Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon Delivered October 30, 2011: A Place for Truth

I don’t think you need me to tell you that we live in a world full of uncertainty. I don’t think you need me to tell you that we live in a world full of information and ideas. I don’t think you need me to tell you that we live in an age where tons of information is just a mouse click away. I don’t think you need me to tell you that sorting through that information is tedious and time consuming especially if you are searching for the truth. I don’t think you need me to tell you that seeking out the truth in this day and age is particularly difficult because immediately after something is said or done, people go into spin mode. The president makes a speech, and commentators immediately begin saying, "This is what he is really saying." A pastor preaches a sermon, and he reads a text which at face value says one thing, but then he says, "Scholars tell us this is what the text is really saying." More than a few years ago, we had a long, drawn out discussion about what the meaning of the word "is" is. What is the truth?

Oh, and we could try to come at this from a Church perspective and say that all this hullabaloo is a society thing. We could say it doesn’t affect us here in the church. We could say that it’s a modern construct and that it didn’t happen until just recently. However, such claims are simply not true. We, for one, are not immune to it even in our congregation, and two, it’s been going on in the church for quite some time as well. Consider this, every time we have communion, I say these words, "In the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, ‘Take and eat. This is my body given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’"

Let me ask this question. What does "is" mean in that statement by Jesus?

1. Does he mean that the bread actually becomes His body?

2. Does he mean that his body is somehow present in the bread even though it doesn’t become his body?

3. Is he using the word is as a metaphor saying that the bread symbolizes his body?

If you are a good Lutheran, you answered #2, but the reality of the church is that depending upon which denomination you are a part of, you would answer either 1, 2, or 3 and be correct because it can be interpreted in either of the three manners. So which one is the truth?

Now, you might say that it really doesn’t matter, and you might be correct on this issue, but do you realize the definition of the word "is" in this instance caused major splits in the church during the Reformation? Do you realize that at one point these theological differences were so intensely debated that folks were condemned by adhering to such positions? Do you realize that to this day there are some churches who refuse to fellowship with one another and allow people from other denominations to take communion at their church because of these definitions? It may seem absurd, but it is reality.

And reality slaps us in the face day after day after day in today’s modern technological world. Pull up any news page on the web. Watch the nightly news on television. You will not just get the news story. You will get commentary. The facts aren’t just reported, there is commentary about what an event means and how it supposedly will impact all of us. Talking points are generated at what seems like the speed of light, and not only this, not only is the commentary fast and furious, but, in this technological age, more than a few folks have been caught doctoring photographs and editing video to get their points across. Such things have made the truth very circumspect in our society today. Some could care less about such a thing, but for someone like me who hungers for the truth, it is very, very frustrating.

Oh, I know the solutions that some have proposed. I know the main one which gets circulated around. Believe it or not, I actually adhered to it for a time as I was making my way through college and seminary more because I didn’t have an argument to rebut it than because I really believed it. Perhaps you have heard it before, "Believe whatever you want to believe as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Truth is relative after all. Your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth."

First off, if you say truth is relative, why should I believe anything you say? It’s just relative anyway. I’ll give you an example of how ludicrous this statement is. Look hard at the carpet underneath our feet this morning. What color is it? Red, you say? Well, I say it’s green. It’s all relative anyway. I can believe it. It’s not hurting anyone. So why worry about it? Just let me believe what I want to believe. O.K. Anyone really want to argue that truth is completely relative?

It’s not. There is a place for truth. A truth that is above and beyond each and every one of us. And we cannot simply say believe what you want to believe as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone because number 2, our beliefs have consequences. Our beliefs lead to action. We do not live as solitary individuals on separate islands where we do not come into contact with one another. And since we are constantly coming into contact with each other, we must ask the question of how we ought to live together. Sometimes that’s an easy thing to answer. Sometimes it’s not. But one thing I know, it does not behoove us to use the absence of hurting one another as a judge for whether or not something is truthful. Sometimes the truth hurts. For instance, many young folks have dreams of being professional athletes, but the reality is 99% of them have no shot at all. They are either too short, too tall, too slow, or what have you. They are limited, and it does them no favor for us to withhold these facts from them. It may cause them pain at first to hear it, but it saves a lifetime of heart ache in the long run.

So, we’ve established that truth cannot be relative, and we’ve established that truth can hurt. But we haven’t established what the truth is yet. We haven’t been able to definitively say, "Here is the absolute truth!"

Now, at this point, I would normally turn to our Gospel lesson for today from the eighth chapter of the book of John. I would read to you Jesus words where he says, "If you continue in my word you will truly be my disciple and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free." I would urge you to put these words of Jesus into practice in your life. I would urge you to read your Bibles, particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I would tell you to familiarize yourself with Jesus and His teachings and become his disciple and you will automatically know the truth, and it will set you free. And I hope you will still do this.

But if you are honest with yourself, I know you will realize like I did that it is a tough task to ultimately know the truth. It is a tough task to know it fully. In fact, the task is so tough, that it is actually impossible in this lifetime. We cannot know the truth fully even though we know it is there.

So where are we left? If we cannot know the truth why even bother trying? Why even bother seeking it out? Let me leave you with some words from someone who is much wiser than I–a gentleman by the name of Richard John Neuhaus who writes these words in an article in this book, A Place for Truth:

Until then, this truth is something that more possesses us that we possess it. It is much more a matter of being possessed by the truth than possessing the truth. It is a matter of waling along a certain way, the way of the One who said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (John 14:6) "Follow me."

The Christian understanding is that truth is found only in following, in a faithful, trusting following. It’s a following in which we can’t see where the next step is...We do not need to see the distant destination, we need to know only the company. We need to know only the One who travels with us, who says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. And wherever the honest quest for truth is going to take you, it’s going to take you where I am."

This is not a truth we need to fear. To know this truth is to be wondrously freed. The same Person said, of course, in John 8, "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reflections on Cruising: Part 2

I had to go down to the customer service desk one evening to dispute a charge on my Sign and Sail card.

(They give you a room key/credit card to pay for stuff on the ship during your cruise: ergo Sign and Sail.)

While waiting, a woman stood and berated one of the customer service folks.  She went off on the service she received getting drinks.  She went off on the service received at her meals.  Complaint after complaint after complaint.  On a cruise ship.  Where they feed you all day, clean your room twice a day, turn down your sheets, have drinks waiting for you upon asking, give you free room service, and whole host of other things to help you have fun.

But apparently, such things were not done fast enough or with enough of a smile for this woman.

Honestly, I can somewhat appreciate what she was saying.  This was my second cruise, and the service on this boat was a step down from my first cruise.  However, I understood why.  The cruise I took my wife on (for several reasons that I would now reconsider) was a four day out of Galveston to Cozumel.  Turns out, this particular cruise is a "party" cruise.  More than a few folks use it to simply get away and get as drunk as they possibly can.  It's relative inexpensiveness allows quite a few folks who don't know proper cruise etiquette to experience cruising.

Unfortunately, this has some drawbacks.  Many don't tip their servers anything at all above what they are required to pay on their Sign and Sail accounts.  Many expect their servers to do everything for them.  Many treat their servers as second class citizens.  Many are rude and obnoxious.  As a result, the staff isn't as attentive as they could be.  And I don't blame them.  No one wants to continually deal with rude folks who portray a sense of ungratefulness and entitlement.  No one wants to go above and beyond the call of duty when being stepped on day after day after day.

Unfortunately, those of us who didn't do such things had to pay the consequences of the many who did with reduced quality of service.

But why complain?  The service was still more than adequate.  There was still copious amounts of food and drink.  There was still plenty of quality entertainment and fun activities.  There were way more benefits for the price paid than drawbacks.

So much like life. 

I think sometimes even I complain too much. 

And if everything is going o.k. in my life, I'll complain on behalf of someone else who may or may not be complaining themselves. 

Kind of ridiculous if you ask me.

There's too much to enjoy in this life to be complaining all the time.

Start living.

Quit whining.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reflections on Cruising: Part 1

The ocean is vast.

When sailing in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, one really begins to get a perspective on how gigantic our world really and truly is--and how truly small and insignificant we as humans really are.

Oh, we like to think we are either God's gift or a curse on the world.

We like to think we can save the world.

We like to think we can destroy it.

But in the grand scheme of things, we'll probably make as much of a dent in the annals of history as placing our finger in a bucket of water and seeing what kind of difference it makes in the bucket.

When gazing upon the horizon and seeing just how small one is, one can begin to see how some of the early pioneers in the U.S. went crazy when they first were exposed to the vastness of the plains states.  Sometimes, it's hard to find yourself in the middle of something so big.

But it's also very liberating.  Sometimes, we need to realize our place.  Sometimes we need to realize there are things greater and larger than we.  Sometimes we need to get a perspective that the world doesn't revolve around us, or around our jobs, or around the latest movement generated by disgruntled groups.  Sometimes we need to get a perspective that many of our fears and worries and concerns are smaller than they really are.  Sometimes we need to get a perspective that the wind still blows, waves still churn, the sun still rises and sets, and it will continue to do so long after you and I are gone.

And it's O.K.

For those of us who are people of faith, it is more than O.K.  It's the way it's supposed to be.

We're here for just a little while.  We have our spheres of influence.  God has called us to work within them.  For most of us, that sphere isn't really that big at all.  For others, it might be a little bigger.  Enjoy working within that sphere.  God will expand it when necessary.  But don't forget: He and this world are a lot bigger than you. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Signing Off for a Few

I am taking a vacation.

I am going where no one will be able to contact me.

It is a much, much needed break for my wife and for me.

As a result, this blog will be on haitus as well.

Check back in a week or so for postings to resume.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Same but Different

Last Saturday, I had a very interesting evening.

Our Gospel band, "Saints and Sinners" was invited to participate in the 1st Annual Music Anniversary and Benefit Concert Food Drive of Cephas A. Riggins. 

You can check out a video of one of Cephas' songs here:

What made this particular event "interesting" was being outside my normal comfort zone when it comes to worship, singing, praying, and preaching.

(WARNING: If you don't like me using terms black/white in referring to people, stop reading here.)

At this event, we were the only band composed of white folks.  All the other bands were from black churches.  Our styles in music were just slightly different.

We Lutherans don't tend to be much on the clapping shouting side when it comes to singing and praising God.  Not so with the black churches.  Worship for them is a total body experience, and that made me a little uncomfortable.  It was different. 

Not that it wasn't inspirational.  Good Lord, the folks could sing and play.  Their voices were awesome--although at times the bass and drums were a little too loud.  My ears did start hurting at one point, and I had to walk to the back of the room for my ears' sake.

But when it was our time to "minister" as they called it, we were warmly welcomed.  The congregation/audience was most gracious.  They laughed at our jokes.  They laughed as we poked fun at our differences.

I began by asking how many baseball fans were out there.  Several hands were raised.  I said, "If you watch a fastball pitcher pitch fastball after fastball after fastball, he has another important weapon in his arsenal.  Can you guess which?"

A few folks shouted out "Curve ball," but I said, "Maybe, but I'm talking about the change up."

Peals of laughter started rolling as they anticipated what I would say next.

"And I feel like I've been getting fastball after fastball here tonight.  Well, you're about to get the change up."

Rolls of laughter and clapping.

I continued, "Brother Cephas told me we could do four songs, and if we were ministering well, we'd get to do one more, so that would make five."

One of my band members then chimed in, "But our five lasts as long as one of yours."

The howls of laughter continued.

As we sang and "ministered" we were offered  encouragement, Amens, and applause.  It was quite different from a normal Lutheran atmosphere.  But that was the only uncomfortable part because we all recognized that even though we were different and we ministered differently in our styles, we were all a part of the same body of Christ.  We all had the same goal of caring for our neighbor.  We all had the same goal of praising our God together.

Some very good things happened that evening for us and for those gathered.  Yes, we were and are still black and white.  Our churches are still segregated on Sunday mornings, but there is now a bond.  There is now a fellowship that was started, and will hopefully grow.

Just this morning I called Brother Cephas and told him about how God used him to minister to one of my band members, and Cephas praised God for it.  He then added, "Hopefully we can fellowship some before we get together next year."

Amen to that, my brother.  Amen to that.

With all the garbage and divisiveness that goes on in politics these days, it was nice to be a part of something that brought two different groups together; where differences were acknowledged in a healthy manner, but then set aside so that God could be praised and the hungry could be fed.  It was in the Church that such a thing took place, and I hope and pray it can be an example of how we could accomplish such things in other arenas. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sermon Delivered October 16, 2011

I’d like to begin my sermon this morning by asking you a question. How do you make an impact in someone’s life that gets them to change their ways in a permanent fashion?

This is a very important question to me. As a pastor, not only am I concerned with making disciples of all nations and leading people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, I am also concerned about the state of the church and the state of the country in which I live. In my personal opinion, there are some major issues facing our national church body and our nation.

For instance, when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed, we had 5.5 million members. Two very large denominations along with a smaller one merged, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. It seemed like by combining all the resources of these groups, we would be able to proclaim the Gospel and make a tremendous difference in the landscape of the United States. But what happened? Since 1987, the ELCA has gone from 5.5 million members to 4.2 million members. Tell me, does this reflect Jesus’ instruction to make disciples of all nations? Now, there are a whole host of reasons for this decline. I do not wish to get into them right now, but I do want to ask the question: how does one reverse it? How does one impact the greater denomination to effect change which would reverse this dastardly trend?

Second instance: our nation. As I look at the political landscape across the country, a few things peak my interest. In the past few weeks, a small but vocal movement has garnered quite a bit of air-time in the headlines–Occupy Wall Street. As I have read and gathered information about this particular movement, it is very reminiscent of how the Tea Party movement started a couple of years ago. Each of these groups are at the polar opposite of the political spectrum, and Lord knows enough mud gets slung at both movements which actually has the effect of strengthening the resolve of each. Will such polarization lead to an even more divided nation? Will such polarization give us the ability to address the high unemployment and sluggish economy we find ourselves in? How can two such different groups come together and work on solutions to a problem that is greater than each?

These are some tough questions which I think are posed in the church and in our society, and it leads me to reiterate my opening question: how does one bring about change in such circumstances that is lasting or even permanent? Is it even possible?

For years, folks believed that education was the ultimate key to unlocking the human potential for coming up with solutions and changing behavior. If we just taught people correctly then such things would cease. I remember more than a few times having folks show up at my elementary and junior high school to teach us about drug awareness and the dangers of smoking and drinking to an excess. These things were all well and good, but how much of a difference did they make? Plenty of kids I knew still did drugs. Plenty smoked. Plenty drank. The message didn’t seem to get through.

In fact, oftentimes, disastrous things happened. For instance, I read a story a couple of weeks back about a doctor who went to a elementary school to give a presentation on smoking. He brought a slide show complete with pictures of the human lung–one set healthy and pink and another set blackened by continued smoking. The presentation was very powerful; however, the doctor left the school as the children were at recess, and the kids just happened to be watching the doctor as he got into his car. Guess what he did as he climbed in? That’s right. He lit up a cigarette. Do you think his presentation had any power left? Which do you think left the greater impression?

Think about such thoughts as you once again listen to a portion of our second lesson this morning from the first chapter of the book of 1 Thessalonians: 4For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. 6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Did you catch the details in that reading? Start again in verse six and work your way through, "6And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. 9For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.

Paul lifts up the fact that this Christian community, this church not only accepted and believed in the good news of Jesus Christ, but it put it into action. Their beliefs, their faith led them to live a different kind of life–a life that people took notice of. The people of this congregation became an example to other believers of what it meant to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, does this give us any insight in how we are to approach making a difference, making a change in the larger church and in our nation? Oh, I believe it does, but it is a tough road that may take years in the making.
Why do I say that?

Well, let’s think about it for just a moment. Let’s say a rural congregation bucks the trend of most rural churches. Let’s say instead of declining, it grows. Let’s say it truly seeks to implement Jesus’ teachings in its worship, its administration, and its philosophy. Let’s say it looks beyond itself and involves itself in its community. Let’s say it takes initiative and helps out families who are in need, actively participates in feeding the hungry and providing for those less fortunate. Let’s say it practices generosity. Let’s say it works to bring together people who are politically liberal and conservative and all those in-between. Let’s say it focuses its attention on being faithful and truly loving one’s brothers and sisters regardless of disagreements and ideology. Let’s say it takes seriously Jesus’ call to pray for one’s enemies and bless those who persecute them. Let’s say this church really does things differently, and it shows.

Of course, since this church does things differently, it is looked upon with some suspicion. It’s outside of the box, so it doesn’t conform. It may have a different philosophy in governance and how it applies itself, and such things are usually met with resistence.

But what will happen in the long term? What will happen if this congregation continues to grow and do the ministry God has called it to do? What will happen if this congregation thrives while the rest of the church continues to slide? What will happen if the community picks up on what the church is doing and treats one another civilly in the midst of a polarized nation? What if folks start to take notice of such a thing happening?

Perhaps, just perhaps, in the long run someone would say to that church the same thing St. Paul said to the church in Thessalonica, "You became an example to all the believers." Then they would try to be like you, and you would have brought about lasting change. Amen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Importance of Relationships

What constitutes the individuality and uniqueness that make living things precious?  It is their inner source of activity.  One brick or board may be as good as another since it has no inner life.  But to treat one person as replaceable by another is not to treat them as persons at all.  It denies the inner source, the originative power that is a human life.  And that is why doing so is regarded as dehumanizing.  --Dallas Willard: The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 60.

As I read this quote, I realized how Willard articulated one of the deep reasons I am passionate about my flock as an assistant shepherd of the Good Shepherd.

1. Jesus clearly talks about how He knows His sheep and they know Him.  (John 10:14)  They are all important to Him.  Each sheep is precious in His sight. 

2. As a disciple of Jesus, He has called me because He believes that in some way I can be like Him and do the the things He did.  No, I cannot do them perfectly.  He knows that too.   But He believes in me--and in all Christians--enough to trust us to carry out His work on earth.  He has given us power to even do greater things than He has done.  (John 14:12)  So, my role as a disciples is to be like Jesus as much as I possibly can--including in how I treat this portion of the flock I am intended to look over. 

3.  Which means, I need to know them.  They need to be important to me.  Each person should be precious in my sight because they are precious in His sight. 

4. And each person is unique.  Individual.  Holy.  There is no one exactly like another.  None are cogs in a machine we call the church.  You can't replace one with a copy if he or she leaves, dies, or is removed from the flock.  Relationships don't work that way.  To think the church works in such a manner actually dehumanizes. 

5.  Despite all this, I must recognize that people have the ability to freely choose to move out of this flock, just as they have the choice to move into it.  But I don't think celebrating someone leaving is appropriate.  That, again, dehumanizes.   When someone leaves of their own choosing, I believe I must hold onto the thought that God has a purpose for such things to happen, and His grace is sufficient.  He works in brokenness and darkness, and He brings about healing and light.

Unfortunately, many institutions and organizations work on the mechanistic principle.  If a worker leaves, just plug in a new one.  No wonder so many people these days feel like pieces of machinery--of little value unless they perform in their place in the right function.  No wonder people feel used and sometimes burned up as the organization/institution they work for uses them up trying to get as much out of the piece before bringing in a "newer model with less wear and tear." 

Perhaps we need to move toward a more relational model of "doing business."  A model which actually humanizes people.  A model which recognizes each person as unique--who cannot be replaced.  Who contributes in his or her unique way to the organization/institution of which he/she is a part.  Perhaps looking at things in such a way--and helping one another see our church in such a way will have an impact in folks' lives as they see they are not simply a cog.  They are an invaluable part of a relationship--with God and with one another.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Taking a Moment to Boast

4I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation; I am overjoyed in all our affliction. 2 Corinthians 7:4

St. Paul penned those words about the congregation he started in Corinth.  If you read his letters to that congregation, you will see that at times he becomes frustrated with their actions, but he also indeed is very proud of them and boasts about them.  Whenever they hold up the values and principles of Christianity, he does not hesitate to tell them how much pride he has in them. 

The more I serve in this institution called the Church...

The more I serve the people of God...

The more I come to understand Paul.

I have an excessive amount of pride in my congregation at this moment. 

It has been a year of much devastation for many in this area.  Severe drought has effected nearly everyone who owns land around our area.  When you are a country church and surrounded by people who own cattle, horses, and other livestock, and they are dependent upon rain and cannot afford high hay prices, extended drought is devastating.  On top of the drought, the state has suffered massive wildfires which have destroyed whole communities.  Not 10 miles from my church, 11 families had their homes destroyed by one such fire, and each community is still in the process of evaluating and cleaning up before even beginning the rebuilding process.

On top of these area-wide instances, I've had to deal with some very serious health issues and situations with members.  In a span of a month, three people had open heart surgery, and all suffered complications of one form or another.  One of those who had open heart surgery had a massive stroke and may never fully recover.  Another family's 12 year old daughter, who was already suffering with some health issues suffered a heart attack, was dead for 40 minutes before being revived, suffered massive brain damage, and is still recovering from it. 

Add to such things, the regular, ins and outs and emotional "disturbances" that take place in congregations, it has been one trying year for me. 

But, I must say, watching my congregation take action has been nothing short of amazing.  This group of people, while not perfect, exhibits a compassion, a willingness to help, and a desire to make a difference that truly astounds me.  They open their hearts and their wallets to make things happen and aid people in dire circumstances.

Immediately as the wildfires raged around us, clothing and other such items poured in.  Within a weeks time, folks donated two full sized SUVs and one Lincoln Town Car trunk full of clothing and necessities.  Over $1,000 also came in spontaneous donations to wildfire relief, and then the icing on the cake took place this past Sunday.

We have been extremely blessed as a congregation this year.  With so many churches struggling financially, our little church was $17,000 IN THE BLACK!!!  And what did our church decide to do with a chunk of that change?  They decided to GIVE $10,000 to aid those whose homes were destroyed by fire.  It was far and above my own expectations of what to give.  I had tears in my eyes when they voted to do this.  They were tears of pride and joy as I watched these people who God has called me to lead, relinquish one heck of a chunk of change to help people rebuild their lives.

Oh, it was awesome.  But I had so much more to boast about.  So much more.  On the same day these folks made this vote, we held a fundraiser for that 12 year old little girl I spoke of earlier.  As I watched this thing come together, I marveled once again as people gave of their time and talent and treasure to help out.  One of my members who owns the local tavern procured and donated the potatoes.  Her husband and a group of guys bar-b-qued brisket all day Saturday for those 'taters.  Several families jumped in and took those 'taters home and baked them for Sunday.  A whole host of them showed up on Sunday morning to work in the kitchen, putting the 'taters together and making sure everyone who bought them received them.  So many people came together to make this thing happen--all to show the love of God to a family going through a rough time.  My pride swelled.  Not in myself, but in this group of people who so willingly give--who each face issues and troubles in their own lives, but who still seek something greater as they help others.

What more can a pastor ask for? 

Unfortunately, later that afternoon, I received some bad news.  One of my member's daughter-in-law miscarried at 14 weeks.  Devastating news.  But even in the midst of that event, she shared with me this:

After you and I talked today, I sat and reflected on our congregation.  We have people who are fighting against cancer, are battling serious heath issues, are unemployed, or have lost a lot because of the drought but these same people came together today to help people who have lost everything.  It's truly humbling to worship with people who care so much about others. I wasn't sure about mentioning the miscarriage but now that I've had time to reflect, I think it would be appropriate.  Our Cat Spring family is very special to us and I know that their prayers will help ease our sorrow.

Even as I grieve with this family, my pride grows.  This woman has come to see the church as a place where she can reveal her deep hurt and sorrow and know she can receive comfort and support from those who care. 

I am proud to serve this church.  I boast in what they do for they truly capture and promote the Spirit of God in such moments, and I hope they always will. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sermon Delivered October 9, 2011: Come to the Party

The writer Bill Henderson recalls meeting a man aboard a cruise ship who claimed to be an expert in guessing professions. "See that man over there," he said. "He is a physician." Bill checked and sure enough that was right. "How could you tell?" he asked the man. "Well," he said, "I saw the caring lines on his forehead and could tell he was a person of great compassion." Bill Henderson pointed to someone else and said, "What about him? What does he do?" "That's a lawyer," the expert said. Bill checked and sure enough, he was. The expert explained that the man had a scholarly look and was somewhat formal, indicating an attorney. Then Bill pointed to another man. The expert studied him and said, "That's a preacher." Bill approached the man and asked, "Are you a preacher?" "No," said the man. "I'm just seasick; that's the reason I look so sad."

Ouch! Bill Henderson’s account doesn’t feel too good to this pastor. I mean, is that how most preachers are perceived? Is this how most people who are considered spiritual are perceived? That’s not good.
Dallas Willard, in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines actually puts it this way, I apologize for reading this in its entirety, but I think it adds quite a bit to the sermon this morning:
"Spiritual people do not play." That is the usual view. For one thing, they are too serious ever to play. It is a test of their spirituality that they never let up from their spiritual activities. For another, play might be pleasurable. And while spiritual people can have joy, they probably should stay away from just plain pleasure. While it is not in itself bad, it might ensnare them. Or so we seem to think.

Spirituality has thus come to be regarded by the world as those futile, self-torturing exercises of strange men and women who lived in far-off, benighted places and times. Accordingly, the One [Jesus] who came to give abundance of life is commonly thought of as a cosmic stuffed shirt, whose excessive "spirituality" probably did not allow him normal bodily functions and certainly would not permit him to throw a frisbee or tackle someone in a football game. –p. 79
Unfortunately, there is too much truth in what the opening joke says and what Willard says, at least for more mainline denominations. I mean, think about how many of us who were raised in the church were taught about appropriate church behavior. When we come into the church, many of us were taught to come in reverently, silently. We were to sit in our pews quietly and meditate. Throughout the service, we were to keep this air of reverence to the point that even if a child said something humorous in the children’s sermon, we were to stifle any laugh or chuckle. Such things were verboten! As was clapping during the service. An inspiring solo? A motivational choir anthem? Don’t even tap your foot. Spirituality was a serious business, and serious we must be. Such attitudes led to some rather intriguing nicknames, which I have discovered go across denominations. We Lutherans, and even some Presbyterians that I know of were called the "Frozen Chosen."

Now, before I go any further, please let me say, I am not trying to disavow what many of us were taught. There is an appropriate time and place for such seriousness. I mean, could you imagine going through an Ash Wednesday or Good Friday service laughing and cutting up? Could you imagine making light about falling short of the glory of God and failing to live up to His standards? No. Such things deserve our serious attention. But if we believe that spirituality and the Christian faith is all about seriousness, then we miss out on the fact that when it comes to our walk with Jesus, He has actually invited us to a party. Yes, you heard me right. The reality of the Christian faith is that Jesus has invited us to a big, giant, humongous party!

Take another quick look at our Gospel lesson today from the 22nd Chapter of the book of Matthew. Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a wedding banquet. Now, folks, you need to be aware of something here. Wedding banquets in Jesus’ day weren’t like wedding banquets today. Today, you have a wedding, then you have the reception. After several hours, the whole shebang is done and over with. Not so in Jesus’ day. Wedding banquets took days to celebrate. Yes, you heard me right, they took days. Folks would spend up to a week or so drinking wine and eating and dancing. They partied hard at a wedding as they celebrated the joining of a man and wife. So, immediately, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God being like a wedding banquet, He talks about an extended party.

Ah, but here is the serious twist. Those whom the king invited refused to come. Can you imagine turning down an invitation from the king? Well, maybe you could. Maybe it would be like Casey Hampton of the 1985 Chicago Bears who turned down the President’s invitation to come to the White House. He listed several reasons among them, "I’m just not too fond of the guy." I understand such thoughts, but Holy Cow! You get a chance to meet the President. That’s not an opportunity that comes along everyday, you know? And in the parable, the folks get a chance to meet the king and dine at one of his banquets! Please tell me you’d go just for the sake of saying, "I get to be with the king!"

Unfortunately, those whom the king invited did no such thing. They snubbed him, and in this parable, the king is not so gracious. If you snub this king, bad things are going to happen. As evidenced when the king sends his armies to destroy those who refused his invitation.

But there is now a problem. There is a banquet prepared. There is a wedding to be held, but there’s no one to celebrate with the king. Not good. So, what does the king do? He opens up the party to everyone, and I mean everyone. The king sends his servants into the streets and tells them, "Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet." And the servants do. The hall is filled with the good and the bad. Stop and think about that for a moment when you understand that this is a parable about the Kingdom of God. The good and the bad are celebrating and partying together!

Ah, but there’s another serious matter to be taken care of. The king is mingling around in the midst of his party. He’s joyously greeting folks in the midst of the celebration until he comes across a man who is not properly attired. "Where is your wedding robe?!" the king demands. The poor chap is speechless, and the king tells his guards to cast him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Ooooh. Not good. Not good at all.

Now, why would the king be so cruel? Didn’t he just invited everyone from the streets? Rich? Poor? Good? Bad? What if the guy didn’t have a wedding robe to begin with? What if he was poor and couldn’t afford anything more than what he had? Well, this is where it helps once again to know a little bit about wedding feasts back in Jesus’ day. When a host threw a banquet, he was also required to provide proper attire for those who may not have enough money to afford one. Hear that again, if someone was invited to a wedding banquet and did not have a wedding robe, the host would provide one. The king would have had enough robes to make sure everyone had one. This guy has no excuse for not having the proper garment on. The king invited him to the banquet, invited him to eat and drink to his heart’s content, and provided him with the proper attire. No wonder the guy was speechless. He realizes he should have the garment on, and by not wearing it, it was a slap in the face to the king. That’s why he was thrown out.

Serious stuff, right? Yep. If you aren’t wearing the proper attire. But what about us? What does this say to us? Well, listen to these words from the book of Galatians chapter 3 verses 27 and 28, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

My friends, you have been clothed with Christ. You have been given your banquet robe. You have been invited to the greatest party in the universe. How do you think you should live your life? Do you think you should be serious all the time? Or do you think you should take delight and live with true happiness, true joy, and true playfulness? How do you want to be seen at God’s party? Amen.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Another Facebook Saying

Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to theological reflection.

Today's nugget from Susan B. Anthony:

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.
Very good quote.

Great constructive criticism of those who like to give their agendas theological justification.

But ultimately short-sighted.

For what if, in my not so infinite wisdom, I suggested that I believe with all my heart and all my being that God has called me to minister to the poor--to make sure the hungry get fed, the naked get clothed, and the sick receive treatment.

What if, I dedicated my life to such a pursuit.  My own desire, or God's?  What if I were adamant that I knew God had called me to such a task?  Am I one to be distrusted?

What if, I believed, again, with every ounce of my being that God called me to be a pastor?  What if I pursued the calling with a reckless abandon, forsaking better paying jobs and a chance for a higher standard of living to preach God's word to others?  What if I am an effective communicator of the Gospel, and people are fed and nurtured to follow Jesus Christ because of my dedication to this calling?  Am I to be distrusted because I am certain of my calling?

What if, as a CEO of a large corporation, I find myself drawn to use a good chunk of the profits of the corporation to invest in the community around me?  What if I believe this is a calling from God, and so I convince the board to direct the money to literacy programs, affordable housing programs, infrastructure programs, and local food banks?  What if the board called me crazy, and I replied, "I believe God wants me and us to do this, and there is nothing you can say to dissuade me."  Am I to be trusted for my strict adherence and belief?

Susan B. must say, "Yes." across the board.  And she might be right, but she could very well be wrong.  For God indeed does call each and every one of those of us who call ourselves Christian.  And God equips us to do the things He calls us to do.  And many, many times, we who have been called are adamant in our belief that God has called us.  And often, we face ridicule for holding onto that belief.

But ultimately, our sense of call cannot be judged until it is affirmed by a greater community.

And ultimately, our sense of call cannot be judged until the fruits of our labor are shown.

And unless our sense of call is contrary to what is revealed about Christ in Scripture, it should not be ridiculed by others...

Unless they wish to apply it to every single instance where someone believes they know that God has called them to a task.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Reading the Sign

A couple of my Facebook friends posted a picture with a person holding a sign which reads:

This is your life.  Do what you love and do it often.  If you don't like something, change it.  If you don't like your job, quit.  If you don't have enough time, stop watching t.v.  If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing the things you love.  Stop over analyzing, life is simple.  All emotions are beautiful.  When you eat, appreciate every last bite.  Open your mind, arms, and heart to new things and people, we are united in our differences.  Ask the next person you see what their passion is, and share your inspiring dream with them.  Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.  Some opportunities only come once, seize them.  Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them so go out and start creating.  Life is short.  Live your dream and share your passion.
The link on the deal is to the Progressive Christian Alliance:!/photo.php?fbid=10150260852120749&set=a.267471175748.143363.148795295748&type=1&theater

At a cursory glance, who would argue with such thoughts?  Don't they seem so spiritual, so understanding, so...truthful? 

Let's break it down.

This is your life. 

Really?  Honestly?  My life?  Is it really my own to do with as I please?  Well, perhaps it is my life if I am not a follower of Jesus Christ.  But, if I am a disciple, then this life is not my own.  It does not belong to me.  I am a servant.  My life belongs to Christ. 

19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. --Galatians 2:19-20

Do what you love and do it often.

Sure.  What if I love getting money, and it matters not to me how I get it?  What if I love having sexual relations with a person who is not my spouse?  What if I love gossipping about my neighbor?  Good advice.  I love to sin.  God loves to forgive.  I should sin more so that God can forgive more.  Right.

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), 2so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. --1 Peter 4:1-2

If you don't like something, change it.

I don't like the way my neighbor dresses.  Don't like being 6'2" want to be 6'4".  Don't like so many people being out of work.  Any suggestions?

If you don't like your job, quit.

Good advice.  I'm sure it is infinitely easy to find another one in this day and age.

If you don't have enough time, stop watching t.v.

Can't argue with this one; although I don't spend much time watching t.v.  My kids take up quite a bit of time.  Can I stop watching them?

Let's skip down a bit:

Travel often; getting lost will help you find yourself.

No need to do much except for this quote:

 "Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it."--Luke 17:33

So, how will you really find yourself?

Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them so go out and start creating.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  --Ephesians 2:10

What is life really about? 

How about seeking and doing the will of God and not one's self?

Maybe they would like to rework their sign.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


A couple of months ago, I went plant shopping.

With the rising cost of groceries, I am looking for all sorts of ways to supplement our food supply, and on this particular trip, I purchased a couple of blackberry bushes.  My wife makes excellent blackberry jelly, and with three kids who like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches...the cost savings can be phenomenal!  (Well, not really, but every little bit helps.)

I planted the two bushes I managed to purchase (I'll probably add three to four more in due time), and everything was going swimmingly for a week.  Despite the intense heat and drought conditions, the plants were doing fine.  Then, I went out one morning and noticed one of the plants beginning to wither. 

"Uh oh,"  I thought.  There goes $8. Wonder what happened.  Was there something wrong with the soil?  Had a neighborhood dog done some damage?  I walked closer to the plant.  The mole trail told the story.

I won't repeat what I said then, but I bent down and examined the plant.  Roughly 95% of the plant's root system had been eaten.  Could the plant come back?

Being the tight fisted German that I am and not wanting that $8 to go down the toilet, I began working to save the plant.  Extra soil supplements started immediately.  Medina Hasta Grow on a regular basis.  Daily watering.

The plant continued to wither.  The leaves all turned brown.  But every time I examined the plant, there was still a little bit of green extending from the bottom toward the top.  The stem at the top was still flexible.  It was hanging on.  Barely.  But it was hanging on.

Yesterday, I went out to examine the plant once again.  I smiled.  At the very bottom, new growth was springing forth.  And toward the top, buds were appearing.  Baring a horrible freeze this winter or another mole attack, the blackberry bush is going to make it.  It's a resilient little booger, to say the least.

It is my firm belief that those of us who are Christians can learn a lesson from such examples of resiliency.  Oftentimes, our roots get attacked as we go through life.  Sometimes they get devoured.  It seems like our faith is withering away down to nothing.  Events zap our sources of nourishment and lead us down some dark paths.

But usually, there is a little bit of root left, and it is God who goes to work then.  He fertilizes and waters and nourishes.  He checks on us on a regular basis.  He doesn't want to see our faith die.  Now, He doesn't just do this through the prayers of the saints, but each time a friend or family member checks on us...God is working.  Every time a pastor calls and offers his or her support...God is working.  Every time a small breakthrough happens...God is working.  He doesn't quit until the root is reestablished and the plant begins to grow once again.

God never gives up on us.  Through those tough times, we need to remember that.  We need to grasp the hope that He is ever active and never ceases His work.  Remembering this will hopefully make us like that blackberry bush: resilient.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sermon Delivered: October 2, 2011: It Hurts to Get Kicked in the Teeth

I came across a story this week as I was preparing my sermon for today. It takes place before the fall of segregation in South Africa. On a flight from Johannesburg, a middle-aged, well-off white South African Lady had found herself sitting next to a black man. She called the cabin crew attendant over to complain about her seating. "What seems to be the problem Madam?" asked the attendant.

"Can’t you see?" she said. "You’ve sat me next to a kaffir. I can’t possibly sit next to this disgusting human. Find me another seat!" "Please calm down Madam." the stewardess replied. "The flight is very full today, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do- I’ll go and check to see if we have any seats available in club or first class." The woman cocks a snooty look at the outraged black man beside her (not to mention at many of the surrounding passengers also).

A few minutes later the stewardess returns with the good news, which she delivers to the lady, who cannot help but look at the people around her with a smug and self satisfied grin: "Madam, unfortunately, as I suspected, economy is full. I’ve spoken to the cabin services director, and club is also full. However, we do have one seat in first class".

Before the lady has a chance to answer, the stewardess continues, "It is most extraordinary to make this kind of upgrade, however, and I have had to get special permission from the captain. But, given the circumstances, the captain felt that it was outrageous that someone be forced to sit next to such an obnoxious person." With which, she turned to the black man sitting next to her, and said: "So if you’d like to get your things, sir, I have your seat ready for you in first class up at the front..." At which point, apparently the surrounding passengers stood and gave a standing ovation while the black guy walks up to first class in the front of the plane.

Can you imagine what that lady felt like when the stewardess took the man to his new seat in first class? Can you imagine what that lady felt when the surrounding passengers stood up and applauded the stewardess and the captain for taking someone she considered inferior and giving him a higher place? Can you imagine what went through her head at that moment? How do you think she felt when she was figuratively kicked in the teeth?

Perhaps, if you can identify with this woman just a tad, you can identify with the Pharisees in today’s gospel
lesson from the 21st chapter of the book of Matthew. Immediately before telling this parable, the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to reveal the source of his authority. "Who gave you the authority to teach as you are teaching and do the things you are doing?" they asked.

Jesus responded by asking them to tell him the source of John the Baptist’s authority. When the leaders balked, Jesus told them he would not reveal the source of his authority, instead Jesus told them two parables about working in a vineyard. The first parable served to upset the Pharisees. Jesus told of a man who called his two sons and ordered them to go work in the vineyard. The first said, "No." and then went and did the work. The second said, "Yes." but did not go. Jesus asked, "Which did the will of his father." The Pharisees answered, "The first." This, of course, is the right answer, and then Jesus riled up the Pharisees. Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him."

Oh, I am sure this caused some grumbling amongst the Pharisees, but Jesus was just getting started. Jesus jumped right into another parable. This time, Jesus spoke of a landowner who built a vineyard. He spent copious amounts of time and money fixing it up and taking care of it. He hired a bunch of tenants to work in it. Everything went along relatively well until it was time for the owner to collect the harvest. The owner sent his servants, and the tenants beat one, stoned another, and killed another. The owner was more than patient with the tenants, and he sent another set of servants. The tenants did the same thing. Finally, the landowner sent his own son thinking they would respect his son.

Well, the tenants had other ideas. They, for some odd reason, believed that if they killed the son, they would somehow inherit the vineyard. Apparently, these tenants thought the landowner was quite the pushover. The tenants threw the son out of the vineyard and killed him. They thought they had it all sewed up.
But everyone who heard the story knew better. They knew what the landowner would do to those tenants. Jesus allowed everyone to voice their understanding by asking, "40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"

They replied, right on cue, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." This, of course, is the right answer. The tenants were deluding themselves thinking the landowner would somehow allow them to keep the vineyard when they had behaved so wrongly and so unjustly.

The Pharisees probably thought they had answered well and that Jesus would reward them, but Jesus does no such thing. Jesus kicks them in the teeth by saying, ""Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."

We are told right then and there, the Pharisees understand. They see these parables are directed at them, and they are none too happy about it. They find themselves very much in the same place that woman in the airplane found herself: embarrassed, humiliated, angry and upset. No one is happy about getting kicked in the teeth.

What I find most intriguing in the Pharisees, however is their reaction to Jesus’ words. Obviously, Jesus’ parable is a warning to the tenants. If indeed Jesus is the son in the parable–which it doesn’t take much to figure out–he hasn’t been kicked out of the vineyard and killed yet. But Jesus is letting everyone know what will happen if the son is rejected. There is still time to change. There is still time to repent. There is still time for those who hear the parable to react in another way. But, they don’t. We are told the Pharisees become angry and begin seeking a way to have Jesus arrested. They might understand the parable, but they don’t get it.

Makes me wonder if the woman on the airplane gets it either? Will her embarrassment, will her humiliation, will the actions of the stewardess and captain cause her to take a good long look at herself and change her actions and demeanor? Or will she sue the airline for what they did?

Now, asking such questions is all well and good, but the real issue isn’t really centered on that woman or those Pharisees. The real question centers on you and me: what happens when we get kicked in the teeth in the same way? What happens when we get confronted with our own behavior, our own obnoxiousness, our own self-righteousness, our own failure to live up to God’s call in our lives? Do we react in anger and frustration seeking to damage those who reveal such things to us or do we react in humility?

For, you know as well as I do that getting kicked in the teeth hurts. I’ve been there recently. I read a book called Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller. It hurt. It showed me my own shortcomings as a Christian and as a pastor. Keller hit me where I live and showed me my own false gods that I was seeking and clamoring after. Then I read another book by Dallas Willard called the Great Omission, and once again, WHAM another kick in the teeth. Willard revealed to me my own inadequacies in striving to become a disciple of Jesus. Neither book was quite fun to read, but after finishing, I realized I had a choice. I could ignore Keller. I could ignore Willard. I could say they were off base. I could have walked away and held to my own sense of dignity. Or, I could change my ways. I could seek to walk away from my counterfeit gods and seek the one True God.

And that is all of our choice as well. For if we are true to our calling in this faith, we will be kicked in the teeth. We will be confronted with our own sinfulness. We will be confronted with the fact we put many counterfeit gods in front of our relationship with the one True God. Someone or something will put us on the spot, just like that woman, and just like the Pharisees. It will not be pleasant. It will make us very uncomfortable. It might even make us angry. But the question is: how will we respond? Will we seek to hurt the messenger or will we humble ourselves and move toward repentance? Will we seek to become angry with God, or will we move toward a closer relationship with Him? How will you and I respond when we get kicked in the teeth? That is the question. Amen.