Monthly Archives: January 2018

Sermon 28 Jan 2018 – Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach, VA

Texts: Mark 1:21-28 & 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

My wife likes to tell people this story from my first call: our organist got sick on a Saturday, and because the congregation was so small, we couldn’t find a replacement.  I grew up playing the organ in high school, so I decided I’d fill in for the Sunday.  Unknown to the congregation that Sunday, after leading the confession and forgiveness and announcing the opening hymn, I walked over to the organ and began to play.  A women in the pew behind my wife tapped her on the shoulder and said somewhat gushingly, “Is there anything he doesn’t know how to do?” My wife turned and said, “Well, he doesn’t know how to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” This verse from the First Corinthians passage has been on my mind all week.  It’s sort of a no-brainer for Christians, right?  Love is greater than knowledge, and now matter how much we think we know or try to know, ultimately it is God’s infinite love that builds communities and people up.  It isn’t knowledge that elevates our status in the eyes of God, but rather it is love.

So let me ask you then, “How are you doing?”

It would seem, if we think about life beyond these walls, we collectively seem more interested in being puffed up for what we know rather than built up in love.  You don’t have to look very far, but you’ll find all sorts of people out there giving their answers, solutions, viewpoints, or beliefs.  And they themselves or others puff them up as having the right ones.  Now, maybe that’s you, or you can think of someone you know out there who’s like this, but the question on my mind this week is, “Why do we do it?”

Epiphany means simply “a moment of revelation.”  Liturgically, we’re in the season of epiphany, which for the church means we celebrate the moment of revelation about God revealed in Jesus’ presence in the world.  In the gospel of Mark, this is also about the revelation about what the Kingdom of God is like, as revealed by Jesus.  Which brings us to the epiphany in today’s gospel story: We have folks gathered on the Sabbath, like we are gathered here today, perhaps looking to hear something of value, gain some knowledge or insight from the sermon.  In comes Jesus, who teaches in a new and fresh way that amazes people, and instantly people buy in to what he’s saying.  Then this man comes walking in, a man who the story tells us is possessed by an unclean spirit that has him held captive.  Jesus calls out the spirit, and it departs from the man.  Such an act of healing, mercy, and compassion, one that liberated and freed this man from that which held him in bondage and caused him suffering…..it was an act of love.

Yet, what I find interesting is that those present seem to be fixated on this as some sort of teachable moment that further validates Jesus’ authority as a teacher.  And this is what elevates him to celebrity status.  Yet what seems to get missed is the power of Jesus’ act alone: this act of love that liberated this man from bondage, restoring him back to the community, and raising him from death to life.  And this story challenges us to think about the difference between how authority is defined in the world and in the kingdom of God. I think there’s a difference: For those looking on, authority resides in the correctness of the message, its truth, its meaning.  In the Kingdom of God, authority resides in the act of love itself and how it restores this man back to the community, how it liberates him from his bondage, raising him from death to life.  Such authoritative love has the power to do the same for us, liberating us from the bondage of our own individual sin and from systemic sin in the world that crushes and oppresses people.

So, what does such authoritative love look like for us today?  While Jesus may not be with us physically, what do such acts of love look like today?

As some of you may recall when I’ve preached here before, I coach wrestling at First Colonial High School.  It was the final round of a tournament, and one of my wrestlers was warming up before his final match that day.  I could see that he was focused.  Then, out of the corner of my eye,  caught a kid walking excitedly through the crowd, trying to get people to wrestle with him.  Two things were apparent: this kid loved wrestling and  he also had a mental disability.  As he tried to engage others, people did that thing most of us are familiar with, passing him off to someone else, ignoring him politely.  Finally, he found his way to my wrestler, and he attempted to engage him in the same way.

And this is what my kid did: he wrestled with him.  He started showing him some simple moves.  And he did this all the way up to the start of his own match.  Once it was his turn, he gave the kid a high-five, patted him on the back, and went out to wrestle his match.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

We give thanks for the gift of God’s love in sending Jesus into our lives, a fact we celebrate around the Table when we share bread and wine; Christ’s body and blood.  May such a love reign in our hearts with authority as we go on our way this week, building up our others, our communities, and a world that sorely needs such a love.  Amen.

 

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Aging & End of Life: A “Mental Health” Issue?

I came across the following article on Sunday morning in USA Today: “Aging: The One Part People Don’t Talk About – and 5 Ways to Cope.”  In my first two congregations, the majority of my time was spent ministering to elderly people who were facing physical and mental decline, feeling more isolated and helpless in their state.  I’ve found it deeply meaningful helping people deal with questions about their quality of life and feelings around their loss of independence.

So the article certainly peaked my interest.  It named the reality of grief, loss, anxiety, and dread that comes with aging and decline.  As the title suggests, it even offers 5 helpful ways for folks to cope.  However, I started to notice a trend: all of the experts interviewed were caregivers from the mental health field.  In fact, the author of the article represents a non-profit news company that covers health issues.  Strangely, this disturbed me, and caused me to ask:

“Is facing aging and the end of life a mental health issue?”

Now before you assume I’m going to sound like one more of those overly religious type who is going to offer a rant and lament about how the church or God is being pushed out by mental health professionals, let me offer that I have a lot of respect for these folks and in fact, I even work closely with them in my work as a pastor and chaplain.  They offer so much help and relief for so many who are in pain, and are a huge help to elderly folks who struggle to grasp what is to come as they near death.  Yet, I think relegating these issues and the elderly people who suffer from them as “mental health” issues falls well short of actually helping them come to terms with their reality.  I wonder, is the solution much simpler than that?

Aging and end of life struggles for me as fundamental questions about the value of human life and its sanctity.  What does it mean to preserve human worth when people lose their functionality and independence in a society that ties a person’s value to such things?  What might our obligation or responsibility be to participate in preserving people’s dignity and worth as they age?  Do we even have an obligation or responsibility at all?  In short, will we care for our aging when they need us most?

The experts in the article all suggest that the aging need us.  We shouldn’t let them face their struggles alone.  This sounds simple, and it is.  I think what bothers me is that we tend to place the whole burden of seeking help on those who are suffering.  We leave it up to people to seek mental health or medical professionals who will diagnose their pain and prescribe solutions, when all that is really needed is for others to take notice and care.  If we need experts and professionals to tell us to connect to and care for one another, then our society – then we – are in trouble.

To be human is to suffer, and to acknowledge another human is to acknowledge when they are suffering, and come along side them in their need.  This is a basic thing that for generations, has kept us from completely destroying each other and ourselves.  In fact, I would contend that caring and connecting are basic human functions – as important and natural to life as eating, drinking, and breathing.

When I think back on the folks in my congregations, I can’t help but recall how they wanted nothing more than to see children, grandchildren.  They wanted people like myself who would listen to their struggles and acknowledge their feelings of grief, loss, and fear. (Although I will admit I am guilty  of letting my inattentiveness and discomfort cause me to fail them at times)  For the most part, they didn’t ask myself or anyone to fix their situation.  In fact, most had some level of acceptance at a process that was inevitable.  What they needed was relief from their feelings associated with aging, which strangely, all that was needed was someone to take time to care and connect.

All sorts of data shows what we all know to be true in our hearts and minds: when we deny the basic need for connection in the face of hardship, we collectively decline faster physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  We make our struggles worse.  The question is, will we continue to relegate caring for those dealing with the all too common feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration associated with aging to a small cadre of credentialed professionals?  Or, will we come to the realization people facing such things don’t always need professional help – they need us.

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“Just Keep Pushing.”

Sitting down to write this blog post is representative of my whole 2017: I can’t seem to get started. All year-long, the struggle was real:

  • I could never start any of my homework for my Continuing Education Program.
  • I found myself having to force myself to head to coach wrestling.
  • It was like pulling teeth to carve out quality time with my wife.
  • It was hard to sustain effort, because the task seemed never-ending…and at times I felt unnecessary and questioned if I was actually bringing folks anything of value.
  • I just about everything I tried to write….it didn’t get written.

The ideas were there.  The pull to go do those things was strong.  Yet I couldn’t just get myself in gear.  Things in my head and heart never seemed to get turned into action.

This is a familiar feeling for me.

It takes me back to my competition days.  There were those moments when I just didn’t have it.  My body unresponsive from a drastic weight cut or overtraining. Seeing moves and openings, but a split second slower than my opponent. I was mentally distracted.  My fear and nerves got the better of me.  Some days, it was simply, “That guy is better than me today.”  He was putting points on the board, I was just hoping he’d cut me and give me the free escape point.

Here’s the thing in wrestling though: you don’t have the option of quitting.  Even after the guy lets you up, you have to keep wrestling.  You have to keep pushing, even if you know it’s not gonna be easy and success is unlikely.

You have to keep pushing.

I think 2017 was so difficult on so many levels for so many people.  I don’t think I need to expend too much energy writing those things here; you can name them.  People I speak to, they’re frustrated results aren’t what they expect, or they’re afraid to commit for fear the result won’t be what they want.  (That’s how I feel about this post right now.  I’d like to delete it because honestly, I’m about 99% sure you’ll think it’s rambling drivel.)

Yet, just like on the mat, I’ve learned that results aren’t the point, and you can’t be afraid of failure and the opinions of others.

You just keep pushing. I tell the athletes I coach this.  I tell the people I care for as chaplain/pastor the same thing.

So shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

Maybe it won’t be great, but maybe it’ll be enough.  In fact,

  • Since they don’t give grades, maybe it’s enough I just learn something.
  • No matter how I feel, I just need to show up for practice.  Being on the mat is always good for me (time has taught me that).
  • No matter how busy my day, I leave a little in the emotional/mental tank for the wife for quality time.
  • Helping just one person is enough; in fact, caring and helping people IS enough.  The ideas and projects can wait.
  • Maybe I just need to write once a week, whether it’s profound or not.

This year, I’ll worry less about the result, the outcome.  For those things that are important to me, no matter how I feel, I’ll just keep pushing.

 

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