Friday, April 25, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (April 27, 2008)

[Each week, I take at least one "pass" at the appointed Bible lessons for the following Sunday. I do this to help my own preparation for preaching and worship. But I also do it to help the folks of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to get ready for Sunday morning. Because I almost always use the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) associated with the Church Year, used by most Christians each week, I hope that others will find these passes helpful too.]

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty and ever-living God, you hold together all things in heaven and on earth. In your great mercy receive the prayers of all your children, and give to all the world the Spirit of your truth and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

1. This Sunday will be the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the next to last Sunday of the Easter season. Ascension Day, which remembers the return of thr risen Jesus to heaven, is this coming Thursday. May 11 will bring the Festival of Pentecost, when the promised Holy Spirit came to believers, just as Jesus promised. This Sunday's Gospel lesson records one of the times when Jesus made this promise.

2. I used to wonder why passages from Jesus' Farewell Discourse (see here and here) were appointed for the Easter season. After all, Jesus spoke the words in last week's, this week's, and next week's Gospel lessons just before He was arrested and crucified. Why would we look at these lessons on three of the Sundays in a season especially devoted to recalling Jesus' resurrection?

The answer is simple, I think: Jesus, as He spoke these words, was physically leaving His first followers. His death would bring about their separation from Him. His words, especially those in this Sunday's Gospel lesson, were meant to assure the disciples that He would not leave them "orphaned." He would send His Spirit to those who trust in Him.

Today, as we live without the physical presence of the risen Jesus, we could feel "orphaned." But the words in Sunday's Gospel lesson assure us that we are not alone.

3. The lesson from Acts is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. It recounts what happened when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens to share the message of new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ. As a pious Jew who believed in one true God of the universe, the God he believed to be definitively revealed in Jesus, Paul would have been revolted by the way in which the Greeks worshiped many gods.

Instead, he accepted the Athenians where they were spiritually and, commenting on a statue devoted to an "unknown God," told them about this unknown deity.

It's a great example of sensitive Christian witnessing. Without condescension, but with a firm commitment to Jesus Christ, Paul met the Athenians at the intersection of his story, the Athenians' story, and God's story.

4. The psalm is a bold declaration that God refines our faith by taking us through adversity.

Today, we're called to trust an invisible God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a reflection on Genesis 28:5, when Isaac sent his son Jacob away, Martin Luther discussed the patience this cultivated in the younger man:
Jacob waited many years for the promised blessing...

This is a wonderful example that shows us how God works. He requires us to trust his word and his promises even when the opposite of those promises is happening to us. Jacob had the promised blessing, but he had to hold onto it by faith and not doubt what he couldn't see...[This] example teaches us to live by faith. We should believe God when he promises to love and protect us, take care of us, and listen to us, even though we might not see it happening...

We must learn to depend on the visible Word of our invisible and incredible God...This is difficult for us because we are used to things we can touch, see, or feel. We have to learn to let go of what we can experience only with our senses and live according to what is invisible.
Fortunately, as we take the leap of faith into God's arms, we have the promises of a Savior Who, promises of life forever with God and of God's presence with us always. Jesus seals those promises with His death and resurrection.

5. The passage from First Peter, written to churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), is a reminder that following Jesus is no guarantee that our lives will go smoothly. People may reject us for our faith in Christ. We may even suffer for it. But, Peter reminds us, our hope is for a life with God that not even death will be able to destroy.

I love Peter's words in verses 15b-16:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.
The Good News we claim in Jesus Christ is authenticated when our witness is loving, devoid of condescension like Paul's witness in Athens.

For more, go here.

Quote of the Day

"God has hope for us long after we have given up." (Daniel J. Simundson and David L. Tiede. Chosen: The Story of God and His People, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976, p. 164)

Our Former Community in Our Thoughts...

For seventeen years, we lived in suburban Cincinnati, where I pastored the congregation I founded there, Friendship Lutheran Church.

While there, my wife worked in several different schools of the West Clermont Local School District. Our kids graduated from one of the district's high schools. I was involved with the school system, volunteering in one levy/bond issue campaign and chairing another campaign. We count several teachers and administrators among our friends.

In recent years, we've watched one tragedy after another befall the district. In March the string of sadness continued when a long-time administrator, John Abegglen, died suddenly of a heart attack while sitting at his desk.

I wrote about some of these sad events here.

Now, the district and community prepares for the funeral of Matt Maupin, a graduate of the same high school my kids attended and a young man with whom our daughter worked at the local Sam's Club. He was killed by a militia that had earlier kidnapped him. That happened four years ago, but his remains were only recently found.

My thoughts and prayers and those of our family are with Maupin's family and with all our old friends and neighbors in the West Clermont school district as they prepare for the funeral.

May God comfort all who mourn.

I'm praying.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Happy Earth Day!

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!

Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.
He established them for ever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike,
old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord! [Psalm 148]

See here.

Boys and Girls Clubs Change Lives for the Better

A wonderful article. I dream that one day, there will be Boys and Girls Clubs here in Hocking County. In my former community, Clermont County, in the Cincinnati suburbs, I was honored to have served on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Regular readers of this blog know how impressed I am with the Clubs, which strive to be "the positive place for kids." Every community should have Boys and Girls Clubs units!

For more on the Boys and Girls Clubs, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Don't Be Troubled!

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

John 14:1-14
Is there anything troubling you today?

Chances are, if you’re breathing, something is bothering you.

It may be a problem with family members or your finances. It may be a concern from work or your neighborhood. It could be your health. If you’re a parent, you may be stewing over some issue with your child. If you’re a teen, you may be concerned about your future or about how you did on the test this past Friday.

To you and to me today, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” The words may seem unrealistic, like a motto on a Hallmark card or the words to that old Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t worry; be happy.” Fine sentiments, we may think. But how on earth does a person turn off troubles?

Actually, you can’t turn off troubles, at least not in this world. That, in fact, is something that Jesus Himself acknowledged more than once.
Troubles do come to us and every person in this sanctuary can affirm the truth of that.

But Jesus’ words for us this morning suggest that even when troubles come, we need not be troubled.

In fact, Jesus gives us three absolutes that will, if we tap into them, prevent us from being troubled in the face of troubles.

First: Jesus reminds us that all believers in Jesus Christ have one destination. “In my Father’s house,” Jesus says, “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.”

These words of Jesus, along with the rest of our Gospel lesson, come to us as part of a long section in John’s Gospel which the scholars call the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is about to go a cross, where He will die. On the third day after His death, He will rise, but only be with His first followers for forty days after that. In the Farewell Discourse, Jesus gives final reminders. And the first one is this: All who believe in Him have a home. This reality can help us through troubled times.

True story. The Rogers family were devout Christians. During their family prayer times, the parents often asked the children in their family to talk about the eternity Jesus secures His followers through His resurrection. Seven year old Jimmy said: “[I think heaven will be like this.] One day when we all get to heaven, it will be time for the big angel to read from the big book the names of all the people who will be there. He will come to the Rogers family and say, 'Daddy Rogers?' and Daddy will say, 'Here!' Then the angel will call out, 'Mommy Rogers?' and Mommy will say, 'Here!' Then the angel will come down to call out Susie Rogers and Mavis Rogers, and they will both say, 'Here!' And finally, the big angel will read my name, Jimmy Rogers, and because I’m little and maybe he’ll miss me, I’ll jump and shout real loud, ‘HERE!’ to make sure he knows I’m there.”

A few days later, a car struck Jimmy Rogers down. He was rushed to the hospital and the whole family was called. The doctors said they’d done all that was possible. The family gathered around Jimmy, motionless and unconscious, and they prayed. Late in the night, Jimmy stirred. They saw his lips move and form a single word. But what a word. Jimmy rasped out, “Here!” and he died. We who live on the other side of Easter, the day on which the once-crucified Jesus rose from the dead need not be troubled by death. Through Christ, we know we have one destination, our home with God.

Jesus also gives us one direction. Pastor Craig Cristina tells about a business trip he took to Boston in 1998. It was the first time he’d been in the city and he wondered how we would get around. But the car he rented had GPS in it, a novelty in those days. It showed him the way around.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells His disciples, “You know where I’m going.” But Thomas said, “No, really, Lord, I haven’t a clue.” That’s when Jesus told him…and us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

A lot of people these days claim that they want to know God. But I doubt that. If they really wanted to know God, they wouldn’t, like the people who killed Stephen in our first lesson for the morning, cover their ears to Jesus’ claims that He and the Father are one, that the way to the Father is through Him and Him only.

Why are we so hesitant to follow Jesus? Above all, it has to do with the cross. Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward pointed out several years ago that the cross of Jesus is offensive to every other religious tradition in the world. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus all find it unthinkable that God, or even a big religious hero, would die on a cross. Some of the happy talking televangelists seem to feel the same way.

But Jesus and the New Testament insist that His death was essential
. The perfect, sinless Lamb of God had to pay the price for our sin, erasing its power to keep us from living with God. In turn, we must accept the legitimacy of the death sentence that is rightly ours in order to accept what Christ has done for us in rising from the dead.

Anyone who truly believes in Jesus has, in one way or another, humbly confessed that they need Jesus more than anything or anyone! Jesus is our GPS. He’s our way through this life and into eternity.

As we face troubles, Jesus gives us one destination and one direction. He also gives one deity. One God. Jesus tells Philip, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Jesus is God, the complete and total disclosure of Who God is and what God is like. When we trust in Jesus, we are trusting in the one true God of the universe Who, according to Jesus, can be found nowhere else.

We live in a world in which troubling things happen. But we need not be troubled. Father Andrew Greeley tells a fictional tale of an Irish immigrant to the United States:
A young father decided that the only way he could support his wife and their three children was to leave for America. He would get a good job there, save his money, send most of it back to his family, and save the rest so that eventually he could buy them a house and bring them to the Land with the Golden Door. His wife, his children and his parents begged him not to leave. We’ll perish without you, they said. You’ll perish with me here, he said. I must go to America to earn a decent living. Well, they had an American wake for him, a sad party for a man they never hoped to see again. He survived the journey across the Atlantic, though many of his fellow passengers died. He survived a long trip to Chicago and his first days in the Stock Yards. It was a terrible bloody, smelly place to work, but he could earn more money in a couple of days there than he would in a whole year working his miserable farm. He sent home a letter every month with money that would keep his whole family alive. He stayed away from the pubs and ate very little in the crowded boarding house in which he lived. He went to night school to study accounting and eventually found a job which paid even more money than the slaughter house. Only a few letters came from home, because his children were too young to write, his parents didn’t know how, and his heartbroken wife would break down in tears when she tried to scribble a letter. After five years and several promotions, he had saved enough money to pay their first class passage to the United States and to buy a cozy house in which his family would live. While he waited for them to come – hoping that they would – he decorated and furnished the house. Back home the wife’s mother was urging her not to go to America. People died on the trip, she said. You’ll be taking my grandchildren away. He’s a real yank now and he won’t want country folk like you living in his house. The wife was torn between two loves, but she finally decided after much delay to risk everything on the trip to America and to the husband she still loved, though she couldn’t really remember what he looked like. The trip over was easy in first class as was the train ride to Chicago. At first none of them recognized the prosperous gentleman in the business suit that welcomed them when they got off the train. They were astonished by the house – running water, gas lamps, inside heating. Isn’t worth waiting for? The husband asked. You were worth waiting for, his wife replied.
Jesus Christ doesn’t promise that, as we go through this life, all our troubles will be banished. But He does promise us that our hearts need not be troubled.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Believe [trust] in God, believe [trust] also in me.”

Those who trust in Christ find strength and hope bigger than their troubles, a Lord greater than their fears.

Trust in Christ. You’ll draw strength from the fact that Christ gives you one destination, one direction, and one deity.

You’ll find an eternity worth waiting for.

You'll find a God worth waiting with.

With Jesus Christ, you won’t go wrong!

[The three realities to which this sermon points are taken from an outstanding sermon by Pastor Craig Cristina.]