Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thank You, Sarah!

"Did you get my card yet today?" our twenty-three year old daughter, Sarah, excitedly asked me during a telephone conversation last week. "No, honey," I said.

Sarah, who lives in Florida, found a Father's Day card she wanted to send to me a few weeks ago. Last week, unable to hold onto it any longer, she'd dropped it in the mail. She sent it on Thursday and probably because of Memorial Day, I didn't get it until today.

"It's the perfect card for you," Sarah had told me.

But when I read it, I wondered. How is it that an adult child can look past a father's many imperfections and send such a precious message? God sends grace to us in many ways, even in a simple card from a young person filled with His love.

I was touched, Sarah. Thank you very much. I love you.


By the way, Hallmark folks, if this violates copyright laws, I apologize. But as you can see, Sarah cared enough to send the very best.

[You can click on the images above to enlarge them.]

Living Your Faith (A Look at the Bible Lessons for June 1, 2008)

The Bible Lessons:
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31]

Matthew 7:21-29

The Prayer of the Day:

O God our rock, you offer us a covenant of mercy, and you provide the foundation of our lives. Ground us in your word, and strengthen our resolve to be your disciples, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

1. Last week, we waded deep into the themes and purposes of the Sundays after Pentecost. We mentioned that "the themes of Bible lessons appointed for the Pentecost season, are basically, living each day with Christ and growing in our faith in Christ." We see that same overarching theme in all of the lessons for this week.

2. One important theme running through all the Bible lessons appointed for this week is this: Now that God has saved you as an act of divine charity, let God's identity and character inform your every decision and action; strive to live according to the Word of God, building your life on it alone.

3. Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28: Deuteronomy is a series of sermons or messages delivered by Moses as the Hebrews are about to enter the land promised to them by God. The Hebrews didn't deserve freedom from slavery in Egypt nor did they deserve the land God was giving to them. As in the New Testament, we see that a relationship with God depends not on our virtues, but God's grace and our response of submission to that grace.

4. As more than one commentator points out, the language verses 18-21 is nearly identical to that in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, known as the Shema. The Shema embodies the central theme of Deuternomy. But its repetition in chapter 11 forms an inclusio (or inclusion), meaning both that the content in between the passages relates to the themes of the Shema and that two appearances of the Shema form the beginning and the end of one sermon in Deuteronomy.

5. The call is to respond to God's grace through a life of obedience, one in which the gracious, loving will permeates the will and the daily living of believers. We offer obedience not as a way to earn salvation, but as a way of loving God and loving neighbor. We obey not for our good, but for the good of others.

6. As Jesus does in this week's Gospel lesson, God, through the preacher Moses, lays a stark choice before His people: Be blessed by obedience or be cursed by disobedience.

Today's Western culture recoils at such stark choices. We like a glut of options, particularly when it comes to allegiance to God or to various gods. We want just enough of God to feel that all is well, but not so much as to impinge on the choices we'd rather make. We like to keep our options open. God will have none of our postmodern waffling. I don't know about you, but this makes me feel uncomfortable. I repent each day for so often putting God in the backseat of my life!

7. Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24 is an expression of complete trust in God, our refuge in the face of life's difficulties. God, the psalmist, is "a strong rock," language echoed in Jesus' mini-parable in the Gospel leson.

8. Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28 [29-31] can well be described as a Lutheran identity statement. That's because the portion of the reading from Romans 1 played a pivotal role in transforming Martin Luther's understanding of God, setting him on the Reformation path and the portion coming from Romans 3 succinctly states what the Reformation seeks to posit (rightly, I think) as the central doctrine of the Bible: the undeserved justification of sinners who believe in Jesus Christ. This stands as a warning to all who might be tempted to erroneously conclude from the first lesson and the Gospel lesson that one can be saved by works of religious devotion or kindness. That is impossible. The person truly infected by God's grace given through Christ will live differently. Good works will spring from the Savior living in the obedient follower. This is the clear theme of Matthew 25:31-46, where the "sheep" are totally unaware of the good deeds they have done; they flowed from their relationship with Christ, not from a desire to "look good" to God or neighbor.

9. Matthew 7:21-29: My son, Philip, during a presentation at our weekly pastors' Bible study, divides this passage into three sections: (1) Judgment (vv.21-23); (2) Parable of the Housebuilders (vv.24-27); (3) Reaction of the Crowds to Jesus (vv.28-29). For great comments on this passage, take a look at Brian Stoffregen's Exegetical Notes, here. But I'll make a few brief comments on each of the sections Phil identfies.

10. Judgment: This doesn't appeal to our postmodern ears either. Shamed by Freud, Feuerbach, Marx, and others into silence on the question of hell, we postmodern Christians tiptoe around it. Much as we Christians might prefer otherwise, Jesus was not so dainty. He talked about hell. His motive was clearly not to scare people into submission, but fair warning, truth in advertising. God allows us the freedom to reject the free gift of salvation that belongs to all with faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not force Himself on us.

Here, as Stoffregen so well explains it, knowing Jesus or His Name isn't good enough. Having access to God through Christ is a privilege. The question is, "Does this same God know us?" Is God a kewpie doll that we pull out when it suits us? Do we invoke the Name of God when it can help us? Or is the God we know in Jesus Christ the vital center of our existences?

11. Luther, Philip reminded us today, said that whatever "signs" we may perform in Christ's Name are meaningful insofar as they adhere and conform to the "Word of God." Anything that points to us rather than God is dead and meaningless. AMEN!

12. Parable of the Housebuilders: There is no apparent difference in the craftsmanship or the quality of the houses built by the two men in this parable. But the wise one (sophos) builds on a solid foudation, while the foolish one (moros) builds on sand. The wise person, no more able than the foolish one, nonetheless knows that it's better to build on Jesus Christ and His Word than it is on the sand of impermanent things--like fashion, physical health, money, status, and so on. [By the way, the New Testament's original Greek word, moros, which means "dull or mentally sluggish" is where we get the word moron. Sophos means wisdom and appears in many English words. Philosophy, for example, literally means love of wisdom. The word "sophomore" combines these two words, connoting a person who, in the second year of their high school or college years, is slowly becoming wiser.]

Phil suggests that this section of the Gospel lesson relates to Romans 3:31, from the optional section of our epistle lesson:
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
We are saved by God's grace and our faith in God, not by upholding God's law. But we uphold God's law when we root our lives in God.

As we teach children to sing, "The wise man built his house upon the rock..."

13. Reaction of the Crowds: Here's where it's especially important to read Stoffregen's commentary on this passage. On the face of it, the crowds seem to be applauding Jesus. But Stoffregen gives two reasons to doubt this interpretation:

(1) Usually in Matthew's Gospel, "the crowds" have an even harder time of "getting" Jesus than the disciples. They often are portrayed as following Jesus out of curiosity or to get something out of Him. They acclaim Jesus as the Messiah on Palm Sunday and a few days later, cry for His crucifixion, for example. They're fickle and skeptical and frankly, thick, apt to build on temporary, earthly foundations. They're like the unwise housebuilder of the previous verses.

(2) The New Testament Greek verb translated as "astonished" carries the implication of, "This is crazy! We can't believe it!" The Scribes taught a perverted version of the Old Testament, one that transformed a relationship with God based on God's grace into a religious system of rules. The latter they could understand. It allowed them to keep God in a box, under their control. But Jesus was pointing to the truth God had long ago revealed to ancient Israel: salvation and life belong only to those who submit to God's authority over their lives.

Do we dare to believe that?

More importantly, do we dare to live that?

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.]

Sunday, May 25, 2008


[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 6:24-34
In February, during one of our Midweek Lenten services, we focused on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Biblical text I chose to discuss in my sermon was our Gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 6:24-34. As I thrashed around this past week--and worried over!--what I might say about this lesson, I decided that I kind of liked what I wrote three months ago. So, this morning, I’ll be presenting basically the same sermon I did then. For a few people, this will be a re-run. For most of you, including those who fell asleep in February, it will be an altogether new experience. I hope that all will find it helpful.

I spent a long time as a student: thirteen years in public school, four years in college, four years in seminary. Somewhere around the end of my twentieth and the beginning of my twenty-first and final year as a student, I figured something out. Do you want to know what it was? It was this: If the teacher repeats something, it’s probably important.

Now, I bring this up for a reason. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson come from the Sermon on the Mount. Ed Markquart, a wonderful Lutheran pastor in Seattle, has calculated that in the four gospel books of the New Testament--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--”there are 60 teachings, 40 parables, and 25 miracles of Jesus.” And the Sermon on the Mount contains a whopping twenty-five of Jesus’ sixty teachings. They come at us at such a furious pace in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s book, that you think Jesus would hardly have the time to repeat Himself in order to highlight what’s important. But He does repeat Himself in the ten verses that make up our Gospel lesson. In fact, Jesus punches home the same teaching three times in these verses. And then, to underscore His teaching, He asks seven rhetorical questions, all with the same message: DO NOT WORRY!

Jesus also gives us plenty of good reasons for heeding that imperative. He says that life is more than food or clothing and that if God the Father takes care of the birds, He’ll take care of us. He says that worrying won’t add a single second to our earthly lives and that to be consumed with these things is to be as futile in our thinking as the Gentiles who have no knowledge of God.

You and I know that Jesus is right. We shouldn’t worry. We know that God cares about our every moment. We know that we’re in the palms of God’s hands, that God hears our prayers. We know too, that all with faith in Jesus Christ belong to God eternally. Even non-believing people realize the silliness of giving our minds over to worry. The writer Mark Twain, an atheist, once said, “I am an old man and have known great troubles, but most of them never happened.”

So, why exactly do we worry?

We worry, let’s face it, because we’re control freaks. Adam and Eve were lured into sin because the serpent told them that when they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would “be like God.” It bothers us that while, unlike all of God’s other creatures, we can project and to some extent, predict, what the future will bring, we can’t control what happens to us. This reality can play itself out in ways that are anywhere from annoying, such as when we get caught in a traffic jam on US 33, to life-threatening, as when the doctor tells us that we or a loved one has little time to live. Yet we persist in stewing over things over which we have no control.

It’s good for us to make plans and it’s good for us to be engaged in trying to solve problems. But we need to realize that worrying about things solves nothing. The number one fact of the universe is that God is God and we’re not.

So, make your plans and when the time comes, willingly move on to Plan B. Jesus puts it this way: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Pastor Gerald Mann summarizes Jesus’ imperative this way: Wait to worry.

Okay, you may say, worrying is a bad thing. But what’s that got to do with my relationship with God? A lot!

You see, in the final analysis, worrying is a form of self-worship. Whether we express our worry by saying things like, “What am I going to do?,” seemingly expressing helplessness, or, by trying to amass more money and power than God, the underlying assumption behind my worrying is that my immediate problems and, by extension, the long-term good of the known universe, depends on me.

People who know the God we meet in Jesus Christ know better than to think the world rests on their shoulders! One of my enduring memories as a pastor is of my visit with an elderly farmer shortly after I was ordained twenty-four years ago. “You know, Pastor,” he said, “if you’re a farmer, you have to have faith or you won’t last long.” He went on to explain that you could pick the best seeds for your crops and be diligent about cultivation and weeding. But farmers know that they have no control over the sun or the rain or temperatures that if not just right, could scorch or freeze their crops. What this farmer discovered is that over his long life, God could be trusted. For that farmer, faith supplanted anxiety and thankfulness for God’s blessings replaced worry.

And, even when life is hard or when we suffer, we followers of Jesus have much for which to be thankful. During the Holocaust, when the Nazis put people in concentration camps, they would work the imprisoned until they could no longer do anything. Then, they would execute them. One family was composed of a father, a mother, and their two children, one of whom suffered from a physical disability. Every day, the mother and two children were taken to one work site and the father was shipped to another. And every night, the father checked on his family. One night though, the father found only his one son. "What happened?" he asked. The surviving child said that the brother with the disability had no longer been able to work. And so the guards had taken him to be executed. He clung to his mother's skirt, sobbing. She picked him up and, holding him close to her, said, "Don't be afraid. I'll go with you." And so she did. That's akin to the God we have through Jesus Christ. In Christ, God stands with us in the darkest and the worst of times--even in death--so that all who trust in Him will be ushered into eternity with Him! How can we worry when we have a God like that?

Now, having heard me say how bad worry is, you all have a right to know whether I worry or not. Well, I do. But if I worry, then I suppose that I fit right in with the rest of the Church. It’s been my observation that the Church is Jesus Christ’s community of recovering control freaks. We’re learning to replace our worry over tomorrow with faith in and gratitude to the God Who tells all who believe in Jesus, “You belong to Me for eternity!”

Years ago, I learned about a man who had a “worry tree.” He had a stressful executive position and every night, before he walked through the front door of his house, he touched a tree close to the porch and said, “God, all these worries I’ve been stewing over, I’m giving to you here now at the worry tree. I’ll pick them up from You tomorrow if You seem to be telling me there’s anything I can do about them. Otherwise, I’m turning them over to You...and thank You!”

When you think about it, every time we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re leaving our worries at the worry tree. Or, more accurately, we leave them with God. That’s because, as Martin Luther wrote of this petition in The Small Catechism (I’m reading an older translation here): “God indeed gives daily bread to all.., even to the wicked, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that [God] would lead us to acknowledge our daily bread as His gift and to receive it with thanksgiving.”

The opposite of faith isn’t unbelief. The opposite of faith is worry. May we live in the assurance that God has given us eternity and so, free from worry, glorify the God Who gives us everything! May faith supplant fear. When we do worry, may God help us remember all His blessings, including our crucified and risen Lord. And may we, instead of worrying about tomorrow, learn to truly live.