Saturday, April 18, 2009

Do Not Be Troubled

[This message was shared today during the funeral service for a 55 year old member of our congregation.]

John 14:1-6

Although Pat had not been well for many years, her sudden passing this week came as a shock to all who loved and knew her. I want all of you--especially you, Merle, Tracie, and Stephen--to know that you are in my prayers and will remain in them.

When I came back home after my most recent monthly visit with Merle and Pat, I told my wife that the more I got to know the two of them, the more impressed I was. One thing that struck me then, as it had during our other visits, was how often Pat asked about the health and well being of others. That impressed me.

In fact, in that last conversation, she mentioned in passing that she had sent a get well card to a recently retired assistant to the bishop, Pastor John Tickner. A bit surprised, I asked Pat if she knew Pastor Tickner. "No," she told me. "I just thought it would be good to send him a card." That was Pat.

Through the years, it’s been my observation that people generally react in one of two ways to grief, pain, and adversity, things which Pat and Merle have endured more than most of us. Some people become bitter. They lock out God, refusing to trust in Him. The people about whom they have any concern shrinks, sometimes all the way down to themselves alone.

Others though, understanding that in this life, the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, that this world is but an imperfect prelude to eternity, take a different attitude. They lean more heavily on God. Their suffering gives them sympathy for the suffering of others. They love God and neighbor more deeply. This is what I saw in Pat.

Today, as you grieve the loss of a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, you’re deciding on how you will react to your grief. Will you depend on God or lock God out? Will you close your heart or open it?

Thankfully, we need not make this decision on the strength of our own will. God creates and deepens the faith of those who are willing to let Jesus in.

Once again, the resurrected Jesus is saying to you as He did to the ancient church at Laodicaea, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.”

As we let Jesus in, God’s Holy Spirit will give us comfort, peace, and that openness to God and neighbor that is the mark of faith in Jesus.

And through Jesus, we can have eternal hope! The Gospel lesson I read from John a few moments ago recounts some of what Jesus told His disciples just before He was betrayed and went to the cross. The disciples were already grief-stricken, realizing that Jesus was speaking of His impending death. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told them. “Believe in God, believe also in Me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places…I go to prepare a place for you…”

When Pat, who trusted Jesus as her God and Savior, left us so abruptly this past Tuesday, she went to a place the Lord had prepared for her.

Jesus has prepared places for you and me as well. We can’t earn them. We can’t do enough good deeds to merit them. They come only to those who believe in Jesus. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

There may be times in the weeks, months, and years ahead when you find it hard to believe in Jesus. Fortunately, we don’t have to depend on ourselves for faith any more than we have to depend on ourselves to get into God’s everlasting kingdom. The Bible tells us that God understands that we’re dust, mere imperfect mortals. If you want to believe, but are finding it hard, let God know. Throw yourself into God’s merciful arms.

Like the man who asked Jesus to heal his child, we may pray, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” God will hear that prayer and build up your faith.

You will miss Pat. Don’t let anyone try to tell you differently. But lean on the God we know in Jesus Christ. He will bring you healing. He will open your heart to God and to others. And you will live each day in the certainty that one day you too, will go to that eternal dwelling place God has lovingly prepared for you. Amen

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Susan Boyle's Got Talent...and so do you

At what age is it too late to quit pursuing a dream? Apparently, it's not 47.

That's how old Susan Boyle is. The plain-looking Scotswoman appeared on Britain's Got Talent, the Simon Cowell-production that served as the prototype for American Idol here in the States, this past Saturday. Although I don't much care for the song from Les Miserables that Boyle sang, her talent is undeniable.

But what has made Susan Boyle's performance a worldwide Youtube sensation is that it's always exciting to see someone easily underestimated stun us. It assures us that there are lots of other diamonds in the rough out there...and that even we may be among them.

Of course, if, four days ago, it had turned out that Susan Boyle was a poor singer, she would be just a West Lothian, Scotland wannabe. There are lots of people who dream dreams about fields for which they have no facility.

The remarkable thing is that Susan Boyle continued to develop her talents, singing in church and at home to her cats, in obscurity, all these years. She hasn't given up.

Most of us live in our own versions of West Lothian. Even if we're "successful" by whatever terms that word may be defined, there won't be standing ovations from wowed audiences for us.

And that's OK.

As a Christian, I believe that everyone is endowed with at least one talent to be developed by our dedication and work. Honing them can be more than simply personally fulfilling; it can be an act of worship, an offering of thanks and glory to the One Who makes us, makes us who we are, and gives us our talents. That One is the only audience we need. Without forcing us to earn it, God gave us a "Yes" long ago. It came in the person of Jesus Christ, Who, while we were still in rebellion against God, long before we knew we needed His help, died and rose to give all who believe in Him new and everlasting life with God.

Whatever your talent is, cherish it. Use it. And as you do, mentally inscribe each moment the way Bach physically inscribed every piece of music that he composed, "To God alone be the glory!"

You can watch Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent here.

[Thanks to BBC World Service for linking to this post on its World, Have Your Say web site.]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lying to avoid confrontation...

is unhealthy. Besides, it rarely works. Three steps for getting out of the mess such lying creates.

The Phases of Abraham's Life

Good stuff from Peter J. Leithart.

Can we see ourselves in the patterns in Abraham's life?

A Look at This Sunday's Gospel Lesson (John 20:19-31)

[These "looks" are something I write every week, mainly with the idea of helping members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to get ready for worship. But since our congregation uses a lectionary (a plan of Bible lessons) rooted on the Church Year shared by most Christians throughout the world, I hope that others find these pieces helpful, too.]

Second Sunday of Easter
April 19, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133:1-3
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, with joy we celebrate the day of our Lord’s resurrection. By the grace of Christ among us, enable us to show the power of the resurrection in all that we say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.


I haven't yet decided which text I'll choose as the basis for my sermon. But below are substantially revised comments on the lesson I first wrote last year. John 20:19-31 is used on the Second Sunday of Easter in all three years of the lectionary cycle.

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

(1) The phrase "the first day of the week" is deliberate and significant. The creation motif is strong in the Gospel of John, starting with its opening echoes of Genesis' first creation account and the designation of Jesus as "the Word" who was both God and with God before the universe came into being. Jesus has come, according to both John's Gospel and the writings of Paul to usher in a new creation (Second Corinthians 5:17). The rabbis often taught that creation fell into sin on the seventh day and that God would renew His creation or create anew on a new first day, sometimes called the eighth day. (John also likes to speak of things happening on the eighth day or eight days later.)

(2) M. Craig Barnes, the wonderful preacher, suggests that disciples were afraid of their fellow Jews not just because of the possibility of their being killed, but also because they were ashamed for their disloyalty to Jesus.

(3) "Peace be with you" was a common greeting in Old and New Testament cultures. There is though, a particular irony in its use here and a particular need the disciples would have felt for God's peace.

(4) It's important to remember that the word translated as "Jews" is more readily rendered as "Judeans," residents of what, after the ancient reign of King Solomon, became the southern kingdom, whose worship and civic life was centered on Jerusalem. (The northern Kingdom, called Israel, was centered on Samaria.)

To read John as antisemitic. It would hardly make sense given that the one proclaimed in John's Gospel and in our Gospel lesson, as "Lord and...God" was Himself a Jew.

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

(1) Jesus allows the disciples to see His wounds, confirming evidence that the full-embodied form before them is the Savior they had seen die.

(2) After satisfying themselves that this is Jesus and He is risen, the disciples rejoice. The only basis for joy that a Christian has--indeed, the only way people can call themselves Christian--is when they too, have their own satisfaction seen, for us through the eyes of faith, that Jesus is risen. Paul writes:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (First Corinthians 15:12-19)
21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

(1) Jesus underscores the peace that He gives by repeating this blessing to the disciples.

(2) Through Jesus, we're deputized and empowered to share the Good News as He had been. This echoes words from Jesus' high priestly prayer found in John 17.

22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

This is a sort of Pentecost, when you think of it. (Acts 2) The word spirit is pneuma in the Greek of the New Testament and ruach in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. Both words can mean wind, breath, and spirit.

In the second Genesis creation account, God breathes His ruach into inanimate dust and the first man comes to life.

In the first creation account, God's Spirit, like a mighty wind, bears down on the stormy waters of primeval chaos and life comes into being.

According to John's Gospel, when Jesus exhaled His final breath on the cross, He literally "gave up His spirit." (John 19:30)

Through the impartation of His Spirit, Jesus, God-enfleshed, creates the Church, the community of believers in Him who proclaim forgiveness of sin to all who repent and turn to Christ and the need for repentance and believe to all.

23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Here, Jesus entrusts what's called "the Office of the Keys" to the Church.

Martin Luther explains this in The Small Catechism:
What is the Office of the Keys?
It is that authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.
Christ not only conveys this frightening authority to the Church in John 20:23, but also in Matthew 18:18, where He says:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

(1) Thomas' nickname, the Twin or Didymus, has often been seen as an indicator of "double-mindedness" on his part. This would fit well with James' New Testament admonition to believers who don't really believe:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8)
Advocates of this symbolic meaning for Thomas' nickname often offer Thomas' words in John 11 as further evidence of a struggle to believe on Thomas' part. There, with word already having arrived that the Jewish authorities are intent on having their Roman overlords execute Jesus, Jesus announces that His friend Lazarus has died and He must go to him and wake him from death. Thomas says to the others, "Let us also go, that we may die with him.” My mentor, the late Pastor Bruce Schein, insisted this isn't piety, but sarcasm. This is a common opinion.

But recently, my colleague Pastor Scott Baker has argued that it's just as likely that Thomas was being sincere in expressing his allegiance to Jesus and a willingness to die with Jesus. The reason then, for Thomas' unwillingess to accept the news of Jesus' resurrection has less to do with any special inability to trust on his part, but with the track record of his fellow disciples. He doubts the credibility of the disciples. As Scott writes of the disciples and Thomas's skepticism about their witness:
These are the ones who abandoned Jesus. Peter, who denied him. And now, they are hiding afraid in some locked room and saying they have seen someone who Thomas knows is dead...[But] Have they left their locked room? Have they gone out to tell the world? Wouldn't such news cause them to make a confession of faith like, "My Lord and my God"? Thomas...doesn't believe the ones giving witness.
I shudder to think about this, knowing how often my life has rendered my witness for Christ unbelievable. God, forgive me.

How many people are there in our lives who are willing to believe in Jesus, but can't because they find it hard to believe Christians?

(2) We often often call the Twin, Doubting Thomas. But as Brian Stoffregen points out, the text, in the original Greek, never speaks of Thomas as one having doubts. The text, in the original Greek, describes him as apistos, not believing.

25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

(1) At v.26, whole week has passed; it's another first day of the week. Once more, Jesus transgresses locked doors, indicating that He is no longer limited by time and space as He had been before His death and resurrection.

(2) Once again, Jesus greets the disciples with the words, "Peace be with you."

27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

(1) Jesus doesn't tell Thomas, "Don't doubt." (Although that's not a terrible translation.) He literally says, "Be not faithless; be faithful." The point is that we must open ourselves to allowing God to create faith in us. We must cease and desist from our resistance and ask God to do this. We must put our dukes down and let God be God.

28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

To me, Thomas' response is so ironic. The faithless one issues the most emphatic and all-inclusive confession of Jesus to be found in the Gospels: "My Lord and my God!"

29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These words are really about all of us who haven't seen the risen Jesus (YET) and still believe in Him.

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

(1) I've called this the mission statement of John's Gospel.

(2) The unspoken implication here is this: I've told you everything you need to know in order to believe in Jesus Christ. To come to faith in Christ, we don't need more evidence; we only need to surrender! This is the choice of faith that Psalm 16:4 and 5 mention.

Good Thoughts for Tax Day

[Presented by my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot in his daily emailed inspirations.]

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thought for the Day

"Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.''

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.,
U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Matthew 22:21 NCV

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and give to God the things that are God's.


Lord, thank you for our country. Help me to
pay my taxes with the right attitude.


"When we forget about ourselves, we do things others will remember."

That simple--but difficult-to-live--statement comes at the end of today's Our Daily Bread devotion.

Among my daily prayers is that God will forgive me my self-absorption. I also pray that God will make war on my ego.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Will Spanish Prosecutors Indict Former Bush AG Gonzales and Others?

Spanish prosecutors, currently involved in prosecuting terrorists once held at Guantánamo, are reportedly planning on seeking indictments against former Bush attorney general Alberto Gonzales and five top aides for torture they say happened at the American facility in Cuba.

I've talked before about what I think of torture from my perspective as a Christian. See here and here, for examples of that. Also see here.

This entire matter is a sticky wicket involving grave charges and national sovereignty. It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds.

Civil Rights Attorney Held Still Being Held by Chinese Government

Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese civil rights attorney and a Christian who has been subjected to torture before, has been a hostage ever since being taken by the Chinese government's secret police in early February. Read more of his story and sign a petition demanding his release here.

[More on the general threat to peace and human rights posed by the oppressive Chinese government, written during last year's presidential campaign, here.]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Peter Leithart on...

...Jesus' indirection.

[Here, I mention how both Jesus and Satan use indirection. That makes sense, indirection can be as shrewd as it is humble. We know how shrewd the devil can be. But Jesus says that followers of Christ are to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It's Your Move

Mark 16:1-8
Back when I was in junior high school, several of my friends got into Chess, momentarily sweeping me up into their enthusiasm for the game. I really tried to get into Chess, even convincing my parents and grandparents to buy a Chess set for me for my fourteenth birthday.

But Chess involves things I was never very good at...things like logic and strategy, even math. I remember that whenever I’d play against my buddies, some of whom were also jocks who played sports at which I was just as inept as I turned out to be at Chess, I always cringed when they’d move a piece on the board and say, “It’s your move.” I had no idea what to do when they said that, whether I was to make the first move of the game or I was three moves into it, just about the time when they would tell me, “Check.” “It’s your move” can be an intimidating phrase! It’s part of the reason I quit playing Chess.

For centuries now, scholars have debated about just where the Gospel of Mark ends. Some say that it comes to an abrupt and ambiguous halt at verse 8, the last verse of our Gospel lesson for today. Others say that there was another ending beyond these verses that has been lost. Some say that no, verses 9 through 20 in our Bibles today were always there. Others disagree, saying that they were added much later.

I don’t know which of those theories is true, but I do know this: It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to know that however Mark originally ended his telling of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, he did it with the same sort of abruptness we find at the end of our Bible lesson for today.

Consider that possibility for a moment...

Since we started last November looking deeply at Mark’s telling of the Gospel story about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, we’ve noticed that Mark always recounts events in a fast-paced journalistic style. He never uses fifty words when he can use two. The only sermon of Jesus that Mark quotes is made up of nineteen words. (You won't be that lucky this morning, by the way.)

And Mark begins his gospel with a sentence fragment. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” he says. It’s as if Mark was saying that all sixteen chapters of his book are just the beginning of the Gospel story and that even that Easter Sunday when Jesus rose from the dead was simply a part of the beginning of the Gospel—the Good News—of Jesus.

Something more than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection needs to happen and when we come to Mark 16:8, the last verse in our lesson, it still hasn’t happened. This is what it says: “So they [the three women who went to the tomb on the first Easter] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The women had come to anoint Jesus’ body as would ordinarily have been done before His burial. But there had been no time to do that before the coming of the Sabbath when He died on Good Friday. Now, they’re so stunned and terrified by their encounter with the “young man”--an angel--and his unbelievable news that Jesus had risen from the dead, that they don’t know what to say or do.

At this moment, the moment at which our Bible lesson ends, they haven’t seen the resurrected Jesus, haven’t heard His voice, haven’t seen Him walking among them. They’re asked to believe that what He promised would happen has actually happened, that He really has risen from the dead, giving the hope of everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus.

I can imagine Mark ending the beginning of his story of Jesus right here and, with a wink, telling all of us, “Now, it’s your move. Will you trust this Jesus, Who never broke a single promise He made, Who healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead, Who showed compassion to the prostitutes and the extortionists and the foreigners, Who loved sinners all the way to the cross, and promised new life to all who follow Him?”

That’s the question that the sparse words of Mark’s Gospel put before us today: Though like the women at the end of our Gospel lesson, we haven’t yet seen the risen Jesus, our call is to turn from sin and believe in Jesus, betting our whole lives on Him, just as He gave His whole life for us.

Recent polling shows that most Americans don’t believe in a physical resurrection. They don’t believe that Jesus rose or that those who follow Him will do the same.

Those were probably the sentiments of the women when the angel first told them that Jesus had risen from the dead. But Jesus is willing to risk our disbelief and our rejection today, even as He was when He walked the earth. Just as He did with the women at the tomb, He calls us to dare to believe in Him, to dare to trust and learn for ourselves—not because teachers, preachers, parents, or grandparents have told us so, but to know for ourselves—that Jesus is God, that He did die for us, He did rise for us, He is for us here today, and He calls us to live with Him forever.

Twenty-five years ago, two friends of Ann’s and mine were talking. One, who’d had no connection with Christ or the Church, was going through a very rough time. The other, a committed Christian, was mostly just listening, praying that, when the time was right, God would help make the right words come out. “What would you do?” asked the first friend. “I guess the first thing I would do is pray,” said the other. “Do you really believe all of that is true?” asked the first friend. “I do.” “But what if it isn’t true?” the first asked. With a shrug of the shoulders, the second one said, “What are you out if you do believe and it all turns not to be true?” Believe it or not, those words convinced that first friend—today a committed and deeply involved Christian—to take a chance on the risen Jesus. The only way to know for sure that the risen Jesus is real and there for you is to bet your life on Him, to dare to believe Him when He says that He’s there when we pray, when we worship with others, when we’re Baptized, when we receive Holy Communion, when we serve and witness in Jesus’ Name, and that He’ll be there when this life ends and we rise to live with Him forever.

Another true story, this one about a man who grew up on the streets of Northern Ireland, the son of one parent who was Roman Catholic and of another who was Protestant. He watched as people from those two branches of the Church of Jesus Christ used their religion as an excuse to kill each other during his country's troubles. He was appalled by what he saw people doing and saying in the Name of God. And yet, he found that he couldn't turn away from Jesus. He kept following Jesus and trusting Him. And just look at the world of good that Bono, the lead singer of U2, has done for the victims of AIDS and poverty in Africa because of his connection with Jesus Christ. In faith, he trusts God even if he still hasn't completely found what he's looking for. What might we accomplish as individuals or as a congregation if we moved with that kind of trust in Christ?

One of the things that Mark repeatedly emphasizes in his Gospel is how the promises Jesus makes come true. That’s underscored in our lesson today in the words of the angel who reminds the women that Jesus had already promised the disciples that after He was resurrected, He would meet them in the region close to the Sea of Galilee. “Tell Peter and the others that Jesus has gone ahead of them and will meet them there,” the angel tells the terrified women. Sure enough, the disciples would later find that to be true.

The point is that you can count on the Word of God and the Word of God in the flesh, Jesus. When the word from God is that Jesus Christ is risen, you can believe it. When the word from God is that He brings forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all who trust in Him, you can count on it.

But you and I can never know these things by hanging back, or by refusing to repent and follow, or by daring God to prove Himself to us. It’s up to us instead to put down our dukes, to dare to believe, and to follow.

Jesus is risen and He calls us to follow Him. In Christ, God has proven that He believes enough in us to die and rise for us. Now, it’s our move. It's our turn to believe in Him, to trust that the risen Savior is willing to stand with us as we live until the end of this age and beyond.

It's our move and each day, heaven waits for our response.


Few events in ancient history--maybe no events in ancient history--are as well documented so closely to the actual dates on which they happened than is true of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the first Easter.

But you will believe--trust--not when you accept the empirical truth of Jesus' resurrection. Instead, it happens when you dare to take Him at His word that He is God in the flesh come to bring new, eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and everlasting purpose to those who turn from life lived for themselves today and turn in trust in Jesus.

If you want to believe in the risen Jesus--something you may want to do, but have found it as hard as I did back when I was an atheist--then take the following steps:
  • Read the New Testament
  • Pray (even if, at first, you're sure nobody is listening)
  • Ask God to show you the ways in which you've displeased Him (even if you're not sure there is a God)
  • Receive Holy Communion every time it's offered
  • Spend time in fellowship with God's imperfect people
The risen Jesus has promised to meet you in these places. Dare to trust Him on that and I'm confident that if you continue to take these steps over a period of time, Christ will meet you.

Mind you, these aren't works that will earn you salvation. Christ has done everything necessary for you to to belong to God for all eternity. That is a simple matter of belief, or faith, or trust in Him. But in the steps listed above, Christ will meet you and Christ will incite faith within you.

(See here.)

Happy Easter!