Monday, June 26, 2017

Loving Hospitality

Psalm 23
“Loving Hospitality”
25 June 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

            As I was preparing for this sermon I discovered something interesting. In my seven years as a chaplain I have never used the 23rd Psalm as the Scripture for my sermon. Perhaps the best known passage from the Bible and I haven’t ventured to journey through it with my flock.

            I had to ask myself if I was unsure of the path ahead. Perhaps I was unsure of what lay ahead on that journey. I do know that engaging well known passages can be a valley of shadows for a pastor. It’s already well known so what more can be said?

We convince ourselves that we already know what it means. So when we come to the 23rd Psalm we recite it from memory smile that we’ve still got that old time Bible memory training fixed in our brains and move on. Because we are all so familiar with the story we don’t stop to soak in the beauty of such a powerful poem.

As I spent time trying to figure out why I’ve never preached on this sermon, I looked back over all of my previous orations on Scripture. Much like this passage, it was a great trip down memory lane. I was amazed that I still remember the circumstances and location of my previous sermons over the years.

I was able to draw vibrant images of where I preached those sermons seeing the faces of not only the military members in my audience, but people from different countries who just happened to drop in for whatever reason, and warm congregations that asked me to guest preach so their pastor could take a holiday or because they were temporarily without a pastor (some of them asked me to stay and apply for the job).

What struck me was the warmth and graciousness of each congregation to which I had the honor of preaching. Places that let me expand mine and their theology, sometimes gently correcting some crazy path I felt God leading us towards. Much like the Psalmist today, I knew that God was there with us, leading us and keeping us not on a straight and easy path, but rather on a path of God’s choosing that was challenging, yet safe. At times dark, scary and unknown, but bathed in the light of God’s enduring love and comfort.

A path full of love with God guiding our way.

What is this love of God we hear about today? Originally, the word used is hesed, which translates into a covenantal type of love, maybe best described as loving-kindness. It’s a deep, loyal love where we are sought regardless of who we are. God sees something special in each of us and seeks us out, guiding and providing for us along the way. It’s the love we strive to seek in our lives each and every day. It’s God’s love for each of us.

            This love, similar to the love we seek with our spouse, sneaks up on us because you don’t realize the depth and sincerity of hesed until you are a recipient of such loving-kindness. We can only get a Psalm such as this from someone who has experienced such loyal love.

            While there are many characteristics of this type of loyal love, let’s look at how a few of these traits are described in today’s passage.

            From the outset of this poem we hear of God described as the shepherd making God the caregiver of the flock. The shepherd looks after the flock to keep them together and lead them to places where they have the ability to thrive. Once the flock accepts and trusts the shepherd, they understand the freedom to live their lives fulfilling a purpose following the guidance of the one who leads them.

            While the knowledge and trust of the shepherd doesn’t eliminate fear entirely, it transforms the majority of fear into its opposite, love.

            We cannot overestimate the power of fear. There are many things in this world to which we may find fearful. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it is also a large wall in trusting anyone, especially God. Once we overcome the fear of God we begin to understand God and see God’s work in the world. From there we begin to glimpse the loyal love of God in our lives and the lives of those around us. We begin to know and trust God.

            With the proper knowledge of God, we learn and believe that God is there with us. Thus, we are endowed with the courage and boldness to defend the friendless, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and minister to the world about and with the loyal love we have received from God. We are able to live into the universal call of those who follow God and descend from Abraham to shine God’s blessing to the world through our actions.

            Psalm 23 is helpful in that it also provides an answer to the natural question of how do I bless the world? Through hospitality. In verse 5, the poem shifts from talking about God and the Psalmist begins to talk to God. He recognizes that God’s hospitality through table and shelter are ways that God has blessed the Psalmist. It is also the way in which we can bless the world.

            Occasionally, we have shared meals as a Christian community here in Sembawang. We gather with our catholic brothers and sisters over lunch. We share stories and laugh together as we break bread. We come together at a table without any ulterior motives. It is a table in a safe place in an ever changing and sometimes dangerous world. Tables bring people together. Sharing meals together is a bonding experience that crosses cultural lines in a way many other activities cannot accomplish.

            What if each of us here today sought to share a meal once a month with a stranger? Where you sat down at the table with people you’ve never met and shared a meal. What would you learn about them, yourself, and God’s love?

            When Lisa and I were in Japan a few weeks ago, we participated in a number of tours. One was a walking food tour, which honestly wasn’t all that good of a tour, where we sat at tables with different people from different countries. In the course of those table conversations we relaxed around each other and broke down barriers. By the end of the evening, we were receiving tips on places to visit and things to do on our next trip to Copenhagen.

            The next night we took a night photography tour through two areas of Tokyo. There were four of us participating in the tour and we all engaged in some small chit chat during the tour. As we were finishing up, the youngest member of the group suggested we all get together for dinner that evening. Three Americans and one Aussie dined together over many types of yakitori and got to know each other on a deeper level, breaking down barriers and learning from fellow travelers in life. Learning about how to give and receive hospitality.

            Like most poems, we can quickly read these familiar lines and take away a surface meaning, one that give us comfort that God is there with us no matter the situation in which we find ourselves. This is a valid and beautiful reading of the 23rd Psalm. However, like parables, poems have something deeper at their core.

            For the 23rd Psalm, the deep meaning is more than just God being there for us, it also reminds us of our call to lead those in the valley. We may not be able to lead them out of the valley, but the knowledge we are there with them is so important. Just as when we derive strength and comfort of knowing we are not alone in the darkness, so too shall we provide that to others. And we can do that through simple acts of hospitality in opening up our homes and tables. We have all been shown hospitality in our need, so let us look for ways to extend that hospitality to those in a similar need. Not only will we be living out the Psalm we will be fulfilling our call to the world.

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Worship Everywhere

Psalm 100
“Why Worship?”
18 June 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

When you hear the word worship, what comes into your mind? What words or images or events in you life?

I thought of songs, Scripture, prayer, sermons (some good, some bad and hopefully mine are more on the good and memorable scale than the bad), a church building, people, etc.

So, let’s start with a simple question: Why are we here? And I don’t mean the large metaphysical why but rather why are we here to worship? For many, that is a simple because mom or dad made me come. But why do our parents drag us to church (hopefully we’ll be a community where we don’t feel drug to worship)? And even that has a fairly simple answer, because in passage such as the one I just read God tells us to worship. And we always do what God says, right? So maybe the right question isn’t why do we worship, but what exactly is worship?

Psalm 100 provides a good example of what worship should look like as well as explaining why we come together as a community to praise God. We make a joyful noise of gladness through our singing and laughing together, especially when we are passing the peace. We spend time realizing we are all God’s people equal under God’s sight and all receiving an abundance of God’s ever flowing love and we have a chance as a community to give thanks for that love. We also experience the feeling and realization that God is God and we are not. For some of us that is the hardest part of worship.

Let’s look a little closer at Psalm 100 to help understand what all we are doing here today and why the church worships in the way it does. When we look at the Hebrew structure of Psalm 100 we see the use of 6 different imperatives (commands) describing worship: Shout, Come, Worship/Serve, Know, Praise/Give Thanks, and Bless. It’s nice to see at least one part of the Bible provide clear and easy to understand guidance on how to worship. Let’s look at each of these as to why we worship.

Shout! Worship excites us about our faith. We are to shout our faith from the mountaintops. We tell people when they ask, but use our lives as the reason they ask.

Come! We are called to worship as a group. We can have worshipful moments alone, but we need others to truly experience the power of worship. Matt. 18:20 “Wherever two are three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Coming together in Christ’s name draws him into the worship making the worship perfect. Community gives encouragement, prayer, support, role models and teachers. Coming together shows us we aren’t in this alone. God knows we can’t succeed in this new way of life alone. Plus, I bore myself after a while so I need others to keep worship from being boring.

Worship/Serve! Sitting at God’s feet in a room of other believers we learn we are God’s. God is God and we are not. By serving God we acknowledge there is a higher purpose to our being alive. If we focus on ourselves as the center of all things, we’ll never find that purpose.

Know! We worship in order to learn, and not just from the minister. Ministers don’t have all the answers. The Word of God is our teacher as it is read and interpreted through others. Again, a community is needed to learn and know of God. We ask quesions of each other, challenge each other and thus dig deeper into our faith and know more. Worship allows us to know a new story that the world won’t tell you. Knowing this story opens a new pattern of life that will seem at odd to the world because we know that we aren’t the focus of life.

Praise/Give Thanks! In worship we express our thanksgiving for leading a different and renewed life through the grace of God. Our prayers allow us to directly thank God in words. We learn to respond to God’s Word in more than words but through actions. Sometimes we are inspired to give financial resources as a means of praise for God’s impact on our life.

Bless! We are called to leave this place and bless the world as part of our worship. This command tells us to take our worship beyond the walls and that worship continues all week long. These services are a recharge so we can go and live into our original call given through Abraham. In Genesis 12 God says: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” We are blessed to go and be a blessing to the world. This means we have to take the worship into the world and worship everywhere.

When I first arrived I mentioned how we need to take inspiration from the New York based improvisational troupe, Improve Everywhere and look for ways to worship everywhere and that still holds true two years later. We have done a great job in extending our worship beyond these walls, for this small time each week is but a training ground for the real work and worship of the church. Our true worship happens the other 167 hours of the week. What we are called to do is to live our lives in a way that we are always a source of worship.

Shout may look like one who is excited about life, living in such a way that people see the joy in everything you do. Come could be that you are always looking for new ways to be a community or that you are exploring ways to deepen your commitment to a particular community such as this wonderful group of people, or even your office mates. We are relational and need others to fully thrive, so we should go out and embrace that facet of our lives.

Serving takes on many forms. We could seek out opportunities where we can give to Singapore in partnership with other churches as well as through how we spend our contributions towards mission locally in Singapore as well as around the globe.

Knowing plays itself out in reading the Word outside of worship or group Bible study. Those are important, but we need to study on our own as well as read a variety of things where we see God at work. Even fiction has God in there as the Bible has inspired and is a part of so many works of fiction throughout the ages.

Praising and giving thanks can be exemplified though just trying to find the best in others. The time we spend in voicing our prayer requests and thanksgiving in the life of this community is a model for us to follow as we give thanks and praise in our lives outside these walls. Let us always live a life full of prayer and thanksgiving in the fact that we serve an awesome God.

Through all of the imperatives we hear in Psalm 100, we are given a model of how to be a blessing to the world. We can operate in a way that the tribulations of the world, while significant and burdensome don’t win. Christ has already won and we are the instruments to spread that blessing to the world.

This is how we become members of the gospel troupe Worship Everywhere. Let us take the lessons of Psalm 100 out into the world so that everyone sees our worship not in our words but in our actions, in our demeanor, in our being.

When we do this and take worship into the world, there is a good chance that something amazing will happen. We will become people who see God’s blessing all around us, we’ll see God’s hand at work in all of creation. Because we are worshipping everywhere we’ll see God everywhere.

Let’s not confine our worship to this chapel. Worship is more than music, or prayers, or silence, or reading the Bible. Worship should be the core of our living. So, as you go about the week and see something that you find sacred and worshipful, take a photo and send it to someone in the congregation.

Let’s again try to use #worshipeverywhere and we’ll incorporate those into our worship experiences.

If comedy can work everywhere, we can take our liturgy, our basic structure for telling the greatest story ever and apply it anytime and anywhere we gather together for worship. When we let the liturgy of worship guide the entirety of our lives, then we truly are a community that worships everywhere, because God is everywhere.

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

What A Birthday

Acts 2:1-4, Galatians 4:1-7
“What a Birthday”
04 June 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

Happy Birthday! Did you even know that today was the church’s birthday?

What would be your dream birthday party? Would it be extravagant? Would it involve a trip to an exotic location? If I could have a dream birthday, what we read today would come pretty close. Not having my party in a church and scaring everyone with the rattling of the Holy Spirit.

Rather, a party full of all my friends I have met over the years who all come from different backgrounds, and something they will remember for the rest of their lives. A place where I could thank all of those who have impacted my life. Where stories would be told and people I think would enjoy each other’s company finally get to meet.

Just imagine the scene in today’s passage. All the believers in one place. Is there anywhere today that could hold every Christian? Everyone speaks different languages and looks slightly different. Different theological interpretations. Probably a bunch of bickering and arguing. Different cultures so I’m sure they are offending each other. But, there is enjoyment in the opportunity to learn from others. Some are in awe of the sight of so many people and are soaking it all in. I’m sure there are quite a few that aren’t even paying much attention to what is going on, they only here to say they were part of such an event. Just your typical gathering of differing people today.

Then, a lot of noise and wind shake the house. Much like the crazy thunderstorms we frequently experience. I’m sure it felt and sounded as if a nearby house got hit by lightning, getting everyone’s attention as happens here in Singapore. As if that wasn’t enough to grab our attention, tongues of fire are leaping around and splitting all over the place. Those who didn’t run out were either frozen in place or understood what was going on. The Holy Spirit had finally arrived, just like Jesus promised.

To top it off, everyone understood all the different languages that were spoken as if they were hearing their native tongue. Makes me think, when I see all the bickering in the church and the inability of us to communicate basics to each other, have we lost the Holy Spirit in church today? We don’t seem to speak the same language anymore.

What’s so amazing is that this event didn’t divide the church, it drew people in. Despite the multiple languages, the different interpretations, people gathered in and became closer to God and each other. In large numbers. People ran to see what was going on.

Now, not everyone understood what was happening and assumed the Christians were drunk. Jews who were there from many other lands came to see what was going on and were amazed that people were speaking in their languages. So not only did the church see and experience this event, the world did.

Peter goes on to preach a great sermon, letting the words of Joel speak to the crowd. Even your sons and daughters will prophesy. He knows the Jews understand and have the Scriptures memorized. He is working to get them to understand what is going on in front of them. He is evangelizing with the simple message to call on Jesus and be saved. We tend to make Peter’s first message on the day the church was born more complicated than Peter said. We’ll tell people his message and then add a big BUT. But do this, don’t do that and the list goes on and on.

Are there churches were people run to see what is going on around us anymore? I’m not so sure about the ones in the US, but in Africa and Latin/South America this scene plays out each day. What is special about them and what message do they tell their people? Those areas have the most growth in Christianity right now.

We complain about having to drive more than a few miles to find a good church. They walk for days to hear God’s word. What is the difference between us and them?

We are comfortable and don’t live in much danger. Those of us in the Western world tend to preach and seek an easy Gospel. Over 70 years ago a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered this pull of Christians, especially those in modernized cultures, to seek what he termed “cheap grace” instead of the “costly grace” that we see depicted in the life of Christ and what we can witness a short plane ride away from Singapore.

“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore a living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and by burden is light.”

When we look at many churches in the global south, their message is one of costly grace. The hope there is something out there greater than the situation in which they find themselves. That whatever is occurring in their lives, or the hopeless situation in which they is not the purpose of their lives. They have faith that God is big enough to take care of their problems on God’s timeline. Costly grace. Grace that comes at a cost.

And that’s what people need and want in their lives. Grace that has power and worth. Cheap grace isn’t worth anything so why seek it out. Costly grace costs everything so it is priceless and cherished.

            What is more in line with the story of the Bible and the life of Christ? Tough grace or cheap grace. I, and Bonhoeffer, would submit that tough grace is the grace offered by Christ.

We can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. This passage highlights that diversity and Paul continues the theme in Galatians. Paul writes about how we are all heirs to the kingdom. Now that the Spirit has arrived, our inheritance is here and we are to go out and live and bless the world with that inheritance.

The early church did a great job living into that inheritance and blessing the world. Over the centuries, the church has continued that tradition of blessing the world through their work, inspired by the Holy Spirit. We have started some of the greatest institutions of education in the world, founded hospitals where anyone could receive care for free, sent missionaries out around the globe to spread the Gospel through their actions and love of cultures not their own, sat with people suffering from horrible infectious diseases at great risk to one’s own health and life.

Our inheritance into the family of God is complete, but we have to live into that inheritance. Our family tree is full of good deeds welcoming others without regard to their context, culture, or situation. Grace is costly and truly grace when it is freely given without regard to the cost borne by the giver. We are called to be givers of costly grace for that is what truly blesses the world.

I’m not one to say we need to go back and reclaim the ancient church to be authentic. Their context is much different than ours today. But we can learn from them what an amazing thing the church is when it is alive and on fire with the Holy Spirit. What a birth for an institution as the church. God wouldn’t have had it any other way. Let your life come alive and be reborn in the Holy Spirit so people run to see and experience the blessing we are to the world. That’s the continuing birthday party that God designed for us and in which God wants to participate with us every single day.

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