Friday, December 18, 2009

"Let's Agree to Disagree...Not This Time!"

[That's the title of this piece, written by Pastor Jaynan Clark, president of the WordAlone Network, one of several groups committed to the renewal of Lutheranism in North America. What she writes is worthy of prayerful consideration. The article first appeared on the WordAlone web site this past Monday.]

It seems that whatever saying you want to use to express extreme consequences fits the current situation facing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“Pandora’s box has been opened.”

“The tangled web woven to deceive has been revealed.”

“The floodgates have been flung wide.”

“The little boy’s finger has been removed from the dike.”

Church leaders came out in support or ordaining persons in homosexual relationships and of accepting homosexual relationships as not sinful.

It happened three months ago when the ELCA churchwide assembly decided to put God’s Word up for a vote it, in effect, removed itself as a church, not just a Lutheran one but as a Christian one, in the minds and hearts of believers and unbelievers across the globe.

Ecumenical relations are strained to the point of rupture, ethnic/multicultural ministry has been disrupted and church after church is breaking off its relationship with the ELCA in search of new relationships and renewed mission.

All of this was done for what, for whom?

The argument has been made that it is in order to include those who have been excluded until now; to become a church that doesn’t just talk about full inclusion but practices it. I’ve heard it said by bishops in recent presentations explaining the assembly’s actions and the “good news” that now gays and lesbians can be “fully included” in the church that had excluded them from “fully serving” in the past.


I’m quite sure that Lutherans preach, teach and confess that through baptism we are fully entered into the ministry of the laity, the priesthood of all believers, which is of equal value and of parallel importance to ordained and lay professional ministries. Therefore, all the laity are “fully serving God.”

It seems that the vote in August changed even more about what we teach, preach and confess than it first appeared to. Either this is all just talk after the fact—to try to convince church attendees and givers to keep attending and giving because this was no big deal, only an act of justice and equal rights—or God really did make changes to His law and those in the ELCA, who wish to, may believe something new and different about ordained ministry than before.

Remember that gays and lesbians were not excluded or precluded from serving as ordained ministers in the ELCA. They in fact, it could be argued, had a higher calling, a calling to celibacy, to great self-discipline, to pick up very heavy crosses to follow the One calling them into service in His church.

Service that serves Him and not the self.

And, as with all ministers, they accepted the call to exercise chastity as witnesses to being called into ordained or professional lay ministries and to reject whatever sins the desires of the flesh oriented them toward. This was a shared standard for all hearing the calling to public ministry regardless of sexual preference or martial status.

Arguments over “orientation” continue to drone on in public forums and writings when that, in fact, has never been the issue and should have no bearing on the present predicament. We confess that we all are born into the state of original sin. We all have predispositions to sin against God and our neighbor.

We all declare independence from God’s will for our lives and try to make our own selves “gods.” This sin, in any form or habitual behavior is not to be held up as exemplary and blessed. But is to be confessed and, by the grace of God, denied as a desire of the sinful flesh requiring self-restraint. It is not to be celebrated as self-expression.

The reason all of this is such a big deal is that none of this is about sex or even homosexuality. This vote has no more to do with the homosexuals than the vote in 1999 had to do with the Episcopalians. What was put up for a vote both times was the authority of the Word of God and whether the church has the right or even the calling to mandate teaching and practice that are not scriptural and that conflict with our Lutheran confessions.

The voters this past August decided to “unsin” that which has been regarded as sinful behavior (homosexual practice), give a word of blessing where there is no scriptural, confessional or historical basis for it, hold up as exemplary in public ministry that which has been prohibited not only by the Bible but also through all church teachings and 2000-plus years of history (not to mention social and cultural prohibitions and glaring lessons in history of empires that fell as a result of sexual promiscuity.)

Who gave authority to the church, this human institution, to “unsin sin”? The true church where the Word of God is preached purely and the sacraments administered rightly is calling “foul.” This usurped authority has done nothing less than engaged in warfare against the very basics of the Christian faith. This warfare against our faith has ushered in a new religion that elevates the self and its authority through its own conscience, identity and desires to the position of “god.” This is a matter of significance that knows no bounds historically, geographically or temporally.

There are eternal consequences for leading Jesus’ flock astray.

Satan is honored and revered when God our Father, in the person of Jesus Christ, is denied His lordship, sovereignty and “way.” To now give the impression of false security—that this will not affect you and is a matter that we can disagree on and yet live in harmony and peace by appealing to a false, fabricated unity that trumps truth—is unacceptable and necessarily must be addressed and rejected.

Clearly there seems to be a realization by some of the leadership in the ELCA that they underestimated the response if they changed the teaching and practices of the ELCA on human sexuality, marriage and ordination. We now hear the appeal from the ELCA that it won’t affect you or your church if your conscience is bound in such a way as to disagree.

Really? Look around and listen because it already has.

It already has affected every last church that is a part of the ELCA and the ripples go way beyond that to other Lutherans, other Christians and to the unbelievers who can’t believe the church would stand for this—by not standing at all.

We also hear how those of us who oppose the changes are the ones bringing schism, division and conflict into the church.

Well, right back at you with another old saying, “That dog won‘t hunt.”

This is becoming an endless game of Hot Potato. Who is to be left responsible for the division and schism and conflict? I’m reminded of the quote by Mignon McLaughlin, an American journalist and author, “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

The 28th Article of the Augsburg Confession is quite clear. That final article of our confession is entitled “The Power of the Bishops.” I will cite two paragraphs from the whole:

Parish ministers According to divine right, therefore, it is the office of the bishop to preach the Gospel, forgive sins, judge doctrine and condemn doctrine that is contrary to the Gospel, and exclude from the Christian community the ungodly whose wicked conduct is manifest. All this is to be done not by human power but by God’s Word alone. On this account parish ministers and churches are bound to be obedient to the bishops according to the saying of Christ in Luke 10:16, ‘He who hears you hears me.’ On the other hand, if they teach, introduce or institute anything contrary to the Gospel, we have God’s command not to be obedient in such cases, for Christ says in Matt. 7:15, ‘Beware of false prophets.’ St. Paul also writes in Galatians 1:8‘Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.’ and in II Cor. 13:8, ‘We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.’

. . . . . We are bound to follow the apostolic rule which commands us to obey God rather than men. St. Peter forbids the bishops to exercise lordship as if they had power to coerce the churches according to their will. It is not our intention to find ways of reducing the bishops’ power, but we desire and pray that they may not coerce our consciences to sin. If they are unwilling to do this and ignore our petition, let them consider how they will answer for it in God’s sight, inasmuch as by their obstinacy they offer occasion for division and schism, which they should in truth help to prevent.

It seems quite clear to the majority of witnesses that schism results from the actions of those who import a teaching that is contrary to Christianity, one that drives the sinner into themselves, into their sinful desires and expression rather than calling them out of themselves and to their Lord and Savior whose calling it is to deny themselves, take up the Cross and follow Him.

It is truly sad that those who hold to the historic and faithful teachings of the Christian church are now the ones left searching for new church homes or working to build new ones. It has all the makings of a tragedy and yet is so biblical that with it—preaching, teaching and confessing only Jesus Christ—will come persecutions in many forms of denial, rejection and disregard. However, none should be led to despair; for many now are experiencing a deeper sense of identity in Jesus who reigns over them and their lives rather than looking for their own ‘gods’ inside themselves.

The ELCA’s new religion of “Selfism” has all the marks of many of the old heresies of the past, such as gnosticism and enthusiasm. But the ELCA added the hedonism, humanism and narcissism of this post-enlightenment, post-modern age that has outgrown any need for absolute truth and any authority beyond that of the individual. Embracing this new religion and making it official within the ELCA is a very serious matter that can not be ignored or merely a point of disagreement as we individually appeal to our consciences.

A further result of the assembly vote was the redefining of conscience to now mean being bound to the self and its desires rather than being captive to the Word of God as Luther’s conscience was in his last stand that was based on the Word and sound reason. The redefining of this historic Lutheran stand only has further confused the true issue. It has taken the topic further inside the self/sinner while attempting to give comfort where there is no basis on which to do so.

Captivity to the Word of God and being bound to Jesus Christ alone produce our true Christian freedom, which drives us from our selves to our Savior. The definition of despair is to be driven deeper and deeper into the self and isolation and away from the forgiveness of God. That is not a blessing to be given by the true church of Jesus Christ, but a curse.

That which can not be tolerated or ignored or regarded as adiaphora (an indifferent matter) needs to be addressed as a matter of grave importance not as one to “agree to disagree about.” Further, it is necessary that it be rejected and therefore not be passed on to the faithful and unbelieving as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it must be identified rightly as contrary to God’s Word and therefore not “good news” at all. Here we stand today and we can do no other.

Every church and individual member has been affected now by this decision. The questions to be asked and answered seem to be, “Why would you stay in the ELCA, how does doing so help your mission and ministry,” together with, “why would you leave the ELCA and how would your mission and ministry be damaged by doing so?”

For many it has become very difficult to find any reason at all to stay—beyond personal relationships. Here the division that Jesus Himself spoke about seems uncomfortably inevitable because truth has been compromised for a false, fabricated unity.

A line has been crossed. That is no mere saying but a reality and so we pray that God will again draw straight with our crooked lines. We ask the Lord to realign faithful Lutherans and Christians in this time of great renewal and reawakening by raising up His faithful church, fresh and new in our midst, for His sake and in order that His church may make disciples again by telling His true story.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Parsley Up to His Old Snake Oil Gig

Central Ohio snake oil salesman and embarrassment to Christianity, Rod Parsley, is pulling an Oral Roberts. One day after the death of the grand-daddy of the heretical "prosperity gospel" movement, Parsley was proving that there's no swindle like an old, proven swindle.

According to this report from The Columbus Dispatch, Parsley has gone to the airwaves, telling those who pay attention to him that his personal ministry empire is in financial trouble. It's the worst attack from the devil he's ever encountered, RodPar says.

Now read what Parsley said next:
"I believe as you sow your seed today in faith, God will reward you, I know he will, in a supernatural harvest in the area you need it most..."
When Rod tells his viewers "sow your seed today in faith," he means "send money to my organization." And the promise? In exchange for that, he says, "God will reward a supernatural harvest in the area you need it most..."

This, folks, is "works righteousness," the opposite of Biblical faith in every way. We cannot earn the blessings of God. They are free gifts from a God Who is gracious. That is what the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, teaches. We may block God's blessings from our lives through willful disobedience, careless heedlessness to God, or (are you paying attention, Rod) blasphemy, speaking falsehoods in or misusing God's Name. But we cannot earn God's blessings.

Nor can we give money in order to buy our way out of the hardships and pain that come in life on this planet. Jesus says that God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). No one is exempt from the possibility of hardship. But God blesses us with His presence, strength, and promises even in the midst of our hardships.

Christians are to give, of course, and sometimes, sacrificially. But we're to do so not in the expectation of reward. We're to do it in gratitude for what God has already done for us, especially what He has already done for us in Jesus Christ on a cross and from an empty tomb. The New Testament book of Ephesians says:
For by grace you have been saved [from sin, death, and the devil] through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
As to Parsley's promise that after giving money to him, donors will be blessed in an area they need it most, God has already covered that. Jesus teaches us, you know, to pray for our daily bread, a petition that calls us to acknowledge that, God already gives all of us what we need.* This is why Martin Luther says of the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer--"Give us this day our daily bread":
God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all people, though sinful, but we ask in this prayer that he will help us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanks.
Parsley's appeal for money is an old scam, designed to leverage money from the pockets of the desperate who need to remember that while the faithful use of our money, first of all for God's purposes and Christ's mission for His people, is a serious matter, we don't give in order to get something from God. We give because we've already gotten the greatest gift of all: new life as a free gift for all who dare to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

If you happen to be on Rod Parsley's mailing list and he drops you a line promising you special blessings if you send some money his way, how about doing this? Take whatever insert might be in the mailing and scrawl across it, "Dear Rod: No Deal. God has already blessed me in Jesus Christ. Sincerely, A Christian Believer." Then send the return envelope without any cash, but with a promise to pray both that God will guide Parsley and his ministry and that Parsley and his ministry will actually be open to that guidance.

Many ministries are facing tough financial times these days, as are a lot of people. We're coming out of the worst econcomic crisis since the Great Depression. While I definitely believe that the devil is active in our world, the fact that Parsley's ministry is short on cash doesn't mean it's under demonic attack.

Instead of making false, unbiblical promises in exchange for cold, hard cash, Parsley should pray for God's help, then, simply, explain what needs to be done, and finally, be prepared to maintain what is essential in his ministry--probaby a lot less than he thinks is essential--and to cut what God seems to be saying is unnecessary.

Don't expect Parsley to do any of that any time soon. And don't expect him to drop his heretical "prosperity gospel" talk either. That's how he built his empire.

*There is, of course, a human problem with sharing God's bounties with the world, attributable to sin. The earth produces more than enough for all. It's just that some hoard or use too much and cause others to go hungry, naked, or thirsty. This must change! Read Matthew 25:31-46

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Faith to See The Other World in This World

[This was shared tonight during midweek Advent worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Matthew 1:18-24
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “There is another world, the same as this one.” A Christian ethics professor, Stanley Hauerwas, quotes Rilke and says, “We simply must learn to see the world in which we live as the world that the Father created and redeemed through the Son.”

Often, you know, some Christians get caught up in a sort of other-worldliness, acting as though they're just skimming along this world's surface, too holy to be bothered with the things that mere mortals care about.

They're like the fellow whose boss grew so frustrated with his employee's constant preaching and failure to get his job done that the boss finally had to fire him. He was, the employer said, so heavenly-minded that he was no earthly good.

That happens to people who mistakenly see Christian faith as being all about the sweet by-and-by.

But the call of a Christian is not to bide our time with sweet talk until we die and go to heaven.

Our call is to follow Jesus Christ in the rough and tumble of the here and now, even when it's hard.

We’re called to understand that though this world has fallen into sin, it is still the world God created. And though, because of all that the condition of sin has unleashed—a penchant for personal sin, a susceptibility to illness, a victimization by death--this is still the world to which Jesus came on the first Christmas in order that its people might be saved from eternal separation from God. It’s this world into which Jesus sends us to love and serve others and to make disciples.

Through the eyes of Christian faith, you and I are called to see this world as one worthy of our making the very same sacrifice Jesus Christ made when He went to the cross. Right now, we're called to live in this world. Jesus calls us to see in every person on this planet someone He loves, someone for Whom He died and rose.

I thought about all of this last night when I once again considered Joseph, the man God chose to be the earthly father for God the Son, Jesus.

In some ways, God asked more of Joseph and of Joseph’s faith in God than God even asked of Mary, about whom we spoke two weeks ago. I’m not belittling what God asked of Mary at all, as you well know. Mary, the Bearer of God, risked all—reputation, marriage, and life itself—when she trustingly accepted the message from the angel and said, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

But, as changes came over Mary’s body, as the baby in her womb began to move and then kick, and as she could know as nobody else could that the baby she bore wasn’t conceived in the usual way, she carried and lived with tangible proof of what she accepted. He body told her day in and day out that she really was carrying God-in-the-flesh within her.

Joseph though, had to believe without such knowing. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In his acceptance of the message God delivered to him in a dream and of the assertions of Mary, Joseph confirmed his belief that there is another world: It's the same as this one, unfolding here and now, but happening at another level from what most people dare to see.

Through the eyes of faith, Joseph was able to see more deeply, more clearly, truer. His wife was pregnant, yes; but she hadn’t been unfaithful. She bore a child, yes; but not just any child.

Today, some will look at Jesus on the cross and see defeat. But we can see victory: God conquering the power of sin and death over our lives.

Some will look at sinners thriving and take it as confirmation that there is no God and that anything goes. But we can see the patience of God with sinners and the time God is giving those of us in the Church to fulfill our mission of sharing the possibility of forgiveness and new life through faith in Christ with others.

Some see death, tragedy, and fatal diseases and blame God or call God impotent. But even amid the ashes and tears of this world, we see that God is making a new world beyond tragedy and tears, a new world where all believers in Christ will one day live with God in, using Luther’s words from The Small Catechism, everlasting “righteous, innocence, and blessedness.”

My family and I attended a memorial service for an old family friend from our home church on Monday night. Bill died down in South Carolina, where he and his wife had made their home over the twenty-six years since his retirement. Pastor Phillips, once the pastor of our home church gave the message and reminded us that after losing a loved one, we may feel orphaned. But he also reminded us of the promise Jesus gave to His heavy-hearted disciples on the night before His arrest. Jesus said that He would soon be leaving them. But then Jesus promised, “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you;. In a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me.” (John 14:18-19)

Joseph is a model of Christian faith because, by faith, he saw what others couldn't see and what few would have even been willing to see.

He saw the Child in Mary’s womb as the world’s God and Savior.

He saw God working in a world that was often unspeakably hard and unforgiving.

How did Joseph do that?

The Bible reveals no secret formula for having that kind of faith. Joseph’s faith was built just as ours must be built.

Joseph was able to trust in God because Joseph was willing to trust in God. God took that willingness and built a faith out of it.

Just as God builds redwoods from tiny seeds, God builds faith from the seeds of our willingness to follow, even though we only see God’s promises through a glass darkly.

By faith, Joseph came to know that God was not leaving him orphaned.

By faith, Joseph gained the assurance of things hoped for.

By faith, he could see what others couldn’t see.

May this Advent and Christmas season find us willing to trust God.

May God help us to see through the eyes of faith the new world that He is already creating through His Son right now in the midst of this world.

May we see in the Christ Child not just a pleasant story in the midst of a humdrum and difficult world, but the One Who turns this humdrum and difficult our world—and our lives—around for all eternity. Amen

[Painting above: Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Michael D. O'Brien.]

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

About the Man Who Cried, "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

[I received this on December 7, as one of my colleague Glen VanderKloot's daily emailed inspirations. It tells a story I had never read before. God is still in the business of transforming lives for all eternity!]

The Story of Mitsuo Fuchida
[Mitsuo] Fuchida grew up loving his native Japan and hating the
United States, which treated Asian immigrants harshly in the
first half of the twentieth century. Fuchida attended a military
academy, joined Japan's Naval Air Force, and by 1941, with
10,000 flying hours behind him, had established himself as
the nation's top pilot. When Japanese military leaders needed
someone to command a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor,
they chose Fuchida.

Fuchida's was the voice that sent his aircraft carrier the
message "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!) indicating
the success of the surprise mission. Later, he too was surprised
when he learned that, of the 70 officers who participated in
the raid, he was the only one who returned alive. He had
another close call when he was shot down during the battle
of Midway in 1942, but despite serious injuries, he survived again.

By 1945 he had attained the position of the Imperial Navy's
Air Operations Officer. On August 6 he was eating breakfast
in Nara, Japan, where a new military headquarters was under
construction, when he heard about a bomb dropped on
Hiroshima. He flew to investigate, then sent a grim report
to the Imperial Command.

On the same day, an American POW named Jacob DeShazer
felt moved by the Holy Spirit to pray for peace. DeShazer had
been in captivity since 1942, when, as a member of Doolittle's
Raiders, he dropped bombs near Tokyo and then was forced
to parachute into a Japanese-controlled part of China.

While imprisoned, first in Nanjing and later in Beijing,
DeShazer had become a Christian. He found his heart softened
toward his Japanese captors. After being liberated, DeShazer
wrote a widely distributed essay, "I Was a Prisoner of the
Japanese," detailing his experiences of capture, conversion,
and forgiveness.

Fuchida and DeShazer met in 1950. DeShazer had returned
to Japan in 1948 as a missionary. Fuchida had read DeShazer's
testimony, bought a Bible, and converted from Buddhism to
Christianity. DeShazer had recently finished a 40-day fast for
revival in Japan when Fuchida came to his home and introduced
himself. DeShazer welcomed the new convert and encouraged
him to be baptized. While DeShazer continued to plant churches
throughout Japan, Fuchida became an evangelist, spreading a
message of peace and forgiveness in his native country and
throughout Asian-American communities.

Fuchida died 25 years ago, on May 30, 1976. Like dynamite
inventor Alfred Nobel, who wished his legacy to be one of peace
rather than destruction, Fuchida wanted the message of his
changed heart to supersede the memory of his infamous attack.

He wrote, "That morning [December 7] ... I lifted the curtain
of warfare by dispatching that cursed order, and I put my whole
effort into the war that followed. ... [But] after buying and reading
the Bible, my mind was strongly impressed and captivated.
I think I can say today without hesitation that God's grace has
been set upon me."

Elisha Coffman*

Scripture: James 3:17-18 [NUV]

17But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure;
then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and
good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18Peacemakers who sow in
peace raise a harvest of righteousness.


Lord, use us to bring your peace and hope to others,
even the most unlikely characters.


[Photos above, top: Mitsuo Fuchida as a young Japanese Imperial Navy officer; bottom: Fuchida, photographed during his later years, while serving as a Christian evangelist.]

*This piece was written in 2001, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Joy in the Middle of Sorrow

[This is the text of the sermon for today's funeral for Violet, an 89-year old member of our Saint Matthew family who died this past Thursday.]

Philippians 4:4-8
I sometimes teased Violet, calling her the Energizer Bunny. Back in the 1950s, she was told that she could probably expect to live only five to seven more years. Yet, Violet kept going and going and going.

Even in the two-plus years since I became her pastor, I’ve seen Violet confound expectations, surviving major challenges to her health.

But what was even more remarkable to me than Violet’s physical survival, was the cheerfulness with which she did keep going. Despite complications from her Addison’s Disease, going blind, being confined to a bed or a wheelchair, and finding it increasingly difficult to hear, Violet remained a person on whom her family could rely for a supportive ear, an interested heart, and a cheery welcome. Love and laughter emanated from Violet any time you saw her. She gave of herself unstintingly.

And this wasn’t something she offered just to her family. In the past several days, people from Saint Matthew have commented on how she was always so caring and affirming to others. She got along well with Ruth, her roommate at the Skilled Nursing Center. And whenever I came to visit, she was happy and welcoming. She enjoyed the monthly Holy Communion services I do at the hospital, something that came about as a result of efforts by Shirley and Violet. It has become an important part of my ministry; but it will seem odd when I return there next week and not see Violet.

What exactly was the source of Violet’s capacity for dealing with life’s setbacks? And how can her family and friends, those who mourn her passing, have that same capacity, not just as you deal with the grief you feel today, but also as you face your own challenges in your own lives?

Well, it doesn’t take a Doctor of Psychology to figure out that, in part, Violet was by nature, a person prone to greater cheerfulness. Some people are just like that and they’re huge blessings to the rest of us!

But that wasn’t the only source of Violet’s upbeat tenacity. Our second Bible lesson for worship this past week at Saint Matthew was Philippians 4:4-7. Philippians is a letter written by the apostle Paul to the first century church at the Greek city of Philippi. Paul wrote this letter while he was a prisoner, confined much as Violet must have felt confined in recent years.

Paul was imprisoned by the Roman Empire for being a Christian. Violet was imprisoned by advancing bodily degeneration.

No matter the source of confinement though, confinement isn’t enjoyable. It makes you feel that life is going by and you have no chance to participate in it. Confinement, whether due to injustice or the ravages of age, will almost always breed resentment, bitterness, and anger in those who are confined, and understandably so.

But some rare people show us that it’s possible to be joyous even in the midst of bitter, adverse experiences. And some show us the truth that the last freedom all of us have, even when all other freedoms have been taken from us, is the freedom to choose how to respond to our circumstances.

From his confinement as a prisoner, Paul writes these remarkable words in Philpppians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You see, joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness happens for a time and is gone. It’s subject to moods and circumstances.

Joy, on the other hand, is a way of life born of constant contact with the Lord Jesus Christ, Who by His death and resurrection, has conquered sin, death, and futile living. Joy is the Baptismal birthright of every Christian.

Joy belongs to those who know that in adverse, sad, or even tragic circumstances, we can leave worry behind. We can turn to God in prayer in Jesus’ Name and let God hear our requests and trust God to do what's best. We can experience a peace from God that goes beyond human understanding. We can know that we are safe in the arms of Christ even when this fleeting life ends.

Knowing that we are in the hands of Jesus also gives us the freedom to take up the lifestyle that Paul commends in the very next verse of his letter to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Paul’s words aren’t the shallow exhortations of a motivational speaker to “accentuate the positive.”

Just before our lesson, in Philippians, and in his other New Testament letters, Paul acknowledgea that life can be tough. It can be unfair and unspeakable tragedies and challenges may befall us. Paul, as I said, wrote these words from prison. So, he was no pollyanna!

But when you know that Jesus Christ has set you free from sin and death, you know that He can also set you free from the constant anger, self-pity, and self-hatred that confine so many people who, unlike Paul, never have been arrested or who, unlike Violet, never sat in a wheelchair, never went blind, or never fought a chronic disease for more than fifty years.

Christ set Violet free to do live precisely the life Paul commended to the Philippian Christians. She could focus on the honorable, the pure, the pleasing, and the commendable. She took delight in little things. She gave you--she gave all of us--love and laughter.

Violet’s great legacy to you is Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the source of all true joy.

Jesus Christ is the One Who sustained Violet and Jesus Christ is the One Who can sustain you today and in the days to come.

And so, as you deal with the loss of one who loved you much and who you loved much in return, this is my simple message: Trust in Jesus Christ, the One Who conquered sin and death for all who will dare to turn from sin and believe in Him wholeheartedly.

As you surrender each day to Christ, He will give you strength and peace and everlasting life and, as Violet showed you, Jesus will also give you joy that nothing can destroy!

God bless you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

By Repentant Lives, Showing Ourselves to Be "Kin of God"

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

Luke 3:7-20
Many years ago, on a cold morning, a newspaper boy in a large city was out on the street, selling his papers. He stood barefoot, warming his feet on a grating that had a bakery below.

A woman came along and, seeing how the boy was shivering, asked him if he owned any shoes. "No," he said. She then asked if the boy would like a pair. "Yes!" he replied enthusiastically.

So, the woman took him to a nearby department store and bought socks and shoes for the boy. At that, the kid excitedly ran out of the store and resumed selling his papers. He didn’t even take the time to say thank you. The woman was a little disappointed by this ingratitude.

But just as she was leaving the store, the boy ran back into the store and asked, “Lady, I wanna ask you a question. Are you God’s wife?”

She stammered, “No, but I am one of His children.”

The boy replied, “Well, I knowed you must be some kin of His.”

People can tell when we have a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ!

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is doing his special ministry of preparing people for the entry of Jesus into their lives. John calls the people to repent, to turn away from their sin so that their hearts will be emptied of evil and they can be open to the forgiveness that comes to all who receive Jesus as the God and Lord of their lives.

To signify their changed lives, John calls the repentant to be baptized in the Jordan River. Crowds show up in droves to hear John’s preaching and to be baptized.

John should have been pleased. By the standards of the world, he was a great success. He set up shop to preach and lots of people were heading for the desert outside of Jerusalem to hear him. He called people to be baptized and they lined up by the hundreds.

But John was suspicious. He didn’t want to be the latest fad, the spiritual flavor of the month. John wanted people’s lives to be changed as they surrendered themselves and their sins to God.

So, John started chastising the crowds: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that are worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ [It isn’t enough to say, “My mom and dad always went to church.” Or, “I’m a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.” John goes on to say...] for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham...”

It’s all very good for us to express sorrow for the ways we’ve hurt God or others, as the crowds who thronged to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. But, John says, unless we change the direction of our lives, our repentance is nothing more than a hollow religious act.

When we truly repent, we become like the woman who bought the shoes for the newspaper boy. By our changed lives, others see that we’re kin to God.

That’s why to one group of people after another in today’s lesson, John says, “Live your repentance. God has planted the seed of love and forgiveness in your life. Now bear fruits of repentance.”

There is nothing odder or more appreciated than the life of a person genuinely changed by the love of God, somebody who is bearing the fruit of genuine repentance.

An acquaintance of mine once told me about a habit she has. These days you know, it seems that young people are so dependent on calculators that many are flustered by having to count out change at retailers’ cash registers. My acquaintance says that often, a young person working at register will give them too much change. This person will say, “Excuse me. I think you’ve made a mistake.” And just as the young clerk is about to get defensive, she’ll explain, “You gave me a dollar too much.” When this happens, the mystified clerk will say something like, “Thank you so much. If I had been off, I wouldn’t have made my bank and been here all night long trying to figure what went wrong.”

And don't be surprised if some people will go out of their ways to test our commitment to the repentant life of a Christian. Walt Kallestad is pastor of Lutheran Community Church of Joy in the Phoenix area. He tells about being on his way to a meeting one day when he decided that he needed to pick up a soft drink at a convenience store. He pulled off, made his purchase, and was barreling down the road when he realized that the clerk had given him too much change. It was a mistake on the clerk's part. Nine people out of ten probably would have just gone on to their meeting and forgotten about the whole thing. But it bothered Kallestad. So, he turned around and went back to the clerk. "You gave me too much change," he said. "I know," said the clerk. "I was at your church last Sunday and heard you talking about the importance of honesty in business dealings. I wanted to know if you were for real."

I really do wish that those of us who follow Jesus would confound and mystify the world like that all the time, defying people's expectations that we Christians will hypocritically be as dishonest and unethical as the rest of the world. I wish that I woulddefy those expectations more!

Can you imagine the positive impact we could have on people if, with any consistency, we did as John the Baptist suggests today: bore the fruit of repentance, living as people grateful for Jesus, the Savior to Whom John pointed?

True story. Little Marty Rayner had returned from a secret mission with an unexpected item, a gift for his friend Kenny. Marty’s mother, Diane, watched her son wrap the gift in bright Christmas paper. Because Kenny’s family was poor but too proud to accept gifts they couldn’t reciprocate, Marty sneaked across the pasture, under an electric fence, and up to Kenny’s front door. He pushed the doorbell and then, ran like the wind.

The two boys were like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, always getting into little adventures together. Marty was deaf in one ear, but never complained about it. Kenny never seemed to mind his friend’s problem. Marty had bought a compass for Kenny with his own money and after Diane had explained about Kenny’s mom’s “admirable pride,” Marty decided that nobody ever needed to know who had left a Christmas present on Kenny’s front porch.

Diane was proud as she watched her eight year old son share a gift with no expectation of being rewarded. She thought to herself, “This must be what Christmas is all about!”

But when Marty came back from his errand, he was wobbly, his eyes filled with tears. What was wrong?, Diane wondered. As Marty came into the kitchen, Diane saw it: a bright red welt emerging on his face. In a hurry to escape from Kenny’s house undetected, Marty had run straight into that electric fence. It had knocked him down and stunned him. As Diane hugged her sobbing boy close, she wondered, as I suppose any parent would, how God could have let a boy doing something so wonderful be hurt like this.

Christmas day came. Diane and her family opened their Christmas presents. She could see that happily, the burn on Marty’s face, extending from his mouth to his ear, wasn’t serious. But even then, she wondered how God could allow such a cruel thing to happen to somebody who was so giving.

Later on Christmas morning, Kenny came to visit Marty. Kenny showed off his new compass and Marty just smiled and congratulated his friend. He never did tell Kenny that he’d been the one who gave this Christmas present Kenny so cherished.

“That’s when Diane noticed it. As the boys were talking closely with one another, Marty seemed to be hearing with the ear that was totally deaf. [There had been a Christmas miracle.]...the school nurse confirmed that Marty had full hearing in that formerly deaf ear. The doctor could only guess at what had happened—when Marty hit that electric fence, the doctor surmised that somehow the electric current had shocked that ear into hearing.”

I wish that I could tell you all this morning that if we live our faith the way Marty did, then miracles of healing and provision will come our way.

But that’s not the way things work in this imperfect world.

We bear fruits of repentance—we perpetrate acts of love and kindness and service—not so that we can earn heavenly miracles or get dibs on God’s love. We serve others because of the incredible service God has already done for us.

God isn’t a miserly old coot from whose clenched fists we have to pry love or blessings.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we live our faith because on the first Christmas day 2000 years ago, God already gave us the best Christmas present ever: His love and the possibility of new life through Jesus Christ to all who repent and believe in Him.

Jesus loved us enough to bear a cross for us. He loves us enough to share His victory over death with everyone who will genuinely turn from sin—repent—and follow Him.

Little Marty had no thought of his deaf ear when he gave that compass to Kenny. His eyes and his thoughts were on one thing only. He was thinking of the baby in the manger. He was thinking about Jesus.

This Christmas season, I hope and pray that all of us—including me—will put our focus on Jesus where it belongs.

When that happens, we might find ourselves doing odd and amazing things—like making anonymous gifts to needy neighbors or inviting unchurched friends to worship with us.

But however we respond to Jesus’ love, may this Christmas season find us all moving...
  • from feeling our faith to doing it...
  • from believing to living...
  • from being blessed to being blessings.
Two thousand years ago, God came to us as a servant born in a barn.

By our service in the Name of Jesus, let’s show the world that we really are kin to God…and that by the same grace that saved us, they can be kin to God, too. Amen

[You might want to see this cartoon.]

Our Eternal Hope

[This was shared during a menorial service on Saturday, December 12, for Bob, a member of our congregation who passed away suddenly last Monday.]

John 3:16
Philippians 4:4-9
1 Corinthians 15:19

I promised Bea I would make this brief.

Bob’s sudden passing has come as a terrible shock to Bea, to Bob’s and Bea’s families, to Bob’s friends, and to all of us who are part of the Saint Matthew Lutheran Church family. And there’s particular poignance to Bob’s death coming during the Christmas season, his favorite time of the year.

Just this past Sunday, barely twenty-four hours before we said good- bye to Bob, he was in the sanctuary of Saint Matthew for worship. When Bob shared the peace, he didn’t do it like some stoic old Lutheran, with a limp handshake and maybe eye contact. In fact, this past week, Bob wrapped me with his trademark bear hug, nearly picking me up off of the floor and momentarily taking my breath away. I had been heading back to the altar for the offering when I encountered Bob and he said, “You didn’t think you were going to get away without a hug, did you?” No, and I wouldn’t have wanted to!

On the previous Friday, my daughter and I ran into Bob as we walked to the bank. It was part of a day that saw him and several of you decorate the house-inside and out—for Christmas. He was having fun!

And now, under circumstances we couldn’t have imagined just a week ago, we gather not only to remember an accomplished, loving, compassionate man who meant so much to so many, but also to commend him to the care and keeping of the Lord in Whom he believed, the Lord Whose birth he so enjoyed celebrating.

No words spoken here today can fill the void left in the lives of Bob’s family and friends. You who mourn today have sustained a loss and the grief will never fully subside.

But this is a moment to remember an important truth. This life, with its joys and griefs, laughter and tears, is not our ultimate destination.

The Bible teaches us that when we die, we will stand before God. Those who have trustingly surrendered to the love and grace of God given through Jesus Christ will be with God forever. Jesus puts it this way in a famous conversation He had with a man named Nicodemus: “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.”

When I re-read those words the other day, I couldn’t help thinking that Bob, who so loved Christmas, is now enjoying an eternal Christma with the Savior which none of us can even imagine right now!

Some people, you know, latch onto God because they think God is a good-luck charm who can help them get through times like these. God does want to help us through tough times. But the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, Who came into our world on the first Christmas two-thousand years ago, wants to be more than a good luck charm and more than a crutch to help us through tough times.

He wants to be our God, King, and Helper, our Lord, Savior, and Friend for all eternity.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in [the God we know in Jesus] Christ, we are of all [people] most to be pitied.”

Today then, to sustain you through your grief and to give you a hope that never dies, I want to simply remind you to put your full trust in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is God in the flesh, the Christ Child Who came into our world to first, live with us, then to die for us, killing the power of sin and death over the lives of those who believe in Him, and finally, to rise for us, opening eternity to those who believe in Him.

Jesus also established His Church as a place where ordinary believers can share their joys and sorrows, worship and get to know God better, serve others in Jesus’ Name, hear God’s Word of hope and encouragement, and, among other things, share God’s peace with one another, as Bob so enthusiastically did this past Sunday morning.

I know that your grief is great. But God’s love for you and God’s willingness to comfort and help you and to love you for all eternity is even greater.

Today, grasp hold of the strong embrace of Jesus. Even in times like these, He has an endless supply of help and hope to share with you. Amen

Minaret Piece in 'Better Living' Mentioned by Pew Project on Journalism

This piece on Swiss voters' decision to thwart the construction of minarets in their country has been cited as exemplifying a widespread defense of freedom of religion by bloggers.

In my post on the Swiss vote, I said that thwarting the religious freedoms of Muslims was wrong and represented a threat to the freedoms of all people to practice the religions of their choice.

The Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism regularly monitors what is being written by bloggers to see how the concerns receiving the greatest attention among them compare to the stories receiving the greatest focus in mainstream media outlets. The reference to my piece on the Swedish minaret vote came in the PEJ New Media Index for November 30 through December 4.

This explains the mission of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.