Monday, October 23, 2017

Did Dusty Baker Deserve to Get Fired...Again?

Dusty Baker was fired as manager of the Washington Nationals two days ago. It was Baker's fourth managerial position, the tenures of which span 22 years. The Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, and the Cincinnati Reds all fired him too.

Baseball Hall of Fame writer Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News, thinks that Baker is, once again, getting the shaft.

I'm inclined to agree with him.

The rap on Baker used to be that he wore out young pitchers' arms, something that could hardly be said of him in Washington, where he and the Nationals franchise seemed to baby Stephen Strasburg.

I'm neither a Baker defender nor detractor. But he has had a lot of success in 22 years. He has a lifetime .532 win percentage.

On the face of it, that might not seem overwhelming, but he's gone to four franchises that were in rebuilding mode and on each stop, he achieved success.

By way of comparison, Sparky Anderson, who won at Cincinnati and Detroit and is covered in glory, had a .545 lifetime win percentage, not that much higher than Baker's. Joe Torre, one-time Yankees manager (who also managed the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals) was .538.

The difference between Baker and those managers is that he hasn't won a World Series. Very few managers or players ever do, of course. But that seems beside the point to Washington's ownership or, according to McCoy, many other owners these days.

The Nationals organization, formerly the Montreal Expos, has been a largely hapless franchise through the years. Baker managed them to two consecutive appearances in the post-season after 97- and 95-win regular season campaigns. But ownership obviously decided that their talent-rich roster should have been in or won this year's World Series.

According to USA Today, Baker stayed in Washington nine days before heading to his off-season home in California. He waited so that he could sign a new contract with the Nats. That didn't happen, but when he left DC, he still seemed certain that he would be re-signed. After he left town, he was notified that his services would no longer be needed.

It's a cliche to say it, yet I think it's true: It's a lot easier to fire a manager than it is to get rid of players. Baker seems to be a casualty of that fact.

On the other hand, I may not have any idea what I'm talking about.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

The Grocery Deli: Part of My Mission Field

As people at the church I serve know, a local grocery's deli line has become part of the mission field God has assigned to me.

I often regale folks with identity-protected accounts of the God-conversations I have while waiting in line at the deli. These conversations happen with customers and employees, whether I'm wearing my clerical collar or not.

The fact that the deli line has become a place where I do ministry as much as I do at hospitals or nursing homes or Catechism classes or weddings, reflects God's sense of humor, I think. Everyday I'm usually so busy that, to my embarrassment, I probably don't stop long enough to share Christ with others the way I could if I would just stay focused. So, God forces me to slow down while waiting for deli employees to call my number...and strike up conversations with others.

I look for opportunities to share the love of Christ in overt ways in those conversations, praying that God will create them. But I don't force them. Of first importance to me is being a friendly person who happens to be a believer, whether much overt faith talk comes up or not. I'm not trying to put a notch in my belt; just trying to show Christ to others. Besides, other people are repeat customers in the deli line too. I may have other chances to interact with them and develop friendships. And the deli employees will almost always be there the next time I show up.

Some conversations with customers in recent months stand out.

There was the couple with the two young kids. I mentioned how well-behaved the kids were and we were off. We talked about parenting and their professions and the pressures of their lives. When they asked what work I did and told them, they had several questions to ask about God...all while we were waiting for lunchmeat and cheese. None of that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't walked through the opening God gave to me to comment about their well-behaved children. (I don't know what I would have said if the two kids weren't well-behaved.)

There was the widower who, seeing my collar, had some theological questions he wanted to discuss.

There was the man, African-American, who told me about regularly commuting to our suburban grocery, part of a chain, because the one near him didn't have the variety or quality of foods he wanted to feed his family. The disparity in the quality and variety of foods offered in different locations by the same grocery chains isn't his imagination. It's been reported about and I've seen it myself: the groceries closest to me aren't places I would go for produce or meats. Yet just two miles away in a more affluent area, an "upscale" outlet of the same chain stocks healthier food and a wider scope of choices. I hope that in some way, I was able to convey understanding and encouragement to that man...and by extension, God's understanding and encouragement as well.

Some of the deli employees have gotten to know me fairly well too.

Today, in the midst of errands and traveling incognito (that is, not in my clerical collar), I stopped by the grocery store and went to the deli counter.

One employee, who has waited on me several times but with whom I haven't had much chance to interact, waved and walked toward me. "You're the minister, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Would you please pray for me?" He went on to explain a heartbreaking situation in his life. I assured him that I would pray for him. As he told more of his story, he began to tear up. I won't divulge names, circumstances, or locations. Suffice it to say that this guy, who I've always seen as a hard worker and a cheerful man, needed someone at that moment to assure him that God cared about his circumstances.

Later, another employee, working on slicing another person's order, asked me, "Have you missed me?"

"I haven't seen you for awhile," I replied.

"I had to take a few weeks off. They found my heart has an arrhythmia. Doctor told me to take it easy. But I'm feeling good now."


We talked some more. When I left, I waved to everyone behind the counter.

I count on these conversations to open up new opportunities to share Christ with people. This is the way disciples are made and strengthened: In the slow, compassionate opening of relationships with God at their center.

Even when God took on human flesh in Jesus, His sense of urgency for people to know Him and follow Him to receive life with God caused Him not to go big, but to go small, to individual people, to relationships not programs.

Jesus preached and taught crowds, to be sure. But He called and built disciples in more intimate ways.

Jesus spent some time with crowds, a little more time with His disciples (who maybe numbered 500 during His time on earth), a greater amount of time with the twelve apostles, and the most amount of time with three of their number: Peter, James, and John.

In other words, when Jesus decided to make disciples of all nations, He began by interacting with a few people.

Jesus knows that lives are more likely to be transformed in up-close relationships than they are when people invite us to attend an event or even a Sunday morning worship.

God wants intimacy with people, to have relationships with them in which they repent for sin, believe in Him for life, and are transformed forever by His grace.

It's no surprise then that when you talk with Christians about how they came to faith, they will speak not so much of preachers, worship services, Sunday School classes, or evangelistic events (although God works through things like these as well), but of relationships: A friend, a grandparent, a sibling, a coworker, a classmate walked with Jesus and befriended them and, through their witness and prayers, faith blossomed.

There are others at the deli counter with whom I've spoken over the past few years. Each of them has trusted me with their stories because, I think, everyone has a yearning for God.

You don't have to be a pastor to have these kinds of fruitful conversations. You just have to be a Christian who acknowledges your faith without being pushy about it and then take a little time (or, as in my case, be forced by God to take a little time) to give a listening ear to what people have to say.

I'm always asking God to help me be a faithful witness for Christ in my everyday life, not just on Sunday mornings. The words of 1 Peter 3:15 remain even more important to me today than they ever have been in my years as a disciple of Jesus:
...Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...
We can be prepared when we spend time each day with God in prayer, confession, thanksgiving, and reading, considering, and memorizing His Word. As we experience God and a close personal relationship with Him, He prepares us for our mission fields, prepares us to bring His light to people who fumble in the darkness of sin, health issues, adversity, and challenges.

Even grocery deli lines can be part of our mission fields.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Pay Your Taxes and Follow Jesus (and Don't Be Afraid)

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday morning.]

Matthew 22:15-22
Chapman University is a Christian college which, every October, conducts a poll among Americans about their fears. The pollsters list about seventy items and ask people if they’re afraid of them.

Items on the list this year included things like sharks (25.4% said they were either very afraid or somewhat afraid of them), heights (28.2%), and being unemployed (30.7%).

What’s interesting to me is how people’s fears shift from year to year.

For example, last year, 2016, the biggest fear was of government corruption at 60.6%; this year, 2017, the biggest fear also is of corruption, but the number’s 74.5%.

Last year, 35.5% of the people were afraid of Obamacare; this year, 55.3% say they’re afraid of Trumpcare.

Last year, 41% of the people said they were afraid of terrorist attacks; in 2017, a slightly smaller number, 38% said they were afraid of terrorist attacks.

Shifting fears are very common, I think. If I were to ask a random sampling from among the people here this morning what they were afraid of or worrying about five years ago, my guess is that most people, at the least, would have to spend some time thinking about the question.

Although we’re all prone to it, fear isn’t a useful emotion. Fear obscures the truth and paralyzes our good judgment. And fear, really, is the opposite of faith.

The reason, you know, that Jesus had enemies who wanted Him dead is that they were afraid.

Some were afraid of Him because He threatened their authority.

Others feared Him because they thought that His movement would incite the Roman conquerors under whose thumb first century Judea lived to come down hard on the people.

The Romans feared Jesus because they didn’t want the conquered Jews to give them trouble.

Today’s gospel lesson, like the lessons over the past several weeks, recounts an interaction involving Jesus and His opponents that took place on the Monday after the first Palm Sunday. Over these Sundays, we’ve listened as Jesus has told a series of pointed parables to the chief priests and the elders who had come to challenge Him. In them, Jesus indicted them for their failure to welcome and believe in the Messiah and Savior they claimed to have been waiting for, now standing before them.

By the time Jesus finished the last Holy Monday parable, which we considered last week, the chief priests' and elders' fear had melded with hatred (as it often does) and hardened into a firm resolve to kill the Savior of the world.

After the chief priests and the elders retreat from their dialog with Jesus in the temple’s Gentile courts, another group of people decide to “have a go” at Jesus.

By their questioning, this new group hopes to turn the bumpkins who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem as the Christ and Savior on Palm Sunday, against Jesus, giving a pretext for having Jesus executed.

Take a look at our gospel lesson, please, Matthew 22:15-22. Verse 15: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’”

The Pharisees were Judaism’s strictest and most widespread sect. They advocated a kind of “salvation by good works” theology. The Pharisees thought of themselves as good, righteous, upright people. They were so confident in their goodness, righteousness, and uprightness before God, in fact, that they spent a lot of time telling their fellow Jews what they needed to do in order to be as good and righteous and upright as they were.

Pharisee underlings were sent to approach Jesus for this challenge, accompanied by unlikely allies: the Herodians. The Herodians were part of the puppet government of King Herod. That government worked hand-in-glove with the Romans. Ordinarily, the Pharisees and the Herodians would have nothing to do with each other. The Herodians would view the Pharisees as religious fanatics while the Pharisees would view the Herodians as unrighteous, unfaithful sellouts. (Fear and hatred sometimes make strange bedfellows.)

But because both groups were afraid of Jesus, they posed this trap of a question.

Why was it such a trap to ask Jesus if good Jews should pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?

The imperial tax levied on Judea by Rome was hated. Their hatred for the tax went way beyond the usual human resentment of taxes.

Rome had conquered Judea, then charged Judeans annually for the privilege of being conquered.

About twenty years earlier, there had been a Jewish rebellion, which the Romans put down brutally, crucifying many people, their crucified bodies lining the roads to serve as examples to anybody who thought of rebelling against Rome.

Jesus’ fellow Jews had begrudgingly paid the tax ever since. They knew that anyone who spoke against it might get crucified themselves. On the other hand, if one of God’s people said anything remotely good about or accepting of the tax, the people would turn against that person. The Pharisees and Herodians thought they had Jesus squarely pinched between a rock and a hard place.

But Jesus refused to get sucked into a political debate.

His answer, though disarming, wasn’t meant to be clever or to avoid trouble.

After all, Jesus knew that, no matter what He said, in four days He would be crucified anyway.

Jesus gives the answer that He gives for two reasons. First, it’s the truth. Second, Jesus has little interest in politics. Jesus has no interest in getting involved with politics. He’s not a Roman, Herodian, Pharisee, Sadducee, Republican, Democrat, socialist, libertarian, or nativist. Jesus is the King and Savior of all creation Who plays for eternal stakes. As He would later tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

So what does Jesus say? Verse 18: “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?”

The term hypocrites is definitely not a compliment. The word in English is a transliteration of the Greek word it translates, hypocrites. This is a compound word in the Greek which literally means to have different thoughts or judgments or to be a different person from the thoughts, judgments, or persons we portray to the world. It was also the word used for actors. Jesus knows that these guys are trying to play Him and they call Him out for it. He sees that they're trying to trap Him.

The word translated as trap here is a tense of the Greek verb peirazo. And that’s a really big deal because peirazo means not only trap, but test or tempt.

It’s the very word used to describe what the devil did to Jesus in the wilderness. The devil there tried to tempt Jesus away from His mission. Playing on the fear of death that every mortal human being has--and Jesus was true God AND true man, remember--the devil offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world without Jesus having to go to the cross. Had Jesus not gone to the cross, of course, there would be no way He could offer us life with God; He would have caved into fear--and sin--just like the rest of the human race.

Now, the hypocrites standing before Jesus are trying to tempt Him into saving His own skin by saying a few false words. It seems like such a little thing, a tiny compromise. But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus knew that even little compromises with sin and the will of God ruin everything, not just for Him and His mission in the world, but for us too. These supposedly "little compromises" and sins will eternally destroy us if we aren't diligent in following Christ and diligent in repenting and turning to Christ when we do fall for them.

Verse 19: “‘Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’”

A denarius, the amount of the Roman conqueror’s poll tax, was about what a laborer might earn in a day.

Each denarius or dinar bore an image and inscribed words. The image was of Caesar and the words about Caesar were: “Son of God.”

Any good Jew who believed in the God revealed to His people knew that to say that someone was “Son of God” was to say that they were God. In fact, people like the Pharisees and Herodians were filled with fear when Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God and when others had proclaimed that of Him. Yet here they were, a denarius with its blasphemy, in their pockets, the coin they evidently were using to make their purchases and pay their own taxes all the time. (They were hypocrites!)

Verse 21: “‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”

It’s Caesar’s image on the coin, Jesus is saying, so give Caesar his money.

But you know what?

Someone else’s image is imprinted on every human being, on you and me. 

Genesis 1:27 says that, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…” 

In this world, we may have to pay taxes to Caesar. But we’re to give our lives to the One Whose imprint is on us as human beings, the One Who made us, the One Who was enfleshed and died for us to give us life with God that never ends.

It’s those who surrender to and follow Jesus who are set free not just from sin and death, and everything that causes us to fear in this world.

Pay your taxes, Jesus is saying. Pay down your debts. Honor your spouse. Take care of your kids. Obey the speed limits. Help your neighbor.

And in the midst of it all, everywhere you go and in everything you do, follow Jesus.

We can do this with confidence and joy because the most this world can do to you and me is take away our earthly lives. 

But we follow a crucified and risen Savior Who promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

Jesus' message for us this morning is this:

Don’t be afraid. Sure, give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s. But give to God what belongs to God: yourself, your whole self. Just like God gave His whole self to you on the cross.

Don’t be afraid. Follow Jesus. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]