Sunday, February 19, 2017

Perceptions of Grace

Luke 7:36-50
“Perceptions of Grace”
19 February 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

            Growing up, if you asked me about how much leniency and grace was given to my younger brother I could regale you with tales of unfair treatment. He got later curfews. He was rarely if ever to blame in any argument or fight that we may have had with each other. Not only did I have a perception that he never was punished for his wrong actions, and I would tell you all the wrong things he did without punishment, it appeared to my young mind that he received far more grace than I would receive.

            I mean, why would this innocent face not get any leniency and grace in the face of parental judgement. Why would I always get the blame and the punishment whenever there was a split decision on whom was causing the frustration and trouble for our parents? In my mind, my little brother could evade the long arm of parental law with skill beyond my comprehension and well outside my understanding of justice and grace.

            Anyone else have a sibling to which they felt that way (or maybe you still do)? What about how you may feel regarding those in your workplace? Those you may see in the news and the acts for which they may or may not face justice?

            So, I’m not alone in my righteous indignation at how I can feel I’m getting the smallest slice in life’s pie of forgiveness and grace am I?

            It’s a weird quirk of human nature that we are always assuming that others are getting the good deal. Someone seems to receive a larger portion of the world’s finite good karma. And it always seems to us that the person receiving a large portion of grace, love, and forgiveness doesn’t deserve such a gift. Well, that isn’t just a modern problem. Nor is it a problem confined to Christianity.

            We see that not only is grace available for all but it is given freely because it is a renewable and unlimited resource. Grace is also given in proportion to the need. If I need a truckload of grace one day, Jesus is backing the dump truck into the loading bay. But, if I only need a small amount of grace the next day, Christ is giving me the spoonful of relief required. This story also shows us that the attention and care of God is available to us all regardless of how society, or we, view ourselves and others.

             The fact that everyone is eligible for unlimited grace and attention from God can be quite difficult to comprehend and digest. In our day to day lives, most of us long for and know we need the lavish grace offered this nameless woman. Yet, like Simon the Pharisee, we mentally judge the amount of grace others should receive.

            What Jesus says is logically sound. But we don’t usually like that logic. Maybe that is our free market training and upbringing speaking. Maybe it’s just our human sense of fairness that we should all be given gifts equally and evenly regardless of our circumstances and need so that we all have a level playing field. But is there really an even playing field in anything surrounding our lives.

            Everyone’s circumstances are different. Just look around at the stories in this room. We all came from different places growing up. Different circumstances, countries, and cultures. Some of us, like my younger brother needed a bit more grace from our parents. Some didn’t need much grace to make it through life. What is important is that Christ offers the grace we need.

            Sometimes we walk away from the grace offered us because we don’t think we need grace. And when we are of the mind we don’t need grace we don’t show much thanks when it is offered. Mostly because we can’t see just how beautiful a gift is being offered us. When we realize the precious, life-changing quality of the smallest amount of grace, we bend down and wash feet to acknowledge just how unworthy we are to receive such a priceless gift.

            We are at times both Simon and the woman. Occasionally we recognize grace and forgiveness not only for what it is, but also for how precious and priceless such a gift truly is. However, we more frequently don’t sense the value of grace and forgiveness because it comes quietly into our homes and we fail not just to honor and give thanks for its presence in our lives, we fail to acknowledge grace and forgiveness when it is standing right in front of us, its eyes sorrowfully looking into our soul for just a flicker of recognition.

            We should strive to be a church full of people like this woman; people who recognize even the smallest portion of grace and forgiveness as the life-giving and soul-altering gift it is. A congregation where we point out grace in the lives of others so that they don’t miss out on what is right before them. Our concern shouldn’t be so much on the fact that a sinner is in our midst, for we are all sinful, but rather that grace is there for the taking, as much as we need. And when grace is received we should celebrate and give thanks for what God has done not just in our lives but the lives of others.

            A congregation like that serves two purposes. First, we become more honest with our own walk and where we can improve. This will also allow us to encourage each other to seek out, recognize, and give thanks for the grace that we individually and collectively need and desire. It will prevent us from looking at the distribution of love and grace less like how I viewed the “unfair” benefits for my younger brother. We’ll more likely realize we receive the same amount of grace as everyone else, measured not by some scientific scale but a one unit measurement called needed grace that we all receive from Christ.

            Secondly, a congregation that treats grace and forgiveness as an unlimited resource freely given to all provides a place for the woman in this story to go. Christ tells her to go in peace, but to where? Jesus’ words and actions changed her soul, gave her back her confidence and life. But, it didn’t change her social circumstances, nor did it stop the whispers about how she became labeled a sinner.

            If we are truly a congregation that accepts grace and forgiveness for all, then we must first accept that we are all in the same situation as the brave woman in this story. We needed a large measure of grace, received it, and are now supposed to go in peace along a renewed and changed life. This gathering of people we participate in each week has to transcend the division society will try to impose.

God’s grace and love erases the line between the godly and the sinner because we realize those two words are one and the same. For this reason, the church must welcome everyone because this is the place for forgiven sinners. We are all both sinful and forgiven, at times needing more grace and forgiveness than we may care to admit. When we approach the world from a posture of acknowledging our own need for grace and forgiveness rather than looking at the sin of the other then we will truly become a hospital for sinners rather than a museum for saints. And that is a place where forgiven sinners like us not only want to go, but one in which we thrive and see the Kingdom of God at work. 

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Questions and Actions

Luke 7:18-35
“Questions and Actions”
12 February 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

            Because I am a military chaplain, I am repeatedly asked certain questions regarding my job. Without fail, one of the topics of those questions revolves around why do I enjoy the chaplaincy so much. It’s the same reason that I love working with youth and young adults; the bold confidence of young people and military members to ask questions of themselves, to include their faith.

            Maybe it’s because the job puts us in certain situations where faith is important that we are forced to ask those questions. Perhaps it’s a characteristic of youth and military families to question everything. Whatever the reason for the questioning attitude among the young and those in the military, it’s refreshing. And Biblical.

            When you think of John, what words come to mind? (And yes this is audience participation time). We call him John the Baptist, the one who baptized Christ. The one who lived out in the wilderness preaching the need for repentance and getting right with God because the Messiah was coming. We have images of the perfect messenger preaching the perfect message.

            But what words come to mind when we hear about the disciple named Thomas? Doubting Thomas. Couldn’t believe unless he physically saw Jesus risen and could touch the wounds.

            We mock and deride one questioner and revere the other. That makes no sense. Especially as they both are asking the same question of Christ, “Are you who you say you are? I need to know because I’ve staked my life and my reputation on you, but I’m not 100% sure. Help me in my disbelief. I’m all in, but…”

            Does this sound familiar and personal? I certainly hope so. I hope that each of us in this room question our faith and beliefs on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that your chaplain is encouraging a lack of faith. Quite the opposite. As your chaplain, I want you to strengthen your faith. By asking questions and exploring what we believe, we come to a stronger, more durable, more honest, and more translatable faith.

            This passage shows how faith and doubt go hand in hand. John followed God’s call to go and preach a message that was new and different yet full of radical hope. He attracted a fairly sizeable crowd. He was viewed by many as just another crazy cult leader. One day, during his normal baptismal routine, his cousin came up to get baptized. John knew his cousin was something special because his mother never stopped telling him what all the world had in store for Jesus.

            He baptized Jesus, and sure enough something amazing happened. Heaven broke loose and a booming voice from the heavens declared that Jesus was God’s beloved son. Even after experiencing this, John continued down the path God had set before him continuing to preach repentance and preparation for the Messiah, baptizing those who chose to believe his message.

            John’s followers heard and saw Jesus as they were travelling. They’d come back and tell John about the message Jesus was preaching that the prisoners were about to be broken out of jail, captives set free, the blind would have 20/20 vision. Everything was changing before their eyes.

            Then John gets arrested by Herod. And he starts to think about life. If Jesus is really serious about freeing the captives he could start with me. I’ve been faithfully preaching about him and bringing people into his club and circle of followers. The least he could do is set me free so I don’t rot in this horrible jail.

            One week during a visit from his friends, John tells them to go and ask Jesus if he really is the one John’s been pointing to all this time. John knows his time is getting short and is looking for some confirmation about his faith and maybe subtly asking for a prison break.

            Jesus receives the friends of his cousin. Listens to their existential questions and then answers in such a powerful way. “Look around at what you see. Look at what is happening here. Then go back and tell John what all you have seen. I am doing everything I’ve said I would. The blind see, lepers and the lame are healed. This is radical inclusion and grace.”

            That blows my mind. There isn’t an appeal to emotion or logic. There isn’t teaching on belief, no trying to prove himself through quoting Scripture or a creed. Jesus just says, look at what is happening. Look at what we’ve done. Seeing is believing, just not always what we want to see. John probably wanted to see the walls of his physical prison fall down before him. Unfortunately, that won’t happen for John.

What Christ did for John, and still does for us, is to open eyes to what is truly possible. What we do matters more than the specifics of our theology. When we work to release the captives, give the blind sight, free people from physical and emotional prisons we prove Christ’s teachings and life.

The world, and even the church, is full of people who ask hard questions of Christ and Christians. Society and the church tend to look down upon or relegate those who are questioning their beliefs by calling those individuals “seekers.” But, aren’t we all seeking? Even those of us who are cradle to grave Christians. Don’t we all have those moments where we ask Christ, “are you really who you say you are?” Or, “If only you could give me some sort of sign that I’m doing the right thing. Some way to know that you are there and at the helm of this raft hurtling down the rapids.”

We all seek answers regarding our faith because we all have questions. Sometimes we find the answers to those questions in books, through songs and prayer, sometimes through sermons that we hear. I would venture that most times we find the answers to our questions of faith through the actions of those to whom the question is directed. Actions speak volumes, sometimes so loudly that our words are but faint whispers.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t discuss our faith with each other to strengthen one another and build resilience in the face of an uncertain world. Rather, we should strive to make our words match our actions in proclaiming the Gospel to all people. So much so that we embody the words of St. Francis, “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

As in this interaction with John’s friends, how we treat others and the way in which we actually spread the good news rather than talking about our beliefs matters a great deal. Christ points to the lives changed through his Gospel rather than describing them. He tells John, and us, if this is what you think the Gospel is, then you have heard me correctly and I am the one whom you are seeking. Everyone is seeking Christ and those that have seen a glimpse of him should be the ones living out his teachings, pointing the world to the one whom we all seek and desire.

You can listen to sermons from St. Andrew's Military Chapel here.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

Miraculous Compassion

Luke 7:1-17
“Miraculous Compassion”
05 February 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

            Today we dedicate our entire offering to one organization helping numerous people in Singapore. Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen was founded in 2005 to provide meals throughout Singapore every day of the year including Christmas Day and Chinese New Year. In fact, Willing Hearts provides around 5,000 meals a day for the elderly, the disabled, children of single parent families, those in poverty, and migrant workers.

            Willing Hearts expanded into other areas of care for those living in Singapore. Not just content to provide a warm meal they provide dental care, Chinese medicine treatments, eye care, legal aid, bereavement services, and tuition assistance for primary school children.

            It is an honor to partner with such an organization here in Singapore. Not only does the chapel provide funding throughout the year through our mission giving and designated offerings such as today, service members and their families from across Singapore volunteer at Willing Hearts helping prepare meals for distribution. Their care and compassion for those in need runs deep, so much so that all the meals are halal to ensure all are able to receive the help they may need.

            Though it isn’t affiliated with any religious organization, Willing Hearts is full of compassion to everyone in Singapore. Sounds a bit like the story we just heard today where Jesus is filled with compassion to two unlikely recipients. 

            The centurion is a Gentile, a man of power and prestige in the Roman world, who has many benefactors and friends to approach Jesus regarding an ill slave. He understands what it is like to have wide authority over people while also being under the authority of someone or something greater than one’s self. In Nain, there is a widow who has lost everything because all of the males in her family have now died. Back in that day, she would no longer have a voice in the community and would have to rely on charity for any additional income and protection from the social rules and regulations of the day. The powerful and the powerless both receiving compassion from Christ.

            Jesus is a popular man with large crowds following him wherever he goes. In fact, Jesus is known for his healing and miracles more than his preaching. A large number of the people following him are tagging along to see another miracle or perhaps looking to receive a miracle of their own. Sometimes they get so annoying he has to sneak away for a moment to pray, just to get some peace and quiet to recharge and have just one moment to himself. I’m sure all parents can relate.

            But, what if the real miracle for these two families isn’t the healing? What if the real miracle is the compassion of Christ towards everyone, regardless of their position on the power or social scale, their tax bracket, their appearance, their gender, or whatever other means of dividing people we want to list?

            What does true compassion look like? Typically, we define compassion as caring for someone “less fortunate” than us. But, if that is how we define and view compassion we inject a power dynamic into the relationship where the one providing help is in a powerful position over the recipient. This removes dignity making it harder to show compassion to someone.

            Others may define compassion as the act of being charitable to others. Again, there is a power difference in that approach but something lurks behind compassion masked as charity; a lack of understanding. One model for aid organizations is to identify a solution and then provide said solution to those in need. Often this is done from afar to provide aid to people in countries around the world.

            Many of us have dealt with Project Handclasp. It is a great program within the Navy that has enormous potential to not only improve relationships, but to directly impact lives in a meaningful way in underserved communities just around the corner. Like any charity, when not done in a deliberate and compassionate manner, one can definitely do more harm than good. Those who have worked with the program can tell stories of schools for mentally challenged children receiving mouthwash that the students accepted as Gatorade. Or all male orphanages receiving female specific items in the box the US Navy delivered with great fanfare.

            Glen and I have heard these stories as well and plan out what items get sent to which location. Sometimes we have to go to the warehouse or intercept the goods on the pier so we can open them up and repackage the items to fit the receiving organization and their individual goals. We know what fits because we have sat with and listened to the recipients well before we deliver the items. We strive to make our charity truly compassionate.

            The only way to show true compassion is to sit with and get to know those who may need assistance. That is the true gift of compassion that we see in these stories. Christ didn’t just swoop in, offer healing and leave. He learned what was causing the suffering of the centurion and the mother, listened to what they were asking, and then met their need. He didn’t come with a solution to a problem. He learned the problem and then provided the solution.

            Knowing Jesus’ story and the divine power that he possessed, we know that healing wasn’t the true miracle. Healing was a result of the miracle of God physically sitting with those in their suffering. Learning on a deep level what caused worry and fear in those God loves. The miracle is someone coming alongside us in our suffering and stopping to talk with us, to hear us, to empathize with us, to be compassionate with us.

            Think back to the times in which you remember suffering in your own lives. If you are like me, the most vivid memories of that time, beside the myriad emotions that go with suffering, you have vivid memories not of the action or chain of events that led you out of the time of suffering, but rather the people that came alongside you when you needed them. Those people who sat with you, many of whom probably never said a word or did any one thing to solve the problem, are the ones to whom you can never say thank you enough. Because in that moment they were Christ, showing you compassion that is unfailing and miraculous.

            We can all be miracle workers. It doesn’t take a healing touch or some special gifting from the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to start a soup kitchen and feed 5,000 to bring a miracle to someone’s life. But, we can’t just give money in an offering plate or blindly deliver goods the Navy puts on our ships either. We are called to not let suffering go unnoticed. We are called to be like Christ in the face of suffering. To stop and listen, to be with those in their suffering, to hear what they need and long for, to acknowledge that pain, and then help them get relief, to show true compassion to all of humanity. That is the miracle of compassion and that is within each and every one of us.