Monthly Archives: August 2014

Our Sept. 6th Community Service Event: What it is & How YOU can help!

Our churches are participating in the ELCA Week of Service, “God’s Work, Our Hands.”  Click on this link to learn more.

What are we doing specifically?

When: Saturday, Sept. 6th, 10am-2pm
Where: High Street, Downtown Portsmouth, VA

That day, the Olde Towne Business Association of Portsmouth is holding a Merchants’ Faire – Farmers’ Market, Antique Market, Sidewalk Sales, Food Trucks, and a Craft Beer Festival.  Just a great event to support local business….and support a local economy in the City of Portsmouth.

We decided that you know what?  People down there are going to get hot walking around.  And there might be some families down there as well.  So let’s give away some free bottled water and freeze pops.  We’ll set up shop in a parking lot, and if need be, we’ll pull a couple wagons or roll away coolers and walk around too.

We thought too: wouldn’t it be nice to offer some facepainting, and maybe a craft for the kids’ down there?  Watching your parents shop all day can get boring.

So that’s what we’re doing.  And if you’re reading this, we need your help.

Preparation & Donation: We need folks who are willing to help coordinate people and gathering materials and equipment needed to pull this thing off.  Things we need:

– Coolers
– Ice
– Cases of Bottled Water
– Case of Freeze Pops
– Materials for Facepainting
– Materials for a possible kids’ craft
– Red kids’ wagons

People we need:
– Volunteers to help pass out water and freeze pops
– Volunteers to paint faces and help with a craft
– People willing to donate items (you’ll get back things like coolers!) or donate money so we can purchase them.

I’ll be honest: it’s been difficult trying just getting to this point.  We finally got support from community organizers, so now we have TWO WEEKS to try to make this a reality!  We need your help!  But the point is this: “as Lutherans, we believe that through being a part of our community, and meeting needs of people in it, we’re ‘being church together’….regardless of who you are and what you believe!

You can comment here if you’d like to help, or contact our pastor, Aaron Fuller: pastor.adfuller@gmail.com or 612-963-8328

 

 

 

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Reflecting on “Free Speech,” the Media, & Ferguson, MO

For my congregations, think of this is a continuation of my sermon from this past Sunday.  You can go back and read it here.  

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what’s going on in the news lately: ISIS & Iraq, Palestine & Israel, Robin Williams’ suicide, a death on a dirt racetrack, & the ongoing saga in Ferguson, MO.

And unless you’ve been living with your head in the sand lately, or in some sort of complete isolation, you’ve got some idea what’s going on in at least one of these stories.

I just read the news, the blogs, the comments below articles; my Twitter Feed, my Facebook Newsfeed and all I can think is, “Stop the madness.”  Agendas, ideologies, opinions, conspiracy theories, facts, questions, answers, solutions…..

….and what is missing from all of them is the fact that people have died.  Lives have been taken and lost.  And everyone involved in all these stories – victim, initiator, and their families – have been affected, their lives forever changed.

But we don’t care about that in this country.  What we care about is which side is right.  What we care about is theological doctrines on suicide and mental illness.  What we care about is a demand for justice on both sides that leads to agitation and escalation – what really amounts to is a demand for more blood….someone’s head on a platter.

What I’m not saying is that issues of justice concerning race, persecution; discussions about suicide and mental illness aren’t important.  I hope people give a damn about them – and especially people of faith.  But what I do care about is that such conversations happen with compassion and mercy for the other present.  That’s not happening now.

And you know why it’s not happening?

THE MEDIA.

This is how the media portrays itself.  What you’ll read in it and between the lines is this: shoddy, inaccurate, and one-sided reporting; distortion of the facts; and a complete disregard for humanity in the name of “free speech.”  You know the Media’s battle cry: “People have a right to know ‘the truth.’ It’s their freedom, it’s constitutional.  It’s free will.”

Let me offer you a word about “free will.”  Lutheran Theologian Steven Paulson offers this in his writing: “Sin is God’s withdrawal of the Holy Spirit that hands us over to free will…” (Lutheran Theology, Loc 1129 of 3845, Kindle Edition)

Translation: Free will, the notion that there’s no boundaries in this life, that we can do whatever we want, that we have a right to say whatever we want….all without any regard for compassion and grace, without regard for anyone else but ourselves – it’s sin. 

For those of you a bit more on the non-religous side, let me put this in terms a little more objective for you.  The Christian message boils down to this commandment: Love God, and love one another as God in Christ has first loved you.  We’re supposed to take an attitude of love towards our neighbor that embodies selflessness, sacrifice, and compassion.  At least that’s how it’s supposed to go. (Yeah, we Christians frequently screw it up, no argument there)

But the point of this commandment, this “law” is that it keeps us from killing and destroying each other.  We know where “free will” gets us – “I’ll say what I want, and you’re free to your opinions too.  But if we disagree, I’m free to say and do the most hateful, hurtful, and violent things I can possibly think of.  But that’s my right…..it’s Free Will baby.”  And such a notion of free will is a lie.  And as Paulson writes further, “…the Law (God’s commandment to love) has already made its universal judgment and come to its fatal conclusion: there is no good heart anywhere.”  (Lutheran Theology, 1090 of 3845Such a notion free will turns us into blood-thirsty animals.  It hurts, destroys, and kills.  It de-humanizes others and ultimately, ourselves.

There needs to be boundaries to what we say and do.  We can demand justice, but not without compassion and mercy.  Not without thinking about the other.

The Media wants you to deny this.  They’re  actually shameless in their exercise of “free speech.”  The motive: gotta sell a story.  Gotta make headlines.  Gotta stir things up, even twist the facts a bit, even invade spaces of privacy….because there’s money to be made.  Free speech, YOUR right to know.  OUR Free Will exercised.

My wife puts it best: “My heart just hurts….someone died.”  As I think about Ferguson, MO, I’m going to guess that Michael Brown didn’t think we was going to die when he woke up that morning.  I don’t think Officer Darren Wilson woke up that morning thinking he was going to draw his weapon and kill someone.  And I’m willing to bet that Officer Wilson and his family, and Michael Brown’s family are simply hurting over the loss of life that happened in an ill-fated instant, in the heat of the moment.

Let the justice system, as flawed as we think it may be, do its due diligence.  But let’s recover a sense of our humanity…..”stop the madness.”  If there’s anyone we should be directing our anger at as outsiders in these things, it’s the Media.  As long as we buy into the agendas, the sensationalism, the conspiracies of the Media and other attention-grabbers who would say compassion and mercy for the other is NOT what we need to have right now…..we’ll never be truly human, never be truly “free.”

 

 

 

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First-Call Pastor Stuff: A Letter to myself, one year ago

My Facebook newsfeed has been saturated with updates of seminary classmates beginning their first calls as pastors in the parish, or are in process of working towards that.  It’s hard to believe that about one year ago, I was going through the same thing.  In some ways, it feels like a lifetime ago….and it feels like I’ve aged about 5-10 years in the last year alone.

That’s due in part to the fact that I’m stubborn, headstrong, and at times arrogant.  I believe in what I’ve been called to do, and in the places that I’ve been called to do it.  I believe in the vision of church I hold…and that it’s faithful to the timeless gospel and God we place our faith in, and that it’s a relevant vision for the world we live in today.  I’m willing to push that a bit harder than most, and because of that, I know I’ve made a ton of mistakes this past year.

So, what would I say to myself now, if I could talk to myself a year ago today?  What would’ve been nice to know then that I only now have just figured out?  Well, let me write a little letter to myself…and hope that when time travel gets made possible in the next day or two, I can send it.  Or more realistically, maybe those of you reading this will get something out of it.

Dear One Year Ago Me,

Well, I hope you’re doing well.  I’m sure you’re excited, anxious, and well uncertain as you await for the final decision on this call thing.  Well, it works out.  (Shoot, it always “works out” – this is God we’re talking about)

But, you should know a couple of things.  I want you to know them because man….I’m tired.  I’ve worked harder – in an emotional and spiritual sense – than I’ve ever worked before.  Here’s the thing: you know this too….you’ve always been one of those people who goes into things with a well, sober sense of reality.  Nothing’s ever easy.  That’s the wrestler, the farmer in you who knows that.

Well, I want to offer you a  couple of thoughts that might help you along the way.  Because maybe there’s a few mistakes you can avoid….because I know you.  You’re greatest strength is also your greatest weakness: your resolve to “strive for the greater thing,” because God demands it, and you want people to experience the gospel as you have – a powerful force in your life, life-changing in fact.  But there’s a few things you should know:

People will not want it as bad as you do.  You have some notions in your head on how you see this all playing out.  But the reality is this: people aren’t in the same place as you are.  They have other interests, other desires.  They’ve been a part of these congregations a lot longer than you have, and likely longer than you will be.  They’re not going to see the “forest for the trees,” they won’t always get what you’re talking about, and honestly, they won’t always be that interested.  

It isn’t because they’re lacking faith, it’s just that they haven’t spent the last 4 years or more thinking about this stuff like you have.  And maybe they don’t want to.  Life is hard enough as it is; maybe what they need is simply a word of grace that’s relevant to their lives, and helps them make sense of God in the midst of it all.  Shoot, sometimes they won’t even want that; and what they’ll want will have nothing to do with the gospel, at least in your estimation. And it won’t just extend to your congregations….it’ll be your colleagues too.  They won’t understand where you’re coming from, they’ll try to marginalize you, they’ll insult you, and they’ll try to draw you into their little cliques of meaninglessness. It’ll drive you nuts.  

But you are there for a purpose too.  You’re not there to cater to their whims.  They don’t “own” you. That’s going to happen….they’ll say you’re “their pastor.” And what they mean by that is you are there to keep them comfortable, to meet their needs, to keep their church going.  They’ll think you’re there to bring young people in, give them a new evangelism strategy, start new programs…and that’s not their fault, because that’s the way it’s always been done.  But remember why you felt called to be a pastor in the first place, and remember what your mission as a pastor is: not just to them, but to the gospel and the church universal.  That means there’s an integrity in the role you serve in that gives you a purpose greater than to just be “their pastor.”  Part of that integrity is that you will be “their pastor” in those times they need to know the grace and love of God from someone who knows them, who cares about them.  But part of that integrity is to tell the truth – even when it’s hard.

Speaking of hard, be prepared to take a few “punches.” You’re going to take them.  Anyone who puts their convictions to the test, and actually gives a damn about what they’re doing is going to get beat up along the way.  And while I’d like to say they’ll be minor, that’s not always that case.  If you have a spouse, you’ll fight with them.  If you have family, you’ll be separated from them.  Get used to less personal time for “fun.”  You’re not an intern anymore – the stakes are higher.  And then there’s those times when it feels like you in the boat by yourself.  It’s going to feel like everyone’s jumped ship, and you’re wondering if you were called at all.  You’ll preach sermons that it’ll feel like no one cares, you’ll conduct worship you’re not too excited about.  You’ll get bogged down by things that have nothing to do with anything.  And you’ll get frustrated, even pissed off along the way.  But that’s the job; and you gotta take the punches if this matters to you.

But then will come the knockout moments….when Grace completely blows you away.  Baptisms.  Funerals.  Conversations when people reveal the human side of themselves.  Moments where you make mistakes and people are gracious with you.  Moments where only one person “gets it” but it’s a conversation that humbles you.  Moments when a bunch of people show up to help an older lady move her things into an assisted living home.  Outsiders who have no background with the church, but have the same notions, dreams, and visions about the church you do….and some of them will be even greater.  

And then there’s going to be those moments when it’s going to seem absolutely hard, but you’re going to know it’s exactly where God wants you to be.  It won’t be comfortable, but God’s grace and call will make it seem like well…it’s all worth it.  It’s all life-giving.  And you’ll know exactly what being a pastor is all about.

Care for all.  Care for their humanity.  And call others to do the same.  That’s the thing – all the theology, all the Biblical interpretation, all the other “churchy” stuff, it boils down to “love God, and love your neighbor as Christ has loved you.”  It’ll seem easy some days, and hard on others for all the reasons I mention above.  But it really boils down to this.  Doing the “right thing” is sometimes easy, but often it’s doing the hard thing. That’s the burden of leadership.  But so often, even though it’s hard, the right thing is simple, and it’s no different here.  Care for all.  Care for their humanity. It’s ultimately not about you.  

The result, the vision of “success” it may not look like you envisioned it.  Heck, you might just outright “fail.”  But if you care for all, care for them in their humanity….you’ll be just fine.  You’re gonna have to be honest about yourself on that one; especially when you screw up.  Knowing you, that’s gonna happen.  And you’re gonna have to be upfront and honest with people about that when you do.  But if you tell the truth in all things…..you will be caring for them all…and they’ll get that.

And on a final note: establish that “inner circle.”  You might laugh, but the dude from “Meet the Parents” was right: the circle of trust is important.  For some, that circle is really big, for others, it’s small.  Knowing you, it’s gonna be tiny.  But no matter, establish it.  Have those few folks who you can share your battle scars with, your war stories.  Have folks who can offer wisdom, but more than that, will simply pick up the phone when you call.  Heck, some of those people won’t even be pastors.  They won’t even be Lutheran.  Knowing you….some of them won’t even be people of faith.  But they’ll restore your faith in humanity….and restore you in other ways too, like friendship.  And they’ll renew your faith along the way.

And because no letter to you would be complete without it: Here’s a motivational “Rocky” video clip.  I know you man….I could’ve boiled this whole letter down to this clip, seriously.  And also….you’ll be just fine bro.  Because I know you do give a damn….about God, about God’s people, about what it means to follow Christ….and that’s what matters.

Later bro,
Future Me

 

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Sermon 17 August 2014: “The Human Element”

Text: Matthew 15:10-28

If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, it’s been quite a week.  Robin Williams, the famous actor who starred in both TV and movies – Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets’ Society, the voice of Genie from Disney’s Aladdin…and this goes way back, the TV show Mork and Mindy…committed suicide.  Then you have popular NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, who ran over and killed fellow driver Michael Ward when Ward got out of his car in the middle of the racetrack after crashing.  And in Ferguson, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis, teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officers.  Brown was unarmed…but the facts are unclear whether Brown approached and attacked one of the police officers first.  And to add to that, Brown is African-American and the police predominantly white, and tensions are such that now the whole town is on curfew – lockdown.  Then there are the ongoing things happening across the world….the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has thrown Iraq into another state of Civil War, and the United States is sending “advisors” and ordering airstrikes to help “stabilize” the region. Palestinian and Israeli leaders are still choosing to lob bullets and rockets at each other rather than discuss solutions leading to peace.

And, last time we checked, everyone in the government is still fighting and not getting anything done, right?

I don’t mention these things together to make light of them…they each carry unique and complex issues that need to be dealt with much thought and care.  What troubles me is what gets talked about in the wake of such tragedies.  Because as I continue to read the news this week I’ve noticed:

A tragic death gets turned into an ethical debate about suicide – it is right or is it wrong?

A death on a racetrack becomes a soap opera of conspiracy theories about whether the victim was intentionally hit or not.  It becomes about when Stewart’s gonna start racing again, because he’s in the hunt of the NASCAR championship.

An 18-year old’s death sparks a race war in the country, followed by riots, and facts skewed to avoid or escalate issues of race that continue to drive a wedge between people in this country.

And then wars…whether wars of weapons or wars of words…continue on between leaders of the nation and world – because sides are unwilling to sit down, talk, and compromise.

And I just feel that in the wake of such events, what gets talked about…I just wanna say, “stop the madness.”  Everything gets turned into agendas and divisions that separate us…I wonder if we don’t lose all sense of humanity, and wounds of tragedy and suffering go unhealed.

The gospel story today is an interesting combination of stories….Jesus gives us this nice, inspiring speech: if you think you’re righteousness, that your salvation is earned through following rules and laws to a “T” then you’ve missed the boat.  It’s about what lies in the heart….those intentions to kill, steal, and harm…that is what makes one “unclean”….unrighteous before God.  But then we get this story of Jesus’ interaction with a Canaanite woman – an outsider, not a Jew – who brings her daughter to be healed.  She cries to Jesus for mercy….and Jesus denies her.  It’s a hard story, because at best, Jesus is testing her faith, and at worst Jesus completely contradicts everything he said to the crowds earlier by dismissing this woman in her cry for mercy.  These stories together, I think give us this lesson: you can talk up and down about what’s right, about having the right intentions of the heart.  You can say you’re all for righteousness, justice, and love…but when it comes time to live that out, that’s an entirely different matter.  Even Jesus gets it wrong with this woman initially….failing to recognize her need, failing to show compassion.

Failing to show mercy.

When people ask me what the point of faith is and what role it plays in life, I tell them that faith addresses what I like to call, “the human element.”  The human element is that we are people both the cause of and victims of tragedy and suffering.  That is the sobering reality of being human.  But this same humanity is one that God loves, a humanity that God embraces in grace and compassion.  It is our humanity that in Jesus Christ, God unconditionally and ultimately shows mercy to.

The Canaanite woman calls attention to the “human element” in her response to Jesus – that she and her daughter are human beings in need of God’s compassion and mercy – that is what she seeks.  She asks Jesus to “stop the madness” of her life, and, I think…reminded Jesus of the “human element.” Jesus does indeed show mercy…he heals her daughter.

It is hard to do this…..it’s hard to see people as human beings who do horrible things, who suffer them as well, look at them through the eyes of compassion and mercy.…and actually show such compassion and mercy in our actions.  Yet as today’s gospel story tells us, the only way to stop the madness – the ways we de-humanize ourselves and each other – is compassion and mercy. Jesus is right – that starts from our hearts, because that ultimately dictates our actions.  But it must also move us to actually show compassion and mercy as well.  It’s the only way we are healed, relationships are reconciled…our humanity gets saved.

And as hard as it is, I feel we have great freedom to live out this call – God’s call to witness and minister to the “human element.”  Because the good news always is, that in Jesus Christ, God has stopped the madness of sin and death in our lives, showing us compassion and mercy in death and resurrection.  And such an act, an act for the sake of humanity…heals us.  Frees us.  Saves us.  Amen.

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“Intimidation Factor:” Lessons from a USMC Colonial

It’s been awhile since I’ve contributed anything to this, my personal blog lately.  Since my return from Navy Chaplain’s School in July, life in the parish, a new Reserve Unit assignment, and figuring out new directions and focus for the fall has kept be pretty busy.  I’m lucky if I can get my sermons posted on our congregations’ blog before Monday.

I’ve been thinking a lot – wrestling with it really – about personal and professional challenges and how we deal with them.  I’ve been struggling a lot with doing the right thing in the face of knowing it’s gonna cause some personal pain and discomfort on my part.  I’m not going to make a whole lot of friends.  I won’t have the luxury of playing it safe.

As tough as I like to present myself, when it comes down to it – the task ahead – it just seems downright intimidating.  And then I recall some words I heard this summer:

“Intimidation is something you let happen to yourself.”

A Marine Corps Colonial I came across this summer offered these words to us.  It was a response to a question asked by someone in the group I was with.  He wasn’t being harsh or critical, but like Marines do, he offered a direct answer, and his point was this: self-marginalization, intimidation, isn’t something someone imposes on you.  It’s your reaction to an experience….a choice.  One chooses to be intimidated.

I think this changes our mindset.  We’re not passive recipients – human punching bags – in life.  We’re not victims.  We actually have agency over our own lives.  I totally get the fact that there are institutions and people who limit what we’re able to do or say.  Power is imposed on people in such a way that marginalization does happen.  But I think we’re overly sensitive when it comes to this….we default to thinking we’re victims to such a system when the truth is, we actually can do something about it – if we wouldn’t give in to be intimidated.  If we wouldn’t give in to the fear of failure.  If we wouldn’t give into the lie that thin affirmations and results don’t define our self-worth.

I guess I wonder: if we chose not to be intimidated, what could we accomplish?  Would we be better leaders?  How might that change our outlook on our lives?  How might that change our relationships?  How might that change us?

To be sure, not giving into intimidation is the life-long struggle….but it’s the right thing to do.  It’s a battle worth fighting, something worth wrestling with.

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Sermon 10 August 2014: “Operational Risk Management”

We get another familiar story this week, this time, Jesus and Peter, walking on water. Well, Peter doesn’t quite make it the whole way. But that’s not what’s on my mind this morning.

I’m wondering about those other 11 guys back in the boat.

The summer of my 7th grade year, my budding baseball career hit its highpoint when I got put on the pitching staff of 3 on our summer rec baseball team. My rise to stardom was that I had really good control….and I threw so slow that it often threw off the timing of the batters I faced. Actually though, I could throw a lot harder, but rather than throw overhand like most people do, I used this sidearm delivery because my control was better….and as a kid in the 7th grade, I thought I looked really cool. But I threw a lot slower because of it. When my dad and I would practice my pitching in our yard, I’d throw overhand, but I just couldn’t control it…which resulted in a lot of broken garage windows and a few balls that ended up in the woods behind the garage. Over time, I just felt like I couldn’t do it – pitch overhand successfully. So I switched to sidearm throwing, and because it was successful for me, I just stuck with it.

However, my success was limited….in games, hitters would adjust their timing and my awesome pitching became like batting practice to them. My dad would yell over and over “Pitch it overhand! Try it!” But I was just to scared to…scared of embarrassing myself with a wild pitch or hitting a batter, scared of losing my position as a starting pitcher…..scared of failing. The risk as just too great.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Typically, this story ends up being about Peter’s failure, a LACK of faith. Like Peter, if we could just trust a little more, keep our eyes on Jesus, then we’d be able to walk on water, do amazing things….get closer in our walk towards him. We’d be a whole lot more successful at this following Jesus, discipleship thing.

A good sermon perhaps. But I’m still stuck on those 11 back in the boat.

In the Navy, we have this thing called “Operational Risk Management,” which is a fancy Navy-speak for considering risk vs. reward. In fact, the Navy came up with this matrix, where risk and reward are quantified on a graph with green, yellow, and red zones that essentially tell you whether you should do something or not. My second Executive Officer actually had laminated wallet-sized cards with the Operational Risk Management matrix on it made, and had us pull them out every time we had to make a “risky” decision.

While I don’t think anyone of us are carrying a card like that around, I do think that’s exactly how we think about life – operational risk management. I think we live in a society today that really values managing risk. Every decision we make is based on considering the risk vs. the reward……how we save and spend money, how we choose work and activities, and even how we choose our relationships.

The thing about Operational Risk Management as a way of life is that we don’t really have any need for anyone else but ourselves. We’re in control, and we manage life according to the outcomes we want or hope for….with as little risk as possible to ourselves. Thing is though, no matter how hard you try, you can’t eliminate all of the risk. No decision comes with out it, and the same’s true of relationships. Life gets a little stormy and rough at times…and we might fail.

And I think that reality scares us so much that we’d rather just stay in the boat.

But like the 11, we miss something when we stay in the boat. Because Peter doesn’t just witness the miracle of Jesus’ saving power as the Son of God – he experiences it. Because in the moment when he’s sinking, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter – out of a concern and care for him. In his cry to be saved….Jesus saves him. And because of that experience, saying that Jesus is the Son of God is more than just idle words, paying lip service. Experiencing the hand of grace that catches and saves us when we’re in over our heads…saying Jesus is the Son of God becomes a confession of faith, a faith that led Peter out of the boat in the first place…a faith that calls us out of the boat today.

Some of you may know, but we’re planning on participating in the ELCA National Day of Service – “God’s Work, Our Hands” weekend. It’s on September 7th. And we had this great plan to form teams to go out and sing to nursing homes and assisted living facilities….bringing church to those who are “shut out” because of age and limitations. Well, that plan hit a snag…..only one of the 5 places we called were able to schedule us. Now we could have let that failure stop us….not enough time for a new plan, the risk of failure too great.

But the desire to serve is still there….and so a new plan emerged. Folks can still go sing at the one place we were able to – Churchland House – 3pm, Sunday September 7th. But on Saturday, the 6th, we thought: let’s do a neighborhood cookout, and give away free food as a way of serving and getting to know folks in Portsmouth. Let’s invite folks from all over the City of Portsmouth – friends, family, neighbors, even strangers……to come and enjoy some free food, and we’ll sing some songs together too. And if everyone contributes a little bit…..a bag of chips, a couple packs of hotdogs and buns, and everything else…..between three churches we should have enough. And between three churches, we have enough talent and able bodies to cook food, sing songs….to pull this off. We’ll give it away until it’s all gone. We’ll give it away, a free gift, and act of service……kind of like the free gift of grace God has given us and all people in Jesus Christ.

God does not call us to a life of Operational Risk Management…..we are called to a life of faith. But God calls us to this life of faith assuring us of the promise of Christ’s care and saving grace that carries us through no matter if we sink, swim, or walk on water…and because of that, maybe, just maybe, getting off our butts and out of the boat might end up being the greatest experience of our lives. Amen.

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Sermon 3 August 2014: “Familiar Story, Familiar Message: Feeding of the 5,000+”

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

The story of Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 is one of the more well-known bible stories. In fact, it’s the only one of Jesus’ miracles found in all 4 gospels. And, because this story is so well-known, those of you who have been around the church for a while have probably heard just about every sermon imaginable on this story. And that means that there’s probably very little I can say today that you haven’t heard before…..

So, no need to re-invent the wheel, right? The message of the story is a good one…so I say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

 Today’s story is a story of how God can do a lot, with what seems so little.

I think that we can never hear that enough. We’ve been talking a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven the past few weeks. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a sown seed, a mustard seed, a small pearl, some yeast in bread dough. Small things…small things that God grows into big and abundant things. God, in grace and mercy, shows the measure of God’s faithfulness, doing what we cannot do for ourselves.

And in this story of the feeding of 5,000 – actually more than 5,000 because those in antiquity didn’t think to count the women and children – Jesus doesn’t turn the crowds away in their great need; he deals with them compassionately. And Jesus doesn’t let the disciples’ notion that there isn’t enough to feed the people stop him. With very little – 5 loaves and 2 fish – Jesus feeds them. Jesus does something great to meet the needs of the crowd with very little.

But the Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t work in the way we think. And in this story, while people are healed and fed, that’s not really the big point. Because in the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s not so much about what Jesus does, but rather who Jesus is, that matters.

I can’t get Jesus’ words out of my head: “THEY NEED NOT GO AWAY; YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT.” I think we are being called to give – to give something, anything. Because again, the good news is, that God can do much with the very little we have to offer. And I just find this so freeing, because it makes ministry about being church, rather than proving our own righteousness before God and the world.

I think that Christians and the church today are caught up in trying to show that by its ministry, it can “change the world.” We donate, we serve, we minister…..thinking that we’re being called to completely fix the problems of the world. We do these things so we can show people that Christian faith and the church are relevant in the world…and, if we’re being honestly, to get butts back in the church pews on Sundays.

The truth is, our ministry, our service, our donations…..all of it falls short of doing anything on its own. In fact, compared to all the other large organizations that help so many, this little church probably can’t do anything on that large of a scale any way. We probably don’t even make a dent compared to organizations like the United Way, the Red Cross, Greenpeace, and numerous others. The thing is, that’s not what “being church” is about. Because “being church” is about proclaiming the message of a God who in sacrificial love gives away God’s only Son, for the sake of the world. And the church does that by giving itself away in acts of self-giving, sacrificial love to those in the world in need.

It’s not about what our acts of service can do, or don’t do. It’s what they point to – a God who loves the world deeply, and in Christ, God gives life through compassion and mercy, not judgment and condemnation. In fact, God’s love does something so much greater that no organization – our little church, the United Way, the Red Cross can do on its own – it has the power to connect us with those we serve through our common humanity that we share with each other….a humanity with deep need for compassion and belonging, a humanity that God values and loves deeply that God would redeem it through the giving of Jesus Christ to us.

That being said…..we have a great opportunity to be church: our brothers and sisters at Faith Lutheran Church in Suffolk have invited us to take part with them in a ministry called “Micah’s Backpack.” You may be familiar with how it works, but for those that aren’t let me fill you in. Micah’s Backpack serves provides food for children who live with the reality of food insecurity – they often don’t have the guarantee of meals at home, which in turn affects their ability to learn, to get a good education. Free lunches at their schools help with this…but it only covers Monday through Friday. Micah’s Backpack program provides food over the weekends for these children. Students pick up packs of food on Friday, as discreetly as possible to protect them from shame and ridicule, food that will get them through the weekend.

We’ve been invited to participate in this program in two ways: one, but donating food items for the backpacks, and to take part in helping assemble the packs of food that will then be delivered to the schools. For the next 3 weeks, you will be free to donate food items. Each week in worship, we’ll place those offerings around the altar here. If you take the insert in your bulletin out, there’s a list of items and some guidelines for what we’re looking for. But in short, we’re asking you to give – give something….for these little ones to eat.  And on the afternoon of August 24th, we’ll take this food down to Faith Lutheran, and any of you who would like to help assemble food packs that day are welcome to do so. Learn more about the program, and learn more about our neighbors at Faith Lutheran….and in doing so, we’re all “being church together….for the sake of these little ones.”

So I invite you to take part in this small project – donate a couple of items of food, an hour or two of your time on a Sunday afternoon.  But in doing so, we’ll join our brothers and sisters at Faith Lutheran in being church together, for the sake of these little ones….and in this small act, we’ll witness to a God who does the greatest thing: who in giving the gift of compassion and grace meets our deepest need – to know that our value is found in our humanity, both broken and Children of God. This great gift from God that we know and celebrate every Sunday….a piece of bread and cup of wine, given for you….the greatness of God’s forgiveness and love. No small thing indeed. Amen.

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