Thursday, November 23, 2017

Brace Yourself: I'm Thankful for People Who Make Government Work

On an elevator at our hotel today, I asked the other passenger, "Are you visiting family for Thanksgiving?"

"Actually," he told me, "I work for FEMA and I'm doing reports, so that we can get people the money they need to rebuild after the hurricane."

We talked until we both got off the elevator. Afterward, I could have kicked myself for not thanking him for his service to our country.

Everyday, there are unsung cogs in the machinery of our government who help us rebuild after disasters, ensure that we have clean water and good food and drugs, get our mail to us, help us with our Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid needs, catch bad guys, and protect our borders and our national security. From the people at the FDA, to the national park service...from the State Department and the Commerce Department to those who put their lives on the line for us in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, FBI, and CIA, our nation is made stronger by public servants committed to the goals of American government as enunciated in the preamble of the US Constitution. There, the Framers explained what this American federal government is for:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
There are rotten people in government. There are people who strive to do good, but who nonetheless do rotten things in government.

The same things can be said of any church, synagogue, mosque, company, school, or family, meaning that we still have every reason to thank those who work hard each day to ensure that we have justice, tranquility, defense, a society that provides opportunity for all of its citizens, and the blessings of liberty.

Political figures come and go.

Injustice remains an intractable element of life demanding the attention of every citizen of our country.

And sin still adheres to human character, preventing us and the nations of which we are citizens from being all that we would like them to be.

But the people who work in agencies like FEMA do the tough work that keeps our nation moving forward. And for him and countless others like him, I am thankful!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Can you be a Christian without being part of Christ's Church?

Something to think about:
The Church isn't just a group of like-minded individuals; it is individual members who form a body. So, saying you are a Christian but not an official member of a Christian church is really like saying you are a dedicated baseball player but don't believe in organized team sports. You might be a great baseball player in terms of your skills and knowledge of the game, but if you aren't actually on a team, then in at least one very important sense, you aren't a baseball team at all. (Peter Speckhard, Connected to Christ: Why Membership Matters)
The Bible teaches that Christians are members of Christ's body in the same way that a thumb, an eyeball, or a heart are parts of our bodies. If those individual parts are severed from our bodies, either those individual parts or our whole bodies die.

Without participation in a local church, faith in Christ cannot and will not be sustained. Without being part of a local congregation, there will be no one to minister to us or to tell us that we've gone wrong or regularly pray with us or among whom we can be baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, or from whom we can receive the life and forgiveness Christ gives to believers in Holy Communion.

We all know that sometimes work, health issues, or being a caregiver can prevent people from fully participating in the life of a congregation. But these are exceptional situations.

Even under such situations, if we or someone who loves us will contact a local church and ask for visits or for the chance to participate in small groups or to receive the Sacraments, most churches will be willing to provide for our spiritual health in these ways.

One of the most interesting baptisms I ever shared was with a man who had been raised in the Church, but had allowed his connection with Christ to lapse. His wife called me and asked if I would visit him. I did so over a period of some months, sharing Christ and the Gospel with him as he endured the final stages of terminal cancer.

One day he asked me if he could be baptized and then receive Holy Communion. That happened. The day he was baptized in his home brought a moment of peace to that man and his family. So did his funeral, when we were able to celebrate his eternal connection with Christ, given to him through the ministry of Christ's Church.

Can people in local congregations be annoying? Are some congregations so infected by egotism or sin that they cease to function as churches? Yes, of course.

But, I'll bet that there's at least one annoying thing about you or that you too sometimes act from egotism, selfishness, or sinfulness. I know that I do.

The Church is God's hospital for recovering hypocrites and other sinners. And here's the good news: There's always room for one more hypocrite and sinner to join us, including you.

If you would claim eternal life with God, Christ's body, the Church, is indispensable.

Think about this. Pray about it. If you don't have a church home, commit yourself to finding one. It may take a few tries, but don't be discouraged and don't look for the "perfect congregation." The Church is comprised of recovering sinners, remember. So, every congregation to which you could be attached will be made up of imperfect people who, at the most, are only on the way to being all that God desires us to be.

In the end, I think, Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession, a statement of Lutheran Christians' understanding of the Christian faith, expresses better than I can what to look for in a congregation of which you can be a part and in which you can be challenged to grow into the maturity of faith and life that God has in mind for us. It says: "The Church is the congregation of saints [saints are forgiven sinners], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] are rightly administered."

Notice this definition says nothing about the members of an individual congregation being morally perfect or flawless.

Nor does it say that churches are composed of people who rationalize their imperfection or sin away.

What it does say is that Christ's Church exists wherever the Gospel--the good news of new life for all who daily repent and surrender to the crucified and risen Jesus--and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are shared in accordance with Christ's Word and will.

Find a congregation of imperfect people whose communal life is built around proclaiming the Gospel  and administering the Sacraments rightly, and you will have found a church home.

Just a few thoughts. God bless you.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"I'm Not Called to Keep My Kids from Danger"

That's the title of a provocative and interesting article written by missionary Rachel Pieh Jones.

The job of Christian parents, she says, isn't to protect their kids from risk; life itself, wherever one feels God has called us to be and whatever God calls us to do, is risky.

The job of Christian parents is to give witness through living that no risk nor danger can rob us of the life with God that only Jesus Christ can give. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," Jesus says in John 14:6.

Better to risk condemnation, heartbreak, even death, from the world, than to avoid risk by living faithlessly, going along to get along with a world that will one day be destroyed, and so losing the eternal life that only God can give. "Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven," Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33. "But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven."

To follow Jesus is risky business. And, in the interest of truth, Christian parents must let their kids know how risky it is.

Risk avoidance, the path of looking out for ourselves or our own without regard for the needs of others, even of strangers we'll never meet in this world, is not a commendable Christian character trait.

As Christians, we live under the charge of Jesus to daily wrestle with the challenge He lays down for us in Matthew 16:24-26: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"

Whether it's right for Christian parents to ask their kids to have the courage of their parents' convictions may be an open question.

But there is no doubt that Christ and the apostles commend lives of faithful risk. (Though not risk for its own sake nor to test God.)

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

The apostle Peter, writing to Christians in Asia Minor (a region today that largely comprises Turkey), who faced the commonplace shunning and disdainful dismissal that Christians in the US often face these days, said that followers of Christ should regard themselves as foreigners in the world, migrants passing through who ought not become so comfortable that we avoid risk.

"Dear friends," Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11-12. "I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."

And the apostle Paul is clear that the gravest risk anyone can take is to bet on this world to feed the hunger gnawing every human soul for a transcendent, joyful life that can only be filled by God, the One Who loves us infinitely and died and rose to give us eternity. He writes in Romans 8:31-39:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It's imperative for Christian parents to convey a truth to their children, both through our speaking and through our attempts to live it: To risk following Christ is ultimately less risky than any other way of living.

And so, Jones may be onto something when she writes:
Ever since my husband and I became parents, we have risked losing our children—whether to physical death or to spiritual death, either of which can happen on any side of the ocean. Our kids are inevitably going to get hurt. Although we can’t protect them, we can prepare them, and one of the ways we do that is by modeling a life of joyful, worshipful service...
Christ calls all of us outside the camp [outside of what is comfortable for us, that risks the comfort the world offers in order to embrace the comfort that belongs to those who trust in Jesus Christ] to serve and love others, and we often do that alongside our children. Why risk it? Because we are citizens of another far-off country. As it says in Hebrews 13, “here we do not have a lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
Read the whole thing.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Purpose of Your Life

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 25:14-30
Someone once said to me: “I know that Jesus loves me and that I’m saved by grace through my faith in Christ, but what exactly is the purpose of my life?”

The short answer is that you and I are alive for only one purpose: To glorify God. In Isaiah 43:7, God says, “...everyone who is called by my name...whom I created for my glory.”

God commands this not because God is an egomaniac.To glorify God entails using our lives in the ways intended to be used by the One Who created us out of an overabundance of gracious love. When we glorify God, acknowledge the relationship of love initiated by the God Who made us and Who has redeemed us through Christ, setting us free to be all that those created in God's image are meant to be.

We most glorify God not when we consider at the Bible’s portrayal of holy living, like we see in the Ten Commandments or in Jesus’ Beatitudes, then grit our teeth and strive to be good and holy people, whether it makes us or others miserable or not. We most glorify God when we enjoy God and use His gifts to us in ways that honor Him.

None of this is to say that following Jesus is easy. It's not.

But there will be no joy in living with Christ if we think we must be holy people who glorify God in the strength of our own power. We must learn the joy of letting go and letting God, of acknowledging our sin and weakness, so that we can be covered in the grace and filled with the power of God. This is what Paul was talking about in the New Testament when he wrote: "...when I am weak, then I am strong." God's power is perfected in us when we admit our weakness. (1 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The Lord Who saved us by going to the cross for us will be glorified within us if we will allow the Holy Spirit empower us to live according to God’s call in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

Our prayer each day should be that God would help us to glorify Him by helping us to remember His goodness to us and leaning on Him.

The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson is the story of two men who didn’t grit their teeth to do the right thing, but who remembered the goodness of their master and so, enjoyed and used the blessings of the master to bring pleasure both to them and to the master.

It’s also the story of a third man who ignored the blessings given to him by his master, relying on his own personal sense of what was right and wrong, and so, denied himself a continuing relationship with him.

You know the story. A master, clearly a stand-in for God the Son, Jesus, is about to go on a journey. As we read Jesus’ story, we understand the “journey” Jesus is talking about. Since the crucified and risen Jesus ascended into heaven, we know that He has been enthroned in heaven, giving His followers millennia to share the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in the crucified and risen God of all creation, will not perish in eternal separation from God, but will have eternal life with God! Jesus has been away from the earth on a long journey. As we talked about last week, there will be a day when the millennia cease and Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to establish His eternal kingdom, finally and fully making all things new.

Anticipating his journey, the master in Jesus’ parable entrusts some of his money to three different servants, just as Christ has entrusted the riches of the gospel to those of who follow Him (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

Even the single talent (which is the word used by Jesus in this passage, not bags of gold, as the New International Version translates it, the master gave the third servant could be worth between 20 and 600 years of a day laborer’s wages!

In the same way, God entrusts a fortune of blessings to every human being. It’s called being alive. 

And that’s just the start for followers of Jesus Christ! Jesus expended His life on the cross so that all we fallen, sinful, imperfect human beings can, like the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross, acknowledge our sin, turn from that sin, and turn to Him Jesus in faith to live with God for eternity. What a gift! 

Living lives that joyfully express gratitude for these two gifts--the gift of life and the gift of life made new that comes to us by grace through faith in Christ--is not a burden. It’s joy!

That isn’t to say that it’s easy. Throw yourself with abandon into the life of following Jesus--the life of Christian discipleship--and you’ll get bruised too. Maybe more than bruised. You may face rejection, ridicule. In some places today, following Jesus will put a disciple's life at risk. But even here, people may question your sanity or your judgment if you follow Jesus.

A woman told me once that she couldn’t speak with her father about her relationship with Christ. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she told me.

And the possibility of rejection is made greater these days by the public figures and “Christian” groups who claim to be Christians who live unrepentantly un-Christian lives or who turn Christian faith into a religion of good works and looking innocent while decaying inside from spiritual pride, what Jesus called "whitewashed tombs"! (Matthew 23:27-28)

But all of us who are bruised for believing in Jesus need to remember the words of Jesus’ earthly brother “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

In Jesus’ parable, the master came back, as Jesus one day will return to the earth, and, like Jesus on judgment day, the master demanded an accounting for how the servants had used all he had given to them.

The master was glad to see that the first two men had enjoyed and used their gifts and so brought glory to his name.

The last man, not so much. His failure to honor and enjoy either his gifts or the giver brought him total separation from the master, just as happens to those who refuse to honor or enjoy Jesus, the Giver of the best gifts of all.

In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, which Lutherans can heartily endorse though not agreeing with everything in it, Pastor Rick Warren gives five portraits of what people who glorify God look like.

First, they worship God all the time. As Warren puts it, “Worship is a lifestyle of enjoying God, loving Him, and giving ourselves to be used for His purposes.”

Second, they love other believers. Long before Jesus walked the earth, God had already commanded all people to love God and to love neighbors. But just before His crucifixion, Jesus told believers, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) Jesus’ sacrificial love for us brought us eternity with God and He commands us to love our fellow believers in exactly the same way.

Third, they glorify God by allowing Him to shape them into the likeness of Jesus. Paul writes of Christian disciples in 1 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

We need to stand aside, lay down our will and submit to God’s will, which is to refashion us to be just like Jesus: loving, bold, fearless, forgiving, purposeful. If the third man in Jesus’ parable had simply used the gracious gift the master had given him, he would have had a productive, joyful life. But he didn’t. Christians who keep Christ buried, out of sight and out of mind, during the week, then try to resurrect Him on Sunday morning, are missing out on all that God has in mind for them.

Fourth, we glorify God by serving others with our gifts. No matter what our gifts or our limitations, God has gifted every Christian to glorify God by serving others in some way or another.

Finally, we glorify God by telling others about Jesus. Sharing our faith in Christ with others is the only way we will keep or grow in our faith. Use your faith and it grows. Hoard your faith and it dies out. Truly, faith in Christ is a “use it or lose it” proposition.

We can be like the first two men in Jesus’ parable. We can use the gifts our Master has given to us to glorify God. We do this when we worship God in our daily lives, love our fellow believers, ask God’s help to become more like Jesus, use our gifts to serve others, and tell others about Jesus and the new and everlasting life only He can give to those who turn from sin and believe in Him.

What is the purpose of our lives?

To put it another way, it's to take all the grace and blessings and forgiveness God has given to us through Jesus and our faith in Jesus and, in the certainty that we belong to God forever, give the grace and blessings and forgiveness to everyone we encounter.

First John 5:11, another one of our discipleship group memory verses, reminds us: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son, has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.”

You can never give away so much of your life for the glory of God that God can’t replace over and over for all eternity, if we will just trust in Jesus Christ alone. 

The purpose of our lives, yours and mine, then, is to spend our lives completely on glorifying God--Methodist theologian Leonard Sweet calls it "spending our last check," knowing that God has an eternity of life to give to all who live completely for Him.

God will never run out of life to give to those who daily surrender Jesus Christ!

So, Jesus calls us to a simple decision that can be framed like this:

Are we willing to give away the life that God gives to us in Christ for God’s purposes and so, allow God to grow our faith, our joy, our purpose for living? 

Or, will we hoard all of God’s grace and blessings given through Christ and die, whimpering about how hard this life is, and so, separate ourselves from God?

 Will we let God's grace in or lock it out? 

The choice is ours.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]