Sunday, October 14, 2018

Servant Leadership

[This was shared during the Service of Installation for Pastor Dwight Hanson as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Eaton, Ohio.]

Mark 10:42-45
Recently, someone asked me whether the term “Christian leader” wasn’t an oxymoron, an internal contradiction. 

The question wasn’t unreasonable. After all, Jesus, the One we confess as our Lord and God, was a servant “Who,” [according to Philippians 2, despite being] in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant...he humbled himself  by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” This, the apostle Paul tells us, is how you and I are to be with each other in the Church, humble servants (Philippians 2:5-11).

Is it possible then for anyone to be a servant and a leader as a Christian? 

In Romans 12, Paul gives a list of seven spiritual gifts God grants to individual Christians for the benefit of the church and how the people given those gifts should use them. “If [your gift] is to lead,” Paul says, “do it diligently.” So, it appears, one can be a Christian and a leader. (Romans 12:8)

The reason that the phrase Christian leader may seem like a contradiction, I think, is that we get confused by what the world says a leader is. The world tells us that a leader is a kind of dictator who always gets his or her way. 

But even without delving into the Bible’s understanding of leadership, the world’s definition doesn’t pass muster. A friend of ours, General Curtis Scaparrotti, the son of the congregation I formerly served in Logan, Ohio and today the commander of NATO, once told me that even a general must rely on more than power to lead people. You can hold a title, but you only earn the right to lead others by being a servant. Leaders never ask those they’re called to lead to do things that they themselves are unwilling to do. And so when he was second in command in Afghanistan, General Scaparrotti regularly jumped out of aircraft with his paratroopers. Friends, nobody is worthy of designation as a leader who is not first of all, a servant.

That’s why I was happy to see the lessons from the Bible chosen for Pastor Hanson’s installation. It shows that he has a healthy, Biblical understanding of what it means to be a Christian leader who is a servant and disciple of Jesus Christ!

Our gospel lesson, Mark 10:42-45, teaches us all what it means to be a disciple and a leader in Christ’s Church. Just a few verses before, Jesus has told the disciples that soon, in Jerusalem, He’s going to be rejected, arrested, crucified, buried, and then, raised by God the Father. According to the gospel of Mark, this is the third time that Jesus told the disciples about His impending cross. They’re at least as oblivious this time as they were the previous two times. They don’t even react to the prediction. The idea that the Messiah--the Christ, God’s anointed King--would be overcome by opposition is so foreign to them that Jesus’ prediction of a cross doesn’t compute. “There He goes again,” they may have thought.

Just how little they thought of Jesus’ words can be seen in what happened immediately after He spoke them. Two of the twelve, James and John, brothers, make a request of Jesus: When He becomes king in Jerusalem, they want to become His right- and left-hand men. The vision that James and John, and apparently the other ten apostles, have of the kingdom Jesus has come to bring to earth is pretty much the same as all the other kingdoms in the world, only with Jesus and them in charge. They envisioned a reign in which they would have a piece of power, prestige, and patronage.

It’s in the midst of this confusion that Jesus brings clarity about what life in His kingdom is all about. Take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 42: “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

“The Gentiles, the pagans, the people who don’t know God or His amazing grace,” Jesus is saying, “have their own ideas about what it means to be important, to be a leader. They go around barking orders, always seeking to get their way.” But this is not how it is when you belong to the God we know in Jesus Christ.

This God sets free all who dare to trust in Jesus Christ, the One Who bore our sin and the punishment for it we deserve, death, so that when He rose from the dead, He could offer new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe. The only sermon given by Jesus that is recorded by the author of today’s gospel lesson, Mark, is contained in just one verse. Jesus says, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) That’s it!

We can do nothing to make ourselves fit for life with God. We can’t be good enough, influential enough, enough of a big shot, enough of anything. Only Jesus Christ and our faith in Him can make us fit for His kingdom. Only Jesus can justify sinners and make them forever new. And Jesus’ salvation can come to all kinds of people when they daily believe in and follow Him: big shots, little shots, no shots. 

So, in the Kingdom of God, there’s no reason to push or shove. When I trust in Jesus Christ, I already have the kingdom of God and because of that I can be a servant, accepting whatever role that Christ has given to me. When you know you belong to the King of all creation, you’re not particularly concerned, as James and John were, with the seating arrangements. And speaking only for myself, I would say that in light of what a sinner I know that I am, I’m so content to be a saved child of God that I have long been cured of any human desire to be a big shot. That’s what it’s like to belong to a servant Savior in Whose kingdom the first are last and the last are first.

Because we know how much God loves us and all that He has done for us in the crucified and risen Jesus, the Christian can dare to pray the most revolutionary of prayer petitions, “Thy will, Your will, and not mine, be done, O Lord.” 

That’s the prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray, of course. But, servant-leader that Jesus is, it’s also the prayer He offered in the garden as He prepared to go to the cross for you and me and for all who, without a relationship with Jesus, would face a Christ-less eternity. 

Jesus has the authority to tell us to fall into the arms of God the Father because He dared to do just that on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

And, Pastor Hanson, you will have the authority to call this people to follow Christ when they see that you, however imperfect and human you are, seek to follow Christ yourself.

Dear people of Grace Lutheran Church, you’ve waited a long time for this day. I’ve been following your journey and praying for you and I know how difficult it has been for all of you. But God has blessed you with a servant leader. He clearly understands what it means to be a Christian leader. 

  • I ask you to pray for him and honor him for what he is for you, a gift from God. I ask you to pray for Kelly and him as they adjust to their life in a new place. 
  • I ask you to take it upon yourselves to be servants of Christ in serving and working alongside them. 
  • I ask you to honor his work here, the same work which the young pastor Timothy was reminded to do in our second lesson: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

Pastor Hanson, I ask you to be a servant of Christ to these people and this community as you seek to be faithful to the Lord Who has set you free from sin and death by grace through your faith in Him and has brought you to Grace Lutheran Church.

Galatians 3:28 tells us that in Christ’s Church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Understanding that the only way to freedom from sin, death, and darkness is in following Jesus Christ as the Lord over our lives, Martin Luther once remarked that, “a the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”

In the freedom that comes from belonging to Jesus Christ for all eternity, I urge you, people and pastor, not to be afraid to serve each other, to pray for each other, to listen to each other, to worship together, to confess sin and be absolved from sin together, to work together, to witness together, doing all of this knowing that while you may differ in the functions to which God has called you in Christ’s Church, you do not differ in status. You are all redeemed children of God called to join together in telling the whole world the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ.

God has called this congregation and this pastor and his wife together in partnership for one purpose and one purpose only: to be and to make disciples of Jesus. Dear servants of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen One, since that is your one and only mission: Have at it! Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

[Welcome to Pastor Dwight Hanson, installed today as pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Eaton, Ohio. The clergy of our Southwest Ohio Mission District are incredibly supportive of one another and a contingent was able to be present there today. Clergy l to r: Brian McGee, Dean Haferman, Heidi Holst, Alan Knoke, Dwight Hanson, me, David Matevia, and Marv Hileman. (Thanks to my wife for snapping the pic.)]

The Only Thing We Need

[This was shared during the Sunday morning worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 10:17-22
Our gospel lesson for this morning, Mark 10:17-22, begins: “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

To understand Jesus’ answer to the man’s question, we need to unpack two things he says in asking it. 

The first is this: The man assumes that if he’s going to inherit eternal life, he will have to do something. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. The man is trapped in the idea that if he’s to get anything good from God, he must earn it.

It’s not hard to understand where he would get such an idea. It seems like the whole world tells us that we have to earn, or claw, or steal, the things that are valuable.

People even apply this to their thinking about God. One modern commentator says that in first century Judea, where Jesus lived, religious groups from the Pharisees to the Essenes, sects of Judaism, would have told the man to follow their stringent rules and he could earn his way into God’s kingdom. In fact, in order to make a point, the first part of Jesus’ answer to this man will sound very much like the traditional religious answer, do more. 

But you and I know that this is not the way for dying sinners like you and me to inherit eternal life. You can’t earn an inheritance. An inheritance is a gift that you may renounce, but you can never earn. This is no less true of the inheritance of eternal life that God wants to give to us. Ephesians 2:8-9, reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Here’s the second thing to unpack from the man’s question, the phrase eternal life

In the Greek and Roman worlds of the first century, that phrase would have carried the idea of some milky, spiritual world that the disembodied souls of good people supposedly enter into when they die. This would have been completely foreign to the man who asks the question, to Judaism, to Jesus’ disciples, and to Jesus Himself

From the perspective of Biblical faith, it’s impossible to separate a soul from a body. We are bodies, containing our minds, souls, and spirits all wrapped up in one, indivisible package. 

That’s why the human fall into sin was so horrible. Sin brings death to the whole human self. That’s why we desperately need to be saved from ourselves!

In the Bible, eternal life refers to the coming age, the age that will come after God has judged all people, an age not in some wifty spirit world, but in a renewed creation like this one--filled with atoms and molecules, rock and granite, canyons and water, lions and tigers, and strawberry shortcake. 

The Bible teaches that Jesus rose, the first-born from the dead, still identifiable by the scars on His hands and feet and side. 

We confess each Sunday what the Bible teaches, “the resurrection of the body.” This is the life--the resurrected life--that the man is asking Jesus about when He says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus challenges the man right away. Verse 18: “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.’” 

“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” Jesus is telling the man. “If you think I’m good, then I must be more that just a teacher. Don’t patronize me with honorary titles you don’t mean.” 

A merely human teacher is incapable of being good. In numerous places, the Bible says of the human race, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God...there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20) 

Jesus is good because He’s truly God as well as truly human. Jesus wants the inquiring man to understand this.

Jesus proceeds with His answer. Verse 19: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 

Notice both the commandments Jesus mentions and the ones He leaves out

  • He mentions the Fifth Commandment, the Sixth, the Seventh, the Eighth, then adds His own commandment about fraud, and goes back to the Fourth Commandment. 
  • But Jesus leaves out the First (“You shall have no other gods.”; the Second (“You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain”); the Third (“You shall remember the Sabbath”); and the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, which deal with coveting. 

It’s these exclusions that are the key to understanding this whole passage because Jesus understands precisely what is lacking in this man’s life.

Verse 20: “Teacher, he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”

Did you know that Adolf Hitler, one of the most brutal dictators in the history of the world, responsible for the deaths of millions because of his sick racism, was always polite in social settings, never cursed, and drank no alcohol? 

You can be outwardly virtuous, yet still filled with the fire of hell. The questioning man was excited to tell Jesus, “I’ve been doing all those good things since I was a boy.” But Jesus saw that there was something this rich man lacked. He was a nice man who worshiped money and possessions more than he worshiped God. They were his gods of choice. They were the means he used to measure the blessedness of his life. Jesus loved the man and wanted to set him free.

In short, the man lacked God, the God revealed in Christ. He didn’t trust in God. He trusted in His moneyHe had everything but God.

And so, Jesus gave the man His prescription, “Sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Me, trust in Me. Trust in Me and not in your money.”

This prescription isn’t precisely the same for everyone. Abraham was a rich man; God didn’t tell Abraham to get rid of his wealth. Wealth wasn’t something Abraham was tempted to worship. But there is no shortage of candidates for the gods of our lives besides money--success, power, conviviality, happiness, influence, popularity, food, alcohol and other drugs, good times, our families, our work. Any god we follow other than the One we meet in Jesus Christ will always demand more of us, wringing life itself from us. When anything other than the God we know in Jesus is someone’s god, they end up dead, far from God. Death, not eternal life is their inheritance.  

But when we follow Jesus, we have the inheritance we cannot earn, eternal life that begins not in the sweet by-and-by, but right now as we follow Him

Jesus tells those who lay aside their idol gods and their sins that the kingdom of God is among them now, even before we are raised from the dead (Luke 17:21). 

This crucified and risen Jesus can promise us, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)  

Our gospel lesson is capped by one of the saddest passages in all the Bible: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” 

I think that Jesus was even sadder than the man, who couldn’t bring himself to let go of the idol that would lead him to death so that he could grasp the outstretched hand of the good God Who offers us life.

Jesus wants to give us our inheritance, eternal life. This doesn’t happen when we make Jesus our top priority, as though Jesus is meant to be an item on our daily planner. It happens when Jesus becomes our life, when we accept what He has taught us to be the bottom line truth of human existence: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). May Jesus be our life today and always. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, October 08, 2018

Marriage and Divorce

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship earlier today.]

Mark 10:2-16
True story. The wife of a prominent Christian leader, a man to whom she’d been married for decades, was asked if she’d ever considered divorce. “Divorce, no,” she replied. “murder, yes.”

Murder, believe it or not, is a good entry point for our discussion of the topic that takes up most of today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 10:2-16, marriage and divorce.

Let me explain the connection: While we usually teach the Fifth Commandment as saying, “You shall not kill,” the original Hebrew actually tells us, “You shall not murder.” Knowing that alone helps us to better understand the command. In giving us the Fifth Commandment, God is not saying that there are no circumstances under which, in the defense of life, it may become necessary to take lives. 

For example, when a nation is attacked and its people’s lives are threatened--as happened with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, followed by Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on this country--that nation’s government has the responsibility to prevent the murder of its citizens. That will likely entail taking the lives of those who threaten such murder. 

God still prohibits murder. God still cherishes and commands that we cherish the gift of every human life He has created and He still commands us to protect life

But the hardness of human hearts--the sin in human hearts--means that people who have no desire to murder, that children, the vulnerable, need earthly protectors, like governments, which, in extreme situations such as those that came to this country in 1941, are left with no choice but to kill other human beings. And so, the God Who, in Old Testament times, commanded His people Israel not to murder, would at times, tell them to make war on those intent on murdering people.

God never bases His commands to us on exceptional circumstances that result from human hard-heartedness. His commands reflect His eternal will for those who, grateful for His undeserved grace and favor, seek to live the kinds of lives God blesses. It is God’s will that human beings not take the lives of other human beings, even to the point, according to Jesus, of commanding us not to use killing words to harm, ridicule, or dehumanize others. It’s only after God makes His good and gracious will--”You shall not murder”-- emphatically clear that He talks about the exceptional circumstances under which the sinfulness of our fallen world--the hardness of human hearts--may necessitate the taking of human life

Keep that in mind: In His commands, God always states the positive principle before talking about the exceptions. That's important to remember as we address Jesus' words on marriage and divorce in today's Gospel lesson.

And to do that, we must begin by looking at the verse in Mark's gospel appearing right before our lesson, Mark 10:1. There we’re told, “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.” 

This verse really presents us with a key to understanding everything that Jesus says about marriage and divorce in our lesson. Context, you know, is central to understanding passages of the Bible. Where do the verses fall within the particular book? And, in the cases of narrated events, like the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection told in the gospels, we need to pay heed to where He was geographically when He spoke the words.

And where is Jesus in today's gospel lesson? He’s in “the region of Judea and across the Jordan.” 

This is the place where John the Baptist ministered and preached

And it’s the place where John got into trouble with government and religious leaders

You'll remember that John had condemned and called to repentance King Herod for having divorced his own wife and caused the wife of his brother Philip to divorce the brother so that the two divorced folks could now marry and live happily ever after. 

John called Herod out on this violation of the sanctity of marriage. 

He claimed that Herod’s entire rule was delegitimized by this unrepented violation of God’s marriage command, given in the garden, that, in marriage, the two shall become one flesh. 

Religious leaders, who saw John as a threat to their power, aligned themselves with Herod and were glad when Herod beheaded John for what John had said about Herod's marriages and divorce. 

In our gospel lesson, the Pharisees, in the same place where John had preached, try to set the same trap that brought Herod’s execution of John for Jesus.

Mark 10: 2-5: “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away. It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied.” 

“Marriages that last for lifetimes, this is  God’s will,“ Jesus is saying. “But it’s lawful for people to divorce because God recognizes that human sin hardens hearts.” 

In other words, people do and say things that destroy marriage covenants and the foundations on which the best ones are built: faith in the God we know in Christ, mutual trust, mutual servanthood, repentance, prayer. 

When a partner says or does those things repeatedly, unrepentantly, that destroy the marriage a partner may be warranted in seeking a divorce.

A divorce decree then becomes the mere public acknowledgment of the fact that human sin has already killed a marriage. 

In the eyes of God, the legitimate grounds for divorce might include adultery, as Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:9 and spiritual abandonment as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7:15. I’m sure that abuse, physical or mental, is also an understandable grounds for ending a marriage. 

As I often tell couples in premarital counseling or married folks who deal with one or more spouse’s addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, gambling, eating, materialism, whatever: There is more than one way to be unfaithful to a marriage, more than one way for human hardness of heart to destroy a marriage

Fortunately, blessedly, people can repent. People can turn to Christ for forgiveness and the power to restore their marriages and other relationships. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose to overcome the power of sin and death over those who repent and believe in Him. They can do this even after their hardness of heart has destroyed their marriage.
But Jesus refuses to base His reiteration of God’s command for marriage and against divorce on the exceptional circumstances that might form grounds for divorce. He doesn’t want people entering into marriage or being married spending their time looking for loopholes. 

And so He says, starting at verse 6: “'But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 

Without uttering the name of the fake king Herod, Jesus, the King of all kings, tells the Pharisees whose trap He perceives, “John the Baptist was right. Marriage is a gift to be cherished for life.”

Jesus isn’t one to “throw pearls before swine,” though. He doesn’t waste His breath trying to teach people who don’t really want to be taught. So, He waits to unpack His teaching with the disciples when they’re alone. Verse 10: “When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’”

God loves marriage and everything that He intended for it: companionship, mutual affection and accountability, mutual protection, intimacy, and sometimes, children, to name just a few things. God desires our marriages to last a lifetime. He also desires unmarried friends to support their married friends in their marriage covenants. And so, in today’s lesson, Jesus invites us to focus not on the circumstances that might make it OK to divorce and to instead, in light of God’s love for and blessing of marriage, focus on what’s needed to make marriages work.

Here are just a few of them. 

  • One: A shared faith in Jesus Christ. When husband and wife acknowledge that they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves and that they need the crucified and risen Savior Who, alone, makes it possible for them to be saved by grace from sin and death through faith in Him, couples are given the humility and understanding they need to forgive one another and support one another till death parts them. 
  • Two: A shared commitment to prayer in Jesus’ name
  • Three: A shared commitment to being disciples. When we’re committed to being disciples, God helps us to be patient with one another and honest about our own needs and faults. 
  • Four: A shared commitment to mutual submission. Ephesians 5 makes clear that in Christian marriages, nobody is boss. Husband and wife submit to one another and to Christ to form a partnership which makes them not two separate people pursuing their own interests and desires, but as Genesis tells us, “one flesh.”

In thirty-four years of pastoring, there are certain predictable issues that have caused married couples to talk with me about their marriages. You can probably guess what they are: money, sex, in-laws, communication breakdowns, children. But all these common points of conflict that may arise in any marriage are rarely the true sources of conflict in marriages. They’re only the secondary battlefields. 

The real source of trouble in marriages is human hardness of heart, sin

The battle for our marriages and against divorce happens in the spiritual realm. 

When both partners believe, pray, repent and forgive--all in the name of the crucified and risen Jesus, our marriages can be strengthened. God can give married couples the strength to do the hard work needed to overcome those things that threaten our marriages. God can give our married friends and family members His strength when we go to battle for them in the spiritual realm with our prayers. 

Whenever possible, it’s best that our marriages not be ended by either divorce...or murder. 

May God strengthen all the marriages of our parish.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]