Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Thank you.” Memorial Day Reflection 2014

Thank you.

We say thank you on a day like today for those who sacrificed their lives in service to this country, during times of war and of peace throughout our history.

But today, I also say “thank you” to another group of people: to those who haven’t served a day in uniform, stood the post or watch, or understand what military service is all about. I say thank you to the majority of this nation that choose not to serve, because today’s force is an all-volunteer one.

I say thank you because in America’s not to distant past, military service men and women were not honored. The turmoil of the Vietnam War is over 40 years in our rearview mirror. And while not complete, the country has reconciled that hate and shame of that era.

Today, if you log on to your favorite social media engine of choice, you’ll find it littered with pictures and status updates reminding people to be thankful of those who gave their lives in military service. You’ll find people generally saying, “thanks.”

And as a Veteran of 11-plus years, and currently still serving, I’ve already gotten several messages of thank you from friends who have never served.
Messages of gratitude.

So on this Memorial Day, let’s continue to say “thank you” for the “right reasons.” But let’s also recognize and celebrate that as a country, while we still have a ways to go (especially with issues like moral injury and PTSD, re-entry into civilian life post-deployment), we have the ability to heal from wounds caused by ideology and dogmatic belief, wounds caused by hate and fear.

We have the ability to heal, and as a nation, come together to say “thank you,” not just on this Memorial Day, but every day.

And for that, I am grateful. I say “thank you.”

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Dinosaurs, Coaching, Memorial Day & More…..Some Random Leadership Thoughts

My life has been pretty hectic lately….and so I haven’t had a chance to actually sit down and write anything substantial for awhile.  I guess that’s life when you’ve got your foot in so many places…..I was at our regular Conference Pastors’ Meeting and someone said, “that’s like you Aaron…the whole bi-vocational thing.”  My reply, “Dude, I’m like 5-vocational these days.”  And that’s totally true: two churches, Navy Chaplaincy, Wrestling Coaching, being a husband, a friend, brother, financial analyst, technology guru, and thinking about another graduate degree (since the classes will be free!).

That’s my way of saying: there’s too much crap floating around in my head.  But hey, that’s everyone, right?

But I wanted to share a couple things with ya, just some short snippets of things that I’ve found pretty insightful lately.

1.  Dinosaurs.  I hate dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs represent those people who feel the need to impose on you their ideas, their way of doing things.  They’ll talk forever about how they think things “ought to be,” but when it’s your turn, they check out.  Dinosaurs can tend to be older, imposing on the younger, but it’s really about people who show a general lack of respect and resistance to other people and ideas, especially new and different ones. (Case in point this week: one “dinosaur” fell asleep during our conversation….yeah, that happened)  What I hate about dinosaurs most, is that everyone seems to cater to them because of this status they have seemed to achieve, which just enables the behavior.

I guess though, I don’t let the dinosaurs take over.  Because the fact is, they become extinct….because they’re unable to adapt and change, they’ll eventually die out.  And so, I can’t let myself become one either.  We always need to be adapting and evolving, especially as leaders, which brings me to my next snippet……

2. Coaching is super important.  I’m reading this book called “InSideOut Coaching” by Joe Ehrmann.  The book focuses on being transformational coaches who seek to develop character through athletics rather than transactional coaches who use athletes for personal fulfillment, often to the emotional and psychological detriment of the athlete.  But this quote in the book struck me most of all:

“As an ordained minister, I have preached in churches for decades.  That morning at the diner, I wondered how often the members of my congregation will remember a sermon of mine thirty or forty years from now.  But I have coached hundreds of plays by now and I am certain of this: 100 percent of them will remember my name, the words I spoke to them, and the emotions generated by our conversations and interactions.  Forever! That is part of the awesome power and responsibility of coaching.  You give your players memories, for better or for worse, that stay with them until the day they die.”

I have a lot to say about this, but for the sake of brevity: I’m thinking hard about what I spend my time doing, and what I focus on as a pastor.  This is true of my life – dead on.  I know the impact I’ve had on the wrestlers I’ve coached over the years……but not so much with people in the parish. You just never achieve the same level of honesty…..but I wonder, if I approach my role in the congregation as I do in the mats, will the same result come up?

3.  Memorial Day.  I realize that Memorial Day goes well beyond military sacrifice….it is honoring and remembering all who gave their lives in service to this country, and in the name of equality and freedom for all people, regardless of race, creed, socio-economic status, sexual orientation…..under our constitution, the principle this country was built on, all have equal freedom and right to a life of being afforded the same opportunities.  Yet, that doesn’t equate to guarentee of outcomes, which sadly I believe most in this country believe: outcomes/success is an entitlement.  

I ask you watch the post to this video.  It’s worth the 20 minutes of time it take to watch it.  It’s wise and inspiring words from a man who silently and humbly serves in the most chaotic, complex, and challenging environment of all: U.S. Special Forces.  ADM Bill McRaven is Commander of Navy Special Forces Command, and gave this commencement address to the class of 2014 at his alma mater, the University of Texas.  It was his first public speaking engagement.

 

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Sermon 18 May2014, Round 2: “trust in me.” John 14:1-14

Today is a great day…..it’s a great day because later in our service, we are going to welcome and recognize some folks. They’ve been in our midst pretty regularly for awhile now, and today, they are going to say “yes” to joining our little family we have here – this Body of Christ we call Holy Communion Lutheran church. And some of them couldn’t be here today….but they have also affirmed their desire to be a part of this little family of God, and we’ll do that later this summer. We have new folks joining this little church…..
Now I have a question for you: Does this sound like good news, or does it sound like a threat?
Now maybe you’re thinking that’s a really ridiculous question….of course it’s good news! These people are now part of our community; it’s growing….the love and grace of God, we now share it with new people, young and old, of all sorts of backgrounds. OF COURSE IT’S GOOD NEWS.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” No one comes through the Father except through me.”
I’ll ask you the same question: these words of Jesus….does this sound like good news, or does it sound like a threat? This time I’m not so sure. Let’s go back a few verses, when we hear “Father’s house” – what do we think of? Maybe heaven perhaps? Now there’s good news….that house, Heaven, it has many rooms – lots of space available. But, the only way to get a spot there is if you believe Jesus is your savior, if you accept him, because he’s the way – the only way. Put that way, does it still sound like good news? Or is it more like a challenge – we have this great decision to make, or otherwise our eternal souls are in danger. And if we don’t, or don’t do it good enough, the we definitely won’t get in. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a threat. This is how Jesus’ words have been interpreted by some – Christianity is the only way to salvation, so accept Jesus or else. And it creates a sense of fear and trouble in people’s hearts.
I remember during the summer of my Clinical Pastoral Experience, my hospital chaplaincy, I made a visit to an elderly man. The nurses called me up there because the man was in great distress, crying, scared out of his mind. And when I got up there to his room, I found out why: the man’s son would come up every day, and demand his father confess all his sins. He demanded his dad confess he had accepted Jesus into his heart as his lord and savior……because if he didn’t, he was going to hell….and he didn’t have much time. And this man, suffering from some memory loss, would forget whether he had done so or not, and it would throw him into despair. I listened to him and he’d despair – “I don’t know if I’ve confessed all my sins! My son said I’m going to hell if I don’t confess….please Pastor, Am I going to get into heaven?”
But Jesus’ words in the opening part of this passage are: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe in me.” The word belief can also be translated “trust.” “Trust in God; trust in me.” Trust what you know about me, because you now also know God. Trust in the things I have done for you and are about to do – signs of my deep love for you. Because those are signs of God’s deep love for you. Trust in me….that in the things to come, you’ll know that the “Father’s house” isn’t a destination you’re trying to get to, but rather it’s a relationship, a relationship open to all people simply because I love you; God loves you. Trust in that.
Now that’s good news. Not a single word of threat here! And Jesus offers the disciples, and us, more good news today: “The one who believes – who trusts – in me will also do the works that I do…and in fact, will do greater works than these.” In other words, Jesus says: “The love and grace I have shown you – in footwashing, in death, in resurrection – you will actually show each other this same love and grace in greater ways.”
Here’s a thought: If “the Father’s house” is really about a relationship with God, made known in Jesus Christ’s self-giving love, then the more ways and opportunities we have to experience relationships that embody God’s love and grace just makes the “Father’s house bigger.” And in greater ways, God and God’s love is made known even more through us.
What that means, perhaps, is that each and every one of us – those who cling in trust to this promise, this good news of God made known in Jesus Christ – we are “rooms” in the Father’s house. We are dwelling places for the love and grace of Christ, where in the relationships we build and share, in the ways they grow and take shape – Christ is made known, and God and this everlasting promise of abundant life is made known.
And if that’s the case, then today, the house just got bigger. We rejoice because in the “yes” of you who join our little family of God here, Christ’s love and grace, which has been shared by so many in this little family, just grew a bit more, and the presence and action of God just got made known to us more fully. All of you, your talents and gifts, your presence….making God’s house bigger in new relationships.
And here’s one more thought: if the house gets bigger in this way, then they’ll be more rooms…..and the house continues to grow – just was Jesus said, by works greater than these….by the work of nurturing relationships the embody God’s love and grace…..spaces that ease and bring peace to troubled hearts all over. And that, that is good news…..it’s gospel. Amen.

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18 May 2014: Sermon, Round 1. Acts 7:54-8:1a

It was one of those weeks were each congregation needed to hear a different word…..and it was in a different text no less. More work for me, better for you!

The story of Paul’s conversion in the Bible always fascinated me. Let me give you a little summary: Found in the Book of Acts, chapter 9, The apostle Paul, then known as Saul, was a major persecutor of Christians. He hunted them down and had them killed. Saul, walking alongside the road to Damascus, hears the voice of Jesus, asking why he persecutes him, and then is immediately blinded. After being helped to the house of Ananias, a Christian, Ananias heals him, restores his sight and Saul is converted – his name changes to Paul – who then goes on to spread the gospel of Jesus all over the ancient world. Quite a story: a dramatic moment of conversion. It’s almost too good to be true, like it was made for the movies.
I wonder sometimes, if perhaps that’s how most of us expect God to speak and work, and how faith works – it’s this dramatic thing, this huge divine conversion to faith. Some call it “getting saved.” The great American theologian and preacher John Wesley called it “the strange warming felt in our heart.” Altar calls, revivals….these dramatic conversions of the heart, people deciding for Jesus.
But I don’t know about you, I’ve never had one of those moments. And, if I asked each and every one of you what and when your “conversion moment” to Christian faith was, what would you say? Again, I wonder if while we expect conversion moments like these, the truth is most of us haven’t had one. And I feel like…..it makes this faith thing, this Lutheran thing seem….boring. And I know for me, and perhaps for you, I wonder sometimes if there’s something wrong with me, my faith.
But then we have this story in Acts today – the stoning of Stephen. Stephen, who in the verses before the section we read today was engaged in a major debate with certain Jewish leaders of his day – the debate whether this new following of Jesus was going to be accepted. And Stephen’s bold confession – that Jesus was the Messiah – angered the Jewish leaders….and it got him killed. Stoned to death. But the central figure of this story, I think, isn’t Stephen. Because at the end of our reading, the first half of the first verse in Chapter 8, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”
Yes: that Saul. The Saul who was converted and became Paul.
But I wonder, between verse 1a of Chapter 8 and verse 1 of Chapter 9 – what really happened? The text doesn’t really tell us, other than Saul/Paul kept on with his life of hunting and persecuting Christians. What was going on in his mind during that whole time….maybe, witnessing the events of Stephen’s murder and in the midst of his regular life persecuting Christians, it started to bother him, or at least affect him. And questions about Stephen, and about what he was doing and seeing….started to rise up for him. I wonder if gradually, a little at a time….Paul’s heart was being changed.
Some of you might be familiar with author John Grisham…he’s the one who writes all the famous suspense novels about lawyers. In 1998, he wrote a book called “The Street Lawyer,” in which the main character, Michael Brock, a lawyer at a rich firm, gets held hostage by a homeless man who made claims about a conspiracy in the firm’s dealings with the homeless. The man is eventually killed by police snipers. However, this event changes Brock, enough so that he starts to ask questions about the dead man’s claims. And in those questions, things come to light that bother him….bother him enough where he quit his job at the rich firm and becomes a “street lawyer,” working for the homeless, pro bono.
We see or experience things in our lives – news stories of neighbor squabbles, those parking lot accidents that turn into a full-blown fistfight, students getting bullied in school, large-scale tragic events that kills thousands of people at a time……we ask, “how did it get this way? Why did this happen?” All our questions….and no answers. All we can seem to do is cry out “Kyrie, eleison – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”
But I believe that is where our conversion happens. It happens in asking those questions with no answers. Conversion happens in our cry of Kyrie eleison. Conversion happens when we see and experience things that bother us, haunt us….and the thoughts don’t seem to go away. Conversion isn’t our decision, and it’s not necessarily a grand “one-and-done,” emotionally charged event that magically makes us do a 180 for the better in life. I wonder, if conversion is a gradual process…..and it’s something that God does – that Jesus does.
Martin Luther – that guy from the 1500’s who we Lutherans are named after – said, “remember your baptism.” And what he meant is that baptism is more than just a one-time event in which we’re converted or radically changed into Christians. Baptism is about a proclamation and a promise: a visible sign of what God does for us constantly and what that means for our lives. We’re claimed out of the waters of baptism because God loves us – in Christ we are found worthy in God’s eyes….God claims us because through the eyes of love, we have great worth. That’s the proclamation. And the promise is that our lives are changed somehow….but not perhaps in visible, dramatic ways. I mean, there’s really nothing different about us. We look the same, we probably get excited about and ticked off at the same things, the world doesn’t really change – I mean baptism doesn’t change the reality that the Vikings and Redskins will probably both be not very good this year!
But this news of God’s love and presence in Christ’s baptism…..something starts happening. Things and people we didn’t notice before, we start noticing. Things we see and experience on a daily basis that never bothered us – start to bother us. And we start to ask questions we never asked before. And then we start to hear that “still, small voice” of God….and gradually, in small steps – our relationships change. Our attitudes change. Perhaps our actions and routines change. By God’s love in Christ….faith is nurtured as a small spark, and we are changed.
As John’s gospel tells us today, this is the way of Jesus. It is this life lived in the proclamation and promise of baptism, a way of life as a gradual, ongoing process, a way of life…..a life of faith trusting in the proclamation and promise in what God does for us over and over in Jesus Christ. So hopefully all of us who have never had one of those big conversion moments like the apostle Paul….we can all rest easy. There’s nothing wrong with us, Lutheranism isn’t all that boring, and I won’t be making you do an alter call today. We just simply come – with our questions, our wonderings, just our plain, old selves……we come in faith…..and Christ and his grace and love that changes hearts and lives does the rest. Amen.

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Sermon 11 May 2014: “Unjust Suffering.” 1 Peter 2:19-25 & John 10:1-10

This Sunday, the 4th Sunday after Easter is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the church. It comes from the text we read today…actually, it’s the NEXT VERSE after the end of our gospel text today. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd….”
I realized there are a lot of places I could go with that this morning….preach about what shepherds and sheep were like in the time and world of the Bible. I could tell you some funny farming stories about sheep, and how we’re like them. I could talk about the fact I hate how pastors and their parishioners think of the pastor as their “shepherd,” that my job is to tend to you, “the flock.” I’ll just say this briefly: Sheep are blind, helpless, and dumb. I don’t think you’re any of those things. Besides, there’s only one “Good Shepherd” – and it’s not me. (It’s Jesus in case you’re wondering) Again, all the shepherd stuff is NOT in the text we read today. Today, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” An Interesting detail, but I’ll get to that later.
What I want to talk about is our text from 1 Peter. It’s a letter that was written to a community that was trying to understand what it meant to be obedient in following Christ in their lives; it was meant especially to encourage and comfort Christians undergoing suffering, especially those suffering unjustly for their faith. That’s a relevant topic today in our lives….unjust suffering, although not for our Christian faith so much perhaps. But there are certainly those who suffer unjustly, for instance:
A man, whose spouse is beating him repeatedly.
A homeless family, homeless because they left their house because it was unsafe to live in – overrun by mold and the roof collapsing – and an absent landlord who won’t fix it.
Those who suffer from physical deformity or mental illness.
A young person who comes into the church, and just can’t seem to bring themselves to come to the communion table because they were told a long time ago in a previous church, communion is only for those who are worthy to be forgiven…and were specifically told repeatedly, they weren’t worthy.
This text has been used as a way to offer a response of comfort and encouragement to those who endure unjust suffering.
“For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly…..you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.”
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”

Let me translate this for you a bit, how it sometimes gets relayed to those that suffer unjustly:
“Enduring suffering is a good thing – it proves you love God and want to be obedient to him.”
“This is your calling perhaps – Jesus suffered beating and pain and deformity and lived uncomfortably – you’re living like Jesus.”
“I know it’s hard to understand why you’re suffering….but everything happens for a reason. Jesus just endured it on the cross, he just took it….and so should you.”
I’m hoping your stomach just turned a bit as you heard that – or you at least felt something. Here’s the question before you right now: How do you feel about the idea that God makes people suffer unjustly as some sort of test, to prove obedience? How do you feel about the idea that Christ was given as nothing more than an example of how to endure unjust suffering, specifically, that you should just lie down, accept it and take it? Now maybe you don’t believe Christians say such things, but I’ve heard sermons, devotionals, and “helpful advice” that says as much. And it takes this text completely out of the context, to the audience it was written to.
The Christians in 1 Peter were people who were being persecuted specifically for their faith, in a world that was hostile to it. Emperor worship was required, and to say you worshipped something else – like Jesus – you were persecuted for that. For the Christians in 1 Peter, the message wasn’t that suffering was somehow favorable and desired as a “Christian” trait, a test of faith. But that’s often how people interpret this text today – in a totally different time and context. But they omit the last part of the text, the part that makes this passage a word of encouragement and comfort that renews and strengthens faith. “By his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
It is easy to lose faith in the midst of suffering….it’s easy to go astray. But Christ’s death is more than just a blueprint to endure suffering. Christ’s death is to proclaim to us that we are healed through Christ suffering…three days later, he is raised. In the midst of unjust suffering that might cause us to lose faith, we are reminded that Christ suffered so that we might be healed, that resurrection and new life will happen in our lives. And the church – we are the community that not only confesses this good news to the world…..we are the community where people who suffer unjustly come to experience Christ’s healing in the midst of their unjust suffering, and we are the community that voices their unjust suffering to an unjust world – in the name of God’s desire for justice for all.
Which brings me back to Jesus’ saying in the gospel, “I am the gate.” When I was growing up on the farm, we used to put a small electric wire around our garden – about six inches off the ground. What that did is allow us to go into and out of the garden to tend to it, to get produce from it. But what it did was keep out certain critters – raccoons specifically, that would try to come in and steal vegetables from the garden.
I think a church that embodies Jesus as the gate works in much the same way – it doesn’t try to protect people from every type of danger imaginable, nor does it close itself from the outside world. However, the gate does protect people from particular types of harm – like injustice. And the church as gate allows people to come into such a place of safety so that they can heal from suffering, but so that they can go out into the world as God calls them, as God intends them to.
The church that embodies Jesus’ gate, I think, is more important in this world than ever. Perhaps Christian obedience in our time looks like faith – trusting that God doesn’t cause, but heals suffering of any kind. It is through the gate of Christ that people enter, are healed, so that they might go out and live life abundantly again. And in the ways we talk about God and Jesus and the Bible; in the ways we are a community of safety and belonging; in the ways we care for those who suffer in any form;
and in the ways we welcome people who sorely need to hear and experience the message of God’s healing through Christ’s death and resurrection – this, this is the church we are called to be….Amen.

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Lutheranism 101: What Growing up in a Small Rural Church Taught Me

Last week, I had a meeting with the Assistant to our Synodical Bishop.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, “What’s a Synodical Bishop?”  And I realize to explain that, I’d have to explain what a Synod is….which would lead to an explanation of how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is organized….which would lead to an explanation on what a bishop is in our church….which would lead to another explanation of how leaders in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are organized.

You get my drift?  CONFUSING!

But, I will say this from our meeting: He asked me what it means to be Lutheran in the 21st Century.  I have to say, it’s a pretty important question, especially since I’m out here in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where Lutherans aren’t very numerous.

So I thought I’d start a series over this summer called “Lutheranism 101.”  And rather than the usual information about the church: What we believe, What our ministry is about, our stance on social issues, how we worship, etc., I’m going to take a different stance.

I’m going to tell you about how we experience things.  But that’s exactly how we understand this whole being a Christian thing.  It’s a relationship we have with God in Christ.  It’s about sharing God’s grace and love with the world.  It’s about living knowing we’re justified by that grace daily.  It’s about being the church.

It’s about the experience with they holy, the divine in our lives here on earth – the experience of God.

Lutheranism 101 starts for me in a small “Little White Church on the Hill” in Bartlett Township, Todd Country, in Central Minnesota.  It’s smack in the middle of farm country.

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And it’s the church I grew up in.

I’m sure there’s a lot of similarity to how our small little church worked to every other rural church in America, regardless of denomination or tradition.  But there is something about Balsamlund Lutheran Church that made it distinctly “Lutheran.”

Participation wasn’t optional.  But Perfection wasn’t required.

I think you only experience grace in community – in relationship with other living, breathing people, created by God just the same as you.  And if you’re going experience community, you have to participate in it.  That’s how it was in our church – there weren’t a whole lot of sign up sheets (unless it was for making bars for after church or the canoe trip).  You just showed up.  You helped mow and clean the yard and cemetery.  You helped clean the church.  You sang (even if you couldn’t sing!), you brought something for a potluck. If the worship assistants didn’t show up that Sunday, then someone else simply got up and did it.

And that brings me to the second point: Perfection wasn’t a requirement for participation.

If that was the case, then none of us would have qualified – none of us were expert singers, readers, writers, or even thinkers.  Just a bunch of folk some working in town, most of us farmers.  I can’t remember how many times names and words in the Bible were mispronounced, communion assistants stood on the wrong side or said the wrong thing.  I can’t remember the countless potluck dishes that were brought and you simply took the smallest portion you could, because it was bad and you didn’t want their feelings to be hurt.  If I could take you out to the church today, I’d show you all the crooked holes, uneven cement stairs, and mistakes that were made in our construction and repair projects.

But in those imperfections are the very persons who dedicated themselves to those tasks.  It is their sweat, their commitment, their love….all poured into this imperfect task and product.  It is their offering – their participation demanded of them by themselves, and their imperfection written into it.

That’s the Lutheranism 101 lesson for today: the experience of being church as the experience of God’s grace.  Grace is a hard thing to define.  But I think we can clearly point it out when we experience it.  When we experience the death of Christ on the cross, we experience what love is that gives itself completely away for our sake, so that we might be freed from sin and separation from God.  It’s the same with the church – we experience grace when the church community gives itself completely away for the sake of the other, an offering of ourselves, demanded, but imperfect.

That is the cross – Christ offering himself for the world. Christ’s life was demanded of him.  The cross was not an option because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  Yet the cross is a moment of suffering; a moment of weakness; a moment of death.  A moment of imperfection.

The church of my youth, that “Little White Church on the Hill” reminds me what the church is all about.  And as a pastor today, my hope is that in my proclamation, witness, and leadership to my two churches, and honestly in everything I do, I’m communicating and passing that lesson on to those in my congregation: God demands your participation – in your work, in your relationships, in service to others, in the church, and in life.  But perfection isn’t required in order to participate.  To demand perfection is to demand proof of worthiness (righteousness) through our works.  To allow imperfection is to experience Grace – God’s grace.

So that’s your first lesson on what being “Lutheran” is (see, it’s about experience again!).  God’s Grace experienced through participation and imperfection.  Until next time…..

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Sermon 4 May 2014: “Visitors, Hostile Environments, & Church” Luke 24:13-35

It was the 1991 World Series of Baseball, and my Minnesota Twins were playing the Atlanta Braves in what would become one of the greatest World Series played in history – 5 games decided by one run or less, 4 games decided on the final at-bat, and 3 games going into extra innings.  To add to the drama, both teams had gone from “worst-to-first” – from last place the year before to winning their divisions and leagues, and now faced each other in the World Series.

The Twins had won the first two games at their home field, and now they headed to Atlanta to play in their stadium.  And Atlanta’s stadium was known to be a really tough place for visiting teams to play.  Their fans were loud, heckling the players….and their most notorious cheer was the “Tomahawk Chop” where every time the Braves would make a great play, would rally at bat, or when the visiting team struggled, the fans would rally together, waving their hands like a chopping tomahawk, and chanting in unison.  Sports commentators and other visiting teams called it one of the most hostile, intimidating environments to play in…..created especially by their new tradition, the notorious cheer, the Tomahawk Chop.

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?”  Yesterday, I was at a Ministry Conference gathering, and in the workshop I led we read today’s text.  One woman from a different translation of the Bible – the Good News Translation.  And it translated the word stranger as visitor.

I think there’s something to that….there’s a difference between strangers and visitors in our minds.  Strangers aren’t always welcome.  We tell our kids to remember the old saying, “stranger danger!” or tell them “don’t talk to strangers.”  Strangers have the potential to cause hurt and harm, not only to our kids, but to us as well.

Visitors however…..we talk a lot about visitors in the church.  We talk about them, and usually in more favorable terms.  We want to welcome visitors, make them feel at home, make them feel like they belong…..and we want them stick around.

The visitor asks the disciples, “What are you talking about?” And they respond, “Do you not know what’s been going on?”  This visitor, asking a simple question out of curiosity…..and he’s met with hostility and condescension and disbelief…all because he doesn’t know what’s been going on the past couple days.

I wonder if we don’t unintentionally create a hostile environment in the church for visitors.  At worst, we think of them like strangers – a threat, not to be trusted, not to be welcomed.  But perhaps more common is that visitors come in – and immediately we start to notice things about them.  They don’t know our traditions and rituals.  Things we find typical seem foreign to them.  They certainly don’t seem to know what’s going on in OUR church.  We have this expectation that they ought to know, and that in order for them to truly belong we have to train and correct them on our ways.  And I wonder if such a move on our part – whether we mean to or not, creates a hostile environment for visitors to walk into.  

 

Here’s the thing: those visitors, it isn’t that they don’t value our traditions or even seek to change them.  Rather, as the story tells us….they’re simply curious.  They want to know what’s going on…..and yes, their questions will challenge us.  But they will also hold us accountable to what we confess about God, our interpretations of the Bible and Lutheran tradition.  And their presence and curiosity perhaps awaken and spark something new in us when we’ve lost hope, even though we’ve heard the Good News of Jesus Christ……the story of resurrection and new life…over and over.

Visitors…..the very presence of the risen Jesus, in the flesh, walking among us and alongside us on our own walk to Emmaus.

Throughout our Easter season, I’ve asked you to consider what it means to be a welcoming church – a church that loves, listens, and shares leadership – ownership – of the church with newcomers.  I’ve asked you to consider what it means to be a church that welcomes newcomers in this way for no other reason than that by the grace and love of God shown in Jesus Christ for all people – these newcomers belong, they have a place in the church.  And even more than that, a welcoming church invites newcomers into the community because in them, they see the very presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

And this text ask us two simple questions this morning: what sort of environment have we created for visitors to enter into, and what do our attitudes towards visitors communicate to them?  We have a choice….continue to hold expectations and attitudes that create – unintentional or not – hostile environments for visitors, or we can welcome them into the community, to “stay with us,” and experience this thing we call church alongside us, sharing these communal practices that have shaped faith and brought meaning and hope into the lives of Christians for ages.

When we choose the latter, something happens, and our gospel story highlights that. The disciples welcome the visitor to “stay with them.” And in the communal practice of blessing, breaking and sharing bread, they are able to see the real presence of the risen Jesus, in the flesh, among them.  In the same way, when we share in the experience of our communal practices in the church with visitors – worship, study of scripture, prayer, fellowship, ministry and service – we too, together, see the risen Christ.

And something else happens too.  Those visitors tend to stick around.

Another pastor, a mentor of mine, likes to tell this story of how the church he served really tried to reach out to the youth in their neighborhood – they hoped kids would come to church, for much of the same reasons you hope as well.  One Sunday, a young boy came into the church in the middle of worship….eating a bag of potato chips.  And as the worship service went on, that boy kept on munching on those potato chips.  And my mentor started to get annoyed…..it was distracting, disrespectful.  “I should kick him out, or at least stop him” he thought.  But then it dawned on him: if the boy felt comfortable enough to come into church in the middle of a service, a room full of strangers, and felt comfortable enough to eat potato chips without fear of judgment, wasn’t that what they had hoped for the church all along – to be a place of welcome, free from hostility and criticism, where people simply felt like they belonged?

I think I’m just going to leave you with that…..because I don’t think I have to go into what your deepest hopes for this church are: you know them, you’ve shared them with me.  What I want you to consider is this: in being a welcoming church, those things you hope for: are they worth dealing with the occasional mess, the occasional disruption to OUR ways of being church?  May our “home field” be blessed by the gift of the risen Jesus – by the visitor we welcome to walk alongside us in our journey of faith.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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