Tag Archives: VA Synod ELCA

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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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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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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Sermon 11 Dec. 2016 at St. Timothy Lutheran, Norfolk, VA

Text: Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

In 2009, I had my answer to that question: the one had come.  The circumstances were right, the pieces in place, my hopes and the hopes of those I was living around were going to be fulfilled: Brett Favre had come out of retirement to play Quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.

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At the risk of any Packers fans out there throwing stuff at me, let’s take a trip down memory lane to 2009: the Minnesota Vikings had a good defense and a solid offense with superstar running back Adrian Peterson. Preseason experts had picked them to be solid contenders to win the Super Bowl…..if the Vikings signed a great quarterback.  That’s when ol’ number 4 came out of retirement and Vikings fans everywhere thought: this is the season we finally win one.  Brett’s the one.  And it played out that way: the Vikings went 12-4 and made it to the NFC Conference Title game, one step away from the Super Bowl……and they lost.  Apparently Brett wasn’t the one, and Minnesota fan are still waiting to this day.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Sort of an odd question for John the Baptist to have his followers ask Jesus in this morning’s text.  This is the same John, who in Chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel baptized Jesus at the Jordan River, witnessing the heavens opening and the booming voice saying, “this is my Son, my beloved, with who I am well pleased.”  In fact, before all that happened, John recognized Jesus as the One, the long awaited Messiah, questioning whether he should be baptizing Jesus at all.  This is the same John who has witnessed and heard about Jesus’ miracles….yet he asks his question: are you the One?  Jesus reassures him: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  Yet, I wonder, why ask the question at all?  I can imagine that being thrown in prison, John had his doubts.  We’ve heard that sermon before; Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they expected.  He wasn’t a mighty king, a military leader, or even a prophet.  Yet knowing that, there John sat in prison, waiting for his death.

Some 2000-plus years later, I wonder if we’re like John the Baptist.  We’ve been waiting for a long time, and while we know who Jesus is and we come here proclaiming our faith in him, are we any closer to the Kingdom of God?  Is life and the world any closer to be transformed?  It seems…the blind are still blind, the lame are still lame, people still don’t listen to each other and well, the poor are not just with us, but seem to be increasing in number.  And those who know Jesus….if you checked the news this morning you saw a Coptic Christian church in Egypt was bombed, killing at least 25 people.  Yes, in the world and in our lives….it doesn’t seem like much, if not anything, has changed at all.

So in this season of Advent, what exactly are we waiting for?

Back to the news….you may have noticed it, but the trial for Dylan Roof began this week.  For those who don’t recall, Dylan Roof was the young man who a year ago last summer walked into Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC where a group of people were holding a bible study.  Roof sat down with the group for 45 minutes, saying little….and then pulled out a handgun and shot every person in the room, killing nine of them after it was all said and one.  He shot them…and then we calmly left the building until he was caught.

During his interrogation with the FBI, Roof calmly and coldly described how and why he killed the people at Emmanuel that day.  Dylan Roof, who was white, and his victims, who were black.  Dylan Roof, who grew up and was a member of an ELCA congregation in Columbia, SC.  I have to admit I find the whole event beyond just tragic.  It’s disturbing and horrifying.

My wife Kelly and I were discussing the trial this week, but not so much of whether or not Roof was guilty – it is obvious to us that he’s guilty – but whether or not he should get the death penalty.  My wife and I both agreed that Roof should be put to death, and sooner rather than later.  Our rationale was what value would there be in putting him in prison for life, wasting tax money? And what value would there be in an appeals process since he gave his confession?  It was a bit surprising, considering that my wife is much more compassionate and progressive than I am.  But what I think was more surprising was what I saw in myself.

It’s hard to say this, but that scares me.  It scares me that I could so easily condemn someone to death, and completely rationalize it with little struggle.  It scares me when I really examine and look into my own heart I find it so easy to harbor a feeling so dark towards a person who is flesh and blood just like me.  I don’t want to debate the use of the death penalty and I don’t think there’s no consequences for what Dylan Roof did and the ongoing problem we have with race in our nation.  I just think, whether it’s Dylan Roof or the people at Emmanuel AME or whoever I so quickly judge and place in categories, maybe I’m the blind one, the lame, the deaf, and the unclean.  Maybe I’m the one who like John is in prison…..and like John I’m in need of the One who can liberate me.  I am in need of a Savior, because the truth is, I need saving….from myself.  And maybe when you examine your own heart, it’s that way for you too.

Perhaps the season of Advent isn’t simply waiting and celebrating a baby born over 2,000 years ago. Advent is waiting – no, longing – for the One to come and transform us.  We long in the deepest parts of our soul to have our sight restored, our ears opened, and for a light to shine in the midst of our darkness and our world’s.  We long and we hope beyond all hope for the One to come who shares our humanity and who is our joy….so that we might know our humanity worth saving, the categories and judgments we pass on each other so easily do not overcome us, but that the One we have been waiting for transforms us RIGHT NOW.  Amen.

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Sermon 14 August 2016:The Problem of Loyalty

Text: Luke 12:49-56

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

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

“Let’s make America great again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflecting on Diversity & Orlando

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

I attended my Synod’s annual assembly this past weekend. (For you non-churchy types, think Comicon meets TEDTalk) Since I’m no longer serving my congregations, I came primarily representing our Synod’s “Tapestry team” – a steering group focused and dedicated to the reality of and need for diversity and inclusion in the church. We presented to both the adults and the youth, and held a lunchtime discussion. During the course of the discussion, one person said, “I’m tired of all these conversations. I’m tired of just talking about how we want to be diverse and include others. We need to do SOMETHING, and we need to do something NOW.”

That statement is reflective of a plea that exists not just in our church, but also across the nation. The recent tragedy of the largest mass shooting in the United States has people demanding some action be taken now. If you’re connected to social media, just check your news feed or the top trending hashtag. People are tired of yet more tragic news. They are frustrated by the inaction of our institutions and leaders. And, they are voicing it – loudly.

So what do we do? Should we listen to political and social voices that have chimed in, and loudly, and to an extent, certain religious leaders have also done so? Should we act out of their calls for action?  I’m not so sure. If we think of our response as followers of Christ, I think our only response is this:

“I see you.”

I talked a lot this past weekend about the need to see and engage “diversity in context.” More often than not, we are great at seeing what looks, sounds, and lives like us. We retreat into the comfort of sameness when events happen that are such a departure from the routine of our lives. However, when that happens we – intentionally or unintentionally – put up blinders that prevent us from seeing those who are different from us. Those who differ in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and class, religious beliefs, gender, and age become invisible to us. We twist tragedy into something more palatable, rather than the gruesome truth it bears. When victims of marginalization and violence become invisible to us, we further marginalize and exclude them.

To see another is to acknowledge not just their existence, but also their very humanity. When we see people, we also see the reality of their lives, including the tragedy, injustice, and violence that exist in it. When we really see people in this way, I believe our hearts are so moved that we see Christ in them, and empathy becomes our response. In our empathy (not pity or sympathy, there is a difference) we begin to ask questions like,

“What does healing, justice, or reconciliation look like for you?”
“What do you want to happen?”
“What does this feel like for you?”

Saying “I see you” moves us from marginalizing the invisible to sharing their humanity, giving them a voice, and ultimately liberating them. Saying “I see you” is doing the work Christ calls his church – calls each of us – into. Whether we’re talking about the victims of the Orlando Shooting, the victim of rapist Brock Turner, or the diversity in our context, “seeing” is doing as Christ has done for us. If we make our default response mirror our political and social leaders, if we constantly keep responding with “this is what I think needs to happen” or make about some issue disconnected from the people and event, then we make this all about us, and not about those who have been marginalized. And even worse, it marginalizes and makes them even more invisible to us.

Jesus said, “I see you” to so many in his ministry: blind beggars, tax collectors in trees, and women at wells, to name a few. We know how that turned out! In being church and Christ-followers in the world, then let us continue this ministry that sees the unseen and refuses to push them further into the obscurity created by self-interest, agenda, and ideology. Let us say, “I see you” to those invisible in the world knowing that Jesus has seen us in our own baptisms, and continues to see us today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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