Friday, October 28, 2011

The Reformation Polka

I've shared this before, but we're celebrating Reformation Sunday this weekend. So, here it is again.

Certainty Among Mysteries

There are mysteries beyond fathoming. But one thing that is not mysterious, because God has clearly revealed Himself in Jesus, is that God loves us. God stands with us in all of this life's mysteries and has revealed the new, everlasting life belongs to all who trust in Christ. Read today's installment from Our Daily Bread.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Leap That Brings Hope

[This was shared during the Celebration of Life Service of Worship and Holy Communion for the family and friends of Glenn, a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. The service happened in the Saint Matthew sanctuary on October 25.]

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
John 14:1-7
I first met Glenn over the telephone. He called me in June of 2007 about interviewing for the call to become pastor of Saint Matthew. Glenn was president of the congregation and chair of the call committee.

That first phone call, of course, was hardly a getting-to-know-you conversation; it was little more than setting the day and time for my interview. But very quickly, in several personal meetings and telephone calls, I came to form an impression of Glenn, an impression that only grew stronger after we came to Logan.

Glenn was a people person with a quick wit. He loved his wife, his family, and his friends.

He loved getting together with people, especially when getting together entailed food. “Meet to eat,” I learned early on, was one of Glen’s favorite mottos.

He cared about the Church and its mission. (Boy, did he care about the mission of the Church!)

And he had a strong and informed faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, it’s one thing to have a strong faith in Christ when things are going relatively well in your life. It’s another to still have that faith when hard times come.

The day that Glenn let us know he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I spoke with him. “We know, of course,” he told me evenly, “that this cancer will eventually take my life.” But, he explained, he and Sue were committed to fighting together for the ability to life to the full for as long as he could.

Then he said, “I’ve had a good life. And I have no doubt about where I’m headed. So, we’ll just go from there.”

Now, it seemed to Ann and me as we absorbed Glenn’s news, that if any two people had a right be bitter or to rail at the rotten hand this fallen world had dealt them, it was Glenn and Sue.

They’d had little time to savor their retirement. First, Glenn had required a major surgery. Then, sharing the care for Sue’s father with her sister occupied much of their time until his death shortly before Glenn learned of his cancer. And I know that there were times when Glenn had questions, when he felt overwhelmed. The same things will happen to you who mourn his passing in the weeks and months to come: You’ll have questions; you’ll feel overwhelmed.

But every time I visited with Glenn, no matter how tired or out of sorts he was feeling, the enduring, compelling traits of his personality remained and, in one way or another, he would affirm what he had told me the first time we talked about his cancer, “I’ve had a good life. I have no doubt where I’m headed.”

It was because of these things about Glenn’s (and Sue’s) life and character that the words of Paul from Thessalonians seem so appropriate for us today. “We do not want you to be uninformed,” Paul wrote to the church at first-century Thessalonica in Greece, “about those [believers] who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

You see, the Thessalonian Christians were worried because when they first came to faith, they’d been sure that the risen and ascended Jesus was going to quickly return to the earth and fully establish His kingdom. As the first century after Jesus’ resurrection moved on, believers in Christ everywhere were starting to become edgy. Persecution for their faith was intensifying, all the signs that Jesus had said would presage His return had appeared, and yet Jesus hadn’t come back. Paul wanted to assure the church at Thessalonica that the One Who had died and risen for them had not forgotten them. I’m sure that Glenn would want you to know that too. Jesus, Who died and rose to give new and everlasting life to all who believe in Him, has not forgotten you or His promises to you.

Because of Jesus Christ, Paul was convinced—Glenn was convinced—that believers in Jesus Christ could grieve, of course. But we don’t need to grieve as others do who have hope. Followers of Jesus Christ have hope. Glenn always had that hope!

At one level, that a man like Glenn, who was a businessperson with an inquiring mind, read history, and considered the evidence on all sides of arguments, trusted in a risen Savior he could not see, is something of a miracle.

Faith in Christ is always a miracle of God’s mercy and grace.

“No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” the New Testament teaches.

God gives faith in Christ not to those who marshal the most religious facts, or satisfactorily answer all their questions, or, who through science or logic, eradicate all their doubts.

Faith comes to those who look at the Bible’s witness about Jesus and the evidence of His presence in the lives of believers they may have known or observed and who then, dare to take the leap of the faith into the waiting arms of Jesus.

Glenn took that leap. That was why he could say, “I have no doubt about where I’m headed.” It’s why today, you can grieve that Glenn will no longer be with you in this earthly life, but you need not grieve as people without hope.

In the lesson from John’s gospel, which we read a moment ago, Jesus consoled the disciples. He had just told them that He would soon be leaving them. Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

I believe that on Sunday morning, October 16, when Glenn leapt into what appears to be only darkness to us, he landed in the nail-scarred arms of Jesus, Who then took Glenn to that place He has prepared for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus alone as their God and Savior.

Today, Sue (and all your family), I hope and pray that you will be comforted and strengthened in knowing that Glenn is today with Jesus. You will remain in our prayers and we ask you not to hesitate to ask us for any help or comfort we can provide. (And you may expect us to provide these things even when you don't ask for them!)

And to those here this morning who may doubt that Jesus can raise the dead to new life, I ask you to consider the evidence of Glenn’s life.

Glenn would have been the last person in the world to claim to be perfect. But I think that if you look at Glenn, you’ll conclude that Jesus—the real, risen, living Jesus—made a difference in his life.

If Jesus, Who can’t be seen by us today, can make a difference in the lives of people living in this sometimes tough and challenging world right now, aren’t you willing to entertain the notion that maybe this Jesus is alive and waiting for us all to turn to Him, waiting to give us the strength and humor and faith we need to face this life, waiting to give us the places He has prepared for all who are willing to leap into His loving arms?

Today and every day, dare to put yourself in the arms of Jesus. He will catch you and He will never let you go. I know that Glenn would love nothing better than for every person in this sanctuary to rest easy and rest eternally in the arms of Jesus. Tell Jesus you’re willing to be taken into His arms and to let Him be with you now and for eternity. Even as we enjoy and live this life, it’s good to know where you’re headed. Amen!

Monday, October 24, 2011

When Is It Time to Worry?


"I remain unfazed!"

I love this song by one of my favorite all-time bands, The Waiting.

Don't Hold It In!

I really like today's piece from Our Daily Bread. It's based on Jeremiah 20:7-13. Be sure to read the Scripture passage, then check out the post in ODB by Dennis Fisher.

Both the the Scripture passage and Fisher's piece set me to thinking.

The prophet Jeremiah can be hard to read, as those of us involved in Read the Bible in a Year at Saint Matthew are seeing these days.

But imagine how hard it was for Jeremiah to live with the messages God commissioned him to bring to Israel. He and his prophecies from God didn't exactly put him on the A-list for party invitations. In fact, quite the opposite.

Yet, Jeremiah said that God's Word so burned within him that he had to share it. The fate of Israel rested on his countrymen turning from sin and trusting in God once again. How could he keep from sharing that truth with people he loved?

Jeremiah's feelings were echoed seven centuries later by Peter and John, after they'd been ordered by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious authorities, never to speak again in the Name of Jesus. Peter and John said, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20).

What they had "seen and heard" was Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. They had seen the sinless Savior of the world take the punishment for sin that every human being deserves. They had seen Him risen from the dead, affirming that Jesus can give new and everlasting life to all who will turn from sin and trust in Him as their only God and Lord. How could they not share that?

Christians today experience the power of the risen Jesus in our lives and, as was true for Jeremiah, this power--the power of the Holy Spirit Who enables us to confess our belief in Jesus in spite of the outlandishness of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead--burns like a fire in us.

The truth about Jesus must be shared by word and actions with all the world. Failing to do so would be deeply unloving, worse than knowing the cure for AIDs and deciding not to share it! Lots worse. Eternally worse.

That's why Jesus gave us the Great Commission! The whole world needs to know Jesus.

Don't tamp down the fire of your faith in Christ. Let it out, so that in lifting Jesus up to others, old sin is burned away and the light of new life that comes only from Jesus can be seen!

But watch out! The more you share Jesus, the more empowered God will make you to do it again.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

You Get to Love!

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

Matthew 22:34-46
This morning, I want to speak with you about love.

Every Christian knows that “God is love.” And we all know that it was God’s love that caused Him to send God the Son, Jesus, into the world to die and to rise so that all who entrust their lives to Jesus will have eternal life with God.

But what is love?

Jesus gives us the answer to that question today. Please pull out today’s Celebrate bulletin insert and look at the Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:34-46.

Let’s set the scene. It’s the Tuesday after the first Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, a jubilant crowd had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem. The crowd was sure that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king promised by God through the prophets.

This roused the concern and jealousy of religious elites, influential people like the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead; like the Pharisees, who were confident that their own righteousness, superior to that of other people, made them favored by God; and the Scribes, also sometimes called lawyers, scholars who were knowledgeable of all 615 laws laid down by God in the Old Testament.

For three days, these religious leaders had peppered Jesus with questions designed, not to learn anything or to engage in respectful discussion, but to trap Jesus. They wanted Jesus to say something they could use to convince their country’s Roman occupiers that Jesus ought to be executed.

But every question they raised, Jesus answered in ways that were consistent with God’s revealed Word in the Old Testament. Nothing He said gave them the ammo they needed.

They had nearly given up on their efforts when we come to our lesson. A “lawyer” asked Jesus what the greatest of God’s commandments is. The Gospel of Mark suggests that this question was asked in earnest. Matthew seems to say that it was another attempted trap. Whatever the case may be, Jesus’ answer is well known to us. Jesus says that the greatest commandment of all comes in two parts.
  • Part 1 comes from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:5, what Jewish folks call the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 
  • Part 2, which Jesus says is “like” the first, also comes from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18, part of the Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
God commands us to love. Does that strike you as a little strange?

I ask that question because if you were to ask the average person on the street, “What is love?,” they’d say something like, “Love is a strong positive feeling you have for somebody.” And if you asked this same average person how we come to love someone else, they might say, “You don’t have control over love. It just happens to you. You fall in love with somebody of the opposite sex, for example. Or, you just love your family because that’s who you live with. Or .you like your friends because their niceness wins you over.”

Love is seen, by most people, as a passive thing you cannot keep yourself from doing. But if love comes so naturally to us, why does God have to command us to do it? 

Maybe it’s because the average person’s definition of love is wrong.

Maybe God has a different definition of love.

In fact, we’d be right to suspect that the love that God commands us to bear for Him and for every human being on earth—even for Moammar Gaddhafi’s and Osama bin-Laden’s—doesn’t come naturally to us.

We see how different Jesus’ idea of love is when we read what He says about the two parts of the Great Commandment in verse 40: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The Law and the Prophets” is basically, the phrase that the people in Jesus’ day used for what we call the Old Testament.

Since March, many of us at Saint Matthew have been reading and discussing “the Law and the Prophets” together. Repeatedly, we’ve read about God telling His chosen people Israel some tough things. We’ve read that God had given His people a land that they didn’t deserve, then commanded them to honor Him and His commandments. Instead, they treated foreigners like slaves, worshiped other gods, relied on arms and foreign allies instead of Him, sacrificed their children to foreign deities, and engaged in all sorts of sexual practices outside of God’s will.

And so, through His law and prophets, God reminded His people that He had chosen them not because they were better than others, but because He chose to love them and He wanted them to choose to honor Him in response, by loving Him and loving others.

When Israel fell into sin, God sent His law and prophets to call Israel back to Him. (Just as Jesus would later tell the world, “Repent and believe in the good news” about Him.)

Through the Law and the Prophets, God told the people that if they didn’t turn back to Him the life that only He can give would be lost; their soil wouldn’t produce crops; they would suffer drought and famine; their promised land would be taken from them; they would be taken as slaves by foreign conquerors; and their kings would become eunuchs held as servants in the palaces of foreign kings. These hard words sound nothing like the average person's mushy, involuntary, can't-help-loving-you version of love.

But God insists throughout the Law and the Prophets that in saying such hard things, He was being loving. God was warning His people, as He warns all people today that when we choose disconnection from the only One Who can give us life and meaning to the lives we live, there are inevitable consequences. But if we choose to turn back to God, there are also consequences. Wonderful consequences! God wanted Israel to turn back to Him and live. God wants all people to turn to Jesus, God in the flesh, and live!

Today, the love of God may compel us, like it compelled the prophets before us, to say some very hard things.
  • We may have to tell the bigoted neighbor that bigotry has no place in the kingdom of God. 
  • We may have to say to the child who engages in sexual intimacy with a boyfriend or girlfriend that while we love them, their behavior, contrary to God’s will that such intimacy only be shared by a man and a woman in marriage, is pushing God out of their lives. 
  • We may have to say to the friend who brags about cheating the government out of tax payments that no matter how we may object to government policies, God still expects us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. 
  • And we most certainly will need to tell our spiritually disconnected friend that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and that forgiveness and eternal life and relationship with God comes only to those who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Loving God and loving others involves a lot more than just the things we say, of course. In the Great Commandment, Jesus also demands that we live our lives differently: that we be patient and understanding of others’ faults, that we put the most charitable construction on others’ actions, and always look for what is best in others.

Paul describes the love Jesus commands in 1 Corinthians when he writes, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, bur rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

In other words, loving God and others as the Great Commandment mandates is impossible! Yet, there it is in our Bibles and on our Celebrate inserts in black and white, Matthew 22:37-39, the Great Commandment. And if we can’t obey this impossible commandment, can any of us have the hope of living with God in eternity?


Next in our Gospel lesson, Jesus asks a question of His questioners: “Whose son do you think the Messiah is?” He asks.

The Pharisees and the Scribes say, “The son [or the descendant] of David,” Old Testament Israel’s greatest king.

Now, earlier Matthew’s gospel does say that Jesus is a son of David. But that’s not all of Who Jesus is! That’s why Jesus next asks who King David was talking about when he wrote in Psalm 110:1, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’…” Jesus goes on to say, “If David…calls Him Lord, how can He be [David’s] son?”

You see, Jesus is claiming that He is more than a man raised by descendants of King David; He is also God, the author of love, the one Who, in three days, would do the hardest thing that love has ever done. He would die on a cross which His sinless life did not deserve.

Because Jesus is God, He's able to do the impossible: He can love the unlovable; He can give new life to the dead and the mortal.

You and I are incapable of loving God or loving neighbor as Jesus commands us to do. But Jesus has kept this commandment perfectly for us and gives to all who believe in Him the power to love beyond their own human abilities.

I couldn’t stand one of my seminary professors when I first met him. I thought his lectures were boring. I frittered through his class the entire quarter and failed it. I liked him even less after that. Two years passed. Then, there was a class I had to take to graduate. Guess who was teaching it?

I prayed: “God, I don’t like this guy. But I don’t like this feeling, either. Please, in spite of my feelings for him, love him through me.”

It didn’t happen instantly, but things began to change and I found that gradually, I came to love this man.

If we are serious about keeping Jesus’ greatest commandment, the one that sums up and includes all the others, we need, first of all, to go to God and admit our inability to love either God or neighbor as He commands we do.

“Lord,” we might pray. “I’m upset with You right now. You seem so distant and so uncaring to me at this time. Yet, I know that Jesus died on the cross because of Your love for me. Because of this, I choose to love You. Give me the power to serve you in spite of what I’m feeling right now.”

Or, we could pray, “Lord, I see nothing good in this person. He or she has hurt me. I can’t muster any pleasantness toward them. Yet Jesus died and rose for them too. Despite my feelings, give me the faith to do some tangible acts of caring and service for them. Love them through me!”  

Jesus does command us to love God and to love others. And it is a commandment we cannot keep without inviting Him to control our lives and wills.

But what we learn from the Savior Who is Son of God as well as Son of Man is that love isn’t what we feel. Love isn’t primarily about emotions. Love is often what we do in spite of how we feel. Love is constituted by the acts of service and kindness, the attitude of kind hopes that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we choose to bear toward God and others and that God brings to life within us!

I've told you before about the seasoned Methodist pastor who once said, "For forty years, I've gotten it wrong. I've preached to people, 'You've got to love.' In fact, what I should have preached is, 'You get to love!'" Jesus gives us permission to ask for His help in loving God and others the way He loves us. You get to love. Don't miss out on the privilege of that.