Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Prayers Requested

Tomorrow morning I will be fornally installed as pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.

I ask your prayers for my ministry here. Ask God to help me to be a faithful, effective shepherd for Saint Matthew.

Pray too, that God will help this wonderful congregation to grow in faith, hope, love, unity, outreach, service, prayer, and giving in Jesus' Name. Your prayers, especially at about 10:15 (EST) on Sunday morning, joined with those being offered during Saint Matthew's worship service that day, would be deeply appreciated.

I would also appreciate your continuing prayers for my former parishes, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Okolona, Ohio, where I served for six years, and Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, where I was for seventeen years. My family and I were really blessed by our times in those parishes and were inspired by the deep faith in Christ we saw and experienced in their people. Please pray that God will help them grow in all the ways in which I now prayerfully seek growth for Saint Matthew.

In addition, I ask your prayers for Logan, Ohio, a beautiful area facing economic challenges resulting from major industries shutting down or moving overseas.


Please Pray...

for Kristy Dykes and Charity George.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"This is the old left hander, rounding third and heading for home"

For decades, that was Joe Nuxhall's signature goodbye on the Reds radio network. Nuxhall, who, at age fifteen, became the youngest major leaguer in history, went on to be a Reds announcer for decades, a fixture of the Cincinnati landscape. Nuxhall has died. Below is Pullitzer Prize-winning Cincinnati Enquirer editorial cartoonist Jim Borgman's touching tribute to Nux.

Nuxhall was never a great broadcaster and was only a mediocre career pitcher, his 1944 entry into the Major Leagues no doubt helped by the wartime shortage of able-bodied ball players off fighting in the European and Pacific theaters. But he was an indelible character who loved baseball and loved the Cincinnati community. Nux, the man, was greater than the sum of his parts. He will be missed.

The Game

Go, Buckeyes!
Beat Michigan!
Regular readers of this blog know that this Buckeye fan always regarded 2007 as a rebuilding season for the Ohio State football team.

I also pointed out a few weeks ago that the last four games of the regular season would be major tests for the Buckeyes.

Many focused on the team's away games against Penn State, held three weeks ago in Happy Valley, and tomorrow's game against Michigan, ignoring the "Oreo filling" of the four week stretch, Wisconsin and Illinois, both formidable teams.

Ron Zook's Illini played a masterful game last week, particularly as they gobbled up yardage and time in the fourth quarter, knocking Ohio State out of first place in the BCS standings with a 28 to 21 win.

A Buckeye victory over Michigan at the Big House tomorrow is far from a given as the Buckeyes and Wolverines enact the 2007 installment of what I regard as the greatest rivalry in sports. All three of Michigan's losses this year have been to very good teams: Appalachian State, a football power among smaller schools; Oregon; and Wisconsin. Michigan Stadium provides the second-best home team advantage in college football, after Ohio Stadium in Columbus.

The Buckeyes, who dropped to seventh place in the BCS standings after last Saturday's loss, still have a remote--extremely remote--chance of playing in the national championship game. But more immediately, they're playing for the Big Ten title and a little respect after Illinois seemed to vindicate the skeptics' assessments of Ohio State.

And, the unappreciated fact is that, in spite of what the naysayers will tell you, the Big Ten isn't down this year, it's stronger AND the troubles some of its better teams had with non-conference teams stem from the greater parity that exists in college football generally. The result is more exciting games and seeming "upsets."

But make no mistake about it, Ohio State, the 2007 season's great overachiever, and Michigan, the season's notorious underachiever, are both great teams, filled with nationally recruited players all hungry to prove themselves on the biggest stage in sports.

Once again, we can expect the OSU-Michigan game to be a war.

Check out:
How important is this game?
Everything's Coming Up Roses?
Will Lloyd Dot the "win" or "Ohio'?
The always-interesting Tim May
Boeckman is focused

Thursday, November 15, 2007


On Monday, the congregation I've recently begun to serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, hosted a blood drive. The congregation was actively involved in it in countless ways.

I enjoyed observing how the people of Saint Matthew and of Logan came together for this great event. It was love in action, full of good humor...and great home-made food!

In addition to seeing Central Ohio Red Cross personnel process the blood donations of 77 people, I witnessed another wonderful thing: 76 people underwent bone marrow transplant screening.

The coordinator of the screenings was stunned. Ordinarily, she told me, she would expect that a number equivalent to 10% of those who donated blood would submit to the transplant screening. But there was a good reason for the response of the people of Logan. Even though they knew that there was little chance that their marrow would be a match, their hearts have been touched by the courageous battle against leukemia being waged by a Logan teen. I'm privileged to be her pastor. Through her, they know that bone marrow transplants can give leukemia patients new leases on life!

Right now, Sarah is undergoing a round of chemotherapy. She's no doubt buoyed by the prayers and love of many people, not to mention her own plucky faith and by the support of good friends and an extraordinary family and church community.

Seeing the response of the people of Logan and Saint Matthew made me offer a prayer of thankfulness that God has allowed me to come here.

I'm also continuing to pray for Sarah and I would appreciate your prayers for her as well.

[For information on how a bone marrow transplant works, go here.]

Three Great Southeastern Ohio Eateries

Here are three terrific places at which we've enjoyed reasonably-priced meals since our recent move to Logan, Ohio:

The Spotted Owl
Great Expectations
The Four Reasons
Hocking County, with its numerous state parks, cliffs, caves, and the gorgeous Hocking Hills, is a beautiful place. I'm told that annually, it attracts 2-million visitors, double the number who go to Yellowstone Park each year. If you come to Hocking County sometime soon, be sure to check out one of these great places to eat while here. (The Four Reasons is in nearby historic Lancaster, county seat of Fairfield County.)

For more on the Hocking Hills, see here.

[IN THE COMMENTS: I'm corrected on my information regarding the numbers of people visiting Yellowstone Park. Thanks for that! Nonetheless, Hocking County and southeastern Ohio are beautiful.]

Lost in a Fog?

See here.

Ohio Indicates How Evenly Divided Country Is

Politically, Ohio, which was in recent decades dominated by the Republicans until last year's midterm elections, is a perennial swing state in presidential polling. But Ohio almost always supports the winning presidential candidates. (See here.)

Two recent polls taken among Ohio voters demonstrates that the state is neither Red or Blue, reflecting the divisions in the country and possibly foreshadowing another close presidential election in 2008.

An Ohio Poll shows Ohio voters almost equally divided in all their perceptions of the war in Iraq:
The poll included phone interviews with Ohio registered voters between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31. Some of the results:
  • 46 percent said the war was going "very well" or "fairly well," and 53 percent said it was going "not too well" or "not at all well." Of those, 75 percent of Democrats expressed negative opinions on the war, compared to 30 percent of Republicans.
  • 47 percent said the United States made the right decision in invading Iraq, 51 percent said it was the wrong decision and 1 percent had no opinion. Of the total, 77 percent of Republicans thought military action was the right decision, compared to 21 percent of Democrats.
  • 50 percent thought troops should be brought home as soon as possible and 48 percent thought troops should stay until the situation is stabilized. Of those, 76 percent of Republicans thought the military should stay until conditions become more stable, versus 22 percent of Democrats.

It's as if people living next door to each other are watching completely different newscasts and reading different papers and news magazines and blogs. They may well be, since increasingly people seem to be only paying attention to those who deliver the news according to their preconceived notions.

A Quinnipiac Poll shows that Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive frontrunners of their respective parties are virtually tied in Ohio:
The Quinnipiac Poll, which surveyed 1,231 Ohio voters between Nov. 6-11, showed Clinton with 44% support and with Giuliani 43%. That is an improvement for the former New York City mayor, who trailed Clinton in Ohio by six percentage points in an October Quinnipiac Poll.

But this may be the more interesting result of the latter poll:

• 46% of married Ohio women say they would never vote for Clinton.

• Meanwhile, 46% of single women say they'd never vote for Guiliani.

What that means, I don't know. Any impressions?

By the way, in the Quinnipiac Poll, John Edwards does a lot better against Clinton.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Organ Donation: A Christian's Duty?

A few days ago, at a regular gathering of area Lutheran clergy I've begun attending, a colleague shared a moving letter received by a woman who had visited the pastor at his office. The woman was evidently making the rounds among several area churches during what was recognized by many Methodist churches as Organ Donation Sunday.

It seems that the woman's daughter died a few years ago and the young woman's organs were donated for medical use. Nothing could assuage the mother's grief, to be sure. But the woman had just received a letter which she hoped might motivate others to consent to organ donation. The letter was from a young wife and mother who had received her daughter's heart. She told this mother she would always be grateful for the gift of life that her daughter's heart had made possible. Obviously, the mother was happy to receive the letter and made her feel that, if her daughter had to die, at least some part of her physical remains could be used here on earth to bring renewed life to another person.

A day after hearing my colleague's account and reading the letter sent by the transplant recipient, I read this in Christian Century magazine:
The Church of England says human organ donation is a Christian duty, in line with the giving of oneself and personal possessions voluntarily for the well-being of others. The church's statement came during discussion in the House of Lords on whether a position on organ donation should be adopted across the 27-member European Union, of which Britain is a part. The church made it clear that it remains firmly opposed to the sale of human organs, but it said that living donors giving organs freely is acceptable when no commercial gain is involved (RNS).
Methodist bishop and theologian Albert Outler said near the end of his life, “For forty years, I’ve gotten it wrong. I’ve been telling people, ‘You’ve got to love! You’ve got to love!’ But the truth is that through Jesus, we get to love!”

Maybe organ donation isn't a Christian imperative because we have to do it, but a Christian imperative because we get to do it, an act of love for neighbors we'll never least on this side of the resurrection.

[UPDATE: In the comments, Chris points out that our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has long seen organ donation by live donors as an act of love and those of deceased family members as an act of good stewardship. (Stewardship is the management of our time, talents, and other resources, including our bodies, minds, possessions, and money, in light of our faith in Jesus Christ.) See here and here.]


if the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced that she was awarding Germany's highest civilian honor posthumously to a Nazi death camp commander.

How would we react to that?

What would such an award say about Germany's intentions today or how it viewed its despotic past?

Questions like this rattled around in my mind the other day when I read this profile of George Koval in The New York Times. Koval was the Iowa-born son of Russian immigrants who gained high security clearance to the Manhattan Project in which America's atomic bombs were developed. He then passed the information he gained along to the late Soviet Union.

Koval, of whom I'd never previously heard, died recently. Russian president Vladimir Putin has honored Koval for helping to "speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own.”

Putin's apparent intention for honoring Koval was to give his Russian nation someone to celebrate. But he's honored a spy who betrayed the United States while in the US Army. His greatest achievement was stealing technological secrets that allowed the Soviets to develop atomic weaponry they would not have likely developed on their own intellectual firepower.

Putin could honor people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who courageously stood up to Soviet Communism and fought for democracy. Or someone like Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet-era physicist who also became a democracy advocate. Those and countless others like them could legitimately be recognized as Russian heroes.

But it says volumes about Putin, the former KGB-agent who apparently will let go of executive power only in name once his presidential term is completed, and about his nation, that they select as a hero a quisling whose thievery supported one of the most murderous empires in human history.

Democracy is a wonderful system of government. But it doesn't cure all ills. Unless a nation has what I call the metaphysical infrastructure to allow for the functioning of democracy, it won't behave differently from traditional, more despotic, forms of government.

Democracy, of a kind, has come to Russia. But Russia's national inferiority complex, evident since the days of Peter the Great, who slavishly imitated European ways, and the strong tendency of Russians to applaud authoritarianism mean that it's plausible for the country's president to honor someone like Koval.

In this age of radical Islamic terrorism and the rise of China, it would be good for Americans and American policymakers to remember that many Russians and Russian leaders still brood over the way the Cold War ended and still see something laudable and heroic in the Communist era.

If Angela Merkel honored an old Nazi, we would be appalled. We should be no less horrified by Vladimir Putin's recognition of George Koval.

[From The New York Times, above, left to right: George Koval, Vladimir Putin.]

Does the Resurrection Matter?

[This sermon was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, during worship on November 11. 2007.]

Luke 20:27-38
Do we believe in the resurrection of the dead?

And if we do, what difference does it make in how we live our lives each day?

The Sadducees who confront Jesus in our Gospel lesson today were a small but influential group within first-century Judea. Unlike Jesus and the rest of their fellow Jews, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible constituted the Word of God. These five books--Genesis, Exodus, Levitcus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--are what the scholars call, the Pentateuch and are also referred to as, the books of Moses. The resurrection of the dead isn’t specifically mentioned in those five books. And so the Sadducees rejected the whole idea of a resurrection of the dead.

In doing so, they were rejecting what many passages in the other thirty-four books of the Old Testament teach about the resurrection of those who believe in the God that you and I have met in Jesus Christ, including those of Job in today’s Old Testament lesson. In spite of Job’s anger with God for letting a profusion of tragedies come his way and anger with friends who claimed that all of his misfortunes were Job’s fault, Job trusted God and said, “...I know that my Redeemer lives the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God...”

We might think that people who refuse to believe that God can bring new life to dead bones just lack faith. But the Sadducees did believe in God. Their problem was that their faith was in a God they’d whittled down to human size.

Maybe their wealth and influence--because the Sadducees were a wealthy and influential bunch--had stunted their imaginations.

Maybe they couldn’t imagine God being any bigger or more powerful than they were. It limited their faith.

There are people in our churches today who have a similarly limited faith. Recently, a man told me about the reaction of an elderly family member to the decision of another family member, who had just died, to be cremated. “It’s too bad John won’t rise again,” the older woman said. “What makes you think that John won’t rise?” the man asked. “Well, he’s just going to be ashes,” the woman replied. “There won’t be anything left of him.” To this, the man said, “It seems to me that it was from dust that God first created human beings. If He did it once, He can do it again!”

In rejecting the idea that God could resurrect the dead, the Sadducees were doing more than just forgetting that God is able to do what seems impossible, though. They were also ignoring the evidence staring them in the face: Jesus Himself.

The confrontation recounted in today’s Gospel lesson happens in the temple in Jerusalem on the Tuesday before Jesus’ crucifixion. By this point in Jesus’ activities, He had already fed 5000 people with a few fish and scraps of bread, cast out demons, declared forgiveness to people alienated from God, healed the lame, and even brought a dead girl back to life. All these signs should have told the Sadducees that Jesus possessed power over life and death. And yet, from the perspective of their limited faith, all the Sadducees could think to do when they spoke with Jesus was start a religious argument.

Intent on making Jesus look ridiculous for saying that those who believe in Him will rise, they present Jesus with an imaginary case study meant to cause Him to stumble. It’s all rooted in something called levirate law, which is discussed in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Deuteronomy. Under this law, among the ancient Jews, property could only be inherited by a firstborn son. If a woman was widowed before giving birth to a child and her father wouldn’t take her back into his home, she had nothing. To help the woman and to ensure that the deceased husband’s family line continued, levirate law said that his next unmarried brother had to take the widow as his wife. Their first son would be considered the dead man’s heir. In their fictional case study, the Sadducees tell Jesus, there was a woman who married a procession of seven brothers, each of them dying and leaving her childless. “In the resurrection of the dead,” the Sadducees asked, “whose wife will this woman be?”

It’s a gotcha question to which the Sadducees were sure there was no answer. But Jesus answers them in two ways:
  • First, with the facts. In heaven, He says, marriage won’t happen. Marriage is designed for life in this limited world. But in heaven, those Jesus describes as “the children of the resurrection” will live as loving sisters and brothers, with God as our Father. The joys there will be better than those experienced in the best marriages here.
  • Second, Jesus points out that even Moses himself, the traditional author of the first five books of the Bible which the Sadducees held dear, believed in the resurrection of the dead. After all, Jesus tells them, Moses, at the burning bush, called the Lord, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and then pointed out that “he is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
The next two verses that follow in Luke are omitted from our appointed lesson. But it’s interesting to read what we’re told about the reaction of the Sadducees: “’Teacher [they said], you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.” The Sadducees conceded that they had lost their argument with Jesus.

But left unanswered are two questions:
  • Whether the Sadducees came to believe that the resurrection is real?
  • And whether that belief made any difference in their lives?
These are really the same questions with which I began my sermon. And they’re questions that you and I need to ask of ourselves.

Each week when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm our belief in “the resurrection of the dead.” But what exactly does it mean to believe that as followers of Jesus Christ, we can look forward to a physical resurrection? Above all, I think it means that God gives us the power to live each day here to its fullest!

One of the heroes of the twentieth century, a man who’s still living, is Desmond Tutu. Tutu, a black South African who served as an archbishop of the Anglican Church, won the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing the system of apartheid which once existed in his country. Under apartheid something like 90% of the country was essentially enslaved. Throughout the struggle which led to the liberation of South Africa, Tutu daily received death threats.

Someone once asked him why he kept up his peaceful fight for freedom. He was an educated man. He could have served quietly as a simple clergyman. Why, the questioner asked, did he willfully face the possibility of assassination to continue the struggle? I can’t help it, Tutu said. When I see injustice, I must fight it. “Besides, death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!”

After the racist government of South Africa fell and a new one was established under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu once more forsook safety and comfort to head a reconciliation task force that saw South Africa’s formerly persecuted Black majority forgive and seek vengeance from the many members of the White minority which had for so many years oppressed them.

When you belong to Jesus Christ and you know that His grace and forgiveness have given you life beyond the grave, you can live this life to the full. You can fight for what’s right. You can share the Good News of Jesus even with those who may oppose or ridicule you. You can dare to serve others in Jesus’ Name!

And you don't have to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner to live in such daring ways! I once read the true story of two men I’ll call John and Joe. They worked in a real estate office together. John somehow stole a commission from Joe. Joe was understandably furious and that began an unspoken feud, the two men separated by a wall of surly silence. One day, Joe learned that John’s wife had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Joe was conscience-struck. Although he was sure that John had wronged him, he was equally sure that he needed to strive for reconciliation. So, Joe did something he hadn’t done in months. When he saw John had arrived at the office, Joe walked into his cubicle and said, “I hear that Mary’s having some health problems. How’s she doing?” When you know that one day you will rise and be with Jesus, you can forget about keeping score in this life. You can dare to do things like forgive, forbear, and love others.

A seminary professor of mine loved reading murder mysteries. But he had the strange habit of always reading the last chapter first. By doing so, he said, he not only knew how the story would end, he also knew how to read the book. He knew what facts were important and what weren’t, what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Through Jesus, we know how the story will end. All who believe in Him will never perish. They’ll live with God forever. Because this is true, we can be filled with the power to live life God’s way and to focus on what’s important: to love God and neighbor; to worship God with our whole lives; to serve others in Jesus’ Name; to make disciples by telling others the Good News of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and follow Christ; to forgive and get on with the business of living.

For the Christian, the resurrection of the dead is no mere abstraction. It’s a reality Jesus has secured for us through His own death and resurrection. And it’s what frees us from our fears and hang-ups in this life. The resurrection frees us to live not only in eternity, it also frees us to live today!

A Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons

[I'm not preaching this coming Sunday, as I'll be formally installed as pastor of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. (The sermon will be provided by our dear friend, Pastor Pat Badkey. Pat and her husband, Steve Fahnestock, were seminary classmates of mine. Through the years, our families have remained close.) I will though, be discussing the Bible lessons for Sunday with the adult Sunday School class at Saint Matthew and one of these texts will be the bases on which Pastor Pat builds her sermon that day. I present passes like these each week as a way of helping the people of Saint Matthew prepare for worship. But because our texts are based on the lesson plan (the lectionary) that goes with the Church Year, others should find them helpful as well.]

The Bible Lessons:
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

1. This will be the next-to-last Sunday of the Church Year. November 25 will bring us to the final Sunday of the Church Year, known as Christ the King.

2. One of the apparent themes of these texts is what's known as, the Day of the Lord. We Christians believe that the risen, ascended Jesus will return to the world and that judgment will be rendered. It isn't a day to be feared for those who follow the God of the Bible, believing in Jesus Christ.

3. Another interesting aspect of these texts is that it demonstrates that Biblical faith isn't a black and white thing. God's creation and reign are, for those who want to hamstring God, a bit complicated. For example, the Old Testament book of Malachi, written by a prophet sometime after 530BC, addresses the abuse or neglect of the temple which absorbed Ezra and Nehemiah after the Babylonian exile of God's people. The prophet seems to be saying, "Respect the temple as the place where God dwells on earth and where you worship God together." On the other hand, in the Gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus tells the disciples not to be overawed by the temple of His day. God can't be contained in buildings.

Also, in the Luke passage, Jesus tells the disciples that one day, Christians will be persecuted for following Him, but to not worry about what they'll say beforehand. Yet, in other places in Scripture, writing to a persecuted Church in Asia Minor, the apostle Peter, who was listening to Jesus when He spoke the words in the Gospel lesson, tells the people to always be prepared to give an account for the hope in them. (But to do so with "gentleness and reverence.")

Are these contradictions? I don't think so. Truth is a big thing and is applied in different ways depending on the context.

In the first set of passages mentioned above, the concern of both Malachi and Jesus is respect for God. Temples are respected when people actually worship God in them; that's what Malachi was saying. But temples shouldn't be the objects of our worship. Only God should be. That's what Jesus was saying.

Jesus was counseling His followers not to be afraid and to rely on God. Peter was counseling Christians to grow in their faith, including in their capacity to love those who persecute them; that's how they would be prepared to give an account for the eternal hope in them.

Christian faith is simple. It isn't simplistic.

4. In the mid-sixth century, Israel was overrun by the Babylonian empire, many of its people sent to Babylon as slaves, and the temple in Jerusalem destroyed. Later, the people were allowed to return. They were slow to rebuild the capital city or the temple, a scandalous circumstance which has been addressed, as mentioned above, by Nehemiah and Ezra. But even after the temple was built, God's people were spiritually lackadaisical. These are the circumstances addressed by Malachi.

5. Malachi isn't a proper name. It's a word that means My Messenger, which appears in the opening verse of the book.

6. Traditionally, the New Testament book of Second Thessalonians has been attributed to Paul. As I've explained before, in the ancient world, it was legitimate for someone operating in the school of thought of a revered teacher to write under that teacher's name. There are sufficient differences in nomenclature and word usage for some scholars to suspect that this book wasn't written by Paul. Others though point out that the book is too short to reach an authoritative conclusion about authorship. Nonetheless, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has seen the Word of God in this wonderful book. (For more on Thessalonica, go here.)

7. Opinion is also divided on what exactly lay behind the idleness of the Thessalonian Christians. Traditionally, it's been thought--and I'm inclined to agree with the thought--that the Thessalonian Christians were sort of a proto-Left Behind gang. According to this this school of thought, they were obsessed with Jesus' return and were convinced that it was imminent. They thought that because life in this world was ending soon, it was pointless to work. They became idle and a bunch of idle, busybodies.

Others say that the Thessalonian church were simply like the rest of the human race, prone to lazily going through life with little thought for living lives that express gratitude to God for life or life made new in Christ.

8. Jesus commends steadfast faith in Him, even in the face of the trials and persecutions He discusses. He also warns Christians against being obsessed with His return. As in the Thessalonian text, we're told to simply be faithful. A story is told, sometimes about Saint Augustine and at other times about Martin Luther, probably apocryphal. But it's a good story nonetheless. One of the great men is approached while hoeing his garden. "What would you do if you knew Jesus were coming back tomorrow?" the questioner asks. Without looking up from his work, it's said that the teacher replies, "Finish this row." If even Jesus was unaware of the hour of His return, it isn't for us to know. Our call is simply to be faithful while we live on this earth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Saints Are Like

[This message was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during worship on Sunday, November 4, my first official Sunday as pastor of the congregation. We celebrated it as All Saints Sunday.]

Luke 6:20-31
Today, I'm going to do something which in seminary we were taught never to do. I'm going to give you the two points of my sermon. That way, you can feel free to fall asleep. You can still say you know what the sermon was about. Here they are:
  • Blessed are the empty.
  • Blessed are those who risk rejection by others because they follow Christ.
And now, the sermon.

Her name was Mabel and the story of her impact on a young seminary student chaplain is told in John Ortberg’s book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. Mabel was a resident of a nursing home, blind, nearly-deaf, and suffering from a cancer that was disfiguring her face. She’d been bedridden for twenty-five years. Tom Schmidt was the student chaplain, working at the nursing home where Mabel lived.

It was Mother’s Day and Schmidt was making his rounds. He decided to try ignoring his revulsion at the sight of Mabel and to present her with a flower. He didn’t want to do it, especially since he was sure that Mabel would be unresponsive. “Here’s a flower,” he told her. “Happy Mother’s Day.” Mabel pulled the flower to her face, attempting to smell it and then, in somewhat slurred speech, said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.” So, Schmidt rolled Mabel’s wheelchair to another resident and watched her as she held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus.” “That,” said Tom Schmidt, “was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being.”

As Schmidt’s acquaintance with Mabel grew, so did his sense of awe. He felt each time he entered her room that he was walking on holy ground. Often, he would read a Scripture to Mabel and from memory, she would mouth the words along with him. Then, she might break into a song praising God. “I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns,” Schmidt recalls. The student chaplain began going to Mabel’s room with pen in hand, ready to jot down the amazing things that she said.

During one week, Schmidt says, he was stressing out, thinking about exams at seminary and a million other things he had to get done, when a question dawned on him, “What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So, the next time he was at the nursing home, Schmidt decided to ask Mabel. “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?” Listen closely to Schmidt’s recollection:
“...’I think about Jesus...[she said]’ I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote...’I think about how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me, you know...I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied...Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think...But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.’ "
Although Mabel was blind, nearly deaf, suffering from cancer, and confined to her bed, she was likely more alive and happier and, as she said, “satisfied” than many of the people we know. Why is that? The short answer is that Mabel was a saint. But on this All Saints Sunday, it’s good for us to ask, “What exactly is a saint?”

Taking our cue from Jesus’ words for us in today’s Gospel lesson, I think we can say that a saint is a person blessed by God. But as you read or hear this passage, what’s called, “The Sermon on the Plain,” from the Gospel of Luke, it hits you that Jesus has an entirely different idea of what it means to be “blessed by God” than you and I usually have.

Week before last, fires raged through southern California, particularly affecting San Diego. It was a terrible disaster and I’m sure that like me, you’ve been praying for the people affected by the fires. A player for the San Diego Chargers who has a home in the area met with reporters last week and said, that although all of his neighbors’ houses were destroyed, “Thank God” the fire had literally gone around his house, leaving him unscathed.

I’m not picking on this player and I don’t want to read too much into his words. I’m sure that he was sincere in what he said. But I wonder if he believes that God determined to leave his house standing and decided that his neighbors’ places had to be destroyed?

And what would this player say about the victims of other disasters that happen in life?

What would he say about Mabel?

Would he say that because of the multiple tragedies that had stricken her and the long years of suffering she’d endured that she wasn’t really blessed by God?

That she wasn’t a saint?

That she didn’t really have a connection with the Lord she so fervently confessed and in Whom she so clearly believed?

In fairness, he probably wouldn’t say those things.

And yet, in his comments about how his property hadn’t burned down when the homes of his neighbors had, that player, seems to have the world’s idea of what it means to be blessed. That’s because the world appears to believe that when life breaks our way, we’re blessed by God and that when the events of life go against us, we’re not. But in the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus turns ideas like that on their head. He does so in two major ways, I think.

Listen again to how Jesus begins His message for us this morning. He says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

Talk about turning things on their head! You’re blessed, Jesus says, and you’re a saint when you’re poor, hungry, and grief-stricken. If I had to distill those three beatitudes into one, I’d say simply, “Blessed are the empty.” The poor have empty pockets. The hungry, empty bellies. The grieving, an empty place at the dinner table. Or an empty spot in the easy chair in the family room. These are the blessed ones. How can Jesus say that?

Recently, my wife Ann and I spoke with a young woman who had wandered from God. Not in some dramatic way. Instead, she had just allowed her relationship with God to move to the sidelines of her life. But not long ago, her life hit a crisis point. She found a church and began to regularly attend worship there. She’s also established a daily time of prayer and Bible and devotional reading. Ann asked this young woman, “What brought you back to God?” “I was empty inside,” she said. “I just knew that I needed God.” Saints are people who understand the emptiness of life without God and they invite the God we meet in Jesus Christ to fill their emptiness. Blessed are the empty!

Jesus also says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” In these words, Jesus seems to say, "Blessed are you when you risk having others reject you because you follow Christ. You will never be rejected by God!"

Methodist bishop Will Willimon once served as dean of the chapel at Duke University. He tells about a Duke student he encouraged “to go out for rush,” joining a fraternity. Willimon explains, “He had grown up as an only child. I thought the incentive to socialize would be good for him, get him out, expose him to others. [But] That night, there had been too much alcohol, and people under the influence are sometimes people at their worst. The incident…involved a number of people. Afterwards, when a police report had been made, a secret meeting was held and everyone was asked to keep the whole thing quiet. And everyone agreed to keep quiet. Everyone but him. It’s not right, he had said to them. This isn’t what a fraternity is to be about. We’re making a wrong even worse. From that night on, he was no longer considered by them a ‘brother.’” In Jesus’ terms, he was excluded, reviled, defamed because of his relationship with Christ and his desire, despite the difficulty and pain of it, to follow Christ’s lead.

Being blessed, being a saint, doesn’t mean that we’re insulated from the pain or grief of this life.

This isn’t heaven.

This is an imperfect world in which bad things happen to even the most faithful people.

The loved ones and friends of those Saint Matthew saints who passed from this life this past year whose names we honored a short time ago can testify to that. Sometimes, in fact, the world reserves its worst treatment for people who seek to follow Christ. But Jesus, the Savior Who, the New Testament tells us, ”emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” so that He could die and rise and secure eternity with God for all who believe in Him, brings blessings to those who dare to follow Him!

Blessed are the empty; they will be filled with God!

Blessed are those who risk rejection by others; God will never reject them!

Today, I invite you to trust, however hesitantly or incompletely, that Jesus’ words are true. Trust that you are among His saints and that You are part of His Kingdom forever.

Because you are!