Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Knowing Who to Trust

[This was shared during the funeral for Ron, a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier yesterday.]

Job 19:23-27a
John 11: 21-27
I liked Ron and Colleen from the moment I met them. They were faithful, earnest, real, kind, committed to one another and to their family, and filled with good humor. I got to know them through our Tuesday Bible studies and I got to know Ron even better when he volunteered in the church office where we sometimes had long conversations.

Ron’s passing leaves a hole in your lives, Colleen, Ron, Mike, Vicki, Karen, and family. Please know that he leaves a hole in the lives of all who have known him for years and for those of us who have known him for shorter periods at Living Water. Ann and I will miss him.

Ron was such a positive and caring person. He always took it upon himself to care for people: no fanfare, no showboating, just compassionate help. He was committed to his marriage and, along with Colleen, committed to helping others have good marriages through their work with Marriage Encounter. In the hospitals where Ron was a patient toward the end of his life, he was kind and considerate toward all the staff. When Ann and I visited with him and Colleen at their home just before he was transported to hospice (Jane was there too), I asked Ron how he was doing. He answered with his trademark response, “Fantastic!”

Physically, of course, Ron wasn’t fantastic. And he had managed in the short time between the day that he got the shocking news that the tumor he’d thought was benign was in fact, likely fatal, to accept the doctors’  prognosis. His biggest concern, from the beginning, was not for himself, but for Colleen. “I know where I’m going,” he told me, acknowledging his faith in Jesus Christ. “I’m just concerned about her,” he said, pointing to Colleen.  

These weren’t the words of a resigned fatalist. They were the words of a man of faith. 

Today, I want to commend that same faith to all of you who grieve the loss of this special man. 

It’s a faith that can take you through your grief and sustain you with the same tenacious hope that Ron displayed as he received Christ’s body and blood and listened to God’s Word this past Tuesday.

In our gospel lesson for today, we’re told that Jesus goes to the village of Bethany after His friend, Lazarus has died. Lazarus’ sister Martha, knowing that Jesus has power over disease and death, is upset when Jesus finally arrives. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But, even in the midst of her grief and anger, Martha trusted in Jesus. “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask…” she tells Jesus.

I don’t know exactly what Martha’s expectation of Jesus was at that moment. She probably didn’t expect what eventually happened: Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. 

But even before that amazing event took place, Jesus told her, “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.”

This is what Ron believed and it’s what made him so assured for himself as he faced death

Ron knew that he wasn’t a perfect human being. He often lamented the fact that, as he put it, he didn’t really get serious about his faith in Jesus or the life of discipleship until he was about forty. He felt that he’d missed out on so much without that close connection to Christ and His Church. And he deeply appreciated Colleen’s faith.

But Ron knew that only one human being has been perfect since humanity’s fall into sin: Jesus, true God, and true man. He knew that because of His sinlessness, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of imperfect human beings and that all who turn from sin and trust in Him have a life with God that begins now in this imperfect world and is brought to perfection in the world to come. 

Jesus puts it succinctly in the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Faith in the God we meet today only in Jesus Christ was well expressed by a man, part of whose life story is told in the Old Testament, Job. Job was a man who believed in God, lived to glorify God, and prayed and cared for his family’s salvation from sin and death. Job was a good man who didn’t deserve the suffering that can come to us simply because this is an imperfect world. 

In one fell swoop, he lost his property, his children, and his health. Job had questions. He wondered how God could have let all of this happen to him? Why had his children died? But Job also knew that life in this world is not the ultimate destination for those who trust in God

And so he could say in the midst of his suffering and grief, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.”

In some mysterious way that I can’t pretend to fully understand, Ron is in the presence of his Redeemer, the One Who buys believers out of their bondage to sin and death, right now. At this very moment, Ron is looking into the eyes of the Savior Jesus, Who has welcomed Ron into eternity with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

And this is no pie-in-the-sky make-believe. Jesus, Who died, rose from the dead and was seen by more than five-hundred witnesses who risked and often lost their earthly lives as they insisted, “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25)

I know that more than anything today, Ron wants you to know that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, once dead, is risen and He opens the gates of life with God by our sides in the tumult and challenges of this life and a life in eternity with God to all who dare to believe in Him

Jesus has said, “My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3) 

Jesus has prepared a place for you. 

Just as Ron did, you can trust in that always. 

You can trust in Jesus always


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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Praying for Pastors ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 4)

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during morning worship today. The message is the fourth installment in a series addressing Biblical themes surfaced in the book, I Am a Church Member. We're also doing Tuesday discussion groups with the people of another area Lutheran congregation built around the themes of the book.]

Ephesians 6:16-20
Exodus 17:13-18
In 1527, Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon. This is part of what he said: “For more than a week I have been thrown back and forth in death and hell; my whole body feels beaten, my limbs are still trembling. I almost lost Christ completely, driven about...the ways and storms of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of...[the prayers for me] of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul from the depths of hell.”

Were these the rantings of a superstitious medieval man? Or did the prayers of others for Luther, this pastor, theologian, writer, and leader, make an actual difference in his life?

When we confess Jesus as Lord and set out to be faithful to Him, we become targets of the evil one, the devil, just as Jesus was when, after His baptism in the Jordan River, He set out to fulfill His ministry on earth. 

The devil and all evils, including sin, death, and futility, were defeated when Jesus, true God and true man, went to the cross and bore our sins and the death sentence for them you and I deserve. 

But the devil is still waging war to prevent us from living with God. This is why the book of Ephesians tells us that for disciples of Jesus, “...our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) 

When you’re a believer in Jesus, your enemies are never other human beings, no matter how vexing other human beings may be, no matter how much they have sought or seek to hurt us. Our enemies are evil, the devil, and the demons of hell. And the only way they can be overcome is through humble, submissive, incessant prayer in Jesus’ name. Martin Luther knew this. And we should know it too.

Personally, I’ve experienced too much in life to hold onto any naive belief that evil, the devil, and the demons of hell are fictional. 

After the Lutheran church body of which many of us were a part made the decision to abandon the authority of God’s Word, like many of you, Ann and I came under immediate assault from people who disagreed with us. 

But other things also took place. 

One night, in the midst of all of this, a man plowed into our cars, totaling both of them. The man, clearly in a drugged stupor, staggered to my porch. He pulled out a cigarette and asked for a light. When I told him that I didn't have matches or a lighter, he broke the cigarette in half and tossed it aside. Suddenly, he remembered something and went back to his car, which sat there, headlights still blazing like Marty McFly's stranded DeLorean in Back to the Future. When the guy returned to the porch, he was holding a handgun. When I saw that, I prayed even more earnestly that the police would soon arrive!

In this same period, I had a heart attack. My cardiologist has told me more than once, "I can't explain why you had a heart attack and I don't know why you survived the heart attack you had."

At about the same time, our house and the church were broken into on seven occasions. 

There were other out-of-the-ordinary things that happened to us in this period. When Ann told an in-town Christian friend about all that had happened, the friend said, “The devil clearly doesn’t want you here.” 

I’m convinced of this: Our lives and our capacity to fight the good fight of faith were sustained not by us or by our tenacity, but by the intervention of God that was invited into our lives and the life of the congregation by the prayers in Jesus’ name of the faithful disciples in Saint Matthew Lutheran Church and others. And I will always be grateful.

Today, we turn our consideration to the Biblical theme raised by author Thom Rainer in the fourth chapter of his book, I Am a Church Member. This chapter culminates in the suggested pledge, “I will pray for my church leaders.” 

On the face of it, the notion of leadership in Christ’s Church may seem oxymoronic. After all, aren’t we called to humble submission to Christ? Yes, we are. 

But Jesus and the New Testament writers frequently speak about leaders in Christ’s Church, the special responsibilities they have, and the need for others in the Church to support them and pray for them. In Romans 12, the apostle Paul lists leadership as one of seven primary spiritual gifts by which the life of the Church is empowered to live faithfully and to fulfill its mission of making disciples. If your gift is leadership, Paul says, then do it diligently. (Romans 12:8)

But, let's be clear: Leadership is not dictatorship! There is no room in the Church for pastors who strive to control everything. Such pastors forget that it is Christ Who is the Lord of the Church. And they forget too, that Christ, the greatest leader who ever walked the earth, relied, not on coercion or power plays but on the Holy Spirit to carry His message of new life through faith in Him into the hearts and wills of people.

Paul shows us what leadership in Christ’s Church is like when he writes in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The first part of that passage would paint Paul as an egomaniacal control freak if the second part of it wasn't there. 
Pastors can lead only insofar as they seek each day to follow Christ

This doesn’t mean, thank God, that pastors must be perfect. The preeminent pastor of the first-century church was the apostle Paul who honestly wrote, “...I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin...what I want to do [the good] I do not do, but what I hate I do...What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-15, 24-25) 

A faithful pastor, the kind I seek, fitfully and inconsistently, to be each day, is one who openly acknowledges that he or she is a sinner saved only by grace through faith in Christ

Faithful pastors know that the call to spiritual leadership makes them different from others in Christ’s Church not in status or importance, but only in function, in calling.

But pastors cannot, at least this pastor cannot do our work without the prayers of our congregations. (And I know that many of you pray for me regularly!) 

In Exodus 17, we read that a people called the Amalekites attacked God’s Old Testament people, the Israelites, in the wilderness. Moses ordered Joshua to gather an army. 

After that we read, “So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:10-13) 

What happened? 

The leader of the Israelites, Moses, prayed for God’s people as they fought. He reached his arms out to God in prayer. Aaron and Hur were there to prop up Moses’ arms when Moses got tired. 

In truth, all of us should be praying for our fellow disciples and church members, lifting each other up, encouraging one another, and, sometimes, kicking each other in the seats of our pants. We need each other. 

But pastors, need the prayers of their churches. I need you to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me, to protect me from temptation, to give me the right thoughts, words, and silences when I study, preach, teach, counsel, vision, and work with the staff and the congregation. I pray for all of these things for myself, of course. But, just like you and just like Moses, weariness can creep into my life. I need a congregation of Aarons and Hurs.

Take a look, please at Ephesians 6:16-20. Paul writes: “...take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Paul is telling the church at Ephesus to pray about everything. As he writes elsewhere, “Pray without ceasing.”

And then Paul writes this: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

Folks, I’m not in chains. But I am one of Christ’s ambassador. I’m called to lead this flock and its witness for Jesus Christ in this community and in the world. I’m called to lead diligently, to share the gospel and the Sacraments, to follow Christ the Savior and invite others to do the same, to study and rightly teach God’s Word, to offer godly counsel, to be and to make disciples. 

And this is what I know: In my own power, I know for a fact that I am not competent to fulfill the call to pastoral ministry, which I’ve been privileged to do for almost thirty-four years. But it’s the Holy Spirit Who has called me and to quote Paul one more time, “ the grace of God, I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10): a pastor of Christ’s Church, your pastor. 

When you pray for me, the Holy Spirit goes to work in me. There are several beneficiaries when that happens: 
  • your pastor, who works more confidently and hopefully; 
  • the congregation, which is being led not by a pastor, but by Christ through its pastor; and 
  • the community and the world you and I seek to reach with the good news
Your prayers enable me to more courageously proclaim the Word of God in its fullness, centered on the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ. I am sure that that’s a good thing. 

That’s why in closing today, I simply ask you, beg you: Please pray for me, that I may be a faithful servant-leader in Christ’s Church. And, please know that, as is true, each and every day, I am also praying for you, beloved disciples of Jesus and friends. Amen

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