Monthly Archives: November 2014

Sermon 30 Nov 3014, 1st Sunday in Advent: “Can Anything Good Come Out of Ferguson?”

Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19

I have a question for you this morning: “Can anything good come out of Ferguson, MO?” If you watched the news this past week, the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of 18-year old Michael Brown.  And the decision has escalated an already tense situation that’s existed in the St. Louis, MO suburb since August.  Protests.  Police in riot gear and equipped with tactical weapons.  Riots, burning buildings, violence leading to injuries on both sides. Or, does any of it really matter to us?  Ferguson, MO is 927 miles from Portsmouth, VA…half way across the country.  It’s not our problem, right?  None of that stuff affects us….we don’t have issues with violence; we don’t harbor attitudes of fear or hate towards others based on their race or social class.  We don’t think….all blacks are thugs and all cops are pigs.  Or do we?

The prophet Habakkuk speaks at a time when the nation of Judah was sandwiched between two superpowers: Assyria and Babylon.  Judah was caught in the middle…..in a struggle for control and ruling power.  I think about Ferguson, MO – for us who aren’t living in the middle of it – it feels like we’re caught in between.  We’re caught between Michael Brown & Darren Wilson; between protestors and police; between black and white. As I read this week’s text from Habakkuk, I couldn’t help but think of Ferguson, MO.  And I know it’s a touchy subject across the nation.  Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to avoid what’s going on 927 miles away and avoid all the issues that come into play with it.  But as you listen to the reading this morning….I believe the text won’t let us.  You will hear Ferguson, MO in its words.  The text again jumps around, so I’ll break up the sermon a bit, providing commentary in between the reading.  But as you listen, ask yourself: “Can anything good come out of Ferguson, MO?”

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted. ~Hab. 1:1-4

I think for so many of us – I include myself among them – Habakkuk’s lament is ours.  How long is this going to go on?  How long will you let this drag out God?  And what does justice look like in Ferguson, MO?  Most of us have our opinions, and we’re quick to express them – I see as much in the news and on social media – but I think we’d rather not talk about the underlying issues.  Race is a touchy subject.  Crime and police relations are a touchy subject.  Justice and judgment are touchy subjects…..it’s best left up to the courts.  Let the law decide.

Such a passive notion of justice…..is not how God’s justice works.  Because God’s justice is active.  It is a justice that delivers, that saves, and frees.  God’s justice is a justice that doesn’t turn its back, indifferent to the violence and suffering and injustice of the world, of God’s people.  God’s justice is a justice that asks why these things exist in the first place; it asks us to examine our own attitudes and hearts.

And for people of faith like ourselves, we have to understand justice this way.  To be honest, I don’t know what justice looks like in Ferguson, MO.  But I do know we can’t look away.  We can’t simply leave issues like race and violence up to the courts and wash our hands of it.  To do so, is simply….a perversion of God’s justice.

Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. ~Hab. 2:2-4

“It it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”  As you’ve heard me say before, God’s promises come, but so often not in the time or the ways we expect.

And that is the life of faith – a life not of easy answers and instant solutions to life’s problems, but rather a way of life that expectantly waits for God’s promise to come in its fullness.  Such waiting….waiting for a future God has promised, a known future in Jesus Christ – as Christians, we call that HOPE.

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. To the leader: with stringed instruments. ~Hab. 3:17-19

“Can anything good come out of Ferguson, MO?”  In a desperate situation….I HOPE SO.  I hope so in the midst of what seems like nothing good can come out of it.  I hope so in the midst of tensions between black and white, protestor and police, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson that still exist in the small suburb – that still exist in our nation, and inside each of us today.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope.  It is the light that symbolizes the One we expectantly wait for – Jesus Christ – our hope. Christian hope is waiting expectantly for a promised future – a future that comes in Jesus Christ, a future that only God can bring in its fullness. But Christian hope also is for the present.  We wait, but in that waiting, the hope of Christ’s coming changes how we view the world and those living in it.

It is a hope that urges all to look for glimpses of the Kingdom of God shining through in all places, in all people……not to look past black & white, protestor & police, Michael Brown & Darren Wilson, but to see Christ present in and standing with the other. And that kind of hope challenges notions of justice that only work for 50% of the population most of the time.  It’s a hope that challenges a world in which we still stereotype and profile people based on the color of their skin or the job they do.  It a hope that urges us not to live in hate & fear of each other that leads to endless and senseless violence and loss of life.

It is a hope that gives courage – to seek justice alongside peace.  To talk about issues of race and class and policies and law without being labeled as racist, a bigot, or “unAmerican.”

“Can anything good come out of Ferguson, MO?”  As people who live by faith, waiting expectantly for the One who is our Hope, Jesus Christ, we believe…..absolutely.  Amen.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word

Following these instructions, the jailer put Paul and Silas in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and prisoners were listening to them. ~ Acts 16:24-25

Another road trip up to to colder weather, through a NorEaster storm no less. And oh, it’s Thanksgiving, in case you forgot.

Traveling and wrestling on the holidays is always tough; making weight, competing, missing family. I never liked it when I was competing. In fact, it felt a lot like being in a prison. Like Paul and Silas.

Paul and Silas were missionaries, doing the work they were called to be God. And it eventually landed them in prison…and how did they respond? With praying and singing. With thanksgiving and praise.

Here’s the thing: God shows us the opportunities for joy, even in the most unexpected places. Yeah, maybe you’re not with your family, but you’re with your teammates. You’re competing, doing something that if you think about it, you really love. And when you think about those things, you start to realize that jail….well, it really isn’t a jail at all. You’re still surrounded by friends and family. They just look different.

I’ll tell you what: I still remember those holiday tournaments. But you know what I remember? Getting closer with my teammates, who were going through the same thing. Playing cards games on the bus. Learning things about myself through competition that had I not done it, I would’ve never learned or experienced. And frankly, considering what a short period of my life competing was….I cherish it, even though it meant missing some time with family.

I hope God shows you the joy this weekend, and it brings you a sense of thanksgiving…this weekend, and every day.

— Aaron

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“Back to Basics” & “The Weekend Word”

As I alluded to in my last post, I have been struggling lately with what to write.  I’ve given it quite a bit of thought, and I realized: I’ve been writing a lot, just not in the way of making up something meaningful….which was really about me getting out what I had to say, and making myself feel good in the process.  The chase….writing cutting-edge blogs that everyone will find mind-blowing, boosting the visits to my blog, and heck, maybe even getting noticed and published….it sucked me in.

But that’s not me.  I’m best when I’m writing for others – telling their stories, writing to make their lives a bit brighter, writing to raise thoughtful questions we all face.  And it’s time I get back to that; because it’s why I started this blog in the first place.

Lately, I’ve taken on a new role: the “unofficial” chaplain of the Old Dominion University wrestling team.  As many of you know, I have a relationship with the program….it’s been a lasting influence in my life.  A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by the coach of the program, who realized his athletes have religious needs in their lives – it plays an important role in their lives.  And so, for the athletes who desire it of their own decision, I offer a bible study on Monday evenings, ending our time by sharing the sacrament of Holy Communion.  And for those athletes who desire it, I meet with them individually, providing a listening ear and caring presence that isn’t influenced by their coaches or teammates.  And I’ve been writing the “Weekend Word” for them each weekend going into competition…..some words of encouragement and motivation, from the perspective of faith.

So I’m going to simply start posting those from now on.  Other programs are free to use them as they come across them.   I’m not worried about credit….for me, it’s about the opportunity and privilege to give back to the sport I love in a unique way – as a wrestler and pastor.

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Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And I said, “here am I; send me!” ~Isaiah 6:8

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “next man up.”  Teams have used that to express that everyone needs to be ready to go, to step up and perform for the team, when their name is called.  When the opportunity arises, you have to be ready, you’re the “next man up.”
That’s what I hear in this verse from Isaiah: God calls Isaiah to be the next prophet for Israel and Judah, and Isaiah responds, “Here I am, send me!” Next man up!  When the opportunity arises, how do you respond?  Do you respond with confidence and courage, with excitement?  Or do you respond with hesitation and fear?
Here’s the thing: this isn’t so much about you choosing the correct attitude as it is being reassured of what’s already true.  God reassured Isaiah he had the skills and gifts to be prophet, and that Isaiah’s worth was already assured before he began his work as a prophet.
Like Isaiah, you have the gifts and skills to do great things.  Like Isaiah, your worth is already determined in God’s grace before you set foot on the mat this weekend.  What a great opportunity you have before you this weekend:  #6 ranked team in the nation, in front of the home crowd!  Be reassured…..find confidence and courage in that reassurance….and when your name’s called, when you step on that line and face your opponent, say, “here I am.”
Next man up!

 

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Sermon 9 November 2014: “Elections, Politics, & a Third Way”

Text: Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8.  Also read for context: Micah 3:9-12

During my tour of duty as a Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) Instructor, I was also responsible for recruiting and screening applicants for the Historically Black College & University Scholarship Program.  My job was to look at applicants, first to see if they met the minimum requirements for the scholarship, and second to interview them and determine if they possessed the qualities and potential serve as commissioned officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, as leaders in our Armed Forces.  I then submitted my recommendation along with their application.  Now the hard part of all this was informing the applicants and parents when I recommended they not be picked up for the scholarship.  Telling a 17-19 year old kid and their proud and protective parents their kid isn’t good enough, no matter how nicely you try to spin it, always gets heard as “I think you suck.”  And there were more than a few times I got angry lectures about what a mistake I was making, the comment, “how can you live with yourself?”  Probably safe to say as the bearer of bad news, I was not a popular person with those families….and to this day they’re still probably cursing my name.

The Old Testament prophets were well-known as the voice of God, but they’re also well-known as the bearers of bad news and unpopular messages.  Prophets spoke a word of God’s divine judgement on the people, what they were screwing up at, how that was going to lead to their destruction and conquer of other nations – which ended up happening, I’ll add – and how they needed to change their ways.  The prophet Micah, whom we read today, is no different.  I have a feeling I might become really unpopular with you all this morning, because I’m going to do the one thing they tell you never to do: mix politics and religion in the sermon this morning. But before you run me out of the sanctuary this morning, hear me out…..

The big news this past week were the mid-term elections….and people came out to vote, votes that would ultimately decide who controls Congress.  And I have to ask you, after you voted, now that you know the results of that election, how are you feeling about it?  Do you feel good?  Do you feel secure and at peace, that finally, the country is in the hands of people who will make good decisions for this country?  Or are you scared and pissed off out of your mind?  And if the results were reversed, would it change the way you feel?

The news reported that only about 35% of the country turned out to vote this past week, down over 5% from last mid-term election.  And, only about 13% of people under the age of 30 turned out to vote. I think this signifies less that people don’t care about being involved in government and doing their civic duty, but rather, people just don’t believe their vote matters anymore.  It’s not going to make a difference; it’s not going to change anything.  

I think this is really about a failure of leadership.  Because our leaders, in their words and actions, really haven’t given us any reason to believe they’ll change anything.  And when their political platforms are based on pointing fingers at their opponent, stirring up anger and fear that already exists in plentiful amounts in their country, their leadership fails to change us.

Frankly, I’m fed up with it.  I’m fed up with the half-truths and lies, the empty promises.  I’m fed up with failed leadership that’s supposed to be by the people, for the people and of the people…..and instead their about their own self-preservation.  I’m tired of the same old message – fear this.  Be angry at that.  Hate this person or group of people….because they’re a threat to you.  And all the while….nothing changes.  Our feelings and attitudes….they don’t change either.  So we don’t vote.  But it’s more than that.  We don’t care for one another.  We look at people who think, act, and look different from us as just that – different….and a threat.  Something to fear.  Someone to blame.

A failure of leadership.  That’s exactly what the prophet Micah addresses.  To give you a little background, here’s a passage that wasn’t in our reading today, from Chapter 3:

“Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob, and chiefs of the house of Israel…it’s rulers give judgement for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the LORD is with us!  No harm shall come upon us.’ Therefore because of you….Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins…”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Corruption of both political and religious leadership.  Micah bears an unpopular message to them: that their failed leadership is going to lead to the ruin of Jerusalem and the nation, the people, of Judah.  An unpopular, harsh, but honest word of judgment.  But the Old Testament prophets also offered a word of hope in the midst of such judgments.  Micah does the same, offering another alternative, another vision of leadership…a leadership that comes only from God.

I wonder if the prophet Micah’s words are offering us a third way…. a way unlike any we’ve heard over the course of these mid-term elections.  Because this third way isn’t a political platform, a set of ethics, values, and virtues; a policy and strategy for real change…..this third way is a person – the person of Jesus Christ.

I came across an article that gets at this “third way.”  And I want to share a bit of it with you:

“Governments can do lots of things, but there are a lot of things they cannot do. A government can pass good laws, but no law can change a human heart. Only God can do that. A government can provide good housing, but folks can have a house without having a home. We can keep people breathing with good health care, but they still may not really be alive. The work of community, love, reconciliation, restoration is the work we cannot leave up to politicians. This is the work we are all called to do. We can’t wait on politicians to change the world. We can’t wait on governments to legislate love. And we don’t let policies define how we treat people; how we treat people shapes our policies.”

Following the person of Christ is unlike following any other person.  It offers something that political promises of comfort, protection and preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of our self-centered happiness can’t.  It is greater than anything that comes through our act of checking the right box on a ballot in the name of worshipping the right person or thing.

This third way is different because we are being led by the One who is for us and of us.  God’s leadership & vision for change is modeled in Christ – living with us as flesh, suffering and dying on the cross.  Justice, mercy and compassion, and humility aren’t just things we do as our “civic duty” as part of the Kingdom of God, but they are an invitation and call to a life of relationship with both God and those around us.

This third way, this invitation to relationship leads somewhere.  It leads to God’s vision of God’s inclusive family where security and peace isn’t just an empty promise – but it becomes a reality.  Real change that makes a difference. Real change….that changes us, and changes how we live.

And in light of conservative and liberal, Fox News & CNBC, Republican and Democrat, of choice one or choice two…..maybe this third way, this person Jesus Christ, the One in whom God chooses us…..is just the change we need.  Amen.

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The Struggle of Having Nothing to Say…..

I have this list of things I wanna blog about; it’s pretty long really.  It’s got at least 7-10 things on my mind about life, the church, faith, how much I hate the “millennial conversation,” leadership and how much I think pastors suck at it, and the upcoming wrestling season, of course.

But when I sit down to write, the words just aren’t there.

The ideas and words are there in my head – they’re edgy, brutally honest, thought-provoking, insightful, profound.  They really are.  In fact, it feels like they’re already written; I just have to type them out.  That’s when the problem starts.  I start to type, and…..nothing.  Or at least, two or three rambling sentences that make no damn sense.  So I hit delete, close the laptop, and start playing a game on my iPhone.

It’s frustrating as a pastor, to not be able to write.  To feel like you have nothing to say.  Honestly, it’s hard enough just to crank out a sermon for each week.  I think to myself, “I just have nothing to say….what the hell is the point?”  I’ve always had this hate-hate relationship with preaching.  I remember in my first preaching class and on internship, there would be sleepless nights I stare at a blank screen, freaking out, needing to crank out a sermon for class or worship that next day.  I had plenty of thoughts, but when it came time to put them down…..nothing.  Zilch.  I swear, if writing was a wrestling opponent, it’d be that skinny kid who looked weak and clumsy, but would be kicking my ass about 30 seconds into the start of the match.  Frustrating as hell.

And as I sit here right now – typing words ironically – the words aren’t there.  Yet I still want to be profound, smart, useful, prophetic – especially when I read a lot of the crap out there.  Those “popular” people out there who write all these seemingly smart, insightful things that honestly are full of clichés, polarizing and unhelpful generalities, and sensational half-truths that just perpetuate what pisses me off about religion, faith, society, and politics in this world today.

Yet I have nothing to say.  I can’t seem to write a single word down…one that matters.  One that will make people sit up and take notice.

Maybe it’s the fact I’m so drained….four funerals in the past four weeks.  Struggling along with the two congregations I serve as they try to decide what the future holds, and not having the luxury of “taking their time” deciding it.  Planning worship and providing time to observe communal rituals and traditions so that people can heal from the loss of loved ones this past year.  Praying and reading scripture in a room with a 94-year old woman who is obviously dead in every way except that her brain is still sending a signal for her lungs to breathe…..but doing so because the mystery of what happens in that intersection of life and death draws me in.  Sitting with young men who are fighting internal battles that I’ve fought years before….all while fighting through the grind of yet another wrestling season beginning.

And trying to figure out just why the hell I’m here in this particular place, doing what I’m doing….while trying to remain fully present and committed to the people I feel called to serve and care for.

I just went back and read what I typed.  I still feel like I have nothing to say.  But maybe that’s ok…..because it isn’t about me.  It’s not about how profound or provocative or insightful or cutting-edge my words are, and that people see them as such.  Perhaps the only word that matters is the Word that dwells in and among us when we struggle through life unnoticed, seemingly insignificant and trivial, but do so together, fully present and committed to one another.

The Word that acts and speaks…….when I have nothing to say.

 

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Sermon 2 November 2014, All Saints’: “Wounds”

Text: 1 Kings 5:1-14

The story of Naaman was one of my favorite growing up as a kid. Our church had a children’s library, and there was a cartoon picture book of Naaman’s story. I remember reading it over and over, mainly looking at the pictures. Naaman had all these sores over his body, and the pictures showed him in so much pain. I remember the expressions of him being so angry and confused when he was told to go wash in the Jordan River 7 times. And I remember his rejoicing when he saw the sores fall off and disappear from his body…the expression of pure joy and happiness.

As a kid, I remember wondering and thinking if such miraculous healing like this was true, and in the innocence or naiveté of my childhood, I believed, “God can do that? How awesome!” I was just in awe of the idea that God could heal Naaman so easily, so completely……all he had to do is trust…”wash and be clean.”

We sit here on this day, All Saints’ Day, a day we remember both the saints who have died and we the living saints…..the words “wash and be clean” mean something – they matter.

It’s been a tough year for some of us. A really tough year. Lost loved ones…..family and friends. I think a lot of times, we try to down play their loss – but the fact is, those losses are painful. In some shape or form, we either watched our loved ones suffer long-term, or they left us suddenly and tragically. And while we might celebrate the fact that they are now at peace, held in the eternal grace and care of God, and they no longer suffer….but that doesn’t really address the fact that their loss…..it’s painful and continues to be painful for those of us who have been left behind. Their loss, their absence from our lives leaves a hole, a void….it leaves a wound. And I think on this day, “wash and be clean”….we want that. Or maybe, we just don’t want that….we long for it with all our heart and soul. We just want to feel normal again, not so numb, so overwhelmed, so lost, so alone.

I’ve been there too, in that place. The losses of both my parents, and dear friends and mentors along the journey of my life, I hate it. I hate death, I hate the suffering that comes with it, and I hate that the first year of losing someone is as close to being hell on earth than I can imagine. For me, the knowledge they were at peace with God was only so comforting…..because I would’ve much rather had them here on this earth with me. That knowledge never truly drove away the void and wound that was festering inside my heart. “Wash and be clean.” I’m still in awe of that good news, that God heals wounds. But being a bit older, I think I’m a bit more skeptical, because we’re not talking about a picture book I read when I was like 7 years old, we’re talking about the reality of life here. I want to believe it like I did as a kid…..only, I’m not a kid anymore.

It’s All Saints’ Sunday, I feel like it’s one of those days I get a shot to really tell you what the church is and what we do as church is all about. Because today is a day we remember and celebrate the saints of the church – people who throughout the ages have held onto the confession that God takes on our wounds and pain. God suffers. And God stands with us in our suffering and pain. And God makes new. God raises both the dead and the living to new life in Christ. God washes….and makes clean. God heals wounds. And no matter if it takes 7 washings in a dirty river or if it takes 7 years to happen, God promises to heal our wounds of grief and sorrow caused by loss and tragedy. That’s the good news. That’s the confession of the church.

And that confession is proclaimed by the simplest, most seemingly insignificant of people. For Naaman it came from a bunch of slaves and servants. And today, that confession comes through us. We are the church. We are the community that sees people in pain, that sees those internal wounds that so often go unnoticed, and comes near to them. Loves them. Cares for them. Shares that suffering and pain with them. We embrace the hurting, suffer with others without hesitation.

And as the church, we observe traditions….our communal acts in which we experience God’s presence, and God washing our hearts and souls. On this All Saints’ Day….we say a name. We ring a chime. We pray. And we light a candle. We do this to remember those who have died and to give thanks for their presence in our lives and that they now rest in God’s eternal grace and care.

But we also do this for ourselves…..we do these things because we believe the confession of faith: God washes and makes clean. We believe that in this little, seemingly insignificant group of people that Christ is present with us and that when we come together on days like today, when we observe these seemingly ordinary rituals and traditions in worship…lighting a candle, ringing a chime, praying together and saying a name of a loved one – it is Christ that has gathered us together as community….and it is in this community God, through the love and grace of Jesus Christ we share together, God washes and heals the wounds that we bear.

In our sorrow, in the pain of the wounds we bear: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

In our remembering and celebration of both the dead and living: Thanks be to God.

In our washing and being made clean: Alleluia. Amen.

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