Monthly Archives: May 2016

Sermon Pentecost Sunday 2016: “Gifts & the One Thing”

Text: Acts 2:1-4 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

I consider Pentecost to be part of the “Big 3” of the church liturgical year along with Christmas Eve and Easter worship.  So the Pentecost story in Acts 2 is a big deal, and a pretty extraordinary story: violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, people speaking in foreign languages yet able to understand each other.  Perhaps our imaginations often form this image of a massive gathering of people experiencing all this – the first megachurch was born! Only thing is, that’s not how the story goes.  If you read a bit earlier in chapter one, it’s just the 12 disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, who were present.  Jesus has just ascended to heaven, leaving the disciples a bit lost and wondering what was next.  This is the setting for event in Acts 2 we just read.  My point is this: the Pentecost story, where the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on Jesus’ closest followers, happened in a house, as scripture tells us.  It wasn’t the birth of the megachurch, but rather the first Pentecost occurred in a small church.

I can resonate with that notion, because Pentecost moments where God changed and empowered me happened in small churches.  It’s places like small Balsamlund Lutheran Church in Aldrich, Minnesota, population 41, worshipping about 25 folks.  I grew up in that churh and learned a few things, like playing games of red light, green light on the church basement stairs, going through Sunday School with my sister and one other kid as my grandma, our teacher, simply opened up he bible, read from it and we talked about it. I watchedold men tell stories and talk about the weather and farming, and played organ through my high school years.

It was tiny little Christ United Methodist Church in Groton, Connecticut, worshipping about 35 folks a Sunday, where I spent three months at Submarine Officer Basic Course.  In my time there, I played guitar for children’s ministry, discovered my love for discussing theology with the pastor in the parking lot after worship, and learned the church could be a home away from home that I could escape from the demands of memorizing countless information about submarine systems and tactics.

It was little Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I began to discover I had a gift and passion to minister to the lost, to those who are shut out and excluded from the church because of realities such as race, social and economic class, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, and gender.  My heart changed in such a way where I knew just exactly how important this good news that Jesus came to seek the lost, to suffer with them, and raise them up to new life so that they might know they are not alone and that their lives are a gift.  It was at Redeemer I began to discover what it meant to be a pastor in this church.

And then there’s you.  St. Andrew and Holy Communion Lutheran Churches in Portsmouth, Virginia.  And it is here where I was allowed to learn and grow as a pastor in this church.  And even more than that, I’ve learned that church is about struggling, challenging, wrestling….and embracing, laughing, caring, and loving…..and staying fully engaged in the present, trusting that God has our future because God promised that in Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.  It is in these two tiny little churches that I discovered in a very Pentecost way that the Gospel, the news that God send God’s son Jesus to die on a cross and be raised three days later so that we might be free from sin and death and fear actually matters. It’s not a bunch of bible stories nor is it a bunch theological ideas. The gospel matters in our life today.

In all these little churches, it was through the gifts of others – through YOUR gifts –  that God changed me. Being church is about God giving gifts and God putting those gifts to work so that others may experience Pentecost in their lives.  Now, sometimes those gifts are hard to see in ourselves, whether it’s because of our humility or we just don’t know….so sometimes it takes others to see the gifts in us.

I have a little gift for you this morning: something not so much to remember me by, but something to remind you….remind you of the gifts that exist in you, gifts I have seen at work, and gifts through which God changes lives. And it is these gifts – your gifts – working together as one body that [place the cross at the center] make CHURCH, THE CHURCH. And note there’s plenty of white space on the board to add new names and new gifts as you see them.  This display is yours to keep, a reminder, and an answer to this: What is church, and what does it mean to be church? This board is my final answer.  YOU are my final answer.

I know our time seems short….only 2 years and 7 1/2 months to be exact.  It has been quite a rollercoaster, hasn’t it?  We’ve packed a lot of life into that time, I think….wrestling and struggling with things that I don’t think other churches typically have the courage to do.  I’m proud we’ve done that together.  And then there’s all those questions….I’ve probably asked too many questions, and maybe there’s a small part of you that’ll be happy knowing I’m taking my questions with me….but my questions have sparked your own questions. We’ve asked those questions of each other and I think because of that, we both grew in faith.  Yet, as our journeys continue on separate paths, there are other questions left to answer, ones that come with uncertainty or fear of the future, and perhaps ones where you also wonder just how God might use your gifts as church, or doubt God has use for them at all.

But there is one thing we don’t have question or doubt.  And to explain that a bit further, I’d like to sing one last song for you.  You can follow along with the lyrics on the insert in your bulletin.

[One Thing, by Paul Colman]

YOU are church.  It is the gifts God has given YOU that make you church and being church is about the ways that God puts those gifts to work .  If you ever doubt that, let this board be a reminder of that.  But when even that’s not enough, and those questions and doubts linger, never doubt or question what’s at the center.  It is this One Thing that matters, it is at the center. It is our hope and it is a reminder that you are not alone, that your lives are a gift, that God loves YOU. And so do I.  Amen.

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Sermon 8 May 2016: “Jesus rose from the dead: A confession.”

Text: 1 Corinthaians 15:1-26; 51-58

“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again….”  On the third day he rose again.  Jesus rose from the dead.

These words might sound familiar to you: it is our confession of faith, the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We say them every Sunday, and we’ll say them again later in worship today. But I wonder, what difference does this confession that Jesus rose from the dead make?  Why is it so important that Paul insisted on the Corinthians’ faith was in vain if they didn’t believe it?  What makes the news that Jesus rose from the dead so powerful and life-changing for our lives today…..what makes it gospel?

I wonder if the notion of Jesus actually coming back to life after lying for 2 days in a tomb isn’t a bit ridiculous for us today.  This isn’t some story of resuscitation in the news where someone was clinically dead on the operating table and then miraculously comes to.  Jesus suffered and died.  His body was beaten and broken, and they stuck a spear in his side and all his blood and fluid came out, and it lay there wasting away for two days.  Jesus was dead.  And then he came back to life.   Jesus overcame and was victorious over suffering and death.  God is certainly powerful enough to resurrect Jesus, and certainly is powerful enough to resurrect us too one day.

Yet, I think we still remain skeptical.  We spend so much time in this life avoiding the reality of death.  We exercise, eat right, avoid putting certain chemicals into our body or breathing them, and take medicine and undergo procedures that will in theory keep us alive as long as possible.  Or, we try to cram as much “stuff” as we can into this life – you only get one life, is how the saying goes.  Yet, death and suffering still exist in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid and we’ll all face it someday.  I think whether consciously or subconsciously, we know that.  Death and suffering is a part of this life.  We see it in the news, and it comes near us as well.  That is true for me; this past week, for example.

One of my wrestlers, a great kid, and who’s looking forward to his senior season, learned his parents are separating and divorcing, and he’ll have to face that.

Countless friends and people I care about face illness and disease that bring with it the reality that they face death – their own mortality.

A friend of mine celebrates this Mother’s Day mourning her stillborn child of a couple month ago.

There are sons and daughters who mourn because they have no mother to celebrate and honor today.

And there are congregations facing uncertain futures in unfavorable circumstances.

It makes you wonder…..is there any hope found in trusting in the news of Jesus rising from the dead?  Is there any power in the notion that a man, who was God, rose from the dead?  What kind of victory did Jesus win for us exactly?

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, spent a portion of his life doing humanitarian work around the world after he left the Navy.  His travels took him to India, where he worked in one of Mother Theresa’s homes.  Now you probably know that Mother Theresa served the poor in India, but did you know that the beginning of her ministry, and a good part of it that still exists today, was running a home to help the poor die?  Greitens served in one of these homes, where the nuns who worked there would help the poorest of the poor die with dignity.  Patients were seriously physically ill, some severely mentally ill, and all coming from the streets and sewers of India.  The nuns cared for these people, tending to their illnesses, washing them, and feeding them, but also living with them – laughing, singing, doing chores in the home together, and praying together – as these poor faced their death, and eventually, dying with dignity. Greitens came across one little boy who could barely walk.  He had come in from the streets, crippled at birth and so malnourished he contracted an incurable disease. But every day he would greet Greitens by saying “namaste.” Fascinated with Greitens, he would follow him around the home, brightly exclaiming “namaste” over and over.  Saying “namaste” is a greeting in Hindu, much like our hello, but it translates to“The Spirit in me sees the Spirit in you.”  It is saying, “I see the divine in you.”

To see the divine in another, perhaps, is to see Jesus in another.  And to minister and care for others in the face of death so that they may die with dignity – it is a mystery, but perhaps that is the victory that’s won.  Jesus rose from the dead so that we might know that the divine exists in this life – God takes on human flesh.  God is with us in this life.  God is with us in death.  And Jesus overcame death so that we might know that death is not the defining end of human life, but rather, just another step in it.  Our lives are much bigger in the eyes of God, and the promise is we will one day be raised from the dead along with our loved ones and all people just as Jesus has been raised.  Death is not an end, and in this life we simply face it – with God, with each other – caring for each other, and living with each other.  Mother Theresa understood this in her lifetime….she had faith in the power that one day, God will raise us all just as God has done with Jesus.  A mystery indeed, but a victory won.  The victory is that we have been liberated from the clutches of death; we have been liberated from the fear and pain that death causes.  We have been liberated from death, so that we may life NOW.

So let us confess today and every day that Christ has risen from the dead.  Yet in saying these words, let us also confess the power in them: “Oh death, where is thy victory?  Oh death, where is thy sting?”  Amen.

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1 May 2016: A sermon about love when everything’s falling apart.

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Today’s text is likely a familiar one to you: “the Love passage.”  The language is beautiful, sounds pleasing to the ear, and you’ve probably heard it read at a wedding or two, whether it was a religious ceremony or not.  Of all the passages in the Bible, it’s arguably the most popular.  And of often it gets used in settings like weddings or anniversary celebrations when we want to hear a word of sentimental, emotional love. But the way Paul is using love here is so different from the way we use this passage today.  Paul is using love to address the church in Corinth that is about to rip itself apart.  The love that Paul is describing goes well beyond the sentimental kind.  It goes a little something like this:

Two boys, brothers, were out playing soccer one day, and an argument broke out.  Pushing and shoving soon followed and the older brother looked at his younger brother and said, “Go ahead, punch me.  Give me an excuse to crush you.”  The younger brother kept his distance, moving not farther or closer to him.  The older, even more angered, shouted, “C’mon, take a swing.  I dare you.”  His younger brother just kept shaking his head no as my professor continued to taunt and ridicule him.  Finally, his younger brother, tears streaming down his face, chokes out one simple word: “no.”  This enrages the older brother so that he marches right up to his brother, shoves him a couple times, and yells, “C’mon!  Hit me!”  The younger brother stands there, and says “No.  I will not hit my brother.  I will not hit my brother. I can’t hit you David. I love you.”

This story was about one of my seminary professors and his brother while they were growing up, and one he liked to tell often.  And it describes the kind of love that Paul is talking about to the church in Corinth, perhaps. The love Paul is describing has a sentimental tone to it, just like this story perhaps.  But it is also love that takes a definitive stand; one isn’t supposed to be a punching bag for the other.  It is a love that says “yes” and “no” at the same time, a love that engages in struggle rather than avoid or suppress it, a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things: the power of being community.

 I read an interesting article in the NY Times this past week titled, “If not Trump, What?”  The columnist, David Brooks, writes that Trump’s rise isn’t so much signaling the coming of the apocalypse, but rather his voice has given a platform to voice the frustration that people feel: faithful years spent at one company only to be fired 2 years from retirement, opportunity only being open to those who have enough money to afford the right educational credentials, suicide rates are at a 30-year high; it’s the notion that one national survey shows that 75 percent of Trump supports feel that life has gotten worse for them in the last 50 years and that the idea of the “American Dream” is out of reach.  Brooks argues that the reason for this is that all these things make people feel like they’re alone in this, that they’re left to face all these things in isolation.  It’s created an “every person for themselves” America.  Get what you can….because if you don’t, someone’s going to take it from you.

Brooks says the response, perhaps, is for all of us to “go out into the pain” that exists in our community.  To step beyond our sameness and what’s comfortable.   He writes, “Maybe the task is to build a ladder of hope. People across America have been falling through the cracks. Their children are adrift. Trump, to his credit, made them visible. We can start at the personal level just by hearing them talk.”  In other words: love.  Love as an expression of how God has loved us first in Jesus Christ – cross and resurrection.  Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things – the power of being community.  The power of being church.

I have been asked by more than a few of you in my time here what I mean when ask so often, “what does it mean to be church?”  Today’s text provides that answer: we love.  Being church is expressing the divine, sacrificial love of Christ that unites us together as church.  It is a love that sets the terms for how we are to be church together, and it goes beyond just being “nice.”  Perhaps the “love passage” would sound better like this:

“Church is patient; church is kind; church is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Church does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but church rejoices in the truth.  Church bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

What if the good news in the midst of anger, fear, and isolation Brooks speaks of is the unity found in communities of love?  What if the gift Jesus has given the world is the community that expresses the divine love of the cross and resurrection – the church? What if the good news Brooks speaks of is the unity and love experienced in being church – both with those inside these walls and those outside of them?  It is something to think about, and perhaps, something not too big for our us to comprehend and imagine and do alongside God.  Amen.

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