Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Politics of the Pulpit: Preaching on Sunday, 9/11

September 11th, 2016 will be somewhat of a rarity for preachers: it is the 15th Anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11. For most of us, we can recall what happened and where we were on that morning in 2001. Some have called it our generation’s defining event, much like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War was for their respective generations.

However, it’s defined us in a completely different way. We’re not like the Pearl Harbor generation, who collectively rallied together as a nation in support of the nation’s involvement in WWII. Yet we’re also not like the Vietnam War generation, who collectively divided as a nation to its involvement overseas. I’d like to think today we’re somewhere in between. Instead, we have collectively rallied together as a nation – and caught a case of amnesia.

Perpetual war and violence has become our new normal. Two articles I read recently highlight this: one by a retired general suggesting that there is no endpoint to the post-9/11 war, and another explaining that the devastation in Louisiana has received little attention because ratings show we’re more captivated by who the next President will be, rather than another story about death. News about war and violence have become just another news article to post on social media, a footnote in our lives rather than a reality that shakes it and turns it upside down. However, I don’t think it’s because the majority of us have become indifferent and apathetic. Perhaps the reality is so painful that instead, we push it completely out of our consciousness. When someone does bring it to the center of our community, the result is conversation often turns into a fight over ideology where fingers are pointed, lines are drawn, and a war of words ensues where no one wins.

It’s no wonder that we then get political about the pulpit.

We get political about what we say because we’re always measuring the effect our words will have on our hearers. A good number of pastors and preachers do this as a means of good pastoral care. Yet it’s a completely different thing when one weighs the effect in terms of personal risk and cost. One only has so much social capital they can draw from, and one divisive comment or topic from the pulpit can bankrupt you in a moment’s notice. Having amnesia ourselves as preachers becomes an enticing alternative when faced with prospect of addressing 9/11, the following war, and violence on a Sunday morning. A colleague posted on social media: “Just like the Sunday near Veterans Day or Memorial Day or July 4th, ignoring it [9/11] is a missed opportunity. Yet over-doing it risks the idolatry of patriotism masked as religious faith.” It’s a delicate line and the stakes are high for one’s ministry. What’s a preacher to do?

I ask you indulge me in a bit of testimony: as I sit here and write this, I realize that I have 15 years of service in the United States Navy as a Submariner and Chaplain. My whole Naval career has been spent at war, and I recognize I have classmates, shipmates, and friends who have died in combat, died in training, and live, but do so bearing scars and wounds both on the outside and within. It is a sobering reality, but I at least know this: it’s real.

What’s not so real to me is when I take off my uniform and join society around me. To see the rest of the nation living as if war and its effects don’t exist creates a tension that’s difficult to live in. From time to time I receive a “thank you for your service” or someone buys me a cup of coffee, but overall life outside the Navy feels odd, disconnected, artificial, and lonely. I suppose that’s why I’ve stuck around as a chaplain; because I think the best part of my day is when the service men and women who frequent my path share with great honesty their stories, struggles, and experiences. They share why they chose to serve – those reasons often connected to the events of September 11th, 2001 – and things  feel a bit more real for me.

And when I sit in the pew on Sunday, I need to hear more than just a petition in the prayers. I need to hear something from the pulpit, but not a word that romanticizes my military service as some sort of sacrificial act of Jesus-love. Nor do I need to hear a word that condemns the motivations and forces behind my military service as some sort of message of prophetic justice.

I need to hear about a God who is incarnate in the sobering reality of the last 15 years and likely the next 15 and beyond. I need to hear about a God who still comes to seek the lost and somehow is still present long after the fantasy of Eden vanishes from our sight. What I need to hear is that there is a community outside of the uniform I wear that doesn’t have amnesia when it comes to the reality of these last 15 years of war. I need preachers to be honest: both about the fact war and violence is a reality we can’t turn away from, and that it is a reality that God in Christ is fully present with us in.

That’s no easy thing for a preacher to do for reasons beyond just the politics of the pulpit. It would be easier for you to have amnesia that day. However, if there ever is a time to eschew the politics of preaching and to snap people out of their collective amnesia, this might be the Sunday to do it – from the pulpit. It’s likely people will be really listening….I know I will be.

The thoughts expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, or Navy Chaplain Corps in an official capacity. 

 

 

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Sermon 14 August 2016:The Problem of Loyalty

Text: Luke 12:49-56

Grace and peace from God our Father, and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. I’m a guest this morning, filling in for Pastor Harry and as a guest I come bringing peace to you! (Note: I picked this up drew it and started waving and pointing it at people!) 

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I bring peace and unity, not division! I come to bring comfort, not uneasiness and fear!  Now perhaps you’re not really believing my message of peace….which might have to do with me waving this sword around and pointing it at you. Words of peace are pretty thin when accompanied by fear, aren’t they? In fact, it probably feels more like coercion; they feel more like a demand.  And it seems, at least to me, there’s a lot of those messages going around these days:

“Let’s make America great again!”

“It’s time to put a woman in the White House.”

“hashtag: [fill in the blank] lives matter”….filling in the blank how we see fit.

And Christians seem to be caught up in it as well: “As Christians, we need to unite and take a stand.”

I’m one of those people who likes to engage on social media, and I get drawn into some discussions online…..probably against my better judgment. At least that’s what my wife tells me! This past week I found myself in such discussion where a lady was asserting – no, insisting – that very last sentiment to me.  There’s a war on Christianity in America, and we need to rally together to make sure Jesus and the church don’t lose.  I pushed back on that notion because as a Christian, I just don’t think I’m at war with anyone.  In response to my pushback, she questioned my loyalty to Jesus.

A couple things came to mind as I hear Jesus’ words from our text this morning: one, we got it backwards.  He said, “Do you think I came to bring peace to this earth?  No, rather I come to bring division!”   I think Jesus is giving us a warning: there’s a danger when the promise of peace and unity is connected to a demand for loyalty. Yet there’s another danger here: if we somehow reason Jesus’ words as a challenge to where our loyalties lie, then the demand for loyalty shifts from humans to God. If God demands our loyalty in exchange for peace and unity, then it has implications for God’s character – who God is.  God is one who demands our complete and total loyalty – or else. And unlike the demand that comes from humans, the implications aren’t just for this world….they’re also eternal.

I wonder this morning if Jesus isn’t asking us where our loyalties lie, but rather Jesus is challenging the very notion of loyalty itself.

Some of you may have seen the movie “42”.  It’s the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, breaking the color barrier in baseball. I re-watched the movie recently, and what struck me is that the rule about no African-Americans in Major League Baseball was an unwritten one.  Actually, it wasn’t a rule at all: it was loyalty to the long-held belief that Major League Baseball was and should remain a “white man’s game” and there was no place for the African-American in it.  Loyalty to that belief lasted until Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to sign Jackie Robinson – against the better judgment of his advisors and peers, and despite warnings and threats by many.  During the movie, it was apparent that Ricky wasn’t sure how bringing Robinson into baseball would turn out.  All he knew was that the loyalty to the idea that black players should be excluded from Major League Baseball was killing his love of the game. And so he took a chance, a leap of faith perhaps, on playing Jackie Robinson….and the rest is history.

The thing about loyalty is that comes at a cost.  We tend to judge and seek sameness, limping along fearing that if we let the unknown or that which is different into our lives, it’ll be the death of us.  But the thing about loyalty is that sides are taken, lines are drawn, and we entrench ourselves with the group.  All this sounds a lot like….war. And in war people take up arms, whether it be words, which do damage but have their limit, or what’s becoming too common in our world today, people are choosing to pick up real weapons.  One thing’s certain when it comes to war – pain and suffering.

Perhaps this morning, God isn’t demanding our loyalty. Instead, God invites us to be faithful.

Faith calls us to look beyond ourselves and our sameness to a greater world around us, a world that God created, loves, and redeems…all of it.  Faith calls us to a life of sacrifice and love for the sake of others – especially those we fear and things we don’t understand.  Faith calls us to stop doing violence to ourselves and others.  Faith calls us to run the race – not to win, but with perseverance. Faith is the call to trust – and nothing more.

In a time where powers and forces are preying upon our fears, creating paranoia, then demanding our loyalty under the premise of peace, let us look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Jesus, the One frees us from the bondage of loyalty and its demands. Jesus, the one who is faithful to us….and that faithfulness is a promise that costs us nothing but gives us all – the very peace and joy and freedom we seek for ourselves, for each other, for our nation, for our world.  Amen.

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Sermon for 7 August 2016: Discovering Our Hearts…and God’s

Text: Luke 12:32-40

 Like a lot of kids growing up, I liked playing baseball. In fact, while a lot of folks who know me well think that wrestling has always been my favorite sport, I have to admit that baseball was my first love. I loved the strategy that went into it, and I especially liked it when I could be most active, where I could make the most plays and be the most involved.  

 And that meant that I was naturally drawn to playing catcher. I was actually pretty good at catcher – I picked up all the strategy and signals, I didn’t have a problem blocking balls in the dirt, and I wasn’t afraid of being hit by foul balls and occasional accidental swings from batters. Even in the hot summer sun, I loved donning the heavy catcher’s equipment because I was involved in every play and every pitch. All I ever wanted to do was be a baseball catcher, and my heart was dead set on that and nothing else.

 Only one little problem with that: I’m left-handed. For those of you who don’t know the game well left-handed catchers are a rarity, and don’t exist at the highest levels of baseball. The problem is that your throwing arm is on the same side as most of the hitters – who are right-handed – and because of that, they interfere with your ability to be an effective catcher.  That split second of delay is he difference between getting and out or someone being safe. 

The day inevitably came: I was told I could no longer be a catcher. I convinced my coaches, despite their better judgment, to let me try, and of course, at the higher levels I struggled because of being left-handed. I couldn’t throw any base stealers out and I just wasn’t very effective any more. I was mad, frustrated, and frankly heart-broken that I had spent all my time and energy into being a catcher just to fall short, and to really, lose my heart for the game. 

 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But so often, I think we get Jesus’ words flipped around and instead we believe: for where our hearts is, there your treasure will be also. I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong, but I wonder where such a life leads us. We pour everything we have and are into the expectations and desires of our hearts, thinking that we’ll find our true treasure. But what happens when our desires and expectations go unmet? What do we miss out on by investing so much into making our expectations and desires a reality? Perhaps we’re left with broken hearts. But more than that, such life out of our expectations and desires shuts us out from the mystery and wonder of God’s Holy Spirit at work, changing, transforming, healing us. Such a life…..is not a life of faith.

 From Death to Life is an organization founded by Mary Johnson in 2005. 12 years prior, a man, Oshea Israel, murdered her son. Oshea was arrested, and convicted of murder and was thrown in jail. Mary, holding a lot of hate and hurt in her heart, decided to take a major leap of faith: she decided to forgive her son’s murderer. That forgiveness didn’t happen overnight; 9 months after her son was killed, Mary sought out Oshea in prison, and at first, he refused to see her. However, over time, he gave in, and they met. A relationship began, and forgiveness was given and received….forgiveness that both Mary and Oshea has said repeatedly, literally saved their lives. They had chosen to invest much into the task for forgiveness, not knowing where it might lead. It wasn’t easy all the time. But in dedicating themselves to the task of forgiveness, Mary and Oshea rediscovered joy could exist again in their lives and that joy could exist in a relationship started in death. Mary and Oshea discovered their own hearts, and they found their hearts in each other.

Something for you to think about this morning: I think when Jesus spoke that verse, I don’t think he was giving us a command as he was giving as an assurance about who God is. “For where God’s treasure is, there will be God’s heart also.” In Jesus, God’s only treasured son who put on flesh and whose life was given for us, we discover the very heart of God, a heart that’s solely pointed towards us. God’s heart resides with and for us, because Christ is with and for us. Such an act, it can be reckoned to us as faith: God’s faithfulness to us.

 I wonder these days, with all the violence and division in our lives today if it feels like we’ve lost our hearts. In our longing we try to fashion something that might get it back for us…..but then things fall short of those expectations. When we invest all that we are and all that we treasure into such things as forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, service…..it doesn’t guarantee an outcome like Mary and Oshea’s and it does’t guarantee our desires and expectations will ever be met. In fact, we may never fully see the fruits of our labor, our efforts. But perhaps investing in that life – that is a life of faith, a life lived in hope of what’s unseen. Perhaps investing our treasures in that life of faith – we rediscover our hearts and together, we discover that we’re at the the very center of the heart of a God who has not left us. Amen. 

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