Friday, August 01, 2008

To Help You Prepare for Worship on Sunday, August 3, 2008

[Most weeks, I try to publish at least one post dealing with the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday. My hope is that I can at least help the people of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may find these explorations helpful because we use the same Bible lessons used by most other North American Christians each Sunday.]

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

The Prayer of the Day:
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Take a Look at...
(1) The brief comments of Lutheran Old Testament scholar Ralph W. Klein on Isaiah 55:1-5:
  • The opening two verses of this pericope are an invitation by Yahweh to a free divine banquet. As divine king, Yahweh imitates earthly kings at their inaugurations.
  • The passage is filled with irony. Those who are hungry and thirsty are invited to "buy" without money and without price. People spend money and work hard for that which does not benefit them. Christian preachers may wish to refer to the free banquet offered in the Eucharist.
  • Verses 3-5 ring the changes on the old promises to David (cf. 2 Samuel 7). God promises to make with "you," that is, the whole community an everlasting covenant, the sure promises to David. Hence the covenant is democratized. What had formerly been promised to David and his dynasty is now promised to everyone. This is a good example of a hermeneutical application, where the prophet takes "what was once meant" and shows what it might mean in his time. Strictly speaking, there is no messianic hope in Second Isaiah, and the only messiah mentioned is Cyrus the Persian (Isa 45:1).
  • Just as David ruled nations, so the people are promised that the nations will acknowledge them. The guarantor of this promise is Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel.
  • The gospel for the day is Matthew 14:13-21, the (free) feeding of the 5,000.
(2) The even briefer comments of Anglican Chris Haslam on Psalm 145, here.

(3) The extensive comments on the Roman text by another Anglican who, unlike Canadian Haslam is from Australia, Bryan Findlayson, can be found here.

(4) Here is a sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew by the wonderful Methodist bishop and preacher, William Willimon, whose books and other writing have been inspiring me for more than twenty years.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Griffey Trade: What He Said

My brother, Marty Daniels, has the best take I've read on the trade of Ken Griffey, Jr. from the Cincinnati Reds to the Chicago White Sox. For most of the eight years Junior played in Cincinnati, Reds fans didn't deserve him. Junior, we'll miss you...but go win a ring!

See here, here, and here. (Linked sequentially.)

[Picture from The Cincinnati Enquirer. Click to enlarge.]

Burberry of London and the Unnecessary Extravagance of God's Love

[I wrote this piece for the August edition of my monthly pastor's column in the newsletter of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.] Years ago, my mother-in-law gave me a bottle of cologne. It was Burberry of London. After I began wearing the stuff regularly, my mother-in-law gave it to me for several Christmases in a row. It simplified her shopping each December.


It became such a regular item with me, that without my knowing it, Burberry of London became my olfactory trademark. Especially for our daughter, Sarah. 

Nearly five years ago, as a freshman at Northern Kentucky University, Sarah went to Florida for the Walt Disney World college program. She’d never been away from her family for more than a few hours. Now she was gone for eight months. 

 Like all people who leave the nest for the first time, Sarah sometimes got homesick. One way she dealt with it surprised me: She lingered in the men’s cologne section at the local mall department store and took a deep whiff of Burberry’s of London. “It reminds me of you,” she told me on the phone. 

 I ran out of my supply of Burberry a few months ago and rather than buy any more, I began using up other cologne that’s been given to me and accumulated through the years. But the other day, Ann asked her Mom to go to the Sam’s Club close to her and pick up a bottle of Burberry for me. You see, Sarah, who these days, lives in Florida with her husband, is going to be with us for a weeklong visit in August. “With Sarah coming, you’d better get some Burberry’s,” Ann said. 

I’d been thinking the same thing. For Sarah, her dad wearing Burberry cologne will be part of the homecoming to Ohio. Now, it’s stupid on the face of it. Why make such a fuss over some cologne? The answer is that love does seemingly stupid things. Love doesn't shy away from doing the completely unnecessary. 

Of course, the most extravagant act of love that has ever happened came when God the Father sent Jesus to die and rise for rebellious, death-bound sinners like you and me. 

From God’s standpoint, this was completely unnecessary. 

God didn’t need us. We’ve caused God countless heartaches from the very beginning. 

Yet God has always wanted us to be with Him. God has always wanted to free us from sin and death. 

That’s why Jesus went through the cross, to erase the power of sin over our lives. 

That’s why He rose from the dead, established the Church, and instituted Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, each an extravagant act of love from God to you and me. 

In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul wrote, “…when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). 

You and I are called to respond to God’s extravagant love with the same kind of love for God and neighbor. That’s why Paul also prompts us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). 

The love of God has been extravagantly poured into our lives through Christ. It wasn’t necessary. But I’m glad that God loves us this much. 

May we be extravagant in giving away Christ’s love. 

May it be our trademark.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Putting Ourselves in the Hands of God

[This sermon was shared during a funeral service earlier today. Mary Jane was a member of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Psalm 46
Romans 8:31-39
John 11:21-27
Today, Mary Jane is experiencing the truth of what she always believed. She is in the presence of the One Who, on a certain day in Bethany, told two grieving sisters, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live…” If the resurrection which Jesus promises all who repent of sin and believe in Him isn’t true today, it isn’t true. But through the risen Jesus, we know it is true and therein lies our hope, even at this sad time.

But one of the most wonderful things about belonging to the God we know through Jesus Christ is that He not only gives us hope for tomorrow, but strength for today. Mary Jane knew this. She and I were talking one day early in her hospitalization. She mentioned a conversation she’d had with one of her daughters. I imagine that it’s one she’d had with each of you many times. “I learned it a long time ago," she said. "Put things in God’s hands."

It’s a theme to which she often returned in our conversations, some brief, some longer, over the eight-plus months I’ve known her. Life and death are daunting things. In facing their challenges and even their joys, we are all children ill-equipped to deal with them. We get knocked down so easily and the people who rely on themselves alone stay down. It’s only through surrender to the risen Jesus that we have hope of rising again, not just in eternity, but in the midst of life. Mary Jane told me that learning to put herself in God’s hands was the most important lesson of her life, one she was still learning.

All who are gathered here today and all who will be at her gravesite tomorrow know that Mary Jane did not always have an easy life. That’s what makes her firm belief in the importance of placing oneself in God’s hands all the more important to heed.

And makes it ring true! Hers weren’t the shallow sentiments of a greeting card, but the hard-won truth of a disciple who, though an imperfect human being like the rest of us, kept trusting the God we see in Jesus: the God of the cross and the empty tomb, Who promises, even in the toughest passages of this life, to never leave us, and Who promises all who believe in Him that their sin is forgiven and their life with God is an eternal guarantee. This was the God in Whose hands Mary Jane placed herself. It is the God in Whose hands I invite you to place yourselves today.

Over the past several days, because Mary Jane’s life lesson made such an imprint on me, I’ve taken a look at some of the places where the Bible speaks of the hand of God. Nearly all the passages seem evocative of some aspects of what Mary Jane had in mind when she spoke of the centrality of placing ourselves in God’s hands.

In First Samuel, for example, we’re told how enemies of God’s people, were in confusion because the hand of God was “upon them.” This speaks of the power of God, acting on behalf of those who believe in Him.

In Ecclesiastes, the world’s wisest man, Solomon, remarked several times that whatever good human beings do really comes from God’s hand. This speaks of the sovereignty of God. In spite of all human pretense, God in the end, is in control of our destinies.

Placing ourselves in God’s hands means that we are under the protection of the God Who is both powerful and sovereign. But it means something else.

On the first Sunday after Easter each year, we Lutherans and most Christians consider an incident involving the risen Jesus and one of His disciples, Thomas. Often called “Doubting Thomas,” the Gospel of John, in the original Greek, never really says that Thomas doubted. It says that he flat out didn’t believe. And, Thomas is quoted as saying that he refused to believe unless he actually saw Jesus and His wounds and until he touched them. It was then that the risen Jesus appeared in a locked room in which Thomas and the other disciples were gathered. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus told Thomas. Jesus held out His nail-scarred hands to Thomas and the unbelieving disciple worshiped Jesus as, “My Lord and my God.” Then Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Without a doubt, Mary Jane was among those about whom Jesus spoke that day. She had not seen and yet believed. She believed that those hands of Jesus, once pierced by human sin and placed upon the cross, then alive again and able to touch us with God’s freeing, gracious love, are able to welcome us, comfort us, strengthen us, and in the end, bring us, as a hymn we will sing shortly, “just one more surprise.”

That was the surprise Mary Jane received last Saturday afternoon when she left this life. Although, in truth, it came as no surprise to her. She always believed that at the end of this life, those who place themselves in God’s hands here on earth, encounter the Savior holding out to them the same nail-scarred hands He once held out to Thomas, welcoming them to their eternal home. On Saturday, Mary Jane entered Christ’s embrace in full.

The hands of God are powerful and sovereign. But they are also welcoming and gracious.

As those of you who knew and loved Mary Jane best and most face a future on this earth without her, take comfort in the fact that she is in the hands of God. She will never again suffer loss, pain, tragedy, or setbacks.

You can also draw strength and comfort from the main lesson of her life, the main lesson of all the saints for all time: Put yourselves in the nail-scarred hands of God. Whether here or in eternity, you will be forever blessed.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Three Important Truths

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

Romans 8:26-39
The last nine verses of today’s second lesson, Romans 8:26-39, are the ones I’ve told Ann must be read at my funeral. If they’re not, as I’ve told many people, I’m popping out of the box and reading them myself!

From this chapter, the most magnificent in all the Bible, I think, I want to hold up to you three truths, THREE THINGS WHICH IF WE KNOW THEM in our minds, hearts, and wills, will transform our lives for all eternity!

Truth #1. One summer day three years ago, I had just finished mowing my lawn when I saw a car pull hurriedly into my driveway. The driver was a woman from our congregation. “Mark,” she said, “I tried to get you on your cell phone while you were mowing. The son of a neighbor was just killed in an accident and we can’t get in touch with the family priest. Could you come over?”

I ran into the house for my keys and drove to that woman’s neighbor's house. I didn’t know the family and wasn’t sure what to say or do. I just kept praying, “Please, God, help this family. Help them and help me to help them, too. Help, God.” It took me two minutes to get to their place and I probably prayed that prayer, parrot-like, twenty times. I simply couldn’t think of anything else to pray!

When I arrived, I gave the mother a hug and put my hand on the shoulder of the father. I stood there a lot in silence. What do you say to a couple whose whole world has fallen out from under them? I prayed with them and a short time later, I left.

I didn’t feel as though I’d done much. Later though, the young man’s father asked his neighbor, on two different occasions, to convey to me how much it had meant to him that I had been there.

I filed the incident in my mind as yet another example of God’s mysterious ways. In particular, to me it exemplified how God answers even inarticulate and sometimes wordless prayers when the words don’t come to us.

Further confirmation of how God answers such prayers came soon thereafter. For months, my former congregation kept an eight year old boy on its prayer list. When his name was first given to me, he was about to undergo a delicate surgical procedure designed to help him have some hearing, something he’d never experienced before. His mom, Carol, wrote to me several times to thank the congregation for their prayers. She said it was particularly comforting to her because all she could think to pray while Jacob was undergoing surgery was, “Please, God…Please, God.”

Carol dismissed her two-word prayers as nothing more than “a mother’s nerves.” But that’s not how God heard them! In our second Bible lesson for this morning, the New Testament preacher and evangelist Paul says, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought, but…[God’s] Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

When we approach the God we know through Jesus Christ with trusting faith and authentic helplessness, the helplessness of those who know they need God and cannot rely on themselves or their own resources or on anything else, the Spirit turns our inarticulate craving for God into prayer. And it’s prayer like that which touches the heart and the will of God because in our helpless surrender, we’ve let the Holy Spirit turn our prayer into a simple plea: “In this place, in this circumstance, Lord, we don’t know what to ask for. Your will be done!”

In an effort to understand some of what is going on in our world recently, I’ve done some reading about the Muslim religion and about their holy book, the Qu’ran. I’ve read about what Muslims say about being Muslim.

In the Qu’ran, Muslims are told that the prayers offered in response to the five daily calls to prayer (adhans) are only acceptable to God if they recite the correct words with precision from the Koran and then, only if they do so in Arabic. Some Christians have similar mistaken notions about the necessity for perfection in their prayer.

Through Jesus though, we know the God Who is big enough and compassionate enough to reach out to us and to hear us even when our words and our minds are jumbled. Paul reminds us today that through Jesus Christ, we know that the Spirit is making sense of our prayers even when, as was true of me the day I was called to be with the grieving partns and as was true of Carol when she prayed for her son Jacob, we don’t know how to pray. That's the first great truth I want to highlight today.

We know something else. “We know,” Paul writes in our lesson, “that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.”

On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami hit much of this planet. Most of its victims were Muslims and Hindus. More than 160,000 people died or went missing and more than 500,000 homes were destroyed. The estimated cost of rebuilding that housing stock is $5-billion.

As Lutheran Pastor Paul Gauche once wrote, God surely didn’t cause this tragedy. But God stirred the hearts of Christians and others around the world to respond compassionately to the needs of faraway neighbors with whom they did not share faith, nationality, and often, skin color. In the case of Christians, the began helping others in the Name of Jesus Christ, because of the prompting of God's Spirit.

A similar thing happened among Christians and others after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of Christians, including my nephew who, from his pre-adolescent days, has known how to do plumbing and electrical work and do drywall, went to help Gulf Coast people rebuild their lives.

Even in a world sometimes gone crazy, we know that the Holy Spirit makes sense of our jumbled prayers and uses Jesus Followers to bring good out of even the worst of circumstances.

We know something else, too. Paul puts it this way: “If God is for us, who is against us? He Who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, will He not with Him also give us everything else?”

The God Who came into our worlds in the Person of Jesus Christ and sacrificed Himself on a cross and promised that He would be with us always in the Holy Spirit, isn’t going to be skimpy about sharing His love and His presence with us. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever change that!

I learned this from a man named Charlie in Ann’s and my home church in Columbus.

By the time I got to know Charlie, he was an elderly man who still occasionally did house painting. But most of his time was spent caring for his wife. He was deeply devoted to her. She was bed-ridden and in need of care for many years. After a long illness, Charlie’s wife died.

On the day of her funeral, we had a luncheon at the church. As that was ending, a friend of mine, a fellow who was in seminary, and I became concerned when we noticed that Charlie had been gone for awhile. We found him upstairs in the sanctuary. He was saying goodbye to some people who had come to the funeral.

When Charlie spied the two of us, he thanked us for our concern. Then he told us, “Mark and Whitie, you know something? God has been awfully good to me. And I’m so glad that He’s with me right now.”

Charlie had just begun to go through the most horrible grief anyone can suffer and it had come at the end of long years of selfless service to the woman he adored. Yet, because of the Savior he followed, Charlie could affirm God’s goodness and presence. It’s a testimony of God’s faithfulness I will carry with me my whole life!

Charlie knew what I hope that you know: God is for you.

In remembering that, folks, we are at the very core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians. We are, according to the great Reformed Biblical scholar, Joachim Jeremias, looking at the central message of the New Testament and I would add, of the whole Bible.

Through Jesus Christ, you can know of a certainty that God is for you and for every human being who has ever sinned, for everyone who has ever confronted pain or suffering or grief, for any human being who has ever drawn a breath. And there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ever or will ever alter that simple fact! Jesus' cross and empty tomb stand as testament to it. God is for you!

So, this morning, I ask you to ask God to help you grow in the awareness of three major truths Paul talks about in today’s second Bible lesson. Because of Jesus Christ, know that…
  • the Spirit can make something of our prayers even when we don’t know how to pray;
  • God can make good things come from even the worst of circumstances; and
  • absolutely nothing can ever separate the believer in Jesus Christ from God’s love or care.
If those three truths don’t make a difference in your life, nothing ever will.

[The three truths identified in this sermon were first pointed out to me in a sermon found here. (Membership required for access.)]