Friday, December 11, 2009

The Wonder of Humble People Pointing Beyond Themselves

Deb Grant, the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Dickinson, Texas, authors a daily email she calls ELOGOS. Here is today's installment:
Luke 3:15-16
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
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It was pop artist Andy Warhol who said that everybody would have 15 minutes of fame - a reference to the explosive and fleeting nature of celebrity. In today's culture, 15 minutes of fame could be pandered by clever marketing people into a fortune. Ordinary people become Youtube icons or action figures. John the Baptist was a retro prophet for a people who hadn't seen or heard from a prophet in hundreds of years. He could have had his own talk show in a heart beat. Instead he waves off the fame and does simply what he was born to do –point to Jesus. As we watch celebrities rise and fall and feel the ebb and flow of our own successes and failures, we are wise to consider the historical wonder of a humble man doing his job with integrity so that the world will be ready to recognize the Savior of the world.
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Lord, when all is said and done, may it be said of me, that I pointed to Jesus.
If you would like to subscribe to ELOGOS, send Pastor Grant an email at: Here is her web site.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

God's Will and Sticking with It

[This was shared during the Midweek Advent Worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, last evening.]

Luke 1:5-23
A prominent pastor once told about meeting an old seminary classmate of his. The classmate had been widely acknowledged by everyone to be the ablest member of their class: a compelling communicator, a great leader, a person who got things done quickly and well, the sort of person others immediately respected and followed. “Joe,” they said, “will be the one who leads the largest church in the biggest city with the most clout in our denomination.”

But when Joe and this classmate met one another for the first time since their graduation, Joe was pastoring a tiny church. He enjoyed his ministry, but he was far from being the superstar everyone had expected him to be.

The two of them had been talking for some time, when the classmate screwed up the courage to ask, “Why? Why hadn’t Joe fulfilled his promise?”

In response, Joe had his own question. “Whose promise are you talking about?” he asked. “God never promised that I would be a superstar. God promised to be my God and Lord if I repented and believed in Jesus. God promised to be with me. God promised me new, eternal life. But God never promised me I would be a superstar. And in response to all of God’s promises, I promised to surrender to Jesus everyday. I promised”—and at this Joe chuckled—“to pray and try to mean it when I prayed, ‘Thy will be done.”

Joe allowed as how his life had turned out differently than he had expected. But he stood solely on the promises of God and then, day in and day out, did his duty as God set it before him.

Our lives don’t always go the ways that we or others think that they will. Everybody here tonight could probably identify at some level or another with Robert Redford's character, Roy Hobbs, in the movie, The Natural.** Years after mysteriously and suddenly dropping from the life of his high school sweetheart, Hobbs and the sweetheart, played by Glenn Close, meet one another again. With wistfulness, Hobbs says, "Things sure turned out different." "What do you mean?" she wondered. "Just different."

But our call is to be faithful to the Lord Who has been ever faithful to us, no matter how different things may be from how we'd imagined they would be. Our call is to be faithful in the midst of what we don’t understand.

Several years ago, I was re-reading this passage from Luke about Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. In some ways I read my Bible exactly as I read books, journals, or magazines. Like any good nerd, I set with pen in hand, making underlines and writing comments in the margins as I read. I dialog with God.

As I re-read the story of Zechariah, a line struck me which I hadn’t noticed before. It’s the line that composes the last verse of our lesson: “When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

While offering sacrifices at the holiest place in the temple in Jerusalem, Zechariah had encountered the angel Gabriel, the same angel who would visit Mary six months later. It wasn't at all what he'd expected, or probably had dreamed all his life, would happen if he ever had the chance to offer incense offerings at the temple.

Gabriel told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son, John the Baptizer. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel at first and as a sign that his message was correct, God caused Zechariah to be struck dumb, unable to speak.

Now I ask you: What would you have done if you were Zechariah, if you had encountered an angel and suddenly were unable to speak?

I tell you what I think I would have done. I would have run out of that place with terror, in reaction to the weird, frightening holiness of the moment.

I can’t imagine that a soul in the world would have blamed Zechariah for doing just that.

But Zechariah didn’t run. When the full force of that line--“When his time of service was ended, he went to his home"--hit me as I re-read it several years ago, I wrote in the margin of my Bible, “Amazing! He stayed.”

Zechariah may have stayed before the incense altar, in part, because, with something like 22,000 priests, composed of several divisions, charged with the care of the temple and only those whose names were drawn by lot able to offer sacrifices at the altar as Zechariah was doing at the moment of his encounter, he may not have wanted to let go of this less than once-in-a-lifetime experience. Zecharaiah would have known maybe thousands of priests who never would have been given the privileged duty he was undertaking at the time.

But I suspect that something more was at play in Zechariah’s decision to stay at his post in spite of things not going at all as he had expected.

Martin Luther once observed that Christians often work themselves into a blather over what God’s will for their lives might be. They ask things like, “Shall I marry?” “What career should I pursue?” “Where should I live?”

God cares about those things, of course, because God cares about us.

But, Luther said, we can pursue God’s will married or not, in one career or another, living anywhere. Above all, Luther said, God’s will is that we simply do our duty—love God, love neighbor, make disciples, live justly, repent for sin, believe in Jesus—whatever we do.

By not believing the angel’s message, Zechariah knew he had, for a moment, lapsed in his faith. But, in spite of things not going as he’d expected, he kept at his duty.

This is a lesson Zechariah must have taught his son. In our Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, several groups of people, in response to John’s preaching of repentance come to him and ask, “What should we do now?” He told all to share their blessings with others. He told tax collectors not to take more from people than they were supposed to take. He told soldiers not to exhort money from the terrified or to falsely accuse people. In other words, John said, God’s will is for us to do our duty, just as Zechariah, his father, did that day in the temple after being visited by Gabriel.

So often, we Christians complicate things. I don't know how to complicate this, folks. God’s will for us is really simple:
  • Trust in Christ no matter what.
  • Repent for sin and receive forgiveness.
  • Love God.
  • Love neighbor.
  • Tell others about the saving good news of Jesus.
  • Treat others as we would be treated.
On our jobs. In our families. At school. At our leisure.

Zechariah did his duty to God and to others. He stood solely on the promises of God and did his duty from moment to moment. May we do the same, whatever life brings to us. Amen***

*Joe wasn't his real name, by the way.

** Based on the novel by Bernard Malamud, the story line from which the film departs significantly.

***By the way, I do not think that it is God's will that people stay with jobs where they are unappreciated, underpaid, or subjected to abuse. Nor do I believe that employees who work under such conditions should do so without making their grievances known.

I also do not believe that people should remain in marriages to spouses who engage unrepentantly in extramarital liaisons or who are physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually abusive.

Nor do children owe obedience to parents who are in any way abusive. Nor do parents need to fear to discipline their children with appropriate self-control and love.

The Bible is very clear that our relationships are not to be built on the rights we demand for ourselves, but in the responsibility, love, and respect each of us owes God and one another.

The Golden Rule--"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"--should govern all our relationships.

The "household codes" which conclude many of the letters of Paul and Peter, found in the New Testament, all are predicated on this notion of relationships built not on the notion of rights--a non-Biblical concept, but on the belief in our mutual responsibility as human beings...all human beings.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I Can't, But...

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

Luke 3:1-6
Genelle Guzman-McMillan was the second of thirteen children and grew up on the Carribean Island of Trinidad. Genelle’s mother was a devoted Christian. But Genelle didn’t like church, thinking it was a waste of time. In fact, she thought that anything that cramped her style was a waste of time.

At age nineteen, expecting her first child, she moved in with her boyfriend. Six years later, the two of them split up and Genelle felt free to hit the club and party scene for which she’d always hankered. Somehow, in spite of now having two children, she made it through college, still managing to party most of the time.

Genelle seemed to have broken free from the old restrictions of her life and, depending on herself and her own wits. She was, as it’s said, “living large.”

In 1998, she moved to New York City where family and friends told her, she would find greater opportunity. She decided to leave her kids in Trinidad until she got settled in. After she came to New York, her ex-boyfriend informed Genelle that he was unwilling to let their kids come to America with her. That was okay with Genelle; by now, she was enjoying the party scene in the Big Apple. She quickly accepted being able to do more of it without having her children around.

By then, Genelle was living with another man, Roger McMillan. Like Genelle, he loved to spend his spare time partying. They were on top of the world until, Genelle says, there came “a remarkable turn."

Genelle worked in the Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals Department of the Port Authority of New York, her office on the 64th. floor of the North Tower at the World Trade Center. It was early on September 11. 2001 and she was making small talk with a co-worker, when she felt the building shake.

At first, she and the others in her office had no idea that an American Airlines passenger jet had just slammed into their building. After a time of indecision and panic, Genelle and the others with her on the 64th. floor, heard a roaring noise, not knowing that it was the sound of the South Tower collapsing.

But that sound was sufficiently terrifying to convince them all that they needed to get out of there. They made their way down the stairs, counting each flight aloud. Firefighters were ascending the stairs as they descended, assuring them that if they kept going down, they would be fine.

By the time the group reached the thirteenth floor, Genelle’s leather-heeled shoes were killing her. As she leaned over to take them off, everything around her seemed to explode in a massive boom!

All Genelle could see was blackness. She felt something hit her chest and then, she was pinned to the ground. As she put it, “One hundred ten floors were coming down around us. I knew I was being buried alive. The noise was deafening.”

Then, things became quiet and Genelle couldn’t believe that she was still alive. Listen to what Genelle says happened next: “I knew then I was going to die. Nobody was going to find me under all the steel and concrete. I started calling out for [my friend] Rosa, but there was no response. Then I heard a man saying, ‘Help, help, help.’ His voice grew fainter, and then there was nothing.

“There in the dark, my mind started racing. I thought of my children, my family, and my fiancĂ©, Roger...More than anything I worried about what would happen to me after I died. I didn’t know how to ask for forgiveness. I was sure I was going to hell.”

Beneath the steel and concrete, Genelle begged for a second chance at life, a second chance to live life God’s way. She floated in and out of consciousness for hour after hour, each time she came to praying for forgiveness and a miracle to help her to deal with the pain.

The next day, still under the rubble of the North Tower, Genelle heard the beeping sound of a truck backing up. She called out and a rescue worker heard her. But even though they shone a light all around and Genelle waved one hand, the only part of her that was free, no one saw her.

Then, Genelle faded from consciousness again. When she awoke, she heard rescue workers somewhere overhead and she prayed, “Please help me now!” She yelled at the workers. Nobody heard her. She desperately waved her hand again and now, somebody grabbed it.

“Genelle,” she heard, “I’ve got you! You’re going to be all right. My name is Paul. I won’t let go of your hand until they get you out.”

Soon, two rescue workers pulled Genelle out and Paul let go of her hand. Genelle was the last survivor to be pulled from the World Trade Center.

She spent five weeks in Bellevue Hospital, amazing the staff with her serenity. More than two years later, when I first read her story, Genelle still hadn’t had a nightmare about those horrible events.

One thing that bothered her though was that she never got the chance to thank Paul for taking her hand and reassuring her there in the rubble. She learned that there was no Paul among the rescue workers who went to Genelle that day. Not one of the crew who took her from the rubble knew of a Paul. Genelle is convinced that God sent an angel at just the right time.

September 11, 2001 began a new life for Genelle. As she puts it, “My life was very different than it had been before. I was amazed by how much God loved me.” She saw herself as a child of God. For the first time in her life, she felt truly free to be the person God designed her to be, the kind of person each and every one of us is designed to be.

Not only had Genelle been rescued; more amazingly still, this young woman who had been totally caught up with herself, with doing things her way, turned from sin and turned to the God we know through Jesus Christ...and got a new life!

Our Gospel lesson for this morning tells us about the proclamation of John the Baptist. John described himself simply as a voice. His voice called people to repentance. To repent means to change our minds about who’s in charge of our lives, to change our minds about our priorities. It really means to change our minds about who our God is.

Genelle had gone through her life before September 11, 2001, with many gods. She had worshiped at the altars of pleasure, good times, and herself, among others.

Under the debris of the World Trade Center, she came face to face with the reality that these things could not bring life nor save her life nor give her life purpose or meaning.

Fortunately for all of us, God long ago sent a rescuer Whose life, death, and resurrection can bring new life and second chances (and third and, if you’re like me, three-hundred thousandth chances) to all who follow Him.

On the first Christmas day, God sent Jesus Christ. Anytime we take His hand and let Him be in control, whether our days bring us trials, triumphs, tedium, tragedies, crosses, or crowns, we have new life.

Many people have the mistaken notion that Christianity is about morality. People tell me, “I like to send my kid to church because he learns the right way to live.”

But the right way to live is no big mystery! Anybody who takes the time to look it up will find that every major religious system in the world says pretty much the same things about morality. They say that loving and living at peace with our neighbor is a good thing, that we shouldn’t steal or take our neighbor’s spouse, and so on.

The problem isn’t that we all don’t know the right way to live. The problem is that we don’t know how to do it.

The sin in our bones keeps us from doing the good we know we should do and that deep down, we want to do.

Jesus Christ came to earth and lived the perfect sinless life, offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sin so that you and I can have his power to do what we cannot do in our own power: Turn from sin and live with God in our lives today and always.

I’ve mentioned it before and I probably will again: Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most powerful and important movements in our world today. AA and other movements patterned after it, uses a twelve-step process to help people get delivered from their addiction. The first step to freedom for the alcoholic or any other addicted person is the admission that he or she is powerless over the addiction.

Whether she had been rescued from the World Trade Center or not, Genelle Guzman-McMillan took her first step toward freedom when in a desperate and cataclysmic time, she finally told God that she knew she needed Him.

The acknowledgment of our helplessness and our desperate need of the God we meet in Jesus Christ can free us all for really living!

Jesus came into our world not as a great moral teacher, though He was a great moral teacher. Instead, Jesus came to be our God and Savior, the One to Whom we surrender even when we don’t understand, even when we would rather do anything but that which He calls us to do.

Jesus came to save us not only from future death, but also from the dead-end road of self-reliance.

That is a lonely road, something I have to keep learning all the time.

Once a few years ago, I was bellyaching about something to Ann. After listening to this for a while, she finally said, "Mark, ask someone to help you!"

Whether it's asking God for something or asking the people God brings into our lives to help us do the things we can't do on our own, we need to get over self-reliance and learn God-reliance!

When we follow Jesus, we not only walk with God, we also walk with that wonderful group of recovering sinners known as the Church, where God can provide us with the help we so often need in our lives and where we can be the means by which God helps not only other church members, but the whole desperate world.

In the days left until Christmas, as we deal with life’s stresses and the temptation to think that we’ve got to have everything in life under control, every t crossed, every I dotted, every package wrapped, I want to recommend a simple formula for repentance—a formula for turning things around in our lives in a positive way. It comes from Baptist pastor Gerald Mann, but it’s so good he could be a Lutheran. (Just joking!) Here it is:
I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.
Indulge me and say those three simple phrases with me, won’t you?
I can’t. God can. I’ll let Him.
Jesus came to be our Savior. As we sing the carols and share our gifts this Christmas time, let’s remember, “We can’t. God can. We will let God—and no one and nothing else--be our God!”

[The true story of Genelle Guzman-McMillan is told in Jim Cymbala's book, Breakthrough Prayer.]