Sermon 2 July 2017: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

This story bothers me.  Maybe it bothers you too.

This story, known as the “near sacrifice of Isaac” is troubling.  It raises so many questions: Why would God demand Abraham offer his only son Isaac to be sacrificed?  What kind of God tests people’s faith in that way?  Why would Abraham just go along with the plan blindly, without questioning God?  Or was Abraham simply delusional…was the voice not God’s but just in his head?  And why would God allow the test to go as far as it did?  How traumatic must that have been to Isaac, to be bound and tied, seeing the blade of a knife so close, and on the other end of it his father ready to plunge it into his flesh?

Considering all these questions, I’m not so sure reducing the story to a lesson of exemplary obedience to God or connecting it as some pre-story to Jesus as a sacrifice on the cross makes the story any less troubling.  But perhaps this morning, and like most days, we’d prefer a simple explanation…..we can avoid being uncomfortable, sing the closing hymn and go merrily on our way.

Pastor Aaron asked me to preach on mental and physical disabilities this morning, and to be honest, I’d love to give you a nice answer about how God wants us to embrace those who bear marks on the inside and outside that don’t resemble what most of us consider as bearing the image of God.  I’d love to simply tell you that faithfulness is simply embracing these people, enduring their imperfections, and that we’ll find immeasurable joy in doing so…..one big happy ending to the story of being church to those less fortunate than us.

Yet that sermon wouldn’t take away the nagging, troubling questions that I think persist with us when we see those who bear mental and physical scars – whether born with or caused by living in this world.  You know, the questions that live in the back of our minds, and cover up with statements like “they’re God’s little angels” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

Such a sermon wouldn’t help me make sense of my week:

A couple sailors returning from year-long deployments in combat zones this week, finding their way to my office because a wave of irrational anger swept over them to the point they were about to grow a chair at the nice lady giving the insurance benefits brief. They’re not sure why, but they then tell me stories of what happened on their deployments, and I know why. 

Walking into a store and watching a weary mom try to calm their mentally handicapped child, because they simply do not have the ability to comprehend why they can’t have a certain box of cereal that caught their eye.

A man, head bent, half-burnt swisher sweet in hand, slowly walking through the cross-walk where I was stopped, oblivious to the rapid countdown of the crosswalk timer and chaos of traffic impatiently waiting for the signal to turn green.

Mid-way through seminary, ELCA wannabe pastors have to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Experience, or CPE.  For most of us, this is done in a hospital setting, and the goal is to teach us practical things like bedside manner and to hone pastoral care skills.  The hospital I did my CPE at asked us at the beginning what units we wanted to be assigned to.  Me, not really knowing but being open to anything said, “I’d like to be challenged.”

So they placed me in the two inpatient mental health units for the summer.

I can tell you as hard as that summer was, it was also rewarding, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect.  In caring for those suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and a whole host of other things, I found out this rather troubling truth: the line that defined why they were there and why I wasn’t was much thinner, and not as clear as I assumed.  A few life circumstances, a few poor decisions, the random chance associated with what qualities we’re given at birth…and I just as easily could have been locked up on the units.

Here’s the thing: as much as we might want to convince ourselves that we can distance ourselves from the troubling and disturbing things of this life, the truth is that our lives are bound much more closely to them…perhaps too close for comfort.  But in that discovery, that my story was somehow closely bound to their troubling story, I learned something about my own humanity as well as theirs.

In the Jewish tradition, this story from Genesis is known as the “binding of Isaac.”  To bind here means in the sense of binding up a sacrifice, an offering.  Yet I wonder if we can’t also think of binding in the way that no matter how we slice this story, the characters – Abraham and Isaac – can’t seem to escape the troubling events of it.  Escaping what is troubling, disturbing, what makes us uncomfortable is an unescapable part of life.  

Yet God is also one of the characters right alongside Abraham and Isaac.  God is just as bound up in the troubling and disturbing story as Abraham and Isaac are.

Such troubling stories, such disturbing things…..they are caught up in the life of God.  God doesn’t avoid them.  God is an active part in them.  We don’t face them alone.  God speaks, protects, and provides.

But to be caught up in the life of God isn’t just to have faith that God delivers and wipes such things from our lives, but to trust that God sees such things.  God doesn’t avoid them.  We don’t have to avoid such things, we don’t have to look away in discomfort or even shame because we know that God is right there with us looking at them because God binds God’s life to ours – even the most troubling parts of it.

Perhaps what we learn – as I learned during my summer of CPE – that binding ourselves closer to people who so publicly bear the disturbing things in life actually draws us into a deeper understanding of ourselves….and into a deeper relationship with God.

And perhaps this little, inescapable truth makes our prayers, our singing, our eating and drinking  around the Table this morning mean just a little bit more.

And it makes us a bit more hopeful in the inescapable things we see, the inescapable things we must face each and every day….because God has bound godself to our story, to our lives, to us.  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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The Single Most Important Theological Doctrine Today…..(Talking to Lutherans & anyone else who would listen)

….and it isn’t the Doctrine of Justification by Grace through Faith.

It’s the Theology of the Cross.

I’m participating in a year-long Continuing Education program on mental health and chaplaincy.  We are learning about Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is a recent shift towards “third wave psychotherapies” that are aimed at becoming more open to other possibilities by reflecting on their experience.  ACT seeks to address the reality of pain and suffering, and how it creates what psychologists call “psychological rigidity and inflexibility.”  This phenomena arises when our internal thoughts and feelings create a narrative that’s disconnected from our external experience.  When our thoughts and feelings create a reality that doesn’t match what we’re actually experiencing, it creates anxiety, stress, but even more so, a false reality that we simply can’t budge from.

A simpler term for this is what psychologists call “comparative suffering.”  It’s pretty straightforward: we compare our suffering – or the suffering we care about – to other suffering.  We categorize, prioritize, and quantify suffering.  Interestingly enough, studies have shown that when it comes to comparative suffering, people will always tend to place their own suffering, or the suffering that matters to them, above the suffering of strangers and adversaries.  What I’ve found in this life, comparative suffering is a false reality…suffering simply just is.

A theology of Glory calls good evil and evil good.  A theologian of the Cross calls a thing that it actually is.

In our present day, I wonder if the problem itself is our process of classifying every thing as either wholly good or wholly evil.  We become theologians of Glory, but not as Luther meant it so long ago, perhaps.  In our time, it’s not so much identifying the outright contradictions to God’s notions of justice, love, and humility, but rather, the paranoid process of pointing out which injustice, unkindness, and arrogance the collective should care about.  In the end, we’re just theologians of Glory, caught up in the process of comparative suffering, the pursuit of validating our thoughts and feelings divorced from the reality of our collective experience: we all suffer.  As theologians of Glory, we become theologically rigid and inflexible, twisting notions of God and God’s Grace to fit our thoughts and feelings.  Comparative suffering becomes the altar we place things like Grace on, cut it into pieces, and hand it out conditionally.  As theologians of Glory, our rigidity and inflexibility creates a god that exists in our thoughts and feelings.  That god does not exist.  It is a false god.

That’s known as idolatry.

Idolatry is the elevation and glorification of ourselves, hence, a theology of Glory.

That’s why I think the theology of the Cross is the single most important theological concept for our world today.  A theologian of the Cross first and foremost accepts reality as it is – even the most troubling, disturbing, and sobering parts of it.  A theologian of the Cross makes no upfront judgments on that reality, but merely points to it and bids you not to look away in avoidance.  A theology of the Cross forces you to face reality on its own terms, not yours.  For a theologian of the Cross, there is no room for false realities like comparative suffering.  All suffering is suffering, not greater, not lesser; but one cannot avoid suffering – ours or others – at any level.

We live in a day and age where I think most of us see what is going on.  We feel the division, the disconnection, the victim-blaming, and the playing the victim that exists in our world.  The great question, at least for those of us that just simply don’t know what to do anymore and yet wish not avoid the collective pain that affects us all, is “how can we collectively look at all this and not say, “what the hell?” (My version of Kyrie Eleison)

By becoming theologians of the Cross, I wonder if God might loosen the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds and liberate us to a place of acceptance, accepting that things are not as they should be and that we need each other and need God.  I think most of us will accept that things are “not good” in our society right now.  Maybe you’re like me and really trying to not place one culture’s or one person’s suffering over another’s.  The true enemy is when we get caught up in the trap of comparative suffering. When we do that, a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion, and indifference to suffering and pain usually is the result. A good colleague and friend posted this quote the other day:

“As people we generally don’t change when we see the light; we change when we feel the heat.” – Hank Brooks

If there is a common theme among our collective society, it is the desire for change.  That change doesn’t come by making others “see the light” and the error of their ways.  That change doesn’t come by calling others evil while calling ourselves and our tribes good.  Change doesn’t come through the process of comparative suffering.

Change comes only when we choose to accept suffering as a collective and shared experience.  Change comes when we feel the pain of our collective poverty and helplessness.  Change comes when we realize that the poor slob or arrogant S.O.B. we can’t stand is actually in the same boat as we are.

For a theologian of the Cross, the change comes when we realize we don’t have to kick that person out of the boat.  We call suffering what it is – a reality we all share in, and all are affected by.  Funny thing is, when that happens for theologians of the Cross, we experience change: God’s change.  By calling a thing what it is, we – even for a brief moment – see beauty break in.  We see justice, love, and humility break through the rigidity and inflexibility of our hearts and minds.  The God of Grace breaks in and saves us all.

For a theologian of Glory, that’s a dangerous thing, because then they stand to lose all.  Their idols come crashing down.

For a theologian of the Cross, this is good news, because while they also stand to lose all, the collective liberation God brings is so much greater.

So let’s start being honest. Let’s call it like it is. Let’s be theologians of the Cross. 

 

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Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.

 

 

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For the Church& Pastors:  “Tribe: On Homecoming & Belonging”

“What if long-term PTSD is less about what happened out there (in combat), and more about the society they come back to?”

 This past November, I heard author and journalist Sebastian Junger speak at a Navy SEAL Foundation conference on mental health issues within the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community. Junger, who covered wars on the ground in Sarajevo and Afghanistan, and who developed a case of short-term PTSD himself, posed this question out of his reflection and research on combat and combat veterans. 

It is a well-known statistic that less than one percent of our nation’s population serves in all the branches of our military combined. According to 2014 census data collected by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, about 7.3 percent of the U.S. population have prior military experience of any kind. As a nation that has been in a constant state of war over the last 16 years and in light of overly-dramatic movies and a nearly-cultish fascination with culture of special operations forces (Navy SEAL, MARSOC, Army Ranger & Delta Force, AFSOC, etc), does the general population – do we –  have a realistic awareness and understanding of what currently serving military service members, veterans, and their families experience?

In “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” (Hatchette Book Group: 2016) Junger paints a realistic view of not just the combat experience, but the current, constant operational state of our military, manifest in deployments that have increased in frequency and have become longer in duration. Junger also offers a challenging and compelling portrait of our modern society and the implications of our collective society’s value of absolute individualism and autonomy. The struggle, he argues, isn’t so much from the trauma experienced half a world away, fighting alongside and relying on others for survival. The struggle is that when ripped from that close-knit group on the return home, facing the reality of every day life is incredibly isolating. The struggle is while one experienced a strong sense of belonging and purpose on a battlefield, it cannot be so easily found in a society where no one seems to be able or willing to share life in a similar way.

This portrait in Junger’s “Tribe” offers a chance to reflect on what ministry to and for others in the context of the military might look like. Yet I think another unintended message in the book is that it draws us into a haunting and sobering truth about the nature of the society we live in today. Where individualism, progress, and seemingly unlimited access and choices reign, what does it mean when we no longer believe that we need each other for anything in this life? What is lost when the only solution for our struggles in this life is the offer of goods and services, and even care is narrowly relegated to the realm of professionals and programs? I’m not suggesting that these services aren’t important or needed, and neither is Junger. However, the argument that Junger is making – and I think he’s right – is that it is our responsibility to collectively take on the task of healing individuals from trauma, not to induce it on them by turning our backs away in fear, indifference, or in contempt.

One of my favorite roles as a pastor and Navy chaplain is what I learn through the outsider and the other. When I come across others, hear their story, and minister to them, I learn something about myself and about God. I learn what it means to share and bear suffering as Christ suffered on the cross, and I learn what it means to be community that longs in hope for reconciliation, grace, and new life in the reality of suffering. In the context of military service members and veterans, my ministry is shaped by offering pastoral care in times of emotional, spiritual, and relational crises caused by frequent and long deployments and what is experienced while on them.  It is creating a sense of connection and space so that they can heal through the process of making meaning of their past experience. 

 This shapes how I lead as a pastor for those who experience similar crises and trauma caused by a world of isolation that has the ability to crush people’s humanity and spirit. If anything, I’ve learned that for most people, the desire isn’t for more resources, services, and programs. It’s a desire for community in which they can belong to, for it’s in that sense of belonging one finds a community to bear their own weariness, and their sense of purpose and value as part of something greater than themselves.
For Junger, this is why people tended to thrive in tribal societies; problems such as PTSD were non-existent. What Junger calls “tribe” is really what we as Christians call community. While not a theological argument for community in the way of Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together,” it won’t be hard for the seminary trained person and layperson alike to hear the theological themes in “Tribe.” Convincing people in our congregations today to care for military service members, veterans, and their families is not too hard to do these days. Convincing the same that this community and the context of war and combat has something to teach us about ourselves and our own poverty, perhaps that is reason enough to read “Tribe.” As Junger concludes in the book’s introduction,

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

 Amen.

Rev. Aaron Fuller is a bi-vocational pastor in the ELCA and Chaplain in the Navy Reserve. He has served two parishes in the Virginia Synod and was recalled to active duty in June 2016 to serve as chaplain at Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center, Norfolk, VA. He and his wife Kelly reside in Virginia Beach, VA.

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“What EXACTLY does this mean?” – 500th Reformation Anniversary Thoughts

Since fall last year, my email inbox has been flooded with advertisements and invitations to events, lectures, and gatherings to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  This milestone holds a special place in the hearts of Lutherans because our founding namesake, Martin Luther, was the catalyst for this Reformation that included many different voices and theological perspectives.  In short, what happened 500 years ago was a pretty big deal.

So while I’m not a big fan of nostalgic gatherings that rehash and reenact history, nor am I fan of the topic of  how 500-year old confessional doctrine ought to be relevant, I don’t begrudge those for whom those things matter.  Yet I’ve found myself asking this question with respect to the 500th Reformation Anniversary lately,

“What EXACTLY does this mean?”

What does this mean for us NOW?  In her book “The Great Emergence” (Baker, 2008), the late Phyllis Tickle suggested that every 500 years, a significant reformation happens in the church universal, and that we are living in one of those times today.  If that’s true (and I believe that it is), then we’re in the middle of a great reformation ourselves, just as Martin Luther and other Reformers founds themselves in the early 1500s.

I don’t want to talk about The Reformation. I want to be part of the one happening now. 

I don’t think I’m alone in my belief.  Most of us are aware of the changes happening around and in our congregations and how those changes are affecting our communities of faith.  We’re aware of the issues – membership decline, diversity, justice, millennials, evangelism, hospitality, worship forms, shifting leadership….the list goes on.  We’re also blasted to the point of over saturation with blogs, books, and articles presenting solutions to all these “big” issues facing the church.  The understanding of reformation is “do this, or die.”  I don’t know about you, but that’s fear-based rhetoric meant to capitalize on our anxiety about an uncertain future most of us feel ill-equipped to handle.

I’ll spare you the suspense: this is not another blog presenting another “big idea” to “the big issue” that’s plaguing congregations these days.  I do want to say that while my current call has me disconnected to the day-to-day of congregational life, it’s always on my heart and on the forefront of my mind.  What does it mean to be a church and a person of faith living in the midst of perhaps another great reformation?  Where do I even begin to start imagining what God is calling us all to be and do as church within it?

I honestly wish I had a profound answer to these questions.  I did come across this great quote one of my favorite seminary professors posted on social media the other day:

“An evangelical church which looks upon the doctrine of justification by faith as a self-evident banality one no longer needs to dwell upon because other problems are more pressing has robbed itself of the possibility of arriving at solutions to such problems. It will only tear itself further apart. If the article on justification is removed from the center we will very soon no longer know why we are and must remain evangelical Christians. Then we will strive for the unity of the church and sacrifice the purity of the gospel; we will expect more from church order and government, from the reform of ecclesiastical office and church discipline, than these can deliver. One will flatter piety and despise doctrine; one will run the risk of becoming tolerant where one should be radical and radical where one should be tolerant.” ~ Hans Joachim Iwand (1959)

What exactly does this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation mean for us today?  For those like me, it means that more than remembering what happened 500 years ago. We want to honor it by being part of God’s reforming work today.  For me, like Luther, our conversation and discernment needs to start with God and not us.  Like Luther, it’ll take a lot of courage to break free from our tribal mindsets and come together to think on the idea from Iwand’s thought above.

I want to be part of reformation today, but one grounded in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a movement we do together, grounded in humility, courage, and love.

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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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