Category Archives: Sermons & Preaching

Sermon: 6 Jan 2018

Matthew 2:1-12; 16

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

This Sunday kicks off the season known as Epiphany in the church year, which is about the revelation of who Jesus is – God in flesh.  Today celebrates the story of the wise men from the East, who come to visit Jesus and pay homage to him as the King of the Jews.  The made for kids version – which many of you may know by convention – is this calm scene in which the wise men come with their gifts, bowing before the calm, happy baby Jesus.  And there’s nothing wrong with that story.

But there’s another story the text tells us.

It’s the story of King Herod.  Herrod, not a Jew by birth, but King of the region nonetheless, hears this news about a child born of a royal line – King David – and thus by birthright may have a claim to the throne.  The text tell us Herrod is afraid…because Jesus is a threat.  So Herrod secretly summons the wise men and sends them on a second recon mission to find Jesus, and report back. But, warned in a dream, the wise men disobey the order and don’t return.

The assigned reading for today doesn’t include verse 16, but I think it’s important to understand the gravity of this story, so let me read it again, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”

Herrod killed all the children in and around Bethlehem, ages two years old and younger.

Let that sink in.

This story is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.”  Innocent babies, killed, all because a paranoid King wished to protect his power and eliminate a threat to it.  It’s certainly a story different from the nice wise men story we’re used to, isn’t it? It’s sobering however, to think this story is part of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.  How is this good news? And where was God for those countless babies that were killed?

I suppose such questions would never lead anywhere.  Moral/ethical debates of this sort rarely do.  Nor would it be too helpful to question the goodness of a god who acts so unjustly by doing nothing. I think there’s another message for us this morning, one that is more in line with our own lives, perhaps.

I think this story is about the slaughter of innocence…..ours.

It’s the effect of things in life that chip away at our innocence – things like injustice, unfairness, meaninglessness, indifference, hate, arrogance, and I could go on.  The slaughter of our innocence leaves us cynical, angry, frustrated, resigned, lacking empathy towards ourselves and others, hopeless….and perhaps even worse things like despair. The slaughter of our innocence is a tragedy, no matter how much we try to dismiss it with sentiments like “this is what adulting is about,” or “innocence is for the naive.”

The slaughter of our innocence leaves us viewing the life and living our lives well short of God’s intention to serve God and our neighbor with compassion, humility, joy, and love.

You all are sitting here, having completed a year away on deployment.  And that time away comes at a cost.  Some of that cost I imagine, while a reality, wasn’t exactly pain-free or without hardship.

And while many would tell you to find meaning, to justify your year away, to consider the rightness or virtue of the deployment, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that in some way, perhaps some of your innocence has eroded away.  Time lost that you can’t get back.  Loss of relationships and opportunities.  “It is what it is,” we sigh.

But the good news for you today is that in today’s story, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and in your story today, the slaughter of innocence, exists this newborn baby Jesus.  Baby Jesus, Son of God, innocence in the flesh, living among us.  What this means for us is that even in a world so full of lost innocence and darkness that Jesus among us means that God can and will restore a sense of innocence in the world.

But not a trivial, idealistic innocence.  God’s innocence among us opens our eyes and reveals the very real and tangible things that brings life back into our lives. God’s Innocence is not to return to a childlike state, but rather have our view of life and those living it with us changed.  We become tuned into the moments, things, and persons in our lives that restore our hope, our faith.  That brings joy and rescues us from our cynicism and resignation.

As we celebrate Epiphany today, and as you continue to reflect on the fact that you’ll be returning to the States in a few days and will return to your lives in just a few days more after that, let us rejoice in the revelation that in our own lost innocence, the One who we call Jesus the Christ – and who is innocence in the flesh – is indeed among us.  Quite a revelation indeed! Amen.

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Sermon 27 May 2018: Lynnhaven Community UCC

Text: John 3:1-17

A little known fact I’ll share with you: I know how to play the organ.  We had a rule in my house growing up, that you had to play a musical instrument in addition to playing sports.  And so, when I was about 14, at the not so gentle insistence of my dad, I learned how to play the organ and for about 5 years, served as the organist in the small church I grew up in.  This skill has come in handy from time to time.  For instance, in my first call.  The organist had called in sick on Friday afternoon, and people were panicking about the fact there was no available replacement for Sunday.  Little did they know…..so after the opening liturgy that Sunday, I announced the opening hymn and walked over to the organ, sat down, and starting playing.  One woman in the congregation was especially amazed.  And so she turned to my wife Kelly in the pew behind her and gushed, “Is there anything he DOESN’T know how to do?”  My wife replied, “Well, he doesn’t know how to put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher.”

We’re all familiar with the term: “knowledge is power.”  And that’s kind of how the world works today, doesn’t it?  The more we know, the greater the opportunities and possibilities.  The greater our title or the more letters behind our name: PhD, M.D., CEO, and so on, the greater our status in the world.  The truth is, knowing means we’re in control.  Knowing tells us who’s got it figured it out, who’s got the answers…..the right ones.  Knowledge is power.

Early in his preaching career, Billy Graham led a revival in a South Carolina town.  Before the service, he wanted to mail a letter, so he asked a kid for directions to the post office.  After the boy gave him directions, Graham said, “If you come to Central Baptist Church tonight, I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”  The boy replied, “No thanks mister.  You don’t even know how to get to the post office.”  As great a man as Billy Graham was, I think he was wrong on this one.  And in our story from the gospel of John, Nicodemus gets it wrong too.  Nicodemus comes, wanting to know who Jesus is.  Jesus was performing signs and preaching in ways that astounded many.  Yet I wonder if the real reason he came to Jesus was to figure out if Jesus had some sort of inside track, some sort of insider knowledge, some great insight that at the end of the day, if Nicodemus could tap into it, it’d mean he’d get a share of whatever power he thought Jesus had.

But as we find out, Nicodemus doesn’t understand.  Jesus’ words are cryptic to him, and he finds himself left in the dark.

Knowledge is power.  That is, until we hit those moments where we can’t know or we can’t understand.  The unspeakable moments, both good and bad.  The tragic loss of life due to unexpected bursts of rage and violence.  The feeling that washes over you when you hold a newborn baby for the first time and that little face looks right up at you.  Sometimes, the moments of life cannot be explained or fully understood.

Perhaps the only way to view them is through the lens of faith.  Faith acknowledges that there is truth in unknowing.  Faith acknowledges there’s peace in not being in control.  Faith acknowledges life and come out of death and there is hope that no matter how ugly life is, we can be born again.  And Faith says that it is precisely in the moments of mystery where God is present.  The ever popular John 3:16 (and all those signs at sports events need to include verse 17, by the way) isn’t an ultimatum to believe the right things in order to get ourselves to heaven, but rather the divine mystery of love that says God comes down to us.  God sends God’s only Son into the world, to suffer on an instrument of torture and death to show us that it is in our own moments of persecution and trial that God is closest to us, not solely in moments of triumph and success. 

Knowledge thinks we have to ascend to God.  Faith says God, out of great love, descends to us.

So this all sounds good, but does it really happen?  Are there actually moments of mystery like this in the world, where God breaks into our lives bringing salvation and new life? Some of you may recall the Christmas Day ceasefire during WWI.  All across the European front, Allied and German soldiers put down their weapons for a day.  They came out of their foxholes to trade cigarettes and food.  They sang Christmas songs together.  Some even engaged in friendly games of soccer.  What made this so amazing is that the ceasefire wasn’t mandated by military or national leaders.  In fact, when the news of ceasefires arrived, the Generals threatened to punish soldiers who participated.  That never happened.  The ceasefire was totally the effort of the men in the trenches….and just for a day.  They went back to fighting after that.  But, just for a day, the unexplainable happened.  Humanity was shared in a dehumanizing war.  A moment of life amid so much death.

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

Life exists beyond what we control and what we know.  Mysteries of faith are not only powerful, but they happen. Faith is not only believing they happen, but opening our hearts and minds to receive them, to seek them, and point them out.  

In a world in which so much of what we know seems dark and hopeless, perhaps we could use a bit more mystery – the mystery of divine love descended to us in God’s Son – in our lives.  Amen.

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Sermon 22 April 2018: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

My current ministry travels had me in Germany recently.  We have a 3-day program that helps people transition from deployments to the Middle East.  We take people from an intense, high pace, and regimented environment they had on deployment and help them ease back into normal life.  We take them on trips out into town, give them time to rest, and do workshops…all to help them them “slow down” before they reintegrate to life back here in the States.  

Part of the program is getting people from place to place….let me just tell you, it is like herding cats.  Getting 90 people on buses, reminding them of where they need to be, finding out they’re on the wrong buses, and waiting for up to an hour because people lose track of time while they’re out in town…..what I have learned is that I am not very good at herding people what so ever.

In fact, while pastors are sometimes referred to as “shepherds,” I’ll admit my track record at herding is pretty horrible.  Whether as a pastor, chaplain, youth minister, or even wrestling coach, getting people to go in the directions they need to and convincing people of doing things that are good for them is frustrating and hard work!

But then I remember the words of my good friend, who preached at my ordination service on this very text: 

You are not the Shepherd.  You are not the savior.

Let me ask you this: does it ever bother you how little control we have to get people to say and do things that are really good and beneficial for them?  You know, things like trying to get a toddler to eat their vegetables, getting your partner or spouse to change that annoying little habit, or getting that friend to come to church?  Or, maybe it’s convincing others to change their politics, pushing a teenager to pad their resume so they can get into the right college, or pushing a friend to seek counseling for a problem they struggle with.

You and I try to herd people for all sorts of reasons, if we’re honest.  Maybe we’re aware of it or not, but we like to think that if we get good enough, we can shepherd the whole human race and even ourselves out of the chaos and madness going on in our world today.  If we and others could just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get it together, right?

Maybe you’re like me, and you wish you had that much control.  But then things  like Syria…..or another school shooting….or our kids bring home a lousy report card….or our friends won’t go to addiction counseling…..happen.  

We are not shepherds.  We are not saviors.

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way….to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

I was reminded of this little hymn while I was preparing my sermon this week.  I grew up listening to it in my church back in rural Minnesota.  Spring time is also a time of year I think a bit more of my upbringing on our dairy farm.  Farming is a labor of love: spring time is filled with plowing, picking rock, planting seeds in the ground in time so that they’ll grow and produce a good harvest in the fall.  Fences are repaired in the spring so that cows can be pastured in order to have healthy calves who replenish the herd of milk cows.

Some years, that labor of love produced exactly what we hoped.  In others, crops were completely destroyed and we lost a good number of calves.  Most years, it was somewhere in between.  But one things farmers understand – maybe more so than any of us in our modern life today – is how little control one has over their environment.  The labor of love guarantees nothing, but it’s important to do it year after year.  Farmers understand that ultimately they must trust that their labors will produce whatever is needed to live….and for a lot of the farmers I grew up around, that trust was that God would provide in the best and worst of years.

That lesson has stuck with me over the years. Trust and obedience. Faith and love. 

Our passage from 1 John gets at this. Our attention is called to the fact that there is only One who lays their life down for the world – Jesus. All we can do in response to that is “believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another”.  In other words, “trust and obey” – faith and love.  We are obedient in the ways we love one another and ourselves, trusting that as we love, there is a good Good Shepherd who has and continues to draw us to him.  We love, trusting that the Good Shepherd has saved us.

And perhaps that changes how we live in the world.  Rather than control in an  attempt to save ourselves and others, we simply trust and love.  

Rather than get our loved ones to change for the better, we simply love them the way they are.

Rather than trap ourselves in ways of progress and improvement, we embrace life in such a way that we appreciate and savor what is in front of us presently.

Rather than push others to “get their stuff together” before we’ll welcome them in, we go and walk with them through their struggles and valleys, without judgment or hidden agendas.  

Rather than define ourselves and others by what’s unlovable, we trust in the Good Shepherd who gathers us to him always because we are so loved…..every part of us.  In that good news, we’re able find the courage to love ourselves and one another.  We trust and obey…in acts of love.

There is only One Good Shepherd.  There is only one savior.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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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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Sermon 5 August 2017, Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach, VA

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

A good friend of mine sent me an article a couple weeks ago, the title: “Make America Great Again is Now a CCLI licensed Christian worship song.”  The song was debuted at First Baptist Church in Dallas as part of their “Let’s Celebrate Freedom Rally,” at which then candidate, now President Trump was the keynote speaker.

Your Pastor Aaron asked me to preach a couple weeks ago, to which I gladly agreed….and then he told me, “Your topic is to preach on the intersection between God and country, and by the way, I’m going to be vacation.”  Let’s just say he owes me, big time.  This is one of those hills no preacher wants to die on, a topic preachers usually avoid altogether.

And perhaps you are all feeling the same way.  You’re tired of the left-leaning, right-leaning rants about how certain stances and policies are consistent with Christian faith or not, and judging you for whether you are Christian or not. You came here this morning to get away from that stuff.  Church is supposed to be a refuge, a safe-haven, an escape from such things, right? 

Perhaps, rather than to define what the intersection between God and country is this morning, it would be more relevant to acknowledge just how exhausting living in our country today is.  The things that I think most of us care about, don’t seem to be getting better.  People are less considerate.  They are less empathetic towards others.  We hear things other people say and at times perhaps even hear ourselves saying things that we never imagined saying to another human being.  What’s worse, it even seems like collectively, we actually enjoy living this way.  Being inconsiderate, less empathetic, hateful, and violent is something people actually seem to be proud of.  Maybe we feel compelled to say something, a Christian response.  But even that is met with so much scrutiny and criticism these days that it would just be better to not put ourselves out there anymore.  Exhausted, we just don’t want to deal with any of it.

If our gospel story this morning is any indication, Jesus probably wouldn’t blame you.

Our text opens with Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place.  But what we don’t hear this morning is why: the opening verses of chapter 14 is the story of John the Baptist getting his head chopped off by King Herod, fulfilling a party request made by his wife and daughter for “John’s head on a platter.”  It’s a sobering reminder of the world that Jesus lives in….an inconsiderate, less empathetic, hateful, and violent one.  So Jesus withdraws…perhaps because he himself doesn’t want to deal with it.

But we hear how the story ends: Jesus feeds over 5,000 people.  He does something and I suppose, so should we.  Just exactly what is the intersection then between God and country for us?  What is the Christian response?  Or, the question so many leaders in our Synod seem to be preoccupied with, “What is the Lutheran response to life in our country today?”

I was about 15 years old, and after chores were done one night, dad asked me to head over to one of our neighbor’s farms a few miles down the road to help them with their chores.  Of course, I resisted….we had just put in a hard day of field work ourselves and all I wanted to do is head into town to hang out with some of my friends.   After a nice little “discussion,” my dad just sighed and said, “Can you just go over there?  They could use the help right now.”  So I jumped in our truck and headed over to help our neighbors finish their chores.  The thing is, I knew the real reason I was going over there: about two weeks before, the family had lost their father and husband.  The wife and her  daughters were doing all that they could to get the chores done and keep things afloat and hold onto the farm until while they sorted things out.  I knew that…but to be honest, it didn’t matter much to me.

What is the intersection between God and country?  The more I read this morning’s gospel story, the less I believe it has anything to do with us, or what we do.  At best, our responses range from complete avoidance and escapism to an obligation and burden we try to pass off as altruistic.  I think the intersection even goes beyond what God simply does for us, because we are famous for wasting a lot of time trying to decide what action is godly and pure, which never really gets us anywhere.  The miracle itself isn’t so much that Jesus was able to feed over 5,000 people with so little resources.  The miracle and good news is WHY Jesus does that.  “Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them and cured their sick…..and he said, ‘They need not go away….bring the fish and loaves here to me….and he gave them to the disciples and the crowds.”

Intersection is about a God who comes into our nation and to us out of complete and utter compassion.  The miracle is that God continues to look at us with compassion.  In my current ministry, I spend a lot of time with service men and women who come back from deployments, having seen and done things connected to the reality of combat and war.  I spend time with men and women who have spent so much time away from their spouses and families because of these deployments, the damage done….to the point that recovery and repair is impossible.  These are people who don’t want to have their situation fixed, because there’s no miracle to be worked.  They’re exhausted, and have exhausted every measure…..and what they wonder is, are they worthy of, and will anyone – will God – look on them with compassion.

Perhaps it is the same for you as well.  We wonder if God still has compassion for us, for this nation, or if we’re truly left to fend for ourselves.  The good news this morning is that Christ looks on us with compassion, and a compassion so deep that God continues to intersect our lives.

In a nation starving for empathy, impoverished by hatred, indifference, violence, and disregard towards anyone and anything that doesn’t serve us or the factions that demand our allegiance, God intersects with our world in Christ out of compassion to feed us with the gift of compassion.  Whether it’s an act of feeding more than 5,000 people, or feeding a small group of people around the Communion Table, or in other acts we see in our everyday lives, God’s compassion is the real miracle that sustains us, changes us, and gives us hope.  Amen.

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Sermon 11 June 2017: St. Timothy Lutheran, Norfolk

Text: Matthew 28:16-23

As some of you know, I’ve been away from parish ministry this past year, serving as a Navy Chaplain.  And it’s always interesting who frequents my office.  About a month after I started, a Navy doctor, young guy, Lieutenant, stopped by.  He asked, “do you have a second Chaplain?”

As we sat down to talk he shared with me that he had volunteered to do this individual deployment to Afghanistan because “I knew it would be good for my career. To serve in a combat zone, practice good medicine, maybe even save a couple lives, would be more than what I was doing in my current assignment at the Naval Clinic.  I could do all this good stuff over the course of the year, get a good fitness report and likely a couple medals for serving in a combat area and for personal commendation, and I’d be set.”

“But that’s not what happened.  I got along well with the Head Surgeon, and my Commanding Officer.  I did good work and they told me I did good work.  But I didn’t get a great fitness report at the end of the tour.  It was pretty average.  I didn’t even get a single award either.  The goal was that this tour would help me promote faster, and now I head back to my home command and probably have fallen behind there too.  So what am I supposed to do now Chaplain?”

You have probably heard today’s text before…..known as the Great Commission.  Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples, baptize, and teach them.”  And for most Christians and churches, the Great Commission gets treated like a set of marching orders…..making disciples, baptizing, and Christian education become the “mission” of the church.

I wonder if we don’t all do the same thing ourselves – individually and as a community of faith.  We treat the Great Commission like a set of marching orders with distinct goals in mind.  And if we achieve the goal, then we’ve achieved mission success.  Grow and increase membership.  Baptize more babies for the report to the Synod.  Group the youth group, Sunday School, adult education, and get more kids confirmed. But, what does it mean when we fall short; what happens when we fail?

Falling short and failing to achieve goals never feels good, and it’s certainly not good news.  It’s not gospel.

So what then to make of the Great Commission?

Recently, because of the wear and tear I’ve put on my body as an athlete, I’ve taken up swimming.  One of the sober things I’ve learned about swimming is you just can’t “power through” it; it takes patience and relaxing in the pool.  I’ll just be honest: I’m not very patient by nature, and I’m definitely not very good at swimming. I am slow.  I am inefficient.  I’m sure that the high school lifeguards at the Rec Center pool get a kick out of me thrashing around in the water, plodding along in my sad attempt to propel myself from one end of the pool to the other.  Even when I think I’m getting better, along comes a person well into their 60s and 70s who jumps into my lane and literally swims circles around me…..and I am reminded once again just how bad at swimming I am and that no matter how hard I try, I’m probably not going to be winning any Olympic medals any time soon.

But here’s the thing: I’m finding I love it.  I love the challenge, the sense of trying something new, and of course that my joints don’t hurt when I’m done.  I’m finding that as bad as I am now, and the while I may never be good at swimming, I simply find joy in getting into pool, feeling my muscles work, losing myself in the rhythm of my own pace and breathing.  I just find joy in the task of swimming itself.

And perhaps that is what the Great Commission is for us: not a set of marching orders, not a list of goals to achieve.  The Great Commission is a gift; it is a vision of life for the church that brings an immeasurable sense of joy.  To walk alongside others together in our faith journeys, to celebrate baptism and the mystery of God’s grace bestowed on the baptized and to celebrate their joining to Christ and the church, to teach others, or perhaps more witnessing to others about the grace and love of God made known in Jesus Christ – that life is our joy.  To simply live out the Great Commission is our joy.

And on this Sunday, we celebrate the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a solution to a theological equation.  The Trinity, three in one and one in three, is a divine mystery.  It doesn’t make sense.  Yet it’s beauty and wondering comes in the idea of a sort of divine dancing where there is no defined beginning or end, but that God in the Trinty gives us a vision of a life where we are so caught up in the life of God, and we are also so deeply caught up in the life of one another.  Faith is living out this divine relationship, so connected to God and so connected to each other.  That is our joy.

The Great Commission and the doctrine of the Trinity are given to us so that we might have great joy in living the life of faith itself, not its outcomes.

And even then, the Great Commission and the Trinity aren’t good news.

The good news comes in Jesus’ last words: “And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

No matter if we live or die, rise or fall; if we succeed or fail as a church.  We belong to God, we belong to Christ, and we belong to each other.  God is with us, and that is truly good news!  Amen.

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Sermon 29 Jan 2017, Grace Lutheran, Chesapeake, VA

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:-12

“Adversity does not build character,  it reveals it.”

I’m a big fan of quotes.  I like to write them down for inspiration, and this one is in the top 5 of my all-time favorites.  The idea that adversity is not some test where we make ourselves better – building character – but rather it simply reveals what’s at the center of who we are.  That actually sounds a bit theological, doesn’t it?

But before I go there, let me pose this question to you: what is adversity revealing about our society these days?  Now maybe you disagree with me, but I think we are facing quite a bit of adversity in our nation these days.  And that adversity is revealing something about our collective character. We’re obsessed with human character.

We’re preoccupied with human character: namely, the complete poverty of others’ character and the not quite as impoverished state of our own.   I think we see that playing out in society….on a large scale, it’s over the social and political issue of the day.  Or on a smaller scale, it’s that random driver who doesn’t let us merge onto I-64 on the way to work on any given day.  (Ok, that’s really about me….but I’d like to think I’m not the only one!)

Here’s the thing: this obsession, this preoccupation with human character colors our worldview, how we see things. It also colors who we interpret things…..take scripture, for example.  Take our texts for today.  If we think they only reveal something about human character, then these texts are either a definitive list of who’s side God is one or a set of rules to make ourselves better people, namely, a better Christian. The Beatitudes in Matthew, the call to “love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God” in Micah, and the “wisdom of suffering” in 1 Corinthians are nothing more than ways to validate ourselves while at the same time cast absolute judgment on others.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine this past week about the joys and valleys of marriage.  He and his wife have been fighting over the past couple months.  At first, he was judgmental, pointing out to his wife the ways she wasn’t measuring up.  That in turn led to him beating himself up, and thus trying to please his wife…but really trying to absolve himself of his guilt, which would eventually make him feel resentful and the cycle would begin all over again.  The cycle: character assassination, which lead to character suicide, and then circling back and repeating itself.  It drove my friend and his wife further and further apart.  But then my friend had a revelation: he decided to stop trying to please his wife, and please God instead.  When he did that, he remarked, things got better in their marriage.

Now, my friend is Pentecostal, so my cynical, Lutheran side says “it’s not that simple; it’s never that simple!”  But what if today’s texts are not so much fixated on our character, but rather the revelation of God’s character?   It is a God who loves kindness, a God who is just, and who humbles Godself in in Jesus Christ in order to walk with us.  It is a God who blesses people in their weakness and vulnerability, not their self-seeking and self-sufficient ways, blessing them in the recognition of their own poverty of spirit and body.  It is a God who regards vulnerability and weakness as power that draws us closer to each other and to God. God’s character in the face of adversity is total, unconditional, complete love, mercy, and grace for those who know all too well the impoverished nature of human character.

Which brings me back to the adversity we face these days. A new President has been sworn in and already in his first week in office the country is deep in controversy that’s revealing the darker side of human character: injustice, hate, fear, and violence towards others.  There are a lot of preachers this morning, and rightly so, who are boldly proclaiming to their congregations to take a definitive stand against injustice and hate,  telling them exactly what that looks like and what is Christian or unChristian.  Funny thing is, that message sounds exactly the same from both sides of the argument.  It an obsession with human character.

Well, I’m not going to do that this morning.  I’m not that good of a preacher to pull it off but if I’m really being honest, it’s because I realize the own impoverished state of my own character.  Life is complex, life is messy, decisions have consequences we and others have to struggle and live with, often for a long time.  So as I thought of what I could offer you this morning, I thought the best thing I can do is leave you with this question:

What would it mean as people of faith – both individually and as a community – to fixate on God’s character?  It probably doesn’t lead to a whole lot of answers, but in my relatively short life I’ve learned this much: when we receive God’s love, we become more capable of loving others.  When we receive God’s mercy, we become merciful towards others.  When we accept God’s justice, we in turn become more just towards others.  When we accept God’s graciousness, we become more gracious towards others. We become less fearful, and much less fixated on our own goodness and the not-so-goodness of others.  We fixate on the character of God….and our character is changed.  

What would it mean to fixate on God’s character?  In the face of injustice and hate, perhaps our words and actions reveal the very character of God.  In the face of adversity and all the uncertainty of what we should do….perhaps that is enough.  Amen.

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