Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can Our Actions Bring Us Closer to God?

This question stuck in my craw as I read through a blog post highlighted by Living Lutheran.

The post was titled: "Failing at our Lenten Disciplines."

Here are some pertinent quotes:

We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough.  Hopefully we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God.  We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reason to hate ourselves.

Our failed Lenten discipline will bring us closer to God, as we try again, as we ask for help and guidance, as we try to be resolute again.

It is tempting to agree.  In fact, there is great danger in disagreeing. 

I mean, if we say that our actions do not have any merit in getting us closer to God, then what would be the point of praying, fasting, acts of service, kindness, Bible study, meditation, and the like?  If these things do not draw me closer to God, then why should I set aside any time, energy, and effort to engage in them? 

Surely when I pray, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I fast, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I engage in Bible study, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I act kind toward others, I draw myself closer to God.

Part of me says, "Yes."  But there is an important caveat to this, something that has actually plagued Christianity.  For if I am drawing myself closer to God with all these disciplines, and I feel like I am achieving such closeness, then why aren't others doing it too?  Why aren't others praying like I pray?  Why aren't others fasting like me?  Why aren't others studying the Bible like me?  Why aren't others being kind like me?  I am drawing closer to God every time I do these things.  Shouldn't others want to be close to God like I am close to God?

The idea that my actions are drawing me closer to God in this fashion leads to self-righteousness.

Bishop Eaton in her Lutheran Magazine article this month hits the proverbial nail on the head regarding this.  The money quote:

These practices serve to draw us closer to and make us more aware of the love of God shown through Jesus’ death and resurrection that justifies sinners, but they aren’t what justifies us.

These practices serve to draw us closer to...the love of God shown through Jesus' death and resurrection.

There is a subtle, but very, very important distinction between the blog on Living Lutheran and Bishop Eaton's statement.  Bishop Eaton grasps it.  Our actions do not draw us closer to God.  Our engagement in the disciplines of Lent or otherwise do not draw us closer to God--they draw us closer to the love of God as it was expressed in Jesus' death and resurrection.

These actions makes us aware that (excuse me for shouting):

GOD HAS ALREADY COME CLOSE TO US!!!!  GOD HAS ALREADY COME DOWN TO US!!!  GOD IS STILL WITH US AND HAS NEVER DEPARTED FROM US!!!

Now, I could cite a whole lot of Bible verses to back up this point, but I will refrain for now.  The point is this: our actions do not draw us closer to God, but they do make us aware of what God has already done.  They draw us closer to the knowledge of the grace and mercy poured out for us through Jesus.  They draw us into the mystery of God's great reconciliation project wherein we could not work our way to Him, but He worked His way to us at great cost to Himself.

So often, our disciplines fail for the very reason they are not focused upon Jesus.  They are not focused upon what He accomplished, but they are focused on our own desires and wants.  I desire to come closer to God.  I want to walk closer with God.  Two things: 1) If it is my self-driven desire instead of loving obedience and thankfulness, it will fail.  2) If I think I can achieve it because of my desire and because of my actions, I will fail. 

However if my desire comes not from me but from Jesus, I cannot tear myself away from it.  If I am engaging in a discipline because of obedience to Him and a response to what He has done, then I will happily engage and continue.  If I am aware of the great love of Jesus who is already close to me, and I know that in my prayer I am entering into that awareness that Christ is there beside me listening to my voice and speaking in return, I cannot wait to engage Him.  There is no amount of busy-ness that can ever tear me away.  (For all I know, the original author may have this intent, but it is unfortunately not expressed in her writing.)  

Thank you, Bishop Eaton for your powerful, strong statement.  May we all be drawn to the love of God in Jesus Christ who comes close to us.  May our actions ever make us more aware of His action on our behalf that we may live in the knowledge, hope, and abundant life that God is already with us!
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The More Things Change...

While reading through Martin Luther's "The Large Catechism," I was struck by a statement he made nearly 500 years ago:

It is evident that the world today is more wicked than it has ever been.  There is go government, no obedience, no fidelity, no faith--only perverse, unbridled men whom no teaching or punishment can help.

Read through a Facebook feed for more than a few moments, and you will have someone spouting similar words today.

Of course, Luther was repeating something past teachers and philosophers had spoken.  This quote is attributed to Socrates: 

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

Apparently not much really changes.  In fact, when I posted Luther's quote on my Facebook page, one of my friends and fellow pastors interjected with simply saying: Ecclesiastes 1:9.  That reads, this by the way:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Of course, the Teacher, was referring to human nature and its many manifestations.  He was not referring to technological advances and the like.  There is plenty new under the sun when it comes to those advances, but advances in human nature?  Not so much.

We are like we have been.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Which then leads me to ask: if Christianity's central message--the Gospel--deals with the nature of humanity, then why are there those who are so concerned with the Church being relevant?   While there is indeed a need to change the medium of the message (using the vast means of communication these days), why are there those who feel the need to change the message?

It should (and actually is) as relevant as ever, and, in fact, I believe is absolutely necessary as a corrective to much of what we see happening in society these days.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Indescribable Joy

    I am going to start out my sermon this morning with a bit of a confession.  It might be a bit shocking, but it’s true.  For the longest time, I’m not sure I knew what it meant to love Jesus.  That might be a little weird coming from a pastor, but as I examine the history of my heart, I know what I said to be true.  I’m not sure I ever understood what it meant to love Jesus.

    Don’t get me wrong.  I mean.  I knew Jesus was important.  I believed every word of that wonderful children’s song that we all probably know and love, “Jesus loves me this I know.  For the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to Him belong.  They are weak, but He is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.”  Yes.  I believed that song to my very core.  But loving Jesus?  That was another matter.  That was something I wasn’t quite sure about. 

    I’m sharing this with you this morning just in case I’m not the only one who struggles with the idea of loving Jesus.  I mean, for most of us, we get the notion of love from our relationships with others.  We love our spouses.  We know what that kind of love is.  We love our children.  We understand that kind of love tremendously.  We love our parents and relatives.  We get that.  We also love our friends, but not quite in the same way we love our family.  But loving Jesus...what is that all about?  What does that entail?  I’m not sure I ever understood this idea until recently.  I will say this, if you have understood it, then perhaps you should have been up here preaching to everyone instead of me. 

    We are continuing our walk through 1 Peter chapter one, and this morning we are going to focus on verses 6-9, “ 6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

    Focus your attention for a moment on verse 8. We are going to begin right here and then move into the rest of these verses.  How does this verse resonate deep within your heart?  When you hear Peter say, “Although you haven’t seen Jesus, you love Him; and even though you don’t see Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,” does your heart skip a beat?  Do you find yourself pondering the deep mystery incased in these words?  Do you find yourself stopping and thinking, “Geez, I cannot even begin to grasp what it would be like if Jesus were not a part of my life.”? 

    If these words do not have this kind of effect on you, I understand.  They didn’t have that kind of effect on me for the longest time partially because I heard them as prescriptive instead of descriptive.  I heard them as, “This is how you are supposed to feel.  Now, make it happen.  Love Jesus.  Rejoice.  Have indescribable and glorious joy.”  And I couldn’t make myself do that.  I couldn’t force myself to love Jesus.  I couldn’t force myself to be joyful.  I couldn’t force myself to rejoice.  Maybe we can do such things externally and superficially, but not down in the deep recesses of our hearts.

    Now, again, I may be completely and totally wrong in how I am handling this.  Perhaps this isn’t a struggle for you.  Perhaps you have loved Jesus deeply and have never heard such things in this manner.  Perhaps you rejoice and have within you a deep and indescribable joy.  This is a very good thing, and I rejoice for you in this.  However, my experience in the church tells me that more people struggle with this than not.  My experience tells me that there are very few people who have this kind of deep down sense of joy and rejoicing.  Most folks I run across still are filled with worry, and bitterness, and anger, and concern.  Most folks still get caught up in pointing out the faults of others and thinking, “I would never do something like that.”  Most of the time we spend in our respective congregations is spent dealing with these kinds of issues–trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do–instead of trying to figure out how we can introduce people to Jesus and help them grow in their faith. 

    And I think, again, I could be wrong, but I think the problem lies in our human condition.  What do I mean by that?

    Just this: I think one of the reasons I had trouble loving Jesus is that I thought I was a pretty good person.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job of living a good and moral and upright life.  I mean, I am a pastor who is serving God.  I am married and have been faithful to my spouse.  I work hard to be a good father and provide for my wife and kids.  I try to be kind to others and help out whenever I can.  My wife and I give 10% of our income to the church every month.  I try to be a good neighbor.  Hey, even though I get angry at the bicyclists on the road, I never even give them half a peace sign!  Oh sure, I knew I made mistakes.  I knew I was sinful, but I basically thought I was pretty good.  I basically thought I was doing an okay job of living out a Christian life.  I never really was convinced of my brokenness.  I knew I committed sins, but I didn’t really think I was all that sinful.

    This actually led me to be pretty self-righteous.  It led me to become angry when people wouldn’t do what I thought was the right thing.  It led me to hold people in contempt, not outwardly, but deep in the recesses of my heart.  It led me to think that if folks would just be like me and listen to what I said, then everything would work out right.  If everyone just listened to me when I said, “Jesus tells us to do this...” and then did it, well, then everything would work out in the long run.  Our church would grow.  I’d feel really, really good about myself.  The higher ups in the church would notice what we were doing, and they’d ask me how we accomplished it.  I would be all to ready to tell them and brag about what I had done–oh, and of course, what you had done.  This mentality actually led me to use Jesus as a kind of stepping stone to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.  I was using Jesus to accomplish my goals and my ends, and to this extent, I don’t think you can ever love someone you are actually using. 

    When it was revealed to me that this is what I was doing–it was a long process in which this happened, it cut me to the core.  Here I was thinking that I was doing all this great stuff when in actuality I was a self-centered brat.  I was consumed with myself, and when you are consumed with yourself, you don’t do a very good job of loving others.  And when you are consumed with yourself, you don’t really find a lot of joy and cause for rejoicing.  Because we live in this world and are constantly running into others who do not see eye to eye with us, we are constantly trying to get our way and get people to think like we think and do like we do–when we are self-centered, it wears us thin.  It makes us very fatigued, and it drains all the joy out of us.  This is where I found myself.  Weary.  Worn.  Angry.  When things didn’t go my way and I felt like I was suffering, I took it out on others, and I cried out to Jesus, “Why are you doing this to me?  Aren’t I following you?  Aren’t I preaching and teaching in your Church?  Aren’t I doing enough to satisfy you?  What did I do to deserve this?” 

    And then I met Jesus at the foot of the cross.  I met Jesus hanging there with blood running down His head.  I met Him with nails piercing His feet and hands.  I met Him as the skies darkened and He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  In not so many words, “What did I do to deserve this?”

    And I knew Jesus didn’t do anything to deserve that cross.  Jesus lived the perfect life.  He lived the kind of life that I should live but was too self-centered to even consider.  He was kind and compassionate and brought healing to many.  He showed us the nature of God and brought people to God who were once far away.  He loved those who were considered unlovable.  So why?  Why did He hang there on that cross?

    And Jesus looked at me and said, “I’m hanging here for you.  I’m hanging here because you are self-centered.  I am hanging here because you are self-righteous.  I’m hanging here because you aren’t loving others like you should.  I’m hanging here because you are using others to achieve your goals.  I’m hanging here because even if you tried to make everything right, you are doing it again for your own selfish reasons and not purely for doing what is right.  I am hanging here because God demands your life for putting yourself at the center of the universe instead of Him.  I didn’t want to see you perish.  I didn’t want to see you come under His wrath and judgement, so I took your punishment for you.  I took your place.  And I am doing this because I love you.”

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

    This Jesus; this God made flesh was on that cross dying for my sake, and the knowledge of my sinfulness coupled with the knowledge of what Jesus did cut me deep to the heart.  This is what Jesus did for me.  This is what Jesus did for you. 

    “6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

    When we realize that the salvation of our souls has come purely by grace; purely by Jesus’ actions for us when we were still sinners, we cannot help but be overcome by  overwhelming mystery and indescribable joy.  We cannot help but realize that there is nothing on this earth that can move or shake us.  We cannot help but realize that any amount of suffering or trials or tribulations are painful, yes, but we know–WE KNOW–they are only a hiccup in the road for we have a God who suffers too.  We have a God who died.  And we have a God who was raised from the dead.  The God who loved us enough to die for us; loves us enough to bring us to new life.  He loves us enough to bring good out of evil.  He loves us enough to turn our suffering and our mourning into dancing.  How can you not love a God like that?  How can you not love Jesus?  Oh how I love Jesus because He first loved me!  Amen.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Open Letter to the Gulf Coast Synod Assembly Planning Team

Greetings in the name of Christ,

To begin, I would like to thank you for your diligence and hard work in putting together this year's Synod Assembly.  I know these events are fraught with all sorts of frustrations.  I nearly lost several hand fulls of hair in simply helping to plan the main worship service at one of these things!  Therefore, this letter is not intended to add to your misery even though it is highly possible it will. 

My office manager received by mail a letter regarding the upcoming Synod Assembly and its focus on evangelism.  Pastor Pedro concluded with these words, "Evangelism is a topic that might be uncomfortable or be fraught with misconceptions.  We hope that you will use the enclosed bulletin insert to encourage your congregation to rethink evangelism and to encourage their participation in this year's Synod Assembly."


I had to chuckle a little bit after reading Pastor Pedro's assertion's about evangelism being fraught with misconceptions and then read the flyer which stated, "Evangelism can take many forms including social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

I chuckled, and then I mourned.  I chuckled because ten, five, even a year and a half ago, I would have unhesitatingly published this flyer in the church bulletin.  I would have encouraged these exact words!  But I mourned because I have changed, and as I read there was an obvious, at least to me, misconception. It has to do with, in my understanding, the nature of evangelism and the nature of the gospel.

First, evangelism.  Most of us are familiar with the Greek root of the word.  "Evangelion" is literally translated "good news."  Evangelism is the spreading of the good news.  Of course, we must ask then, "What is the good news?"  For those of us who are Christians, this means, "What is the Gospel?"

That final question seems to be a bit tricky these days.  I asked a pastor at the Theological Conference in New Braunfels how may different definitions of the Gospel we would get if we polled all the pastors in attendance, and she replied, "At least 200."

This poses a bit of a problem for if evangelism is the spread of the Gospel, and we have 200+ definitions of the Gospel, just what are we trying to spread? 

That's just the first problem.  The second problem I can see, comes from semantics.  I think we can all agree that the root definition of Gospel is "good news."  What do you do with news?  Can you "live" news? 

As Lutherans, in theory, our shared identity revolves around the fact that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death that we deserved to reconcile us unto God while we were still sinners.  This is the Gospel of which St. Paul says, "There is no other Gospel!"  How do you convey this without using words?

You simply cannot tell others what Jesus has accomplished for them by means of social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Proclaiming the Gospel requires, well, proclamation.  We must declare what Jesus has done.  If we are not focusing on the cross, then we are not doing evangelism.  If we are not talking about God's action and are focused on our own actions (social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement), we are not doing evangelism.  We are not telling good news.  We are not getting people to Jesus. 

It is my contention that in these days, we in the church spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to fall in love with us.  We want people to fall in love with our congregations and join.  We want to reverse the trend of membership decline by emphasizing our actions and our concern for the poor and oppressed and marginalized.  While these things aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, they are misguided.  We need to lead people to fall in love with Jesus; not our church; not our congregations; not ourselves.  Anything that does not get to Jesus; anything that does not lead people to the cross; is not evangelism.

And as a result of people falling in love with Jesus?  Well, there will be social justice.  There will be radical hospitality.  There will be community involvement.  These are fruits of evangelism.  They are not evangelism themselves.

I really and truly do not expect anyone to agree with the points in this letter.  I realize that I am very much on the fringes when it comes to serving the ELCA in theology and in practice.  Yet, I love this church for Jesus died for this church.  I love her even when I vehemently disagree with her, and I willingly serve within her bounds though she and I are often at odds.  I want the decline to cease just as much as I know you do.  And I am absolutely convinced and clear that unless we put Jesus front and center of our evangelism and proclamation; unless we work to proclaim Jesus and His actions, the decline will continue.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kevin Haug
Pastor, St. John Lutheran Church
Cat Spring, TX

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Living Hope

    There is a story about an old man who one morning got to his bus-stop to wait for the bus. Shortly after a little boy joined him, stopped at the bus-stop, and then walked past him and went and stood further down from the actual designated bus-stop. The old man called out to the boy 'Hello lad, you are standing in the wrong spot. The bus always stops right here so come back and wait here'. The boy said no, that he was fine and would be OK. The old man insisted saying that in all his 30 years of waiting for the bus, it had never stopped anywhere else but at the bus-stop and still the boy refused to budge. He politely told the old man that he was not moving and would remain where he was. So the old man gave up feeling sorry for the little boy. He was sure to miss the bus. Then along came the bus. It stopped briefly where the old man was and then slowly moved only to stop right in front of the little boy. The little boy smiled and as he got on the bus, he stopped to look back at the stunned old man saying 'Sir, one thing I forgot to tell you was that the bus driver is my father and he had told me to wait right here!'

    Ah to have such certainty and such hope!  Ah to be able to say unequivocally, “I know I can stand right here, and all will be well.  I know things will be taken care of, so I do not need to worry.  I do not need to fret.  I do not need to be stressed or anxious.  I know, beyond a doubt that things will work out.”

    Now, there might be a few of you who would say, “I see what you are saying, pastor, but if we knew the future, that would remove all the excitement of wondering what is going to happen next.  There wouldn’t be any surprises or anything like that.  Knowing the future wouldn’t be all that great.”

    I hear what you are saying.  Believe me, I do, but I also know this: what you believe will happen in the future directly impacts how you live today.  Let me say that again: what you believe about the future directly impacts how you live today.

    Case in point: if you knew that you would win the lottery six months from now, would you change the way you looked at life and the things you did?  Of course you would.  If you knew you would die in a month, would it change the way you looked at life and the things that you did?  Of course it would.  Let me bring this home in another way; a way that is plausible for us around here.  If you knew that four days from now a squirrel would walk across the high lines and blow a transformer and that it would take three days to make repairs, would you keep doing the same stuff or would you prepare for what was happening?  Of course you would prepare.  What we believe about the future directly impacts how we live today.

    But there are a couple of problems here.  First off, we simply cannot see the future.  Our sight is far too limited to be able to grasp what will happen far into the future, so in one way, we are kind of doomed.  Yet, I also know that there is something about the human spirit which longs for and demands future possibilities.  We call this hope.  The human spirit drastically needs to hope.  I mean, do you know what happens to a person when the lose hope?  Do you know what happens to someone when they do not believe there is a future for them?  Yes, they become depressed, and eventually they die.  In the worst cases, they take their own lives.  We need to hope.

    But it is hard to have such a hope.  It is difficult, to say the least, to grasp and hold such a thing.  Why?  Because we are consistently disappointed.  We consistently are bombarded by bad news.  We are consistently fed images and stories of pain and suffering and injustice which lead us to fear; to worry; to anxiety; and a longing to find something, anything which will stem the tide of such things.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, I remember many years ago shooting fireworks off at my grandparents’ farm.  We used to love to do this, and my Aunt Lucy would feed our excitement.  She’d go out and buy a whole lot of fireworks, and we’d laugh and watch this stuff fly into the sky and burst into all the radiant colors.  We’d ooh and aah most of the time, but every once in a while we’d get a dud–which was met with a chorus of boos or...well...let’s just say that I remember my Aunt Lucy bringing a rather large bottle rocket out once.  It looked really, really cool.  We set that sucker up, lit the fuse, and stepped back.  We figured there would be some sort of huge explosion, but all the thing did was make a loud noise as it just shot up into the air.  There was no explosion.  There were no fireballs.  There were no pretty colors.  “Aw, hell,” my aunt said, “That was a waste of five bucks!”  Disappointment reigned on that one.  Not because it was a dud but because it just didn’t measure up.

    And that’s the thing about our hope a great deal of the time.  We tend to misplace it, and when we do, we find only disappointment.  And the worst part of this is the default position of our hearts is to misplace our hope!  The default position of our hearts lead us to put our hope in the wrong things because we are born sinful.

    Now, you might think I am crazy in saying that.  You may say, “Pastor, how in the world can a child be born into sin?  Kids don’t know right from wrong.  They have no idea how to choose between good and bad.  They can’t do wrong things because they are too small.  They are just innocent beings.”

    Let me address this in this manner:     Today, Hunter Hewson is being baptized.  This is their second rodeo with baptism, so I didn’t meet with them this time, but I did meet with them, just like I meet with all the families who are baptizing their children.  When I have everyone together, I ask them, “Who is the most selfish person in this room?” 

    There usually is a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, but then, most of the time, realization dawns.  The parents point at their child.  They see suddenly how selfish a little baby is.  When that baby wants food, what does it do?  When that baby wants to be held, what does it do?  When that baby is uncomfortable and wants its diaper changed, what does it do?  When anything is happening that the little baby doesn’t like what does it do?  It screams bloody murder!  Why?  That child expects you to take care of it. Why?  Because in that child’s universe, the universe revolves around that child.  You can call it an evolutionary mechanism to help us survive if you like, but giving it a scientific function doesn’t change anything.  That child thinks he or she is god.  We are born that way.  We are natural born idolaters.  Our hearts are not immediately tuned to God.

    And because of this, there are two things that happen. #1. We learn that other people are there to take care of us and address all our needs.  We begin placing our hope in others.  However, when others don’t address our needs, what do we do?  We turn to ourselves.  In the case of an infant, they cry until they are taken care of, and if they aren’t taken care of, they double their efforts and cry harder!  They take the initiative to make sure someone listens!

    Such is the case with most of us in life.  We place our hope in others, and when we are disappointed, we then turn to ourselves  I mean, I am pretty sure this morning each and every one of us here have experienced such disappointment.  Each and every one of us here have experienced such frustration.

    Maybe you spent 20 years or more working for a company, giving them your all and expecting them to continue to employ you until you were ready to retire.  Yet, you were fired or forced to resign because someone younger and cheaper was hired.  And you were disappointed.

    Maybe you voted for a particular political candidate expecting them to change the nature of how politics worked on the local, state, or national level, and then nothing changed–or this person was caught in a scandal–or the person actually voted for something you were against.  And you were disappointed.

    Maybe you started attending church in the midst of a personal crisis or a time of grief and anxiety.  You thought that people would reach out to you and help you; greet you warmly; and help you through the rough times; but they didn’t.  You found out they were hurting as well and consumed with their own problems.  Or they never even greeted you or made you feel welcome.  You left vowing never to come back because you were disappointed.

    Some of us learn this lesson the hard way.  You can never place your hope in people without eventually finding disappointment.  And even if you find someone you can trust; even if you find someone who lifts you up and is always there for you; even if you find someone who loves you and cherishes you to no end–I hate to break this to you–that person will eventually die.  And if you don’t die before them, you will sink into a level of depression that will consume you. 

    Sorry to be such a downer on this, but it is my job to tell you the truth.  And, of course, I am not the only one.  There are more than a few people who will tell you not to put your hope in others.  Instead, they will tell you, put your hope in yourself!  (Like that’s going to solve anything...)

    I remember watching the movie “Bruce Almighty,” and one of the main points at the end of this movie is brought forth by Morgan Freeman who plays the character of God.  He says to the main character played by Jim Carrey, “If you want a miracle, son, be the miracle.”  Think about that.  The statement basically says, “It’s all up to you.  Take control.  Take charge.  Make things happen.  You can make a difference and change everything around you.”  Anyone ever felt like you could accomplish this?

    Maybe you did.  Maybe you felt deep in your heart you could change the world, but eventually, you will run into disappointment in yourself as well.  I mean, perhaps at first you won’t.  You will be able to accomplish a few things within your sphere of reference.  But then, you may get a notion to think larger.  You may become disturbed about violence around the world.  You may become disturbed about kids using drugs in the community.  You may become anxious about the public school system, and you decide to get involved and make changes.  You start working only to find, folks have different ideas than you.  Folks undermine your efforts and subvert you.  You find that no matter how hard you argue that ISIS should be peaceful, they continue to kill and maim and destroy.  You find out that you can’t make as big a difference as you once thought.  You can only affect a few things–even though you would like to do more.  You find your limitations and you become disappointed you can’t do more.  Hope then fades.

    So, if you can’t put your hope in other people and you can’t put your hope in yourself: where can you put it?  Is there a place you can put your hope that will not disappoint?  Will not fade?  Will not die?

    1 Peter 1:3-5 says, “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

    I want to go through this step by step because there is a lot, and I mean a lot packed in here!  Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who by His great mercy has given us–given us, mind you, a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why is this so significant?

    First off, we need to see that God gives us this hope.  It is not something we can achieve or accomplish on our own.  It is given to us through a new birth, and this is the hardest part of it.  How are we born anew?  To be born anew means that something has to die.  We have to die.  As Jesus said, “For if you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it.”  We have to die.  That selfish nature we are born with has to die.  And how is it put to death?

    It is put to death when we hear the Gospel.  It is put to death when we hear we are saved by sheer grace and not by our own efforts.  When you realize you cannot live the life you should live and that you are deserving of death, you are brought to your knees.  Yet, when you understand that Jesus has lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved, you know you have worth.  You know you have value, and you know you have hope?

    And where does that hope reside?  The resurrection.  For by living the life we should live and dying the death we deserved, Jesus opened the way for us to become children of God, and what do children get from their parents?  As Peter points out, we receive an inheritance that is  imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.  We have a living hope!  We know who we can trust.  We can trust Jesus!  We can hope in Jesus!  For in Him we have been reconciled unto God.  And in Him we see what the ending will be.  We see that our final destination will be resurrection to life eternal.  Not because of anything we have done but because we know the “bus driver” is our Father.  A Father who deeply loves us and was willing to die for us.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him!”  This is a hope that will never, ever disappoint, fade, or die!  May it capture our hearts!  Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Church Needs to Die

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  --Mark 8:34-35

It is quite hard to believe that this July, I will be celebrating 15 years of ordained ministry.  Lots has changed in that 15 years. 

One thing that hasn't is a repeated mantra that I have heard over and over and over again at conferences, in sermons, and read in books:

The Church must change, or it will die!!!

Now, for the record, I once believed this.  I once believed it down to my very core.  I believed that the Church must always be reforming--and to an extent, it must always re-form.  But re-forming does not mean changing.  It does not mean examining our core beliefs and understanding and changing them to fit a culture or a context which has trouble understanding those beliefs and concepts.  There is a reason there is such a thing as apologetics!!!

Reforming, at least in the Church, is a process of going backward to go forward.  It is a process of returning to the basics of the Christian faith which propelled it forward in the ancient world.  It is a process of returning to the bedrock foundation of the Christian faith: we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus who lived the life we should live and died the death we deserved to reconcile us unto God.

When this core statement, the Gospel, grasps the heart and the heart grasps it changes you to your very core and being.  For many years, I had heard the Gospel, but I never understood it.  I figured Christianity was best served by focusing on the Law--the doing; particularly loving God and loving one's neighbor.  How simple was that?  It should be relatively easy for everyone to agree upon that?  Right?

But it isn't.  Not in the least.  For loving God and loving the neighbor, while we can agree on the basics, is not easily fleshed out.  It is not easily applied, and it fails to address what is really wrong with the human heart.  

For while I might desire to love God and love my neighbor, more oftentimes than not, my heart centers on myself.  I only love God and love my neighbor in so far as they help me accomplish my goals and my desires.  Unless my heart is deeply affected or moved by the plight of another, I remain content to keep my business as usual approach to life.  And, here is the kicker, oftentimes I engage in loving God and loving my neighbor because "it makes me feel good."  It becomes all about me.

Most of the time, when we examine ourselves, it indeed becomes all about us.  It becomes all about what we want and we desire.  It becomes about how something makes me feel or about how something works to my advantage.  

Institutions are no different.  They may begin with all sorts of lofty goals and ideals.  They may begin with an outward focus, but before long institutional preservation becomes the order of the day.  This is especially true of the Church.  We spend a lot of time, effort and energy trying to get people to fall in love with the Church--of whatever denomination we are a part; of whatever congregation we are a part.  And if things start going south, we proclaim: the Church must change or die!  What is at the heart of this statement?  Self-preservation.

"For those who want to save their life..."

Yes, Jesus' teaching applies to the Church as well.  If we are interested in saving ourselves; if we are interested in preserving our institutions; if we are changing so that we don't die, we will do exactly that.  We will die.  A slow and painful death.

But there is a remedy.  

"Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Die now.  Die to self.  Die to what we want and what we think will save us.  Quit trying to focus on making people fall in love with us, and work to get people to fall in love with Jesus and His saving action.  Reform.  Return to the Gospel and let it change the hearts and minds of those who hear it proclaimed. 

The Church doesn't need to change.

It needs to die.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Awe Inspiring



    This week, spurred on by conversation at our staff meeting, I began to wonder how often we are awestruck in our lives.  I mean, how often do you find yourself struck with wonder or terror to the point where you fall on your knees or are rendered completely speechless?  I asked that question of my Facebook friends this week, and the responses were actually pretty few and far between.  There was only one who claimed to have such experiences regularly, and indeed, in my own experience I would argue that we rarely experience a deep sense of wonder; awe, or even terror anymore.  I would almost like to argue that we are desensitized to it.

    You may wonder what I mean by that, so let me explain in terms of technology.  There is an urban legend surrounding one of the first motion pictures to be publicly screened.  The film’s name is “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” which was a silent documentary about a train arriving at a station.  The legend tells that people were so awestruck and terrified seeing a life sized train coming toward them that they ran to the back of the theater to avoid being hit!  Now, whether or not that actually happened is disputed by some, however, according to one report in Der Spiegel, folks really were this terrified and awestruck!   Fast forward several decades, and I can tell you that there were many who were awed by the film Star Wars that came out in the late 70's.  George Lukas pushed the envelope when it came to special effects, and for a good chunk of time, movies were special effect driven.  People came to be blown away by what they were seeing on the screen.  But what is happening now?  Can a film get away with simply a lot of special effects?  They cannot.  Because we can computer generate basically anything, no longer do special effects cause us any awe, wonder, or terror.  We are completely desensitized to it.

    I think I could say the same about the news.  I mean, every time you turn on the television and watch the news there is another story trying to scare you to death.  Depending on the day, we either have to worry about terrorists, murderers, kidnappers, severe weather, or some sort of disease bursting into our lives.  There have been so many crises pumped into our homes that we are no longer shocked by the stories.  We’ve heard it all and seen it all when they wanted to show us.  So we hear about the slaughter of hundreds of people by ISIS and most of us shrug our shoulders.  Meh.  What can I do about it anyway?  Desensitization.

    Oh, it happens to us as members of faith communities as well.  Either one of two things happens to us.  One, we have been a part of a church our entire lives, and when we hear the story, we’ve heard it before; we’ve heard it explained before; and it is old hat.  There’s nothing more we think we need to hear.  We’ve got it down.  Desensitized.  Or, if you are here this morning, you may hear the story and think, “What in the world does this have to do with reality?  What in the world does this have to do with the world that I live in now.  How can something weird that happened 2000 years ago on a mountain have anything to say to this world today governed by smart phones, computers, and technology?  Haven’t we moved past all that superstitious stuff?”  Desensitized.

    And yet, I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to feel awe and wonder and terror.  I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to experience such moments because it is during those moments that we most feel alive.  It is during those moments when we often feel a deep sense of the presence of the Holy.  It is those moments which leave us with a lasting sense of peace, and so often we try to manufacture them.  We try to stage things which terrify us; which exhilarate us; which bring us a few moments of peace.  But it always goes away.  It always leaves, and we try to move on to the next high–the next mountain top experience where we find some sort of glory.

    This, of course, brings us squarely to our Gospel lesson this morning from the book of Mark.  It is a mountain top experiences shared by three of Jesus’ disciples.  It was a moment of awe and wonder.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and when they reach the top, Jesus is transformed in front of them.  His clothes become dazzling white.  Then, standing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  The glory of God was indeed shining at that moment!  It must have been a sight to behold, and we are told that it terrified the disciples. 

    Peter even spoke up, “Master, it is good for us to be here.  Let us make three tabernacles.  One for you.  One for Moses and one for Elijah.”  We are told that Peter said this because he didn’t know what else to say.  He too was overwhelmed; overawed.  Terrified. 

    Now, some people think that Peter is sticking his foot in his mouth here.  Peter does have a habit of doing such things, but I’ve had to rethink this a little bit.  I’ve had to rethink why indeed Peter said what he said, and I’m not sure it was because Peter was ignorant or stupid.  I’m not sure it was because Peter went completely brain dead.  In fact, perhaps, just perhaps, Peter was digging deep into the faith which he had been taught as a child.  Peter was digging back to another mountaintop where the glory of God had been revealed.  Peter was digging back to Mount Sinai when the shekaniah glory of God was revealed upon that mountain; where Moses entered into God’s presence, and God gave the Law including the 10 Commandments.  When Moses came down off that mountain, he was glowing with a radiant light.  And Moses instructed the people saying that God would now dwell in their midst.  God would dwell with them...in a tabernacle.  “How good it is for us to be here, Lord.  Let us build three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Surely this is a sign from God that He is dwelling with us.  This will be a center of worship and power and majesty.  The glory of God has been revealed!”  In a very real way, Peter’s statement makes a whole lot of sense!  But he doesn’t get it.  Not by a long shot.

    For right after Peter finishes his statement, a cloud enshrouds Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  This would have terrified the disciples even more, for they knew the meaning of the cloud.  They knew that God shrouded Himself in the cloud on Mount Sinai.  They knew Gold lead the people by a pillar of cloud as they fled Egypt.  This cloud only mean that God Himself was now upon the mountain, and in the other gospel accounts, we are told that Peter, James, and John fall face down on that mountain!  They are overcome with terror.  And the voice of God thunders!  “This is my Son, the beloved.  Listen to Him!” 

    That last sentence is so important–so very important.  “Listen to Him!”  Why is this statement so important?  Because of what Jesus had been teaching His disciples right before this event.  Let me give you a reminder.  Mark 8:34-35: “He (Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

    You see, God was affirming on that mountain what Jesus was teaching.  God was letting the disciples know that Jesus was speaking the absolute truth.  It was something they didn’t want to hear.  It was something they didn’t want to consider.  It was something they never could have wildly imagined.  The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in dazzling white clothes, but in red, red blood.  The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in three tabernacles, but in three crosses.  The Messiah’s true glory would not take place on this high mountain, but on another hill outside of Jerusalem–a hill called Calvary.  For the true glory of God would be revealed as He suffered and died for you and for me.

    Oh, you may think at this point, well, I’ve heard this before.  I’ve heard it numerous times.  I know that Jesus died on the cross, but what’s so awe inspiring about that?  Why should that cause my heart to pause?  Why should that make me fall to my knees or render me speechless?  Why should it fill my heart with peace and make me feel truly alive?

    Let me start to answer in this fashion.  You know, there are numerous reasons I have heard that people don’t attend church.  Oftentimes they say: those folks are a bunch of hypocrites.  And they are right.  We are.  They also say: those Christians over there are a bunch of judgmental people.  And they are right.  We are.  They say: those Christians over there go to church on Sunday but they are right back at Crossroads on Monday living it up.  And they are right.  We are.  They say: those Christians say they believe in Jesus but you almost can’t tell the difference in their lives.  They keep doing the same stuff they’ve always done.  And they are right.  We are just like that.  We are judgmental.  We are self-righteous.  We are self-centered, and we are broken.  We have fallen fall short of the glory of God.  We don’t even come close to being the disciples that Jesus needs us to be.

    At this point, if you are here checking out Christianity and have said such things before, don’t let your chest be pumped up just yet.  Don’t start thinking you’ve nailed things perfectly and you are somehow off the hook because what are you doing by saying such things?  What are you doing by saying that you don’t hang out with a group of people because of the things they do and how they act?  What are you doing when you point the finger at those of us in church and say, “You are judgmental!”  Aren’t you judging as well?  Aren’t you being self-righteous?  Aren’t you being self-centered?  Aren’t you essentially saying, “I’m not going to hang around with you because I am better than you.  You aren’t living like you should, and I don’t want to be like you.”  Well, guess what.  You are.  You are just like me.  You are just like us.  You are just as broken, and if you are angry at me for saying that, I think it’s because you know the truth but you just don’t want to admit it.

    The fact of the matter is, we are all broken.  We are all self-centered.  We are all self-righteous, and this self-righteousness and self-centeredness is at the heart of all the division we face in society.  It’s at the heart of racism, sexism, poverty, warfare, and misery.  We’ve made a mess out of things because of it, and if God had any sense at all, He would look down at us and say, “You know, this creation of mine is too self-centered; it is too self-righteous; it is too hard hearted.  They refuse to get along with one another, and they are constantly causing one another grief and pain and suffering.  I should just wipe them out.”  That would be the most reasonable thing to do.

    But instead of wiping us out, God decided to forgive us.  He decided to wipe the slate clean.  You may be asking at this point, what does this have to do with Jesus?  Well, whenever you forgive someone, you decide not to offer retribution.  You decide to bear the cost of what harm was done to you.  If someone lies about you, rather than make them pay and lie about them, you bear the cost of the lie.  You bear the emotional pain and hurt.  Forgiveness comes with a cost. 

    Now imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual cost of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness.  Imagine the cost of the wars that have been fought and the deaths that have been brought about by our division and hatred.  Imagine the cost of poverty and racism and sexism and fascism and all the other isms out there.  Can you imagine the burden that our self-centeredness has brought?  Can you imagine the terrible cost of humanity’s sin?

    If you can even begin to wrap your head around that, imagine the punishment due for that falling upon one man–one being who was fully human and fully divine.  Imagine that punishment falling upon the one who was there at the creation of the universe for whom and through whom all was made.  And imagine He endured that for you when you least deserved it.  When He knew you were self-centered, and self-righteous and hard hearted.  He did this for you because He loved you.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”

    Jesus revealed His glory on the cross as He did for you when you were least deserving.  If that is not enough to fill you full of awe, I don’t know what is.  Amen.