Monthly Archives: January 2015

Sermons: “There’s gotta be another way.”

For you folks that actually visit this site, you know that I use it to post sermons sermons that Sunday afternoon or Monday morning after.  I’ve done that as an evangelism and faith formation tool…..perhaps some of you share a sermon with a friend or coworker, or maybe you read it the following week, maybe picking up on something that you didn’t on Sunday. Or maybe you fell asleep because well….it’s Sunday morning.  (Heck, sometimes I feel half asleep too, especially if I haven’t had my coffee)

Sermon-creation has gotten to be a bit tedious for me.  It has been ever since my first preaching class in seminary.  I struggle with what to say so often – most of the time wanting it to be relevant to what’s happening in our lives…..there’s a lot of stuff going on in our communities and world that well, I wonder what God is up to in all of it.  I wonder where God is making godself known.

So I’m going to try a new approach: no more posting the sermon manuscript.  Instead, I think I’m going to try something different, kind of like a Monday Morning Quarterback sort of deal.  I’m going to blog on Sunday night or Monday morning, raising a few questions about the text and themes from my sermon that might help keep it fresh for the rest of the week for you.  That means you’ll get a Reader’s Digest version of the sermon, and some thoughts afterwards.

I hope this helps you……and I hope it compels you to share your responses to questions as the week goes on. It’s also a place for you to ask questions of the text or something I said on Sunday that didn’t make any sense. Here’s the deal: it’s every pastor’s wish – and especially mine – to hear what you have to say, to hear those stories and examples where you see God at work in your life.

So here goes nothing.  There’s gotta be another way…..and I think this is it.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word (29 January 2015)

Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one. ~Matthew 6:9-13

You probably recognize this passage: it’s the Lord’s Prayer, the most well-known of all prayers in the Christian faith.  In a time where the number of people who don’t know a lot about the Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer is still pretty widely known among the general population.
We used to pray the Lord’s Prayer before every wrestling meet back in high school.  I came from a small farming town in Minnesota, so back then it was an acceptable practice.  Every guy on the team would pray it, whether they were serious about their faith or not.
Prayer for me is creating the space for God to become present with us in our lives.  We ask for God’s presence because in the end, we need and rely on his presence in all things.  We don’t pray so much asking God to grant us things or to ask for a particular outcome; God doesn’t work like that.  But we should pray for God’s presence in our lives, in particular and real ways, because that is our real need: for God to be with us.  And we know that God promises us that; and from that we gather strength.
I think that’s why I liked praying the Lord’s Prayer back in HS, and why I still like to now in my life.  I need to know I don’t face this life alone.  So I pray….inviting God to be present with me in the moment and also praying in the company of others who have the same need for God as well.  And from that, I truly gain strength.
So, pray away!
I write these these weekend devotionals for the Old Dominion University Wrestling team, currently ranked #18 in NCAA Division I.  

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Why Liberal Christians Need to See “American Sniper”

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

The movie “American Sniper” has become a box-office hit, passing $200 million dollars this past weekend in just a little over a week.  Yet, the movie is also an explosively controversial topic.  Many hail it as a tail of “American Hero”, Navy SEAL,  and sniper Chris Kyle.

There are also many who share a sharply different sentiment. A friend of mine shared this article from Salon.com titled, “American Sniper’s” Biggest Lie.”  That’s sums up the other side of the coin on the Chris Kyle/American Sniper story – the whole thing’s fabricated, manipulated to meet certain political and social agendas, namely, a Conservative, Republican one.  The movie portrays Chris Kyle as a gun-toting, courageous defender of freedom and democracy, a “real American Hero”.  The movie suggests that the Iraqi War was solely the result of the events of 9/11.  Then there’s that whole painting Iraqis and Muslims as “the manifestation of evil.”

As a veteran of active duty Navy service and currently serving in the Navy Reserves, I have a favorable view of military service and those people who choose to serve.  However, I’m not going to sit here and defend Chris Kyle; I’m not going to glorify and justify what he did.  He’s a known liar. Then there’s that whole Iraqi War thing….which debate shows I don’t think we’re over it yet.

So based on that whole premise, people are saying – and yes, they are the more liberal voices – we should simply ignore and dismiss the whole movie and the Chris Kyle story.

Let me recap that:

Because there are historical inaccuracies, the filmmakers had a bias or agenda in telling the story, and because the main character is morally and ethically flawed as best or at worst is morally bankrupt……we should simply dismiss that the “American Sniper” story holds any truth or meaning.  It’s one big, fat lie.

Now let’s apply that same principle to the Bible.

You know that book: the one a lot of Christians – yes, even liberal ones – hold on some degree as a source and norm for our religious and spiritual faith and life.  The Bible – with its historical inaccuracies, its writers telling stories with bias and an agenda, painting foreign people in an unfair light, and full of morally and ethically flawed, even bankrupt characters – should be completely disregarded as one big fat lie.  The Bible is a book that holds no meaning, is unworthy of any reflection on our part.  Chuck it; refuse to open it.  The Bible’s completely worthless….one big, fat lie.

I don’t think Christians, even the most radically liberal ones, are willing to go that far.  Yet we would with a movie that tells a story about a man, from his experience and perspective?  We would with a movie, one especially that I think says a lot about the human condition, the broken world we live in, and raises serious ethical issues I think bear reflection?

I think if you take the time to watch American Sniper, you can look at Chris Kyle’s life (and the film) with a lens that seeks to ask “why?”.  Why would a man (and many soldiers) dehumanize their enemy, choosing such an extremely narrow view? Is it because they are satisfying an animalistic need to destroy, or to chase a dream of glory and greatness before the entire country?  Or is it perhaps to survive the horrors and dilemma of what they are doing? Is it to rationalize somehow (no matter how misguided that rationalization is) that our actions matter for something, that they have meaning, and to find some sense of honor in them?

There’s also another, larger ethical story going on here: Navy SEALs, as well as many special warfare soldiers, have long-held to a strict code of silence about their mission and what they do.  You don’t talk about it publicly – ever.  Yet here we have guys like Chris Kyle, Marcus Luttrell, and others bearing their (fabricated, yet true) stories to the world.  Why would they do that?  Is it narcissism or a sad, twisted belief that with every shot they’re defeating evil (as Chris Kyle believed)?  Is it because they want to cash in on their stories?  Or is it they are somehow grasping at need for validation in the wake of knowing something horribly questionable and tragic about what they’re doing?

You see that in the movie…the few moments he allows himself to humanize his enemy, the break from the persona of “American Badass”; and it almost breaks him. There are tons of others moments like this, ones that make you think – really think.  Personally, I loved the movie because I don’t think it romanticized war or soldiering as a profession. We can choose to believe even these moments are fabricated based on our constructed perception of Chris Kyle. Or, we can look at them as his story, a story of a man taking on an ideology in order to justify himself and his actions, providing a protective emotional barrier.  American Sniper portrays a man who struggles to keep that barrier intact as he sees it crumble before the horrors and realities of war that he is fully in the throes of.  We see a man who is stuck in a vicious cycle once he returns home……only to find redemption through connecting with his family and those who suffered the same tragedies of war.

Is Chris Kyle a hero? No. But he is human.  We could choose to fixate on the factual accuracy of the story, but that leaves us to either celebrate or vilify it.  American Sniper allows us to ask thoughtful questions about institutions and structures that throw people onto the heap of isolation, false bravado, and despair.  It opens our own hearts and minds to connect in empathy rather than coldly disconnect with others. If we’re really honest, we see that Chris Kyle is each and every one of us: tragically and beautifully flawed simultaneously.

I’m not condoning his actions…..ethically, they are a big mess. But I feel it’s worth looking past the argument of authenticity and fact to the more human, and perhaps theological one: does his flawed character and factual inaccuracy totally negate the story?  If we believe that, then we contradict the very things we say about the Bible and Christian faith concerning narrative truth and interpretation. If we refuse to engage and wrestle with the narrative of people’s lives the way we say we wrestle with the Bible – no matter how skewed we think the experience or perspective is – then perhaps we’ve lost all sense of God in our lives after all.

Go see American Sniper.  You might be glad you did.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word (22 January 2015)

5:13 left, 4th Quarter: INTERCEPTION.

The game should’ve been over.
But it wasn’t.
You probably watched the NFC Championship game this past week; the Seattle Seahawks came back from a 19-7 deficit to win in overtime, 28-22.  Coming back from 12 down, and after Seattle QB Russell Wilson threw that interception with 5:13 to play, was miraculous enough.  But it was the way they came back that was most impressive.  Seattle stayed the course.  They continued to play hard and apply pressure to Green Bay.  That pressure caused Green Bay to play conservatively, and it led to them making mistakes that put Seattle in position to win the game.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. ~1 Corinthians 15:58
 
Seattle’s persistence, focus, and resolve in applying pressure to Green Bay produced a win for them.  To be honest, they also got a few breaks along the way, and even then, their effort isn’t a guaranteed formula assuring a winning result. But I do know this: if we live confidently in God’s promises of grace, reminding us that our lives and abilities are tremendous gifts from God, we can persist.  We can focus.  We can work with resolve.  And when we do that, no matter if we’re ahead or behind on the scoreboard – or on or off the mat – none of our efforts will be in vain.  And that’s the real victory – to keep fighting, no matter what the situation or score, no matter how much time is on the clock, and no matter if you feel in control or not.
I write these weekend devotionals for the Old Dominion University Wrestling team, currently ranked #18 in NCAA Division I.  

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Sermon 11 Jan 2014: “Change your mind”

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

This Sunday is known in church tradition as the Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  The church commemorates Jesus’ baptism by reading the text you just heard, and sometimes doing baptisms, if there are any.  I suppose I could give a sermon about baptism, but I suspect many of you have heard a “Jesus baptism sermon” more than once.  And frankly, I think giving one of those this morning would be boring.  In fact,  Jesus in this story….is kinda boring.  And weird.  You have Jesus sort of entering stage right, saying reverently his one line “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” and laser beams of light shoot down from heaven on his head as the heavens open and a booming voice announces Jesus’ arrival.

I guess I’m not just that interested because this image of Jesus….. it seems out of touch and out-of-place in my world – and perhaps in yours too.

Now don’t get me wrong – there’s all sorts of wonderful, meaningful things about Jesus’ baptism story.  But I think often Christians over-spiritualize things like baptism and faith in the way we talk about it and the way we think God works.  Sayings like “God spoke the words, I just delivered them” or “My new BMW is such a blessing” as if we just sort of walk through life like God’s puppets or God gives treats for good behavior……..such notions, I think, cause Christian faith to lose touch with our reality – our lives.

I had a great discussion this past week with some of you in our weekly Wednesday Bible study.  We actually didn’t talk much about Jesus either.  We talked a lot about John the Baptist though. He’s a fascinating character…..in his camel hair suit and matching leather belt to accessorize.  John, eating grasshoppers and honey; and pretty much saying what he wanted and not caring what people thought.  And we came to the conclusion that this wilderness man probably seemed odd and out-of-place to people in Judea, kind of like a street corner preacher today. But, like a street corner preacher we imagined people found John to be fascinating….stopping to listen to what he had to say.

But with John, people stopped.  And they wanted to be baptized….because perhaps, there was a lot of truth to this repentance thing John was preaching about.

I think for a lot of people in Judea, life was such that they knew the truth about sin – and it took this crazy looking, out of place man calling them to repent – to change their minds and orient it towards God.  And they came to be baptized, because in that day it was a symbol – a ritual cleansing of the body showing one was spiritually clean through repentance. And in his response to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came around, John calls out a religious system that doesn’t require a change of mind.  Baptism alone doesn’t cut it.  And neither does saying you’re a 5th generation Lutheran or Christian either.Because if you simply come to cash in on baptism as your one-time divine insurance policy, if you think maintaining your good Lutheran church-goer status is what this is all about…..then you are going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.  Not that you’ll be cast into the fiery depths of Hell for all eternity – because Jews didn’t so much believe in an afterlife of Heaven and Hell.  John was saying, without repentance, without a change of mind, this life of faith thing is going to torment the hell out of you.

Trying to make it to church every week,  sacrificing Starbucks once a week to put $5 in the offering plate is going to be a pain in the ass.  Smiling and shaking the hand of that person you hate so much, and genuinely giving a damn about those dysfunctional, lazy, and distasteful people kindly referred to as the less fortunate is going to drive you out of your unchanged mind.  John tells the truth: repentance is necessary in a life of faith.  We change our minds.  I think so often we soften the idea of repentance to mean we simply turn towards God and mindlessly leave it up to God to do the rest.  I think that removes our responsibility and accountability as disciples.  Because we do have to change our minds…..and we do that by being honest about who we are – sinners in need of God’s grace.

Yet John also preaches another truth – repentance only opens the door to our hearts and minds.  Because just as a one-and-done turning towards God doesn’t cut it, neither does repentance as your own personal self-improvement plan either.  It takes another baptism…..a process….in which God works in and changes us. John proclaims, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…..He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

In this season of Epiphany, I had one of my own: what if John isn’t talking about final judgment here?  What if John isn’t talking about Heaven and Hell and who ends up where?  What if John is talking about what also happens when we repent, open our minds to change?   

Sanctification is the fancy church word which means, “to be made holy.”  It means to be made righteous, which WAS a big deal to Jews in John’s time.  To be made holy and righteous meant to be right with God.  And to hear that God by the Holy Spirit would do that for them, growing what was holy and good, and purging what was worthless and destructive in them, and to hear that all that was required of them was repentance, rather than following a system of mindless rule following and ritual….to open their hearts and minds to God’s Holy Spirit and know that God would sanctify them completely…..that was not just truth.  It was gospel.

And for people who find themselves out-of-place because of sin, John the Baptist and his message didn’t seem that out-of-place.  Because John proclaims two truths – we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and no amount of self-improvement and no religious system will make things right.  Yet, if we’re open and honest about that – a change of mind – we open ourselves to the second truth – that God, by grace, will sanctify us through the work of the Holy Spirit, make us holy, make us right….so that we might live in a right and loving relationship with God and with all of creation.

Now perhaps as fascinating as that message sounds, it also sounds it little wild, a little crazy, a little out-of-place…..but maybe, in all the ways YOU feel out of place in this world, that is exactly the truth you need to hear – one of honesty and one of grace.  Because in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come near.  And today, the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit is at work, wanting to change us, make us holy.  All it takes is a little change of heart and mind.  Amen.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word

I write these devotions weekly for the Old Dominion Wrestling team, as they go into competition each weekend.  I hope and pray it’s a source of encouragement for them and their faith – both on and off the mat.

It’s one of the greatest stories ever: Jesse Whitmer.

It’s probably a bit before your time, so let me fill you in: Jesse Whitmer was the starter at 118 lbs. for the University of Iowa during the 1996-97 season.  Whitmer was a 5th year redshirt senior.  But even more amazing than that, it was his first full year starting – ever.  He went on that year to become the NCAA Division I champion at the weight class that year.  Seeded, 6th, he upset the #3, #2, and #5 seeded wrestlers in the tournament, all three returning All-Americans.
What makes this story even more remarkable is that Jesse even made the team at all.  As a 103 pounder coming out of high school, he was deemed by many “too small” to be competitive at 118 pounds in college.  Also, he was stuck behind Mike Mena for 4 years, who ended up a 4-time All-American himself.  Prior to the start of that season, according to some, Coach Dan Gable, who believed the team was stronger with Whitmer in the lineup, had to convince Mena to move up a weight class, just so Jesse could make the team.
What I love about this story is that it’s a story of perseverance.  In an interview, Dan Gable reflected on what made Whitmer successful.  “Whether he was the first string guy or the second string guy – which he was always the second string guy until that last year – he stayed committed to the system.  He always kept training to get better….believing in himself, believing in the system….and adding to what he did well, and he just peaked when it was time, because he was committed to getting better, committed to the system.”
This is the hardest time of the year – the January “Dark Ages.”  Just coming off Christmas break, it’s still dark out, and there’s a whole 2 1/2 months ahead of wrestling.  And for some of you, there are challenges, doubts, fears, realities to face.  The message here is never stop believing – in yourself, in your team, in your coaches, in the process of getting better each day, and of course, in your God.  That is what faith is – living fully in the present, hopeful of an unknown future.  Never stop – whether you’re the first string or fourth string guy. It took Israel 40 years of wandering in the desert before they reached the Promised Land; Israel spent 50 years in exile in Babylon before returning back to Jerusalem; it took Jesus being resurrected before the disciples really understood the full measure of who Jesus was and what he did for them.
Faith is perseverance…..“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfector of our faith.” (Hebrew 12:1-2a)
Good luck this weekend. Keep getting better.  Stay committed to the process…..run the race with faith and perseverance, and know God is your strength in that, and all things!

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Sermon 4 January 2015: “My beef with 8 pound, 6 ounce, baby Jesus”

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

(Warning: If you think things like watching “Talledega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby,”  will banish you and your church to the depths of Hell, then this sermon isn’t for you….and you have no sense of humor.)

You’ve all probably heard the saying, “Put the Christ in Christmas.”  In the midst of all holiday hustle and bustle, the commercialism, the parties, the decorations….remember what Christmas is really about: Jesus.  Jesus is the reason for the season.  We need to stop worshipping all the stuff and bright lights and need to start worshipping Jesus, our Lord and Savior. If we did that, our lives would be so much better, people would behave better, our society would improve, our nation would get back to Christian values…..all because of a story about a tiny baby lying in a manger….a baby that was the Son of God.  That being said, heck, maybe Jesus is the reason for every season.  We need to put Christ in Christmas……and beyond.

Now I wonder remembering Jesus that way, every day….what difference would that make?  What would it look like? Let’s take a look……check this out.

Ok…..maybe that was a bit extreme; but I wonder if we don’t do the same thing – we think of Jesus in these sentimental ways that make us feel good, but truth be told, don’t really mean anything.

Because I think for all of us, it’s back to reality.  It’s back to work, vacations are over, the kids go back to school, routines start up again.  And all the things that were just so tough this past year…..they’re still there.  Death and funerals; trips to the hospital that are never just routine; figuring out where we stand on things like violence and war; race and politics.  Realities like Ferguson, New York City, Syria and the Middle East just don’t go away.  In the face of such things, we need more than just “tiny, 8 pound, 6 ounce baby Jesus” who fills us with sentimental feelings, an escape from reality.  Rather, we need a God who enters into things as they are.

Chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel tells us WHO Jesus is – the Messiah, a Savior from sin…Emmanuel – God is with us.  Chapter two, from where our story comes from, tells us WHERE Jesus is – where Emmanuel; where God is with us.

Carol Joy Wallis, an Anglican priest, wrote an article called, “Putting Herod in Christmas.”  She writes that this part of the Christmas story is important because it tells us where the Son of God shows up – in a violent, power-driven world.  Herod is a king obsessed with his own power – and we find he’s willing to do anything, the unspeakable, to keep it: he orders every first-born male infant murdered.  Baby Jesus isn’t a feel-good gift to Herod – but a threat to his power and rule.  And it’s this Christmas story – Herod’s treachery and the horror of murdered babies, the wailing of inconsolable mothers – where God shows up.

Jesus is found, a vulnerable weak infant, who needs the very action of God to save him.  The savior needs saving….not to fulfill a prediction, not because his life is more important than those babies that were murdered, but so that people might know that in the midst of suffering and violence and pain a Messiah has been born to them, that God will ultimately save all; the cries and tears that come from injustice and death are heard and will be no more.

God stands with us in such a messy world as Emmanuel….and God will save us from the mess of treachery, violence and suffering.

And I’d like to think that such a notion isn’t an absurd one….rather, it’s good news to a hurting, messy world; it’s gospel.

I don’t begrudge people their desire to “put Christ back in Christmas.” I get it; some like a sentimental break from reality.  But I wonder if perhaps it’s just as important if not more so, to put Herod back in Christmas.  We discover that Jesus has shown up – not in cheery Christmas cards and carols or warm and fuzzy spiritual sentiments – but Jesus has shown up in a world of pain, dysfunction, oppression, and brokenness, as a fearful outcast and refugee.  And as people who live similarly in a similar world……that’s just the savior we need.  Amen.

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