Saturday, January 15, 2011

Seeing Jesus at Panera

On Thursday night, my wife Ann and I ate at Panera in Lancaster. Through their rewards program, we'd accumulated enough credits to order a free drink. Ann only wanted a water and told me to pick something out. I was in the mood for a smoothie and ordered one flavor, only to change my mind about the flavor a nanosecond or two later. We payed for our order and took a table.

Not long after, the manager came to us with two smoothies. "I heard you order the one smoothie and had already started making it when you changed your mind. You can have the second one on us!"

Now think about that. The first one was free and the second one was on the restaurant. How often does a deal like that come along?

I was sliding one of the smoothies across the table to Ann when she pointed to the most adorable little girl, sitting with her parents at a table nearby, and said, "You could give it to her."

Ann had overheard the little girl's mom say that she was going back up to the cashier to order a smoothie for her daughter as a dessert. I offered my free gift to them and then, for the next fifteen minutes or so, enjoyed watching this twenty-one-month old sip and pour and thoroughly enjoy her smoothie, freezer headaches and all.

If Ann hadn't noticed this family sitting not more than five feet away, we wouldn't have experienced any of that joy or the brief discussion we had with this young couple.

How much joy do we miss out on in life because we're so wrapped up in our little cocoons of routine and selfishness that we don't see others? Speaking for myself, it happens a lot.

Yet, I believe that we are blessed to be blessings. The love of God in us grows the more we attend to others and give away His love.

That was underscored for me when the dad told us, "That was such a blessing to us. Thanks." When he said that, I thanked God for arranging this little rendezvous and for inspiring Ann to keep her antenna attuned to others even when I'm blind to those around me.

There's a praise song we've sung both at my former parish, Friendship in the Cincinnati area and here at Saint Matthew in Logan. It goes like this:
Open our eyes, Lord
We want to see Jesus
To reach out and touch Him
And say that we love Him
Open our ears, Lord
And help us to listen
Open our eyes, Lord
We want to see Jesus
Jesus says that we see Him in those around us, in those we serve. Maybe one reason I don't see Jesus as often as I could is that I don't serve others as often as I should. 

I'm thankful that Ann opened my eyes on Thursday night. I got to see Jesus again in a Panera! How cool is that?

Friday, January 14, 2011


[This was shared during the funeral for Dorothy, a lifelong member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, earlier today.]

Romans 8:31-39
Psalm 23
Luke 12:22-31
There are really only two legacies any of us ever leave behind, only two things we can give others that last.

One is love. The love that Dorothy bestowed on and shared with her family and friends didn’t end on Tuesday. The urgent desire of her family to be with her even in her final hours as she slept and occasionally fluttered her eyes is testimony to the love that was her gift to you, a gift you still possess and always will.

The only other enduring legacy we can bestow on others is our personal testimony about the truth of Jesus Christ. It’s a testimony we can give every day of our lives in words and actions.

The most powerful testimonies don’t usually come from people called to climb into pulpits and proclaim God’s Word. They more often come from people we see regularly, people who live their faith in the everyday places of life.

These testimonies can even come from grandmas who tell their grandchildren as they face new challenges and temptations in life, “Don’t forget who you are.” That, I’m told is something Dorothy sometimes told you, Ben and Sarah.

It seems to me that there are several ways you could have heard that simple admonition.

First, you could have heard it as a reminder of who you are in the eyes of God. Like your grandmother before you, you were baptized at the Saint Matthew Lutheran Church baptismal font. Water was poured over your head in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God was invoked, and, without any qualifications or merit on your parts, God claimed you as His own.

The title “child of God” is a privilege that, again, like your grandmother before you, you claimed as your own when you affirmed your baptismal covenant at the time of your confirmation. First John 3:1 says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Today, I invite you to remember, Ben and Sarah, and all who mourn Dorothy’s passing, that being a child of God is a tremendous privilege. When we children of God grieve, the God Who conquered death (and sin and futility in our lives) through the death and resurrection of Jesus, can be beside us. When we wander from God’s will, as we are all prone to do, God is ready and willing to welcome us into His embrace. When we rejoice, God rejoices with us. Remember who you are.

Of course, there’s another side of that admonition. It was no doubt what Dorothy immediately had in mind when she said it to her grandchildren. Remember that you were raised in a Christian home. Remember God’s commandments. Remember the love and respect you are expected to bear toward not just family members and people you like, but toward those you dislike or those who dislike you, toward strangers. Remember God’s grace and that it is, as we sang a few moments ago, amazing.

But remember too that God’s grace isn’t cheap. To give you His presence today and His promise of tomorrow cost Jesus Christ His life on the cross and that came after He underwent intense agony and the abandonment of His friends.

The very least we owe God in response to this free gift of everlasting life for all who believe in Christ are lives of obedience and love and daily repentance, lives in which we seek, however imperfectly, to tell God thank You and to display His presence in our lives.

Remember who you are.  Dorothy has left you with powerful legacies: love, the great way of living, and the good news of new life through Jesus Christ.

But today, I want to add something to Dorothy’s admonition. Remember who you are, to be sure. But also, remember who she was. Some of who she was comes through in two of the Bible passages we’ve read today, passages I’m told were among her favorites.

One is Psalm 23. In it, the psalmist, speaking as a child of God, proclaims confidently, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for His Name’s sake.”

Because of the heart God has revealed He has for us through Jesus Christ, we can cling to these confident words. As children of God, we can trust, as our lesson from Romans reminds us, that nothing…nothing…in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Another of Dorothy’s favorite passages is found in Luke 12, where Jesus said, “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” And then Jesus says, “If God so clothes the grass of the field…alive today and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, how much more will He clothe you—you of little faith.”

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the sixteenth century, used to talk about what it will be like when we all come into the presence of God for judgment. Considering all the passages of Scripture that speak of judgment, Luther says that God will look upon two groups of sinners, the whole human race in one of these two groups.

When God looks on one group, they’ll stand naked in their sins, living in the separation from God and self-will they chose while living here on earth.

But when God looks on the other group, He won’t see their sins—though they will be just as numerous and horrible as those committed by those in the first group.

Instead, in this latter group, God will see people clothed in Jesus, people who, in this life, claimed their baptismal heritage and trusted in Jesus for life and hope and peace even in life’s dark valleys.

When Dorothy came into the immediate presence of God on Tuesday morning, she was clothed as she had always been in the righteousness of Jesus. We do a lot of unnecessary toiling and spinning in life. But all we need is Jesus Christ!. Dorothy knew that. She was a child of God. That’s who she was. And that’s why I’m confident that when God met her at 6:30AM on Tuesday morning, the Lord said to her, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Father.”

I didn’t get to know Dorothy the way I would have had I arrived at Saint Matthew years before. But despite dementia, something of her essential self came through in our monthly visits. And much of who she was can be seen in the rich legacies of love and faith she bestowed on her family. That’s why today I know that Dorothy wants all those who are here this morning to one day hear those same words—“Well done, good and faithful servant!”—from God.

And we can hear them, joining her and all the saints in eternity, if we will simply remember who we are as children of God, saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus and our faith in Him.

And whenever you need inspiration, remember who Dorothy was.

If you can commit yourself to remember these two things in all the days that lie ahead in your lives, no matter what, your joy will be full and you will never go wrong. Amen

Mother Teresa

...right again.

"Jesus wants your heart."


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Hit me with your best shot"

That's the title of Pastor Jennifer Johnson's reflections on Isaiah 49:1-7. When do pastors risk being prophetic and when do we keep the arrows hidden away?

A Prayer from Saint Augustine

It's appropriate for this coming Sunday, the second one after Epiphany:
O God, the light of the hearts that see You, the life of the souls that love You, the strength of the minds that seek You; from Whom to turn is to fall, to Whom to turn is to rise and in Whom to abide is to stand fast forever: grant us Your blessing as we offer up our confessions and supplications, and though we are unworthy to approach You or to ask anything of You at all, hear and forgive us, for the sake of our great High Priest and only Mediator, Jesus Christ Your Son. Amen
Source: Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings, Lectionary Cycle A (General Editor: Thomas C. Oden; Edited by Cindy Crosby)

(Saint Augustine)

"Called from..."

Yesterday's installment from Our Daily Bread makes a great point: God not only calls us to things; God also calls us away from things.

And the things that God calls us away from can be far more frightening than the things that God calls us to. After all, rightly and wrongly, we may derive security and even fulfillment from the things God calls us to leave behind.

But God wants us to rely only on Him for security, fulfillment, and life, and to thereby learn from the Author of life what it means to truly live. That's a hard thing to learn, something I seem to need to be retaught all the time. But it's a good thing to learn.

The word of the day... quondam. It means "erstwhile, former, once, onetime." I don't remember ever seeing the word until I ran across it in Ron Chernow's fantastic new biography of George Washington the other day.

He uses it in his discussion of a threat to Washington's first bid for re-election to the Colonial Era-Virginia House of Burgesses in 1761. That challenge came from a former fellow officer of Washington's from the French and Indian War, Adam Stephen. In the course of the campaign, Chernow writes:
Washington...castigated his quondam friend Stephen as "designing" and unprincipled.
Quondam is a curiosity. But I think that it's an unnecessary word. Why use quondam when former or once will do?

Monday, January 10, 2011

"I am a servant of the Lord. I am a servant of the Lord."

I have to confess that, while driving back to town after a nursing home visit today, I cringed as I heard newly-inaugurated Ohio governor John Kasich speak those words.

One reason for that is that, as a Christian, I've become wary of politicians who invoke the Name of God in their speeches. Their invocations often seem like bones thrown to their religious constituents, instead of genuine expressions of faith. And if they are "bones," then from a Biblical perspective, they violate the Second Commandment's prohibition against taking God's Name in vain. (Vain meaning for nothing.)

But I didn't click off the radio in disgust today. I kept listening to Kasich. What I heard next convinced me that he was sincere. Some may find what he said hokey or even offensive. But I found it encouraging and impressive.
I am a servant of the Lord. I am a servant of the Lord.

He has opened doors all of my life. The Lord has. He has pushed me over the mountain this time. I don't know why, but I have no doubt that he has. I've spent a large amount of my life trying to figure out how he works.

I got a message one day driving up—over by the Hoover Reservoir. It wasn't a telegram. It wasn't a phone call. It wasn't a voice. But it was clear. "Stop trying to figure it out, I'm not going to tell you."

But here's what I do know: He expects his servants to use their talents. He expects all of us, because all of us have been created with a special talent. The key to life is to use those talents, even when at times it seems daunting and it seems impossible. But boy, I'll tell you what, no pounding on the chest. No pointing in the sky. He wants us always to remember where these talents came from. He reminds us that no one person is superior to any other person because in his eyes, all are equal.

You know, sometimes I see the scrub lady, and I realize that in the next life, she's likely to have a bigger crown than I could ever dream of. Don't go past them quickly; you could be passing an angel. Quiet reflection is necessary every day so as not to get lost.

D. L. Moody wrote about a Civil War general who was facing a huge battle. He prayed for two hours. His subordinates said to him, "How could you spend two hours praying before this big battle?" He said, "How could I not." Prayer is necessary.
Truthfully, I've never been impressed with Kasich as a communicator. Part of that may be the way we all tend to underestimate our peers. I've never met Kasich, but we were on campus at Ohio State as undergraduates at the same time, both involved in student politics. He ran unsuccessfully for vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government on one slate when I, after a time as vice president of the Off Campus Students' Association, was on the ballot for student assembly, on a ticket led by Michael White. (White later became mayor of Cleveland. I wasn't elected to the assembly because I withdrew from the race just before the vote was taken; I had realized I needed to take on a new part-time job to generate the money I needed to pay my tuition. But, though it ended my time in student politics, that surrender to necessity turned out to be a very good thing for me because the job I took--on the loading dock of a department store--brought my wife-to-be, then working on the sales floor of that store, into my life!) Even after our college years, Kasich was never known for his rhetorical skills either as a state senator or as a nine-term member of Congress.

And I still don't think Kasich is a great orator. But today he seemed to speak from the heart and I liked what he said.

Of course, what we do speaks louder than what we say. And Kasich's professed faith will be sorely challenged as he prepares a new biennial budget in the face of a likely $8-billion state revenue shortfall. Everyone will be watching what he does.

Whether he means it or not, prayer will be the wisest way for him to suit up for all the tough actions he'll need to undertake in the next four years.

[You can find the whole text of Kasich's speech here.]

What disturbed you most in 2010?

I like this from today's edition of Pastor Glen VanderKloot's daily inspirations.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

God Does Not Help Those Who Help Themselves

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

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Today, if you remember nothing else from this sermon, I beg you to remember this: God does not help those who help themselves.

God does NOT help those who help themselves. That’s the message this morning. And while I’m going to delve into all of our Bible lessons for today, our theme verse for this morning could well be Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 5 to 7, which I hope you’ll read aloud with me now. You can find it on page 360 of the pew Bibles. Read aloud with me, please:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil. 
God does not help those who help themselves.

  • God helps those who surrender to God. 
  • God helps those who place their past sins, their present lives, and their future destinies in His hands. 
  • God helps those who fear, respect, and honor God. 
  • God helps those who strive through daily repentance and renewal to live according to God’s will. 
  • God helps those who believe in Jesus Christ. 
  • God helps those who trust in the Bible as God’s perfect word for us. 
  • God helps those who acknowledge their helplessness and turn to God for help. 
  • God helps those who see living as a sacred privilege and an undeserved pleasure, even when racked by pain or trouble, and so seek to live lives of tenacious effort and strenuous service. 
  • God helps those who draw life, fulfillment, direction, and hope from Him alone.
God does not help those who help themselves. Ancient Israel should have known that. For four hundred thirty years God’s people were slaves in Egypt, generation upon generation under the master’s whip. Yet God heard the cries of His people and against all odds, God delivered them from Egypt and then, despite their constant faithlessness and whining during a forty-year journey that should have taken just eleven days, God gave them a promised land.*

God helped this people not because there was anything special about Abraham and his descendants. One of ancient Israel’s greatest leaders was Moses, who told the people in a sermon delivered shortly before God took them from the desert into that promised land:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…[Deuteronomy 7:7-8]
God loved Israel, the Bible basically says, because God loved Israel. It doesn't make sense; but love doesn't have to make sense!

God chose Israel so that somewhere on Planet Earth, there would be a people who knew Him intimately and could be, in a phrase found in today’s first lesson, “a light to the nations” and, as attested in many places in the Old Testament, the incubator, the birthing room, of the Messiah, God's anointed King of kings. This Messiah would bring God’s kingdom to people around the world who will trust in Him. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for them. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for the world. God delivered Israel because He had big plans for you and me.

Now, when a people have been delivered by God, there are several ways they can react. As you know—and I don’t mean for this to be a hobby horse, after my heart attack last June, my cardiologist and nurses told me two things. One is that they couldn’t explain why I’d had a heart attack. The other is that couldn’t explain why I survived my heart attack. Forty percent of my heart had been damaged. Heart function was well below the danger level. Today, I can be faulted for being fanatical about my diet, daily exercise, and getting down time. But I honestly feel that God has delivered me and I want desperately to respond to that deliverance through a life of faithfulness, gratitude, witnessing, and prayer. There is nothing about me—an imperfect sinning human being—that deserves God’s help. And only time will tell if I will lean on God to sustain this grateful life style. But this is one way to respond to deliverance and grace.

The more common way for us all to react to God’s deliverance—and the one of which I have been guilty most of my life—is to take it and God for granted. Or to forget about it and move on as though God weren’t there.

Despite all of the incredible blessings God had showered on His undeserving people, this path—the path of self-will and self-reliance—was the one that Israel took.

It was the path against which the prophets were sent to warn God’s people. The prophets called them to repent of their reliance on wealth, power, alliances with foreign nations, and the worship of false gods and to instead turn again in utter dependence on God.

Jesus, God in the flesh, later gave the same message to all of us. He says that to gain life, we must enter the kingdom of God by the narrowest gates—by faith in Him alone—for “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

With prosperity and power, God’s ancient people wandered from their focus on God. The prophets told them that to continue their wandering would lead to destruction. As we mentioned last week, it did. Repeatedly, Israel was conquered, enslaved, and exiled by foreign nations.

When we rely on anything or anyone but God, it means that the world can do its worst to us.

When we rely on God, even when the world still does its worst to us, we live in the constant confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We know that through Jesus Christ, we belong to God forever!

Our first lesson for today comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Most scholars agree that the the section of Isaiah from which our lesson is drawn was not written by the original Isaiah. In ancient times, it was acceptable for a student or follower of a great teacher to write in that teacher’s name. It’s thought that the author of at least chapters 40 through 53 of this 66-chapter book were written by someone the scholars call Deutero- or Second-Isaiah. (You might think of him as Isaiah, Junior.)

Deutero-Isaiah began recording his prophecies not long before the fall of the Babylonian Empire on October 29, 539BC. Sometime before, God’s people had been conquered by Babylon. When Cyrus, the king of Persia, a nation located in what is today Iran, conquered Babylon, it spelled freedom for God’s people from their slavemasters. This is precisely what Deutero-Isaiah had earlier reported that God had revealed to him. He even went so far as to say that Cyrus, an aggressive warrior king whose life was totally contrary to the life of faith in God, had been anointed by God to set Israel free.

But mingled with Deutero-Isaiah’s prophecies about Israel’s immediate future are what modern scholars call the Servant Songs. There are four of them. A portion of one of them makes up our first lesson, Isaiah 42:1-9.

In the Servant Songs, Isaiah records what God had taught him about the Anointed One—Messiah in his language of Hebrew, Christos or Christ in the New Testament’s language of Greek.

Would you pull out the Celebrate insert and look at the lesson? This is what God told Isaiah to tell us about the Savior He would send to be the narrow way by which we all can be forgiven our sins, reconciled with God, and have new, eternal lives free of sin and death and futility. Read along with me silently, please:
  • “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights..." [On this Sunday when we remember the baptism of our Lord, when a voice from heaven spoke words like these of Jesus, we should have no doubt of Who the promised servant was and is: God enfleshed, Jesus the Anointed One.];
  • "I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations..." [He will free repentant sinners who believe in Him not only in Israel, but all over the world, including Logan, Ohio.].
  • "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street..." [Unlike warriors who bark as they conquer, Jesus will conquer through servanthood and love.]
  • "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench..." [One scholar has said that the reed and the burning wick represent those who may seem strong on the outside, but are weak on the inside. A reed may be standing, but a bruise may threaten its life. A wick may be burning, but nearly burned out. This past week, many of us have watched the story of Ted Williams, the homeless recovering addict with a golden voice, who flew to New York to be given a second chance in life. I hope that Williams, surely a reed bruised by his life and by his own actions, will have the strength to resist the temptations of fame and all that goes with it. He can have that strength if he turns to the Servant-Messiah. To all of we bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, God promises that unlike warriors such as Cyrus or demanding bosses or an unforgiving world, the Servant Jesus will not come to destroy us, but to restore us. That’s a wonderful promise!] ;
  • "...he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching." [Jesus, the Savior Who would set His face toward Jerusalem and His cross, Second Isaiah says, would not give up until He had gone to the cross and to His resurrection so that, as our lesson from Acts tells us, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins [and with that God gives new life] through His Name.”]
Deutero-Isaiah, nearly six centuries before Jesus’ birth, pointed to a time when people weary with trying to face life by helping themselves would be helped, saved, delivered, and made new by God.

He doesn’t mention Jesus’ Name. As one contemporary scholar has said, the Servant’s Name isn’t given, but “his activity and character” are. And it’s more than just coincidence that the One Who came to be baptized by John the Baptist at the River Jordan, Who insisted despite His own sinlessness, on turning to the Father in the same way He one day would command that all we sinful people must in order to be saved, this Jesus, engaged in all the activities and exhibited all the character that our lesson from Isaiah associates with the Servant Messiah.

God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who take God’s help. And His help is named Jesus.

How many of you need God’s help this morning?

Trust only in Jesus and never lean on your own understanding. Fear him, trust in Him, depend on Him, and you will have all the help you’ll ever need for all eternity. Amen! 

*You can learn more about this by reading the Old Testament books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.