Tag Archives: VA Synod ELCA

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.

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Missional Thinking & The Church

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons & Preaching

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.

krtphotoslive382149-sports-fbn-lion-brett-favre

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.

adventweek3

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons & Preaching

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!) 

9568074_1

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons & Preaching

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Culture & Social Issues/Ethics

Sermon Pentecost Sunday 2016: “Gifts & the One Thing”

Text: Acts 2:1-4 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

I consider Pentecost to be part of the “Big 3” of the church liturgical year along with Christmas Eve and Easter worship.  So the Pentecost story in Acts 2 is a big deal, and a pretty extraordinary story: violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, people speaking in foreign languages yet able to understand each other.  Perhaps our imaginations often form this image of a massive gathering of people experiencing all this – the first megachurch was born! Only thing is, that’s not how the story goes.  If you read a bit earlier in chapter one, it’s just the 12 disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, who were present.  Jesus has just ascended to heaven, leaving the disciples a bit lost and wondering what was next.  This is the setting for event in Acts 2 we just read.  My point is this: the Pentecost story, where the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on Jesus’ closest followers, happened in a house, as scripture tells us.  It wasn’t the birth of the megachurch, but rather the first Pentecost occurred in a small church.

I can resonate with that notion, because Pentecost moments where God changed and empowered me happened in small churches.  It’s places like small Balsamlund Lutheran Church in Aldrich, Minnesota, population 41, worshipping about 25 folks.  I grew up in that churh and learned a few things, like playing games of red light, green light on the church basement stairs, going through Sunday School with my sister and one other kid as my grandma, our teacher, simply opened up he bible, read from it and we talked about it. I watchedold men tell stories and talk about the weather and farming, and played organ through my high school years.

It was tiny little Christ United Methodist Church in Groton, Connecticut, worshipping about 35 folks a Sunday, where I spent three months at Submarine Officer Basic Course.  In my time there, I played guitar for children’s ministry, discovered my love for discussing theology with the pastor in the parking lot after worship, and learned the church could be a home away from home that I could escape from the demands of memorizing countless information about submarine systems and tactics.

It was little Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I began to discover I had a gift and passion to minister to the lost, to those who are shut out and excluded from the church because of realities such as race, social and economic class, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, and gender.  My heart changed in such a way where I knew just exactly how important this good news that Jesus came to seek the lost, to suffer with them, and raise them up to new life so that they might know they are not alone and that their lives are a gift.  It was at Redeemer I began to discover what it meant to be a pastor in this church.

And then there’s you.  St. Andrew and Holy Communion Lutheran Churches in Portsmouth, Virginia.  And it is here where I was allowed to learn and grow as a pastor in this church.  And even more than that, I’ve learned that church is about struggling, challenging, wrestling….and embracing, laughing, caring, and loving…..and staying fully engaged in the present, trusting that God has our future because God promised that in Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.  It is in these two tiny little churches that I discovered in a very Pentecost way that the Gospel, the news that God send God’s son Jesus to die on a cross and be raised three days later so that we might be free from sin and death and fear actually matters. It’s not a bunch of bible stories nor is it a bunch theological ideas. The gospel matters in our life today.

In all these little churches, it was through the gifts of others – through YOUR gifts –  that God changed me. Being church is about God giving gifts and God putting those gifts to work so that others may experience Pentecost in their lives.  Now, sometimes those gifts are hard to see in ourselves, whether it’s because of our humility or we just don’t know….so sometimes it takes others to see the gifts in us.

I have a little gift for you this morning: something not so much to remember me by, but something to remind you….remind you of the gifts that exist in you, gifts I have seen at work, and gifts through which God changes lives. And it is these gifts – your gifts – working together as one body that [place the cross at the center] make CHURCH, THE CHURCH. And note there’s plenty of white space on the board to add new names and new gifts as you see them.  This display is yours to keep, a reminder, and an answer to this: What is church, and what does it mean to be church? This board is my final answer.  YOU are my final answer.

I know our time seems short….only 2 years and 7 1/2 months to be exact.  It has been quite a rollercoaster, hasn’t it?  We’ve packed a lot of life into that time, I think….wrestling and struggling with things that I don’t think other churches typically have the courage to do.  I’m proud we’ve done that together.  And then there’s all those questions….I’ve probably asked too many questions, and maybe there’s a small part of you that’ll be happy knowing I’m taking my questions with me….but my questions have sparked your own questions. We’ve asked those questions of each other and I think because of that, we both grew in faith.  Yet, as our journeys continue on separate paths, there are other questions left to answer, ones that come with uncertainty or fear of the future, and perhaps ones where you also wonder just how God might use your gifts as church, or doubt God has use for them at all.

But there is one thing we don’t have question or doubt.  And to explain that a bit further, I’d like to sing one last song for you.  You can follow along with the lyrics on the insert in your bulletin.

[One Thing, by Paul Colman]

YOU are church.  It is the gifts God has given YOU that make you church and being church is about the ways that God puts those gifts to work .  If you ever doubt that, let this board be a reminder of that.  But when even that’s not enough, and those questions and doubts linger, never doubt or question what’s at the center.  It is this One Thing that matters, it is at the center. It is our hope and it is a reminder that you are not alone, that your lives are a gift, that God loves YOU. And so do I.  Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons & Preaching

Sermon 8 May 2016: “Jesus rose from the dead: A confession.”

Text: 1 Corinthaians 15:1-26; 51-58

“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again….”  On the third day he rose again.  Jesus rose from the dead.

These words might sound familiar to you: it is our confession of faith, the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We say them every Sunday, and we’ll say them again later in worship today. But I wonder, what difference does this confession that Jesus rose from the dead make?  Why is it so important that Paul insisted on the Corinthians’ faith was in vain if they didn’t believe it?  What makes the news that Jesus rose from the dead so powerful and life-changing for our lives today…..what makes it gospel?

I wonder if the notion of Jesus actually coming back to life after lying for 2 days in a tomb isn’t a bit ridiculous for us today.  This isn’t some story of resuscitation in the news where someone was clinically dead on the operating table and then miraculously comes to.  Jesus suffered and died.  His body was beaten and broken, and they stuck a spear in his side and all his blood and fluid came out, and it lay there wasting away for two days.  Jesus was dead.  And then he came back to life.   Jesus overcame and was victorious over suffering and death.  God is certainly powerful enough to resurrect Jesus, and certainly is powerful enough to resurrect us too one day.

Yet, I think we still remain skeptical.  We spend so much time in this life avoiding the reality of death.  We exercise, eat right, avoid putting certain chemicals into our body or breathing them, and take medicine and undergo procedures that will in theory keep us alive as long as possible.  Or, we try to cram as much “stuff” as we can into this life – you only get one life, is how the saying goes.  Yet, death and suffering still exist in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid and we’ll all face it someday.  I think whether consciously or subconsciously, we know that.  Death and suffering is a part of this life.  We see it in the news, and it comes near us as well.  That is true for me; this past week, for example.

One of my wrestlers, a great kid, and who’s looking forward to his senior season, learned his parents are separating and divorcing, and he’ll have to face that.

Countless friends and people I care about face illness and disease that bring with it the reality that they face death – their own mortality.

A friend of mine celebrates this Mother’s Day mourning her stillborn child of a couple month ago.

There are sons and daughters who mourn because they have no mother to celebrate and honor today.

And there are congregations facing uncertain futures in unfavorable circumstances.

It makes you wonder…..is there any hope found in trusting in the news of Jesus rising from the dead?  Is there any power in the notion that a man, who was God, rose from the dead?  What kind of victory did Jesus win for us exactly?

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, spent a portion of his life doing humanitarian work around the world after he left the Navy.  His travels took him to India, where he worked in one of Mother Theresa’s homes.  Now you probably know that Mother Theresa served the poor in India, but did you know that the beginning of her ministry, and a good part of it that still exists today, was running a home to help the poor die?  Greitens served in one of these homes, where the nuns who worked there would help the poorest of the poor die with dignity.  Patients were seriously physically ill, some severely mentally ill, and all coming from the streets and sewers of India.  The nuns cared for these people, tending to their illnesses, washing them, and feeding them, but also living with them – laughing, singing, doing chores in the home together, and praying together – as these poor faced their death, and eventually, dying with dignity. Greitens came across one little boy who could barely walk.  He had come in from the streets, crippled at birth and so malnourished he contracted an incurable disease. But every day he would greet Greitens by saying “namaste.” Fascinated with Greitens, he would follow him around the home, brightly exclaiming “namaste” over and over.  Saying “namaste” is a greeting in Hindu, much like our hello, but it translates to“The Spirit in me sees the Spirit in you.”  It is saying, “I see the divine in you.”

To see the divine in another, perhaps, is to see Jesus in another.  And to minister and care for others in the face of death so that they may die with dignity – it is a mystery, but perhaps that is the victory that’s won.  Jesus rose from the dead so that we might know that the divine exists in this life – God takes on human flesh.  God is with us in this life.  God is with us in death.  And Jesus overcame death so that we might know that death is not the defining end of human life, but rather, just another step in it.  Our lives are much bigger in the eyes of God, and the promise is we will one day be raised from the dead along with our loved ones and all people just as Jesus has been raised.  Death is not an end, and in this life we simply face it – with God, with each other – caring for each other, and living with each other.  Mother Theresa understood this in her lifetime….she had faith in the power that one day, God will raise us all just as God has done with Jesus.  A mystery indeed, but a victory won.  The victory is that we have been liberated from the clutches of death; we have been liberated from the fear and pain that death causes.  We have been liberated from death, so that we may life NOW.

So let us confess today and every day that Christ has risen from the dead.  Yet in saying these words, let us also confess the power in them: “Oh death, where is thy victory?  Oh death, where is thy sting?”  Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons & Preaching