Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Why are We Here?: Peace and Justice

Today, as we continue in our sermon series of asking the question: Why are we here?, we come to a topic that can make us a bit squeamish–particularly if we consider ourselves to sit on the right hand side of the political aisle.  But, I don’t think there is any way that a person who reads the Bible can say that this topic isn’t important.  From Genesis to the book of Revelation, there is a call for the people of God to work for peace and justice in the world.

Now, before anyone starts heading for the exits, let me plead my case to you that every one of you sitting here this morning wants a just world.  Every one of you.  The concept of justice is embedded into the very fabric of creation, and you share in that fabric whether you think so or not.  Two points will hopefully illustrate this.

First, I wish I had video screens to show you a video that is on YouTube that highlights justice in the animal kingdom.  There is an experiment that is being done with monkeys.  The monkeys are trained so that when they give the person leading the experiment a rock, they are rewarded with a cucumber.  The guy giving the talk on the video says, “They will do this all day long.”  But then a wrinkle is introduced.  The person conducting the experiment goes to a neighboring cage.  The monkey in that particular cage gives the scientist a rock, and the scientist gives this monkey a grape.  Grapes are considered higher currency for these monkeys.  The first monkey, who received the cucumber, sees the other monkey get the grape.  The scientist then returns to the first monkey and receives a rock.  But the scientist does not give this monkey a grape, the scientist gives the monkey the standard cucumber.  The monkey looks at the cucumber, throws it at the scientist and starts shaking the cage.  He wants his grape!  This is a real, live experiment showing that justice is not simply a human thing.  It’s a creation thing.

Second point: a few years ago, I was in confirmation class talking about justice and fairness.  I asked the kids, “Is the world fair?”   They all responded, “No.”  They knew it.  I think asked, “Do you expect the world to be fair?”  They all said, “No.”  I confess to you all this morning, this answer took me by surprise.  I expected that the kids wanted the world to be fair, but they seemingly denied that they wanted this.  And so I hit them with the following: “So, what you are telling me is that if I tell Kiera here that she doesn’t have to do any more confirmation homework or come to class anymore and I will still confirm her, but the rest of you will have to do all the work or you will not be confirmed, you are okay with that?”  Every single student said, “NO!  That’s not fair.”  And I replied, “So, you do want the world to be fair, huh?”  I think it opened their eyes a little bit.  We want a just world even though we do not have one.

Now, we actually encounter another problem as we continue this foray into justice and peace–because even though just about everyone wants peace and justice, do you think that everyone agrees on what it means to have peace and justice?  Do you think everyone agrees on what justice entails?  Again, I think the answer on that one is no.  This is why we have great difficulty in having conversations regarding justice in our society today.  Some folks believe that justice entails having equal opportunity for all people.  Some folks think that justice entails creating a society which has no bias or preference in its structures.  Some people think justice entails current generations paying for the sins of previous generations.  Some people think justice entails an equal distribution of wealth across all people.  Some people think justice entails equal rights across the board for everyone; while others believe justice means equal rights for those who are citizens of our nation.  I could actually keep going and listing several more ideas, but I think you get the point.  And, of course, my definition of justice trumps your definition of justice any day.  (That was sarcasm, by the way.)

So, how can we work towards justice if we cannot agree on what justice is?  How can we work towards a just society if we have all of these competing visions and ideas and we actually come into conflict over those definitions?  And how can we work for justice and peace when we spend more time fighting about our definitions–oftentimes without even realizing it?

This is why I believe we need something outside of ourselves to help us understand what justice truly entails.  This is why I believe we need a transcendent source telling us what justice is so that we do not get caught up in our own self-driven ideals.  This is what Christianity brings to the table when we say that we do not base our ideals of justice on our own understanding, but we base our ideals of justice on what the Bible reveals to us regarding God.  Because God is a God of justice.

Now, at first glance, for those who long for justice, this might seem like a very good thing.  This might seem like a moment to stand up and yell out “Hallelujah!”  But be careful.  Be very, very careful.  You might not like the path that this will travel.  Not at first, at least.  For you see, the Scriptures are very clear that not only is God a God of justice, but God is just.  This means, God is righteous.  God is right.  God can be counted on to ensure that what is fair takes place.  God can be counted on to ensure that when boundaries are crossed, justice is meted out.  God can be counted on to right the wrongs that have taken place.  God can be counted on to make sure that every time a law is broken, punishment is served.  God would not be good; God would not be just if He didn’t ensure that such things would happen.  God wouldn’t be just if He just let things slide and did not care about such matters.

Are you becoming a bit uneasy yet?  Are you starting to think about those times when you didn’t follow the rules?  Are you starting to think about all those times where you laughed at the speed limit thinking that it was just a suggestion?  Are you becoming a bit queasy when you realize that you’ve walked right by homeless people and haven’t given them a second thought?  Are you beginning to be a bit uncomfortable knowing that if you’ve even had a thought about a member of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse, you’ve committed adultery?  Are you starting to sweat knowing that you have not only listened to gossip, but you have passed it on?  God is just.  God will ensure that justice is meted out.  He will be uncompromising.  He will be severe.  No transgression will be left unpunished.  Do you want justice?  Do you really want God’s justice?

If we understand God, and if we understand ourselves, we would begging not for justice but for mercy.  We would be pleading our case.  We would be begging God not to punish us because we know that if He were to unleash justice on us, we would be in despair.  This is why St. Paul wrote in the book of Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None of us is just.  None of us is righteous.  None can stand before the holiness of God and claim to be worthy to do so.  Ah, but we are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.

What that means is this: when God could have unleashed His punishment upon us–and He would have been just to do so; Jesus stepped in a pleaded our case.  Jesus asked for mercy on our behalf.  “But there must be payment for the transgression,” God said.  “Crimes cannot go unpunished, or justice is not truly served.”  And Jesus said, “I will take the punishment on their behalf.  Justice will be served, but let it be served on me and not upon them.”

“But they are still unclean.  They are still unrighteous,” God said.

“Then make them a son; make them a daughter, like me.  I will give them my status.  I will give them my sinlessness.  I will give them my blamelessness.  Therefore, they can stand before you.  Holy.  Righteous.  Redeemed.”  And God agreed.  This is the sacrifice of atonement so that the demands of justice might be met.  But instead of falling on us, it fell on Jesus.  Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we received mercy.

And because we received mercy; because we received something we did not earn; because we received Christ’s righteousness; our hearts are changed, and they burst with love of Jesus.  They overflow with love for Jesus.  They long to love like Jesus loved and live like Jesus lived.  We begin to see with Jesus’ eyes, and we begin to look at the world with compassion towards those who are in need.

When our hearts are right with God; when we have been moved by God’s undeserved love; when we have been moved by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; our hearts have a special place for the poor; the oppressed; the widow; the orphan; the refugee; the one who is in need.  We understand that God has a special place in His heart for those in need–not just those who are in our tribe or in our circle, but for anyone who is created in the image of God.

Do you realize how radical this teaching of the Bible is?  Probably not.  For many today, this is just second nature, but when God set these decrees down, it was completely and totally radical.  In every culture of the time, there was one set of rules for insiders, and there was another set of rules for outsiders.  You were responsible for treating members of your tribe with justice, but if you were outside the tribe; if you were outside the culture, no such rules governed.  The Judeo-Christian tradition brought universal justice to the table.

And what is that universal justice?  According to my readings and research this past week, there are three areas that make up Christian justice.  There are three areas that emerge from God and filter into the hearts of those who love Him because of what has been done in Jesus Christ:

1) Treating people equally.
2) The widows, orphans, and people who are oppressed are objects of         special concern.
3) Generosity.

Treating people equally means that if you are a coach and you have a rule that states that if you get caught cheating, you will be benched for a game, then if the star quarterback and the worst lineman get caught cheating, they are both benched for the game.  You don’t sit the star quarterback for a quarter and then have him come in and play while the other guy sits out.  You implement the rules equally across the board, no exceptions.

Secondly, the Bible is full, and I mean chalk full of God’s special concern for the widow, orphan, and those who are oppressed.  Our first lesson from the book of Amos lifts this up unequivocally.  11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.

And there is little different in the New Testament.  We read the Beatitudes earlier with its concern for those who are poor, meek, and peacemakers.  Now, for a quote from the book of James chapter 2.  My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?   I could list many others, but the point is this: God has a special place in His heart for the poor and oppressed and needy.  As recipients of God’s grace, our hearts share God’s heart.

And finally: generosity.  We become generous in giving–not simply to the church, but to those in need.  As John the Baptist showed when folks were coming to him in the desert in Luke chapter 3: ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

But the question now arises: how does this play out in a church?  How does this play out in a congregation?  How does this concern for justice hit the road right here at worship?  At fellowship?  In our activities? 

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a sermon where the pastor was preaching on Jesus’ teaching regarding banquets.  Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  The pastor asked this question: “when is the last time your church threw a banquet and did like Jesus said?”

And I was struck hard.  When was the last time a church that I was a part of actually did this?  I asked whether or not this congregation had ever done this.  I was surprised to find out: it had!!!  During Lent one year, free meals were offered to people in the community.  Folks came out, and some were overheard to say, “What a great deal.  Free food.  All you can eat.  What a great deal.”  And they didn’t stay for worship.  They came and ate, and the meals were stopped because the church was being taken advantage of.  And here’s the kicker to that: we are.  But here’s the other point: so what?

The point Jesus is making is not that we receive anything from what we do in the world–the point is God gets the glory and those who may not have opportunity to be fed or those who do not have an opportunity to be a part of a community get a chance to.  I mean, let’s face it, we are not going to be able to really influence the structures of society.  We are not going to change the world and the way it works in some grand way.  But we can truly make a difference in the lives of the poor and marginalized who are our neighbors.

How so?  When you throw a banquet, Jesus says.  Invite them to come and eat.  Why?  In my reading this week the authors of the book Total Church managed to really get me thinking when they said the following: At a poverty hearing organized by Church Action on Poverty, Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lived in poverty all her life, described the experience of poverty like this: “In part, it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that.  It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated, and unwanted.  Poor people want to be included and not just judged and ‘rescued’ at times of crisis.”

What does this mean?  A final quote: A woman told me, “I know people do a lot to help me.  But what I want is someone to be my friend.”  People do not want to be projects.  The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalization; they need inclusion to replace their exclusion; to replace their powerlessness they need a place where they matter.  They need a community.  They need the Christian community.  They need the church.

What a wonderful opportunity we have to share the heart of God.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to help others lessen their marginalization and oppression.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to help them know that there is a place where they matter: where the structures of oppression have no power or influence.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to share and live the gospel.  It’s one of the reasons we are here: to work for peace and justice.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Why are we Here?: Evangelism 2

Last week, I spent a little bit of time talking about one of the important reasons we are here: to do evangelism.  I talked about how evangelism was telling the good news.  I talked about how oftentimes we try to kick the can of responsibility even though every Christian is called to share the good news.  And finally, I spoke about how we can overcome fear by seeing evangelism as a community process instead of thinking that it is all up to us as individuals.  But even after doing all of that, I didn’t even scratch the surface of evangelism.  There is so much more that needs to be expressed, and one of the things that we really need to talk about is: what is the good news?  What is the news that we are called to tell.

You see, we no longer live in a society where Christian values and the Christian story is explicitly told by the culture at large.  I remember when I was a child.  Every year at all the major holidays, television told the Christian story.  At Easter, it wasn’t only the Ten Commandments that appeared during Holy Week.  Anyone else remember the week-long mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth?”  Anyone remember how they told the story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection during the week?  Do the major networks carry that anymore?  No.  The sit-coms that used to grace our television sets used to also carry implicit Christian values.  Most no longer do.  The culture was full of Christian references and Christian ideals.  In a very real way, culture used to do our evangelism for us.  But that is no longer the case.  Our culture is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the Christian faith. 

As a result, fewer and fewer folks actually speak the language of faith.  Fewer and fewer folks have any true knowledge of what the Christian faith is about.  I’ll give you one perhaps very surprising example.  This past week at church camp, I sat in with our boys at Bible study.  These were our 10 year olds.  We were asked to finish the Bible study by saying the Lord’s prayer.  There was one youth there who didn’t know what we were even talking about.  Think about that for a moment.  A youth, who was at least 10 years old, at church camp, didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.  Can you imagine what he thought when he heard the words: grace, Holy Communion, forgiveness of our trespasses, or even hallowed?  Can you imagine how strange these words must have seemed to him?  Somehow, we must be able to communicate our message in a world that no longer shares our particular way of looking at it.  We must connect with others who are not in our group, and help them see how Christianity offers answers to life’s most meaningful and difficult questions–and how those answers are truly good news.

Today, I’d like to work through how we might share the good news of Christianity in a manner that addresses evangelism in this day and age.  We must be able to have some sort of common-ground starting point.  And I think that just about everyone can agree that this world isn’t quite right.  I think that just about everyone can agree that there are some major problems in the world.  There is war.  There is poverty.  There is murder.  There is theft.  There are people who hurt other people intentionally.  There is hunger.  People are constantly striving for power and position.  Most folks, when they look at the world, see such things, and agree that they need to be fixed.

But, in order to fix a problem, you first need to find out what is causing it.  We’ve got to ask the question of why the world is the way it is.  Why do all of these things happen?  What is the cause of the hunger, war, poverty, theft, murder, etc.?  Why do people do bad things to other people?  For the time being, I am going to set aside the question of why there are natural disasters and other forms of evil outside of humanity.  That’s another layer of questioning that we can come back to in just a little bit.  For now, we are going to concentrate on us as human beings because that is where we’ve focused a lot of time and energy over the centuries.  We have tried very hard to diagnose why all of these things happen. And the answers have generally fallen into two categories.  First, there is the thought that humankind is basically evil and that we must curtail that evil.  We especially need to remove as many evil elements from society that we can in order to have a prosperous way of life as free from evil as possible.  There are a few problems with this approach.  First, if you get labeled evil, you are out of luck.  You are branded.  You carry a stigma–one that will never go away.  There is no possibility of reform or rehabilitation.  Just ask anyone who has been convicted of a felony what life is like amongst societies or people who believe this.  Their lives are miserable.  Not only this, but in such a society, you are constantly looking over your shoulder wondering who might be coming to get you next.  Who will rob me?  Who will try to kill me?  Who will try and take advantage of me?  This is no way to live.  Furthermore, how do you account for the good things that people do?  How do you count for the seemingly selfless acts of kindness and goodness that we see people commit on a regular basis?  If people are basically evil, why is there also so much good?

This has led others to the conclusion that people are basically good, but it is societal structures and cultures that warp them and cause them to become evil.  So, if someone commits a criminal act, one needs to dig into that person’s family situation; their educational background; their cultural involvement–somewhere along in the process something went haywire that caused this person to do what they did.  If that something were corrected, then that person would not have done what he or she did.  Such folks oftentimes believe that if we could just produce the right type of society; if we could just pass the right type of laws; if we could just put in place the right educational system; then we could eradicate: poverty, murder, hatred, injustice, and the like.  The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t account for the selfish behavior that is found in infants.  It doesn’t account for people who seem to have grown up in “perfect” situations whose families loved them and provided for them–yet, they have committed horrible acts of violence and hatred.  It also doesn’t account for the fact that we human beings have been trying very hard for thousands of years to construct cultures and systems of government to rid ourselves of violence, hatred, poverty, and the like: and guess what?  They’ve all failed to get rid of all these things. 

Christianity does not offer an either/or answer to this question about human nature.  And Christianity says that both of these two scenarios do not dig near deeply enough in addressing the problem.  For on the one hand, Christianity says that humankind was created good.  We were created whole.  When God made the world, He looked at it and said that it was good.  That includes us, by the way.  But then something happened.  A terrible tragedy befell us.  Even though we were created good, we decided that we were better off trying to make the world work ourselves.  We thought we could have a knowledge of good and evil without reference to God.  We wanted this knowledge on our own so that we did not have to depend on God, and we turned inward on ourselves.  In so doing, the Bible tells us that a power was unleashed in the world.  It is a power that corrupts everything that it touches.  It is a power that turns us away from what is good for all and focuses us on what is good for us.  The Bible calls this power: the power of sin. It is a power that touches every part of creation.  God did not intend for the oceans to rise and flood the coasts.  The power of sin working in the world causes that.  God did not intend mountains to erupt and kill.  The power of sin caused that.  God did not intend illness to strike and kill.  The power of sin causes that.  God did not intend for us to harm one another and cause poverty and hatred and division.  The power of sin causes all of this.  We still have that remnant of good that was in us from creation–that’s why we can do some very good things; however the power of sin has led us to all sorts of selfish behavior and evil as well.  There is no either/or according to Christianity.  There is both/and.

So, how do we lessen the evil?  How do we lessen poverty and hatred and violence?  Let’s think about how we are often challenged to overcome our selfish behavior.  First off, we oftentimes appeal to goodness.  We say, “Isn’t it in your best interest to be good?  Isn’t it in your best interest to live in a society where everyone isn’t killing everyone else?”  At first glance, most of us would say, “Well, sure.  A society were everyone is living in peace and harmony is indeed a very good thing.  A society where everyone shares resources is a very good thing.  We should all do this.”  So, here’s the question: who gets to decide what it means to live in harmony?  Who gets to decide who has enough and who doesn’t?  Who gets to decide what is in everyone’s best interest?  The government?  People?  Those in power with control?  Those with nothing?  Everyone?  The majority?  If you read history, you will note that none of these answers are satisfactory.  And it still leaves one important question: is this really an appeal to goodness, or is it an appeal to self-interest?  And if it is an appeal to self-interest, are we appealing to selfishness?  And if we appeal to selfishness and I am left with a choice: oh, I’m hungry and want to enjoy a Whataburger, but I see that another person is hungry over there.  I know that I only have enough to satisfy my hunger, so is it really in my self interest to be good and share?  After all, neither one of us will then be satisfied, we’ll both just be less hungry.  Why should I give then, if it just lessens the problem but doesn’t solve it?  At least, I will be full.  If you appeal to a person’s self-interest, self-interest will indeed rule.

The second way we can deal with such things is to deal with them through fear.  This is why we have a legal system.  This is why we have police and other public servants.  We try to keep people from doing wrong by imposing penalties for breaking laws.  I’ve used this example numerous times because it’s so true and most of us have experienced it.  You are driving down the highway, and all of a sudden, you see traffic starting to back up.  You look ahead and you see that there is a patrol car driving down the freeway.  The speed limit is 75.  The cruiser is driving 70.  Traffic is backing up.  Why?

Everyone is afraid to pass.  Everyone is afraid to drive by the officer fearful that he or she will pull them over.  Then, the officer exits the freeway and is gone.  What does everyone suddenly do?  90.  They do 90.  Once the threat of fear is gone, folks no longer fear the consequences and head right back to their desired behavior.  My son is in children’s church right now, so I’m going to tell this one on him.  While we were at camp this week, we were sitting down to dinner.  We were talking with some folks from another church and what not.  In the midst of our conversation we talked about doing things we shouldn’t do.  I told my boy that he’d gotten whoopins for being out of line before.  And he smarted off, “Only for the things you know about!”  Ah, how true.  How true.  When the threat of punishment is gone, it’s open season.  In this case laws only work if justice is swift and uncompromising.  I think that we know from history that such justice rarely happens.

So, if appealing to the self-interest of goodness is limited and appealing to fear is limited, what works?  What actually breaks us out of self-interest and into another frame of reference?  The answer to that is quite easy.  It’s love.  I mean, when you love someone, there is almost nothing you wouldn’t do for them.  If you deeply love your wife and she asks you to wash the dishes every night, what do you do?  If you deeply love your husband and he asks you to wash his clothes, what do you do?  If you deeply love your children, will you not go out of your way and sacrifice your own well being for them?  Of course you will.  Love breaks us out of our own self-interest and desire and makes us look outward towards another–towards a greater good.  I mean, we all know this.  All of us to some extent really believe this.  But here is the problem.  Can you tell someone: love that person over there!?  Can you legislate love?  Can you make someone love someone else? 

No.  Absolutely not.  “You cain’t make a heart love somebody,” once sang the king of country: George Strait.  “You can lead a heart to love, but you can’t make it fall.”  Love is the cure for sin.  Love is the cure for the brokenness of the world.  But you cannot force love.  You cannot write a law to love.  So how can you bring people to love one another?  How can you inspire others to love–not just on an individual level, but on a world-changing level?

I remember when I was about 12 years old.  My grandfather was very sick.  He would eventually need a kidney transplant.  At the time, he was on dialysis.  Now, my grandfather was a stubborn old coot.  There were times when I would really get mad at him.  He missed several of my birthday parties and other family events because we had invited several people who were allergic to cigarette smoke.  We asked grandpa not to smoke, and he replied, “If such and such is more important than me, then I won’t come.”  The first time grandpa said this, his tractor broke down and no one was around to help him.  I thought to myself, “Serves him right.”  Grandpa never said that he loved me or anything of the sort.  He kind of seemed like a grumpy old man. 

One day, grandpa called my folks over to his house.  He took me aside and said, “I have something for you.”  We walked out to one of his sheds, and we went inside.  There sat a self-propelled lawn mower.  Grandpa knew that my dad made me mow the lawn with a simple push mower, and he decided that I needed something that wouldn’t make me work so hard.  So, he bought me this brand new mower.  Now, it might not sound like much to you, but I thought that I had hit the jackpot.  Grandpa put his arm around me, and we walked back to the house together.  I was actually supporting him and holding him up at the time because he was getting weaker from his kidneys failing.  I told him over and over how thankful I was, and then he told me he loved me.  At that moment, I would have charged the fires of hell with a bucket of water for that old man. 

Maybe you know that feeling.  Maybe you know what it is like to be given something unexpectedly, undeservedly.  Maybe you know what it is like to have someone who has not exactly been in your good graces turn around and do something for you that melts your heart.  Maybe you know what it is like to suddenly go from being apathetic or angry to full and overflowing with love all because someone did something for you in such a manner.

If you understand that, then you understand in a small measure what God has done in Jesus Christ because in Him God has acted to win our hearts and fill us with a tremendous love for him.  You see, if we can all agree that sin is a power in this world, and if we can all agree that everyone is influenced by that sin; and if we can agree that none of us fully measure up to living the way that we should, then we can all agree that we have fallen short–not only in the standards of this world, but also in the standards of God’s law.  We have not been the people God created us to be.  If charges were brought against us for not living as we should, we would all be found guilty.  We would all deserve punishment.

But instead of being punished ourselves, Jesus took the punishment for us.  Some folks might object.  They might say that this is an absurd thing to do, but as a parent, I can assure you that we oftentimes pay for our children’s indiscretions.  When they break things around the house, we replace it.  When they cause injury outside the home, we pay for it.  We do it out of love for our children, and Jesus does something similar for us only on a cosmic scale.  Because it is our eternal soul that hangs in the balance.  Deserving of punishment and being found guilty, we would be cast away from God, but He does not want this to happen.  He does not want us to be cast away from him; yet the debt must be paid.  So, Jesus pays it.  Jesus dies for us.  Jesus gives himself for us undeservedly.  We call this sheer grace. 

And when we trust in Jesus’ action, our hearts change. Our hearts are melted as we see the love He has for us poured out for us at the cross.  No longer do we think of ourselves.  We no longer seek our best interest.  Instead, we concentrate on the one who loved us.  Instead, we think of Jesus.  Instead, we reflect upon his great act of love and mercy.  We long to know Him more deeply.  We long to follow his commands.  We long to lift him up to the rest of the world because we know he didn’t just die for us–he died for the world.

When our hearts turn toward Jesus, the power of sin loses its control over us.  The power of sin becomes diminished–no, it doesn’t fully go away.  It still tries to capture us an ensnare us in its grasp, but it cannot defeat Jesus.  Jesus has defeated sin, and Jesus will work in us and through us to bring about God’s will for the world.  Jesus will continue to bless us and clothe us with his righteousness and glory.  He will never forsake us and will give us the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us into that which is good. 

And when the Gospel is shared–when the good news is proclaimed, more and more hearts change.  More and more hearts are freed from the power of sin.  More and more hearts turn to Jesus and begin following His commands.  More and more begin loving God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths.  More and more people truly begin to love their neighbors as they love themselves.  Through Jesus, the world  changes.  Through Jesus, the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed, the sick healed, the imprisoned reformed and freed.  Through Jesus, wars cease, enemies become brothers and sisters, and new life begins.  This is the good news.  This is what we are commissioned to tell.  It is through Jesus that the power of sin is defeated, hearts are changed, and so is the world.  God has called us to share this story so that His kingdom spreads into this world and that all may come to know His love.  To truly fix what is wrong with this world, the Gospel must be shared, and this is one of the reasons the church is here; to share the good news; to do evangelism.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Why are We Here?: Evangelism 1

Today, as I begin my sermon, I am tempted to tell the council members on duty to go and lock the doors so that no one can escape because today’s sermon is on evangelism.  Why are we here as a church?  To do evangelism.

This is an inarguable point when it comes to the church.  Jesus gave absolutely clear commands to His disciples in His parting words.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And I am with you always to the end of the age.”  And, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.”  There’s no escaping these commands.  They are straight forward.  They are easily understood, and they are absolutely necessary if the church is going to thrive in the world.

And, honestly, there are very few Christians who think that evangelism is unnecessary.  Most Christians give tacit agreement that we are to be out in the world evangelizing.  But if that is the case, then why is worship attendance falling?  Why are fewer people attending church?  Why are so many people registering “none” in their religious affiliation?

As I’ve studied things, I think there are several reasons, but to make things easier for this sermon this morning, I’m going to concentrate on just a couple.  First, I think we have a difficult time understanding what evangelism is.  Second, I think we kick the can of responsibility.  And third, I think we struggle with how we are to evangelize.  So, let’s walk through each of these so that we can get our heads around it. 

First, what is evangelism?  If we go all the way back to the Greek text, we find that evangelism is taken from the root word “evangelion”.  This is simply translated “good news.”  So, evangelism is telling the good news. 

And this is one of the areas that we get in trouble as a church, in my estimation.  There is an adage that is often attributed to St. Francis of Assissi although it is questionable if he even said it.  Perhaps you have heard it.  “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”  Now, this might make for a good sound bite.  It might be catchy.  It might make a good meme on Facebook, but it isn’t true.  You know, I used to think it was.  I used to think that if I went around doing good things and being nice that folks would ask me, “Why are you being nice?  Why are you being so kind?” and then, I’d get an opportunity to share Jesus with them.  But, you no what?  No one ever asked.  No one ever commented on my kindness.  They kind of expected it.  I mean, that’s one of the things we expect in society, and just to let you know atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans, men, and women all do kind, good deeds.  The fact that you do something nice is not a proclamation of the Gospel.  If it were, we’d have a lot more people believing in Jesus.

You see, there is a thread that is running through some branches of Christianity that says our faith is about what we do.  Our faith is wrapped up in how we make a difference and how we change the world.  There is a thread that is running through some branches of Christianity that states that our actions are the most important thing we can focus on.  This hit me really hard a week or so ago when we took six of our confirmation students on retreat.

I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck when one of our kids came and set beside me.  He made a very intriguing comment, “We’re really not doing anything on this retreat.  We’re not helping anyone or anything.”

His comment was absolutely true in one sense.  We weren’t doing any service projects.  We weren’t going out of our way to help anyone in need.  But did that mean we weren’t doing anything?  Of course not.

“You know,” I said, “one of the things that we need to realize about Christianity is that it isn’t just about doing things.  It’s also coming to learn about who God is and growing in our relationship with Him.  It’s about understanding what He did in Jesus Christ.  You are right that we aren’t doing anything on this retreat to help others.  But we are learning about Jesus.  We are growing in our faith. We are fellowshiping with one another and growing in our relationships.”

The wheels were turning in this youth’s head, and since he had gone to the national youth gathering and participated in a service project, I wanted to help bring this home.

“You know that service project that you did at the national youth gathering where you cleaned up that cemetery?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what’s going to happen five or ten years from now in that cemetery if no one keeps it up?  All the work that you did will disappear.  It will go back to the way it was and no one will know that you were even there.  And that’s the way it works in the world.  There is always one more person to feed.  There is always one more cemetery to clean.  There is always another thing to do to try and make the world right.  And if no one else keeps things up, everything that we did will disappear.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to do them, but they don’t last.  But what we are doing here: learning about God and growing in our relationship with Him, that will last our entire lives.”

This conversation that I had with one of our youth is key to evangelism because Christianity is not first and foremost what we are supposed to do.  It is first and foremost about what God has done particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If we focus on what we do and believe that spreading the gospel is done by our actions, then folks will focus on us.  They will see us, and they will never see God.  They will never see Christ.  They will never get to the cross to see what Jesus did for them on that hill far away.  You can’t do the crucifixion and resurrection.  You have to tell about it.  News is meant to be shared.  Actions follow from how you receive the news, but news itself is meant to be told.

We will come back to this when we talk about how to do evangelism, but we need to briefly touch upon point number two.  Kicking the can of responsibility.  What do I mean by that?  This week, I listened to several challenging sermons on evangelism, and one of them was by Francis Chan.  He spoke about a conversation that he had with another pastor.  Francis was feeling very guilty because once he became a pastor, he no longer really had the opportunity to share the gospel with ordinary people.  He was preaching and doing all sorts of church work, so he didn’t get the chance to really tell the good news.  He shared his concern with a fellow pastor who said that he felt no guilt at all for not evangelizing directly.  Francis asked him why.  The pastor replied, “That’s really not my responsibility anymore.  That’s the responsibility of the people in the pews.”

Francis shared his initial reactions to this before coming to another realization.  “What if,” he thought, “what if I’m thinking that it’s the people in the pews responsibility to do evangelism, and what if they are thinking it’s my job to do evangelism–after all, that’s what you get paid to do?  What if we are both thinking it’s the other person’s responsibility, and then no one really shares the good news?”  I think Francis is onto something when he thinks this.  I think that many of us feel that way.  Pastors think congregation members should be sharing the gospel in their daily lives.  Congregation members think they don’t know enough about the Bible and God and so they believe the pastor is the one who should be doing evangelism. Therefore, no one is doing evangelism.  No one is sharing the good news.  No one is inviting anyone to come to church.  And our churches shrink.  As far as I can tell, as far as I can interpret the Scriptures, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are supposed to be doing evangelism.  You are supposed to be sharing the good news of Jesus.  I’m supposed to be doing it.  You are supposed to be doing it.  It is the responsibility of everyone to tell about the mighty acts of Jesus Christ.

And that leads to point three: how?  How are we supposed to do evangelism?  I mean, there are a lot of things that prohibit us–mainly our fear: fear that we will be rejected; fear that we don’t know enough; fear that we might actually be successful!  Fear is so dominant. 

I was very intrigued by a book that I read this past week on rethinking how we do church.  It was titled Total Church, and it had a chapter especially devoted to evangelism.  This is where the graphic on the front of our bulletin came from.  That rope with three strands is the authors’ suggestion of how evangelism is effectively done.  They argue, rather successfully, I think, that evangelism is best done intentionally by individuals working in community.  Evangelism entails three basic things: building relationships; sharing the gospel, and introducing people to community.  Please listen to the following quote from the book: 

...Not all of us are eloquent or engaging.  Not everyone can think on their feet.  Some people are simply not good at speaking to strangers and forming new friendships.  One of the practical benefits of the three strand model of evangelism is that it gives a role to all of God’s people.  By making evangelism a community project, it also takes seriously the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in distributing a variety of gifts among his people.  Everyone has a part to play–the new Christian, the introvert, the extrovert, the eloquent, the stuttering, the intelligent, the awkward.  I may be the one who has begun to build a relationship with my neighbor, but in introducing him to community, it is someone else who shares the gospel with him.  That is not only legitimate–it is positively thrilling!  Pete may never share the gospel verbally with Duncan, but his welcome and love are an integral part of the evangelic process and should be honored as such.  Meanwhile Susan can make friends and introduce them to the community, confident that others will present them–at an appropriate point in an appropriate way–with the challenges of the gospel.  It is lovely to think of us making up for one another’s deficiencies with our collective community strengths.  P. 62

This takes a lot of the fear out of evangelism.  You might not have the gift of being able to share the gospel well, but you might make friends easily.  You might not make friends easily, but you have the ability to share the gospel.  You might have the gift of invitation and bringing people into a community but not the ability to share the gospel.  When we are each working and using our particular gift, then evangelism can take place.  We can build relationships, intentionally come together in community, and share the gospel.  Everyone has a role.  Everyone has a responsibility.  Evangelism doesn’t just fall upon one person who has the gift of gab, but it is a community effort intentionally made to bring people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

And it is done with love.  Love for others and love for the world.  Evangelism is meant to bring salvation to people.  I don’t have time to go into the details today–maybe I will touch on this next week because of its importance, but everyone knows that the world isn’t right.  Everyone knows that there is brokenness and suffering that needs to be addressed.  But you’ve got to understand the problem before you can administer the cure.  So much of our attempts to cure the world are due to the fact that we don’t look deeply enough at the problem, and we are also afraid of the cure.  Christianity digs deeply to name the problem, and then it shares the glorious news of how God solved that problem.  It shares the glorious news of how God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it.  The church preaches good news.  It does not preach condemnation.  As one of the preachers I listened to this week said, “No one was ever argued into the kingdom of God.”  They are loved into it.  “The objective is not to win the argument, but to win the soul.”  If God has won your soul; if you have been touched with His grace, you know how the Christian message is good news.  You know how important it is, and you want to share it with others.  The church knows the good news.  The church knows the gospel’s power, and that’s why we evangelize.  It’s one of the central reasons that we are here.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Why Are We Here?: Worship

Today, we move from the Augsburg Confession into the Bible to work towards answering the question: Why are we here?  And the first thing we notice in the Bible is how often we are commanded and told that we are to worship.  It’s all over the place in the Old Testament, and it’s all over the place in the New Testament.  We worship God. 

Now, this might seem like a no-brainer.  Duh!  Of course the church worships.  We have worship services every week.  Isn’t this just obvious?  Why do you need to take the time to even talk about worship?

Here’s why.  I’m going to take you back 20 years ago.  That’s when I started working in congregations.  I was on internship at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Waco.  As I think back to that time, I remember numerous people coming up to me throughout the year I was there, and they all had something very interesting to say.  Maybe you have heard this said before.  They would say, “Intern Kevin, I just need to tell you that I hate to miss worship.  If I miss worship, the week just doesn’t feel right to me.  Everything seems out of order.”  Have you ever heard such a thing? 

Two years later, I heard this and similar comments when I was first ordained and began my first call at Emanuel’s Lutheran Church in Seguin.  Numerous people would say, “I hate to miss worship.  When I miss worship, everything seems out of whack!”

And maybe it’s because I’ve been here for so long, but I rarely if ever hear anyone say such a thing today.  Something seems to have changed over the past 20 years.  Maybe it’s just my perception, but I don’t think so.  Fewer and fewer people are worshiping in churches these days.  The societal numbers bear this out as most churches have experienced a decline in worship attendance, and, most folks who attend church believe that they are regularly attending worship if they worship once a month.  Organized religion is taking it on the chin when it comes to worship.  Just this week, I read an article that 1 in 4 young people, that’s 25% of young people claim no religious affiliation.  In 1996, that number stood at only 6%.  That is a massive jump!

But, here is the kicker, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t worshiping.  Everybody worships.  You may scratch your head at that one.  You might say, “Pastor, I’ve got a friend who hasn’t set foot inside the door of a church for 30 years.  How can you say that he worships?”

I’ll respond with a question of my own: what does your friend live for?  What does your friend orient his or her life around?  Because whatever it is that he or she lives for or whatever it is that he or she loves the most is what he or she worships. 

Let me try and explain this with an illustration that I was given this week by one of our members.  It’s pretty powerful in my opinion.  It is an illustration written by James Finley in his book: Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God.

As part of my doctoral training in clinical psychology, I worked at a thirty-day inpatient treatment center for alcohol and drug addiction at a large Veterans Administration hospital. The patients in this treatment center had devised an initiation rite. By the time I was there, this rite had become an ongoing tradition, part of the process a person had to go through to be admitted to the unit. The initiation rite was held in a large room in the ward. The fifty or so members in the unit sat with their chairs facing inward around the four walls of the room. The middle of the room, around which the members sat, was empty of all furniture except for two chairs facing each other about four feet apart. The alcoholic seeking to be admitted to the unit was led into the room by one of the members, who instructed the newcomer to sit down in one of the two chairs. As the newcomer was led into the room, the alcoholics seated along the four walls of the room would all be looking downward, providing no eye contact, no smiles, and no indication to the newcomer of what to expect. 
Once the newcomer sat down, the member of the unit presiding over the rite would sit down in the other chair across from him, look him straight in the eye, and ask, “What do you love the most?” The newcomer, who was, in most cases, fresh in off the streets, still shaky from the effects of alcohol abuse, would often blurt out something like “My wife.” At which point the silence of the room would be abruptly shattered by all the men lining the four walls loudly yelling out in unison, “B--ls--t!” Startled and unnerved, the newcomer would find himself sitting in the midst of the collective, surrounded by the serious-as-death silence of all the men around him still looking downward, giving him no point of human contact except their abrupt challenge to his self-destructive self-deception. 
The interviewer would then, without delay, repeat the question: “What do you love the most?” The newcomer, this time with some trepidation, would often say something like “My children.” At which point the group would once again yell, “B--ls--t!” This would continue until the newcomer would, finally, say, “Alcohol.” At this point everyone in the room would break into applause. The newcomer was instructed to stand. The members of the unit would line up, single file. In complete silence, each would approach the newcomer to hold him for a moment in a sincere embrace, welcoming him into their midst.

Now, in the above case, can you imagine how that person worshiped before joining AA? Can you imagine where his cathedral was?  Can you imagine his worship music?  Can you imagine his liturgy?  Every day, his life revolved around a bottle, a bar, or a flask.  He needed time with his god–his one true love–the thing he looked to for comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment.  Every human being has this one true love.  Every human being has something they live for.  Every human being has that one thing that he or she looks to to provide comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment.  There are no exceptions.  And whatever this is, is the object of your worship. This means, you give it ultimate value, and engaging it energizes you.

And it will energize you until it kills you.  That may sound harsh, but I’m not the one who discovered this.  There have been numerous people throughout history who came to know that if you worship an idol; if you worship a false god, that false god will ultimately consume you.  Even atheist writers have come to this conclusion.  The following quote has been circling around for quite some time, but it’s truth cannot be denied.  It’s by David Foster Wallace, and it was delivered in an address he gave to Kenyon College at its graduation.  Just to be clear, Wallace was an atheist which makes it even more amazing that he penned these words, “Everybody worships.  The only choice we get is what to worship, and the compelling reason to maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.  If you choose to worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.  Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing you will die a thousand million deaths before they finally grieve you.  Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are default settings.

The last two lines are probably the scariest lines of this insight shared by Wallace.  “The insidious thing about these forms of worship is they are unconscious.  They are the default settings.”  This means, we are essentially programmed to worship idols.  We are essentially programmed to chase after the things that will eventually eat us alive.  We are programmed to seek comfort, safety, security, and fulfillment in things that will give us no such thing in the long run. It’s no wonder then why so many young people are leaving organized religion.  As parents, we generally give them the option to turn away long before their brains are fully developed.  When we give them the option, they will naturally turn away from church.  They will naturally turn away from Sunday School.  The other false gods out there are much more flashy; much more entertaining; much more inviting.  Worshiping them seems fun, and it fulfills their natural tendencies.  And they–and oftentimes we–are blind to the long-term consequences.

This is why the first and greatest commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  I mean, I think we in the church can make a great case for this just based upon what has been said about worship.  I think we can lead people to this point very easily and help them see why they should center their lives on God and make Him their ultimate value.  But if we just leave them right here, we encounter a problem. 

You might scratch your head and wonder, what problem do you mean, Pastor?  We’ve made the case that God should be worshiped.  What more do we need?  Well, if you decide to worship God because in doing so, you won’t be destroyed; if you worship God because you want safety, security, and fulfillment; then worship becomes an obligation.  It becomes something you have to do to earn God’s favor.  You understand deep in your heart: I am worshiping God because I want to receive something in return.  And if I go into it with this mind-set, then things will eventually go south.  Because, I might not get that job that I wanted.  I might end up with a severe health problem.  I might end up going through a rough time with my family.  A host of other things might go wrong in my life, and I will be left bewildered.  I will ask, “God, didn’t I worship you?  Didn’t I attend church on Sunday morning?  Didn’t I give an offering to you? Didn’t I come to you in faith?  Why did you break my heart?”  All those slick televangelists have an answer for you in regards to this.  They will look at you with all sincerity and say, “Well, maybe you just didn’t have enough faith.  Maybe you didn’t put enough money in the offering plate.  Maybe you just didn’t trust God enough.”  It’s pretty vicious.

This is why we have to understand the Gospel.  This is why we have to understand sheer grace.  This is why we have to understand what God has already done in Christ Jesus.  For the Gospel says that God has already done great things for me.  God has already acted in history to show me great compassion and care.  God has already given up the greatest thing He could have given up for me.  God has already died for me–even when I didn’t deserve it.

The Gospel says that my heart was born corrupted.  It says that I was born seeking other gods.  The Gospel says that I wanted everything for my own care and comfort–that I was selfish.  And being selfish, I didn’t love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.  Being selfish, I cared much more for me than I did my neighbor.  But God wanted to win my heart.  God wanted to transform my heart, and He didn’t want me to live in fear of Him.  Instead, He wanted me to love Him.  And so, He took my sin upon His blameless self.  He took my filthiness upon His spotlessness.  He offered Himself as a sacrifice of atonement for me, and then He gave to me his spotlessness.  He gave to me His righteousness.  He gave to me His status as beloved child of God.  And He did this not because of anything I did but because of sheer grace.  And when I comprehend what He did, my heart melts.  I understand the great sacrifice that He made to save me, and I turn to Him in love and admiration.  I turn to Him and want to do everything that I can to please Him.  I long to worship Him and Him alone.

When I come to worship with this attitude, I am doing so because I am filled with joy and awe.  And nothing can shake me.  Nothing can take away my fulfillment, safety, security, and comfort because all of that is not based upon something that I think has to happen out there, it is based upon something that has already happened and can never be revoked. 

And as I wrap this sermon up, I want to talk to the people who are not here.  I know that sounds strange, so that means those of you who are here will have to tell those who you know what I am about to say.  Or, you will have to give them the link to this sermon on Youtube.  I specifically want to talk to those of you who are at home right now, dead tired–or those of you who are working right now because of the demands of your job.  I want to talk to those of you who have spent 70 or 80 hours this past week at your job, and this is the only day off that you have.  I know that the last thing you want to do on this day is get out of bed.  I know that the last thing you want to do his come into a building where they play music that hardly anyone listens to.  I know that you don’t want to listen to some guy drone on and on about this strange stuff of forgiveness of sins and Jesus dying for those sins.  I know that it seems to have very little impact or relation to your life.  I know it seems like most of what we say here in the church has very little relevance to your life, but it does.  I know that you oftentimes wonder if everything you go through is worth it.  I know you wonder if working as hard as you do will eventually pay off.  I know that you realize in the back of your head that the day you walk away from your company, they will replace you with someone else and move on as if you never even worked there.  And I know you try to push that thought out of your head because we all want to feel valued.  We all want to feel like our lives mean something.

When you begin to worship the true God, things might feel strange to begin with.  You might not see any connections to your daily life to begin with, but over time, you will start making those connections.  Your life will begin to reorient itself.  In taking the time to come to church, dedicate your time to the living God, and learning about sheer grace–the grace that only Jesus gives, you will begin to look at the world with different eyes.  You will see meaning where you never saw it before.  You will find purpose where you never thought you would see it.  You will find hope in the midst of tragedy.  You will find love where you never thought you would see it.  Worship changes us.  It changes the world.  It connects us to God and makes our lives make sense.  And this is why it is one of the reasons we are here as a church.  Amen.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Why are We Here?: The Sacraments

This morning we will again return to the Augsburg Confession as we continue to wrestle with the question: Why are we here?  Last week, we heard the definition of the church that the Confession sets forth.  I shared that with all of you because this document is central to our Lutheran identity, and it helps us understand part of the reason we are here.  Again, to quote the Augsburg Confession, “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.  This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.”  Last week, I focused on the preaching of the Word or the preaching of the Gospel. This week, I am going to tackle the second part of this statement: the administration of the sacraments.

Now, I think that most of you know what a sacrament is, but I am going to give you the definition that is set forth in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.  Sacraments are “rites which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added.”  Let me repeat that so that we can understand what these are, “rites which have 1. the command of God and 2. to which the promise of grace has been added.”  This means God has to first have commanded us to do something, and there are plenty of commands in the Bible.  God commanded humanity to get married, be fruitful and multiply.  God commanded humanity to follow the Ten Commandments.  God commanded humanity to feed the hungry.  There are many commands throughout Scriptures, but the majority of these commands do not come with grace attached.  Most of the commands come with a threat of punishment if the commands are not followed.  Marriage is certainly commanded by God, but there is no promise that “if you get married, your sins are forgiven.”  The Ten Commandments are commanded by God, but there is no promise “if you follow these, then your sins will be forgiven.”  When you feed the hungry, which again is promised by God, you are not forgiven of your sins.  Therefore, there is no grace attached to these commands.

However, in two definite instances, there are definite commands with grace attached.  There is a third instance which the which some Lutherans actually label a sacrament, but there is not total agreement about it.  But, for now, let’s focus on the definite commands with grace attached.  The first is baptism.    The command is explicitly given for baptism in Matthew chapter 28 by Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  We hear in 1 Peter, the promise tied to baptism, “21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

Jesus also gives us the command to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. When He ate the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  And then Jesus also said this about the cup, “‘Drink from it, all of you; 28for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  Command and promise.

The third instance that some Lutherans call a sacrament is confession of sins.  There are numerous places throughout Scriptures where individuals come before God and confess their sins, and the practice of forgiveness of sins handed down to Christians in the office of the keys which is found in the Gospel of St. Matthew.  Much ink has been spilled by Lutheran theologians arguing that confession is or is not really a sacrament.  I do not wish to enter into those arguments now, but I will say that the reformers expected that we would practice confession on a regular basis. 

Now, at this point, I’ve laid out what the sacraments are in the Lutheran church, the next question that we need to deal with is: why do we practice them?  Why do we have the sacraments at all?  I mean, if we understand that the Gospel is that we are saved by grace alone as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith, isn’t this all we need?  Don’t we simply need to trust in the promises of Jesus?  Isn’t that sufficient?

The answer is yes and no.  Our faith in Jesus’ action and not our own is sufficient indeed.  Jesus saves us, and He alone.  But, remember what I have said before, when we become a Christian, we change our allegiances.  We do not live for ourselves.  We do not live for anything the world offers.  We do not live for our jobs.  We do not live for our neighbors.  We do not live for money.  We do not live for possessions.  We do not live for sex or alcohol.  We live for Jesus.  We live for God.  We seek Jesus’ will, and Jesus clearly commanded us to be baptized.  He clearly commanded us to partake of the Lord’s Supper.  Following Jesus means we do what He asked us to do.  Period.  To say, “I follow Jesus and am a Christian,” and then refuse to do what He asks us to do is tantamount to playing follow the leader, picking a leader, and then going off and doing your own thing.  You weren’t really serious about following the leader in the first place, were you?  Christians who say they follow Jesus yet refuse to get baptized or who do not partake in the Lord’s Supper aren’t followers of Jesus.  They have not switched allegiances and are living for something else.

But for those who follow Jesus; for those who receive the sacraments, they find that there are tremendous benefits and blessings to receiving them.  The Augsburg Confession says this about the usage of the Sacraments, “It is taught among us that the sacraments were instituted not only to be signs by which people might be identified outwardly as Christians, but for the purpose of awakening and strengthening our faith.”  Let me repeat that last line for you: the sacraments were instituted to awaken and to strengthen our faith.

I found it very, very fascinating what the Reformers said about this when I was doing my research earlier this week.  Remember, when the Reformers wrote these things, there were no televisions.  There were no computers.  There was no YouTube or smart phones with images and screens.  I mean, today, we are bombarded with images over and over and over again.  But they weren’t.  They were just starting to get books with pictures in them.  So, the Reformers said that when the church was administering the Sacraments, people could visually see God at work.  Just as the spoken Word appealed to the ears, the Sacraments were a form of the visual Word that appealed to the eyes.  If you looked at what was going on with faith, then you were seeing the hand of God operating in the world.

This is why Martin Luther said that when you go to confession and you hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven,” you should hear them as if God Himself were speaking to you.  If you can grasp that in your head, then those words become very, very powerful.  It is not just a pastor or a confidant speaking those words to you.  It is God Himself telling you, “You are forgiven!”

And in Baptism.  Oh my, if you can visualize it...If you can get your head around it, then you are witnessing God’s hand coming from heaven and embracing and adopting someone into His family.  I remember when I was a kid and we had a baptism in our church, my sister and I would strain and move around to watch as the pastor poured water on the baby’s head.  We didn’t quite understand what was happening, but we knew that it was significant.  We knew that it was special.  Our parents would do whatever they could to help us see, and it is little wonder why.  They knew God was acting.  They knew God was making an appearance.  Do we still have that awe and wonder as we see such a thing? 

And Holy Communion.  This is where things get really, really good.  This is where, for me things get really, really powerful.  I mean, if we take what Jesus says as truth, that we are receiving His body and His blood, then this is extremely, extremely significant.  This is extremely, extremely important.  For in ancient times, the Jewish people believed that blood carried life.  They believed that life was extremely sacred because it was a gift from God, and God had mandated in the Old Testament that when an animal was killed that the blood be allowed to go back into the ground.  It was not to be consumed.  This is why Jews eat kosher meat.  The blood has been drained from the animal before processing.  Life has been returned to the ground from whence God first created.  But Jesus, Jesus changed that in a radical way.  Jesus implemented something that was over the top in His day.  Through the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  Do you realize what Jesus is saying here?  Do you realize what Jesus is doing here?  Jesus is pouring His life into you and me!!!   Try and wrap your head around that for a minute. God, the second person of the Trinity, is pouring His life out for and into you!!  God is giving His life to you!!!  If you believe that, if you grasp that, how can Holy Communion be anything less than one of the most amazing things that the Church can offer?  How can Holy Communion be anything less than one of the greatest things we can offer to the world as Jesus continues to pour His life out for and into us so that we may have our faith awakened and strengthened?  If you can wrap your head around it; if you can understand what is going on here, I don’t know how it is possible to not be filled with awe and wonder.

And I wish that I could explain to you how this happens.  I wish I could tell you exactly how Jesus makes Himself present in the bread and wine.  I wish I could tell you exactly how He pours His life into you.  I wish I could tell you how God reaches down in baptism and adopts the person being baptized.  I wish that I could tell you how He manifests Himself in the water and through the Word.  I wish that I could tell you how it is that He speaks through us in the forgiveness of sins. But I cannot.  And the kicker is, no one can.  This is why, if you trace the root of the word Sacrament back to the Greek, you will find that it is rooted in the Greek word mysterion.  That’s a word that you shouldn’t have too much of a difficulty translating.  Mysterion means exactly what it sounds like.  Mystery.  It is a mystery.  This is why we say that the Sacraments must be received in faith.  You and I must trust that what Scripture says is happening in these events is happening in these events.  We can’t scientifically prove it, we simply have the evidence passed down to us from Jesus Himself.

And I have to say that I have changed when it comes to administrating the Sacraments.  I used to be rather quiet in regards to how often we should offer them as a congregation.  I used to just remain quiet and allow the church to decide for itself how often it wants to celebrate the sacraments.  And, I’m not going to force you to change your practice.  But I’m going to gently urge you to practice them as often as we worship. I’m doing so because I cannot find a single spot in the Lutheran Confessions which says it is acceptable to skip Sundays with Communion.  The Confession calls for weekly celebration–even daily celebration of Holy Communion.  Martin Luther said that our preaching should have everyone begging for the Sacrament.  The documents in the ELCA that I swore to uphold and teach when I was ordained call for weekly Holy Communion.  Now, you are free to choose how many times we have Communion.  I’m not going to force you to change.  This is your decision.  And I understand that it means more work for those who are on altar guild.  I get that.  And I also understand those who say that when we have communion more frequently that it somehow lessens its specialness.  I understand but do not agree.  For at Holy Communion, at Baptism, at Confession, God is essentially telling us over and over again, “I love you.”  And for those of you who have a significant other, did it become any less special when he or she told you “I love you” day after day after day?  Or did you need to hear it?  Did you long to hear it?  And how much do we need to hear God’s “I love you” to us?

We need it.  Oh how we need it.  And this is why the Sacraments are part of the reason we are here as a church.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Why Are We Here?: Preaching the Word

Good morning, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  Today, I am going to continue my sermon series on “Why Are We Here?”  Last week, I laid the groundwork by talking about my experiences in a couple of large non-denominational churches and the importance of having a unified mission–a unified understanding of why we are here.  I promised that I would not give you a mission because that was something that we had to arrive at together, but I also promised that I would share with you several things that I believed were non-negotiable when it came to why the church was here.  These things must inform our mission as we move into the future.

Today, I must begin by asking for your forgiveness because as a good Christian, particularly as a good Lutheran Christian, I should begin with the Scriptures and then move into other avenues in regards to why the church is here.  But I am not going to do that.  We will most definitely get to the Bible and what it has to say about the church, but I wanted to start in a bit of a different place today.  I wanted to start with the Lutheran confessions, particularly the Augsburg Confession.

Now, how many of you have even heard of the Augsburg Confession?  Not many.  That’s not surprising.  It’s not a document that we generally reference much in our worship or even our Christian Education.  The Augsburg Confession was written during the time of the Reformation in the 1500's as Protestants were trying to define themselves and their beliefs to the civil and church authorities.  They were trying to help those authorities see how their stance was in accordance with the Bible and how they were not a threat to civil order.  The theology and practice is rich, and it has stood the test of time.  How so?  Because we and most every other Lutheran congregation directly reference it in our Constitution and By-Laws.  Did you know that?  Did you know that it serves as one of the foundational documents for what it means to be a Lutheran church here in Cat Spring?  Let me read to you what our Constitution says about it:

C2.05.This congregation accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.

C2.06. This congregation accepts the other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church.

C2.07.This congregation confesses the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scripture and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the Church for God’s mission in the world.

Did you catch all of that?  Did you catch and see how the Augsburg Confession, while not on the same level as Scripture, is a very, very important document in helping us understand who we are and why we are here?  It is indeed central to our identity as Lutherans, and it has something to say about why we are here as the church.

In article seven, these words appear, “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.  This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” So we see two reasons for the church’s existence in this statement: the preaching of the Gospel, and depending upon which translation you use, this is also stated as the preaching of the Word, as well as the administration of the sacraments.  Today, we are going to try and cover the preaching of the Word.

We are here to preach the Word.  Now, when you hear me say preach the Word, what do you automatically think?  The Bible.  Right.  That’s what we mostly think when we hear someone say that we preach the Word, but let me try and expand your thinking just a bit because the Word doesn’t simply mean the Bible.

Do you remember the beginning words of the Gospel of John?  Let me remind you.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Now, we are going to skip down a few verses where we then read, “14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  So, what is the Word, or better yet, who is the Word here in the book of John?  That’s right, it’s Jesus.  Jesus is the Word.

But, we cannot stop there.  It might make it easy if we did, but we’ve got to go one step further.  We’ve got to understand something more about the Word of God because the Word of God is incredibly rich.  When you read through the Bible, you see something quite incredible about God.  You see that God is a God who speaks.  God is not silent.  He has spoken in the past.  He speaks in the present.  And in the future, there will be a time when He will intimately speak with those who love Him.  One of the tasks for the church today is to discern the Word of God as it is spoken to the world today and bring that word to the world.

And so, we have outlined what the Word of God is, and this matches what is in our Constitution as a church: The Word is the Holy Scriptures; The Word is Jesus Christ; the Word is God’s Word spoken through the church to the world today.  And it is our job; it is our calling; to preach that Word: to preach the Bible; to preach Jesus; to preach God’s message to our community.

This is not a calling to be taken lightly.  It is of infinite importance.  Why?  I don’t know if you know this or not, but there is a suicide epidemic in our nation right now.  Those who study the numbers tell us that there has been a huge up-tick in the numbers of people taking their own lives.  I have noticed this on a real personal level because in the past three years or so, I have counted at least five of my friends on Facebook who have committed suicide.  These folks all come from a town of about 2300, and to me, that is a huge disproportion.  Why so many suicides?  Why the increase?

Now, it is true that chronic depression can lead to suicide, but the statistics that I have read indicate that this accounts for just about half of suicides.  What about the rest of those?  Two articles that I have read helped give me a bit of insight into this.  In the first one, Clay Routledge, professor of psychology from North Dakota State University argued, “that the suicide crisis in the USA is in part a crisis of meaning. Recent changes in American society, greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging, are increasing our existential despair. Although we try and distract ourselves (most of the time nowadays successfully) we realize that everyone we know and care about, including the person we care about the most, ourselves, will die. Despite our best attempts at avoiding it, we understand that pain and sorrow is part and parcel of life. But what is the point of life? One way in which we keep this existential anxiety quiet, Routledge argues that we “must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful”. We seek not only to live, but to have a meaningful existence. And when we don’t feel like our lives matter, then we are psychologically vulnerable.”

So, if you don’t feel like your life is meaningful, you are vulnerable.  The second article I read was in Sports Illustrated.  It had to do with budding star quarterback Tyler Hilinski’s suicide and the family’s desperate attempts to understand why it happened.  There is a lot in the article to take in, but one thing struck me because it was repeated over and over and over: Tyler thought he was Superman.  Tyler thought he was supposed to pull off the spectacular play every time.  Tyler thought he should lead his team to victory and be heroic.  But, he found out that he wasn’t Superman.  He found out that he couldn’t always pull off the victory.  After one particularly difficult game where he suffered a huge hit and a crushing loss, folks said he wasn’t the same.  The fact that he couldn’t be what he wanted to be seemed to have a profound effect on him.  Faced with limitations, he had a difficult time coping.

It seemed to me that Tyler was finding his meaning in things that were beyond his capability to grasp.  It seems to me that a lot of folks are trying to do such things.  I understand very well what is behind that.  I had a lot of hopes and dreams about what my life would look like at this point and time, but very, very few of those things have come to fruition.  If I were basing the meaning of my life on those things, I would probably be very depressed as well, but fortunately, I have found meaning elsewhere.  I have found meaning in Jesus.

The Greek word used in John chapter 1 is logos.  It is a word with deep, deep meaning in the ancient world.  The ancient Greek philosophers oftentimes used it when talking about the meaning of life; the meaning of existence; the reason for everything.  It is no stretch to think that John, when he was writing the introduction to this gospel had this in mind.  So, let’s read that introduction once more with that understanding.  “In the beginning was the reason for everything.  The reason for everything was with God.  The reason for everything was God...The reason for everything became flesh and lived among us.”  Jesus is the reason for everything.  Jesus gives meaning.  Jesus gives hope.  Jesus gives assurance.  The question is: how?

And this goes directly to the understanding of the Gospel.  Now, I know it is fashionable in some circles to use the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  Use words if necessary.”  I used to believe it.  But I don’t any more.  Because I know now that the Gospel is news.  You cannot do news.  You can only share news.  Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t package the news up in doing good deeds.  You don’t tell a hungry person that Jesus loves them without giving them food, and you don’t just give them food and expect them to understand that Jesus loves them.  Proclaiming the Gospel involves loving our neighbors, but too often these days much of the church is guilty of either/or instead of both/and.

I mean, face it, anyone can and does acts of kindness.  The Hindu does acts of kindness.  The atheist does acts of kindness.  The Muslim does acts of kindness.  If the Gospel is simply acts of kindness, then everyone is proclaiming the Gospel.  And it would stand to reason, if everyone is proclaiming the Gospel, then why is there a lack of meaning?  Why is the suicide rate continuing to climb?

The answer is because the Gospel isn’t just about doing nice things for others.  It’s about God’s redemption of our fallen condition through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  You see, the Gospel tells us that we are all corrupted by sin.  We are not Superman.  We cannot be Superman.  We fall far short of the glory of God.  This means that we will never be like Tyler Hinski.  We will never believe that we have the capacity of doing everything right and making our team win all the time.  We know we are limited.  We know we are not perfect.  We can grapple with and understand the trials of life including losing.  Now, if we stopped here, that would be a recipe for despair.  Imperfection rules the day.  Sin actually wins.  But that is not the case because Jesus acts to redeem our sin.  Jesus acts to redeem our imperfection.  On the cross, Jesus takes our sin into himself and defeats it.  And then Jesus gives us His righteousness.  Jesus gives us His glory.  We are clothed with Christ.  Now, this doesn’t mean that everything turns out perfectly for us in this life.  No.  We know this all too well, but what this does mean is solidified in the resurrection.  For in the resurrection every evil that was done is undone.  Every wound is healed.  Every evil is made good.  Darkness is changed into light.  Sickness is changed into health.  We are reminded that God will work to do this in our lives.  God will transform everything in His time and bend everything toward our good.  This means we have hope.

Yet, there is a bit of a caveat to this, but it is an important caveat.  This only happens for those who trust in Jesus and His actions and not our own.  This only happens for those who do not try to work out their own salvation, but for those who believe their salvation is won for them on the cross.  For when we put our trust in God, we change allegiances.  We no longer live for ourselves, we live for God.  We seek God and His will in all that we do.  And this gives our lives meaning.  We know what our purpose is.  We know that we are to seek God and His will in our lives.  We know that we seek to grow in our faith.  We know we are to grow in our knowledge of God.  And we know that we are called to bring as many people to Jesus as we possibly can.  We know we are to share the good news of Jesus.  We are to preach the Gospel.

And so you see, I hope, why I started with the preaching of the Gospel.  One of the fundamental reasons and non-negotiable reasons the church is here is to proclaim it because through it we come to understand our limitations.  We come to understand our imperfections.  But we also come to understand the love of God. We come to understand what He has done in Jesus in the cross and resurrection.  We come to place our trust in Him and seek His will in all things.  We come to understand through Him how we have purpose and meaning, and in a society that is fast losing meaning and seeking perfection, we have a very, very important message to bring.  May we remember how important proclaiming the Gospel is to our mission.  Amen.