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Archive for February, 2015

Message from Sunday, 22 Feb, First Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Note the sermon can be heard by clicking the embedded player below.

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Message for Ash Wednesday, Feb 18, 2015

February 25, 2015 2 comments

Joel 2:12–19

Note: the audio for this sermon can be heard by clicking the embedded player below.

ash-wednesday-return-to-the-lord-your-godIn the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The text for the sermon tonight is the Old Testament lesson we just heard read.  “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?”  This is our text.

We heard it at the start of today’s liturgy: dust you are, and to dust you shall return. The ashes for which this day is named show no one that you are fasting—for who knows if you are?—but they do show everyone that you are dying, and of that you and everyone else may be sure. Dust we are, and to dust we return. Such is the wages of sin.

But then we stare in amazement tonight at One for whom those words sound so wrong.  We see lift up our repentance eyes and see our Lord and His suffering and pains for us and we cry out, “Lord, help us.”  “Lord, forgive us.”  Lord, have mercy upon us.”  We come tonight, of all nights, not just to focus on our own sin and the curse of it in our flesh but to focus on our Savior who dwells in our flesh the One who formed us from the dust at the beginning.  Here is the One who in unfathomable love for our fallen race bent down from His throne on high for us.  And now He will even lay down His head into the dust?  But there is no sin in Him!  In Him, there could be no death.  How and why will He die? We will spend all this Lent pondering in awe such questions.

When Joel declares a sacred fast, when he urges the trumpet to sound and the people to gather, we discover that the occasion is one of return.  Lent is always about a return to.  We so often think of it in terms of turning away from—what we are giving up, what we will fast from.  Make no mistake about it: it is a good thing to fast.  Did not our Lord assume that His disciples would do so when He said in tonight’s Gospel: “when you fast”? When, not if! But by itself fasting, going hungry, can be nothing more than an empty religious exercise.  The Lenten fast goes deeper than your decision to deny yourself some tasty treat.  Rather, it invites, it summons, it urges you back to someone, to the Lord.  “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). A Lent that is anything less than a return in faith to the Lord is only a religious game and worth less than nothing.

Rather than play games with God, hear His sacred summons to you to come back to Him, to return to Him, now.  He does not want some piece of you, some outward display, torn garments and such, a few minutes tossed His way one day a week.  No.  He wants you, all of you.  Rend your hearts!  “A broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). A heart that is rent, torn open, is a heart that is wounded, damaged, broken.  Such a heart God receives from you as a pleasing sacrifice.  When, from the depths of your being, you plead, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner! I have made such a mess of it all. I have hurt so many people and failed so often to show Your love, and You know how terrible my thoughts and how soiled my desires are with sin. Have mercy on me, O Lord! Have mercy!”

Lent is not for pretend sinners.  Lent is for real, honest-to-God sinners who have failed in their love of God, who have failed in their love of neighbor, who see this reality, and who by God’s grace despise their sin and ache for His forgiveness and for strength to do better.  To such the invitation rings out as sheer refreshment: “Even you, even now: Return!”  Return, and see the sacred head of Your Savior now wounded.  This is the One we are summoned to return to.  He is the One who knew that we, on our own, could not come to Him, return to Him, find Him; so He came to us, returned to us, and found us.

And we marvel this Lent at how far He went to find us. For it is a marvel indeed that the God of Israel, Yahweh, should take on flesh and blood—as He did in the incarnation.  That is enough to leave us astounded forever.  But He went further.  Not only did He take on our flesh and blood, not only did He become dust for us, but He also went so far as to lift off from us the burden of our sin, to bear it in His own body to death, to own all our failures to live in love as His very own.  Indeed, in the words of St. Paul: “He, who knew no sin,” became sin for us “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

He not only died, but He also died as the greatest sinner of all time, with the sin of the world upon Him—all of it.  Yours.  Mine.  Everyone’s.  Thus the Lord revealed that He is indeed merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Look to the cross and see!  He bore your sin to death that neither death nor sin might be the end of you. Such is the measure of His love.

During Lent, when the Lord calls us to return, He is calling us to return to Himself, to draw near to our Savior who was wounded for our transgressions, who was bruised for our iniquity, upon whom was the punishment that brought us peace, and in whose stripes we find healing.  He reminds us that the only real life in this whole world is fellowship with Him, communion with Him, and that every time we have settled for anything less, we have allowed ourselves to be deceived and cheated of the great gift of which Baptism made us heirs.

As often as our Lord sets the Table, He calls for all His Father’s children to return, to come to the feast of the wounded Savior who bore our wounds in His own flesh, spilling His blood for us, so that His flesh might be our living bread from heaven and His blood the blotting out of our every sin.

Dust we are, and to dust we shall return, and so the ashes. But the shape of the cross recalls that we have a Savior who became dust for us, whose sacred head was laid in the dust of death that the dust of our corrupted being might be rendered incorruptible in Him. Is it any wonder that, pondering such love, we join with the whole church in heaven and on earth to raise our voice to that sacred Head and rejoice to call it our very own, our greatest treasure?  Amen.

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Message from Sunday, Feb 8th

February 11, 2015 Leave a comment

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

Heavenly Host, 2015

Note: the sermon can be heard by clicking the embedded player below.

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The text today is from the Epistle lesson.  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

1Corinthians9.22-660x371The Lutheran Church, and by that I mean more than just our little corner of it here in the Missouri Synod, has been a missionary church.  Long before we were sending people to the darkest corners of Africa and Papua New Guinea, our German forbears were sending missionaries to the New World because they’d heard that the indigenous peoples here in North America did not know the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  There are some interesting stories about missionary work by Lutherans.  It’s pretty well known that the in the early and mid-1800s a somewhat well-known pastor from a small village in rural Germany was sending missionaries to what we know as Michigan today in order to proclaim the message of the Gospel to the Chippewa in Michigan.  The missionaries he sent began to teach the Chippewa the content of the Small Catechism and then the rest of the Scriptures and they did it by first teaching them German.  Instead of becoming all things to all people, they made all people become like them.  Today, those efforts are written off as cultural imperialism, especially by those who think even Christianity is nothing but a cultural manifestation of religion equal to other religions but certainly not any more true than any other religion.  And while there might have been some cultural triumphalism from Germans in the mid-1800s, they did it because, like St. Paul, they were convinced that the message of Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom was true and that all people needed to hear it.

Today, of course, our missionaries are much more aware of the culture to which they are being sent.  They spend years trying to learn the language.  Years ago, a fellow seminarian I knew was headed to the Ivory Coast and so after graduation, Board for Missions was sending him and his wife to Montreal to finish his French.  My friend and fellow pastor, David Faulkner has this month arrived in Uruguay to work there.  He spent years learning Spanish not really knowing where the Lord would put that to use and now he knows.  We’ve come a lot further along the path of becoming all things to all people, in order that some might be saved.

This has become something of a mantra in not just foreign but domestic mission work, that is, mission work here in cities and towns in the US.  The challenge is always how to meet the real needs of a person whether they follow some pagan god or worship ancestral ghosts in a foreign land or whether they are held captive to the worst of our cultural progress, the cult of Self.  It used to be that the truly hip missional churches didn’t identify themselves as Lutheran now the newest thing is that they really don’t identify themselves as churches.  You know, because “church” has all that baggage associated with it.  So they’re worship communities.  And the pastors aren’t pastors, they’re community leaders.  You get the gist.  It begs the question, can you become so much like the people you are trying to reach that you forget why you’re reaching them?  The German missionaries of the 1800s laid the foundation for the Lutheran Church we all grew up in along with the colleges and seminaries hospitals that bore the name Lutheran even into the 21st century.  Only time will tell if these new “worship  communities” will have a comparable impact on the future culture or if they will simply dissolve into the next fad 10 years hence.

While our forebears might have been a little bit imperialistic they did understand unique truth.  And so they set out to endure the hardships of Michigan winters of the mid-1800s so that some might know of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.  Their converts built hospitals and schools brought the best aspects of civilization along with the Gospel because at their core, most Christians are genuinely kind and open people, gracious and generous, in touch with the deep needs of hurting people in this world, ready to abandon the pews to care for others in need.  Christians are the world’s free servants, all for the sake of the Gospel, all so that they might share in the blessings of the Gospel with those they serve.

Doctor Luther put it slightly differently, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (AE 31:344). He understood that the Gospel not only frees us from sin but also frees us for service. Every aspect of our lives (v 22) is to be adapted to the needs of others so that they might come to faith in Christ. Paul is not advocating changing the Gospel message to suit the hearers. There is only one name given under heaven by which we must be saved (1:18–31; Ac 4:12). However, the changeless Gospel empowers us to sacrifice our own rights, tastes, interests, and preferences so that others might hear the message of Christ in all its power.[1]  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

downloadSo I started off my study of this reading this week looking at a study by the Barna Group from 2007.[2] Its findings were published in the book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters.  From the description, “Christianity has an image problem. Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. But according to the latest report card, something has gone terribly wrong. Using descriptions like “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental,” young Americans share an impression of Christians that’s nothing short of . . . unChristian.[3]  We might well understand that unbelievers should view Christians in this way but the striking thing about this study, was that even those who identified as Christians are increasingly feeling the same way, that there was something broken in present-day expressions of Christianity, that Christianity has changed from what it used to be, that it no longer represents what Jesus would have taught.  Hence “worship community,” not “church.”

We might be able to write off some of this as just bad press, as people who are truly misinformed about Christianity, even poorly instructed young Christians.  We might even say that part of what’s going on here is a result of a liberal bias against Christianity in our culture.  But Christian leaders wouldn’t be so concerned about a seven-year old Barna Group report if they didn’t see it as something of a canary in the mine.  The authors of the book don’t just bemoan the present state of affairs but offer a prescription and it’s not just of the “worship communities” variety.  They call all Christians, even us, to deepen our discipleship, our love, our service, our genuine, respectful engagement with the world.  They call us to double down on what makes us Christian and amazingly they call us to do exactly what Jesus called us to do.

I think the first think we need to investigate is whether we truly hear the call to do this very thing.  As hearers of the Gospel in this place, do you think that collectively and as Christian individuals we are called to engage with people outside our walls?  What about those inside our walls?  Remember those Christian young people that thought the same thing as the unbelievers?  Where did they get the idea that something was seriously broken in Christianity today?  Barna Group found that while 29% of Americans say there are deeply committed to Christ, only 3% espouse a Biblical worldview, that is believed core teachings about God and the world.  Do we have a calling to disciple our young people so that they hear the core of what we believe and they take it to heart?  Do they even know our story?  Do they know it was their Christian great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers who built the orphanages, hospitals, and universities of this country and not just this country but going all the way back to first century Rome?  It was the Christians who cared for the sick and the widowed and the orphaned.  We need to tell our stories to the next generation.

As we begin to discuss and debate the uses of a new building, we should seriously be asking how we can use it as a tool to reach needs in our community.  Not just pot-luck suppers and lock-ins.  But blood drives and yard-sales and free medical screenings, personal finance seminars and parenting seminars, and music and arts performances, and low cost basketball leagues for low-income kids, or even after-school care and tutoring for kids not just in our school but in our community?

We send medical mission teams to places all over the world.  We have trained medical personnel in our congregation.  What if we offered free screenings?

Everyone seems to believe the church is “on the take.”  What if we made an effort to be “on the give”?  Would you support it?

How many buses from the public school drive past us heading south?  What if we could partner with the school in some way to make our new facility available for after school activities?

And we don’t have to wait until we get a new building.  A new opportunity is available now.  The food bank.  We are partnering with Cookeville United Methodist Church to support the community food bank they operate.  Maybe we need a write up to explain better the true need in our community but these are not folks gaming a system.  They are hungry and that should be solvable in our age.

We are being called to deepen our discipleship, our love, our service, our genuine, respectful engagement with the world.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all because they are freed by the message of new life in the forgiveness of Christ’s cross.  Father Luther, like Father Paul, understood that the Gospel not only frees us from sin but also frees us for service.  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”  We don’t do it because we’re better than they are.  We do it because Jesus Christ, who is greater than us all, betters us all for one another’s sake.  Amen.

[1] Edward A. Engelbrecht, The Lutheran Study Bible (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 1958.

[2] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/teens-nextgen/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity#.VNUXap3F-So

[3] http://www.amazon.com/unChristian-Generation-Really-Christianity-Matters/dp/0801072719

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Message from Wednesday Evening , 4 February

February 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Note: this message mostly came from Philip Yancey’s book, Disappointment with God, a book I learned of through the Stephen Minister Leader training I received back in the spring of 2014. 

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Job 1:1-22

The message tonight is mostly from my reflections of having read a wonderful book late last fall by Philip Yancey called Disappointment with God.

job

If you ask most Christians, even pastors, what the book of Job is about, you’ll get that Job is about the problem of suffering. It’s about remaining faithful to God in the midst of terrible grief and pain. And without a doubt, chapters 3-37 contain the dialogues of 5 men, Job, Elihu, and three other of Job’s friends, as they meditate on the cause of Job’s suffering. While those chapters might be excerpted out as a treatise on human pain, we would have to ignore the opening and closing chapters, and our own first reading tonight. “And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8)

Just as a cake is not about flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, so the book of Job is not about pain and finding meaning in suffering, it uses those ingredients to tell a much larger, even cosmic story about faith. A good question to ask about the book as a whole is who is the main character? I think up to now, we’d have said Job. But I’d like to suggest that Job is not the main character as much as God is and if so, that changes not just our whole perception of this part of the Bible but even our role in the cosmos. That’s a pretty big claim, so hang on.

Again, it’s the author Yancey who helps us sort this out. He suggests we think of Job as a mystery play, a whodunit detective story. But before the action among the characters starts, we in the audience get a sneak peek behind the scenes, as if we’ve shown up early for a discussion with the director where he describes the plot and the characters and who does what and why. In fact, he solves every mystery about the story except how Job will respond in the end. Will Job trust God or deny him?

Later when the curtain rises, we see only the actors on stage, confined within the story with no knowledge of what the director told the audience in the preview. We know why Job is suffering, but Job does not. What did Job do wrong? Nothing. He actually represents the very best of the species. God himself called Job blameless and upright. Is Job suffering punishment from God? Far from it. Instead, he was selected as the principal player in a great cosmic contest, really, something of a bet between God and Satan.

The trouble starts with Satan’s claim that Job is nothing more than a spoiled favorite of God, faithful only because God has “put a hedge around him.” Satan scoffs mocks God that the only people who truly love God are those more or less bribed by God to love Him. If times get tough, most will simply abandon God. When God accepts Satan’s challenge, He consents to let Job’s response settle the issue, and one calamity after another starts to rain down on poor unsuspecting Job.

What this is a rare peek through the keyhole into the unseen realm beyond our time and space. In my experience, when people experience suffering and trauma, questions spill out: What is going on? Why me? Doesn’t God care what’s happening? This one time, we the onlookers, not Job, are granted really a one-time glimpse behind the curtain, a look at a different reality than the one we typically see.

Later in the book, Job puts God on trial, accusing Him of unfair acts against an innocent party. Angry, betrayed, even satirical, Job wanders as close to blasphemy as he dare. His words ring true in our ears because they give voice to our most deeply felt complaints against God. Our reading and the rest of chapter 2 as well prove that God is not on trial as much as Job is. The point of Job is not the meaning of suffering but the meaning of faith. It’s not about where is God when it hurts and much as where is Job?

This si not just some idle theological idea either. If we take it seriously, it calls into question all the times that we too, like Job have experienced suffering and perhaps not been so faithful. And it begs the question what kind of God do we have that would set us up for such a trial? It might even make us pretty angry. But again this is not a contest between Job and God so much as it is between Satan and God with Job as God’s stand-in. If you read the last chapter of Job along with our reading tonight, it is unmistakable that Job was performing in a cosmic showdown unseen by those who only inhabit our world.

There are other even shorter peeks into this other world in the Bible. In Luke 10, after sending out the disciples to preach and heal and cast out demons, they report back to Jesus what they had seen and Jesus says He saw much more, He saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. The parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son all make the same point and show us what happens when a sinner repents, great joy breaks out among the angels in heaven. Job is just an ordinary person like us. He was living an ordinary, though righteous and upright life, when he was called upon by God to endure a trial with cosmic implications. He had not glimmer of light to guide him, no hint of what the characters in the unseen world where doing. And yet he was handpicked to settle a small piece of the history of universe.

I realize it’s almost absurd to think that one human being, one tiny dot on a tiny planet, can make a difference in the history of the universe. Even one of Job’s so-called friends, Elihu thinks so. “If you sin, how does that affect God? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does He receive from your hand? Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself and your righteousness only the sons of men.”

But Elihu is flat wrong. God is greatly affected by the actions of on man. Later in Ezekiel, God hold us Job, along with Daniel and Noah, as one of His three favorites. This showdown between God and Satan, and Job’s role in it resolves for all time the question of whether one person’s faith matters. Job’s faith mattered. Indeed our faith, in good times and bad, whether or not those are times of testing or not, our faith matters. The history of the whole of humankind, and in fact, our own individual history of faith, is wrapped up within the great drama of God’s creation.

Very often, disappointment with God begins in Job-like circumstances. A loss of a job, a loved one, a child, the onset of a terrible, incurable disease may bring questions like why me? What does God have against me? Why does God seem so distant? As readers of Job’s story we can see behind the curtain to see the time for what it is, a contest being fought in the invisible world. But in our own trials or as witnesses of the sufferings of those we know and love, we will not have such insight. When tragedy strikes, we will live in shadow unaware of what exactly is transpiring in the unseen world. But once again the drama Job lived may be replicating itself in our lives. Once again God is willing to let His reputation ride on the response of unpredictable human beings.

The real battle will never be about the circumstances in which we may find ourselves, if only situation was different we might be able to believe in God. Rather the most important battle will be within us. Will we, despite all, believe and trust in God? Job teaches us that at the moment when faith is hardest and least likely, then faith is most needed. Our choices matter, not just to us, or to our loves ones, but to God, and the whole cosmos He rules.

No one has expressed the pain and unfairness of this world better than Job. But the book of Job is not really his own viewpoint but rather the view of God. The bet between Satan and God establishes the truth that Job, you and I, are called to join the struggle to be faithful in a world where so much goes wrong. We really don’t have a good answer to as to why. Instead, the book suggests a different question, “To what end?” By remaining faithful to God through his sufferings Job, crusty, crotchety old Job, helped to show that God will restore and wipe away all pain and unfairness of this world in the resurrection.

Job is but a forerunner of Jesus, the one who remained faithful, even unto His own death, in the face of the ultimate injustice, despite lies and wrongs done to Him. When we remain faithful we give witness to Christ Jesus. Our sufferings echo His and others see in our faithfulness, an echo of His faithfulness for us all. Far from being punishment, God calls us to the high estate of participating in the sufferings Christ and in doing so, bringing echoes of resurrection into our world.

Why does God let so much pain and evil exist even thrive among us? Resurrection involves us and the world we live in. Every act of faith by each one of the people of God is like the tolling of a bell, resurrection has come; the kingdom of God is come near; it has come among us; and like one of this big bells it resonates not just among us but throughout the whole of the created universe. Amen.

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