Sunday, October 29, 2017

Always Reforming

1 Kings 8:1-13
“Always Reforming”
29 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

As legend has it, 500 years ago on Tuesday a 33 year old Catholic priest 10 days shy of his 34th birthday reached his frustration point with many issues surrounding the Catholic church at that time. He knew the way to get the church’s attention was to publicly publish his grievances on the one day he knew would be widely attended, November 1st also known as All Saints Day.

Martin Luther’s most significant argument against the church was his belief that we received salvation and are declared righteous through God’s grace alone. There was no need for mediation through anyone else to lead to our grace. Martin Luther sought not to break away from the church but to reform the thought of the church through scholarly objection to the church’s practices, to refocus attention to Christ rather than the institution or the rules that humans could devise to put God in a box.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

David wanted to be the one to build a permanent home for God in Israel but God wasn’t yet ready to reside in a permanent home. God didn’t want David to undertake building God’s house on earth and told David that his son, Solomon, would be the one to build the temple.

Solomon finally gets around to building God’s temple after he had consolidated his rule and power. It is interesting that the temple took seven years to complete while Solomon’s palace took 13 years. This discrepancy speaks volumes as to Solomon’s priorities in life.

Once the temple is completed, we know that God approves because God’s presence “filled the house of the LORD so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.” God would no longer be seen by other cultures as a temporary deity residing in a mobile tent, the tabernacle. God was now residing in a magnificent permanent home. Israel was settled and permanent. The world knew Israel was here to stay. Regardless of his other accomplishments and failings, Solomon changed the nature of how Israel worshiped God for generations.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

If we look back at the worship patterns and the theology of our home faith groups, we too would see changes. Some subtle, some drastic. The way in which we view baptism and communion. Ordination of women. Inclusion of various faith groups. Churches that condoned slavery alongside congregations that opposed slavery and worked towards it’s abolishment.

Congregations that are focused on smallness, splitting the congregation when a certain number is reached to go and plant other congregations expanding their reach in that way. Other churches seeking to gather as many into one location as possible, what is known as the megachurch movement. Sometimes churches will change their approach and theology gradually or seemingly overnight depending on a change in leadership or significant event in the life of the church. Our worship patterns and theology are always changing, developing nuance, becoming more robust. Hopefully always moving towards the grace and love we see in Christ.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

Today, on this Reformation Sunday, we too at St. Andrew’s are experiencing a change. Those of us who are associated with the military are accustomed to change for we move around frequently, and those around us are constantly moving as well. Your new chaplain is here and ready to come alongside each of you in your faith journeys. I step away to make room for change that is needed. Not that I or anyone are doing things wrong, but rather to let a new vision, a new way of reflecting and thinking on Scripture come into your lives.

Steve will challenge you in different ways than I can. His theology will differ, and you will be better for that difference. Your theology will expand. Your faith will strengthen. Perhaps he will connect with you in ways that you didn’t realize were needed. It will be different, it will be familiar, it will be God at work through Steve and each of you. This congregation will re-form into the body that God intends for you with Steve guiding your spiritual growth.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

I want to take a few moments to describe what I have seen in each of you so that you know from where you are starting on your journey with Steve. You strive to be a welcoming community with love in your hearts for all people. We fail at that on occasion, but those failures don’t keep you from picking yourself up and trying again and again.

You get along with our Catholic neighbors and genuinely like sharing meals with them throughout the year. You support a thriving youth group that includes not only the students from this congregation, but also those who never darken the door of a church on Sunday morning. It is a ministry focused on loving people where they are, providing a safe place for students to work through their own challenges together, regardless of their individual beliefs.

Over the last two years, together with the Catholic community you have provided over $43,000 to charities here in Singapore and around the world. You have embraced new ways to participate in mission to the community such as through Souper Bowl of Caring. You have welcomed local Singaporean pastors to the pulpit, hearing a new way to read and interpret Scripture.

All of these highlights were changes that you embarked upon over the last two years. Changes made by stepping out in faith that God would work through you in those changes.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

Change isn’t always easy. Sometimes it has unintended consequences. However, as the world changes, we will have to change the methods in which we express the central message of our faith: God loves everyone and God is seeking us out, speaking to us through each other. Our relationships with God and each other matter because each of us matters a great deal to God. That message is timeless and will never change. How we hear and spread that message is what changes over time. The church, or God’s messenger in the world, needs to continually change or re-form itself to be the best bearer of God’s love and grace to the world. A changing church isn’t something to be scared of or resist, it’s something we’ve been doing for centuries.

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformada. The church reformed, always reforming.

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Greatness In Brokenness

1 Samuel 16:1-13
“Greatness in Brokenness”
22 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

(Show my photo)

Think back to your elementary or primary school days.

Would you pick that kid as the first choice on your sports team? Second? Or would you pick him last as often happens?

The awkward looking boy in that photo who was rarely picked first in his younger years stands here before you today.

Anyone else have memories of being the one person who is excluded from playing the game because of a perceived lack of ability? Or the way they look, the way they talk, where they are from, how much money they or their family make?

Suffering from exclusion, being the last one chosen, or the one someone has to choose due to pity is painful.

If only that were a thing of childhood, something we can grow out of as we mature and become more refined and nuanced in our ethics and behavior. Sometimes it feels like those moments in our childhood were paradise compared to the subtle, yet more brutal, way in which exclusion plays out as we get older. If those of us who have experienced such exclusion were to first remember the painful feeling of being left out when faced with a choice of leaving someone for last, perhaps then we wouldn’t perpetuate that pain over and over in life.

When this happens in a church setting, the pain and the aftermath can be doubly devastating. This is the place where all are welcomed by God and Christ. A place where all are equal and chosen first together without regard to how society defines us, but rather by how God sees us and defines us. People who are excluded by the church, or those whom we gossip about, those whom we put on airs of superiority towards, experience deep wounds and pain that we may never see because they don’t dare darken the doors of our community again. And yes, it even happens here in our idyllic St. Andrew’s Chapel.

(Play Video)

Those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in America know of Michael Jordan’s greatness in basketball. As much as this Duke grad would like to deny it, if we were teenagers in America during his playing years we all wanted to “Be Like Mike.” He is widely considered the GOAT, the greatest of all time, in the sport of men’s basketball.

But, did you know that when Michael Jordan was a sophomore in high school (which was his first year of high school) he didn’t make the varsity team? Like most high school athletes, he had to wait until his junior year to play varsity basketball. Who knows, maybe not making varsity was what spurred him on to dedicate extra practice and time towards basketball and that rejection was the leading reason for his becoming how we remember His Airness.

There is something else that we need to know about Michael Jordan. He, like each one of us here today, was full of brokenness. We are all flawed individuals. That is a hard truth to admit, and when we get to choose the players on our teams we tend to look at only one aspect of the persons we choose leading us to ignore brokenness of character, of which we all have.

Today we read about the anointing of the greatest king in Israel. David is remembered fondly for his accomplishments, mostly for being a man after God’s own heart. Yet, he was the last thought of his father when Samuel came to town looking to find the new king. David’s father, Jesse, seems totally at a lost that his youngest son even existed. When told to gather all of his sons, Jesse leaves David out in the fields with the sheep. Then when asked if there was another son, Jesse replies, “Oh my youngest, but he’s busy right now.” He doesn’t matter.

Oh, how David mattered.  

Israel’s greatest king chosen from an unlikely place as the unlikely youngest of 8 sons, far removed from the standard greatness of the oldest son in a family. But isn’t that the way we have come to see God operate in the world, through unexpected means and people. Drawing out the greatness that lives inside brokenness.

Did Samuel see the brokenness inside David when he anointed him as the future king of Israel? I highly doubt that because even after seeing God reject multiple prospects that fit the earthly outward model of a king, Samuel still noted the appearance of David describing him as handsome with beautiful eyes.

Did God see the brokenness in David? Did God see the traits that would lead to David’s downfall? Did God see a future king that would have an affair and then send an honorable man to his death to cover up his sins? I have to believe God saw all of that, because God sees our inner self including all of our faults and problems. And yet, God still chose David. God still chooses us. God still remains committed to humanity.

When we encounter a broken vase, glass, plate, television, or whatever other broken object crosses our path what is our first reaction? Not God. God sees all of our brokenness. God sees the shattered clay, the broken TV remote, the iPhone with the cracked screen, the pain and even our future stumbles and says I can work with this. I can shape those pieces into a beautiful mosaic in which everyone will know I was here.

Only through God does our brokenness transform into greatness and beauty. It can be through God’s inspiration in our lives, God speaking through another to help us recover from our brokenness, someone leading us to healing in unexpected and different ways. God sees and is with us in our brokenness because only there with us can God lead us from the brokenness to greatness.

(Play Beautiful Things Video)

We are broken. God knows that. God doesn’t pick us last because of real or perceived brokenness or oddness. God uses that. God takes the dust of our lives and makes beautiful pottery. Yes, it will crack and occasionally need repairs. God knew that when God chose us. God continually chooses us and uses us to show God’s greatness through the broken vessels that surround us each and every day. That’s the Gospel truth. We are all valuable, awkwardness and all.

Let us go from here living lives that do more than recognize the brokenness in ourselves and others. Let us be the people who, like God seek out the brokenness in ourselves and others and work to transform it into greatness and beauty that changes the world.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hearing God

1 Samuel 3:1-21
“Hearing God”
15 October 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel

Has anyone heard God speak directly to them? While it hasn’t happened to your beloved chaplain, he is fully aware that sometimes people do hear God speak directly and distinctly to them. I do know that if God were to speak to me I probably would not believe that I was hearing God, that the voice was the one in my mind or that I overheard someone’s nearby conversation.

Because someone hasn’t heard from God doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy or loved by God. Much like the beginning of this passage, God isn’t appearing to us in overt and obvious ways. Again, this doesn’t mean that God has left us to fend for ourselves all alone without communication or guidance. Just that God is working in our world through different means.

I’m also not so sure how God appearing in the sky or simultaneously on every mobile device on earth would be received. There would probably be a mix of fear that the end was near, that it was the greatest hoax ever devised, that an alien race was near and poised to destroy the earth, name whatever your fantasy scenario.

We have become people who expect and demand proof, so when we don’t see God face to face we can doubt the possibility of God in the world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for you need faith to doubt. Faith leads to questions that introduce doubt, doubt leads to exploring and strengthening faith. The cycle continues.

God seems distant in the world. The religious establishment is battered and bruised through scandals of all kinds, especially those dealing with sex, money, and substances. People’s trust and high view of religion and those who practice religions are on the decline. Religion is viewed as a hindrance to society rather than a help. Those who are religious begin to quietly ponder if God has abandoned us because of what is going on in the world.

Sound familiar? That is exactly what was going on in Israel during the time of Samuel’s call to the priesthood.

Sometimes, modern culture tends to think that our situation and the state of the world is a new development that has never been experienced in history. Today’s passage demonstrates that history does have a tendency to repeat itself.

Eli was an ageing priest whose sons had completely defamed the name of Eli and the priestly office he held. So much so that God has already told Eli he would be the last priest from his family. Israel was asking for a king, yet again so they could be like their neighbors and have a better standing in the world. The religious judges and priests hadn’t worked, in fact they were getting in the way of Israel becoming the power it was destined to become. People were unsure of God’s power in the world because God wasn’t physically there in a column of smoke or fire anymore.

Just like with Israel, God is still very much present and at work in the world today, just in a different way.

 It’s of note that Samuel’s call is different than the call of Moses and most other call stories we will hear in Scripture. In this case, Samuel does hear God clearly speaking to him, yet he is still young enough in the faith that he doesn’t full understand or recognize what is happening. He didn’t even know enough to ask the right questions. He just assumed that Samuel was calling for him. At least Samuel knew enough to go and ask Eli if he called.

Samuel’s call is also one to speak a word not against Israel, but against one individual, Eli. God tells Samuel that Eli’s days as a priest are over and that Samuel is the next priest for Israel. He will now be God’s voice and representative to God’s people. Samuel was reluctant at first, but did tell Eli. In a bit of shock, Eli took the news in a good spirit and honored both God and Samuel by continuing to teach and mentor Samuel towards his priestly office.

This passage beautifully demonstrates how intergenerational ministry should occur in the world. The youth and open ears of Samuel provided a conduit for God to do some amazing work in the world and to introduce something that would make everyone’s ears tingle. The elder Eli listened to what Samuel was hearing and through his wisdom knew it was God speaking and working in the world and Eli gave Samuel the time and mentorship to help God work in the world through Samuel.

God speaks in a variety of ways so we need a variety of mentors and experienced brothers and sisters in Christ to help us discern God’s voice in the cacophony of noise that surrounds us each day. Those of the older and wiser persuasion need to listen for God’s call on the younger believers through their actions and words. Conversely, the younger members need to take their ideas and inspiration to those who’ve been around a while to hear their suggestions and ways to enact God’s work in the world, because those with experience will help us avoid the pitfalls and frustration endured by many before us.

Along with the dual nature of intergenerational ministry spurring our ideas to completion, let’s also look at the interesting turn of phrase used in this passage, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

What a powerful way to let the world know something amazing is about to occur. If someone were to tell you today that they had something that would make your ears tingle, what kind of news would you expect? Perhaps it would be juicy gossip. Maybe there is some bad news on the way for which they want to prepare you. Much like the character Saru in the new Star Trek Discovery series, where his body physically reacts to fearful situations, in our world today we tend to assume that when our ears tingle it signifies something bad is on the way.

There is nothing bad with ears that tingle in fear. In fact, that is a great defense mechanism that can save us from much trouble and harm. However, we cannot ever let fear be the only way in which our body reacts, or our ears tingle, to upcoming events and news. We also need to allow our ears to tingle with hope that good news is coming.

Hope in the world and people is a diminishing art and skill in the world. Not every situation or every action is something to fear and cause stress. Granted, there are plenty of situations where fear is warranted. I’m not saying that we should ignore the tingle of fear, rather that we should allow our souls to recognize both fear and hope in the world around us and act out of a healthy balance between the two.

I must make a confession to you all. I am one who tends to assume any tingle of my ears is one due to hope while ignoring the dangers of the world or the actions of others. If you doubt me self-assessment, feel free to ask my lovely wife and she will regale you with tales of my leaning too far towards a posture of hope. So, I need to work on not subduing my fear response as much as I do. I think we all need to get to a healthy balance. Not exactly 50-50 but maybe 70% hope and 30% fear.

This takes us back to the need to do what Samuel did in this passage. He was listening with both ears and wasn’t sure so took his concern to someone with more experience for advice and guidance. Something I know I could do more often in my own life. Even when God told him something that was fearful for Samuel in having to speak against his mentor, Eli gave him the strength and courage to do what God had instructed. Eli gave him the safe space he needed to be the priest God had intended.

As a church we are called to be that safe space where people can discern the right balance of fear and hope. A place where we can help others navigate the rapids of life with experienced guides. A place where our fears and hopes can be laid bare so that we can go forward with confidence and trust not just in each other but in God. Then we will know that even when the word of the Lord is rare, God is still speaking.

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