Monthly Archives: June 2015

Sermon 28 June 2015: “Struggle in these exciting times”

Text: Psalm 40:1-10

 It has certainly been another big week, hasn’t it? As a nation and a church, we’re still sorting out what to make of the shooting in Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina and the news comes out this past Friday: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional and that same-sex couples may now marry across the nation.    Naturally, there have been all kinds of reactions from both conservative and liberal Christians. What I find ironic about them all is that all of them are calling their response on the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling as the “Christian response.” Both calling the people of God to love. Both calling the people of God to pray. But for some, love is celebration of the decision while others it is weeping over it. For some, it is a time to pray in thanksgiving, others a time to pray for deliverance. Both praying and asking for God “to be with us all” in either this monumental time….or time of crisis, depending on how you look at it.

 But I wonder if what they’re really praying for is for God’s allegiance. Prayers of thanksgiving that God’s justice has been realized – God is on our side. Prayers of comfort as society yet again threatens all that is sacred – God is on our side.

 “I waited patiently for the LORD…..many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.” “Happy are those who place their trust in the LORD, who do not turn toward the proud, who do not go astray after false gods.” 

 Today’s psalm is a psalm for us in times such as these past week. In the wake of all these things, we’re called to trust God. But I wonder if the trust folks are speaking of is about allegiance – God’s allegiance to us in our fear and pride and need to be right. What we want, perhaps, is for God to be on OUR side – for us and also, against them. What we want is a god who we know is loyal to us, who will allow us to maintain our walls and categories and boundaries – gay/straight, black/white (or brown,yellow, red for that matter), conservative/liberal, Christian/Muslim…… so that we never have to wrestle with what it means to live with and to love our neighbor. It’s a God that keeps us comfortable.

But last time I checked, that’s not how it works….God’s in control, not the other way around.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.  

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew…..But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act…….An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas…….Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

That was good, wasn’t it? These words were spoken by President Obama, giving the eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine who was killed in Charleston.  But love or hate our President, he’s right – it’s all about God’s grace and the power of that grace to change us – to call us to self-examination and repentance; to raise us to new life; to proclaim to us a forgiveness that frees us from the bonds of our brokenness and sin.  

I think we live in an exciting time as people of God and as the church. Because more than ever, I think it’s never been clearer to see and hear and feel God moving among us and even more, people are open to being changed by God’s grace.

Look at the responses to Emmanuel AME – churches praying, sending their support, and a whole nation now realizing it can no longer be blind to the hate and prejudice that leads to such violence in our nation. And I wonder if the Supreme Court decision to permit same-sex marriage won’t cause a nation to respond similarly.  All this “crisis” is exciting to me because more than ever, we’re being forced to struggle with what it all means rather than avoid it like we have been for so long. We struggle…..not so much to figure out where we stand for and what we believe on the issues of race and homosexuality, but rather we struggle with what it means to embrace, really embrace the common humanity that exists in those around us – the common humanity that we share, a humanity that God embraces on the cross. We’ve got to struggle with what it means to love – Christian love.

To me that IS exciting…..because the power of God’s grace is coming as a gift, as the Psalmist says, “sacrifice and offering is not what you desire, but you have given us an open ear.” Grace – Not something we attain to, but a free gift. The power of God’s grace is opening not just our ears to hear what our neighbor has to say, but in this amazing grace God comes and finds us when we feel so lost among the crisis of this world. Amazing grace…..helping us see where we once were blind.

And the power of this grace is that God IS WITH US. The deliverance the psalmist sought and that perhaps we seek today is at hand in the struggle, not a false idol that keeps us comfortable in our fear, but the living a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ and by the power of grace is leading us all home….to love. Amen.

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Sermon 21 June 2015: Psalm 27, Racism, & Christian Love

This was my sermon for this past Sunday.  The text was Psalm 27 from the summer series of the Narrative Lectionary.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”

This opening verse of Psalm 27, and really the whole Psalm, is one of my favorites.  It’s a Psalm of confident trust in God in the midst of threat….of being conquered and overcome.  And today, these words bring us the same powerful message……trust in God. Trust in full confidence for what God has done in Jesus Christ. Trust courageously in God’s unconditional grace, power, and might to overcome for us.  We too can be courageous and confident in the face of threat.

Then why are we so damn afraid all of the time?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t get off of my mind what happened down in Charleston, SC this past week…..such a horrible, unspeakable act of evil. Yes, EVIL.  Evil manifest as intense hatred borne out of a prejudice for a group of people because of the color of their skin – racism.  Yes, this shooting happened because the shooter was a racist and the murder of 9 innocent people – all African-American – was an act of racism.  (Note: Racism defined is a prejudice toward another ethnic group combined with the power to be able to act on that prejudice.)

Now hearing that might make you uncomfortable.  It might make you mad.  It might make you roll your eyes because yet again, the political machine has once again turned an act of violence into a “race issue.”  But it can’t be that, right?  I mean, we’ve moved past that; the 1960s is over and we don’t have a race problem in our country, much less in our church.  I mean, we’re all Christian, right?  And more than that, we’re ELCA Lutherans….we’re all about God’s grace. We’re all about acceptance.

But we don’t get off that easy this morning.  The reality is that two of the people killed at Emmanuel AME church were educated at ELCA Lutheran seminaries – our seminaries.  And Dylan Roof, the shooter, was a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation – our church. 

What do we do with that?  What do we do with the fact that an ELCA Lutheran walked into a church where people gathered, was welcomed in like we would welcome any newcomer in a Sunday morning like this, sat down in the pew with them for an hour, and started shooting – stopped to reload 5 times, 5 TIMES.  What do we do with that?  I wish I knew……

One response I saw from the Synod in St. Paul MN was “hate divides, love unites.”  Amen to that. We just have to love.  Love will fix it; it’ll fix everything.  If we take the words of Psalm 27 to heart, we just have to have the courage to trust confidently in God’s unfailing love.

But again: why are we so damn afraid?

Sure, we love.  We’re nice, kind; we try really really hard not to harbor any prejudice or bias.  We look past things like race and color, we see people for who they are; we all get along as best as we can….we’re friends here; we’re church family.

But that’s not Christian love.  It’s some sort of mushy, sentimental kind of love.  But it’s not Christian love. 

Christian love is above all things honest.  It is a love that isn’t afraid to say what is true and real, even if that truth is painful.  Christian love has the courage to stand with others in facing that reality and speak honestly about the harshness of realities like racism and speak out against the injustice of suffering caused by it.  And Christian love is also confident, a confident trust that God is found right in the midst of that harsh reality with us, hanging on a cross alongside us, right in the thick of the tragic, sobering honesty of sin and evil in this world.

Our own presiding Bishop in the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote a letter in response to what happened in Charleston this past week.  I’d like to share it with you….and as I read parts of it, listen for Christian love as honesty in her words.

[You can read her letter by going to the link here]

Why are we so afraid?  I think we’re afraid because deep down, each of us know that racism still exists in our country and in our world.  We don’t want to admit it, because it’s too painful.  And even more than that, I think we are so afraid because if we dig deeper we’ll find that we harbor those same stereotypes, bias, prejudice in our hearts. I know I’m afraid – and maybe you are too – because the truth is, the sin of prejudice exists in all of us.

And so today, it’s important for us to take pause to pray and reflect, and to ask for God’s forgiveness for our attitudes and prejudice that miss the mark.  We can do that because of Christian love – be honest with ourselves.  And because of Christian love, we can “go to work” as Bishop Eaton suggests.

We can acknowledge and listen to others whose lives are different from ours simply because of the color of their skin or their gender or who they choose to love.  We can be a church that “calls a thing what it is” as Luther said, calling out and standing against prejudice and racism that exists within our own church walls and outside them.  We can do these things, and even more….we don’t have to be afraid any of the time. 

Jesus is our light and salvation, God our stronghold and mighty fortress,…..God, who in Jesus Christ loved us first……and so, we CAN love. Amen.

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“Short Time” for 16 June 2015: Our Preoccupation with Individualism

“Short Time” is a term in wrestling when there’s little time left – usually 10, 15 seconds or less – whether at the end of a period or match.  Wrestlers know when they hear coach yell “short time” it’s time to focus on what’s important, whether you’re ahead or behind in the match.  These “Short Time” devotionals will be just that – brief reflections, focusing in on something of importance when it comes to faith and life.

My wife just got back from a 10-day trip in Israel and Palestine.  It’s great to have her back, but it’s been even greater to hear about her experiences on the trip.  While she appreciated seeing parts of the land, what moved her most was the tragic reality of the Zionist Jews’ mistreatment of the Palestinian people – some horrific stories of just how ugly some human beings treat other human beings, and justify it in their minds.

She heard this great sermon on her last day in country, while worshipping at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem.  You can read the sermon here.  What struck me about it was that the focus was shifted from concern of the self to concern for the other.  God certainly is in control of any real, hopeful change. Yet God’s call is to be concerned about the mistreatment of others, and to be concerned about saying something about it, actively resisting that which mistreats and abuses others.

That seems so foreign to culture in the United States.  We’re preoccupied with ourselves.  Individualism is the center of our universe.  Even our faith takes this shape – how many sermons did you hear this weekend that addressed the plight of the individual, their needs and wants?  I know I was guilty of this in my own preaching and other pastors were too as I read and watched their sermons online.  Why are we so hesitant to preach on the concern for others?  And even if we do, why do we always turn it back on the individual’s concern?

It bothers me, and maybe it should bother you too. The fact of the matter is that Christian faith is odd, because it says to us that when we are concerned for others, with little or no regard for ourselves, we strangely receive an immeasurable amount of joy back.  We don’t look away from the needs and cries of others, because that is where God is found, in the “least of these.”  Christian faith says that when we turn from preoccupation with ourselves, we become fulfilled in ways greater than we could have imagined.

And as strange as it sounds, I know from experience that it is true.  Individualism isn’t a bad thing; but it limits the amount of fulfillment, meaning, and joy we experience in our lives.  When we live for others, for things greater than ourselves, those limits disappear and perhaps we gain something greater that truly transforms not just us, but the lives of those around us, those who are flesh and blood just like us.

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Bi-Vocational Pastor: Reflections on the Virginia Synod Assembly & “Liturgical Movements”

This past weekend, I headed to Salem, VA to take part in our annual Assembly of the Virginia Synod.  It’s my second Synod Assembly in Virginia, but my first as a pastor (I missed last year for a valid reason, I promise!).  People show up starting Friday morning, and we conclude on Sunday at noon.  Each year, the culmination of the Assembly is Saturday evening worship at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, VA.  It’s a pretty grand worship in a beautiful sanctuary – the procession of pastors across the Synod, full organ and brass ensemble, and over 300 voices singing hymns and speaking liturgy together as one voice.

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I took the opportunity to not process with the rest of the pastors, primarily because I don’t get to simply worship much anymore.  I appreciated that time, but I also have to admit, there were times during worship that things seemed, well, mundane.  Tedious.  Grandiose.  Performative.  As beautiful as the worship experience was, I found myself not just drifting, but disconnecting.

My thing about worship like this past Saturday night is that for me, it just feels so disconnected with what typically happens in my day-to-day life.  It doesn’t seem to resemble anything I see or do.  And I suppose that’s the point; that’s what makes worship like this special.  Our presiding bishop of the ELCA has written, “At the heart of what we do is worship,” but I wonder, what does this mean?

And it doesn’t remove the feeling of disconnection that I feel.

I admit, my attitudes towards worship are different from most pastors.  Having grown up in Minnesota farm country, folks appreciated a nice, “efficient” service because they had been up since 4am milking cows.  Don’t preach too long, don’t sing all 6 verses of that hymn, and it’s ok to skip the full Eucharistic prayer and Sanctus in the communion liturgy.  However, through that experience growing up I came to understand that worship was something well beyond Sunday morning and the doors of our little church.  Our whole lives are worship and in that way, worship was at the heart of who we are and what we do.

Liturgy means generally, “The work of the people.”  What I’ve come to understand about my life is that it is an act of worship to God, and that my daily activity is a series of “liturgical movements” within that worship.  What I’ve come discover in the journey through seminary and since I’ve been a pastor is that I’m focused and aware of these liturgical movements occurring in daily life.  This past weekend at Synod Assembly was no different.

I heard laughter and excitement as people registered on Friday morning.

I watched people – long time friends and strangers – gather over meals and have meaningful, life-giving conversations with each other.

I caught up with folks from Bedford Lutheran and heard about their hopes and challenges in becoming an established congregation in the Synod.

I learned what other congregations are doing, ideas they’re trying as ways to be more missional in their communities.  And more important, I noticed their passion and desire, alongside their anxiety and uncertainty.

I got to watch my good friend “hover” around his 7th grade daughter as she participated in the Youth Assembly – the struggle of every parent who watches their kid shift to a time of independence.

I watched congregations wrestle with the questions raised about getting to know and understand their neighbors around their churches better and what that means for them.

I saw two old pastors engaged in a late night conversation as I headed to my room – clearly they were good friends who didn’t see much of each other.

I watched my Synodical Bishop read the list of saints departed, pastors who have died this past year – one among those names being his own father.

I listened to a man’s response, his frustration about race relations in this country and the helplessness and pain he feels.  I also listened to his concerns for the future about the farm he operates and if there will be anyone willing to take it over.

I witnessed the representatives from the two congregations I serve have meaningful discussion about the future of their churches, and their future together.

And I got to play racquetball with that good friend of mine too (although I kicked my ass and that bothers me!).

I could continue on, but do you see it – Worship?  Confession, thanksgiving, sharing of the peace, hymns and sounds of praise, prayers of intercession, and blessing.  People nourished and refreshed, not just in Word as preaching and Sacrament as Eucharist, but Word proclaiming that Christ, the incarnate God, is among us and Sacramental presence that unites saints and sinners around God’s Grace.  These liturgical movements are the work of the people happening in the routine, the ordinary, and the familiar.  It is in these liturgical movements that people come to know a God who is deeply with them and acting for them, and for the sake of the world.

I wonder if others feel that disconnect between what happens in the pew and from day-to-day, and struggle with what seems like competing priorities, too.  David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a former professor of mine at Luther Seminary was fond of saying, “Today, weekly worship needs to be thought of as the practice rather than the actual game.  The value in weekly worship is that it trains us to know what God’s presence and action look like, so that we might identify it more easily in our lives.”  What this suggests is that worship is indeed at the heart of what we do as Christians – but it’s a worship that encompasses all of life, both in the pew and in our daily routines and activity.

This past weekend affirmed and reminded me that this connected and integrated truth about Christian worship is true, and it is this truth that strengthens and sustains us both in faith and vocation as Christians living in the world today.

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