Friday, August 02, 2013

Bessie: Joy from Jesus!

[This was shared during the funeral of Bessie, a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor.]

Job 19:23-27a
1 Corinthians 15:1-7
Matthew 26:26-29
Luke 12:35-40

For some of us, myself included, there’s a disappointment that, though she had a full life, Bessie didn’t make it to her one-hundredth birthday. But Bessie, I can assure you, does not share in that disappointment. She took a dim view of having a fuss made over her if she turned 100 and besides, she told me, “One-hundred seems so old.”

But there are other reasons that Bessie wouldn’t share our disappointment.

One is that she may have been the most upbeat, positive, joyful person I ever met in my life! She had pain and griefs in her life, of course. And she acknowledged them. But she wasn’t defined by them. She wasn’t laid low by them.

I told her about a year ago, “You know, Bessie, when your circumstances dictated that you move out of your home and into the Carlin House, I never heard you complain.” “Well,” she said, “there were two ways I could have reacted. I could have been unhappy or I could have been happy. I chose to be happy.”

I chose to be happy. Now, it’s true that some people are able, by nature, to more easily make the decision to be happy and make it stick. And Bessie understood this. When she consider people who suffered from depression, she clearly understood that depression is a disease that sometimes happens to people. “It must be awful,” she told me, with empathy. And I saw her display her empathy toward people who were depressed. She was a comforting presence to them.

But the big reason, I believe, that Bessie was able to choose to be happy was that she had a rock solid faith in Jesus Christ. And hers wasn’t the superficial faith of someone who had a passing acquaintance with the teachings of the Church. She had a relationship with Jesus Christ.

That was so clear every time I visited with her over the past nearly six years. I took Holy Communion when I visited Bessie, whether at her home on Culver, or later at Carlin. Every time she received the Sacrament, she expressed gratitude that Christ had come to her and offered her forgiveness and His presence and His promise of eternity once more. “Oh, thank you,” she would say, sometimes with tears, “It’s such a gift!”

And the last time I was able to take Communion to her, Bessie told me, “You know, I don’t think some people realize what a blessing this is!” She knew that in the Sacrament, the God of all creation was coming to her and she was grateful!

No one needs to be reminded, but it should also be pointed out that Bessie had a lot of oomph! (Someone said earlier that she had a lot of spunk!) She had energy and joy to the end of her days.

I told her once, “I used to visit you thinking that I was going to inspire you. But I always leave here inspired by you.” She looked at me quizzically. She couldn’t understand what a special person she really was.

And maybe that was part of what made Bessie so special. She lived. She loved God. She loved others. She didn’t try to impress anybody. She didn’t know how impressive it was that someone legally blind would take the time and the effort to send birthday greetings, notes of encouragement, or thanks to people. (Every time I saw one of those notes, I was struck by the effort it required to do that!)

Bessie lived in the freedom of being a child of God, a living, loving member of the Body of Christ, the Church. That was inspiring!

Bessie remained special to the end. Deprived of much of her sight, she was also deprived of pursuing her lifelong passion for reading. Even big print books wouldn’t have been big enough for her to read. Undeterred, she ordered cassettes and later, CDs, of books and was always ready to recount the plot of the latest book she’d “read” in this new way.

She was part of the garden club at Carlin. (She told me once, “Some people just stand around at garden club, but I like to get my hands dirty.”)

Though she couldn’t see, she still helped out with the crossword puzzles the residents did together at Carlin.

She was always in Bible study and the weekly devotional worship there.

She went out on shopping forays whenever she could.

She made the best of challenging situations, like when Carlin was without power and she and the other residents had to be moved to the high school, where they slept on cots. Interviewed by the newspaper about it, Bessie, in typical fashion, talked about what a good job the Red Cross was doing.

She was always ready to talk about the Cincinnati Reds!

And, she seemed to pray for everyone!

Sometimes, she could give me the devil. When I forgot appointments with her or my commitment to do worship at Carlin, she let me know about it. I would get a phone call and a little lecture the next time I saw her. But she was quick to forgive and could tease me about the incidents later. And she was always after me to take better care of myself.

As was true of her attitude, Bessie’s oomph too came, I am convinced, not just from her nature or her upbringing, but from her faith in Christ. This is a person who truly lived in daily repentance and renewal. She used a scanner connected to her TV set to read the daily Bible readings and devotions and she regularly prayed for everyone on our congregation’s prayer list.

Bessie had no fear of death nor of dying. She knew that the crucified and risen Savior Jesus in Whom she believed had destroyed the power of sin, death, and futility over the lives of those who turn from sin and follow Him.

Bessie didn’t see Jesus as a rabbit’s foot who would make the bad things of this life go away. She agreed heartily with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

In the time I knew Bessie, her life demonstrated the truth that while Jesus doesn’t insulate us from life’s difficulties or from death, knowing that we have eternity with God, we are set free to live this life with joy, hope, a love for others, and a positive attitude. These attributes were all ones that Bessie lived out.

Especially, I think, joy. Joy is the word that springs immediately to my mind when I think of Bessie.

Now, I know for a certainty that there was nothing that Bessie more passionately desired nor more fervently prayed for than this: That all her friends and family would entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. She often spoke with me about this. She often asked me to join in praying with her about it. She believed in Jesus’ words in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believed in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

The Bible tells us that the capacity for faith in an unseen God Who has conquered sin and death through His crucifixion and resurrection--the ability to believe in such overwhelmingly good news in a bad news world--is the proof of this unseen, loving, compassionate, powerful God.*

Let Bessie’s faith in Christ be exhibit one for any who may doubt this God in Whom she believed.

Let her life of joy, hope, love for others, and incredible positive attitude in the face of life’s challenges be exhibit two.

And may we all learn to believe in and follow Christ as Bessie did and so, live this life to the fullest, and one day, enjoy a reunion with our Lord and with all the saints who have believed in Him, including Bessie, that will last for eternity. Amen

*Hebrews 11:1 says: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Today's Chesterton

[Father Brown said:] But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark—I mean, that the centre of it is simple, however much the fulfilment may be complicated.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2011-03-30). The Innocence of Father Brown (p. 45).  Kindle Edition. 

I think this is true.

Knowing God

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

Luke 11:1-13
Recent polling shows that a large number of Americans have no religious affiliation at all and, though the number of those identifying themselves as atheists is small, that number too is growing.

My guess is that many people come to churches hoping to know God and to learn how to speak with Him, but leave feeling confused by the standing and the sitting, the hymns they don’t understand, and the sermons which fall into a dizzying display of indecipherable religious talk.

They want to know God and that they can have a connection to God. Truth is, we all do.

Jesus’ first followers, the disciples, felt the same way. That’s why, even though they didn’t completely understand that Jesus was God in the flesh until Jesus had died and risen again, in their hunger for God, they followed Jesus for three years.

That’s also why it’s no surprise that when they saw Jesus praying one day, they asked Him to teach them how to do it. Our gospel lesson for today, Luke 11:1-13 (page 597), tells us how Jesus responded.

First of all, Jesus taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. It presents a great pattern for prayer for those who want to know God. Let’s take a look at it.

“Our Father,” it begins. Already, we see that being a Christian isn’t about being religious. It’s about having a relationship.

God is our father and not an earthly father who, no matter how good or devoted, can let us down. God is the Father Who made us and stands ready to hear us whenever we call on Him.

The next three petitions remind us that everything is out of place in the world and in our lives if God isn’t given first place in our world and in our lives. And so, Jesus teaches us to pray: “Hallowed be Your Name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done.”

For God’s Name to be hallowed means for it to be held as unique, special, set-apart, holy. God’s Name is not a sitcom punchline or a phrase for stupid people with limited vocabularies to use instead of meaningful speech. God’s Name is a precious gift He gives that allows us to call on Him, as Martin Luther puts it in The Small Catechism, for “prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.” Here, we pray that God’s Name will be revered and used properly, not just by the whole world, but by us too.

God’s kingdom is what Jesus came to bring. He brought God’s kingdom into this dying world through His life, death, and resurrection. All who turn from sin and believe in Jesus for forgiveness and new life with God are part of God’s kingdom. They live under the reign of God. Here, we pray that God’s kingdom will invade every human life--including our own, so that all who hear that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish in hell, but have life with God forever!

To pray that God’s will be done is to pray exactly what Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion. Every human impulse within Jesus wanted to live and to avoid the suffering that awaited Him on the cross. But He knew that He had come into the world to die for sinners like you and me and offer us the life that only a resurrected Savior can offer. Jesus had to go to the cross to save us from sin and death. So, He told God the Father, "Not the easy way I prefer, Lord, but the hard way that will accomplish what You want accomplished." Now, you and I aren’t God. We can’t see what lies ahead the way Jesus, both God and man, could. But our human impulses also prefer the easy way. We’d rather go on sinning. (Because, let’s be honest, we often sin because the sin is fun or it’s easier than doing the right thing.) But we pray God’s will be done because we know that God is more interested in shaping our character to be more like Him and preparing us for eternity than He is in making things easier for us. We also pray God’s will be done because it’s better to suffer for a short time here on earth than to be forever separated from God because we were too impatient or too self-centered to evade the temptation to sin.

As I’ve pointed out before, it isn’t until the petition in verse 3--”Give us this day our daily bread”--that Jesus gets around to teaching us to pray for ourselves.

This is pretty counter-cultural! How often are we advised by pop culture or even by so-called friends to look out for ourselves instead of putting God or others ahead of ourselves?

A woman told me that after she’d shared with a friend that she and her husband were having disagreements on money and child-rearing, her friend said, “Better do what I did. Better get a divorce. You deserve to be happy.” “My friend,” the woman told me, “obviously had no concern about what might make God happy, or our children happy, or my husband happy, or, in the end, what might make happy.”

Jesus doesn't teach us to defer praying for ourselves because we ourselves aren’t important. Obviously, every human being is important. That’s why Jesus Christ died and rose for every human being who has ever lived or ever will live. That’s why He teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

But it’s only after we’ve learned to put God and His desire to reign over the whole world with His love at the top of our priorities, that we’re ready to pray this petition rightly. “Give us”--all of us, from the people in my family to the people in places like China, Syria, Afghanistan, and even Michigan--”our daily bread,” not the luxuries we want or to which the advertisers say we’re entitled, but the things we need.

We pray that all people will be provided with the things they need--nutritious food, clean water, medical care, basic justice. And this prayer is no pipe dream! God’s earth produces sufficient abundance for all six-billion of the planet’s inhabitants to have exactly what they need. The fact that so many go hungry or die unnecessarily is not a supply issue, it’s a share issue. That’s why our involvement with things like Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran World Relief, the Hocking Hills Inspire Shelter, the CHAP emergency food bank, World Vision, and Compassion International are so important. God gives daily bread and in praying this petition, we acknowledge that every good and perfect gift comes from God and we ask that God will help us share His bounties with others. The words of the hymn, Praise and Thanksgiving, are true: “Where all obey You, no one will hunger; In Your love’s sway You nourish the land.”

Jesus then teaches us, in verse 4, to pray that God will forgive our sins and to keep us from blocking out His forgiveness from our lives by refusing to forgive others.

Is there someone you need to forgive this morning? Someone who has wronged you or who you think has wronged you? You don’t need to make a grand show of it. You don’t have to smugly tell that other person, “I forgive you.”

In your heart right now, you can release others of the debt you feel that they owe to you. Just tell God, “Lord, I want to release so and so of my grudge. I want to release myself from it. In Your Name and by Your power, I forgive them.”

You can do that every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer. And you need to do so because Jesus makes it clear that until we let go of that grudge, we can’t take hold of His grace, His forgiveness and His charity toward our sins and our shortcomings.

Finally, Jesus teaches His disciples--including us--to pray that God will steer us clear of temptation and that the evil one--the devil--won’t be able to get a toehold in our lives.

Now, Jesus knows that it may be hard for us to believe that God could care about our prayers. More than one person in the years I’ve been a pastor has told me, “I never pray. I just don’t want to bother God.”

In teaching us this prayer though, Jesus is saying, “God does care about you. You will never be a bother to the One Who made you and Who went to the cross for you!"

To underscore this fact, Jesus tells a little parable about a man who has a late-night visitor at his house and has nothing to feed the visitor. (You remember from last Sunday’s lessons how important hospitality is in the eyes of God.) Wanting to treat the visitor right, the man runs to you--his friend--to ask for something to set before the visitor. But it’s midnight. You live in first-century Judea, meaning that you sleep on the floor with your kids, and that getting up to answer the man’s knock or to fetch the food and drink he could serve his visitor will be a hassle, maybe even waking up the little ones and depriving you of a good night’s sleep. But, Jesus says in verse 9, even if you don’t want to help your friend out “because of his persistence,” you’ll fling off your covers, walk around the kids, open the front door, and get the things your friend requests.

Now, the careless reader will think that Jesus is saying that God is a reluctant friend who, if you’re persistent, will answer your prayers. But God isn’t reluctant to hear or answer our prayers. Look at how Jesus closes out His words for us in Luke 11 today, verse 13, after saying that even sinful, "evil" parents will give good things to their children: “If you then, being evil [that is, being sinners], know how to give good much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”

The God we know in Jesus Christ isn’t a reluctant friend telling those who come to Him, “Go away!” He is our Father and He wants to answer when we call out to Him. That’s why Jesus tells us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you...”

But here’s where Christian maturity and a willingness to defer to the greater wisdom and love of God comes in.

The first two or three-hundred times I read Jesus’ words in Luke 11:13, in which He promises to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask God, I wanted to scream, “But what if I don’t want the Holy Spirit?” What if I asked for my loved one to be healed of cancer, or that my friend’s marriage would be restored, or that the civil war in Syria would come to an end, or that, as I really have prayed, the 40% of my heart damaged by a heart attack would be restored? I’ve had thoughts like these. I still do.

But here’s the thing: The Holy Spirit is exactly Who we need when we face things like crosses, and griefs, and relational discord, and war. He is the Comforter, the One Who gives us the strength and courage we need to face the pains that come to us in this imperfect and fallen world.

The Holy Spirit is the very life of God. He’s the One Who gives us faith in the face of the darkness of this world and the One Who will raise us up to come face to face with Jesus after we’ve drawn our last breaths on this earth.

Every time you pray, ask, seek, and knock at the Father’s door, He will send the Holy Spirit to you. You will know God. You will know God is with you. You will know that God is for you. And you will be filled with the life of God that nothing and nobody can ever take from you.

People everywhere want to know God. Pray in Jesus’ Name and you will know Him as surely as you know your parents, your children, your spouses, or your friends. In fact, you will, in the power of the Holy Spirit, know God better than you know any of these people.

As we pray to God the Father in the Name of Jesus, we know that no matter what happens in this world, we have the Holy Spirit, Who will stand with us from here to kingdom come. Amen!