every possible social, economic, ethnic, political, and ideological line possible.  We have let fear in every way imaginable rule our hearts and minds, gripping us in a primal state of survival that frankly, isn’t warranted in a civilized society like ours today.  I would challenge everyone: what in the world is out there that you should constantly fear for your life every single day?

Fear is an important emotion.  When our primal ancestors saw a saber tooth tiger or watched half of the population get wiped out by a plague, there was certainly a reason to fear.  Today, however, most fears are steeped in conspiracy, lies, and neurotic extremes that have little chance of occurring.  Fear has manifest itself in our democracy to the point it our government can’t seem to do anything substantial for this country.  Fear has ignited a fire inside people, motivating them to violence that seeks to strike and shoot first, and ask questions later.  Fear has motivated us to spend countless resources on personal and national security, all the while neglecting the needs of those who suffer needlessly.  Fear has raised the number of suicides, mental and emotional health issues in people of all ages.

Fear has made us less vulnerable, loving, open, compassionate….the list is endless.

My biggest fear is that “never forget” has come to mean “never stop fearing.”  I wish, and I hope beyond all hope, that remembering 9/11/2001 would be about recalling stories how we bonded together, how we forgave, and how we were compelled to vocations and callings of service.  I wish never forgetting was about remembering how we overcame fear, and how we continue to overcome personal and collective fear in our lives each and every day.  

For me, the work of overcoming that fear, and helping others overcome their as well, is what drives what I do today.  And so, I never forget.

 

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A Few More Words on Leadership

A week ago I blogged a bit about the failure of leadership at Willow Creek Church.  I’ve taken some time to reflect on the reasons such failure happen, not just in churches like Willow Creek, but churches all over.  You can add the PA Catholic Priest abuse cover up, but you can also add those “smaller” incidents in [fill in the blank] church where a pastor or church leadership betrayed the trust of the Christian community.  Infidelity, embezzlement, abuse of all kinds (verbal, psychological, emotional), neglect, and the list could go on.  Yet the question remains, why do these things happen?  As a mentioned before, I think these are issues of character and how leaders’ relationship with power will distort one’s character.

Before I continue, let me say that leadership isn’t simply a “Christian” issue.  I don’t believe in a “Christian” form of leadership, or set of rules and principles that are distinctly and solely “Christian.”  In fact, much of my prior life experience outside of church ministry has informed and shaped my character as a leader.  That said, I do believe there are certain leadership principles that are necessary to serve within a Christian context.  Perhaps I’m just doing a little clever wordplay, but let me try to explain the distinction.

If we look to the object of our faith, Jesus, then we have to look at the very character of the one whom we profess to follow.  That leads to one place: the cross.  Jesus’ character leads him to the point of death.  Yet, that death is not some act of self-serving martyrdom.  It is death for the sake of….for the sake of the other.  Jesus’ resurrection confesses that the only way new life, reconciliation, liberation, salvation, and a whole host of other things can come is through the act of dying for the sake of others.

Leadership within the Christian context is no different.  Pastors and church leaders must adopt a character that puts one’s desires to death for the sake of others – the congregation, the community, the ministry, and God’s people.  This character is the only one that will lead to anything healthy or hopeful.  True leadership can only come out of such a death of the leader’s ego for the sake of others.

Now, that is not to say that pastor or leader can’t cast vision, or lead prophetically.  Yet the minute the leader ignores their checks and balances against their ego, the instant a leader begins to buy into their own hype, the point at which a pastor believe that they actually have power – and that they are entitled to that power – they are no longer effective leaders within a Christian context.  Their character at that point is twisted, no longer believing that effective leadership comes out of death of self for the sake of others.  Instead, all effort goes into preserving the self – which leads to abuse, corruption, lies, and denial.

So how do we recapture a proper leadership character within a Christian context?

In the other contexts I serve, we often talk about “core values,” or specific traits that are necessary to hold a leader accountable, and to center them amid so many challenges and temptations that come with positions of leadership.  Here’s my short list.

Humility: The ability to share and distribute power, to not buy into “the hype.” Will to be accountable to others.

Courage: the ability to be truthful with others…and with one’s self, especially in the toughest of times.

Resilience/Toughness: There’s a lot to unpack here, too much for this blog.  But at the core of resilience and toughness is the character that is prepared, can endure, and can bounce back from the challenges and temptations of leadership.

Love: What is the object of your worship (or, what is at the center of your life)?  The church?  A denominational tradition?  The Bible?  All those are idols.  For the leader, love of God and love of neighbor….this is the most essential thing.

Graciousness: with one’s self and with others.  Mistakes/failures are not seen as character flaws…which we often try to cover up.

What would you add?

 

 

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A brief word about failures of leadership….

As busy as my life has been lately, the following article on a friend’s Facebook page caught my eye: “Willow Creek, Your Time is Now.”  I clicked and am now caught up on the latest regarding  the Willow Creek/Bill Hybels sexual assault and harassment of women who worked under him, and the subsequent cover up/denial by church leaders.  Hybels isn’t the only one to resign, but so have Willow Creek elders and their senior pastor.

Here’s the deal though.  The only reason this one is getting so much attention is the scale and visibility that Willow Creek has.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?  The truth is that failures of leadership like this are happening within congregations, and in more of them than any of us would care to admit.  So why are they happening?

There are many possibilities.  However, for me it starts with character, or the fundamental values that are at the center or core of an individual’s being.  Character is what drives one’s view of the world, and what ultimately drives their actions (or inactions).

If we’re going to talk about things like Willow Creek and character, then we need to start that talk about the leader’s relationship with power.  What is their attitude with power and how it affects the self?

I have lots to say on this topic, but I’ll leave you with this passage from 1 John to reflect on.  I think it gets at the core of the character issue and failures of leadership like Willow Creek and the countless others I’ve seen, heard, and witnessed within congregations.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[sin.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. ~ 1 John 1:5-10

More to follow……

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Sermon 27 May 2018: Lynnhaven Community UCC

Text: John 3:1-17

A little known fact I’ll share with you: I know how to play the organ.  We had a rule in my house growing up, that you had to play a musical instrument in addition to playing sports.  And so, when I was about 14, at the not so gentle insistence of my dad, I learned how to play the organ and for about 5 years, served as the organist in the small church I grew up in.  This skill has come in handy from time to time.  For instance, in my first call.  The organist had called in sick on Friday afternoon, and people were panicking about the fact there was no available replacement for Sunday.  Little did they know…..so after the opening liturgy that Sunday, I announced the opening hymn and walked over to the organ, sat down, and starting playing.  One woman in the congregation was especially amazed.  And so she turned to my wife Kelly in the pew behind her and gushed, “Is there anything he DOESN’T know how to do?”  My wife replied, “Well, he doesn’t know how to put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”

We’re all familiar with the term: “knowledge is power.”  And that’s kind of how the world works today, doesn’t it?  The more we know, the greater the opportunities and possibilities.  The greater our title or the more letters behind our name: PhD, M.D., CEO, and so on, the greater our status in the world.  The truth is, knowing means we’re in control.  Knowing tells us who’s got it figured it out, who’s got the answers…..the right ones.  Knowledge is power.

Early in his preaching career, Billy Graham led a revival in a South Carolina town.  Before the service, he wanted to mail a letter, so he asked a kid for directions to the post office.  After the boy gave him directions, Graham said, “If you come to Central Baptist Church tonight, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”  The boy replied, “No thanks mister.  You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”  As great a man as Billy Graham was, I think he was wrong on this one.  And in our story from the gospel of John, Nicodemus gets it wrong too.  Nicodemus comes, wanting to know who Jesus is.  Jesus was performing signs and preaching in ways that astounded many.  Yet I wonder if the real reason he came to Jesus was to figure out if Jesus had some sort of inside track, some sort of insider knowledge, some great insight that at the end of the day, if Nicodemus could tap into it, it’d mean he’d get a share of whatever power he thought Jesus had.

But as we find out, Nicodemus doesn’t understand.  Jesus’ words are cryptic to him, and he finds himself left in the dark.

Knowledge is power.  That is, until we hit those moments where we can’t know or we can’t understand.  The unspeakable moments, both good and bad.  The tragic loss of life due to unexpected bursts of rage and violence.  The feeling that washes over you when you hold a newborn baby for the first time and that little face looks right up at you.  Sometimes, the moments of life cannot be explained or fully understood.

Perhaps the only way to view them is through the lens of faith.  Faith acknowledges that there is truth in unknowing.  Faith acknowledges there’s peace in not being in control.  Faith acknowledges life and come out of death and there is hope that no matter how ugly life is, we can be born again.  And Faith says that it is precisely in the moments of mystery where God is present.  The ever popular John 3:16 (and all those signs at sports events need to include verse 17, by the way) isn’t an ultimatum to believe the right things in order to get ourselves to heaven, but rather the divine mystery of love that says God comes down to us.  God sends God’s only Son into the world, to suffer on an instrument of torture and death to show us that it is in our own moments of persecution and trial that God is closest to us, not solely in moments of triumph and success. 

Knowledge thinks we have to ascend to God.  Faith says God, out of great love, descends to us.

So this all sounds good, but does it really happen?  Are there actually moments of mystery like this in the world, where God breaks into our lives bringing salvation and new life? Some of you may recall the Christmas Day ceasefire during WWI.  All across the European front, Allied and German soldiers put down their weapons for a day.  They came out of their foxholes to trade cigarettes and food.  They sang Christmas songs together.  Some even engaged in friendly games of soccer.  What made this so amazing is that the ceasefire wasn’t mandated by military or national leaders.  In fact, when the news of ceasefires arrived, the Generals threatened to punish soldiers who participated.  That never happened.  The ceasefire was totally the effort of the men in the trenches….and just for a day.  They went back to fighting after that.  But, just for a day, the unexplainable happened.  Humanity was shared in a dehumanizing war.  A moment of life amid so much death.

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

Life exists beyond what we control and what we know.  Mysteries of faith are not only powerful, but they happen. Faith is not only believing they happen, but opening our hearts and minds to receive them, to seek them, and point them out.  

In a world in which so much of what we know seems dark and hopeless, perhaps we could use a bit more mystery – the mystery of divine love descended to us in God’s Son – in our lives.  Amen.

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