Monthly Archives: March 2016

Bi-Vocational Pastor: “Rethinking leadership….but not re-inventing the wheel.”

The decision to which college or university one wants to go to is an important moment in any high school senior’s life.  It was no different for me.  Out of the myriad of choices, that decision was solidified when I was reviewing information on the U.S. Naval Academy and read this in their Admissions Handbook:

Midshipmen are persons of integrity; they stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the truth is known.

I applied right then, and it was the only school I applied to that summer.

Over the course of my “four years by the bay,” that initial attraction to something greater than myself became solidified through a leadership curriculum, countless lectures, seminars, case studies, and experiences (including competing as a wrestler through college!), and instilled in me an uncompromising need for truth and integrity.  That need still drives me to this day, its uncompromising quality being both a burden that causes contention and frustration in my interactions with others, but it is also a strength that makes me the leader I am today.

While my station in life has changed, the necessity of integrity and truth has not.  As a pastoral leader, it is both a burden and gifts the same.

Yet so many don’t see the gift, but rather see only the burden….primarily in the form of being a pain in the ass.

There is a dire need for conversation about integrity-based leadership in ministry today.  Most of the leadership voices offer tools and strategies on how to influence people for “growth” or to manage conflict and anxiety ensure a level of comfort.  Rick Warren, Thom Rainer, Carey Nieuwhof, Andy Stanley – all offer lots of great thoughts on such things.  Yet, they gloss over the conversation of integrity with thin platitudes such as “let Jesus lead you” or refer to “biblical” models.

My suspicion is that so many avoid the integrity-based leadership conversation because it requires a level of deep self-criticism, self-reflection, and consistently questions who one is and the motivations behind their actions.  Most people avoid this because it’s either simply too painful, too hard, too negative, or they’re just too political.

Yet, so many communities of faith are operating with a lack of integrity behind who they are as “church” and what they call “mission” or “ministry.”  I want to change that; I think we need to change that.  The challenges the church faces are contextual, but they are also due to the consequences of leadership that lacked integrity.  I say this having listened to numerous colleagues in ministry and their challenges, colleagues who have left calls burnt out and way too early, and even my own experiences.

Now I am sensitive to the fact that we all make mistakes and our own brokenness creates leaders of a numerous variety and no one model fits.  I am by no means an expert; I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel and I definitely don’t have answers. But I can ask questions.  I can raise concepts for further reflection.  I can start a conversation, one that isn’t new by any means, yet one that in which God might transform us.  Of this I remain as uncompromising as ever.

Pastors must be persons of integrity.  They must stand that that which is right.  They must tell the truth and ensure the truth is known.

And that quest begins with looking at ourselves.

 

 

 

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Sermon Easter 2016: “The gospel of Mark, silent women, & Christ among us today.”

Text: Mark 16:1-8

The first race Kelly and I ran together was Thanksgiving Day, 2011. I run a bit faster and so I decided that I was going to run with Kelly instead of speeding off like I usually do.  This was before we got married, so I thought this would be a great way to impress Kelly and do something together.  So the race started, and we talked to start….I kept talking….and Kelly got a word or two out….and I kept talking….and then Kelly said nothing….and I kept talking.  It was pretty enjoyable, and I was so proud of myself for being such a good boyfriend, encouraging her along.

There was a pretty strong headwind at the finish of the race and so as we went around the final corner towards the finishline, I decided to be even nicer and run in front of Kelly and let her draft off me to the finish.  So I gently accelerated ahead and moved in front of her.  And then Kelly did say something: “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME.”  Kelly was running at her max pace, not feeling so great, and apparently she thought I was trying to push the pace even harder at the finish. I mean, I had no idea….Kelly said nothing……right? 

“So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing, for they were afraid.”  

This is how the gospel of Mark ends.  There’s no stories of what happens after that first Easter morning, no stories of Jesus’ appearance or his last words to the disciples, proving that Jesus was indeed alive and risen.  This is all we get: women saying nothing.  It’s sort of unsettling I suppose, because then how did the news of Jesus’ resurrection get out?

No one had any idea…….the women said nothing….right?

I find it hard to believe that in their terror and amazement that no one noticed something was different with the women. I find it hard to believe no one noticed their terror, amazement, and fear. I mean, considering what they just witnessed, it would’ve been more than a little hard to hide. Something was different. 

They didn’t say a word….but their terror, amazement, and fear perhaps said everything that needed to be said. 

A very close friend of mine had taken her grandchild to her martial arts class.  As she sat there watching the class, she noticed a woman about the same age sitting next to her.  One, it was a odd because most of the adults waiting there were parents and a quite a bit younger, and two she noticed the women just didn’t seem right.  So she asked the other women, “I guess we’re the two odd ones here being older, right?”  The women, weary looking, began to share that she had brought her grandson to the class as well, but it was because a few days earlier, her grandson’s mother had passed away tragically and that primary guardianship was likely to pass on to her.  At the end of their conversation, the women remarked, “It’s just nice not feeling so alone right now….if only for a moment.”

The good news on this Easter morning is that Christ has indeed risen. And Jesus is out there among us each and every day, just like he was waiting for his followers in Galilee.  Yet it is this Christ – not some perfect, sanitized form – that appears to us as the risen Christ, the Christ who brings hope and new life and healing into our world.  The Christ who waits for us in the world is the crucified Christ – bearing the scars and marks of suffering, tragedy, and loneliness. To seek after the risen Christ is to notice the wounds and scars of Jesus’ humanity.  It is to notice that in those places of terror, amazement, and fear that silences us and others that when they draw near to us, unspoken, they are the places where Jesus raises up resurrection hope in our lives….and in others.

In that way, perhaps, the change isn’t superficial, leading to a lot of empty words of praise – but one that changes our hearts so that we experience resurrection in the best way possible. 

It is the mystery of faith of the ages: Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.   To experience that, no words are required. All we have to do is pay attention. Amen.

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Sermon, Maundy Thursday 2016: “Dining Among Friends”

Text: Mark 14:22-42

It was 1914, and it was the first year of World War I.  The war had raged on beginning with the summer, and of course, the battle was bloody.  And then came Christmas Eve.  German troops and Allied soldiers held unofficial ceasefires across lines.  Men crawled out of their trenches to sing Christmas carols, exchange cigarettes, play a game of touch football, and even share a meal together – a can of cold military rations.

It was the only widespread ceasefire during the War, and even when warned that committing acts of “fraternization with the enemy”would be punished by superiors, and even with the knowledge that tomorrow the war would resume and these men would go back to their trenches and to the task of killing each other, at least for one night, these men had decided it was enough to simply dine among those who were enemies for this one night – as friends.

I often wonder what that last supper so long ago was like for Jesus.  Sitting there with his friends, the disciples, knowing what was to transpire.  How did he do it?  Listening to Peter’s bravado, witnessing his disciples falling asleep on the eve of his arrest, praying earnestly to God to remove a burden perhaps too great for even the Son of God to bear perhaps – and seeing that this will all come to pass – Jesus chooses to dine among friends.

To dine among friends whom you know will abandon you.  To dine among friends who you know will betray you.  To dine among friends who are so flawed.

That is ultimately who Jesus is, one who dines among sinners.

And Jesus doesn’t just dine among sinners, he gives them something even more than simple bread to eat and wine to drink.  He gives them a piece of himself, and ultimately, his life.  And it is the same for us tonight too.

I have to admit, I don’t have a lot to offer you tonight in the way of words.  Like you, it’s been a week of feeling betrayed and being the betrayer, feeling alone and being the one who does the leaving, feeling weary and being the one wearing out others.  But I come tonight, like Jesus, like the disciples, to dine among friends.

I come to dine around this table because I need to give of myself to others as much as I need to receive.  I need to be surrounded by people who are both saint and sinner just like me and know that Jesus chooses to dine with us around this Table because we are worthy in his eyes. Because Jesus counts us as friends.  I need to be surrounded by community around this Table because what I came in here from tonight is still out there waiting for me after we end our worship tonight.

Let us leave behind the burdens of the world that will be waiting for us when we leave this place, and let us simply dine together with Jesus and with each other as friends. Amen.

 

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Sermon 20 March 2016: “Palm Sunday &Our Bloodlust for Greatness”

Text: Mark 1:1-11; 14:3-9

“Hosanna!” means “Save, I pray!”  Sort of an interesting thing to be shouting as Jesus processed into the Jerusalem temple, riding on a colt, don’t you think?  I wonder, what did the people want to be saved from?  What kind of saving did they expect from Jesus?  The imagery of the day is telling: Cloaks being laid down, palm branches being waived, even Jesus riding in on a colt – horses were ridden by kings and military leaders, and were used for war.  These were signs of celebration for a great King, a military ruler.  Yet it’s the final verse in the Palm Sunday scene that I think is haunting: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  

Jesus looked around at the scene before him – the corruption in the Temple, the shouting crowds, waiving their palms and lying their cloaks on the ground as Jesus rode in on a colt.  Their shouts of “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” recalling a time when Israel’s greatness was at its peak – King David, their greatest king.  In their frustration, their fear, their poverty, their oppression….it was going to happen again.  This One riding on a colt was going to make Israel great again. I wonder, are we any different today?  What do we want to be saved from?  What kind of saving do we expect these days? In our own frustration, fear, economic struggles, and feeling like we’re being oppressed by the government, we long for the same.  And we’re willing to listen to anything or any one who will come swooping in promising to make America great again.

At this point, you probably know who I’m talking about.

Let me start by saying this: One, I don’t think Donald Trump is the anti-Christ.  I don’t think he’s evil and I don’t think he’s the second coming of Hitler. In fact, if Trump is elected, I have a feeling the country will go on as usual, not any greater, but not any worse.  America has had divisive presidents in the past, and the country has survived.  In fact, if Minnesota can survive electing a professional wrestler to be its governor – which I admit I voted for Jesse Ventura – our country will certainly endure Trump, or whoever gets elected, for that matter.

What frankly scares me is the response to Trump’s message. Riots are breaking out.  People are openly beating the living daylights out of each other at rallies.  Total strangers, and even people who aren’t strangers, are calling each other the most vile and disgusting names possible.  And religious leaders aren’t any better. This past week, Trump spoke at Lenior-Rhyne College, and Bishop of the North Carolina Synod, Tim Smith, defiantly proclaimed he was going to head on down to the rally wearing his clerical collar, and said, “I would be deeply honored to be the one escorted out or even punched out as the heckler that Trump so condescendingly points out at each rally” while peacefully protesting, singing, and worshipping as the crusader for the church “taking a stand” against violence and hate.

All I can hear this morning is the haunting verse, “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything…”

Jesus looks over this nation and all of us on this Palm Sunday with sadness, just as I think he looked over Jerusalem with sadness, as the maddening crowds shouted their bloodthirsty cries for restored greatness.  Jesus, just like Trump, was nothing more than a symbol to justify people’s thirst for violence, hatred, and the death of others.  And today, Jesus cannot simply be a symbol to justify our own words and actions – no matter who “right” or “just” we think we are.  Whatever you think is the right thing to do – vote for Trump or protest against him – it cannot come at the expense of harboring feelings of fear and hate.  We can’t go looking for a fight – we can’t fight.  We can’t hurl insults at each other until we’ve completely shredded every ounce of their humanity into nothingness. In the end we are called to love our neighbor……and as Luke’s gospel tells us, that is the Samaritan,  the one most different, the one we hate, and the one we fear the most.  That is 100% in our control to do and that is 100% our choice.

If we can’t do that, then not only have we lost ourselves, we’ve lost our true focus and the source of our joy and hope. We’ve lost the good news that Jesus died to save and recover our humanity from suffering and death.  God takes on human form to proclaim it is our humanity that matters, and that it is our fragile, tragic, beautiful humanity in all the forms it takes that God embraces and loves….and it is our humanity that God finds worth saving. The women who anoints Jesus’ feet at Bethany gets this.  She acknowledges the humanity of the One who acknowledges her humanity.  And that is why she should be remembered alongside the good news of Jesus Christ as we enter into Holy Week, this most important time of Christ’s passion.  Because it is this good news of a God who takes on human form, and on a cross bears the whole of our humanity so that we might know that true greatness and salvation comes through One who lives, suffers, dies, and rises FOR US.

If there is ever a time for us to hear that message as gospel, that time is now.  For the sake of our sister, our brother, our enemy….for our very humanity.  Amen.

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Sermon 13 March 2016: “Life among Signs of the Apocalypse”

Text: Mark 13:1-7;  24-37

I took a course on the Book of Revelation in seminary.  The course started about talking about how Revelation is read as sort of a prediction of the end times, and our professor pointed us to a website called “End of the World Predictions.”  It’s website address is www.endoftheword2012.net.  They had a countdown to the end of the world leading up to December 21st, 2012, and then 2012 came….and passed.  Now that it’s 2016, I went back to look at the website and the message says, “December 21, 2012 was NOT the end of the world. That’s what we said all along, but if you click on this red button on the page, then you’ll find out there’s something much worse coming to the world very soon!”

In the text today, Jesus makes a series of predictions about the temple, and you have the disciples, sitting on the bank on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, looking with wonder across to the other bank at the temple asking Jesus, “When’s all this stuff going to happen?”  Even back in Jesus’ day, people were fascinated with the end of the world, signs of the apocalypse.

But what happens when those signs of the apocalypse take over our lives?  What happens when it seems like our worlds are ending, that everything’s crumbling and falling apart?  Temples destroyed, trials, tribulation, conflict between friends and strangers alike, death and loss…..it seems like our worlds are always being turned upside down; signs of the apocalypse are all over the place, and the end is indeed coming. Jesus gives us a bit of gospel in the text today: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”  In other words, signs of the apocalypse will come and go, but in the end, God’s promises in Christ are true and enduring.  

But how do we live into that?  How do we live in such a way that tunes us into God when so much chaos surrounds us and the trials seem to be unending?  

We’re nearing spring time…..in fact, this past week felt a lot like spring is already here.  And today begins daylight savings time, the clocks spring an hour ahead we get a virtual “extra hour” of daylight, which for farmers, allows you extra daylight to get fields ready and crops planted in time.  My dad often called it “daylight’s SLAVING time” because of that fact – it was time meant for work. Part of spring time fieldwork for us was picking rocks. Tractor pulling the rock wagon, we would walk alongside the wagon, picking up rocks that would likely damage our equipment and throwing them in the wagon.  Picking rock is hard work, lifting heavy rocks, digging some of them out of the ground….and spring is often windy and cold in Minnesota, so that makes it even worse.  Yet, out in those Minnesota fields there were agates, small precious stones formed thousands of years ago by the glaciers that covered the land.  They were quite beautiful….and my dad loved collecting them.  When he found one he’s rush up to the tractor with joy and satisfaction and place it in the tractor’s toolbox and proclaim, “This is a good one.”  But because agates were so small compared to all the other rocks out in the field, you really had to focus to identify them out of all the other rocks out in the filed; you had to be alert, on the lookout for them.

Jesus says, “Keep awake!” “Do not be led astray!” We’re to look for the Kingdom of God at hand in the world, for the presence of Jesus and trusting the good news that God’s word will never pass away.  But as so often in Mark’s gospel, we learn the Kingdom of God is often unnoticeable among the rest of life’s happenings – old widows, blind men crying out along side the road, lame men brought on mats, mustard seeds, in the least, in the last, and in the servants of all.  Yet the Kingdom of God and God’s promises are there, like a precious agate, but if we don’t keep awake, if we stray and focus instead on signs of the apocalypse, we’ll miss it.

Signs of the Kingdom are here in you among the signs of the apocalypse: the desire to feed others expecting nothing in return; a group of people made up of 3 churches worshipping together on Wednesday evenings; those who deliver meals on wheels every week; those who choose to bear the burden of leadership in our congregation for the sake of the whole; newcomers who come into our midst, looking for signs of the Kingdom themselves; and people choosing to bear life’s burdens with and for one another.

They may be hard to see, but they these signs of the Kingdom are here.  Therefore, in the days to come, through life’s struggles, in light of the challenges we all face, in light of signs of the apocalypse….let us keep awake.  God’s promises endure in God’s Son Jesus Christ.  The Spirit of the Lord is indeed among YOU.  Let that be our focus….and above all, our joy.  Amen.

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Sermon 6 March 2016: “Save or Savor?”

Text: Mark 12:28-44

Like a lot of you, we took family trips when I was a kid.  My favorite trip by far was the one we took to Glacier National Park in Montana.  Just beautiful: the mountains, clear water, hiking trails, and wildlife….just how do mountain goats end up in those remote, hard to reach places?  My dad loved being active during trips like these, and he especially liked to hike.  However, at the end of our two week trip, we when dad suggested “just one more hike,” my mom and sisters flatly said “no.”  They were going to stay with the camper in the Visitor Center’s parking lot, and that was that.  So my dad looks at me and says, “well, I suppose the two of us should get going.”  So much for my choice in the matter.  So my dad and I grabbed a few granola bars and some water and headed out on a short, two hour hike.

About an hour into the hike, dad decided it was time to loop back around and head back towards our starting point.  So we did, and the second hour passed…..and then the third hour….and the fourth, and finally after five hours, we finally made it back to the Vistor’s Center parking lot.  My sisters and mom gave made fun of my dad and I for getting lost, and naturally my dad knew their had to be some explanation….so he looked at the map.  It turned out that there was small fork in the road, and had we veered to the right instead of the left, we were only about 100 yards from our original starting point. Unfortunately, we stayed left one too many times, and so we were left….despite not being too far from the Vistor’s Center.

“You are not very far off from the Kingdom of God.”  Jesus replies to the scribe after an exchange about the Greatest Commandment and what fulfilling it means for a person.  I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t say to him that living out the Greatest Commandment got him ENTIRELY into the Kingdom of God.  No matter how much effort, all the striving to fulfill it, one would still fall short of the Kingdom of God.  And if that’s true, I wonder how many of us feel more like the widow who puts her last two coins in the treasury today.  We give and give, strive to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and try to love our neighbors as much as humanly possible, right down to our last penny.  In fact, we strive in our lives, in keeping the church going, in doing ministry, and perhaps we give to the point where there’s nothing left for us to give and we’re left depleted and exhausted.  And when we don’t see any results from those efforts, from that striving, we’re left discouraged and more than a little crushed.

Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit Priest who started Homeboy Ministries in Southern California as a way to keep kids away from gangs. Homeboy Ministries give kids an alternative to the gang life – violence, drugs, entrapment that leads to death.  Father Boyle is quite literally saving lives.  And he was asked about that in a recent article, what it felt like to be saving so many lives.  Father Boyle quickly replied that he doesn’t consider it saving lives, in fact he doesn’t even like thinking of it that way.  Saving lives and saving the world, he says, only leads to one place – burnout.  Those who try to save the world and help make it a better place give and give right down to their last penny and beyond….and then walk away in exhaustion, and discouragement as they realize their efforts are never complete or reach the lofty goals they set.

Father Boyle says we should savor the world instead.  The point is to share and give of our selves and allow others to give back to us.  It is being gracious enough to receive others in our midst.  Savoring life, Father Boyle says, is about experiencing amazement and joy in the world around us by simply being engaged in the here and now – to be engaged with others and ourselves in the present, in the moment.  If we can do that, then we will receive the gift of God’s joy; that’s how lives are transformed.

The question then for us today is: do we save the world or savor it?  Do we save others in our lives, as the church, in ministry, or do we savor such things?  Do we allow ourselves to be present with others and with God in the here and now, in the moment?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have to save the world at all.  We don’t because there is One who has come who has done the saving FOR US, and who SAVORS US…..Christ loves us.  We’re not that far off from the Kingdom of God because in Christ, the Kingdom of God has been brought not just near to us, but we find ourselves standing in it.  We’re freed from the discouragement of our past or what we face in the future.  We only need to be present in the here and now with our loved ones and in our work.  We simply stay engaged in the moment as the church and in ministry to others.  We simply savor life….because God in Christ savors us.  Amen.

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