Archive for December, 2013

2013 in review — Kind of fun

December 31, 2013 Leave a comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 40 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Sermon for Advent 2 Midweek

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Note:  As I mentioned last week, the sermons I’ve been using for midweek services in Advent have been only slightly adapted for my style from a series written by my one-time classmate and colleague, Chad Bird.  So I’ll only be posting the audio for them.  Just click the triangle in the embedded player below.


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Sermon for the Funeral of Marci Hoffman

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

December 10, 2013

Note:  The audio can be heard by clicking on the triangle in the embedded player below.

Ron, Dean, David, and Dan.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Ron, the Scriptures you chose for today are pure comfort from our Lord.eagles wings

+ Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;

+ they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

+ Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

+ Behold, I am with you always even unto the end of the age.

All of these readings have a common thread of the comforting presence of the Lord God in our midst.  They are but a few of the passages that brought Marci such great comfort during her battle with cancer and they are passages that bring us comfort today in the wake of such a jarringly painful week, a week where it seemed like the path through that dark valley had too many ups and downs.  First the terrible news that Marci had collapsed from a stroke.  But then a ray of hope in that she had recovered enough to keep telling my joke about the Roman that walked into a bar.  And more hope with a plan to come home to Cookeville for rehab and almost immediately the realization that she had gone home to be with the Lord.  Walking even wandering through that valley of shadows but never alone, all of you lifted up in prayer all over the country, all of you and Marci comforted by the presence of God walking with you leading you forward.  All of these readings have a common threat of the comforting presence of the Lord God in our midst, with us in grief, waiting with us, nothing able to take us away from Him, His abiding with us even to the end of the age.

These readings are comfort to us because they are the Word of our God who is not far away in heaven but truly present with us in the midst of life’s struggles and difficulties, in our weakness and in these moments when we face what would be impossible to face without Him.  But they are not just the comforting words of people collected through the ages.  They are the comforting words of our God, a God who knows our every human weakness and even knows the pain of death itself because He experienced all of it first hand in human flesh.

Marci was for many years a travel agent, just one of those jobs whose experiences we in the 21st century have collectively determined don’t meet the cut in the mad race to the lowest possible price.  Travel agents would often have first-hand knowledge of the destinations they would send potential clients to.  They had been there and slept on the beds and walked on the beaches.  They might well have known the managers who could help sort out any emergencies or handle special requests.  This is not entirely unlike our Lord Jesus Christ, who came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary that He might be born as a human man with flesh and blood susceptible to every human frailty just as we are, to know us first hand as we might be known.  But it works from the opposite direction too.  He came down from heaven so that we might have first-hand knowledge of God Himself, not in all His cosmic fury and wrath over sin and the rebellion of His creation against His will, but that we might know the imponderable depths of His great love for us.  If we want to know anything about God, we need only look to His Son, Jesus.  And while Marci may have had first-hand knowledge of many travel spots and companies, in the selection of these passages for today we have a report of her first-hand knowledge of God’s love He showed to Marci throughout her life.

Days of mourning are never easy but they are often harder this time of year.  However, in some ways the season of Advent and the lead up to the celebration of Christmas can be of particular comfort for us.  But if they are to be of any comfort Christmas cannot be about any vague notions of holiday cheer.  No, Christmas must clearly be about the eternal God, born into this world in human flesh to save us from sin and the power of death and to give us everlasting life.  You see, we were not meant to suffer weakness, cancer, or strokes.  We were not meant to suffer such grief as the pain of death and the death of our beloved wife, mother, and sister.  They are wrong when they say that death is part of the circle of life.  Adam and Eve were not created in the Garden for death but for life.  If Christmas is going to be any comfort for us then in our mourning, we must see it as the moment in the plan of God that He physically entered into our word to show His love toward us, toward us who had suffered the pain and terror of death for ages, and put an end to death itself.  Jesus is the living, breathing love of God, the incarnate comfort of God, all the fullness of God dwelling bodily with us in this valley of the shadow of death, and not merely holding our hand and crying with us but leading us out of it by dying to it.  Christians know that Jesus was born to die on the cross and put an end to the curse of death itself but He did not stay in the grave.  On the third day, He rose and led the way out of the grave into everlasting life for Marci and for all the saints of God who have fallen asleep believing in Him.  And so “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”  And so if Christmas is to be a source of comfort and not just a reminder of our loss, it cannot be just the “best time of the year,” but a time “Of the Father’s love begotten.”  The eternal Word of God become flesh and dwelling among us, for us; Emmanuel, God with us, come to comfort us.

To all the comforting words of Scripture we have heard from the Lord today, I would add one more. Marci’s confirmation verse, Isaiah 12:2, “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

By all human accounting, Marci lived a life worthy of our admiration.  She was married to Ron for 52 and half years. She had three sons and a loving family.  She was a faithful and active church member and active in her community and had many friends who loved her.  And yet Marci would tell you that none of that counted toward her salvation.  As she learned through the truth of the Scriptures, What God had accomplished for her in Christ’s cross and resurrection was her salvation.  That’s why she could be strong suffering the weakness of a stroke, God was her strength.  The love for all these beautiful and wonderful people in her life came as a result of knowing God’s love for her in Christ.  I make this point because the same promises God made to Marci He makes to all of us.  God is our salvation.  Let us trust in Him and not be afraid, for the Lord God is our strength and our song and He has become our salvation.  Through Christ Jesus born of Mary for us, God has given us a first-hand look at His great love for us and nothing can separate us from that love, not even the power of death.  And until that day when like Marci we fall asleep in Christ or He will come again with a trumpet blast and great glory, His promise remains with us to comfort us, “Behold, I am with you, even unto the end of the age.”  May all these words comfort you.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds though faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Sermon for Sunday Advent 2

Heavenly Host, 2013

Note:  While much of this sermon might be considered “inside baseball” the broader issues of attendance at divine serve and participation in the life of the congregation are relevant for all churches.  Advent is a time for calls to repentance, let us hear together the word of the Lord to repent.  As usual the audio can be heard by clicking on the embedded player below.


The Gospel reading today is the account of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness.  John looks like a prophet and sounds like a saint-john-the-baptist-09prophet.  Prophets are not coaches; they are the mouthpiece of almighty God.  God sends prophets when things aren’t going right and the people need to make a big change or face the eternal consequences.  In 16 years of ordained ministry, I have learned that nobody much likes a prophet because they tell the truth even if it hurts a little.

Almost two years ago, I went for my annual checkup with my doctor.  He was straight with me.  He said, “Honestly, you need to lose at least 30 pounds.  It’s just not healthy for you.”  He caught me in all the lies I had been telling myself and I knew it.  I could have gotten angry with him, like I’m sure many of his patients had done.  He was a prophet to me, even though no one much likes a prophet.

When a congregation calls a pastor, they call him to be the man who will bring the Word of God in its truth and purity into their midst even if that Word stings a little.  They should not expect him to just tell them what they want to hear.  The Baptizer’s language is pointed.  Don’t worry, I won’t be calling you a brood of vipers.  But purely from the standpoint of the clear Word of God, allow me to be like John in the wilderness today among you.

Honestly, the pews were embarrassingly empty for our Thanksgiving service.  For a congregation our size, attendance at Advent services, at least so far, isn’t great and even Sunday morning attendance often leaves a lot to be desired.  I don’t know exactly what the issues are.  I am aware many of you travel a considerable distance to be here and travel is increasingly expensive.  From experience, I know it is hard to be an active and regular part of the congregational life when you have to travel such a distance.  But let me just say this purely from the standpoint of God’s Word, the body of Christ needs to be where Christ our Head is, week in and week out.  And if we’re not here the body of Christ suffers from your absence.  We all must wrestle with God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy so that we do not despise the Word because attending church is not optional for a Christian.  It’s never a nice thing to do if you have the time on the weekend.  Skipping church means cutting ourselves off from the body of Christ, from all the blessings we receive from regular fellowship being built up together in the Word.  To paraphrase my doctor, “It is not healthy for a Christian to cut himself or herself off from the body of Christ.”  And the other side of that coin is that if we aren’t together here, we can’t be about the work of the kingdom we’ve been given to do.

To do that kingdom work we have said we want an organization and officers and a building and a full-time pastor and a support staff to do our work to the very best of our ability.  I realize I’m still very new here, and there’s quite a lot about the dynamics of the congregation I probably don’t understand yet but I’m very concerned about the general lack of willingness to serve as an elected officer or board member in the congregation.  I served on the nominating committee who prayerfully deliberated many, many names to the point I was very frustrated.  Thankfully we were able to fill almost all the positions with good people but we still don’t have a property director for next term.  Ed Adams has served faithfully and well in very important position and I don’t know what we’re going to do without him.  To do God’s work in our corner of the kingdom, it takes people committed to do the work.  To keep going back to the words of my doctor, “It is not healthy for us to think someone else is going to do it.”  How can we build for the future together if we can’t find the right people to meet our needs for now?

Let me also say a few words about at least one of the issues that divide us, our school.

When this congregation called me, the school was already here and has been for twenty years now.  If you read my file, you know how I feel about Lutheran day schools.  My wife is a Lutheran teacher.  My two brothers are products of Lutheran elementary schools as well as my mom all the way through high school, Luther High North in Chicago.  So, I love the fact that we have a school.  Now, I’m aware that the school hasn’t always been a part of the plan here at Heavenly Host.  But here’s the thing: it most certainly is now and anything that was said twenty plus years ago is not really part of my reality.  I was called to this congregation and its school and so you should know that I intend to do what I can to help make it work and to use it as the opportunity for extending the kingdom of God that I believe it is.  Mrs. Illians and I see ourselves as a team and rare is the day when she and I don’t talk together.  Through you, the Lord called us here on the same day and I can’t help but think He knew what He was doing when He did it.  And to tell you the truth, it couldn’t be going any better if the Lord had called one of my life-long friends to be the principal here.  That’s a great thing, by the way.  It doesn’t happen everywhere.

I know that there are concerns that we can’t afford to support the school like we do.  And I would say that if we use the school as a primary means of exercising our outreach efforts in Cookeville, we can’t afford to not support our school.  To use the example of my doctor again, he encouraged me to exercise.  So too, we must exercise our commitment to outreach.  The funny thing about exercise is that, except for a very few people who really enjoy it, exercise is hard and it seems to drain away the very strength we’re supposed to be bettering.  But we all know that exercise is healthy.  So to paraphrase my doctor again, “It is not healthy to act as if the school is a sapping away the strength of our congregation.”  Like a fusion reactor that creates more energy than it uses, a healthy school can energize a congregation.  Of all the congregations in the Missouri Synod that are growing both numerically and growing together in their work, the vast majority of them have thriving schools.  And when I say thriving, I mean the school is part of the congregation’s life and the congregation is part of the school’s life.  The kids sing on Sunday and often “church people” attend school chapel services and volunteer and come to school events.  It’s never an “us” vs. “them” thing because that’s not healthy.  And the school is one of the chief ways energized congregations reach out to the people in the community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And so this week, every unchurched family in our school was reached out to with an invitation to attend Sunday and Wednesday services in general and given specific information about all our Advent and Christmas services.  We can’t make them come, but we can be intentional about inviting them and we can act like we really would like it if they came and we can welcome them when they come!  And also I’d like to invite each and every one of you to chapel on Wednesdays too, if you can make it.  The time is 10:10 on Wednesdays and we’ll be sure to get it on the weekly calendar in the announcements from here on out.  And if you’ll come to Advent service next week, I think you’ll be pleased to see the school kids here with their Christmas program.  Because we simply can’t afford to be divided about the school, it’s just not healthy.

Dear brothers and sisters, the times are changing.  We are already in the days of the Christian Church’s waning influence on Western culture.  The most recent issue of the Lutheran Layman has done a good job of identifying these times as “the Post-Christian World” and I don’t think that’s too blunt a phrase for it.  If you have not read it yet, I highly recommend it.  There will be a link to it in my blog post of this sermon.  I am not afraid of the change as much you might think.  This change already happened in Europe and Britain in the wake of two world wars and I’ve seen first-hand what it looks like.  In fact, in many ways I welcome the collapse of what has been termed “cultural Christianity.”  Church leaders have long been aware of the 80/20 rule in congregational life.  Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people.  With the evaporation of cultural Christianity, the 80% are leaving and will be gone within another generation.  What it means is that those who are left will be here for the right reasons, not for sentiment or tradition or even the programs we offer but for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus, to receive the gifts of Christ and to participate in the fellowship of the body of Jesus Christ.

If we understand that is rapidly becoming “Post-Christian”, I can’t think of a better tool than a Christian school for announcing to our society that the kingdom of God is near.  Our school is an opportunity to that we have different answers to life’s questions than the world out there does, than what have become accepted as the acceptable answers.  So, when I dream about the future of not just our congregation but the future of our beloved synod, I dream about the future of our children and our young people, kids not all that different from my own.  I dream about their formation in the Christian faith.  I don’t dream that they all get an A+ on a confirmation class exam.  Why should they?  I never did.  Instead, I dream that they’ll become young women and men who read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word of God, who wrestle with the truth of God’s Word and struggle to conform their lives to every word of it, who pray fluently and confidently, who love their neighbor even if he or she is from the opposite political party.  I dream that they will grow and mature into the next generation of faithful Christian women and men who will in turn hand over what I/we passed on to them.

I dream that we, the older members of this congregation, will lead our young people by our example of what it means to live in homes where the word of God dwells and where thanks to God are heard at the dinner table and in everyday conversation.  Where we show them how important it is to be church every Sunday by being here.  Where we show them how much we care for their growth and nurture in the faith by showing them what being a follower of Jesus means to us and how that life in Christ extends into Christian service.  Where we show them what living in harmony with one another means by not holding grudges against another for whom Christ died but forgiving as we ourselves have been forgiven.  Where we show them the level of sacrificial giving it takes to keep a congregation like I’ve just described going.  Any other way just isn’t healthy.

In the Gospel reading today, John the Baptist came preaching the kingdom of heaven in the wilderness of Judea around the Jordan River.  John preached to people who were like me sitting in my doctor’s office, convinced there was nothing they needed to change.  In their case, they were, children of Abraham, God’s specially chosen people.  His message to them was that they were tragically turned away from God, at cross purposes with Him, yet again.  They needed to turn from the world’s ways and turn back to the Lord’s ways.  The good news of John’s message was that there was one coming, whose way He was preparing, who was coming to restore the active rule of God again for the sake of His people.  He was preparing them for the coming of the One who would save them from their sins.

If that message of repentance needs to be proclaimed to every generation and does it not also stand to reason that I should proclaim it to you?  Shouldn’t we also turn back and listen instead to the Word of God and take great joy in being a part of what the Lord is doing here in the ministry of His Son, Jesus?

So, turn back from the ways of the world and what it says Sundays are for and be where the Lord is giving you His Word and by it equipping you for service in His expanding kingdom.  The kingdom of heaven draws near.  Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.  Behold, He comes.  Amen.

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Session Three from the Study of the Augsburg Confession

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment
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This is the issue of the Lutheran Layman

December 7, 2013 Leave a comment

I referenced in my sermon on Dec 8.

You’ll need at least Adobe Acrobat Reader or one of the more lightweight readers like Sumatra or Foxit which are far less bloated and have far fewer security holes in them.

We’re no longer just getting formerly churched people.  We’re getting people with less and less background and instruction in the core of the Christian faith.  They’re not just asking how is Lutheran Baptism different from Baptist baptism, they need to be assured that there is a God and He loves them in Christ Jesus.

So when we say the fields are ripe for harvest, we don’t mean the same thing we used to mean twenty years ago or more.  And therefore we need to shift our paradigm away from accommodating the unchurched to catechizing them.

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If you’re not listening to Lutheran Public Radio…

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

…you’re missing out.

Lutheran Public Radio at

Friends, really this is a gift to the world.  I have been just absolutely delighted to listen to this music in my office day in and day out.  If you have the ability to fire up your computer and listen or listen to an internet connected device through Live365 you can’t do any better for sacred choral music in the Lutheran tradition.

Stir up your Advent and listen!


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