Archive for October 2014

Senior Sermon

October 16, 2014

This is the text for my senior sermon. I delivered this sermon in Montgomery Chapel on May 2, 2014 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. If you’re interested in seeing the whole service, which I planned myself, you can see that here: 

John 20:18-31

            I don’t know whether “Doubting” is justified. Whether or not it is, I empathize with Thomas. First, think of the disciples’ situation. Their lives are a mess right before the resurrection. They weren’t expecting a resurrection. This ain’t your Lazarus story. Jesus is dead. Jesus is the one in the tomb. What’s Jesus supposed to do? “Jesus! Come out!” said Dead Jesus.

I don’t think Thomas honestly was, “I do not believe.” Perhaps it was more of a, “Dude. What?” moment. It was probably more shock. He wasn’t in the room. But can you imagine coming back into that room? Walk through the door, and all of your friends just start shouting, “OMIGODYOUWONTBELIEVEITJESUSISBACK!” And they’re being earnest. That’s a bit shocking. What would our reaction be?

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think it’s fair to say we doubt the resurrection right now. It’s not an easy thing to believe. And our cereal-box theology that we give to people in the pews doesn’t help. We make it too easy on ourselves. It reminds me of a Honey Nut Cheerios box with a maze on the back. “Here’s the maze,” we say. “If you can make it through, you get to the prize!” Once you finish the maze, then you end up in a good place. Don’t do anything too scary. Be a moral person. Whether or not you engage the world, there’s a prize at the end. Once you get to the end, there’s heaven.

A maze on the back of a cereal box was fun for kids. But now, that maze has become dull. A simple game of twists and turns, it no longer amuses. Avoiding problems and obstacles does not inspire. When we grow up avoiding problems, we freak out when we find an unavoidable one.

I think that’s the inspiration of Thomas’s so called, “doubt.” He’s freaking out. That’s what I’ve been doing while confronting this idea of resurrection. I have been freaking out. I have spent sleepless nights worrying. What is resurrection? What does comes next? Why was the tomb empty?

In the summer of 2007, I was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. I got a call from my buddy, Ezra. Ezra asked me to come out to a camp in Western Ukraine. My permanent site was in the Southern part of the country, in the Khersonska Oblast’. Ukraine isn’t much bigger than Texas, geographically. But, it still took me almost two days by train to get out to where I was going.

This camp that I attended was called “Happy Camp.” It sounds silly, I know. But it was a camp aimed at promoting diversity and open-mindedness in Ukraine. Ukraine has a serious problem with racism. And I’m not talking about subtle stuff either. I’m talking about Persons of Color being beaten in the streets. It’s been a long-standing problem. The developers of this camp were hoping to make a small dent in that problem.

While at this camp, I had the opportunity to meet several of the people living in the nearby town. One of these people’s names was Сергей Дідич. He had a fairly large family. At least one son, a couple of daughters, his wife, and his mother all lived in the house. The Didich family is an amazing group of hosts. They invited us into their home the first night we were at camp because there was a torrential downpour. It was so bad we couldn’t set up one tent, much less sleep outside.

Сергей’s house was a stereotypical Ukrainian home. I don’t want to sound stereotypical, but every home I was in in that country had very similar decorations. They love Oriental rugs over there. You know those big red ones with the design around the border with a circle or oval in the middle? Yeah. Those ones. Ukrainians love to hang those on the wall.

The carpets on the floor are thin. There’s usually little padding in between the carpet and the hard concrete underneath. The дивани, or couches, are often hard as a rock. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to sit on the floral couch in Trinity House without the pillow behind you, then you know what it’s like to lean back on a Ukrainian диван. You’ll hurt your back.

Outside was just as stereotypical. There were rabbits and chickens and slightly feral cats and guard dogs. They had a garden where they grew vegetables. Chicken wire fences with wooden frames portioned off each section of the yard. But you know the Didich family did OK, because they also had a horse.

This house has been around since before World War II. The бабушка, grandmother, of the family told us how she remembered riding away from town on a horse-drawn cart with German shells hitting the ground around her.

The Didich home was a stereotypical Ukrainian home. There wasn’t a lot of space. They still welcomed all 20 or so of us in. They welcomed a Kenyan, Crimean Tatar, 5 or 6 Americans, and Ukrainians from throughout the country. They fed us. They gave us a warm, dry place to sleep. They stayed up and played games with us. They taught us songs and dances. They made their home our home for that night and the whole week.

When the protests in Kyiv started, it really was about the difference between the European Union and Russia. But that swiftly changed. The Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, used force to try to stifle those initial protests. Police raided the camp in the middle of the night. They beat the protestors and burned their tents. This sparked national outrage.

Yanukovich was already known to be a criminal. He had long associations with the Russian and Ukrainian mobs. He had already been to prison once for those associations. The Ukrainian people knew of his sordid past. The powder keg was already in place. The use of force was the spark that lit the fuse. When the riot police attacked that camp at night, it was too much to ignore. The people already knew the government was corrupt. But attacking a peaceful protest? That was too much.

This is when we saw hundreds of thousands of protestors flock to Kyiv. This is when we saw Orthodox priests standing between riot police and protestors. This is the point when Сергей Дідич went to Kyiv. And it wasn’t bad enough that the police were aggressively attacking the protestors. When the protests got to their largest points, Yanukovich authorized deadly force against the protestors. He gave free reign to snipers. He told them to take care of the problem.

Bentley and I were standing outside in the courtyard area of PSR on February 18th. We were just chatting, as is the case before class. And casually, I checked Facebook on my iPhone. There was a message waiting for me from the organizer of Happy Camp. She had written to a bunch of us to let us know that Сергей had been killed by the police force. He was one of the first 9 protestors to die.

Here’s the thing – I hadn’t thought of Сергей in almost 7 years. I left Happy Camp and quickly lost touch with him and his family. They were a flash in the pan of my life. A very meaningful and bright flash, but a flash nonetheless. And now, he’s been shoved back into my life. His death underlined the immediacy of what was happening in the streets of Kyiv right at that moment. All of a sudden, my heart is being pierced. Two very different sections of my life have just fallen into place and apart at the same time.

I used to walk the streets of Kyiv with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. We’d go down to the underground mall in the Майдан Незалежності, Independence Square. We’d grab a beer and walk down the main street that was blocked off every weekend for pedestrian traffic. There would be street performers and painters and dancing competitions and a carnival-like atmosphere.

But when I got this message, the street was a war zone. The square was on fire. There were riot police and Molotov cocktails and gunfire. And there were bodies. There were over 100 of them in the streets. And Сергей Дідич’s body was one of them. His body was one of the ones shown on the news, lifeless and covered in a sheet.

I’ll never see Сергей again. He’s gone. He has left this world. There’s no reconcilation for that, either. As soon as a truce was struck, Yanukovich fled the country. He’s in Moscow, free from prosecution. There is little to no chance of reconciliation in this lifetime for Yanukovich’s victims.

The protestors did get what they wanted. They did oust the Yanukovich government. They raided his palace outside of Kyiv and found significant evidence of corruption. But, people are dead. People are dead and Yanukovich will likely never be held accountable. Сергей’s family will never get the peace they deserve.

And now I struggle with what resurrection means for Сергей and the other protestors that died. What does resurrection mean for us here and now? What did resurrection mean for Thomas? As disciples ourselves, what do we look for in resurrection?

And what if there’s no heaven? What if this is all we get? Where does resurrection play into that? Where is the glory that Marissa and Rachel sang about? The tomb is empty. Where does that lead us?

When we bring up these questions, the cereal box theology starts to crumble. Resurrection becomes something much more than that prize at the end. When we question what we’re doing with this idea, the cereal box becomes blank. We realize that the point is not avoiding the obstacles to get to the end. The point of resurrection is not to hope for something at the end. The point of resurrection is to live into the message that we were given. We remember what Сергей did. We remember what Jesus taught us. We remember. When I tell you Сергей’s story, he is resurrected.

A question remains for me in this text. Why wasn’t Thomas with the other disciples? We could think that he was just too scared. We could think that he couldn’t be around friends. We could think that he was just bummed and crying in his room. But I don’t want to think that.

I think that Thomas was already celebrating the resurrection. I want to think that Thomas was out and at work. I want to think that Thomas was heeding the words and actions of Christ. Thomas was helping a poor person. Thomas was taking care of a woman in need. Thomas was working. That’s why he doubted. He doubted the physical resurrection because he was already celebrating the resurrection. Thomas had already resurrected Christ for himself. Thomas was living into Christ. Thomas “doubted,” because the others weren’t already living the resurrection. Thomas was doing as Jesus did. Despite the authorities, Thomas was in action.

Thomas was the only one to say, “My Lord and my God!” He doubted the physical resurrection. But he didn’t doubt the message that had already been given to him. He knew what was up. He was out there getting after it. Just like we should be doing.

Friends, live into resurrection. Live into the world. Heaven can be real. Heaven can be here. With resurrection, we can bring it into existance. With resurrection, we can make the Kingdom of God tangible. With resurrection, we can work on getting rid of the obstacles. God did not resurrect Christ to show us paradise after life. God resurrected Christ to show us life. God emptied the tomb so that we could know life here. God wants us to live into resurrection. God wants Heaven to be on Earth.

We experience resurrection in freedom.

We experience resurrection in liberation.

We experience resurrection in equality.

We experience resurrection in justice.

We experience resurrection when we live full lives.

I ask you not to focus on the end. Instead, focus on the obstacles. Use resurrection! Go out and GET resurrection! Make Heaven real for yourselves and everyone else.

Сергей is alive when we do these things. Jesus is alive when we do these things. WE are fully alive when we do these things.


PC (USA) – Generations

October 16, 2014

This is a sermon I co-preached with my dad at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church on March 30, 2014. This is my portion of the text, with my dad mostly just helping me set it up. All of his parts are in italics.

The Scripture was John 6:27-40

… In what generation do you see yourself fitting?

I fit into a borderline area when we talk about what generation I belong to. I was born in 1982, which is a year that is in between the Gen Y and Millennial generations. The Gen Y group is thought to have ended right around 1980; and the Millennials are thought to start right around 1985. When I take online tests to see which one I fit into more, I find that I often identify as a Millennial, fitting in with their ideas about technology and social interaction. However, I find that I have more in common with the Gen Y group when we talk about my knowledge of the world and my desire to stay involved.

… But how does that jive with your generations?

The key demographic we have to remember for the generations I identify with is the non-affiliated persons, or the “nons.” These are the folks that belong to both of these generations that recent studies have found to be not affiliated with religious institutions. They often grew up in the church, but have since left it for one reason or another. The “nons,” studies have found, are the fastest growing way to identify oneself religiously in the USA at this time.

… Does this passage and what you read from John give us hope and direction for reconciliation between the different generations?

Yes, these passages do give me hope for reconciliation between the generations and multiple groups within. They give me hope by serving as inspiration as to how we should act in the world.

The key to understanding the non-affiliated members of Gen Y and Millennials is that they often times grew up in church, so they’ve probably heard this verse before. Or they’ve probably heard the similar verse from John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” And these verses are problematic for the “nons” because they present the exclusivity that is present when they view the church. These are the verses, when the “nons” were looking for faith that pushed them away. It is far too often that these verses are viewed as an exclusive Jesus saying, “I’m the only way you get to heaven.” This pushes young people that are struggling with faith away from the church instead of drawing them into the pews.

If I were to start a conversation about religion with one of the “nons” from my generation, I don’t think I would start with this selection of the Bible that we read today. It’s not that this verse isn’t an important part of the Gospels or that I don’t necessarily believe it myself, but it is kind of off-putting to someone who doesn’t know what they believe. And that is the key with these “nons:” they don’t know what they believe. And because they don’t know what they believe this “off-putting” has become a two-way street. They approach the church and say, “I don’t know what to think about Christianity. Could you help me get it in a way that I understand?” And far too often, the reply from the church comes back as, “I don’t think this is the right place for you.”

Struggling with faith is not a bad thing. Lots of people constantly struggle with the meaning of life and belief systems. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it. I’m in seminary and I constantly see myself and people around me struggle with what it means to be a Christian and how we show our Christianity to the world. It’s not that we don’t believe in the Trinitarian God, but we constantly discuss amongst others and ourselves what that belief actually means. This doesn’t mean we’re on a track to being non-believers (different from non-affiliated, I should note); it just means that we have serious concerns about what our faith should mean to us and how that should be presented to the world.

The “nons” I keep on mentioning often are in a very similar position. Their struggle to find a belief system to guide their lives is the very thing that should be lifted up by religious institutions. A faith that has gained understanding through struggle is a faith that is less likely to turn away at the first sign of conflict. Struggle breeds character that can withstand the adversity of the real world. Struggle breeds strength that the church needs to grow stronger. This faith that has survived struggle will create a strong backbone for the church that won’t fade away into a broken community. The struggle that is existent with the “nons” is the kind of struggle that faith communities need and should embrace.

I was recently at my friend’s 31st birthday party. Throughout the course of the night, several different topics came up. Now, I should explain that a lot of the people that come to this person’s parties often identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. They were raised in the church, but for one reason or another, turned away. They are, by definition, the “nons.” One of these people engaged me with a series of questions about my faith and identity as a Christian when he found out I was attending seminary. The way he engaged me and the way the conversation immediately told me one thing: it’s not that he doesn’t have faith or doesn’t want to have faith, it’s just that the church and other religious organizations have turned him away over the years.

But it’s not that this person was a true atheist/agnostic as he claimed. Instead, he didn’t have a way to relate to religion, because his ideas of what to believe were not embraced by the institutions where religion is taught. As this conversation developed, I did my best H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and started using different terms for God in order to find out what exactly this guy believed. Over the course of the conversation, we both agreed that there is a Life Force in this world. And, more importantly, that Life Force is driving humanity towards a goal. We agreed that loving one another should be a primary objective of humanity. Likewise, we agreed that whatever this Life Force is, it is encouraging us to take care of the planet, because the planet was and is a gift from this Life Force. We agreed that there is something out there bigger than humanity that is moving things in a certain direction. He didn’t believe in God in the way that the church has taught it to him, which was in a strict, exclusive, and conservatively evangelical way. But, he did believe in the idea that humans were created for a purpose and that we’re all linked somehow and some way.

So where are we now? How would we use these verses from John in a real-life context? How would we appeal to one of these “nons” that is struggling with their faith using a verse that looks, on the surface, to be pretty exclusive? We, as Presbyterians are caught in the struggle of trying to grow our denomination in a world that only sees the mainline churches shrinking. We know there are people out there who are in search of a faith system and story, but we can’t seem to be able to relate to those people, despite our best efforts. How do we cross these gaps using the Gospel of John as we saw it today?

The easiest way to reconcile these differences, as I see it, would be to act as the Bread of Life in the world today. The way the younger generations see it, it’s really easy to stand where my dad and I are right now and tell people what to do or think. I can stand here and exegete Bible verses and find relative illustrations throughout culture until I’m blue in the face. I can stand up in a pulpit every Sunday and explain to the congregation in the pews that Jesus wants us to act a certain way, but to the younger generations, this style of church is not how the Spirit speaks to them.

Instead, if we’re to reconcile the differences between the growing gap of affiliated persons and non-affiliated persons in the world of religion, then we actually have to go out and be the Bread in the world! And the key to doing that effectively, if our goal is getting young people back and active in the church, is to be the example, without saying much. John Calvin, the theologian who started our branch of the Reformed faith, thought that going out into the world was a prime way to express gratitude to God for the grace that is bestowed upon us. Doing the good things in the world is, in itself, a form of prayer. No words are needed when you are going out to do these things in the name of God, as long as we keep close to our hearts why we are doing them. If we do them in the name of God, then that is enough to be a prayer. We need to go out and prove to the world that we want to act like Jesus, not just talk like Jesus! We need to act fully and faithfully in the name of the Holy Spirit! And all the while, we should go forth and:

Praise God! Praise God in the sanctuary and in heaven!

Praise God’s mighty deeds! Praise God’s surpassing greatness!

Praise God with trumpet sound! Praise God with lute and harp!

Praise God with tambourine and dance! Praise God with strings and            pipe!

Praise God with clanging cymbals! Praise God with loud crashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise God!